The Before It’s Too Late List

The Before It’s Too Late List

Confucius A Life of Thought and Politic-smallNot long ago, I sat down to begin a day’s work and found myself distractedly messing about online, where I blundered into a collection of quotes about reading.

I was immediately wrapped up in agreeing with the pronouncements of many famous people as they uttered heartfelt words about just how valuable, transporting and all around awesome reading really was. I nodded enthusiastically, feeling justified and righteous, and occasionally surprised.

I read,

No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.

Whoa! That’s in-your-face enough to warrant a fist pump, maybe even throwing the horns. And who said it? Can you guess?

Confucius. I cackled to myself. Way to go, Confucius. Literary bad-ass of 500 BC.

Then I read…

“Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.”
— Henry David Thoreau

And that simple, obvious, muscular little sentence shot through me like a frozen dart.

Well, yeah. Yes, of course. But… well… I guess I never thought about it quite so clearly.

I worked in a huge bookstore for many years, and then I was a book buyer for a major chain for almost as long. Along the way, I piled up a lot of books. It was easy. I sit here surrounded by maybe 3,000 books, the vast majority added to my collection because I genuinely felt that I was going to read them, yet if anyone had asked me, even before I read that line by Thoreau, I’d have said that there was no way I’d ever be able to read them all before my life was over.

Walden Henry David ThoreauThoreau’s quote made me think, how many books are there here on my walls, or out there in the world, that I need to have read? How many great books that I know I would love have I taken for granted, figured I’d get around to someday, and have not?

So I snatched up a pad of paper and a pen and went through all of my fiction, scanning the shelves and jotting down the names of the books that I wanted to have read, needed to have read, should have read long ago. I added titles from memory, from lists of recommendations, from the favorites of my oldest friends. Didn’t do non-fiction, primarily because simply contemplating all the history books I should have read filled me with existential despair. Just fiction this time.

I ended up with a list of 35 titles. The number seemed absurdly small compared to the mountain of books I’d drawn it from. And it made me see whole shelves of my books as having lesser importance, as something perilously close to disposable. Just stuff I had around to read maybe, if I felt like it.

Meanwhile, the titles selected for the list began to stand out from the stacks as if abruptly luminous. The list seemed challenging, but accessible. Surely, I could read 35 books. At least I could knock a chunk out of a list that small. Right? So that’s what I’ve been doing.

The Before It’s Too Late List ended up including a few classics, a handful of books I’d worked very hard to find and acquire but hadn’t read, a good number of hidden genre gems recommended by knowledgeable enthusiasts, and a lot of books that I’d had on my shelves for so long that I actually felt like I’d already read them when I had not.

I’ve read nine so far. Some were as good as anticipated, some not, but each one feels like it is filling a hollow, an empty space where it should have rested long ago.

What have you been reading? And why?

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Bill Ward

Strangely enough, I’ve done something similar recently, though I’ve been slightly remiss in pursuing the list vigorously. But I did pin it to the wall!

Though one thing I am reading that I’ve yet to read is … Thoreau’s Walden, which I’m reading right now (and it’s excellent). Double coincidence!

One book that looms in my near term is Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I feel it’s something I should have read by now, but I keep thinking that, since I’ll probably only read it once, I want to prepare with supplemental readings so I get the most out of it.

Another I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t read is War and Peace. And Anna Karenina (sorry Tolstoy). And then there are all the primary sources I still haven’t read, let alone not being able to read them in Greek or Latin.

Thoreau actually mentioned how sad it was that hardly anything from the ancient world was translated into English (as of 160 years ago), and here I have a library of penguin classics and free project Gutenberg translations on kindle that I’ve only read a fraction of …

Damn it, John, why did you have to go and remind me?

And a third coincidence… I recently found my college copy of Confucius’ Analects and stuck it on the TBR pile for a reread. Get out of my head man!

Bill Ward

But another thing Confucius said was (to paraphrase) you can’t spend your finite life searching after infinite wisdom. So there is a limit to what one person can do. That’s why it’s a good idea to prioritize like you’re doing and I’ve tried to do more of that myself when I’m not reading Warhammer novels :p

Or maybe it was Chuangzi that said that? Or possibly Laozi? Probably better reread them to be safe.

See what you’re doing stirring up the hornets nest like this?

James McGlothlin

Sympathetic to Thoreau’s comment, but what counts as “the best books”? How do I know I’m not wasting my time reading the wrong books?


Thoreau also thought the classics should be read in the language they were written in.

*sighs. shuffles off to learn Greek, Latin, Russian, German….*


Gibbon’s Decline and Fall is a cheap Kindle. however, an abridged edition cutting it from 6 volumes to 2 has most of the best chapters.

Sarah Avery

I’m usually a decade or two–if not a century–behind what’s hot in publishing. Now I’m reading stuff that’s just coming out in hardback, for the Series Series. It’s a nice change from rereading the syllabus-worthy classics every time they come up with a student–I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read A Wizard of Earthsea, and that kind of rereading crowds out a lot of other books.

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