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Archive for May, 2010

The Lion Hunt, bas-relief from the North Palace of Nineveh. Currently at the British Museum.

The Lion Hunt, bas-relief from the North Palace of Nineveh. Currently at the British Museum.

“How can I keep silent? How can I stay quiet? My friend, whom I loved, has turned to clay…. Shall I not be like him, and also lie down, never to rise again, through all eternity?”

The Epic of Gilgamesh, Standard Version, Tablet X, Lines 67-71, Penguin Classics Edition, Translation by Andrew George.

This is not the entry in which I will provide a summary of this moving story, but I can give you a three-word preview: Nothing lasts forever.

Least of all cities. Take the ancient city of Nineveh, which lies in ruins across the Tigris from modern-day Mosul, Iraq. A major seat of the Assyrian empire, Nineveh flourished for about six hundred years from roughly 1200-600 BC, a brief maturity compared to other cities (e.g., London, which has been important for about two thousand years now).

Nineveh’s last king, Ashurbanipal, when not fending off attacks from Medes and Babylonians, sent scholars out to comb the land for manuscripts, and assembled a library at his palace from what they collected. It was an impressive archive, with topics ranging from medicine to magic. One of these “books”, a series of 12 tablets, was the epic poem telling a version of the story of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk. In 612 BC, this story was already at least 1,400 years old. It is the oldest written story we have, older than the Bible by many, many centuries.

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The Books of All Time reading list has been compiled from a number of sources, which, of course, I didn’t write down. I have split my titles into groups:

  • Pre-Christian Literature (to about 50 AD)
  • Rome and the Middle Ages (to 1500)
  • The Renaissance (to 1750)
  • The Enlightenment (to 1850)
  • The Modern Era (to 1918)
  • Post-World War I (through the present day).

Although the category names are strongly biased towards the west, I have tried to include as many titles from non-European sources as possible. I am limited in my reading to the English Language only, so if you are aware of a monumental classic of, say, Japanese literature, I will only be able to include it if an English translation exists.

Probably the categories will seem overly broad to you, or improperly classified. I don’t want to waste a lot of energy arguing about taxonomy issues, but if you have a burning desire to see something reclassified, please do put it in the comments.

This list is naturally subject to change at any time, and there may need to be a meta-reading list for, say,  some of the thornier philosophical works. I will keep track of any supplemental reading I do on this page here.

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