Books and Code · A Miscellany

Thoughts on great books


“In a recent piece about the Manual for Civilization […] I lamented the fact that Stewart Brand’s 76-book contribution to the Manual contained only one and a half books authored by a woman. […] In grappling with the challenge, I faced a disquieting and inevitable realization: The predicament of diversity is like a Russian nesting doll.” – Brain Pickings

I love book lists, especially the “great books” variety which attempt to amass a representative sample of Western intellectual culture that can be realistically read over the course of a single lifetime. One of the most common and most annoying criticisms of these endeavors, exemplified by the above quote (which is not a particularly egregious example, it just happens to be the most recent I’ve read), are that they are insufficiently diverse.

The fact is that the vast majority of our most important works were written by men, and by white (a racial term that is anachronistic in many ways) men at that. This might be a sub-optimal state of affairs, but it is inescapable. Packing such a list with women and non-whites because they have different genitals or skin color is as bad as excluding them on the same criteria.

As the above article almost realizes, when you start building your list based on arbitrary gender, racial, and socio-economic quotas, the quality and historical importance of the selections becomes a secondary factor–to the detriment of the collection. If books by women or minorities are better works of art, more historically important, etc. then by all means they should knock out their male competitors, but show them the courtesy of basing our decision on the quality of their content. That means no bonus points awarded for missing a penis.