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Philosopher and author George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.” History lets you learn from the successes and failures of those who have come before you. The challenge is choosing what to read. In Washington, D.C., the Library of Congress is home to about 32 million books and 61 million manuscripts1. Every day, about 10,000 new items are added to its collections. You would need thousands of lifetimes to read it all. Where should you start?

The ability to transmit learned behavior from generation to generation gave mammals an overwhelming advantage in the struggle for existence.
-Ralph Linton

Steven Sample is President of the University of Southern California. He coined the term “supertext” for literary works that are more than 400 years old and still widely read today2. Out of millions of books, essays, poems, letters, plays, and histories from all of recorded human history, only a few dozen have reached the status of supertexts.

According to Sample, the first tier includes the Judeo-Christian Bible, Qur’an, Bhagavad Gita, Pali Canon of Buddhism, and Analects of Confucius. The second tier includes Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, plays of Shakespeare, plays of Sophocles, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Michel de Montaigne’s Essays, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and Machiavelli’s The Prince. The third tier includes Virgil’s Aeneid, plays of Aeschylus, writings of Plutarch, Beowulf, Chanson de Roland, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed, and Thomas More’s Utopia.

Supertexts should be at the top of your reading list because their principles, ideas, and references are deeply embedded in modern culture. In a world of change, it’s advantageous to know the few things that don’t change, or change very slowly. For example, do you recognize any of the following phrases?
  • “Be fruitful and multiply”
  •  “Stranger in a strange land”
  •  “How the mighty are fallen”
  •  “Man shall not live by bread alone”
  •  “Go the extra mile”
  •  “Sign of the times”
They all come from the Bible3. These phrases have been quoted for generations past, and will be quoted for generations to come. Most things are forgotten in days or weeks. Supertexts have lasting value.

History is the discovering of the constant and universal principles of human nature.
-David Hume

The span of recorded human history is about 5,000 years. In his book A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson challenges us to think beyond the limits of human existence, and consider our place in the universe. Here are some thoughts that might give you a new perspective on life:
  • There are 140 billion galaxies in the Universe.
  • There are 100–400 billion stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way.
  • The Earth is one of 10 billion trillion planets in the universe.
  • Every atom in your body has passed through several stars, and been a part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you.
  • The Earth’s history spans 4.5 billion years. If you imagine this time compressed into a 24-hour day, life begins around 4 a.m. with the rise of the first single-celled organisms. Twelve hours later, the first plants appear in the sea at 8:30 p.m. Jellyfish arrive 20 minutes later. At 9:04 p.m., trilobites swim onto the scene. Plants pop up on land just before 10 p.m. By 10:24 p.m., the Earth is covered in carboniferous forests, and insects are flying around. Dinosaurs appear just before 11 p.m., and rule the planet for about 45 minutes. At 11:39 p.m., the age of mammals begins. The first humans arrive 1 minute and 17 seconds before midnight. In the grand scheme of things, our entire recorded history consists of no more than a few seconds.
To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain a child forever.

  1. Library of Congress. (2008). Fascinating facts. http://www.loc.gov/about/facts.html
  2. Sample SB. (2002). The contrarian’s guide to leadership. Jossey Bass.
  3. Dawkins R. (2006). The God delusion. Houghton Mifflin.

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Lem, M.D.
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