60 in 60 after 20–Interlude the First


I’ve now reached the end of the first series of Penguin Great Ideas books. You can find the breakdown of the last week in my latest Amazon post on the Omnivoracious blog. You can read all of the 60-in-60 pieces here.

For those of you tuning in late, this project started because I wanted to force myself to focus on books I felt I should have read before now. It coincided with my return to blogging after a break to finish my novel, Finch. So, to give myself a little challenge, I wrote to my friend Colin Brush at Penguin Books UK and said, “If you’ll send me the 60 books in your Great Ideas series, I’ll review one a day for 60 days.” Colin replied that he liked the idea and sent me the books. So for the past three weeks I’ve started in on what has been called by at least one friend “foolish” and by another “the endeavor of a madman.” Penguin’s own blog questioned my sanity. Yet, I have persevered to the end of the third week, and my audacity has been rewarded by attention from, among others, the Guardian (as book site of the week) and the Harvard University Press, which urged its readers to emulate my craziness.


As for my reading thus far, few of these books have bored me, fewer still have I disliked, even when I’ve had problems with either their execution or their contents. Many of them I plan to return to, in their full, unabridged form at a later date. Every last one has given me something interesting to think about, sometimes well after reading and blogging about them.

However, reading a book each night, although often energizing, began to wear on me by the time I came to Schopenhauer. Ruskin and Darwin revived me greatly, and Nietzsche entertained in his way, but by Woolf and Freud I was, I have to admit, a little exhausted (it didn’t help that these readings occurred during the New Year’s holiday). Freud, in particular, suffered from my own suffering, and I hope to return to him after my sojourn to a sanitarium sometime in March.* (Your well-wishes are most appreciated.)

One expected result of reading these books back-to-back was that they tended to communicate with each other, and I could sometimes see the ghosts of previous books in the current ones. An unexpected consequence of the order was a difficulty on my part to adjust when a book diverged wildly in tone from the previous selections. For example, it’s possible that if I had read Nietzsche directly after Swift, or some other more lively stylist, Nietzsche would not have seemed so over the top. This is something I will take into account going forward.

Reader reaction has been fascinating, and all of it appreciated, whether in agreement or disagreement. One reader indicated that he saw engagement with the Great Ideas series as a trial–with me as the defendent! I replied that I didn’t see it as a trial in any sense, of the author or of me. But thinking about it further, perhaps there is an element of testing. After all, part of the purpose of the response is how the books hold up to this particular modern reader.

I should also note that I’m averaging 1,000 words on each book now, with some posts as long as 2,000 words. Granted, this includes quotation, but still means I will have written about 60,000 words in roughly two months by the time I’m done.

Which brings me to a procedural change that I hope won’t disappoint readers. Having experienced what it means to read the first 20 this rapidly–and since Penguin has so thoughtfully broken the books into three sets–I have decided to change my approach. Between each 20 read, I am going to take a short break of three days to recharge. I also reserve the right to post in either the morning or the afternoon, since I am under deadline for Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for 21st Century Writers. (The insane quality of this exercise becomes even more apparent when I realized that the 60 in 60 parallels my book deadline, so that my total production for the two months, not including rough drafts, book review assignments, and other blog entries, will be about 120,000 words.)

This will still be a “60 in 60” in that I will be reading 60 books in 60 days, but this new strategy that should result in better mental health on my part. So, check back in three days for the beginning of the second set. I shall be re-invigorated and as happy as a puppy given old bones to chew on…and hopefully have divested myself of a certain acquired pomposity of prose. (It occurs to me that I may have become unbalanced without knowing it–and, further, that my condition is a kind of transference because most of those authors whose books I’ve read were also secretly mad.)**

Thanks again for reading, and please let me know if you’re getting something out of this death march–it’d definitely be a morale-booster.

Here is the full list of what I’ve read thus far:

Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life
Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations
St Augustine’s Confessions of a Sinner
Thomas a Kempis’ The Inner Life
Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince
Michel de Montaigne’s On Friendship
Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract
Edward Gibbon’s The Christians and the Fall of Rome
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense
Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women
William Hazlitt’s On the Pleasure of Hating
Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels’ The Communist Manifesto
Arthur Schopenhauer’s On the Suffering of the World
John Ruskin’s On Art and Life
Charles Darwin’s On Natural Selection
Friedrich Nietzsche’s Why I am So Wise
Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own *
Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents
George Orwell’s Why I Write

* This is a joke. (I re-read the Freud after posting and still have many of the same problems with it.)
** This too is a joke. (Except for N.)

11 comments on “60 in 60 after 20–Interlude the First

  1. Anne S says:

    I regard your 60 X 60 exercise as essential reading each morning – it’s wonderful. I can’t imagine how you do it, and certainly will not miss a few days break in your routine.

    Keep sane above and beyond everything else.

  2. Charles Tan says:

    Good luck with the project Jeff! Again, impressed with all your updates, whether it’s the 60 x 60 or the rest of the blog.

  3. M. Taylor says:

    To keep up with your reading, would it be possible to list the next 20 in order and timing so that I can purchase or keep up with the books as you discuss them. I have tried to obtain the Series Two on the Penguin website, but the last few days it has been unavailable.

    Congratulations….I can’t wait to learn of future projects!

  4. jeff vandermeer says:

    I will be happy to do that, tomorrow.

  5. Phil Tucker says:

    Best of luck, and I agree with Anne above – keep sane first and foremost. But yes – very enjoyable reading, especially since I’ve always been intrigued by this series. This is a great way for me to figure out if I’d like to order them myself!

    Also – have you notified Penguin that you’re doing this? They would probably be happy to mention your ordeal on their Blog if you did. Let me know if you want the right person’s contact info.

  6. Hey, Phil–thanks. I’ve added info to the post above to make it clear Penguin is in the loop. Cheers, Jeff

  7. Allen says:

    This whole Penguin project is one of the most exciting and responsible projects any author is doing today.

    Rock on.

  8. Celsius1414 says:

    With your 60 books divided into three periods of 20, it’s hard not to think of a hockey game. ;) But I’d say any arrangements that keep you off the laudanum, or out of the madhouse, by book #35 would be a good idea.

    It’s been quite entertaining and edifying this spectacle of yours, so recharge away and let’s see it and you through to the end.

  9. What doesn’t kill me makes me weaker, right?

  10. James says:

    I like the hockey analogy. If Jeff needs a breather, he can always high stick Thorsten Veblen and spend a few minutes in the penalty box.

  11. Larry says:

    Having seen the entire list of 60 books, I have to say that I’m quite disappointed that none of the upcoming books are excerpts from the Marquis de Sade. If one had been, wouldn’t the irony have been so delightful?

    Recharging breaks are always good. Maybe you won’t be tempted to emulate that book on suicide after all? ;)

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