Rediscovering Books in a Digital World

We spend so much time surrounded by list posts and cat pictures, it’s easy to forget that we have access to the greatest treasure trove of literature ever assembled.

Do you have internet access? (If you’re reading this, the answer is “yes.”)

Is there a library close by? (Probably — they’re everywhere.)

If either of those things are true, you are part of a unique moment in human history. For the first time, basically the entirety of human knowledge is available to you instantly and for free.

“We live in extraordinary times,” thought the reader, closing the page to browse Facebook before watching twelve episodes of Friends on Netflix.

Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating. (But you can see right through me, and know that I’m speaking from my own experience.)

This isn’t one of those thinkpieces where I’m going to make you feel bad about yourself for not having read the whole Encyclopedia Brittanica by your last birthday. I haven’t either, and I hate articles like that — they make me retreat to the internet to distract myself from how much time I’ve wasted on the internet.

The truth is, it’s so much easier to vegetate in front of the TV than to pick up a book and start reading. And it’s even more difficult when the book we’re trying to read is Leo Tolstoy rather than Dan Brown.

But we can feel the difference. Everyone I talk to says the same thing: get up after two hours of watching Netflix, you feel drained. Get up after two hours of reading something edifying, you feel rejuvenated.

We’re not designed to languish in mindlessness. Our minds are built to engage — to chew on big ideas and deal with concepts that make us uncomfortable.

That’s the point of education, isn’t it? But somewhere along the line, we lost the thread. We started thinking about education as just a stepping stone to other things. If something wasn’t deemed “useful,” we stopped caring about it. Education stopped being about learning and started being about career-building.

That view of education is dehumanizing. Get good grades so you can get into a good college so you can get a good degree so you can get a good job so you can make lots of money until you retire and do nothing until you die.

Education is not a means to an end. It’s an end unto itself.

Yes, science and math and engineering are exceedingly important, and a background in them will help your career. But those subjects alone can’t fulfill us. To really feed our souls, we need the humanities.

Scientific texts from ancient Greece make poor textbooks in an age of electron microscopes and supercolliders. And yet, The Iliad remains as insightful about human nature today as the day it was composed.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to wake up one day and realize that I’ve wasted my life valuing the wrong things. I don’t want to be on my deathbed thinking: There’s so much great literature out there, and I was too lazy to read any of it.

Maybe “lazy” is inaccurate. Maybe it’s more like, “obsessed with my own comfort.”

Even if you find this thought convicting, it’s hard to know where to start. Unlike in school, there’s no syllabus for a project like this. There are a few lists of great works, but they tend to be intimidatingly massive.


I’ve been looking for a tool that would help me decide what to read next — basically, a syllabus for self-learners. Nothing existed that’s exactly what I wanted, and in the interest of doing something constructive rather than complaining, I decided to build it.

The result is FiveFootShelf. It’s a collection of reading lists on different subjects, which you can bookmark and then track your progress as you read through them.

Want to read more Tolstoy and Dostoevsky? Pull up “The Russians” and start reading.

Want to get acquainted with Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters? Check out “19th Century Romantics.”

You don’t have to go in order, and you don’t have to read each list start-to-finish. You can choose your own path and go at your own pace. That’s the beauty of self-directed learning.

There’s so much great literature out there, and almost all of it is readily accessible. Let’s not waste that opportunity.


Check out FiveFootShelf, and let me know what you think.