Flynn’s Torchlight List

by Kit Munro


Jim Flynn in his book The Torchlight List: Around the World in 200 Books bemoans the fact that after forty years of teaching he had noticed that his students seemed to know less and less about the world around them. Flynn provides an explanation for this problem. No longer do his students read great works of literature:

This is true even of my brightest students. It was true at Cornell, a university that was so elite that everyone was a bright student. Ask students which novelist they like the best and you get a blank, or some reference to the author of airport trash. And it is not just the students: many of the university professors who are my colleagues no longer read outside the professional literature. Thus if you read great books as my Uncle Ed did by torchlight, you will know more than many university professors.

Not only does reading educate a person, but “[t]o read for an hour or so a night is to enter a magic realm in which people are more interesting, informed, amusing and intelligent than anyone you encounter in everyday life”. To this end Flynn has compiled his “torchlight list”:

I am going to try to convince you that learning about the world can be delightful, because it can be done by reading for pleasure: novels, histories so well written that they read like novels, poetry, and plays… I have chosen books not only for artistic merit but also or their power to educate. This means I have excluded some of the greatest novels ever written: their content would not acquaint you with a particular time or place. And I have included some books that are merely entertaining (only a few) because they are informative. The numbered works, those that will at least entertain, come to 200.

My goal is much more modest. I only want to convince you that reading for pleasure, to  educate and entertain, can be done not only bent over a book “for an hour or so” in the evenings but throughout the whole day, while working. If you are lucky enough to have the right sort of job that is….