Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Top 100 Fiction and Non-fiction Books of All Time.
One Southern Man’s Opinion
No. 99
Fiction: The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
Non-Fiction: Aliens edited by Jim Al-Khalili

As I was going over my list for the top 100 books of all time, I ran into a bit of a problem—I had at least 150 of my favorite books, and I felt all of them deserved a seat at the table. I tried to weed some of them out, but could not. I mean, if I had, neither of these two books would have made my list, and they had to. I dearly love them both. Then it hit me that I was being silly. Very few Top 100 lists of books contain both fiction and non-fiction, so why should mine? I would simply separate the books I was considering into fiction and non-fiction. Problem solved.
And before I tell you why these two books deserve to be on my list, let me be honest—I’ve been keeping lists such as these since I was fifteen, and they never stay the same for long. The books within the list fluctuate, some moving out, others moving in. And they also fluctuate within the list, especially if I re-read a book after several years and find it as exciting as I did on the first read— if it’s still meaningful to me. Or, vice-versa. I recently moved The Wind in the Willows from 26 to 73. As a child it was one of my favorite books, and I still believe it to be a great story, but it just didn’t grab me on my last read the way a top 40 book should.
The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer. Fiction # 99.
 I can guess that those of you who were English majors probably feel I’m giving short shrift to The Canterbury Tales, listing it way up there at 99. I agree—sort-of. It’s a great work of literature, but then I have to ask myself: how often do I pick a copy up and read from it for pleasure? How many times a month do I say to my wife, “Hey, dear—how about a few lines from old Geoff C. before we hit the sack?” The answer to both questions is: not very often.
I do, however, read from it now and then. As a writer of fiction, I find The Canterbury Tales to be a great idea stimulator because of the wide range of topics Chaucer covers. I also enjoy reading about the pilgrims themselves—their prejudices, disagreements, and the way they used their stories to “get at,” to “bug” the other pilgrims, the ones they were not getting along with. As a young man, when I first began reading these tales, I enjoyed the bawdy, vulgar ones the most. And now that I’m older . . . I still do. “The Miller’s Tale” is a genuinely funny story, and I can read it over and over and actually learn something new about writing every time. Sometimes I focus on the story, itself, and other times on the pilgrims.
As with most books needing translations, it’s difficult to find a really good version of The Canterbury Tales. My favorite is the “New translation by Gerald J. Davis,” released in 2016. It is easy to read, and still poetic. But it always helps to have a CliffsNotes Canterbury Tales nearby.
Non-Fiction No. 99: Aliens. Sub-titled: “The World’s Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life.” Edited and with an introduction by Jim Al-Khalili.
Wow. I just finished reading Aliens and had to put it on my list. Over the next few months I’m sure it will rise, eventually settling somewhere in the 40s-50s, but I’m still digesting this gem.
Let me be up front on the subject of aliens—meaning space creatures, not people on the other side of the border. I started reading science fiction at 13, and have loved it ever since, so believing in aliens has been a no-brainer for me. I not only believe in aliens, I’ve seen UFOs. I never make a big deal about the UFOs. I saw them. I believed in them. Until now. Damn-it-all if Al-Khalili’s little book hasn’t left me thinking the same as one of the essayists—Lewis Dartnell, in his chapter, “(Un)welcome Visitors: Why Aliens Might Visit Us.” If there are civilizations beyond our solar system that have mastered space travel, there is no reason—none!—for them to come here, except out of morbid curiosity. And who travels a few hundred light years out of their way for nothing but curiosity? The fact is, we have nothing to offer them.
Once again, wow! It’s sobering to think that I’m a member of a civilization with nothing to offer an alien. But it’s true.
If you’re at all curious about this planet, its future, or aliens, or how and why life evolved, I recommend this book. It is both optimistic and pessimistic. Al-Khalili has done a fantastic job of rounding up essayists who give both sides of every important question mankind should be asking itself.
A sad conclusion I’ve come to after reading Aliens is that I now agree with several of the writers that humans, in our present form, will not ever travel to other stars. It isn’t cost efficient, and one thing we’re good about is watching costs. I always knew I would never travel to other stars, but always felt that someday my descendants would do so. I think not. We humans, in the form we now have, are earthbound. Forever. It might be possible for a robot of some type, perhaps with our DNA embedded within it, to travel to other stars—but not us. Not humans. We are not the ultimate life form after all. Damn. That’s a hard fact for a human to absorb.
As for aliens—do they exist? Of course they do. The odds, the chances, are on the side of life being almost everywhere. After all, in our tiny, quaint galaxy alone, there are several billion star-circling planets and we find more and more in the “earth-orbit-life-friendly” zone every day.  
Will the aliens resemble us? I doubt it. One of the essayists in Aliens tells about his studies of octopi, and how they are as alien to humans as anything we’ll ever find on other worlds. And we don’t know anything, really, about the octopi. Maybe we should learn all we can about our own world before we try to find life elsewhere.
See? This book will make you think long and hard about many, varied subjects. And, after all, isn’t that what a good book is for? To open up our minds?

So there you have it. If you read—if you study— The Canterbury Tales and Aliens, you’ll never have to worry about running out of subjects to talk about at the next party you attend. 

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