Book learning

Prof Jim Flynn with a copy of his book in the University of Otago central library. Photo by Gerard Richardson.
Prof Jim Flynn with a copy of his book in the University of Otago central library. Photo by Gerard Richardson.
Prof Jim Flynn has been lecturing students for more than half a century. Over that time, he has taken note of the fact even his best students haven't been reading great literature. So he's decided to do something about.

An emeritus professor of politics at the University of Otago, an expert on intelligence and IQ who has been described as one of the most interesting and independent thinkers of his generation, Prof Flynn has written a book - about books.

The Torchlight List, which will be published on December 2, is an attempt to persuade people, particularly (but not exclusively) young people, to read great works of literature.

Subtitled Around the world in 200 books, Prof Flynn's project provides a roadmap to navigating everything from classic works such as Leo Tolstoy's War And Peace and Anna Karenina to John Gribben's The Big Bang, which explores the intricacies of post-Newtonian cosmology, to Evolution In Action by Julian Huxley, brother of Aldous (whose After Many A Summer Dies The Swan is included in the book along with three of his other works).

Having started lecturing at the age of 23 at Eastern Kentucky State University (he is now 76 and has spent more than four decades teaching at Otago), Prof Flynn not so much suggests as expounds the view that reading such books will provide a far better education than any university.

It should be noted that Prof Flynn doesn't urge would-be exam-goers to ignore their studies; in an age of ever-increasing demand for higher-education credentials, one must tick whatever boxes are required to enhance the chance of employment. However, he does point out there's a marked difference between the concept of advancement (e.g. get capped, get a career) and the acquisition of knowledge.

Take the book's title: The Torchlight List refers to the nature of his Uncle Ed's self-education; likewise that of his father, Joseph.

"My father was born in 1885 and when he left school at 13 the sixth grade was sort of the average for Americans," Flynn explains earlier this week. "He became a self-taught journalist and managed to make his way. My Uncle Ed ... they needed officers in World War 1 so he educated himself by torchlight on a boat so he could qualify to be an officer.

"Today, of course, that sort of thing would be utterly impossible. While you can educate yourself without formal university training, it is much more difficult to advance," he says.

He may have written The Torchlight List over the past 12 months, but Flynn has been doing something similar for many years, providing departing students with lists of suggested books.

Approached by Awa Press to do a "how to" book on philosophy, he initially declined but suggested penning a selection of 100 books "that would allow people to come to terms with the modern world".

"When I came to attack it seriously, I found I had to expand it to 200. Of course, they are not all books: there are about 160 novels, maybe 15 or 20 histories, some films, some plays and a few poems."