It’s that time of year where the culture and book section of major newspapers and magazines invite us to pick up the best 10/20/100 books to read during the summer holidays, on the beach, on the road, in airport lounges, by the pool.
The history of context-specific reading is quite old. The Romans are known to have preferred reading books in certain situations. Julius Caesar would read certain books during military expeditions. Imagine a story in your Sunday supplement titled: ‘Best Books to Read During an Enemy Attack’. Or ‘Top New Releases to Look Out For While the Tanks Advance’. There is no cynicism here.
The medieval English kings carried books with them on campaigns. Vegetius’ 5th-century De Re Militari, was popular throughout the Middle Ages and a companion to many military leaders of the age, who would seek tactical insight and mindset inspiration from this book even during operations. Who said that killing people can’t be done in an intellectual fashion? Mind you, I’m still not being cynical.
Medieval scholars encouraged the elites to read, and made suggestions for what today would be called self-help books. Back then, they were known by a far more elevated term, Specula Principum, Mirrors from Princes. These were essentially educational books whose aim was to introduce the ruling elites to the principles of leadership, political strategy and princely behaviour and communication.
There will always be someone to recommend a good read. There will always be a good context for reading a good book. But the biggest challenge remains that of finding them.