Have You Read All the Books Yet?

Who was the last person to have read every book in existence? Believe it or not, this is a hotly debated question in certain academic circles. Several names are commonly proposed.

ARISTOTLE (384 – 322 BC)

The Greek philosopher and scientist is said to have known everything there was to be known in his time. Tutor to the youthful Alexander the Great, Aristotle’s own writings cover a virtual encyclopedia of Greek knowledge.

LEONARDO DA VINCI (1452 – 1519)

Da Vinci is perhaps history’s most recognizable polymath (Latin for “having learned much”). Painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer, Da Vinci’s genius epitomized the Renaissance humanist ideal.

DESIDERIUS ERASMUS (1466 – 1536)

One of the last scholars prior to the impact of the printing press, Erasmus mastered all the European and Scandinavian languages of his day plus Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Erasmus is reputed to have said, “When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes.”

JOHN MILTON (1608 – 1674)

The English poet is said to have read virtually every book ever written and knew enough about most things to discuss them with authority.

JOHANN WOLFGANG von GOETHE (1749 – 1832)

Goethe, author of the epic play Faust, is often called “the last universal genius.” Genius he may have been, but one must question his wisdom. At the age of seventy-four, Goethe fell hopelessly in love with a beautiful seventeen-year-old who, not surprisingly, rejected him. “Old enough to know better” springs to mind.

SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE (1772 – 1834)

Surprisingly, the English poet Coleridge is most often cited as the last person to have read every book existing in his day. A little logic proves this impossible. The first pages flew off the Gutenberg press around 1470. By 1700, there were already millions of books in print. To read a million books in a lifetime, you’d have to read forty books a day for seventy years.

Sometime after 1700, people began to admit that the body of “known knowledge” (is there such a thing as “unknown knowledge?”) had become so large that it was no longer possible for one person to know everything. In his Collective Intelligence (1994), French philosopher Pierre Levy argues that the mid-eighteenth century marks “the end of an era in which a single human being was able to comprehend the totality of knowledge.” Really?

You may have noticed that all the names listed belong to the Western hemisphere. What about the literature of cultures around the world? Was Aristotle familiar with the “Hundred Schools of Thought” from the Easter Zhou Dynasty (770 – 256 BC) of China? Did Erasmus know the Swahili narrative poetry of the eighteenth century? Had Da Vinci read The Epic of Gilgamesh, discovered in the ruins of the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh 334 years after his death? Could he even read cuneiform? To read a book, one must not only know its language; one must know it exists.

According to Bowker’s Books in Print, in 2015 there were 2,714,409 new books printed in English.  Of these, 221,597 were classified as fiction—just over eight percent.

Which brings me to my point. How am I ever going to read all the books I want to read? One lifetime isn’t enough–even if I restrict my reading to novels alone. Even if I could, my house isn’t big enough to hold them all.

Who was the last person to have read every novel printed in a year?

Deranged  Victorian bibliomane Sir Thomas Phillipps stated that his life goal was to own a copy of every book ever printed. If simply owning books was enough, my mother would have been in the running. No question.

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