What Are The Oldest Books You Have Read?

M. Robert Gibson

Feb 10, 2018
Yes, it's another of those 'What book...?' threads, giving us a chance to show off how well read we are (or not) ;) :)

Here's my top ten in reverse chronological order (Cue count down music)

10. Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche - first published 1883
9. The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky - 1869
8. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky - 1866
7. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas - 1844
6. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo - 1831
5. Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley - 1818
4. Candide by Voltaire - 1759
3. Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift - 1726
2. Monkey: The Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en - 1592
1. The Prose Edda - by Snorri Sturluson - 1220

I got the idea for this thread from looking at my reading stats on Goodreads, in particular the publication year graph, and seeing the massive outlier that is The Prose Edda
Apart from religious texts? (If you include these, it would be the Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, some of the extant Ba'al mythology, and the Enûma Eliš).

I've read a handful of Ancient Greek texts, namely the Republic, the Iliad, the Odyssey, Oedepus Rex, and a couple other plays, which range from the 8th-3rd centuries BCE. But, my interests are rather strange... I've probably read more works from before 500 AD than after 1900.
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Do you mean that the book is physically old, or that it was first published a long time ago?
That also excludes the original Gilgamesh and the classical texts etc. , which were not originally in book form.
That also excludes the original Gilgamesh and the classical texts etc. , which were not originally in book form.
Hmmm... so we're sticking with works which were first printed on codex, then? Or would we count scrolls if they are of sufficient length to be considered books should the printing format be available?

I would completely agree that things like Pliny's correspondence to Tragan on the prescribed treatment of Christians would not count as a book, but I would think The Republic would constitute a book, even though it was probably written on scroll.
Yeah, the whole thing gets really complicated once you're looking at works of great antiquity... but I agree. Let's not overthink this!
Well, excluding the Bible...
The Iliad of Homer (lived around 700BC)
The dialogues of Plato (424/423BC – 348/347BC)
Several books by Aristotle (384–322 BC) notably his Ethics, Metaphysics and De Anima.
The Histories of Polybius (200-118BC)
Parts of the History of Rome of Livy (64/59BC – AD 12/17AD.
The Tactics of Asklepiodotus (lived 1st century BC)
The Anabasis and Techne Taktike of Arrian (86/89AD – 146/160AD)
The Tactics of Aelian (lived 2nd century AD)
From what I can remember, the easiest to pick is the oldest, that would be prose translations of The Lliad and The Odessey by Homer. Some modern translations of original Norse and other regions mythology. After that it zooms up to the 1700s with Thomas Paine Common Sense, Jonathan Swift Gulliver's Travels, and various poetry books. The 1800s has a lot of classical authors from required reading at school.
The Odyssey I imagine. Oldest physical book would be a more interesting question in a sense, as most have read some classical literature. If not classical, then many have read Beowulf I expect (about 800 AD?) and most will have read some Shakespeare.

Oldest physical book for me probably doesn't exceed 140 years or so, to be honest.
Another way of interpreting this would be, the oldest book (or text) that you’ve read in its original language. The folks here who can read Biblical Hebrew, Classical or koine Greek, or Latin, would be able to claim truly ancient books. Those like me who can only read them in translation could not.

I can more or less manage Chaucer’s Middle English, circa 1400. I’m pretty comfortable with Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, circa 1480, though with both Chaucer and Malory I’m going to have to glance at notes occasionally. I’ll say those may be the oldest books I’ve read — much of the Canterbury Tales; Troylus and Criseyde (sp?); Caxton’s Malory (all) and the Winchester Manuscript of the Morte (much) — all of these with some modest modernization of punctuation and spelling.
The Chronicles of London Bridge by an Antiquary second edition published 1825. Probably written to commemorate the beginning of building the "new" bridge in 1824... I think this is the one that can now be seen in Lake Havasu. The book is a mixture of history, myth, social commentary, and building techniques. And a lot of fawning to the rich and powerful...

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