A Book that is Older than You: Picks for the TPL Reading Challenge 2020

January 16, 2020 | M. Elwood

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Toronto Public Library is thrilled to launch our 2020 Reading Challenge. We hope everyone who participated in the 2019 challenge is rested and ready to get reading. 

This post considers what books to read for the category "a book that is older than you". My grandmother always said that it was rude to talk about a person's age, so let me begin by saying you look fabulous and I can't possibly guess how old you are. There are a lot of ways to go with this challenge. If you're looking to browse for ideas Goodreads has a collection of books organized by decade or by year.


You can look at years right before you were born or you can go back really far. The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye is the first English language book printed on a printing press in 1473-4. It is William Caxton's English translation of a French courtly romance written by Raoul Lèfvre. Eighteen copies from the original printing still exist, although Toronto Public Library doesn't have one. It does have an 1892 reprint that would qualify for most of us – you don't look a day over 18 by the way. That copy is part of the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Special Collection Centre at Toronto Reference Library. If you do want to read one of the original copies, you can do that without leaving home. A digitized copy is available from Europeana Collections. It's a beautiful book although the typeface would give me a headache after a couple of pages.

Besides Europeana, there are a lot of ways to access public domain books online. Some, like the William Caxton book are very old but others are more recent. I was surprised to learn that 80% of books published in the United States between 1922-1964 are in the public domain. Books protected by copyright are easy to find; it is less easy to discover the titles whose rights have lapsed so New York Public Library set out to identify these books for digitization working with Hathi Trust Digital Library to provide them to the public. Besides classics literature, you can find all sorts of interesting things. I spent some time browsing old cookbooks online recently.

Public Domain Books

A discussion about public domain really deserves its own blog post, but until then, here are some sources to locate and download (or stream) books, music, software and film:

Europeana Collections

Created by the European Union to make Europe's cultural heritage more widely available, 3000 institutions have contributed. There are more than 50 million digitized items in its collection. 

The Hathi Trust Digital Library

Contains over 17 million digitized books, serials and other print materials in English and numerous other languages. It's really easy to use. 

One of the items in its collection is: The Stag Book: a Cookbook Written for Men by Men

Originally published in 1922 it includes a recipe for waffles from US President Warren G. Harding, who recommends serving your waffles with chipped beef. 

Internet Archive

The Internet Archive is huge and messy. On the other hand, it's amazing. Users can borrow books or download public domain titles. In addition, it has music, images, film and software so if you've always wanted to play Douglas Adams' legendary DOS-based text adventure game Bureaucracy, here is your chance. 

Project Gutenberg

Founded in 1971, this volunteer effort now has over 60,000 documents. If you've ever wanted to read L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables in Finnish, you can download a copy here. 

Found in their cookbook collection: Foods that will Win the War and How to Cook Them by C. Houston Goudiss published in 1918. Since World War I ended in November of 1918, I can only conclude that Goudiss was correct.  

Staff Recommendations

These books were picked by our staff for "a book that is older than you".


Arabella by Georgette Heyer

I've been on a Georgette Heyer kick recently. Her funny and light regency romances hold up better than a lot vintage romance novels. I am planning to read Arabella, which is apparently a fan favourite and was published in 1949.

 – Myrna, Librarian



The Centaur by John Updike

Forgive me for this, but I've been reading a lot of contemporary takes on John Updike lately, and I may just have to (spite-?) read The Centaur, written in 1963. Possibly followed by U & I by Nicholson Baker.

– Wendy, Digital Content Lead

Contract with god

A Contract with God by Will Eisner

Northern District's Graphic Novel Book Club is reading Will Eisner's A Contract with God (written in 1978) this January and it will just qualify for me! My daughter is interested in reading Little Women together, too.

– Jennifer B, Librarian

Downbelow station

Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh

Maybe not this specific book, but I recommend C. J. Cherry for the early 80s crowd.

– Jennifer M, Library Assistant

Eight cousins

Eight Cousins, or, The Aunt Hill by Louisa May Alcott

I’m reading Eight Cousins (1875) by Louisa May Alcott...since she is in style right now.

– Mary Ann, Branch Head

Good soldier

The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford

I'm planning on reading Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier (1915) because author Andrew Pyper recommended it at our book club meeting in November.

– Jane, Department Head


The Iliad by Homer

What a great chance to read some classics! I was planning to read The Iliad (762) last year so that I could then read Pat Barker's retelling, The Silence of the Girls (2018) and didn't get to it, so I'll tackle it this year instead.

 – Chelsea, Librarian

Kreutzer sonata

The Kreutzer Sonata (1889) by Leo Tolstoy

– Eunice, Librarian

Lost illusions

Lost Illusions by Honoré Balzac

I've got Lost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac on hold. It was written in 1843, and it'll be my first of his writing.

 – Christine, Digital Design Technician

Picture of dorian gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

I'm hoping to read The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde. It has been on my "to be read" list for the longest time, so I'm hoping that 2020 is the year it moves to the 'read' list.

 – Nalini, Branch Head

Tailchaser's song

Tailchaser's Song by Tad Williams

I finally read The Princess and the Goblin last year (1870) and will be reading Tailchaser's Song by Tad Williams (his debut novel, 1985) for this category.

 – Amy, Communications Officer

Thirty nine steps

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Oh, The Thirty Nine Steps (1935) by the 15th Governor General of Canada, John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir. I have always envied Mr. Memory. The 1935 Hitchcock film (available on DVD, Overdrive and Hoopla) is stunning, but best with a good print. (ok, any more than that and it's spoiler time.) His autobiography is Memory Hold the Door. Buchan's daughter published a biography of her father in 2019. We have several other Buchan bios as well.

 – Marie, Librarian


Venus in Furs by Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch

I'm going through my "to-read" list on Goodreads for the challenge this year, so I'm doing Venus in Furs – published in 1870!

 – Maddie, Senior Library Assistant

Recommendations from the Facebook Group

These are just some of the recommendations from our Facebook TPL Reading Challenge 2020 discussion group.


A new edition of a book originally written/published before you were born would count for this category too.

What are you planning to read for "a book that is older than you"?  Do you have other recommendations? Share in the comments below!

Want to talk about what you're reading in person or get more recommendations? Come to a Reading Challenge Meetup!