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The Absolute Best Books to Read

By tbc in Culture
Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 08:59:20 AM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)

Friday, June 28th marked the first anniversary of the passing of Mortimer Adler, founder of the Great Books program, so it is fitting to enter into a discussion about what should be on a list of the absolute best books to read...and why.  Then there are the related questions, such as: why did Adler see fit to declare a "canon" of great books in the first place?

By way of background, the Wikipedia entry for Adler says that he was an American philosopher and author, 1902-2001. He was appointed to the philosophy faculty at the University of Chicago in 1930, where he met its president, with whom he founded the "Great Books" program and made other educational reforms. With Max Weismann, he founded The Center for the Study of The Great Ideas. For a long time he was an editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and influenced many of the policies of the 15th edition. He served as director of the Institute for Philosophical Research in 1952. He long strove to bring philosophy to the masses, and some of his works (such as How to Read a Book) became popular bestsellers. Adler said, "Unlike many of my contemporaries, I never write books for my fellow professors to read. I have no interest in the academic audience at all. I'm interested in Joe Doakes. A general audience can read any book I write -- they do."

In Volume 51 of the Mars Hill Audio Journal (2001), Ken Meyer replays a 1980 interview in which he "playfully" asked Adler which single book he would want to take on a deserted island. Adler responded with eleven:

Thucydides' The History of the Peloponnesian War (read the book online)
5 or 6 of Plato's Dialogues
Aristotle's Ethics & Politics
Augustine of Hippo's Confessions
Plutarch's Lives
Dante's Divine Comedy
some plays of Shakespeare
Montaigne's Essays
Gulliver's Travels
Locke's Second Treatise on Government
Tolstoy's War and Peace

Let's look a little deeper. Keep in mind that I am a product of American public schools, 1968-1980. Shakespeare is certainly popular around the world. All I know about Gulliver's Travels is what I've seen adapted for movies and television. Satire, right? I remember reading Plato and Aristotle in college (not properly, though -- in the original Greek :-). I'm still trying to finish War and Peace, but one doesn't have to read many pages to see that Tolstoy is a genius. Just this year I read Plutarch's Fabius for the first time, and what struck me was how cheated I felt. I don't remember learning anything about Plutarch in school, yet his account of the battles between Hannibal and Rome -- and the intrigue of Roman culture -- are captivating. As for the Peloponnesian War, I had to look it up just to learn that the ancient Greeks fought it. Augustine cannot be taught in American public schools -- he's too "religious;" I haven't gotten around to reading his work, but Adler has piqued my curiosity. Locke and Dante I have heard of, at least; but as for Montaigne, I can't even tell you why he is famous.

While I was preparing this story, it was pointed out by the K5 community that the list is obviously biased. "The youngest of Adler's authors died in 1910." [Pac] Let's keep in mind that the question of what to bring on a deserted island is a rhetorical one. The exercise is meant to attempt to distill the entire canon of human thought down to a short list. Adler's legacy is his work to answer the question of what the truly great books are -- who has written about obviously great ideas? Adler didn't take Meyer's bait to pick just one book, but he could extemporaneously enumerate a list of eleven. Can K5'ers? Would it be the same list? As for me, I want to read Adler's How to Read a Book (and the unfamiliar entries on his list) before commenting further.

However, it's summertime (in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway; g'day :-). For a great many K5 readers, this is the season when we get a little more reading done. Don't settle for a chat about favorite authors and recreational reading. (You may, however, wish to read the comments of this story's first draft.) (Take the poll in my diary if you wish to make a diversion.) Let's discuss the meat of human thought. What are the great ideas? Do you agree with Adler, or do you have alternatives to defend?

Furthermore, why is Adler's list grounded in a particular culture and time period? Is a list from a different cultural background better, worse, or the same? Can the two be compared on some sort of objective literary merit? [Thanks, dogwalker.]


Voxel dot net
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Related Links
o Mortimer Adler
o Great Books
o the Wikipedia entry for Adler
o Volume 51
o Mars Hill Audio
o Thucydides
o Peloponnes ian War
o (read the book online)
o Plato
o Dialogues
o Aristotle
o Augustine of Hippo
o Confession s
o Plutarch
o Lives
o Dante
o Divine Comedy
o Shakespear e
o Montaigne
o Essays
o Gulliver's Travels
o Locke
o Second Treatise on Government
o Tolstoy
o Fabius
o preparing this story
o Pac
o read the comments
o my diary
o [Thanks, dogwalker.]
o Also by tbc

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The Absolute Best Books to Read | 149 comments (134 topical, 15 editorial, 0 hidden)
I don't know (4.71 / 7) (#2)
by shrike7 on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 10:37:46 AM EST

I think it's important to pay due respect to those thinkers who have shaped our culture, so while I take pac's point about most authors in the 'canon' being old, I'd argue that this is because much of the thinking done in our culture was done before 1910.

I think the authors and works most important to an understanding of Western culture are as follows: The Bible, which laid out many of the moral tenets that shaped Western thought, Plato and Aristotle, who set much of the logical framework for the writers and thinkers that followed them, Aquinas and other medieval Church thinkers, whose philosophy dominated the middle part of the West's history, Dante, to illustrate the context of the Middle Ages, Shakespeare, who's humanism and meditations on the relationships between people still have not, in my opinion, been surpassed, Descartes, who helped create the rational revolution that is still going on today, Hobbes, for what is in my opinion the best analysis of government written, Adam Smith and Karl Marx, for their opposing analyses of the economy and how it should be run, which has informed intelligent political discourse to the present day, and Nietzsche and Eliot, for a look at the breakdown of the Platonic order that had continued in though from Plato up until their time. I'm sure there are many things I've left out, and people I've put in that people will object to. I'm certain that there are many people far more qualified than I to draft a canon. But these are the authors and works I find most helpful in getting a sense of what Western culture is and how it came to be this way. I find it a fascinating study.

My point (4.50 / 2) (#30)
by Pac on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 07:57:34 PM EST

My comment was really twofold and was not centered only in the age of those authors.

First, I don't think a whole century (and what a century it was) should be so easily dismissed. Even taking your line of reasoning, you shouldn't really exclude Freud from the list. Nor Sartre or Heidegger. Also, I think at least one James Joyce book (Ulysses) grants him entrance in any list.

Now, the second half of my objection is one that partially addresses the "white man" side of the question. The problem with Adler's list (and remember he does not claims it to be a Western canon or a canon of any sort, only his personal favourites) is not exactly in the colour of its participants, but in its ignorance of whole cultures. There are a whole host of Latin American authors that flourished in the 50's, 60's and 70's that cannot really be ignored. The Eastern contribution to the World cultural heritage goes unnoticed. And even some European (specially German, French and Spanish) authors deserve attention.

Evolution doesn't take prisoners

[ Parent ]
Well, fair enough (4.00 / 2) (#33)
by shrike7 on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 08:46:06 PM EST

As I say, I'm certain I missed some. Freud and Joyce are examples. I will admit to not understanding much of twentieth century philosophy, and to disliking much of the stuff I do. I will also agree that there are great authors in all cultures. My purpose, however, was to look at a Western canon. I don't say this because I think Western thought is superior, but because I am a Westerner, and as such I am interested in the history of my culture. Obviously there are works that are left out, perhaps ones that are superior to those left in. And again, I'm absolutely no sort of expert on this stuff, so I'm sure I've made countless mistakes. My point, however, was to find what is vital to understanding why Westerners think the way they do, and I think my list is a start.
[ Parent ]
Comics. (3.66 / 6) (#4)
by Farq Q. Fenderson on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 11:16:53 AM EST

Looking around my room, the most intellectually stimulating / profound books I own are largely comics.

My list, of the comics in my room that are definitely worth reading:

  • Cerebus, Dave Sim & Gerhard
  • Give me Liberty, Frank Miller & Dave Gibbons
  • Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, Jhonen Vasquez
  • Geisha, Andi Watson
  • Popbot, Ashley Wood, Sam Kieth
This list isn't complete, I could go on, but I'm limiting it to the comics that are in my room right now, at this very moment.

Cerebus is an amazing effort. Dave Sim started it in 1977, and it's still going - slated to end in 2004, at issue 300.

It started out looking like a violent Viking comic about nothing in particular, but it quickly becomes immeasurably funny, and just as deep. No comic (or book) has made me laugh, or challenged me so much as Cerebus has. A powerful technique used is to emulate perfectly certain celebrities (Groucho Marx, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Thatcher, Oscar Wilde, and many others.) Often their stories are integrated perfectly with the story of Cerebus.

Barring science-fiction, this comic has the best of everything in my opinion and I simply can't say enough good things about it.

Give me Liberty is a dystopian comic which makes good use of hyperbole, often in amusing ways (although the characters take them seriously.)

The first time I read this through some of the situations presented struck me so deeply that I felt ill, and my sense of well-being in general was diminished. In essence, I was genuinely spooked.

JtHM is an amazing work by Jhonen Vasquez, which is dileberately childish in content, yet powerfully sober in its message.

Essentially, it is an outlet for aggression, and a formal recognition that unresolved aggression needs an outlet, with implications that it will otherwise become a demon. In modern western life,  this is, I believe, something that is necessary to understand, since a lot of agression builds up  in the course of our lifestyle and it has been deemed inappropriate to express it.

Geisha is about a robot (an art-person) who essentially needs acceptance. This is the only item on the list that would not have it there if it were not for the art. The art, while immensly simple, portrays a feeling that is necessary to properly appreciate the story... so this doesn't make it to the list virtue of its literary value, but of its value as a story.

Popbot is just plain surreal. It tells you a story, but doesn't explain the world in which the story happens. So, there's a talking cat, some Andy Warhol clones and some sexy killer robots. The art is beautiful, but it's the sheer surreality of the work that puts it on the list. It hits so hard on the "wtf factor" that it deserves to be there.

Despite its lack of grounding, and the feeling that anything can happen, it is not unrewarding to read, and this is important. While it feels like anything could happen, it doesn't feel that it's without limits, just that the limits are unknown. It reminds me of the time I read the first few issues of Starstruck, which made my head spin.

There are other comics that I'm tempted to include, like Troy Little's Chiaroscuro, that fulfill me as a reader, but I can't really say they should be required reading. (Though I haven't read much of Chiaroscuro yet -- there isn't much published yet -- so I can't yet say how "important" the story is.)

farq will not be coming back

A thing about Cerebus (none / 0) (#62)
by khallow on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 02:08:38 AM EST

Cerebus is (or at least was) pretty good, but I do tire of the nihilistic (and childish) storylines where the guys angst about women and the women twisted their little knives into the guys. Makes you wish the author had more hobbies than just comic drawing and women.

Stating the obvious since 1969.
[ Parent ]

Background... (none / 0) (#63)
by Farq Q. Fenderson on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 03:14:12 AM EST

I actually love that part, for a very specific reason: Dave Sim is a misogynist. I didn't realize it until a friend showed me an article about it (since I hadn't yet gotten to Reads.)

What makes this interesting is that the express content of the comic, aside from the text of Reads is actually unbiased. He presents situations that he feels support his point, and as I read them I can understand exactly how he comes to this interpretation, but at the same time they do not mean the same thing for me.

I can also understand how he's simply causing more trouble for himself. Despite the fact that I understand completely how a person could come to these conclusions based on the situations presented, I completely disagree. Suddenly I'm reading two stories, one for him and one for me. I think it really adds to the depth of it.

Cerebus is, essentially, about the condition of Dave Sim.

I guess I'm sticking my neck out, though, admitting that I completely understand why a person would be a misogynist while claiming that I disagree with it.

farq will not be coming back
[ Parent ]

Misogyny (none / 0) (#96)
by Rand Race on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 03:51:12 PM EST

The funny thing about Dave's misogyny is the line most often quoted to 'prove' his hatred for women - something about males being the light, creative force and women being the dark side of the coin - is basically a primary tenet of most Eastern religions; ala the Yin-Yang symbol.

He may well be a misogynist, but I care little. His and Gerhard's art alone makes it one of the finest pieces of the genre ever created. And while I may not agree with all the sentiments expressed in the books, the story is quite good.

I'd add Los Bros Hernandez' Love and Rockets, Vaughn Bode's Deadbone stories, Will Eisner's A Contract With God, and Masamune Shirow's Appleseed books to that excellent list of great comics.

"Question with boldness even the existence of God; because if there be one, He must approve the homage of Reason rather than that of blindfolded Fear." - Thomas Jefferson
[ Parent ]

I'm sure he came out and said it. (none / 0) (#115)
by Farq Q. Fenderson on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 11:38:28 PM EST

I'm pretty sure that somewhere in Reads Dave Sim actually said that he was a misogynist, using the very term itself. I could be wrong, of course, because there's a lot of text in that particular book.

farq will not be coming back
[ Parent ]
Stuff to read. (4.25 / 4) (#5)
by Icehouseman on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 12:01:34 PM EST


I've read "Hamlet" and "Romeo and Juilet".

RAJ was good. I thought in general, the whole thing was a bit too over dramatic and silly. I bite my thumb at you and such. I wouldn't kill myself over a girl I had a fling with. But still ok in it's own right.

Hamlet was rather wierd. I'd suggest it only if you're really in to Shakespeare. I read it and the end, I was thinking: "boy that wasn't as good as everyone always acts like it is".

My suggestion is to read what you enjoy. If you like funny stuff; read Hitchhiker's. If you like Sci-Fi and horror; read Stephen King. If you like Star Trek; read Trek books. If you like fantasy read Lord of the Rings. If you like non-fiction, read non fiction. If I were sent to a deserted island; I'd just pick the longest book I could find. It'd keep me busy for a while, I suppose.

One thing I hated about school was that they seemed to think that we have to read stuff by guys who've been dead for 5 centuries and in another country to enjoy reading.
Bush's $3 trillion state is allegedly a mark of "anti-government bias" on the right. -- Anthony Gregory

Circumstances (none / 0) (#26)
by dennis on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 05:56:10 PM EST

That works if you have a constant stream of new books available. If you're stuck on a desert island with only a few books to read, you might want something that you can read over and over, and keep seeing something new. After a while you might see what all the fuss has been about for the past few centuries.

I read new SF a lot more than the classics, but for a long island stay I'd take Shakespeare over my usual stuff.

[ Parent ]

Island Reading (5.00 / 1) (#76)
by cpt kangarooski on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 09:54:19 AM EST

Honestly, I'd prefer to stick with two books: "How to Survive Indefinately on an Island," and "How to Escape an Island Successfully." And given how often the stranded on an island example comes up, you'd think that someone would've written these by now.

All my posts including this one are in the public domain. I am a lawyer. I am not your lawyer, and this is not legal advice.
[ Parent ]
Some are written (none / 0) (#80)
by dennis on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 10:15:58 AM EST

For the "survive indefinitely" books, your best bet is probably the survival manuals by Tom Brown, supplemented by a good field guide to the local edible plants.

[ Parent ]
R&J (none / 0) (#74)
by wiredog on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 09:05:23 AM EST

It perfectly captures that teenage "If I don't get laid Right Now I'm gonna die" feeling. The "my (and 'their') parents are repressing me" feeling. Also, consider the Montagues and Capulets carrying on a useless feud, even though the seniors are willing to back off, finally losing their children in the process. Then look at the middle east.

On Hamlet. See (on stage) a good production of it. Having seen an excellent one at the Utah Shakespearean Festival a few years ago, I was amazed at how good a play it was. I've always enjoyed it, but seeing how it can be good even in a mediocre production shows just how good it is.

Can't sleep. The clowns will get me.
[ Parent ]

An attempt (4.66 / 6) (#6)
by Irobot on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 12:48:25 PM EST

This article is much better in its revised form; there's a direction to take discussion that wasn't clear in the first draft. I'll have a go at listing some books that express some "great ideas" (and how they do so) that would not normally be found on a "great books" list. In some sense, the whole idea of a list is silly. "Greatness" is, by necessity, intertwined with personal relevance and should populate the area between universal and personal experience. Some of the following wouldn't work "on a desert island," since they're not relevant out of their culture - but then, can't that be said about any book? With that caveat:

  • Silent Spring, Rachel Carson - some attribute this book for single-handedly creating the environmentalist movement.
  • The United States Constitution - read The Federalist Papers for the thinking behind it, but read the actual document for a blueprint of putting thought into action.
  • A Happy Death, Albert Camus - existentialist account of one man's struggle to find the meaning of life. Far superior to The Stranger, IMHO.
  • Cambodia - A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow, Brian Fawcett - a series of short, metaphorical stories that equates TV to the Khmer Rouge. Made even more interesting because of its structure; the author's subtext is made explicit with a running commentary on the lower 1/3 of each page.
  • An Introduction to Legal Reasoning, Edward H. Levi - a concise (100 pages) explanation of the methodology of the US court system that traces the development of legal concepts using actual cases, the reasons for the decisions, and how legal concepts evolve.
  • The 47 Ronin Story, John Allyn - extrapolation of a true story that captures the essence of samurai ideals in the early 18th century.
  • Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck - a snapshot of the US in the early '60s that transcends a simple travelogue.
Hell, if one person ends up reading one of these and enjoys it, it'll vindicate such a lame post. Hopefully, I'll be able to add to my reading list from others' comments also.


The one important thing I have learned over the years is the difference between taking one's work seriously and taking one's self seriously. The first is imperative and the second is disastrous. -- Margot Fonteyn

Exactly what I was looking for. (4.00 / 1) (#18)
by tbc on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 04:49:53 PM EST


[ Parent ]
You're welcome and... (5.00 / 1) (#25)
by Irobot on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 05:46:32 PM EST

...in case you didn't realize it, the "lame post" I was referring to was my own, not your article. One of the things that was bothering me as I was writing my comment up was the meta-question of what defines a canon. I'll (hopefully) give it a shot in another comment...


The one important thing I have learned over the years is the difference between taking one's work seriously and taking one's self seriously. The first is imperative and the second is disastrous. -- Margot Fonteyn
[ Parent ]

Let's see (4.40 / 5) (#7)
by khallow on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 12:51:09 PM EST

  • CRC Handbook of Standard Mathematical Tables and Formulae (30th ed).
  • Thick English dictionary - does Oxford have a smaller single book version?
  • Foundation trilogy - Isaac Asimov
  • Dune trilogy - Frank Herbert
  • Principia Mathematica - Whitehead, Russel
  • Ancient Inventions - Peter James, Nick Thorpe
  • a good world atlas
  • Origin of Species - Charles Darwin
  • any collection of unabridged stories of H. G. Wells stories that includes "War of the Worlds" or "The Time Machine".
  • Uranometria 2000 - the volume that covers my section of sky (north or south hemisphere). Want both if I'm near the equator. :-)

Stating the obvious since 1969.

Trilogy? (none / 0) (#8)
by fluffy grue on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 01:50:00 PM EST

Although I don't like the last two books either, surely God Emperor isn't so bad as to totally exclude it from the Dune canon...
Try the new Aborted Fœtus McFlurry
It's cool and delicious!

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]
[ Parent ]

one book (none / 0) (#14)
by khallow on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 03:51:38 PM EST

I'm guessing that there are one book versions of the Dune trilogy out there, and not one book versions of the whole thing. After I looked at what's out there for H.G. Wells, I realized I could be wrong. Maybe nobody has put Herbert's first three books into one volume...

Stating the obvious since 1969.
[ Parent ]

Oh, I see (none / 0) (#16)
by fluffy grue on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 04:38:08 PM EST

Every edition of Dune I've seen has put all three "books" of the first story into a single volume. I figured that was just a stylistic thing, since it seemed like one single, cohesive story to me. I hadn't realized they were originally separate books.

I guess that explains why it's so goddamned long, though. :)
Try the new Aborted Fœtus McFlurry
It's cool and delicious!

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]
[ Parent ]

Let's make sure (none / 0) (#24)
by khallow on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 05:46:00 PM EST

The three books in question are Dune, Dune Messiah, and Children of Dune. As I mentioned before, I think they've been bundled together.

Stating the obvious since 1969.
[ Parent ]

No (5.00 / 2) (#27)
by fluffy grue on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 06:13:23 PM EST

I've always seen those as separate books. There are a lot more than just those three in the series (three more by Frank Herbert, and then a whole bunch by his hack wannabe of a son).

I thought you were talking about the way the first book is split into three sections, the first one ending where Paul and Jessica are stranded on Arakkis and Paul suddenly realizes that they're descendents of Harkonnen.

Try the new Aborted Fœtus McFlurry
It's cool and delicious!

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]
[ Parent ]

seasons for reading? (4.75 / 4) (#9)
by hovil on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 01:57:33 PM EST

I thought people would read more in the winter than in summer, I know I do... theres nothing I like better on a cold winters night than to be tucked into bed with a good book and some brandy. Is there anything particular about the warmer months that lead you, or others to read more than in other times of the year?

I like to read outside. (3.00 / 2) (#10)
by quasipalm on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 02:52:25 PM EST

I get more reading done in Summer than in any other season... In the winter, sitting at home alone in a quiet apartment reading when it's raining / snowing outside makes me feel kind of down. But, in the summer time, I love to lay about my city parks in the sun and read for hours on end. I think your situation is more common though... most people read more in the winter.

[ Parent ]
Time (3.00 / 2) (#29)
by shyy on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 07:32:46 PM EST

I tend to do a lot more reading during summer months simply becuase, being a college student, I tend to have a lot more free time then.

I try to pleasure read as much as I can year round, but while I'm taking classes, time that I would like to set aside for pleasure reading inevitable ends up being depreciated by text-book reading, homework, studying, or sleeping. It often takes me months to finish a single book during these times, unfortunately.

I also tend to associate summer with going on vacation and some of my most enjoyable reading takes place while I'm off in a distant place, sitting by the beach or what have you. Unfortunately I haven't had a chance to do that for the past two years, hmm...

[ Parent ]
Yes. (3.00 / 2) (#35)
by Apuleius on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 09:52:04 PM EST

When I cuddle in bed with a book, I fall asleep. So, winter is not so good for reading, in my case.

There is a time and a place for everything, and it's called college. (The South Park chef)
[ Parent ]
My favorite stories (4.50 / 2) (#12)
by zhaoway on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 03:29:13 PM EST

  • George Orwell, 1984
  • Stephan Crane, The Open Boat
  • Joseph Conrad, The Youth
  • The author? On The Road
  • ...
Good books are many... It's hard to pick.

Jack Kerouac's On The Road [n/t] (none / 0) (#15)
by Matt Oneiros on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 04:26:36 PM EST

Lobstery is not real
signed the cow
when stating that life is merely an illusion
and that what you love is all that's real
[ Parent ]
The classics (4.66 / 3) (#13)
by cafeman on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 03:46:52 PM EST

Easy - two books to go straight in the pool room are:

The quintessential Unix primer, the Story of Ping. A must read for all those interested in Unix fundamentals. The other is that philosophical masterpiece, Green Eggs and Ham. Some talk about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, others mention Godel, Escher, Bach (both of which are interesting books), but neither comes close to the insight that is Seuss.

"No Silicon heaven? But where would all the calculators go?"
David Hume (4.75 / 4) (#19)
by leviramsey on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 04:51:58 PM EST

Either the Treatise or the Enquiry. Both are essentially expressing the same ideas. The implicaton (which Hume may not have perceived) that rationality is itself, at its core, irrational, is verrry provocative.

Project Gutenberg (5.00 / 5) (#22)
by shyy on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 05:15:03 PM EST

Just a friendly reminder that given the age of the books mentioned in Adler's list, the copyright on all of them has expired and so they can probably be picked up easily from Project Gutenberg for free.

I know that I have recently been looking for some reading material to download into my Palm Pilot for those long summertime walks. This will certainly provide a nice start.

100 best books as selected by 100 best authors ... (5.00 / 3) (#28)
by istevens on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 07:30:06 PM EST

Back in May the Norwegian Book Club released the results of a poll in which they asked around 100 of the world's top authors to choose the 100 best books of all time.  The authors polled included the likes of Doris Lessing, Salman Rushdie and Norman Mailer.  Miguel de Cervante's Don Quixote topped the list which, predictably, included works by Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Homer.  Four of Fyodor Dostoevsky's books (Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Possessed and The Brothers Karamazov) made the list, making him the most worthwhile read.

There are some surprises in this list, however.  Where is Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, arguably one of the best books of this century? or any books from the second-half of this century, for that matter?  While these lists are important, polling authors often leads to results including books which influenced them, either because of their themes or their styles.  The list then becomes one of "novelist's novels", books which writers admire on a technical level.  As a result, newer and, possibly, more daring books like The Satanic Verses or Catch 22 fail to make the list.

Weblog archives

Satanic Verses (none / 0) (#39)
by danny on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 10:16:36 PM EST

I haven't read The Satanic Verses, but I've heard a lot of people say Midnight's Children (which I have read) is better.

Authors who have several outstanding books are at a disadvantage getting a place on "best books" lists as their votes will be split. Unless you're Dostoyevsky, of course!

[900 book reviews and other stuff]
[ Parent ]

Rushdie (5.00 / 1) (#43)
by cr8dle2grave on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 10:47:45 PM EST

I'd agree that Midnight's Children is a better book than is The Satanic Verses, although I think The Moor's Last Sigh is Rushdie's best.

Unity of mankind means: No escape for anyone anywhere. - Milan Kundera

[ Parent ]
100 best books? (none / 0) (#65)
by dalinian on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 04:28:21 AM EST

That doesn't seem like a "100 best books" list to me. It's almost all fiction: Montaigne seems to be the only exception. You have to have more than fiction to be able to make a real "top 100" list.

[ Parent ]
Salman Rushdie is underated. (none / 0) (#66)
by Tezcatlipoca on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 05:25:51 AM EST

He has a very strong character (ask the Ayatolahs) that crosses many of the critics and literary peers, but certainly he has written some of the most worthy English prose of the last 30 years.
_._ .....
... .._ _._. _._ ...
._.. ._ _ . ._.. _.__

[ Parent ]
Thanks, thanks, thanks. (none / 0) (#67)
by Tezcatlipoca on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 05:34:41 AM EST

I was not aware of the list.

Many nice memories and some new material I was unaware off (how the hell did I forget Pedro Paramo from my top 10 list, that shows that 10 is far too few ;-) ).

The quote most important is that that says that today PS2 generation are cultural barbarians. I could not agree more.
_._ .....
... .._ _._. _._ ...
._.. ._ _ . ._.. _.__

[ Parent ]

Leo Tolstoy (5.00 / 2) (#31)
by Dolohov on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 08:04:43 PM EST

I obviously consider War and Peace one of my favorite books (Hell, that's where I got my username here on K5!) but I'm not sure that he's a genius.

One of the reasons the book works so well is that he really has a strong philosophy going, that history is not about single people, but rather almost like tides. Later in the book (Where you will likely come to the conclusion that he's not such a genius after all, much like people who slugged through Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and then were disgusted by John Galt's multi-page rant) he starts to digress from the story to pound this point home. If you skip these sections, you still get a great story. If not...

If not (5.00 / 1) (#34)
by shrike7 on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 09:32:00 PM EST

you should win a medal. The Order of the Long Historical Theory Sections, or something. It's a great book, but about a third too long.
[ Parent ]
Anna Karenina (4.00 / 2) (#137)
by richieb on Fri Jul 05, 2002 at 09:55:13 PM EST

This book covers some of the similar philosophical themes (through the character of Levin), without the straight attempts at philosophy as found in the end of "War and Peace".

It is a good day to code.
[ Parent ]

Alas, quoted (5.00 / 2) (#32)
by Pac on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 08:14:01 PM EST

I guess I now must write a cunning comment praising the author and reinforcing my arguments, instead of just let a Sunday that started with my country winning its fifth World Cup follows its natural course to a glorious night of fireworks (if you really want to know what "a nation, undivided" means you should be in Brazil today).

But then again I believe my point was made clear elsewhere. It is not only their age, but the dismissal of that whole "interesting" century we just left.

As the author suggests, after a certain point the "island list" is too much a matter of taste. Adler don't seen to like poetry as much as I do (Elliot and Pessoa would be on my list for sure).

Evolution doesn't take prisoners

Nation, Undivided (none / 0) (#36)
by Merk00 on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 09:59:42 PM EST

Is it just me or is it sad that the event that brings a nation together the most is winning a sporting event? Don't we have more important things than sports? Perhaps things that actually matter?

"At FIRST we see a world where science and technology are celebrated, where kids think science is cool and dream of becoming science and technology heroes."
- FIRST Mission
[ Parent ]

No (none / 0) (#40)
by Dolohov on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 10:17:41 PM EST

What brings a nation together most is losing a war. Sports, in comparison, is a pretty positive thing.

Besides, what's really that bad about sports? A group of people in superb physical shape who have honed their skills and teamwork in order to succeed, not once, but over and over. Sure, those skills aren't very useful in everyday life, but then, my ability to program in 8086 assembly isn't all that useful either.

Or were you complaining of the legions of slovenly drunken fans who like to burn stuff?

[ Parent ]

Do you have a better option? (none / 0) (#98)
by Pac on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 04:17:26 PM EST

Let us see what kind of event usually brings nations together:

a) War related events, either the start of a new war or the end of a current war. The problem with these events is that war usually cause the death of large quantities of people. Winning or losing, the widows and orphans will still be there.

b) Major "Acts of God". Earthquakes, floods, ephidemies. The reconstruction efforts usually involve whole countries, sometimes more than one. While slightly better than wars (because there is no "enemy" to keep hating for generation afterwards) there is still a large number of corpses to find, bury and forget.

c) Democracy related events: elections, grassroots campaigns, etc. These are good in gathering people together, but they have one downside: usually the outcome will leave the "losers" very angry. They also have a fair chance of dividing more than uniting a nation.

I may have forgotten something, but examining the list above my answer to you is a definite no. I can't be sad if a sport event can bring a nation together for a while, making people a little happier and a little kinder.

Evolution doesn't take prisoners

[ Parent ]
I think poetry serves a different purpose. (none / 0) (#83)
by tbc on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 11:03:50 AM EST

My first metaphor attempt was that prose is like a main course, and poetry is like a dessert. But that didn't sit well with me, and I saw why when a better metaphor came to me: if prose is solid food, then good poetry is like good wine.

I don't think Adler cared to include wine on the menu. He wanted to encourage students to "eat right."

(Spiritual food is yet another topic, for man does not live on bread alone. :-)

[ Parent ]

The lack of wine is unacceptable (4.00 / 1) (#88)
by Pac on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 11:58:20 AM EST

Only a very "puritanical" mindset can imagine no loss come from ignoring Gilgamesh, The Illiad, The Odissey, Will's Sonets, some Keats and some Tennyson, everything Eliot, everything Pessoa, Lorca, Neruda, some beatnick text and a whole library of poets from around the world too numerous to include here.

And if you want to include what you call spiritual food, let us not forget the wonderful Hindi sacred texts, Confuncius, the Zen koans. And Salomon and David have their moments too.

I just thought that a better question would be "If Earth were to be destroyed, which (ten, twenty) texts would you take with you to Alpha Centaury?".

Evolution doesn't take prisoners

[ Parent ]
Adler (5.00 / 2) (#37)
by SteveH on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 09:59:45 PM EST

I only have two comments. I bought a set of Adler's Great Books (paperback) at an estate sale a few years ago. They were boxed and new about 45 years ago. Not only were they similar to the books above, they also contained a lengthy preface on how to read a book. Second, I just read a book entitled Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman. A good auto-biographical on a physicist who had worked on the a-bomb. He mentioned something in there about the antipathy Adler felt towards science. Anyone else know anything about that?

my "best books" list (5.00 / 2) (#38)
by danny on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 10:13:23 PM EST

I have a "best books" page on my website - 56 books selected from the 677 I have reviewed. That's biased towards the books I review, mind you, and I tend not to review classics because it's hard to find anything novel to say about Shakespeare or Dickens.

Almost all the best books lists I see have a heavy and I think unwarranted emphasis on the Greek and Latin classics. This no doubt reflects the training of Western literary critics of the generation that are into producing "best books" lists... (I have read pretty much the corpus of classical literature - most of it in translation but a few texts in the original, though it's been ten years since I read any Greek now, and even my Latin is rather rusty.)

[900 book reviews and other stuff]

The corpus, (none / 0) (#41)
by medham on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 10:25:09 PM EST

Danny? I seem to recall a picture of a rather young looking man on your web site; and, with all the other books you've apparently read, I doubt you've had enough time to read a fraction of it, personally.

Perhaps you don't mean by "corpus," "all the extant literature," though you should say so.

The real 'medham' has userid 6831.
[ Parent ]

you're right (none / 0) (#45)
by danny on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 10:50:41 PM EST

I should probably have written something like "major corpus" - material that is available in translation, in current/recent editions. I haven't read most of the more obscure works, nor large collections of inscriptions, etc. (though the latter can probably be excluded from "literature").

But it's surprising how little classical writing actually survives - the total body of classical Greek literature, for example, is simply tiny. That's partly because of survival problems - we have seven plays of Sophocles and seventeen of Euripides, for example, from what must have been upwards of a hundred by each of them - and partly because there simply weren't that many people producing it.

[900 book reviews and other stuff]
[ Parent ]

How broadly... (none / 0) (#47)
by cr8dle2grave on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 11:37:26 PM EST

Would you define "major corpus"? As broadly as the 493 volumes of Loeb Classical Library?

Unity of mankind means: No escape for anyone anywhere. - Milan Kundera

[ Parent ]
maybe half of it (none / 0) (#57)
by danny on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 01:37:46 AM EST

Looking through the first 40 or 50 titles of that, I've read maybe half of them in translation. I spent most of my time at high school reading - I had an exemption from doing any work in maths classes! - and the largest portions of that were fantasy/sf and classical literature, since I was studying Greek and Latin at the time. But 493 volumes isn't as much as it sounds, since the Loebs are dual language - for example Thucydides is one volume in most translations, but takes up three Loeb volumes.

But I only mentioned that to give a bit of weight to my claim that those works are overemphasised in "best books" lists... In retrospect my reading seems rather narrow.

[900 book reviews and other stuff]
[ Parent ]

Books (3.60 / 5) (#44)
by godix on Sun Jun 30, 2002 at 10:50:28 PM EST

Most books are just to entertain and nothing more. Some books are trying to make a point. The best books either do a spectacular job of entertaining or do an excellent job of entertaining and telling the point. Bad books pound you upside the head with the point but forget to entertain (IE Stranger in a Stange Land). Horrible books have no point and forget to entertain (IE Piers Anthony books. Any of them.)

Alders list is probably grounded in a particular culture and time because our books are. To the average person now 'classic' means a couple hundred years ago at most. Thats around the time when authors started the current conceptions of plot driven stories. Most of the unconcious rules we have about stories are current in origin. We used to have tales had direct godly intervention or fairy tales, but those types of stories don't follow current writing rules so they feel out of favor.

And now my book list. I consider these noteworthy, either for entertainment or combining entertainment with a point. Most of these will be sci/fi:

  Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh - Interesting story, but what I found most interesting was her society. Usually authors do a poor job showing how their technology affects society but she did a good job of showing a society radically different than ours but still feels like humans would create it.
  A Seperate Peace by John Knowles - One of the two books my HS required me to read that I enjoyed. The characterization is what makes this book great.
  To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee - The other book from HS. Does a good job of showing society of it's time and the issues it faced. It helps keep in mind that it was written before the racial equality movements of the 60s.
  Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkein - The only series I absolutely hate but still consider worth reading once. His world is interesting, his story grand in scale, and his writing is boring as stereo instructions. I don't think it's worthy of the cult like following it has, but I guess stereo instructions excite some people.
  Last Chance to See by Douglas Admas - Unlike the Hitchikers Guide, this book actually has a point. His humor is much better when anchored to reality. It's also nonfiction.
  Sandman by Neil Gaiman - Yes, they're comics. No, they aren't for kids. These comics contain more thought provoking content than most of books I've read in the last decade.
  Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C Clarke - An early 'alien spacecraft comes to Earth' story and still one of the best. It doesn't attempt to destory earth or give us miracle science to evolve humanity, which makes it almost unique amoung alien spacecraft stories.
  The Moon is Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein - Can you imagine a Sci/Fi story with believable politics? Neither could I till I read this.
  Dune by Frank Herbert - Unlike the above, the politics aren't believable. The story is however well thought out and interesting, although later in the series it starts to get too complicated for it's own good.
  Pern series by Anne McCaffery - As an adult I think they're an amusing read but little else. As a child I worshipped this series. So for the child I used to be I'll include it here.
  The Mote In Gods Eye by Pournelle and Niven - Written as the ultimate alien contact story. Of course it isn't, but it does a lot better job of it than most other attempts. The aliens are  interesting, believable, and NOT human minds in alien bodies.
  Discworld series by Terry Pratchett - Entertaining, funny, and after the first few books it has decent plots. Good enough for me.
  Les Miserables by Hugo - It's more than a musical, it's a book. A damned big book with a lot more story than the musical has.
  Stardust & Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman - Gaiman does an excellent job of capturing the feeling of fairy tales and giving the story enough meat to be interesting to adults.

What's not on my list:
  Shakesphere - His characters aren't interesting, his plots aren't believable, and I don't like poetry enough to like him just for that.
  Most Poetry - When you get so excited about how to say something that you forget you're actually supposed to say something then you suck. I don't care how you rhyme it, you suck. There are some good poems around, but not near as many as is commonly claimed.
  Dickens - I had to read A Tale of Two Cities twice in HS. I never bothered finishing it either time. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Right. Strike out best and you have an accurate description of reading his works.
  The Great Gapsy - I don't know how the author died, but I hope it was just as painful as reading this mound of crap. He probably didn't, I doubt his limbs were amputated with a dull rusty axe, his stomach cut open with a red hot knife, and then children played the happy snake game with his intestines.

Here's the problem (none / 0) (#64)
by Irobot on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 03:37:41 AM EST

Most books are just to entertain and nothing more.
I think that's part of Adler's point. (Another part is that books are shared heritage.) What are the books that plumb the depths of humanity? That are so important that if not written, the world would be a poorer place? That you identify with, learn from, change your thinking? That's why all the Greeks appear on his list, as do Augustine, Locke, and Swift. They represent, at least to Adler, great leaps and bounds in human thought. That he also finds entertaining.

Until ~75 years ago (with the advent of radio and then TV), books (and other printed matter) were the main form of "information trading." Because they allow you to enter their world, to serve as a reference, to keep close and enjoy again and again, they deserve more credit. Gawd - I feel like I'm giving you a lecture. Sorry.

If you liked A Separate Peace, go read The Chocolate War. If you liked To Kill a Mockingbird, go read Travels with Charley. Or some Frederick Douglass. More science-oriented stuff? Ever read Destination Void by Frank Herbert? What about the Stainless Steel Rat series by Harry Harrison? On a more serious note, also try The Mind's I or Metamagical Themas by Douglas Hofstadter. Based on your list, I'm sure you've read Cryptonomicon. How about Chaos by James Gleik? Artificial Life by Steven Levy? (Actually, you might find those last two somewhat boring.)

I have to say, I'm a little confused as to the inclusion of Les Miserables in your list. (I've never read it, nor seen the musical.) What is it that you like about it? Perhaps I'd go pick it up with a good explanation...


The one important thing I have learned over the years is the difference between taking one's work seriously and taking one's self seriously. The first is imperative and the second is disastrous. -- Margot Fonteyn
[ Parent ]

Good Books? (none / 0) (#68)
by godix on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 05:53:10 AM EST

I disagree with most of Alders list and the premise that good books plumb the depths of humanity. I can stir my emotions by looking at  WWII Germany pictures, my wife, or erotica (all depends on what emotion I want to stir). A good story is something that engages my mind as well as my emotion.

Books the world would be poorer without? Any book that served to change mass opinion on a topic. There are few of these, and Alder doesn't cover the ones I'd consider (granted, I've only read about 1/4 his list). Offhand I'd throw Uncle Toms Cabin, Huck Finn, and maybe Stranger in a Strange Land on the list. Nonfiction is best at this though, little fiction could match a factual account of the holocast for changing opinions and a good encylopedia is subtile but quite influencal.

Books aren't important because they used to be the prime source of information anymore TV can be called important now. The important thing is the entertainment, emotion, or thoughts not the medium. Schindlers List for example is something would would be worse as a book than as a movie.

You mentioning Fredrick Douglas reminds me of Mark Twain (don't ask, weird thought process). I should have mentioned him to begin with since he is the best at influential writting. Many will throw away Swift or Augustine as boring but read Twain for the story and come away with his message.

The basics of Les Miserables is a French convict who's basically good and the law officer who trys to destroy his life from a minor infraction. That description of course doesn't do justice to the story, but too much detail would ruin the book. I find it provides incite into a different culture than my own, engages the mind about criminals and obedience to the law, and if you want depths of humanity it has some of that as well.

[ Parent ]

Clarification (none / 0) (#111)
by Irobot on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 09:44:37 PM EST

Perhaps "plumb the depths of humanity" was a poor phrase. By it, I mean stories that are important to people (as opposed to a single person). Many, many people find Shakespeare engages both their hearts and their minds. And most of Adler's list engages the mind - certainly, no one would ever say Aristotle kept them on the edge of their seat. (All right, maybe there are a few...)

I feel that you may be making the same mistake as Adler, but from the opposite side - whereas I think he puts too much weight on history, I think you may not be giving it enough. He can be accused (and has been) of *only* listing dead white males; you could be charged with ignoring the foundations of Western thought. There is a valid point on both sides...it's the rigidity and oversimplification on both sides (not necessarily you; I mean the people that disagree with reading something simply because it was written by dead white male) that gets me.


The one important thing I have learned over the years is the difference between taking one's work seriously and taking one's self seriously. The first is imperative and the second is disastrous. -- Margot Fonteyn
[ Parent ]

Fair enough (none / 0) (#119)
by godix on Tue Jul 02, 2002 at 02:23:38 AM EST

"By it, I mean stories that are important to people"

Since the discussion started about books, I still think nonfiction tops fiction for this. Mein Kampf and the Bible are more important to more people than any fiction I can think of. If you want to limit it to fiction, I still think the list is small. I'd be hard pressed to come up with 10 fiction books important to many people in the recent past.

"whereas I think he puts too much weight on history, I think you may not be giving it enough. "

I can agree with that. Alder does put too much weight on history while I consider it a trivial factor.

[ Parent ]

My ISP sucks (none / 0) (#124)
by godix on Tue Jul 02, 2002 at 04:45:34 AM EST

Well damn. I got disconnected and thought the first post didn't go through so I went to the effort to type it up again and ended up double posting. *SIGH*. One day I will be able to afford broadband, I swear it.

[ Parent ]
Fair enough (none / 0) (#122)
by godix on Tue Jul 02, 2002 at 02:29:31 AM EST

"I mean stories that are important to people"

I still think non-fiction beats fiction in this. Mein Kampf was more influencal to more people this last century than any other non-religious book around. Once you include religous books, the bible is without a doubt the most influencal of all time in western countries (granted, some would argue if it's nonfiction or fiction).

"I think he puts too much weight on history, I think you may not be giving it enough."

I can't disagree with this. Alder does place too much weight on history and I consider that a trivial aspect of a books quality.

[ Parent ]

What's wrong with tale of two cities? (none / 0) (#89)
by Wafel on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 12:06:09 PM EST

It has vivid characters, an intriguing plot and gives a real good idea of what the French revolution was like, from a one-man perspective.

Have you ever read further than chapter 3?
-- Wafel
[ Parent ]

Tale of Two Cities (none / 0) (#95)
by godix on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 03:09:53 PM EST

I read the entire book after I graduated with a 'This is supposed to be a classic, lets see why' attitude. You're right, it does get better after chapter 3 and by the end the book is actually decent. It's just not worth the effort to go through the early chapters for though.

[ Parent ]
What is a literary canon? (5.00 / 3) (#49)
by Irobot on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 12:31:40 AM EST

Adler is a Platonist at heart - he thinks there are objective categories that can define a literary canon. Unfortunately, not only is his personal yardstick based solely on Western culture, it reeks of academic elitism.

As I said in another comment, "greatness" is, by necessity, intertwined with personal relevance and should populate the area between universal and personal experience. (Sorry for self-referencing.) Personally, I think Moby Dick sucked. So did Robinson Crusoe, The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, and Paradise Lost. No personal relevance, you see, even though all are masterworks and touch on "great ideas."

So where does this leave things? A short list of qualities that I might look for include:

  • Something that speaks to the triumph of the human spirit - Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, perhaps. Or the reverse - Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War or Orwell's Animal Farm.
  • A telling commentary on culture - Chinua Achibe's Things Fall Apart or Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • A book that sets forth a theory on the meaning of life - Camus' A Happy Death or a Bill Watterson Calvin and Hobbes collection (my personal favorite).
  • Foundational books that delineate the history of ideas - Plato's The Republic, most anything by Aristotle, Augustine's Confessions, etc.
  • A new and novel way of seeing the world - most anything by Heidegger, Nietzsche, or Sartre.
The point is this: there are qualities that define what should be included in a literary canon. But only personal preferences say whether a particular book satisfies those qualities for you and to what degree. It's not that I disagree with the idea of a canon - the problem with Adler's list is that he's lost in the history of "great ideas." To which I'd reply, setting aside as much pretension and irony as I could, "There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Dr. Adler, than are dreamed of in all of your philosophy."


The one important thing I have learned over the years is the difference between taking one's work seriously and taking one's self seriously. The first is imperative and the second is disastrous. -- Margot Fonteyn

Well said. (3.00 / 1) (#73)
by Jel on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 08:45:23 AM EST

Unfortunately, not only is his personal yardstick based solely on Western culture, it reeks of academic elitism.

Well said.  There is also the entire censorship issue -- that focusing on providing a library of "greatest" or "most popular" books condemns others to a form of de facto obscurity.

[ Parent ]

Literary Canon (5.00 / 2) (#90)
by cr8dle2grave on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 01:54:47 PM EST

I have no idea how exactly Adler conceived the canon, having never read single word he wrote, but I think you misunderstand the concept of the literary canon. The literary canon is not an objective list of the best books written. The literary canon is not a subjective list of a person's favorite books. The concept of "literary canon," as it is most commonly formulated by contemporary scholars, is more of a measure of influence.

Shakespeare enjoys a singularly unique place of prominence within the western canon, second only to the Bible, not because he is by some objective measure the greatest writer of all time, but because he was esteemed as such by generations of writers who followed him. Shakespeare becomes the yardstick by which other writers are measured because some of our most basic expectations of what constitutes proper narrative structure and character originate with him.

The logic of the canon is circular or, more precisely, it is the logic of the hermeneutic circle.

Unity of mankind means: No escape for anyone anywhere. - Milan Kundera

[ Parent ]
Good response (4.00 / 1) (#107)
by Irobot on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 07:24:57 PM EST

(I had a comment almost complete and then lost it when I went to look something up. I'll try to reconstruct it.)

There are a couple points I have to make:

  • Modern scholars do not agree on what makes up a canon. Hence, the uproar over people like Adler or Harold Bloom. Those that put forth such canons (or their guidelines) usually "reek of academic elitism."
  • Who defines the "measure of influence?" For that matter, who defines "influence?"
  • For a book to exert influence it must speak to "the soul of humanity." Which means it has some qualities that are universal to all people. Which is Platonism - objective, unchanging "Forms" that we can only approach, but never reach.
  • Limiting the canon to the "most basic expectations of what constitutes proper narrative structure and character" is sort of choosing the lowest common denominator. Doesn't Joyce's work get thrown out? Sylvia Plath's (or Emily Dickinson's)? What about the Transcendentalists?
Personally, I happen to like the idea of a canon. I also like the idea of objective categories that all people have. My problem is that Adler prescribes greatness. Personally, I cannot deny that there's a strong subjective component in any definition of "greatness" and therefore find Adler's list/criteria to be lacking. Which is where hermeneutics comes in. From what I know of it, there's no grounding; it's all bootstrapping. Refining over time. The question is, as any coder working with ever-changing specifications knows, how do you hit a moving target? Dewey tried to inject some objectivism by claiming that whatever the majority agreed to was true. (Oversimplification, I know.) Others throw it out completely, saying everything is subjective. But that's inadequate for most things - deciding what is "great" is perhaps an extreme example of it's lack of substance.

So, I stand by my assertion that a canon "should populate the area between universal and personal experience." Perhaps majority really does rule in this case. But I'd like to think that humans are both intelligent and complex enough to choose for themselves - without having someone dictate what is "great."


The one important thing I have learned over the years is the difference between taking one's work seriously and taking one's self seriously. The first is imperative and the second is disastrous. -- Margot Fonteyn
[ Parent ]

War and peace? argh!!!! (4.00 / 1) (#50)
by RelliK on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 12:32:02 AM EST

That is the second most boring book we were forced to read in high school (the first most boring being Oblomov). Now, I understand that it's not the same as when you decide to read it yourself, but I can't even imagine I would have liked it under any circumstances. In fact I gave Tolstoy another chance by reading Anna Karenina -- of my own volition, mind you. That was even worse.

I think this pretty much invalidates the whole list, or at least puts it in serious doubt. Replace is with Crime and Punishment -- that one was quite interesting.
Under capitalism man exploits man, under communism it's just the opposite.

Mill On The Floss (none / 0) (#114)
by cam on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 11:33:55 PM EST

the first most boring being Oblomov

Try Mill On The Floss sometime, that was a painful slog. So many good books to study, and they choose that one......

Freedom, Liberty, Equity and an Australian Republic
[ Parent ]

Ok, I'll add some titles (5.00 / 4) (#51)
by mami on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 12:42:18 AM EST

because I have just run into an awesome book, which will help me to understand and read more about war and foreign policies and all the wisdom coming from ancient philosophers.

I am half through the book and I know I have hit a goldmine of a bibliography for what I would like to read in the next -- I guess -- couple of years. :-)

The book which made it possible for me to relate to the ancient texts is the book by Robert D. Kaplan: "Warrior Politics - Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos."

It has the great entry quotations of Sun-Tzu:

"The side that knows when to fight and when not will take victory. There are roadways not be traveled, armies not to be attacked, walled cities not to be assaultet."

and another quote I like from Machiavelli:

"Anyone wishing to see what is to be must consider what has been: all the things of this world in every era have their counterparts in ancient times."

Kaplan writes in a way that you can relate wars and the strategic thinking from ancient times very vividly to current affairs and recent history.

Here a list of books I thought I would never read (and just come to them, because the thoughts of war have come close to home), but am inspired to get into by Kaplan's introductionary book.

Aron, Raymond: "Peace and War: A theory of International Relations"

Berlin, Isaiah, "Four Essays on Liberty" and "The Proper Study of Mankind"

Churchill, Winston S.: "The River War: An Historical Account of the Re-Conquest of the Sudan"

Clausewitz, Karl von. "On War"

Djilas, Milovan: "Wartime"

Burckhardt, Jacob: "The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy"

Confucius: "The Analects"

Finer, S.E.: "The History of Government from the Earliest Times"

Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison and John Jay: "The Federalist Papers"

Herodotus: "The Histories"

Howard, Michael: "The Invention of Peace. Reflections on War and International Order".

Livy: "The War with Hannibal"

Machiavelli: "Discourses on Livy" and "The Prince"

Mansfield, Harvey C.: "Machiavelli's Virtue".

Montesquieu: "The Spirit of the Laws"

Morgentau, Hans: "Politics Among Nations"

Niebuhr, Reinhold: "The Irony of American History"

Ortega y Gasset, Jose: "The Revolt of the Masses"

Pangle, Thomas and Ahrensdorf, Peter: "Justice Among Nations, On the Moral Basis of Power and Peace".

Polybius: "The Rise of the Roman Empire"

RAbe, Paul: "Republics, Ancient and Modern"

Seneca: "Moral and Political Essays

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr: "November 1916: The Red Wheel/Knot II"

Strassler, Robert: "The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War"

Strauss, Leo: "The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: Its Basis and Its Genesis".

Sun-Tzu: "The Art of Warfare"

Thucydides: "The Peloponnesian War"

Waltz, Kenneth: "Man, The State, and War"

Weber, Max: "The Profession of Politics"

Well, when I have finished all I add a list of books relating more to peaceful matters ... may be the most tragic love stories in the history of mankind or so. :-)

Have you read War and Anti War by the Tofflers ? (none / 0) (#70)
by salsaman on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 07:36:42 AM EST

I found it very interesting.

If you haven't read it, I think you would enjoy it.

[ Parent ]

Thanks (none / 0) (#103)
by mami on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 05:55:51 PM EST

and no, I haven't read it, I have difficulties to get accustomed to *enjoy* books about wars. :-)

[ Parent ]
My list.. (4.75 / 4) (#54)
by Apuleius on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 12:57:21 AM EST

There's another reason for a list along these lines. Simply put, it allows the people who are taught this canon to have a richer base of knowledge of the English language than just the dictionary. It allows them to all know what it means when one of them starts a paragraph with "there is a tide in the affairs of men," or "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians," or "Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet." You don't have to be a Western chauvinist to think a Western canon is a good thing.

With that in mind, I'd add the Bible, King James Version. It's not just for those who are religious. If you don't read through the Bible, for one thing, you'll never get Mark Twain. Do you know why the widow Douglas took Huckleberry Finn into the closet to pray with him? The reason's in the Gospel of Matthew. I'd add Herodotos to Thucydides as it tries to deal with more than the internal squabbles of the Greeks; it also deals more with their relations with the Barbarian world. Since Thucydides ends with a cliffhanger, and Plutarch fills the details only partly, you should add Xenophon to the list, particularly the Hellenica and the Anabasis.

Crime and Punishment is also an absolute must, especially for k5ers who are a little too enamored with their particular philosophies. Voldaire's Candide has a place, for the same reason, as does The Death of Ivan Illyich by Tolstoy.

There is a time and a place for everything, and it's called college. (The South Park chef)
5+++++! (none / 0) (#56)
by tbc on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 01:11:36 AM EST

I especially appreciate the evaluation of the Greek authors. And recommending Dostoevsky, "especially for k5ers who are a little too enamored with their particular philosophies," was perfectly wicked. I haven't read C & P since high school, but I remember enough to see that you summed up the value of the book in just a phrase. Bravo!

[ Parent ]
king james version? (none / 0) (#79)
by Optical on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 10:11:44 AM EST

why the king james version, out of curiosity?

"The resulting snakes are flaccid. In order to erect more rigid snakes, it is vital to use a more stable method that can accomodate the large internal forces."
-Kass et al, the International Journal of Computer Vision, 1988
[ Parent ]
My reasons. (5.00 / 1) (#91)
by Apuleius on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 01:59:46 PM EST

1. Post-KJV versions are just as bad at translating from the Hebrew, and they're a lot duller. The most often cited example of why KJV sucks is the translation of "striped tunic" to "coat of many colors." Well, no translation will convey the significance of a striped tunic to the people who were the first to read Genesis. It's awkward even in the Ancient Hebrew to Modern Hebrew translation. But "coat of many colors" is at least an interesting glimpse at England in the 1600's. 2. The use of "thou" in the Bible is important. It was singular in Hebrew, and it should be singular in English.

There is a time and a place for everything, and it's called college. (The South Park chef)
[ Parent ]
but... (none / 0) (#92)
by Optical on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 02:06:51 PM EST

isn't it true that the english language of KJV is singnificantly different from modern english?

this, i understand, is the biggest trouble with using the king james version-- many of the weird ideas that some people get, that is, a lot of christian fundamentalists, come from misunderstandings of the KJV.

no, i don't have any examples offhand.

"The resulting snakes are flaccid. In order to erect more rigid snakes, it is vital to use a more stable method that can accomodate the large internal forces."
-Kass et al, the International Journal of Computer Vision, 1988
[ Parent ]

Yes, but.. (none / 0) (#94)
by Apuleius on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 02:56:28 PM EST

The KJV is one of the things slowing down the mutation of the English language, and I consider that a good thing. As for fundies, in my experience, they prefer NIV over KJV.

There is a time and a place for everything, and it's called college. (The South Park chef)
[ Parent ]
why (none / 0) (#100)
by speek on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 04:56:51 PM EST

Why would you want to slow down the rate of change in the language? The pace of change in the world is only speeding up - the language has to keep up, or we'll continue using obsolete analogies longer and longer.

what would be cool, is if there was like a bat signal for tombuck - [ Parent ]

Because, (none / 0) (#101)
by Apuleius on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 05:25:34 PM EST

I differ with you there. Change in other aspects of human life does not mean the language should change.

There is a time and a place for everything, and it's called college. (The South Park chef)
[ Parent ]
Two more things (none / 0) (#97)
by epepke on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 04:01:36 PM EST

  1. The language of the KJV is excellent. There is a lot of poetry in it.
  2. "Thou" is also important in the context of the KJV as a protestant document. Its use particularly as a personal form of address emphasizes the notion of a personal relationship with God unmediated by a priest.

The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head.--Terry Pratchett

[ Parent ]
Missing: (4.75 / 4) (#58)
by mrgoat on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 01:41:20 AM EST

Foucalt's Pendulum, by Umberto Eco. I can't see myself respecting a list of great books without this one being on it. Like all truly great books, I cannot truly express why it should be on the list, without re-posting the entire book. It must be read to be understood.

Also, while some of his choices are definitely written by great authors, I don't see why they should make a list of great books. Example: Shakespear's PLAYS. They're plays, not books. Good literature? Sure. Also, they're bawdy middle-english pop-culture. That's how they were written, that's how I think they should be appreciated. I don't debate that they're good and enjoyable, (as well as perfectly accessible to anyone who takes the time to understand the language) but they're plays. Likewise, Dante's Divine comedy isn't a book. It's a trilogy of poems. Long poems, but still poems. (Granted, I've only read translations of them, and I'm positive they lose a lot without proper background and without being in the original language.)

Some of the others on the list are more properly called essays, not books, too. But that's fine with me, I'll let that one slide.

As to your last two questions: I see no reason why a list of great books should be grounded in any culture or time period. Greak books are great books. Also, I can't come up with any way to objectively determine the worth of a book, and I would be amazed and skeptical if someone did. Ultimately, the worth of a book is in the enjoyment of the reader and the writer. Any attempt to make a list of "great books" ultimately is nothing more than pretentious intellectual masturbation. Writers should write what they desire to write, readers should read what they desire to read. Simple as that.

"I'm having sex right now?" - Joh3n
--Top Hat--

books? (none / 0) (#121)
by streetlawyer on Tue Jul 02, 2002 at 02:29:29 AM EST

Hey, they have poems and essays in books these days.

Just because things have been nonergodic so far, doesn't mean that they'll be nonergodic forever
[ Parent ]
true that. (none / 0) (#123)
by mrgoat on Tue Jul 02, 2002 at 02:57:54 AM EST

But then they are books, which happen to be collections of essays, not books in and of themselves. The intent of a book, IMO, is to be a singular work of literature of significant length, not a collection of very short works.

"I'm having sex right now?" - Joh3n
--Top Hat--
[ Parent ]

IMO (none / 0) (#142)
by j1mmy on Mon Aug 05, 2002 at 03:39:16 PM EST

The intent of a book, IMO, is to be a singular work of literature of significant length, not a collection of very short works.

I was always under the impression that "book" referred more to the medium than the content.

[ Parent ]

So what if... (none / 0) (#143)
by mrgoat on Mon Aug 05, 2002 at 05:36:26 PM EST

What if I take "Moby Dick", and transcribe it into a webpage, a series of pamphlets, a teleprompter, a series of clay tablets, etch it into pcb, and carve the words into a tree? Is "Moby Dick" no longer a book then?

If the answer to that is yes, I'm going to stop going to bookstores, as I don't want to buy books, I want to buy stories, texts, fiction, non-fiction, etc, not books.

"I'm having sex right now?" - Joh3n
--Top Hat--
[ Parent ]

moby dick is a novel (n/t) (none / 0) (#144)
by j1mmy on Mon Aug 05, 2002 at 08:04:50 PM EST

[ Parent ]
Has it never been in a book then? (nt) (none / 0) (#145)
by mrgoat on Mon Aug 05, 2002 at 10:06:59 PM EST

"I'm having sex right now?" - Joh3n
--Top Hat--
[ Parent ]

It has been presented in book form. (none / 0) (#146)
by j1mmy on Tue Aug 06, 2002 at 10:21:22 AM EST

You can now find electronic copies, audio books, maybe even a musical or stage version. It's only really a book if you buy it in book form.

[ Parent ]
He got it ALL wrong... (3.00 / 4) (#59)
by SPasmofiT on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 01:50:06 AM EST

All that Christian/moralist philosophy is bad for one's stomach. Let's try again:

Nietzsche - Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Nietzsche - Beyound Good and Evil
Nietzsche - The Gay Science (no, not that gay)
Nietzsche - The Antichrist
Sartre - Existentialism and Human Emotion
Sartre - The Nausea
Sartre - The Ego's Trancendence
Camus - The Stranger
Camus - The Plague

There! Add Kierkegaard and/or Shopenhauer for taste, and voila!

bogleg (none / 0) (#129)
by adequate nathan on Tue Jul 02, 2002 at 09:27:11 AM EST

What, Kierkegaard all of a sudden isn't Christian?

"For me -- ugghhh, arrgghh."
-Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, in Frank magazine, Jan. 20th 2003

Join the petition: Rusty! Make dumped stories & discussion public!
[ Parent ]

An observation (5.00 / 4) (#61)
by medham on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 02:07:44 AM EST

If Adler could read the comments to this article, he'd know he was in hell.

The real 'medham' has userid 6831.

Hollow Men (none / 0) (#82)
by tbc on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 10:54:02 AM EST

Whoa. You reminded me of the title of a book I've heard of: Hollow Men. But as if your point needed to be proven further, I had never read Eliot's poem until just now! (I haven't gotten around to reading Sykes' book, either.)

Still, I don't think think the world is going out with a whimper. There are also comments here that have exceeded my expectations. (I was afraid I'd have to sign up for The WELL to get this kind of interaction. :-)

"Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis follow to be wise."

[ Parent ]

Interesting (4.00 / 1) (#69)
by Herring on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 06:30:13 AM EST

This must be the same chap which Pirsig refers to but doesn't name in Zen and the Art of Motorcylce maintenance - which is one of my favourite books.

I rarely read anything written before about 1920 but I do get the feeling that I'm missing out by not reading the old classics.

Say lol what again motherfucker, say lol what again, I dare you, no I double dare you
My suggestions (4.50 / 2) (#71)
by Trimeresurus on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 08:35:16 AM EST

Here are my additions to the list, apologies if any of them has already been suggested:

One Hundred years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Praise of Folly by Erasmus
Omar Khayyam's Rubbayyat
On the Nature of Things or whatever is the English title of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura
Goethe's Faust and some of his poems.

Now this brings two comments to my mind : first, if everyone chimes in with their favorite books, one might wonder what book will not end up on this list (that's precisely what would be very interesting to see); and second, I generally try to read a book in the original language, which I could do with Márquez or Goethe, hardly with Lucretius, and not at all with Khayyam. The question is, what does one miss when one reads a translation ? In other words, to what extent is the Italian saying, "traduttore, traditore" (a translator is a traitor) true ?

If its poetry (none / 0) (#81)
by baronben on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 10:34:41 AM EST

For De Rerum Natura, which is an epic poem along with being a philosophy book, and Goethe's poems, you'll definitly miss out on all the tricks of lanugage and word plays. No matter how good a translator is, poems are meant to be read in the orginal, their full of literary devices which just can't be translated.

that doesn't mean you shouldn't read translations. Mandalbalm's (sp) translations of Homer and Dante are amazing, and great for just a good read, but if you realy want to see what makes these authors classics, you need to buckle down and read the greek or latin.

Ben Spigel sic transit gloria
[ Parent ]

I agree. (4.00 / 1) (#139)
by Trimeresurus on Tue Jul 09, 2002 at 05:29:20 AM EST

if you realy want to see what makes these authors classics, you need to buckle down and read the greek or latin.

Couldn't agree more. That's what I used to to a decade and a half ago, btw, when still in high school (or the local equivalent). And yes, there's nothing like reading the original (especially poetry, since ancient verse is based on rhythm rather than rhyme). If I had to choose again, I'd surly make the same choice (i.e., to study latin and ancient greek) without an instant's hesitation. Unfortunately, I have forgotten a lot, especially greek. :-(

[ Parent ]
Wow. Not one mention?? (4.50 / 2) (#72)
by Jel on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 08:38:22 AM EST

I'm amazed.  Lots of comments, but no mention so far of some of the best books ever written:
  • The Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu.
  • The Chuang Tzu, by Chuang Tzu (funnily enough :)
These are great, too:
  • The Importance of Living, by Lin Yutang
  • The Soul of Man, by Oscar Wilde
  • Civil Disobedience, by Henry David Thoreau
And, interesting novels for lighter reading:
  • The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula K. LeGuin
As for the question of "Why?", the answer is the same for most of these... they might just change your life, or at least your perception of it.  Maybe not the last one, but it's fun, anyway :)

To answer one question (5.00 / 3) (#75)
by wiredog on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 09:15:39 AM EST

Furthermore, why is Adler's list grounded in a particular culture and time period?

Because Adler was. As were all educated people in his day.

That grounding was once called the Western Liberal Education. It gave every educated person a common basis of understanding. They had studied the same core curriculum, knew of the same events in history, and could argue from a common basis. The people who wrote the Constitution and Declaration of Independence (both considered to be excellent examples of Enlightenment political thought) and the people outside the US who read them had that education.

Can't sleep. The clowns will get me.

A few of my favourites (5.00 / 2) (#77)
by treefrog on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 09:54:35 AM EST

Here we go (in no particular order)
  • The King James Bible This has been the cornerstone of the past four hundred years of western thought, and the translation encapsulates many of the trends that preceeded it. You really need to at least dip into a copy of this once in a while if you want to understand English Literature (and I mean works written in the English language, not those written by the English).
  • The Master and Margarita(by Mikhail Bulgakov). This is the grand-daddy of magical realism, a great story, a critique of the Soviet Union and a fabulous romance. Manuscripts don't burn! Also a good link into stuff like Dumbrovsky ("The Keeper of Antiquities" and "The Faculty of Useless Knowledge" of Heym ("The King David Report"), and Rushdie ("The Satanic Verses is by far and away the best thing he has written).
  • Moby Dick Melville really could write. This is a fabulous tale.
  • Anything by Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness is his best known work, but there is so much of it, and it is all good. Victory is a personal favourite of mine.
  • The Peloponniesian War by Thucidydes. Read the section on the Revolution at Corcyra. Ponder on when you last read such an inciteful and well written piece of commentary. And then weep at how little human nature has changed over the past three milennia.
    "...in professing to serve the public interest they [the leaders of the political factions] were seeking to win the prizes for themselves. In their struggles for ascendancy nothing was barred; terrible indeed were the actions to which they committed themselves,and in taking revenge they went further still. Here they were deterred neither by the claims of justice nor the interest of the state; their one standard was the pleasure of their own party at that particular moment, and so, either by means of condemning their enemies on an illegal vote or by violently usurping power over them, they were always ready to satisfy the hatreds of the hour. Thus neither side had any use for concientious motives; more interest was shown in those who could produce attractive arguments to justify some disgraceful action. As for citizens who held moderate views, they were destroyed by both the extreme parties, either for not taking part in the struggle or in envy at the possibility that they might survive."
    Book 3 - The Revolution at Corcyra
  • The Tempest by William Shakespeare. Personally, I would take the complete works to a desert island, but if I had to choose I would take the Tempest. The poetry and magic of the play are superb. But seriously, all these pulp novels one reads with snappy titles - where do you think they came from - Bill S himself!
And that is about if from me!

Happy Holiday reading, treefrog

Twin fin swallowtail fish. You don't see many of those these days - rare as gold dust Customs officer to Treefrog

Thematically apropos (5.00 / 1) (#86)
by cr8dle2grave on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 11:53:14 AM EST

The Tempest on a desert island, that is...

Unity of mankind means: No escape for anyone anywhere. - Milan Kundera

[ Parent ]
"Great" is a lousy adjective. (5.00 / 2) (#78)
by watchmaker on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 09:59:51 AM EST

There's few adjectives that could be used to describe a book that are more subjective. A fundamentalist christian would say the Bible. An objectivist would say "Atlas Shrugged." And the average 15 year old girl would say "Britney Spears: The Unauthorized Autobiography"

Moving? How about Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning."

Informative? Steve Hagen's "Buddhism: Plain and Simple". (Writing about Buddhism is like dancing about architecture. But Hagen's book lays out the philosophy beautifully.)

Overrated? Catcher in the Rye. (Boy flunks out of school, boy goes to town, boy swears alot. Yep, cutting edge stuff.)

Interesting? I'm currently enjoying David McCullough's "John Adams", a brilliant look at one of the US's most important, and least hyped, founding fathers.

Want to delve into the human mind? Paul Churchland's "Matter and Conciousness".

Entertaining? Katherine Kurtz's Deryni series, David Eddings' Belgariad. Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land". Harry Potter. Yes, Harry Potter.

Hell, best cookbook: Emeril Lagasse's "Louisiana Real and Rustic" (Though the rest of his stuff is self aggrandizing crap).

Many people have mentioned other books which I consider "Must Read". Art of War, I feel, should be required reading for everyone.

Catcher (5.00 / 1) (#87)
by bsletten on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 11:53:47 AM EST

I agree on this one. Perhaps I read it too late in life.
Reminds me of the Too Much Joy song, "William Holden Caulfield":
"I'm afraid of people who like 'Catcher in the Rye'
Yeah, I liked it too, but someone tell me why
People he'd despise say, 'I feel like that guy..'
I don't want to grow up, 'cause I don't want to die..."

[ Parent ]
subjectivity (4.00 / 1) (#84)
by bigfrank on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 11:20:23 AM EST

Great to see Cervantes get a mention, the first book is brilliant. Sometimes called the first novel it also has moments of such absurdity, I am sure I have never been so entertained. Also I love Dickens, another with a fantastic taste for the ridiculous and I can't understand why people get down on him; the good characters are all pretty wholesome, the bad not so, the plots good and the humour at times searing. I think some authors you need to begin with some free hours ahead of you, be prepared to smile if you waste them and not let yourself be biased by the first twenty pages. I like Hardy too - though no-one else does - the man paints the countryside of my childhood with words. Maybe I am forgetful, maybe it was only one or two lazy afternoons of my childhood - fortunately the best in my memory. I know nothing though and it certainly isn't for me to say what is a good book, or what is not, but these are just a sample of what I enjoy. I have gone through phases of Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, serious works - currently reading The Odysser courtesy of Shewring and enjoying it and others mentioned. My favourite movie is Digby. I shall be quiet now.

Hardy (none / 0) (#108)
by speek on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 07:46:11 PM EST

I actually enjoyed Hardy too - I've read Tess and Mayor of Casterbridge, and they were both pretty good. Not earth-shattering, but entertaining. Better than Dickens, IMO.

what would be cool, is if there was like a bat signal for tombuck - [ Parent ]

Classics seem covered so far... (4.50 / 2) (#85)
by bsletten on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 11:38:48 AM EST

And I don't want to dismiss them, but from a more modern context, Wallace Stegner's "Angle of Repose" is one of my favorite novels. The content doesn't seem immediately like something that would grab you, but it is an excellent story and I couldn't put it down. From the Irving canon, "The Cider House Rules" was the best blend of story and commentary I've seen from him. Vonnegut is the tops. Try "Slaughterhouse Five", "Cat's Cradle" or "Breakfast of Champions". I think a common theme in some of these suggestions of mine are stories that deal with people dealing with other people.

A more interesting question... (5.00 / 3) (#93)
by senjiro on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 02:28:19 PM EST

is say that you were tasked to provide an alien culture 5 texts to help them understand humanity. What you would bring on an island would ultimately not be classics, or histories, more likely you would bring escapist fiction or porn to break up the unending monotony of existence there. Anyway if for whatever reason you had to communicate Human, or even (to make it easier) Western culture, what 5 books would you suggest ET read? Admittedly this too is a rhetorical, if not actually impossible to answer question. Since we are all tied to the cultures in which we live, I think the best yardstick of "the great books" would be which best communicate to beings outside our cultures how they work.

My list:
Religion: The majority of the planet has some form of religious or spiritual belief. KJ Bible, Koran, or the Tao Te Ching.
Science: A current look at our understanding of the universe. Something by Hawking, or perhaps Sagan.
Aristotle: I hate him. The endless categorization and interrelation kill Quality , but no one person is more responsible for the evolved form of Western Thought.
Love and Emotion: This one might be the hardest as any text about these subjects assumes that the reader is capable of them, and has been exposed to them, not something one can assume about extra terrestrial life forms. However I'll bite the bullet and choose King Lear by Shakespeare. It is illustrative of what emotions can do to us.
Morality: I think perhaps something from Asimov with the Three laws would communicate a sense of our most basic morality, and further paint a picture of our hopes and dreams. Perhaps Bicentennial Man, or Robots and Empire.

it is by will alone that i set my mind in motion
Quality (none / 0) (#125)
by DapperDan on Tue Jul 02, 2002 at 05:12:35 AM EST

Those interested in the metaphysics of quality (as mentioned under 'Aristotle' by senjiro) could do worse than visit http://www.moq.org/. I share your opinion on the endless categorisation senjiro; what's more, i see it as being the antithesis of intertwingularity (a term of Ted Nelson's; google).

I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance last month and I can safely say it has changed my life.

Of course amazon.co.uk don't have a copy of Lila (the sequel).

[ Parent ]

OT: ZATAOMM (none / 0) (#130)
by senjiro on Tue Jul 02, 2002 at 12:11:51 PM EST

Both of those links are new to me, MOQ espescially looks like somewhere I can hang out. Thanks

I first read Zen about 8 years ago, at a time in my life when I was mentally spiraling to nowhere good. Pirsig's style cut through my own mental cobwebs, and help me reorganize my outlook. I cannot think of any one thing that has shaped my life since then more than that book. Not everyone has the same experience, but I have noticed that more than not rate Zen as a life-changing read.

Lila is excellent also, although much more bogged down in deep thought, and for me was a bit more disturbing. I'll bet your local *good* bookstore has a copy or two of it on the shelf. Worth the read.

it is by will alone that i set my mind in motion
[ Parent ]
Gibbon, Frazier, Graves, and more (5.00 / 2) (#99)
by Rand Race on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 04:32:33 PM EST

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon used to be a cornerstone of a liberal education. A bit dry in its original form, most versions you see today are excerpts - excerpts running to 700+ pages granted - which make it much easier reading.

Sir James George Frazier's The Golden Bough is another classic most often found in excerpted form today. Add Joseph Campbell's four volume The Masks of God and Robert Graves' two volume The Greek Myths plus his The White Goddess, and you have a fine basis of knowledge on classical mythology.

Speaking of Robert Graves, I, Claudius and Claudius the God are also well worth reading and his Hercules, My Shipmate is also a damn fun - and funny - read. All three of those books are historical fiction rather than the scholarly works above.

What I'm reading this summer? Six Crises by Richard Milhous Nixon, Form and Void by Dave Sim and Gerhard, Isis Unveiled by Helene Petrovna Blavatsky, and the next George R. R. Martin Song of Ice and Fire book if it comes out... ditto for David Webber and his Honor Harrington series.

"Question with boldness even the existence of God; because if there be one, He must approve the homage of Reason rather than that of blindfolded Fear." - Thomas Jefferson

*ahem* (none / 0) (#102)
by Apuleius on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 05:28:22 PM EST

If you're going to add Graves, to the list, how about adding the Golden Ass?

There is a time and a place for everything, and it's called college. (The South Park chef)
[ Parent ]
And... (none / 0) (#110)
by cr8dle2grave on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 09:25:20 PM EST

If you're going to add the Golden Ass why not just drop Graves.

Unity of mankind means: No escape for anyone anywhere. - Milan Kundera

[ Parent ]
Because (none / 0) (#127)
by Rand Race on Tue Jul 02, 2002 at 08:38:05 AM EST

Its a translation not an original or scholarly piece. I'd certainly list it if I was talking about late Roman literature, but as far as mythological studies go your namesake's On the God of Socrates (unfortunately the only translation available is the dated T. Taylor's from 1822) or Discourse on Magic (with a brand new translation just out) would be more apt pieces.

"Question with boldness even the existence of God; because if there be one, He must approve the homage of Reason rather than that of blindfolded Fear." - Thomas Jefferson
[ Parent ]

Greatness (5.00 / 5) (#105)
by Scrymarch on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 06:14:23 PM EST

Well, the comments have generated a fair, and fairly predictable selection and mix from the Western and Geek canon so far, from Dune to the History of the Peloponnesian War.  It includes plenty I haven't read and wish I had.  I'd like to take another angle on it.

Perhaps greatness in a text is when it speaks truly and durably of the human condition.  It could be very personal - this book was great because it helped me understand someone dear to me.  It could be impersonal - humans live in the world; a great scientific text, that durably describes the world.

The desert island question is interesting, if rather solipsistic.  Let me respond to its impossibility by posing a more impossible question - what small set books would you assemble to capture our knowledge of the world and ourselves?  Say you were a group of settlers instead of a marooned individual on this desert island.  Say further, for the sake of the official canon, that manuals like mechanical encyclopedias do not count.  (For cruelty, limit to 1 million words.)

Some books I have not read deserve to be on this list.  Some of my favourite books are too cleverly steeped in civilisation to be included.

  • The Art Of War - Sun Tzu
  • The Bible (if abridgement allowed, take the early Books of the Old Testament, Psalms, Job and the Gospels)
  • The Bhagavada Gita (or key Buddhist texts, which I haven't read)
  • Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet and Macbeth - Shakespeare (substitute Goethe or other continentals to taste)
  • (A seminal economics text, an area where I am ill-read; possibly The Wealth Of Nations)
  • The Declaration Of Independence and Constitution of The United States, with amendments
  • (A collection of scientific papers, few of which I have read - probably plus Euclid, Principia Mathematica and The Origin of Species)
  • The Arabian Nights - though it must be a selection if not to take up all the room
  • (Classical philosophy, probably Socrates, which I haven't read)
  • (20th century philosophy, probably Wittgenstein, but I haven't read much else)
  • (A modern novel - probably Dickens, but others would substitute Dostoyevsky in a second)
  • (A history; anything that captures its sweep and tragedy and the forces on populations over time.  People seem fond of the Peloponnesian War.)
Hmm.  I think I blew my million words pretty easy, and I haven't read half of it.  But it is a less narrow selection than Adler's though a few books more.  Comments to fill the gaps are obviously appreciated.

An Introduction To Human Knowledge, about 500 pages or so, would be a cool book :)  I'm thinking a dozen essays on various topics in the crisp style of New Scientist or The Economist.

My recommendations (incomplete - repost) (4.50 / 2) (#106)
by jurgisb on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 06:26:52 PM EST

Somehow it got lost from my first posting it as a comment while the story was still in queue... here goes:

The following are only some of the more obscure works found noteworthy by me, for everything that is popular was ground to dust aeons ago, and I will not attempt to re-discuss it now.

The absolute best text I've read out of 500+ books and seems to be "Bhagavad Gita", (excerpt from Mahabharata). It revolves around the dialogue between one great (and smart) king and the god (the One) which takes place in the battlefield, prior to beginning of action. It's a very enlightening text, once you get past the form to the essence (the form, abviously, was twisted with a passage of time, and furtherly by translation to .en, which was what I read, multiple times). It, I guess, was one of the catalysts which later led me to enlightenment, or state of infinite awareness (that or maybe some DMT which I produced spontaneously in my cerebral fluids :).

Other books of great recommendation would be:

Most everything by Clifford D. Simak, esp. "Cemetery World", "The Goblin's Reservation" and "The Werewolf Principle". His books trickle with "sense of wonder", whatever that is for you :P

"Mindswap" by Robert Sheckley - the ultimate trip.

Of course, P.K.Dick was never bad.

Everything by Stanislaw Lem, esp."Kongres Futurologiczny" (which is *very* deep and funny) and "Niezwyciezony". Sorry, I've not yet read "Solaris" and "Cyberiad", but they're more popular, and get mentioned more often, so...

Roger Zelazny, "Chronicles of Amber", most everything Amber, won't go wrong here, very colorful and mythic.

Heard that almost everything by Gene Wolfe is bound to be very good. Not read yet, can't attest.

Robert Anton Wilson is good so far.

Regarding the (somewhat) controversial issue of "Dune" (Which I'm reading now), it's brilliant, and the more I read, the more brilliant it gets, just be sure to do some acid beforehand, or you won't get it :P

Also, maybe the best short story compilation I've read is "Starshine" by Theodore Sturgeon. Oh man is he good.

Many influential stuff I haven't mentioned, but then again, I guess this should be enough for one posting. And be at rest, all the books here I guarantee quality for, and badly mangle the structure of sentence.

my list (4.50 / 2) (#109)
by bloodnok on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 07:57:45 PM EST

Every single Mills and Boon ever published.


against revisionist history (3.00 / 2) (#112)
by jajuka on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 10:44:45 PM EST

Most of the comments here seem to be either thinking too narrowly (suggesting endless modern titles), or bringing up the "dead white men" argument.

The basic idea of the typical great books program is to present a range of works in what is usually a 1 year college course that covers the major highlights in literature and philosopy from Gilgamesh or Homer to the present. Most of the lists tend to be made up mostly of older books, rightly so in my opinon. (I feel we are too close both in time and emotionally to most of the more recent books to select from them, though of course any selection is subjective.)

The "dead white men" argument always claims these lists are invalid because women or such and such ethnic groups are not sufficiently represented, if at all, or that the lists try to impose or promote a "white european" world view.

However unfair it may be, the works by these other groups just don't exist throughout most of the period these lists cover. How many African or Women authors over 200 years old can you name? How many over 300 years? There are Islamic scholars and works from China and Japan that could be argued for but I can't think of much else.

As for the promotion of some mythical "white european" world view there is too much conflict with the lists to argue they promote any single world view. Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hume and Nietzsche promoting a single vision of the world?

As it happens I just recently finished reading Great Books by David Denby, about his experience going back to Columbia in the 90's at the age of 48 and taking the Great Books course as an adult. It's an interesting perspective on how the course fits into a modern education, various students and faculty's feelings or arguments for or against the idea, as well as a kind of cliff's notes on the course. I'd recommend it to anyone interested in the topic.

A personal list (5.00 / 2) (#113)
by plyons on Mon Jul 01, 2002 at 11:23:51 PM EST

I wish I could say I'd read all those works, but with the exception of Guliver's Travels and some Shakespeare, I haven't.  My deserted island list is just a personal selection of books I loved and wanted to recommend to others.

1.    Narcissus and Goldman: Herman Hesse .   Because it sparked my desire to create things.
2.    One Hundred Years of Solitude: Gabriel Garcia Marquez.   It's just beautiful.
3.    The Glass Bead Game: Herman Hesse.  This book hooked me on pursuing knowledge for knowledge's sake.
4.    For Whom the Bell Tolls: Ernest Hemingway.  Because it showed me the meaning of self sacrifice.
5.    Islands in the Stream: Ernest Hemingway.  Because it cemented in me a love of the ocean, deep sea fishing and gin.
6.    Gorky Park: Martin Cruz Smith.   Because the writing transcended my expectations of the genre and the ending image is still vivid in my mind after fifteen years.  That's a lot, considering most books I read fade from memory after a couple of month.
7.    Fishboy: Mark Richard.  Just because it's such a mind bending, fun read.

If, however, I wasn't going to be stuck on a deserted island and I was just going to be visiting a nice sunny island for a few days I'd probably bring something from one of these authors:

1.    Tim Powers.   He's a very good writer who just happens to write light fantasy fiction.  I've yet to be disappointed in his work.
2.    Cormac McCarthy:  Grimmy, dark and beautiful novels set in the American west.
3.    Patrick O'Brian:  Great Sea yarns.

Interesting. . . (5.00 / 1) (#135)
by Gumpzilla on Tue Jul 02, 2002 at 11:33:10 PM EST

I'm curious about your comment regarding The Glass Bead Game, a book which I also liked very much. Specifically, I find it interesting that it instilled the idea in you of pursuing knowledge for knowledge's sake when it seems that, at the end of the book, the protagonist rejects that idea and the insular culture that it had created. I think that's an oversimplification, but it's been a while since I've read it and that's what I remember. Do you agree with that assessment (of the book, not the ideal)?

My interest in the book was first sparked after seeing some links from Yahoo about people trying to come up with their own versions of the Glass Bead Game. Some detective work there might turn up some of this stuff. The version I remember actually trying with a friend of mine was played on graphs of ten nodes, with different sets of edges used to achieve different styles of game. Players took turns filling in nodes on the graph with ideas of some form or another, and in order to place an idea at a node, you had to make some kind of connecting argument between it and all of the ideas at adjacent nodes. It made for some pretty interesting stuff.

[ Parent ]
Books that have defined culture (5.00 / 1) (#116)
by Jeff Coleman on Tue Jul 02, 2002 at 12:15:12 AM EST

may have been what Adler had in mind. Picking them then means asking what the IS is of our world and tracing back to see where the IS came from. This makes it less a judgment of the quality of thought or personal value of any book and more about making connections between the world of human experience and the books that most influenced or best express the nature of that experience.

Rather than desert islands or aliens, try thinking like the teacher of a machine able to learn much as we do. What would you need to feed into it so that it could make some kind of sense of the human world? Could you just hook it up to Simpson reruns?

In the Western world there are some gimmes- the Bible, On the Origin of Species, The Wealth of Nations, The Interpretation of Dreams...

I think that for the most part Western culture looks to science and the scientific method for it's beliefs- consider medieval philosophers trying to prove the existance of god. Very science based, don't you think? How much does god weigh?

(it's late and I'm rapidly going Python...)

My Two Cents on the Matter (5.00 / 3) (#117)
by copo on Tue Jul 02, 2002 at 12:49:56 AM EST

Adam Smith - The Wealth of Nations.
Here's my bombastic statement: this book has had more of an effect on western civilization than any other work in the past 250 years. Concepts like free trade, division of labor, and the idea of self interest working towards the common good due to a market killed mercantilism and established capitalism as the dominant economic system. It really is hard to overstate the signifiance of Smith's work, and unlike lots of other "important" books, it is pretty fun to read.

Also, it is worth your while to read Smith because few people actually know what he said. Lots of dyed in the wool capitalists like to slobber all over a few of Smith's statements (invisible hand, it's not from the benevolence of the butcher, blah blah blah), but I am guessing that these people aren't familiar with a good deal of what he said. Smith wrote in WoN that it should be the government's job to keep employers from making their employees perform the same simple operations every day, or esle they will become as stupid and ignorant as any human can be. Smith also wrote in the Theory of Moral Sentiments that money doesn't bring happiness, and that sympathy is the driving motivator in society and not self interest. It's just fascinating stuff, and I encourage everyone to take a look.

A few others worth taking a look at:
The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham - my favorite work of fiction. Trying to describe it would be pathetic.
The New Testament, King James Bible - aside from its cultural importance, His message was beautiful and I think it would behoove all of us to be reminded of it.
The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham - required reading for stock market lunatics like myself.
John Stuart Mill's Autobiography - an incredible life story by perhaps the smartest man ever seen in western civilization.
White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty - hilarious, wonderful, and vibrant work of fiction.
Any Collection of Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson - "If we live truly, we shall see truly" from Self Reliance.
Principles of Economics by Albert Marshall - the best work on microeconomics I've ever read.

There's more, but now is time for sleep.

small point (none / 0) (#120)
by streetlawyer on Tue Jul 02, 2002 at 02:26:24 AM EST

Although Marshall's Principles is a good read, it is dangerously wrong on a number of points; particularly, it ignores general equilibrium

Just because things have been nonergodic so far, doesn't mean that they'll be nonergodic forever
[ Parent ]
Addendum to this Comment (none / 0) (#132)
by copo on Tue Jul 02, 2002 at 04:31:11 PM EST

If you're going to say this, then you should apply it to Smith's work as well because he got just as many things incorrect, if not more, than Marshall did. For instance, Smith didn't really conceive of really basic ideas like marginalism and comparative advantage in WoN, and without those two things, a lot of what he said about pricing, cost, and trade is just flat out wrong.

I think the thing to remember with these books is that they were the seminal works in a field no one had ever heard of, so of course some things will be incorrect. It's just like Newton's Principia; if you only held fast to only the ideas in that, you would be a real disadvantage when it comes to Calculus. So, I agree with you: they are tremendous works of intellect, but they are certainly not bulletproof.

[ Parent ]
yes, and more (5.00 / 1) (#131)
by Jeff Coleman on Tue Jul 02, 2002 at 02:17:56 PM EST

Glad to see another post listing WoN. Not that I've read it, but you make it seem worth while. I don't have to have read it to be aware of its immense influence on our world. And you bring up an interesting little side issue- books do NOT have to be understood (or even read) in order to have an impact on culture! Misreadings of the Bible have certainly had a tremendous influence on the course of history and culture. I would argue that these distortions of the author's intentions are more relevant (and often more interesting) than the actual written works themselves. But the books (or dramas, or poetry) that give rise to these distortions are critical, the butterfly wing flutterings that affect the course of history.

[ Parent ]
Stuck on a desert island (5.00 / 5) (#118)
by Shibboleth on Tue Jul 02, 2002 at 02:05:43 AM EST

It seems that for all his reading, Adler didn't have much sense. There's only two books you need when on a desert island:

"Practical shipbuilding"

"Navigation by the stars"

Survival (5.00 / 1) (#128)
by Baldrson on Tue Jul 02, 2002 at 08:59:24 AM EST

The Boyscout Handbook circa 1956.

You have to live long enough to build a ship.

-------- Empty the Cities --------

[ Parent ]

Gert Ledig (5.00 / 1) (#126)
by yooden on Tue Jul 02, 2002 at 08:16:02 AM EST

Gert Ledig - Die Stalinorgel
Gert Ledig - Vergeltung

These two books are about war, but not the heroic and can-do kind of war you usually see in US media. Nothing is fun here, and the people in the books act like they know it. A lot of them don't even carry names, because they are reduced to their role, acting on instinct and training. These are really horrifying, great books.

Vergeltung is about a US air-raid on a German city.

Die Stalinorgel is about a short German sector on the eastern front which is attacked by Soviet forces.

Gert Ledig was injured at the eastern front and got back to Germany just in time to experience some Allied air raids. The books were very successful in the fifties, but largely forgotten afterward, but had a comeback a few years back.

For economics, politics, and human nature (none / 0) (#133)
by Alan Crowe on Tue Jul 02, 2002 at 04:55:26 PM EST

I recommend

Free to Choose


Milton Friedman and Rose Friedman
ISBN 0 14 02 2363 0

Published in 1980, the pages of my cheap paperback copy are
turning yellow and brittle from the paper making acids of
twenty years ago, yet somehow the text is spookily up to
date, discussing tariffs on steel and problems in the
pension system.

A long quote will give an idea of how Friedman disentangles
the different strands, to explain how public life works.
Eight pages analysing the Interstate Commerce Commission
since 1887 is finished off with a general moral:

    The ICC illustrates what might be called the natural
    history of government intervention. A real or fancied
    evil leads to demands to do something about it. A
    political coalition forms consisting of sincere,
    high-minded reformers and equally sincere interested
    parties. The incompatible objectives of the members of
    the coalition (e.g., low prices to consumers and high
    prices to producers) are glossed over by fine rhetoric
    about 'the public intereset,' 'fair competition,' and
    the like. The coalition succeeds in getting Congress (or
    a state legislature to pass a law. The preamble to the
    law pays lip service to the rhetoric and the body of the
    law grants power to government officials to 'do
    something.' The high-minded reformers experience a glow
    of triumph and turn their attention to new causes. The
    interested parties go to work to make sure that the
    power is used for their benefit. They generally
    succeed. Success breeds its problems, which are met by
    broadening the scope of intervention. Bureaucracy takes
    its toll so that even the initial special interests no
    longer benefit. In the end the effects are precisely the
    opposite of the objectives of the reformers and
    generally do not even achieve the objectives of the
    special interests. Yet the activity is so firmly
    established and so many vested interests are connected
    with it that repeal of the initial legislation is nearly
    inconveivable. Instead, new government legislation is
    called for to cope with the problems produced by the
    earlier legislation and a new cycle begins.

You can see this cycle playing out with accounting standards
today. Strict standards were brought in after the 1929
crash. Gradually, businessmen found ways round them. There
is the scandal of not expensing stock options, and the
accounting treatment of leases, and of takeovers. Worst
auditors were earning more from consulting for their clients
than there were earning from audit fees. But for several
years the accounting standards body was worrying that
consulting fees for auditors were really "look the other
way" payments. However, when they wanted to ban accountants
from doing non-audit work for their audit clients, Congress
threatened to take away their regulatory role. Post Enron we
can see how much money was at stake.

The glory of the book is that Friedmann goes into enough
detail with his historical examples so that you can see how
it works. It is like taking the back of a clockwork
clock. Although it doesn't turn you into a watch maker you
can see what is connected to what, and roughly how it works.

This book makes TV news reports unwatchable. After you've
read it you start spotting that the TV journalists don't
understand economics or politics, and keep getting their explanations hopelessly wrong.

The Boomer Bible (none / 0) (#134)
by epepke on Tue Jul 02, 2002 at 06:06:58 PM EST

I don't know why The Boomer Bible is so poorly known amongst geeks. Reasonable numbers of cool people in what I laughingly call the real world know about it, and they all say the same thing: buy several, because when you lend it to someone, you will never get it back. It is definitely on my list of essential books. It precisely nails the cultural changes that have occurred in the United States over the past forty years and have since been metastasizing across the world.

Of the books mentioned so far, it resembles Don Quijote in several ways. It's a burlesque and works on the level where satire becomes scarcely distinguishable from reality. It's very funny. It's also sneaky; it will get you laughing about someone else's foibles and then kick you squarely in the ass. It is also quijotic in the classical sense.

It also resembles some of the works of Frank Zappa in that the utterly banal is contrasted with the sublime in interesting ways. Nobody's ox goes ungored.

It also reminds me of some of the threads in K5 at times, or even politics and argument in general. These reminiscences are not always flattering, as in Willie 38:1-7

  1. Never be tempted to see the other person's point of view,
  2. Because they have different desires,
  3. Different certainties,
  4. And different targets of blame.
  5. Consideration of another's perspective,
  6. Even for a moment,
  7. Can lead to thought.

That is from The Present Testament, in one of the four gospels (three synoptic) of a figure named Harry, the "first babe of the boom." The Present Testament also contains a book of acts ("Exploits"), letters to various neighborhoods in Philadelphia, and a final punchline ("Rationalizations") that, after reading the rest, feels like a blow to the kidneys. There is The Book of Harrier Brayer and The Harrier Hymnal. There is also The Present Testament, describing the approximate view of the world as taught to the Boomers. This is wrapped up with A Punk Testament, the worldview of the punks who ostensibly wrote the book and are a reminder of a very brief period nobody remembers in which punks did seem to be a movement. At the front are two prefaces, the first ostensibly by a scholar completely trashing the book and the second by a person who ostensibly found the book.

Confused yet? Not sure exactly what the author is trying to say with all these layers? Good. People who enjoy that sort of contrast will find much in The Boomer Bible.

The Boomer Bible can often be found very cheap at remaindered bookstores. They printed a lot but sold few.

The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head.--Terry Pratchett

Short Personal List, 6 items (5.00 / 1) (#136)
by CheeseburgerBrown on Wed Jul 03, 2002 at 12:52:41 PM EST

1. The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoyevsky
2. Something Happened Joseph Heller
3. The Diviners Margaret Laurence
4. Watership Down Richard Adams
5. Godel, Escher, Bach Douglas Hofstadter
6. The Arabian Nights Sir Richard Burton


1. While this novel is arguably not as well formed as Crime & Punishment or The Idiot, I've always enjoyed it more...there seems to me to be a kind of deep love for his characters that isn't yet mature in the other works. I'm no literary critic - what do I know? I know what I likes, and I likes The Brothers. Their world is very rich, and capable of being combed over for thousands of readings.

2. This is far and away my favourite Joseph Heller book there is. It is more serious than Catch-22, and more raw. We are lulled inside a fairly uncensored version of Bob Slocum's mind, and while there the reader (hopefully) finds enough detail, richness and context to feel for Slocum, despite his being a real shit, when...something happens.

3. I don't what to say -- this book spoke to me, despite my not being a young girl from Manitoba. Survives re-readings, to boot. A keeper.

4. Yes, it is that book about the rabbits. But this isn't your typical Disney dancing and singing bunnies story. It is comparatively serious, and the real-life detail helps to sell the necessary suspension of belief (namely, that rabbits think in a way comparable simple little people, and are able to exchange ideas verbally). If you will only tolerate reading one great juvenile novel in your cynical life, this is the one to read. (A close second might be The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. It is not really the same story as the movie.)

5. If I were stranded on a desert island I might have enough time to give this sucker the two or three consecutive cover-to-cover readings it'll take before I understand it.

6. Who could get bored with the Arabian Nights to read? If you do it properly, a single reading should last 1001 nights. Now that's entertainment.

I thank your for your attention / je vous remercie de votre attention.
Some titles not mentioned yet (4.00 / 1) (#138)
by richieb on Fri Jul 05, 2002 at 09:59:37 PM EST

  • Nearly everything by Jane Austin.
  • "Middlemarch" - George Eliot.
  • "Lord Jim" Joseph Conrad.
  • "Executioners Song" Norman Mailer
  • "Wind, Sand and Stars" Antoine de Saint Exupery (maybe "The Little Prince" too)
  • "Typee" - Herman Melville

It is a good day to code.

The skeptical mind! Adler's "bias" and i (5.00 / 1) (#140)
by Marasmus on Thu Jul 11, 2002 at 05:06:57 PM EST

Okay.. this got my attention so strongly that I had to sign up for a k5 account.
    Furthermore, why is Adler's list grounded in a particular culture and time period? Is a list from a different cultural background better, worse, or the same? Can the two be compared on some sort of objective literary merit? [Thanks, dogwalker.]

The Great Books and The Center for the Study of The Great Ideas both came out of the University of Chicago together... The fundamental concepts behind these groups sounds very balanced and astute, but there's a surprising amount of bias in their existence!
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig, he speaks extensively about his personal experience in (and more accurately out-of) "The Center" as well as the philosophy dept. I can't possibly make any justice to summarizing his work, so I REALLY recommend reading it. If I could make one very short-sighted summary line, it would be that The Center and the Great Books Foundation are based upon misguided assumptions about human knowledge that spring from Aristotle. It's a hell of a lot more complex than that, so I hope you continue to understand by reading ZMM. The book is probably the most significant philosophical work of the 20th century. To overlook that book is neglecting an amazing wealth of modern cultural insight.

Thank you (none / 0) (#147)
by floydian on Mon Feb 24, 2003 at 09:04:07 PM EST

Your comment here on K5 inspired me to go out and fetch a copy of "Zen and the Art..." I must say I'm very grateful for your recommendation. ZMM is, in my limited opinion, a great book, and I can honestly say that reading it has changed my life.

Thanks for helping me shape my life.

[ Parent ]

Some stuff (none / 0) (#141)
by Mastkiller on Fri Jul 19, 2002 at 05:00:44 AM EST

Everything from Soeren Kierkegaard and Stanislaw Lem. Visionary!

America's Biggest Readers (none / 0) (#148)
by tbc on Wed Mar 12, 2003 at 11:38:42 PM EST

in an article at bookmagazine.com.

nuts (n/t) (none / 0) (#149)
by Siddhi on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 03:35:22 AM EST

[ Parent ]
The Absolute Best Books to Read | 149 comments (134 topical, 15 editorial, 0 hidden)
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