Here is a list of the books and media I’ve read over the years that I have either (a) enjoyed the most or (b) learned the most from.
Within each category, authors are listed alphabetically. Where more than one book is listed for an author, I’ve listed the books in order of preference.
Dante Alighieri, Inferno Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine; Fahrenheit 451Willa Cather, O Pioneers!; My Antonia Albert Camus, The Stranger John Cheever, Collected Stories Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov F.
It was after four then, and I lay in the dark, listening to the rain and to the morning trains coming through. They come from Buffalo and Chicago and the Far West, through Albany and down along the river in the early morning, and at one time or another I’ve traveled on most of them, and I lay in the dark thinking about the polar air in the Pullman cars and the smell of nightclothes and the taste of dining-car water and the way it feels to end a day in Cleveland or Chicago and begin another in New York, particularly after you’ve been away for a couple of years, and particularly in the summer.
One way to put the question I want to answer here is this: why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable? … Important as science is to our present outlook, we mustn’t exaggerate its causal role here, and make it the main motor of the transformation. Our encasing in secular time is also something we have brought about in the way we live and order our lives.
In an article published in Friday’s Washington Times, economist Tyler Cowen makes several interesting and provocative arguments about reading and books.
“What should you do when, 20, 50 or 100 pages in, you realize you just don’t like a book?” Cowen says: “Give up.”
“We should treat books a little more like we treat TV channels,” (Cowen) argues. No one has trouble flipping away from a boring series.”
At the very center of conservative thought lies this idea: that the present division of wealth and power corresponds to some deeper reality of human life. …They want to say that whatever the division of wealth and power is, it naturally is, and that all efforts to change it, temporarily successful in proportion to their bloodiness, must be futile in the end.
Michael Walzer –“In Defense of Equality” in Howe, ed.
From The Man-Moth
He thinks the moon is a small hole at the top of the sky, proving the sky quite useless for protection.
From Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday
Oh who and oh who will sing Jesus down to help with struggling and doing without and being colored all through blue Monday? Till way next Sunday?
From Questions of Travel
Should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be?
I made it, but I have always tried to remember that I owe it to my lucky star, not to myself, and that right next door are entire neighborhoods of unfortunates. I will say even more: the thought of their grueling labor and unfulfilled hope, of the gigantic prison system in which the unneeded are kept, taught me to look skeptically at (America’s) decorations - those well-kept houses amidst the suburbs’ greenery.
We make the coffee with river water, dipping a canful from among the rocks and letting it set for a time until the silt settles to the bottom. For entertainment we have the murmur of the river, the drone of cicada and amphibians, the show of nighthawks plunging through the evening gulping bugs. Afterwards we sit by the fire until the fire gives out, listening, smoking, analyzing socioeconomic problems:
“Look here, Newcombe,” I say, “do you think it’s fitting that you and I should be here in the wilds, risking our lives amidst untold hardships, while our wives nad loved ones lounge at their ease back in Albuquerque, enjoying the multifold comforts, benefits and luxuries of modern contemporary twentieth century American urban civilization?
I once said that, after the experiences of the last two years, I could no longer hold to any truth which might oblige me, directly or indirectly, to demand a man's life. Certain friends whom I respected retorted that I was living in Utopia, that there was no political truth which could not one day reduce us to such an extremity, and that we must therefore either run the risk of this extremity or else simply put up with the world as it is.
I discovered one of the best poems on war I’ve ever read the other day while reading David P. Barash’s Approaches to Peace, an excellent edited volume on peace and conflict studies:
Conscientious ObjectorEdna St. Vincent MillayI shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death. I hear him leading his horse out of the stall; I hear the clatter on the barn-floor. He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries - stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. …Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.…What of it, if some old hunks of a sea-captain orders me to get a broom and sweep down the decks?
I recently finished Halldor Laxness’s Independent People (Sjálfstætt fólk), and it was one of the top ten novels I have ever read.
A few more excerpts:
One has grown weary of one’s house before it has finished building; strange that mankind should need to live in a house, instead of remaining content with the house of wishes. … Come what may and go what may, a man always has the memories of his dogs.
Happy New Year! At the end of each of the past three years, I’ve written a post listing the best books I’ve read over the course of the year in order to bring these books to the attention of others.
As usual, I’ve put the titles of the five books most important to me this year in bold, and I’ve linked each book to its Amazon.com page. Enjoy!
Arons, Compelling Belief: The Future of American Schooling(education/religion/politics) Doniger, The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth (religion / mythology) Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk (history / politics) Frank, Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class (economics / politics) Frankel, Faith and Freedom: Religious Liberty in America (religion / politics / law)Gibran, The Prophet (2nd reading; philosophy / religion) Hamsun, Dreamers (literature)Harrison, Returning to Earth(literature) Harrison, True North (literature) Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (2nd reading; literature) Kerouac, The Dharma Bums (literature)Laxness, Independent People(literature) Mann, The Magic Mountain(literature) Milosz, Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition(memoirs / literature / history) Putney & Putney, The Adjusted American: Normal Neurosis in the Individual and Society (psychology) Salomon & Valdez, Little House on a Small Planet (design / environment) Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (3rd reading; politics / international relations)
From Brad Leithauser’s introduction to Halldor Laxness’ novel Independent People: “There are good books and there are great books and there may be a book that is something still more: it is the book of your life. …One looks differently on the book of genius that, even in a long bookworm’s life, one might not have stumbled upon.”
But higher than all dealers and societies stand the dreams of the heart, especially in the autumn when dusk is falling and the clouds of the world are full of marvellous pictures….
Watch how the cloud sings All you wanted to say or find.
Yehuda Amichai –“Let the Coin Decide”
And the migration of my parents Has not subsided in me. My blood goes on sloshing Between my ribs, long after the vessel has come to rest. And the migration of my parents has not subsided in me. Winds of long time over stones. Earth Forgets the steps of those who trod her.
It was good to finally know that the spirit was everywhere rather than a separate thing. … Clare fed our leftover sandwiches to a stray mutt, who didn’t chew the proper thirty-two times. … All of my jobs had kept me grounded in actual life whereas simply sitting in my room with my studies tended to make me unstable. … In New York City the endless blocks of huge buildings say to us, I’m serious and within me serious people are doing serious things even though five thousand people in a building might only be playing with the market edge.
I’ve made plenty of discoveries this year - a love for banjo and bluegrass, a greater appreciation for the outdoors and concern for the environment, a new appreciation for the upper Midwest, the desire (if not yet the discipline) to live more simply and learn to cook - but one of the best recent discoveries I’ve made is the fiction of Jim Harrison.
I recently finished his Returning to Earth - a novel about a very physically-oriented man who comes down with Lou Gehrig’s disease in his early 40s - and I cannot recommend it enough.
There are many reasons policymakers seek to impose detailed curriculum mandates. They may fundamentally distrust educators: Much of the current standards movement is just the latest episdoe in a long, sorry history of trying to create a teacher-proof curriculum. … These days almost anything can be done to students and to schools, no matter how ill-considered, as long as it is done in the name of raising standards. … It’s convenient for us to assume that kids who cut corners are just being lazy, because then it’s the kids who have to be fixed.
-Must-read: the New York Times on a severe case of protracted bullying. This is real, and it’s an enormous problem. There is a spectrum of school violence ranging from verbal harassment and bullying all the way to school shootings, and it needs to be taken more seriously and addressed more quickly at every stage. An atmosphere of security and mutual respect in classrooms is essential to students’ well-being and ability to learn.
Mathematics, as far as he was concerned, was a Sphinx charged with deceitful puzzles whose cold malicious gaze transfixed her victims, and he gave the monster a wide berth. … What would many happy citizens and trustworthy officials have become but unruly, stormy innovators and dreamers of useless dreams, if not for the effort of their schools? In young beings there is something wild, ungovernable, uncultured which first has to be tamed.
Goethe comments that the Church erred in closing the canon of scripture, as God’s creative work still continues, notably in the activity of great spirits like Mozart, Raphael, and Shakespeare, “who can draw their lesser contemporaries higher.” … For the first time in history, authors of highly successful works can hope to have them translated into twenty or thirty languages within a few years of publication, and foreign countries may even provide the primary readership for writers who have small audiences at home or who are censored by their governments.
It is impossible to think - seriously - with words like Classicism, Romanticism, Humanism, Realism. …One does not get drunk nor does one quench one’s thirst with bottle labels.
-Paul Valery, quoted in C. Milosz, The History of Polish Poetry
Beauty is momentary in the mind - The fitful tracing of a portal; But in the flesh it is immortal.
Wallace Stevens –“Peter Quince at the Clavier”
At no moment during my work did I feel boredom; indeed, I was playing more than toiling, and several passages preserve, I hope, a trace of my smile.
Had Pyrrhus not fallen by a beldham’s hand in Argos or Julius Caesar not been knifed to death? They are not to be thought away. Time has branded them and fettered they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted. But can those have been possible seeing that they never were? Or was that only possible which came to pass? Weave, weaver of the wind.
-Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!
Honest and earnest criticism from those whose interests are most nearly touched - criticism of writers by readers, of government by those governed, of leaders by those led - this is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern society. … In fact the burden belongs to the nation, and the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these wrongs.
The following list includes the books I’ve read this year that I enjoyed the most and that had the biggest effect on me. I give the highest recommendation to all of them, and I’ve bolded the top five.
Akhmatova, Selected Poems
Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers From Prison
Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun
de Bary, Sources of Japanese Tradition
Frye, The Educated Imagination
Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics
He wanders eastward, toward the sun, he comes to a mountain. A voice calls: are you near a mountain? Yes, he answers, I’m standing near a mountain. Then the voice says: That mountain you are standing near is my foot; I am lying bound in the uttermost part of the earth, come set me free!
Later, when he came to think about it, he acknowledged that those hours had had a significance for him that no one could realize, and if it was true - as had just been said - that at times his writing sparkled, then it was his memories of that time that had kindled the spark; it was a reflection of the happiness his two playmates had bestowed on him in his childhood.
I don’t switch on the ceiling light at once but leave the room in twilight so the yellow flames in the stove flicker brightly over the floor and walls. The sight of them slows my breathing down and makes me calm as it must have done for men through thousands of years: let the wolves howl, here by the fire it’s safe.
But each time he came home he had changed a little, and I had to concentrate hard to hold on to him.
From Fables about Error
What is as wrong as the uninstructed heart? Left to its ends, it clutches things and creatures That can’t be held, or held, will slip their natures; It lives to hoard or to protect a hoard. To school, to school! Teach the poor organ skill That all its ignorant, nervous will Does not unpage us like old calendars. A life should be all gathering and art.
In all respects unready for a fall They fell, our first progenitors, and these Two traumas still disturb us most of all: High places and our own unreadiness. Towers or wells unfoot us in our dreams Repeatedly. Old-fashioned people still Believe that nothing saves them but their screams And that an unawakened fall would kill. Anticipation cannot really ease The other trouble; waiting for the day When such and such will happen or will pass, It is not hard to wish your life away.
We keep the wall between us as we go. To each the boulders that have fallen to each. Robert Frost –From “Mending Wall” World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it. Robert Schumann –“The Schumann Declaration” I asked her, urgently, if she could see my face, and she said: “See it?” And, smiling: “It’s reflected in my eyes, isn’t it?”