Sunday, April 12, 2009


As a product of bibliophile I have come to possess the gene that allows one to harbor a deep love of books.

In actuality I must credit whoever taught me to read, and those teachers who forced me to do so with continual regularity. Reading, and the love of books which accompanies it, is taught, not innate.

Alongside this love our time is a time of lists and list-making. I have commented elsewhere on this phenomenon, and the drastic ramifications of a society so constructed. What follows is not a justification or exemplification of our society and time, as I hope none of my work is, but is, instead, merely a product of it.

So here are 10 books everyone should read (but haven't been forced to already).

1. Don Quixote, Cervantes. Often called the "alpha and omega" of the novel form it wrote, and broke, all the rules. The gallant stick-insect on his nag Rociante fights off windmills, tries for a young disreputable girl's heart, eventually teams up with Sancho Panza to go righting all manner of wrongs and injustice. A friend of mine once quipped, in reference to the knight, "It would have been better if he were right."

Yet for all of these delights Quixote does not live up to its title of the Greatest Novel of All Time. For that treat you have to read the transition from the first to the second half, for the mother of all metafiction moments.

2. Ficciones, Borges. The short stories of Jorge Borges are an incomparable treat from the annals of world literature. Borges, for my money, was the world's greatest short story author for consistency, ingenuity, creativity and language. His topics shift from Argentinean gauchos to metaphysical libraries and Arab scholarship. Quite simply the master of the genre.

3. Watchmen, Moore. It would be easy to write this off as a product of the hype of the recent cinematic release, which, most parties will agree, earned a critic's B-. Yet this book is tremendously enjoyable and important for a comic-conscious nation. Tackling huge themes of morality and justice while also grappling with issues of American consumerism, the Cold War a variety of other sociological observations Watchmen turns a fun house mirror on our society and challenges us to laugh at what we see.

4. Three Seductive Ideas, Kagan. Non-fiction, especially of the academic variety, tends to present diminishing returns. The further in the more difficult it is to keep interest. Not so with Kagan's Three Seductive Ideas, the best book on developmental psychology out there. He handles three ideas we have largely accepted regarding how we grow up and takes note on how these ideas are not only faulty but also dangerous assumptions: infant determinism, the pleasure principle, and the ability to measure emotion, and more earth-shaking, intelligence. This will undoubtedly be hailed as a classic as it gains readership.

5. The Stranger, Camus. "Mama died today. Or maybe it was yesterday. I can't remember." So begins one of the great works of the 20th century, a stream of consciousness that is coherent and invigorating telling a story of a man's existential coming-to-terms with self. Far more readable, and, indeed, a true pleasure to read, compared to some of Sartre's fictions. It is the necessary reflection on the philosophy alongside...

6. The Notes From Underground, Dostoevsky. Gogol was funnier, Tolstoy was the greater author, but Dostoevsky in this slim volume best captures the complexities and paradoxes of his time and the modern world. While Gogol could parody these bureaucratic and social upheavals with ghosts and noses that run away to become ministers, Dostoevsky's main character actually feels these changes personally, strongly, and painfully.

7. The Divine Comedy, Dante. At least the Inferno. Technically, this may be the greatest work ever written. The depth, complexity, and simply staggering size of the undertaking in part distance readers rather than draw them in. A good, annotated edition, such as Musa's, will help accompany the wary reader alongside the pilgrim and Virgil in their descent.

8. The Clouds, Aristophanes. There is a tendency in casual readers to equate age with uninteresting. After all, what relevance can a story like Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, lampooning the trends ans sacred cows of the time, have on us today? The genre which suffers the most within this neglect is comedy. And, to be fair, comedy often does not age well.

Not so Aristophane's 2,000+ year old play that makes fun of the pretensions of philosophy, Socrates, how to write a play, and what comedy even is. Again, I show my bias towards the meta, delighting in the fact that Aristophanes writes himself in as a character in his own play, addressing the audience in a formal speech telling them why his play his best. The ending, too, is a masterwork of comic genius.

9. Silent Spring, Carson. The now-classic book is more revolutionary than many give credit. On the surface it is a work which addresses the dangers of DDT and the ramifications of humans role messing around with the ecosystem. Written so as to be easily digestible to the layman, Carson's work is, in fact, far more than a warning or argument against spraying crops. It stands as one of, if not the first, work that directly states that the supposed benefits of our scientific progress aren't actually beneficial, moreover, that they are dangerous. The ramifications of such a realization require thought-provoking contemplation, if understood.

10. The New Testament. I think if more people actually read this a lot of the world's problems would be cleared up. A tremendous number of Christians spread a message of intolerance. Perhaps, if they read Jesus' teachings, they would realize that Jesus communed with lepers and prostitutes. Perhaps, if they read the Gospels, they'd understand that the apparent discrepancy between the New and Old testaments is one where the New, with its message of love and peace, supersedes the Old. If more Christians studied and read about Christ they may start to act more like him, rather than dividing and persecuting the human race and those who don't agree with them. On second thought, perhaps this should be first on the list...

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