Thursday, March 10, 2011


I'm currently working on editing together the great books of the Western World in a concise format. I like concise. I have another project, currently simmering on the back burner, which is a concise human history. In roughly 60 pages.

So. This compendium is not the Norton Anthology of Literature - or a five foot shelf of books (or a bookcases' worth, as Adler's collection boasts). It is not the 1,300 Penguin Classics, nor even the Penguin Great Ideas: for that collection contains exclusively excerpts of prose.

Of course, ironically, this collection is only possible for me to edit since I have read the texts in full. 800 pages of Adam Smith. 800 more of Marx's Das Kapital (Volume One), and so forth. (Neither of them was right.)

Currently I'm reading Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier. It was already dated by the time it was written. The age of the Renaissance courtier was fast receding. Likewise I'm trying record, to preserve, what an averagely intelligent person would be familiar with. There's something very E.D. Hirsch about the whole thing.

But there's something very Hirsch about my career to date. I teach (usually) a broad cultural history. What is culturally significant, what needs exposition and what is interesting, but not critical: these are the questions I reevaluate on a yearly basis.

Edward Said could, if he horrifically rose from the dead, complain that by choosing the West I was implying something about cultural superiority. But, frankly, I'm not the person who knows enough to create such a collection for the East, and furthermore I would suggest that few written works, or even concepts, can be applied on a large scale to Asia. Buddhism only takes you so far. Islam has gaps, as does the Mandate of Heaven or the poetry of Li Po. Zeami's No dramas had virtually no readership outside of Japan until modern times.

Smith's capitalism, Copernicus' heliocentrism, Freudian psychoanalysis and Darwinian biology, on the other hand...

This collection mixes it all together, but only for a layman. Expect no advanced mathematics equations - most people don't know and don't think about calculus. Perhaps tragic, but true. (The same could be said of chemistry.) Most people have heard of genes and DNA, though. But not Jacob and Monod's one enzyme theory. Indeed, the sciences are one of the greatest grey areas I have to deal with, questioning how much is relevant and how much is easily disseminated.

Like oh so many others the list is still being developed. This collection is roughly half done, but has a long way to go, and won't be completed for some time. Yet, since I know you're dying with anticipation, here are my current 94 inductees. I am actively considering others, and mulling over who else to include.

Bible - monotheism, salvation, special place of humanity; Homer - origins of the epic, western literature; Herodotus - sort of origins of history, distinctions between western Greeks and eastern Persians; Thucydides - the Athenian model, more objective history; Aeschylus - origins of western drama; Sophocles - master of the tragedy; Euripides - early questions about sanity and society; Aristophanes - originator of comedy, inverting male/female stereotyping; Plato - Socratic questioning, mind-world dichotomy, individual truth v. collective truth, educational theory; Aristotle - basic rules of logic, earliest genetic studies, politics as a field of study, ethics as a field of study; Euclid - principles of inductive reasoning, geometry; Archimedes - first applications of quantification to the world; Lucretius - best example of Epicurean philosophy; Cicero - template for oratory, republicanism; Seneca - Stoicism and mortality; Aurelius - Stoicism and the military; Virgil - first notable epic after 600 years, Roman nationalism; Plutarch - the biography, Hellenic influence on the Roman empire; Tacitus - insider history of corruption and politics; Augustine - autobiography, Christian confessions; Benedict - rules and mindset of monastic society; Beowulf - Norse cultural impact, the saga form; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - chivalry, Arthurian legends, rarefied medieval society; Chaucer - humor revival, pilgrimage, medieval peasantry, English popularity; Dante - humanist revival, anachronistic mash up that will be the Renaissance; More - Utopianism, new world wonder; Machiavelli - political commentary and pessimism; Luther - protestantism; Rabelais - rejuvenation of satire, French literature; Copernicus - heliocentrism, scientific theory v. biblical revelation; Las Casas - recognition of indigenous culture as valid, new world horror; Montaigne - the essay form, western moral relativism; Shakespeare - new poetic forms, revitalization of drama; Bacon - scientific inquiry, proto-sociology; Cervantes - the rules of the novel, further considerations on sanity and knights; Harvey - modern anatomy and scientific experimentation; Donne - metaphysical poetry; Galileo - groundwork of physics, further astronomical proofs against revelation; Descartes - groundwork of modern philosophy, refining of mind-body debate; Hobbes - political pessimism (again); Milton - theological and poetical developments; portrayal of sympathetic evil; Pascal - rational defenses of Christianity; Newton - physics being applied to both earth and cosmos, universal equations for motion; Locke - modern republicanism; La Rochefoucauld - court life, human folly; Swift - modernizing satire, critique of literary forms; Voltaire - portrayal of Westphalia, Leibniz's philosophy; Rousseau - political contractualism; Smith - capitalist free-market theory; Hume - empirical philosophy and rational atheism; Kant - universal ethics and Enlightenment idealism; Hamilton, Jay and Madison - federalism, American idealism; Wollstonecraft - feminism; Wordsworth - romanticism; Dalton - revival of atomic theory; Austen - modernization of the novel, early reflections on middle class society; Goethe - the story of Faust, German literature influence; Emerson - transcendentalism, American individualism; Thoreau - civil disobedience; Kierkegaard - personal philosophy and religion, rejection of idealism; Marx - communist society, politics and economy; Lincoln - federalism, part two, modern political oratory; Darwin - evolution, descent of man; Dostoevsky - existential atheism, literary ambiguity; Mendel - genetics; Carroll - logical nonsense, Victorian manners; Tolstoy - history of the little people; Eliot - novels for adults; Pasteur - germ theory and medicine; Twain - American literature and race relations, reflections on youth; Nietzsche - rejection of christian morality, will to power; Du Bois - Africa's role in the western world, early modern sociology; Freud - psychoanalysis, dream analysis; Rutherford - atomic radiation and power; W. James - pragmatism; Proust - emotional life of the child, involuntary memory; Kafka - critique colonialism and imperialism, sterilization of cruelty, absurdity; Joyce - new literary stream of consciousness; Einstein - non-Newtonian relativistic physics; Heidegger - existential metaphysics and philosophy of modern experience; Yeats - symbolist poetry; Woolf - modern feminism; Heisenberg - quantum mechanical physics; Benjamin - modern art and industrialism; Hubble - expanding universe, universe much larger than the milky way; Hardy - modern mathematics, role of academia; Borges - modern short story; Camus - culmination of post-war existentialism; Schrodinger - how the sciences are interrelated; Orwell - modern anti-totalitarianism parables; Wittgenstein - linguistics and philosophy, post-metaphysical philosophy; Beckett - modern drama; Ginsburg - modern free verse and beat sensibilities; Carson - environmentalism, hidden dangers of scientific progress; mundane role of humanity

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