Okay, here are some books

A few weeks ago, I critiqued the TIME list of the best English-language novels since 1923. I think I had some good points, but, whether you agree with me or not, it’s obviously easier to criticize than to create. So, with that in mind, I’m creating my own list of favorite books. Of course, any such list has to have constraints, so here are mine: this is a list of the best books that I own, either on paper or electronically, with multiple books from the same author only if they’re really, really deserving. That immediately disqualifies some books that would otherwise make the list, like Proust’s Swann’s Way or Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, which is sort of annoying, but the plus side for both you the reader (because you get to see what got left out) and me the writer (because I can just go down the list) is that I’ve already got a list of all the books I own physical copies of, and I have few enough electronic editions stored on my hard drive as to not matter too much. So, anyway, here goes:

The Monkey-Wrench Gang, Edward Abbey — I like Abbey even though I probably disagree with him on pretty much every issue imaginable. Desert Solitaire is, in many ways, a more beautiful book that I fortunately read just before visiting the Moab/Canyonlands area, but The Monkey-Wrench Gang is, aside from being thoroughly enjoyable, one of the rare books that makes me actually identify with eco-terrorists (the only other example I can think of being Neal Stephenson’s Zodiac, though I suppose it’s debatable whether the protagonist of Zodiac is actually a terrorist).

Flatland, Edwin Abbot Abbot — Pretty much the only book of mathematical fiction there is, and it’s a good one.

Life, the Universe and Everything, Douglas Adams — The five books of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy are fun pretty much in inverse proportion to their order (and yes, I just compared cardinals to ordinals), so it makes no sense to put the third book in the series on this list until you realize it’s the only one I own.

The Law, Frederic Bastiat — An all-time, flat-out classic. Bastiat is the clearest, most understandable proponent of classical liberalism I know of, and possibly the only journalist ever to understand economics.

The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester — For whatever reason, Bester seems to get ignored in discussions of great science-fiction writers. Admittedly, he only produced two full-length novels, but both are fantastic and visionary. Between the novels and the short stories, it’s easy to see that guys like Philip K. Dick and William Gibson got half their ideas from Bester. The Stars My Destination is retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo that captures all the spirit of Dumas’ finest work without seeming at all derivative.

The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov — The Latin-Americans get all the credit for magic realism, but Bulgakov was a master of the genre before it even had a name. Margarita especially achieves a rare blend of the literary and the satirical that the Moore/Franken school of writing can only dream of.

Logical Nonsense: The Works of Lewis Carroll, Lewis Carroll — I was re-introduced to Carroll when I came across this collection in a used bookstore in Santa Fe. I picked it up even though I’d never really gotten into the whole Alice in Wonderland thing only because (a) Carroll (or rather Dodgson) was a mathematician and (b) the title is fucking sweet. Needless to say, I now have a much greater appreciation for Alice in Wonderland.

Don Quijote, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra — If there’s one book out of all those listed here that you absolutely must read, this is it. I absolutely agree with the poll from a few years ago that ranked Quijote as the best novel ever. Cervantes practically invented modern narrative out of whole cloth and even today you’ll see re-inventions of some of his techniques hailed as original advances in literature (see, e.g., metafiction). I admire his deftness of language as much as his narrative genius, but I haven’t read his work in translation, so I don’t know how well it gets communicated in English-language editions.

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad — I wrestled with whether to put Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim on this list, but the image of Kurtz still proud and despotic yet desperate dying in the dark wins out (the “The horror! The horror!” scene). Conrad is still the definitive word on colonialism, but beware of anybody who doesn’t seem to understand the moral complexity of both Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness.

The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri — Need I add any commentary?

The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins
— For whatever reason, the only people I ever see talking about Dawkins are slagging him and evolutionary psychology (needless to say, that’ll happen when you read a lot of disciples of the Austrian school of economics). While I do think he deserves a lot of the grief that he gets, especially since he’s just as evangelical as the evangelicals he spends all his time railing against, I still found this a fascinating book.

Jacques the Fatalist, Denis Diderot — Singlehandedly re-instilled my faith in French authors.

Riemannian Geometry, Manfredo Perdigão do Carmo — The standard by which all other introductory texts on Riemannian Geometry are measured.

City of God, E.L. Doctorow — Just got done reading this the other day and it’s fantastic. I’m usually not a fan of the tendency of successful authors to write “high-concept” books late in their careers, but this is an exception. The underlying detective story isn’t nearly so “riveting” as the cover blurb would have you believe, but it hardly matters. The narrative is both confused and eminently simple, fitting the subject matter perfectly.

The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas — Dumas’ rendering of the paradoxes that comprise Edmond Dantes is a unique achievement that makes this book worth reading, even if it weren’t the greatest revenge tale ever told. What’s even more amazing is that Dumas wrote this virtually simultaneously to his writing of

The Musketeer Saga, Alexandre Dumas — In and of itself, The Three Musketeers is a fine story of adventure and drama, but what makes this story so brilliant is how it’s developed in the later books. Rather than going back to the well with The Three Musketeers, Part II, Dumas develops his heroes, allows them to grow old and even to die. They never entirely lose the spirit that drives the first book, but they become more complete, if less perfect, human beings as they adapt and change.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald — The idea of aristocratic malaise and corruption seems cliché these days, but Fitzgerald’s writing remains as beautiful as ever.

The Death of Artemio Cruz, Carlos Fuentes — This book really opened my eyes to the possibilities of literature when I first read it in high school. The reversed chronology and mixture of first-, second- and third-person narrative sounds too gimmicky to possibly work until you actually read it. And then it just seems brilliant.

The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett — To my mind, still the definitive hard-boiled detective story. It evokes all that “hard-boiled” implies through an austere and abstract poetry in which the moral drama is made all the more real by its absence.

Economics in One Lesson, Henry Hazlitt — Like Bastiat, Hazlitt is one of those rare individuals capable of communicating the essentials.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein — As anyone who’s been paying attention to the Books page knows, I’m a huge Heinlein fan. For my money, this is his best, though I’ll certainly entertain arguments for Stranger in a Strange Land or the Lazarus Lang books.

Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway — I know I said before that For Whom the Bell Tolls should get the nod over The Sun Also Rises, but I actually like this non-fiction book the best of any of Hemingway’s offerings. I have a sort of love-hate relationship with Hemingway’s writing, which I find annoying as often as I find it enjoyable, but Death in the Afternoon succeeds precisely because its themes and scope fit the style so well.

Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes of the Growth of American Government, Robert Higgs — It should be clear by now that I prefer fiction to non-fiction, but Higgs’ book is one of those rare books whose thesis is entirely comprehensible and yet isn’t endlessly repetitive. A great history lesson for anybody who wonders what the connection is between the federal government of the constitution and the federal government as it actually exists.

Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel — If you’re anything like me, you thought you understood the Civil War pretty well based on what you learned in history class. Even if you end up disagreeing with Hummel’s thesis that the Civil War was a bad idea, you’ll find out you were wrong about understanding the Civil War.

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes — Along those same lines, even if you think Jaynes is a crackpot, there’s something undeniably compelling about this book that argues that humans weren’t conscious beings until about 3000 years ago.

Ulysses, James Joyce — Stylistically stunning, morally complex and endlessly imaginative, the only drawback to this book is that it’s rather hard to read. It’s more than worth the effort, though.

Moneyball, Michael Lewis — As with Hummel’s book, you might think you understand baseball, but until you’ve read up on sabermetrics, you don’t. What most people don’t understand is that Moneyball really isn’t about sabermetrics, per se; it’s about Billy Beane and about the Oakland A’s and about trying to do things differently in one of the most traditional industries in the country. Whether Beane and Bill James and the rest of the sabermetric community is right or not is almost irrelevant to the story.

Second Treatise on Government, John Locke — Had to throw in at least one non-fiction book written before the 19th century.

The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli — Okay, make that two. Machiavelli has a reputation as some sort of evil genius, but all he’s doing is pointing out what works. And the depth of his insight into what works is what makes this book both fascinating and useful.

Collected Stories, Gabriel García Márquez — Yeah, yeah, One Hundred Years of Solitude is his magnum opus, but, good as it is, I think Márquez is even better in the concentrated doses of his short stories. If you have any working knowledge of Spanish, force yourself to read “Un Día de Esos” in the original.

Moby Dick, Herman Melville — A book so drenched in symbolism that critics inevitably make it out to be more daunting than it really is. Surprisingly (and endearingly) self-aware for a book that deals with such serious topics. The intimate descriptions of the business of whaling make you want simultaneously to sign up for the voyage and to ensure that every last crew member drowns before returning to land, and the book isn’t even “really” about whaling.

The Vintage Mencken — If I could have any one writer as a personal friend, I would almost certainly want that writer to be Mencken. The only person whose writing I would call “beautifully cynical”.

Paradise Lost, John Milton — As mentioned before, I once spent a long, enjoyable evening drinking cheap beer and reading Paradise Lost aloud. I strongly recommend anybody who has their doubts about the worth of Paradise Lost do likewise.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami — I can never come up with a good description of Murakami’s work, so suffice it to say that it’s good and this is his best book.

Anarchy, State and Utopia, Robert Nozick — A scholarly defense of the idea of a minimal state, starting from the very beginning. I disagree with some of Nozick’s conclusions, but it’s an excellent argument.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig — I know, I know. It’s weird and slightly ridiculous. Still, intensely interesting.

Complete Tales & Poems, Edgar Allen Poe — Poe is, quite simply, one of the best American writers ever. Endlessly inventive, delightfully morbid and stylistically pure.

La Celestina, Fernando de Rojas — Admittedly, if I owned a copy of Lazarillo de Tormés, that would get the nod over La Celestina, but I don’t, so here it is. Nonetheless, this novel comprised entirely of dialogue can be seen as more or less the touchstone of Spain’s literary emergence from the Middle Ages. The titular character, an aged and decrepit whore-turned-madame, is one of the most loathsome characters in literature, yet she’s also oddly seductive.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare — Fortunately, I own the complete works in one volume, so I don’t have to choose. If forced, I would probably go with The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night or Henry IV.

The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — Quite simply the most compelling and heart-rending book of the 20th century. A chronicle that is unbelievable, yet absolutely must be taken seriously.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — If the 2100 pages of The Gulag Archipelago are too daunting, this is an excellent first approximation.

The Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson — I’ve sung Stephenson’s praises enough, so instead of doing so again, I’ll just point out that I’ve entirely skipped over Steinbeck here. In middle school Steinbeck was far and away my favorite author, but as times passes, I like him less and less.

Damascus Gate, Robert Stone — As with Doctorow’s City of God, I thoroughly enjoyed Stone’s seemingly very personal investigation of God and religion and how they may or may not be synonymous.

A Modest Proposal and Other Satirical Works, Jonathan Swift — Not to detract from Gulliver’s Travels, but Swift is like heroin: best and yet most lethal in its purest form.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson — Thompson’s most recognizable work and a complete cop-out on my part to choose this over The Gonzo Letters, Vol. II and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, but, like I said at the beginning, I’m more partial to fiction than non-fiction, though obviously Thompson blurs the lines between the two so thoroughly that it’s usually impossible to tell the difference. In a sense, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a distillation of all that went into his other work into a single, insane narrative.

A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole — As I said before, I’m not entirely sure whether Toole was a genius or insane. Either way, this is a fascinating, frustrating, rewarding book.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain — The fact that this book is still misunderstood ought to tell you something. Actually, what it probably ought to tell you is that people are morons, because Twain is eminently readable.

Tirano Banderas: Novela de Tierra Caliente, Ramón del Valle-Inclán — I’ve never understood why this book is almost totally unavailable in English translation. It would certainly be a very difficult book to translate, but, last I checked, nobody’s even tried in something like 50 years. The confluence of Valle-Inclán’s linguistic dexterity, the fractured narrative induced by the almost inhuman structure he imposes upon it and the drama described therein makes for one of the most remarkable portrayals of tropical dictatorships imaginable.

Candide or Optimism, Voltaire — Voltaire massively misinterprets Leibniz’ philosophy, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that Candide is one of the funniest books of all time.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace — Massive, hilarious, serious and addictive, Infinite Jest is my counter-example to anyone who reads what I said above about Márquez and Swift and concludes that I’m just too lazy or stupid to appreciate longer books.

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein — Still one of the most beautiful books there is, despite being fatally flawed.

We, Yevgeny Zamyatin — This is the reason Brave New World gets left off the list. Zamyatin’s dystopia is more realistic, more terrifying and more immediate. Perhaps most amazing and heartbreaking is that We was written just three years after the Russian Revolution, at a time when the John Reeds of the world were still cranking up the paeans to the Soviet experiment.

11 Responses to “Okay, here are some books”

  1. mock Says:

    C’mon, go ahead and add The Awakening.

  2. shonk Says:


  3. joe Says:

    The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes

    ah, so good! I loved this book, it’s still my favorite non-fiction (but sagan’s “the demon haunted world” comes close).

  4. Wild Pegasus Says:

    How many languages can you read in, shonk? I was under the impression you were bi-lingual in French and English, but I didn’t know you could read Spanish.

    • Josh
  5. shonk Says:

    Nope, not fluent in French. I’m more or less fluent in Spanish (certainly fluent enough to read in Spanish). I can kinda-sorta read French, especially math, but not well enough to read actual literature in French.

    That’s nothing, though. Ask Curt how many languages he can read in.

  6. petya Says:

    i am so proud that two of the books on your list were my recommendations. regardless of whether you remember I recommended them or not, i was happy to see they have become your favorites.

  7. shonk Says:

    Murakami and Bulgakov, right?

  8. petya Says:

    yep! do you want more recommendations? i have mostly been reading non-fiction these days but there were things that i thought you’d like. especially the lingustics stuff. let me know.

  9. shonk Says:

    Absolutely. I always love to get new book recommendations.

  10. George Potter Says:

    Just finished Gaiman’s [i]Anansi Boys[/i], his sorta-semi-sequel to [i]American Gods[/i]. AG was a bit more mind blowing, but AB is funnier, tighter, and probably a better novel overall. Recommended.

  11. selling waves » Blog Archive » Does this make me a polymath? Says:

    […] In the spirit of Curt’s post from April and my own post from last November, here’s a rundown of a few of the things I’ve been reading the last few weeks: […]

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