The Greatest Books of Our Time

The literary critic Harold Bloom said that there are far too many books to read even if thatʻs all one does all day, everyday. So one needs some kind of reading list to work from. Iʻve called this the “greatest books of our time” because I canʻt claim to know the greatest books of all time. (It also evokes the title of the last book on the list, Child of Our Time). Here are my suggestions, allowing that I havenʻt read everything (Iʻd wager neither have you), and with some help from my group on Facebook called Building an Intellectual Culture:

1. The Glass Bead Game, Herman Hesse

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Hesse is certainly fond of binaries: wild vs. “civilized” (Steppenwolf), but here he is at the height of his powers. My godfather is a former professor of German, and says he got beyond Hesse at a certain point, but I canʻt see how.

2. Herzog, Saul Bellow

This may be dated, in terms of being a period piece for midcentury intellectuals, but his deeper understanding of the human condition earned Bellow the highest literary honors: he was the only person to win three National Book Awards and the Nobel Prize. Iʻm writing about him for Summit magazine – stay tuned.

3. Moby Dick, Herman Melville

E.L. Doctorow said Melville’s book (overlong as it is – he was paid by the word) was a monumental achievement, one not recognized in his own time – and who am I to disagree? Like Jonah and the whale, Melville tells us something sublime about our inner selves. (See Melville in Hawaiʻi).

4. Dubliners, James Joyce

Before he destroyed the English language (see Finneganʻs Wake, or as much as it as you can bear), Joyce mastered it. Ulysses was ranked the best novel of the 20th century by Time; Dubliners is more accessible.


5. King Lear, Shakespeare

Growing old before growing wise is perhaps a fate worse than the end itself. Shakespeare makes the fool the wise one in a way thatʻs surprisingly modern. He also hints at an answer to “the thing itself” – the essence of reality.


6. The Master, Colm Toibin

This pick may surprise people – Toibin was shortlisted, but never won, the Booker Prize. But his treatment of the subtleties of Henry James’s inner life has few rivals. Toibin is finally getting wide acclaim for Brooklyn, an inferior novel.


7. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell

Widely credited with being the soul of Star Wars, that comparison cheapens Cambells contribution to elevating mythology (with the help of Carl Jung).


8. 1984, George Orwell

The first book I ever had a physiological reaction to, Orwellʻs dystopia is coming true 30 years after itʻs due date. Think only of the terms that have entered the popular lexicon: double think, thought police, new speak, Big Brother – and their alarming relevance today.


9. Ruling Chiefs of Hawaiʻi, Samuel Kamakau

Number one on my Hawaiian list cracks the top ten here if only for its contribution to narrative style, incorporating genealogy into the tale in a way few book have (except maybe Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude).


10. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky 

Edgier than his counterpart Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky asks the existential question: why exist at all? His insights into the human psyche are nearly unrivaled.

The Second Team:

Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger

Disturbingly cited in several murder attempts, Salinger seemed to capture the American hatred of phoniness – the originator of “keeping it real.”

The Stranger, Albert Camus

Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

By showing the precise moment of colonization, itʻs become the classic of African and postcolonial literature.

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

A kind of inverse of Achebe, Conrad shows the dark heart of the colonial project from the colonizer’s view, with its God-project and even the suffering it entails.
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

The inverse of Orwell’s 1984 – the capitalist dystopia shows how pleasure, not just fear, can create a totalitarian state.

The Republic, Plato

The classic of political theory, Plato also hints at esoteric concerns with his parable of the cave.

Steppenwolf, Hesse

Honorable mention:

The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler

If  you wanted to know what the next 20-30 years held in store in 1980, you would have done well to read Toffler’s sequel to Future Shock.

Ishmael, Daniel Quinn
Damien, Hesse
A Theory of Everything, Ken Wilber


The Archivist, Martha Cooley
The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli
Hawaiian Antiquities, David Malo
Renascence, Edna St. Vincent Millay
Anything by Erich Fromm
Anything by Carl Jung

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A page from Jung’s Red Book

Inner Christianity, Richard Smoley
The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
Power/Knowledge, Michel Foucault
Child of our Time, Miguel De Castillo

Books that are supposed to be on a list like this but arenʻt:

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

What can I say? Thereʻs a great miniseries happening right now, that I’m enjoying immensely.

Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes

Itʻs considered the first novel, but does that mean you have to read it? And why is it that the first novel is a satire?

Faust, Goethe

Most likely the only reason this isnʻt on the list is that Iʻm still reading it. Hereʻs a primer from Alain de Botton’s School of Life:

 Middlemarch, George Eliot

Iris Murdoch said this was her favorite novel, and she is one of my favorite novelists of all time. Thereʻs a bad movie version if youʻre interested.

 The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)

The Guardian tell usNathaniel Hawthorne’s astounding book is full of intense symbolism and as haunting as anything by Edgar Allan Poe.

For a more mainstream reading list, see The Guardian’s “100 Best Novels Written in English:” 

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Public Schools that Work: Discussion with Amy Perruso, Part 2

I had been thinking about writing on public schools, particularly the ones that just seem to work. This got me thinking of doing a second discussion with Amy Perruso. Originally from Southern California, she is a graduate of USC. She is Social Studies department head at Mililani High School and has a Ph.D. in Political Science. She was recently elected as the Treasurer of the Hawai’i State Teachers Association (HSTA) on a progressive slate that is seen as a kind of upheaval that could lead to radical changes in the direction of the union. She is an award-winning teacher, recipient of awards from Walmart and the Hawai’i Council for Humanities History Teacher of the Year in 2012. Her students perform at a national level in History Day, Mock Trial and We the People, all of which are social studies civics and history competitions. She has taught, among other things, AP US History, Modern Hawaiian History and Participation in Democracy. We had a second chat on what works (and doesnʻt work) for public schools. You can read Part 1 of our discussion here.
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Umi Perkins (UP): One thing thatʻs so strange about Hawaiʻi is that you can pay $1 million or much more for a house, and end up in a bad school district. On the “mainland” what youʻre paying for, often, is precisely the schools in the district. In Hawaiʻi, there are good public schools in moderate income communities. From what I can tell, Mililani High School is very successful across a range of academic measures, as well as athletic and scholastic competitions – you appear to be good at everything. Moanalua High School is similar, and both districts, which are moderate to middle income, are solid from elementary through high school. How do you account for this success, such as it is?
Amy Perruso (AP): I think there is a direct correlation between the relative success of the students in Mililani and their socio-economic status of their families. Not only did higher ‘original’ test scores when NCLB first rolled out buffer our Mililani schools from the most draconian measures for a long time, but those buffers (protection from intrusion of privatizing corporations like Edison, imposed mandated curricula, and hyper-control of teachers that pushed the most experienced and professional out of the classroom) continued to allow for exciting, interesting and student-centered approached to learning, focusing on inquiry and interdisciplinary exploration. This began to disappear even for us with Race to the Top. Any signs of academic excellence you now see are either echoes from the past or tightly tied to the corporatist neoliberal agenda.
UP: But that doesnʻt explain the relative mediocrity of other schools in affluent districts…
AP: I see your question. It is interesting and has everything to do with the ways in which public education is funded in Hawaii. We are funded not by property tax but primarily by General Excise Tax (GET). This a direct result of a historical refusal on the part of the socio-economic elite in Hawaii, beginning with plantation owners, to allow property taxes to be used for education of workers. In Hawaii, we have a radically segregated education system (public v. private), divided both along class and ethnic/racial lines. The public schools educate primarily the children of the ordinary worker, while private schools have flourished by appealing to more affluent families, especially in urban areas like Honolulu. Did you know that almost 40% of all school age children in Honolulu attend private school? From my perspective, children are the most important element of a school, and public schools in places like Honolulu are being robbed of a huge chunk of the children whose families are most focused on and supportive of education. We do not struggle with that problem as much in Mililani in part because of geographical distance from private schools.
UP: One more question (and itʻs admittedly a hard one): what do you see as the biggest challenge in Hawaiʻi public education and the best solution to this problem?
AP: I think that the most important problem facing public education is that we have unfortunately adopted of a model of educational reform that has been clearly debunked by international research. We need to move away, as rapidly as possible, from the model instantiated by NCLB, that is, a model based on competitive ranking, standardization, test-based accountability, deprofessionalization of teaching, and privatization. I agree with Pasi Salberg and other international advocates of progressive education who argue for investment in equity (not just excellence), collaboration and teams, time for play and creativity, existing and available innovation, and creating a culture that encourages resilience by celebrating the importance of risk-taking and failure. I think in Hawaii that means we have to do something we have never done before, and that is to fundamentally and systemically challenge the injustice of how young people in Hawaii’s public schools are being treated and educated, as if they don’t deserve the kind of education afforded to private school students.

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Building Government on Flimsy Foundations: Redesigning Constitutional Creation Processes

A very thoughtful piece from Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua.

KE KAUPU HEHI ALE

“Holderness coastal erosion” by Ian Dolphin, used via CC 2.0


Building Government on Flimsy Foundations: Redesigning Constitutional Creation Processes

by Noe Goodyear-Kaʻōpua

Hoʻokahua ka ʻāina, hānau ke kanaka.
Hoʻokahua ke kanaka, hānau ke aliʻi.[1]

The land creates the foundation upon which the people are born.
The people create the foundation upon which the chief is born.

 Ke Kaao Hooniua Puuwai noKa-Miki, 1916

Genuine nation-building must happen from the ground up. Instead, Naʻi Aupuni is attempting to slap a government together while neglecting basic principles of good governance: inclusiveness, transparency, and education. The convention, or ʻAha, that Naʻi Aupuni is convening begins today at the private Royal Hawaiian Golf Course, and both private security and HPD will be there to keep people out. Apparently unaware of the multiple layers of irony, Naʻi Aupuni issued a press release stating that: “In order to foster a good dialogue…

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The Most Underrated Books on Hawaiʻi

Because the Hawaiʻi publishing industry is dominated by a few presses, many books on Hawaiʻi fall through the cracks. Hereʻs a biased and unscientific list of some of them from a self-described “book Hawaiian” – me. This is quite different from the list of the “greatest” Hawaiian books, as many are written by non-Hawaiians and published outside of Hawaiʻi.

Moolelo no Kamehameha, Joseph Poepoe

As I said previously: So apparently Desha plagiarized (if such a concept exists in Hawaiian thought) from Poepoe, whose work is yet to appear in published form. It is still a valuable supplement to Kamakauʻs account of Kamehamehaʻs conquests. The Kamehameha Schools Press English translation is called Kamehameha and His Warrior Kekūhaupiʻo.

Turning Tide: The Ebb and Flow of Hawaiian Nationality, Niklaus Schweitzer

This is one of the most underrated, and hard-to-find gems on Hawaiian history and contemporary politics. Mainly because it was published in Switzerland, it didnʻt get anything like the circulation it deserved.

Schweitzer writes what many think, or wish they had thought: about the state of suspension that the Hawaiian Kingdom finds itself in. I still quote one of his phrases in my writing: “The Hawaiian movement is evolutionary, rather than revolutionary” – that is, it is building the infrastructure of a nation within the current paradigm, rather than trying to topple it.

Inventing Politics: A Political Anthropology of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Yuri Mykkannen

Mykkannen was, like me, a PhD student in Political Science at UH Mānoa. Unlike me, he was a complete outsider, who quietly dug through archival documents, summarizing what seems like thousands of pages, and synthesizing them into some of the more cogent thoughts on the Kingdomʻs legal and intellectual infrastructure in the nineteenth century.

No ke Kalaiaina, William Richards

This is not exactly underrated among scholars, but I have yet to find a complete copy in the UH system. This was more than a translation of Francis Wayland’s Elements of Political Economy; it was a conceptual translation of the system of capitalism for the chiefs in the 1830s.

Change we Must, Nana Veary

One of the most unlikely books to appear in print, Veary, a full-blooded Hawaiian who looks like my grandmother, shows the insights of, and connections between Hawaiian culture and Zen Buddhism. This unusual synthesis of East and Pacific offers an alternative to Christian syncretic efforts.

The Water of Life: a Jungian Journey through Hawaiian Myth, Rita Knipe

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Knipe compares two of the traditions Iʻm most interested in: Hawaiian culture and the  psychological work of Carl Jung. (My post on Jung is consistently one of the most read on the umiverse). Like Joseph Campbell, Jung showed the deeper psychic meanings of mythologies – and psyche, everyone seems to have forgotten, means soul.

 Pacific Gibraltar, William Morgan

Makana Chai reviewed the book, saying:

Although there are problems with the book, beginning with the title, sub-title, and cover, the strength of this book is as a compendium of primary source documents particularly on the movements of the USS Boston and its troops, the correspondence of U. S. minister John Stevens, the Blount and Morgan reports, and the Congressional debates about annexation. Written by a professor at the U. S. Marine War College, this book changed my understanding of history.

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2015 in review – the umiverse

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 35,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 13 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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The Prison of Thought

This is an expanded version of a post I wrote on medium.com, a shared platform for bloggers.

I came to realize, as I began to understand capitalism, that money is a kind of prison. You’re only free when you can afford to break the rules. But as you build wealth, it is imperative that one follow the rules; be a miser, a Scrooge, sometimes in the extreme. Then it dawned on me that thought can be its own kind of prison. I used to think that even prison would not be such a bad fate as long as I had my thoughts. I realized as I spent more and more time at work, and less at school, that one of the insidious things about mental work (even of a menial variety), as opposed to physical work, is that it monopolizes one’s ability to mull things over, in short, to think.But then even “free” thought might not be so free. We become trapped in the frameworks that others create, over time.

The social theorist Theodor Adorno described modern culture as an open prison, in which seemingly free people censor themselves partly due to the “culture industry” of mass media, which established norms and constraints on behavior.

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Linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky

Linguist Noam Chomsky describes the way that the media engages in self-censorship as one in which the range of debate is narrowed, but within that narrow range very lively debate occurs. Chomsky explained how media control worked in a book of the same name:

… liberal democratic theorists and leading media figures, like, for example, Walter Lippmann, who was the dean of American journalists, a major foreign and domestic policy critic and also a major theorist of liberal democracy. If you take a look at his collected essays, you’ll see that they’re subtitled something like “A Progressive Theory of Liberal Democratic Thought. ” Lippmann was involved in these propaganda commissions and recognized their achievements. He argued that what he called a “revolution in the art of democracy,” could be used to “manufacture consent, ” that is, to bring about agreement on the part of the public for things that they didn’t want by the new techniques of propaganda. (Chomsky, Media Control, p.14)

Most Americans have no idea of the full range of political options available due to the two-party system. For Europeans, larger extremes are at least considered in their multi-party systems  – parties like the Green Party, Communists, Scottish Nationalists, Royalists and others have seats in Europeans parliaments (even though the results are often similar, with centrist parties usually forming the ruling coalitions).

Economically, the situation is similar. Finland’s plan to give all citizens a basic income, for example, is a kind of test of the freedom of thought. The idea that increasing productivity would free people from work was a prediction that was long in coming. Alaska, Brunei, some Indian nations have had basic income, but those are special cases, based on oil or some special status — Finland is the first country to do it that’s not some special case. We have been hamstrung by a capitalist logic of scarcity for so long that a trend that even Marx could see in mid-nineteenth century Britain is only now beginning to come to fruition. And if a basic income can free people from work, what does it free them to do? Among other things, to think more. And from that thought will come more ideas; a singularity of thought. This may be overstating the case, but as Slavoj Zizek put it, “don’t act, just think.”

 I also posted my piece “On Consciousness” on medium.com.

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Stevenson in the Pacific

This is the continuation of the long-delayed “In Hawaiʻi” series, which includes posts on Mark Twain, Herman Melville and John Coltrane. I called this one Stevenson in the Pacific because Sāmoa features so centrally in his story.

When I was nine years old, I visited Sāmoa (then called Western Sāmoa) on the way to Tonga. My family was at the Tusitala Hotel, and in the lobby was a picture of Robert Louis Stevenson that has always stayed with me in memory. Tusitala was a Samoan name for Stevenson, meaning “teller of tales.” The hotel was in Apia, below his hillside home of Vailima – five waters. (We visited another great writer in Apia, Albert Wendt.)  Vailima was described by the great writer Henry Adams:

a two-story Irish shanty with steps outside to the upper floor and a galvanized iron roof … squalor like a railroad navvy’s board hut …

And so was Stevenson himself:

…a man so thin and emaciated that he looked like a bundle of sticks in a bag, with a head and eyes morbidly intelligent and restless…

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Stevenson painted by John Singer Sargent

Stevenson sought a climate that would restore him to the health damaged from cold British winters, but I always wondered why he chose Sāmoa, as Pago Pago is, to this day, the most humid place I’ve ever been.

Thinking myself an adventurous nine-year old in 1981, I marveled at Stevenson adventuring to what was at the time an incredibly remote place. This was, in fact, what attracted him; he had considered living in Hawaiʻi:

Honolulu’s good – very good … but this seems more savage

I fancied myself following in his footsteps, moving to Tonga, but looking back, more likely, it was his stepson Lloyd’s footsteps I was following. I was familiar with his novels Kidnapped and Treasure Island, and of course Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, and saw the difference between them and Sāmoa, a testament to his versatility. It was perhaps the insights in Jeckyll and Hyde, of “man’s” dual nature that gave him the ability to accept, then embrace Polynesian people and culture. The Biographer Rice said of his arrival in Sāmoa:

…at first … he is extremely nervous about their menacing appearance. ʻThere could be nothing more natural than these apprehensions’ he wrote for The Sun, ʻnor anything more groundless.’

(Rice, 1974, 109)

He was a vocal critic of Victorian hypocrisy, and “was not afraid to live as he wished,” marrying a woman ten years older than he who was probably part African American.

Stevenson took four trips with his family to the Pacific, and two to Hawaiʻi at auspicious moments; one before (1889) and one immediately after the overthrow of the monarchy (September 1893). And unlike other Europeans, Stevenson was a royalist and his sympathy was with the Queen. Upon landing in Honolulu he went directly to her and expressed his sympathies. He had already written at length about colonial activities in Sāmoa, criticizing Western powers right at the moment that Germany and the US were dividing Sāmoa in two.

On his first trip, Stevenson became friends with Kalākaua and Princess Liliʻuokalani. He also met another famous writer of his age who had visited Hawaiʻi, Mark Twain. He wrote to Twain from Sāmoa as it descended into civil war:

I wish you could see my ʻsimple and sunny haven’ now; war has broken out…

But his closest association was with his fellow Scot Archibald Cleghorn and, famously, his daughter Princess Kaʻiulani. He wrote to a friend, “how I love the Polynesian!” and seemed particularly fascinated that one of them, heir presumptive to the throne, was an Edinburgh Scot, like himself, on her “worse half.” The poem he wrote her before she left for an English education is fairly well-known:

Forth from her land to mine she goes,

The island maid, the island rose,

Light of heart and bright of face:

The daughter of a double race.

Her islands here in Souther sun,

Shall mourn their Kaiulani gone,

And I, in her dear banyan shade,

Look vainly for my little maid.

But our Scots islands far away

Shall glitter with unwonted day,

And cast for once their tempests by

To smile in Kaiulani’s eye.

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