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
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
I wrote about Lahiri’s novel The Lowland for Summit magazine, in which I quoted Interpreter of Maladies as an exemplar of her style.
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.
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. Some of his predictions, such as Mass customization – through 3D printing – are still coming true today.
Ishmael, Daniel Quinn
As I said in my post “The Generalists:”
Quinn’s Ishmael was a semi-underground cultural phenomenon. In its essence, it taught a generation of disillusioned seekers that the world isn’t here for us. This seems simple, but the amount of data that Quinn had to sift through in order to reach this conclusion was somewhat staggering.
A Theory of Everything, Ken Wilber
Below is Ken Wilber’s Integral map, which shows the four quadrants, or domains in which development (evolution) occurs. It is divided into sections based on the interior (thought, theory, ideas) and exterior (physical objects), individual and collective dimensions:
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
As I said in my post on Jung (which is consistently one of the most read post on the universe):
Jung is best known for his ideas of archetypes, introversion and extroversion, and the collective unconscious. His method led to an entire Jungian school of practice, including the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich, Switzerland. In some quarters, his mystical writings on topics like alchemy and synchronicity have made him a kind of Godfather of the new age movement. In Jung, we see the intersection of standard, accepted scientific practices and occult mysticism. Jung maintained his entire career, however, that he was a scientist, not a mystic.
A page from Jung’s Red Book
Inner Christianity, Richard Smoley
The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
Power/Knowledge, Michel Foucault
Hawaiian Studies Professor Kalawaia Moore, a member of Building an Intellectual Culture, put Foucault’s Discipline and Punish on his list, and that’s probably the best of Foucault’s books, but Power/Knowledge is a more accessible collection.
Child of our Time, Miguel De Castillo
This one was very influential on me personally rather than a “classic” per se. It shows, as many of these great works do, that simply being with oneʻs family can be all one really needs from life.
Books that are supposed to be on a list like this but arenʻt:
War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
Woody Allen once said of its storied length:
I once took a course on speed reading and read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It involves Russia.
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?
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 us: Nathaniel 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:”