Tag Archives: literature

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


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.

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. 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.

Damien, Hesse

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.

Screen Shot 2014-10-30 at 12.20.14 PM

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?

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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In the 1970s the philosopher Michel Foucault asked “what is an author?”:

The disclosure that Shakespeare was not born in the house that tourists now visit would not modify the functioning of the authorʻs name, but, if it were proved that he had not written the sonnets that we attribute to him, this would constitute a significant change and affect the manner in which the authorʻs name functions … the name of an author is not precisely a proper name among others (Foucault, 1977, 122).

Roland Emmerich’s film Anonymous puts us in this very position. When I studied Shakespeare at Harvard with Marjorie Garber, author of Shakespeare, After All, she had no qualms admitting that the works of The Bard were of a “collective” nature. They contained too much wisdom collected over the ages to be the work of one man. But Emmerich’s film says they were – of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who, according to the plot, was in line for King of England.

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford

There are certainly some holes in the received Shakespeare story. When he died he left his “second best bed” to his wife (though Bill Bryson explains that this was because the second best bed was the one that was actually slept in, while the best bed was put on display in the living room), but no mention of manuscripts is made in his will. None of the plays are written in his handwriting – though the film goes further, claiming that Shakespeare was actually illiterate. Shakespeare had a grammar school education, while the Earl had tutors for each of the classical subjects. The film closes by noting that the playwright Ben Jonson, the only person allegedly to have known the true identity of the Bard, dedicated his collected works to “the man we call William Shakespeare” [italics all mine].

But there are some problems with the film’s premise as well. The plays correspond fairly well with Shakespeare’s life (1564 – 1615). He had a son named Hamnet. One of the early books to consider the topic of Shakespeare’s identity was Shakespeare’s Lives in which Sir Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe are also put forward as candidates. And let us not forget Malcolm X’s contention that Shakespeare was actually King James himself, since Shakespeare was a contemporary of the King James bible, and almost certainly an early reader/editor of it. Of course this theory completely neglects the fact that about half of Shakepeare’s output was under Queen Elizabeth (When James was in Scotland, a point the film makes clear), making him half Elizabethan and half Jacobin as a playwright.


Stephen Greenblatt summarizes the archival record of Shakespeare’s non-literary life in Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare:

Apart from the poems and the plays themselves, the surviving traces of Shakespeare’s life are abundant but thin. Dogged archival labor over many generation has turned up contemporary allusions to him, along with a reasonable number of the playwright’s property transactions, a marriage license bond, christening records, cast lists in which he is named as a performer, tax bills, petty legal affidavits, payments for services, and an interesting last will and testament, but no immediately obvious clues to unravel the great mystery of such immense creative power (Greenblatt, 2004, 12).

The film cleverly, and darkly, uses the motif of the play within the play. It connects many of the plays to the politics of succession. It incredibly suggests that Queen Elizabeth and de Vere had a child. It posits that Henry III was a device to get a mob to attack the Machiavellian advisor to Elizabeth. While this is all very clever, the characters are not wholly believable. While the three actors who portray Elizabeth lend her weight, and Rhys Ifans (Xenophilus Lovegood in Harry Potter 7.1) surprisingly plays de Vere in a dignified manner meant to convince the audience he is capable of such genius, Ben Jonson comes across as a tragic-comic action hero, and the hunchbacked villain Robert Cecil is a waspish walking cliche. The film portrays Shakespeare himself as something slightly above a bumbling idiot. After previewing and promoting the film, my bluish-collar neighborhood theatre didn’t run the film, and I missed it until its DVD release. This is a decent representation of the film’s appeal. It doesn’t succeed as action, or even drama, and leaves too many questions for the truly scholarly. But Derek Jacobi lends his considerable weight to reopening, or at least keeping open, questions over the man who Harold Bloom called the center of the Western Canon.

Update; April 23, 2014, Shakespeare’s 450th birthday:

In his book, simply entitled Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bill Bryson makes a compelling argument that Shakespeare was in fact the author of the plays. Beginning with a genealogy of the idea that someone else wrote the plays, he shows the marginal origin of this theory, which only later attracted prominent proponents, such as Sigmund Freud. Bryson reasons away, credibly, the arguments that he simply had not enough education, background or rank to author such masterly works by noting that others such as Ben Jonson had similar backgrounds.

Then he positively obliterates the argument that Edward de Vere authored the plays pointing out that he died too early to have written the final plays. Proponents of de Vere have justified this quite scathing critique away, but not convincingly, as Bryson shows the mental acrobatics necessary to forward such a hypothesis. But the debate is not finally, entirely settled, as  youʻll see in the next post, written, appropriately, by anonymous.

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