The Internet seems cluttered with lists of books. Prescriptive lists of books. Thirty books every man should read by such and such an age. The one hundred best books ever. Twenty-seven must-read books about Medieval tapestries. Lists of various celebrities’ favourite books.
I hate those lists. To me “You should read” is a complete sentence and the only and most detailed imperative about reading necessary in polite society. No object is needed there. As soon as “this” or a book title is added, I turn off. One’s reading history is intensely personal. If you consider “you should read this because it had an important effect on me” to be a worthwhile recommendation, then aren’t you conforming more than a little? Aren’t you thinking at some level “I want to be just a little like the person recommending the book, I want to feel what they felt, I want to have their shape”?
I have been shaped by the thousands and thousands of things I have read over the last half century. You have been shaped by the things you have read. I have no interest in giving you a list of the books that have formed me and saying “these are Must-Read books!” any more than I have an interest in conforming to some Internet dweeb’s idea of the Thirty Books that Make a Real Man. I find book clubs a sort of interruption in my reading journey. I don’t generally want my reading choices made by others. I want my past and present reading to lead organically to my future reading. I don’t want a visitor from Porlock to interrupt my blissful journey to Xanadu.
I wish everyone felt that way.
As an exercise, perhaps in absurdity, and as a sort of illustration, I’ve made an annotated list of some of my favourite books. These are not Must-Read books. Some are not great books or maybe even good books. Most people would find many of them dull and in a few cases, completely unreadable. A good number are in “dead” languages. But they are books that helped make me the person I am today.
Please, if you take anything from this list, be inspired to follow your own unique, quirky, unashamedly self-guided trajectory through the magnificent, infinite Library of Human Feeling and Knowledge.
I have tried to limit myself to one book per author, but have not always succeeded. If I don’t mention a translator of some non-English books it’s because I can manage that language, often to my surprise. If I may impolitely suggest, the first duty of a serious reader is to learn another language. Regularly and repeatedly.
The List, in no particular order
1. Challenge of the Stars, Patrick Moore and David Hardy
Hardy’s space art in this book was my first inspiration to pick up a brush and a tube of paint. Perhaps enough said.
2. Intelligent Life in the Universe, I. S. Shklovskii and Carl Sagan. Russian translation by Paula Fern.
A book by Carl Sagan had to be on this list, and this odd Cold War collaboration had to be the one. This book revealed to me when I was about thirteen years old the beauty and wonder of the poetry of Yeats. And the book is also full of all sorts of beautiful and wondrous scientific space stuff!
3. The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski
I have written at length about Bronowski’s masterpiece elsewhere, so, a link.
4. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Tolkien/Gordon edition.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is perhaps the finest poem of winter in English, although its English is awfully difficult for most modern readers. Although available in many translations, nothing compares to the real thing.
5. The Exeter Book
The Exeter Book is the largest surviving collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry, a magnificent cross section of the types and qualities of poetry produced in the Old English period. The short poem modernly titled “The Wanderer” is recognized as one of the great achievements of World Literature, and the book is packed with gems both long and short, enough verse riddles to keep Bilbo and Gollum guessing for days, and, perhaps my favourite, a beautiful, melancholy, fragmented piece of poetry modernly titled “The Ruin”.
6. The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings is the single book that led me directly to study Old English poetry. And, the sustained epic vision in Tolkien’s works was such a refreshing tonic to C. S. Lewis’ annoying Narnia books!
7. The Road to Xanadu, John Livingston Lowes
The Road to Xanadu is a breathtaking piece of scholarship. In meticulous detail, Lowes researches and reconstructs Coleridge’s reading that was distilled into “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Lowes sources everything in the poems, down to individual words, exhibiting the poet as a great synthesizer, an arithmetician creating magical new and greater sums from startlingly disparate parts. A simply remarkable and artful piece of scholarship.
8. The Odyssey, Homer, Robert Fitzgerald’s translation
The Odyssey is so rich, and so earthy, and so totally human. Every reading is exhilarating.
9. Aeneidos, Liber Sextus, Virgil, edited by R. G. Austin
This favourite is actually a favourite physical object, my own copy of Austin’s edition of Book Six of the Aeneid. This is the book in which I first read epic poetry in Latin. This is the book in which I discovered Cumae and Lake Avernus, and the Golden Bough and the gates of horn and ivory. This is the book which caused me to shout “Cumae!” from the back of the van on the Italian highway when the Director asked “We’ve a free weekend coming up. Does anyone have anywhere they’d particularly like to see?” This book was absolutely vital in the making of present day me, but it would be absurd for me to say this is a Must-Read book for anyone other than 1981 me.
10. History of the Conquest of Mexico, William H. Prescott
Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico is a tour de force of historiography (as is his History of the Conquest of Peru). More than a century old, it remains a wonderful and eye-openingly informative understanding of the events that led to the fall of Tenochtitlan and the Aztec Empire under the assault of the well-armed infantry of rebellious vassal city-states and a rag-tag few dozen vicious foreigners, veterans of the generations-long crusade against the Moors in the Iberian Peninsula.
11. Incidents of Travel in Central America, John Lloyd Stephens
Together with Stephens’ Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, this is an exciting travelogue of the first English-speaking traveller (with literary ability) to visit the ruins of Classic Maya cities. Catherwood’s illustrations are somewhat fanciful, but are sometimes remarkable in their reproduction of Maya inscriptions, which were unreadable at the time. When driving through Chiapas in the early 1990’s I often thought of Stephens’ writings and of Catherwood’s illustrations.
12. The Myth of the Eternal Return, Mircea Eliade, translated by Willard R. Trask
Eliade’s writings on the History of Religions influenced my thoughts immensely when I was younger. While I’ve come to realize that Eliade was a “creative” scholar and to be taken with a large grain of salt, I still find his ideas and inferences to be thought-provoking.
13. Guns, Germs, & Steel, Jared Diamond
A great popular synthesis of modern understandings of what, largely geographic, circumstances led to the European colonial dominance over Africa and the Americas.
14. Goedel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas Hofstadter
Goedel, Escher, Bach is a simply exquisite piece of writing. I don’t know what more to write.
Hofstadter’s later book, Le ton bon de Marot, largely about translation and its challenges, is also a favourite of mine.
15. Paradise Lost, John Milton
Epic. In English. What’s not to like?
16. The Tempest, William Shakespeare
It might seem like a hard prospect, choosing a single favorite Shakespeare play, but really, it’s not for me. The Tempest is a tireless piece, whether it’s on stage at Freewill or in Christopher Plummer’s stunning Stratford performance, or Julie Taymor’s film with Helen Mirren, or Paul Mazursky’s brilliant modern adaptation with John Cassavetes. Simply tireless and of unplumbable depth. The Tempest is a play to be enjoyed and explored for a lifetime.
17. The Real Thing, Tom Stoppard
The Real Thing is so full of great Stoppard lines! Again, a play I never tire of.
18. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon
Another tour de force of Historiography. And Gibbon is a brilliant prose stylist.
19. The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury
Mars the way it was supposed to be. Dying Martian civilization, square-jawed colonists from Earth, breathable atmosphere, canals. Science Fiction that concentrates on the Fiction.
20. Dune, Frank Herbert
The first book in this never-ending series is the best. Always re-readable.
21. Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake
Peake, painter and poet as well as novelist, is a startling writer. His prose is poetry and intensely visual. The writing in Titus Groan is so beautiful that it’s a pure joy to read, however weird the characters, setting, and plot. Peake’s description early in the book of the Grey Scrubbers who clean the Great Kitchen of Castle Gormenghast is beautiful, melancholy and brain-etching.
22. The Monk, Matthew Lewis
Brilliant Gothic terror! The Monk is simply gripping.
23. The Golem, Gustav Meyrink, translated by Mike Mitchell
Like The Monk, The Golem is a brilliant piece of fright writing, but more understated than The Monk. The Golem is one of the few books that has actually sent a shiver down my spine.
24. A High Wind in Jamaica, Richard Hughes
A children’s book for not faint-at-heart children. Real pirates, real kidnapping, real danger, and really strong drink! And real fun!
25. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
The moment when Marlow says “And this also, has been one of the dark places of the earth” forever changes one’s perspective on so many things.
26. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett
Not so much a favourite because it changed my opinion on anything, but that Dennett articulates things so well.
27. On The Origin Of Species, Charles Darwin
The first edition of On The Origin Of Species is a wonderful piece of clarity and all the exposition needed of what really is a totally obvious thing: descent with variation together with variable reproductive success inevitably produces evolution.
28. Voltaire’s Bastards, John Ralston Saul
Saul exposes our contemporary society as a system run by management consultants for whom management theory is everything and humanity is irrelevant. A terrifying dystopia we’ve come to accept unquestioningly.
29. Project Apollo: Mission to the Moon, Charles Coombs
This is the first library book that I wanted to own a copy of. My father generously ordered it from some bookstore in Downtown Sudbury, Ontario when I was about nine years old. My first Space Book.
30. The Gilgamesh Trilogy, Ludmilla Zeman
Ludmilla Zeman’s trilogy is simply beautiful. Zeman’s illustrations of her retelling for children of the Gilgamesh Epic are wonderfully evocative of a mythic time of great cities in a mysterious wilderness world.
31. Tom Jones, Henry Fielding
One of the funniest novels ever written.
32. Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne
Even funnier than Tom Jones. And daringly experimental.
33. The Once and Future King, T. H. White
Here is where I first experienced the Arthurian tales. And White’s novel is grand and eccentric. When I read it as a boy it was a wonderful challenge and was so when I read it again as an adult.
34. English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Francis James Child, editor
The Child Ballads are a tremendous archive of folk song material collected from throughout England and Scotland in the 19th century while the traditions were still fully alive. Child presents multiple variants of most of the ballads as well as the vast scholarly apparatus so loved by the Victorians and me.
35. The Oresteia, Aeschylus, translated by Richmond Lattimore and David Grene
The raw, fundament of the Western dramatic tradition. Primal and stirring.
36. The Crazy Ladies of Pearl Street, Trevanian
I simply love the novels of Trevanian, one of the most overlooked English language novelists. A brilliant and versatile writer, in his final (maybe) novel, he lovingly recreates his childhood in Albany in the 1930s. Lovely, loving, sad, sweet, sunlit and hilarious.
37. Theogony, Hesiod, Richmond Lattimore’s translation
The raw beginnings of Western Literature, a rustic farmer on a mountainside calling on the Muses of true lies to tell about the still-close primeval world of the gods and goddesses.
38. The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, edited by F. N. Robinson
Chaucer’s voice is a joy, telling of very real and happily ordinary human beings finding laughter and even bliss in the gritty, smelly world of Medieval Europe. Chaucer’s English is fresh and his verse sings. It is impossible to tire of Chaucer.
39. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
Sure Steinbeck writes with a sledgehammer, but it’s a beautifully mythic sledgehammer and in The Grapes of Wrath it hammers out social(ist) justice and hope with a vengeance.
40. The Latin translations of Rolfe Humphries
Rolfe Humphries’ translation of The Metamorphoses was my first meeting with Ovid, and, despite the severe look of Humphries in the author photo on the back, Rolfe was certainly a playful enough fellow to make over Ovid (and Martial and Juvenal and Virgil and Lucretius) into English verse, and poet enough to make that verse poetry. Almost never slavishly literal, Humphries’ translations are most often audacious recreations, what the old poets might have written if they’d been writing in America in the ’50s.
41. The Poems, Catullus, edited by Kenneth Quinn
Catullus is a treasure, never more so than when he’s translating Sappho. I got this book in the summer of ’83, the summer I was digging Roman ruins, and I translated into English some of Catullus’ Latin translations of Sappho’s Greek.
42. The Passionate Friends or Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island, H. G. Wells
I’m not sure that I really have a favourite Wells book. But The Passionate Friends is up there because of the moment in my life that I read it and Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island is attractive because it is a very odd novel. Of course, Wells was always reinventing himself. It’s sad that he is now remembered mainly for his youthful Science Fiction novels and not for his more mature work in a multitude of genres.
43. Selections from Five Roman Poets
This little kind of Victorian-looking school text was were I first read truly connected Latin poetry, so, how could it help be a favourite?
44. Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader, 15th edition
And here is were I first read Old English. I well remember getting my texts in the summer before my sophomore year and thinking “I’ll get a head start!” I opened up Sweet’s to the first selection and, after a vast meadow of introductory matter in fine print, I saw this: “Her Cynewulf benam Sigebryht his rices ond Westseaxna wiotan for unryhtum daedum, buton Hamtunscire” and I thought “what have I gotten myself into?”
45. Wagner’s Ring, Robert Donington
I am not a musician, but Donington’s book made me feel like I deeply understood Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and that was quite a feeling.
46. Myth and Meaning, Claude Levi Straus
Isn’t it odd that a book by astrophysicists led me to the poetry of Yeats and a book by a French anthropologist led my to my almost religious reading of Scientific American from cover to cover each month? Strange, but true.
47. American Empire and the Fourth World, Anthony J. Hall
This is just a big, rich, eye-opening scholarly book about the history and future of the Americas.
48. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, Crystal Zevon
This biography of the great Warren Zevon is fascinating. Crystal Zevon, Warren’s ex-wife, as well as writing a personal account of her late-husband’s life, managed to draw together reminiscences of those who knew him, both in the music industry and outside. The picture that emerges is of a brilliant musician and song-writer who had mental health issues, huge personality flaws, and problems with addiction, but remains lovable despite the warts and clay feet.
49. The Jeeves Books, P. G. Wodehouse
How could Wodehouse not be here?
50. Wonderful Life, Stephen J. Gould
Gould’s books always interested me. Wonderful Life opened my eyes to the idea that evolution is massively contingent on circumstance, and that rewinding the tape of life and letting it play again would not necessarily end with me sitting at my little computer listening to Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Wonderful Life is a bit of an exclamation mark to follow Darwin’s great theory: Evolution Is Aimless!
52. The Rebel Angels, Robertson Davies
This was my first encounter with Robertson Davies. The garlic press has stuck with me forever.
53. Norstrillia, Cordwainer Smith
The Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith was a revelation to me as a teen. His world was so richly foreign compared to the stuff I’d been reading by Asimov and Clarke and Larry Niven. This was a Science Fiction growing in soil that was not Anglo-American, and it was wonderful.
54. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Frankenstein and Dracula first came to me as a pair of paperbacks bought in Hudson’s department store in Detroit when I was not much more than ten. . . .
55. Dracula, Bram Stoker
. . . Dracula and Frankenstein will always stand together in my mind.
56. Time Enough for Love, Robert Heinlein
Heinlein is a hard one to call a favourite as he writes uncomfortable and unfashionable things about pedophilic incest and economic and social systems easily mistaken for fascism (it’s actually Social Credit he’s talking about). But Heinlein has to be on this list because I’ve spent so much damn time reading (almost) everything he’s written.
57. If on a winter night a traveller, Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver
A fascinating experimental novel.
58. The Time Traveller’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
I just really loved this book when I read it, although the age difference between the lovers at times in the novel was thought provoking and discomfiting.
59. Maya Cosmos, David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker
I had to but a Linda Schele book on the list because she was in the thick of the breakthroughs in decipherment of Maya glyphs, a subject fascinating to me from childhood.
56. Backlash, Susan Faludi
A sad prediction of what was just beginning at the time Faludi wrote, the conservative backlash against the advances made by feminists up to the eighties. I’m not sure that the backlash has been as successful as she dreaded, but certainly we still aren’t in the non-sexist world I had hoped we would have built by now.
57. The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf
Not so much an eye-opener for me, but definitely a confirmation of what my open eyes were seeing.
58. The Cheese and the Worms, Carlo Ginsberg, translated by John and Anne Tedeschi
I might have chosen Ginsberg’s Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, translated by Raymond Rosenthal, but The Cheese and the Worms was the first Ginsberg book I read, so let’s go with it. Ginsberg does this fascinating historiography by deeply examining a lives and thoughts of social outliers rather than of the traditional subjects of history, kings and generals. Marvelous stuff.
59. The Divine Comedy, Dante, translated by John Ciardi (for the felicity of the English) or by Charles S. Singleton (for the facing Italian)
No explanation should be needed.
60. Cantos, Ezra Pound
Pound’s Cantos had hung over me for decades since I read his translation of the Old English poem “The Seafarer” (the subject of my first academic publication). Finally I knuckled down and read the thing, mostly on a cruise ship off the coast of B. C. and Alaska, and it just felt good to finally know it.
61. Love Poems, Pablo Neruda
Everybody seems to rave about Neruda and I thought “Okay. Better read the fellow and see what the fuss is about. I found this pretty little volume with the Spanish on the left and English translation facing and soon realized I was reading the whole thing in Spanish, not realizing it had somehow become one of my languages. Neruda’s poetry is crushingly beautiful and earthy and beautifully simple and earthy. Just wonderful.
62. Collected Poems, Irving Layton
Speaking of earthy poetry. Layton’s is a perfect example of what Sir Maurice Bowra described as Prophetic Poetry. Interestingly, a few weeks ago, long after I first made the link between Layton’s poetry and Bowra’s lecture on Prophetic Poetry, I heard an old recording on CBC radio of Layton describing himself as a Prophet, and I did a little fist bump for myself.
63. The Nature of Paleolithic Art, R. Dale Guthrie
Not a well-known volume and probably not a well-accepted one, but I found Guthrie’s hypothesis about who actually made most European cave art (paleolithic teenage boys) to be compelling and his tentative first investigations (measuring the hands of people he knew) suggestive if not conclusive.
64. The Cyberiad, Stanislaw Lem, translated by Michael Kandel
In The Cyberiad, Lem anticipates so many of the issues being faced by Artificial Intelligence researchers it is remarkable. My reading of The Cyberiad in the late Seventies informed my understanding of so much of Star Trek: The Next Generation, of my readings of Hofstadter and Dennett (obviously), of my relationship to computer games, and of a particular philosophy course I took in the late eighties. The Cyberiad is pretty much constantly hovering in a corner of my waking mind.
65. The MLA Handbook, Joseph Gibaldi and Walter S. Achtert
This little book helped me survive the typing (yes, on a typewriter) of my Master’s thesis and of the manuscripts of all of my academic publications. Somewhat important.
66. A Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing, Casey Miller and Kate Swift
And this book helped me learn that non-sexist writing is more creative and more intelligent than just plugging in the status quo. A marvelous book that should be more widely available and more widely referenced.
67. Lyrical Ballads, 1798 Edition, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge
This little book contains so much that is so great, not least Wordsworth’s introduction. I treasure my copy.
68. Faust, Johan Wolfgang von Goethe. Walter Kaufman’s translation for the free flow and facing German, Stuart Atkins’ translation for rigid accuracy and completeness.
Goethe’s Faust is the rich and fertile soil on which so much of later literature grows. I just finished reading Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and, as much as everyone says an understanding of Stalinist history is what is needed to fully understand that book, I can’t imagine reading it without some familiarity with Faust.
69. Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke
So much more sensible and rational and, dare I say, Enlightened, than Tom Paine’s emotional defense of the Revolution in Rights of Man.
70. The Bible, including The Apocrypha, King James Version, preferably.
Okay, here’s the exception that proves the rule: This is a Must-Read book. If you haven’t read The Bible, you simply cannot fully understand Western Literature composed on a date with an A.D. or a C. E. after the year. This is not a religious opinion. The Bible is one of the foundational pieces of Western Literature. That is all.
Some of my favourite books.
Now go out and create your own list, and your own individual, unique self.