An Incoherent List of Books Demonstrating Why I Am Not on Any Sort of Curriculum Committee


My tweetfriend @PEG asked after books his kids ought to read during their adolescent unschooling, and since 1.) lists are fun and 2.) I’m unable to resist the calling of my inner pedant, oh boy, I’m gonna give him a list. Idiosyncratic and in no particular order, and apologies for using the word “great” so frequently:

The Story of Philosophy, by Will (and Ariel) Durant. It’s everything you could ask for in an introduction to Western philosophy, thorough but not didactic, elegant but never breezy, at once conversational and erudite. It covers the big guys from Plato through Bergson and Russell and James. I have my dad’s old paperback copy from the seventies, and it’s one of my favorite books.

Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. This slightly violates Pascal-Emmanuel’s dictum that the list steer clear of books already on the “Great” lists, but it’s one of those titles that everyone seems to know and no one seems to have actually read, which is a shame, because it’s one of the three great inventive novels in the Western canon (the others are Don Quixote and Moby Dick, btw), and because it’s just so funny and such a joy to read. There is no innovation of modern or postmodern fiction that Sterne didn’t anticipate back in 1759. The sentences can be immensely complex and convoluted, so this is also a great book for anyone who wants to truly master the English language.

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, by Philip K. Dick. I love Dick’s earlier works; Martian Time-Slip and The Man in the High Castle were two of the great loves of my own adolescence, but Dick’s last novel, published posthumously, is at once his most philosophical and his most affecting, a step away from the madness and disorientation of his earlier work (though they aren’t forgotten or discarded here) and toward a contemplation of humanity, divinity, and belief. I love the whole VALIS Trilogy, but The Transmigration is the great Christian novel of the 20th Century, if you ask me.

Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder. Just terrifying: a re-centering of the whole narrative of WW2 to the Eastern Front. Unrelentingly horrific, but so necessary to Anglo-American and French perspectives that the war was fought in Normandy.

The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser. Half poet and half documentarian, she’s more remembered now for her poem “To Be a Jew in the Twentieth Century,” which was adopted by the Reform movement, but the poems in The Book of the Dead especially are a masterpiece of both poetics and journalism. In a way, she was a mid-century heir to Melville.

Love, Death, and the Changing of Seasons by Marilyn Hacker. A sonnet sequence written in the mid-eighties about getting older and about the end of a love affair.

Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris. Ferris’s first novel. It’s sad and yet hysterical, written in a plural first person that somehow never bugs you. One of the really great workplace novels of the last few decades.

On the Floor, by Aifric Campbell. Another workplace novel, this one set in the trading floors of an investment bank and elsewhere in the boom-boom Wild West of The City of London in the early nineties that manages to be simultaneously polemical, wistfully sad, and utterly alien.

And speaking of aliens, Consider Phlebas and the Culture series by Iain M. Banks. Banks, recently deceased, wrote about a dozen novels set in a fantastically advanced, post-scarcity, space-faring society that found itself often intervening in the affairs of lesser civilizations. Banks was one of science fiction’s great moral and economic thinkers.

The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner. Already wrote about this one.

The Comforters, by Muriel Spark. Most high-school reading lists include The Prime of Miss Jean Brody, but Spark’s first novel is a personal favorite of mine, and I still think it may be the best of her works. In the great tradition of British novelists converting to Catholicism and going slightly crazy in a good way.

Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene. Again, an early work by a Catholic Brit that I consider in many ways superior to the (nevertheless very, very good) works that came after. Gangsters, girlfriends, and the priestly admonition: “You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone the . . . appalling . . . strangeness of the mercy of God.”

Wonderboys, by Michael Chabon. A lot of people seem to think this is Chabon’s weakest work, a shaggy-dog second novel that lacked the energy of his first book or the inventiveness and AMBITION of the coming novels, but I think it’s his best, a great, Lebowskian stoner comedy, an academic satire as sharp as McCarthy or Jarrell, and one of the only books about writing books that doesn’t make me want to hurl it against a wall.

Forewards and Afterwards, by W.H. Auden. Essays on everything from education in the classics to Protestantism.

Foe, by J.M. Coetzee. Maybe not his best, but one that I studied in college, which contemplates, among other things, the nature of slavery and servitude.

Mumbo Jumbo, by Ishmael Reed. The great conspiracy novel of American literature. I’ll take this over Pynchon any day. Egyptian gods, secret societies, an Afrocentric history of the world, and jazz.

The Gates of Repentance. The Reform machzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A bit of a “greatest hits” compared to some of the Conservative and Orthodox machzorim, but lots of English (although, fair warning, about half is still in untranslated Hebrew). Still, a very good read for a Christian seeking something other than academic or narrative introduction to Jewish belief and prayer.

Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard. The rare instance where an author’s most critically acclaimed work is also his best. Stoppard is one of those playwrights whose work is better read than seen, if only because actors rarely seem to figure out what he’s talking about. Math, the nature of time, Byron.

Coming of Age in the Milky Way, by Timothy Ferris. This is the physical-science counterpart to Durant’s history of philosophy, an amazing survey of the state of physics and astronomy from Ptolemy to the twentieth century. When I was a skinny science nerd in high school, I carried it everywhere.

Breaking Open the Head: A Psychadelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism, by Daniel Pinchbeck. Before Pinchbeck became a bore, yammering on about 2012 and the Mayan calendar, he actually studied and participated in chemical and shamanistic rituals all over the world. Part travelogue and part ethnography and part plain, good-old-fashioned gonzo journalism.

Miami, by Joan Didion. Her best collection of essays and one of the truest, strangest portraits of the Cold War in North America.

Erasure: A Novel, by Percival Everett. Everett’s satire on a black author becoming A Black Author.

Human Wishes / Enemy Combatant, by Edmond Caldwell. Destroy narrative, eradicate character, spoof Beckett, mock James Wood. One of my favorite novels of the last few years, and an amazing, funny, and even heartbreaking book that shows how much more is possible in a novel than the sort of thing you read about in the Sunday Times.

Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity, by David Kirby. Curse the editor who came up with this awful title. Although partly a sort of procedural investigation into several deadly incidents with captive killer whales, this book is really about the relationship of humans to non-human intelligence, a moral investigation of what it means for us to discover that we live among other thinking and feeling creatures.

35 thoughts on “An Incoherent List of Books Demonstrating Why I Am Not on Any Sort of Curriculum Committee

  1. Needs more pulp. Kids, read a lot of trashy fiction. Keep some Mickey Spillane in the bathroom. Read “The Shining” before bed and stay up all night on a school night freaking out. H.P. Lovecraft’s prose is overwrought and terrible, read all of it. While you’re at it, read all the Star Wars novels you can get your hands on too. “Jurassic Park” is full of pseudo-science and dinosaurs going sick-house on people, which means every male should read it before they’re 15.

    That having been said, this is a great list. Some stuff I’ll have to hunt down myself.

  2. I’ve read Forewords and Afterwords several times over. I also recommend another book of Auden essays, The Dyer’s Hand.

  3. I had the privilege to see a good semi-pro production of Arcadia in Boston two years ago with a perfectly cast Thomasina: she handled the transition from naif to ingenue perfectly, which makes the ending that much more heartbreaking.

  4. If you include Joan Didion’s “Miami” shouldn’t you also be including Joan Didion’s “Where I was From” ….. regarding “THE $TATE” of California , since – despite its horrifying inequality and poverty – it’s one of the largest “economies” in the world:

    From the 1870s to the 1920s, according to Richard W. Fox’s 1978 study So Far Disordered in Mind: Insanity in California 1870-1930, California had a higher rate of committment for insanity than any other state in the nation, a disproportion most reasonably explained, Fox suggests, “by the zeal with which California state officials sought to locate, detain, and treat not only those considered ‘mentally ill,’ but also a wide variety of other deviants-including, as state hospital physicians put it, “imbeciles, dotards, idiots, drunkards, simpletons, fools,’ and ‘the aged, the vagabond, the helpless.’” Not only did Califonria have this notablly higher rate of committment but the institutions to which it committed its citizens differed fundamentally from those in the East, where the idea of how to deal with insanity had been from the beginning medicalized, based on regimes-however more honored in the breach-of treament and therapy. The idea of how to deal with [so named – diane] insanity in California began and ended with detention [some things never change – diane]”

    1. it’s [California is] one of the largest “economies” in the world

      Just as Pitt’s Berg was ‘larger than life’ at one time (and is currently witnessing some sort of resurrection via CMU (Carnegie Mellon University) AI and UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which includes Organ Transplant Center[s?] in Sicily)) with its Old/Ancient MONEY, CorpGuv, and water ways, ultimately feeding to the Mississipi and beltway.

    2. Oh Cali (and yeah, I am loaded now (who, of sane mind and heart, wouldn’t try to be ….living in this cesspool?) just reminding myself of the hideousness of “THE $TATE” of California), …… and those detention$:

      07/07/13 Female inmates sterilized without approval

      07/16/13 Hunger Strike in the Empire of Dungeons

      Far worse, the above referenced pieces……are a dust mote, …on the $tate of California Ice Berg. ……. where else but a cesspool could Dianne Fein$tein-Blum’$ ilk thrive in such $trategic ‘fecundity’?

  5. If you’re “unschooling” you should probably assign something that teaches them about the burning class hatred that compels parents to unschool and homeschool.

    1. Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s mentor and friend, said:

      I am beginning to suspect all elaborate and special systems of education. They seem to me to be built upon the supposition that every child is a kind of idiot who must be taught to think. Whereas if the child is left to himself, he will think more and better, if less “showily”. Let him come and go freely, let him touch real things and combine his impressions for himself… Teaching fills the mind with artificial associations that must be got rid of before the child can develop independent ideas out of actual experiences.

      Unschooling provides a unique opportunity to step away from systems and methods, and to develop independent ideas out of actual experiences, where the child is truly in pursuit of knowledge, not the other way around.

      I don’t see “burning class hatred” anywhere in the above quote, even if I read between the lines.

      1. Private schools, homeschooling, and unschooling all flourish in large part because they represent the opportunity for affluent parents to remove their children from the presence of other children they find beneath them. Of course people making the superficial case for those things aren’t going to come right out and say that, and I don’t think that everyone who sends their children to public alternatives are operating under these motives. Many aren’t. But many, many are, and if you think differently, you’re very naive.

      2. Slipping private schools in alongside homeschooling and unschooling strikes me as disingenuous. The burning class hatred theory might work for private schools but I don’t see it in the other two, which seem to be based on opposition to compulsory schooling and certain teaching methods and curricula. Not to mention that, from what I’ve seen, “homeschooled” is practically a term of derision in a lot of people’s minds, synonymous with “social misfit” and “weirdo,” not “elitist snob.”

        I guess it’s possible that “many, many” home or unschoolers are motivated by a desire for their kids to not have to rub elbows with the unwashed, but, again, isn’t that what private schools are for? And speaking of naive, there’s the idea that forcing hundreds of kids from different backgrounds into a building together for seven hours a day is going to magically foster feelings of universal brotherhood. Class divisions are alive and well in your typical American public school.

  6. Oh, and fancy that : I noticed a firewalled to me New York Times!!!! piece, titled Suicide and Silence, and thought perhaps they wanted to address the issue of a Black American choosing to immolate themself on the Stained House Lawn “Mall”, …… silly me.

    (This was a cart before the horse is acknowledged post: following up on my currently invisible post which I trust will visualize soon …. but in the meantime ….I have to run some errands and really wanted to addend this comment to my currently invisible, just moments prior ‘post.’)

  7. sadly, from your point of view, you happen to be on my committee, ‘tho I drew you in late to form the fourth member, while something like Bush V. Gore continues blaring on the Tee Vee when I’m trying to write my friggin’ dissertation. You did turn me on to DeLillo, so I’m glad you’re on my committee. I’m not sure why your own book is waiting for the Easter Bunny to be published, but maybe it’s like driving in traffic. I’m also not sure why Shamu, an apex predator whose home range is naturally thousands upon thousands of miles from ear to smile, would kill anyone who put him in a gunnite-lined swimming pool for Skinnerian snacks and human entertainment. Wonders never cease.

    1. Zoz on a dissertation committee! The mind boggles at the thought. Parallels dance before one’s eyes … perhaps the most salient being Konzentrationslager Kapo ….

  8. I am forever in your debt for recommending Didion (_The Last Thing He Wanted_ on your old blog); she’s freaking fantastic. But I picked up _Consider Phlebas_ recently, based on your & a ton of other people’s rec, and 90 pages in I’m still at the “huh?” stage. When does it get smart and economic and moral? This space-pirate action stuff would be tolerable if it were well written, but as it is, oh good God. And there’s nothing else happening!

    1. Daisy,
      Consider Phlebas took a while to grow on me too. I think any of his other Culture books took hold of me quicker.
      I came to love the Culture series because he manages to convincingly portray a culture/society/civilization better than what we have managed so far. A bit of optimism seems like a precious thing in this day and age.
      Doris Lessing wrote a very sweet piece about giving books that are supposed to be good a fair chance but if they do not do it for you, putting them aside. For some other book that does do it for you and also for some other time when the not-interesting-now book comes to really hit the spot.

  9. I appreciate that, Jessica. I’ll be giving the book a few more chances because the people who recommended it are no joke.

  10. My wife just picked up Then We Came to the End on your recommendation; I was hooked after the first paragraph. Fantastic.

    A humble nomination: The True Believer, by Eric Hoffer. I read it in college (in the midst of a half-assed poli sci curriculum), and it was the very definition of unschooling.

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