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.