100 Books Worth Reading (before anything else)
There is not enough time in a collapsing world to live a good life in which reading plays some part, and read crap books — and there is, I think, some danger of that if you follow the plodding ‘100 books to read before you die’ lists that the broadsheets and bookclubs put out every now and then*. You’d be far better off with…
- Berger, John. About Looking.
‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.’
A book about art, and about what is right in front of your eyes when you look at it. Subversive because it is simple and direct (at one point in the teevee series Berger gets children to talk about renaissance masterpieces, and they make far more perceptive comments than Brian Sewell).
- Berne, Eric. The Games People Play.
‘Wooden Leg. In this game the player uses his “wooden leg’”as an excuse for not doing something that he — and probably everyone else — knows he should. “Oh, I’d love to go hot-air ballooning with you, but I have this wooden leg, you see’. In extremis leads to ‘the plea of insanity’— “Of course I killed her! What do you expect of someone as fucked up as I am!”’
- Bickel, Lennard. Mawson’s Will.
The most extraordinary tale of polar survival, beating even Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s Worst Journey in the World. Douglas Mawson, in 1911, set out to explore 1500 miles of unexplored Antarctica. It goes wrong, then it goes wronger, then there is a massive disaster, then everything gets really bad, then you begin to understand, in the deepest sense, what ‘difficult’ means.
- Blake, William. Songs of Innocence and of Experience.
- Blyth, Jonathan. The Law of the Playground.
Offensive, puerile, stupid, revolting, deeply abusive, sadistic stories from ordinary schools. Very funny.
- Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights.
Gets boring halfway through, and all the characters are real idiots. Aye! bu’ that ‘fahl, flaysome divil of a gipsy, Heathcliff!’
- Bryant, Edwin F. (ed.) Bhagavata Purana.10.
By far the sexiest religious masterpiece.
- Bukowski, Charles. Ham on Rye.
- Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God (vol 1–3).
Joseph Campbell’s extraordinary review of the entire history of myth. Part 4, modern literature, is not half as interesting though (it’s all about Mann’s dull and pointless Magic Mountain). Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, the model for Star Wars (and countless tiresome Hollywood films since) focuses on male-oriented tales of self-mastery.
- Camus, Albert. The Fall.
Ever realised you’re not the man you thought you were? This is the story for you! The Outsider is excellent too of course, with one of the funniest opening lines in the history of literature, ‘Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.’
- Carter, Asa Earl. The Education of Little Tree.
Apparently full of lies and Carter, apparently, was full of shit. But these things really don’t matter with a story like this, which rings so true — in its innumerable details about the magic of nature and the characterful power of people who really live in it — that there has to be truth in it.
- Chomsky, Noam. Year 501.
Classic overview of the last 500 years of European world-conquest.
- Chomsky, N. & Herman, E. Manufacturing Consent.
Pretty heavy-going, but its basic point remains as vital in understanding the systemic corporate-establishment bias of the media — particularly the left-liberal media — today as it ever was.
- Chuang Tzu. The Book of Chuang Tzu.
‘Flow with whatever is happening and let your mind be free. Stay centered by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate.’
- Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness.
‘Their bearing, which was simply the bearing of commonplace individuals going about their business in the assurance of perfect safety, was offensive to me like the outrageous flauntings of folly in the face of a danger it is unable to comprehend.’
Dense, dense and super-intense.
- Crumb, Robert. Sketchbooks.
- Dick, Philip K. Valis.
The world’s only science fiction autobiography. Dick penetrated the unreality of modern life down to the depths. His hard-gnosticism sends him a bit awry, I believe, but I also think he was the last author to have said something. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is mind-blowing also.
- Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield.
Dickens’ most autobiographical novel and [consequently, I’d say] his most enjoyable. Possibly the most ludicrous ending in world literature, but it doesn’t matter. Great literature is not about great endings.
- Dostoyevski, Fyodor. The Karamazov Brothers (trans. Avsey, Ignat).
Talking of which, Dostoyevski was all about endings. There is a breathless, fanatical feeling to his writing that make you want to get the point, tell us the POINT Fyodor! But, like a kind of sweaty existential-intellectual one-night-stand, after it’s over you don’t feel you want to get into a relationship. That doesn’t mean there aren’t unbelievable passages in Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and here, in The Karamazov Brothers (the legendary Grand Inquisitor and Russian Monk sections) but for the blazing beauty of life, to which you can return again and again, go to Tolstoy.
- Elias, Norbert. The Civilising Process.
Fascinating history of manners, showing how social climbing and new class-stratification tended to repress physicality and spontaneity, leading to what we now understand as civility.
- Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society.
- Erickson, Milton. My Voice Will Go With You.
‘I was returning from high school one day and a runaway horse with a bridle sped past a group of us into a farmer’s yard, looking for a drink of water. The farmer didn’t recognize it so I jumped up to the horse’s back, took hold of the reins and said “Giddy-up” and headed for the highway. I knew the horse would take me to the right direction. I didn’t know what the right direction was. And the horse trotted and galloped along. Now and then he would forget he was on an highway and would start off into a field. So I would pull on him a bit and call his attention to the fact that the highway was where he was supposed to be. And finally about four miles from where I had boarder him he turned into a farmyard and the farmer said, “So that’s how the critter came back. Where did you find him?” I said, “about four miles from here.” “How did you know he should come here?” I said, “I didn’t know. The horse knew.”’
- Eschenbach, Wolfram von. Parzival.
- Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism.
- Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish.
At the heart of Foucault is a horrible emptiness, but this remains one of the classic works on the schizoid introjection of surveillance and the extraordinarily subtle techniques of controlling people in modern society.
- Frayne, David. The Refusal of Work.
Another one for anti-work — meaning anti-wage-slave — outsiders.
- Frankl, Victor. Man’s Search for Meaning.
Another death-camp testimony. I find Frankl’s philosophy a bit superficial, but his accounts of how he reached it are priceless.
- Friere, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
Along with John Holt, John Taylor Gatto and, above all, Ivan Illich, Friere is one of the great critics of education—not just ‘how we teach’ but the stupefying, disabling practice of forcing pre-packaged syllabuses on children at all.
- Frisch, Karl von. Animal Architecture.
As Antoni Gaudi realised, they’ve got a lot to teach us, those little fellas.
- Fromm, Erich. The Sane Society.
- Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5000 years.
‘We have perhaps a general principle. to make something saleable in a human economy one needs first to rip it from the context.’ Amazingly interesting account of what you’d think was an amazingly boring subject. Not so! Thank you David. His book on bureaucracy is very good too.
- Grossmith, George. Diary of a Nobody.
Very funny late Victorian comedy about a right berk — the forerunner of David Brent, Alan Partridge, Basil Fawlty and Rupert Rigsby. It’s by the heroin-addict actor character in Topsy Turvy, if you’ve seen that.
- Harman, Chris. A People’s History of the World.
Ever so Marxist, but still a useful counterbalance to the usual narrative.
- Harvey, David. 17 Contradictions at the End of Capitalism.
Bit sludgy in places, but many marvellous observations on the inherent contradictions in a capitalist economy.
- Hesse, Herman. Steppenwolf.
The first, great outsider novel.
- Hölldobler, Bert & Wilson, Edward O. Journey to the Ants.
Who isn’t fascinated by ants? There’s one species, in this book, that has special kamikaze soldiers that belt into enemy nests and explode. Explode.
But don’t read this without first getting yourself acquainted with this vital corrective to some of the outdated hierarchical explanations that Wilson uses to describe ant colonies. Hard-core ant division of labour is a myth.
- Holt, John. Teach Your Own.
How and why to home-school.
- Hughes, Ted. The Hawk in the Rain.
Effortless at height hangs his still eye,
His wings hold all creation in a weightless quiet,
Steady as a hallucination in the streaming air
While banging wind kills these stubborn hedges.
- Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World.
Actually I prefer The Perennial Philosophy. I don’t think Huxley was much of a story-teller, but Brave New World is still a nightmarish vision of the present.
- Illich, Ivan. Medical Nemesis / Deschooling Society / Disabling Professions.
‘When cities are built around vehicles, they devalue human feet; when hospitals draft all those who are in critical condition, they impose on society a new form of dying; intensive education turns autodidacts into unemployables, intensive agriculture destroys the subsistence farmer, public fora dominated by privately-owned news-media slowly denigrate speech and the deployment of police undermines the community’s self-control. The malignant spread of medicine has comparable results: it turns mutual care and self-medication into misdemeanours or felonies’.
Everyone should read Illich — the greatest thinker of the twentieth century — or at least have an understanding of his ideas on the paralysing effects of medicine, high-speed transport, excessive energy and schooling.
- James, Oliver. The Selfish Capitalist.
- Jay, Ricky. Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women.
A celebration of the freak, the prestidigitator, the human anomaly. There’s a woman in it, for example, Thea Alba — The Woman With Ten Brains — who could attach ten bits of chalk to her fingers and write ten different words at the same time. Very funny photos too.
- Jerome K. Jerome. Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow.
- Johnstone, Keith. Impro.
‘Suppose an eight-year-old writes a story about being chased down a mouse-hole by a monstrous spider. It’ll be perceived as ‘childish’ and no one will worry. If he writes the same story when he’s fourteen it may be taken as a sign of mental abnormality. Creating a story, or painting a picture, or making up a poem lay an adolescent wide open to criticism. He therefore has to fake everything so that he appears ‘sensitive’ or ‘witty’ or ‘tough’ or ‘intelligent’ according to the image he’s trying to establish in the eyes of other people. If he believed he was a transmitter, rather than a creator, then we’d be able to see what his talents really were.’
A masterpiece of freedom, and one of the seminal books of my life.
- Kafka, Franz. The Trial.
Not terribly gripping, I think, but, along with 1984, Brave New World and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch one of the four prophecies of the modern dystopia we ‘live’ in.
- Kerouac, Jack. Dharma Bums.
I find Kerouac a bit of a nob — would hate to live with him — but there’s no denying the life, the freedom, the spinning, sky-wide lifeglory of this book.
- Kenkō, Yoshida. Essays in Idleness (aka The Harvest of Leisure).
Absolutely fascinating 14th century blog. Very short essays about a massive range of subjects and lots of little parables and stories — many of which are hilarious; and when I say ‘hilarious’ I don’t mean in a ‘oh, oh, mm, most amyuusing’ scholarly way, I mean genuinely, delightfully, immortally surreal. The mix of the familiar, the human and the utterly alien is compelling. Also superb, although sparser and more centred on gentle contemplation, is the Hōjōki by Kamo no Chōmei.
- Kingsley, Peter. Reality.
Bit cheesy (Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic is more scholarly) but accessible guide to the psychological insightful mystery traditions of the pre-Socratics which, Kingsley argues, Plato and co utterly betrayed.
- Krishnamurti, Jiddu. The Impossible Question.
Or The Krishnamurti Reader or pretty much anything. It’s all the same from Krishnamurti — and yet, somehow never a cliché. His essential point is that the mind can never solve its own problems, but the ways he unpicks this observation and applies it to the problems that mind does create, never gets old, always hits you in the empty place where things are weirdly right.
- Kropotkin, Petr Alekseevich. Mutual Aid.
- Lawrence, D.H. The Rainbow.
‘You want to find something else,’ she said.
He did not answer. ‘Did he?’ he asked himself.
‘You should not need so much attention,’ she said. ‘You are not a baby.’
‘I’m not grumbling,’ he said. Yet he knew he was.
‘You think you have not enough,’ she said.
‘You think you have not enough in me. But how do you know me? What do you do to make me love you?’
He was flabbergasted.
D.H.Lawrence, that ‘animal with a sort of sixth sense’ was the greatest English novelist. Oh! his prose does veer towards the hysterical, and his stories just go nowhere, but nobody expresses the strange pulses of truth between people better, the vibe of the eyes, the atmosphere of the day (more so in the sequel to the Rainbow, Women in Love). Try Sketches From Etruscan Places for his unbelievably accurate — yet purely instinctive — reading of ancient culture.
- Lee, Laurie. Cider With Rosie.
Or As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. Lee was the English Kerouac. Always warm, always gentle, eccentric and sweetly courageous.
- Levi, Primo. If This is a Man.
The great holocaust account. Even more fascinating and inspiring is the companion story The Truce, covering Levi’s long, long journey back home from Auschwitz.
- Long, Barry. Making Love.
Barry Long said some utterly bizarre things, declared himself ‘Guru of the West’, had an alarmingly strident style and, at one point, had a relationship with five beautiful women — but don’t let that put you off! Some of the things he says, particularly in Making Love, Meditation: A Foundation Course and Only Fear Dies were staggeringly original, perceptive and psychologically penetrating.
- Maharshi, Sri Ramana. Be as You Are. (ed. David Goodman).
Spiritual masterpiece. Basically involves asking yourself who you are a hundred times a day and replying to the effect that ‘I am reading these words’.
- Mamet, David. A Whore’s Profession.
Mamet turned into a grim reactionary, but around the time these essays were written he was alive to the ‘dreamlife of the world’, wrote some lovely accounts of his early life and, if you’re into writing, some superb technical treatise on the art of film.
- Mascaro, Juan (trans.). The Upanishads.
It’s a bit repetitive, which is to be expected, given that it was transmitted orally, and there are some well weird stories, but many, many treasures herein.
- Matsuo, Bashō. On Love and Barley (trans. Stryk, Lucien).
‘About the pine,
learn from the pine;
About the reed,
learn from the reed.’
- McGilchrist, Ian. The Master and his Emissary.
Amazing cross-disciplinary look at literature and nuero-psychology.
- Medialens. Guardians of Power.
Essential reading if you watch the BBC news.
- Melville, Herman. Moby Dick.
Fantastic, but my favourite bits are right at the start, where Ishmael first meets Queequeg. Not so much for their literary qualities, as for their sweetness and tender humanity. You may notice, reading this list, that this is a bit of a theme — literary books, that are famous for their technique, style and so on bore me.
- Miller, Henry. The Rosy Crucifixion Trilogy.
‘It sounds like defeatism to say to the young of our day: “Do not rebel! Do not make victims of yourselves!” What I mean, in saying this, is that one should not fight a losing battle. The system is destroying itself; the dead are burying the dead. Why expend one’s energy fighting something which is already tottering? Neither would I urge one to run away from the danger zone. The danger is everywhere: there are no safe and secure places in which to start a new
life. Stay where you are and make what life you can among the impending ruins. Do not put one thing above another in importance. Do only what has to be done—immediately. Whether the wave is ascending or descending, the ocean is always there. You are a fish in the ocean of time, you are a constant in an ocean of change, you are nothing and everything at one and the same time. Was the dinner good? Was the grass green? Did the water slake your thirst? Are the stars still in the heavens? Does the sun still shine? Can you talk, walk, sing, play? Are you still breathing? If you can answer yes with your entire being, then you offer the finest, most lasting and most joyous rebellion of all.’
Actually this quote is from Stand Still Like the Hummingbird, a collection of Miller’s essays, but it could come from pretty much anywhere in Miller’s work, which overflows with joy before the storm, or, as Orwell put it, ‘fiddling while Rome burns, but, unlike everyone else, facing the flames.’
- Milne, A.A. & Shephard, E.H. Winnie the Pooh.
- Mizuki, Shigeru. Kitaro.
- Morris, William. Useful Work versus Useless Toil.
Marvellous essay from the great man on the degrading nature of modern production, a view which Morris lived fully. His Utopia, News from Nowhere, is a little bit wooden but contains much worth fighting for.
- Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilisation.
- Natsume, Sōseki. I am a Cat.
And so am I.
- Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science.
Nietzsche wrote so much nonsense, and so much glorious truth, and it’s scattered so randomly across his life’s work you could pretty much pick any page of any of his books and have a go.
- Orwell, George. Down and Out in Paris and London.
1984 is good too of course, but this is by far his most enjoyable novel.
- Ouspensky, P.D. Tertium Organum.
Weird philosophical mind-bender from the famous Russian mystic.
- Ovid. Metamorphosis.
- Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson.
Not many women in this list are there?* Paglia says ‘there is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper.’ It’s more subtle and, for women, more marvellous than that, but she has a point; although I can’t say I rate Camille ‘I have no idea who you are. I am read and translated around the world from Japan to South America.’ Paglia that highly. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex is misguided too, but probably the best feminist book I’ve read. Beauvoir set me right on Lawrence, with some mordant observations about his ‘phallic worship’.
- Pirsig, Robert M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Great pop-philosophy. Limited, in a way, but a fine expression of the ungraspableness of quality.
- Patterson, William Patrick. Struggle of the Magicians.
In 1949, dressed in striped pyjamas and Astrakhan hat, Gurdjieff came out of his apartment at 6 Rue des Colonels Rénard for the last time, sitting upright in his stretcher and waving ‘Au revoir, tout le monde!’ Frank Lloyd Wright, who was, at the time, accepting a medal at Cooper Union, broke off to announce: “The greatest man in the world has just died. His name was Gurdjieff.”’
Biography of two very weird and very interesting fellows, George Gurdjieff and P.D.Ouspensky. Many funny anecdotes.
- Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time (trans. Terence Kilmartin & Scott Moncrieff).
Has to go in this list. It does go on a bit though.
- Reich, Wilhelm. Function of the Orgasm.
Or any of his books. Lots of heavy technical stuff, but Reich knew a thing or two. At least he did before he went totally out of his tree and started building cloud-busters.
- Rochefoucauld, François de La. Maxims.
Incredibly cynical aphorisms on love and self love from one of the darkest periods in human history — the enlightenment. Contains such classics as ‘The reason that lovers never weary each other is because they are always talking about themselves’. But its not all appalling negativity, stuff like ‘Almost all our failings are more pardonable than the means we employ to hide them’ contains sublime wisdom.
- Sacks, Oliver. The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat.
My favourite story here — and there are lots of good ones — is the one about the guy who was hit on the back of the head by a bus wing-mirror, was knocked out, woke up with a sense of smell three hundred times more sensitive than normal and could smell glass.
- Salinksy, Tom & White, Deborah. The Improv Handbook.
Very good guide to the art of arts.
- Sass, Louis. Madness and Modernism.
My favourite book on, erm, madness and modernism. Explains both in ways that make sense of everything else.
- Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation Vol.1 & 2 (trans. E.F.J.Payne).
Schopenhauer was the last great — and readable — philosopher of the west. Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Sartre all said some stood stuff, but Schoppers beats them hands down. Yes, he was a misogynist, and it’s impossible to forgive him for that — and this also colours his early negative view of ‘the will’ (the life-energy behind the world) which is somehow connected with femininity, but his attitude to both women and the will did soften as he aged, and what he had to say about everything else is impossible to ignore.
- Shakespeare, William. King Lear.
I find Shakespeare a bit boring. Yes, the poetry is the greatest in the English language, and the characterisation nearly always phenomenal, but the stories never seem to quite do it for me. Except with King Lear, which really gets me (and in which, I think, Shakespeare pulled the fewest punches in his rather lily-livered attitude to power). A good Hamlet, with a great actor, is also, of course, a thing to behold.
- Sharaf, Myron. Fury on Earth.
Biography of Wilhelm Reich.
- Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein.
- Shurtleff, Micheal. Audition.
Guide, from one of the most famous casting directors in Hollywood history, to giving a great audition, with lessons which can be applied to pretty much everything.
- Southwood, Ivan. Non-stop Inertia.
‘The only labour now exchanged at the Jobcentre is the performative sort: empty gestures, feigned enthusiasm, containment of hostility, suppression of resentment. The “customer” and “advisor” are required between them to conjure an interaction which is entirely fake, a form of surface acting stretched over the underlying reality of compulsion and surveillance. Posters and leaflets in the Jobcentre depict smiling figures in work-like scenarios, proffering handshakes or clutching official-looking folders. The discourse of customer service adopted by the staff presents an illusion of empowerment, as if the claimant were choosing to buy a product, and deflects any real criticisms of the system onto pseudo-issues of standards or quality.’
Sorrowful, perceptive and humane account of living the dream in modern England.
- Steinbeck, John. East of Eden.
The ‘philosophy’ is a bit stolid, but what a tale Steinbeck spins. Totally gripping from start to finish. Grapes of Wrath is magnificent too; ‘“I’m learning one thing good,” she said. “Learnin’ it all the time, ever’ day. If you’re in trouble or hurt or need – go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help. The only ones.”’
- Szasz, Thomas. The Myth of Mental Illness.
Yep, it’s a myth.
- Tan, Shaun. Eric.
- Tezuka, Osamu. Buddha.
- Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and on the Duty of Civil Disobedience.
‘How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.’
- Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace (trans. Maude).
‘“What would you have me do?” he said at last. “You know I did all a father could for their education, and they have both turned out fools. Hippolyte is at least a quiet fool, but Anatole is an active one. That is the only difference between them.” He said this smiling in a way more natural and animated than usual, so that the wrinkles round his mouth very clearly revealed something unexpectedly coarse and unpleasant.’
Do you see how great this little passage is (which occurs in the chapter one — there are literally thousands more)? My view is that you can only shrug your shoulders and say ‘nope’ if you are not really aware of the world, and of people. If, in this example, you have seen how [especially wealthy or prominent] people have a mask of civility which tends to drop in matters of coarse and sensuous levity, revealing, in the creases of their face, an unexpectedly frank ugliness, then this passage is delightful, reassuring, funny. If not, it’s just something that happens.
For me, as for Isaak Babel (whoever he is!), ‘If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.’ meaning that, although the truth behind the façade of life is not so very deep in War and Peace — the contests with life and death don’t quite plumb the depths of Dostoevsky, say, or Conrad — it is so very human. Five hundred characters, yes (although only a few main ones, so easier to follow than it seems), but all of them revealed in ways that speak… and what an ending!
- Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
- Tzu, Lao. Tao te Ching (trans. Ellen Chen).
The most succinct account of the ‘law of heaven and earth’ ever written. Quite a scholarly translation this. There are others more immediately readable, but do your research as some are (at least according to Chen’s convincing account) downright deceptive.
- Ungerer, Tomi. The Underground Sketchbook.
- Wilde, Oscar. The Soul of Man Under Socialism.
‘A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.’
Pretty loopy, but wholly beautiful essay by Wilde on the kind of life, internal and external, we could live.
- Wilson, Colin. The Outsider.
Seminal account of ‘the outsider in fiction’. Looks at, amongst others, Dostoyevski, Sartre, Blake, Nijinkski and Gurdjieff.
- Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations.
Actually I prefer his notes on culture and psychology. Gnomic, technical, weird but much of everlasting value — at least to people who think you can ever really know what a word really means.
- Wolff, Richard. Capitalism Hits the Fan.
And, okay, it is puffed-up beyond the captain’s cock to add to this exalted list 100. my Apocalypedia but there, I‘ve done it. At least, if you don’t have time to read all the above books — I mean the non-fiction ones — you can get a kind of condensed version therein — from which the above list is taken. And at the very least I do think you should read it before you read Murakami, Rowling, Self or Nabakov.
* Nb. Aside from being only a handful of women here, there are only one or two LGBT authors, no modern authors of fiction, no black authors, no disabled authors, no dwarves and no gymnasts. The reason is in the Apocalypedia, but I’ll explain it on this blog more fully another day.