To be well informed, one must read quickly a great number of merely instructive books. To be cultivated, one must read slowly and with a lingering appreciation the comparatively few books that have been written by men who lived, thought, and felt with style.
There is not enough time in a collapsing world to live a good life in which reading plays some part, and read crap books1 — 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, which are full of nothing. You’d be far better off with…
- Adorno, Theodore; Horkheimer, Max Dialectic of Enlightement.
Classic critique of enlightenment thought — which is to say our machine-like intellectual world — from the Godfathers of the Frankfurt School. Tough going, but more pound-for-pound insights than can be found in 300 pages of most books. Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, something of a follow-up, not exactly pool-side reading either, is also overflowing with acute observations on the modern condition.
- Akutagawa, Ryunosuke, Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories.
Akutagawa’s stories mix sweet sorrow, grotesque weirdness and the kind of subtlety that makes you warm with hazy pleasure when you detect it — or even (no matter) have it explained to you, as I had to with a few of these. Find yourself, if you can, a small, perceptive Japanese woman to guide you through the hypersubtle loveliness of Green Onions.
- Balzac, Honoré de. Pére Goriot.
Or any of his great ‘La Comédie humaine’ novels. Balzac makes an astonishing contrast to the utterly trivial dilettantes exalted in the literary world of today2, providing more insight into the human condition in ten pages than most Booker / Pullitzer winners manage in a career. Not as broad as Tolstoy or as profound as Dostoevsky, his later works tend to drown in minutia and he’s far too interested in commerce, but for anyone interested in great literature, Balzac deserves to be read as closely as Proust read him.
- Barfield, Owen. Saving the Appearances.
Gets a bit hard going here and there, but is a minor classic of modern philosophy, if a little woolly round the edges. Makes the case that religion and science are forms of idolatry, in that both — despite of course what their followers like to believe — worship creations of the mind.
- 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 interesting comments than Brian Sewell or, God help us, Jonathan Jones.
- Berger, Peter. The Social Construction of Reality (with Thomas Luckmann).
Berger is tough-going. Not Marx or Adorno-level tough, but he does require a bit of effort. Worth it though. Unpicks the deep-structure of society in ways that connect up far flung perceptions into gut-powerful glowing nodes of deep meaning. The Sacred Canopy is also outstanding.
- 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!”’ Plenty of other crackers here. Berne was one of a few marvellous psyche-writers of the 60s and 70s who explored the deep structure of the everyday. Also recommended; Erving Goffman.
- 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 — ‘Awesome Mawson’ as my mum calls him — 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.
- Black, Bob. Why Work?
Why indeed!? Bob Black’s essays tend to wander into — I think — self-indulgent point scoring against ‘his enemies,’ but much that he writes is terribly inspiring. This essay, rightly the one he is most famous for, is essential reading.
- Blyth, Jonathan. The Law of the Playground.
Abusive, puerile, stupid, revolting, deeply, deeply offensive, sadistic stories from ordinary schools, including a couple from mine. This book will be the first on the pyre when the woke generation take charge of the world, so get a copy now.
- 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.
Bukowski’s finest. Post Office and Factotum are gleaming with dark spit-and-fuck truths too.
- 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. His Historical Atlas of World Mythology is also a thing of wonder — my coffee table books of choice — although he died before completing them, which I can forgive, but it always strikes me as somewhat inconsiderate of him.
- 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, so they say, 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. I’ve got serious doubts about Chomsky — he is actually a very limited thinker, and I can’t see how he’s an anarchist — but of course within those limits a great man with much to say worth understanding.
- Chuang Tzu / Zhuangzi. 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.’
The first and certainly one of the greatest anarchist texts ever written. Quite unbelievably radical. I prefer the Watson translation, (The Complete Works of Zhuangzi) which has an excellent introduction and textual notes.
- 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.
Mind-blowing — far better than his comics I believe. Like opening the mind of a trickster god and pouring it over a stash of seventies porn mags.
- Dick, Philip K. Valis.
The world’s only science fiction autobiography. Dick penetrated the unreality of modern life down to the projector of the shuddering representation the mind makes of it. 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 another reality-bender, and perhaps a little more accessible.
Dick is the most modern writer of fiction on this list. I haven’t read a single great work of literature written since 1974, although I realise I might have missed something.
- 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. As Miller said — the greatest books you can’t even finish. You read a paragraph and just let its silvery wine flow over you for half an hour.
- Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov (trans. Magarshack, David).
Talking of which, Dostoevsky 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 always feel you want to get into a relationship. There are some passages in Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils and here, in The Brothers Karamazov (particularly the legendary Grand Inquisitor and Russian Monk sections),3 along with a great many unmatched insights into the perversity of the human spirit, which are, for psychic truth, unmatched in world literature. For the sensory beauty of the sensory life, go Tolstoy, for the darker, inner chambers of the mountain — and for the freedom of the spirit that can only be found at the bottom of the pile — let Fyodor be your guide. You’ll have to wade through some frustrating longueurs and a great deal of piffle about ‘we Russians’, but well, well worth it.
Two further recommendations: Notes from the Underground, one of the best arguments against an entirely rational (and atheistic) socialism ever written, and Joseph Frank’s biography of Dostoevsky. I’ve only read the abridged version, but it’s the best literary biography I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a few.4
- 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. Related, and also mind-opening, Phillipe Ariès, author of two masterpieces of medieval scholarship, The Hour of Our Death and Centuries of Childhood.
- Eliot, T.S. The Wasteland.
Along with The Hollow Men; pretty much the unworld as it is. Prufrock is phenomenal too, as is Four Quartets.
- Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society.
Also Propaganda. Ellul’s work, along with that of Illich and Mumford, is central to understanding the modern world.
- Eschenbach, Wolfram von. Parzival.
Astonishing story, but pretty inaccessible these days. For a TLDR you might want to read Campbell’s account (see above).
- Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism.
I’m well suspicious of Fisher. Something vital and fleshy is missing from his hollow, angry socialist theorising, but something vital and fleshy is missing in ‘the real world’ and few books expose that void as well as this one.
- Forster, E.M. The Machine Stops.
Over a hundred years ago Forster predicted the internet and the dystopian hellscape that it started making of the world when mechanisation ceased conveying people to to things and starting conveying things to people. Not just an external hell, but a psychological nightmare, one of constant impatient fear and inner deadness, all outlined here. Science-fiction at its prophetic, chilling finest.
- Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish.
At the heart of Foucault too is, I think, a horrible, 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. Should be read side-by-side with Baudrillard, another ‘postmodernist’, who, for all his emptiness, is worth exploring.
- Frisch, Karl von. Animal Architecture.
As Antoni Gaudi realised, they’ve got a lot to teach us, those little fellas. ‘Academic jaw-dropper’ Brian Eno called this book.
- 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 a boring subject, although not very well written — structurally all over the shop. His book on bureaucracy is very good too. That said, Graeber’s work is quite superficial, with very little to offer on human nature; very much the output of an academic. He rarely gets to the point, preferring to meander around it indefinitely until you grasp that ‘we’ve always been like this’. He likes a good bit of self-congratulation too, and if he’s an anarchist I’m a Dutchman. Read my critique of Graeber here.
While we’re on the subject of suspicions, I might as well mention Chris Hedges. That guy gives me the proper willies.
- 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 Mike Leigh’s splendid Topsy Turvy, if you’ve seen that.
- Gurdjieff, G.I. Gurdjieff’s Early Talks 1914-1931.
Some right weird stuff in here, but many, many observational gems.
- Hesse, Herman. Steppenwolf.
One of the first, great outsider novels (Notes from the Underground preceded it), although the final surrealist section is a bit self-indulgent. Colin Wilson makes the point that Hesse didn’t ever really solve the riddle of life that obsessed him, but for posing it, and for entertaining us with the problem of being caught up in it, Hesse deserves his place in the palace.
- Hoban, Rusell. Riddley Walker.
Post-apocalyptic wasteland tale set in my neighbourhood. Close to my heart, obviously.
- 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 actually a myth.
Other books about nature I’ve enjoyed have been Animal Architecture (there are two books by this name, one mentioned above by Karl Von Frisch another by the charmingly named Ingo Arndt; both are good, the latter prettier), The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben (who did a few other nicely observed nature books), and Winter World by Bernd Heinrich.
- 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.
Apparently Hughes was so handsome that women would throw up when they saw him.
- Hugo, Victor. Les Misérables.
Just a gripping story, dotted with acute observations on the human condition. Don’t watch the musical, or that toothless BBC version that came out recently (only the lead was well cast), just sit down for a couple of months in total absorption (feel free to skip the dull history bits). Also Victor Hugo could fit an entire orange in his mouth.
- 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 (Ran Prieur said, correctly, that reading him was ‘like looking at the sun’) — or at least have an understanding of his ideas on the paralysing effects of medicine, high-speed transport, excessive energy, schooling, gender, scarcity and life.
I’ve noticed that a lot of middle-class support for Illich has a curious tendency to eviscerate the core of his teachings, ignore his mysticism (and his book about Gender) and focus on secondary matters. Look twice if a fashionable author describes himself as a fan, although a mark of Illich’s genius is that he is so terribly out of fashion.
Some people find Illich’s style rather forebidding. I don’t, but I can understand. If you find him hard going I recommend David Cayley’s superb overview; Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey. It’s an intellectual biography, dealing with Illich’s thought and life, which means that at the start there’s a lot about Catholicism and Illich’s battle with the church — entertaining and interesting, but the more secular-minded might feel like their wading through these early chapters.
- Jansson, Tove. The Moomin Series.
The greatest children’s story of all time. See Layla Abdulrahim’s superb Children’ Literature, Domestication, and Social Foundation for a guide to why (and why Winnie the Pooh and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are so damned creepy).
- 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. Honest! Very funny photos too.
- Jacobsen, Peter Jens. Niels Lyhne.
A series of penetrating insights into the heart-rendingly futile and tragic side of human-love, presented in long, voluptuous metaphors. Very little dialogue, no drama as such, rather one astonishing image after another of a heart dying, dying, dead.
- 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 psychological freedom, and one of the seminal books of my life, although I did a course with Johnstone which was dreadfully disappointing. He just told fucking anecdotes for three days.
- Kaczynski, Ted. Industrial Society and Its Future.
Ted Kaczynski, if you don’t know, was a maths genius who went to live by himself in the remote rural Montana, read Ellul, Mumford and Illich, developed a hatred for industrial technology, started sending bombs to academics involved with modern technology, became the FBI’s most wanted man (dubbed ‘the unabomber’), sent a manifesto (Industrial Society and Its Future, available here) to the the New York Times promising to desist if they published it (which they did, along with the Washington Post), the manifesto was identified by his brother and Kaczynski was arrested and banged up for four thousand lifetimes. The manifesto itself is brilliant; a faultless critique of modern technological civilisation. Highly recommended. When I say ‘faultless’ though, I mean as far as it goes. Actually there is an entire ‘half’ of the modern malaise which Kaczynski fails to address, which I outline here and which probably accounts for his chilling insensitivity. For an intelligent overview of the moral difficulties Kaczynski’s life poses — killing people — see this account.
- 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. I’m a big fan of Kafka’s short stories and parables. Check this one out.
- Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Pure Reason.
No, don’t read this! It’s an extremely unpleasant experience; much like the feeling you used to have in school when the Maths teacher rumbled past your comprehension leaving you frustrated, lost, angry and alone. The subject matter is amazingly difficult, Kant does no favours to the reader — no examples, frequently using the same absurd technical term in different senses, massive, labyrinthine sentences that pile clause upon clause, repeating himself a thousand ways, mind-boggling structure (‘architectronic’ he calls it) and so on — and oh God is it dry. An 800 page slog which takes at least a couple of months, doing little else but reading it, to understand and then only in snatches. Speaking for myself, I’ve wrestled some wonderful truths from this book, all I need to I think; but I certainly can’t claim to have grasped the whole thing.
So why is it here? Because, as Schopenhauer put it, ‘before Kant we were in time, after Kant, time was in us.’ He really was the most important thinker ever to appear in Western philosophy, even if he arrived at his mindblowing conclusions through the most insanely circuitous route, and even seemed to draw them, I think, reluctantly.
You’d be better off reading Schopenhauer (see below), who tidied up Kant’s ideas, refused to flinch from their nutty implications, was infinitely clearer and far more interesting.
If you still want to give Kant a go, start with the easier and kind of simplified introduction he wrote, Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics (the Cambridge translation), then read the Critique (again the Cambridge translation) hand-in-hand with H.J.Paton’s guide to the first half of the critique which (unlike Kemp-Smith’s more famous commentary) is a masterpiece of clarity and sensitivity. Also recommended for nutters ready to cross, in Paton’s word, ‘the Arabian desert’ of the Critique, is A Kant Dictionary by Howard Caygill, as is the Routledge guide by Gardner.
- 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 wide, wide lifeglory of this book.
- Kenkō, Yoshida. Essays in Idleness (aka The Harvest of Leisure).
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, ah, 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.
- Krishnamurti, Jiddu. The Impossible Question / Krishnamurti, U.G. The Mystique of Enlightenment
Or The Krishnamurti Reader or pretty much anything from Jiddu. It’s all the same from J/ Krishnamurti — and yet, somehow never repeated. 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, doesn’t seem to get old…
That said, I’ve put the two ‘murtis’ together here, because U.G. is very much an antidote to Jiddu (and to the Barrylongian ‘spiritual advice’ I occasionally, and misleadingly, give) being something of an ‘all-destroyer’ on the ‘guru scene’, sweeping away every single illusion before the selfless nothingness of existence. Despite my love for Barry Long and J. Krisnhamurti if I ever did totally ‘disintegrate’ ‘my’ ‘false’ unifying self ‘I’ ‘think’ it would probably be in the ‘way’ U.G. outlines — all those scare quote indicate the misleading silliness of putting such things into words.
- Kropotkin, Peter Alekseevich. Mutual Aid.
Anarchist masterpiece. The Conquest of Bread is good too.
- 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, and his later worship of the cock was a bit one-sided, 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) and, here, the self-obliterating mystery of femininity. Try Sketches From Etruscan Places for his unbelievably accurate — yet purely instinctive — reading of ancient culture. I also recommend the collection of pieces in The Bad Side of Books (with a very fair critical introduction) and also his Fantasia of the Unconscious, which is bonkers.
- Lao Tzu. 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.
- 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 — and I think greatest — holocaust account. Equally fascinating and inspiring is the companion story The Truce, covering Levi’s long, long journey back home from Auschwitz. This is one of those books that you can give to pretty much anyone on earth, say ‘read that’, and they’ll devour the whole thing, eyes rooted to the page.
- Lichtenberg. The Waste Books.
‘There are two ways of extending life: firstly by moving the two points ‘born’ and ‘died’ further away from one another… The other method is to go more slowly and leave the two points wherever God wills they should be…’
What? You’ve never heard of Lichtenberg? The compiler of books and books of fascinating, strange, beautiful and acute philosophical aphorisms, beloved by Schopenhauer, Wittgenstein, Tolstoy, Nietzsche and Einstein? Oh dear oh dear. Off you go!
Actually there’s nonsense here, as you would expect from such personal stuff, but, like other early masters of twitter, many many gleamful gems which gather in quantity brightness as the books progress and as Lichtenberg aged. Another great aphorist of around the same time was François de La Rochefoucauld whose incredibly cynical ‘Maxims’ on love and self love from one of the darkest periods in human history — the enlightenment — are well worth a read. Contains such classics as ‘The reason that lovers never weary each other is because they are always talking about themselves’.
- 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. I have to say I’ve spent many extraordinary hours in Barry Long’s company.
- 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 treatises on the art of film. I also recommend his True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, which is somewhat one-sided — in his zeal to strip acting of self-absorption he tends to miss a few subtle qualities that actors must divine to do their job — but he sweeps artistic bullshit away with stark panache.
- Marx, Karl. Capital.
I suppose it’s not surprising that Marx got himself his own ism — a lot of unbelievably astute, as well as extremely influential, observations about the nature of the modern world, many of which stand independently of his hard (in both senses of the word) theoretical structures.
That said, Marx took some of his best ideas from the Anarchist Proudhon, and Marx’s state socialism, planned economics, bourgeois morality, distrust of the working class and, of course, his intensely statist and technophilic communism — his state capitalism — are just another kind of oppression, as is his silly determinism, which nobody but lunatic positivists can possibly accept.
Generally, I find certain strands of Marxist scholarship more interesting than Marx himself. Fromm, for example, or Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital or Harry Braverman’s superb Labor and Monopoly Capital are Marxist classics, and essential reading for criticising capitalism, but you’d be better off reading George Woodcock’s Anarchism for a history of more sensible (if tragically incomplete) solutions.
- 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 bellymind 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 neuro-psychology.
- 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 works of literature that are famous for their technique, style and so on bore me. I’m a bit of a ‘prose should be a window’ kinda fella, but that doesn’t mean strange and difficult language isn’t sometimes necessary, or wonderful.
- 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.’
Miller had, on balance, a pretty terrible attitude to women and sex. Not a lot of tenderness, that’s for sure, and impossible to forgive, that. But. Miller’s torch on so many other matters still illuminates.
- Mizuki, Shigeru. Kitaro.
Classic Jap-manga about a ghost boy with magic hair and one eye whose ‘eyeball father’ lives in his empty socket. Stories are a bit crap — lots of ‘deus ex machina’ — but good characters, fabulously beautiful pen-and-ink art and many hilariously weird ideas.
- 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 (you can find it here). His Anarchist Utopia, News from Nowhere, is a little bit wooden but contains much worth fighting for. Worthwhile, I think, comparing Morris’ life with Marx’s — the former was an expansive giant, ‘one of nature’s true aristocrats,’ the latter was, it would seem, a bit of a dick.
- Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilisation.
Mumford, precursor to Ellul and Illich, was a true scholar — sensitive, boundary-crossing and, above all, gentle. Also recommended, Mechanization Takes Command, by Sigfried Giedion.
- Natsume, Sōseki. I am a Cat.
And so am I.
- Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. (Kaufman translation)
Nietzsche wrote so much dreadful 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. His error was a radically more intense version of that of his teacher and mentor, Arthur Schopenhauer, a subtle but foundational confusion about the nature of will, which, in his case, led to a rejection of the ineffable, something that Schopenhauer said was so monstrous only an antichrist would do. Nietzsche not only agreed, he adopted the title. The twat.
(See my brief critique of Nietzsche postscripted here).
- Orwell, George. Down and Out in Paris and London.
1984 is good too of course, but this is by far his most enjoyable novel; stupendously enjoyable. There is something about this gawky, fastidious, repressed, but warm and loving human, stumbling through the most extreme conditions of life using words like ‘beastly’ that makes me, just for a few moments, be proud of belonging to this silly club.
- Ouspensky, P.D. Tertium Organum.
Weird philosophical mind-bender from the famous Russian mystic.
- Pirsig, Robert M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Great pop-philosophy. Limited, in a way, cheesy for sure, but still a fine modern expression of the ungraspableness of quality. I haven’t read it since I was in my early twenties though, and I’m reasonably confident I wouldn’t find it anywhere near as mind-blowing as I did then, so it’s here as much for old times’ sake.
- 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.
- Perret, Jacques. Traffic in Horses.
My favourite short story (or at least up there with The Death of Ivan Ilyitch). Epic.
- Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation.
Another classic, indispensable guide to the road to the nightmarish now. Pulls its punches, but explains the unreality of the market and the extraordinary violence required to form the world in its image. Also recommended, on the same subject, the excellent The Origins of Capitalism by Michael Perelman and The Origins of Capitalism: A Longer View by Ellen Meiksins Wood.
- Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time (trans. Terence Kilmartin & Scott Moncrieff).
Has to go in this list. It does go on a wee bit though. And it does get exhausting picking apart the minutest microns of flavour from the threads and buttons of one’s life. And the whole point — using the present to reconstruct your past — is kind of silly. But these books are, quite emphatically, not about ‘the point’.
- Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet.
Beautiful advice, almost too beautiful, on how to be alone.
- 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 woke up one day with a sense of smell three hundred5 times more sensitive than normal and could smell glass.
- Sass, Louis. Madness and Modernism.
My favourite book on, erm, madness and modernism. Explains both in ways that make sense of everything else. Here’s my account of the same subject.
- Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation Vol.1 & 2 (trans. Christopher Janaway).
Schopenhauer was the last great — and readable (not to mention funny) — philosopher of the west. In some ways, I think, he was the only philosopher of our culture. Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Nietzsche and Sartre all said some good stuff — and were all deeply indebted to Schopenhauer, but the old goat beats them, hands down. Yes, he invited soldiers into his house to shoot at the mob, yes he was a raging misogynist and yes, he was neurotic to the point of stupefaction; and his reactionary, woman-hating6, anxiety clearly colours his view of reality… but somehow, still, what he said is impossible to ignore, particularly if if you are heart-blasted enough to be home to (or in love with) artistic genius and the ineffable they strive to realise.
Schopenhauer has more of value to say about life than any philosopher in the Western tradition. There is so, so, so much good stuff in his work that, well, you can’t forgive him his failings, but only an idiot would let those interfere with his strengths, which are many. As Schopenhauer said, it is far easier to pick apart the errors of great minds (and in his case they were great) than to appreciate the whole of their almighty gifts. (Here’s my overview).
If you don’t have a year of deep study to spare for reading through Schopenhauer, you can lighten your load, and get a very nice overview of modern philosophical thought, by reading Bryan Magee’s excellent introduction, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer. Don’t bother with Janaway’s various essays and guides — he doesn’t understand Schopenhauer.
- Shakespeare, William. King Lear.
I find Shakespeare a bit boring — particularly his ludicrous comedies. Yes, the poetry is the greatest in the English language (highly recommended; Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being by Ted Hughes) and the multi-dimensional characterisation fascinating, and that very sweet innocent cheery vibe is delightful; but I find it impossible to ignore how contrived the stories are, how boring the festivals of pun and how dull and remote some of the heroes.
None of that is true for the tragic masterpieces though. King Lear is devastating. A good production expresses the immortal truth of mortal man. In King Lear Shakespeare also pulls 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 as is Richard II, Macbeth and The Tempest. Othello I could never quite get on with so much, not sure why, and ‘The Henriad’, despite being full of miraculous observations on the human condition, some mental speeches (this one for example) and, of course, a parade of unique individuals, always leave me with a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. All that fighting I think, and patriotism. I’m still to explore a few others.
- Shalamov, Varlam. Kolyma Tales.
Nearly as good as If This is a Man. Far superior, at least, to Solzhenitsyn’s preachy egotism.
As bleak as you would suppose from a collection of vignettes about life in Stalin’s gulags, yet, somehow, Shalamov manages — in the humility of his observations — to bring, if not meaning to the meaningless, which is probably too much to ask — at least life. There is something here for all of us.
You may have noticed I like death camp testimonies. Cheery stuff. I should probably make honourable mention of Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl, another holocaust tale. I find Frankl’s philosophy a bit superficial, but his accounts of how he reached it are priceless; ‘on average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence’. Replace ‘camp’ with ‘ring-road business park’ and you’ve got yourself some top-level employment mentoring there. Yeah… generally, I find, stories of prison life make for good reading when I’m working in an office. Not sure why.
- Sharaf, Myron. Fury on Earth.
Biography of the great Wilhelm Reich, who went completely out of his tree, but, before that, made observations about the relationship between sexuality, muscular tension and totalitarian control which are immortally valid.
- 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.
- Spengler, Oswald. Decline of the West
Enormously influential (Joseph Campbell cites him as his primary influence), thrillingly insightful and surprisingly beautiful, morphology of history, in which societies are presented as organic structures. Some difficult sections, but the effort is worth it (read the complete edition, not the edited down version). His Man and Technics is also very good.
- 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.
- The Gospels.
Not terribly fashionable, at least amongst people with two eyebrows, but I happen to dig that Jesus fella, at least once the bullshit of the church is stripped from his message. I’m also a fan of medieval Christian mysticism, particularly Thomas á Kempis, Meister Eckhart and even that obfuscating loon Jacob Boehme. Again you have to do a bit of work to strip doctrine from their writings (and add love-making, the vast blind-spot of mystics everywhere) but their love of the ineffable and their understanding of what gets in the way of it is, in the most ‘literal’ sense, inspiring.
- 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.’ …and an enormous number of such-like observations. Great writers are full of such things, ringing off the pages. Mediocre writers, the vast, vast, vaaaast majority, manage to string a book out of one idea at best.
- Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace (trans. Maude).
For me, as for Isaak Babel (whoever he is), ‘If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.’ He’s not talking about five hundred characters (although only a few main ones, so easier to follow than it seems), but that they are revealed in ways that speak. Characters enter and Tolstoy moves from the interior of one, then the other, and, with the minimum of fuss, reveals who they are, what they want or need, how that makes them behave, and how that makes other people think… and all the confusion, disappointment, surprise is so truthful; so simple and material, yet so extraordinarily penetrating.
Not quite as Bright and Flashing, but every bit as good, and more ‘contained,’ is Anna Karenina which is packed full of immortal, sensate observations on the human condition, the authenticating stamp of genius. Example; when Anna is arguing with her stiff, cold husband and he, full of emotion, says a word in a weird way and she, crushed with abjection, finds it funny, then feels ashamed for finding it funny.
So very few authors do this, show that they can actually see their fellows.
Or try this quote (not of Anna, another character visiting Anna): ‘All that day she felt as if she were acting in a theatre with better actors than herself, and that her bad performance was spoiling the whole affair’. Dunno about you, very funny I find that kind of thing.
- Ungerer, Tomi. The Underground Sketchbook.
Or The Poster Art of Tome Ungerer; anything which displays his brilliant one-image absurdities. The stories aren’t quite as good.
- Valmiki. The Ramayana.
Exquisite, exuberant, utterly over-the-top epic poem.
- 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 (actually Anarchist) 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. Doesn’t quite get to the point, but rightly thrilling.
- 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 (such people usually call themselves ‘philosophers’)
- Zerzan, John. Elements of Refusal.
This, Zerzan’s first, has some dull stuff about the labour movement. Zerzan’s writing often contains stodge, and I completely disagree with him on gender and race (in which his incorrigible leftism shows); but so many devastating and eye-opening critiques of civilisation. Why Hope? is fantastic also. A good introduction might be his recent People’s History of Civilisation.
Should probably mention Fredy Perlman here. His ‘Against His-Story, Against Leviathan’ is superb — if somewhat off-putting stylistically, given to dubious fancy and very abrupt in the conclusion department.
- Or, to put it another way, ‘A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones — for life is short.’
- Not that such posturers don’t always make up the greater part of the official pantheon which, as D’Alambert reminded us, is full of frauds who’ll be kicked out the moment they die and geniuses who were not allowed entry while they lived.
- Magarshack translations; without doubt the best.
- I’ve heard Magarshack’s biography is more incisive and (obviously) shorter, but I can’t find a copy.
- I might be exaggerating there.
- Although, as you would expect, vituperative dismissals of Schopenhauer’s admittedly one-sided, sexist and appallingly dismissive attitude to women are, themselves, usually sweeping, reactive and miss many of the nuances of Schopenhauer’s ideas about how women perceive reality, his praise for their discerning presence, along with his savage criticisms of men.