Die Homepage von Ben Martin: Recommended Literature

Recommended Literature

19.03.2007

For some reason, lately the topic of literature and my idiosyncratic taste therein has come up conspicuously. Furthermore, I have been experimenting with LibraryThing and, as a result, considering the books in my library. Thus, I decided to try to create a sort of master list of works that I personally have found to be especially valuable, complete with some of the reasons for why these particular works are of interest to me. And, of course, I hope other people will consider reading anything on this list they haven't yet read, though I will understand if they don't. I myself am very, perhaps excessively, selective, since I don't spend much time reading books, and I tend to read them slowly. Sadly, the works on this page represent a measurable fraction of the things I have read, and there are many notes here about things I haven't read yet but have been planning to (in some cases, for more than ten years).

I tend to take a negative approach to things, but for now I'm trying to be more positive and sticking to things I think people should read. If you've discussed literature with me, though, you'll know I think some prominent books are not worth reading. If you don't know what those are, you'll have to ask me. You can probably make a fair guess of how my tastes run from this list, though.

In addition to this list, you might be interested in the incomplete but representative list of books I own on LibraryThing. I have also made bibliographies of books on the New Testament and books on church and state issues which are much less even lists, and obviously of very narrow interest, though they have some very good books on them as well, so if you're really bored and you've read all of these, you might take a look. I should probably get around to creating a publicly visible to-read list eventually, as well. I will of course link to it from here when I do.

Incidentally, I don't own all of the books on this list. Some I've read online or while on loan from the library. I've tried to link to online versions when I could find ones that were good enough. Some books, or my preferred translations thereof, are still under copyright. In some cases I've included ISBN numbers for those books, if I thought it would be helpful. In some cases there are enough quality editions, I didn't think it was helpful and I've left them off.

Oh, and these books are in no particular order, in general. This isn't, that is to say, a ranking.

Fiction, Drama, and Poetry

  • Kidnapped
  • Robert Louis Stevenson; 1886
  • While this isn't the most philosophically complex novel I have ever read, it is certainly the finest adventure novel I have ever read, and written as well or better than most "serious" novels I've encountered. Kidnapped is my favorite novel.
  • Complete text (Project Gutenberg), complete text (UVa, includes illustrations)
  • Also recommended: David Balfour, the (lesser) sequel; The Black Arrow, more good Stevensonian adventure; and probably just about anything else by Stevenson; but probably not Treasure Island, which is disappointingly dull and bland in comparison to Kidnapped
  • The Iliad
  • Robert Fagles, translator; 1990
  • I am obsessed with epics, this one included. They fit well into my idea of literature as philosophy. As for The Iliad itself, it's little wonder the ancient Greeks were so taken with it. There are some great passages (my favorite still being Achilles' encounter with Lycaon in Book XX) but what strikes me the most about the text is the ambivalence about violence, as it displays the Greeks as victims of themselves and their gods. While I haven't read The Iliad in its entirety in any other translation, I have skimmed some others, and Fagles' still strikes me as the most vibrant.
  • Relevant ISBNs: 0140445927 (paperback), 0140275363 (hardcover)
  • Also recommended: For more epic literature, probably The Odyssey (not quite as good as The Iliad in my opinion); Beowulf; the Old Testament historical books; Lord of the Rings; and I suspect The Aeneid, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Icelandic sagas, though I haven't read them myself (Fagles' translation of The Aeneid is definitely on my to-read list though); also probably the movies Star Wars, Nausicaä, and Princess Mononoke (the latter two of which also deal with the problem of violence)
  • Macbeth
  • William Shakespeare; 1606?
  • Shakespeare is, it goes almost without saying, likely the greatest English author ever. No one else uses the language quite as well as he does. And of all his plays, Macbeth is by far my favorite. It's short and to the point, it has one of the strongest moral messages of any of his plays, contains some of his best character development in the Lord and Lady Macbeth, and it is elegantly written, possessing several of Shakespeare's most impressive soliloquies and an excellent example of his abilities at duplicitous wordplay.
  • Complete text (Project Gutenberg), though obviously in Shakespeare's case, a good critical edition is probably a better choice if you haven't read it before
  • Also recommended: Julius Caesar for another great example of Shakespearean tragedy and more good soliloquies, and King Lear for another Shakespeare tragedy similar in tone
  • Julius Caesar
  • William Shakespeare
  • Julius Caesar is probably my second favorite tragedy (and play) by Shakespeare. Interestingly, I find it to be in many ways opposite Macbeth. Whereas Macbeth relies on tight poetry and relentless pacing, Julius Caesar is a more "dramatic" work with more relaxed pacing. Julius Caesar is, while just as much tragic as Macbeth, not nearly as dark. But certainly one of the biggest differences between the two plays is that while in Macbeth we have sympathetic villains where eventually the lines between good and evil and clearly demarcated, in Julius Caesar we have a pattern almost the opposite, with on the whole much more moral ambiguity. Thus, what is probably the most haunting aspect of Julius Caesar: The question of who, if anyone, was right? (And the fact that the answer is clearly not Marc Antony makes his speech all the more brilliant for its biting irony.)
  • Complete text (Project Gutenberg), though obviously in Shakespeare's case, a good critical edition is probably a better choice if you haven't read it before
  • Also recommended: Macbeth for another great Shakespearean tragedy
  • King Lear
  • William Shakespeare
  • I definitely prefer Macbeth, but King Lear is another one of Shakespeare's plays that is particularly well-constructed and to the point.
  • Complete text (Project Gutenberg), though obviously in Shakespeare's case, a good critical edition is probably a better choice if you haven't read it before
  • Also recommended: Macbeth, the best tragedy from Shakespeare
  • As You Like It
  • William Shakespeare
  • I tend to appreciate Shakespeare's tragedies much more than his comedies (and his historical plays are an entirely different matter - who knew such a talented author could be so boring?), so I have less strong feelings about them. Much Ado About Nothing, The Twelfth Night, and The Merchant of Venice all have some good stuff in them (though of course, The Merchant of Venice also has the problem of extreme controversy - I'm inclined to buy the theory that Shakespeare is rejecting anti-semitism, but who knows), but on the whole I don't find them nearly as memorable as the tragedies. As You Like It, on the other hand, while not perhaps being Shakespeare's most eloquent play, has such a ridiculous and endearing end that it is hard not to like, and it's certainly not forgettable. Though I can't claim to remember exactly how the convoluted plot goes without re-reading the whole thing.
  • Complete text (Project Gutenberg), though obviously in Shakespeare's case, a good critical edition is probably a better choice if you haven't read it before
  • Also recommended: Much Ado About Nothing, The Twelfth Night, and The Merchant of Venice as other good Shakespearean comedies; any of Shakespeare's tragedies except Romeo and Juliet - why, Shakespeare, why?
  • Crime and Punishment (Преступление и наказание)
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky (Фёдор Достоевский), 1866
  • While Kidnapped is both my favorite novel and the best written English-language novel I have read, Crime and Punishment is the greatest novel I have read. Dostoevsky's reputation is justly deserved. This novel is simultaneously philosophically complex and deep, absorbing, and dramatic (in a technical sense). Dostoevsky manages to make even his most evil characters sympathetic without ever excusing their actions - which is especially important here as it relates to one of the main themes of the story. It's long but worth it.
  • Complete text (Project Gutenberg)
  • Also recommended: The Brothers Karamazov is probably another one to read, though I have to confess to not having finished it. Given the pace at which I manage to get through books, I haven't gotten around to reading anything else by Dostoevsky yet. But I'm sure they're all excellent. My understanding is also that if you like Dostoevksy you'll like Tolstoy, but again, I can't vouch for that personally.
  • The Caucasian Chalk Circle (Der kaukasische Kreidekreis)
  • Bertolt Brecht
  • I had to read Der kaukasische Kreidekreis for a German literature class (I think that's what class it was, anyway). I'm particularly sympathetic to Brecht's didactic style, as, again, it fits well with my conception of literature (or in this case, drama) as philosophy. Besides that, it's just well written and entertaining. And, while it has something of a socialistic message, I think even those not very sympathetic to that philosophy will be at least a little sympathetic to it (I was, anyway, since I read this during my "staunch capitalist" phase). (Incidentally, while the play is in German, it is was first staged in English, so you can feel less guilty than usual for reading this work in something other than its original language, though if you can read some German, might as well go for it in that language; it's not a particularly difficult read.)
  • Relevant ISBNs: 3518100319 (paperback, German) (obviously you can also get it in English, I just don't have any relevant ISBNs for it)
  • 1984
  • George Orwell, 1949
  • Orwell was a genius. Not so much a literary genius, just - a genius. He combined a depth of perception to his own times surpassing that of almost everyone else, with an amazing predictive ability. 1984 is a good exemplar of both talents, though especially Orwell's predictive skill. In fact 1984 is not so much a novel as it is a work of philosophy and sociology - and a brilliant one at that. It's difficult to overstate the importance of this book. It's a veritable prerequisite to reasoned discussion of modern politics both domestic and international, as Orwell exposes many of the most subtle and dirty tricks of politics. On top of all of this analysis of the system, Orwell also subtly (almost too subtly - or else I am simply making it up) raises the question of how one should respond to such a corrupt system. And on top of everything else he manages to craft an engaging and haunting story out of all of it. This book certainly cemented George Orwell's place in the English canon.
  • Also recommended: Animal Farm, and anything else by Orwell (including nonfiction), for more exploration of many of the themes raised here and many other, related ideas of great importance; Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury for more and vaguely similar dystopianism; the movie Brazil for more and still related dystopianism; the movie RoboCop to a lesser extent for a different kind of dystopianism; and I'm guessing V for Vendetta though I haven't seen or watched it yet
  • Animal Farm
  • George Orwell, 1945
  • Animal Farm is just plain more great stuff from Orwell. It also has a classic ending which is haunting and memorable.
  • Also recommended: 1984, and anything else by Orwell (including nonfiction)
  • The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke
  • Arthur C. Clarke
  • Clarke is by far my favorite science fiction author (being thoughtful, credible, and, importantly, able to put words together better than the average sixth grader), and one of my favorite authors in general, for that matter. Where Clarke really shines are his short stories. Some are notable for being ridiculously realistic (Clarke's works are exemplars of "hard science fiction", that is, realistic science fiction; the opposite of "space opera") some for being deeply philosophical, and some just for being witty. I have found very few stories by Clarke that I did not find particularly interesting. It helps also that short stories happen to be my favorite literary format, I'll admit. But still I think Clarke manages to get more out of the format than most. This is one of those desert island books; if I could have only one book of science fiction, this is what I would pick. (It's rather convenient, incidentally, that you can now get all of Clarke's short stories in one place for a reasonable price, though I also have lots of small anthologies floating around my bookshelves as well.)
  • Relevant ISBNs: 0312878214 (hardcover)
  • Also recommended: Childhood's End, 2001, 2010 for Clarke in novel-sized pieces; Isaac Asimov's short stories, especially his robot stories, and probably his novels also, for additional hard sci-fi (Asimov isn't nearly as good of a writer as Clarke is - no, really, you have no idea - but he is very nearly as intelligent and thoughtful, so his works are good reading from a content perspective); short stories or novels by Philip K. Dick for philosophical and witty science fiction; probably things by Poul Anderson more hard sci-fi (I've read things by Anderson, but it was actually fantasy not hard sci-fi); and probably things by Robert Heinlein for more hard sci-fi, if you can stand the philosophy (I haven't actually read much Heinlein, so...); oh, and of course Star Trek
  • Childhood's End
  • Arthur C. Clarke, 1953
  • While Clarke writes excellent short stories, his novels tend to be somewhat less impressive, tending to be thin thematically and somewhat rambling in plot. Childhood's End bucks that tendency. While it is certainly more literary than many science fiction novels, what makes it really of more lasting value is its audacious question: What is the fate of humanity? Obviously, those of us with our own ideas about that, especially theological ideas about that, may find Clarke's not-very-serious answer to that question less than satisfying, but the point here is not to answer the question, but to raise it, and that Clarke does well.
  • Also recommended: 2001; 2010; any of Clarke's short stories; "Robot Visions" by Isaac Asimov for a very different take on how humans could end up
  • I, Robot and the other "robot stories"
  • Isaac Asimov
  • Isaac Asimov was not a great writer in the sense of someone who was a master of the English language. By that standard he wasn't even a good writer. What he was was a scientist with an interest in mystery literature who had a talent for managing to create stories out of crises of logic - usually based on his famous "Three Rules of Robotics" which have not an immense amount to do with actual artificial intelligence research, admittedly. Still their complexities and conflicts make for interesting and sometimes thought-provoking stories. (And while Asimov's stories may not be the most accurate portrayal of how intelligent robots would have to work, they do still raise issues of relevance to those interested in the ethics of robotics, for all two of us interested in that.)
  • Also recommended: Anything by Arthur C. Clarke; there are some similar stories by Philip K. Dick, most notably the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (and the movie Blade Runner based on the same); the movie Wargames; there are definitely some relevant episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation dealing with Data, of course; maybe RoboCop
  • Fahrenheit 451
  • Ray Bradbury, 1953
  • Fahrenheit 451 is an excellent dystopian novel. It's not nearly as radical as 1984, but then Bradbury's point is not really so much political as it is cultural.
  • The short stories and poems of Poe
  • Edgar Allen Poe
  • I don't usually go for the sort of things Poe writes, but somehow Poe makes it all work. Probably what sells me the most is his sense of irony. I'm something of an irony addict; it's practically chemical. It may be chemical. But, anyway, Poe has a talent for it. But besides reading something like the nineteenth century's version of The Twilight Zone, I think there's not much doubt that they're good literature too, but then, my opinion may be biased.

    Some of my favorite Poe stories are "The Tell-tale Heart," "Ligeia," "William Wilson," "The Premature Burial," "The Cask of Amontillado," and the Dupin stories "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Purloined Letter" which figure prominently in the history of mystery literature, and of course the poem "The Raven." I do not recommend "The Black Cat" which is far too twisted even for my tastes.

  • Poe's works from Project Gutenberg
  • Also recommended: This one's a little tough; to some extent Bradbury, who shares some of Poe's sensibilities and sometimes references him, though I am not a huge Bradbury fan; Rod Serling, also (speaking of The Twilight Zone)
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
  • Douglas Adams
  • I'm not as big of a fan of the Hitchhiker's books as some people are, but I do think they are excellent books (well the first two, maybe three, anyway - after that it gets a little iffy). Besides being an entertaining writer through both his use of language and the ridiculous situations he creates, Adams is making some serious points. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy isn't satirizing science fiction - it's satirizing life - and that's what makes it so valuable.
  • The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy
  • J. R. R. Tolkien
  • First off, I do have some reservations about The Lord of the Rings. I don't think the accusations of racism or sexism will be settled anytime soon, and on those I can see both sides to an extent, but on the whole since it is ambiguous I don't really let it bother me. What concerns me more is the way Tolkien approaches the good-evil divide, his portrayal of certain species as inherently evil, and the relience on practically genocidal violence. Those are all things to be concerned about. Or at any rate, they drastically diminsh my appreciation of the story because of that. (I should note that The Hobbit tends to bother me less, on the whole.) The reasons I like Tolkien's fantasy is in spite of these problems. I like Tolkien's Middle Earth stories because (1) he is a competent writer - in fact, his is just about the only fantasy I've read that I can stand, (2) he constructs his universe with nearly complete consistency and with attention to detail, (3) he draws on his knowledge of northern European literature and language injecting some realism, versimilitude, and additional interest to those with some background or interest in that area, and (4) he makes a serious attempt to recreate a mythological epic, especially in the Nordic and English tradition, reintroducing a genre that had essentially died out (and a genre that happens to be of particular interest to me). I don't think Tolkien expected The Lord of the Rings to be our Iliad, but he seems to have written it as if it could.
  • Also recommended: See the list of recommeded reading for the Iliad, but especially Beowulf and the Icelandic sagas, of course, which Tolkien draws from extensively
  • Beowulf
  • I love epics, I love Old English; how could I not love Beowulf? Though it occurs to me I've never actually read the second part of Beowulf... Anyway, I don't have a favorite translation of Beowulf. I own Howell Chickering, Jr.'s translation (in a bilingual edition), and I find it a little hard to read, for such a recent translation. So, you're on your own there.
  • Text on Project Gutenberg; another version; yet another version; Old English version
  • Also recommended: All of the usual epics, especially Lord of the Rings, the Icelandic sagas

Other things I would consider recommending might include the novels of Jane Austen (despite the inherently classist nature of them - oh, no, how will the Dashwoods survive with only three servants?), Out of the Silent Planet by Lewis but not his other science fiction, the poems of Alexander Pope, and such. But by that point we're getting rather far down the list. Something I would consider recommending with heavy qualification would be Paradise Lost. The only reason I would read that would be for the excellent, practically Shakesperean soliloquies Milton gives to Satan, of all people. The rest of it one could safely skip, I'm inclined to say. Incidentally, Paradise Lost is the most dense and painful poetry I have read in English. I'm not saying it's bad, just that it's dense and painful.

Nonfiction

  • Chuang-Tzu (Zhuangzi) (莊子)
  • Chuang Tzu/Zhuangzi (stupid romanizations...), ca. 400 B.C.
  • Zhuangzi is one of my favorite works of philosophy. It's one of the founding works of Taoism, though many (and you include me, though I lack the expertise to make a wholly informed decision on the matter) choose to view it outside of that tradition. Zhuangzi has a somewhat twisted view of the universe, a sort of go with the flow and don't try to fight nature approach, and one that I am sympathetic to even if I don't embrace it wholly. No one will ever accuse Zhuangzi of not being thought-provoking, though. This work is also a great work of literature, having an unusual literary format for a philosophical work, as it consists nearly exclusively of anecdotes. Exposition is done through the voices of characters in the stories when mere plotting is inadequate to get the point across. As much interest as I have in China, you can blame it almost entirely on Zhuangzi. Note that there are the "inner chapters," which are considered to be the original text, more or less, and also the larger work, much of which is considered to be spurious. Many translations are only of the "inner chapters." The translation I've read Zhuangi in was Burton Watson's, which, based on my very informal research, is still a good one to go with. A. C. Graham's is another major one, it sounds interesting if problematic; there's Arthur Waley's; and Victor Mair's which sounds especially interesting (apparently being more concerned with the literary nature of the text than most); and there are of course more. There's also Thomas Merton's paraphrase which some people seem to really like.
  • Relevant ISBN: 0231086067 (paperback, Watson translation)
  • Also recommended: Analects of Confucius for a very different ancient Chinese philosophy; Baghavad Gita for a somewhat different (Indian) view of "unattached action"; and all the usual suspects in philosophy and theology
  • The Analects
  • attributed to Confucius
  • Even in just the abstract I don't necessarily care for Confucianism all that much, but the format of the Analects makes it much more interesting to me.
  • Translation by James Legge on Project Gutenberg
  • Also recommended: Zhuangzi for a very different ancient Chinese philosophy; Mencius (an important Confucian); Hsün-Tzu/Xún Zǐ (yet another important Confucian, whom I have still not gotten around to reading, but I plan to); Proverbs; anything by Plato; all the usual philosophy
  • Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten)
  • Immanuel Kant, 1785
  • When I first was forced to read this in college, I was not optimistic - even in translation into modern English, this is probably the most painful prose I have ever read. But, when I read I realized that I had spent my life reinventing an ethical system that had been laid out over 200 years ago. Many have pointed out the problems of Kant's ethics, and no one would take you seriously today if you adopted it in whole, but you have to start here, really, to get past this philosophy. And, at least for me, I think there is still much to learn from this approach. Furthermore, while the writing here is not beautiful, the ideas are, and that alone makes reading this worth it for those with an interest in ethics and the time to read this (which was admittedly easier for me, given that I had to). Incidentally, this is also where the categorical imperative comes from.
  • English translation by Abbott on Project Gutenberg; Relevant ISBN: 087220166X (paperback, translation by James W. Ellington)
  • Also recommended: More stuff by Kant, especially The Metaphysics of Morals; anything by Descartes; the usual stuff on ethics, of which After Virtue by Alasdair Macintyre and Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle I've read and can suggest (for a granted very different take on ethics), but beyond that you're largely on your own
  • Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy
  • René Descartes, 1637 and 1641
  • Descartes' approach to philosophy was one I was immediately sympathetic to. Descartes is audacious enough to throw everything away, and start all over from the beginning. But, unlike Socrates, he has a firm idea of how far he can go before doubt becomes meaningless. Descartes' philosophy is, like Kant's ethics, something you can't really get by with claiming to adhere to today, and for good reason (though I'm inclined to think people are a little too hard on Descartes, but who cares about my opinion?). But even so, these are worth a read. And besides, you'll finally know what the point of "I think therefore I am" is.
  • English translation of Discourse on Project Gutenberg; French text of Discourse on Project Gutenberg; English translation of Meditations on Wikisource
  • Also recommended: Plato; Kant; and just about anything else in philosophy, I'm sure, though especially Pascal, I suppose (haven't read him, incidentally)
  • Meno and The Republic
  • Plato
  • Reading Plato is critical to understanding western history. In college they made me read Meno, which is a very good, brief introduction to the Socratic/Platonic skeptical approach to philosophy (which Plato eventually deviated from somewhat). I had to go read The Republic on my own though (which was very disappointing; what were they thinking? of course, I got to read Chuang Tzu in large part because of that decision). The Republic is sort of the best exemplar of Plato's approach, and also contains some early attempts to outline the importance of philosophy, including the famous cave metaphor, and those are probably the best reasons to read it. Well, that and the fact that just about everyone since Plato has had to read. That's not a good reason to read bad books, but The Republic is not a bad book. I should note though also that The Republic is the first in a long line of utopian literature, but its utopian conceptions are in many ways disturbing (sans its early and countercultural egalitarianism, which is so absent elsewhere in Plato), so I can't recommend you read it for that, unless you are particularly interested in utopian literature.
  • English translation of The Republic by Benjamin Jowett, English translation of Meno by Jowett; Greek text of Meno on Perseus; Greek text of The Republic on Perseus
  • Also recommended: Anything else by Plato; anything by Aristotle; anything else in philosophy

I'm sure I've left many good books out. I've intentionally left out Life of Johnson by Boswell, which, while it has definitely corrupted me, I'm not sure it would be of the same value to other people (or me anymore, for that matter). Other books that come to mind looking at my book shelf would include Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by a man whose place in history is justly deserved; The Confessions by Augustine; and there are many other good works that fit in a historical context, but they haven't necessarily shaped (or reflected in some cases) the way I think to the same degree these other books have. I've also omitted academic works and text books. The reason for leaving of the latter should be obvious, though it means I have omitted any books that address the topics of computing or math, since I haven't really read any popular books on those topics that I would recommend to a general audience, but I would definitely reading as much as possible on math - you can never know too much math, you will always find a use for more, trust me. Academic works are a little different, but most are of too narrow an interest to be relevant here. Thus, while I really, really like Canon of the New Testament by Metzger and One Nation Under God by Noll, and I do recommend them, I'm not sure I would want to put them on the same list as, say, The Republic. I've also passed on some more popular but somewhat narrow (in scope, that is) books like Jesus and the Christian Origins Outside the New Testament by Bruce, which I found very interesting but is probably too specific to make this list.