Literary Saturday: Lifetime Reading List
Published on: April 10, 2010
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  • May I humbly suggest that any reading list should include Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation Of Dreams While much in Freud’s theories has been found to be wrong and much has been superceded, our current theories of mind all derive from his work, and Dreams is an excellent introduction to how he thought about the mind, and, as important, excellent literature.

  • GS

    Thank you for having team Mead work on this vitally important topic. I look forward to seeing more and more books listed.

    My own suggestions would be 1984, Animal Farm, Brave New World and Catch-22.

  • Luke Lea

    “Since nobody really comprehends the vast flow of world history, and especially not as the many histories of many peoples mingle together as the current accelerates so dramatically in these latest times . . .” Mead

    “History may be freedom, history may be servitude. . .” Eliot, Little Gidding

    I think Eliot offers a clue. History is the story of man’s struggle from servitude to freedom, which may or may not end successfully, but in which all the world’s peoples (all the world’s common peoples I mean) are fully engaged, even where you least suspect it.

    In which case history begins with the first human conquest, which really was “the original sin.” To understand why there is no better guide than Cambridge archaeologist V. Gordon Childe’s “What Happened in History.” It summarizes the story of another “great acceleration” in human affairs that was every bit as consequential (and disorienting) as the one we are in the midst of now. I would go so far as to say we cannot possibly appreciate what is happening now without first appreciating what happened then.

    Cambridge anthropologist Jack Goody’s “The Domestication of the Savage Mind” is also essential reading for anyone who wants to appreciate the significance of the appearance of the written word, and of the many various ways cultures based on the written word differ from those based on the spoken word only (as represented in the book of Genesis for example). There is no one else like Goody; he will enlighten you.

    I seriously doubt the present generation is “the best educated in history” — that distinction belongs to the generation after WWII, which was the golden age of liberal arts education in America. But maybe Mead can help make the next one even better. He’s on the right track.

  • fw

    Freud is a good suggestion; I’ve been surprised how many thinkers in unrelated fields have cited him as an influence. And it does seem that neuroscientists are identifying different structures in the brain responsible for various mental functions and instincts that in some way appear to correspond to his categories. And of course, the Auden poem commemorating his passing comes to mind as a reminder of the signal influence he has exerted on contemporary thought.

    I’ve often despaired about there being too many books and too little time. Gibbon, for all his length, seems like an economical way to tackle a great deal of history, but boy is it long.

    Clifton Fadiman published a lifetime reading list; I think it is still available, with some revisions that add books from the non-Western canon. But the effort reminds me of a line from Joseph Moncure March’s “The Wild Party” that echoes some of what Walter has said:

    “Books?
    Books?
    My god! You don’t understand.
    They were far too busy living first-hand
    For books.
    Books!”

  • WigWag

    I would add five books to Mead’s list. The first is poetry, the second is non-fiction, the third and fourth are works of fiction and the final book is work of criticism.

    1) Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” Many people don’t realize what an extraordinary celebration of the United States this book is. Along with Moby Dick which was written around the same period of time (amazingly despite the fact that they both lived in New York, Melville and Whitman never met), it is the greatest work ever produced by an American. Northing captures the American spirit the way Whitman did in his poems; he is just ebullient in his description of his native land, especially New York. Whitman worked on the book his entire life and there are 5 editions. The earlier editions are much better. As Whitman got older and as he gradually achieved his ambition of being the greatest American poet, he became more cognizant of his legacy and he began to self-censor to the detriment of the poems. If you’re only going to read one edition I recommend the 1860 edition; it’s the first to contain “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” By reading this edition you lose Whitman’s civil war poetry and his laments about the assassination of Lincoln, but the versions of the poems he wrote in 1860 are just better than the revised versions he published later. Every edition of Leaves of Grass can be read for free at the Whitman archives: http://www.whitmanarchive.org/

    2) Rebecca West’s “Black Lamb Gray Falcon.” This is the greatest work of non-fiction that I have ever read. West was an enormously popular British journalist and author who famously had a long affair with H.G. Wells and with whom she bore an out of wedlock son. Black Lamb Gray Falcon is a description of her journeys throughout the Balkans in the days leading up to World War II. She and her husband are guided on their journey through the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso of what would become Yugoslavia by her version of Virgil, the great Serbian poet Stanislav Vinaver whom she called *Constantine* in her book. “Black Lamb Gray Falcon” is a mediation on ethnic conflict, the beauty of travel in a foreign land, the importance of identity and the history of Southern Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Written shortly before the German invasion of Poland, it also provides an ominous foreshadowing of the terrible events then beginning to engulf Europe. The book also contains the single most vivid description of the events leading up to the assassination of Austrian Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand that has ever been written.

    3) Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” This book is Shakespearean in depth and highly reminiscent of Hamlet (I know Mead doesn’t like Hamlet very much). It’s about the clash between free will, or to put it another way, it’s about the clash between faith and reason. The book is Freudian before there was a Freud and it is a celebration of the importance of the open-mindedness which is on such powerful display here at Mead’s blog. Also, no one should ever serve on a jury before reading this book.

    4) Cervantes “Don Quixote.” Not much needs to be said about this, the first modern novel. In my opinion, “Don Quixote” is simply the best book ever penned by a homo sapient. By ecumenical acclimation, it should be added as an addendum to the holy books of every religion. Every reader who encounters the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance becomes acquainted with a different Don; the interpretations of this book are literally infinite. To me, the book is about mankind’s futile quest for immortality and about the twin blasphemies of pride and narcissism but there are many other ways to parse it. If I could only read one book for the rest of my life, this would be it. The recent Edith Grossman translation is magnificent.

    5) Paul Fussell’s “Great War and Modern Memory.” This is social critic, Paul Fussell’s magnum opus about the legacy of World War I. The Great War was the first major war where the majority of combatants were literate and it was the last major war before the onset of mass media. The impact of the War on modern identity in the West was profound. Through his analysis of the great British World War I poets like Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves and by examining stacks of letters, memoirs and other remembrances of soldiers who participated in trench warfare, Fussell explores how the War shaped our modern sensibilities and how it led directly to the sense of irony that pervades modern popular culture. It is truly a fabulous work.

  • fw

    Funny, I tried Karamazov a few years ago, and while allowing for his psychological insight, I thought that Dostoevsky stacks the deck against every character he employs to represent a school of thought he opposes. The rationalist brother goes sort mad, the peasant, who is implicated in the murder is sort of treated with contempt, in a way that I assume reflects Dostoevsky’s challenge to nascent socialist thought, he allows the one really sympathetic character isn’t sure whether the blood libel against Jews is true, and the two patriotic Poles are treated like tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum (with disturbing echoes of events between Poland and Russia that retain the power to haunt.) He just seems very proto-nationalist, like a forerunner of Solzhenitsyn, and every dissenting current of opinion is made to appear dangerous or ridiculous. That said, the characters are memorable. But I think Tolstoy was better at setting things in motion and letting them play out without any tendentious manipulation of the plot.

    Rebecca West, with whom I didn’t get very far, though I wish I had, definitely knew her Gibbon. She devotes space, if I recall, to a discussion of Diocletian’s palace in the Balkans, which is discussed in the decline and fall, in a memorable sequence describing Constantine’s rise to power.

  • Jean

    May I add a suggestion? All of Anthony Beevors’ books are worth reading – a fine historian who has mastered both the forest and the trees. Applebaum’s Gulag is another outstanding book exploring inhumanity.

  • Patrick

    “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell seems like it should be on any reading list. Great example of clear, simple writing.

  • WigWag

    fw, you’re right, West provides a very detailed description in “Black Lamb Gray Falcon” of Diocletian’s Palace; in fact she’s fascinated by it and mentions it throughout her 1,100 page book. The chapters that you’re referring to in particular are chapters 4 and 5 in the section on Dalmatia.

    West was both erudite and saucy. Her writing style was amazing and she was thoroughly versed in European history; she counted most of England’s intelligentsia as her friends, especially Virginia Woolf and George Bernard Shaw. She was also best friends with Wallace Shawn.

    Sent to cover the Nuremberg Trials, West promptly had a passionate but short lived love affair with the chief American prosecutor (and former Roosevelt confidant) Francis Biddle. She took dozens of lovers and discarded them like wilted flowers; one example was Charlie Chaplin, another was Lord Beaverbrook.

    West was truly a fascinating character. Numerous authors have been captivated by “Black Lamb Gray Falcon” including Robert Kaplan who based his book “Balkan Ghosts” on it.

    “Black Lamb Gray Falcon is on most lists of the 100 best books of the 20th century.

    You should go back and give it another try. It’s available on the kindle for $14.85.

  • Roy

    Would love to go back to it; I have a feeling this blog is going to schedule my reading into the next life.

  • GrayFlannelDwarf

    Very minor nit — but given how good biography it is I think it important enough.

    It is Ian Kershaw not Kerstow who wrote the 2 volume biography of Hitler.

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