Literary Saturday: Revolutionary Reads
Published on: May 16, 2010
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  • Joost Dirkzwager

    While one of course applauds young Mead’s reading plan he might consider an alternative use of his time by studying a foreign language. I would suggest French or Chinese.

  • joe

    As a continental counterpart to Carlyle and Burke on the French Revolution, I would recommend he read de Maistre. A true believer possessed by powerful ideas that prepared the way for much French and European socialist thought in the 19th century. Much like Karl Schmitt he is the thinker whose name most dare not speak, but he is no less important for it.
    Hayek’s the Road to Serfdom, if not for the economic bits then for his original research about the fungibility of Communist and SA thugs in Weimar Germany.
    The Younger Mead also needs a survey book of European History. I would recommend Norman Davies’ Europe: A History. It is fairly comprehensive, accessible and has a useful series of appendices where he can learn Cyrllic and trace the kings of England and France for future reference.
    Also the Y.M. needs to learn German, not French; language of the future for central Europe and possibly eastern Europe.

  • JM

    Dear Mr. Mead,

    I am undergraduate politics student in the UK who, similarly to your nephew, wished to start reading ‘starter classics’ before I got to university; partly in preparataion, partly in interest. Given your criterion of

    “books that I have found unusually helpful as I try to get a grip on what is going on in our world,”

    I thought I would recommend some works of non-fiction I wish I had read in preparation for college. Furthermore, given your emphasis on ‘revolutionary times’, it strikes me that books that are all the more extreme are the best way to develop one’s own opinions in reaction to the author’s. Here are five recommendations for your nephew:

    1) Carl Schmitt – The Concept of the Political (This, more than any other single book, completely reconfigured my understanding of the Bush Administration and the War on Terror. I now consider it a gem, despite it’s dark background)
    2) Edmund Burke – Reflections on the Revolution in France (I would interested to know why you chose Carlyle over Burke, especially because Burke is a seminal conversative writer who has generally been credited with propounding one of the clearest understandings of conservative values).
    3) Phillipe van Parijs – What’s Wrong with a Free lunch? (The issue of inequality today is as pertinent as ever, but this book is one of the best suggestions put forward by those on the far left for a while. The proposition: everyone gets a guaranteed (reasonable) basic income every year, conditional solely on citizenship. This thesis is highly provocative and certain to challenge despite its short length.)
    4) Amy Chua – World on Fire (I read this in high school and it informed my analysis of US foreign policy ever since. Five years later, it could almost serve as required reading for my democratization class. Highly recommended.)
    5) James Lovelock – The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning (Perhaps one of the greatest and most eccentric climate change scientists in existence, this is probably the single most pessimistic book on the subject ever written. Even if Lovelock is half right, we are still doomed. Exceptionally lucid, clear, concise and great for an overview of the ‘gaia hypothesis’.)

    As a politics student the ‘slant’ of the above list is clearly evident, however, these are books that I wish I had read (or studied more) back in high school. I was tempted to add a different Marx text but it would either be (a) Economic and philosophical manustripcs of 1844 (the theory), or (b) critique of the Gotha programme (the praxis), but these are merely personal – everyone has their own opinion as to what constitutes Marx “most important” writings.

    I would highly recommend (1), (3), and (5). All of these are less than 200 pages and, in their own way, examples of revolutionary thinking; no doubt appropriate for “revolutionary times”.

    I can understand your nephew’s predicament and hopefully some of the above helps.

    All the best & keep writing (I read your blog regularly!)

  • fw

    Joost, I think it’s a valid point, but I’m divided myself on it. There is, realistically, so little time to acquire mastery of any given subject, you run the risk of becoming a complete dilettante if you spread your studies too thin. Umberto Eco actually wrote an essay about this decades ago, in Travels in Hyperreality. His point, if I recall, is that it’s impossible to cover the entire canon (unless you’re Harold Bloom or Jacques Barzun, I guess), so you must create your own reading list comprising a subsection of the classics.

    No doubt there are counterexamples, but in my own experience, the people I’m acquainted with who are the best traveled, and are multilingual are not the ones with a strong command of literature, or philosophy, or science, for that matter. There is just an economy of time in which you have to allocate limited resources.

  • WigWag

    Starter Classics for Teenagers

    Here’s my list

    1) If the teenager is American he should read the two most important works of literature ever penned by Americans; “Moby Dick”(Herman Melville) and “Leaves of Grass.” (Walt Whitman)

    The fact that “Moby Dick” can be read in part as an adventure story might help keep young readers motivated. Once you read a novel as extraordinary as Moby Dick it makes it much easier to distinguish great literature from literature that is merely good.

    “Leaves of Grass” takes some study so it might be good to start with only certain parts like “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” or the Civil War Poems. Obviously the “Calamus Poems” and “Song of Myself” have alot of sexual content but if the teenager is mature (and if his parents or uncle can deal with it) “Song of Myself” is sure to keep the interest of a young reader; and of course, it’s incomparable.

    2) I would add two works by James Joyce: “Dubliners” and “Portrait of An Artist as A Young Man.” Both of these books are quite approachable for teenagers and they are truly great literature. Mastering these as a young person makes it much easier to read Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake later on in life.

    3) To learn to be an educated reader of poetry I would recommend the “Odes” by Pablo Neruda. There are excellent English translations available and any teenager who aspires to write poetry himself will get a good education in how to start by reading and even studying Neruda.

    4) For contemporary literature I would recommend two books; “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino and any of the short stories and novellas by Jorge Luis Borges.

    Calvino’s book really fires up the imagination and teenagers should have great fun applying their own sense of meaning to the various imaginary cities Marco Polo travels to at the behest of Kublai Khan.

    Borges stories are collected in two terrific volumes; “Ficciones” and “The Aleph.” Borges is, of course, the father of magic realism and it is hard to imagine a teenager who won’t be transfixed by his writing.

    5) For mature young readers who want to learn about the absolute horrors of war, I recommend the “Collected Works” of Wilfred Owen. The reader and his family should beware because the poetry can be shocking, but I’ve never read anything that describes the reality of war more poignantly. Owen was a British Infantryman who fought in the trenches mostly in Belgium during World War I. Along with Gottfried Sassoon and H.G. Wells who were his mentors, Owen wrote grippingly about the Great War. Tragically, Owen was killed in action at the Battle of Sambre near Ors, France just one week before World War I ended. The telegram from the British War office announcing his death arrived in his mother’s home just as the church bells were ringing announcing the Armistice. While the poetry is immensely sad and somewhat graphic, it is entirely approachable. Mature teenagers should find it very edifying. And of course when Owen wrote the poems he was little more than a teenager himself. Most of the poems were written in the trenches when Owen was between the ages of 22 and 24.

    6) Another great teenage poet was the Frenchman Arthur Rimbaud. He’s one of the most famous poets of France and virtually all of his poetry was written when he was between the ages of 16 and 19. Any translated collection of his poems will do, but again parents should be careful because some of the poems are sexually explicit (several describe his homosexual love affair with another great French poet, Paul Verlaine). Rimbaud was the classic enfant terrible who spent most of his older teenage years living in London where he wrote his poetry in the Reading Room of the British Museum which he favored because the ink was free.

    7) “King Lear” by Shakespeare. Teenagers are frequently directed towards “Romeo and Juliet,” “Julius Caesar” and “Hamlet.” I’ve always thought that “King Lear” should be on every high school student’s reading list. Why? To give them a little foreshadowing of how foolish people often become as they get older and to teach them how not to treat their aging parents (and uncle).

    8) “Don Quixote” by Cervantes. I first read it when I was 19; I’ve reread it at least 25 times (probably more). Every time I read it I take something different away from the story; your understanding of the Knight of the Mournful Continence and Sancho Panza evolves the older you get.

    Why should teenagers read “Don Quixote?” Because it is the single best book ever written.

    ps: For younger children, Professor Mead’s colleague from Yale, Harold Bloom, has written an entire book making recommendations about a reading list for pre-teens.

  • Arthur Melmed

    Like the NY Times annual book list, no books on science nor technology, the most deeply and profound drivers of modern circumstance. Needs an explanation.

  • Porphyrogenitus

    Some book recommendations:

    Setting asside stuff like Ninteen Eighty-Four or Heart of Darkness &tc, which should be read and I’m hoping he’s read already or will read, I’ll make the following fiction recommendations:

    1) Innocents Abroad by Twain

    2) I, Claudius by Graves – as long as it’s not confused as history

    3) Pride & Prejudice by Austin

    4) Gone With the Wind by Mitchell

    5) A Man in Full by Wolfe

    Something by Pournelle perhaps, but they probably aren’t considered “classic”.

    Anyhow, for Non-Fiction:

    1) Democracy in America by Toqueville

    2) A Constitution of Liberty by Hayek

    3) After Virtue by MacIntyre

    4) History of the English-Speaking Peoples by Churchill, though that might be too long.

    5) A Personal Odyssey by Sowell

    That last isn’t a “classic” I suppose but should be, and after that anything by Sowell can and should be read as well.

  • WigWag

    In case anyone is interested, here are some Harold Bloom recommendations for children, older pre-teens and younger teens (in no particular order).

    “The Wind in the Willows”, Kenneth Grahame
    “Through the Looking Glass,” Lewis Carroll
    “The Nonsense Books,” Edward Lear
    “Songs of Innocense,” William Blake
    “Kidnapped,” Robert Louis Stevenson
    “Treasure Island,” Robert Louis Stevenson
    “Little Women,” Louisa May Alcott
    “The Jungle Book,” Rudyard Kipling (warning; it isn’t politically correct)
    “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” (Mark Twain)
    “Huckleberry Finn,” Mark Twain
    “Ivanhoe,” Sir Walter Scott
    “The Three Musketeers,” Alexandre Dumas
    “The Count of Monte Cristo,” Alexandre Dumas
    “20 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” Jules Verne
    “Animal Farm,” George Orwell
    “The Man Who Was Thursday,” G.K. Chesterton
    “A Catcher in the Rye,” J.D. Salinger

  • Porphyrogenitus

    “I would interested to know why you chose Carlyle over Burke, especially because Burke is a seminal conversative writer who has generally been credited with propounding one of the clearest understandings of conservative values.”

    While Burke is a clear standard and has his claim to greatness, Carlyle is arguably a neglected giant (neglected for somewhat the same reasons as Schmitt & de Maistre – he’s known for some very unpopular positions); he had great insights into why we’ve ended up were we’ve ended up. He predicted a lot of the problems with the ideas of the other authors you recommended, before they were even born, while also not being a fan of unbridled markets.

  • K2K

    must reads for teenagers:
    1) “My Antonia” Willa Cather, coming of age in pioneer Nebraska by the best ever, yet nearly forgotten, American writer.
    2) “Bartleby the Scrivener” Herman Melville novella of soul-less alienation by modernity in 1853 New York City; could greatly reduce the number of lawyers and MBAs in our future if this was required reading in high school)
    3) “The Machine Stops” E.M. Forster’s 1909 short novella where individuals live in isolation cells below ground; all bodily and spiritual needs met by the ‘Machine’.
    4) “Road to Wigan Pier” George Orwell (might be the closest that a well-educated American teenager comes to how the working poor actually live)
    5) compare and contrast two utopias:
    “Looking Backward” Edward Bellamy, 1888 with “News from Nowhere” William Morris, 1890 (Morris wrote NFN in reaction to “Looking Backward”, then Morris retreated into the world of heroic fantasy, possibly his greatest literary legacy)

    The great challenge would be to integrate all of the above with the social studies curriculum in American high schools. I tried, and was excommunicated as a heretic 🙂

    btw, it is “Pride & Prejudice” by Jane Austen

  • K2K

    because Pakistan will no doubt remain a major challenge for everyone, I also recommend Daniyal Mueenuddin’s 2009 collection of short stories “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” which “evoke the complexities of the [modern] Pakistani feudal order” So very glad Mueenuddin wrote these in English, so nothing is lost in translation with his absolutely human portraits.

  • Nathan C

    I read Machiavelli’s Prince at about your nephew’s age and found it quite an eye-opener. Disillusionment is (perhaps unfortunately) a big part of adolescence and few are better for that than Machiavelli.

    For fun, I’d also recommend the Saga of the Volsungs. It would be good to round out his Greco-Roman paganism with some Teutonic paganism, and, for better or for worse, this story crops up again and again in the history of the West. It also succinctly demonstrates the nature of tragedy and the glorious despair of the ancient world. Lastly, the Volsungs is simply a gripping story. A readable translation (I recommend Jesse Byock’s) has far more action and drama than most contemporary popular fiction.

    Given the somewhat bleak nature of the last two works, I owe you something more uplifting. If your nephew shares your religiousity, he might do well to read Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, which deserves its reputation as a devotional classic. The book will also expose him to an element in Christianity (contemptus mundi) which is historically significant but lately somewhat eclipsed.

    Finally, while it isn’t really a classic, I recommend Anthony Flew’s How to Think Straight as a primer in how to recognize nonsense. Flew’s prose is very accessible and covers classical fallacies as well as more modern topics such as errors in statistics without too much in the way of axe-grinding.

  • Talleyrand

    Until you understand your own civilization and presuppositions, I’d think it’s difficult to understand any other. If students can’t get a classical education either by private school or homeschooling, I suppose a good dose of the major works of Western Civilization would be good.

    Plato, Apology, Crito, Gorgias, Republic
    Aristotle, Politics, Nicomachean Ethics
    Thucydides, Herodotus
    Augustine, City of God,
    Aquinas, Summa Theologicae, especially the section of Summa Theologicae that talks about law and its distinctions.
    Machiavelli, The Prince
    Everyone who hopes to have an understanding of world politics needs at least an elementary understanding of the military, part of which is the military mindset, so
    The Illiad and the Aeneid, as well. I am _not_ calling a professional military childish. But the epics demonstrate the ways that roots of war run far deeper than nation-states or even ideology. This is something that a combat veteran usually understands far better than a civilian.
    The Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, especially if the student is an American.
    Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations
    Hegel, Kant, Nietsche, Marx–all of those inform the way we look at the world.

  • Luke Lea

    Cleanth Brooks’s “Understanding Poetry” is a good introduction to English poetry. Worked for me.

    All of Shakespeare. Macaulay’s History of England. The Odyssey of course. Huck Finn, Tale of Two Cities, Hume’s Essay on Human Understanding, Selected Lincoln, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, First 100 pages of Wealth of Nations, Catcher in the Wry naturally, a little William James and Emerson, On the Road (audio version, best done on long car trip), . . .

    The trouble with a lot of great literature, especially novels is that it is intended for adults. The first time through as a youth you are just learning how to read. But then I was a late starter.

  • Luke Lea

    Also, St. Augustine’s Confessions, book of Genesis, 1st volume of Democracy in America, Federalist Papers, Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, ok on Communist Manifesto but no Nietzsche.

  • Luke Lea

    Also, some good biographies of Founding Fathers: Isaacson’s on Franklin is particularly good. Francis Perkins’s oral history (on line) is readable, funny, and a tremendous source of information about that period in history (1900-1940).

  • Luke Lea

    Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore.

  • Luke Lea

    Darwin’s Descent of Man. Feynman’s Surely You are Joking. Ok, I’ll stop.

  • Luke Lea

    Oops. Weinberg’s First Three Minutes. Gotta have science!

  • Luke Lea

    Patterson’s God in the Machine is a neglected masterpiece, and by a woman.

  • Luke Lea

    Ellen Gilchrist is our best living prose stylist. On growing up in the South she will give Twain a run for his money.

  • K2K

    a few film classics, again, for teenagers:
    “Singing in the Rain”

    “The American President”

    “Charlie Wilson’s War”

    “The Pianist” (the human face of the Holocaust)

    “Rules of Engagement” (to understand what our military faces in asymmetric warfare and the politics that can make that mission so impossible, story by now Senator James Webb)

    “Gran Torino”

    “High Noon”, followed by “The Unforgiven”

    “Sergeant York” to understand the America so many still yearn for

    “Dogma” (religious satire as cult film)

    “Gettysburg” (while reading Michael Shaara’s “Killer Angels”)


    “Sullivan’s Travels” (at least one Preston Sturges film)

    “A Song is Born”, the 1948 musical version of “Ball of Fire” from 1941. The eight professors include Benny Goodman, who is amazed when Danny Kaye discovers there is some new popular music that is called jazz, swing, boogie woogie or rebop.

    well, that was fun!

  • K2K

    the travel memoir is often overlooked, but no better genre to stimulate curiosity and originality.
    a good start:
    “The Road to Oxiana”, Robert Byron 1933

    “The Cotton Kingdom” Frederick Law Olmsted, 1861. (yes, he was a journalist before he tackled Central Park)

    “The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century” Ross E. Dunn, who provides extensive context to the memoir of the greatest traveler the world has ever had. Since it covers 75,000 miles over 29 years, the translation without context is considered a difficult read.

    and still the finest biography I have ever read:
    “Founder: A Portrait of the First Rothschild and His Time” Amos Elon

  • Luke Lea

    I’ll get that Rothschild bio. thanks, K2K

  • WigWag

    Two Great and Provocative American Movie Classics for Teenagers:

    1) “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”
    Directed by John Ford. Starring John Wayne, James Stewart and Lee Marvin

    2) “The Searchers”
    Directed by John Ford. Starring John Wayne, Vera Miles and Natalie Wood.

    These movies are far more than Westerns and can be enjoyed on many different levels, again and again.

  • K2K

    Luke Lea: you have inspired me to finally read Isaacson’s bio of Franklin.

    In thinking about how to engage teenagers to gain “a wide ranging knowledge of the history and exercise of power”, I rely on my preference for PAGE-TURNING 1) historically accurate novels like Herman Wouk’s “Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance”; 2) biographies that read like novels such as anything by David McCullough, Robert Caro, or Ron Chernow; and 3) history that reads like novels such as anything by Peter Hopkirk starting with “The Great Game”, William Dalrymple’s “The Last Moghul”, Margaret MacMillan’s “Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World”, and William Greider’s “Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country”.

    if only I had not been so turned off to literature and history in my freshman year of college because I took General Lit. I was not prepared for the classics at an elite college, having attended the abysmal public schools of Miami.

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