- HerodotusShow Details
Perhaps still underrated. Far more skeptical than you might expect. Culture, geography, and history. The longue durée in the context of the Persian Wars. Some great stories on the edge between myth and history. Make sure you get the Landmark edition.
If someone were to assign to every person in the world the task of selecting the best of all customs, each one, after thorough consideration, would choose those of his own people, so strongly do humans believe that their own customs are the best ones.
- ThucydidesShow Details
Realpolitik in action. A radically different approach to historiography from Herodotus. The classic war of the classical era. Make sure you get the Landmark edition.
Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
- Civilization & Capitalism, 15th-18th CenturyShow Details
A brilliant look at the origins of capitalism. The first volume is the best and can be read as a stand-alone book. It examines the changes in material life from 1400 to 1800: agriculture, food, dress, housing, towns, cities, energy, metals, machines, animals, transportation, money. Not just in isolation, but how these things come together to form coherent systems. Magisterially combines the panoramic with the minute.
In short, at the very deepest levels of material life, there is at work a complex order, to which the assumptions, tendencies and unconscious pressures of economies, societies and civilizations all contribute.
- The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip IIShow Details
More interesting due to its historiography than its history. The longue durée, the basics of material life, geography. How far back, and how far beyond the Mediterranean do we have to go in order to understand the Mediterranean world? A panoramic work.
I have always believed that history cannot be really understood unless it is extended to cover the entire human past
- Civilization & Capitalism, 15th-18th Century
- Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in ItalyShow Details
Non-narrative history in a beautiful style. Individuality, self-consciousness, modernity, nature, church vs state, artistic and scientific achievement.
As the majority of the Italian states were in their internal constitution works of art, that is, the fruit of reflection and careful adaptation, so was their relation to one another and to foreign countries also a work of art. [...] The purely objective treatment of international affairs, as free from prejudice as from moral scruples, attained a perfection which sometimes is not without a certain beauty and grandeur of its own. But as a whole it gives us the impression of a bottomless abyss.
- Hopkirk, The Great GameShow Details
Exciting narrative history about the 19th century battle for supremacy in Central Asia between Britain and Russia. Daring spies, gallant officers, treacherous khans, and fearless explorers fight across the deserts and mountains.
When play first began, the frontiers of Russia & British India lay 2000 miles apart; by the end, this distance had shrunk to 20 miles at some points.
- Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic BombShow Details
A comprehensive account of the development of the atomic bomb, from Rutherford's childhood in New Zealand and Bohr's father's philosophical influences to the nitty gritty of the Manhattan project. Covers not just the science, but the personalities, the engineering, the bureaucracies, the diplomacy, the war.
Enrico and I went to the reactor building . . . to watch the loading. The slugs were brought to the floor in solid wooden blocks in which holes were drilled, each of a size to contain a slug, and the wooden blocks were stacked much as had been the slug-containing graphite bricks in CP-1. Idly I teased Fermi saying it looked like a chain-reacting pile. Fermi turned white, gasped, and reached for his slide rule. But after a couple of seconds he relaxed, realizing that under no circumstances could natural uranium and natural wood in any configuration cause a chain reaction.
- E R Dodds, The Greeks and the IrrationalShow Details
An absolutely essential book that combines anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and history to chart the influence of irrational/supernatural ideas in Ancient Greek thought. It's partly a cultural history, partly an attack on the idea of a monolithic rationalistic Greek culture, partly an attack on whig history, and partly an examination of the relationship between the intellectual class and society. Shame culture vs guilt culture. Previous familiarity with Homer/Greek drama/Plato/Greek history recommended.
Man projects into the cosmos his own nascent demand for social justice; and when from the outer spaces the magnified echo of his own voice returns to him, promising punishment for the guilty, he draws from it courage and reassurance.
- Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello CiviliShow Details
A brilliant man in action. Do read the sequels on the Alexandrine War, the African War, and the Hispanic War (though they are not written by Julius Caesar). Once again, get the Landmark edition.
 But he, Caesar, was not about to take advantage of their humiliation or of any opportunity offered by this momentary circumstance to make demands that might increase his own power, He wanted only that those armies they had built up against him for many years now be discharged.  This was the only reason why six legions were sent to Spain and a seventh had been conscripted there, so many powerful auxiliary forces had been readied, and commanders with such extensive military experience had been delegated there.  None of this had been intended for the pacification of Spain or to meet the needs of a province that had been peaceful for a long time and did not require help at all.  For the longest time all these measures were being prepared against Caesar. Against him, new kinds of military command had been established, so that the same man could both, at the gates of Rome, control the city's affairs and be in charge for so many years of two very warlike provinces without ever being there.  Against him, the laws governing magistracies had been changed so that men were not sent out to their provinces after they had served as praetors and consuls, as had always been the case, but now were vetted and chosen by only a few men. Against him, the excuse of advanced age had been completely disregarded, as men who had proved capable in previous wars were summoned back to lead armies.  Against him alone, the principle was not observed that had always been granted to all successful commanders, which was that those who had been fortunate in their achievements could return home and discharge their army with honor or certainly without disgrace.  He, however, had endured all this patiently and would go on doing so. Even now it was not his intention to keep the army he had taken away from his opponents—although he could do this easily—but merely to make sure that his enemies did not have an army they could use against him.  Therefore, as he had stated, they were to leave the provinces and dismiss their army. If this was done, Caesar would not harm anyone. This was the one and final condition for peace.
- Becker, Pfaff & Rubin, Causes and Consequences of the Protestant Reformation
- Nietzsche: EverythingShow Details
We still live in a pre-Nietzschean society in the sense that his insights have not really penetrated public consciousness, so you have a lot to gain from studying him. Popular misconceptions of Nietzsche as a juvenile thinker, as a nihilist, etc. can be ignored completely. I recommend starting with Twilight of the Idols. Evolution, cultural evolution, evolutionary ethics, the social vs the animalistic elements of our psychology, the sources of values, truth as a value, how should we value values, the implications of atheism, what methodologies must philosophers employ, and much more. Also one of the greatest prose stylists of all time.
Let us therefore limit ourselves to the purification of our opinions and valuations and to the creation of our own new tables of what is good, and let us stop brooding about the “moral value of our actions”! Yes, my friends, regarding all the moral chatter of some about others it is time to feel nauseous. Sitting in moral judgment should offend our taste. Let us leave such chatter and such bad taste to those who have nothing else to do but drag the past a few steps further through time and who never live in the present—which is to say the many, the great majority. We, however, want to become those we are — human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves. To that end we must become the best learners and discoverers of everything that is lawful and necessary in the world: we must become physicists in order to be able to be creators in this sense—while hitherto all valuations and ideals have been based on ignorance of physics or were constructed so as to contradict it. Therefore: long live physics!
- Hume: EverythingShow Details
To a first approximation he got everything right. The errors are minor and understandable. A clear and concise writer and thinker. Adam Smith said that he approached "as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit."
If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.
- Richardson, Nietzsche's New DarwinismShow Details
A very dry scholarly book, but it's excellent. Gene-culture co-evolution as an essential part of Nietzsche's project, from a unique perspective (this is not just regurgitating Joe Henrich). Understanding the genealogical method and its importance. What are the inescapable selection dynamics of human groups? Nietzsche as memeticist. Also Nietzsche as Hansonian.
Our valuing and values had seemed transparent and obvious, as carried in our own free choice. Nietzsche’s light on the logic of socially selected values shows that they are really quite opaque—that such selection has cultivated our self-ignorance (has designed us for it). We thought we were already honest in our values, but now see we must work much harder to become so.
- Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, AntichristShow Details
The standard Nietzsche commentary. A bit apologetic, a bit too eager to make Nietzsche into a modern liberal, but overall it's solid.
Nietzsche's insistence that the negative may not be evil from a long-range point of view, but a necessary stage in the development toward something positive, is not a casual point in his thought but one of the characteristic motifs that recur throughout: one must negate, one must renounce conformity, one must break the ancient tables of values—in order to prepare for the creation of something positive.
- Nick Land, A Nick Land ReaderShow Details
The philosopher of the future. Capitalism, artificial intelligence, evolution, accelerationism, Gnon. Land shows what happens when you take Darwin seriously. The early pieces can be difficult, it's OK to skip right to the later stuff (but at least read Meltdown, if only for the aesthetic effect).
It is only due to a predominance of influences that are not only entirely morally indifferent, but indeed — from a human perspective — indescribably cruel, that nature has been capable of constructive action. Specifically, it is solely by way of the relentless, brutal culling of populations that any complex or adaptive traits have been sieved — with torturous inefficiency — from the chaos of natural existence. All health, beauty, intelligence, and social grace has been teased from a vast butcher’s yard of unbounded carnage, requiring incalculable eons of massacre to draw forth even the subtlest of advantages. This is not only a matter of the bloody grinding mills of selection, either, but also of the innumerable mutational abominations thrown up by the madness of chance, as it pursues its directionless path to some negligible preservable trait, and then — still further — of the unavowable horrors that ‘fitness’ (or sheer survival) itself predominantly entails. We are a minuscule sample of agonized matter, comprising genetic survival monsters, fished from a cosmic ocean of vile mutants, by a pitiless killing machine of infinite appetite. (This is still, perhaps, to put an irresponsibly positive spin on the story, but it should suffice for our purposes here.)
- Hobbes, LeviathanShow Details
It's a classic for a reason. A lot of interesting ideas, vastly ahead of its time. Government and sovereignty. Religion and the state. Natural law. Public choice, the incentives of governance. Social contract. Atheistic? materialism. Against the universities. Extremely controversial in its day, banned from publication in England. You can skip parts 3 and 4 if you don't have an interest in theology.
Fear of power invisible, feigned by the mind, or imagined from tales publicly allowed, RELIGION; not allowed, SUPERSTITION.
- Nietzsche: Everything
- Quine, Two Dogmas of Empiricism
- Laudan, A Confutation of Convergent Realism
- Sider, Against Parthood
- Schwitzgebel, If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious
- Metzinger, The Ego TunnelShow Details
Philosophy of mind meets neuroscience. Clear, lucid, systematic discussion of consciousness and experiments that illuminate specific aspects of the "self-model". Agency, free will, consciousness as a virtual model of the world, predictive processing.
Now-ness is an essential feature of consciousness. And, of course, it is an illusion.
- Easterly, The Elusive Quest for GrowthShow Details
Why has economic aid to the third world failed so hard? A must for anyone interested in development economics.
At a minimum, if we learn nothing else from the quest for growth, we economists who work on poor countries should leave aside some of our past arrogance. The problem of making poor countries rich was much more difficult than we thought. It is much easier to describe the problems facing poor countries than it is to come up with workable solutions to their poverty.
- Easterly, The Elusive Quest for Growth
- Hayek, The Use of Knowledge in Society
- Coase, The Nature of the Firm
- Vollrath, The Deep Roots of Development (part 1, 2, 3, 4), The Skeptic's Guide to Institutions
- RCA, Why everything you have said about the determinants of health expenditure is wrong in one million charts
- José Luis Ricón, On the constancy of the rate of GDP growth
- Scott Alexander, 1960: The Year The Singularity Was Cancelled
- Radford, The Economic Organization of a P.O.W. camp
- Goddard, The Meaning of ShakespeareShow Details
The best Shakespeare commentary. Opinionated, delightful and insightful, surprising and original. 700 dense pages, every paragraph has something new and interesting.
Of all the glasses that catch his image in the play none, oddly, is more revealing than that held up by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. [...] It is their function to be nothing except what they give back from the world around them. They are conformists. They follow the prevailing mode. They contaminate their friendship for Hamlet by obeying the King when he invites them to be spies. But what is Hamlet himself doing but obeying another king and following another mode in accepting the code of blood revenge? [...] This unperceived analogy is unquestionably the ground of Hamlet's devastating contempt for these harmless fashion plates.
- Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare
- Wilde, The Critic as Artist: With Some Remarks Upon the Importance of Doing NothingShow Details
What should be the aim of criticism? Is it a creative process or not? Did the Greeks have art critics? On charity as self-denial. Merging the critic and artist.
The critic occupies the same relation to the work of art that he criticises as the artist does to the visible world of form and colour, or the unseen world of passion and of thought.
- C S Lewis, Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?Show Details
Why do critics have so many different interpretations of Hamlet? Why do they have trouble with the titular character? Lewis examines the issue of procrastination in Hamlet and offers his own views.
I believe that we read Hamlet’s speeches with interest chiefly because they describe so well a certain spiritual region through which most of us have passed and anyone in his circumstances might be expected to pass, rather than because of our concern to understand how and why this particular man entered it.
- Houellebecq, H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against LifeShow Details
A very amusing essay, in that dry Houellebecqian way. Covers a lot of ground in very little space: his life, his themes, his style, critical reactions.
Lovecraft, in fact, hasn’t got the attitude of a novelist. Hardly any novelist of any description imagines that it is within his capacities to give an exhaustive depiction of life. Their mission is rather to “shed new light” on it; but given the facts themselves there is absolutely no choice. Sex, money, religion, technology, ideology, redistribution of wealth…a good novelist can’t ignore anything. And all this must take place within a coherent vision, grosso modo, of the world. Obviously the task is scarcely humanly possible, and the result almost always disappointing. A nasty profession.
- Wilde, The Critic as Artist: With Some Remarks Upon the Importance of Doing Nothing
- Timur Kuran, Private Truths, Public LiesShow Details
This book is drier than the Sahara, but its insights on preference falsification are essential for understanding politics, public opinion, public discourse, and how governments control their subjects. How and why people present false opinions in public, how people try to influence this expression, epistemic and political effects.
In Havel's own words, the crucial "line of conflict" thus ran not between the Party and the people but "through each person," for everyone was "both a victim and a supporter of the system."
- Bryan Caplan, The Case Against EducationShow Details
The definitive work on the returns to education. IQ, conscientiousness, conformity. Private vs public returns. Who actually benefits from college and who doesn't? Signaling and selection effects. Chapter 2 on the ignorance of the public is incredible.
Behold: when the price of enlightenment drops to zero, enlightenment remains embarrassingly scarce.
- Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and DemocracyShow Details
A very peculiar book. Combines economics, sociology, history, and political science into grand abstract generalizations. The first two parts are great, after that you have to tread very carefully because there's all sorts of Straussian fuckery going on. Why and how does capitalism work? Can growth continue? Does rational/capitalist culture need un-rational justifications to survive? Is socialism viable? Does socialism need to use the price mechanism? Is social democracy viable? How much should we worry about monopolies? Creative destruction.
The essential point to grasp is that in dealing with capitalism we are dealing with an evolutionary process. It may seem strange that anyone can fail to see so obvious a fact which moreover was long ago emphasized by Karl Marx.
- Hanson & Simmler, The Elephant in the BrainShow Details
A bit too close to the "pop" side of "pop science", but still an important book. Draws a lot on Trivers and Veblen. The strategic causes of self-deception. Understanding hidden motives is important for organizing societies. The implications are wider than you might think: EvoPsych is probably an important factor behind the dysfunctionality of the healthcare system, for example.
To understand the competitive side of human nature, we would do well to turn Matthew on its head: "Judge freely, and accept that you too will be judged."
- Timur Kuran, Private Truths, Public Lies
- Bastiat, The LawShow Details
Brilliant proto-public choice analysis. Contra Montesquieu, Rousseau, Raynal, the leaders of the French revolution, etc. on the omnipotence of the law and the lawgiver (who is conceived idealistically), with the joint implication of blankslatism. Ignore the silly bits about natural rights constraining the law.
Since the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to allow them liberty, how comes it to pass that the tendencies of organizers are always good? Do not the legislators and their agents form a part of the human race?
- Huemer, In Praise of Passivity
- Weiss, The Population Cycle Drives Human History
- Moldbug, From Mises to Carlyle
- Tetlock, Thinking the Unthinkable: Sacred Values and Taboo Cognitions
- Cummings, How the Brexit referendum was won
- Bastiat, The Law
- Dawkins, The Extended PhenotypeShow Details
To a large extent it's a retread of The Selfish Gene, but I prefer this one. Breaks naive intuitions about the relation between genes and organisms. Plus memes.
An animal’s behaviour tends to maximize the survival of the genes ‘for’ that behaviour, whether or not those genes happen to be in the body of the particular animal performing it.
- Reich, Who We Are and How We Got HereShow Details
A great work on ancient DNA and human population genetics, by the leading scientist in the field. How did modern populations arise? Which groups mixed, which didn't, which slaughtered each other? What does DNA have to tell us about linguistics and pre-historical culture spread? A bit cowardly on the political aspects, but still a million times better than most of his colleagues.
People like those at Stonehenge were building great temples to their gods, and tombs for their dead, and could not have known that within a few hundred years their descendants would be gone and their lands overrun. The extraordinary fact that emerges from ancient DNA is that just five thousand years ago, the people who are now the primary ancestors of all extant northern Europeans had not yet arrived.
- Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype
- McShea, Three Trends in the History of Life: An Evolutionary Syndrome
- Plomin et al., Top 10 Replicated Findings From Behavioral Genetics
- Rosenberg et al., Clines, Clusters, and the Effect of Study Design on the Inference of Human Population Structure
- Flinn, Geary & Ward, Ecological dominance, social competition, and coalitionary arms races: Why humans evolved extraordinary intelligence
- Tooby & DeVore, The Reconstruction of Hominid Behavioral Evolution Through Strategic Modeling
- Gwern, Embryo selection for intelligence
- Sanjak et al., Evidence of directional and stabilizing selection in contemporary humans
- Lynn & Harvey, The decline of the world's IQ
- Mason & Frick, The heritability of antisocial behavior: A meta-analysis of twin and adoption studies
- Yao et al., Criminal offending as part of an alternative reproductive strategy
- Henrich, The Secret of Our SuccessShow Details
Cultural evolution and gene-culture co-evolution. The importance of collective intelligence. How culture creates complex new things without any one person understanding them. Combines game theory, methods from economics, and scientifically-minded anthropology. Mostly focused on traditional societies. Unfortunately not much focus on the gene or the co- sides of gene-culture co-evolution. Uses the word "autocatalytic".
At least since the rise of cumulative cultural evolution, natural selection has lost its status as the only “dumb” process capable of creating complex adaptations well fit to local circumstances
- Henrich, The Secret of Our Success
- Hayek, The Three Sources of Human Values
- Chaisson, Energy Rate Density as a Complexity Metric and Evolutionary Driver
- Wissner-Gross & Freer, Causal Entropic Forces
- Atran & Henrich, The Evolution of Religion: How Cognitive By-Products, Adaptive Learning Heuristics, Ritual Displays, and Group Competition Generate Deep Commitments to Prosocial Religions
- Boswell, The Life of Samuel JohnsonShow Details
A strange collage: part traditional biography, part epistolary novel, and (what makes it so good) part reports from direct observations of Johnson's life. Boswell has a Shakespearean knack for drawing characters–at the end you will feel you know all these people. Brings 18th century England to life. Carlyle wrote that Boswell had provided him "a greater pleasure than any other individual." Don't be scared of the length.
In a conversation concerning the literary merits of the two countries, in which Buchanan was introduced, a Scotchman, imagining that on this ground he should have an undoubted triumph over him, exclaimed, ‘Ah, Dr. Johnson, what would you have said of Buchanan, had he been an Englishman?’ ‘Why, Sir, (said Johnson, after a little pause,) I should not have said of Buchanan, had he been an Englishman, what I will now say of him as a Scotchman, – that he was the only man of genius his country ever produced.’
- Stefan Zweig, The World of YesterdayShow Details
It's not about Zweig's life, but about the world as seen from his perspective. A paean to the world that was buried beneath electrification, mechanization, mass movements and world wars. Beautifully written and just incredibly sad and wistful. Zweig finished the manuscript in February 1942 and killed himself the next day.
For I have indeed been torn from all my roots, even from the earth that nourished them, more entirely than most in our times. I was born in 1881 in the great and mighty empire of the Habsburg Monarchy, but you would look for it in vain on the map today; it has vanished without trace. I grew up in Vienna, an international metropolis for two thousand years, and had to steal away from it like a thief in the night before it was demoted to the status of a provincial German town. My literary work, in the language in which I wrote it, has been burnt to ashes in the country where my books made millions of readers their friends. So I belong nowhere now, I am a stranger or at the most a guest everywhere. Even the true home of my heart’s desire, Europe, is lost to me after twice tearing itself suicidally to pieces in fratricidal wars. Against my will, I have witnessed the most terrible defeat of reason and the most savage triumph of brutality in the chronicles of time. Never—and I say so not with pride but with shame—has a generation fallen from such intellectual heights as ours to such moral depths. In the brief interval between the time when I first began to grow a beard and today, when it is beginning to turn grey, more radical changes and transformations have taken place than in ten normal human generations, and we all feel: this is too much! My today is so different from all my yesterdays; I have risen and fallen so often, that I sometimes feel as if I had lived not just one but several completely different lives. When I say, without thinking, ‘my life’, I often find myself instinctively wondering which life. My life before the world wars, before the First or the Second World War, or my life today? Then again I catch myself saying, ‘my house’, and I am not sure which of my former homes I mean: my house in Bath, my house in Salzburg, my parental home in Vienna? Or I find myself saying that ‘at home’ we do this or that, by ‘we’ meaning Austrians, and remember, with a shock, that for some time I have been no more of an Austrian than I am an Englishman or an American; I am no longer organically bound to my native land and I never really fit into any other.
- Werner Herzog, Conquest of the UselessShow Details
Herzog's journals from the time he was making Fitzcarraldo. Much like the film, this is a story of mono-megalo-maniacal obsession. Reality as a fever dream, the ancient and terrible jungle. Herzog is a fantastic stylist, his prose is dreamlike and unrelenting, it flows beautifully. Like a mix between Conrad and J. G. Ballard, except it's not fiction. Borderline experimental in places.
A vision had seized hold of me, like the demented fury of a hound that has sunk its teeth into the leg of a deer carcass and is shaking and tugging at the downed game so frantically that the hunter gives up trying to calm him. It was the vision of a large steamship scaling a hill under its own steam, working its way up a steep slope in the jungle, while above this natural landscape, which shatters the weak and the strong with equal ferocity, soars the voice of Caruso, silencing all the pain and all the voices of the primeval forest and drowning out all birdsong. To be more precise: bird cries, for in this setting, left unfinished and abandoned by God in wrath, the birds do not sing; they shriek in pain, and confused trees tangle with one another like battling Titans, from horizon to horizon, in a steaming creation still being formed. Fog-panting and exhausted they stand in his unreal world, in unreal misery—and I, like a stanza in a poem written in an unknown foreign tongue, am shaken to the core.
- Watson, The Double HelixShow Details
A first-person view of the discovery of the structure of DNA. An entertaining and raw look at how science actually happens, from the perspective of a strange and brilliant man. Almost a page-turner, as Watson borrows elements from the detective novel. J. D. Bernal wrote that "The whole thing is a disgraceful exposure of the stupidity of great scientific discoveries." Get the annotated edition.
Success in Cambridge conversation frequently came from saying something preposterous, hoping that someone would take you seriously.
- Bruce Chatwin, In PatagoniaShow Details
An extraordinarily atmospheric work. Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, prehistoric giant sloths, and desolate landscapes.
[Butch Cassidy] must have felt at home here, the country round Cholila is identical to parts of his home state, Utah – a country of clean air and open spaces; of black mesas and blue mountains; a country of bones picked clean by hawks, stripped by the wind, stripping men to the raw.
- Henry Miller, The Colossus of MaroussiShow Details
Finding enlightenment in Greece during the final days before WWII, in the company of the Zorba-like poet Katsimbalis. A cool impressionistic style (he was a big influence on the beat generation). Intense light, deep history, ecstatic feelings, Romantic notions. Miller considered it his best work.
The whole base of the Acropolis resembles more and more a volcanic crater in which the loving hands of the archaeologists have laid out cemeteries of art. [...] On one side are stones and shrubs which stand out with microscopic clarity; on the other are trees such as one sees in Japanese prints, trees flooded with light, intoxicated, coryphantic trees which must have been planted by the gods in moments of drunken exaltation.
- Barzun, From Dawn to DecadenceShow Details
Barzun was 93 years old when this doorstopper was published. It certainly has an "old man yells at cloud" element to it, but when the old man is as erudite as Jacques Barzun, that's alright. A look 500 years of Western cultural history from a highly opinionated point of view: he likes the French but not the English, he likes the Romans but not the Greeks. Do not expect an "objective" account. An interesting approach to highlighting recurring ideas in Western thought and art.
Virtue is inseparable from good art. It is taken for granted that a work reveals the artist's soul as well as his mind. But what is more important, the work of art must by its order mirror the hierarchical order of the world, which is a moral order.
- G K Chesterton, In Defense of SanityShow Details
A collection of clever, short, and dense essays about religion, politics, literature, philosophy, and much more. The quality is inconsistent, but the best ones are really great. Start with "On a Humiliating Heresy", "On the Return of the Barbarian", "The Drift From Domesticity", and "The Mystery of the Mystics".
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.
- Rochefoucauld, Collected MaximsShow Details
The archon of the aphorism, the master of the maxim - it's Rochefoucauld! Is he an Augustinian preacher or a libertine? Is it a moralistic work or a cynical one? I'm not entirely sure, but it's damn good. Big influence on Nietzsche.
We are easily consoled for our friends’ misfortunes when such things give us a chance to display our affection for them.
- Borges, Selected Non-FictionsShow Details
His best essays are as good as his short stories, which is to say that they are close to perfection.
He [Omar Khayyam] is an atheist, but knows how to interpret in orthodox style the most difficult passages of the Koran; for every educated man is a theologian and faith is not a requisite.
- Cioran, A Short History of DecayShow Details
Aphorisms in a great style. Over-the-top nihilism, cynicism, pessimism.
If Jesus had ended his career upon the Cross, if he had not been committed to resuscitation—what a splendid tragic hero! His divine aspect has cost literature an admirable subject.
- Orwell, Inside the Whale and Other EssaysShow Details
A collection of essays on a wide array of topics (literature, language, coal mines, elephants), though they are generally linked with the political climate of the 1930s/40s. Some interesting perspectives on communism and the USSR from a different time. Orwell tends to start with something specific and then abstract or generalize to some grand statement, and it works well.
This illustrates very well the totalitarian tendency which is explicit in the anarchist or pacifist vision of Society. In a Society in which there is no law, and in theory no compulsion, the only arbiter of behaviour is public opinion. But public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of law.
- Tetlock & Gardner, SuperforecastingShow Details
How should you think if you want to be good at predicting the future? How reliable are experts? Foxes vs hedgehogs, inside vs outside view.
If you don’t get this elementary, but mildly unnatural, mathematics of elementary probability into your repertoire, then you go through a long life like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.
- Darwin, The Voyage of the BeagleShow Details
Mainly a series of naturalist observations (22 year-old) Darwin made during the titular voyage, but he ranges far and wide: it's also a travelogue, with excursions into ethnography, anthropology, geology, geography, biology, meteorology, governance, and more. Darwin meets all sorts of exotic characters, from the dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas to the extremely primitive Fuegians. In Argentina he finds a Spaniard who had been with Napoleon during the Russian campaign. There's a great sense of adventure throughout.
The Tahitians, with their naked, tattooed bodies, their heads ornamented with flowers, and seen in the dark shade of these groves, would have formed a fine picture of man inhabiting some primeval land.
- Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence
- Peter Wessel Zapffe, The Last MessiahShow Details
Nietzsche and existential angst.
The tragedy of a species becoming unfit for life by over-evolving one ability is not confined to humankind. Thus it is thought, for instance, that certain deer in paleontological times succumbed as they acquired overly-heavy horns. The mutations must be considered blind, they work, are thrown forth, without any contact of interest with their environment. In depressive states, the mind may be seen in the image of such an antler, in all its fantastic splendour pinning its bearer to the ground.
- De Quincey, The English Mail-CoachShow Details
Starts out as an essay on mail coaches and ends up in an opium-fueled fever dream about Paradise Lost. Speed, death, and craziness in a wonderful 19th century style.
But the lady—! Oh heavens! will that spectacle ever depart from my dreams, as she rose and sank upon her seat, sank and rose, threw up her arms wildly to heaven, clutched at some visionary object in the air, fainting, praying, raving, despairing! Figure to yourself, reader, the elements of the case; suffer me to recall before your mind the circumstances of the unparalleled situation. From the silence and deep peace of this saintly summer night—from the pathetic blending of this sweet moonlight, dawnlight, dreamlight—from the manly tenderness of this flattering, whispering, murmuring love—suddenly as from the woods and fields—suddenly as from the chambers of the air opening in revelation—suddenly as from the ground yawning at her feet, leaped upon her, with the flashing of cataracts, Death the crowned phantom, with all the equipage of his terrors, and the tiger roar of his voice.
- Thomas Browne, Urne-BuriallShow Details
A highly influential essay from the 17th century. Admired by Borges, Emerson, De Quincey, Hazlitt, Lamb, Woolf, Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, and many more. Browne uses the occasion of the discovery of some ancient burial urns to write about death, the afterlife, fame, burial customs, and much more. But the essay is mainly famous for its baroque, Latinate style.
In vain we compute our felicities by the advantage of our good names, since bad have equall durations; and Thersites is like to live as long as Agamemnon. Who knows whether the best of men be known? or whether there be not more remarkable persons forgot, than any that stand remembred in the known account of time? [...] But man is a Noble Animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave, solemnizing Nativities and Deaths with equall lustre, nor omitting Ceremonies of bravery, in the infamy of his nature.
- Scott Alexander, The Control Group is Out of Control, Meditations on Moloch, Epistemic Learned Helplessness, Who By Very Slow Decay
- J. B. S. Haldane, Daedalus, or Science and the FutureShow Details
Prescient essay from 1923 on science, technology, capitalism, and evolution. Takes on transhumanism, directed evolution, and eugenics.
The chemical or physical inventor is always a Prometheus. There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god. But if every physical and chemical invention is a blasphemy, every biological invention is a perversion. There is hardly one which, on first being brought to the notice of an observer from any nation which has not previously heard of their existence, would not appear to him as indecent and unnatural.
- Peter Wessel Zapffe, The Last Messiah
- Roberto Bolano, 2666Show Details
A series of connected stories revolving around a mysterious German author and a series of murders in Mexico. It's as good as they say. Epic in scope and ambition. Don't be daunted by part 4, just power through it. The payoff in part 5 is incredible.
It was raining in the quadrangle, and the quadrangular sky looked like a grimace of a robot or a god made in our own likeness. The oblique drops of rain slid down the blades of grass in the park, but it would have made no difference if they had slid up. Then the oblique (drops) turned round (drops), swallowed up by the earth underpinning the grass, and the grass and the earth seemed to talk, no, not talk, argue, their comprehensible words like crystallized spiderwebs or the briefest crystallized vomitings, a barely audible rustling, as if instead of drinking tea that afternoon, Norton had drunk a steaming cup of peyote.
- Borges, Labyrinths, The AlephShow Details
Incredibly good fantastical philosophically themed short stories.
The two projects I have indicated (an infinite vocabulary for the natural series of numbers, a useless mental catalogue of all the images of his memory) are senseless, but they betray a certain stammering grandeur. They permit us to glimpse or infer the nature of Funes' vertiginous world. He was, let us not forget, almost incapable of ideas of a general, Platonic sort. Not only was it difficult for him to comprehend that the generic symbol dog embraces so many unlike individuals of diverse size and form; it bothered him that the dog at three fourteen (seen from the side) should have the same name as the dog at three fifteen (seen from the front).
- Calvino, CosmicomicsShow Details
If you like Borges you'll probably like Calvino. Playful stories that use science as a launching-off point for a modern mythology. Symbols, miscommunication, adaptation vs changelessness, order vs disorder, sex, dualities.
The world was beginning to produce an image of itself, and in everything a form was beginning to correpsond to a function.
But in the duration of that galactic year we already began to realize that the world's forms had been temporary up until then, and that they would change, one by one. And this awareness was accompanied by a certain annoyance with the old images, so that even their memory was intolerable. I began to be tormented by a thought: I had left that sign in space, that sign which had seemed so beautiful and original to me and so suited to its function, and which now, in my memory, seemed inappropriate, in all its pretension, a sign chiefly of an antiquated way of conceiving signs and of my foolish acceptance of an order of things I ought to have been wise enough to break away from in time. In other words, I was ashamed of that sign which went on through the centuries, being passed by worlds in flight, making a ridiculous spectacle of itself and of me and of that temporary way we had had of seeing things.
- G K Chesterton, The Man Who Was ThursdayShow Details
Extraordinarily weird. Starts out as a detective or adventure novel and then everything goes crazy. Anarchism, masks, dreams, pessimism, God, the problem of evil.
Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front--
- Gass, The TunnelShow Details
A historian (Kohler) has finished his book on the holocaust; all that's left is the preface. But for some reason he is unable to write it, and instead begins to write down random thoughts: memories, comments on his family and colleagues, ideas about the Nazis, his work, and historiography in general. He also starts digging a tunnel in the basement.
Kohler is a miser, bitter, resentful, disappointed with life and the world, angry at everyone and everything - and this novel is a mainline into his mind. There is virtually no action or plot, no character development, and few ideas. It's challenging, but also remarkably funny. Robert Alter said it's a "bloated monster" that "announces the end of moral history". What sets it apart is the verbal pyrotechnics, reminiscent of Ahab at his most extreme moments.
I was certainly not the first youngster to be exiled for excellence, destined, without leaving home, to become a foreigner, an alien from the country of accomplishment. And I would not be the last to resent the attitudes which hemmed me in, and to loathe the ordinary in the world around me. I was simply blunter about my feelings than most. I had learned rather early how much the truth was disliked and distrusted, how much hearing it soured every state of the soul and injured every organ of the body: ear, head, heart (in that order), soon the belly, before descending to torment the bowel; so I spoke it—I held to it with more than customary dedication. Had the other virtues had such malicious consequences, I should have practiced them as energetically. (Now, of course, I lie as if the truth depended on it.) The common run detest me, I thought, so why shouldn’t I detest the common run? Yet here I am, the founder of the Party of the Disappointed People. We, in the PdP, with our tender and tormented, truth-beaten bodies: the common run will run out our bowels right enough. Later I would learn that sheer commonness was what we had in common, unlike the common preciousness of gems or the community of chlorophyll in leaves, but rather more like the commonness in unkindness or the common cold. I heard vulgarity in Wagner like one of his horns. Doctor Serafico was addicted to beating off. Even Fra Angelico’s supreme and saintly art served superstition. Imagine Maillart’s bridges soaring solely over sewers. That was, and remains, the situation. This commonness I speak of is nevertheless quite unusual. It is oddly shaped yet familiar in the way flatulence is familiar, or the barking of dogs, or the arrival of Friday, just as the anteater’s snout or the elephant’s trunk, ordinary to the elephant, average and everyday to the anteater, is astonishing, fascinating to us, ludicrous.
It would be an additional deception on my part to pretend that my high fidelities to honesty have helped me, because the fact is that they have seriously damaged my reputation as an historian, though I turned away from poetry in my youth because I thought the truth ill-treated there but welcome like another fallen temple among the ruins of the past. Admittedly, I was a fool. No one wants balance, truth, or fairness from history. No one. Everyone wants a consoling myth. And the consolation either takes the form of an assurance that X, whatever it was when, like every dog, it had its day, was singular, solitary, and unique, and that nothing like it could possibly happen again; or it imitates the pooh-pooh of condescension (Planmantee’s forte), insisting that things like X happen all the time, almost nonstop if you are so stupid as to have to be told. The first consolation is supported by a description of X which is so detailed and minute and grounded in local circumstances that it has no generality at all, and words despair of successfully narrating it; while the second depends upon a case put so abstractly (numerically, if Planmantee were to have his way) that a load of air would seem a gross heap beside it. It’s gone and done for, goodbye forever, the first says, we shall never again see its like, what a wonder; its return is inevitable, better duck, says the second. It’s water over the dam; it’s spilt milk: that’s Number One’s wisdom; there’s always more where that came from, is Number Two’s. The Germans were wicked in a one-time way, the Jews are a supremely special case, the Holocaust cannot occur again: that is what the First maintains. Holocausts have been happening since time first set up tock: that’s the Second’s assertion; and when Cain killed Abel, it was the equivalent of a holocaust, if you consider the percentage of the total population that one bad act subtracted. For the First, the Holocaust is a surd, and really ahistorical, as are all events if so minutely regarded. Any similarly examined condition is so extreme one cannot find a mean. Like a color which has no place in the continuum. Governali calls this point of view theological, while I prefer to think of it as esthetic; but Governali is always so eager to get to God, as if it were his stop on the train ride. Events are like perfect poems—matchless. For the Second, the Holocaust is perhaps an extreme example, the consummate pogrom, but only made major by improvements in technology. Besides, there’s always the Gulag to rival it. After all, forty million RIP’d during the Period in Question. Of course, the uniqueness of events cannot be described in language, perhaps they cannot even be experienced; whereas, if everything in history is some sort of repetition, then maybe only a ten-minute slice will satisfy our needs.
- WhateverShow Details
Sexuality and the sexual marketplace in the 20th century. The literal translation of the French title is "extension of the domain of struggle", that is: extended from the economic realm to the sexual. Captures a sort of Fight Club-y zeitgeist. Competition, technology, liberalism, nihilism, misanthropy. Cynical, dry, funny, and edgy.
It’s been hopeless for a long time, from the very beginning. You will never represent, Raphael, a young girl’s erotic dream. You have to resign yourself to the inevitable; such things are not for you. It’s already too late, in any case. The sexual failure you’ve known since your adolescence, Raphael, the frustration that has followed you since the age of thirteen, will leave their indelible mark. Even supposing that you might have women in the future - which in all frankness I doubt - this will not be enough; nothing will ever be enough. You will always be an orphan to those adolescent loves you never knew. In you the wound is already deep; it will get deeper and deeper. An atrocious, unremitting bitterness will end up gripping your heart. For you there will be neither redemption nor deliverance. That’s how it is.
- The Map and the TerritoryShow Details
A novel with a Borgesian approach of writing about fictional artworks, in this case a photographer who takes pictures of Michelin maps. Houellebecq inserts himself into the story in an absolutely ridiculous way. Art and the representation of the world, art in the marketplace, the office workplace, consumerism, relationships, aging. Parts are literally copy-pasted from wikipedia, without attribution.
The Sushi Warehouse in Roissy 2E offered an exceptional range of Norwegian mineral waters. Jed opted for the Husqvarna, a water from the center of Norway, which sparkled discreetly. It was extremely pure—although, in reality, no more than the others. All these mineral waters distinguished themselves only by the sparkling, a slightly different texture in the mouth; none of them were salty or ferruginous; the basic point of Norwegian mineral waters seemed to be moderation. Subtle hedonists, these Norwegians, thought Jed as he bought his Husqvarna; it was pleasant, he thought again, that so many different forms of purity could exist.
- Lovecraft, At the Mountains of MadnessShow Details
Lovecraft's best work. If you like this one, keep going with the rest of the Cthulhu mythos.
How it could have undergone its tremendously complex evolution on a new-born earth in time to leave prints in Archaean rocks was so far beyond conception as to make Lake whimsically recall the primal myths about Great Old Ones who filtered down from the stars and concocted earth-life as a joke or mistake; and the wild tales of cosmic hill things from Outside told by a folklorist colleague in Miskatonic’s English department.
- Liu, Three-Body TrilogyShow Details
China vs the US...in space! What civilizational attributes are required for long-term survival? Femininity vs masculinity. An interesting solution to the Fermi Paradox. Heavily influenced by golden age sci-fi. Very dark. The first book is the worst.
There isn’t any fundamental axiom for sociology yet, but it might be even darker than economics.
- Thomas Mann, The Magic MountainShow Details
A huge, comfy, allegorical novel with a deliberate rhythm. Rewards close reading. Time, circularity, eternity. Freedom vs safety. Man in/vs nature. Europe, mechanization, and the build-up to WWI. Music. Science vs humanism. Embodiment, the base materiality of human existence. Death. You absolutely have to get the Woods translation, it's vastly superior to Lowe-Porter.
In response to much begging, he was kind enough to allow his patient to view his own hand through the fluoroscope. And Hans Castorp saw exactly what he should have expected to see, but which no man was ever intended to see and which he himself had never presumed he would be able to see: he saw his own grave. Under that light, he saw the process of corruption anticipated, saw the flesh in which he moved decomposed, expunged, dissolved into airy nothingness—and inside was the delicately turned skeleton of his right hand and around the last joint of the ring finger, dangling black and loose, the signet ring his grandfather had bequeathed him: a hard thing, this ore with which man adorns a body predestined to melt away beneath it, so that it can be free again and move on to yet other flesh that may bear it for a while.
- Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the WestShow Details
Unrelentingly brutal. War and murder and death as inescapable aspects of humanity, nature, and the universe. The frontier and the end of the Old West. Judge Holden is simply unforgettable. McCarthy's lean, muscular style fits the subject matter perfectly.
Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent. He looked about at the dark forest in which they were bivouacked. He nodded toward the specimens he’d collected. These anonymous creatures, he said, may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men’s knowing. Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.
- Bartleby the ScrivenerShow Details
This is one of those "perfect exercises of the great masters". Short and flawless.
I would prefer not to.
- Moby-DickShow Details
The grandaddy of the American maximalist novel. Strange, experimental, at times Shakespearean. Not even remotely flawless, but what book of this magnitude could be? America, God, capitalism, race, whiteness, literature, man v nature, revenge, madness.
"Vengeance on a dumb brute!" cried Starbuck, "that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous."
"Hark ye yet again—the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play.
- Bartleby the Scrivener
- Pessoa, The Book of DisquietShow Details
Imagine a blend of Borges and Nietzsche, with a big dash of ennui, a touch of Stirner and a unique Portuguese edge. Pessoa called it a "factless autobiography" and attributed its authorship to one of his fictional personas. In an aphoristic style, it's a book you dip in and out of over a long period of time. Ennui, tedium, dreams, literature, philosophy.
The only attitude worthy of a superior man is to persist in an activity he recognizes is useless, to observe a discipline he knows is sterile, and to apply certain norms of philosophical and metaphysical thought that he considers utterly inconsequential.
- Gravity's RainbowShow Details
It's Gravity's Rainbow! Maximalist "hysterical realism". World War II, conspiracy, control, paranoia, capitalism, technology, sex and death. It's huge, it's challenging, it's funny and sad and everything in-between. 100% worth the effort.
The sand-colored churchtops rear up on Slothrop’s horizons, apses out to four sides like rocket fins guiding the streamlined spires… chiseled in the sandstone he finds waiting the mark of consecration, a cross in a circle. At last, lying one afternoon spread-eagled at his ease in the sun, at the edge of one of the ancient Plague towns he becomes a cross himself, a crossroads, a living intersection where the judges have come to set up a gibbet for a common criminal who is to be hanged at noon. Black hounds and fanged little hunters slick as weasels, dogs whose breeds have been lost for 700 years, chase a female in heat as the spectators gather, it’s the fourth hanging this spring and not much spectacle here except that this one, dreaming at the last instant of who can say what lifted smock, what fat-haunched gnädige Frau Death may have come sashaying in as, gets an erection, a tremendous darkpurple swelling, and just as his neck breaks, he actually comes in his ragged loin-wrapping creamy as the skin of a saint under the purple cloak of Lent, and one drop of sperm succeeds in rolling dripping hair to hair down the dead leg, all the way down, off the edge of the crusted bare foot, drips to earth at the exact center of the crossroad where, in the workings of the night, it changes into a mandrake root. Next Friday, at dawn, the Magician, his own moving Heiligenschein rippling infrared to ultraviolet in spectral rings around his shadow over the dewy grass, comes with his dog, a coal-black dog who hasn’t been fed for a few days. The Magician digs carefully all around the precious root till it’s held only by the finest root-hairs—ties it to the tail of his black dog, stops his own ears with wax then comes out with a piece of bread to lure the unfed dog rrrowf! dog lunges for bread, root is torn up and lets loose its piercing and fatal scream. The dog drops dead before he’s halfway to breakfast, his holy-light freezes and fades in the million dewdrops. Magician takes the root tenderly home, dresses it in a little white outfit and leaves money with it overnight: in the morning the cash has multiplied tenfold. A delegate from the Committee on Idiopathic Archetypes comes to visit. “Inflation?” the Magician tries to cover up with some flowing hand-moves.” ‘Capital?” “Never heard of that.” “No, no,” replies the visitor, “not at the moment. We’re trying to think ahead. We’d like very much to hear about the basic structure of this. How bad was the scream, for instance?” “Had m’ears plugged up, couldn’t hear it.” The delegate flashes a fraternal business smile. “Can’t say as I blame you… .”
- Mason & DixonShow Details
An 18th century road-trip comedy featuring Mason & Dixon of the eponymous line. Set in a heightened reality. The Enlightenment, rationalism, science, lines and the things they divide, America, colonialism, humanity vs nature, measuring the intangible, violence, isolation. Don't let the oldtimey language scare you away, you get used to it very quickly.
"And men of science," cries Dixon, "may be but the simple tools of others, with no more idea of what they are about, than a hammer knows of a house."
- Against the DayShow Details
The most accessible of his big books. AtD is to engineering as M&D is to science. A byzantine epic with 4 intersecting threads, each written in its own style: boys' adventure fiction, western revenge thriller, flaneur spy adventure, and Wellsian eccentric scientist novel. All of this in a steampunk alternate history of the late 19th and early 20th century. Light, doubles, electricity, civilization, anarchism, technology, the end of frontier culture, family, time, entropy...and a bunch of metafictional pomo stuff on top of that.
As they came in low over the Stockyards, the smell found them, the smell and the uproar of flesh learning its mortality - like the dark conjugate of some daylit fiction they had flown here, as appeared increasingly likely, to help promote. Somewhere down there was the White City promised in the Columbian Exposition brochures, somewhere among the tall smokestacks unceasingly vomiting black grease-smoke, the effluvia of butchery unremitting, into which the buildings of the leagues of city lying downwind retreated, like children into sleep which bringeth not reprieve from the day. In the Stockyards, workers coming off shift, overwhelmingly of the Roman faith, able to detach from earth and blood for a few precious seconds, looked up at the airship in wonder, imagining a detachment of not necessarily helpful angels.
Beneath the rubbernecking Chums of Chance wheeled streets and alleyways in a Cartesian grid, sketched in sepia, mile on mile. "The Great Bovine City of the World," breathed Lindsay in wonder. Indeed, the backs of cattle far outnumbered the tops of human hats. From this height it was as if the Chums, who, out on adventures past, had often witnessed the vast herds of cattle adrift in ever-changing cloudlike patterns across the Western plains, here saw that unshaped freedom being rationalized into movement only in straight lines and at right angles and a progressive reduction of choice, until the final turn through the final gate that led to the killing-floor.
- Gravity's Rainbow
- Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson, The Illuminatus! TrilogyShow Details
A huge, satirical novel by two drugged-out hippies who wrote for Playboy. Conspiracies, numerology, ideology, postmodern meta stuff, and general craziness: there are midgets, reincarnated nazis, mysterious sea creatures, and much more. Ultimately it's about skepticism. Like a looser, weirder, funnier, surreal version of Foucault's Pendulum.
'It's a dreadfully long monster of a book,' Wildeblood says pettishly, 'and I certainly won't have time to read it, but I'm giving it a thorough skimming. The authors are utterly incompetent - no sense of style or structure at all. It starts out as a detective story, switches to science-fiction, then goes off into the supernatural, and is full of the most detailed information of dozens of ghastly boring subjects. And the time sequence is all out of order in a very pretentious imitation of Faulkner and Joyce. Worst yet, it has the most raunchy sex scenes, thrown in just to make it sell, I'm sure, and the authors - whom I've never heard of - have the supreme bad taste to introduce real political figures into this mishmash and pretend to be exposing a real conspiracy.'
- Tolstoy, Hadji MuratShow Details
Tolstoy once said to Maxim Gorky: "without false modesty, War and Peace is like the Iliad." Hadji Murat is perhaps even more like the Iliad. It's also more tightly packaged. A story that goes against virtually all of Tolstoy's personal principles. The concept of the hero, beyond (or before?) good and evil, loyalty, war, civilization vs frontier culture, freedom.
"I place myself under the powerful protection of the great Tsar and of yourself," said he, "and promise to serve the White Tsar in faith and truth to the last drop of my blood, and I hope to be useful to you in the war with Shamil who is my enemy and yours."
Having the interpreter out, Vorontsov glanced at Hadji Murad and Hadji Murad glanced at Vorontsov.
The eyes of the two men met, and expressed to each other much that could not have been put into words and that was not at all what the interpreter said. Without words they told each other the whole truth. Vorontsov's eyes said that he did not believe a single word Hadji Murad was saying, and that he knew he was and always would be an enemy to everything Russian and had surrendered only because he was obliged to. Hadji Murad understood this and yet continued to give assurances of his fidelity. His eyes said, "That old man ought to be thinking of his death and not of war, but though he is old he is cunning, and I must be careful." Vorontsov understood this also, but nevertheless spoke to Hadji Murad in the way he considered necessary for the success of the war.
- Watts, BlindsightShow Details
Was consciousness a mistake? How would different types of consciousness work? How do you know if you're being manipulated? What is the relation between consciousness and tool use? Perception and self-deception. Transhumanism, philosophy of mind, first contact. Bleak as fuck.
Do you want to know what consciousness is for? Do you want to know the only real purpose it serves? Training wheels. You can’t see both aspects of the Necker cube at once, so it lets you focus on one and dismiss the other. That’s a pretty half-assed way to parse reality. You’re always better off looking at more than one side of anything. Go on, try. Defocus. It’s the next logical step.
Oh, but you can’t. There’s something in the way.
- Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New SunShow Details
Science fiction/fantasy in a post-post-post...-post-post-apocalyptic dying world setting. Filled with truly fantastical ideas. Beautiful language: dreamlike, ornate, flowing and peppered with Greek non-neologisms. History, control, predestination, symbols, power, memory, divinity, dreams, death. Has a million little hidden secrets for you to find on re-reading.
You must know the story of how the race of ancient days reached the stars, and how they bargained away all the wild half of themselves to do so, so that they no longer cared for the taste of the pale wind, nor for love or lust, nor to make new songs nor to sing old ones, nor for any of the other animal things they believed they had brought with them out of the rain forests at the bottom of time—though in fact, so my uncle told me, those things brought them. And you know, or you should know, that those to whom they sold those things, who were the creations of their own hands, hated them in their hearts. And truly they had hearts, though the men who had made them never reckoned with that. Anyway, they resolved to ruin their makers, and they did it by returning, when mankind had spread to a thousand suns, all that had been left with them long before.
- Virginia Woolf, The WavesShow Details
A lyrical masterpiece. Six interconnected character studies from a first-person POV. Experimental. Aging, individuality, personality, identity, transience, friendship, the unstable fluidity of life, death.
I am not so gifted as at one time seemed likely. Certain things lie beyond my scope. I shall never understand the harder problems of philosophy. Rome is the limit of my travelling. As I drop asleep at night it strikes me sometimes with a pang that I shall never see savages in Tahiti spearing fish by the light of a blazing cresset, or a lion spring in the jungle, or a naked man eating raw flesh. Nor shall I learn Russian or read the Vedas. I shall never again walk bang into the pillar-box. (But still a few stars fall through my night, beautifully, from the violence of that concussion.) But as I think, truth has come nearer. For many years I crooned complacently, “My children…my wife…my house…my dog”. As I let myself in with my latch-key I would go through that familiar ritual and wrap myself in those warm coverings. Now that lovely veil has fallen. I do not want possessions now.
- HomerShow Details
I like Lombardo for the Iliad and Lattimore for the Odyssey but YMMV.
But what am I thinking of? Patroclus’ body
Still lies by the ships, unmourned, unburied,
Patroclus, whom I will never forget
As long as I am among the living,
Until I rise no more; and even if
In Hades the dead do not remember,
Even there I will remember my dear friend.
- Blake, Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Songs of Innocence and ExperienceShow Details
Crazy hippie and religious weirdo from the 18th century. Created a complex religious mythology that most of his work centers on. Heavy on the theology.
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies,
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
- Khayyam/Fitzgerald, The Rubaiyat of Omar KhayyamShow Details
Khayyam was an 11th century Persian atheist? scientist who also wrote poetry. In the 19th century, Fitzgerald undertook a "translation" project that was more of a remake or remix. The result is a fantastic collection of quatrains about wine, hedonism, the uncertainty and ephemerality of life, skepticism, and God. Check out Borges' essay The Enigma of Edward Fitzgerald before or after you read him.
But leave the Wise to wrangle, and with me
The Quarrel of the Universe let be:
And, in some corner of the Hubbub couch'd,
Make Game of that which makes as much of Thee.
- Cavafy, Collected PoemsShow Details
E. M. Forster described him as "standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe". His poems fall into three categories: the erotic, the philosophical, and the historical. The latter are the best and are usually highly ironic. Often draws on classical history for his topics. His style has a conversational feel to it, like your grandfather telling you a comfy story.
The God Abandons Antony
When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
- Shakespeare, SonnetsShow Details
From these sonnets one gets the feeling that William was a dark fellow with a complicated life. Closest to the problem plays, but much better. Cynical. Love vs skepticism, love triangles, mortality, shame, time, death.
When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unlearned in the world's false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed:
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O! love's best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love, loves not to have years told:
Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flattered be.
- Gaiman, SandmanShow Details
Mythology and theology mash-up starring anthropomorphic personifications of metaphysical entities. Great art and fantastical stories. Dreams, stories and storytelling, change, rebirth, responsibility.
- Carey, LuciferShow Details
Spin-off from Sandman starring Lucifer after he decides to quit hell. Continues the diverse mythology/theology mixing. Pretty dark. A lot of weirdness. All about free will and escaping predestination.
- Morrison, The InvisiblesShow Details
This series was a huge influence on The Matrix. Counter-culture, magic, reality-hacking, interdimensional alien gods, and all sorts of craziness. Order vs chaos, control, time.
- Morrison, The FilthShow Details
Similar themes to The Invisibles. Pomo meta fuckery. Insane, ridiculous, and over the top.