Okay. Now that’s quite a bold claim. I can’t quite remember who it was who said it. Something along the lines of:
With certain books, you can divide your life into your life before you read it and your life after you read it.Unknown (let me know if you know where it’s from!)
I also think that our time to read is finite and therefore, with so many books out there, we should try and read the best.
What’s the best? It might be something great, something in the canon, it might be something that’s moved you so much that you’re not the same person as you were before you read it.
Here are the books that have enriched my life immeasurably and which I dip into again and again.
The Odyssey by Homer. I first read this at university, in a random Ancient History module I took in my second year. The translation matters and so does the edition. I don’t know about you, but I like fonts in difficult books to be large enough and nicely laid out for the eye to track easily. I was lucky enough to have the Fitzgerald translation on the course’s reading list. If I had to give my favourite book of all time, this would be it. The story and the sub-stories within The Odyssey are timeless. Think about the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, the Cyclops, the Lotus Eaters, the journey into the Underworld, the Suitors, Penelope, the interaction between the Gods and Men. There’s something fascinating too about the value systems of the Homeric-age peoples. Aristocrats in those days were those skilled in warfare, who delighted in sports and hunting, in giving tributes to the Gods, in being of the warmest hospitality and in speaking well. If you haven’t read it, then please get yourself a copy now!
The Iliad by Homer. You can’t read The Odyssey without reading The Iliad. It’s like a prequel but on a grander scale, with far more players in the story. This tells the story of the Trojan War, the 20-year war that precedes Odysseus’s journey home. Think of the tragic yet heroic stories of Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon, The Trojan Horse, Helen of Troy. The consequences of bad decisions such as not offering appropriate sacrifice to the Gods and hurting the pride of your best warrior Achilles. It’s such a rich tapestry of literature where we can trace so much of Western culture to. Get yourself a copy now (the Fitzgerald translation).
War and Peace by Tolstoy. One of the greatest works of fiction there is. Hands down. I remember reading the first 100 pages and thinking that this was like The Sopranos on steroids. Just a wealth of great characters, all painted in incredible detail by Tolstoy. Whether that’s as a hero of the book like Prince Andrei or Pierre, or as a character who Tolstoy doesn’t really respect such as Prince Kuragin. It’s a chunky book at well over 1,000 pages, but one that you’ll remember forever. You’ll always remember the first time you’ve read it. Many reread it over and over again. I think this is so much better than Tolstoy’s other renowned book Anna Karenina. I’ve linked to the translation by Anthony Briggs which isn’t the one I’ve read. I read the Rosemary Edwards translation which unfortunately doesn’t seem to be in print any more. Another Tolstoy book I love is Master and Man, a collection of beautiful short stories with a moral edge.
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolff. This tells the story of the Space Race in America. Wolff pointed out that military types were at one point in the 50s and 60s seen as kind of ‘squares’. Nothing could be further from the truth, particularly in the case of test pilots and then those pilots who became the first Astronauts. These guys were nonchalant about the perilous odds of death that they faced daily. A pilot in the military in those days had a 23% chance of dying over the course of a career, and for test pilots, that figure was 53%. It’s funny, lyrical, tongue-in-cheek, and reverent all at the same time. You’re left in awe at the interwoven stories of the period and history of Project Mercury. Here’s a quote:
“The sky turned a deep purple and all at once the stars and moon came out — and the sun shone at the same time. He had reached a layer of the upper atmosphere where the air was too thin to contain reflecting dust particles.”The Right Stuff by Tom Wolff
Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton. This is a fresh, bite-sized look at six philosophers and chosen from the perspective of helping alleviate very human worries eg. Seneca’s philosophy and life as a cure for anxiety and frustration, Socrates as a cure for unpopularity, and Nietzsche as a cure for difficulties. De Botton has a funny way of presenting the problem (timeless problems and updated with a humourous modern-day touch). He has read the source material widely and skilfully weaves in quotes showing how each philosopher’s life made them suitable to deal with the problem and finally how their ideas helped to solve those problems. My favourite chapter is the Nietzsche one. I’ve read this over and over again. Next stop: Sils Maria!
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. Teddy Roosevelt is a titan of history. He would be what Nietsche called the Superman or the Overman. Like Goethe, Roosevelt fought against the ‘disjunction of reason, sensuality, feeling, and will.’ Roosevelt fought against early physical frailties and built up his body until he could box and swim. Like Ortega y Gasset wrote about, Roosevelt was the type of man who took on all types of responsibilities and duties eg. being a police officer in his spare time, fighting on the front lines in the Spanish-American War (and being decorated with America’s highest medal for gallantry, the Congressional Medal of Honour). And of course, undertaking a political career all the way to the White House. Morris’s biography is epic in scope and written with verve and joy. Here’s a blog post I’ve written about it before.
How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom. This is an ode to the Western Canon, the great works of Western literature. It’s divided into short stories, poem, plays, and novels, and takes some of Bloom’s favourite examples of each and explores with the reader what makes these works so good. Bloom is trying to instill a love for reading and an appreciation of the magic of the works he’s selected to feature. My favourite section is the poetry one; it opened my eyes to poetry.
Journey to The West by Wu Cheng’en. This is one of the 4 classic novels of Chinese literature. I have no idea how this sprang from someone’s imagination. It’s about Gods and Men plus lots of supernatural beings, and their varying levels of strength, intelligence and cunning. Monkey is one such supernatural being and his powers grow and grow until he is punished by Heaven and forced to help a monk on a quest. The action and plot twists and sheer magical imagination in the story will have you open-mouthed. The translation matters and I’ve linked to the Penguin Classic version translated by Arthur Waley.
The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion by Tolkien. I’ve always loved mythology, right back to when I was a kid. One of the first books I borrowed from the school library was on Greek mythology. I also loved the stories of Norse mythology (Odin, Freya, Thor, Loki). LOTR is comparatively very recent mythology, but clearly, Tolkien was a master of mythology. LOTR has to be read and enjoyed in conjunction with The Silmarillion, which tells the story from the beginning of the world to the events preceding the Third Age in LOTR. The Silmarillion is actually the greater work I think. It’s so majestic in ambition and scope, and the imagination and work that must have gone into the timelines, the family trees, the great battles, the scheming, the overall sense of tragedy must have been gargantuan. I’ve linked to the all-in-one volume of LOTR but I’d recommend buying LOTR split into 3 volumes – much more manageable!
The Epic of Gilgamesh. The oldest surviving ‘notable’ work of literature, potentially written around 2100 to 1200 BCE. It tells the story of Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, who is causing his people a lot of problems. The gods create a wild man called Enkidu, who is Gilgamesh’s physical equal. It’s the story of their friendship and Gilgamesh’s pursuit of the secret of Eternal Life. I remember when I read this for the first time that I was blown away by the scale and imagination of the story. It’s got Gods, a superman King, a Wild Man created by the Gods, it deals with vengeance, death, friendship, fate – what’s left after that?!
The Story of Art by EH Gombrich. Gombrich’s superlative book is the definitive introduction to the history of art. It takes you from pre-historic art to the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages through the Renaissance to the modern day. The best thing about it besides the writing are the pictures of the art to accompany the text. There is a full-sized and a pocket-sized version of this book. For ease of seeing the pictures, I’d recommend the larger version, which I’ve linked too. I have the pocket version which is easy to hold and carry but I’d aim for both versions if possible.
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. This is a romp through scientific history. It tells the very human stories of how scientific discoveries happened. The great human stories here are driven as much by scientists’ curiosity but also the inevitable competition between them. The race to discover and the accompanying glory. The inspiration for the book was that Bryson was on a plane looking out of the window, when he realised that he knew very little about how the world worked from a scientific point of view. He decided to take a few years learning and interviewing some of the most eminent scientists in the world, and write it all up. The result is one of the best popular science books available. Literally mind-expanding.
Other Men’s Flowers: An Anthology of Poetry curated by AP Wavell. Wavell was a very senior military officer in the Second World War and this anthology had one or two caveats as to which poems could be included. The main one was that they had to be poems that he could still declaim from memory. Which is extraordinary now when you think about it. Some of the poems in here are very long so it tells us something about how prodigious Wavell’s memory must have been. He’s like a throwback to a different age, when people could recite huge reams of the classics. Churchill was said to have had a prodigious memory too. Poetry is good for the soul; apparently, it cured John Stuart Mill’s depression after a breakdown.
Great books still to read (they are legion!)
- The Divine Comedy
- Various Shakespeare plays
- Paradise Lost
- TBC – will update!