The Book List Game


Classic booksIn a recent story titled “Neil deGrasse Tyson Selects the Eight Books Every Intelligent Person on the Planet Should Read,” the eminent astrophysicist listed his top eight book titles – from a Reddit conversation that was going on back in December, 2011. Here are the books he chose back then (check the linked story above for his comments on why he picked these titles):

  1. The Bible;
  2. The System of the World, by Isaac Newton;
  3. On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin;
  4. Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift;
  5. The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine;
  6. The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith;
  7. The Art of War, by Sun Tzu;
  8. The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli.

I certainly can’t argue with his choices as worthy of being read, although they wouldn’t all be my top choices. I have all of them but the Newton on my bookshelves.  This list was much discussed at the time it was first released. Open Culture commented:

The list, which has generated a great deal of interest and discussion, leads you to think about the very nature of not just what constitutes essential reading, but what defines an “intelligent person.” Should every such individual really read any book in particular? Does it matter if others already acknowledge these books as essential, or can they have gone thus far undiscovered?… he makes the perhaps daring implication that an intelligent person must connect to a widely shared culture, rather than demonstrating their brainpower by getting through volume upon little-read volume, written in the most labyrinthine language, expounding on the most abstract subject matter, or grappling with the knottiest philosophical problems.

A followup discussion with other recommended titles was published by Open Culture in April 2014. And in republishing the list again after two years, it has re-opened the discussion in 2015. To which I weigh in, first by commenting on his choices.

I have a suspicion that the Bible was slipped in as a political sop to prevent him from being targeted as a godless atheist or some such name by the fundamentalists. Can’t have non-religious scientists. While I know many people who have read some part of it, I have met few who are not in the religion business (ministers, priests and rabbis) who have read it in its entirety. I haven’t read it cover-to-cover, either, but have read a good deal of it in several translations.

Not that it’s a bad book to read. It formed the foundation for Western culture, law and morality until the mid-19th century and still plays a vital role in it, despite the trend to secularism these past 150 years. Just that it’s not in the same intellectual grouping as the rest and makes me wonder what his criteria were for the rest.

Actually I recommend all people should read the core of the world’s religious and spiritual literature – the Dhammapada, for example, is one of my favourite titles. The Bhagavad Gita, the Diamond Sutra, the Koran, the Tao Teh Ching, the Nag Hammadi codex, the Talmud, the Kalamas Sutra… we should all read these books so we can better understand the faiths of others and engage in informed discussion about them – not simply pursue ideologies or knee-jerk, media-induced reactions.

But I also recommend people read Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens to get a look at alternative views on religion. Having no religion should be an intellectual decision, not a puff of lifestyle negativity, like a diet fad.

And that raises the question about philosophy: why are there no works by major philosophers – no Plato, Aristotle, Montaigne, Sartre, Voltaire… although one can suggest that Machiavelli was somewhat of one, at least a political philosopher. And why not recommend The Discourses – a more comprehensive and broader approach to power and politics – instead of The Prince?

Similarly, Gulliver’s Travels is a marvellous political and social satire that still has resonance and humour today despite almost 300 years since it was first written. But it is written in a style that is no longer popular, its humour may be too dated (and obscure) for some, and can be seen as rather too rambling. Don Quixote is as much a satire on the human condition, so why was it ignored? Was there nothing more modern that was worthy?

Choosing one work of fiction from the millions of books written is tough. Is Swift a better choice for the sole novelist than Joyce? Or Tolstoy? Hugo? Herbert? Clavell? Austen? Shelley? Melville? Conrad? Clancy? Cervantes? Dumas? Woolf? Lawrence? Achebe? Orwell? Melville? Hardy? Dickens? Each writes about the human condition, although not necessarily as a satire. And which of their works to include? Why would you pick Anna Karenina over War and Peace?  Pride and Prejudice over Sense and Sensibility?

Sun Tzu: If you’re read The Art of War, you’ll know that it’s a classic textbook on military strategy but, despite many attempts, it doesn’t always translate effortlessly into modern political or business terms.

All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.
Chapter 1, Verse 18

Like Machiavelli’s book of the same name, it wasn’t meant to train business acumen or political skills, rather to train incipient generals – and in no small part to either avoid unnecessary war or at least limit it to short, effective campaigns.

Let’s be honest: while it contains a lot of good generalizations about military strategy, it was written around 2,500 years ago. Military technology has complicated and changed the battlefield. Yes, it should be on your reading list, especially if you have any interest in military history, but in the top eight?

As relevant would be a good book on chess strategy by someone like Lasker or Capablanca. Even one by Reinfeld would teach as much strategic thinking. Or perhaps better still: Chandler’s Campaigns of Napoleon or Liddell Hart’s Strategy of Indirect Approach. But teaching strategy isn’t that simple: reading isn’t enough. People have to practice it. Strategy books should be read while playing, say, a board wargame like AH’s Waterloo or SPI’s Napoleon’s Last Battles quad. Or even paintball.

Newton and Darwin: yes of course they’re worthy and their contributions to science remade our world, reshaped our thinking and established new paradigms (although I admit to not having read Newton’s complete books). Both will be challenges for a lot of readers simply because of when they were written and the depth of their subject matter. Darwin wrote beautifully and exactly, but he can be long-winded and take many, many paragraphs to get to a salient point. I think modern evolutionary biologists like Gould or Dawkins capture his ideas in a much more accessible format. And the same goes for Newton: read Sagan or Hawking for a modern take.

But what about geology? Chemistry? Mathematics? Astronomy? Biology? Virology? Medicine? Why shouldn’t every intelligent person read Grey’s Anatomy? Isn’t knowledge of how our bodies function critical to our wellbeing?

And why no poetry? Or history? What about all the lessons we need to learn from history so that we don’t repeat our mistakes (as George Santayana so cogently reminded us)? Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is an important history we should all read. Edward Gibbon’s sprawling History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a treasure and a lesson.

What about books on language and style? I put Strunk and White high on my list, if not necessarily in the top ten. Heck, I’d put Lynne Truss’ Eats Shoots and Leaves on everyone’s must-read list.

I can’t answer for deGrasse Tyson’s choices, only try to make up my own list in response. Just like everyone else who wades into the discussion. And that’s where the fun starts: in the civil exchange of ideas and suggestions.

But in all honesty: there is no ultimate, short list of books intelligent people should all read. Any reasonably comprehensive list would be hundreds of books long. Maybe thousands. I walked around by own small library this week and found at least 100 titles I think should be in the library – read, not merely on the shelves – of every cultured, mature and intelligent person.

Last year, The Federalist published an amusing piece called “The Top Ten Books People Lie About Reading.” deGrasse Tyson’s list is clearly one of books he has read; my list would include books I want to read as well.

I would argue that the measure of a person’s intelligence is not in what particular books they read, but rather in the fact they read at all. And more to the point, that they try to read beyond themselves: beyond what they already know and do. If we are to grow intellectually, we constantly need to open new horizons for ourselves, challenge ourselves, test ourselves, go outside our own comfort zones.

We all know that reading makes you smarter, but it does more. As Dan Hurley noted in the Guardian noted last year:

…recent scientific studies have confirmed that reading and intelligence have a relationship so close as to be symbiotic. That goes for all three meanings of the word “intelligence” widely recognised by psychologist. First, there is “crystallised intelligence” – the potpourri of knowledge that fills your brain. When you learn how to ride a bicycle, or the name of a new friend, you are gaining not just information but potentially useful knowledge that, in aggregate, forms the backbone of your ability to navigate and thrive in the world. By adding to that storehouse, reading increases your crystallised intelligence. That explains why some IQ tests include vocabulary words, which generally serve as a reliable proxy of how clever you are… in October, the journal Science published an extraordinary study showing that reading literary fiction can improve people’s theory of mind (ToM) – their ability to understand others’ mental states.

Reading can also expand your horizons, make you more aware of the world’s complexities and connections, and make you more responsive to others. As the Guardian article concluded, you can’t simply read one subject, style or type of book. You need to be broadly read, too, with a healthy dose of fiction in our literary diet:

…reading literary fiction led to better performance on tests of both emotional and cognitive ToM compared with reading non-fiction, popular fiction or nothing at all.

An astrophysicist reading about cosmology isn’t noteworthy. We expect it. That astrophysicist reading Darwin or Machiavelli, however, shows courage and open-mindedness. An astrophysicist reading Chekhov or Dostoyevsky shows emotional balance.

Back in August, 2005, I mulled over the question of what items – books, movies and CDs – you might take with you, “if you had to spend a year in a retreat, a vacation off the beaten path, or stranded on a desert island?” I limited it to ten of each. This post I’ll just stick to the books. And, no, it’s not a list like deGrasse Tyson’s: it’s what books I’d like to have with me at this particular time in my life, should I find myself alone in some fantastical ‘castaway’ situation.

In truth, going away for even a week-long vacation, I take a dozen books, and get restless for not having enough to read within a few days. And what I might fancy to read today may not be what I would pack tomorrow. Some of the books I’d carry I would take simply because I want to read or finish them in some relatively uninterrupted setting where I can focus without being intellectually seduced by a few thousand other titles on my bookshelves (or by the ubiquitous internet).

Yes, I am aware that this game is meaningless outside of my own intellectual sandbox, but I enjoy such mental exercises. What matters to me, at this moment, is really at the core of any list I make or read.

It’s amusing to compare your choices with those of others. Sure an uber-smart guy like Neil is going to have a great top-ten list (or top-eight, anyway) that reflects his own personality. We each have our own list which grows from our own experiences, tastes, education and intellectual curiosity.

Almost ten years later since my original post, I am a bit bemused looking back at my choices and trying to assess how I would answer that question today. The selection of literature on my shelves hasn’t changed too much since I first penned the post, although it’s always subject to the tides of taste and interests.**

In 2005, here were my top ten books for taking to a desert island*:

  1. The Complete Shakespeare
  2. The Still Point Dhammapada
  3. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
  4. The Nag Hammadi Library
  5. Tao Teh Ching (Ursula Leguinn’s translation)
  6. Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson
  7. David Chandler’s Campaigns of Napoleon
  8. Middle Egyptian Grammar
  9. Three Pillars of Zen
  10. The Origin of Species

Even if I chose paperback editions (where available), all of these would fill a backpack with little room to spare. Practicality, of course, isn’t the nature of the game. Here’s what I’d bring today, with some thoughts on why I’d chose that particular book. Keep in mind that what I might pack tomorrow or next year will likely be different, because this is what interests me at this moment:

  1. The Complete Shakespeare (Riverside, Norton or Oxford edns). One can never get too much Shakespeare, but more than that, the Bard’s stories are rich in humanity. He wrote about all the things that make us who and what we are: love, passion, treachery, anxiety, superstition, crime, honour, politics… but these editions have the notes, the glossaries, the introductions that make Shakespeare more accessible. If I was ever limited to owning just one book, one of these would probably be it.
  2. The Dhammapada (probably the Jack Kornfield and Gil Fronsdal translation). Probably the pithiest book of contemplative thoughts among many I have. Choosing which translation is tough, but I decided on the most recent. I was tempted by the Tao Teh Ching, too, but I think there’s more compassion in Buddhism than in Taoism.
  3. Marcus Aurelius: Meditations (Gregory Hays translation). Another book full of epigrams that deserve contemplation. A lot of material here about being upright and honorable. It makes me think of my father, although I can’t recall him ever mentioning or reading it.
  4. An interlinear version of selected Canterbury Tales that has lines of Chaucer’s original followed by the same line in modern English. This is a good way to learn Middle English, but it isn’t compete. If it weren’t so big and cumbersome, I’d bring the Riverside Chaucer. Reading him in the original is a fun challenge. Like literary sudoku. The Riverside’s copious notes help me understand the words that are opaque or archaic. A smaller and less-annotated alternative is the Penguin paperback Canterbury Tales in the original. (I was tempted to bring an anthology of poetry that included some Chaucer instead, but I waffled on which one.)
  5. War and Peace (the Pevear translation). Just because I want to read this novel before I die and Pevear’s modern translation is well reviewed. It’s also one of those novels that should be read with minimal distraction. Probably why I’ve never completed it.
  6. Montaigne’s Essays (Screech translation). Montaigne’s essays are like mirrors. I see myself in them, and in doing so I think about my own life, my actions, my beliefs. Every time I read one I find something new in it to ponder. Montaigne asked questions about how we live – isn’t that what philosophy is primarily about?
  7. Machiavelli’s Discourses (probably the Constantine translation, although I might instead take an anthology of Machiavelli that included it and The Prince). Because The Discourses are the heart of Machiavelli’s work and full of insight – and less of the pointed stick you find in The Prince. But this one is problematic in that a couple of years ago, I read and re-read The Discourses, along with almost all of Machiavelli’s writing, so I might want to replace this with something unread. I thought about taking along a chess book instead, maybe My 60 Memorable Games by Bobby Fischer, but then I’d need a chess set…
  8. Wheelock’s Latin (7th edn or later). Something else to challenge me. Learning Latin on my own is tough, but I’d be able to focus more than I can at home. Keep the brain active through mental exercise and all that.
  9. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Another want-to-read books. This one competes with Joyce’s Ulysses, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote for the space. All of them are books that I’ve started but failed to finish (so far: I’m not done yet…)
  10. The Origin of Species. Something I want to re-read. I first read this when I was 12, but since then have only plucked parts and chapters from it. It deserves a full re-reading. Probably I’d choose the first edition, maybe the second, but not the later ones because Darwin caved in to public sentiment and modified some of his early comments to suit the distemper of the times.

Plus there’s the question of practicality: while I think the complete Shakespeare and complete Chaucer should be in everyone’s library, each is a large, ungainly volume, not easy to carry around and read in bed or anywhere else (I speak from experience, having carted around both on vacation…). Taking Casanova’s bulky 20-volume autobiography in hardcover is simply out of the question.

With today’s technology, however, I could easily pack 100 such books in my Kindle and have room left over for a few hundred scifi, fantasy and detective novels. Which would defeat the whole purpose of the exercise, of course, which is to try and come up with some brief, digestible list.

So then, why limit it to 10? Surely a list of the 100 books every intelligent person should read is more appropriate. And there are such lists online. I have read them but rarely get through them because, like this post, they tend to be representative not of the needs of the general readership but of the interests and education of the list-maker. All of them are simply part of the big book list game that snakes-and-ladders its way around the internet. This is my contribution to it.

* I also listed some possible alternatives in 2005:

  • Ulysses, by James Joyce.
  • Homer’s the Illiad and the Odyssey (the Fagles’ translations, counts as two books, however)
  • Beowulf (the Seamus Heaney translation).
  • Chaucer, the Canterbury Tales, dual-language edition or the Penguin edition with the original text and many footnotes.
  • Desolation Angels, Jack Kerouac.
  • Wallace Stevens: the Palm at the End of the Mind
  • The Compact Oxford English Dictionary

** First of all, I would want to take a musical instrument and a song book: a tenor ukulele and my own collection of tunes. Learning and making music would be necessary for my mental health. Second, I would want something to write on: if not an electronic device, then a journal and pens.

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