I have too little time to read, let alone re-read. But there are certain books that had an impact on me, that I think about from time to time, and that I have an urge to re-read. I suppose that re-reading, or at least wanting to re-read is a sign that a book is part of a person’s quantum library. I have more, but I will pick ten:
- Charles Norris Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture: A Study of Thought and Action from Augustus to Augustine
- Eric Rucker Eddison, The Worm Ouroboros
- Robert A Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
- Homer, The Iliad
- George Orwell, 1984
- Quentin Reynolds, They Fought for the Sky: The Dramatic Story of the First War in the Air
- Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions
- Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
- Evelyn Waugh, The Sword of Honor Trilogy
• H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds
A few years ago I re-read Starship Troopers, which had a huge impact on me when I was 11 years old. It was just about as good as I remembered it. I also re-read 1984 about five years ago. I first read 1984 when I was ten years old. I read it a couple of times afterwards. It is absolutely foundational to my thinking. In the ensuing years, I have read almost everything else by Orwell. I found that 1984 was much better than I remembered it being – So much so that I will certainly to go back to it one more time.
A Quantum Library are those books that you read repreatedly because each time you find insights that you had missed or misunderstood previously. While many classics fall into that category, it can be any book with enough pull that you spent the time to read it again. Highbrow literature is not required.
Here are my ten, no particular order:
1. History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon.
Gibbon, along with Clausewitz and Ranke contributed mightily to the development of the historical profession, with Gibbon as a great inspirationfor many others and a daunting intellectual in his time ( Benjamin Franklin unsuccessfully sought a dinner invitation with Gibbon, while a lobbyist for colonial interests in London). I last read The Decline and Fall as an undergraduate.
2. Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright.
Tom Barnett brought up Wright recently, which reminded me how much I liked Wright’s influential explanation of cultural evolution as a force in the Darwinian ratchet in Nonzero.
3. Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray.
Probably the most vilified yet least read by critics book of the last thirty years.
The authors staked out an extreme hereditarian position in regard to the “g” factor of IQ, which they took great delight in juxtaposing in one chapter and one appendix section with aggregate mean demographic statistics in such a way as to rub academic PC sensibilities raw. This politically calculated gesture let them ride to the bestseller’s lists on a wave of outrage, a good part of which was self-discreditingly ignorant of psychometric testing, genetics, economics and social science methodology, which drowned out the more perceptive critics. now that the furor is long past, it would be interesting to re-read The Bell Curve in light of subsequent scientific discoveries about neurolearning and intelligence.
4. The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom.
Read it when it first came out and was carrying it into a philo gen ed class which caused my professor, a pompous ass who disliked me for some conservative opinion I once had the temerity to voice, to pause and announce “Well…at least you are reading a serious critic”. He was reading it as well.
5. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.
Bulgakov was the anti-Soviet novelist who happened to also be Stalin’s favorite playwright ( Bulgakov was the author of The White Turbans, which Stalin delighted in repeatedly watching – a quirk of fate which saved Bulgakov’s life and freedom). An unhappy man of great imaginative powers, Bulgakov’s great novel had something like a quarter of a million or half a million words excised by Soviet censors. I’m curious if more accurate editions have been issued.
6. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson.
One of the best single volume histories of the Civil War. A “gateway” book to other Civil War histories.
7. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.
For anyone who was ever Holden Caulfield – or who had to teach him.
8. The Great Terror: A Reassessment by Robert Conquest.
This is a hybrid pick because I read The Great Terror and also Conquest’s Reassessment. Conquest is always worth reading, an old school man of letters of whom we will see no more of his like.
9. The Best and the Brightest by David Haberstam.
The seminal, anti-Vietnam War book by a lionized Establishment figure ( lionized now, not during the war), the title of which became a term of cultural literacy. Appropriate because the current administration seems to be too cocksure that they too are best and brghtest.
10. The Possessed (The Devils) by Fyodor Dostoyevskii.
Dostoyevskii’s psychological portrait of faddish radicalism, earnest nihilism, and incipient terrorism in a provincicial backwater in Tsarist Russia, is another classic that fits the spirit of our times. The Possessed is less ponderous and more satirical than Crime and Punishment and more cohesive than The Idiot.
What are your ten ?