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Ten Books I Want to Read Again

My bibliomaniacal co-blogger at Chicago Boyz, Lexington Green, just created a new internet meme, with a post entitled Ten Books I Want To Read Again:

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.

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 ?

8 Responses to “Ten Books I Want to Read Again”

  1. fabius.maximus.cunctator Says:


    Interesting lists. Here is mine:

    The Iliad / The Odyssee. I am listening to the Yale Open lectures of Prof. Kagan on Ancient Greece at present. Edmund Blunden “Undertones of War” – very underrated WWI memories. In a way as good as Sasson and Jünger but quite unknown it seems.Roy Jenkins – Churchill. Perhaps the best WSC bio today, written by a man who knows Brit politics from experience.The Mitrokhin Archive (2 volumes)  – in case we forget what the old order in the East was based on …Carl Schmitt: Die Diktatur (1921) – I despise the author but ha has a d`d sharp, incisive mind. Recently read that his stuff has been reevaluated in the US after 9/11.  A. v. Seeckt. Moltke, Ein Vorbild – the architect of the Reichswehr pays tribute the elder Moltke. One of these books with no bloody practical relevance at all but very well written indeed. Luciano Canfora. Ceasar. The author is very controversial for other reasons but an excellent classicist I wd say. Simone Bertière, Mazarin. Richelieu`s successor. I know far too little about this period.Egon Friedell, Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit (cultural history). Last read this a teenager and was fascinated by the author`s brilliance and erudition. Still have it, but untouched for years. Another voice from a period which ended when the Nazis occupied Vienna – the author promptly jumped to his death from a window. 10.  S. Courtois Le Livre Noir Du Communisme. Formidable array of facts and arguments when dealing with the progressive apologia.
     You are perfectly right about Conquest of course. Thx for the hint.

    Surprised at yr inclusion of Salinger though. I disliked the thing from the first, having to read it at school (Eng Lit). Are there really pupils who resemble the protagonist (shudder) ? Well, I thank my stars that I only have to give the odd lecture to adults.

  2. historyguy99 Says:

    Hi Zen,

    Here goes in no patricular order.

    1. The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History by Peregrine Hordon and Nicholas Purcell

    2.  Empires of the Word, by Nicholas Ostler

    3.  The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 by Richard White

    4.  The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology, by Robert Wright

    5.  The 3 volume set of the History of the Crusades by Steven Runciman

    6. Steel, My Soldiers Heart, by Col. David Hackworth

    7.  The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West by Niall Ferguson

    8.  Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty II, by Sima Qian

    9.  Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069, by Neil Howe and William Strauss.

    10.  A History of the English-Speaking Peoples by Winston Churchill

    You’ve sparked a fire to try and find the time to revisit these volumns over the next year.

  3. Lexington Green Says:

    These are all great lists!
    Battle Cry of Freedom is excellent.  I did not like Catcher in the Rye when I read it in high school.  The very funny novel by Frank Portman, King Dork (I literally laughed out loud several times), has an elaborate subplot about how the protagonist hates Catcher in the Rye, but parents and teachers keep telling him how much it meant to them. 
    (FM’s list I responded to on CB)
    HG99, I agree about Ostler.  An excellent book, which had way too much information to absorb in one read-through.  I also liked Steel My Soldiers Hearts very much.  I have been wondering about The Corrupting Sea, but if you rate it this highly, it is going on my list. 
    I am going to finish Xenophon, the first pass, then read either Hopkirk’s The Great Game, Fitzroy McClean’s Eastern Approaches, Curry’s bio of Gen. Giap … .   Or maybe something else!

  4. Moon Says:

    Only have one book in my quantum library:
    ->Tao Te Ching
    with several books that may join it:
    —>Steppenwolf (Hesse)
    —>The Fountainhead (Rand)
    —>Chronology Of The War At Sea (Rohwer/Hummechen)
    I wonder if authors in lieu of titles would be more informative for the superpositional library?  I know that I will definitely continue to read and re-read Hesse and Rand.  But maybe not Rohwer, other than the above title.

  5. tdaxp Says:

    Interesting list!

    The academic reaction to the Bell Curve was hysterical. Without realizing it, the President of the APA at the time ended up arguing that Africa was unsuitable for the emergence of intelligence, in an off-balanced and poorly thought out piece that was intended to criticize the book. (He stupidly adopted the "Intelligence is a western construct…" nonsense, without thinking of the implications of his line of reasoning.) The APA Pres at the time, btw, is a very intelligence and well spoken individual, and a pioneer in several areas of applied educational psychology.

    Often, when you raise an emotional topic, the reaction to it is emotional, instead of logical. The reaction to the Bell Curve is a case study in this.

    Now that time passed… The Bell Curve can be persuasively argued against for several different reasons.

    1. The argument is based entirely on one psychometric property — general intelligence — which is not necessarily the most predictive psychometric property
    2. The measurement model used was not that great.  The early 2000s saw a revolution in measurement, and the book could be viewed as one of the last great texts in Classical Test Theory
    3. Wrt racial differences, the book was published before modern genetic knowledge of what races actually are (hyperdimensional clusters of alleles). Indeed, at the time of the book, there was only inferenntial evidence that skin color was heritable!

  6. zen Says:

    Hi Dan,
    I owe you some edits.
    Glad that you commented on the Bell Curve and I think you framed it correctly "… as one of the last great texts in Classical Test Theory". The earlier criticism was hysterical in nature and only served to make the Bell Curve argument look stronger.
    In his latest book, Real Education, Murray hedges more toward allowing the possibility that neuralplasticity might mean that "g" is not  quite as rigidly predictive as he earlier had said but Murray more or less says "show me" with an emprical, longitudinal, large sample, study before he will believe it.
    Unrelated note, how was China ?

  7. tdaxp Says:

    I always need edits! 🙂

    The problem with Murray’s focus on g is that it even ignores other heritable factors (like personality) which influence real world outcomes tremendously.

    Still in China! Tonight we’re having Peking Duck! 🙂

  8. toto Says:

    The debate on IQ, genes and environment seems to be split into two antagonistic sides which are remarkably deaf to each other’s arguments. If you (re-)read The Bell Curve, be sure to read a book by James Flynn for balance.

    <i>Appropriate because the current administration seems to be too cocksure that they too are best and brightest.</i>

    As opposed to any of their predecessors?

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