Friday, October 31, 2008

100+ Great Books

The Great Books ( began when in 1972 Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book carefully listed three essentials for a book to rate as a great one: contemporary significance, timeless relevance, and enduring value. Their list includes far more than a hundred books, beginning with antiquity with Homer, continuing through two millennia with many of the books found in Loeb Classical Library of Harvard University Press (, and ending near the year of publication with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Friday, October 24, 2008

100 Novels

In my view, reading fiction is indispensable to writing improvement. Through sentence analysis of fiction, readers learn firsthand how writers use suspensive techniques to capture the imagination, and how they depart from rigid linguistic rules to maintain reader engagement. Random House/Modern Library has accompanied its Best 100 Nonfiction Books of the Century list, which I noted in the previous post, with a 100 Best Novels of the Century (

As the publisher did with the nonfiction list, it added a Top 100 from its readers. A quick glance of each list shows a huge discrepancy: Not one book from the top ten on either list appeared on the other. Four of Ayn Rand’s books are high on the readers’ list (Atlas Shrugged #1, The Fountainhead #2, Anthem #7, and We the Living #8), as do three by L. Ron Hubbard (Battlefield Earth #3, Mission Earth #9, and Fear #10), but none from either author shows up anywhere on the Board’s Top 100. More surprises crop up; oh, well, you’ll now have more than a hundred books to read.

Time Magazine also published a list of All-Time 100 Novels ( featuring original reviews of many of the books. This list does not rank the titles in any particular order.

Another list, 100 Best Novels ( claims to be “voted by regular people.” Orwell’s 1984, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice populate the top 5.

All the lists constitute a great way to create a lifelong reading regimen.

Friday, October 17, 2008

100 Nonfiction Books

If nonfiction is your thing, Random House, publisher of the Modern Library classics, has developed The 100 Best Nonfiction Books of the Century ( Actually, Random House created two lists, one by a distinguished panel of scholars and authors, and the other by Random House regular participating readers. Both lists are excellent and have significant differences, so they are worth reviewing. You can’t go wrong with either list if you’re looking for a comprehensive survey of nonfiction from the Western perspective.

The National Review created a list of its own, The 100 Best Nonfiction Books of the Century, ( in response to the Random House lists. This list is annotated by Board members who selected the titles.

If your heart belongs to the American West, check out The San Francisco Chronicle's 100 Best Nonfiction Books of the 20th Century Written in English about--or by an author from--the Western United States ( The list includes authors whose reputations extend far beyond the region they cover: Wallace Stegner (Beyond the Hundredth Meridian), Edward Abbey (Desert Solitaire), John Muir (My First Summer in the Sierra), Ursula K. LeGuin (Dancing at the Edge of the World), Shelby Steele (The Content of Our Character), Barbara Kingsolver (High Tide in Tucson), and Maxine Hong Kingston (The Woman Warrior).

Friday, October 10, 2008

100 Influential Book Lists

The British poet and essayist Martin Seymour-Smith has been subjected to much criticism for his The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written for several reasons, not the least of which are his awfully awkward and stuffy prose, his smugly provincial and excessively hypercritical posturing, especially when spewing inflammatory rhetoric against Christianity, and his exclusion of many worthy books from his historical list. But no list will ever be perfect, and at least the books Seymour-Smith chooses are indeed influential. His book could be consulted for, if anything, the book list itself. It dates from the beginning of literacy with books such as The I Ching, Old Testament, The Iliad and The Odyssey, and The Upanishads, all books from diverse cultures, to twentieth-century classics like Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity. He lists books from disciplines as wide-ranging as philosophy (Descartes’s Discourse on Method and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit), logic (Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations), linguistics (Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures), feminism (de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique), politics (Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung), religion (The Koran), history (Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War and Herodotus’s History), psychology (Jung’s Psychological Types), sociology (Pareto’s The Mind and Society), economics (Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money), science (Einstein’s Relativity), and mathematics (Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy). Appearing on the list are the full sweep of literature: poetry (Virgil’s Aeneid), fiction (Voltaire’s Candide, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and Orwell’s 1984), drama (Shakespeare’s plays), commentary (Paine’s Common Sense), and autobiography (Augustine’s Confessions). You can easily search the table of contents for this book on Amazon.

If a more contemporary list would suit you, try the Boston Public Library’s 100 Most Influential Books of the Century Booklists for Adults ( This list covers twentieth-century titles, many of them from the United States. Books include American fiction (Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Wright’s Native Son, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Heller’s Catch 22, and Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain) and nonfiction (Dewey’s The School and the Child, Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, Carson’s Silent Spring, Maslow’s Motivation and Personality, and Sagan’s Intelligent Life in the Universe). Books from outside the US are also plentiful on this list (e.g., Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, Joyce’s Ulysses, Buber’s I and Thou, Kafka’s The Trial, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Camus’s The Stranger, Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, and Adorno’s Philosophy of Modern Music.

If you wish to narrow your reading scope further, there’s The Hundred Most Influential Books since the War by The Times Literary Supplement ( This list is divided by decade, from the 1940s through post-1970s. Some commonly cited must-reads are Karl Jaspers’s The Perennial Scope of Philosophy, Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism and Humanism, all from the 1940s; Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Winston Churchill’s The Second World War, and John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society from the 1950s; Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power, Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, and Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom from the 1960s; Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago from the 1970s; and Vaclav Havel’s Living in Truth, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature from the 1980s and beyond. Albert Camus appears on the list three times (The Myth of Sisyphus, The Outsider, and Notebooks 1935-1951), and George Orwell (Animal Farm and 1984), Primo Levi (If This is a Man and The Drowned and the Saved) and Claude Lévi-Strauss (A World on the Wane and The Savage Mind) show up twice.

All of this is to say, there’s plenty more where these books come from. I can understand the question, "Where do I start?" but never "What's to read?" get started with any of them. Happy reading!

Friday, October 03, 2008

Reading to Write and Listmania

A common refrain in my writing seminars is this: “Read. Reading good writing precedes writing well. Good writers are good readers.”

I recommend the usual standards of quality journalistic writing, such as The New York Times and The New Yorker, and The Nation, or The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard and National Review, depending on your political leanings. I direct people to the usual best-seller lists, encouraging nonfiction as well as fiction reading, especially these days, when fact is stranger than fiction. I urge them to read whatever they like, whether it’s politics, education, history, culture, business, the performing or visual arts, sports, home design, culinary arts, travel, or whatever, since this approach will inspire longer and deeper reading spells. Most importantly, they need to learn how to read like writers, aiming to capture not just the author’s content but the author’s style, studying how one might vary sentence length and beginnings, how key ideas sometimes start a paragraph to arrest attention and other times do not appear until the very end to create suspense.

A sure way to keep a steady reading regimen well beyond your retirement years, regardless of your age, is to seize a well-considered list of must-read books and pick off one volume at a time until you’re ready for the next in a series of never-ending lists. Popular reading lists will be my topic for the next several posts on this blog.