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!