Five Books

by Henry Farrell on August 11, 2017

So there’s a Twitter meme circulating of swiftly listing the five books that are most important to you, which has been going around in other media too. I’ve found myself listing slightly different books to different circles, and find it hard to pick anyway, because: incommensurables. But here are some subcategories:

Five most important novels (non f/sf):

Nights at the Circus
Pictures from an Institution
Pale Fire
Invisible Cities
Red Plenty

Five most important (f/sf):

Little, Big
The Course of the Heart
Book of the New Sun
The Dispossessed

Five most important (social science)

The Strategy of Conflict
Seeing Like a State
Plough, Sword and Book
The Sciences of the Artificial
Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach

Too many guys there, obvs – but those are the ones that leaped immediately to mind (which you can take, if you like, as a symptom instead of, or as well as, a recommendation).

What about all of you?



SamChevre 08.11.17 at 2:39 pm

Most important five books influencing my thinking(non-religious), and the most important point from each.
Leftism, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (tolerance vs agreement)
The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx (alliance of economic and political power)
The New Industrial State, John Kenneth Galbraith (“Technostructure”)
The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, Lincoln Steffens (corruption vs efficacy)
The Bohemian Girl, Willa Cather (incompatible goods)


LFC 08.11.17 at 3:12 pm

Novels (not fantasy/science-fiction)

The Book and the Brotherhood
The Secret Sharer
A Flag for Sunrise


JRLRC 08.11.17 at 3:31 pm

Dear Henry: could you include one more subcategory? Political Science (five specifically politological books). Hope you do… Thanks in advance.


bob mcmanus 08.11.17 at 3:36 pm

Okay, immediately to mind

Doktor Faustus
Wuthering Heights
Stevens – Harmonium
Sophocles – Philoctetes, Antigone; Euripedes/Jeffers Medea
Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
Beyond Good and Evil
The Sickness Unto Death
History and Class Consciousness
W Jackson Bate – Samuel Johnson

After these I have to try to justify any more choices.


rootlesscosmo 08.11.17 at 4:09 pm



The Recognitions

My Home is Far Away

The Confidence-Man

On the Yard


Black Reconstruction

Dancing in the Dark

The Unsteady March

The Rest is Noise

The Indispensable Enemy


Bill Benzon 08.11.17 at 6:42 pm

This was going around back in 2010 when the number was 10. Here’s what I posted back then, with annotations:

My Teacher

David Hays, Cognitive Structures. Hays was my teacher, and most of what I learned from him I learned directly from him. His aim in this book was to integrate the analog and servomechanical model of William Powers (see below) with the propositional and digital style of his own earlier work in computational linguistics. It is embodied cognition before the term was coined and gained currency. I believe this is the most profound such attempt to date (Hays wrote the book in the Spring of 1976), but, of course, I am biased. It is also, alas, rather obscure in points, no bias.

Some Others

Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked. I’ve read a good deal of Lévi-Strauss, and this wasn’t the first. But it has had the most lasting effect on my thinking, which I’ve already discussed. Lévi-Strauss sees that there is a rigorous, but hidden, logic to a body of South American myths. He evokes this hidden logic by careful comparisons between myths, while discussing them in their larger socio-cultural context.

John Bowlby, Attachment. I read this in typescript under the tutelage of the late Mary Ainsworth. Bowlby set out to reconstruct psychoanalytic object relations theory using systems models (TOTE from Miller, Gallanter, and Pribram, Plans and the Structure of Behavior) and evidence from ethology, especially of primates. This became my model of biologically-based psychology.

Jean Piaget, Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood. I’ve read a good deal of Piaget, and this wasn’t the first (most likely that was The Origins of Intelligence in Children.) Though now somewhat eclipsed, his concept of developmental stages was enormously useful and, I believe, still holds water. But be careful. (Given its subjects, this book connects nicely with an interest in literature.)

Lev Vygotsky, Language and Thought. Vygotsky argued that children acquire language by completely internalizing that started as interaction with another. First the parent uses language to direct the child’s attention and behavior. Over time the child becomes able, first to use his own speech for those tasks, and then becomes able to dispense with external speech entirely.

Karl Pribram, Languages of the Brain. Pribram was a champion of the notion that the brain processes and stores information holographically. You’ll find that idea here, plus much more besides. Pribram was, and remains, one of our most comprehensive thinkers about the brain and its mind. But this book’s a tough read.

Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood. Medievals and Early Moderns didn’t think about children as we do, which Ariès argued from paintings, diaries, and other sources. The basic idea is that people way back when didn’t think and act about something very basic in the way we do. Children are children, no? Well, biologically, yes. Culturally, no.

William Powers, Behavior: The Control of Perception. Powers has two ideas, both from control theory (& one of them is more or less given in his title), and both quite elegant. This is how to go about theorizing, be as clear as you can and use elegant examples. FWIW, Powers was an engineer and very much concerned with building real things.


Except for the Powers, all of the above books came to me within a minute or two. Then I drew a blank for a couple of minutes. “But you know,” says I to myself, “I was quite influenced by some philosophers early on, even if I no longer read philosophy. Oo why not mention them.” So I will. That I had to kick Merleau-Ponty into the omissions pile, rather than one of these, is somewhat arbitrary.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Two things got me, the rigorous order of the whole affair, each proposition numbered in outline form. And the mysticism.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy. Read a lot of Nietzsche too. But his account of the birth of tragedy linked up with other things in a powerful (including two of the books in the omissions pile.) And, of course, the Apollonian and Dionysian.


novakant 08.11.17 at 8:28 pm

The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann
What we talk about when we talk about Love – Raymond Carver
1982, Janine – Alasdair Gray
The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James
My Struggle – Karl Ove Knausgaard

The Phenomenology of Spirit – Hegel
Aesthetic Ideology – Paul de Man
Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature – Richard Rorty
The Rule of Metaphor – Paul Ricoeur
Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals – Immanuel Kant

Thanks Bill Benzon for your notes, very interesting, I’m too lazy. All of the books above except Knausgaard I have read in younger years, which is probably why they left such an impression:

“Youth would be an ideal state if it came a little later in life.” H.H. Asquith


Dave 08.11.17 at 9:56 pm

The obvious one: The Origin of Species

Runners up: Scientific Realism and the Phenomenology of Mind (Churchland)

The Code of the Woosters (Wodehouse)

Beyond Good and Evil (Nietzsche)

The Selfish Gene (Dawkins)


Alan White 08.12.17 at 1:44 am

Five books and my life:

Fear and Trembling–Kierkegaard (made me lose my faith forever while training to be a minister)

Ariel–Plath (just for “Daddy” really, which forced me to not just try and write poetry, but try to achieve that raw force seldom seen in writing)

Gravity’s Rainbow–Pynchon (something akin to a graduate education in multiple fields in one thick book)

Naming and Necessity–Kripke (a model in philosophical depth and clarity in distinguishing epistemological from metaphysical issues and transformed me professionally)

My Name is Lucy Barton–Strout (a recent read for me by a brilliant novelist that I cite here as one that probably stand for lots of other works that might also take this spot–but if you read it, read it carefully–and twice)


RD 08.12.17 at 1:55 am

Wanderer-Sterling Hayden
Wind in the Willows
Seeds of Contemplation
Red Badge of Courage
Silas Marner


OldJim 08.12.17 at 2:39 am

Threads like these cause hell for my amazon wishlist… But in, like, a good way, except for the ensuing penury.

Also, thinking about this has caused me to face the unacceptable number of books on my bookshelves the content of which I could give a passable account of, about which I could be persuaded, after a drink or two, to express some very strong and potentially colourful views, the quality of which I feel I know, and oh yeah come to think of it I haven’t ever, you know, read them…
So, this exercise has already given me something to think about.

I haven’t given brief accounts of the contents of each book I list below because I don’t trust myself in all cases to do justice to the thing I loved about them at the time that they rocked my world. My feeling is that if you share my enthusiasm for one of the books on one of the lists, you might google some of the others and look at goodreads reviews or something if that’s your jam. If not, you’ll probably scroll on by, and that’s okay too.


I have omitted “A Hundred Years of Solitude” and “Midnight’s Children”, on the grounds that they are too universally, if justly, renowned to be interesting inclusions.

The Quiet American – Graham Greene
The Third Policeman – Flann O’Brien
Picture This – Joseph Heller
I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith
Parade’s End – Ford Madox Ford


I have read enough of each to know that I would like to give Copleston’s History of Philosophy and Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy top billing on this list. I’ve refrained from giving them a place on it only because I cannot honestly claim to have finished either.

Norman Cohn – The Pursuit of the Millennium
Caroline Walker Bynum – Holy Feast and Holy Fast
Michel Foucault – History of Madness
Karl Polanyi – The Great Transformation
Tony Judt – Postwar


Dr. Hilarius 08.12.17 at 4:33 am

So many books, so many different stages of life. Some still matter, others were important at the time.

Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
Another Country – James Baldwin
Gravity’s Rainbow- Thomas Pynchon
Painted Bird – Jerzy Kosinski
Magic Barrel – Bernard Malamud

Origin of Species – Charles Darwin
Doors of Perception/Heaven and Hell – Aldous Huxley
On Growth and Form – D’Archy Thompson
Tibetan Book of the Dead – Evans-Wentz (and Leary et al.)
On Guerilla War – Che Guevara

I appreciate Henry’s inclusion of Celestis in his list of best SF; a much underappreciated work.


William Timberman 08.12.17 at 8:08 am

No particular categories, in no particular order. Beads on a string:

Red Plenty
Pale Fire
A Sport and a Pastime
Basil Bunting Collected Poems
Four Quartets
Tristes Tropiques
La République du silence
Cartesianische Meditationen
Howl and Other Poems
Tropic of Cancer
The Galilee Hitch-hiker
Crucifix in a Deathhand
Der Tod in Venedig
Cannery Row


Bill Benzon 08.12.17 at 12:29 pm


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – the Pearl Poet
Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
Giles Goat Boy – John Barth
A Passage to India – E M Forster
The Tin Drum – Gunter Grass

These didn’t come quite so swiftly to mind:

Naked Lunch – Wm Burroughs
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

And these…I was young?

King Solomon’s Mines – Rider Haggard
Man of Many Minds – E Everett Evans
Spartacus – Howard Fast


Bill Benzon 08.12.17 at 12:30 pm

@ Dr. Hilarius: I never read On Growth and Form, but I’ve seen illustrations from it, along with brief explanations, and they have affected my thinking in a significant way.


nnyhav 08.12.17 at 2:05 pm

Bill, you could’ve just linked that prior post and saved me some typing (but influential is a bit different from important, as I chose books from college daze back then)


JP 08.12.17 at 3:00 pm

Just gonna drop some less canonical faves here.

Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde
Methodology of the Oppressed, Chela Sandoval
States of Injury, Wendy Brown
Justice and the Politics of Difference, Iris Young
Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said


LFC 08.12.17 at 3:29 pm

A couple of others (in re fiction):

Blood Meridian (C. McCarthy)

and a book that I mentioned on a previous thread here and that Maria said she’d read twice:

Anatomy of a Soldier (H. Parker)

Not going to go, I think, into the social science etc. (e.g. pol. philosophy) category, b/c my choices wd not be that surprising and also it’s hard to restrict it to five (esp if one puts classics and contemp. works in the same list).


Neville Morley 08.12.17 at 3:32 pm

Expanding the number of categories doesn’t much change my top five novels, which I circulated on Twitter in response to the original tweet – deeply pretentious, but I guess that’s who I am – but somehow having two other lists makes me feel less unhappy about all the stuff left out of the original list…


Calvino, Se una notte d’inverno un viagggatore
Perec, La vie mode d’emploi
Lurie, The Truth About Lorin Jones
Maron, Stille Zeile Sechs
Sebald, Die Ausgewanderten

SF & F

Gibson, Neuromancer
Bester, The Demolished Man
Ballard, Vermillion Sands
Gentle, Golden Witchbreed
Mieville, The City and the City


Marx, 18 Brumaire
Nietzsche, Zum Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben
Koselleck, Futures Past
Braudel, The Mediterranean


LFC 08.12.17 at 3:42 pm

Might also mention something I read v. recently, Michael Franks’ absorbing, candid, beautifully written family memoir The Mighty Franks. (By way of disclosure, am acquainted w the author, but it really is worth reading, esp if this is a genre in which you have an interest — or even if you don’t.)


Bill Benzon 08.12.17 at 4:37 pm

@nnyhave #16: I was considering linking, but if I’d done that, I’d have linked to my current blog, New Savanna, where I’d also posted that list, and not to The Valve, which you’ve done. That post occasioned an interesting discussion where others posted their lists (including you), some with comments. Those lists are worth reading.

In particular, during the course of that discussion the question of books we read in childhood came up. If, in Wordsworth’s formulation, “the child is father to the man”, then children’s books are enormously important. In that discussion I linked to Holling Clancy Holling, Lucille Webster Holling, Pagoo, which was terribly important to me. It’s fiction in the sense that it tells a story that, well, didn’t happen; the authors made it up. But it could have happened. It was the story of a young hermit crab, from hatching to first molt. And it had absolutely gorgeous illustrations, drawn and water color. I spent hours studying those images.


Peter Dorman 08.12.17 at 5:58 pm

So many books. The only way to approach this is chronologically.

In my teens: Germinal by Zola and Rhinoceros by Ionesco were eye-opening in HS, then The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Goffman was like an instruction manual when I found it as a sophomore in college. I had a psychedelic experience with Hegel’s Science of Logic that was enduring.

In my 20s: Technics and Civilization by Mumford was my initial grounding in political ecology and related stuff; I was also captivated by (but eventually lost interest in) Society of the Spectacle by Debord. Portugal: The Impossible Revolution? by Mailer convinced me to study economics to find out what was wrong with my knee-jerk ultraleftism. (Little did I know.) I read Kafka compulsively.

In my 30s: I was initially mesmerized by Sraffa’s Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities (and various more mathematical treatments of the same approach), but was rudely disabused by a failed dissertation project. Ironically, it was a thoroughly conventional book, Mathematical Optimization and Economic Theory by Intriligator, that revealed to me the main basis for my own dissent (the convexity assumption). I also had a cosmic experience discovering eigenvectors while teaching myself linear algebra, but I can’t remember the book that provided the occasion. Probably any intro text would have done this.

In my 40s: This is when I discovered Dewey and realized that the two of us had a lot in common, among which was a falling out with Hegel. John Dewey and American Democracy by Westbrook was the vehicle. The biggest discovery, though, was The Rise and Fall of Freedom of Contract (extraordinary) by Atiyah, which deepened my understanding of market processes.

In my 50s: I was swept away by The Sicilian Mafia by Gambetta and found a union of political economy and literature in Gain by Powers. (I like “gain by powers”.) Although it’s terribly repetitive and doesn’t quite understand its own message, Rivalry and Central Planning by Lavoie gave me the Austrianism I needed.

In my 60s: Except for the ending, Arcadia by Groff touched me deeply, as did the Under the North Star trilogy by Linna. Ironically, none of the books triggered by the Great Recession had much impact. I read a lot of stats stuff, with Data Analysis Using Regression and Multilevel/Hierarchical Models,/i> by Gelman and Hill being the most illuminating.

Mostly male authors, all white (as far as I know). I’ve left a lot of literature out, which is unfair but honest. This is a list of books that changed my life, at least until the next one came along.


Laura Tillem 08.12.17 at 6:04 pm


A Perfect Spy
Our Mutual Friend
The Given Day
A Brief History of Seven Killings
Bring Up the Bodies


Dave 08.12.17 at 6:26 pm

Slaughterhouse 5
The Origin of Species
Against Method – Feyerabend
Scientific Realism and the Plasticity of Mind – Paul Churchland
The Dinosaur Heresies – Douglas Bakker


TheSophist 08.12.17 at 10:35 pm

Infinite Jest
Lord of the Rings
Gender Trouble
Zurich 1953 – David Bronstein (the best chess book ever written)

Also @ William Timberman – Mark Knopfler’s song Basil is about Basil Bunton, who worked at the same newspaper as the adolescent Knopfler.


TheSophist 08.12.17 at 10:38 pm

… actually, now that I think about it, Zurich 1953 was the best chess book ever written back in the early 80s, when I read it. That title is now held by Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy (John Watson)


Peter T 08.13.17 at 2:22 am

The Origin of Species because it sets a standard for scrupulous fairness in argument hard to equal.

The Story of Burnt Njal (“but a short while is hand glad of blow”)

Jacob Black-Micheaud’s Feuding Societies

Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds

Anything by Peter Heather of late Rome/post Rome

Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle


Bill Benzon 08.13.17 at 2:27 am

Looks like I’ve got a comment hung up in moderation.


Peter Dorman 08.13.17 at 4:33 am

Sophist @25-26: I greatly enjoyed Bronstein when I read him way back in the day, too, but for a dissenting view, see Jeremy Silman:

As a player, I was influenced by Lasker more than anyone else. See his captivating book of the St. Petersburg 1909 tournament. But surely, if you want to put a chess book on a “greatest” list, you have to consider My System by Nimzovich.

Peter T @27: I was enthralled by Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire. The barbarians got better!


Meredith 08.13.17 at 5:31 am

The Iliad.
The Aeneid.
The Odyssey.
Horace, esp. the Odes.
The Iliad.
The Iliad.
(Euripides — I am not as moved by his plays.)
Lots of poets since — lots! (May I note the absence of poets in the post’s categories?)

To stick to prose more recent, where even to begin? Goodnight Moon? Ruth Rendell? James Baldwin? The Little Princess (Frances Hodgson Burnett, my childhood favorite)? Elizabeth Konigsburg? Dahl? Milne? I think I am leaning toward young reading (being read to!) since we are about to visit and take care of for a week our 18-month-old granddaughter. Today we got for her two books, Matties’ Twirly Whirly Tail (good illustrations — playing and cuddling, colors, monkeys–and who doesn’t love monkeys?) and Lionni’s Frederick (good illustrations — Frederick is a mouse — and I remember that my children loved this book, though they were older and I am probably rushing things). How many layers of reliving…. Middlemarch can wait. The Iliad, too.


William Timberman 08.13.17 at 5:44 am

TheSophist @ 25

Mark Knopfler? Really? I’ll be damned. Bunting was teaching at UC Santa Barbara when I went to school there. Never had a class from him, but he lived two blocks away from a friend of mine, and occasionally I’d find myself shopping in the same local grocery aisle with him, or browsing the same row of shelves in my favorite local bookstore — the same bookstore, in fact, which had sold me his collected poems, and, believe it or not, the same bookstore in which William Saroyan appeared suddenly one day with a shout, a flourish of his cape, and what seemed like a puff of smoke. I had no idea who he was until somebody whispered That’s William Saroyan as he whirled past us into the back of the store looking for the manager. Glory days for an undergraduate in what turned out to be a much smaller world than I could ever have imagined it to be. (It WAS Southern California, of course, so one expected the occasional movie star, or folk singer, but William Saroyan…?)


Raven 08.13.17 at 6:17 am


Benjamin Lee Whorf’s Language, Thought, and Reality
G. Spencer-Brown’s Laws of Form
Loren Eiseley’s The Unexpected Universe (notably the essay “The Hidden Teacher”)
Archie J. Bahm’s [Tao Teh King, Interpreted As] Nature And Intelligence (the best *interpretation* of Lao Tzu into English I’ve ever read)
Robert Anton Wilson’s Prometheus Rising (has some references to his and Robert Shea’s “Illuminatus!” novels, but familiarity with those is not strictly required)


Maxwell Nurnberg and Morris Rosenblum’s How to Build a Better Vocabulary
William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style
Henning Nelms’s Thinking with a Pencil
George Bain’s Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction
Michael Green’s (1986!) Zen & the Art of the Macintosh


Raven 08.13.17 at 6:27 am

Oh, lest anyone suspect GSB’s Laws of Form is not as subject to wrangling about its applications in real life as, say, anything by Ayn Rand: see my quote and comment on it here.


Matt 08.13.17 at 8:14 am

Five fiction books, with some reasoning:
1) Maugham, _Of Human Bondage_ (important to me for the idea that, if you cannot make the world fit your dreams, sometimes you must make your dreams fit the world. A bit later for seeing how changes from a book to a movie can be both vulgar and subtle at the same time.)

2. Coetzee, _Disgrace_ (an example of what might happen when you can neither fit the world to your will or your will to the world, perhaps.)

3. Le Guin The Earthsea books (I’ll put them all together, since I think even with the later ones, they are probably not as big as the last Harry Potter book) (Among other good things, in these books you can find all of the classic story types: a stranger comes to town; a boy goes on a journey; and Godzilla v. Mega-Shark.)

4. Henry Miller _Tropic of Cancer_ (I love the writing, but more so because of the way that the book nicely illustrates Plato’s worries about poets – the way that things that are objectively bad can be made to look attractive and romantic.)

5. Bulgakov, _Master and Margarita_. (My wife likes this more than me, and I might prefer some of his short stories, or _Heart of a Dog_ more, but one of my most pleasant afternoons was spent retracing the steps of Ivan Bizdomnii through Moscow, from the Patriarch Ponds to the apartment where Satan lived for some time, making it a sentimental favorite for me, as well as a book where I have to think about what it is up to many times, without every deciding for sure.)


Chris Bertram 08.13.17 at 8:37 am

OK, I’ll play

Stendhal, Le Rouge et le Noir
MacInnes, Absolute Beginners
Roth, American Pastoral
Eliot, Middlemarch
Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence
All That is Solid Melts into Air
Seeing Like a State
Du contrat social
A Theory of Justice


DavidtheK 08.13.17 at 2:08 pm

On the subject of books for children. My school years included in the whole decade of the 70’s. My district took part in the Scholastic Book Services program and I was fortunate to have parents generous enough with me and able to easily enough afford SBS’s reasonable prices. So a a trip down memory lane:

Lisa Bright And Dark – by John Neufield (I didn’t have the courage to actually buy this; but I did read it over a series of Study Halls / Free reading periods)
Professor Firefly’s Phatasmagoric Alamanac – by Tom Eaton
365 Ways to Say Let’s Be Friends – by Rochelle Larkin
The Moon Explorers – by Tony Simon
Who ever captioned the poster of Earthrise over the surface of the moon shot by Apollo 8 “Peace On Earth” – that image probably doesn’t enough credit for the number of people it has propelled into peace work and environmental causes.


engels 08.13.17 at 5:32 pm

Jean & Gareth Adamson: Topsy and Tim at the Circus,
Topsy and Tim’s Coach Journey,
Topsy and Tim Can Cook,
Topsy and Tim Cross the Channel

Hegel: Wissenschaft der Logik


James Graham 08.13.17 at 6:08 pm

Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power


Neville Morley 08.13.17 at 6:37 pm

Ooh, children’s books. Too tempting.

Light years ahead of everything:

Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and his Child

Runners up:

Joan Aitken, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (if I have to choose single novels rather than whole sequences)
Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising (ditto)
Lucy M. Boston, An Enemy at Greene Knowe (ditto)
Erich Kästner, Emil und die Detektiven


TheSophist 08.13.17 at 6:49 pm

Peter Dorman – thanks for the comment and the link. Interestingly, although it’s from Silman’s website, the article you cite was actually written by John Watson.

OT personal reminiscence – Watson was the first International Master I ever got a draw against (many, many years ago.) The opening was a French Winawer, about which he had written the standard text.


Henry 08.13.17 at 7:34 pm

While I’m an enormous fan of The Mouse and His Child, I’m not sure that it counts as children’s literature, for values of same encompassing books you might actually want to give to children.

Alan Garner – The Moon of Gomrath
Patricia McKillip – The Riddle Master of Hed
Dianne Wynne Jones – Fire and Hemlock
Seamus O’ Duilearga (ed) – Sean O’Conaill’s Book
(unknown/anon.) – The Book of Gold

Best non-academic books about children’s literature:

William Browning Spencer – Zod Wallop
Francis Spufford – The Child That Books Built
Laura Miller – The Magician’s Book


Peter Dorman 08.13.17 at 7:40 pm

TheSophist: Thanks for pointing that out that Watson was the author of the critical review of Bronstein; I really liked his book reviews, which were valuable in their own right. I had an interesting email exchange with him about the boundary between tactics and strategy, which relates to my appreciation for Lasker. Lasker had a very concrete, inductive approach to strategy which in some ways prefigured modern computer-assisted play. I saw that as a sort of chess version of grounded theory, where tactics plays the role of empiricism. He disagreed, and of course his knowledge of chess was well beyond mine. (I peaked a little below 2300 USCF.) But this was before the engines took off, and it may be that grounded theory is now a better model for chess strategy than it was a couple of decades ago when we communicated.

Incidentally, recent histories of game theory are giving Lasker credit for getting the ball rolling, recognizing that (noncooperative) games could provide models for analyzing social situations. And as an undergrad eons ago I wrote a paper for a philosophy class on Lasker’s aesthetic theory, which appealed to me a lot.


Neville Morley 08.13.17 at 7:52 pm

Why would you not want to give it to as many children as possible?


novakant 08.13.17 at 8:38 pm

Der Räuber Hotzenplotz – Preussler
Winnie-the-Pooh – Milne
Nils Holgersson – Lagerloef
Emil und die Detektive – Kaestner
The Neverending Story – Ende
The Lost World – Conan Doyle
The Lorax – Dr Seuss
The Moomin Books – Janson
Krabat – Preussler
Simplicius Simplicissimus – Grimmelshausen (not really a children’s book at all – 30 years war and all that – but I read it when I was ten)


LFC 08.13.17 at 9:15 pm

@N Morley

Erich Kästner, Emil und die Detektiven

I vaguely (*very* vaguely) remember Emil and the Detectives in an English trans.

I liked the Tintin books as a kid, though at the time I knew nothing about the author’s politics, which were, if I recall correctly, not good. For the most part I don’t think his politics affected the books too much, though I could be wrong about that. I’m sure there’s been some kind of scholarly dissection of them by now…


Bill Benzon 08.13.17 at 9:15 pm

FWIW, in “Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America” (2003) Beverly Lyon Clark argues, and demonstrates, that our fairly firm distinction between adult literature and children’s literature did not exist in 19th century America (probably not in the UK either). Writers would write for both children and adults, the reviewers would review (what we now think of as) children’s books as well as (what we now think of as) adult books. And magazines such as “The Atlantic Monthly” assumed their audience included children as well as adults.

As one case study, Clark considers Mark Twain, in particular, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (TS), and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (HF). These days we think of HF as an adult book and TS as a boys book. But that distinction was not a firm one for Twain and his contemporaries. In his own statements on both books Twain vacillated in his sense of his audience and so did his reviewers. Similarly, Louisa May Alcott and her audience did not think of “Little Women” as a specifically girls book. It was a book that could be read with pleasure and edification by both children and adults. In fact, at the time, some considered it a mark of excellence that a book was accessible to children as well as to adults.

The move to differentiate the adult from the children’s audience came in the first and second quarters of the 20th century and succeeded so well that we now assume it without question. And children’s literature has been, for the most part, marginalized.


Henry 08.13.17 at 9:44 pm

Why would you not want to give it to as many children as possible?

Too depressing!


LFC 08.13.17 at 9:52 pm

Non-fiction list, in no particular order (I’ve cheated a tiny bit and made it six instead of five):

A Theory of Justice (Rawls)
The Passions and the Interests (Hirschman)
The Modern World-System Vol. 1 (Wallerstein)
States and Social Revolutions (Skocpol)
18th Brumaire (standing in also for some other things by Marx)

and (not because I’d now necessarily agree w/ all of it but because of its impact on me a v. long time ago):

Socialism (Harrington)


Tyrone Slothrop 08.13.17 at 10:11 pm

I liked the Tintin books as a kid, though at the time I knew nothing about the author’s politics, which were, if I recall correctly, not good.

Ten thousand thundering typhoons! Blistering barnacles! Szplug!…


William Berry 08.13.17 at 11:42 pm

Really hard for me to come up with a list restricted to five favorites. So, here’s a non-exclusive (incomplete?) list of books I have revisited on occasion and that had considerable influence on my outlook:

-The Rebel (in translation)– Camus
-Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire– Gibbon
-A Study of History (Somerwell condensed version)– Arnold Toynbee
-The Rise of the West– McNeil (sp?)
-The Mediterranean– Braudel (sp?)
-Volumes I & II of the Norton’s Anthology of Eng Lit (yes, every word, at least once!)
-About one-half to two-thirds of the works of Shakespeare (mostly tragedies and histories, and the sonnet cycle. I like to read the little volumes in my 1966 Yale Shakespeare; these are very well glossed and sensibly annotated)
-Norton Anthology of The American Renaissance
-Madame Bovary (in translation)– Flaubert
-Stories of Guy de Maupassant (sp? in translation)
-One Hundred Years of Solitude (in translation; I have a copy in Spanish I hope to be ready to tackle by this time next year)– Garcia Marquez
-The Plague (in translation)– Camus
-War and Peace (in translation)– Tolstoy
-C & P and Karamazov– Dostoevsky
The Iliad (Lattimore translation; my meager six hours of Ancient Greek doesn’t get me within fantasizing distance of the original text!)

I could go on but I have to finish cooking dinner.


LFC 08.14.17 at 1:20 am

Re Tintin:
Here’s a brief post from 2012 with a couple of links, one to an NYT article and one to a portion of a Wiki entry about the Tintin ‘controversy’ (haven’t refreshed my memory about either one):


Raven 08.14.17 at 4:25 am

LFC @ 45: “… the author’s politics, which were, if I recall correctly, not good.” — E.g. with regard to portraying the Congo, starting out. That Hergé revised these later should be considered, as should his taking much greater care in (for instance) his portrayal of China:

Hergé actively satirised typical European opinions of China in The Blue Lotus. He had Thomson and Thompson dress in what they perceived as traditional Chinese costume, as Mandarins, only to stand out in stark contrast to the actual clothing worn in China. He also had Gibbons, one of the story’s antagonists, express racist attitudes toward the Chinese, and made Tintin give a speech to Chang explaining western misunderstandings of the Chinese. He took “a radical view” by expressing a criticism of Western activity in China’s International Settlement, depicting it as extremely corrupt and only interested in its own commercial interests. He gained much of his information on such issues from Zhang, who informed him of the political events occurring in China from a Chinese perspective. Building on this information, Hergé’s depiction of the Japanese invasion was largely accurate, although it served as an outright attack on Japanese imperialism. Hergé depicted fictionalised versions of both the real-life Mukden Incident, although he shifted its location nearer to Shanghai, and Japan’s walking out of the League of Nations. … Further devoting himself to greater accuracy, Hergé also made increasing use of photographs to draw from, such as of Chinese clothing, street scenes, and landscape. Hergé’s newfound emphasis on accuracy and documentation imbued the rest of the Adventures.

My mother and her family lived in Harbin, Manchuria, from 1922 to 1935, i.e. were there for the Japanese invasion/occupation, so I appreciated Hergé’s having taken what was at the time a courageous stand for the truth, meeting with criticism not only from diplomats but also from a Belgian general. Fortunately for him and his fans, it was rewarded with commercial success.


Peter T 08.14.17 at 5:05 am

On childrens’ books, have to add The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay. Not only is it very funny, but it also contains any number of useful maxims (many in verse). I find “never despair while whiskers can be made from dry grass” applies several times a day at least.


Kalkaino 08.14.17 at 1:27 pm

Maybe it’s because I’m a philistine at heart but a lot of these lists remind me of the days when it was my lot to teach freshman English. Some of my colleagues would give out little questionnaires at the beginning of the semester asking for essentially this list, but also, including movies. We used to howl at the tsunami level of BS one got in these lists, all the backwards trucker caps and sorority sweaters (to be) who insisted on a ridiculously high-minded presentation of the reading self. In the movie category, however, they would cop to loving dreck. The same guy who swooned over War and Peace would also love Rambo and Dirty Harry or similar — not that the truly refined won’t also have some guilty pleasures. Anyway for what it’s worth, books important to me ranked approximately by the longstanding frequency of my return to them:

Field Guide to North American Wildlife
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Tom Jones
Diary of the Seducer (etc), Kierkegaard
A Martian Sends a Postcard Home (Craig Raines)
Riddley Walker (Russell Hoban)


RD 08.14.17 at 4:24 pm

As to children’s books: my list of Wind in the Willows, Red Badge of Courage,
Silas Marner, and Seeds of Contemplation were all read in the summer between Grade School and Prep School which gave me a life long love of reading and weaned me from comics, even Classics Illustrated!
Wanderer was a late life read which motivated me to attempt a circumnavigation in a 35′ sailboat.


James 08.14.17 at 4:30 pm

The Book of the New Sun
Grendel – John Gardner
Boy in Darkness – Mervyn Peake
Behind the Wall – Colin Thubron

Haven’t seen any travel literature mentioned so far.


steven t johnson 08.14.17 at 10:36 pm

There are novels that opened new perspectives and connected me to the emotions of others, not least by expressing the ones I couldn’t articulate. I’ve noticed not everyone reads these things the same way, though.

The Lord of the Rings…a deeply felt dream of how we little people might be saved (if your tastes in wish fulfillment leads you to identify with an Elric, skip this)

Les Miserables…the ABCs of social life

Messiah/Julian…historical fiction and science fiction are technically the same, so in a sense these are the same novel

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court…the defense of the French Revolution alone makes this amazing

The Time Machine…the world will change (shocking how many people don’t seem to believe this)

Lenin, by Alan Brien…read.


CDT 08.15.17 at 3:01 am

Where I’m Calling From-Carver. Yes, it’s not a new collection
The Stranger
The Sun Also Rises
Selected Poems-Richard Shelton
Great Gatsby

So I’m mainstream. Sue me.


Rob Chametzky 08.15.17 at 5:55 pm


Don Quixote
Through the Looking Glass
Freddy and the Ignormus
Huck Finn
Point Counter Point


The Language of Thought
Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (basically chapter 1)
Shifting Involvements
Sour Grapes
Karl Marx’s Theory of History

–Rob Chametzky


Harry 08.16.17 at 3:46 pm

Five of these (including the first two):

Jenning and Darbyshire — Anthony Buckeridge
Just William — Richmal Crompton
The Ghost of Thomas Kempe — Penelope Lively
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen – Alan Garner
The Otterbury Incident — C Day Lewis
Charlotte Sometimes — Penelope Farmer
The Dolphin Crossing — Jill Paton Walsh
The Changes — Peter Dickinson
Piggly Plays Truant — AJ Macgregor

All children’s books. I’d have to go to well over ten — probably well over 20 — before any non–children’s books would get in the list. (The first two would be Emma and Tess of the d’Urbevilles). Similarly, even in today’s golden age of television, with two exceptions (Morecambe and Wise, Reginald Perrin), my first 10-20 most important TV shows would be from the long past golden age of children’s television (during which I was fortunate to be a child).

Non-fiction: 5 of these, including the first one.

A Theory of Justice
Social Limits to Growth
Justice Gender and the Family
One Hundred Years of Socialism
Our Underachieving Colleges
Karl Marx’s Theory of History

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