This list is in progress
Last Updated: September 24, 2011
Stoicism/ General Ancient Philosophy
Philosophy as a Way of Life, Pierre Hadot – Get this book immediately if you are interested in ancient philosophy. The first stoic writings I read were, I believe, from Seneca, but I wish I started here because it gives you a solid understanding of the framework that the stoics are coming from. It also talks a good deal about Epicureanism and less extensively about other philosophies such as Cynicism. So, start here and then move on to the personal writings of the ancient philosophers.
The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius – Aurelius is not the most literary of the stoic writers (I’d say Epictetus is), but he’s the most grounded and practical. He was an EMPEROR OF ROME. The most powerful man in the world at that time, and he practiced an anti-materialistic, self-aware, ascetic philosophy. It’s an amazing feat of human restraint, given the corrupting nature of power. We only need look at our prostitute-loving senators to see the contrast. Pierre Hadot (from above) also wrote a splendid book on Aurelius called The Inner Citadel.
Discourses, Epictetus – Where Aurelius, to me, is a man to emulate on a daily basis, I look to Epictetus when I mentally need to steel myself. The contrast between the two is interesting because while Aurelius was an emperor, Epictetus had been a slave, and yet both preach the same message. However, Epictetus uses more vivid language that can really get through to you in times of stress or feeling a little lost.
Letters From a Stoic, Seneca – I don’t want to get into the debate over whether Seneca was a true stoic or not. In fact, I wonder how thin the critics’ own glass houses are? To me it does not discredit his writings; just because he was not a sage does not mean he cannot give good advice. Some of his writings that have really stuck in my mind are his discussions on anger, drinking alcohol, and practicing periodic poverty.
Caesar and Christ, Will Durant – The Durants’ whole history series provides a great overview of whatever time period they attack, and this volume in particular will help you understand the context of the Romans. I’d recommend this one before you go out and buy 20 volumes of Livy, or the whole set of Gibbon, especially if you only have a vague notion of what the Greeks did versus the Romans, etc. Otherwise, you’re going to either (a) burn yourself out or (b) lose interest as you get lost in the detail. And the Romans were far too interesting to let this happen.
Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli – This is a suburb example of applied history, versus a pedantic study of the minutiae of an ancient society. A book like this teaches you to be an interpreter and to read with a keen eye, rather than struggle to memorize dates and obscure cities to drop them in conversation
The Culture of Classicism, Caroline Winterer – I first bought this book about three years ago thinking it was about the importance of reading the classics, and was disappointed when I realized it was about the historical role that Roman and Greek works played in American society. Very recently I reread this book, and it’s now one of my favorites. It highlights the way that people have stopped learning from the past (in the fashion of Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy), and instead, started to read history simply to for the sake of knowledge; the past has been relegated to a place in the ivory tower, and people have begun ignoring the maxim that “history repeats itself.” It also talks about how the politics of pre-1900 America was seen as compared to Rome–fascinating.
Livy’s History of Rome – I admit that Livy can be dry, and long. But you’re the better for reading him. I personally find myself wondering when I read secondary sources “but how do they know this?” Well, Livy is how we know a lot of Roman history.
Annals and the Histories, Tacitus – Tactius is definitely more lively than Livy, but they share the same moral axe to grind. In writing the Roman Empire, he rails against the corruption in his time, and we get to witness some marvelous stories of scandal and licentiousness that would have made Livy go into cardiac arrest. I also recommend his essays on Germania and Judea. It’s absolutely fascinating to read in a Roman’s own words how they viewed foreign peoples. It’s hilarious until you darkly realize that they likely mirror your own conception of far away lands and peoples.
Aeneid, Virgil – Get a poetic translation–I got the Harvard Classics edition on Kindle for $1. It’s beautiful (though I also have a more prose-y version, which helps when my eyes are glazing over). It’s very revealing of Roman culture and beliefs–and you can see major parallels with any patriotic mythology in history.
The United States
The Colonial Background of the United States, Charles Andrews – This is an excellent work, written in the 1920s, in a time when a writer was considered un-American if they did not continue the tradition of forcing the “patriotic” view of American history down people’s throats. But Charles Andrews refused to do this and looked at history objectively, detailing the movement toward independence (which in fact, did not begin with the goal of independence). I think that the first readers of this book must have looked at him like the Greeks looked at Thucydides–”What the hell is going on here, and where’s my religious propaganda?!”
The Creation of the American Republic and Empire of Liberty, Gordon Wood – Gordon Wood is the best secondary source that I have found on early America, and indeed the most detailed, which is why I have relied heavily on him for numerous sections. However, one criticism I would make about his book is that he resists controversy, leading him to overcompensate with sympathy for much-hated figures in history, such as Hamilton (by some), or Jefferson (by others). I can respect that we cannot impose modern ethics on the past, and that he was trying to write history rather than political or economic ideology, but I prefer the Machiavellian-style of history to this non-controversial style.
A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn – I once remember reading that criticism and negativity tend to have the appearance of truth, and I think that this statement applies to Zinn. In research various writings for this site, I have numerous primary sources on early America, and I have come to believe that Zinn is just revising history based on his own mental fantasies. In fact, I think that it gives leftist criticism a bad name.
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, Paul Kennedy – This is another example of a book that imposes an ideology, and here it’s an economic ideology. This is definitely an interpretative history and unfortunately not one that I agree with. It does have many objective facts in between the interpretation, but, to be honest, I see this book as something to avoid in my own writings. It does not live up to its title.
The Revolutionary Writings of John Adams -
Europe, Norman Davies -
Mythologies, Roland Barthes -
The Society of the Spectacle, Guy de Bord
Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman
Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard
Travels in Hyperreality, Umberto Eco
Les Miserables, Victor Hugo – This is one of my favorite books of all times. I actually read Atlas Shrugged (see below) immediately after this, juxtaposing two of the most ideologically different novels of all time, and I fall on the side of Les Miserables. It’s almost Shakespearean, not in its language, but in the message of good people stuck in a bad world, and tragedy will follow this scenario.
Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand – Though I also like the economic theories of the Austrian School of Economics/Ron Paul/Milton Friedman/etc they simply remain what their titles imply–theories and academic models. In reality, it’s not good for the bank accounts of 90% of people who worship capitalism, nor is it good for their souls when a country comes to put money before all else. In other words, wealth doesn’t trickle down; it accumulates, is hoarded, and people really are exploited. I can sympathize for the main character who puts money and success before all else in life, but do i think that a nation who behaves and believes like this is going to head anywhere but to a state of tyranny, greed, and misery? No, that’s why this is a novel and not a 20/20 story. This is why the founders of the United States were so worried about morality and also controlling trade, contrary to what Fox News or your professor might be telling you.
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley – In the Orwell-Huxley debate, I fall on the side of Huxley. As Neil Postman wrote (and I paraphrase), Orwell thought that the problem would be a totalitarian government oppressing freedom fighters. But Huxley envisioned a people who would dance and sing their way to chains. As Seneca said, the worst kind of slavery is that which is self-imposed.
The Big Sur, Jack Kerouac – I believe that I can understand the popularity of Kerouac. He was a member of the first beatnik generation, who were beginning to reject the norms of 1950s, overly-commercialized America. However, I think that people focus a little too much on this aspect of his story, and not enough on what his actual “happy ending was”–a life of alcoholism and hiding away from other people in a little cabin. This is not the story of a hero, but of a fallen man, perhaps deluded by his own life narrative. Definitely an interesting read with this perspective in mind.
Age of Innocence and House of Mirth, Edith Wharton – Like Kerouac, Wharton is another author I both love and hate. She writes about the turn of the century, circa 1900, when the world was transition out of the Victorian age. The United States was entering into a new era of prosperity, and with a centralized federal government and Roosevelt leadership, and yet, in this budding age of decadence, cultural decay was already beginning. Though Wharton has little appreciation for classical education, she paints a vivid picture of the upper class during this time period. Thus, I love her for the picture she paints, but resent her for the content of the painting.
The House of Leaves, Mark Danielewski – I was originally recommended this book by a guy who picked his nose in public, drove around listening to Japanese rock in a girly Volkswagen and spent his time reading Magna cartoons. Obviously I never should have wasted by $12, but I did, and now I know exactly what not to do when attempting literature
The Brothers Karamazov, Fydor Dostoyevsky -
A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe
The Stranger, Albert Camus -
No Exit, Jean Paul Sarte – Most famous for the line “hell is other people”
Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk -
Blurbs coming soon:
The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Roberto Calasso
Robert Greene’s books
individual greek plays
War Through the Ages