4 april 2010


(me:) Some Favourite Books & Authors

This is and is not about me, since it is about me while it appeared on the the Phoenix Forums about ME, where there also is a thread about favourite (I learned to spell English, not American, so I am regularly confused, but I do tend more to the King's Authorized English than to American English pace Webster...) books, which I could not resist.

The original is under this link, and the html-revised version is as follows:

Some Favourite Books & Authors

I have been hooked on books ever since I could read, and only now the internet is a little replacing printed books as a source of information and enjoyment. Here are two lists of favorite writers & books I read the last 50 years (i.a.) mostly from the top of my head, ordered in time and with links to brief numbered notes on the right (*)

Before 20th

Lao Tzu
    Tao Teh Ching    [1]
    Sophocles Plays    [2]
    Herodotus Histories    [3]
    Thucydides Pelopponesian Wars    [4]
    Plato Theaetetus    [5]
      Republic    [6]
    Chuang Tzu Inner Chapters    [7]
    Unknown Ecclesiastes    [8]
    Lucretius De Rerum Natura    [9]
    Plutarchos Parallel Lives    [10]
    Lucian Sketches    [11]
    Juvenalis Satires    [12]
    Tacitus The annals of imperial Rome    [13]
    Augustine Confessions    [14]
    Boccaccio The Decameron    [15]


    The Prince    [16]
      The Discourses    [17]
    Boétie The Discourse of volontary servitude    [18]
    Shakespeare Plays (3 vol edition in Penguin)    [19]
    Butler Hudibras    [20]
    Winstanley Laws of Freedom and other writings    [21]
    Hobbes Leviathan, Part I    [22]
    Molière Plays    [23]
    Rochefoucauld Rochefoucauld    [24]
    Defoe Robinson Crusoe    [25]
    Swift Gulliver's Travels    [26]
      A Modest Proposal    [27]
    Mandeville The Fable of the Bees (poem + notes)    [28]
    Pope Essay on Man    [29]
    Voltaire Philosophical Dictionary    [30]
      Candide    [31]
    Fielding Tom Jones    [32]
      Voyage to Lisbon    [33]
    Dr. Johnson The Rambler    [34]
      Rasselas    [35]
      Lives of the poets    [36]
    Boswell The Life of Dr. Johnson    [37]
      The Diaries of Boswell (Ed. F. Pottle et al.)    [38]
    Gibbon The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire    [39]
    Burke Reflections on the Revolution in France    [40]
    Godwin Enquiry concerning political justice    [41]
    Chamfort Maximes et Penséee    [42]
    Lichtenberg Aphorismen    [43]
    Hazlitt Table Talk    [44]
      Plain Speaker    [45]
      Lectures on English Poets & (idem) Writers    [46]
      Liber Amoris    [47]
    Schopenhauer Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung    [48]
      Parerga et Parallelopomenina    [49]
    Thoreau Walden    [50]
      Civil Disobedience    [51]
    Whitman Leaves of Grass    [52]
    Burckhardt Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien    [53]
      Griechische Kulturgeschichte    [54]
    Multatuli Minnebrieven    [55]
      Ideën    [56]
      Specialiteiten    [57]
    Nietzsche Die Froehliche Wissenschaft    [58]
    Twain Huckleberry Finn    [59]
    Clifford The Ethics of Belief    [60]
    Bierce The Enlarged Devil's Dictionary    [61]
    Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray    [62]
      The Importance of Being Earnest    [63]
      Lady Windemere's Fan    [64]
    W. James The Principles of Psychology    [65]
      Talks to Teachers    [66]
      The Varieties of Religious Experience    [67]

     20th C

    Chechov Stories    [68]
    Russell History of Western Philosophy    [69]

    Problems of Philosophy

      Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy    [71]
    Miller Tropic of Cancer    [72]
      Sexus    [73]
      The Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch    [74]
    Orwell Collected Journalism & Essays    [75]
      Down and Out in London and Paris    [76]
      Homage to Catalonia    [77]
      Animal Farm    [78]
      1984    [79]
    Burnham The Machiavellians    [80]
    Crossman Plato Today    [81]
      The God That Failed    [82]
    Céline Voyage au bout de la nuit    [83]
    Borges Labyrinths    [84]
    Nabokov Ada    [85]
      Lolita    [86]
    Kerouac On the Road    [87]
      Dharma Bums    [88]
    Huxley The Perennial Philosophy    [90]
      Brave New World    [91]
    Watts The Spirit of Zen    [92] 
    Heller Catch 22    [93]
      Picture This    [94]
    Vonnegut Slaughterhouse 5    [95]
    Sturgeon More than Human    [96]
      Venus Plus X    [97]
    Kesey Sometimes a great notion    [98]
      One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest    [99]
    Gombrich The Story of Art    [100]
      Art and Illusion    [101]
    Feynman Lectures on Physics    [102]
      The characteristics of physical law    [103]
    BjØrneboe Frihetens Øyeblikk    [104]
      Kruttårnet    [105]
      Stillheten    [106]
    Zinoviev Yawning Heights    [107]
    Tuchmann The March of Folly    [108]
    Hill Dalziel & Pascoe series    [109]
    Chang Wild Swans    [110]
    Gardner Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science    [111]
      Science: Good, Bad and Bogus    [112]
      The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener    [114]
    Smullyan What's the name of this book?    [114]
      Cantor, Satan and Infinity    [115]

    The above is reading for pleasure (all except Feynman's Lectures on Physics, that is very pleasurable reading but requires maths, while the rest doesn't).

    O, and my general advice to younger people is this (which I found out the hard way):

    TRY THE CLASSICS--*******
    ....for they have been sifted carefully.....
    ...and don't depend on fashion or ads.....



    that is: the books that have survived 100 or more years of readership and are still well-known as special. I found them nearly always better & more worthwile than what the 20th C produced, that I read (and apart from science and mathematics, but that is not my subject now).

    And in particular, read from

    • Everyman's Library (the finest selection of books in one collection I know)
    • Dover Books (many classics in many fields)


    I could comment on any or all of this list, if asked, and suppose I will work it over and/or extend for my own website (www.maartensz.com).

    O, and in case anyone might like to ask: I have no TV since 40 years, since it generally turned out a stupid and annoying waste of time, while also I have a very good visual memory without delete button. This also keeps me out of the movies, since I prefer my own fantasies over those of others as prepared for mass consumption.



    [1] Try more translations (especially if a classic disappoints you: it may be not for you - yes Virginia: they really thought in those long gone days! - but if you are intelligent and somewhat educated it is quite possible you have run into an awful or mediocre translation).

    [5] The best Plato-translation (all known works) I know of is by Benjamin Jowett. Theaetetus is listed because Plato disposed of relativism and post-modernism already ca. 370 B.C.
    [6] The Republic contains communism, fascism, totalitarianism, all in nuce but clearly expounded, and is at times pure Monthy Python (though Plato did not intend that!).

    [7] The "inner chapters" are the chapters that are supposed to be by Chuang Tzu (mosty) and not by later authors.

    [8] Ecclesiastes is part of the Bible, and it is a near miracle - at least! - that it is in that Book at all.

    [9] See [1] and Lucretius has very many translations. The one in the Loeb Classical Library is quite well done, but I soon hope to have the proem-translation on line by way of my site that I read first ca. 1972, and then lost, and now found again at Harvard.

    [10] See [1]: The editions in Penguin Classics(that break up the original parallel lives) are quite good.

    [11] The Penguin Classics is fine.

    [12] See [1]

    [13] See [1]

    [14] Say what you will about Augustine: He could write!

    [15] See [1]

    [16] & [17]: The Discourses are longer, more serious and give more of Machiavelli's real thought than The Prince.

    [18] Explains - by implication - much about human history. And De la Boétie was Montaigne's friend.

    [19] I have seen many awful editions and translations of Shakespeare. The best I saw is one in three fairly large paperback volumesn in Penguin, with a good glossary on the page.

    [20] Long very satirical poem by a poor but very smart Englishman.

    [21] Quite amazing texts by a 17th C mystic, communist and great writer.

    [22] Hobbes had a very clear mind and a very fine style and was, since Classical Antiquity, one of the first in the West to outline a materialist philosophy.

    [23] Actually, I read Molière in French, but can't find my edition - and I guess he is better in French than in other languages.

    [24] Rochefoucauld is on my site in full with my aphoristic comments added.

    [25] Defoe's other books are also interesting, and he seems somewhat underestimated.

    [26]-[27] Two of the finest, most savoury & delectable satires ever written:

    I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

    [28] More excellent extra-ordinarily well written satire.

    [29] Not an essay but an - essayistic, philosophical - poem, somewhat overly optimistic, but fine poetry.

    [30]-[31] Candide is one of Voltaire's fairly brief satires of mankind; the Philosophical Dictionary is about philosophy and anything else Voltaire wish to spoof.

    [32] Fielding had a very sharp eye for hypocrisy and must have been an amazing man. The edition of Tom Jones in Penguin Classics is quite good.
    [33] Fielding's recording of his voyage to Lisbon while dying: humorous, stoic brave.

    [34]-[36] Dr. Johnson wrote far more than what's listed, but this seems to me some of his best. Rasselas is - rather astonishingly - much like Voltaire's Candide in its outlook on mankind as Dr. Johnson noted himself, as he also noted, no doubt correctly, it cannot have been due to plagiarizing by either, since the books were published around the same time. Great minds think alike. The Rambler are Johnson's most serious essays and may appear to be a bit too much on prosaic stilts - latinate style, rolling periods - for some. The Lives of the Poets shows Dr. Johnson, late in life, writing a more common style.

    [37]-[38] Boswell's biography of Dr. Johnson has been often described as the best biography ever. What's considerably less well know, and was only discovered and printed in the 20th Century, were Boswell's diaries, which he used as a source for his biography, but which contain much more. They are great reading, and very informative about the 18th C in England, Scotland and Europe.

    [39] Gibbon is an amazing author it may take a little to get used to, because of his ornate, polished, ironical style, which he adopted in part to avoid problems with censors. If you like him, I recommend you read all of him: There are good shorter editions of Decline and Fall, but the full text has all of Gibbon's often satirical footnotes.

    [40] Burke is often considered a conservative, which he no doubt was in several senses, but which also does not do him full justice. What he certainly was, was a very great writer, as e.g. Hazlitt testified, while he was also, by Dr Johnson's admission, a very great conversationalist.

    [41] Godwin's Enquiry is the first systematic exposition of - a position much like - social anarchism. It delves considerably deeper than most later anarchist texts and is what its title says it is.

    [42] I like Chamfort very much, as did - e.g. - Hazlitt, Mill and Nietzsche. Some think him cynical; I think he mostly spoke the truth as he saw it, and that he saw very deeply.

    [43] Lichtenberg is also an amazing aphorist, like Chamfort, but more ironical. He is best read in his original German.

    [44]-[47] Hazlitt is one of my most favourite writers, and was an amazing essayist, who well deserves the title "England's Montaigne". His work is well-edited and well-represented in the Everyman's Library, though this lacks his Liber Amoris, which is the record of his mad passion for a much younger woman. This caused a considerable scandal and did much to blacken his reputation for over 100 years, but it is an impressive painting in words of what real love may do to a man's mind.

    [48]-[49] These texts comprise much - not all - of Schopenhauer's published writings and I listed them not because I am a Schopenhauerian, for I am not, but because he wrote a great German.

    [50]-[51] Perhaps Thoreau was not a great writer, but he was original and cared deeply for nature, honesty, individuality and freedom.

    [52] Perhaps Whitman was not a great poet, but as for Thoreau immediately above. (The full text is a lot of non-rhyming poetry, a sort of exalted ecstatic rolling prose-poetry.)

    [53]-[54] The great Swiss historian Burckhardt was also a very fine writer.

    [55]-[57] Multatuli is my favourite Dutch writer, who also was an amazing man. I edited the 7 books of his Ideas for my Ideën site, with my extensive Dutch comments.

    [58] Nietzsche was a great writer and a fine but not so great philosopher. This is his criticism of science and scientists, as often with him in part true and in part hyperbolic, but all in a very fine German.

    [59] Twain's best book, and very good it is.

    [60] Great short essay on the virtue of proportionating the strengths of one's beliefs to the quality of one's evidence of them by an English mathematical genius, who was the only precursor Einstein had with the general theory of relativity.

    [61] Great satirical definitions by a great writer with a very fine mind.

    [62]-[64] I like verbal written and spoken wit, and Wilde could write and speak it like very few.

    [65]-[67] William James was not only a great psychologist but also a great writer, and much better - by my reckoning - that way than his brother Henry. He was not a bad philosopher, but here the palm must go, as he himself would agree, to his friend C.S. Peirce, who was a truly great philosopher, but not a great writer.

    [68] Chechov was a medical doctor of great sensibility and sensitivity. His stories are excellent as stories and as psychological pen-portraits of human characters.

    [69]-[71] Russell was not only a very fine philosopher and logician, but also a very fine writer. The text listed are all worth reading were it only for the qualities of his lucid, clear ironical style. And Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy does contain nor presuppose any real mathematics.

    [72]-[74] Henry Miller seems to me to be one of the best American prose writers of the 20th Century - George Orwell, who knew him also personally, would have agreed - and it is a bit odd he is not seen as such but rather as a pornographer - which by today's liberal standards he hardly was, altough his books and essays were main forces to create today's liberal standards.

    [75]-[79] Orwell was a very fine very clear writer with a very fine very clear mind. I like him very much, and agree with him that his more literate early fiction is far less valuable than his essays and later political fiction.

    [80] Burnham supplements Orwell, who was inspired some by him, and is an outstanding writer in his own right.

    [81]-[82] Crossman these days is best remembers for The God That Failed, about communism, published not long after WW II, but his Plato Today, published in the wake of the economical crises, with the question "What would Plato have taught of this" - the crisis, communism, fascism and more - is also quite interesting.

    [83] Céline was a medical doctor enlisted in WW I. His Voyage is about it, and aabout man's inhumanity to man, in great French. (There are good translations, that one needs if one's French is school French only.)

    [84] Borgess wrote some very fine philosophical essays, and they are collected in this book in what seems to be a good translation.

    [85]-[86] Nabokov's best known books, both concerned - among other things - with love for young girls. I like Ada better than Lolita, for it contains some fairly good philosophy and is more witty.

    [87]-[88] Kerouac gives a very good presentation of the mood and mindset of an era, at least in America, in more or less literate circles, namely the American literate bohemians in the fifties and the idem hipsters in the sixties.

    [90]-[91] The Perennial Philosophy is Huxley's take on mysticism, which he was much concerned with and influenced by, with many fine quotes, and Brave New World is (anti)-utopian novel.

    [92] Watts was quite influential, especially in the US, in popularizing Zen in the fifties and sixties. I never thought he got satori - the Wikipedia turns out to support me in this - but he was fine writer who knew much about his subject. This is his first book, and I think it is his best.

    [93]-[94] Heller's Catch 22 is a great satire on war, based on Heller's own WW II experiences. This his best book by far, but there other nice ones too, such as Picture This.

    [95] Another satire on war by an American who was in it.

    [96]-[97] Sturgeon wrote mostly science-fiction, which I mostly don't like, since much of it is not well-written and/or somewhat whacky, but Sturgeon could really write and these are his two most famous books, both concerned with being somewhat more than merely human or merely normal and well-adjusted.

    [98]-[99] Kesey was an American hipster, who got rather (in)famous when trying to turn the world on with LSD. But he certainly could write. One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (about the insanity that governs asylums for the - supposedly - insane) was made into a fine film and is a fine book, but Sometimes A Great Notion (probably Kesey's attempt to write THE Great American Novel) is even better (and considerably longer).

    [100]-[101] These are both lavishy and well-illustrated books about the arts, mostly paintings, and themes that relate to the illusions, misrepresentations and trickery that art thrives on or uses.

    [102]-[103] Feynman was a great character, a genuine original in the best sense, and a great physicist. These are his best books related to physics. They are very well-written but the mathematically innocent or iliterate should be warned that the Lectures require some mathematics to savour them fully (and are a lot of text).

    [104]-[106] BjØrneboe was a Norwegian writer with a very fine lapidary style. The theme of the three books listed, that form a series, is man's inhumanity to man, that drove BjØrneboe in 1975 to suicide.

    [107] Yawning Heights is a great satire by a Russian logician and philosopher, who because of it was banned from the Soviet Union, which the book satirizes - although one of the striking things is that what it satirizes, viz. bureaucracy gone insane in totalitarian institutions, is not at all llimited to the - late and unlamented - SU.

    [108] Tuchmann was an American historian who wrote quite a few books. This is her best one, and concerns the usual folly that leads to war, and that seems repeated over and over again in human history.

    [109] Reginald Hill's Dalziel & Pascoe series (many books) is the lightest reading on the list, but it is fine, witty prose.

    [110] Jung Chang's book is part biography of her parents, grandparents and herself (a very intelligent, very beautiful and very determined woman), in China between 1920 and 1980. It is so true and well-written that - in spite of international fame and China's supposed liberation - is still forbidden in China, to the best of my knowledge.

    [111]-[113] Martin Gardner has an excellent and original mind and a fine clear style. These are three of his - many - books I like best.

    [114]-[115] Raymond Smullyan is one of the greatest mathematical logicians of the 20th Century. These are two of his very fine books of logical puzzles, for which you need know nothing of logic or mathematics: all that is required is a clear mind.

    P.S. As I started by saying, I wrote this from the top of my head on April 4, 2010. If I did the same on any other day, the result would be different - but there would be a considerable overlap.

    Also, the reader should note that I have avoided listing books I enjoyed which involve mathematics or mathematical logic or presuppose some scientific knowledge or are good but intricate philosophy.

    If these were to be included, the list would be quite different.


    (*) The links in this file are to relevant items on my site only. If you are interested in any of the authors or books, try an internet-search by name and title. There often are editions of the classical texts available on line, and there may be several of anyone given text, in various qualities and styles (html, pdf, txt).

    Maarten Maartensz

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