Ive always enjoyed reading, and Ive always been interested in seeing what books other people have enjoyed. What are their personal favorites? Which ones influenced them the most? Which would they choose if they were stranded on a desert island? Which do they most highly recommend, and why?
Ive also frequently been asked for my own recommendations. It occurred to me that it might be interesting to make a general list of the books Im most enthusiastic about.
It turned out to be a year-long project. I reread dozens of books and perused hundreds of others to see if they were as good as I remembered them, or to see how recent translations compared with the ones Id originally read. I also took the opportunity to fill in a number of gaps in my reading books Id somehow never gotten around to but which I thought I should check to see if they might be worth adding to the list.
Once I had decided on my selection, I tried to briefly explain what I thought was significant about each particular work. And to do so in my own words. Since Kenneth Rexroth has said so many excellent things about so many of the works Ive listed (and in many cases was the person who inspired me to read them in the first place) it would have been all too easy to quote his remarks at length. In order to avoid this temptation, I decided that I would not quote him at all (with one or two very brief exceptions). On the other hand, I have included plenty of links to relevant Rexroth essays that are online at this website.
My comments are not intended to be comprehensive reviews, but simply to point out a few of the reasons that you might want to read these works. Some are discussed more extensively because they are not so well known, whereas famous classics may require only a sentence or two, particularly when my opinion does not differ from the general consensus of readers and critics, many of whom have described their merits far better than I could hope to do.
The literary portion of the list is not, in fact, very original. Many of my choices turn up in other lists (see the Books on Books section and Appendix I). The fact that different types of people from different times and places nevertheless tend to choose many of the same works is one of the verifications of their enduring relevance and universality.
The main differences are in the other sections. Most lists of recommended books are primarily literary, including perhaps a few classic works of history or philosophy but little in the way of social theory, let alone radical theory. This list contains nearly as many works of radical social analysis as of literature. There are also quite a few works in certain other areas in which I have a particular interest, such as science and Zen Buddhism, as well as some lighter entertainments (detectives, science fiction, humor, comics). This is a personal selection, not a canon.
Radical folks may wonder why all the literature or all the stuff about Buddhism. Zen practitioners or literary enthusiasts may wonder why all the stuff about revolution. Wherever youre coming from, I hope you will take the opportunity to explore areas with which you may not already be familiar.
I have not presented any “radical analysis” of these works. You should not assume that I agree with them just because I don’t make any criticism. I am presuming that readers will have enough historical perspective not to be shocked by the fact that some centuries-old book does not follow the latest dictates of political correctness. Only the historically challenged imagine that people of the past could and should have lived up to current standards (including the use of officially approved phraseology that in many cases will have gone out of style five or ten years from now). The point is to see what those people did within the situations in which they found themselves. If you are able to put yourself in their place and you can hardly hope to do this without reading their history and their literature you may discover that their dilemmas were not so different from those we face today.
When you see, for example, how intelligent and well-meaning people of other times were able to take slavery for granted or to presume that women were naturally inferior to men, you may come to realize that the more enlightened views that have since prevailed required centuries of struggles; and that you probably wouldnt have done any better if you had been in their position; and that you and your contemporaries probably have blind spots that will seem equally astonishing to future generations. This does not mean that you should stop fighting existing evils in the name of some cowardly cultural relativism; but you may fight them with a little more humility and a little less self-righteousness.
Personally, I find most radical literature corny and boring, even if I sympathize with its aims. You will find a few radical literary works in this list, but they are here because they are rich human documents, not because of their social message. The real classics are radical not because they advocate the overthrow of capitalism, but in the sense that they reflect the most fundamental values of human life, values that implicitly contradict the social systems that dehumanize and alienate people. One of the reasons that people keep coming back to them is that they raise difficult questions rather than offering easy answers.
For much the same reasons, I have made no effort to present a politically correct balance. Virginia Woolf was quite right to point out (in A Room of Ones Own) that if Shakespeare had had a sister as gifted as he, she would not have had the same opportunities to cultivate those gifts. The fact remains that because most women (and people of color and people of the lower classes, etc.) did not have such opportunities until recent times, the great majority of books, and thus also the great majority of the most essential books, have been written by dead white European males. It is no solution to this historical unfairness to pretend that this is not so. The following remarks about the earliest of those DWEMs, the ancient Greeks, apply to the classic works of all times and places:
The primacy of the Greeks in the canon of Western literature is neither an accident nor the result of a decision imposed by higher authority; it is simply a reflection of the intrinsic worth of the material, its sheer originality and brilliance. It was no academic ukase that made E.V. Rieus Penguin translation of the Odyssey one of the great best-sellers of publishing history, and the film and stage directors who return obsessively to the masterpieces of the Greek theater are not driven by the ideological imperatives of a ruling class.
As for the multicultural curriculum that is the ideal of todays academic radicals, there can be no valid objection to the inclusion of new material that gives the student a wider view. But that new material will have to compete with the old, and if it is not up to the same high level it will sooner or later be rejected with disdain by the students themselves; only a totalitarian regime can enforce the continued study of second-rate texts or outworn philosophies. As long as the thoroughly Greek idea of competition is allowed free play, there is no need to worry about the future place of the Greeks in the curriculum; even if they are temporarily shunted aside in some places, they will make their way back; indeed, they may even win a wider audience as rejected texts. They have stood the test of time, more than two thousand years of it, and have become a basic element of our character, of our nature. [Bernard Knox, The Oldest Dead White European Males]
There is naturally a preponderance of British and American books in this list because that is my background. There are also quite a few French works because I read French, and quite a few Chinese and Japanese works because that happens to be my taste. Someone else might just as justifiably have included more German or Spanish or Arabic or African works. Women would probably choose more women authors. But they can discuss such authors far better than I could. If you are dissatisfied with what is included or omitted here, I encourage you to publish your own recommendations.
Others would include more recent works. I happen to think that, since the situationists and May 68, the most innovative creativity has tended to take nonliterary forms. I have read very little post-1970 literature and have not found most of it very interesting. Probably there are some good recent writers that I have missed; but contemporary writers are usually widely discussed in any case.
For somewhat different reasons, I have also included scarcely any post-1970 political works. (See the note at the beginning of the Modern History and Revolution section.)
This list may introduce well-read people to a few good books they werent aware of, or perhaps give them a new take on some theyve already read. But such people dont really have any great need for this sort of information. Once youre familiar with a certain number of the most important works, its not hard to find your way around for further explorations. My primary concern the thing that inspired me more than anything else to put this list together is the far larger number of people in this increasingly illiterate age who have read few or even none of these works.
As Guy Debord noted, during the last few decades spectacular domination has succeeded in raising an entire generation molded to its laws (Comments on the Society of the Spectacle). He went on to say that reading is the only remaining gateway to the vast realms of pre-spectacle experience. I hope this list will help people break out of the spectacles mold and start exploring those realms for themselves.
Fortunately, reading the great books of the past, though sometimes challenging, is one of life’s most consistently satisfying activities. These days it is also one of the few activities that remain accessible to virtually everyone, rich or poor, young or old, sick or well, jailed or free. The great majority of these works can be found in public libraries or used book stores. Many of them are archived online. A fair number can be obtained even in the prisons where increasing numbers of us are being incarcerated by an increasingly sick social system.
Some people say they dont have time to read yet they spend hours every day consuming the most imbecilic and ultimately unsatisfying mass-media drivel.
Other people do indeed read a fair number of books, but they rarely get around to any of the really great ones because theyre perpetually busy trying to keep up with the continual turnover of mediocre new books that are hyped as must-reads and then forgotten a year later.
If you have a limited amount of time for reading, that is all the more reason for reading the best books now.
Please do not be discouraged by the number of books I have recommended. Be happy there are so many good ones to read!
Introduction to Gateway to the Vast Realms: Recommended Readings from Literature to Revolution by Ken Knabb. Although this work was completed in 2004, I have continued to make occasional revisions and additions.