Updated June 2021
These are books I have found especially fascinating, revelatory, entertaining, etc. and which do not seem to require special preparation (although certainly my appreciation of a book was always affected by what I had read before).
Philosophy and Religion
Plato, Euthyphro. A little gem of a dialogue that bears many readings. Its central question is “Does God love the good because it is good or is it good because God loves it?”
_______, Symposium. A review of different ways love can be conceived. Not only profound but hilarious. The latter quality comes through especially in the Penguin edition.
Richard Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? Artfully written like a thriller, this scholarly account shows how the different viewpoints represented in the Bible not only make a historical puzzle but give the Bible greater theological power.
J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines. Follows the ins and outs of the theological debates and church politicking of the first few centuries A.D., out of which came the most familiar formulations of Christian belief. Surprising and illuminating.
Augustine, Confessions. Who wants to read a guy praying? But when you see how searchingly and intelligently Augustine tries to make sense of his experience, you will be captivated.
al-Ghazali, Deliverance from Error (also published as The Faith and Practice of Al- Ghazali). This is the autobiography of the Islamic Augustine—philosopher, theologian, and Sufi. Searches for justification for religious belief in a partly very modern, partly fascinatingly premodern way.
Wu Ch’eng-En, Monkey, in the David Kherdian translation. A sixteenth-century Chinese allegory of salvation that’s a scream. (If you can’t find the Kherdian version, the Arthur Waley one is good.)
Robert Barclay, An Apology for True Christian Divinity (late 17th C.). An outstandingly reasonable and lovable theological work by the Quakers’ chief systematic theologian; argues for the paramount authority of the Holy Spirit.
Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans. This 1922 bombshell opened up to me a conception of Christianity as radical criticism of human assumptions, even of religious assumptions. It’s also rhetorically strange and powerful. My favorite of favorites, in religious literature.
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man. These are his two chief works which argue the reasonableness of Christianity. As with his later counterpart C. S. Lewis, he uses Christianity as a vantage point from which to show up the intellectual and moral foibles of modern civilization. Always a delightful writer. His books on St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis are also outstanding sympathetic interpretations. Chesterton is a master of the short essay on any subject; you can read samples in collections like Tremendous Trifles.
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience. I stayed up with this classic through an all-night bus trip. Essential reading for philosophy or psychology or phenomenology of religion. Anything by James is fun and worthwhile.
Martin Buber, I and Thou. A sometimes maddening but extraordinarily fertile book which, I have come to think, takes the right ground on an important issue on nearly every one of its pages.
Naguib Mahfouz, Children of Gebelaawi. An insightful allegorical novel about the relations between Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and modern science, from the point of view of a contemporary Muslim (the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian writer).
Jean-Paul Sartre, What Is Literature? Sartre’s considerable strengths as a thinker and writer are on awesome display in this incisive essay. This is the book that should introduce his “existentialism” rather than his better-known big philosophical works.
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition. Extremely important critique of our assumptions about the meaning of life, especially in the public realm. Distinguishes very usefully between labor, work, and action. All of her stuff is worth reading—I’ve also been influenced by The Origins of Totalitarianism and On Violence.
Simone Weil, The Need for Roots. An original and worthwhile social philosophy, written in England during World War II ostensibly as a program for the reconstruction of postwar France. Her life is fascinating, for which read Simone Petrement’s biography of her. Also her Waiting for God is an intriguing specimen of religious autobiography.
Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key. Illuminating inquiry into symbolism, out of which grows her wonderful examination of all the arts, Feeling and Form.
Other enjoyable and rewarding books on art: R. G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art; Leo Tolstoy, What is Art?; Clive Bell, Art; E. H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion.
Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation. A great unclassifiable book that touches on creativity along with laughing and crying and a lot of other things.
Gilles Deleuze, Cinema One. The Movement-Image. A really fresh look at cinematic meaning powered by metaphysical curiosity. (One of the strongest doses of pure intellectual stimulation I’ve ever received—I’m still not sure what it’s good for—is Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition.)
Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained. Much fun with brain research and contemporary philosophy of mind. Makes you run to keep up but won’t leave you behind.
Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained. Clear, smart, stimulating introduction to the “Cognitive Science of Religion” approach.
Essays, Literary Criticism, Language
C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost—whether or not you are interested in Paradise Lost. I also like Lewis’ Experiment in Criticism. If you go in for the history of language, you will find his Studies in Words rewarding and also History in English Words by his friend Owen Barfield. On relationships between European languages, a fantastic book is The Mother Tongue by Lancelot Hogben.
Stephen Pinker, The Language Instinct. Great starter for contemplating the basis and structure of language. For working through the puzzles that exercise philosophers of language a great book is William Lycan’s Philosophy of Language.
Erich Heller, The Disinherited Mind. Full of good ideas about modern civilization and mainly German writers.
Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western World. Powerful critique of romantic love (centering on a reading of the Tristan and Iseult myth) and a defense of lifelong monogamy.
John Ruskin, “The Nature of Gothic,” in The Stones of Venice. A sane vision of connections between art, working, and living in general.
Nature and Culture
Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Actually this is philosophy/history of science. Taught me a lot about the nature of all kinds of inquiry. Quite readable; much talked about.
Clifford Geertz, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” in The Interpretation of Cultures. Not beyond criticism, but a classic example of what is for me the most interesting approach to cultural anthropology.
Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques. Reflections on many subjects pinned to an actual attempt to make first contact with a people in the heart of South America. Very personal and engaging (not like his thorny structuralist works).
And while we’re thinking of South America, Kenneth Good’s Into the Heart: One Man’s Pursuit of Love and Knowledge Among the Yanomami is a powerful account of noncivilized life and of an enamored anthropologist’s dilemma.
Konrad Lorenz, King Solomon’s Ring and On Aggression. Entertaining studies of animal behavior with an eye on human implications.
Bert Hölldobler and E. O. Wilson, Journey to the Ants. There is much more to learn about ants than you thought. Super-engaging.
John MacPhee, Encounters with the Archdruid. MacPhee is a great contemporary writer on nature as well as other things. He has a sober gee-whiz sensibility that superbly evokes the mattering of what matters. This one is about environmental issues. Another favorite by him is The Control of Nature, which has a section on the Army Corps of Engineers and the Atchafalaya. “Brigade de Cuisine” (in Giving Good Weight), a profile of a master chef, is a masterpiece on cooking and eating.
Similarly rewarding is Kenneth Brower’s The Starship and the Canoe, which parallels an epic voyage in an ocean-going canoe by the younger Dyson with the elder Dyson’s speculative scientific work.
I was fascinated by the project of figuring out how to get up to the tops of the tallest redwoods as portrayed by Richard Preston in The Wild Trees. I thought it might be just a boy thing, but it’s not; and it’s serious science too.
More in a comic vein of science/nature writing: the philosopher Ed Regis has written a very funny and insightful review of “science on the edge” of humanity itself, The Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition.
Thomas Szasz, The Myth of Mental Illness. Iconoclastic, stimulating.
Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Weird, wonder-evoking neurological cases. See also Phantoms in the Brain by V. S. Ramachandran.
Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker. Dawkins is overly fond of baiting creationists, but this book is supreme for infectiously interesting discussion of evolutionary biology. I greatly enjoyed The Ancestor’s Tale as well.
Cecelia Holland is a great historical novelist; she’s worth reading apart from the history. My favorites are Until the Sun Falls, about the 13th-century Mongols who almost invaded Europe, and Great Maria, set in 12th-century Norman Sicily.
Michael Shaara wrote a great novel on the battle of Gettysburg, The Killer Angels.
Black Elk Speaks by Black Elk (with John Neihardt) is a lovely American biographical epic of a Lakota Sioux.
Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World. Lovably, infinitely British adventure of attempting to procure Emperor penguin eggs in the Antarctic winter.
Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August. Superb historical thriller about the first days of World War I.
George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia. An honest man reporting from the little-understood heart of the Spanish Civil War.
John Wain, Samuel Johnson. A great read, and a window on a very memorable person. I went from this to Boswell’s Life of Johnson.
Karen Armstrong, Holy War. The Crusades and their Impact on Today’s World. Very illuminating tracing of violent rivalry among the Abrahamic communities through the centuries. Develops a needed triangular vision of Western religious history.
Otto Friedrich, Before the Deluge. A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s. On the Weimar Republic period in Germany before the Nazis came to power. I cried at the end.
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Each a comprehensively detailed and felt human world.
George Eliot, Middlemarch. Amazingly intelligent observation of life.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment. Ultimate spiritual thrillers.
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse. Unbelievably evocative.
William Faukner, The Sound and the Fury.
Charles Dickens, Bleak House. It’s got everything.
Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady.
Gabriel García Márques, One Hundred Years of Solitude. You will want to go on reading it for a hundred years.
Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy. A unique massive joke on narrative writing. You may not be ready for it at a given time, but when you are, there’s nothing like it.
Stendhal, The Red and the Black. An intriguing unexpected mood.
George Meredith, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel—and if you like that, go on to The Egoist.
William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair. Wonderful authorial rhetoric.
Herman Melville—besides Moby Dick, you must read the fabulously cynical (?) The Confidence Man. Both of these works start out as one sort of book and end up as another.
Robert Louis Stevenson, New Arabian Nights. He was trying to concoct a new kind of story; an interesting experiment.
Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain.
T. H. White, The Once and Future King.
J. R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.
Dorothy Dunnett, The Lymond series (The Game of Kings, Queen’s Play, The Disorderly Knights, A Pawn in Frankincense, The Ringed Castle, and Checkmate. A sprawling sort-of-historical novel about a 16th-century ultra-utilitarian named Francis Crawford of Lymond. Read them in the right order.)
Mary Webb, Precious Bane. Thick with feeling—Webb is a kind of English “primitive.”
E. M. Forster, A Passage to India. A must-read if you’re interested in East-West or colonialist issues.
Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End. Don’t judge Ford by the chilling The Good Soldier; this later great work is bigger- and deeper-hearted.
Virginia Woolf, Orlando. Funny in a most unusual way.
Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire. Ditto. And don’t forget Lolita.
Halldor Laxness, Independent People. You couldn’t have known beforehand that you’d be glad to spend decades on a lonely Icelandic moor with a crusty sheep farmer and his unhappy family. Amazing writing in different registers.
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God. A favorite of Alice Walker’s. Better than Alice Walker.
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying.
Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March. Astounding vigor of thought, expression, engagement of life; way American. Herzog and Humboldt’s Gift are great too.
Walker Percy, The Last Gentleman. The ravening particles.
Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood and her stories.
V. S. Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas. Unfolds an unsuspected way of life in Trinidad.
Muriel Spark, Memento Mori. Great black humor.
Don DeLillo, White Noise. Like an advanced version of Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins–a whacked-out deadpan study of the richness and precarity of human thinking, perfect for technology-addled American consumer culture. Other very impressive DeLillos include Libra (even though it’s a Lee Harvey Oswald reconstruction) and Mao II. I also recommend Running Dog and Cosmopolis.
Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The book that gave “philosophical novel” a good name again.
Gabriel García Márques, Love in the Time of Cholera. Movingly romantic. You might want to try this before One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Peter Carey, Illywhacker. A tragicomic Australian epic with fabulous narrative invention. More compact, and awesome, is The Tax Inspector. Also see the interesting experiment The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith. True History of the Kelly Gang is excellent.
Richard Flanagan deals most impressively with the bitter history of Down Under in Gould’s Book of Fish.
Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping is a kind of sad feminine sublime. Of the Gilead books I think Lila is the great one.
Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is historically and metaphysically vivid, deeply scary, grand. In a more normal register yet deeply moving is The Crossing.
Norman Rush, Mating and Mortals—if you enjoy smart people.
Iris Murdoch offers a unique combination of imaginative intensity and sharp moral analysis in The Good Apprentice and The Green Knight.
Ann Patchett, Bel Canto. I know, everyone loves it, but so do I.
Emma Donoghue, Room—an amazingly interesting and convincing piece of storytelling from a young child’s perspective in an archetypally near-impossible situation.
Anna Burns, Milkman—beautifully immersive in a young woman’s experience of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower—unexpectedly engaging novel of the young Novalis and the families in his life, smart and warm, in which you will have more than one favorite character.
Two long books that I wasn’t ready for until I was past 30: Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past and Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities (3 vols.). Each conjures up a period in great detail (pre-World War I France and Austria, respectively), each has unforgettable characters, each has an interesting underlying philosophy, each is funny in an idiosyncratic way.
Another early 20th-century blockbuster of the spirit is Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döbler. The new translation by Michael Hofmann works great at conveying a racy Berliner sensibility.
Try a medieval Icelandic saga. The tone and technique are strikingly modern. The one to start with is Njal’s Saga, which is much like a novel, and very moving. If you like this, look into Egil’s Saga, Gisli’s Saga, and Snorri Sturluson’s History of the Kings of Norway, Heimskringla.
I was captivated by the Iliad in Robert Fitzgerald’s translation. (By the way, there is a beautiful little book by Simone Weil called The Iliad—The Poem of Force.) Later I discovered the wonderful retellings of the Indian epics Mahabharata and Ramayana by R. K. Narayan.
An oddity: The Young Visiters by Daisy Ashford (novel written at age 12 or so—hilarious).
Some Great Science Fiction Works
(though I confess I haven’t read much sci-fi in recent decades)
John Milton, Paradise Lost
John Brunner, Stand on Zanzibar
Ursula LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness. Portrays an alternative (i.e. to terrestrial human) sexuality. See also her Earthsea trilogy and The Dispossessed, perhaps the best political-utopian work of all time.
Cecelia Holland, Floating Worlds
Larry Niven, Ringworld. See also Protector and, with Jerry Pournelle, The Mote in God’s Eye
Frank Herbert, Dune
Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light
Philip José Farmer, To Your Scattered Bodies Go. Alas, the Riverworld sequels decline in quality, but #2, The Fabulous Riverboat, is good.
James Blish, Black Easter. Triumph of the Devil. See also his Cities in Flight tetralogy.
David Lindsay, A Voyage to Arcturus. Metaphysical quest.
Frederick Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants. Satire on capitalism. See also their Gladiator-at-Law.
Joe Haldeman, The Forever War. Compare with Robert Heinlein’s classic Starship Troopers.
Stanislaw Lem, The Cyberiad (highly comic). See also the eerie Solaris and The Invincible.
Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash
Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice
Favorite Mystery/Spy Writers
Dashiell Hammett, esp. The Glass Key
Dick Francis, esp. earlier works like Nerve, Bonecrack, Rat Race
Eric Ambler, esp. earlier works
John le Carré, esp. A Small Town in Germany
John D. MacDonald, the Travis McGee novels
Dorothy Sayers, the Peter Wimsey-Harriet Vane novels: Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, Busman’s Honeymoon (read in order). But her best-all-round may be Murder Must Advertise.
Gavin Lyall, esp. those early ones that involve flying DC-3s
Robert Ludlum, The Rhinemann Exchange and The Gemini Contenders