It’s a highly self conscious exercise to make lists like this. It can appear boastful and narcissistic. Look at me, look at my tastes, please validate me. Since I’m neither famous nor influential, why should you care? It also feels preemptive. I don’t know that I’ve read enough books to make a top 10 list. I don’t know that I’ve been paying attention long enough to justify any list I make.
The way I’m approaching this, I’m a regular individual and so maybe you’re interested in seeing how other people like you read. Ultimately this list may be just for me, so I can look back in 5 years and cringe at myself.
All recommendations/criticisms are welcome.
Hallucinations (2013) – Oliver Sacks
Oliver Sacks has a light prose that is easy to read and enough life experience to keep you constantly enthralled with story after story. If you see photos of him, he’s always smiling and interviews reveal him to be delightful person. No one terrifies me more than this man. He shows, with copious examples, all that can go wrong with the human brain. Really, realistically, seriously – there’s probably something wrong with you. That thing wrong with you is probably affecting your subjective reality and you are incapable of being aware of it.
The manifold hallucinations that humans can experience is fascinating and perplexing. It seems that hallucinations, far from being the purview of self-styled hippie mystics, are an integral, inescapable aspect of the human experience which requires deep understanding.
Any book you read from Sacks is going to be well worth your time, but Hallucinations is one of his absolute best.
Consider the Lobster (2005) – David Foster Wallace
This book starts exquisitely with DFW at the AVN Awards – that’s Adult Video Network. His commentary on the culture and characters highlights his trademarks: accentuating the preposterous, wry observations and wit. Throughout we find DFW’s love of literature, his thoughts on Kafka’s humor and the rewarding challenges of Dostoevsky, plus his persuasive case for prescriptive grammar in Authority and American Usage, probably my favorite piece in the whole book. Consider the Lobster was published three years before DFW’s suicide and as far as I can tell is the last proper book put out while he lived.
Wallace makes it seem like genius is available to whoever would reach for it, that genius is just an over-accumulation of normalcy. For his criticisms, one does not feel judged or stupid or less than. He wants to reach out, he wants you to know that all the stuff that makes you feel like you’re alone is the same stuff that we all tolerate, and that while loneliness itself is incurable, we can stave it off with just a small dose of remembering that other people have inner worlds too. This work is encouraging and enlightening, inviting all people to read it.
DFW’s non-fiction is my favorite way to see him.
The Magic Lantern (1987) – Ingmar Bergman
Bergman is one of my favorite film makers. The films he makes now appear stagey, initially feel stiff and forced, and have some pretty bad camerawork. But the feelings he portrays, the insights he has into the human condition are unmatched. His focus on the face and eyes and his impeccable direction with his actors provides infinite information to the close observer. Bergman is a purveyor of the human soul. In this autobiography, we glimpse his psyche.
So now we want to know more about this genius, yes? Where did he come from? How did he start in the movie business? Where do his ideas come from? The Magic Lantern gives us what we want to know. The weird, sordid details of his life. He is a bizarre, sometimes cruel, man with a sad childhood. He shares with us intimate details that enrich his films, all in a style which is distinctly Bergman – a sign of the true artist. Bergman is like Nabokov in that his writing focuses on feelings and sensations, on the phenomena of the minute and personal. Even if you are not someone who watches his films, you’ll find he’s fascinating as a character in himself, his writing style fluid and entrancing. Themes from his films recur here. Humiliation, shame, the impossible nature of language and so forth are all at play. There is no better way to know a person than by the autobiography, grains of salt and all.
Beyond Good and Evil (1886) – Friedrich Nietzsche
You may feel and initial repulsion by this choice. You may feel it’s trite or pretentious or obvious, but I stand by it. Nietzsche is one of the greatest writers that’s ever lived and you should take the opportunity to bask in his style. The influence of Nietzsche as a thinker is unmistakable, even if we’ve absorbed some of the least savory elements of his philosophy: a disdain for weakness, a triumph of the Self, a hyper-glorification of humanity’s Greats, nihilism. Ayn Rand is the half-aborted bastard child of Nietzsche and I think he would have hated her, but it is not surprising that she emerged in his wake.
Nietzsche requires, above all, carefulness. One must read with nuance, reject first reactions, think again and again on his aphorisms, pay very close attention to how this ideas are worded (this last component makes it essential that a Kaufmann translation is the one used whenever possible). This lends itself extremely poorly to how we read today (and explains the aforementioned troubles we’ve garnered from him), especially considering his bombastic, heroic style that makes this philosopher easier to read than any other. The mistake is that people do not pause and reflect, plowing through phrases – onto the next! Nietzsche had complained then that people did not pay close enough attention, did not know how to read, and now it’s triply so.
One will find that Nietzsche is life-enhancing, enthusiastic and inspiring. If you disagree with him – good! He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) – Alex Haley
You’ll see this on a lot of Top 10 lists. It’s an ‘Murican Classic. This book deserves all the accolades it gets. You should read this to understand the racial climate of the US in Malcolm X’s life, who he was as a man, why he is influential and why he remains relevant. He’s a fascinating, impressive person and his powerful language rouses you. His transformations, his intellectual honesty, his passions are worth emulating. One wonders what he would have done had he not met such a premature end. No doubt he would have done a great deal of good. It’s a shame he was murdered by a cult. Damn.
This book brought me to a number of other books written by black radicals in this time period. It’s insane how little has changed. Take special note of Malcolm X’s description of the liberal racist.
I recommend listening to this book as read by author Alex Haley. He imitates Malcolm intonations perfectly, plus gives his sentiments on writing the book with Malcolm in an epilogue. Superb.
Conversations of Consciousness (2005) – Susan Blackmore
Consciousness is murky. How it’s defined, what it’s characteristics are, how we should regard it, are all contentious. Do we generate consciousness? Is it something we possess? Is consciousness itself illusory, does the Hard Question make any sense? This area of research has seen a recent resurrection, and I am thankful for that. There is nothing as crucial to being a living thing than consciousness. What we know about it and how we think about it impacts the spectrum of experiences we have and it is vital that we approach this subject rigorously. Everyone should know something about what consciousness is. Everyone should have an opinion on the matter. In my daydreams, I’m arguing with a stranger at a bus stop on conflicting ideas regarding our subjectivity.
This is less of a book and more of a portal. You get a smattering of ideas from tons of different thinkers while being introduced to the core concepts of consciousness studies in the 21st century. From this launching point, you can explore vast depths of other neuroscientists and philosophers, while also applying this knowledge retrospectively to thinkers of the past. It opens the mind and changes your perspective to regard your own subjective experiences through this lens. Most importantly is that it disintegrates any pejorative dismissal of subjectivity and staves off relativists of all breeds. Susan Blackmore is a great guide into this world, so let her lead you.
Escape from Freedom (1941) – Erich Fromm / The Tyranny of Choice (2011) – Renata Salecl
Though I read these books years apart, they fit so nicely together that I think they should share the same space. Escape from Freedom is about why people tend toward authoritarianism when given the chance, the burdens of democracy, and is written in response to Nazi Germany (Godwin’s Law, I know). The Tyranny of Choice has to do more with capitalism and social anxiety, but both have something to do with tyranny in any case. We have idealized freedom and fetishized choice. We’ve created a world for ourselves in which commodities, even if we know they are frivolous, become a way for us to stave off deep thinking and responsibility.
Facing the challenges on democracy is increasingly frustrating, muddled and confused. It is difficult to look at our governments and economies straight in the face and not become depressed and hopeless. But these systems can be understood. I am not a statistician, my proclivities lie with understanding the world psychologically and philosophically, but no matter how you choose to perceive the world, you must try to understand it and not to be fooled. These books can be cynical, and that’s precisely what people need.
These books bring a mindfulness of personal economy, sober reminders that we need.
Sculpting in Time (1986) – Andrei Tarkovsky
An enchanted, mystic love letter to his craft, Tarkovsky lays out his cinematic ideals in this theory book, one of the only theory books written by someone in the pantheon of Great Filmmakers. The book requires some decoding as he talks about miracles and souls and faith. All of this esoteric speak normally makes me squeamish, but I managed to find a parallel language in my mind to make such smushy words palatable.
Tarkovsky has a meditative style, exceptionally slow pacing, very little if any action, deep focus and long shots. It’s very un-American. He says that Eisentein’s editing is “insipid”, though most would regard him (Eisenstein) as a visionary, way ahead of his time. He’ll discuss the nature of film in philosophical and theological terms. He’ll say that the medium of film is Time itself. If the medium is the message, what does this tell us about the message of film? Given film’s prevalence in our lives (and economy), should film strive to some kind of redemptive power. To Tarkovsky, there’s no doubt.
Whether or not you like his films or agree with his theory, it’s important to engage with why that is. Engage with your cinema, please!
The Self Illusion (2013) – Bruce Hood
The absence of “Self” is a central tenant of Eastern traditions, as we know. It may cause a knee-jerk response to pshaw this concept as silly or woo woo. But really, the Self is a deep Western abstraction. The demand that people be consistent, the denial of the dynamic personality, the very concept of the soul, that immutable inner self, is all rooted in this misconception and results in many forms of bad thinking as well as deepening loneliness. Once you realize what the brain is doing to create a Self, what function of the Self is, and experiment with either meditation and/or psychedelics, freedom from this concept is one of the greatest freedoms that can be experienced. I have been made better by this book (and books like The Ego Tunnel – Thomas Metzinger), becoming more compassionate and more observant as a default.
Neuroscience now appropriates the maxim “Know Thyself” and gives it deeper, more resonate tones. Books of this nature are vital in moving the human mind further, eliminating religious superstition, and obliterating old Western stupidities like the mind/body duality, i.e. the soul steering the body.
The Moral Landscape (2010) – Sam Harris
Before I read this book, I was on the fence about a couple of things. One is that I did not believe in “free” will, per se, but what I called a “directed will”. Given the amount of unconscious processing that happens in the brain, I did not see a way that the will could possibly be free. Harris, without saying so directly, showed me that this is a piece of useless agnosticism (as most agnosticism is useless) and teetered me over the edge to determinism, where I’ve continued to consider the issue in a new way. Harris has a book about free will specifically if you’d like to journey down that path. The other thing was that I considered moral relativism to be obvious, if lamentable. Nietzsche had discussed ways instead of The Way and while I took this into account, I still saw relativism as valid.
This book changed that for me and got me interested in morals and ethics in a way I wasn’t before. I thought the discussion was meaningless, meant only for the religious. Since then I’ve come to consider it quite seriously as needing to be stripped away from the hands of the faithful and placed, prominently, in the secular realm.
I do not agree fully with this book. I’d be a pretty terrible thinker if I agreed with any book, but it bears stating. I think the concept of Utilitarianism is fraught, given the complications of the extreme splintering of demographics in the Age of the Internet and the rise of Identity Politics to the realm of Holiness. Nevertheless, it kicked my brain in a new direction, and I’ve enjoyed the depths it’s brought.
My regrets for this list is that are not more women or people of color and that I have fallen prey to the adulation of the GWM. I need desperately to expand my repertoire and welcome all suggestions for doing so. Thanks for taking the time to look over my list. I’ll do a Fiction list soon.