Areopagus: Readers' Reading Recommendations
Welcome one and all to another special instalment of the Areopagus. Although I delight in writing for you, I find it most delightful when you write for me. Not less than a fortnight ago I asked you this:
What is one book you think everybody should read?
As ever, you rose to the challenge. What I present for you in this edition is a compilation of your collective responses. Should any of you be lacking anything to read at the moment, or looking for something new, then read on — there will be books suggested here that you have never heard of before; books that intrigue, challenge, and promise to reward perusal. How to set the tone? I suppose I must quote Niccolò Machiavelli, who wrote this about his love for reading in the early 16th century:
Let us find for us all some new friends, then, and a place wherein, as Machiavelli did five centuries ago, to forget this world and enter into another...
Vincenzo Bellini (1831)
Performed by Montserrat Caballé and the Orchestra of the Teatro Regio di Torino
Tombs of the Old Heroes by Caspar David Friedrich (1812)
Vincenzo Bellini, the master of Italian bel canto opera, was born 122 years ago today — and so he shall be the one to provide for us the musical backdrop of this week's missive. But whereas I normally prefer to share music that you have most likely not heard before, and to at least offer something novel about it if you have, this week I have no choice but to opt for Bellini's most famous piece: an aria called Casta Diva from his 1831 opera Norma. And I shall bring it to you without context, or explanation, or interpretation. Not that these things are bad — but, every now and then, music deserves to be heard on its own terms. And with music so sublime, what on earth could words do to improve it?
A Library of the World
My suggestion of something everyone should read would be “I served the King of England” from Bohumil Hrabal. It follows Ditie, a young Czech man (barely 14 when we first meet him) who starts off as a lowly Frankfurter salesboy and then waiter at a luxury hotel in Prague, follows him through his successful rise to wealth & prominence, and then his fall when the Communists seize control of then-Czechoslovakia, strip him of his wealth, and banish him to life in a remote village.
Why should everyone read this? It’s a short read but such a powerful snapshot of the clash between economics and politics through the eyes of one individual laborer in the service industry, how we as humans value money, wealth, and status, and how politics and personal gain often fall at odds with each other.
I’ve been thinking it over since your post last Friday and it feels to me like an amazing piece of literature that has fallen by the wayside but has such a great perspective to offer to anyone around the globe. Ditie’s time in the service industry, dealing with other people who see him as less-than, to his own inflated sense of self as he grows to understand the economic system he’s in and rises through its ranks, to the changing winds of politics that then throw his life into chaos when that structure is ripped apart. It has a universality about it that has stuck with me over the years since I first read it probably 20 years ago.
I think everyone should read “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson is a lawyer and social justice activist, and his book “Just Mercy” describes the stories of those affected by the death penalty. It gives back the victims’ humanity after losing it in the eyes of society and the court system. It brought tears to my eyes and will be a book I shall never forget. Truly an eye-opening masterpiece.
Edward Gibbon; Decline and Fall of Roman Empire
A great Book to read is "L'homme qui rit" by Victor Hugo.
One book that I think that everyone should read is Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics
I kept putting off reading “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl under the mistaken belief that it would be too painful. It wasn’t. I suppose readers of “The Cultural Tutor” already know it’s based on Frankl’s experiences in a Nazi concentration camp, so clearly there’s no cheerfulness. But his search for purpose and understanding is profoundly moving. I dare say that anyone who reads it becomes a wiser version of themselves afterwards.
Please feel free to delete this second paragraph, since I am sneaking in another book, but “Seriously Funny” compiled by Barbara Hamby and David Kirby has become an absolute go-to and godsend for me. The works of many poets are represented in this rather thick book. It touches on nearly every life issue with a light hand, yet more than once tears have welled up simply from seeing myself reflected in the words of others. Hearing from such a wide range of voices broadens one’s perspective on the human condition, and the overarching theme of humor brings joy. I would love for more people to know of this work.
Unfortunately, the one book I think everyone needs to read now is Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale." When the book first came out, the world it presented was frightening, but not too immediate or real. Now, though, the tale of climate change, a falling birth rate, revolution and shackles on women's right of self-determination seem all too real and a stark warning of what is in store for all of us if we don't find our shared humanity quick.
The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander.
While the main purpose of the book is to provide a theory of architecture and serve as an introduction to A Pattern Language, the philosophical approach used by Alexander presents a way of thinking about structures, society, and the lives of individuals that is deeply integrated and useful to anyone. Everyone should read it as the pattern language created by Alexander and his team is truly a language, and as such needs to be spoken by many people in order to be a living language. Sharing this language, and the approach to creating it presented in The Timeless Way, is a great way to not just understand architecture but how to structure group projects and work in society at large.
In my opinion, it would be really good if everybody had at least some interest in History and Philosophy, because, to a large degree, they are a relevant part of what makes us humans.
So, from this background, I would recommend a book I've read some months ago: Dear and Glorious Physician, by Taylor Caldwell.
It chronicles the life of Saint Luke, which is already interesting enough. But what really absorbed me was the context: the writer conveys beautifully the mood of the 1st century AD, catching a glimpse into some really deep philosophical and theological questions. The reading prompted me to research about the ancient world and made me understand why jewish and christian mindset were so innovative back then. Well... actually at some point there's an excerpt in the book that even raises the doubt if some other peoples or philosophers were debating the same questions jewish and christians represented to the Roman Empire.
So, to sum it up, I recommend the book because it is a starting point to understand the ancient world mindset, vis-à-vis the mindset we have today concerning essential philosophical and theological questions
The book I always quickly recommend is "Sapiens" by Yuval Harari. It is such a broad, visionary, tradition-busting, thought-provoking book. The scope is nearly total, taking the reader from the dawn of humankind to artificial intelligence. From "Why homo sapiens?" To "How have we come to organize our societies the way we do?" To "What is religion really?" To "What are the foundations of economies?" To "How do humans interact with the environment?" Harari tells a great and logical story that forces you to look at our world differently. It's a book that will change you.
The book I think everyone should read is "Lying" by Sam Harris.
It's a very short book about why you should never allow yourself to lie. Not even little fibs. It's a thorough argument that really persuaded me and everyone I've given it to. I'm on my fifth lie-free year and loving it. If everyone read this book the world would be a better place.
Mythologies by Roland Barthes
Essential reading to help understand and decode the modern world, this seminal work, developing on Saussure’s ideas on semiotics, pierces the veil of modern messaging and teaches us how to see through much of the deception and manipulation we are daily subject to. At the same time it helps us see meanings from multiple points of view and reason why we may behave and react to messages the way we do.
If I had to recommend just one book, it would be "The Power of Now." It teaches the importance of being present, a gift often wasted in modern times. Its teachings are rooted in the same principles as those taught by Jesus and Buddha, but they are explained in a more contemporary manner. So, every time you reread it, you continue to discover something new or gain a deeper understanding of its lessons.
It was the Dalai Lama who said, "If every 8-year-old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world in one generation." All religions aim for the same goal; it's all about the human experience. Another great master put it in different words:
"If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present." - Lao Tzu
We are all like matches, one helping to light another, and the more people we assist in becoming their best selves, the better the world we will collectively create and live in.
Other than that, East of Eden by John Steinback.
The one book everyone must read is The Plague, by French/Algerian master Albert Camus.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Maybe kind of a lame answer because it's so popular and most people have probably read it already, but this book holds such a great place in my heart that I can't help but mention it whenever the chance. I read it first when I was very small, probably around the same age as the little prince and equally pissed off about the fact that adults didn't seem to understand my feelings or dreams at all. I liked it so much simply because it was very relatable, even more so than modern children's books. I read it again earlier this year and was really surprised that along with still being very relatable, it also holds an amazing view of the world; of finding beauty in all things good or evil, small or big, permanent or transient, and finding meaning in that beauty- a message that I either did not get as a child or had forgotten about along the years. Regardless, this alleged "children's" book has almost singlehandedly shaped my way of seeing the world and I am glad it did, so I urge anyone who hasn't read it or has only read it long ago to give it a try!
If I were to choose just one and one only that would be the New Testament, one of the Synoptic Gospels for a start. Each page is filled with Faith, Hope and Love. I think that even the unbelieving will see its beauty.
If someone said "that was obvious, give me something Polish please" I would say Henryk Sienkiewicz with "Quo vadis?" (set in Nero's time in Rome, got Sienkiewicz a Nobel Prize) or "the Deluge" (about Polish-Swedish war in the XVIIth century, makes you understand Poles while living through a gripping adventure).
If it was a difficult interlocutor who said "sci-fi only!" then I would go for "Solaris" by Stanisław Lem. Not only does he create an interesting vision of space but above all he reflects on the human nature in the face of the unknown.
The Man Who Tapped the Secrets of the Universe. A book about Walter Russel, a great mind to study.
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is a small novel published in 1988 that left me with a profound impression. It’s a story about following your heart and learning from your experiences. It allows one to reflect on oneself and our paths in life and choices we make. Wonderfully told from the perspective of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy who travels to Africa in search of treasure after having a recurring dream and consulting a fortune-teller who interprets it as a prophecy, and tells him he will discover the treasure at the site of the Egyptian pyramids. The Alchemist is a wise, magical, and classic novel that has stayed with me.
My wife, who is usually totally unscientific usually, was recommended to read "Why We Sleep" by Matthew Walker. The discovery of Computer-Aided-Tomography has revealed the detailed secret operations of our human brains during sleep, which occupies one-third of our lives. Professor Walker is in the forefront of these discoveries.
Have you ever noticed that you can go to bed with an unsolved problem, yet can wake up with the answer? Why We Sleep reveals how our brains keeps working while we're totally unconscious. Walker chronicles these discoveries made over the past twenty-five years in both a clear and interesting way. Further, each of the sixteen chapters can be read as a stand-alone, if you're wondering about "Dreaming as Overnight Therapy", or, "Caffeine, Jet Lag & Melatonin", for example.
We both read in bed, so I expected to be passed the book very quickly. Instead she became fascinated as she'd been raised by very WASP parents to believe that time spent in bed was wasted time. Walker shows how time in bed is essential for both our mental health and enjoyment of awake time. My wife now rolls over, goes back to sleep when her waking process begins and feels much better for that. A life changer.
One Book? Can there ever be only one? The first that springs to mind is “The Old man and the Sea” by Hemingway. A short novel, but taking the sparse prose of that literary great to its ultimate conclusion in a laser like focus on the human condition. Of poverty, of obsession, a need for fulfilment that transcends the limits that life places, and how to deal with a transient triumph that evaporates and brings you back to that emptiness. Much else great by Hemingway, but start there. But then you have to read 1984 by Orwell too. The ultimate dystopia. Says much about politics, manipulation, and control, and lastly Isabel Allende’s “House of the Spirits,” for the beauty, and magic of the writing, best appreciated in the Spanish original, and the searing bitterness of the ending.
‘Johnny Got His Gun’ is a book that will be on my bookshelf until my last day. I think all of us have a score of books that we carry from place to place that we may never read again, but that will forever own a piece of our hearts and minds. I only need see the spine on the shelf to be overwhelmed with the feelings I had when I read it over 50 years ago.
A book I believe everyone should read is The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. It's classic science fiction but it's way more than that. It's incredible how good Bester was for his time. I read it first in my 20s and as a young man, I particularly found it intriguing and enveloping. It gets a hook in you.
As for this week's question - the first I've had a chance to answer - I'd like to recommend Frank Herbert's Dune series. The third and fourth books in particular really gave me a new perspective on the scope of humanity, backwards and forwards, as well as how we relate to our ancestors and how our descendants will relate to us. Pace yourself, though, because I slammed through the first four in the span of two weeks and sent myself down something of an existential spiral! Side note: don't dismiss David Lynch's adaptation, even though he disowns it himself! There's a lot to love in it.
I have two books: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig, and The Black Swan by Nassem Taleb. Honorable mention would go to The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen.
I shall again go out of my comfort zone and answer your call to action and once I again I'm writing about José Saramago;The book and I believe everyone should read is Ensaio sobre a Cegueira or in english Blindness by José Saramago (the title should have been An essay on Blindness, but whatever).Why this choice you may ask? Because besides being a nobel prize winner, José Saramago had a unique distinctive writing style, where he often used long sentences and minimal punctuation which offered a different challenging reading experiment and this book is the one where he became known for it. Not going to spoil anything about the movie, even though it already had a movie adaptation so you may or may not have seen it.
In answer to your question lwhat book do I think everyone should read?”, Bird Song by Sebastian Faulks is my selection. Educational, informative and thoroughly important. Describes an aspect of war few people know anything about, as well as a jolly good tail.
Without a doubt, 100 years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It is the only book that I’ve ever owned that I have in three languages - my native Greek and English, and then Spanish, to try to hear the mellifluous and powerful story as it was originally constructed.
Briefly, it is a powerful story of family, love, and the swells of human emotion stretched out over multiple generations.
I first read this book as a teenager in the summer in Athens, and have read it again every four or five years. Each time the story makes me feel as though my heart, and mind, briefly understand the broader cosmic fabric of what it means to be a human being, and look humanely on the insatiable curiosity, urges, longing for family, exploration and material success that define human experience.
Funnily enough, before I saw this week’s newsletter question we talked about a book everyone should read at today’s family dinner. Unanimously, we voted for Franz Kafka’s novella “Metamorphosis” or as it is called in German “Die Verwandlung”.
Its story starts with a powerful sentence in which Gregor Samsa, who wakes up from unsettling dreams, realises he’s turned into a huge bug over night. That’s followed by the slow and awful realisation that life as vermin will never be normal or happy like it was before said transformation. The book is only about 50 pages long and yet the whole absurdity of humanity is shown and with it its greed, embarrassment, second-hand embarrassment, pain, uneasiness and sadness. Maybe it’s because Franz Kafka - as I have learned during my long ago school days - was mostly unhappy in life. Possibly, that’s why he had such a knack for showing human abysses in the most mundane tasks and things. His way with words was poignant and merciless. All of Kafka’s poems and novels, but especially Metamorphosis, will leave its reader unsettled. He was a master of his craft and got the recognition about it only because his friend and curator Max Brod published his works posthumously (and against Kafka’s explicit wishes).
And with this contradiction I’ll leave you with the aforementioned first sentence in English:“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”Translators chose different terms for gigantic insect e.g. monstrous vermin, gargantuan pest or giant bug. If you are knowledgeable in German, take a look at the original sentence and which expression Kafka actually wrote:
“Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheuren Ungeziefer verwandelt.”
One of my favorite books, and I think it is the one that most inspired me to continue reading and expand my way of thinking about the world, is “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan. This is a book that takes a tour of the Universe and its relationship with human beings. It interweaves aspects of human history with the entire cosmos. It allows the reader to get an idea of the importance of our planet, and the insignificance of humanity compared to the vastness of the Universe. It is a book that reflects the need to put things in perspective to achieve a better understanding of everything around us.
I think people should read Carl Sagan more because, in my humble opinion, he was a person capable of valuing and giving meaning to our lives, even though we are insignificant beings. The fragment that best summarizes his way of thinking is the following:
“Look at that point. That's here. That's our home. That's us. In it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived his life. The sum of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of self-assured religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and gatherer, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every moral teacher, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a speck of dust suspended in a sunbeam. The Earth is a very small stage in the vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood shed by all those generals and emperors, so that in their glory and triumph, they could become momentary masters of a fraction of a point. Think of the endless cruelties committed by the inhabitants of one corner of the point on the barely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill each other, how fervent their hatreds. Our postures, our imagined importance, the illusion that we occupy a privileged position in the Universe... is challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a solitary speck in the great and enveloping cosmic gloom. In our darkness—in all this vastness—there is not a hint that help will come from anywhere else to save us from ourselves. Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle down, not yet. Whether we like it or not, for the moment Earth is where we have to stay. It has been said that astronomy is a builder of humility and character. Perhaps there is no better demonstration of human pride than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to treat each other more kindly and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we have ever known.”
This excerpt reflects the unnecessary wave of violence that is being experienced in recent times. At the end of the day, we are all human beings who should take advantage of our scarce and precious time here on Earth to love and understand those around us
Perhaps not necessary for "everybody" to read, but I would highly recommend Grayson Perry's Descent of Man if, like myself, you find yourself white, western and above all else male.
His unflinching break down of the "default male" and his effect on the planet, not to mention the other half of the population, has me suggesting it to all and sundry.
It isn't as one would imagine a rebuke, more permission to take the foot off the accelerator and allow other voices to be heard. And written in his easy and witty style.
The book I think everyone should read is the Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan. It was, accurately, described as "a vision of human future in space." But there is also a more present meaning of the book. By learning of the worlds beyond our planet, it contextualizes our existence in the vast, indifferent Universe; for example, it demonstrates how meaningless are our violent conflicts and, quoted from the book itself, it "underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and preserve and cherish the only home we've ever known." There is so much more to the book than the ones I mentioned here. To most people, the book will bring a new perspective to our daily lives by talking about our place in the Universe.
A book I think everyone should read:
Ishmael: A Novel by Daniel Quinn
It will forever color how I think of the role of humans among the global population of all species.
“Life on the Edge” by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden - for those who are trying to find the elusive real "soul" in living beings without silly religious/superstitious explanations (the soul that even Descartes couldn't touch with his mechanistic ideas). After having read the Bible and Darwin's book, this might take you closer to a reply to the ultimate mystery.
Since the last urban art was of Jose Saramago, I suggest the book 'Death with Interruptions'.It is a wonderfully written thought piece on what it would be like if Death went on a holiday, or developed a conscience and then realized that there are situations worse than death and that remediation of or changing the status quo is not a viable strategy.It also is a great example of Saramago's premise re: what if we take an idea and carry it to its extreme.
The one & only book .. no such restriction! I protest.
For between ages 6-14 probably I will say; Jonathan Livingston Seagull of Richard BACH It has to be read at early teen ages to feel it properly and not to criticize.Together with Paul Street boys of Ferenec Molnar, empathy at early ages, clear away the racisims that will be loaded by the establishments later.
Also may be for late teens; Shackleton, endurance by Alfred lansing But, in the meantime, Lord of Flies by William Goldwing is a necessity.
College and university ages will load tons of stuff, concrete bases..I assume that one have already read; Divine Comedy of Dante, Origin of species of Darwin,, Republic of Platon, Kafka, Yeats or Suetonius 12 Caesars, waiting for Godot or Faust, Anna Karenina and like..So I will say The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is another must for young adults.
After many routine experiences when building an existence for him/her/themselves.. one must read the ultimate book; in my opinion it is the Road to serfdom by Frederick Hayek with a companion, Noam Chomsky, manufacturing consent.
After reaching the top of the Maslow pyramid, after the 40s..Anything goes; books of Thayer Mahan on Naval warfare, Strategy by Liddel Hart, books of Harold Laswell, Marx, Schumpeter, Voltaire, Hugo, Montesquieu, Von Humbolt, Machiavelli, Balthasar Gracian, Thomas Moore, Strabon, Thor Hayerdhal, Bacon, and many others that I couldn't remember right now.. Some science from Rovelli, Feynman, Suskind.. If one is into SciFi; Asimov, Sagan, Poul Andersen, Arthur Clarke, Orwell, LeGuin, the modern ones like Andy Weir, James Corey, Richard Morgan..
I can go on for another page or more, but I hope you get my point.. reading is a continuous improvement of oneself..
If we restrict one person to one book, let's cherish the only book a warrior needs; Myamoto Mushashi 5 rings.. and let's killbut we have to cherish intelligent life, the rarest commodity in the whole universe, let's stick to Dhammapada..
Manifesto of Evolutionary Humanism. One issue of that view on life is the evolutionary concept which is similar to that of general science, all knowledge of today may be false and thus has to be checked and updated regularly.
I don't have a real opinion on this... there are so many good books that should be read and I find it hard to say that this really good book in, say, Roman History is better than that book in French Literature. I will, instead, share the response that would have been from one of my favorite professors, Francis M. Teti, who is now, unfortunately, no longer with us. The reading list that he curated was 42 typewritten pages long and covered many subjects from philosophy to history to literature but, if asked, the answer to the subject question would have been, without any doubt, "Raintree County" by Ross Lockridge. This book had its own category in his reading list: "The Ultimate Must Book in Philosophy, History, and Literature." Give it a read.
I'm not sure which book everyone should read but the question reminded me of a story about Jean Cocteau. He was asked in old age what one thing he would take if his house caught fire and he answered 'the fire of course'.
The one book everyone should read will be a mystery to each person until they have read, read, read, and keep on reading until they can read no more, because that "one book" will be amongst all of those and and the discovery, unexpected, is most of the joy.
Question of the Week
And for this week's question to test your critical thinking...
If you were given the power to introduce one new law in your country, what would it be?
Email me your answers and I'll share them in next Friday's newsletter.
And that's all
Thank you. That is all I can say for your abundant recommendations — a veritable cornucopia of books which, as the very best always do, seem like they demand to be read! But, alas, comes there not a time for us to close our books, whether to sleep, to dream, to work, or to wander about and forget everything we have just read? November is upon us and, like the greatest of our books, it also demands to be seen, felt, and heard. So said John Clare two hundred years ago or more:
We can look to our books, but let us not forget the "living song" of the world around us! Until Friday next, fare thee well.
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