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Sunday, 27 March 2011


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Remember, you are talking to photographers; the concept "a little" is anathema to us. It's all or nothing. I have the first half of the complete journals of Thoreau, half of the huge, two-volume edition (the nice multi-volume set is out of print) and despite not having read more than .05% of it under great strain while my wife laughs at me in bed as I try not to flatten myself, I still have the urge to buy the other half of the journals, feeling that I'm missing something.

Mike, I am in my sixties and I have better things to do with my time than read 3 volumes of Adam Smith. I sincerely hope when you are sixty that you will have better things to occupy yourself as well.

Sounds like a good idea. I get tired of Madeleine cookies just thinking of Proust.

Though, for the philosophical works, I wonder if this really is the best way to experience them. They're really all taking part in a long-running conversation or debate with each other. Reading any of them is difficult in part because you need to know what all those other people have been saying.

I suspect you're better off with a comprehensive book on, say, the history of moral philosophy that brings up these authors and not only tells you what their arguments were, but how those arguments relate to each other.


I actually started reading Milton's Paradise Lost, made it through a *little* way, and gave up. I agree with Samuel Johnson's take on it:
"Nobody ever wished it longer than it was."

With best regards,


PS I have read "Walden". Just so you'd know.

A lovely off topic post, and one I hope we will see more of. I would even enjoy if some of Mike Johnston's "Immortals" (your other authors) threw in an occasional list.


Thanks for this -- I was unaware of the series. I'd note that a number of them (but apparently not all) are available in the Kindle version, which I think will also work in the iPad, for an even further reduced price, like between $5 and $6. These strike me as the perfect vacation or airplane reading -- short, pithy, important, etc.

I feel your pain - desert island lists are much harder to compile than they first seem.

But I would submit that you could use the same approach you have advocated to get people out to shoot - pick two arbitary numbers - 5, 7 - you have five minutes to suggest seven books.

Personally, I've modified that for my own desert island/wish lists. I like to use 5:15 - either five minutes to suggest 15 items, or 15 minutes to suggest five items. Sometimes it's nice to have limits (It's also a great Who song).

Yes I still want to read Ulysses, but all I can muster up is the short stories. I really enjoy The Dead, and I have several books about Ulysses too!

"Yes I still want to read Ulysses, but all I can muster up is the short stories. I really enjoy The Dead, and I have several books about Ulysses too!"

I have a number of what I call "unpedigreed theories," which are ideas that came out of my own head and have no provenance. (Normal human beings prefer that ideas have provenance.) One of these is: No one has ever read Ulysses. No one. Ever. Not one. Well, except for Joyce, as he wrote it. And even he never went back to read through it again.

Its editor only read parts of it, skipping the bits he felt no one would ever bother reading; scholars only read bits and pieces here and there, enough so that they'll have things to write about and talk about with each other; other scholars build on previous scholars. Quotes are mined from it. Certain diehards go back to it again and again, reading significant swaths before they put it aside again in dejection. Numerous swains and poseurs have claimed to have read it. But no one ever actually has. Even people who think they've read it haven't, because their eyes moved over the words for page after page while they intensely daydreamed.

This is known as The Theory of the Inviolable Magnum Opus. Joyce's reputation rests on Dubliners and Stephen Dedalus, and that he is known to have written the great long unreadable books. It was crucial that he write and publish them, but that he did so is enough, because, according to the Gravity's Rainbow Paradox, the reputation of a long and ambitious book by an author of accepted brilliance is raised higher not in proportion to its popularity, but in INVERSE proportion to the number of people who have actually slogged their way through it.


P.S. The Cantos of Ezra Pound—not even Pound read all those. He didn't even speak all the languages he used in the Cantos. I rest my case.

Well, Mike, I *have* read an admittedly abridged Gibbon, for fun. But you're right on the whole for sure.

I like the timing of the Open Mike these days - falls nicely just before lunch on a Monday, nice way to wake my brain up for the week.

I had a similar reading list problem in reverse - putting together a technical list for my team: the things I thought they ought to know. And I could do a similar extension for the things I want to read (technical, non-ficiton & fiction). It's amazing how much knowledge we accumulate and how much more we find we wish to know. Socrates was right, after all.

As for Ulysses, the best rendition I've ever come across was a series of open-air plays my college theatre group put on while I was an undergrad. It was a good way to separate the sense of a journey with the nature of the philosophical discussion. No, I've not read it, either.

I don't know about the steppes of Wisconsin, but in New York there's always someone reading Ulysses, out loud from end to end every year, which takes about 32 hours, and there is a tradition of an abridged 12 hour version preformed live in a theater and on the radio every June 16. A couple years ago the cast included Estelle Parsons, Frank McCourt and Stephen Colbert. And how often do you get to see Estelle Parsons and Stephen Colbert on stage together?

Or you could just see the movie

My father in law collected about 20 editions of Ulysses, I've been trying to read it on my iphone on the subway.

I tried several time to read Ulysses but gave up every time. I did get the audio version some time back (I find audio books excellent when gardening, which requires little concentration.) I'm afraid I gave up on the audio version also, despite being daily in Dublin and being familiar with all the geographical context within the book.

We have a Joyce day every year in Dublin (June 16th of course)when the (g)literati gather to walk the route Leopold Bloom took.

I'd love to have more time to read. Maybe in about 20 years from now. I have a pile of books next to the bed which I add to each year, but mostly never manage to subtract from.

A few more suggestions for your lengthening list: there needs to be some Shakespeare on it, Moliere and Giono are worth reading particularly in the original French, use Proust as a boat anchor, and a handful of random punctuation marks sprinkled over Chapters 3 and 18 of Joyce's Ulysses helps make sense of the text.

I am currently struggling with Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. I bought this book in paperback in the mid-90s, but have never managed to get beyond about a third through it, despite several attempts. I don't know why. The first 80 pages are heavily thumbed, the rest still fairly pristine. I don't dislike Hemingway, I just seem to lose interest. The other book that remains half read is Professor Hawking's A Brief History of Time. Everything makes perfect sense until half way through (when he introduces string theory and particles with names such as "Up", "Down", and "Strange"), then Hawkings changes gear and it's as though he is suddenly speaking ancient Aramaic. I just don't get it.

A podcast introduction to the Dao de Jing from ABC Radio National Philosopher's Zone discusses some of the problems of translation. Possibly a useful start in choosing an English version.

What a pleasant surprise all around! And more specifically, on this beautiful monday morning (yes, they do exist, contrary to popular belief) the universe tells me via Mike Johnston to reread Walden, after a superficial first read as an adolescent. Great idea, looking forward to it. I knew photography would bring me to interesting places. Thank you, Mike!

A further difficulty is that (I'm told) the shadings of meanings, connotations, and references implicit in Chinese word choices cannot be conveyed into English without great pendulous explanations, which leads to...excessive specification, you might call it.

Now you see how it is with translations from English. :)

BTW, I did read Ulysses. But it was in another country and besides, that person is dead. :) I read a ton of stuff like that. I simply cannot anymore.

For keeping book lists this might be the ticket - http://www.librarything.com/

"I am currently struggling with Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. I bought this book in paperback in the mid-90s, but have never managed to get beyond about a third through it, despite several attempts. I don't know why. The first 80 pages are heavily thumbed, the rest still fairly pristine. I don't dislike Hemingway, I just seem to lose interest."

I'll share with you a BIG secret, if you promise not to tell anyone I said so...Hemingway was not at his best as a novelist. The only novel of his you need--and it's still optional--is The Sun Also Rises, which is part memoir. The books to have are the memoir, which is terrific, the novella, and of course the central Hemingway book for readers, which, contrary to all received wisdom, is this one.


And are you saying CASTS of people read Ulysses aloud? So then, no one person reads the whole thing? And if you're saying one person reads the whole thing, are there ever any witnesses to the whole 32 hours, or do people just ASSUME the whole thing's been read, hmmm? You see where I'm going with this. The theory predicts that if someone WERE to read the entire book, the Universe would come to an end (wait--maybe that's the Nine Billion Names of God).

As for reading it on a iPhone on the subway, give up, poor fellow. Such a thing cannot be done. It is against the laws of nature not to mention the proper order of things.


Outstanding, outstanding. Be sure to take your time, and read at least a little outdoors when the weather's nice.

That this post got just one person to read Walden makes the whole thing well worthwhile.


I used to buy books in my youth with the idea that I would have an intellectually satisfying old age settling down with a nice library.... one trouble I discovered is that my taste for what is intellectually satisfying has matured along with the rest of me. Well, I mean mature in the sense of creaking and groaning of course. So while I used to think metaphysics held the key to life, I know feel (know?) that ethics and moral philosophy are much more useful. However it's too late now!

Although I'm a bit sceptical about the "bluffers short guide" type of book, I am also a sucker for them. Oxford "Very Short Introductions.." are quite good - they do one on Photography which I found interesting.

Mike, two of the three unnamed Hemingway links to amazon don't work - amazon cannot find them. So I can't really comment on your choice. But, yeah, Hemingway is a short-story writer.

And I'd like to see what you consider the central book.

Penguin has always been known for its excellent design and typopraphy, which was initially organized and codified by the great Jan Tschishold in the 1940s. They still put most publishers to shame.

The concept of an accessible 'sampler' of classic thought and literature is an old one, dating to efforts like the Harvard collection ("a four-foot shelf of knowledge"). A more recent iteration was E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy (1987). This can provide a pretty reasonable guide to the principle ideas behind Western civilization, but Hirsch was savaged by critics for his very Euro-centric ("dead white males") approach to intellectual history. Still an interesting avenue to developing at least a nodding familiarity with the essentials of Western thought without spending your entire lifetime in the process.

Another great series is "Books that shook the world." I just completed Wheen's volume on Das Kaptital.

Due to financial considerations, in leau of University, I spent my youth as a sailor in the U.S. Navy. Forunately my H.S. English Teacher, Mrs. Rose Cardoni, had the heart of a badger and forced knowledge of great authors on me despite the fact my youthful/obsitnate heart showed no appreciation for them at the time. Joseph Conrad was a great comfort to me at sea and for my entire life since. I recommend all of his work.

My experience is that great books illustrate the constancy of the human condition. In life, as in photography, the peripheral B.S. may change but the basic challenges remain the same.

Thank you Rose, you were one of my best friends and I didn't even realize it.

It is out of print, but if you want a (literally!) systematic sampling of the Bible, look at Knuth's 3:16 Bible texts illuminated:


He takes every 3:16 in the Bible (chosen so he would have at least *one* ringer!) and writes a 4 page commentary on each passage. One of those pages is a rendering of the verse by a good calligrapher/typographer. Here is Zaph's (yes, *that* Zaph!) version of John 3:16:


Sorry--the links work from here. The essential reader's book of Hemingway is indeed the Finca Vigia edition of the Complete Short Stories.


How about a list of recommended/great books, that are available on CD or download? I spend way to much time in my car and about six months ago started listening to books.

As I've matured, I've come to an important realization: The people who first figured something out well enough to communicate it to others are very rarely the people who actually explain it best. This is especially true when it happened long ago (and the language has changed since then).

Thus, the seminal works of science and philosophy are very rarely the best way to learn about either the subjects themselves, or the people who made the discoveries / breakthroughs / inventions.

Hello Mike,
My very favourite translation of the Tao Te Ching is by Ursula Le Guin. I'm not sure how accurate it is, but I love the language, and I often re-read it.

...."Hemingway was not at his best as a novelist...." (Per Mike)

Whhaaaa TF? I only bought the book while courting my Spanish fiancee, in order to have some sense of the Spanish Civil War and to not appear an English-centric ignoramus in front of my Spanish Civil War veteran (well, 16 year old witness) father-in-law. He very proudly showed me the still-existing bullet pockmarks in the stucco above the doorway of his shop, and told me about firefighting when the apartment block got hit by a bomb. I even felt the need at the time to write my MA thesis on the international aspects of the war.

All of that said, the chapter that deals with Pilar's description of the executions of the rich townspeople in Ronda is a masterpiece, and possibly should standalone as a short story. By a quirk of fate, we got married in Ronda and spent our honeymoon night in the smart hotel just by the cliff Hemingway wrote about as the scene of execution (by being thrown off). This was about 8 months after I had bought the book and given up on it for the first time. Hemingway's description of the events, and the double line of peasants herding the rich people towards the cliff edge were chilling when you can sit in the square, drinking a beer and look across to the town hall from which the unlucky people were herded. If anyone does visit Ronda, I would recommend reading into the history. Oh, and eat at the "Pedro Romero" restaurant, where you can choose a fantastic oxtail stew made from bulls killed in the ring that day. Possibly controversial, but delicious and I'm sure Hemingway would have approved!

I have concluded that it is much easier to buy interesting sounding books than it is to find the time to read them. So the bedside pile continues to grow.
Interesting how discussions are returning to Hannibal in these Libyian times!

The links are broken for me, too.


your post invited - nay compelled - me to revisit some bookshelves. I have a total of nine bookshelves, but only 2 of them are "collections" of books. The rest are just storage, the contents of which risk being sent to the charity shop. From a brief perusal, 3 more books make my personal favourites list:

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. My introduction, through a set text when studying English Literature as a 15 year old, to the until then unknown fact that adults could be frail, inconsistent, inhuman and cruel.

The Bridge on the Drina, by Ivo Andric. I read this before going to the former Yugoslavia on the first of 4 six month tours (twice with the UN, twice with the British Army). Short of Rebecca West's magisterial Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, you will not find a better primer to what makes those very noble people tick.

Seven Years in Tibet, by Heinrich Harrer. Just a very heart-warming story of mental fortitude and finding good in adversity. Later commentaries about Harrer's Nazi past take some of the gloss off, however.

Two of the Hemingway links didn't work for me, either. These links for the memoir and the short stories should work and, I think, get Mike credit if you order from them. (Mike, perhaps you could confirm?)

Lets see. Someone writes a book, Tao te Ching. Then an industry springs up, trying to explain it to the common man.
Does this not sound like Adobe, and Photoshop?
Yes, the Chinese invented everything.

James, it's interesting that Andric hit the nerve. :) But, being a novel, it cannot really be compared with the West which purports to be a travelogue.

OTOH, since West so clearly fell in love with Serbia and suffers all the blindness of a person in love, the book can also be considered fiction. ;-)

BTW, Andric also had terrific short stories. It's not for nothing that he won the Nobel for literature.

(Yeah, Andric was obligatory reading back in my high school.)

I like the comic book version best, myself ;)

+1 on Ursula K. LeGuin.

And Penguin's "Great Ideas" may offer a solid introduction to the classics, but for summarizing Proust, nothing beats Monty Python's Flying Circus:

Mike, when I was young and obsessed I used to read "Walden Pond" at Walden Pond. Concord is about a 45 minute drive from where I live. I'd sit on a rock near the chained-off modest patch of land that represented the location of Thoreau's cabin. I've tried photographing the pond too, but I was never happy with the results, something always seemed to go wrong as if I wasn't supposed to be photographing there. I want to write a song about the great man, something fingerplayed on acoustic guitar, along the lines of Don McLean's "Vincent". I did manage a poem but I think I can do better in a song. This poem was written about 30 years ago when I was young and cocky:


You bequeathed more than a tombstone at Sleepy Hollow,
More than mere mortal ashes and remnants of bone,
Or the little pond on route 126, Walden Pond.
You handed us Gandhi and Martin Luther King
As Homer and Aeschylus had handed you.

I have sat, meditatively, hour upon hour
At the little pond outside Concord, Walden Pond.
I've watched bass jump and I've seen seasons change.
I've seen the sun cast long shadows from arrowy pines
Onto the cold deep emerald waters of Walden.

I've been happy living a sparse existence,
But I've been unhappy just as much, maybe more.
I've been trying, for years, to assimulate you
Through the crevices and through the tricky wiring
Of my brain and into my blood and into my soul.

In the end it is no more than ashes and remnants of bone
No matter the legacy, no matter the books, the bequeathal.
Walden Pond has survived without you Thoreau.
Civil Disobedience bears too heavy a burden.
Most of us cannot afford to live in the woods.

Now you still live from the safety of a grave
Like a mirage, or an unreachable beacon.
Who, Thoreau, can receive your bequeathal now?
Genius, like a snowflake, never repeats itself.
In the end it was no more than ashes and remnants of bone.

There's an interesting online introduction to the Tao Te Ching at http://www.yellowbridge.com/onlinelit/daodejing.php

It presents the original chinese (with mouse-over chinese dictionary) along with three English translations.


I have not read Ulysses, nor have I tried, and I've never made it past 100 pages of Gravity's Rainbow--but I just finished David Foster Wallace's mammoth novel Infinite Jest, and it was such a great experience, I'm thinking of reading it again.

like Hawking's book, it is reputed to be a bestseller that nobody actually reads, but this is a giant, supposedly difficult book that's actually a great pleasure to read. And if you have any interest the psychology of addiction, Infinite Jest takes on that subject in a deep and compassionate way.

Here is a vote for Daily Lit. Lots of books in small doses.


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