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Sunday, 24 March 2013


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Chaucer in middle english is "not recommendable to others": what? Count this as my recommendation: I read most of the Canterbury tales (some of it aloud) at school and I would definitely recommend it to anyone, especially in the original language. It's wonderful of itself, and also teaches several important lessons about language. If you are a native english speaker you should read this as much as you should read Shakespeare. If you're not it may not teach the same lessons about language, though it's still just great fun.

I tried to interest my son in St. John's when he was looking at colleges; he had no interest (he's now a semi-literate IP/corporate attorney. My daughter has undergrad and master's degrees in photography, which has turned out to be a hobby. You can only try.

I also read "Giants In The Earth" in high school(English); to this day, I have never met another person that has read it. Thanks for the spark; I think I'll see if I can get it on the Kindle and read it again.

"Books are where ...... the great glorious life of the mind resides."

Classic! Thank you.


I love that dog. Looks very much like one I lost recently.

"when type began to speak." Sums up for me why I'm buying more books again (naturally, faster than I can read them). I bought my first e-book reading device about 6 years ago with the intention it would be used primarily for public domain/classics that I could get for free.

As a young 'un I was proud that one of my high school teachers described me as a 'voracious reader' on my college recommendation. But some time in the past twenty years real reading fell victim to reading computer screens. And I feel it has made me dumber. I don't think my brain engages the same with what I read on a computer. But now I have the Kindle Paperwhite and feel it is the best (so far) for reading text oriented content. Oddly, I read very few books on it. Instead, I read longform magazine articles zapped to the Kindle via wifi. Coincidentally, most of them I find from the website Longform.org.

One thing that has led me back to physical books is the typography. While the Paperwhite is very good for text, (I'd place the text quality of the PW as equivalent to mass-market paperbacks, where previous (non illuminated e-ink) devices were equivalent to newspaper text in regards to contrast, a major factor in legibility independent of text size/typeface). But there is just no comparison between books on a Kindle and physical books as far as page design and legibility/readability.

So while I look forward to seeing your list (I'm listless) I've been buying many of the types (if not actual) books that St. John's uses. I'm presently reading The Story of Philosophy, by Will Durant (a 1962 edition updated from the '26 original. It is published by Time in what I imagine was a series to compete with Penguin Classics, hoity-toity for the Hoi Polloi.

An additional reason I read few 'books' on the Kindle is because I refuse to purchase Digitally Restricted Media. I've gotten some in print books for free, but its mostly Project Gutenberg (many poor translations have frustrated me. Reading Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, I made up a drinking game based on the excessive use of a the Latin phrase a priori) or magazine articles.

Being the nerd I am, my lottery fantasy includes enrolling in St. John's. I'd only learned of it about five years ago, but it is just the thing that will help me become an autodidact (g). When I was looking for colleges in my HS days, it wouldn't have interested me.

As for lists, my brother is reading the Modern Library Associations top 100 novels of the 20th century http://www.modernlibrary.com/top-100/100-best-novels/
And for your History section I read (free, from Amazon) The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians (Peter Heather, Oxford University Press 2005). It is somewhat (SA) more accessible than Gibbon. As I like to say, Rome didn't burn in a day.


"Zander yesterday."

A photograph of two individuals where only one is named? Unfair to that fine looking individual on the right!

Nice photo though.

Best regards.

I´ve read somewhere that there are 3 kinds of people,
those who can count and those who can not.

I'm so glad you mentioned Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth. I, too, read it as an assignment in high school, and always meant to return to it as an adult. Now is my chance.


A couple of thoughts after reading Mike’s Sunday post of 24th March 2013
Thought No. 1
Young people today are mostly tuned in to assimilating knowledge, following stories, learning generally, in small chunks. Often with considerable visuals accompanying same. This is habit forming.
BUT – I once read a novel ( I forget the name I’m afraid) where the main protagonist was a young man who wrote computer games. He was, in the book, wildly successful because he had realised that one of the most basic human drives is a thirst for knowledge and he made this desire to learn to be at the heart of his games, which also made him a lot of money.
So maybe educationalists need to revise school methods so that they start with the short chunk computer appropriate presentations that grab their recipients interests. Then, once the students are starting to get beyond the basics, they work on their innate desire for knowledge to encourage them to seek out the deeper, more considered, approach that you find in books. So book reading should be an end point, not a starting point, in teaching anything.

Thought No 2
Before books became generally available, knowledge was mainly imparted by oral tradition. I have a suspicion that when books did start to become available to the masses, there may have been an undercurrent of opinion among those who taught, analogous to what we hear now: "for goodness sakes, it seems all the youngsters want to do nowadays is read books instead of sitting down while their elders and betters explain the world to them out aloud. That’s awful”
When writing the above I had in my mind outpourings of the human mind conceived as books. I’m not for the moment addressing the pro’s and con’s of their presentation as objects in themselves versus Kindle type formats, in an educational context.

I'm with you on Liar's Poker. You might find The Big Short by Michael Lewis equally interesting. He is so credible a source that I can believe he accurately tracked the entire economic near-collapse to its source -- and in doing so shows how little has changed.

Now I have to read the rest of your finance list. I think it all starts right where you suggest: Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

There are 10 people in the world, those who can count in binary and those who cannot.

About a year ago, on a whim, I started reading H G Well's The Time Machine aloud to my wife while we were sitting up in bed one evening. This was probably the tenth time I'd read it, but the first time aloud (and the first time my wife had ever experienced it).

When reading silently it flows well, but trying to articulate the obsolete verbal patterns of a prim and proper nineteenth century English gentleman can lead to a lot of stammering. You really have to read Wells in the political and economic context of the time and place his books were written in the first place. When you add in the language difference, it makes for a challenging book to read aloud.

Interesting... I've been intermittantly working on a similiar project for my nephew. His dad and I both read a lot, and I would like to introduce him to some of the same pleasures - even if he is more interested in sports!
It's a lot tougher than it sounds to create a reading list for someone who is not already an accomplished reader. :)

Mike, I understand just what you're going through. I spent many years compiling my 1995, self-published, "Walker Evans In Print: An Illustrated Bibliography." Oh my, the attention one had to pay to all the various "points," details that distinguish first editions from later ones; and the joys of figuring out the many editions of titles such as "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," in many languages besides English (of which I ended up with something like 39 different editions). And the ever-present need to be consistent in presentation and formatting, numbering and renumbering, was enough to drive me to drink.

I started the project one fine day, with the realization that if I put together, like Yin and Yang, the list of titles in my growing Walker Evans collection with my equally growing Want List of titles to search for, I'd (theoretically at least) have a complete listing of everything Evans.

That led to the eventual publication of "WE In Print" (with 1210 entries), and in 2002 an Addenda with 612 more entries. And there are notes for a future Addenda of several hundred more entries, but that I leave to someone younger and more energetic.

The point of all this is that despite the hours - years, really - of hard work, both detective and clerical, and the fact that the edition of only 400 copies still has a carton left unsold in my basement after almost 20 years, it was without question worth all the effort; it is something that I produced that people still use. John Szarkowski praised it. I made many good friends in the world of Walker Evans. At the time, it was the largest, most complete Evans bibliography, and no doubt still is unless someone has piggybacked new findings onto mine (which I hope they do). And while I am primarily a documentary photographer, I have no assurances that I will be remembered for my photographs at all, but I'm pretty sure this bibliography will never be entirely forgotten or without value to Evans collectors and scholars. I'm still glad I did it.

You never know what can develop from reading aloud, I did to all my kids well beyond when they could read on their own.(3 daughters)
My youngest credits (blames) me for her PHD in Medieval History because after tiring of reading little girl books like the entire "Little House" series etc. When reading the "Anne of Green Gables" and Anne Shirley became infatuated with "The Lady of Shalott" I seized the opportunity and switched to Tennyson! The rest is er, PHD History....

I've become something of a childrens book critic over the last 10 years. I've been reading aloud every night to her since she was a few months old. She's a great reader, but we still enjoy reading together. I try to pick a book that would be challenging for her. She tries to pick books that are just plain fun. Reading aloud sure teaches you a lot more about prose than reading to yourself. I'm reminded of those visual puzzles where words in a paragraph are omitted and your brain instantly fills the in. Reading aloud, things that your brain glosses over sound clumsy. The Harry Potter series was great fun to read (I'm a long time Sci-Fi/Fantasy fan) ... I'd read it years ago to myself, but reading it out loud made me realize how coarse the prose is. Anyway, good books or bad, I'm happy to have started this tradition.

Regarding Kindles:
When you have your full list, I suggest you have a way of downloading all your books to a kindle. You get the percentage of 266 books. Hey, the whole collection should go for less than a single Leica lens.

I look forward to your paperwhite Kindle review. To me it is 4 times better than the original.

Why not make it a 'living' list, where you maintain it on line with a running summary of titles you add and those you remove. The changes might be just as interesting to your audience as the current version. Putting it up in unfinished form might give you the satisfaction of a tangible product, and would give your readers the information now, not at some indeterminate point in the future.


I tried to teach myself to sightread Anglo-Saxon so I could read Beowulf aloud. I wasn't concerned with understanding the words, I just wanted to know how Beowulf sounded. My feeling has always been that for poetic works, you can't grasp the work unless you know how it sounded.

It didn't go very well. Even with a grounding in German, a passing familiarity with Norse pronunciation, and a fairly deep knowledge of the culture that spawned Beowulf, I just couldn't do it myself.

"Where are the Customers' Yachts?," by Fred Schwed, Jr. The joke on which the title is based is alone worth looking at.


There are 10 kinds of people in this world: those who understand binary and those who don't.

Also, re: books that need to be books, Al Bester's Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination are both books that need some typographic finesse to tell the story. Unfortunately every edition I've seen uses new typesetting, but literally cut-n-pastes the specially formatted sections from an earlier edition. I'm guessing the first edition--possibly the initial serialization in Galaxy--was the only one that actually had special plates cut and everyone else has been using photographs from that.

Both books are also excellent, if you haven't already read them. The Demolished Man in particularly is a high water mark in science fiction.

You made me realize something. In elementary school we often had a teacher read an entire book over several weeks to us, usually after lunch when we were all a bit lethargic. I think I did leard pronunciation from this! Among others,I remember "The Phantom Tollbooth" and "A Wrinkle in Time" both of which launched me into the SF and Fantasy genre. Heinlein (and others)closed the deal. Today I read tons of technical stuff for my job so subsequently I gravitate to fantasy to unwind. Try getting wrapped up in the "Wheel of Time" series (14 1000 page books and thousands of characters) or George R.R. Martin's "Game of Thrones" series. Be prepared to take notes.
I tried listening to books on tape. In the car I couldn't pay attention to driving and the plot simultaneously so that was a bust. At home, I just got sleepy. However, a live human reading to you is different - although not everyone has the ability to read aloud effectively. Somehow the interaction of page-words-eyes-brain is special to be and is better than any drug I ever tried. Some authors have it, some don't.

I spent about two and a half years reading all of the Tolkien trilogy to my (then) two children. It started out as a lark to get them to bed, but rapidly took on a life of its own. Soon we all looked forward to it. Great stuff, a real bonding experience.

But where to go after that? The Hobbit really didn't do the trick, as it lacked the powerful narrative arc of the Trilogy. And then they were adolescents, and that was that.

But they plan on reading Tolkien to their kids if and when they have 'em.

James Gould Cozzens? Now that's a name I've not heard in a long time.

"Cozzens has virtually disappeared from the American literary scene" per Wikipedia.

As I recall, though, "Guard of Honor" was quite good.

I occasionally read to my wife if she can't sleep, with some success. My bedtime book reading has been in large part supplanted by iPad web browsing (including your site). I can read a book on the iPad if it's my only choice (I had to for a class I took last fall) but my brain still prefers paper. I use my Kindle for the types of books I don't want on my chest, like Thoreau's Complete Journals, or books I want immediately. Otherwise I'll buy the physical book if it's not too much. We have a great "friends of the library" bookstore here and I love passing on almost new titles, usually picking up another. One thing that's strange, my novel reading has almost died, and I was an English major in college. Not sure what the deal is with that. Seems like my mind has become too slack for the form, and I'll pick up more friendly (even if technical) non-fiction and memoirs.

Mike, Three questions for you:

1) Is Harry Potter on your list? [No. --Mike]
2) If so, in what category?
3) Do you count it as one book or seven?

Thanks, great post.

I became a Kindle convert when I started travelling a lot a couple of years ago. There is something incredibly cool about having a whole bookshelf in your pocket.

However getting kids to read is a tough one. I blame schools mainly. Most of my English teachers seemed to treat it as a virtuous crusade, but Thomas Hardy and Dickens nearly put me off reading for life!!

Better to treat reading like music. Kids all like music of some kind, even if we don't approve of the selection. As a kid I listened to 10cc and read all kinds of trash, from cheap pulp sci-fi novels to crime fiction and war stories.

But as I grew up I came to literature naturally, just I as I learned to appreciate a good whisky and the finer points of Bach. I worked my way through Conrad, Hemmingway and Faulkner, as well as Nabakov, Checkov and Kafka. I never took to Classic English Literature though. The damage was irreparable. It still bores me rigid.

I lived in the US in the late '80s and had a close friend in Chapel Hill whose 12 year old daughter also hated books (probably had a similar school experience to me). However I remembered as a young boy reading all of C.S.Lewis' Narnia novels and being totally captivated, so I bought them the box set for Christmas one year, on the off chance she might take an interest.

Much to his amazement she read them back to back about seven times before graduating to Ursula Le Guin and Anne McCaffrey. His granddaughter is now about the same age and is head of the school Harry Potter Fan Club ;-)

Whatever you say, Harry Potter got a whole generation of pre-teens off the sofa and away from their Playstations, and that can't be a bad thing.

And I am not remotely ashamed to admit that I still love to get lost in anything by China Mieville, David Brin and even a classic Philip K. Dick or Frank Herbert. I had read Dune before turning 16 and the rest of the series soon after, and I still love them now.

Want something for a teenager? Pick something along the theme of their favourite computer game and see what happens, or if that fails try the original radio series for Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy on audio CD.

still available from Amazon!

Another list:

Harold Bloom's possibly tendentious classified one in "The Western Canon" (itself claimed anecdotally to be found shelved in the war history section of one bookshop).

Bloom uses the Vico system which was used by Joyce in "Finnegans Wake":

The Theocratic, Aristocratic, Democratic and Chaotic Ages.

For all that dogmatism it's not a bad checklist.

And, one of the advantages of e-book readers to this committed print buyer: many of the older books included are easily available as e-books, often free from the marvellous Project Gutenberg.


> ...depending on how you count.

That would limit me to ten ;-)

There are lists and then there are lists;
This one from "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins," by Borges in which he describes 'a certain Chinese Encyclopedia,' the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, in which it is written that animals are divided into:
1. those that belong to the Emperor,
2. embalmed ones,
3. those that are trained,
4. suckling pigs,
5. mermaids,
6. fabulous ones,
7. stray dogs,
8. those included in the present classification,
9. those that tremble as if they were mad,
10. innumerable ones,
11. those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
12. others,
13. those that have just broken a flower vase,
14. those that from a long way off look like flies.

+1 for Paul Macdonald

I read aloud to my daughter through junior high or so; if nothing else, it was great together-time. As for reading Dumas: I had far better luck reading Steven Brust's Khaavren/The Phoenix Guard series to her -- excellent and fun Dumas pastiche and my daughter seemed to enjoy rather than regret the "ornate" language. As a plus for the conversation here: TOP denizen DDB and Brust go way back...


That is a very fine photograph- compositionally/aesthetically, technically.

Re books- I can highly recommend 'Guns, Germs and Steel' by Jared Diamond. Since I have always wondered the "exactly, why?" of lots of things, it's nice to see a well-argued point of view on many of the questions in one's mind.

Bill Gates has a list too (what he's reading): http://www.thegatesnotes.com/GatesNotesV2/Books

That's where I pick up many recommendations, including this one. Thought I'd point you to this "list" too.

As a graduate, five decades ago, of a college which used the Great Books program, I now think that the curriculum was akin to the 18th-century idea of encyclopedia, which wasn't a good or successful enterprise then. The Great Books program turned out to be not so great, though, of course, many folks would disagree with that conclusion. The Great Books program turned out to have a narrow focus on certain Western European ideas. I've since learned that that there a lot more great books from many more lands and ages than what we read in college.

[Good point, Sid. Great to whom? --Mike]

My vote for "what to read lists" are contained in the books of Michael Dirda, the senior book reviewer at the Washington Times. If someone is going to make these lists then they should have read everything and Dirda qualifies in that department. His books and column are entertaining. The lists contained in his books may not hit every classic but they will certainly enlighten while being ever so entertaining. And entertaining is what brings anyone back, not what one ought to read. Suggested: Bound to Please or Classics for Pleasure.

My son once asked his Mom, "How come Dad knows a lot of stuff?"

"Because he reads," she replied.

"How come I haven't seen him reading?"

There was indeed a long spell when I stopped reading books (coinciding with my son's middle- through high school years). I was appalled for setting such a bad example. The only thing in print that I read then was The Economist. Newspapers and anything read off an LCD screen didn't count. I haven't really resumed my reading habit in earnest. Perhaps it's time I bought a Kindle.

I'm glad I've read one book at least in your Money and Finance category, J.K. Galbraith's The Affluent Society. His memoir's A Life In Our Times is hilarious. I've also read his Ambassador's Journal but none of his novels.

I'm curious if you have a category for espionage/thrillers? And if so, whether any of John Le Carré's novels is in it. I'm a fan particularly of his Smiley trilogy (for the window to the Cold War that it gave me). And Little Drummer Girl (for his unthorthodox take on the Palestinian problem and his delicate narrative on interrogation methods which anticipates rendition and waterboarding).

Looking forward to the next installment of your List.

I was halfway into Dostoevsky Brothers Karamazov. Now I just vaguely remember what it was all about. I think from now on it will serve as pillow :)

I, too, think linking to Amazon for your 266 books is a good idea.

As for the Paperwhite, I find it to be just the thing for a dedicated reading device. It is more comfortable to carry around (get a dedicated cover for it) than the tablets, even the newer high resolution ones. It's front lighting is more comfortable for extended sessions and you need to worry a lot less about the state of the battery - it is good for about 28 hours of use. Admittedly, the "experimental browser" is really only useful for Wikipedia, Google, and Amazon.

I've been intrigued by the idea of The Best Books on any one (or all!) subject(s) for a while. Some time back I started http://www.septivium.com/ to try and begin compiling such a list, or at least gather some support from elsewhere, although it never went very far. There are always more books, and always less time!

If you haven't seen Ask Metafilter's thread from 2007 about the best books for particular fields, you might find that interesting. I extracted the books here, although the original thread is worth a read too: http://www.septivium.com/b/2009/05/07/mefi/

Like your finance list, but would suggest - Lords of Finance: 1929, The Great Depression, and the Bankers who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed - as an alternate selection.

"It's far more efficient to read a good modern summary of the views of Thomas Hobbes in current English than it is to try to pluck them out of Leviathan by yourself..."

... but possibly less instructive. The Atlantic has an excellent blogger who takes on such tasks:

"Harry Potter... reading it out loud made me realize how coarse the prose is"

Agreed. Fun doing the voices, though.

[Agreed here too. To your main point, note that I'm not advocating against engaging with great books or suggesting that fully adult, veteran readers shouldn't do so at least in a few cases (I have a friend who thinks that everyone with intellectual interests should have at least one book with which they engage fully, know deeply, and continue to study). But that doesn't mean that recommending a parade of such books would work for a list like mine. --Mike. Oh, and thanks for the link.]

My list:
Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (best book ever written, IMHO);
André Malraux, The Human Condition;
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World;
Homer, Odyssey;
Homer, Iliad.
While I wouldn’t reasonably expect teens to read any of them (unless under coercion, which would do nothing to help their taste for literature to develop), these are among the most important books in the history of literature.
As for the juvenile aversion to books, I am happy to report that I had some success in persuading my nephews to read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and William Golding’s The Lord Of Flies, i. a., after explaining them the authors’ purpose was not to write simple tales, but to describe human nature through metaphors. That intrigued them and made them look for the hidden sense in the authors’ words.

Your Sunday posting on reading is excellent. Until last September, I directed a radio reading service for blind and visually impaired listeners. About 80 volunteer readers came to studios in Brewer and Portland Maine- and some recorded from their homes- and presented daily and weekly newspapers, magazines and books.Funding shortages shut the service down last September after 12 years. My wife and I read aloud to each other, mostly while we're on vacation. My brothers and I badgered our mother to read "Mike Mulligan's Steam Shovel" again and again and again until she threatened to bury the book somewhere. I sent two copies to my brothers today to celebrate those happy read-aloud times.

A link that your readers may find interesting that combines fine photography and literature is:


Finally this:
"Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that
they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best-seller that could have been
prevented by a good teacher."

Flannery O'Connor

Regards- Les Myers

Chan said "I was halfway into Dostoevsky Brothers Karamazov. Now I just vaguely remember what it was all about."

Its about a family of jugglers.


The Worm Ouroboros, 1922 pre-dates The Hobbit.

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