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Sunday, 09 March 2014


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The Waukesha Canon.

I am ambivilant about recommending "great literature" from the early to mid 20th century to younger readers. John Steinbeck, for example, is my favorite author of all time (I'm 63, so that makes some sense). But, I think books written in the 1950's about events that occurred even earlier are of little interest or value to modern young readers. That world hasn't existed for so long that I see no way 20 or 30 something can conceptualize it, much less understand it. And Huck Finn is even farther removed from anything comprehensible to younger readers (and probably best so).

I think it far more useful for them to read modern literature that tries to make sense of their world, and not struggle through the detritus the 20th century.

[While I can respect your opinion, I think the opposite. I think young people (now and in any era) are all too wrapped up in the moment, as if it is all that matters, and need encouragement and guidance to think backward and forward with more mental flexibility. And a broader reach through a wide range of subject matter brings a grounding and a foundation that can be calming and increase fortitude. Just my take. --Mike]

Absolutely wonderful list, Mike. As has been noted before by many through the years, one of the advantages of growing old is that rereading books tends to seem more and more like first time reads.

McPhee's Annals of the Former World is a classic. The account of Love's ranch in Wyoming is not to be missed by anyone at any age.

Thankfully we are not all the same. I would like to recommend audio books for those on the list that I find just unreadable like Huckleberry Finn and The Odyssey. A really tedious book like the too cute Huck as Twain talks down to the common folk, or the serious and humorless Homer are somehow made more bearable if only part of your attention is engaged.

Glad you included Beryl Markham's little classic.

Could I recommend an addition? Origin of Species by Darwin is the clearest exposition of natural selection and it is surprisingly an easy and engaging read. Go to the source.

Good to see Carl Sagan in the list. The successor to Cosmos premiere's today: http://hypertexthero.com/logbook/2014/03/cosmos/

It would not have occurred to me to combine fictional and real adventure stories under one category, but I suppose I can kind of see the reason. However, I far prefer The Mysterious Island to Treasure Island (but still with the Wyeth illos).

I actively despise Romeo and Juliet, and in particular consider it to be an example of a horribly dysfunctional relationship that hurts everybody involved.

One recommendation, Science category: Gregory Bateson's "Mind and Nature".


I haven't read them all, but it looks like a good selection overall. John McPhee is one of my favorite writers, particularly on geology and geologists, and the Petroski book I read not long before the I-35W bridge across the Mississippi fell. By the way, the new version of Cosmos, presented by Neil Degrasse Tyson, premieres tonight on the Fox networks.

Richard Rhodes' "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" ought to be on the science list - unless you have it in your history section.

And Primo Levi's "The Periodic Table" an automatic pick.

[Hi Nigel, The Richard Rhodes book is on the list in a different category, and thanks for the recommendation of the Primo Levi book. --Mike]

Well, If you have Shakespeare, it should be Hamlet (although Romeo & Juliet is also a minor must) :-) . By the way, as drama is on the list - fabulous - how about Ibsens Peer Gynt - all about finding yourself, or more about escaping from one self: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peer_Gynt

But above all: Keep the site going, it is a mercy, a blessing and also about photography.

Best regards,
Anders H. (Norway).

as for "crime" - you want strong? try:
dashiell hammett: red harvest.

I love Cosmos, but I think I would go with Demon-Haunted World for Sagan. An exceedingly well-written appeal for science and scientific thinking.

Under "Science" I would add "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot--a remarkable book that describes the birth and adoption of the HeLa cell line as a human laboratory surrogate, reads like a mystery/thriller and exists at the intersection of science, ethics, medicine, racism, family, and the rights we do or do not have to control our own genes. It is the most remarkable science book for the "general public" I have read in the last decade.

I read "A Beautiful Mind" many years ago, but my recollections are not positive. It struck me as rather breathless and overwrought pop-sci journalism. It was better than the movie, but that's not saying much.

I'd suggest, instead, Robert Kanigel's extremely readable "The Man who Knew Infinity", a biography of Srinivasa Ramanujan.

Author's page: http://bit.ly/1nyLav2
Amazon: http://amzn.com/0671750615

(Coincidentally, Kanigel has also published a list of (80) books to read -- http://bit.ly/1qo0QE3 -- though probably with a somewhat different audience in mind.)

For Crime, I'd add some James M. Cain. Really, any of it, but I'm partial to The Postman Always Rings Twice.

And William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying makes any list of books I could hope to make. There's no other book I enjoy revisiting quite so much.

But you put Blankets on your list (representing Wisconsin in the process, I recognize), which is enough to convince me that the list as a whole must be worth my while.

Nice list. As for crime, I think that James Elroy should be on the list, especially his LA series of books. Talk about grit...

And glad to see that Dashiell Hammett has been mentioned already by another poster.

Hi Mike,

Good to see Robert Louis Stevenson on your list, but might I suggest that "Kidnapped" is even better than "Treasure Island".

Also, how about a children's category? I'd start it off with "Children of the New Forest" by Captain F.Marryat.


For those of us that get up early, Fox is showing Cosmos two hours earlier on Fox1 (their replacement for the Speed channel).

To ignore Chandler is a crime. IMHO.

Thanks for this site. Number 1 on the Great List in that category.

As a 30 something, I don't think I could disagree more with Jim's comment about the usefulness to younger readers of books from the recent past and/or about the recent or distant past. And I say recent past because the early 20th century is very much the recent past when you consider that world history reaches back millennia.

I may be misunderstanding Jim's views or over generalizing from what he has said, but to me a good understanding of the past (as represented through fiction and non-fiction sources) is essential to understanding the modern world and its causes. I think a lack of this knowledge leads to views and opinions that are too narrow (not claiming that my mind couldn't use some broadening too).

For the crime, I'd recommend something by Edward Bunker, who had the great advantage of having been a hardened criminal who could also write.

Scott Turow ? Possibly not for the target audience.

Two surprises:
No Conan Doyle ... and John Camp hasn't pitched in.


I consider it great luck to have encountered Bradbury's Dandelion Wine as a teen, along with his Martian Chronicles. Fahrenheit 451 didn't impress me as much at the time, possibly only because it was required reading.

Hard to comment before I've seen all the genres, but, given the intended audience, I'm surprised not to see any Dickens or Dumas so far. On the other hand, it seems I have some reading to catch up on!

Re science: have you read Einstein's "Relativity"? He wrote it to explain the concepts to a general audience, without the advanced math. I shouldn't say it's "easy", but neither is it difficult, and it's brief; in fact, I suspect "bright teens", or their teachers, may have been his target audience. One of the great minds of a century describing his greatest accomplishment in his own words is not to be missed.

Good stuff. I hope you'll keep sharing as you progress, and that there are science fiction and philosophy genres to come.


Interesting that crime should feature in so many of the readers suggestions. My suggestions would be "When the Sacred Ginmill Closes" by Lawrence Block and "In the Presence of the Enemy" by Elizabeth George.

Ahh... Red Harvest has one of my favorites opening paragraphs ever. It sets the mood for the entire novel.

Thanks Mike,
I like lists where I've already read several of the entries.

For an overview of how the geologic world works I'd recommend "The Earth: An Intimate History by Richard Fortey"

and 6 essays on late 20th century British science by Francis Spufford "The Backroom Boys: The Secret Return Of The British Boffin"

+1 on "The man who knew infinity" and "The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks"
best wishes phil

I don't know if The Long Goodbye of Raymond Chandler fits inside crime or adventure or other. Is a must have on any library, is literature, don't be fool by the label others put to Chandler, he was an excellent writer. What about poetry, I always think that poetry have a lot to do with photography.

The inclusion of Lewis Thomas made me smile. I love his collections of essays and was happy to see them still in print.
I was less pleased to see that my favorite translation of Tacitus is now out of print and I don't know enough to recommend another although I suspect they are all going to be pretty good.
I would also like to recommend Cultural Amnesia by Clive James.
Like Tacitus James is a good traveling companion.

Under "Science":

Karoly Simonyi, A Cultural History of Physics.

Peter Mattheissen's 'The Snow Leopard'. In whatever category you like.

Very interesting and useful list! Regarding Science, probably the following is a fundamental title, which unfortunately might not be suited for a "bright teenager":


Not that it is uncontroversial....

A lot of good reads. I have read most of Carl Sagan, and I'd pick "Broca's Brain" as his best. Loved "A Short History of Nearly Everthing". Bryson is one of my favorite current writers. Who knew he could write science?

You need a Richard Feynman book though. Hard for me to pick one though.

Fascinating list. In the pastoral category I would suggest Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee.
I would also propose an additional Heading; "Political/Social" - or watch out, life can be tough young man:
Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck),
Of Human Bondage (Maugham),
1984 (Orwell),
On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (Dixon)

Kinda late, but ... Chandler, Stout, Richard Stark, and amongst contemporary crime authors, John Sandford, AKA John Camp.

"The Disappearing Spoon" and anything by Oliver Sacks are worth looking into for the Science category

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