The “ten books” meme

I’m usually too unsocial to participate in blogging memes, but the idea of listing the ten books I’ve been most influenced by caught my attention. In a carping world we should express gratitude now and then, and if you want people to read your stuff it seems civil to offer a little background on where you get it. So here’s my list, in the order read:

  • Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. I read it when I was a college freshman, and it opened up new vistas of non-technocratic thought. It’s the only book of the ten I read in connection with a course.
  • Paradise Lost and the plays of Shakespeare. I read them after my freshman year and was duly stunned. It’s less the specific works that stuck with me than the realization that some things are infinitely better than others.
  • The Analects of Confucius, the Tao Te-Ching, and the Chuangtse. I read these sometime during my freshman and sophomore years. More vistas of non-technocratic thought, together with the importance and limitations of cultural tradition and the importance of the unstated and unknowable. My first published essay was about Confucius, and I don’t think I could have gotten through law school without the Tao Te-Ching and Chuangtse.
  • The Symposium. It demonstrated the possibility of thinking exactly and objectively about the Good, Beautiful, True, and whatnot without making those things less than they are. Before then I had been a sophomoric relativist, so it was a major event. I remember the exact time and place I read it, toward the end of my senior year of college.
  • Pascal’s Pensees. It was years before I read anything that affected me nearly so much. Pascal was next in line. How do you overcome the (modern) world, so that you can deal with the G., B., and T. as they deserve? He showed the way.
  • Newman’s Grammar of Assent built on Pascal’s fragments. How can you have knowledge about things that can’t really be proved?
  • And Samuel Beckett’s novels put the deal away by demonstrating that modernity isn’t an option. He showed the logic of the situation, that when you become truly modern you can’t even name anything let alone think coherently. If that’s the way things are, you have to go for plan B.

To my mind the most striking things about the list are (i) it does show a coherent line of development, and (ii) once I had read the Symposium the development was very, very slow. I spent years in what amounts to suspended animation, and didn’t really get anywhere until I started writing and forcing myself to say explicitly what I thought about things.

2 thoughts on “The “ten books” meme”

  1. Reading new books vs. re-reading old books
    I have struggled over the years with the following choice: Should I re-read a great book that I read many years ago, such as Pascal’s Pensees (which I read more than thirty years ago as a college freshman), or read a new book that comes highly recommended? I don’t think you can truly absorb a great book in one reading, nor can you fully absorb it as an 18 year old. But my list of unread great books beckons as well.

    What do you think about the dilemma? How much do you re-read rather than read anew?

    • Good question!
      My approach is completely unprincipled, sometimes this and sometimes that. I’m always in arrears anyway so maybe it doesn’t matter.

      Sometimes books you’ve read live in memory like other experiences and there’s no point going back and trying to recapture what affected you. Of course in the case of the best books the fact that rereading will be a different experience is an argument for revisiting.


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