The Greatest Books

These are the books that had the biggest effects on my moral and intellectual development. I present them in no particular order, and I expect to add to this list over the next few months.

Walden, by Henry David Thoreau
Everybody should read this book in their late teens or early twenties; it amplifies the natural idealism of youth. Old cynics will reject it as impossibly idealistic, but everybody should confront the issues that Thoreau raises. A separate essay, “Civil Disobedience” is often included along with the main book. It presents some brilliant ideas about the relationship between the citizen and the government; it was the inspiration for Ghandi and Martin Luther King. A quote: 

“I went to the woods because I wished to live life deliberately, to confront only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deeply and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

Song of the Sky, by Guy Murchie
Published in the 1950s, this rapture on the earth’s atmosphere by a flier is quite dated in terms of its science, but still manages to inspire with its soaring prose. It was quite popular, leading Murchie to write another book, Music of the Spheres, about astronomy. Written before the space age, this latter book is quite obsolete. Guy Murchie was a rare combination of poet and scientist. A quote:

“If it is true that clothes do not make the man, at least they can give the discerning eye something of his nature. That is how it is with the clothing of the atmosphere. In the sky’s wardrobe there is a dress for every occasion: white cumulus plumes for a fine spring day, gay cirrus feathers for summer, or a sporty fall mantle of high lamb’s-wool – a costume inimitable for each page of history.”

Systems of Survival, by Jane Jacobs
Who would’ve thought that there was anything new to say about morality? The subject has been hashed, rehashed, mashed, twisted, stretched, spun, and masticated by thousands of writers since before Socrates, and you would think that it’s time to just leave this overwrought subject in peace. You could spend an entire life reading all of humanity’s thoughts on morality, and not learn much new after the first month. Then along comes Jane Jacobs with an astounding new concept: that there are two fundamental systems of morality in play in society. The first is a guardian ethic that emphasizes hierarchy with responsibilities in both directions. The superior must protect and care for the inferior, and the inferior must obey the superior. The second is a business ethic that emphasizes the freedom of the individual, integrity, and hard work. These are gross simplifications of a complex notion, presented in a novel format from which it is impossible to extract a properly representative quote. I strongly urge everybody to read this book; it describes how many of our moral conundrums arise from collisions between the two moral systems.

From the Jaws of Victory, by Charles Fair
This is one of those books that changed my perception of the world. As a student during the Vietnam War, I shared with others the certainty that war was wrong, but I struggled to understand why war is such a failed enterprise. I read many books on war, trying to understand the dynamics of this universal human behavior. Slowly, I learned about war. But this book, in a single shattering paragraph, nailed it for me. I quote that entire paragraph here. It comes at the end of a chapter about Charles XII of Sweden fighting Peter the Great of Russia in the Great Northern War around 1708. Charles XII was brilliant, honorable, courageous, and generous. Peter was an unprincipled autocrat. They met at Poltava, and Peter was victorious. His victory was certainly not due to any great military talent; in a later battle against the Turks, Peter spent the night before the battle running through the Russian camp screaming “We're all going to die!” – not exactly the height of great generalship. In any event, here’s the long concluding paragraph: 

“Charles, on the other hand, was too competent, too much a Wunderkind. Without him his commanders were simply what they were – dull or mediocre or reasonably skilled professionals who could never on their own have undertaken a tenth of what they did in his company, and doubtless would not have dreamed of trying. A man of obvious ability and depth who might, under other conditions, have become a mathematician or a philosopher – though possibly never a statesman – Charles was driven to specialize too soon. Of all the men he might have been, circumstances quickly forced him to choose one; and the hopelessness of the military problem he was called upon to solve, together with his early success at solving it, may then have made the choice irrevocable. He was (or perhaps became) medieval in that war was his obsession. Like Edward III he had little time, and possibly no liking, for administrative matters, leaving those to his slow-moving elderly ministers in Stockholm and showing few signs in his long, busy career that he understood the world which was growing around him – one in which numbers, wealth and strategic position were to be everything and questions of honor and dynastic polity utterly forgotten. Not many others of his day understood it either, but one may suppose that Peter did. Of the two he was far the more modern – a psychically disheveled realist given to brutal excesses and totally expedient in his use of power, but nonetheless a man who saw through to the issues that really concerned his country. In contrast to Charles’, the tsar’s acts and preoccupations were of far greater scope, most of them converging on a common aim and a surprising number of them yielding substantial results. Just as he shaved his prelates’ beards, discouraged traditional forms of dress as impractical, and defied the xenophobia of his people by openly favoring foreigners and their handiwork, so, for all his absurdity as a commander, he achieved in the field what he had set out to. One may find him too rapaciously ‘natural’, too ‘sincere’ in the naked animal fashion which we are trying in this century to accept as the right and necessary way for men to be; one may even object that in the interests of his beloved Russia, he killed too many of his beloved Russians. He still fell short of bad generalship in one essential – he did not kill people for absolutely nothing. In the end, Charles did.”

I still choke up reading that final paragraph. War is sometimes necessary, and we must pay a price with our dearest blood when we fight, but if we are to pay this horrible price, it must be to accomplish something worth the price – which is rarely the case.

White House Years; Years of Upheaval; Years of Renewal. by Henry Kissinger.
Mr. Kissinger is reviled by the left because he implemented Mr. Nixon’s foreign policy. These books constitute the memoirs of his years in power. He presents his side of the story and does, I think, a fairly good job of presenting the difficulties he faced. It has been many years since I read the books, so I cannot recall many specifics, yet I know that they had a big impact on me. Although I disagreed with some of Mr. Kissinger’s policies, his explanations convinced me that the matter was certainly complicated. Diplomacy is an intricate business, and Mr. Kissinger did an excellent job presenting those intricacies. Here are some of the little details that have stuck with me: 

The use of the word “elliptical” for “indirect”. His character sketches of many of the leaders of those days. His great respect for Chou En-Lai. He tells a story about Mr. En-Lai: one evening, after a formal dinner, he and Mr. En-Lai relaxed in a discussion of diplomatic history. At one point, Mr. Kissinger asked Mr. En-Lai about his thoughts on the French Revolution. Mr. En-Lai paused and thought for a moment, then said, “It’s too early to say.” Now, THERE’S a man with a broad sense of history! (Post scriptum: I have since read this story is apocryphal. I don’t know what to think.)

Lastly, Mr. Kissinger is a good writer and I think that my use of English improved after reading his books.

The Story of Civilization, by Will and Ariel Durant
This is a twelve-volume series on, well, everything from the beginnings of civilization up to and including the Napoleonic Wars. It was written over three decades, starting in the 1930s. Historians love to sneer at these books because they are, after all, popular history, not academic history, but I think it appropriate to tell the historians to go jump in the lake; the books are excellent. True, they are somewhat dated; there have been some new discoveries, especially regarding ancient history, since the Durants wrote their early volumes nearly 70 years ago. However, those new discoveries have not invalidated the content of those volumes; the differences are mostly in the details. 

I’ll say it simply: these volumes are the best multi-volume introduction to the history of civilization that you can read. There are loads of single-volume approaches, but they all suffer from the enormous compression required to fit everything in. Nobody has had the breadth of learning, the moral courage, and the skill as a writer to attempt what the Durants accomplished. If you’re ready to go past your freshman history course, this is the way to go.

The writing is magnificent. I present a collection of brilliant quotes from the book on another page.
 My own writing falls far below the standard set by the Durants, but I draw inspiration from their writing. 

If you truly want to understand human history, read these books. They’re easily found and quite cheap on eBay. If you want to sample just one or two, I’d recommend The Life of Greece or The Age of Faith. 

Civilization and Capitalism, by Fernand Braudel
in three volumes: The Structures of Everyday Life, The Wheels of Commerce, and The Perspective of the World

These three volumes present a vast history of how capitalism developed in the West during the period from about 1400 CE to 1800 CE. The research is almost unbelievably detailed. The first volume is about what people ate, drank, wore, and lived in. Here with some quotes:

“In about 1600, the workers in the copper mines at Mansfeld, Upper Saxony, could only afford on their wages to eat bread, gruel, and vegetables. And even the privileged journeymen weavers of Nuremberg complained in 1601 that they were only receiving three times a week the meat ration which was supposed to be supplied to them every day. To which their masters replied that the allowance of six kreuzers did not permit them to provide meat to the journeymen every day.”

“The low level of soap production is hardly surprising in these conditions, although it had originated as far back as Roman Gaul. Scarcity of soap was a problem and possibly one of the reasons for high infant mortality. The hard soaps with soda from the Mediterranean were used for personal washing and included cakes of toilet soap… Liquid soap made with potash (in the north) was intended for washing sheets and other fabrics. A poor tally on the whole – yet Europe was the continent par excellence for soap. It was not to be found in China; nor indeed was underwear.”

The second volume describes the development of commerce in Europe. This was, in my opinion, the secret factor underlying so much of Europe’s later success. The Europeans developed complex business mechanisms for addressing a huge range of problems, and in so doing established the foundations for the later Industrial Revolution. In the third volume, Braudel attempts to integrate the entire mass of data he has presented in the first two volumes to explain how Western capitalism crystallized out of the many factors at work.

This is dense stuff, not to be undertaken lightly. These are the books that took me from the lower-division level of the Durant series to the upper-division level. I’m now re-reading the series, 25 years after my first reading, and learning so much more this time around.

The Face of Battle, by John Keegan
Keegan taught at Sandhurst, Great Britain’s military academy (like the American West Point). He realized that his teaching lacked true depth because he had no idea what it was like to be in a battle. So he set to work to learn just that. However, he didn’t confine himself to modern war; he wondered what the experience of battle was like through the centuries. He zeroed in on three battles: Agincourt (1415), Waterloo (1815), and the Somme (1916). This book is the result of his analysis of the experience of living through those battles. It is dreadful to read. There’s none of the heroics that we see in movies and videogames (although some recent movies, such as Saving Private Ryan, are quite realistic). Mostly it’s wild confusion, lots of tense waiting, sudden moments of intense violence, and great fear. The dominant mental state is confusion: nobody in a battle has any idea of what is happening. It’s also grim beyond the ability of most people to appreciate. After the battle of Waterloo, the Allied forces pursued the retreating French, leaving nobody behind to care for the wounded lying on the battlefield. Many of these people would have recovered if they’d simply been given some food, water, and shelter, but they just lay there until they died. Victims of both sides were helped along in this process by thieves sneaking about at night, stripping the dead of any valuables and finishing off anybody who resisted. One French officer survived by playing dead when they came for him. 

The book is horrifying reading; battle has always been the showcase of human brutality at its worst. After reading this book, you will never be able to play a combat videogame with the same abandon.

The Creators, by Daniel J. Boorstin
This is a history of human artistic endeavor. It covers all the major fields of artistic effort: sculpture, drama, painting, poetry, literature, music, and architecture. Boorstin presents the narrative in temporal form, showing how artistic ideas were developed by creative giants and passed from one generation to the next. The book is a history, not a paean to or explanation of art, although Mr. Boorstin does explain the significance of many of the artistic developments.

Lotsa videogame people like to dress themselves in the robes of the artist. I suggest that such people read this book; it might teach them some humility.

Beyond Civilization by Keith Chandler
Here’s a book you’ve probably never heard about. At its sales rank is #3,205,744, which is pretty much scraping along the bottom of ocean. But I was profoundly impressed by its analysis of the four great streams of civilization embodied in the West, China, India, and the Aztecs. His thesis is that each of these civilizations was driven by a fundamental mindset. Particularly striking was his observation that the Aztec diet, based on maize, was dangerously deficient in protein, which in turn explains why cannibalism was practiced by the nobility. They needed to recycle the protein.

The Sinic civilization, Mr. Chandler argues, was dominated by the theme of balance, and primarily concerned with the problems of society. Occidental culture was dominated by the theme of transformation and primarily concerned with nature. Indic culture took the theme of transcendence and worried about the self. The Aztec culture held the precariousness of life as its theme and was concerned most with time. These characterizations may sound too vague to have any utility, but Mr. Chandler goes on to explain them in detail, and his synthesis truly is amazing. His analysis of Sinic culture is the easiest to present in a short review. The Chinese sought balance in everything. Their concept of yin versus yang embodied the notion of balance; acupuncture seeks to re-establish the proper balance in the body by altering specific nodes in some sort of “energy network”.

You can’t really appreciate this book unless you’ve already packed a lot of history under your belt; many of the ideas make sense only if you already know the basics. I suppose that’s why it has gotten so little attention by the general public. As to why it hasn’t gotten far with professional historians, it’s probably one of those academic things that never makes sense.