What are some modern books worth reading?

I created this list as part of a challenge in response to the BBC list circulating on facebook. I thought it was worth reposting here.

For the most part, I tried to avoid the standard “classics” because so many people know about those already. This is stuff that I think people may not have run across, but all of it should be available. I am looking forward to others’ lists to look for new reading material and to reactions to this list.

1.The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo, a former Curator of Oriental Art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, he wrote this book in 1906 to explain the differences between East and West. It is a fantastic read that helps “us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.”

2.The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, gave every guy a model of manliness to aspire to emulate. “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.”

3.Bench Press, by Sven Lindqvist, is a book written by a man who takes up weightlifting at 53 about why exercise is valuable, which is not just because it makes you more fit. “After a time, it begins to seem natural that our capacity for freedom, responsibility and creativity must also be developed in the same way: through training….For me, training was not only a matter of tensing my muscles but, equally importantly, of relaxing them, and I was not only building a body, but also dreams.”

4.Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, by Virginia Lee Burton, is a children’s book about not simply discarding the old for the new, the value of good work, and creative problem solving, oh, and a steam shovel named Mary Anne. It’s a lot for a children’s book, but it’s all there.

5.Profiles in Courage, by John F. Kennedy, is about doing things because they are right, even when it is personally costly. “A nation which has forgotten the quality of courage which in the past has been brought to public life is not as likely to insist upon or reward that quality in its chosen leaders today – and in fact we have forgotten.”

6.I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov, is a collection of logic puzzles disguised as short stories and a warning about how important it is to pay attention to what we put in our brains. It is also an optimistic consideration of the relationship between people and the machines they make. “To you, a robot is a robot. Gears and metal; electricity and positrons. – Mind and iron! Human made! if necessary, human destroyed! But you haven’t worked with them, so you don’t know them. They’re a cleaner better breed than we are.”

7.Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, by Neil Postman is probably more relevant today than it was when it was written in 1986. The particulars may be different, but the message is the same and still true. “In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”

8.Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, must go on the list after the previous recommendation, because it shows the dangers of the things that please or amuse us. It shows the dangers of what we put in our brains in terms of distraction and amusement. “It’s pneumatic!”

9.1984, by George Orwell, also needs to be on the list because it shows the dangers of the things we hate and fear. It also shows the importance of what we put in our brains in terms of the basic building blocks of thought: language. “We have always been at war with Eastasia!”

10.Animal Farm, by George Orwell, is another great book about how elites try to rule everyone with fear. From “Four legs good, two legs bad!” to “Four legs good, two legs better!” We need to avoid sloganeering.

11.Understanding Media, The Extensions of Man, by Marshall McLuhan, shows how we are affected by all the different forms of media and messages that affect us. This is another book about the importance of what goes in our brains. “In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message.”

12.The Sneetches and Other Stories, by Dr. Suess, is a book about tolerance and compromise and understanding. As we listen to the politicians bicker and argue, we should remember the story of the Zax and make sure that the world moves on.

13.A Fly Went By, by Mike McClintock, illustrated by Fritz Siebel, is another children’s book about investigating the cause of things and having courage to find out what is going on when others are afraid.

14.Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, is a great adventure story and amazingly well-written. This one is worth reading for fun. “People were frightened at the time, but on looking back they rather liked it; it was a fine excitement in a quiet country life; and there was even a party of the younger men who pretended to admire him, calling him a ‘true sea dog,’ and a ‘real old salt,’ and such like names, and saying there was the sort of man that made England terrible at sea.”

15.American Pharaoh, Mayor Richard J. Daley His Battle for Chicago and the Nation, by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor is a fantastic biography and a look at the history of the country through the story of a man and a city. “Still torn about whether to run, Kennedy came to Chicago for a breakfast meeting with Daley on February 8. The more Kennedy talked about his differences with President Johnson over the Vietnam War, the more his candidacy appeared to Daly to be just another variant of the municipal conflicts that ended up in his office on a regular basis.”

16.Troublemakers, by Harlan Ellison, is a collection of short stories, collected to help teenagers make their way in the world. “(And while we’re at it, I’d like to sell you some shares in the panda farm I’ve got growing in my butt. Very reasonable.)” Still, once you get past the attitude, the stories are wonderfully written and entertaining.

17.The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hamett, is another detective story about Nick and Nora Charles, a boozy, sleuthing couple who make you wish you had their leisure time, money, and most importantly, savoir faire. “She grinned at me. ‘You got types?’ –’Only you, darling – lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.’ –‘And how about the red-head you wandered off with at the Quinns’ last night?’ – ‘That’s silly, I said. ‘She just wanted to show me some French etchings.’” (I also highly recommend the movie with William Powell and Myrna Loy. It will teach you how to shake a cocktail.)

18.The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett, is my third detective novel, but isn’t figuring things out what life is all about? It’s another book with a mixed example of manliness. “When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.”

19.Mapping, by David Greenwood, is a book in two parts. The first talks about the theory and history of maps. The second half is about how to make your own, without GPS and Google. It is cool. This book taught me maps measure time as well as distance. “Maps are first made in the sky. There is star work and sun work in them. The very word consider meant, originally, to observe stars. You really have to ‘hitch your wagon to a star’ if you wish to get anywhere.”

20.Right Hand, Left Hand, by Chris McManus is a book about handedness and what right and left really mean. This book had me doing experiments on the bus and with friend’s children. “Conventional mirrors of the sort used for shaving or washing do not, in fact reverse left and right, but instead reverse front and back.”

21.Three Men in a Boat. (To Say Nothing of the Dog.), by Jerome K. Jerome is a book about a boat trip. “The chief beauty of this book lies not so much in its literary style, or in the extent and usefulness of the information that it conveys, as in its simple truthfulness. Its pages form the record of events that really happened. All that has been done is to color them; and, for this no extra charge has been made. George and Harris and Montmorency are not poetic ideals, but things of flesh and blood – especially George, who weighs about twelve stone.” I would also like to say that I do not have housemaid’s knee.

22.The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro, is a book about the potential conflict between being excellent at what you do and being true to yourself as a human being. “Nevertheless, my duty in this instance was quite clear, and as I saw it, there was nothing to be gained at all in irresponsibly displaying such personal doubts. It was a difficult task, but as such, one that demanded to be carried out with dignity.”

23.The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric, by Sister Miriam Joseph, teaches two lessons: first, the humanities can, and should, have rigor associated with them; and second, it teaches how to obtain and apply that rigor. This is a difficult read, but if you are interested in the liberal arts, logic, or grammar it is worth going through.

24.The Ancient Engineers, by L. Sprague de Camp, will show you how great temples, roads, and palaces were made without the benefit of modern equipment. It shows that people can accomplish great things when they think creatively.

25.Getting Stronger, by Bill Pearl, is a book that I have bought about six copies of for myself and for gifts. I think it is one of the best weightlifting books I have seen, especially for beginners. I realize that I am not in the best shape, but I will say that you have a body and you have to take care of it. So, I figured I should include it in this list of books that are so much about the mind.

26.The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, made me think a lot about how the world works and how trends get started. It also had me thinking about my own relations to other people and where I fit into his categories. I know Gladwell recently said he would rewrite some of the things in it if he could, but even so, the food for thought in this book was a feast.

27.Machiavelli, Leonardo, and the Science of Power, by Roger D. Masters, describes how Niccolò Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci likely knew and maybe even influenced one another. It also has an excellent chapter on how Machiavell’s The Prince may be a subversive document designed to cause autocrats to fail. It is worth the read for that alone.

28.Last Chance to See, by Douglas Adams, describes his trip around the world to visit endangered species, such as the Yangtze River Dolphin, which was recently declared extinct. “The kakapo is a bird out of time. If you look one in its large, round, greeny-brown face, it has a look of serenly innocent incomprehension that makes you want to hug it and tell it that everything will be all right, though you know that it probably will not be.”

29.Not Always So, Practicing the True Spirit of Zen, by Shunryu Suzuki, is a collection of lectures by a Zen master who came to teach in the U.S. “So the secret is just to say ‘Yes!’ and jump off from here. Then there is no problem. It means to be yourself in the present moment, always yourself, without sticking to an old self.” Oddly enough, it occurs to me that Ralph Waldo Emerson said much the same thing in “Self-Reliance.”

30.The Hero With a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell, describes the archetypes of myth and how there are commonalities in the stories humans tell the world over. “Every failure to cope with a life situation must be laid, in the end, to a restriction of consciousness. Wars and temper tantrums are the makeshifts of ignorance; Regrets are illuminations come too late.”

31.Atlas From the Streets to the Ring: A Son’s Struggle to Become a Man, by Teddy Atlas and Peter Alson, is Teddy Atlas’ autobiography. Atlas is a boxing training and commentator. While I am sure the other people involved in the incidents described in this book might see them differently, this book makes me think about courage and confrontation, which are things that we all need to understand to live well.

32.Secrets of the Sword, by Baron César De Bazancourt, describes fencing as a sport and martial art and tries to capture the essence of it. It may over-simplify things and focus too much on principles, but of all the fencing books I have read, it offers the kind of advice that can be readily and easily applied by a fencer in trouble. And of course, we all know fencing is a metaphor for life.

33.The End of the Line: How Overfishing is Changing the World and What We Eat, by Charles Clover, changed the way I think about what I eat and how I choose sea food. You’ll never approach fish the same way after reading this.

I want to put a couple of shorter pieces on here as well because I think these are worth reading by everyone as well.

1.“Shooting an Elephant,” by George Orwell, will make you think about how to handle your positions of responsibility. It is short, depressing, and should make you question your own motives.

2.“Two Cheers for Democracy,” by E.M. Forester, accurately describes what makes up a true aristocracy, which is one that we call can join.

3.“Love is a Fallacy,” by Max Shulman, is a great short story from 1951 about what happens when a college student teaches his girlfriend logic.

What are your favorite modern classics?


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