From time to time, readers have complimented me on my learning and asked me to provide a list of recommended books. I’m embarrassed by such compliments because I am not at all a learned or very widely read person. However, I seem to have the ability to derive the essential from what I do read, and to make it a part of my thought process, then build on it and connect it with other things. So, while I don’t read a great number of books, I get a lot of bang for the buck, or the buch.
This list consists of personal favorites and recommended books, but I’m not sure if there’s any difference between the two. It is arranged by general subject areas.
This is an unfinished draft that’s been on my computer for a while, but since I’ve continued to get requests for a list I thought I might as well post it online. As time goes by I will keep adding to it, and filling out the descriptions and commentary. [LA notes, June 22, 2012: I did not follow through on my intention. Nothing substantive has been added to this entry since it was first posted.]
Edith Hamilton, Mythology. Read when I was 12. The book that began my intellectual life.
Mary Renault, The King Must Die; and its sequel, The Bull from the Sea. These two, especially The King Must Die, which I first read when I was 12, completely transcend any other historical novels.
Aeschylus, The Oresteia
Sophocles, The Oedipus plays; Ajax; Philoctetes;
The Iliad of Homer, translated by Richmond Lattimore. The greatest work of European literature is also the first. For me, this is the translation of the Iliad. I first read it when I was 13 or 14, was captivated and lifted up by it, and have remained so ever since. Lattimore follows Homer’s line more closely than any other translator, while also using a kind of artificial syntax that creates a heightened effect. One feels oneself constantly in the presence of the cosmic.
The Divine Comedy, John Ciardi translation. I read The Inferno as a freshman at Columbia, and re-read it afterward, but never opened up the Purgatorio until I was in my thirties and it came as a complete shock. It was a different style of writing, a different world.
Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales. I read this in a college course at the University of Colorado in Boulder (where I went back and finished college after a seven-year hiatus). It is very great, but I hesitate recommending it because I think that reading and understanding this Middle English work requires the guidance of a teacher.
Shakespeare. My twelve best:
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Sonnets. I like the earlier sonnets, never got much into the later ones.
Charlton Ogburn, The Mysterious William Shakespeare. In the first few chapters of this book Ogburn proves (beyond a shadow of a doubt, as far as I’m concerned) that William Shakespeare of Stratford on Avon could not have been the author of the plays. This is a great book, taking the reader beyond shallow conventional notions into a deeper appreciation of Shakespeare, no longer an abstract “mirror of universal nature,” which is the conventional view of him (made necessary by the fact that there is no connection between the life of Shakespeare of Stratford and the plays he is supposed to have written), but an actual man and artist who, like all artists, expressed himself in his work.
John Donne. Donne’s mature poetry is too complex for me, but I like his early love poems, such as “Woman’s Constancy”; “The Sun Rising.”
Milton, Paradise Lost. I first read Milton in college, and didn’t get much out of him. Then at age 27, I was staying for a couple of weeks in Bisbee, Arizona with some friends, picked up a copy of Paradise Lost in a used bookstore, read it while I was down there, and was transported by it. Milton’s conception of Adam and Eve, Man in his pre-Fall state, is great, as is his portrayal of Satan. Unfortunately, his portrayal of God the Father, in which God spells out all his reasons and comes across as calculating and cynical, is a disaster (Milton should have left God in a more transcendent state and let other characters do the explaining), but the rest of the poem is truly great.
Here is the beginning of Satan’s great speech in Book IV, when, seeking the ruin of mankind, he has arrived on Earth and for the first time looks upon God’s creation, and addresses the sun:
O thou, that with surpassing glory crowned,Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
“Intimations of Immortality.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
Ode to a Nightingale
Victor Hugo, Les Misérables. A big favorite of mine in high school and, in the manner of its vast plot construction, the obvious model for Atlas Shrugged. The protagonist, Jean Valjean, is one of the most sympathetic characters in all of literature.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass. Be sure to read the first edition (1855). It is a very different experience from the standard edition. As Malcolm Cowley points out in the invaluable introduction, the language of the first edition, in which Whitman is writing in the freshness of a new vision, was changed into something more self-conscious and self-important in the later editions.
Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Tolstoy, Anna Karenina. I read it when I was in high school, and still regard it as the best novel I’ve read.
Bernard Shaw: Man and Superman; Caesar and Cleopatra; Pygmalion, Saint Joan. Everything of Shaw’s is worth reading and, better, seeing performed on stage. Conservatives are down on Shaw because he was an apologist for Stalin in his later years, and so they ignore one of the great writers, whose larger-than-life creations still live.
Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Ernest. Maybe the funniest play ever written, but must be seen on stage.
Henry James. I’m not smart enough to read James’s later, incredibly convoluted writing, but I like these two earlier, simpler novels:
The American. A self-made American among sneaky Frenchmen
The Bostonians. A displaced Southerner among Northern liberal ideologues
Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain. I recommend reading this book when on vacation or living in a remote place with no distractions. Then your own experience may match that of Mann’s hero, a conventional young man who journeys beyond the conventional world. One of the great reading experiences.
Yeats, Collected Poems. Yeats was central for me from the time I took a course on him in my sophomore year at Columbia. 40 years later, I still read him and have memorized many of his poems.
T.S. Eliot, esp. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “The Waste Land,” “Ash Wednesday,” and “The Four Quartets.”
Hemingway. More than any other writer, he conveys the sensation of what it feels like to be alive. He has a purity of mind and an integrity of artistic intent that makes his works endure.
The Collected Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway
The Sun Also Rises; A book that has exerted a fascination on me from when I first read it at age 15, and I re-read it every few years.
For Whom the Bell Tolls
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Diamond as Big as the Ritz and Other Short Stories. A sentence from Fitzgerald’s story, “Winter Dreams,” conveys the charm of his unique style:
The little girl who had done this was eleven—beautifully ugly as little girls are apt to be who are destined after a few years to be inexpressibly lovely and bring no end of misery to a great number of men.Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead; Atlas Shrugged. I have discussed my view of Atlas Shrugged here. Also, here I analyze two scenes from the book in terms of the Unprincipled Exception.
One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich. A deceptively simple short novel that sneaks up on you and hits you with the force of art.
The First Circle; a fine novel, deeply moving at the end.
The Gulag Archipelago, vol I. One of the great reading experiences of my life.
Plato, The Republic. Particularly Book VIII and first part of Book IX, telling about the decline of the polis from the ideal state through four stages of degeneration. His account of the democratic form of society and the democratic type of man (which is amazingly apt to our own time), followed by his description of the tyrannical type of man, is so brilliant and profound it is as though it was written under divine inspiration.
Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics
Cicero, The Republic. Cicero combines the particular, namely Rome, with the universalist philosophy of the Stoics. His balanced sense of the particular and the universal makes him one of the giants of our civilization.
Augustine, The City of God, Books XI and XII. Indispensable explanation of the hierarchy of the universe and why evil exists. The quintessence of Western consciousness.
Machiavelli, The Prince. Reading The Prince is like jumping into a stream in the Rocky Mountains: extremely stimulating at first, but if you stay in for more than a couple of minutes, you start to freeze to death.
Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History, especially the chapter, “Classic Natural Right,” which got me to read Plato again after I had put him aside years before.
The New Science of Politics. This is the highest priority book of Voegelin’s to read. It is less than 200 pages, and is the first book in which he unfolded his mature philosophy which he then worked out through the five-volume Order and History. In NSP, Voegelin supplies central concepts for understanding politics that you will find nowhere else. There is much to criticize him for, most notably his habit of declaring in the most authoritative manner the most amazingly provocative and interesting things, but then not explaining them or backing them up but going on to another subject. Voegelin is both indispensable and exasperating. Fortunately his most indispensable book is also his shortest.
Israel and Revelation. Fascinating, but unnecessarily difficult, extremely badly (or rather perversely) organized in the way he covers the stages of both biblical history and of the writing of the Bible, so that the book as a whole is very frustrating, while many individual sections are understandable. The first part of the book, on the cosmological civilizations of Sumeria and Egypt, is indispensable. This was the first book that gave me a useful understanding of the earlier civilizations, which conventional opinion in our civilization dismisses as “paganism” or “nature worship.” No. All the cultures in the world prior to Israel and Greece were cosmological, meaning that they had the primary, undifferentiated experience of the divine, the experience of a cosmos full of gods. This book thus makes intelligible the spiritual/cultural experience of the entire human race prior to the parent cultures of our own civilization. In fact, we cannot really understand our own Western experiences of philosophical and transcendent truth, a.k.a. reason and revelation, without having at least a sympathetic feel for the primary or cosmic experience of the divine that was the universal experience of mankind for 100,000 years.
The World of the Polis. Great series of chapters on the pre-Socratic philosophers. Very demanding reading, but intelligible, unlike much of Israel and Revelation.
“Reason: The Classic Experience,” in Anamnesis
Irving Babbitt, Democracy and Leadership, a seminal conservative book. Among other things, Babbitt has the original insight that liberalism is not just an innocent and virtuous desire to do good, but an expansive appetite, indistinguishable in its basic structure from any other expansive appetite, including all manner of sins. He distinguishes this romantic, expansive type of liberalism, which he associates with such figures as Rousseau, with the restrained type of liberalism, represented by Washington and Lincoln, in which one’s impulses (whether political or personal), are governed from a center.
C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man. In this very short, indispensable book, justly considered a classic, Lewis makes understandable, with simple, common sense explanations and examples, the reality of objective value, which is the basis of all moral reasoning and all reasonable valuations of existence. This would be as good an introduction to the subject as you could find.
Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind. I was enchanted by Closing and read it twice in the 1980s. The writing is wonderfully engaging and the Introduction is of course a classic, worth repeated re-readings. Bloom’s articulation of “natural rights” versus “openness” in the Introduction is key, though not easy to understand because he doesn’t define his terms. (I explain them more clearly than Bloom does in the first paragraph of this VFR blog entry.) I don’t know that I’ve retained much of the main part of the book, except for the stunning realization, at p. 278 (a page number engraved in my memory), where Bloom lets on that he does not really believe in the traditional American democracy and culture that he has been defending for the last 200 pages. He says instead that such common and traditional beliefs are merely the “gods of the city,” social myths which intellectuals such as Bloom pretend to believe in in order to secure a safe and comfortable existence for themselves.
Nietzsche. I have a peculiar relationship with Nietzsche. My earlier experiences and understandings of his works, in my early twenties, were psychological rather than philosophical. I didn’t understand the more philososphical side and so I didn’t pick up on his nihilism and denial of God and truth. Rather it was a particular quality of experiencing life that he inspired in me. A few years later I read Nietzsche more carefully and thoughtfully, and realized his errors and tragic limitations.
The Birth of Tragedy
Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History
Anyone reading the Bible needs to have more than one translation at hand. In addition to the King James and the Revised Standard Version, I recommend:
The Torah, Jewish Publication Society translation, first edition, 1962. This is better than the JPS’s updated version of this translation. I recommend this because it has a Hebraic flavor missing from the Christian translations, and because it lends itself more to reading as a continuous book, rather than a bunch of separate verses.
The Prophets, Jewish Publication Society, 1978
The Four Gospels and the Revelation, translated by Richmond Lattimore. This gives a different flavor of the Gospels from what you will get in the more conventional translations. I particularly recommend his translation of Luke and of the Book of Revelation. His translation of John is less successful.
Genesis. Should be read from beginning to end as a single book. Genesis by itself is a complete, unified work, a complete revelation, compressing in a sense the entire meaning of the Bible into one book. God creates the world and man, and wants great things for man, but man rebels against God, then man’s sin takes its most brutal and particular form in the crime that Joseph’s brothers commit against him, yet this crime is providential as it results in the physical rescue of Joseph’s brothers, then in reconciliation and salvation.
Harper’s Bible Commentary, William Neil, a classic of the sound, balanced American mind circa 1960.
The Book of Common Prayer, 1928 edition. It was the liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer, heard in an Anglo-Catholic church service in 1989, that made me a Christian believer, and has repeatedly renewed my faith over the years. How such a compromised figure as Thomas Cranmer could have written the greatest Christian book after the Bible is a mystery, but is nevertheless true. Proof of the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, ed. J.H. Hertz. The extensive commentaries capture the glowing spirit of American Judaism in its heyday.
Also, whether or not you’re a Christian, you cannot understand Western culture if you haven’t experienced at least a glimpse of the Christian Middle Ages via the high liturgy of the Anglo-Catholic (Anglican) service or a traditionalist Catholic service. I’m not suggesting Christianity as a tourist experience, but what I said is still true.
Consciousness; alternative and non-Western religions
In Search of the Miraculous. Account of the teachings of George Gurdjieff
A New Model of the Universe. Fascinating exploration of esoteric thought.
Tertium Organum. A study of the world of higher dimensions.
The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution
Rodney Collin, The Theory of Celestial Influence
Maurice Nicoll: The New Man; The Mark. These two books by a student of Ouspensky’s offer an extremely valuable approach to understanding certain passages in the Bible and the Gospels, which Nicoll calls the “psychological” reading.
Meher Baba: God Speaks; Discourses
The Upanishads, trans. by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood
The Bhagavad Gita
Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health. I’m not a Christian Scientist, and I don’t go along with Eddy’s core theological assertions which are strange and contradict Christianity. At the same time, much of what she says is in conformity with Christianity and supplements it. Whatever you think of Christian Science, you can’t gainsay the fact that Christ taught his disciples to preach the kingdom of heaven, and to heal sicknesses, and that the Christian churches have by and large dropped the ball on Christ’s mandate to heal. Christian Science does something that the Christian churches are commanded by Christ to do, but don’t do.
History and civilization
Henry Bamford Parkes:
Gods and Men: The Origins of Western Culture, 1959, a marvelous book that unfolds in narrative form the spiritual experiences and insights that formed Western culture.
The Divine Order, 1965. Continues Parkes’s account into the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Where I first encountered the idea of Western culture as the merging of the Mediterranan classic civilization with the culture of the Northern Barbarians
H.G. Wells, The Outline of History. Wells is a materialist progressive with many ideas alien to conservatives, and he is basically hostile to Christianity (though he greatly praises the First Crusade because Europe was acting as a single whole, which is his ideal, as he’s a globalist). But he writes very well and engagingly and has a creative imagination with which he clothes historical facts, and, most importantly, he tells history as a meaningful story, or series of stories. You get a sense of the drama of the rise and fall of civilizations. This is very rare and makes him still worth reading.
Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, abridged edition of vols. I-VI by Somerville. Very exciting reading. Though no one today accepts Toynbee’s overall theory of history, his basic concepts are highly valuable and will become a part of your mental equipment.
Thucydides, The Peloponessian War, trans. Benjamin Jowett. Thucydides is a great writer. Yeats’s line, “cold and passionate as the dawn,” makes me think of Thucydides.
Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire. An account of the Punic Wars, particularly the Second Punic War. Basic reading.
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon is a truly great writer but not an easy writer, because of the extreme abstractness of his style. To my distress, I found that instead of getting easier to read in the later volumes (say, after the fall of the Western empire), the book got harder, as it seemed that his highest priority as a writer was not to say things clearly but to say them as indirectly and obscurely as possible. As a result, I gave up on him and never finished the book. Recommended to start with; the one volume abridgement, Penguin Classics, by Dero Saunders.
Plutarch’s Lives. All the Lives that I have read are good, but for some reason the life of Marcus Crassus (the member of the First Triumvirate who defeated the Spartacus slave rebellion) made the strongest impression. The spectacle of a successful, extremely weathy, powerful man, suddenly in middle age getting a brainstorm to win glory and empire and going off to Mesopotamia to fight the Persians and ending up defeated, humiliated, and dead.
Will Durant, Story of Civilization. Durant is not deep, and much of his writings come across like a shapeless cultural grab bag. But there are sections within his multivolume work that are definitely worth reading. I recommend:
In Caesar and Christ, the section on how Roman society was transformed in the first half of the second century B.C. following the victory in the Second Punic War.
In The Age of Reason, the section on the Thirty Years war. Without reading a whole book, you’ll finally know what the Thirty Years War was about.
The Age of Voltaire. The entire volume, a portrait of the 18th century, including capsule biographies of many key figures, but focusing on Voltaire. While Voltaire probably did more to undermine Christian belief than any single man who ever lived, and is the type of the superficially clever modern intellectual who has no true understanding of things, I find it impossible to hate him. There’s too much about him that is admirable.
History of the Second World War. Reading this many years ago was a transformative experience, part of what made me a conservative. Churchill casts the 20th century as this cosmic drama of good and evil, making history deeply meaningful.
I recommend in particular: Vol I, The Gathering Storm; Vol II, The Battle of Britain; and the last half of Vol VI, Triumph and Tragedy, in which he writes, “I walked through cheering crowds with an aching heart.”
A History of the English Speaking Peoples. I particularly recommend vol I, The Birth of Britain, going from ancient times through the Middle Ages, which is the most readable and interesting of the four volumes.
Paul Johnson, Modern Times
Bede, A History of the English Church and People
Paul Murray Kendall, Richard the Third, 1955. A fascinating book. Said to be the first objective biography of Richard, it’s not just about him but the entire saga of the Wars of the Roses, which, though Norman Podhoretz once dismissed them as irrelevant (along with the American War between the States), show the tremendous human drama and agony that occurs when the common legitimate basis of a society breaks down and political life becomes a matter of kill or be killed.
American history and biography
James Thomas Flexner, George Washington, four volumes. I particularly recommend vol 2, which follows Washington through the 8 1/2 years of the War of Independence, and vol. 4, Anguish and Farewell, which tells the tragedy of his second term and Jefferson’s betrayal of him.
Willard Sterne Randall, George Washington, a fascinating biography that focuses on Washington’s earlier years in the French and Indian War.
George Washington, Circular letter to the States; First Inaugural; Farewell Address.
Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural
Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers; the harrowing 1790s, when the leading Founders split up and became enemies over their different visions of government.
Joseph Ellis, American Sphinx. An indispensable study of Jefferson’s mind. Jefferson has always been a puzzle. It is Ellis’s great achievement that he explains Jefferson clearly and intelligibly for the first time, and you realize that, whether you like or dislike Jefferson, you can’t dismiss him, because he is the paradigm of so much of the American mind. Ellis is an extremely intelligent writer who is really a critic of liberalism but does it in such a subtle and graceful way that the liberals would never know it.
Willard Stern Randall, Benedict Arnold. Absolutely fascinating.
James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom. Magnificent one-volume history of The Civil War. Indispensable reading.
Steven Oates, With Malice Toward None. Very good and readable book on Lincoln’s life and times told as Lincoln saw it. The downside of this approach is a lack of perspective; because the author never stands back and gives his view of what’s happening. Yet if you read it carefully, you can get a great deal out of it. For example, the evolution of Lincon’s thinking on the race issue.
Selected Writings and Speeches of Lincoln
Sherman: Fighting Prophet, Lloyd Lewis (Harcourt Brace, 1932). As I discuss in this article which includes extensive quotes of Sherman from Lewis’s book, Sherman is in my view an outstanding figure in American history, a man of exceptionally clear understanding and decisive personality.
James Burnham, The Suicide of the West. One of the books that made me a conservative.
James Burnham, The Machiavellians. An excellent study of 20th century European political thinkers who, following in the tradition of Machiavelli, take seriously the realities of power.
Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France
While Burke is essential reading for a conservative, you may not want to leap into the whole book yet. The Portable Conservative Reader, ed. by Russell Kirk, starts off with a superb selection of passages from Burke’s Reflections. Highly recommended. The whole book is excellent, but is worth buying for the Burke section alone.
Government by Judiciary, Raoul Berger. Seminal work on the distortions of the Fourteenth Amendment as a main component of modern liberalism.
Rousseau, Essay on Inequality. This short book is the source of at least half of all left-liberalism—the sentimental, liberationist half.
Locke: The Second Treatise of Government. The classic of right-liberalism, and a main inspiration of the Declaration of Independence
James Kalb, “The Tyranny of Liberalism.” Kalb’s seminal essay, published in Modern Age in 2000. Must reading for all thinking conservatives.
Darwin, The Origin of Species. I read about a third of it circa 1979, which was enough to understand Darwin’s basic thought.
Francis Hitching, The Neck of the Giraffe. My favorite among the anti-Darwin books.
Norman Macbeth, Darwin Retried
Arthur Koestler, Janus. The summation of Koestler’s extremely valuable, anti-reductionist thinking, in which he works out his ideas about “holons,” entities that are wholes in relation to a part beneath them, and parts in relationship to a larger whole above them. A book that was formative in my thinking. Koestler goes beyond the sterile positivism of modern thought, yet remains logical and scientific. An exciting, engaging mind.
Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. One of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read. There is so much in this book that I wrote a 5,000 word summary of it to capsulize and help me remember the main points and the amazing sequence of discoveries in the 1930s and early ’40s that made the Bomb possible.
Race and immigration
Wilmot Robertson, The Dispossessed Majority. When I read this book in the early 1990s, I did not feel it was anti-Semitic. It was making criticism of the Jewish influence that I felt were legitimate. But other writings by Robertson are anti-Semitic.
John Higham, Strangers in the Land. Liberal but extremely valuable history of U.S. immigration.
Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race. I am uncomfortable with the book’s anti-Semitism, and at the same time fascinated by Grant and the other race-conscious writers of this period.
Jared Taylor, Paved with Good Intentions
William McDougall, Is America Safe for Democracy?
Since you’re a big one on lists (that was how I first encountered your work, as I remember, your list of traditionalist reading), you might be interested in my own reading list, which I just posted. I’m embarrassed by my meager reading background, especially in philosophy and traditionalism, but there it is.Jim Kalb replies:
Oh, I’m not very well-read either. It’s embarrassing at times. There’s some overlap between what my list would be and yours and some differences. I would add:Stephen F. writes:
I enjoyed your reading list, and I too had thought of asking you if you could provide one. There is a real need for conservatives and traditionalists to strengthen their “intellectual ammunition,” as Ayn Rand called it.Thucydides (the VFR reader, not the Athenian historian) writes:
I was very impressed with your fine reading list. I would like to suggest a few things that you would surely find deeply important:John K. writes (3-25-07):
I read your reading list. You are too modest.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 20, 2006 05:19 PM | Send