The Top Five books I’ve always meant to read, and why
1. Dante’s Divine Comedy. This massive work stands like dark-matter at the heart of my medieval readings. Every time I open a scholarly book on the ancient epics, or read a modern baroque horror, each time I formulate a concept of the underworld or a catholic mythology… I find a reference to Dante.
2. John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Milton’s epic about the fall of Lucifer (or it could be about something else – I haven’t read it) is virtually the font-head of much “evil is cool”.
3. Cao Xueqin’s The Dream of the Red Chamber. described this book as the greatest chinese novel never read. My chinese friends tell me it is actually relatively popular in China, though none of them have read it themselves. Chinese literature is explicitly about ideas – the philosophical commentary and subtext is at least as important as what we’d describe as the story. This pivotal work then, gives you the impression that not only would its compelling narrative enthrall you, but give you a solid mastery of Taoism and Buddhism. Unfortunately, the copy I own is a translation into English of a German translation. I also find the enormous cast of characters with names I cannot easily pronounce a bit daunting. (BTW, John, you can borrow it any time – I’m not going to get round to it any time soon)
4. Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. You can hardly through a metaphorical stone in economic or political theory without hiting one of two names: Adam Smith and Fredreich Hayek. Whether agreeing or disagreeing with their free-market wheeling and dealing, you must address what they say. Having read a bit of Hayek and browsed selected quotes of Smith’s, I get the impression that they are not as similar as often portrayed by the new right.
No single book seems important enough, or missing-enough to fill out the top 5. There are a number of books I’d like to read, that I feel would probably in some way enhance my life. Jack Schaefer’s Shane, as a kind of template for much other Western literature. Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – now interesting for its historical methods on history as well as for the actual content. The Second World War by churchill; if for nothing else than spawning one of my favourite quotes “History shall be kind to me, for I intend to write it”. Frankenstein by Shelley; though this is a concept which is so well subsumed into modern culture I wonder whether the original work really has anything to add any more. How can I die not having read Tristram Shandy, the post-modern novel before there were modern novels? It seems a shame to omit War and Peace from my repertoire, simply based on reputation and scale. Like every schoolboy in my day, I wanted to be Huckleberry Finn without knowing precisely who he was. I could easily go on: there are some truly great novels, histories and philosophical works.
[Insert a thinking period of almost two weeks]
5. If I must pick one, and I set the rules of this myself so feel compelled to abide by them, then the last book would have to be… First Hunder by local gaming celebrity Dale Elvy. He’s a long-time acquaintance, if not friend, and not only a New Zealander, but a Wellingtonian; it’s almost a patriotic duty to read it. Yet, I haven’t, because it just didn’t look very good. I’m pretty sure that this is the fault of the blurb-writer; Dale’s both an interesting fellow and a good storyteller.