Ken’s List of 84 Books

Last update January 2024

You would think that making a list of books I like would be a harmless activity, but thinking about it, it makes me a bit of a target. There are more books and bookstores now in the west than at any time, and yet in my lifetime reading has come to seem elitist. When I was an undergraduate, people would guiltily admit in class that they hadn’t read enough. Now, when I teach first year composition, few of my students seem to read anything, even newspapers. I’m not making this list because I think I’m a superior person, but because these are books that mean a lot to me, and maybe some people will see one they’re curious about and which will open up a new world for them. Maybe you can’t afford to go to college, but as long as there are public libraries no one can tell me they have no access to books.

I also know that the academic dispute of canon studies— that is, deciding what books are the best and most important to the humanities— has gone on and on, all while increasingly few people take these courses. This isn’t my canonical list, and I haven’t even ranked the texts in any way. These are just books that I enjoy and hope others will explore as well. If your favorite writer or novel isn’t here, it’s not a snub, but probably because I haven’t gotten to it yet. The number 83 is arbitrary and will go up.

In No Particular Order

Classic 1. Beowulf, Author unknown (c. 800-1000 AD). This Anglo-Saxon epic poem, the first major work in English, is the story of young Beowulf’s battles with monsters and human forces. You’re thinking that I just picked this because it was my masters thesis subject. Fair enough. But it’s also a great story; forget the cheesy movie versions. There are translations of varying quality; the recent Seamus Heaney one has some academic detractors but I think it is well done and easy to follow.
  2. The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1390). Technically, it’s “unfinished” because there are possibly middle parts missing, but the end is there, and there is a beautiful sense of closure to the tales. Anyway, because it’s a group of tales only connected by the theme of a group of tourists on a pilgrimage package tour, you won’t notice. Some of the tales are about knights and damsels, and it’s the real thing, written in an age of knights and damsels. Other stories wouldn’t be out of place in Penthouse Letters, and Chaucer’s not above a fart joke. Find a good modernization and an uncensored version. It’s worth it.
  3. Paradise Lost, John Milton (1667). Just the title makes many people groan, and it has a sort of “eat your peas” sound to it. But if you aren’t intimidated by the poetic form and can slug through the language, it’s a surprisingly good read. It’s the story of Satan’s exile to hell, and Adam and Eve’s fall from paradise. Satan comes off as a sexy, brooding, misunderstood rebel at the beginning, and it’s only at the end when you see how he deserves what he gets that you realize how good Milton is at manipulating your emotions.
  4. The Odyssey, Homer (?) (8th century BC). This also sounds like an intimidating book, but with a good translation it’s actually easy to follow, and you’ll understand a lot more references when you read other classic literature. After fighting wars, Odysseus spends years unwillingly having adventures, feasting, and whining until he returns to his loyal wife, Penelope, who is being badgered by suitors and good-for-nothings. And then Odysseus kicks butt. Fun.
  5. The Republic, Plato (c. 360 BC). This isn’t technically fiction, yet it’s classic literature, one of the foundational philosophical works of western civilization. Booorrrring? Well, it’s not Grand Theft Auto, but it is fun to see Socrates and his followers debate and construct the perfect imaginary society. Realize at the end that Socrates’ ideal city might not be such a good place to live...
  6. The Aeneid, Virgil (c. 20 BC). The idea behind the Aeneid is to write a sort of sequel to the Homeric epics, but on the side of the Trojans. The story’s premise is that the fleeing Trojans travel to Italy to found Rome. Somehow I really like the story and the adventures and battle scenes. Aeneas is the idealized republican Roman: practical and responsible. Yes, that sounds a little dull, but after the sneaking, pouting drama queens of Homer, Aeneas seems much more likeable and accessible to a modern reader.
  7. Henry V, William Shakespeare (c. 1599). Bring on the war! Chaucer did fight in battle, and never glamorizes it in his writings; Shakespeare probably didn’t ever serve, so perhaps he’s less cynical about war. Here we have one of the most beautiful brothers-in-arms speeches in English coming out of Henry’s mouth. This is a “history” play, but it’s not dry; there are some court details, but mostly it’s the Battle of Agincourt (1415). The Kenneth Branagh movie is good too. If you read it unmodernized, try to find one with good explanatory notes to help you through the 400-year old English. Also good: Henry IV Part II.
  8. Macbeth, William Shakespeare (c. 1603). This is an eerie, foreboding story, but it’s not as bleak as King Lear (“never! never! never! never! never!”). Still, seeing Macbeth and his wife melt down after killing King Duncan to take his throne is darkly fascinating. There’s also witches and a porter who has to pee badly to make things fun. A rock-solid story and characters.
  9. The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare (c. 1596). The play hasn’t aged well, as most people read it for the wincing anti-Semitic depiction of the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, whose loan for “a pound of flesh” backfires on him in court. The recent magnificent Pacino film makes the poor moneylender even more wronged. If you can get past this, the main characters, Antonio and Bassanio, are actually more entertaining as they act like immature playboys, and Portia has the funniest lines. I’d also call it a really important text for understanding how the economic changes from feudalism to investment capitalism in Europe was felt culturally.
  10. The Tempest, William Shakespeare (c. 1611). This Shakespearean fantasy was his last major work, and it really feels different, somehow. The dialogue reads more modern (how many characters tell you they “smell like horse piss”?) and Prospero has more complex motives than the usual kill-em’-all revenge plots. Yes, the love angle and suspense of the story are thin, and at times Shakespeare seems to phone it in with a time-filling dance scene (really). But the final scene, where Prospero-Shakespeare announces that he’s had a good life but it’s time to hang up his “magic wand” and retire, is wonderfully moving.
Victorian & Early Modern 11. In Memoriam, Alfred Lord Tennyson (1849). If the Antonio and Bassanio “friendship” doesn’t make high school students snigger, this extended poem to mourn Tennyson’s friend, Arthur Hallam, who died young, should do it. But the poem isn’t homoerotic treacle; it moves from the emotions of lost friendship to wider themes of religious and existential doubt. It’s not an easy read, but it’s a beautiful book, and it was one of Queen Victoria’s favorites.
  12. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1818). This is often called one of the first horror novels, but it isn’t very scary and doesn’t resemble the monster-movie versions much. I’d rather call Frankenstein a proto-science fiction novel for the role that technology plays in the story. I think some readers will be bored or put off by how philosophical the book is and again, how little actual blood or violence there is; but it’s a thoughtful story and the ship setting that ‘anchors’ the story’s beginning and end is a wonderful example of romantic naval narratives (without boring chapters about whaling).
  13. Hard Times, Charles Dickens (1854). Again, don’t be put off by the title; it’s not a “hard time” reading the thing. The heroes (?) Mr. Gradgrind and his CEO-friend Josiah Bounderby attempt to raise Gradgrind’s children on a diet of facts and a joyless, mechanical lifestyle until the whole works falls apart. The story is a satire on utilitarianism, capitalism, and industrialization in the Victorian period, and is at times dryly sarcastic and at other times treacly and sentimental. Seeing Bounderby be exposed, and Mrs. Sparsit calling him a ‘noodle,’ are far funner scenes than they sound.
  14. All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque (1929). Here’s another war novel, but it is one of the bleakest novels on my list, told from the point of view of a foot soldier, Paul, who watches his friends die and his country destroyed in the trenches of World War I. This is not a happy novel, but it’s a powerful story of persistence and loss. For something warmer but weirder, also try E. E. Cummings’ The Enormous Room.
  15. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (1926). Hemingway is seen as a guy’s writer, with his short, blunt sentences and drankin’ ‘n’ fightin’ characters. There’s that, but there’s also some deep themes in the novel. The “Lost Generation” characters wander aimlessly around postwar France and Spain as the protagonist, Jake Barnes, is haunted by his impotence, both physical and emotional.
  16. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925). Fitzgerald and Hemingway were on-and-off drinking buddies, but fortunately for Fitzgerald, Hemingway gave him editing advice. Gatsby isn’t as sparse as Hemingway’s works, though; there’s a richer beauty and poetry to the story of a rich tycoon who holds parties for vapid 20’s swingers in order to find his lost lover, building her up to an obsessive fantasy. Tender is the Night is good too and a little more experimental, but not as poetically focused as this gem on the shallowness of the Jazz age.
  17. Three Lives, Gertrude Stein (1909). Well, if you want experimental, this is over a century old, but it’s still shockingly strange in its super-realistic style of narration. Stein repeats herself, contradicts herself, leaves out details, stretches others, and generally refuses to tell any of the three stories straight. The style forces the reader to think about plot and characterization in totally different ways. A 1909 acid trip.
  18. The Time Machine, H.G. Wells (1895). This is a short read and something different from War of the Worlds. The inventor of a time machine travels 800,000 years into the future to find humankind divided into two races, one utopian and child-like, the other underground and bestial. It’s a thinking novella, but it has a dose of cool when you start asking, “What if?” Science fiction changes a lot between here and Neuromancer!
  19. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (1813). Jane Austen is so popular with many female readers that male readers feel about as welcome as at a showing of “Vagina Monologues.” That’s too bad, because it’s actually more than sappy chick-lit. Something that doesn’t come across in the movies and in book clubs filled with unmarried women with cats is what a smartass Austen was. Some of the snide remarks and cutting sarcasm make her books dryly funny and well worth reading.
  20. Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad (1900). Everyone reads the shorter Heart of Darkness, and that’s a shame, because Lord Jim is more sophisticated and less cheesy. It’s a sailor’s story, also narrated by Marlowe, about a first mate who abandons his ship and then tries to live down his shame with heroic acts. Not many people can paint an exotic Indonesian jungle setting like Conrad can and describe the emotional workings of his characters with such vivid detail. In a word: adventure and romance, again, without the endless whaling details of Moby Dick.
  21. The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850). This is not an easy read, let alone because of the cinematic dungheap of the film version with Demi Moore. Hester Prynne is banished from her Puritan New England community after an act of adultery gives her a daughter. The tale of sin, redemption, and forgiveness isn’t in style anymore, but it’s a beautiful story with a master’s touch of imagery and description.
  22. The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle (1902). We need a mystery in the list, so why not a Victorian English one with Sherlock Holmes, Watson, Dr. Mortimer, disbelieving Scotland Yard, an eerie castle with a curse, aristocrats with monocles, and dark, somber weather? Have we left anything out?
  23. Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, Stephen Leacock (1912). This is Austen without the bite, a gently sarcastic series of stories about a small Canadian town named Mariposa, with assorted village kooks and characters. It’s an affectionate laugh, especially when the town steamboat sinks in six feet of water and the townspeople treat the event like a Titanic-sized disaster. You’d be surprised how many Canadian comics and authors (and international ones) consider this a kind of ur-source of Canadian comedy.
  24. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde (1890). Not everyone likes Wilde’s fashionable oversophistication, and the joke of aristocratic women saying cynical things in stylish epigrams can get tired. But it’s a cracking good horror story / morality tale about Dorian wishing his portrait would age instead of him, which is what happens. Despite the social media memes quoting Wilde as a sensual psychopath, these are not Wilde’s opinions, but Lord Harry’s, Dorian’s friend who guides him into increasingly self-destructive sins of pleasure. Avoid the cheesy movie versions.
  25. Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw (1912). Speaking of egos– no surprise that Shaw and Wilde didn’t like each other– Shaw’s misanthropy and his dalliance with fascism late in life hasn’t aged well. It’s a weird play, for unlike the My Fair Lady adaptation, it is not really a romance at all, but rather a strange joke on the class system as Eliza fakes her way into the aristocracy and finally puts down Higgins as a cold and spiteful jerk. Are we supposed to cheer for Eliza, or really for Higgins, who seems rather like Shaw? I don’t know.
  26. Dubliners, James Joyce (1914). This is not a novel but a series of short stories. Joyce’s later works get a little experimental and difficult, but this early work is an intimate look at the lives of citizens in, well, Dublin. Some stories are heartbreaking and others seem depressing for depression’s sake, but the last and longest story, “The Dead,” gets my vote as the best short story in English letters. It’s a soaring, epic, achingly beautiful painting of life, identity, and death. It’s one of my favorite texts on this list.
  27. The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot (1922). Lots of bite here. This is an extremely difficult poem to understand, with its oblique classical references, poetic devices, and multiple layers of symbolism. Basically, the “waste land” is the discredited rubble of the cultural capital of western civilization after World War I. Whoa. Find an edition with other poems such as “Prufrock” in them and lots of explanatory notes. But just reading this poem will teach you a great deal about the twentieth century.
Modern &
28. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (1932). 1984 gets the attention for its violence and mental and physical brutality, but Brave New World is equally satirical of its time period and paints perhaps a more insidious future. Around the year 2540, everyone is essentially a teenager. The rulers use pleasure to maintain control, as the populace lives distracted by material and sexual gratification, with no politics, religion, high art, or philosophy. Sounds a little too much like California in 2024? Huxley, inspired by his own trip to California in the ‘30s, would agree.
  29. The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis (1945). Lewis is mostly known for his Narnia stories, and that’s unfortunate; his other novels and non-fiction are also excellent. Great Divorce takes place on the outskirts of heaven, where already saved people come to convince their newly-arrived loved ones and associates to stay and live in paradise. The interesting theological angle is the many reasons, usually rooted in pride and spite, why most newcomers refuse heaven and choose to leave. Screwtape Letters is another morbidly interesting experiment, told from the devils’ point of view.
  30. Animal Farm, George Orwell (1945). Orwell’s grimly humorous story of how animals stage a revolution and take over a farm, only to have the ruling pigs slowly corrupt the system into dictatorship is, of course, an obvious allegory of 20th-century Soviet communism. It still ages well as a look into how power corrupts and how propaganda can twist and enervate values and language.
  31. Pedro Paramo, Juan Rulfo (1955). I’ll sound like a snob for recommending a fairly obscure Mexican author, but he’s well known in Mexico and it’s a fantastic book. In a novel-length stream-of-consciousness float, Juan Preciado enters a town looking for his father he has never met, Pedro Paramo. My belief is that everyone in the town including Juan is dead and that the town is actually purgatory due to the ethereal, unreal, impossible natures of the characters. You decide. An eerie but very cool read.
  32. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams (1979). This is a rather geeky book, but it’s silly fun in a Monty-Python way. Englishman Arthur Dent is rescued from the Earth as it’s destroyed to make an interstellar highway, and meets alien bureacrats, a depressed robot, and super-intelligent mice who are building a replacement earth. There’s a series of Galaxy books, and here I am referring to the first one.
  33. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling (1997). “It’s popular!” “It’s juvenile!” A lot of critics don’t, harrumph, read Harry Potter; it sells too well. But sometimes the public is right; they’re great books and inventive stories, and they’ll still be read centuries from now. I’ve picked this one because I haven’t read the others, but I will. It’s also titled the “Philosopher’s Stone” in England, where presumably English audiences can understand them big words.
  34. San Francisco Blues, Jack Kerouac (1954). I’m not saying Kerouac is my favorite poet; it’s just a cool read and a look into a different time. I also really like typographical modernist poets such as E.E. Cummings (be careful with that search engine!).
  35. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (1939). Were it not for the occasional humorous scenes, such as Granpa Joad scratching himself and talking about squishing grapes on his face, this would be the bleakest novel on my list. The story of the Joad family trying to escape farm failure in Oklahoma, and being crushed by depression-era capitalist forces and flat-out starvation, is not a happy read but it’s moving for its social statement and religious symbolism.
  36. A Pale View of Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro (1982). Set in postwar Nagasaki and in England, this is a rather “feminine” novel with its mostly female cast and shifting, unreliable narration, but it’s a powerful psychological portrayal of the narrator, Etsuko, who tries to both understand and suppress her past memories of the atomic bombardment and her resulting family and personal problems. It’s much better than it sounds.
  37. A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry (1959). I must admit, what can I know about a play about a black family in 50’s Chicago? I guess I like this book because the characters are great; the Younger family deals with prejudice, scamming friends, and a daughter looking for “African identity.” My runner-up here is Tennessee Williams’ plays, but Hansberry’s people are just more interesting.
  38. Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie (1934). It’s maybe unfair, in retrospect, that we now have parodies and knock-off stories about crime on trains with mustachiod French detectives and overwrought scenarios– because Christie invented these tropes and they weren’t cliches yet when she did. It’s all here: Inspector Poirot, the angry fat man, the Victorian nursemaid, the woman in the kimono, and, gentlemen, one person in this compartment killed Mr. Osbourne at exactly 1:37 AM as we passed Linz, but the question is who? Christie’s ethnic stereotypes age less well, but overall fun stuff.
  39. Flush, Virginia Woolf (1933). No, not about toilets, it’s a short novella about a dog, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s to be precise. It’s a clever concept as Woolf uses actual letters and details about Browning’s life to construct a story from the dog’s perspective. In the past I’ve had limited tolerance for Woolf’s modernist obscurism, but this is well done, creating a non-preachy argument against the class system as Flush observes that unlike the human obsession with social rank, dogs don’t care about such things.
  40. Lord of the Flies, William Golding (1954). Yes, teenagers are more jaded now, but when I was in grade eleven this novel scared the pants off me. It’s a chilling story of how boys marooned on a desert island take a lovely, fruit-filled paradise and descend into tribal warfare as democracy is destroyed by a violent dictator. While there’s of course a symbolic level here, Golding doesn’t let us forget about the actual dirt, fire, and pig blood, and his naturality of description makes the story even more chilling.
  41. A Jest of God, Margaret Laurence (1966). I suffered through her interminable The Stone Angel (1964) in high school. The latter has the same Laurence standards: emotionally suppressed female protagonist, nagging Scottish mother, drunk, passive men, and emotionally deadened prairie villages, but somehow Laurence puts more sophistication and wit into this one. Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women (1971) isn’t bad either. Don’t confuse her with Canadian feminist Margaret Atwood.
  42. The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie (1988). Rushdie doesn’t seem very likeable in interviews and essays, but give him a break for the danger this book has caused him. This is actually the most difficult novel on my list, perhaps as hard to understand as T.S. Eliot. The plot is about two Indian men who “die” in an airplane explosion, but there are so many levels of interpretation that you’re not sure what was real or allegorical at the end, and the blasphemous sections form only a part of the novel’s complex themes. Don’t rush this one.
  43. How German Is It, Walter Abish (1980). Not a well-known novel, but it’s great. Like a Pale View of Hills, it’s about a community self-repressing their war past (in this case German), but here the tone is much sharper and funnier as the main character tries to understand his father, a resistance fighter against Hitler, and runs up against his architect brother and a community which does everything to not talk about it. You just know it’s all going to blow up at some point.
  44. The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, Will Cuppy (1950). This isn’t a novel, but a humorous collection of semi-fictional and semi-historical chapters making fun of assorted historical celebrities. Cuppy was himself a shy New York hermit, and his deadpan, stoic wit makes this a goofy book.
  45. Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett (1989). Pratchett has a rabid following, and I was always intimidated by the 70,000-plus books in his Discworld series. On the advice of a friend I tried Guards! Guards!, and found that his books are digestible as standalones, and this is a good one, even if it has the feel of a pop fantasy, need-something-for-the-flight read. At times Pratchett really is clever and his dark humor and wordplay sparkle, whether he has librarian apes, a thief’s union, or an evil dragon who begins to wonder if humanity is morally worse.
  46. A Tourist’s Guide to Glengarry, Ian McGillis (2002). Canadian literature can be bleak, but this is a warmly funny book in a more Stephen Leacock manner about an Edmonton boy who has a school assignment to write a tourist brochure about his own community. Written in the boy’s voice, the book’s “day in the life” structure is filled with humorous situations that he doesn’t always understand. What can I say? I like my hometown references. A nice chaser to my own book, maybe, which I’m reluctant to put on this list.
  47. White Teeth, Zadie Smith (2000). I have a lot of immigrant writers from England on my list, but this is one of my favorite novels in any category. Englishman Archie and Iraqi Samad are war buddies who live in the past while their familes are torn between their roots and the swirling present of multicultural London. There’s a 19th-century war hero, Muslim extremists, Carribbean barflies, scrapping wives, anarchists, lesbians, and a bio-engineered mouse. If you can keep everyone straight, it’s a funny and powerful read on 21st-century multiculturalism.
  48. Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis (1954). I have quite a few fictional books of humor here, but I can’t resist Lucky Jim, which is a really funny spoof on upper-class pretentiousness in the university culture of mid-50’s England. Jim is a loveable screwup who would much rather drink than teach, and he repeatedly makes a mess in the lives of his absent-minded department head, Prof. Welch, and his arrogant family. One of my favorite books, and possibly the best hangover scene in literature.
  49. Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding (1996). Like Pride & Prejudice, the title “chick-lit” scares away men from this book, sadly; and as with Austen, the sappy movie doesn’t get across how funny the novel is. Arranged in (of course) diary entry form, the book relates Bridget’s boozy, lazy, neurotic personality as she obsesses over boyfriends, writes things she immediately contradicts (or in fractured English when she’s drunk), and makes great insulting descriptions or exaggerations. There’s also some interesting postmodernism in a book where the narrator discusses P&P, never realizing that the novel she is in has a similar plot narrative.
  50. The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro (1989). This book is a little like Bridget Jones in that the narrator is inconsistent; though here it’s more psychologically complex as time passes and the main character, Stevens, begins to reinterpret and understand his memories. This can be a difficult read because there isn’t a strong plot, but the story is increasingly sad as the reader sees how Stevens cognitively fights against realizing he has lost out on love in service of his master, who turns out to be increasingly less honorable as the book goes on.
  51. Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro (2021). You can tell I like Ishiguro by now. This isn’t his best, but it’s an enjoyable read that hits you in the feels. The story makes use of a technique called defamiliarization (check out Craig Raine’s poem A Martian Sends a Postcard Home (1979); Klara is a companion AI robot in the near future who is charged to take care of a sick girl, and she/it believes that the sun is alive and generously gives her solar power. The twist is that most of the humans in the novel are, well, self-centered assholes, and it’s the AI robot that has the most, well, humanity.
  52. The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon (1966). Ten points to Gryffyndor if you can tell me what this book means. A postmodern joke about nothing, the big statement about America, a complex allegory as elusive as the famously unknown author? Oedipa Maas travels around California meeting other people with ridiculously Freudian names, getting tangled up in a conspiracy theory about a suppressed alternative postal system. And, um, rock bands, and LSD, and obscure 19th-century European wars. No, really, that’s what it I think it’s about. As ABBA would say, take a chance on me. Some people love the book, and I always find it humorously confusing.
  53. The Old Devils, Kingsley Amis (1986). For some reason I like Amis, generally seen as the bete noir (well, look it up) of British letters for being, well, a misanthropic drunk. But even more so than Lucky Jim, OD is hilarious and possibly the most sarcastic novel I've ever read. An elderly circle of retirees in Wales which spends most of its time drinking and sniping at each other is upended by the return of a writer friend who's even nastier than they are. But then strangely, his wife does something very un-Amisian by being a genuinely nice person. And her kindness mysteriously begins to spread...
  54. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon (2001). I generally don’t like limited child narrators (re Catcher in the Rye below), as a narrator that oversimplifies everything can be frustrating. Here the narrator is a boy with some form of autism, and he gives us different information: exact data on what people are wearing, or how many cows there are on the field and their breeds; but not people’s obvious emotions, which Christopher can’t perceive. The plot isn’t profound, but seeing the world through an alternative but very innocent set of eyes is moving at times.
  55. Atonement, Ian McEwan (2001). I didn’t like his Amsterdam, and found it smugly and unnecessarily dark and cynical. But good lord, this is a sad yet authentically gripping story about how a little girl’s flippant accusation ruins the lives of two lovers. Then World War II begins, because heaven knows the novel needed more human misery. Sometimes a bit over-described, but the novel is redeemed by its twists and the powerful emotion of guilt that the adult girl experiences over one long-ago day gone very badly.


56. What Might Have Been, edited by Andrew Roberts (2005). “Counterfactual history” sounds pretty dry, but it’s really one of the coolest books I’ve ever read. Historians look at actual events and then answer the questions you ask in dorm rooms late at night: what if Lenin had been shot? What if England had lost to the Spanish Armada? What if Japan had not bombed Pearl Harbor? You actually learn a lot about real history by reading imaginary ones.
  57. The Black Death and the Transformation of the West, David Herlihy (1997). Well, granted, it’s not a party book. But there are not many good books which explain the black death, one of the most important events to ever happen in Europe. Herlihy argues that the Black Death actually caused many positive consequences, such as the labor shortages which led to the industrial revolution. Again, it’s better than it sounds.
  58. Two Lives of Charlemagne, Einhard and Notker (c. 800 AD). These are translated first-hand accounts, not interpretation or fiction. There’s not much war here; rather these are intimate portraits of the court life of Charlemagne and ninth-century Europe. You learn a great deal about the thoughts and values of the time, straight from the mouths of Charlemagne’s chroniclers.
  59. The Face of Battle, John Keegan (1976). Okay, admittedly the German in me loves a battle story, but I’m also trying to get more guys into reading. Keegan gives us highly detailed analyses and blow-by-blow accounts of the battles of Agincourt (1415), Waterloo, and the Somme. Weapons, tactics, and battle formations are described; all the good stuff. At the end you almost feel that your clothes are muddy.
  60. The Battle That Stopped Rome, Peter Wells (2004). Okay, my last war book, promise. Wells describes one of the most crushing military disasters in history, the little known battle of Teutoburg forest in 9 AD. Sneaky Germans hide in the forest and trap the overconfident, arrogant Roman general Varius, cutting three Roman legions to flinders. The defeat explains why Germans drink beer and Italians drink wine.
  61. Many Tender Ties, Sylvia Van Kirk (1980). My undergrad minor was in Canadian history. By conventional standards, not much happened; but books like this describe in rich detail how daily life was in a fur trade outpost and how the native women who visited the posts started to look better and better to male European traders out in the woods by themselves...
Humanities (Nonfiction) 62. Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis (1943). I haven’t put the Bible on my list as I somehow found it disrespectful to call it “a good read.” If you don’t have a Bible, you should at least be open to a book like this. Lewis is much more than Narnia; as a theologian, he’s excellent at explaining and arguing for Christian belief in a way that’s interesting and easy to follow.
  63. Are We Rome?, Cullen Murphy (2007). A very recent book, this is a discussion of current events in the USA, asking whether we’re on our way out in Roman style. Murphy doesn’t exactly think so, but the comparisons between 21st-century America and 4th-century Rome can be chilling: military hubris; overdependence on mercenary soldiers; concentration of power and wealth into elites.
  64. Building Suburbia, Dolores Hayden (2004). For someone who flunked a regional planning course miserably, architecture books interest me. Hayden traces the history of suburbs and how special interests and politicians steered their development. Later on she explains how better planning might have made our cities far more livable and people-friendly. A challenging read and a good argument for changing things.
  65. Dark Age Ahead, Jane Jacobs (2003). Maybe because I feel so disenfranchised from baby-boomer North America, I secretly want our society to fail. This isn’t a cheery read, but it’s interesting, and Jacobs certainly foresees some sort of decline, caused largely by suburban, infrastructural, economic, and social decay. Jacobs has numerous books and this wasn’t reviewed well, but I’ll read more of her to compare them when I can.
  66. Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond (1997). To be honest, I haven’t finished the book, but I’m working on it. It’s a big book, and extremely dense with detail. Diamond answers some of the huge questions: why do some civilizations rise and others fall? His explanation deals with technology (guns) and sometimes just blind chance (germs) as some societies happen to be at the right place and time.
  67. Cosmopolitanism, Kwame Anthony Appiah (2007). This is a very “thinky” book, dealing with the idea of cultural and personal identity in a multicultural world. Appiah talks about a variety of issues, such as how we can judge (or not judge) different value systems, how to get along with people who don’t want to get along, and even specifics such as which country’s museums own cultural relics.
  68. Empires of the Word, Nicholas Ostler (2006). This won’t be to everyone’s taste. You might find it really cool to learn how ancient languages such as Sumerian influenced Akkadian and other Arabic languages. You might think it’s neat to know how Indian writing systems developed and how historical forces shaped European dialects. Or maybe you would rather watch paint dry. To each their own.
  69. The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Thomas Friedman (1999). I’ve lost respect for Friedman in recent years as he has a tendency to idealize globalization and seems to believe everything is solvable by his ever-present whiz-kid start-ups in Bangalore. In fairness, he doesn’t necessarily think globalization is always beneficial as he tries to trace how it has changed how economies, polities, and cultures work with or battle each other. But Friedman remains fairly optimistic that we’ll work better and happier. We’ll see. It’s an interesting attempt to put these concepts into a bigger picture and his best work.
  70. Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam (2000). This tome can be an acquired taste with its charts and statistics, but Putnam marshalls an impressive dataset to make an emotional point, that America’s sense of social community is, for now at least, dying. Putnam lists and analyzes all the ways in which levels of social participation in religious, sports, and all forms of community organizations have collapsed in the last half-century. Another slightly grim, if objective, read.
  71. The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby (2008). Once again, I don’t want to scare you away from what looks like a snobby book. Jacoby can admittedly be snarky and elitist at times, but her evidence that the postmodern USA is becoming increasingly hostile to reading and intellectualism is thorough, convincing, and frightening. Read it and then watch Idiocracy as a chaser.
  72. The World Without Us, Alan Weisman (2007). This is a book that you would expect to be a preachy, Cassandra-like text on environmental catastrophe, but it is actually a very interesting and friendly read based on the idea “what would happen if the humans all disappeared?” Cities would be very quickly be reclaimed by nature. Bronze and glass would last, but not paintings or houses. Putnam goes all over the world, to Cyprus, Poland, and the Korean DMZ, to see what happens in those places where the humans are gone. Freakin’ cool.
  73. The Cleanest Race, B.R. Myers (2010). There’s a recent spate of very grim books about the murderous crime family which poses as the legitimate government of North Korea, mostly dealing with repression and starvation. This one deals with the ideology behind the regime. Surprisingly, North Korea turns out to have very little that’s Confucian or Communist about it, relying more on an extraordinarily racist ideology of Koreans as simple, innocent, and childlike, needing protection by their Dear (Mother?) from the subhuman Yankee imperialists. The best explanation of this deliberately opaque country I’ve ever read.
  74. What the Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell (2009). When you see the tables of contents, Gladwell’s books look like a Seinfeld episode—they seem to be about nothing. There are chapters on mustard, dog training, tomato slicers, the homeless, and hair dye. What in the world? But the books are addictive as Gladwell analyzes why things work the way they do, why people make the decisions they do or buy the products they do. In the end mustard becomes very interesting. Also check out Blink (2005), a non-thinky book where Gladwell analyzes how instincts can be more accurate than reasoning.
  75. Back to Our Future: How the 80’s Explains The World We Live in Now, David Sirota (2007). The book does poke fun and have some sentimental nostalgia for the, uh, greatest decade of the 80s, but much of Sirota’s argument blames President Reagan for deregulating media so that our present culture and politics is awash with references to its values, which can be summed as: 1. Government is evil; 2. The 50’s were glorious; 3. The 60’s hippies ruined everything. I don’t always see it, but it’s an analysis of the media culture I grew up with and which is very seldom discussed.
  76. Life, Keith Richards (2011). An odd choice, but Richards is a more thoughtful and interesting person than the comatose junkie you would expect (he actually stopped abusing drugs decades ago). Richards not only has the wild Stones stories and interesting trivia you would expect but has a warm, self-deprecating charm as well (the Richards-Jagger rivalry does get catty, but he pulls it off somehow). To me this is the best of recent autobiographical works: Eric Clapton is so nice that he’s, well, dull; Richards sounds more like your cool uncle. There are some naughty scenes, but not everything on my list has to be morally uplifting.
  77. Christianity: The First 3000 Years, Diarmaid MacCulloch (2011). Good grief, this is a massive work; I read for most of a summer and I was still in the Victorian era. MacCulloch tends toward an agnostic viewpoint, which perhaps doesn’t satisfy anyone, but to me he’s trustworthy at disentangling a massively long chain of events in the eastern and western Roman empires from before Christ’s birth down to the present. There are an awful lot of heresies to keep track of but MacCulloch walks you through it, and I admire him for not going into the usual cheap shots against the medieval era; he treats the people and their time periods with respect.
  78. The Geography of Thought, Richard Nisbett (2003). I wish I had this book when I first came to Korea. Nisbett isn’t universally accepted and his separation of Greco-Europeans from Chinese-Asians seems too binary (he concedes that he overgeneralizes for clarity). Yet the book is fascinating in its argument that lightly-populated and transient Greeks gave rise to thought patterns relying on logic, analysis, and classification of discrete ideas, whereas the static and communal nature of east Asian culture made its thinking, culture, and even religion and language focused on practical application and understanding things in context. Nisbett is careful to not judge, but rather gently argues that we might think and teach better by incorporating both mindsets.
  79. Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher & William Ury (1981). I would make a poor lawyer, but I do think argumentation is interesting. Here’s a business book about negotiation, but it is not about what you expect: a tough-guy guide to being assertive filled with advice and cliches on hammering people. Rather, it’s a more psychological approach to applying human nature to resolving conflicts. Ury discusses the limitations to hard take-it-or-leave-it bargaining, explaining that the most effective method for solving conflicts is, where possible, to advocate win-win solutions that cause both parties to respect the outcome. That’s not easy. Yes, he does mention Israel and Palestine.
  80. Who Owns the Future, Jarod Lanier (2013). This is freakin’ cool. Lanier is a Silicon-Valley era comp scientist who originated the term virtual reality, but much of the book is in fact an endictment of the present internet, which he believes is strangling capitalism and the middle class by making information and media appear to be free at the cost of lost jobs and privacy. His more difficult thesis is that in the long term all data on the internet should be paid for, including contributions by users, in order to construct a monetized online economy. I’m unsure how people can be paid for posting pictures of babies and cats, but it’s an interesting alternative to the present chaos of cyberspace.
  81. Postcapitalism, Paul Mason (2017). Wonderful book, but a difficult read as Mason draws on Marxist theory (easy now, he’s not advocating his solutions, only Marx’s diagnoses) and what he sees as long waves of expansion and contraction in capitalist economies. Basically, he argues that the Internet, robot mechanization, and environmental ruin are so disruptive that this will be the last wave of capitalism. He becomes less clear when he tries to lay out a possible future variation on it. Not that predicting economic systems is an easy project for anyone.
  82. 12 Rules For Life, Jordan Peterson (2018). Despite being the bete noire (well, look it up) of progressives for his controversial views rejecting gender and identity politics, the book is not about that, but rather is about the... 12 rules. The rules themselves can be boiled down to “grow the hell up and take care of little things to make your life better” and are actually quite conservative. The why and how are more interesting as Peterson finds evolutionary and biological reasons for many of our cultural and ethical motivations. I don’t always agree. But Peterson cares about tradition, scripture, and the individual, and it’s one of the deepest books I’ve read in years. Full review here.
  83. Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari (2014). I have mixed feelings about the new Chicago-ish school of applying statistical or scientific solutions to human problems, as Steven Pinker’s Better Angels also does. The books can feel cold, and I don’t like their sniffy scientism; in Homo Deus Harari simply decides, like Dr. Evil cutting off his son, that because science can’t measure souls, then souls don’t exist, the end. The two authors sometimes have a poor understanding of the medieval period they hate. But among the three, Sapiens is a really interesting read in how it gives a thorough sociological history of man, asking (among other difficult questions) whether the jump from hunting-gathering to agriculture was actually a good idea.
  84. The Weirdest People in the World, Joseph Henrich (2020). This is the most important book I've read in years, and it's really helped me "unlock" Korea and other non-western cultures. Why did Western culture come to dominate the world in the 20th century? Because we're better people? Of course not-- but Henrich argues that the recipe of abstract rule of law and non-kin marriage has provided a template for success over kin-based cultures. The book can get wooly and over-statistic-ey, but it's a fascinating and provocative discussion-- and yes, Henrich discusses the downsides of western "WEIRD"-ness as well: weakened family nets and loneliness.


Books I Just Don’t Like

Yuck 1. The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger (1951). Look, it’s crap. There’s just no nuance I can give on this; I’m flabbergasted how this can be considered a classic. Holden whines. And then he whines some more. And then he continues to bitch about everyone and everything. And then the book ends without any real character development or story arc. What any of this is supposed to mean, or how this somehow encapsulates teenage angst or forms some other bullcrap symbolic superstructure is beyond me. I get that the limited vocabulary and emotional range attempts to realistically present a boy, and his submerged grief about his brother, etc.; but the problem is that you have to read 277 pages of narration by a 15-year old male, and 15-year old males are generally annoying.
  2. The Vegetarian, Han Kang (2007). The heroine becomes a fanatical vegetarian and goes insane. Why? We never know. In postmodern fiction, often authors withhold details or give conflicting reportage, for truth is relative or doesn’t exist. But to base an entire story on a central event with no explanation is asking too much of the reader– how does this mean anything if we never learn why she does this? Perhaps we’re just meant to accept it as obvious, that since the Yellow Wallpaper madwomen in attics just go bonkers because of oppressive male patriarchy, etc. If so, the novel is lazy for retreading this tired (and, actually, sexist) trope. If not, the reader is left with postmodern gimmicks without the necessary information to contextualize it.
  3. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua (2011). Man, this book stinks of condescension. “What a funny monograph I have written! For while I was doing important things and meeting important people you peasants never will, and unlike you lazy American parents, while I was a properly cold, unloving slavedriver to my children– one day they put me, yes, even moi, in my place by being two minutes late for piano practice on purpose! Ha! Ha! What an inspirational lesson I learned about being only 99.8% right about everything! What– it’s not funny? Well, you Americans must be too stupid to appreciate my Harvard-refined humor.”