To force myself to get cracking on more of the best books, I’m baring my shame. Below is a list of some of the books that it’s downright appalling I’ve failed to read as of yet. This is by no means a complete list. In fact, the initial list I compiled was about three times as long. (And it still wasn’t all-inclusive.)
I had to apply a few selection criteria to get to a reasonably-sized list. Some of these criteria are unique to a particular book, and will be noted under the book’s listing. However, there are also general criteria. If a book is commonly referred to in pop culture and I haven’t read it, that’s a cause for concern. In other words, if I’m not getting the literary references on The Simpsons, I’m a little embarrassed. (Or pop science references made on Big Bang Theory.)
Also, I believe that one should read broadly and outside one’s comfort box. This means that one should read the counter arguments to what one believes, so as to not be happy stewing in one’s ignorance. This is part of becoming wiser and trading one’s narrow view of the world for one which is broader.
Some of these choices are idiosyncratic to myself– as opposed to being classics or masterpieces. For example, I was trained as a Social Scientist, so books on that subject might not make most people’s “essential reads” list. Also, I’m a martial artist, so my bonus picks are tied to that interest.
So, in alphabetical order, without further ado:
1.) A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
This may be an odd choice as I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t understand anything Hawking says beyond the Acknowledgements page. I once read that this book had the distinction of being “the most unread book on everybody’s bookshelf.” (I don’t know whether that’s urban legend or established fact– but I can believe it.) An Engineering PhD student from a very prestigious technical university once admitted to me that he couldn’t make heads nor tails of it. I did read The Universe in a Nutshell, which has a lot of pictures and, thus, is more my speed; it was kind of “A Brief History of Time … for Dummies.”
2.) A Confederacy of Dunces by James Kennedy Toole
The backstory behind this book is fascinating and has an important moral. Toole killed himself, presumably because he couldn’t get it published. Then, posthumously, it became a critically-acclaimed hit after his mother took it around and forced literary types to read it. NEVER GIVE UP!
3.) A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
I’m a big Hemingway fan. I’ve read a few of his novels, many of his short stories, and even some of his non-fiction. This is my elusive great white Hemingwhale.
4.) As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
I was a late comer to Faulkner. I’d always heard that his writing was wordy and that it straggled. As those are bad habits of my own, I figured I should feed myself more Hemingway-esque writing. However, after reading several of Faulkner’s stories and his novel Sanctuary, I developed a man-crush on his use of language.
5.) Beloved by Toni Morrison
Like many books on my list, I’ve got a copy of this on my bookshelf, and I even started it once. I’m not sure what distracted me. I picked it up originally to see how Morrison wrote accented dialogue. This is part of my advice to self to read outside my own history and experience.
6.) Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
I like cross-genre books. Furthermore, I’ve heard good things about the organization of this as a series of incomplete stories that are tied together in the final part.
7.) Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
This is another one that is on my bookshelf and that I started. It’s not that I didn’t like the opening (though like most all literature of its era is not exactly punchy.) Rather, it’s that I tend to end up with too many books up in the air at once. Therefore, if one takes over, the others get dropped.
I hope I don’t have a subconscious aversion to Russian literature, but–I must admit–I’ve read far too little Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Turgenev, and (to a lesser extent) Chekhov. (I’ve read quite a few Chekhov short stories.)
8.) Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
Again, I own this one. I don’t believe that I ever started it. However, anything with a sense of humor is a winner in my book.
9.) Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
While doing my Masters in International Affairs, I almost took a course that used this as a textbook, but I had a conflict with a required course. The question of how some civilizations progress (when others don’t) is fascinating to me–as is the subject of Diamond’s more recent book Collapse, which looks at why certain civilizations unravel.
10.) Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
This one is particularly sad because: a.) I own it. b.) I’ve started it on more than one occasion. c.) It really does seem like a fascinating story, and d.) [the kicker] It’s extremely short. It’s not even properly called a novel, but more a novella or–maybe even–a long short story.
11.) Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
I hate to admit that I might have some subtle anti-French bias because I’ve never read any Hugo or Camus.
12.) Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes
This is another one that is about balanced reading. I’ve always tended toward a libertarian view of governance. So I’ve read John Locke and many other arguments for why government should stay small and limited. Leviathan is the granddaddy of counter claims. It’s about why the government must be involved in everything. I’ve read a lot of commentary on the Hobbes-Locke divide, but not this book. While I may not agree with Hobbes, that’s exactly why I should have read him. I have read Marx and others who’ve made more modern arguments for the primacy of governing over the governed.
13.) Life of Pi by Yan Martel
I read the cover blurb of this when it came out and thought it would be interesting. When the movie was coming out, I thought about it again, but I just haven’t gotten around to it.
14.) Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov
I saw the 1962 movie, but have never read this book. This is one that is often cited in pop culture. I know the general premise, but it would be good to read it.
15.) Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
I’ve read quotes from this book, and I once started it from the beginning. I agree with the life philosophy espoused in it, so I should have finished it by now. I particularly like the quote, “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”
16.) The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas
I began it once, and it’s tiny. So double shame on me for not finishing this one yet.
17.) The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
I’ve read a lot of commentary on Darwin’s ideas, but not this book– at least not in full. I include it because it’s one of the seminal works on the biological world as we know it. It contains many ideas that should be considered when reflecting on the nature of man and animal alike.
18.) The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
Any writing that makes someone take a hit out on the author must be powerful stuff. Enough said.
19.) The Stranger by Albert Camus
This is one whose pop culture references, I suspect, elude me.
20.) The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
I’ve just heard that his is an outstanding and very readable book. It’s supposedly a great example of a sparse but evocative style. I’m interested in the literature of war, so it’s right up my alley.
21.) The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
This is really a stand-in for a number of pop social science titles by Gladwell that examine the behavior and decision making of individuals and groups. Blink might have been a choice as well, but I’m a little more interested in the tipping point phenomena. I’ve read vast troves on behavioral economics and related fields, but Gladwell is such a household name that I should probably be more familiar with his work.
22.) The Trial by Franz Kafka
Another one that I own, I’ve started, which has many pop culture references, but which I’ve never gotten through.
23.) The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki
This is sort of a counter claim social science book. I once read an old book entitled Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles MacKay. MacKay suggests (as Tommy Lee Jones did in Men in Black) that in groups otherwise intelligent people are stupid and panicky.
24.) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Again, there are tons of pop culture references out there on this one. I’ve heard it’s a well-crafted book, but–for whatever reason– I’ve never read it.
25.) Ulysses by James Joyce
I have no illusions that this would be fun reading, but some consider it the best English language novel of all time. Also, I have read some of James Joyce’s shorter stuff, and I dig his use of language. My fear is that it will be like “the greatest American novel,” Moby Dick, which I did read and would rate far lower.
Bonus Shame Picks
I just realized that my list was appallingly Western-centric, and so I’ve added a couple bonus picks to rectify this because I’m too lazy to go back and cut a couple of the others.
26.) The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
Written in the 11th century, this Japanese work is considered by many to be the world’s first novel–or at least the first modern novel.
27.) The Water Margin by Shi Nai’an
This 14th century Chinese novel is one of the four classics of ancient Chinese literature. It also supposedly contains a lot of kung fu flick elements.
Your turn. Come on, confession is good for the soul. What books are you ashamed that you haven’t gotten around to reading yet?