Saturday, May 08, 2010

Here's My "Top 25 Books" List, Now Build Me A Park

Inspired by Brooke Foy's project for UrbanArt at Brent Ferguson Park, where she is building a maze of huge, concrete books as a public art installation, I tried to figure out which books I would choose for such a project. Here, I've listed my Top 25 Books. I don't think Brooke Foy reads this blog, but just in case, I'd love to see some of these books made into enormous pieces of art and strategically placed in a park. (I would never leave said park.) I'm not an artist, so I didn't choose these books just for their cover art, but I did give myself a few rules in compiling the list, which were as follows:

(1) No repeated authors. That is, one book per author. Even if there are 2 books by the same author that I absolutely loved, I made myself pick one.
(2) The list must be mixed-genre. For me, that means fiction, non-fiction, and philosophy.
(3) Make the list once, then stick with it. This rule was just to impose a little self-discipline, and to keep myself from spending the next 2 weeks revising my list over and over.

I tried a couple of times to "rank" these books, to no avail. So they're listed alphabetically, by author.


1. Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence, by Judith Butler

Why is this on the list?
Because this book was one of about 3 texts that inspired the manuscript I am writing now.

Just one quote: "For if I am confounded by you, then you are already of me, and I am nowhere without you."

2. Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

Why is this on the list? For that conversation between Humpty Dumpty and Alice.

Just one quote: "If you're going to make a word do a lot of work for you like that, you've got to pay it extra."

3. Waiting for the Barbarians, by J.M. Coetzee

Why is this on the list? Because nobody writes a good allegory anymore.

Just one quote: "Truly, man was not made to live."

4. Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, by Jacques Derrida

Why is this on the list? It's Derrida. He could have his own list.

Just one quote: "No politics, no ethics, and no law can be, as it were, deduced from deconstruction."

5. The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz

Why is this on the list? Because tragedy needed to be redone. It needed to be a whole lot funnier. And have a lot more swearing.

Just one quote: "It's never the changes we want that change everything."

6. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Why is this on the list? Because I've never met a human being that wasn't, deep down, one of the brothers.

Just one quote: "What is hell? I still maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love."

7. Black Skin, White Masks, by Frantz Fanon

Why is this on the list? Because existentialism was too white, and Negritude was too black.

Just one quote: "O my body, make of me always a man who questions!"

8. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Why is this on the list? Money and sex and mystery and death. And faaabulous parties.

Just one quote: "I hope she'll be a fool-- that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool."

9. Everything is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer

Why is this on the list? Memory. It ain't how you remembered it.

Just one quote: "One day you will do things for me that you hate. That's what it means to be family."

10. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, by Michel Foucault

Why is this on the list? Because you can't fight the power until you know what it is. And, even then, I'm not sure you can fight it.

Just one quote: "Calling sex by its name thereafter [the 17th C.] became more difficult and more costly."

11. It Came from Memphis, by Robert Gordon

Why is this on the list? See the quote below.

Just one quote: "Memphis is a town where nothing ever happens, but the impossible always does."

12. Phenomenology of Spirit, by G.W.F. Hegel

Why is this on the list? Absolute knowing. To be read with Absolut.

Just one quote: "No man can be a hero to his valet. This is not because the man is no hero, but because the valet is a valet."

13. King Leopold's Ghost, by Adam Hochschild

Why is this on the list? The horrible story of the first real battle for human rights. And an excellent example of eminently readable academic writing.

Just one quote: "When Leopold wrote that the precise frontiers of the new state or states would be defined later, [German Chancellor] Bismarck said to an aide, "His Majesty displays the pretensions and naive selfishness of an Italian who considers that his charm and good looks will enable him to get away with anything."

13. The Critique of Judgment, by Immanuel Kant

Why is this on the list? Because you don't want to be that person. The one who only reads the first two parts of a trilogy and pretends to know something.

Just one quote: "Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing."

14. Fear and Trembling, by Soren Kierkegaard

Why is this on the list? Because without it, Abraham is lost.

Just one quote: "If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptinesslay hidden beneath everything, what would life be but despair?"

15. Immortality, by Milan Kundera

Why is this on the list? For that gesture... the lightest leitmotif in all of literature.

Just one quote: "The basis of shame is not some personal mistake of ours, but the ignominy, the humiliation we feel that we must be what we are without any choice in the matter, and that this humiliation is seen by everyone."

17. My Traitor's Heart, by Rian Malan

Why is this on the list? Because the grand design is so often in the details. And to remind myself that we're never as innocent as we want to be.

Just one quote: "I'm burned out and starving to death, so I'm just going to lay all of this upon you and trust that you're a visionary reader, because the grand design, such that it is, is going to be hard for you to see."

18. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, by Karl Marx

Why is this on the list? Because I'm alienated, and I'm still trying to understand it.

Just one quote: "The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates."

19. The Colonizer and the Colonized, by Albert Memmi

Why is this on the list? Because it's a character study in oppression. And nobody wants to be any of the characters here.

Just one quote: "He [the colonizer] is a privileged being, and an illegitimately privileged one; that is, a usurper."

20. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabakov

Why is this on the list? Because everyone needs to fall in love with a protagonist that she knows she should hate.

Just one quote: "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins."

21. On the Genealogy of Morals, by Friedrich Nietzsche

Why is this on the list? One of the most original pieces of philosophy ever. Every time I read it there's something new.

Just one quote: "To demand of strength that it should not express itself as strength, that it should not be a desire to overcome, a desire to throw down, to become master, a thirst for enemies and resistances and triumphs, is just as absurd as to demand of weakness that it should express itself as strength."

22. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach

Why is this on the list? Because, I'll admit it, I want to know what they do with the bodies.

Just one quote: "The human head is of the approximate size and weight of a roaster chicken."

23. The Human Stain, by Philip Roth

Why is this on the list? Because it's a Great American Novel. As is the first book in the same trilogy, American Pastoral. Unfortunately, the middle book in the series sucked.

Just one quote: "Everything stoical within me unclenches and the wish not to die, never to die, is almost too much to bear."

24. Being and Nothingness, by Jean-Paul Sartre

Why is the on the list? Because the chapter on "Bad Faith" is the single most intuitively true piece of philosophical writing I have ever read.

Just one quote: "Nothingness sleeps at the heart of man like a worm."

25. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

Why is this on the list? Because poverty and misery have yet to be eradicated from human existence... and because we should not look away.

Just one quote: "They [the banks] breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don't get it, they die the way you die without air, without side-meat."

That's the offiial list. Here are the runners-up:
~~ Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett
~~ anything else by Jacques Derrida
~~ Republic, by Plato
~~ Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
~~ Country of My Skull, by Antjie Krog
~~ Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo
~~any collected works of T.S. Eliot or Walt Whitman
~~ The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
~~The Floating Opera and The End of the Road, by John Barth
~~The Myth of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus

Okay, readers, what did I leave off? Or, what's on there that shouldn't be? Comments section is open and unedited, per usual.


Dr. Trott said...

Your attraction to tragedy is obvious here. But I wonder about the Brief and Wondrous Life -- sure, I can see how it is tragic, but the constant play of fantasy, both as political fantasy of oppressors and the fantasy of Tolkien and other fiction characters as a means by which the main character deals with the world in an effort to have some power in it are really striking.

Also, I hate to be a person who points out typos, but you have an awesome one in this post -- it's under Hegel, no man is a hero to his valet, you quote, not because he is not a "her" the typo reads. But please please don't fix it because that is AWESOME.

Great list.

e. said...

great list, leigh. thanks!

DOCTOR J said...

@Trott: what about tragedy and fantasy are mutually exclusive? (Also, I had just corrected the Hegel typo when you posted your comment. Since your comment is still here, the hilarity of the typo is now preserved for posterity.)

@e.: thanks backatcha.

I was hoping BOTH of you would offer up some additions/subtractions to/from the list!

ej said...

Excellent list. Picking Precarious Life for the #1 spot is an interesting and even gutsy choice. Your list inspired me to create my own. Ditto with picking Rogues as your one book by Derrida. (If I may be so bold as to post a link:

Emma B. said...

I love this list. It's so great and so you. :)

John said...

A word on the inclusion of Derrida on your list, Dr. J-- it would seem that conventionally Derrida's "political turn", and the nature of this turn, is spoken of. But isn't there in the polemic about everything from Derrida's texts to the appearance of his name a simpler turn, from Derrida as a dazzling but unknown thinker to Derrida as a self-conscious actor on the world's philosophical stage? Is the Derrida who wrote "The Ends of Man" the same one that occupied a definite space in philosophical circles and polemic?

I wonder here whether it is not possible to honor the earlier one, the one who did not know he was Derrida, the one who had not yet learned to sign his name. To honor the Derrida without a "place at the table". I sometimes have the impression that the earlier one was capable of seemingly inexhaustible works like Dissemination and Glas, while the later one slowly became frozen in self-conscious considerations of what he represented, or in any case wrote more and more slender works.

I hope I am not making a case here for non-responsibility of the philosopher, I just find myself admiring the Derrida who had not yet become "worldly".