Saturday, February 21, 2009

100 Most Important Books to Read Before You Die: Part 1

2009-02-21 22:28 CET - Update: Fixed missing word and added tags.

To give proper credit, friend Jason originally asked (on a private mailing list) for recommendations on the "100 Most Important Books to Read Before You Die". Some of his criteria are (and I quote/paraphrase):

  • Important

  • As in changing "the way a people think or act, or exemplifies human action or emotion to a defining degree.

  • Diverse

  • Fiction or non-fiction are ok, and from any discipline, genre and culture.

  • Insightful

  • "Having read the books on the list, one should feel insight into what it means to be human, what humanity has accomplished over its history and why, and what we think about the universe around us and why."

  • Clearness over originality

  • E.g. a later, more accessible work on a subject that is better than an earlier, more "scholarly" work.

  • Factual for its time

  • "Non-fictional" works that are founded on now discredited information should not be disqualified, as long as those works give us insight to their times.

Jason started us off with the Old Testament, which is certainly Important, somewhat Diverse, Insightful, not so Original, and Factual, for its time.

Here, then, are my first 10 suggestions, with more or less reverent (or relevant) commentary. I continue with Jason's religious theme:

  1. The New Testament

  2. If you're going to read the Bible, read both parts. You should balance out the Thou-shall-not's with some Blessed-are-the-meek's. I'm a fan of the King James Version, probably because I worked out of it during my Puritan years at RenFaire.

  3. The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the AUTHENTIC Words of Jesus by Robert W. Funk & the Jesus Seminar

  4. This a great follow-up to the New Testament. Plus, it really opens up the reality of modern biblical scholarship to the lay person.

  5. The Qur'an (Koran)

  6. This [is] on my personal list to read, though I'm still looking for a reasonable English translation.

  7. The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer

  8. How can anyone not want to read about the priests of Diana and what they got up to at Aricia? Strike that. If you have any interest at all in the roots of European belief systems, especially those which have been masked or erased by the rise of Christianity, then this is the book to read. If you just want some nice stories to read to the kiddies, might I suggest:

  9. Bulfinch's Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch

  10. The Antics of the Olympians, rated "G" for "gag me with a spoon". I believe that Bulfinch is singularly responsible for the strategically placed hair of the female centaurs in Fantasia.

  11. The Iliad by Homer (sort of)

  12. As much as some might decry the recent Troy and the less recent (and way more Dr-Who-with-a-budget) Clash of the Titans, you can see where the writers of even the cheesiest movies with Greek mythological themes have not strayed all that far from the source. Just don't call it "The Curious Case of the Son of Peleus".

  13. The Epic of Gilgamesh

  14. Wacky stuff. Honest. But incredibly influential on "Western" literature from the Old Testament on. E.g. there are clear echoes of Gilgamesh & Enkidu's first meeting in the Robin Hood/Little John and Arthur/Lancelot first encounters. More Gilgamesh goodness can be found here.

  15. Tipitaka & Mahayana sutras

  16. If there were "core" texts for Buddhism, then these are it. Apparently, the path to Enlightenment goes through the Wood of Schisms, so just one text doesn't cut it.

  17. The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli

  18. This is the original Hinduism for Dummies. For those with enormous bladders, try the video version directed by Peter Brook.

  19. Tao Te Ching/Daodejing (The Tao and its Characteristics) by Laozi, translated by James Legge

  20. No matter how you transliterate it, Taoism is still the least well understood of the Chinese contribution to world culture. (It's clearly not as flashy as fireworks, nor as yummy as Peking Duck.) The actual Tao Te Ching is not very long (5000 Chinese characters, as the brush writes), but you have to deal with the various commentaries. It's the hazard of reading a language that is half composed of allusions.

Bonus Item:
  • Blogging the Bible by David Plotz at

  • It's like a reading the inner monolog of the person tasked to write The Old Testament for Dummies. Last I heard, he's working on turning these essays into a book. He's also considering doing the same thing with the New Testament.

    1 comment:

    David Plotz said...

    This is David Plotz. Thanks for the kind words about the blog. The book inspired by it: GOOD BOOK: THE BIZARRE, HILARIOUS, DISTURBING, MARVELOUS, AND INSPIRING THINGS I LEARNED WHEN I READ EVERY SINGLE WORD OF THE BIBLE, comes out next week. See it here