Over the years, I frequently would ask friends for a list of the books that have touched them or affected them deeply. It has been a wonderful exploration. Often, I would see the intimate details of their personalities, their most sacred psychology, by exploring the works they loved.
Just for fun, I have listed below some of the books that shaped or inspired me. These are the works that bent my way of thinking, always making it more expansive, always toward the fresh and beautiful. And there are a few authors, that I have decided to read every single day, because to do so connects me with a deeper sense of humility (Walcott, Milosz) or helps me fall deeper in love with love (Kazantzakis, Saramago, Whitman).
Oh, how difficult it has been to narrow this list! There are certainly works I have forgotten, and it will continue to evolve. (Note: I have included links to each of the works as well. If you buy them here, I’ll get a few pennies that will help offset the cost of maintaining my site.)
Here are a few books I think about on a daily basis. Enjoy!
Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis. While Zorba is not a particularly politically correct character, this book is about a love and zest for life. Action vs. contemplation. Nietzsche vs. Buddha. There is so much here, that is so rich. The book I have read more than any other.
Report to Greco by Nikos Kazantzakis. Kazantzakis’s intellectual, spiritual and poetic autobiography. Rather than a log of dates, places or events, it is the author’s metaphysical journey through Jesus, Buddha, Lenin, Odysseus, Nietzsche and back again to every one of us, desperately committed to our own miraculous human project.
The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America by Daniel Boorstin. It continues to amaze me how relevant this 1962 classic continues to be. Before the 24 hour “news” cycle, Boorstin alerted us to “pseudo-events” (e.g., press conferences, presidential debates), those activities and happenings manufactured solely in order to be reported. Before reality shows and social media stars, Boorstin lamented that we have exchanged our heroes for “celebrities”, those persons who known for their “well-knownness.” Since then, Boorstin’s prophetic vision of an America inundated by its own illusions has become an essential resource for any reader who wants to distinguish the manifold deceptions of our culture from its few enduring truths.
Song of Myself – Walt Whitman’s “Song of myself” is a celebration of the beauty and sacredness all around us, especially in other people. Toward the end of the poem, Whitman speaks directly to the reader:
Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.)
And he ends with:
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
In the first edition of the poem (1855), this last line was unpunctuated, as if dangling, waiting for the reader to respond. Scholars disagree about whether this was deliberate. But either way, Whitman ends with a invitation to the reader: How are you going to approach this world that is so filled with the crass and dirty and unfair and beautiful? To a large extent, my book Mud and Dreams, is my response to Whitman’s call.
The Other by Ryszard Kapuściński. Every day we come into contact with others, strange and unknown, or foreign to us. What does our encounter with “Other” ask of us? What does it say about who we are? Using compelling prose, Kapuściński draws upon the works of Emmanuel Levinas to paint a beautiful ethic for how we are to live in the world, all the more relevant now, in a world of border walls, immigration and globalization.
God in Search of Man. In this work of spiritual audacity, Abraham Joshua Heschel shocks the reader out of his complacency and awakens him to that spiritual dimension fading from contemporary consciousness. In addition to the detailed discussions on themes such as “Awe,” “Wonder,” and the problem of evil, Heschel provides a model of a religion that is rooted in humanity’s lived experience. For Heschel, who lived his faith through action, the message of the prophets is that God needs us in some way. He needs us to take care of the widows and orphans and downtrodden.
The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky – A story about a man clinging to goodness and humanity, in the midst of so much debauchery, brutality and baseness. According to Vonnegut, everything you need to know about life, is in The Brothers Karamazov.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. The devil visits the Soviet Union. (Mick Jagger based the song “Sympathy for the Devil” on this work) On one level, it is a work of satire, absurd and surreal. But it is so much deeper than that. So much more rich. Mind bending.
Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol. Gogol’s antihero, Chichikov, combs the back country wheeling and dealing for “dead souls”–deceased serfs who still represent money to anyone sharp enough to trade in them. Funny without relying on slapstick or absurdity (although it has both). Smart. Clever. The first part of Dead Souls, the only part that survived in full, is a master piece that influenced my favorite writers, Dostoyevsky, Bulgakov, Kafka, and others.
Barababas by 1951 Nobel Laurette Pär Lagerkvist. A short novel that tells the story of what happened to Barabbas after he was freed from crucifixion, rather than Jesus.
The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by Jose Saramago. I had such a hard time selecting one representative work by Saramago, my favorite author of all time. I wanted to resist this book because it was so controversial, and because I listed so may other books around the Christ story. However it is just so good. (although you cannot go wrong with anything written by Saramago – he truly was a master)
In addition to these works, there were many, many more, that touched me deeply, (so much so, I am having a hard time not linking directly to the works!) including:
I and Thou – Martin Buber
Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl
Irrational Man – William Barrett
Landscapes of Wonder – Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano
Is There No Other Way – Michael Nagler
Spiritual Evolution – George Vaillant
The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World – Wade Davis
Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest – Wade Davis
The Adventures of Augie March – Saul Bellow
One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez (This very well may be my favorite novel of all time.)
Cyrano de Bergerac – Rostand
The last chapter of The Lucifer Effect – Philip Zimbardo
Nonzero – Robert Wright
At Century’s End – ed., Nathan Gardels
A Book of Luminous Things – ed., Czesław Miłosz
Introduction to Leaves of Grass – Walt Whitman
So What: New & Selected Poems, 1971–2005 – Taha Muhammad Ali
The Song of Amergin.
Selected Poems – Dylan Thomas
And then there were the poets and writers who stuck with me, if not through any specific work:
- Albert Camus
- Emmanuel Levinas
- Philip Levine [see especially Having Been Asked “What is a Man,” I Answer; What Work Is; To Cipriono, Into The Wind]
- Derek Walcott [see especially The Sea is History; Volcano; Schooner Flight; Names ( for Edward Brathwaite); Star Apple Kingdom; The Fortunate Traveller]
- Czeslaw Milosz (see especially Account; Esse; On The Day the World Ends; Dedication)
- Adam Zagajewski (see especially Try to Praise the Mutilated World; Dutch Masters; A View of Krakow)
- Antonio Machado
- Pablo Neruda (Neruda is the one who introduced me to poetry and caused me to fall in love with language. See especially The Heights of Machu Picchu)
- Ted Hughes (See The Source)
- Robert Hass (See Paschal Lamb)
Oh! There is so much that I am missing. Check back later for updates!
And, as lagniappe, here are a few Movies, sometimes tragic, but all of them beautiful portraits of the human drama:
- Stalker, by Tarkovsky (Note: “Stalker” has nothing to do with the English term for that word. A visual poem (everything by Tarkovsky is). Mind bending. This is a film I think about, almost every single day.
- Human: the Movie
- Taare Zameen Par
- Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
- Cinema Paradiso
- Moonrise Kingdom
- The Hundred-Foot Journey – Lighter than the rest. But there is so much here that I like
- Dead Poet Society
- The Fisher King
- The Big Lebowski
Keep being good for the world.