The other day Neil deGrasse Tyson listed eight great books everyone should read. I will pick up the trend and list twenty-five great authors whose works everyone should read. A disclaimer should be noted. My list was formed from my personal experiences. These are people I have personally found to be worthy and who affected me in a positive way. You, dear reader, are free to recommend as many authors and books to the list as you wish.
Marx is a foundational scholar of modern left economical and moral tenants. He also gives an in-depth investigation of modern society, capitalism in other words, and describes in detail how it is unstable and oppresses people. His ideas on communism are not as well formed, and he sparks debate to this very day. Capital is a must read in spite some of its outdated concepts. The Communist Manifesto is a short-hand version that succinctly introduces you to his ideas.
Kieth and Derreck Jenson both authored Deep Green Resistance, a very important anarchist and environmentalist work. It is basically a summation of radical left wing thought: how deeply the present system is exploitative and destructive, the virtues and ailings of liberalism, the urgent necessity of radical feminism and other forms of social justice, and practical guides on how power works, how to organize resistance movements, and how to destroy oppressive power structures. It’s a strong and sobering book that awakens you to the reality and urgency of out situation.
Legendary Twain, the original all-American, is an astute satirist of American and world culture. Innocents Abroad is a fun adventure but with many stinging barbs at the world’s cultures and people. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Fin tackles racism and other moral issues head on. Twain makes broader observations on the human condition in Letters from the Earth, the Diary of Adam and Eve, and The Mysterious Stranger. His main voice in these works is Lucifer himself. It is a testament to his pessimism and his attacks against organized religion. The Mysterious Stranger demolishes all human senses of significance, idealism, and certainty altogether.
Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained are his top works. The two of them alone, especially the former, forms an entire world. Milton’s own religious and political views are complicated and a little enigmatic, as the works reveal. In life he was a Puritan revolutionary who supported Cromwell and the death of King Charles II. Strangely enough Satan plays the role of revolutionary. He was of the Devil’s party and he knew it. Milton’s moral dilemmas and sheer audacity his epic poem brings up are iconoclastic to the present day.
An astute economist who analyzed capitalism as it was developing in 18th century Europe. Contrary to popular belief, The Wealth of Nations is a critique of capitalism, not an outright endorsement. Among other things Smith touches on the problems of inherited wealth and how necessary it is that the government regulate businesses.
- H. Carr
What is History? is important in providing us with critical methodological tools to examine history. In other words we must ask, “What is history? How do we study history?”, to gain an adroit world-historical perspective as Spengler would put it. Carr tackles the question of what events we choose to canonize as “historical facts” and why. He raises the issue of how we are molded by our society and thus are subjective and biased, even the educated historian. He touches upon how human thought widened during the Enlightenment where people developed complexity of their ideas and grew more audacious in how they used ideas to shape the world.
Decline of the West was a revolutionary strike on the public and academic realms when it was first printed. Though it receded past WWII it is an important work of philosophy of history. It provides a precarious but ornate and profound perspective of world history. He eschews more conventional forms of telling history such as empirical research and reaches for aesthetics and intuition instead. It is much an artistic work as a didactic one. Man and Technics is a short work but warns that our culture will be destroyed by materialism, and economic competition and warfare with other cultures.
Nietzsche is one of the fawned after but also one of the most poorly understood and misrepresented of philosophers. Because of this people should clear their eyes of the loaded and sensational reputation surrounding Nietzsche before reading him. Nietzsche is a tricky philosopher because he uses a self-fashioned form of dialectics where he takes different premises to their logical conclusions and juxtaposes them. Beneath his provocative writing is a subtext of transforming symbols, narratives, and characters more important the surface writing itself.
He is a pessimistic curmudgeon much like Mark Twain was and like Twain he was a complex person with nuanced views. Swift’s venomous barbs most often aim at contemporary politics and religious practices, and he is probably the most skilled at using irony to ensnare his opponents. In A Modest Proposal he underscores the idiocy of England’s politics to Ireland, all the while exposing English people’s prejudices to Irish people. English readers at the time actually bought Swift’s portrayal as truthful. Tale of a Tub shows how different Christian sects deviated from the Catholic tradition and the many rationalizations people use for those actions. Gulliver’s Travels is a broader sweep at contemporary European politics and philosophy. He concludes that humans are barbaric Yahoos.
Marquis de Sade
Like Nietzsche he has his own loaded and sensationalized reputation. He wasn’t a modern proponent for sexual freedom and against censorship, as liberals often portray him. Rather, he examined the moral and sexual landscape of his time and was willing to explore the very bottom. It is important to see the worst in us. Sade is adept at showing how egotistical people use sophistries to silence their conscience and commit brutal acts. At the other end of the spectrum, Sade attacks the moral pretentions and hypocrisies of the aristocrats and priests by attacking conventional attitudes of morality and religion. He also reveals the heinous secret actions those “super moral beings” did. Sade also offers some feminism in his writings. His female characters are arguably the most self-actualized and liberated (sexually and otherwise) women of all fiction.
Chomsky is an extremely important modern philosopher because of his sustained integrity as an activist and his thorough critiques on modern American capitalism and hegemony. Chomsky in particular likes to focus on the power politics American oligarchs use to control their own people and countries abroad. He also focuses a lot on how the media works to spread propaganda and create entire false narratives and narrow debate platforms. Both of these foci are consistent in Hegemony or Survival, Profit over People, and Manufacturing Consent. The genius of the system, Chomsky says, is giving you the illusion of freedom to deceive you rather than oppress you outright. His insightful analysis of media manipulation is similar to Huxley’s portrayal of the media in Brave New World.
A valuable companion to Chomsky, Harvey focuses more on economical analyses. A Brief History of Neoliberalism traces the origins and implementation of modern American capitalism as we know it today, hence the title. Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism and other works explore capitalism’s limitations and foresee it’s eventual collapse. He also published important works on social justice like Social Justice and the City.
The Prince of Anarchism, Kropotkin was a tireless activist as well as a writer. His prominent ideas, bread and butter to anarchist circles are mutual aid, mutual support, and voluntary cooperation. In Mutual Aid he argues against social Darwinist rhetoric of “survival of the fittest” and instead shows that nature encourages social animals like humans to cooperate to survive. In The Conquest for Bread he proposes an economic system where money is obsolete and his based on mutual exchanges. His prison writings are a more informal doorway to his thoughts but no less revealing where he explores many different anarchist topics.
The Divine Comedy is of great poetic beauty and reveals the medieval mind’s view of the cosmos. More importantly it shows a moral landscape, nuanced and hierarchical. He explores in detail the nature of moral and amoral actions through the joy and harm they bring through his ironic punishments. He also details the most comprehensive guide to the Christian afterlife to date.
Dickinson wrote small poems but when collectively but together they reveal a big and idiosyncratic worldview. Like Walk Whitman, she inaugurated modern poetry, free in form and self-styled, and placing intense personal experiences above all. Her poems form brief flashes that when combined together form the whole starry sky. However, those flashes are entire worlds unto themselves. She distills the pure essence as far as one is capable of words. From then on, music is needed. In just a few lines she can seemingly contradict herself and reveal a layered social criticism or worldview. Her topics are often love, death, nature, and the struggle against her Christian faith. Brevity is the soul of wit, and the soul’s name is Emily Dickenson.
- E. Du Bois
The Souls of Black Folk is an essential work in exploring what has been called the “black consciousness”, a double existence where is part of the American nation and history and the other where one is part of an oppressed race of people that forms a whole class. Du Bois describes the oppression and national identity black people in America face to this very day. Anyone interested in social justice must read this book.
Mead kickstarted modern anthropology as a discipline in America and for those reasons deserves a solid spot on this list. While her ideas, that people are strongly influenced by culture, are not knew in the discipline she helped popularize those ideas to the mainstream. Coming of Age in Samoa was the chief work that became a major vehicle of broadening sexual moors during the sexual revolution.
Idiosyncratic and vivid, Blake crosses genres and artistic disciplines by his unique engraving techniques where he merges words and images into one. Blake is also important for his revolutionary politics, which are still radical to this day. Irregular for most religious writers his outlook is mystical rather than orthodox and borrows from many different sources. Songs of Innocence and Experience is written in deceptively simple, childlike prose, but tackles “grown up” issues such as slavery and child labor head on. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, as one academic put it, “rehabilitates the Satanic”; ideas such as conflict, energy, bodily energies, and violent passions, and integrates them as essential parts of the human condition.
High school doesn’t make you too fond of Shakespeare, as he is another dreary and incomprehensible text to read before you take your next exam. That is unfortunate, because that dull routine blinds you to an interesting genius. Shakespeare, in my opinion, is most noticeable by his ambiguousness and anonymity. He never endorses any particular worldview or ideology, and though his characters are nuanced and complicated you never are able to see an underlying message that points to what he was like as a person and what he believed in. We moderns tend to put Shakespeare on a pedestal and make him more pretentious than he really was. But really his style is marked by its simplicity and candidness, and that lends his characters to life and makes their passions real for us.
Wollstonecraft is the archetypical feminist whose work A Vindication for the Rights of Women was one of feminism’s major first steps. Like other radical and Romantic writers she explains that reason and passion should not act independently but should inform each other. A lesser-known contribution is how she is one of the first writers to describe the psychological phenomenon of association. She was very critical of the gender role women were expected to assume such as Mary: A Fiction and Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman. To Wollstonecraft, women assumed roles that cowed them into sentimentality and dependence. Wollstonecraft’s less acknowledged but great work is Vindication of the Rights of Man where she refutes Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution, and turns his subtext on its head.
Arendt wrote many works that analyze fascism and the factors that lead to its brutalities. All of these issues were very real to her as she herself escaped the Nazis in WW II. The Origins of Totalitarianism trace the origins of Nazism and Stalinism to anti-Semitism and imperialism. In Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, she actually coined the phrase “banality of evil” to describe how atrocities are carried out not by a sole dictator but by the apathy and blind obedience of ordinary people. Other works by her are The Human Condition and On Revolution.
To this day Voltaire is a patron of the Enlightenment, a scorner of religion and superstition, a satirist of human optimism and pretention, never failing to be scandalous for the sake of his message. Voltaire was the original daring public intellectual and activist who was not afraid to be arrested and exiled for his cause. Like Gulliver’s Travels, Candide attacks human pretentions by having its protagonist lose his optimism and harden from his misfortunes. Voltaire wrote even more plays, most of them tragedies of startling intensity, such as Zaire, a tale of how jealousy and religious intolerance lead to the downfall of its heroine. A similar play, Herod and Mariam, portrays the downfall of a heroine at the hands of jealousy.
Russell is an important philosopher whose output was as prolific as a long life of ninety-eight years allows. Throughout his long life Russell held to reason and humanistic principles, simple, honest, and free of pretentions. His lifelong activism was an offshoot of his gentle wisdom. He was one of the founders of analytic philosophy and as such his works heavily contributed to logic and mathematics.
His greatest work Brave New World is an insightful reveal of how a truly dystopian society would work. It wouldn’t actively suppress thought and books, but rather create a world where people felt they didn’t need thoughts or books anymore. It wouldn’t suppress information, but flood people with so much meaningless information people don’t bother to find the truth anymore. Brave New World is probably the best of all dystopian novels because of this insight.
1984 has captured the public’s imagination as the archetypical dystopian society. However, he wrote many other good works. The American imagination is not too familiar to Orwell’s political writings that express his democratic socialist ideals. The one I am most familiar with is the Road to Wigan Pier. He portrays the soul-crushing lives of the British working class in a stark and unsentimental way. He criticizes both contemporary class inequalities as well as sentimental liberal ideas.