100 Books to Read Before the End, 1
An outsider canon, from Adorno to Grossmith
To be well informed, one must read quickly a great number of merely instructive books. To be cultivated, one must read slowly and with a lingering appreciation the comparatively few books that have been written by men who lived, thought, and felt with style.
There is not enough time in a collapsing world to live a good life in which reading plays some part, and read crap bookswhich is easy to do. Not that you have to always be reading masterpieces of world literature, which can be a bit draining, particularly if you have to work, but when you’ve got time and space to tackle something decent you might want to start here.
The theme is quality. Strange, I know, but the only thing these books have in common is that they are good, which is the only criterion anyone with any sense ever looks for in such a list. There is light relief, here and there, but, for the most part, what follows are the towering literary achievements of our species.If you want Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Hilary Mantle or a Booker Prize winner, find yourself one of the ‘100 books to read before you die’ lists that the broadsheets and bookclubs put out.
Also, there are no black authors here and very few women (one I think). Amazing that so many people need to be reminded of why; because world literature, over the past three millennia, has been overwhelmingly dominated by European and Asian men. Even the woke-Pravda Guardian’s 100 greatest novels were nearly all by The Dreaded White Man. If you have to have an ethnically diverse list again I suggest you go to one where quality is subordinate to keeping people happy. There are plenty of them.
None of this is to say that my subjective taste plays no part whatsoever. Of course it does. On the whole, however, what follows are works which are a lot bigger than me. That’s what quality is, something which brings to the self something which is beyond the self, and the self-reinforcing society which it is tragically a part of.
And so we do have a unifying theme. These books are all, to a greater or lesser extent,outsider literature. Not in a trivially literal sense (e.g. an ethnic outsider), but that which speaks to what lies outside the known, or the knowable, by those who had to struggle to grasp the elusive and the mysterious, and bring them back to a world which is so resistant to it, so resistant to…
1: Adorno, Theodore; Horkheimer, Max Dialectic of Enlightenment. Classic critique,from the Godfathers of the Frankfurt School, of Enlightenment thought, the alienating command-mentality of rationalism that has terminated in a machine-like intellectual world that commodifies individuality and sells it back to us. Extremely tough going — Adorno’s style is, like Hegel and Heidegger’s repulsive — but, still, more page-for-page insights than can be found in 300 pages of most books. Two examples: ‘Under the given conditions, exclusion from work means mutilation, not only for the unemployed but also for people at the opposite social pole. Those at the top experience the existence with which they no longer need to concern themselves as a mere substrate, and are wholly ossified as the self which issues commands.’ and ‘It is a feature of the irrationally systematic nature of this society that it reproduces, passably, only the lives of its loyal members.’ Despite being unnecessarily difficult, not to mention hollow, it’s worth making the effort with Adorno, and with the rest of his work, which cuts right through the shallow either-or fakery of modernism. Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, something of a follow-up, and not exactly pool-side reading either, is also overflowing with acute observations on the modern condition.
2: Akutagawa, Ryunosuke, Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories. Akutagawa’s stories mix sweet sorrow, grotesque weirdness and the kind of subtlety that makes you warm with hazy pleasure when you detect it — or even (no matter) have it explained to you, as I had to with a few of these. Find yourself, if you can, a small, perceptive Japanese woman to guide you through the hypersubtle loveliness of Green Onions.
3: Amis, Kingsley. Lucky Jim. Well-behaved and restrained situation comedy. Terribly English, but light, umannered (in fact it represented one of the first concerted attacks on ‘manners’ in the literature of this country) and very funny; the kind of comedy that comes from slowing down social interactions to a quarter speed and remarking on every bizarre nuance that passes between people who are only pretending to like each other. Don’t bother with Amis fils; Amis père didn’t.
4: Balzac, Honoré de. Pére Goriot. Or any of the better ‘La Comédie humaine’ novels (such as Eugénie Grandet). Balzac makes an astonishing contrast to the trivial dilettantes exalted in the literary world of today, providing more insight into the human condition in ten pages than most Booker / Pulitzer winners manage in a career: ‘Eugène was smouldering with that suppressed rage which drives a young man to plunge still deeper into the hole he has dug for himself, as if he hoped to find some way out at the bottom’ or ‘…one of the most unattractive habits of Lilliputian minds is to imagine that others share their pettiness.’ Not as broad as Tolstoy, say, or as profound as Dostoevsky, Balzac’s later works tend to drown in minutia and he’s far too interested in commerce, but for anyone with a stake in the human condition, Balzac deserves to be read as closely as Proust read him.
5: Barfield, Owen. Saving the Appearances. Gets a bit hard going here and there, but is a minor classic of modern philosophy, if a little woolly round the edges. Makes the case that religion and science are forms of idolatry, in that both — despite of course what their followers like to believe — worship creations of the mind.
6: Berger, John. About Looking. ‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.’ A book about art, and about what is right in front of your eyes when you look at it, inspired by Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, about how the contextual aura of a work of art, which is literally priceless, has been supplanted by mere authenticity, something which you can put a price on. A subversive book because, like all subversive ideas, it is simple and direct; at one point in the teevee series Berger gets children to talk about renaissance masterpieces, and they make far more interesting comments than Brian Sewell or, God help us, Jonathan Jones.
7: Berger, Peter L. The Social Construction of Reality (with Thomas Luckmann). ‘The institutional order embraces the totality of social life, which resembles the continuous performance of a complex, highly stylized liturgy.’ Berger is tough-going. Not Marx or Adorno-level tough, but he does require a bit of effort. Worth it though. Unpicks the deep-structure of society in ways that connect up far flung perceptions into gut-powerful glowing nodes of deep meaning. The Sacred Canopy is also outstanding.
8: Berne, Eric. The Games People Play. ‘Wooden Leg. In this game the player uses his “wooden leg’”as an excuse for not doing something that he — and probably everyone else — knows he should. “Oh, I’d love to go hot-air ballooning with you, but I have this wooden leg, you see’. In extremis leads to ‘the plea of insanity’— “Of course I killed her! What do you expect of someone as fucked up as I am!”’ Plenty of other crackers here. Berne was one of a few marvellous psyche-writers of the 60s and 70s who explored the deep structure of the everyday. Also highly recommended; Erving Goffman.
9: Bickel, Lennard. Mawson’s Will. The most extraordinary tale of polar survival, beating even Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s correctly titled Worst Journey in the World. Douglas Mawson — ‘Awesome Mawson’ as my mum calls him — set out in 1911 to explore 1500 miles of unexplored Antarctica. It goes wrong, then it goes wronger, then there is a massive disaster, then everything gets really bad, then you begin to understand, in the deepest sense, what ‘difficult’ means.
10: Black, Bob. The Abolition of Work. Why work? Bob Black’s essays tend to wander into — I think — self-indulgent point scoring against ‘his enemies,’ but much that he writes is quite inspiring. This essay, rightly the one he is most famous for, is essential reading. I’ve heard that Bob Black fell into line over Covid and has been shaking his fist at the Russkies, so he might have fallen further than I thought, but he’s an elusive cat, so hard to substantiate.
11: Blake, William. Selected Poems. When Thomas Butts, a friend of the Blakes, came to visit them at their house in Lambeth he was amazed to find them both completely naked in the garden. ‘Come in!’ Blake cried. ‘It’s only Adam and Eve, you know!’ Blake’s life and work forms a whole, like the infinity that revealed itself to him in everything he laid his eyes on. I’ve chosen this famous book of poems as a gentle place to start, but everywhere leads directly to everywhere.
12: Blyth, Jonathan. The Law of the Playground. ‘LASER EYES. The glare that a teacher would give any wrongdoing too minor to warrant a verbal ticking off. When receiving laser eyes, pupils can protect themselves by holding a protractor or shatterproof ruler over the eyes, refracting the glare into a harmless rainbow of disapproval’. Abusive, puerile, stupid, revolting, sadistic, deeply, deeply offensive and yet, often, creative and sometimes oddly charming stories from ordinary schools, including a couple from mine. This book will be one of the first on the pyre when the woke generation take charge of the world, so get a copy now.
13: Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Gets a bit boring halfway through, and all the characters are real idiots. Aye! ‘bu’ that ‘fahl, flaysome divil of a gipsy, Heathcliff!’ I quite like Jane Austen — she’s wonderfully observant, within her limited, frigid little world — but for depth and subtlety Wuthering Heights knocks clean white Mansfield Park into a cocked hat. Charlotte Bronté’s work is good too, but a lot neater than Emily’s. D.H. Lawrence rightly condemned the rather sordid wish-fulfilment finale of Jane Eyre as ‘pornographic’.
14: Bryant, Edwin F. (ed.) Bhagavata Purana.10. By far the sexiest religious masterpiece. At one point Krishna duplicates himself into nine-hundred thousand copies of himself in order to make love to as many adoring devotees, for five hundred God-years, until the universe itself ignites. A friend of mine used to be a Hare Krisna, a fairly benign cult from what I can tell, although sexually repressive. He had to wear a little plastic apron in the shower so as not to catch a glimpse of his penis and was told that only when sufficiently spiritually advanced could he tackle the fruity tenth.
15: Bukowski, Charles. Ham on Rye. ‘At the age of 25 most people were finished. A whole goddamned nation of assholes driving automobiles, eating, having babies, doing everything in the worst way possible, like voting for the presidential candidate who reminded them most of themselves.’ Bukowski’s finest, but I have a soft-spot for bildungsroman. Post Office and Factotum are gleaming with dark spit-and-fuck truths too: ‘How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 8:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?’
16: Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God (vol 1–3). Joseph Campbell’s extraordinary review of the entire history of myth. Part 4, modern literature, is not half as interesting though (it’s all about Mann’s dull and pointless Magic Mountain). Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, the model for Star Wars (and countless tiresome Hollywood films since) focuses on male-oriented tales of self-mastery. His Historical Atlas of World Mythology is also a thing of wonder — my coffee table books of choice — although he died before completing them, which I can forgive, but it always strikes me as somewhat inconsiderate of him.
17: Camus, Albert. The Fall. ‘A single sentence will suffice for modern man. He fornicated and looked at his phone. After that vigorous definition, the subject will be, if I may say so, exhausted.’ (adapted) Ever realised you’re not the man you thought you were? This is the story for you! The Outsider is excellent too of course, with one of the funniest opening lines in the history of literature, ‘Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.’
18: Carter, Asa Earl. The Education of Little Tree. ‘He got pretty worked up about it. He said the meddlesome son of a bitch that invented the dictionary ought to be taken out and shot…’ Apparently full of lies and Carter, so they say, was full of shit. But these things really don’t matter with a story like this, which rings so true — in its innumerable details about the magic of nature and the characterful power of people who really live in it — that there has to be truth in it.
19: Céline, Louis-Ferdinand. Voyage to the end of the Night. ‘You don’t lose much when the rented house burns down.’ If you can ignore the questionable sexual ethics of Journey to the End of the Night, and a view of mankind which is unremittingly bleak, you’re in for a treat. The truth, and my God, the language. ‘Poverty is a giant, it uses your face to clean away the world’s garbage.’ On and on it goes, page after page, of unbelievably acute poetic insight, defying the rise of humourless modernism and initiating a rich vein of literature, on the margins of the acceptable canon, which started here, with Céline’s excoriating refusal of the world as he found it. From Céline, via Henry Miller, Jaroslav Hašek, Joseph Heller and Charles Bukowski the principle pleasure and purpose of the novel has, albeit without its grand ambitions, lived on, as a means of giving voice to moral truth in the teeth of a world which has no use for it.‘The best thing to do when you’re in this world, don’t you agree, is to get out of it.’ You said it Ferdinand; although I’m not sure Céline did get out, really. He pulled himself far enough out of the muck to see it as it is, but no further, which is why his decline was so very shabby.
20: Cervantes, Miguel de. Don Quixote (trans. Grossman).
Quixote belongs on this list, but it can drag and exhaust — after nearly a thousand pages of madcap irrealism it feels very much like it’s time to clean the oven — and the ending, in which the eponymous hero abruptly realises the whole thing has been a mistake, is far from satisfying. It’s a road movie, basically, with all the inherent narrative weakness the genre entails. Nevertheless, Like so many classics, Quixote is surprisingly readable and funny, especially the first part, although it does add quite a weight to the old suspended disbelief (seventeenth century Spain seems to have been crawling with noble folk pretending to be shepherds and shepherdesses) and for all the tales of derring do, and the interesting questions the novel throws up on the nature of imagination, it’s really the immortal characters of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and the love they have for each other, and for the simple goodness of life, which makes the reading so agreeable.
21: Chuang Tzu / Zhuangzi. The Book of Chuang Tzu. ‘You can’t discuss the ocean with a well frog—he’s limited by the space he lives in. You can’t discuss the Way with a cramped scholar—he’s shackled by his doctrines.’ The first and certainly one of the greatest anarchist texts ever written. Quite unbelievably radical. I prefer the Watson translation, (The Complete Works of Zhuangzi) which has an excellent introduction and textual notes.
22: Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. ‘Their bearing, which was simply the bearing of commonplace individuals going about their business in the assurance of perfect safety, was offensive to me like the outrageous flauntings of folly in the face of a danger it is unable to comprehend.’ Dense, dense and super-intense; if somewhat hysterical (is Kurtz really a genius? doesn’t seem like it) and cynical (we’re basically all evil according to Conrad).
23: Crumb, Robert. Sketchbooks. Mind-blowing — far better than his comics I believe. Like opening the mind of a trickster god and pouring it over a stash of seventies porn mags. A lot of grim prurience, but entertainingly self-deprecating with it and some excellent, caustic observations of the ordinary folk of the world:
24: Dick, Philip K. Valis. ‘Perhaps the universe is in the invisible process of turning into the lord?’ Talking of Crumb, he did a very good account of the strange episode that led Philip K. Dick to write this, the world’s only science fiction autobiography. Dick penetrated the unreality of modern life down to the projector of the shuddering representation the mind makes of it. His hard-gnosticism sends him a bit awry, I believe, but I also think he was the last author to have said something. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is another reality-bender, and perhaps a little more accessible, as are Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — a subtle and bizarre enquiry into empathy (‘The only way to determine whether someone was an android was empathy. What separated humans from androids was that androids had no sense of empathy. The difficulty was that very few humans did either.’) and The Divine Invasion, which is Valis part two. Dick is the most modern writer of fiction on this list. If anyone knows of any writer, since 1974, who has said something, do let me know.
25: Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. Dickens’ most autobiographical novel and [consequently, I’d say] one of his most enjoyable. Possibly the most ludicrous ending in world literature, although plots aren’t so very important in Dickens, and Copperfield is, like most of Dickens’s heroes, a real sap with little modulation of character; but that doesn’t really matter either. The real problem with Dickens is that the natural, unifying ground of human character has been vitiated, leaving a sordid carnival of surface personalities and silly names; but, as Terry Eagleton points out, these are an essential backdrop to modern literature, situated as it is in urban spaces that deprive everyone we meet of context, and, in their reflection of a grotesque new social experience, Dickens characters make a profound commentary on modern life, often missed by his detractors. His books are also tremendously entertaining, with a light-hearted buoyancyand eye for telling detail that humanise even the most dreadful scenes. He does tend to go overboard with all this, which can make his stories feel thin and mercurial — not to mention, gawd, so sentimental — but I’d rather read Bleak House than Madame Bovary any day, and consider the great man something of a major influence.
26: Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov (trans. Magarshack, David). And talking of endings, Dostoevsky was all about them. There is a breathless, fanatical feeling to his writing that make you want to get the point, tell us the POINT Fyodor! But, like a kind of sweaty existential-intellectual one-night-stand, after it’s over you don’t always feel you want to get into a relationship. There are some passages in Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils and here, in The Brothers Karamazov (particularly the legendary Grand Inquisitor and Russian Monk sections), along with a great many unmatched insights into the perversity of the human spirit, which are, for psychic truth, unmatched in world literature. For the sensory beauty of the sensory life, go Tolstoy, for the darker, inner chambers of the mountain — and for the freedom of the spirit that can only be found at the bottom of the pile — let Fyodor be your guide. You’ll have to wade through a great deal of piffle about ‘we Russians’ and his world is terribly claustrophobic (even the outdoor scenes seem to happen indoors — nature is dreadfully absent from his work) but well worth it.A related recommendation; Joseph Frank’s biography of Dostoevsky, which is the best literary biography I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a few. One of the greatest pleasures of my ‘intellectual life’ has been reading The Brothers Karamazov in tandem with Frank’s commentary. The glory!
27: Elias, Norbert. The Civilising Process. Fascinating history of manners, showing how social climbing and new class-stratification tended to repress physicality and spontaneity, leading to what we now understand as civility. Related, and also mind-opening, Phillipe Ariès, author of two masterpieces of medieval scholarship, The Hour of Our Death and Centuries of Childhood.
28: Eliot, T.S. The Wasteland. Along with The Hollow Men; pretty much the unworld as it is. Prufrock is phenomenal too, as is Four Quartets.
29: Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. Also Propaganda. Ellul’s work, along with that of Illich and Mumford, is central to understanding the modern world. Here is my account of the same system that Ellul wrote about so eloquently and perceptively, incorporating some of his key insights.
30: Eschenbach, Wolfram von. Parzival. Astonishing story, of penetrating subtlety, but pretty inaccessible these days as most medieval romances are. For a TLDR you might want to read Campbell’s account (see above).
31: Fielding, Henry. The History of Tom Jones; A Foundling. Tom Jones helped sire the English novel, which, for several centuries, was one of our chief contributions to world culture. Here the joy lies in Fielding’s mordant humour, his generous, forgiving view of human nature and his well-designed plots. It’s also a pleasure to inhabit a world in which the farting, shitting, bawdy body is accepted, in which society is, to some degree, ‘integrated’ (the social classes exist, for all their enmities, together) and in which psychological qualities have reality (Honour and Wit and Doubt and so on contend in people’s breasts like wrestlers), all far more human — not to mention medieval — than the remote, shallow, professional world of the Regency and Victorian literature which followed. Tom Jones does suffer from an innately conservative realism, with the suffocating superficiality that realism entails — the characters don’t end up much changed by 900 pages of adventure and neither does the reader — but, for all that, Fielding’s company — which he is prodigal with, frequently taking the reader by the hand in long authorial asides — is as congenial as that of his warm-hearted hero.
32: Forster, E.M. The Machine Stops. Over a hundred years ago Forster predicted the internet and the dystopian hellscape that it started making of the world when mechanisation ceased conveying people to to things and starting conveying things to people. Not just an external hell, but a psychological nightmare, one of constant impatient fear and inner deadness, all outlined here. Science-fiction at its prophetic, chilling finest.
33: Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. At the heart of Foucault too is a horrible, horrible emptiness, but this remains one of the classic works on the schizoid introjection of surveillance and the extraordinarily subtle techniques of controlling people in modern society. Should be read side-by-side with Baudrillard, another ‘postmodernist’, who, for all his emptiness, is also worth exploring and who provides a useful corrective to the idea, in both Foucault and Debord, that power and propaganda are things there which we here can do something about, or even perceive, when we have become the very illusion which oppresses us.
34: Grossmith, George. Diary of a Nobody. Funny late Victorian comedy about an uptight social climber — the status-obsessed forerunner of David Brent, Alan Partridge, Basil Fawlty and Rupert Rigsby. Not hysterically funny, but worth reading. It’s by the heroin-addict actor character in Mike Leigh’s splendid Topsy Turvy, if you’ve seen that. George’s brother did the illustrations…
Read part 2 here.
Or, to put it another way, ‘A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones — for life is short.’ Arthur Schopenhauer.
Those I have discovered at any rate. I’m not claiming this list is somehow definitive, which would be preposterous.
Sometimes, it must be said, much lesser.
Actually ‘dialectic’, or description of the evolving relationship of opposing forces.
Although the authors, being Marxist materialists, did not actually reject the Enlightenment itself.
Eagleton writes; ‘Distinguished visitors to Dickens’s home would smile indulgently to see the great man crouched on the carpet playing with his children, only to realize after a while that he was taking the game with disturbing seriousness and appeared notably reluctant to break off.’ Few authors have understood children and childishness as well as Dickens. Dostoevksy was another. Lawrence too could write a child.
Dostoevsky also presents one of the most profound and penetrating critiques of materialism and utilitarianism in literature.
I’ve heard that David Magarshack’s biography is more incisive and (obviously) shorter, but I can’t find a copy.