In the immortal worlds of Thomas Carlyle: ‘In books lies the soul of the whole Past Time: the articulate audible voice of the Past, when the body and material substance of it has altogether vanished like a dream.’ So, just for fun, I’ve decided to share with you the top ten books which have influenced my life. My colleague Andrew Carr did this on his excellent political blog (www.andrewcarr.org) and I’ve decided to have a crack. It will come as no surprise to those who know me that half are from the nineteenth century. Let me know if you love or hate any of the choices and let me know what your top ten are.

N.B If Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) by Edward Albee were a book, it would be right up there. 

10:    The Satanic Verses (1988) – Salman Rushdie.

I will admit upfront that I initially bought this book as a form of protest. Like the controversy over Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad, I will always fall on the side of free speech and will always condemn fundamentalists (religious or otherwise) who seek to use violence and intimidation to gag the arts. That said, it is actually an incredibly clever and imaginative book in its own right. The book is densely written and can be a bit painful but it is worth the effort. It is embedded with magical realism, colourful dream sequences and visions. Ultimately it tells the lonely story of the immigrant experience mixed with the classic Othello plot of maliciously goaded jealousy.

9:    The Second Sex (1949) – Simone de Beauvoir.

This will come as no surprise to anyone who reads my blog. Beauvoir, more than anyone, captures the philosophy behind the subjugation and objectification of women. I won’t say much here because you can read my entire blog on why this book is still relevant today (http://benjaminthomasjones.com/?p=44). Her work is powerful. I recommend it to both men and women.    

8:    The Symposium (c.385BCE) – Plato.

Philosophy in general, and the Greeks in particular are a bit of a passion of mine. It was tempting to include Aristotle’s Politics or Plato’s Republic. The Symposium is my favorite because of its festive and conversationalist style. I love to image that I am in the room with these great thinkers discoursing about the nature of love and the nature of knowledge itself. I also am drawn to this work because I am a big fan of the plays of Aristophanes, so I love that he is a principle character. The speech by Socrates is exceptional. Love, he argues using the famed Socratic method, is the child of Poverty and Fortune. The highest love is the love of wisdom and through philosophy we give birth to intellectual children and achieve immortality. Breathtaking.    

7:    The New Rulers of the World (2003) – John Pilger.

This book had an enormous impact on me and is the only one on the list I read before I started university. Back then I was a bit of a conservative and working at HMV in the city. This book came highly recommended from my work colleagues and it really opened my eyes to the continual pain and suffering and discrimination faced by Aboriginal people in Australia, ‘If there were a race between democratic nations to see who could best address the violation of the human rights [of its original people], Australia would be coming stone motherless last.’ Before reading this, I had a vague notion that the treatment of Aboriginal people was once bad but now better. I think many people were like me in 2003 and this book really helped open our eyes. The Rudd apology in 2008 must owe something to the work of vigilant journalists like John Pilger.  

6:    Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) – George Orwell.

Orwell’s nightmarish vision of a state-controlled society remains as potent now as ever. The concepts of doublespeak, Big Brother and the necessity of war are so relevant in the era of terrorism. This is a book which truly scared me because looking around the world, Orwell’s words seem strangely prophetic. WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH  

5:    The Communist Manifesto (1848) – Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

I think it is a testament to the greatness of this work that it not only revolutionised the readers of the nineteenth century but the twentieth also, and even now. Of course, Marxist ideas have been used in many different ways over the years and often with tragic results. Nevertheless, the Communist Manifesto has stood the test of time. As a historian I was instantly drawn to the deception of the stages of history, from the era of slavery to feudalism to bourgeois. The distinction of between the Bourgeoisie and Proletariats is as potent now as ever. It is a work I continually refer back to. I believe Marx is right when he says, ‘The history of all hitherto existing society, is the history of class struggle.’   

4:    The Gay Science (1882) – Friedrich Nietzsche.

This work was produced exactly 100 years before I was born and has had a strong influence on my thinking. It was tempting to include either Thus Spoke Zarathustra or Beyond Good and Evil, but The Gay Science was the first work of Nietzsche I ever read and it has shaped me the most. As a historian, I love Nietzsche’s critique of what he calls the cult of history. More than that, the parable of the Mad Man makes this a must-read for me. The Gay Science is the first work in which Nietzsche claims that God is dead. Unlike many anti-theistic philosophers (or scientists posed as philosophers), Nietzsche does not try and down play the enormity of this event. He embraces it and insists it be accompanied by a new epoch, ‘There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us – for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.’ I think to this day no one has given a more accurate and honest account of the death of God and the necessary repercussions. So many anti-theists try to hold on to a morality which only makes sense in a theistic framework. Nietzsche has the courage and the academic integrity to face the consequences of a Godless universe head on and to paint a new picture of society.            

3:    The Idiot (1868) – Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Dostoevsky, more than any other writer, gets me emotional. His masterful description and articulation of human suffering makes it impossible to not to be. The cruelty of the nineteenth century European class system is a prominent theme in most of his works. The Idiot highlights the moral perversity of his society (which I think is still true in ours). It shows that even if the most perfect, gentle, honest and caring person was thrown in the midst of our society, they would be spurned and seen as an oddity. It is taken for granted that one needs become greedy, corrupt and self-centered to succeed in society. It is a powerful message and critique of where our values lie.     

2:    Freedom and Independence for the Golden Land of Australia (1852) – Dr John Dunmore Lang.

I managed to find an 1857 edition of the book on ebay, it cost me $150 and is probably the most precious thing I own. Those of you who know me will be aware that I am passionate about Australian republicanism and that is the topic of both my Honours and PhD theses. Lang’s work is a masterpiece. Long before Federation, Freedom and Independence painted a utopian vision of the United Provinces of Australia. Lang was a visionary and his work is unsurpassed in its sophistication and clear-headed thinking. This is a man all patriotic Australians should be aware of.   

1:    Crime and Punishment (1866) – Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Crime and Punishment stands alone as my favorite book. I don’t think another author has captured so magnificently the potential wickedness of the human heart and the inherent longing for grace and redemption. Dostoevsky provides a stinging critique of the Übermensch ideology which would be articulated most famously by Friedrich Nietzsche his 1883 book Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I am deeply in love with the character Sonya. Revealing how the most pure and beautiful people in life are often the ones society rejects and despises is perhaps the trait I like best about Dostoevsky. Full marks, no book has had a greater impact on me.

Honourable mention:

Rights of Man (1791) – Thomas Paine.

The History of the Peloponnesian War (c.431BCE) -Thucydides.

The Histories (c.440BCE) – Herodotus.

Globalization and Its Discontents (2002) – Joseph Stiglitz.

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) – Mary Shelly.

Stupid White Men … and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation! (2001) – Michael Moore.

The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 (1845) – Friedrich Engels.

What is History? (1961) E.H. Carr.

Over to you, what did I miss? Where did I go wrong? What is your top ten?

 

6 Comments

  1. Andrew Carr March 26, 2010 at 5:20 pm

    Cheers for the link Ben & great to see your list.

    Symposium is a great work, It’s one that I remember best (though thats not much as haven’t read them in about 7-8 years). Good choice.

    I’m also reading the Gay Science at the moment & really enjoying it. About to turn to Genealogy of morals which many others have recommended in their top ten, have you read it?

    Somehow, I’ve never read any Dostoevsky, really must. C&P to start? The Brothers Karamazov sounds really interesting story wise.

    Cheers for your list, hopefully will see some others we know posting too.

     
  2. benny March 26, 2010 at 6:24 pm

    Genealogy of Morals is an amazing read. I gave a tutorial presentation on it many years ago, when I was a young man. Highly anti-Semitic. Essentially he argues that the Jews inversed the natural order of things and made humility a virtue rather than strength. There are some die hard Nietzsche fans who try to spin history that he wasn’t anti-Semitic and that he didn’t influence Hitler and the Nazis. I think if you read Genealogy honestly, you have to conclude that he said some wonderful things and had great ideas, others though, were plainly bad. There is a lot of interesting thoughts on history in there as well.

    You’ve probably read the Parable of the Madman before, but that is the highlight of the book. The words, the imagery, just everything is outstanding.

    As for Dostoevsky, Brothers, the Idiot and C&P are the three biggies. All are very worthwhile. For me, C&P pips them at the post, plus it is shorter and perhaps a better introduction to his style.

     
  3. Charli March 27, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    It’s great and inspiring to see your muses Benny, for I believe books give us a greater understanding of who we are and where we stand as individuals. It can give us a back bone within our lives. There is so much to be learnt in books,whether it be transporting you into another mindset or realm or era. People have forgotten how marvellous a book can be.

     
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  5. Stephanie O July 31, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    Hi Benny,
    Honestly, I am not familiar with many of these works, although I have come across allusions to them through my reading.
    They all appear very academic in nature and therefore their accessibility is limited. I would love to say that I have the concentration to peruse them, but I believe that unless I had option to study them in relation to another literary work/ play I would not completely identify with the themes they espouse.
    I appreciate your synopsis however, as it allows one, such as myself, who no longer graces the sandstone halls of university, an entry point into a knowledge base I would not otherwise have access to in ordinary life.
    Do you live in Canberra? I have just joined the ANU Film Group and with first screening being last night, I find it a very affordable platform for viewing and cogitation. If you are ever available, you must join me sometime.

    Regards,
    Stephanie

     
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