The following is an attempt to compile a trunk of books to take to a deserted island, where I will be marooned for a year. For this list, I try to refrain from the more common, canonical, immortal selections like Shakespeare, Milton, Woolf, et al. My own gloss accompanies each selection.
1. Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco
Many have considered this a professor’s novel. Luckily, Umberto Eco embodies the deep spirit of the mystery story that imbues his native Italy. Indeed, Eco was a professor, among many other things, but the novel manages to balance a pulsing rhythm of the stylish giallo (Italian for “yellow,” referring to the lurid paperbacks of cheap mysteries) with a complete saturation of academic intrigue. A medieval scholar, Eco is probably better known for his novel The Name of the Rose, but I find Foucault’s Pendulum more representative of his signature mix of scholarship and creativity. If you like being driven to encyclopedias to learn more about some topic or other that has roused your interest, this is the book for you.
2. Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language by Douglas R. Hofstadter
Only Douglas Hofstadter could take an obsession over one small French poem and produce 800 engaging pages of a virtual library of topics. The theme here is translation, and, being the master of analogy that he is, Hofstadter collapses borders to seek out every possible substantive isomorphism available to explore the mechanics of translating from one language to another (my favorite such analogy is that of the Rubik’s cube). Beyond translation, the book explores the dynamic and catalytic powers that constraints introduce to formal systems. This inspired me to write a little book of poems based on the principles introduced throughout the book, which also afforded me a correspondence with Hofstadter himself
3. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter
Rarely can a book be overpraised. Since its publication in 1979, securing instant cult status, it has maintained its place of high esteem, predominantly in tech circles. Though some of its technical content is dated—a sort of inverse Moore’s Law as applied to the writing of technology—the concepts are supremely prescient. For me, the salient topic is that of isomorphisms. Hofstadter is interested in finding two seemingly unrelated things that are isomorphic based on their underlying formal systems. If we can see things as formal systems, we can derive a set of axioms, and if we can find things whose formal systems have axioms that are complementary, they can be said to be isomorphic. But in addition to the profundity of the foremost presentations, Hofstadter showcases his masterful creative powers throughout the book, seemingly effortlessly playing with the marriage of content and form through, primarily, mimesis. For those looking for a rebuffed version of this classic work, Hofstadter has given us I Am a Strange Loop, but, for me, not much compares to the thrill of reading GEB.
4. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Another book whose title pays homage to Shakespeare (Hamlet in this case), joining the company of The Sound and the Fury, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and, more recently, The Fault in Our Stars, among many others. David Foster Wallace had one of the sharpest, deepest minds in history. His loss reminds one of the opening line of Ginsberg’s “Howl.” A graduate in mathematical philosophy, Wallace was also a beloved teacher and a highly original and diverse writer of journalism, stories, and novels—it makes sense that Infinite Jest‘s structure is based on a Sierpinski triangle. My first experience with him was A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, a delightful conjunction of the intellectual and the emotional. He is an exponent of the school of postmodern maximalism, of which Infinite Jest is the headmaster. In a dystopian future where everything is subsidized (included time), humans struggle with feelings of alienation and despair within a culture further and further abstracted by technology and mass-market consumerism.
5. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert M. Pirsig
The result of a brilliant mind struggling with madness. Like many masterpieces, the effort comes from a place of isolation and sadness. Pirsig uses motorcycle maintenance as an extended metaphor for the two modes of thinking and approaching life: the Classical and the Romantic, and builds up propositions that culminate in the idea of Quality (Pirsig’s sequel, Lila, expands his Metaphysics of Quality). The read is not always an easy one, but it is infinitely rewarding for the patient and persistent. I have a more extended treatment of the book here.
6. Warranted Christian Belief by Alvin Plantinga
What I love about Plantinga is his lack of sensationalism and his lucid, controlled sense of handling a highly contentious area of discourse. Coming from the school of analytic philosophy, Plantinga wields Occam’s razor, logic, and probability to clear the dust and get to the core of an argument. The seminal argument that has made Plantinga a big name in religious debates is that there is no conflict between science and religion but there is a conflict between both naturalism and religion and naturalism and science. Of all of his books, Warranted Christian Belief (part of a three-book series) is the most popular, and for good reason. The prose is definitely more academic in nature, but the arguments are clean and a boon for anyone curious to consider more thoughts on the big questions.
7. The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton
Imagine that Montaigne decided to channel his power of memory and writing into a single topic (instead of hundreds of topics)—this gives a sense of what Robert Burton accomplished in this compendium of melancholia. I discuss the book in more length in my review, but suffice it to say that, if that Samuel Johnson couldn’t get enough of it, it’s probably worth reading. It is a thick text, but, like Montaigne, it doesn’t necessarily need to be read cover to cover; the sections mostly stand on their own and can be read at random (sort of like Burroughs’s “cut ups,” though this isn’t a deliberate formal design in Burton). There is much wisdom in its pages, borne out of Burton’s disdain for what was happening in the clash between Catholicism and Protestantism at the time.
8. The Recognitions by William Gaddis
I first heard of this book from Jonathan Franzen’s essay “How To Be Alone,” and made a mental note to get around to it at some point. Roughly four years later, I settled in with it and ended up casting off my usual bedtime hour that night. I also happened to have been brainstorming potential PhD topics at the time and thought that perhaps Gaddis fit the bill. But—alas—a fellow named Steven Moore had already secured his reign in that endeavor, and to a marked degree. Contrary to some opinions, likely based on the novel’s size and use of perspective, the book is not complicated; what it is is mighty, a work of exuberant genius. In the same way that Melville’s Captain Ahab takes God up on his challenge to Job (“Cans’t thou draw out Leviathan with an hook?”), so, too, does Gaddis’s Wyatt Gwyon, through counterfeiting art, take Science up on its implicit challenge.
9. Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
Jorge Luis Borges. There’s not much I can say to laud the Argentinian sage that Alberto Manguel hasn’t already more eloquently stated (check out his short encomium With Borges). Borges expanded the possibilities of what fiction can do. From alternative histories to self-referential stories to exploring the themes of memory, infinity, and the tesseract, Borges has left us with a collection of stories that will continue to enthrall, no matter how the world changes. He has reached a universalism akin to Goethe’s Faust. My current favorite stories are “The Aleph” and “Shakespeare’s Memory,” with a heavy emphasis on the latter. Borges has the ability to take a single interesting thought (e.g. what if I could have all of Shakespeare’s memories?) and craft a story that will leave the reader in a cerebral stupor.
10. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
I am a fan of Donna Tartt’s prose; her sentences are as crisp and inevitable as those of Philip Roth. Though I sang the praises of her latest novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch, it is her first novel, The Secret History, that both hooked me and still haunts me. Tartt achieves an atmosphere of mystery, intrigue, and, well, ennui that keeps the reader in a heady mix of curious uncertainty to the end. It is easy to chalk the book up to a story about a bunch of spoiled rich kids squandering their time in college, but this would be a very immature reading of what Tartt has constructed.