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May 22, 2005

Books I Should Have Read

Matt Yglesias handed me the baton on the latest meme, books you should have read but haven't. And since the tag came from Matt, where better to start than with the guy he did his thesis on?

John Rawls' A Theory of Justice: I've cracked this one open a number of times. I've battled my way through part one. But, in the end, I never reach -- hell, I never even catch sight of -- the finish line. Bonus: I'm particularly ashamed whenever Jonah Goldberg goes on his "liberals need to read their philosophers" tangent. Bonus Bonus: Since I often go on a liberals have read their philosophers rejoinder and display Rawls prominently within the post, I have a secret suspicion that Jonah's no more finished his than I've finished mine. Bonus Bonus Bonus: I can joke that I'm speaking about Rawls' veil of ignorance from behind my own veil of ignorance. Awesome.

The Bible: I've read a lot of this one. Most of the Gospels, most of the Tanakh (I refuse to call it the Old Testament), but I always fail somewhere around Paul's letters. This is particularly galling as my non-political intellectual interest is religious history, so I should probably have the source document straight. Nevertheless, the Bible's tough to get through. The Gospels aren't bad (though they are redundant), but have you tried trudging through Leviticus? Staying awake through the endless genealogies? Tough stuff. (As an aside, the Koran is really much easier and more pleasant to read. So far as Holy Books go, Islam definitely had the best wordsmiths.)

Literature: This is a canon, but I'm woefully ignorant of it. Hemingway? Think I read a short story once. Faulkner? Nothing at all. Dostoevsky? Crime and Punishment is taunting me from the bookshelf. I've never read Macbeth, can't allude to King Lear, never finished anything by Joyce, and have somehow avoided cracking open John Updike. Now, I've got a few loves among the greats -- mainly Saul Bellow and John Steinbeck -- but on the whole, I'm terribly out of the loop. One day I'd love to do a Great Books project, but so long as I've got a blog to feed and current events to contextualize, I can't see where I'll get the time.

George Orwell's Collected Essays and Letters: Nick Confessore had his rules for writing hung up in the office. Paul Glastris would refer to him during editorial meetings. The Economist bases their style guide on Orwell's essay, "Politics and the English Language". Christopher Hitchens just wrote a book on him. Hendrick Hertzburg venerates him. He's the patron saint of journalism. And so, awhile back, I ordered his collected works, sat down to go through it, and got distracted two essays in. Orwell is a great writer, his reportage vibrant and organic without resorting to the rhetorical fireworks needed by today's wordsmiths. But I don't find him particularly transformative. His rules for writing are fine, but basic, and he broke them often (indeed, he warned against using the passive voice while writing in the passive voice). In the end, he's good, but I can't figure out what makes him so pressing.

Karl Marx's Anything: I like old Karl. Indeed, I just read a biography of him simply because I find the guy interesting. His critique of capitalism is pretty solid, even if his prediction of what would come next failed on (approximately) a million levels. But I can't make it through the guy's writing. Not the Communist Manifesto, not Capital, not The Collected Works...I like reading through his ideas, but only if they're rewritten by someone else.

So there's your five. They may not be the books I most wish I'd read, but they are the ones I most often find myself pretending I've read. Thank God for book reviews, lit crit, and summaries, I guess. I pass the bat to Greg from the Talent Show, Neil Sinhababu, and the off-hiatus Lindsay Beyerstein. Further, in a shameless show of favoritism, I'm adding a fourth and tagging Kate.

May 22, 2005 in Books | Permalink


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It's somewhat ironic (or maybe I'm misusing this word like everyone else seems to) that you haven't read Marx when the hyper-advanced state of the division of labor has left you confined to blogging policy issues (great job by the way), leaving you no time to read great literature and thus fully realize your multi-faceted true human self. See, if we lived in communist society, you'd be able to read Hemingway in the morning, fish during the day, and critically criticize (i.e., blog) after dinner....

By the way, Capital puts me to sleep, but The Communist Manifesto I always find highly entertaining, as it was written for a general audience and not other 19th century philosophers/political economists.

Posted by: Tyler | May 22, 2005 6:44:49 PM

BTW: The Veil of Ignorance is designed to create justice in the following manner:
Agents behind a thick veil know (in short) only what makes humans tick. They don’t know who they are, who they represent, or anything about the history of their society. What they are granted by the Veil is a full working knowledge of a Platonic set of economic, social science, physics (where/when applicable) and other such tools...

I mention this because I often see the term abused, which I think you have in this post...

Sorry for being an ass...

Posted by: Andrew Cory | May 22, 2005 7:13:16 PM

Dude...take an evening, the Communist Manifesto is short, so is MacBeth, and they are both necessary. Or take a lit class in school, see if you can squeeze one in, that'll put the fear of Milton into you! or at least force you to read him. It's rewarding and emminently political.

Posted by: justin | May 22, 2005 8:43:56 PM

A pretty early work of his, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 is readable. I find it hard to believe that anyone in history actually made it all the way through Capital.

Posted by: Brian | May 22, 2005 9:31:12 PM

I have earned a B.A in Biblical studies and have over 70 hours of graduate work toward an M.Div. I read Hebrew and Greek (not well, unfortunately). I have not read the Christian Bible all the way through. I have read portions of all books, all of most of them. I've even read quite a bit of the various Apocryphal works.

Seriously, though, reading the whole thing is overrated. I mean, the book of Numbers really is pretty much just that. It makes Leviticus look like a Grisham novel.

Posted by: Stephen | May 22, 2005 10:14:59 PM

'What (said Elphinston), have you read it through?'
'No, Sir, do you read books through?'

-- Samuel Johnson

Posted by: ahem | May 22, 2005 11:23:13 PM

Andrew: It's just a joke, lighten up. As I said, I've been through the first part of the book quite a bit, I know what the veil of ignorance is.

Posted by: Ezra | May 22, 2005 11:38:30 PM

On Marx, much of his writing is actually quite good. The Manifesto is nice and light (a hobgoblin stalks Europe...), as are a number of his polemics. So why can't I get through him? It's quite weird.

Posted by: Ezra | May 22, 2005 11:40:17 PM

I did apologize! It’s just that seeing references to the Veil is starting to become a pet peeve of mine. I am sure once the Quarter ends, and I am done with my 20 weeks of Rawls, I’ll proceed to forget him like he was the Latin I took last year...

As for any of Shakespeare’s plays, for gods’ sake, don’t read them, watch them! You don’t pour over a Kevin Smith script and make cooing sounds over how funny he is, you pop Clerks into the DVD player and laugh. I found that my enjoyment of the Bard went up pretty dramatically when I stopped trying to read them...

Posted by: Andrew Cory | May 22, 2005 11:59:13 PM

A pretty early work of his, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 is readable.

In my experience, students have a _much_ harder time with EPM than the Manifesto. Marx never even intended the former to be published. If you're unsure which bits of Marx to start with, start with the Manifesto or some of the speeches to Working Men's associations.

Posted by: Kieran | May 23, 2005 12:07:55 AM

Marx's writing is very dense. I just took a class on class, and had to read a lot of Marx and Engels, and I would shout out loud having to reread and reread just to get their points.

I really wanted to kick my professors when we started reading Rosa Luxemburg, because she takes the communist stuff that Marx and Engels make so difficult to read, and breaks it down in an easy to read way.

Posted by: jbou | May 23, 2005 12:10:55 AM

Thanks for the baton! I've put mine up, so go look http://iamstella.blogspot.com

Why is marx the only thing everyone is commenting on?

Posted by: Kate | May 23, 2005 12:36:58 AM

I don't recommend Marx that highly, since I think the effort expended in reading him isn't especially profitable. There are some things I admire in his work -- for example, the idea that the way the forces of production are organized influences the intellectual life of a society. I also thought his view on the future of capitalism was cool. (He's really optimistic about how capitalism will develop the forces of production, boosting technology until enormous resources can be produced at the flip of a switch. But since capitalism generates huge inequality, most people will be poor while the rich will get all the fruits. That -- and not before! -- is when we need the proletarian revolution to happen.)

But a lot of Marx's ideas -- for example, the species-being and the labor theory of value -- are so hard to salvage that reading the original text and working to fix them is just not an efficient way of getting to good ideas. It's unclear exactly how his normative views are set up. The Hegelian dialectical thing that was everybody's idee fixe in the mid-1800s injects its dumbness into the text. And he doesn't do much to spell out how communism would look, which is kind of a disappointment if you were expecting that.

Thanks for passing the baton, by the way. I'm almost done...

Posted by: Ethical Werewolf | May 23, 2005 12:38:13 AM

Marx's German Ideology is a book that everyone should read--it's where he spells out the connection between the mode of production and thought. The German Ideology will also explain why it's totally unecessary for you to ever read Rawls. The critique of the Gotha Program is also really useful for dismissing a lot of misconceptions about Marx. When somebody else talks about Marx's ideas, the odds are good that he'll be mischaracterized.
Nietszche should be on this list somewhere.

Ethical Werewolf: The species-being is a useful concept, although it's awkward in English; it's just what makes us human. Marx was primarily a social theorist, even if he did take very strong political stances, and he would be the first person to tell you that his normative views are irrelevant and stem from the dominant capitalist ideology of rights. You're right that Marx doesn't understand how capitalism works, and most of the Hegelianism goes nowhere, but his larger ideas about how societies operate are invaluable. Weber said that while Marx was often mistaken, his mistakes were far more inspired than most true observations.

Posted by: Cliff | May 23, 2005 2:54:56 AM

A Theory of Justice is terribly written; read his later works for a much clearer presentation of most of the same ideas.

Posted by: pantomimeHorse | May 23, 2005 5:53:31 AM

my non-political intellectual interest is religious history

Have you read The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts by Israel Findelstein and Neil Asher Silberman.

The book is essentially an overview of modern Biblical Archaeology, the agreement and disagreement between the Tanakh (primarily the Torah and the Former Prophets) and the archaeological record, and theories about why there are these particular areas of agreement and disagreement.

In a nut shell, their contention is that the Bible was compiled/written in the late 7th Century BCE during the reign of King Josiah of Judah to justify his plan for the (re)conquest of the land of the kingdom of Israel.

While I have an interest in Biblical History, I tend to be more broadly focused on Ancient History in general. However, whenever I get tired of listening to people claim that the Bible should be read literally, I re-read this book to remind myself that this is not at all possible. (At the moment, I'm in the middle of it for the 4th time.)

Posted by: pansauce | May 23, 2005 8:07:51 AM

My political theory professors always said to skip Theory of Justice and read Political Liberalism, his main revision and update, instead. So I read Political Liberalism, and feel comfortable telling people I've "read Rawls."

Posted by: mikey | May 23, 2005 10:12:39 AM

A bright fellow could read Faulkner's As I lay Dying, Hemmingway's The Sun also Rises and McBeth all in one weekend. Would it really matter, though? You probably couldn't have many important thoughts about even one of those books in a single weekend. Really giving a damn is what takes time; it is also what makes reading books potentially important.

Just be a policy person, know what you are talking about right down to its roots and be happy.

Posted by: Neil Paul | May 23, 2005 10:20:55 AM

McBeth? Necessary? It's a great play and all..but I mean...


Sorry. No. The reality of the situation is that there is absolutly NO fiction book...and very few non-fiction books that I would deem as being "necessary". Actually, you know something. There's not a single book that's necessary.

But fiction books are brainrot. Just on a different level. Worse than watching TV, to be honest. It leaves your mind in a distracted half-state of imagination. And this is coming from someone who used to read about a book a week.

Non-fiction is better, but a more useful use of your time is absorbing summeries of that information, so you can obtain more information in the same amount of time. The book format for that stuff is very slow and plodding.

I'm not attacking reading, per se. I think it's fun and enjoyable, and it's a good thing to do. But I'm an anti book-snob. Books are not necessary. Reading is a necessary skill, but in this day and age, you read EVERYWHERE you go.

Posted by: Karmakin | May 23, 2005 11:10:40 AM

Odd that you relegate 'literature' to a single choice; to me, all five slots should go to works of fiction. Only by reading fiction can we have any understanding at all of the way the world really works.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | May 23, 2005 11:58:51 AM

Agree with Stephen on Numbers. And, while the begats and geneologies are mind-numbing, the portion of the Bible I find the most tedious in the description of how to build the tent of meeting in Leviticus. I also simply can't get through Revelation. But I find Paul's letters interesting, if a little dense and frequently infuriating to me.

Karmakin--you have no soul. Great works of fiction reveal truths about the human experience and character that are rarely well expressed in nonfiction, and they're essential as cultural artifacts to understand the way people and cultures thought about themselves in times past.

I do agree with Andrew that seeing or hearing Shakespeare is just as good as and generally better than reading it. Except that so many performances are just painful....

Posted by: flip | May 23, 2005 12:14:36 PM

How can you not get through Revelations? That one's pretty gripping.

Posted by: Ezra | May 23, 2005 12:20:14 PM

One reason I have never read the bible is that no one ever told me a reason why I should. Plenty of people told me to read the bible, but no one told me a reason. Why are people slogging through geneologies and tent building instructions? Doesn't it at least make sense to selectively read the bible? Or is there a prize for reading every word that I haven't heard of? Its not like if you skip Leviticus that you won't get the punch lines in Revelations.

Posted by: Neil Paul | May 23, 2005 12:46:04 PM

Whoa, Karmakin, I think it's incredibly naive, and well, cold to state that fiction is simply "brain rot". How you can claim that fiction is worse than television is beyond me. Just because fiction doesn't give you explicit facts about political situations or historical events doesn't mean it's not useful. And as for escapism, we all need a good dose every once and awhile.

Posted by: Kate | May 23, 2005 1:10:48 PM

"And, while the begats and geneologies are mind-numbing, the portion of the Bible I find the most tedious in the description of how to build the tent of meeting in Leviticus."

Are you kidding me? Some of the weirdest, coolest, most outrageously entertaining stuff in the whole Bible is in Leviticus- and has to do with the sorta strange requirements... like what to do if your dwelling has mold (it matters if it's red or green, you know)!

Posted by: TJ | May 23, 2005 1:31:32 PM

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