1984 by George Orwell
Outside, even through the shut window pane, the world looked cold. Down in the street little eddies of wind were whirling dust and torn paper into spirals, and though the sun was shining and the sky a harsh blue, there seemed to be no color in anything except the posters that were plastered everywhere. The year is 1984; the scene is London, largest population center of Airstrip One. Airstrip One is part of the vast political entity Oceania, which is eternally at war with one of two other vast entities, Eurasia and Eastasia. At any moment, depending upon current alignments, all existing records show either that Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia and allied with Eastasia, or that it has always been at war with Eastasia and allied with Eurasia. Winston Smith knows this, because his work at the Ministry of Truth involves the constant "correction" of such records. "'Who controls the past,' ran the Party slogan, 'controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.'" In a grim city and a terrifying country, where Big Brother is always Watching You and the Thought Police can practically read your mind, Winston is a man in grave danger for the simple reason that his memory still functions. He knows the Party's official image of the world is a fluid fiction. He knows the Party controls the people by feeding them lies and narrowing their imaginations through a process of bewilderment and brutalization that alienates each individual from his fellows and deprives him of every liberating human pursuit from reasoned inquiry to sexual passion. Drawn into a forbidden love affair, Winston finds the courage to join a secret revolutionary organization called The Brotherhood, dedicated to the destruction of the Party. Together with his beloved Julia, he hazards his life in a deadly match against the powers that be. Newspeak, doublethink, thoughtcrime--in 1984, George Orwell created a whole vocabulary of words concerning totalitarian control that have since passed into our common vocabulary. More importantly, he has portrayed a chillingly credible dystopia. In our deeply anxious world, the seeds of unthinking conformity are everywhere in evidence; and Big Brother is always looking for his chance.
The Stranger by Albert Camus
The plot is simple. A young Algerian, Meursault, afflicted with a sort of aimless inertia, becomes embroiled in the petty intrigues of a local pimp and, somewhat inexplicably, ends up killing a man. Once he's imprisoned and eventually brought to trial, his crime, it becomes apparent, is not so much the arguably defensible murder he has committed as it is his deficient character. The trial's proceedings are absurd, a parsing of incidental trivialities--that Meursault, for instance, seemed unmoved by his own mother's death and then attended a comic movie the evening after her funeral are two ostensibly damning facts--so that the eventual sentence the jury issues is both ridiculous and inevitable. Meursault remains a cipher nearly to the story's end--dispassionate, clinical, disengaged from his own emotions. "She wanted to know if I loved her," he says of his girlfriend. "I answered the same way I had the last time, that it didn't mean anything but that I probably didn't." There's a latent ominousness in such observations, a sense that devotion is nothing more than self-delusion. It's undoubtedly true that Meursault exhibits an extreme of resignation; however, his confrontation with "the gentle indifference of the world" remains as compelling as it was when Camus first recounted it.
The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
As soon as it first appeared in 1953, this gem by the great Saul Bellow was hailed as an American classic. Bold, expansive, and keenly humorous, The Adventures of Augie March blends street language with literary elegance to tell the story of a poor Chicago boy growing up during the Great Depression. A “born recruit,” Augie makes himself available for hire by plungers, schemers, risk takers, and operators, compiling a record of choices that is—to say the least— eccentric.
Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn
Cancer Ward examines the relationship of a group of people in the cancer ward of a provincial Soviet hospital in 1955, two years after Stalin's death. We see them under normal circumstances, and also reexamined at the eleventh hour of illness. Together they represent a remarkable cross-section of contemporary Russian characters and attitudes. The experiences of the central character, Oleg Kostoglotov, closely reflect the author's own: Solzhenitsyn himself became a patient in a cancer ward in the mid-1950s, on his release from a labor camp, and later recovered.
Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville, a young French aristocrat and ambitious civil servant, made a nine-month journey throughout America. The result was Democracy in America, a monumental study of the life and institutions of the evolving nation. Tocqueville looked to the flourishing democratic system in America as a possible model for post-revolutionary France, believing that the egalitarian ideals it enshrined reflected the spirit of the age and even divine will. His insightful work has become one of the most influential political texts ever written on America and an indispensable authority on democracy.
The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James
When William James went to the University of Edinburgh in 1901 to deliver a series of lectures on "natural religion," he defined religion as "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine." Considering religion, then, not as it is defined by--or takes place in--the churches, but as it is felt in everyday life, he undertook a project that, upon completion, stands not only as one of the most important texts on psychology ever written, not only as a vitally serious contemplation of spirituality, but for many critics one of the best works of nonfiction written in the 20th century. Reading The Varieties of Religious Experience, it is easy to see why. Applying his analytic clarity to religious accounts from a variety of sources, James elaborates a pluralistic framework in which "the divine can mean no single quality, it must mean a group of qualities, by being champions of which in alternation, different men may all find worthy missions." It's an intellectual call for serious religious tolerance--indeed, respect--the vitality of which has not diminished through the subsequent decades.
The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell
Samuel Johnson was born in 1709 and died in 1784--a long life, though one marred by depression and fear of death. On April 20, 1764, for example, he declared, "I would consent to have a limb amputated to recover my spirits." Many of the quotes Boswell includes are a sort of greatest hits: Johnson's definitions of oats and lexicographer, his love for his cat Hodge, as well as thousands of bon, and mal, mots. ("Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel"; "Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprized to find it done at all.") But there are also many unfamiliar pleasures--Boswell's accounts of Johnson's literary industry, including the Dictionary, The Rambler, and Lives of the Poets; Johnson's singular loathing for Scotland and France; and the surprising hints of revelry. Awakened at 3 AM by friends, he greets them with, "What, is it you, you dogs! I'll have a frisk with you." This at age 42. Johnson's final years were marked by pain and loneliness but certainly no loss of wit.
The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams
Many great artists have had at least intermittent doubts about their own abilities. But The Education of Henry Adams is surely one of the few masterpieces to issue directly from a raging inferiority complex. The author, to be sure, had bigger shoes to fill than most of us. Both his grandfather and great-grandfather were U.S. presidents. His father, a relative underachiever, scraped by as a member of Congress and ambassador to the Court of St. James. But young Henry, born in Boston in 1838, was destined for a walk-on role in his nation's history--and seemed alarmingly aware of the fact from the time he was an adolescent. It gets worse. For the author could neither match his exalted ancestors nor dismiss them as dusty relics--he was an Adams, after all, formed from the same 18th-century clay. "The atmosphere of education in which he lived was colonial," we are told, revolutionary, almost Cromwellian, as though he were steeped, from his greatest grandmother's birth, in the odor of political crime. Resistance to something was the law of New England nature; the boy looked out on the world with the instinct of resistance; for numberless generations his predecessors had viewed the world chiefly as a thing to be reformed, filled with evil forces to be abolished, and they saw no reason to suppose that they had wholly succeeded in the abolition; the duty was unchanged. Here, as always, Adams tells his story in a third-person voice that can seem almost extraplanetary in its detachment. Yet there's also an undercurrent of melancholy and amusement--and wonder at the specific details of what was already a lost world. Continuing his uphill conquest of the learning curve, Adams attended Harvard, which didn't do much for him. ("The chief wonder of education is that it does not ruin everybody concerned in it, teachers and taught.") Then, after a beer-and-sausage-scented spell as a graduate student in Berlin, he followed his father to Washington, D.C., in 1860. There he might have remained--bogged down in "the same rude colony ... camped in the same forest, with the same unfinished Greek temples for workrooms, and sloughs for roads"--had not the Civil War sent Adams père et fils to London. Henry sat on the sidelines throughout the conflict, serving as his father's private secretary and anxiously negotiating the minefields of English society. He then returned home and commenced a long career as a journalist, historian, novelist, and peripheral participant in the political process--a kind of mouthpiece for what remained of the New England conscience. He was not, by any measure but his own, a failure. And the proof of the pudding is The Education of Henry Adams itself, which remains among the oddest and most enlightening books in American literature. It contains thousands of memorable one-liners about politics, morality, culture, and transatlantic relations: "The American mind exasperated the European as a buzz-saw might exasperate a pine forest." There are astonishing glimpses of the high and mighty: "He saw a long, awkward figure; a plain, ploughed face; a mind, absent in part, and in part evidently worried by white kid gloves; features that expressed neither self-satisfaction nor any other familiar Americanism..." (That would be Abraham Lincoln; the "melancholy function" his Inaugural Ball.) But most of all, Adams's book is a brilliant account of how his own sensibility came to be. A literary landmark from the moment it first appeared, the Autobiography confers upon its author precisely that prize he felt had always eluded him: success.
Lysistrata by Aristophanes
Led by the title character, Lysistrata, the story's female characters barricade the public funds building and withhold sex from their husbands to end the Peloponnesian War and secure peace. In doing so, Lysistrata engages the support of women from Sparta, Boeotia, and Corinth. All of the other women are first against Lysistrata's suggestion to withhold sex. Finally, they agree to swearing an oath of allegiance by drinking wine from a phallic shaped flask, as the traditional implement (an upturned shield) would have been a symbol of actions opposed to the aims of the women. This action is ironic and therefore comical, because Greek men believed women had no self-restraint, a lack displayed in their alleged fondness for wine as well as for sex.
The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
Landmark of Western thought written by a 6th-century Roman statesman and philosopher awaiting execution. Comprising a dialogue in alternating prose and verse between Boethius and his spiritual guardian, the book concerns happiness: how to achieve and maintain it amid life's inevitable pain. A cornerstone of medieval humanism.
Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen
"These tales are a modern refinement of German romanticism. ...They are peopled, or haunted, by ghosts of a past age, voluptuaries dreaming of the singers and ballerinas of the operas of Mozart and Gluck, young men who are too melancholy to enjoy love or too perverse to profit by it, maidens dedicated to chastity and others hopeful of a gentlemanly seduction; their generally fantastic adventures are exquisitely played."
Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
In the wake of World War I, a community of expatriate American writers established itself in the salons and cafes of 1920s Paris. They congregated at Gertrude Stein's select soirees, drank too much, married none too wisely, and wrote volumes--about the war, about the Jazz Age, and often about each other. F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, were part of this gang of literary Young Turks, and it was while living in France that Fitzgerald began writing Tender Is the Night. Begun in 1925, the novel was not actually published until 1934. By then, Fitzgerald was back in the States and his marriage was on the rocks, destroyed by Zelda's mental illness and alcoholism. Despite the modernist mandate to keep authors and their creations strictly segregated, it's difficult not to look for parallels between Fitzgerald's private life and the lives of his characters, psychiatrist Dick Diver and his former patient turned wife, Nicole. Certainly the hospital in Switzerland where Zelda was committed in 1929 provided the inspiration for the clinic where Diver meets, treats, and then marries the wealthy Nicole Warren. And Fitzgerald drew both the European locale and many of the characters from places and people he knew from abroad. In the novel, Dick is eventually ruined--professionally, emotionally, and spiritually--by his union with Nicole. Fitzgerald's fate was not quite so novelistically neat: after Zelda was diagnosed as a schizophrenic and committed, Fitzgerald went to work as a Hollywood screenwriter in 1937 to pay her hospital bills. He died three years later--not melodramatically, like poor Jay Gatsby in his swimming pool, but prosaically, while eating a chocolate bar and reading a newspaper. Of all his novels, Tender Is the Night is arguably the one closest to his heart. As he himself wrote, "Gatsby was a tour de force, but this is a confession of faith."
The Magus by John Fowler
Filled with shocks and chilling surprises, The Magus is a masterwork of contemporary literature. In it, a young Englishman, Nicholas Urfe, accepts a teaching position on a Greek island where his friendship with the owner of the islands most magnificent estate leads him into a nightmare. As reality and fantasy are deliberately confused by staged deaths, erotic encounters, and terrifying violence, Urfe becomes a desperate man fighting for his sanity and his life. A work rich with symbols, conundrums and labrinthine twists of event, The Magus is as thought-provoking as it is entertaining, a work that ranks with the best novels of modern times.
Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugene Herrigel
So many books have been written about the meditation side of Zen and the everyday, chop wood/carry water side of Zen. But few books have approached Zen the way that most Japanese actually do--through ritualized arts of discipline and beauty--and perhaps that is why Eugene Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery is still popular so long after it first publication in 1953. Herrigel, a philosophy professor, spent six years studying archery and flower-arranging in Japan, practicing every day, and struggling with foreign notions such as "eyes that hear and ears that see." In a short, pithy narrative, he brings the heart of Zen to perfect clarity--intuition, imitation, practice, practice, practice, then, boom, wondrous spontaneity fusing self and art, mind, body, and spirit. Herrigel writes with an attention to subtle profundity and relates it with a simple artistry that itself carries the signature of Zen.
The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving
"The first of my father's illusions was that bears could survive the life lived by human beings, and the second was that human beings could survive a life led in hotels." So says John Berry, son of a hapless dreamer, brother to a cadre of eccentric siblings, and chronicler of the lives lived, the loves experienced, the deaths met, and the myriad strange and wonderful times encountered by the family Berry. Hoteliers, pet-bear owners, friends of Freud (the animal trainer and vaudevillian, that is), and playthings of mad fate, they "dream on" in a funny, sad, outrageous, and moving novel by the remarkable author of A Widow for One Year and The Cider House Rules.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein
Tom Clancy has said of Robert A. Heinlein, "We proceed down the path marked by his ideas. He shows us where the future is." Nowhere is this more true than in Heinlein's gripping tale of revolution on the moon in 2076, where "Loonies" are kept poor and oppressed by an Earth-based Authority that turns huge profits at their expense. A small band of dissidents, including a one-armed computer jock, a radical young woman, a past-his-prime academic and a nearly omnipotent computer named Mike, ignite the fires of revolution despite the near certainty of failure and death.
The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon
The classic portrayal of court life in tenth-century Japan. Written by the court gentlewoman Sei Shonagon, ostensibly for her own amusement, The Pillow Book offers a fascinating exploration of life among the nobility at the height of the Heian period, describing the exquisite pleasures of a confined world in which poetry, love, fashion, and whim dominated, while harsh reality was kept firmly at a distance. Moving elegantly across a wide range of themes including nature, society, and her own flirtations, Sei Shonagon provides a witty and intimate window on a woman’s life at court in classical Japan.
Kokoro by Natsume Soseki
In the first part, Sensei and I, the narrator, a student, befriends an older man, Sensei (most of the characters' real names are not given). Sensei lives as a recluse, interacting only with his wife and the narrator, and occasional unseen visitors, but still maintaining a distance between himself and them. He regularly visits the grave of a friend, but for the moment refuses to tell the narrator any details of his earlier life. In the second part, My Parents and I, the narrator returns to his home in the country to await his father's death. As his father lies dying, the narrator receives a letter from Sensei which is recounted in the third part of the novel, Sensei and His Testament. Sensei reveals that in his own university days he was cheated out of most of his fortune by his uncle. Later he and his childhood friend (known only as K) moved into the same house and both fell in love with the landlady's daughter. Sensei proposed first and feels that he drove his friend to commit suicide; the girl then became Sensei's wife. In 1912, Sensei is prompted by the suicide of General Nogi Maresuke (following the death of the Meiji Emperor) to take his own life, writing the letter to his only friend to explain his decision.
Collected Short Stories by Lu Hsün
Living during a time of dramatic change in China, Lu Hsun had a career that was as varied as his writing. As a young man he studied medicine in Japan but left it for the life of an activist intellectual, eventually returning to China to teach. Though he supported the aims of the Communist revolution, he did not become a member of the party nor did he live to see the Communists take control of China. Ambitious to reach a large Chinese audience, Lu Hsun wrote his first published story, "A Madman's Diary," in the vernacular, a pioneering move in Chinese literature at the time. "The True Story of Ah Q," a biting portrait of feudal China, gained him popularity in the West. This collection of eighteen stories shows the variety of his style and subjects throughout his career.
The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki
The four Makioka sisters lead very complicated, strenuous lives, although on the surface nothing much ever happens to them. Part of a fading Japanese aristocracy in the years leading up to World War II, they cannot escape the wide net of the family name--something always brings them back to the reality of "being a Makioka." Running out of money, living in falling-apart houses, growing older beneath the sunlight of the modern world, they do their best to preserve the rituals of the past. The two older sisters work diligently to arrange a marriage for the third sister, Yukiko. Desperate to find someone to take care of her, they keep lowering their standards. One night they find themselves out with a drunk, selfish crackpot who has no money, but who is supposed to be related to a man who works for an important utility company. The fact that he is even a candidate for their sister's hand is a sign of how far they have fallen.
There are other signs in this remarkable, utterly compelling Japanese epic. At one point, a flood overwhelms their small town of Osaka. The youngest sister, Taeko, is having tea at the impeccably decorated home where her sewing teacher, Mrs. Tamaki, lives with her son Hiroshi. When the rain first appears beneath the door, the three were still rather enjoying themselves, shouting at each other in the best of spirits. They all had a good laugh when Hiroshi, reaching to grab the briefcase in which he had brought home his school books, bumped his head on the bobbing radio. But after perhaps a half hour, there came a moment when the three fell silent. Almost immediately, Taeko remembered afterwards, the water was above her waist. As she clutched at a curtain, a picture fell from over her head; the curtain had probably brushed against it. It was a picture Mrs. Tamaki was especially fond of.
Junichiro Tanizaki wrestled throughout his career with the idea of a country where tribes of aristocrats live as relics, grasping at the past through gestures, manners, small and intricate private laws. The narrative suspense of The Makioka Sisters is rooted in this single-minded nostalgia, this strict attention to the details of domestic life as the outer world becomes more and more incomprehensible. Pages are devoted to musing about whether Yukiko should "risk" meeting a potential husband when there is a spot above her eye--maybe she should play it safe and go to the doctor about it; maybe the potential husband will interpret it as bad luck. Tanizaki manages to make the struggle over this small, dark spot wildly compelling. I could not sleep until I discovered its fate.
Confessions of a Mask by Mishima Yukio
Confessions of a Mask is an account, usually considered at least semi-autobiographical, of a boy growing up in a Japan that is war-torn and militaristic. Entirely unsuited by nature to this environment, the narrator must weave an intricate and profoundly self-defeating facade around himself as he discovers his sexuality. This mask leads him into a pitiful affair with a young woman which only redoubles his fear of his peculiarity, into deceiving his parents, and into effectively becoming further estranged from himself the older he becomes. The novel also becomes fixated upon the link between sexuality and violence, and the narrator's tendency to dream in this vein is recounted with mixed feelings of horror and fascination.
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