Who Can Recommend a Good Book?

I’m fascinated by lists of “recommended reading” – not only do such lists help us discover great books, but they also reveal quite a bit about the person who created the list. (For example, someone over at LibraryThing.com has cataloged the contents of Marilyn Monroe’s personal library. Reading through the list reveals a lot about the private interests of such a public person.)

Recently, while searching for lists of “favorite books” or “recommended reading,” I stumbled upon a very cool site—OpenCulture.com. Clearly, someone there enjoys reading lists as much as I do, because the site includes a fantastic sidebar titled “Reading Lists by…” Here you can find reading lists compiled by some well-known and fascinating people.

Reading over the lists, I noticed, with regret, a lack of diversity among the recommended books. Other than that common problem, however, I was surprised by how little overlap the lists contained. Below is a sampling of a few lists I found interesting. Others included on OpenCulture.com are by F Scott Fitzgerald, Allen Ginsberg, Christopher Hitchens, Joseph Brodsky, WH Auden, Donald Barthelme, and Carl Sagan.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson

ndgtIn an “ask me anything” feature on Reddit.com, popular astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson was asked, “Which books should be read by every single intelligent person on the planet?” The following list, along with short explanations of each choice, was his response:

  1.  The Bible – “to learn that it’s easier to be told by others what to think and believe than it is to think for yourself.”
  2. The System of the World by Isaac Newton – “to learn that the universe is a knowable place.”
  3. On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin – “to learn of our kinship with all other life on Earth.”
  4. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift – “to learn, among other satirical lessons, that most of the time humans are Yahoos.”
  5. The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine  – “to learn how the power of rational thought is the primary source of freedom in the world.”
  6. The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith – “to learn that capitalism is an economy of greed, a force of nature unto itself.”
  7. The Art of War by Sun Tsu – “to learn that the act of killing fellow humans can be raised to an art.”
  8. The Prince by Machiavelli – “to learn that people not in power will do all they can to acquire it, and people in power will do all they can to keep it.”

Tyson clarified that he chose these books because, “If you read all of the above works you will glean profound insight into most of what has driven the history of the western world.”

David Bowie


In 2013, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London created an exhibition called “David Bowie is…” The exhibition, a retrospective of Bowie’s career and influence on the arts, is currently touring internationally, and includes a list of Bowie’s 100 favorite books. Here’s the (long) list (clearly influenced by his love of music):

  1. The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby, 2008
  2. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz, 2007
  3. The Coast of Utopia (trilogy), Tom Stoppard, 2007
  4. Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875-1945, Jon Savage, 2007
  5. Fingersmith, Sarah Waters, 2002
  6. The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Christopher Hitchens, 2001
  7. Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Lawrence Weschler, 1997
  8. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1890-1924, Orlando Figes, 1997
  9. The Insult, Rupert Thomson, 1996
  10. Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon, 1995
  11. The Bird Artist, Howard Norman, 1994
  12. Kafka Was The Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir, Anatole Broyard, 1993
  13. Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective, Arthur C. Danto, 1992
  14. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, Camille Paglia, 1990
  15. David Bomberg, Richard Cork, 1988
  16. Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, Peter Guralnick, 1986
  17. The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin, 1986
  18. Hawksmoor, Peter Ackroyd, 1985
  19. Nowhere To Run: The Story of Soul Music, Gerri Hirshey, 1984
  20. Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter, 1984
  21. Money, Martin Amis, 1984
  22. White Noise, Don DeLillo, 1984
  23. Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes, 1984
  24. The Life and Times of Little Richard, Charles White, 1984
  25. A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn, 1980
  26. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole, 1980
  27. Interviews with Francis Bacon, David Sylvester, 1980
  28. Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler, 1980
  29. Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgess, 1980
  30. Raw (a ‘graphix magazine’) 1980-91
  31. Viz (magazine) 1979 –
  32. The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels, 1979
  33. Metropolitan Life, Fran Lebowitz, 1978
  34. In Between the Sheets, Ian McEwan, 1978
  35. Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, ed. Malcolm Cowley, 1977
  36. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes, 1976
  37. Tales of Beatnik Glory, Ed Saunders, 1975
  38. Mystery Train, Greil Marcus, 1975
  39. Selected Poems, Frank O’Hara, 1974
  40. Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s, Otto Friedrich, 1972
  41. In Bluebeard’s Castle : Some Notes Towards the Re-definition of Culture, George Steiner, 1971
  42. Octobriana and the Russian Underground, Peter Sadecky, 1971
  43. The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll, Charlie Gillete, 1970
  44. The Quest For Christa T, Christa Wolf, 1968
  45. Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock, Nik Cohn, 1968
  46. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov, 1967
  47. Journey into the Whirlwind, Eugenia Ginzburg, 1967
  48. Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby Jr. , 1966
  49. In Cold Blood, Truman Capote, 1965
  50. City of Night, John Rechy, 1965
  51. Herzog, Saul Bellow, 1964
  52. Puckoon, Spike Milligan, 1963
  53. The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford, 1963
  54. The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, Yukio Mishima, 1963
  55. The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin, 1963
  56. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, 1962
  57. Inside the Whale and Other Essays, George Orwell, 1962
  58. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark, 1961
  59. Private Eye (magazine) 1961 –
  60. On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious, Douglas Harding, 1961
  61. Silence: Lectures and Writing, John Cage, 1961
  62. Strange People, Frank Edwards, 1961
  63. The Divided Self, R. D. Laing, 1960
  64. All The Emperor’s Horses, David Kidd,1960
  65. Billy Liar, Keith Waterhouse, 1959
  66. The Leopard, Giuseppe Di Lampedusa, 1958
  67. On The Road, Jack Kerouac, 1957
  68. The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard, 1957
  69. Room at the Top, John Braine, 1957
  70. A Grave for a Dolphin, Alberto Denti di Pirajno, 1956
  71. The Outsider, Colin Wilson, 1956
  72. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, 1955
  73. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, 1949
  74. The Street, Ann Petry, 1946
  75. Black Boy, Richard Wright, 1945

Ernest Hemingway

ErnestHemingwayAn aspiring writer named Arnold Samuelson traveled to Key West in 1934 and knocked on Ernest Hemingway’s front door, seeking writing advice. During their conversation the following day, Hemingway asked Samuelson if he’d ever read Tolstoy’s War and Peace. When he said he hadn’t, Hemingway offered to write out a list of books he felt the aspiring writer ought to read. The list includes two short stories by Stephen Crane and 14 books:

  1. “The Blue Hotel” by Stephen Crane
  2. “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane
  3. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  4. Dubliners by James Joyce
  5. The Red and the Black by Stendhal
  6. Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham
  7. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  8. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  9. Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann
  10. Hail and Farewell by George Moore
  11. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  12. The Oxford Book of English Verse
  13. The Enormous Room by E.E. Cummings
  14. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  15. Far Away and Long Ago by W.H. Hudson
  16. The American by Henry James

And lastly, for those of you who believe that the task of comparing one book to another is too subjective, here’s a brilliant quote from Virginia Woolf, from her 1925 essay, “How Should One Read a Book” :

VirginiaWoolfThe only advice … that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions. If this is agreed between us, then I feel at the liberty to put forward a few ideas and suggestions because you will not allow them to fetter that independence which is the most important quality that a reader can possess. After all, what laws can be laid down about books? The battle of Waterloo was certainly fought on a certain day; but is Hamlet a better play than Lear? Nobody can say. Each must decide that question for himself. To admit authorities, however heavily furred and gowned, into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries. Everywhere else we may be bound by laws and conventions — there we have none.

So what do you think? Do you enjoy book recommendations and lists of “Best Books”? Do you find any merit in the above lists? Do you agree with Virginia Woolf that we should not “admit authorities” to tell us “what to read”? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

2 Responses to Who Can Recommend a Good Book?

  1. Lauren Hart Jul 24 2014 at 3:29 pm #

    I couldn’t agree more that these lists offer a great insight into the readers personality. I often find that recommendations from my favorite authors end up being exactly to my tastes. Something I also find a lot with music too. I have found some of my all time favorite books in this way. Most recently I was turned onto the Medicine Man series by S. R. Howen and it has been such an exciting discovery. I had never read Native American fiction before but I was totally blown away. I read a lot of historical fiction but sometimes like to dabble in a bit of horror and romance so these books were just perfect. I expect to see Howen’s work show up in a lot of lists over the next few years. Some of the best fiction I have ever read for sure and I can’t wait for the next in the series. http://www.srhowen.com/

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