Henry Thoreau: Walden
What can I say about a book I’ve read a scarcely-credible 22 times? Henry speaks of “modern man” as observed by him in the 1830s and ‘40s, with special reference to work (the first and longest chapter is called “Economy,” referring to a single person’s income and expenses). It’s a book that every young man should read, though perhaps not without a mentor. I first read it at seventeen and learned the wrong lesson. Thoreau reinforced my growing belief that normal adult life was bullshit. Thoreau’s point was to reduce expenses so you could reduce the work needed; instead I heard, “Avoid a nine-to-five job” or maybe even “Avoid work altogether.” He advocated a simple life of leisure; unfortunately, I learned only the leisure part of the lesson, not the more important point of living simply to reduce expenses. Thoreau was no hobo, nor was he the completely self-sufficient individual we wish he’d been; rather, he had support from his family that receives little mention in the book. He could not have lived on the food he grew because he was the laziest of farmers. Despite the defects of his practice of his theory, his theory is both refreshing and challenging. In addition, his prose is both funny and beautiful by turns. Some day I’ll write a long essay about this book; this is not the time. Available online for free, but I’d recommend an annotated version, of which some are available through your local library. I prefer Cramer’s.
Henry Thoreau: Essays
Henry’s “Civil Disobedience” is justly celebrated for its influence on Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. It may nourish the rebel in you; it will certainly challenge the citizen you are (if you are). Briefly, he refused to pay his poll tax for reasons he explains, and as a result he spent a night in jail. We live in a less forgiving age. His other essays tend to be digressive, breezy, and chatty since many were originally given as public lectures. They are also serious, thoughtful, and personally challenging for the reader. The essay “Life Without Principle” seems to me a “little Walden.”
Derrick Jensen: A Language Older than Words
Jensen’s book is entertaining and loaded with exciting ideas, but some of the things he says, for me, “do not compute.” For instance, I find it rather incredible that he expects the reader to take seriously his claim of communicating with coyotes, trees, and stars. Some readers will perhaps find these things to be the most valuable parts. I certainly did not. However, like Thoreau, Jensen advocates shunning a standard “job” and instead doing something which will nourish the deeper part of you. I read the book twenty years ago and can remember few other details; fortunately, I have some extensive quotations in my Collected Quotations (surely a violation of copyright).
Abraham Maslow: Toward a Psychology of Being
This celebrated book explores Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs,” an influential theory now generally neglected by psychologists (I speak as a layperson, you understand). I find the theory both persuasive and occasionally useful; Maslow popularized the term “self actualization,” which is the highest level of his hierarchy. You can check it out at Wikipedia and surely elsewhere on the net. Beyond that I can’t say much except that I found it quite readable.
Abraham Maslow: Religion, Values, and Peak-Experiences
In this book Maslow finds the meaning of life in “peak experiences,” which didn’t really persuade me. I don’t remember much beyond that. So, why is it on the list? Because the list originated about two decades ago. I’m in no hurry to remove books that I can’t remember well.
Plato: Apology, Crito, Phaedo
Plato’s Apology is a foundational document of western civ, the story of the trial and death of Socrates. Crito and Phaedo continue the story. If you’re leading an “examined life,” you should know that Socrates gave us the idea. In addition to raising critical questions about man’s place in society, these three dialogues are also emotionally powerful reading.
Gloria Steinem: Revolution from Within
In looking at this book on Amazon, where most of the reviews are raves, someone dropped the bombshell that Steinem worked for the CIA. Googling proved the claim. The book, however, I found to be so exciting and valuable in 1992 that after finishing reading it, I immediately started reading it again, and finished it again. I’ve never done that with any other book that I recall. I also wrote a very long letter to Ms. Steinem, praising and criticizing, but never mailed it. I haven’t reread it since, but am open to the idea. The subtitle is “A Book of Self Esteem.” Some of it is new-age squishy, okay, maybe a lot of it is, as well as the expected feminism; but I consider myself a feminist, undoubtedly in part because of this book. Sonia Johnson (q.v.) was also writing at the time and is on my list. Steinem introduced me to “parenting the inner child,” which led me to a memorable experiment that probably did absolutely nothing for me. Oh, hell, it’s complicated.
Viktor Frankl: Man’s Search for Meaning
Frankl is the originator of Logotherapy, which aims to solve a patient’s psychological problems by improving his view of the meaning of life. Frankl’s view of the meaning of life is, essentially, what gives one’s life meaning is how one responds to suffering. I find this uninspiring, but the book has more than this. Frankl was confined in a German concentration camp with his father; he survived, his father didn’t. The story of this experience occupies the first half of the book, while in the second half the author explains how that experience made him see that the survivors of the camp had a strong sense of the meaning of their life, while those who succumbed to the horror did not.
Walter Kaufmann: The Faith of a Heretic
Kaufmann’s book is an examination of his personal beliefs in light of his atheism. Many books about atheism have been popular in recent decades; this is decades older and was the most important to me in informing my own beliefs. Kaufmann is noted as a translator of German literature, notably almost all the works of Friedrich Nietzsche. He also was a philosopher, though not a generally important one. I thoroughly enjoyed many of his books, which are listed in the Kaufmann Wikipedia article. I lost enthusiasm when reading his Discovering the Mind trilogy, which I found embarrassingly written. This book, however, remains excellent, almost required for thoughtful atheists.
Bertrand Russell: The Conquest of Happiness
Bertrand is one of the most famous, popular, and influential personalities of the twentieth century. He wrote highly technical books of philosophy and a large number of what he called “potboilers,” and Conquest is one of the latter. It’s essentially a self-help book, from an age in which these were scarce. He expresses his thoughts on the way to happiness; but Russell’s thoughts are not mere new-age squishiness or recycled platitudes, because he was a thinker of extraordinary genius. This book profoundly influenced me and could do the same for you. See also The Problems of Philosophy by Russell under the Philosophy heading. Russell’s Unpopular Essays was the first philosophy book I ever read, when I was in my twenties, and the subject became a lifelong favorite as a result. Extensive quotes from Russell can be found in my Collected Quotations, including six from Conquest.
In Part 3 of this series I review the best Philosophy books I’ve read.