Curtis White’s Reading List
Most of my reading for the past year has been related to two things. First, a decision I made a few years ago that I didn’t really have that much more time left on the planet, and that there were certain books that would be a lasting disgrace to leave unread (even if, in my deathly absence, there was no one left to feel or care about the disgrace). So it’s been a sort of great books reading experience for the last few years. Second, that reading led to a writing project that I recently “finished” called The Barbaric Heart: Faith, Money and the Crisis of Nature.
So at the top of the list goes:
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This is the origin of my interest in the idea of the barbaric. It is, literally, a book that took a full human life to create. What’s wonderful about the book is not only the wealth of still mostly accurate knowledge about the last years (or centuries) of the Empire, but the writing persona of Gibbon himself. The footnotes, where he buries his most outrageous and arch ideas, are a joy to read. Set aside a couple of months for this one. And feel free to touch down and lift off as the interest of the text dictates.
Tacitus, The Histories. The tale of the debacle that followed the death of Nero up to the re-establishment of the Empire under Vespasian. What’s great about this book is its pithy, cynical summaries of the folly of the participants. For example, of Galba, the people were “as much offended at his efficiency and honesty as if these had been criminal qualities.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy. As much as I’ve loved Nietzsche, I somehow missed this, his first great work. The thing I love most about Nietzsche is that with each passage I feel a deep sensual pleasure in the style and the arresting power of his utter originality. Nietzsche is the model of the truth-teller.
Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism. Freud is to be savored. He aspired to science, but he was really a philosopher and stylist in the Nietzschean mold who sought not the truth but the full realization of his ideas, as if it were a complex puzzle he had to piece together regardless of whether or not it was true. Moses is one of his most iconoclastic, and therefore typical, creations.
Fernand Braudel, The Wheels of Commerce. A deeply compelling and utterly human (as opposed to scholarly) history of the origins of capitalism in the 15-18th centuries. Braudel makes the revealing claim that market economies and capitalism are not the same thing, never mind what every economics textbook tells you. For Braudel, capitalism is a hierarchical structure of power (whose primary weapon is money) that has colonized a normal human activity. Not a “great book,” but it should be.
I’m embarrassed to say that this could go on for some time and not leave the last year. I’ve also read Cicero, Polybius, Thucydides, Milton Friedman, John Kenneth Galbraith, Spinoza, much of Plato, Aeschylus’s Oresteia (the Ted Hughes translation is a miracle), and always more Nietzsche. The book that I put down in order to write this list is Karl Jaspers’s distillation of his spiritual existentialism, Way to Wisdom. Ah, the joys of being a professor locked into a Midwestern town surrounded by millions of acres of agricultural monoculture.
One more recommendation: Once I put The Barbaric Heart aside, I started filling in the gaps in my reading of Charles Dickens. If the above list seems too daunting, you can stay on my bookish path, laugh, and indulge your sense of outrage with businessmen, brutal teachers, rogues, and hypocrites by reading Nicholas Nickleby.