Curtis White’s Reading List

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.


  1. OK, nobody asked, and I don’t have the time or intellectual energy to read as much as the exemplary folks listed above. But if anyone’s interested in the reading list of a 49-year-old straight white male who’s married, has two young children, an old Michigan farmhouse on four acres, and a full-time writing gig with a big private foundation, then here goes:

    The Road to Assissi, by Paul Sabatier: Most people know St. Francis as a green plastic garden statue in their backyard. But what endeared Francis to the 12th Century world wasn’t just his joyful love of creation, but — and this is just as meaningful for today’s over-consumptive world — his love of poverty. Francis, who was never a priest, founded a lay order that required its wandering members to own virtually no possessions but the rough brown tunics on their backs. (Francis famously commanded them to “Preach the gospel at all times, and use words when necesary.”) Each day, his Friars Minor, as they were known, were to work or beg for their meager rations — and at day’s end, share whatever was left with the poor and the sick. What’s fascinating is how the growth and popularity of the Franciscans made this seemingly sustainable ideal unsustainable. It soon became a big, farflung enterprise that required it’s own bureaucracy, complete with detailed rules and a sizable operating budget. Disillusioned at what his order had become, St. Francis went off to live as a mystic and hermit. The book reminds me that, when it comes to world-changing enterprises, bigger isn’t always better.

    Beekeeping for Dummies, by Howland Blackiston: This year, I decided to take up beekeeping, and bought two hives. So far, I love it: it’s mainly done with 19th century technology that requires no power tools or mechanical skills beyond the 7th grade shop class variety. I borrowed 2 or 3 books from my cousin about the topic, and they were interesting. But as is often the case with books written by Ph.D. experts with 40 years experience, they told me too much that I didn’t need to know and too little of what I really needed. That’s why I love the Dummies book. It’s written in a way that anticipates nearly everything a beginner could ask. If you decide to keep bees, it’s still good to have a live mentor. Yet the Dummies book is the next best thing. (Oh, and I only got stung once this year following the Dummies’ advice — whereas the bee expert book said that if I got stung 15-20 times right off the bat, then I’d become immune to the bees’ toxins! Well maybe … but I can think of more enjoyable ways to prove my manhood.)

    A Timbered Choir, by Wendell Berry: These are “Brother Wendell’s” sabbath poems and they are things of beauty, grace and holy simplicity. They distill the clear-headed logic and agrarian ideals that we’ve come to expect from his books and essays into little gems of that sparkle with wisdom and insight. And if you’re wound up after a day of too much coffee, long meetings and e-mail, they make for a perfect before-bedtime night cap. A Timbered Choir isn’t just reading, but nourishment for the soul. This is the kind of well-worn book you’ll keep on your nightstand or reading table for years to come.

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