I very often get people in my messages asking me to recommend them books, or suggest reading lists, but I like to think that I’m a thoughtful person, and it can be difficult when you put such constraints on yourself to give everything you try to do the attention it deserves. Reading is personal, and someone’s taste can be hard to judge without knowing them at all. Meanwhile, I’m usually talking about or recommending books on my timeline frequently enough that I sometimes take for granted that everyone is familiar with some of the books I enjoy. For the friends I’ve made here, and known for a long time, my favorite books are familiar staples of my content, and even I get tired of recommending them after a while, however much I really would like it if everyone read them.
Further complicating things is that book recommendations, in my experience, rarely stick, and everyone already has so much they want to read to begin with, they rarely make it past the first few books of Wilhelm Meister before moving on to something else. I certainly don’t fault them, it’s one of the reasons that not just reading, but scholarship, is such an enjoyable past-time, for we are, after all, the beneficiaries of the erudition of millennia and there’s never any shortage of good books to read.
Constructing a good reading list is therefore no mean feat. First of all there is the question of subject matter. What sort of literature do you, the list creator, want to highlight? The more specialized your focus the more efficiently you can exhaust all the possible introductory avenues, but by being too narrow in your selections you run the risk of excluding potential users who simply don’t share your particular hobby horse. Furthermore, how do you structure your list? As a prescribed syllabus, moving from one work to another programmatically in order to outline a specific point? Or do you go the route of providing a menu from which the curious reader is permitted to select? It can be difficult to match all the elements to one another, but at some point choices have to be made if you’re to make any progress at all in this monumental labor you have (happily) burdened yourself with.
I wrote, several weeks ago, about the role of literature, specifically the Novel, in shaping public consciousness during the modern era. This is not an original thesis, but is a cornerstone of critical scholarship. Even for contemporary theorists the rise of the novel engendered many such observations.
There are, in all scholarship, two prevailing tendencies, the historical tendency, and the theoretical one. The Theory of the Novel by Georg Lukács is a very good example of the latter tendency, while The Rise of the Novel by Ian Watts is representative of the former one. While Lukács examines the role of the novel in synthesizing experience out of the fractured components of Man’s modern mind, Watts takes the opposite approach of historical empiricism which questions the generic coherence of the novel as a historical category. These two tendencies have been at war now for many years, and I get the impression that it is currently fashionable in the English speaking academy to favor the historical approach, and to ask whether the novel ever even existed at all, or whether it wasn’t perhaps just some dream of the less informed scholars who preceded today’s crop of critics.
Watts proposes a definition of the novel centered on the indefinability of novels. Novels, he says, are not bound by any consistent rules, but are defined by their own experimental novelty. Perhaps the most basic definition there is however is the one that goes: novels are works written in prose of a certain length. Anyone who thinks of the novel in these terms will be a bit bewildered surely when they see Schlegel saying that even plays like Hamlet and Nathan the Wise have “something of the novel about them.” He is not mistaken, and though comments like his are difficult for unfamiliar readers to decipher, they are not intentional paradoxes, but point to a clear and definite conception of the novel.
“Novels contain novellas,” Goethe said, and this to me is a definition unsurpassed in terms of elegance. In Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, to name one example, the narrator at one point, while elaborating his father’s peculiar interests, inserts an entire novella in the style of Cervantes about a man with a big ‘nose’ who inspires curiosity wherever he goes. Not only that, but he presents a dual language text with the Latin ‘original’ on the left and Tristram Shandy’s own ‘translation’ on the right. Nothing is more fundamental to the style of the novel than this. Novels involve the interaction of stories that the characters tell about themselves or others to one another, and how this interaction shapes a mutual social reality that governs our interactions. These metafictional conceits are not just flourishes of novelty, but play a fundamental part in the novel as a tradition.
In novels like Tom Jones or Gil Blas or Don Quixote the heroes travel around and the people they meet tell them their life stories, and these stories entangle one another and create a subtle network of layered meaning. The power of ‘Society’ and the Spectator Club is that of distributed computing. Each individual subject, though individualized, is capable of performing independent subjective calculation. This is superior to a monolithic model where a single institution is responsible for performing societal calculus, as when the entire literate population can each carry out judgments on behalf of Society as a whole, you can explore many more potential perspectives much more rapidly. The only difficulty is in structuring these cores and coordinating their computation.
When one subject engages in self-narratization he projects his own interpretation of himself as a character into the shared world of society. Truth or falsity is not the primary criterion of success. We create our projections in order to affect other people by whatever narrative means we feel comfortable using. Usually we do this benignly, when we attempt to be judicious, fair and honest in our own self-appraisals, and allow others to make up their own minds about us. Other times people self-narrate deliberately to deceive those listening about their intentions and desires. The point is, the validity and social existence of the character we cast out into the world of society is not dependent upon notions of truth or fiction. A false hard luck story told to us by a grifter, if told well, can still inspire us to give the confidence man everything he asks for.
Herein lies the power of these little confessions we so often meet with in novels, by reading the story the social projection it creates becomes as ‘real’ for us as it does for the protagonist its being told to. These confessions become self-creating pockets of individual subjectivity, and these are arranged by the narrator of the novel to structure the interaction of the characters. (It’s always at the turning point of the book when a misunderstood character writes a powerful letter explaining themselves to the heroine that everything changes.) The manner in which the narrator structures things becomes a model of social reality, and as the novel develops as a genre, this architecture becomes more deliberate and philosophically conscious of the problem of inter-subjectivity.
This reading list will then serve as a companion to my #NovelMindset article, as, though this topic might not arouse everyone’s interest the way it does mine, the history and theory of the novel remains central to my reading, and, as this is my list, I believe it should be reflective of what motivates me. I encourage everyone to create similar lists for themselves, as creating a reading list is an opportunity to survey the terrain you have conquered in your studies, and to judge the true extent of our own little empire of taste. Not only do you create a list of books, but it becomes a novelistic exercise in self-creation unto itself.
Study of the novel in its earlier phases allows us to witness first hand the birth of Society. No other tension today is more keenly felt than the one between the individual and society, and regardless of political affiliation, each cultural party has its own interpretation of this struggle that it proposes is definitive. Novels, as the battle ground where the stresses of inter-subjectivity play themselves out, offer us an unmatched perspective into the socio-historical evolution of something that defines our modern cultural-political discourse.
In addition, the books I mean to recommend utilize every manner of style and technique conceivable, and besides simply being entertaining, they offer the aspiring content creator an endless arsenal of conceits from which to draw when building the literature of tomorrow. Suffice it to say there is much to recommend the reading of novels to us, and this list, I hope, will provide some interesting and enjoyable selections for your consideration.
When one is first entering into a domain of knowledge unfamiliar to them, I believe the best approach is to expose oneself to as much material as possible. Rather than recommend long, intimidating, and difficult novels like Tristram Shandy or Gargantua and Pantagruel, what follows is a serving of more manageable reads. Some of the selections I have made can be read in a sitting or two without much difficulty. They represent a wide cross section and will provide a broad basis for the formation of critical judgment later on. This is not to mention what should obviously be the main appeal though, that they are all enjoyable works of literature in their own right, full of humor and humanity enough to sustain us in these dark and difficult times.
I can think of no better way to begin this list than with this book, Jacques the Fatalist. Its author, Denis Diderot is perhaps best known as the mastermind of the great Encyclopedia project, the center piece of the French Enlightenment. As literacy and mass reading culture developed during the 18th century, there set in a great mania for reference works, bibliographies, dictionaries etc., a mania echoed in our own era by projects like Wikipedia. Most of the lexicons and popular histories of the 18th century are forgotten today, but there are some that endure, like Gibbon, or Johnson’s Dictionary. The Encyclopedia surpassed them all in terms of ambition and scope, and its articles were written by all of the major French writers of the time, including Rousseau and Voltaire.
The project, like much of Diderot’s writing, inspired controversy and censorship. Rousseau, who later claimed Diderot engaged in a conspiracy to destroy his reputation and ruin his life, first postulated the thesis of his prize-winning First Discourse while walking to visit Diderot in prison. As Frederick the Great sought the advice and endorsement of Voltaire, so did Catherine the Great turn to Diderot. He was a leading intellectual of the era, a celebrity man of letters whose works aroused enormous controversy in a politically charged climate. It is for just that reason that he deserves to be carefully studied even today.
Jacques the Fatalist has a very extemporaneous feeling to it, there’s a clear sense given by the narrator that he’s arbitrarily inventing the story as he goes along. The servant Jacques travels around with his Master, “Where are they going? I don’t know! Who cares?” the narrator tells the reader. In order to pass the time on the road the Master looks at his watch, takes a pinch of snuff, and asks Jacques to recount the tale of his first love. There is always some interruption however and the narrator is constantly making excuses and diverting the reader with contrived obstacles. The book is a perfect encapsulation of the wild narrative energy utilized by other authors like Sterne and is a good starting point to the problems of narratization that novels are most intimately associated with. It’s funny, erotic and subversive, and seemed to me like a natural place to start this list.
As I mentioned that novels contain novellas, it’s essential to develop an appreciation of the novella as a distinct tradition entailing its own standard of technical excellence. Though Cervantes is best known for Don Quixote, The Exemplary Novels showcase his mastery over the novella format which is often overlooked as the foundation of his great novel.
These kinds of tales are the building blocks of the novel, and later works like Goethe’s second Wilhelm Meister novel employ them very deliberately in a complicated narrative structure. Every inlet novella or tale to appear in later novels owes something to The Exemplary Novels. In perhaps the most famous of the tales two dogs develop the power of speech and converse with one another about their life-histories in a hospital at night. They wonder how and why they’ve gained this ability to talk, but decide they better not squander it with pointless speculation. The patients of the hospital overhear their discussions and become frightened. The tales are very strange, finely crafted miniatures.
Though Boccaccio is the undisputed genius of this genre, Cervantes lays a strong claim upon our attention. During his era Islam was not some far off idea, but a real presence on the edges of society. Cervantes himself was captured by the Turks and enslaved in Algeria, and his depiction of cultural conflict with Islamic society is especially striking given the current environment. Another striking feature of his stories is their alien sexual politics, which, though traditionalist in a very extreme sense, deal very plainly with the transactional nature of sex and marriage. These stories are good to pick up and read, and I would suggest getting the edition linked, as some of the other available ones do not contain all twelve of the tales.
Daphnis and Chloe is to take a step back from the early modern origins of the novel as we understand it today. Written in the second century AD the book is an example of the literature of the Eastern Roman Empire. It is an example of a kind of literature that would be preserved primarily through the Byzantines and only reintroduced to the West later on. Nothing is known about its author, Longus, and even the name may simply be a corruption of the word Logos, for story.
“The work is so beautiful,” said [Goethe], “that it is not easy to retain one’s impressions of it in the bad conditions in which we live, and one is amazed every time one rereads it. In it is the brightest day and one seems to see nothing but pictures of Herculaneum and these pictures work back on the book and help our imagination in reading” — Goethe to Eckermann
Though there are other ancient novels to read, like The Golden Ass, Daphnis and Chloe is the one I enjoy the most. It is a romantic adventure tale of two youths living out a pastoral idyll. They are fated by the ancient gods of Greece to be together, but every manner of calamity separates them until, finally, they are reunited in the end and are allowed at long last to consummate their destiny. The work is erotic and offers a tantalizing glimpse of the sexual and gender ideals of antiquity. It is a brief and beautiful novella that is quick to read and easy to appreciate.
Though the story is well known, if you haven’t read the book before now is the perfect time. It’s a work that more than deserves its status. Defoe was an early hack writer in the English publishing mill, and though his works don’t exactly aspire to the highest rank of literature they nonetheless are entertaining enough in themselves. Undoubtedly Robinson Crusoe ranks above Defoe’s other, more lurid pseudo-factual studies of criminality or female corruption, like Moll Flanders. The book more deeply resonates due to its pro-civilizational outlook and the metaphor it constructs between the ordering of the world and the ordering of the soul.
The Martian was, in some reviews, compared favorably to Robinson Crusoe, but that movie largely missed the point. Crusoe is washed up on an island where he is doomed to live out the rest of his life in isolation. Unlike Matt Damon, who is off exploring the universe for the sake of Human Progress, Crusoe believes himself to be punished by God for going to sea against his family’s wishes. Robinson Crusoe presents the construction and improvement of civilization as man’s highest duty during his temporal existence. Paradise is an eternity away, and while marooned on Earth man has a responsibility to cultivate his soul as he cultivates his soil.
For the Martian things are much different, and the construction of civilization is completely delayed, put off until some later unspecified time in favor of a restless exploration of outer space which serves to replace the civilization-building mission of man. Robinson Crusoe, is in this respect the original, and superior version of this story.
This is a book I would normally hesitate to recommend, due to its incredibly incendiary and controversial history. It represents, however, a convenient access point to the 18th century cult of Sentiment, and it’s much easier to read and enjoy than the the other major works in this tradition, namely Richardson’s Pamela and Rousseau’s Julie. Sentimentality became for a time the prevailing theory of modern literature. In Schiller’s “On Naive and Sentimental Poetry” modern poetry is the latter. For Schiller sentimentality in literature is rooted in the development of subjectivity itself, the increasing individualization of the subject and his sense of irreconcilable alienation from the totality of society.
The sentimental novel grew out of the pseudo-factual confessional novellas of earlier decades, like those of Defoe, developing as intricately structured archives of meta-fictional source documents. These novels are marked by their lack of a historicizing narrative voice which (ironically) judges the authenticity of the various documents, as in Cervantes or Fielding. Brute force wins the field, the one who can completely construct how they appear in society through their letters or diaries carries the day, and morally dominates the other players, transfiguring their deeds in the triumph of their own narrative to vindicate and martyr them to posterity. There is no sense in these books of any mitigating hermeneutical framework to allow the co-existence of competing self-narratives, rather, the sentimental novel posits all subjects in a never ending war to determine their own reputations and appearances in society.
Goethe’s sentimental Werther is controversial for the deliberately extreme turn it gave the cult of sentimentality. Unlike books like Julie, where Virtue watches over everything and allows all the characters to guide one another to the proper courses of action, Werther represents the breakdown of that system of sentimentality, brutally showcasing the way in which it can be dominated and subverted by an extreme personality.
Moving from Goethe to Goldsmith is easier than it seems, The Vicar of Wakefield was one of Goethe’s favorite novels, and plays a prominent part of his early student years prior to achieving fame with Werther. Unlike Werther, however, The Vicar of Wakefield offers a more kindhearted and gentle parody of sentimentality than Goethe. The story tells of Dr. Primrose, a preacher who is forced to move to the country with his family after his accountant absconds with his life savings. It is a mild work of domestic warmth, and you begin to feel after a while like you’re really a member of Dr. Primrose’s family.
Famously Samuel Johnson brokered the sale of the manuscript of The Vicar of Wakefield while Goldsmith was being detained by his landlord for failure to pay his debts. Though Goldsmith’s name is not always remembered today as one of the towering figures of English literature he is A more influential writer than his obscurity would suggest. As part of Johnson’s club he joined other figures like Burke and Gibbon and for contemporary critics, like Schlegel, The Vicar of Wakefield was acknowledged as the best English novel of the century. Due to its economy and grace, and its gentle and benevolent irony the novel possesses a serious claim to that distinction.
I have long wondered why this book is not more widely read. It’s really nothing less than the first modern fantasy novel, prefiguring everything else that was to come. Even the very early Victorian fantasy of MacDonald uses this book as model. Novalis was the pseudonym of the early Absolutist German Idealist philosopher Friedrich von Hardenberg, who adopted the name after the death of his (very young) fiancee. Hardenberg developed a psycho-sexual sense of mystical transfiguration and annihilation in death following his loss, and his religious poetry has a sense of almost erotic urgency to it in its desire for cleansing and purifying death.
Novalis was a key figure in the Post-Kantian Romantic movement in German literature. He was a student of thinkers like Schiller and Fichte when they were at their height in Jena, and he became a disciple of Schlegel during the early formation the Romantic school during the 1790’s. Ofterdingen is a bildungsroman inspired by Novalis’ own reaction to Goethe’s Meister. It’s an incomplete and mysterious work that transports the action back to the High Middle Ages. The central theme of the book is the renewal of the world and the restoration of the Golden Age through the revival of poetry. Rather than a warrior knight like in Game of Thrones, the character of Ofterdingen is a mytho-historical knightly poet who is instructed in storytelling and song writing by hermits and miners.
This is one of the works that most inspired me years ago in my reading and writing. It’s a personal favorite, and though it’s difficult, having gotten a bit older and wiser from when I first read it, to still have the same enthusiasm for it as I once did, it’s a charming work whose strange history has fascinated me for years. The book is unfinished, but in it a radical new kind of poetry is postulated in which science, art and history are combined in an attempt to synthesize a holistic modern world-view.
This should, I believe, provide you with sufficient diversion for now. As I created the list it a natural order suggested itself to me, but if any of the books I’ve described appeal to you, there are no rules to how or when they should be read. We sometimes hear of the decline of the novel, as if it is a symptom of something else going on with our culture, but I believe the causation may be in fact reversed. As later novels of the 20th century struggle to integrate their subjective-confessional components by means of an overarching architecture of narrative mitigation, they not only degrade the art form but degrade our very ability to form a coherent society. What sort of future the novel has I can’t say I know, but no matter the direction that literature takes in the future, the study of the novel will remain fundamental to understanding the emergence and functioning of our modern social consciousness.
If you would like to extend this list a bit, I would also recommend the following works:
- The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia by Samuel Johnson
- The Princesse de Cleves by Madame de Lafayette
- The Tales of Hoffmann
- An Ethiopian Romance by Heliodorus
- The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett
Hopefully this will satisfy those in search of book recommendations for a while, and if not, there are always more books to be had, so fret not friends.