Get smart for < $100.
Simply read these 10 books, and understand them, and you'll be older and wiser – and that's the key isn't it? – than almost anyone in America, including the uppity crust.
1. Our praise is usually not unconditional, or stated with absolute certainty, but we will say this: If you don't love this book it means only one thing – you are dead.
The Odyssey is the most important stone in the foundation of western literature because it is the first, and best. This timeless classic has endured and entertained for 3,000 years for good reason. Read it.
Goethe once wrote something to the effect that the measure of a man's education is that if all the knowledge of the universe was destroyed, how much of the culture could he recreate from memory. We put together what we're calling "Old's Cool U." – what we think are the 10 books you would need to know to be considered civilized, or to at least not embarrass yourself trying to recreate the learned universe. Hit it out of the park with this Homer.
Are you alive?
Unfortunately, we're well on our way.
2. Please read The Gulag Archipelago, now.
And then let's have a chat. You will be a different person, guaranteed.
"Best Non-Fiction Book of the Twentieth Century." – Time
Scribble, scribble, scribble.
3. From the Autobiography of Edward Gibbon: "It was at Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind. But my original plan was circumscribed to the decay of the city rather than of the empire: and, though my reading and reflections began to point towards that object, some years elapsed, and several avocations intervened, before I was seriously engaged in the execution of that laborious work.
I always liked this quip, from The Duke of Gloucester, brother of King George III, on seeing the second monstrous volume:
“Another damned thick, square book! Always, scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?"
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a masterpiece of history, philosophy and literature.
The Holy Bible.
4. We're not religious over here, and you don't need us to tell you that The Bible is absolutely stunning: it's done more to shape western thought and culture than everything else combined. By far the best-selling book of all time, with good reason.
We were once partial to the King James version, of course, but we now find the New American Edition more readable and relevant. You can pick one up for free the next time you're in a motel room hopefully shamalamadingdongin with someone rambunctious, but you can certainly buy it.
We'd recommend Jordan B. Peterson's Biblical Series on Youtube for a lot of etymological, mythological and psychological meat and perspective on what the heck the Bible is really all about.
The Prince of Denmark; The King of Everything and Everyone.
5. I'm going to quote Shakespeare's contemporary and critic Ben Jonson, who states in a poem he wrote about his rival that not only is he superior to other English playwrights, but to the Greek and Latin masters as well. Johnson says first and definitively what has become a universal opinion:
“Triumph, my Britain, thou hast one to show/ To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe/ He was not of an age, but for all time!”
This link is to Amazon's Oxford World's Classic Edition of Hamlet, which I think is the best of the best.
Editor's Note: I have The Norton Anthology of English Literature, and all the wisdom of the world is in it – ludic, enlightening, and lucid – including Hamlet. It's the desert island book – if you could only have one. You should get the Ninth Edition these days (I have the Fifth Edition), all 2643 monstrous pages.
Count me in.
6. According to Luc Sante, "The Count of Monte Cristo has become a fixture of Western civilization's literature, as inescapable and immediately identifiable as Mickey Mouse, Noah's flood, and the story of Little Red Riding Hood." It's a dashing, romantic, and heartbreaking hero's journey that we all wish we were on.
Which is kind of how I felt when I read it in Newport in the summer of 1981 in between docking boats at Williams & Manchester Marina, setting myself on fire for Sally the waitress at the Pier, and painting houses with my brothers – I couldn't have been more transformed and remained a human being.
Penguin Classics, Robin Buss translation is best.
Desire predicts its own satisfaction.
7. From the inside flap: "As one of the architects of the transcendentalist movement, Emerson embraced a philosophy that championed the individual, emphasized independent thought, and prized 'the splendid labyrinth of one's own perceptions.' More than any writer of his time, he forged a style distinct from his European predecessors and embodied and defined what it meant to be an American. Matthew Arnold called Emerson's Essays 'the most important work done in prose.'"
Seriously, people, if you haven't ever read Emerson, or haven't since high school, you might as well realize you're a fatuous imbecile. "The eye is the first circle." "Men are what their mothers made them." "The attractions of man are proportioned to his destiny." What the hell are you waiting for?
“As long as all that is said is said against me, I feel a certain sublime assurance of success, but as soon as honied words of praise are spoken for me, I feel as one that lies unprotected before his enemies.”
The the Modern Library Classics Edition is available on Amazon.
The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People
8. I think most self-help books are horse manure. This one isn't. In fact I really think it's the only one you'll ever need, if indeed you do need help. Some of us don't.
Jane's got it summarized for you in easy-to-read bullet points, but the book really is a deep and meditative marvel.
Life's all about style. And grammar.
9. The Elements of Style has been mostly on my desk for the past 35 years. Have I ever read it I hear some of you wise snots asking. As a matter of fact I just opened it the other day, and a photograph of an old girlfriend fell out. Cinematic and sublime. And the book's fabulous too.
I'd pick up a used copy on ebay or at a flea market, just to make is seem like you've owned it forever, because shame on you if you haven't.
A hard choice.
10. This last book was the hardest – we thought about Confessions of St. Augustine, Meditations, Democracy in America, Against Interpretation, Crime and Punishment, Catcher in the Rye, and Brave New World, to name a few, but finally settled on a book that made a lasting impression on us in our youth. We also wanted to just mention Montaigne's Essays, which had a profound impact on us, as well as The Great Gatsby, which, because we read it in our "younger and more vulnerable years" has, and always will be our favorite book.
That said, here is our decidedly unique last pick:
This dynamite tome is a corker as we used to say back home, a college edumacation in and of itself.
For all you Spinal Tappers out there.
11. Even though this is technically not a book, we think it is the greatest document in the history of the universe, and we're talking not only the 15 billions years since the beginning of time, but also the anywhere in space aspect too.
The U.S. Constitution is the follow-on and basically the basis for Western Civilization, but to us the DOI is the real achievement and everything else after is just epilogue and footnotes. Speaking of which, if it wasn't for Cliff's Notes we wouldn't have gotten as close as we did to almost graduating, so we thought it might be a good idea to get this guide, to help you better understand context, intent, ramifications, nuance and continued relevance.
So what do you think? Pretty excellent little library of knowledge, innit it?
Main photo ©Thomas Degeorge