Zen and Japanese Culture (Book Cover)

Ten Works of Non-Fiction
That Changed My Life

Daisetz T. Suzuki,
Zen and Japanese Culture

A book of Zen, in every respect: one of the great cross-cultural minds translates, and exemplifies, what is for me the most nourishing tradition of Asia.

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

I read this at a very traumatic point in my life, along with Kierkegaard's equally appropriate Fear and Trembling. Both, and The New Testament, taught me there are things you have to live with, and die with, and possibly transcend. Ironically, Becker, a professor at Simon Fraser University, died at 53. The book won the Pulitzer Prize, and lives.

Germaine Greer, Sex and Destiny

Less well-known than The Female Eunuch; more irascible, contentious, contestable; greater. Greer's witty scholarly treatise on "the politics of fertility" threw many of her followers for a loop; but it's what I read of her first, and it reassured me that being a feminist didn't necessarily mean being platitudinous and dull.

I, Rigoberta Menchú
by Rigoberta Menchú, edited by Elisabeth Burgos-Débray

The book on Central America, and one of the essential human documents of the 20th century.

George Orwell, Inside the Whale and Other Essays

I love almost all Orwell - even the early minor novels; even the biographies that reveal what an odd sort he really was. This collection has an essay ("Shooting An Elephant") that you probably read in high school. It has a few others that are indispensable to the intellectual history of the twentieth century: "Politics and the English Language" supreme among them. Orwell said good prose should be like a windowpane; he taught me to polish. (Note: this volume is now out of print; the link above is to a broad collection of Orwell's essays which includes "Inside the Whale."

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

This is my friend John Margesson's favourite, too.

Noam Chomsky,
American Power and the New Mandarins

The fiery polemicist in the early years was matched by the rare craftsman of these "political and historical essays" (as the sub-title reads). Thirty years later they can be read for the pleasure of the language as well as for the purity of the polemic. Like Orwell, inspiring for the moral honesty and clarity that imbues every page; and as literature.

David Hirst,
The Gun and the Olive Branch:
A Political History of the Middle East

Together with Chomsky's The Fateful Triangle, Hirst's book aroused me to the atrocity that was the Israeli war in Lebanon (1982). Disillusioning, as all great books are, but also the work of a distinguished journalist who understands (as does David Shipler in Arab and Jew) that your convictions must never blind you.

Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth

Ruled my nightmares in the 1980s, and makes me wonder whether the breather I gave myself in the '90s was a cop-out.

Giovanni Baldelli, Social Anarchism

A radiant little book, almost unknown today. Usefully read alongside Theodore M. Roszak, The Making of A Counter-Culture.

Ferrel M. Christensen,
Pornography: The Other Side

(Praeger, 1990). In which a consummately liberal professor of philosophy at the University of Alberta, with no personal interest in porn, chose to counter the prevailing fascist critique of the 1980s, and emerged with a crystalline 200-page essay, rigourously informed and written, which never attracted an iota of the attention paid to Andrea Dworkin or Catharine MacKinnon. Read it before or after either of them, but read it. (Note: Unfortunately, you'll have to dig through libraries and used bookstores to find it.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae

Okay, a confession: I still haven't finished it. The indefatigable Camille needs to be sampled in short bursts, the way she talks; and if you've never read or seen what she's going on about, it can be exhausting. But the first hundred pages or so (of the 700-plus) are essential, and what greater pleasure with any intellectual than to sample selectively from the banquet that remains?

Ten Novels

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.

(Sorry, I refuse to choose).

Franz Kafka, The Trial.

The greatest master of comedy and tragedy since Shakespeare - that I was able to access in translation, at least.

(And from here on in, in no particular order:)

Graham Greene, The End of the Affair.

Actually quite succinctly described by its publisher as a "frank, intense account of a love-affair and its mystical aftermath." "For me, one of the most true and moving novels of my time, in anyone's language" - William Faulkner.

Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera.

(See Dostoevsky.) García Márquez himself thinks he reads better in English translation: we have more words, apparently. And he finds great translators - here, Gregory Rabassa and Edith Grossman. It also really helps to have travelled in Colombia.

Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children and The Satanic Verses.

(See Dostoevsky.)

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Because I must have read it ten times. I have no idea how it stands up as literature. Noam Chomsky considers Orwell's non-fiction account of the Spanish Civil war, Homage to Catalonia, much greater; and he's a very dependable judge.

J.P. Donleavy, The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B.

. I read it on a 1984 train ride from Shanghai through the Gobi Desert to Urumqi in western China, 93 hours in all. It turned me upside down so completely that I read it on the train coming home six weeks later, and laughed and wept all over again. My shortest-ever turnaround on a book that I wasn't being examined on. Donleavy's been writing the same novel ever since his first three or four, but those first few are only a step short of Joyce. And a lot more fun.

James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man.

Jack Kerouac, On the Road.

I read it once and will only ever read it once, on the road in China. See Vibration Land.

Scott Spencer, Endless Love.

Oh God, and all you know is the movie, and the hokey title ...

(All men, I see. Oh well.)

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Created by Adam Jones, 1998. No copyright claimed for non-commercial use if source is acknowledged.
Last updated: 10 October 2000.