Brain Books

by quackenbush on October 15, 1996

“Brain Books,” Trajectories, Autumn 1996, No. 16/17.

I have another list that I revise every couple of months.  This is not my “Ten Favorite Books” so much as a list of the ten books I wish everyone would read:  the ten books I most feel the lack of in people who otherwise seem intelligent.  These books would fill anyone’s cranium with useful information.

In order of priority, the list would begin with:

1. Ulysses by James Joyce.  Nobody has really entered the 20th century if they haven’t digested Ulysses.  And if they haven’t entered the 20th century, they’re going to fall pretty far behind pretty soon, as we enter the 21st.  There’s a guy I correspond with occasionally who spends all his time fighting with Fundamentalists overDarwin.  He’s living in the 19th century; nothing in the 20th century has affected him yet.  He’s carrying on the brave battles of Thomas Henry Huxley a hundred years later.  I know some people who are back in the 18th century – Burkian conservatives, trying to apply Burke’s principles to modern times.  I sometimes do that myself – try to apply some of Burke’s principles.  But not all of them!  I don’t think he’s written in stone either.  At any rate, everyone should read Ulysses to get into the 20th century.

And everybody should struggle as much as they can with:

2. The Cantos, by Ezra Pound.  And that means getting to the last page.  You may give up on some pages, and say, “I’ll never figure this stuff out!”  But keep going until you get to the last page.  Pound offers something no other writer except Dante has ever attempted – and Dante does it in a medieval way that doesn’t mean much to modern people.  Pound offers a hierarchy of values.  We’ve heard so many voices from the East telling us “All is One,” and we’ve got so many puritanical duelists of all sorts telling us, “No; there’s good and bad.”  And they all define those terms in their own way:  the Christian “good and evil” duality; the ecologist’s “nature good; man bad” duality; the feminist’s “woman good; man bad” duality, and so on.  Against this monism and dualism Pound offers a hierarchy of values, in which he gives you a panoramic picture of human history, very much like Griffith’s Intolerance, only in it, Pound shows levels of awareness, levels of civilization, levels of ethics and levels of lack of all these things.  And you realize that you have a hierarchy of values too, but you’ve never perfectly articulated it.  Every writer gives you a hierarchy of values.  But by making this the central theme, Pound makes you face the question, “Will I accept this as the best hierarchy of values?”  I can’t, because the guy had a screw loose.  Great poet, but a little bit funny in the head at times, trying to synthesize Jefferson, Confucius, Picasso and Mussolini.  So what you’ve got to do is struggle with Pound, and create your own hierarchy of values to convince yourself that you grok more than he did.  And he combined genius and looniness.  It’s an invigorating book to get you out of dualism, which is the Western trap, and monism, which is the Eastern trap, to attain realism: a hierarchy of values.

Another book I wish everybody would read:

3. Science and Sanity by Alfred Korzybski.  this one gives you the tools to enable you to avoid most of the stupidity prevalent on this planet at present. It won’t cure all forms of stupidity, and you really have to work at it; it doesn’t do magic.  But if you use its principles, you’ll gradually cure yourself of a lot of prevalent forms of stupidity.  If you work at it hard enough, you may cure yourself of most.  I don’t know; I’m still working at it.

4.  Ovid.  I wish everybody would read Ovid.  The great myths of our particular culture – the Greek and Roman myths – can’t be found in any one book, except Bullfinch or Ovid, and Ovid has a much better style than Bullfinch.  So read Ovid and get the whole panorama of classical myth.  Classical myth has so much meaning that it permeates every bit of modern psychology.  The myths of other cultures have much to offer, but we still need our myths.  So we might as well face up to them.  It’s our culture; let’s not lose it.  And let’s find out something that happened before 1970.

5. The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer – just because it’s so damn good.

6. Justine, by deSade — because everyone needs to be shaken up.  Justine asks you some pretty fundamental questions.  And you may not find them easy to answer.

7. Instead of a Book by a Man Too Busy to Write One, by Benjamin Tucker, which contains the best arguments for minimizing force and maximizing options; the best argument for extreme Libertarianism that anyone has put together.  He deals with concrete issues in economics, and makes a damn good case for a maximum of liberty and a minimum of coercion as a formula for a happy and prosperous society.

8. Progress and Poverty, by Henry George.  Not that I agree with it.  But everyone’s heard of Karl Marx and Adam Smith.  If you read Tucker and George, you get the idea that there are more than two choices.  You don’t have to choose between them.  There are other options, not in between, but at right angles to those choices; a hierarchy of possibilities.  George poses a challenge to both Marxism and orthodox capitalism.

9. The Open Society and its Enemies, by Karl Popper, which introduces you to a lot of aspects of modern scientific thought, but in a different way than Korzybski, and applies them to tearing apart most of the arguments for determinism and totalitarianism.  I think determinism and totalitarianism have done so damn much harm that everybody needs a good inoculation against them.  Popper seems the best inoculation.  He fled both the Communists and the Nazis, and had good emotional reasons for detesting totalitarianism.  He was a physicist, so he expressed himself in terms of a very deep and trenchant philosophical analysis of what’s wrong with theories that claim, “We know what’s best (?) and we know how to achieve it – and we know who has to be killed to make it happen.”

10. Shakespeare.  I think everybody should read Shakespeare, not only because he was such [a] great poet, but because he’s under so much attack these days.  You might as well check him out for yourself, and it will give you an idea of how just dumb the politically correct people who attack him seem in comparison to him.

Other recommended authors:

Jonathan Swift.  All of Gulliver’s Travels.  There are some anthologies which contain not only this, but a selection of his other writings, too.  Swift does a great job of tearing apart conventional ideas about almost everything.  He’s very, very liberating; almost psychedelic in some passages.

Nietzsche.  There are a couple of good one-volume editions which contain both Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ.  The two should be taken together.  They represent Nietzsche at the height of his…whatever it was. More than any other writer in the history of philosophy, Nietzsche set out to refute everyone who came before him, without exception and without mercy, and he had the intellect to do a damn good job.  He tears down so many accepted ideas that you’re left floating in a kind of nihilistic void.  Many people find this terrifying.  I find it exhilarating, and I manage to recover from it every time I subject myself to re-reading something by Nietzsche.  There are a lot of other good books by Nietzsche, but I’d especially recommend those two.

Olaf Stapledon.  There’s a one-volume edition that contains both First and Last Men and Last Men in London.

Then, when somebody has read that much, I think intelligent conversation can begin.  Otherwise, we’re pretty much on the level of grunting.

(digitized and posted to by Eric Wagner)


Also from Recommended Reading on RAW’s site:

The Mass Psychology of Fascism, by Wilhelm Reich, M.D.
Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce
Machine Art, by Ezra Pound
Selected Prose, by Ezra Pound
Harlot’s Ghost, by Norman Mailer
Go Down, Moses, by William Faukner
The Alphabet vs. the Goddess, by Leonard Shlain
Confucius: The Great Digest, The Unwobbling Pivot, The Analects trans. by Ezra Pound
Chaos and Cyberculture, by Timothy Leary, Ph.D.
Critical Path, by R Buckminster Fuller
Digital McLuhan, by Paul Levinson
Saharasia, by James DeMeo, Ph.D.
The Natural Economic Order, by Silvio Gesell

To which RMJon23 once remarked:  “I’m surprised neither list included Peter McWilliams’ Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do. I’ll go out on a limb and suggest RAW wants everyone to read that one, too.


Other recommendations:

Recommended Viewing (scroll to the bottom of that page)


From the Paradigm Shift Interview:
As of today (August 11, 1997) I find the most interesting ideas in traditional Buddhism, Nietzsche, Charles Fort, several quantum physicists (Nick Herbert, David Bohm, Fred Wolfe, David Finkelstein) and in Rupert Sheldrake. Add together the Buddhist yoga of detachment from fixed ideas and emotions, Nietzsche’s and Fort’s merciless assault on the cultural prejudices that are so deeply embedded we usually don’t notice them, quantum uncertainty and holism, Sheldrake’s special variety of holism, and I think we have the beginning of a hint of the New Paradigm we need.  But after looking at this list I realize I should have included Korzybski’s general semantics, Bandler’s neurolinguistic programming and Leary’s evolutionary-existentialist neuro-psychology or info-psychology as he most recently labeled it.


Origin unknown:
The living writers whose work especially interests me at present include Douglas Adams, William Burroughs, who still seems topical no matter how old he gets, Tom Robbins, who writes the best sentences of anybody working in English today, George V. Higgins, who sees humans with a wonderful irony and writes the most realistic dialogue I’ve ever seen (even better than Joyce or Hemingway), and a lot of scientist-philosophers who seem to me to be giving us wonderful new ideas and perceptions: Rupert Sheldrake, Ralph Abraham, Terrence McKenna, Barbara Marx Hubbard, the fuzzy logic people, Riane Easier, Nick Herbert, Nicholas Negroponte, Marilyn Ferguson, Peter Russell, Fred Alan Wolfe . . . and of course, Tim Leary, who is ill, but may have a few unpublished books that might still blow all our minds.


excerpt from Thought of the Month:  30 Apollo 78 p.s.U.:
“There are only two kinds of artists: the plagiarists and the revolutionaries.”  – Paul Gauguin
In my opinion, the primary “revolutionary” Masters of our past century include Picasso, Klee, Pound, Joyce, Faulkner, Ginsberg, Frank Lloyd Wright, D.W. Griffith, Chaplin, Welles, Clint Eastwood, Stravinsky, Gershwin, Epstein, Brancusi, Carlin : the man or woman who doesn’t know their work deeply and richly still lives in the 19th Century as the rest of us prepare to enter the 21st. The artists on that list haven’t become familiar enough to stop surprising us. We still need to interpret our interpreters, as Ellman said of Joyce.

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