A couple of years ago, Neil deGrasse Tyson published a list of 8 books which he feels everyone should read and which subsequently became the topic of much discussion on the Internet. While I’ve only read two or three of the books on his list, all the hoopla inspired me to think about– and to try to list —the eight most important books in my life. It wasn’t easy. I fudged quite a bit in places and ultimately expanded the list to 10 and beyond. Here’s what I came up with:
1) The Bible: Growing up, this was the foundational (collection of) text(s) in my family and in the community of families with whom we interacted the most. This collection of ancient texts continues to influence my life in profoundly significant ways (with the writings of St. Paul, the Johannine school, and the Psalms deserving special mention, perhaps).
2) The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: This was the wonderfully ambiguous and incredibly subversive text of my teenage years. My Dad loved it and quoted it often and I, following his lead, also read it often and struggled to understand the more opaque and/or esoteric lines. Someday, I hope to write a commentary on these beautiful verses.
3) The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis: This book, too, was a favorite in our household. It simultaneously illuminates and subverts the common notion of “hell” (as preached in fundamentalist and evangelical churches).
4) The Theological-Political Treatise of Spinoza (also his Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect and later his Ethics). Spinoza was my first love in philosophy. He provided the clues that would help me to move beyond the problem of evil. He also lays the groundwork for a more critical understanding of scripture.
5) On the Genealogy of Morals, by Friedrich Nietzsche (and his other books, too–especially Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Twilight of the Idols). Nietzsche not only questions the truth of Christianity, he questions the value of Christian morality. He was my Socrates… He left me broken and without a clue… (cf. Peter Kingsley’s exposition of the Greek notions of elenchos and aporia in Reality.)
6) The Confessions of St. Augustine (with selected readings in Plato & Plotinus recommended). A sympathetic reading of these texts has forever freed me from the modern prejudice against Platonism.
7) The Critique of Pure Reason, by Immanuel Kant (together with his ethical writings). Kant is very brilliant, but very difficult–not always a pleasure to read by any means. And yet, in his own way, he is a very elegant thinker. Any degree of structure, rigor, and theoretical elegance that may appear from time to time in my own thinking and writing is probably due to my study of Kant.
8) Being and Time, by Martin Heidegger (with selected readings in Hegel and Kierkegaard also recommended). Heidegger — along with Kant, Hegel, and Kierkegaard — helped me to recover from the despair induced by my reading of Nietzsche. I also recommend, What is Called Thinking.
9) The Perennial Philosophy, by Aldous Huxley. This text helped me to see religion and religious traditions in a new and more universal light. Forgotten Truth, by Huston Smith might also be read in conjunction with this.
10) The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle (also “A New Earth” and “Stillness Speaks“). These texts point beyond an intellectual understanding of the perennial philosophy to an experiential recognition of the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
My exposure to Eckhart Tolle in 2008 was a watershed moment (see Nonduality). As such, I will divide the remaining books– which I earlier designated (in rather understated fashion) as worthy of honorable mention –as Before OR After Eckhart Tolle (BET or AET, respectively).
Worthy of Honorable Mention BET:
- Shogun, by James Clavell. I first read this when I was about 21 and then read it again (a few years ago) at 51. Loved it both times…
- Brother’s Karamazov, Notes from the Underground and other novels by Fyodor Dostoevsky (including Crime and Punishment and The Idiot).
- Living Waters: The Voice of the Heart. When I received this book from the publisher, in 1995, it helped to confirm and bring into better focus a still nascent but fundamental intuition of who I Am that I had begun to dawn on me (somewhat) 2 or 3 years earlier, which would flower more fully AET, and which I have given rather complete expression to in The Divine Presence “I Am”.
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig. This is a wonderful discourse on “quality” with important reflections on science and philosophy along the way. I’ve reread this several times over the years.
- Siddhartha AND Demian, by Hermann Hesse. These books helped lay the groundwork for my interest in eastern thought and Jungian psychology, respectively.
- The Courage to Be and The Dynamics of Faith, by Paul Tillich. The former was very inspiring at the time and the latter helped me to think of faith in more universal terms. Along with Heidegger, et al, Tillich helped me to recover from my Nietzschean despair.
- The Divided Self, by R.D. Laing. This book offered much needed insight into the workings of my own mind. I think I first came across it in the early ’90s, but I continued to read it (or parts of it–plus some of his other books) throughout that decade and beyond.
- The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, by Alan Watts. I first read this book with a measure of trepidation when I was in my early 30’s, but have, at this point, thoroughly assimilated it (now in my early 50s).
- The Bhagavad-Gita and selections from The Upanishads. I recommend reading the Upanishads first (look for a paperback edition subtitled “Breath of the Eternal” — “principle texts selected and translated…by Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester”) and then the Gita (preferably in a variety of translations, with commentaries).
- The Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu and Verses on the Faith Mind, by Hsin Hsin Ming. These are wonderful introductions to Tao and Zen...
- Being and Nothingness, by Jean Paul Sartre — see also his essay, “The Humanism of Existentialism”, trans. by Bernard Frechtman. These writings helped me to explore the limits of meaning and purpose from the standpoint of the egoic mind.
- Waldon, by Henry David Thoreau (see also, Life Without Principle); and Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman. For good or ill, I’ve always preferred these volumes to the more extensive writings of Emerson and other so-called transcendentalists.
- Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion (see also, The Power of Myth TV series and book). I found this material to be very nourishing during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
- The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn. A must read for every serious student of philosophy and science…
- I and Thou, by Martin Buber. I think it was about 15 or 20 years ago that I first read this little volume, but (as I recall) it helped me to distinguish between two ways of comporting myself toward existence: Between an analytic/objective comportment, on the one hand (I and It — which tends toward separation and duality) and a more intuitive/personal comportment, on the other hand (I and Thou — which tends towards unity and wholeness). In retrospect, I think this was, for me, akin to an exercise in bhakti yoga.
- Miscellaneous texts/authors on Nutritional Health and Lifestyle Medicine (see partial list here; also Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food).
Worthy of Honorable Mention AET:
- Miscellaneous texts/authors on nonduality (see list of teachers here).
- A Story Waiting to Pierce You, Dark Places of Wisdom, and Reality, by Peter Kingsley. These three volumes brought the presocratic philosophers alive for me and also served to introduce me to The Golden Sufi Center, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, and Irina Tweedie.
- The Reality of Being, by Jeanne de Salzmann. This text offers a relatively brief and accessible introduction to the Gurdjieff Work.
- Gnosis: Study and Commentary on the Esoteric Tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy, Book I – The Exoteric Cycle. This book (by Boris Mouravieff) explicates certain aspects of the Gurdjieff Work from a (more explicitly) Christian point of view.
- Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism. This book has dominated my spring and summer this year (2014). I describe this in some detail here (see also A Brief Introduction to the Tarot).
Note: Many of these “honorably mentioned” books are, from a slightly different point of view, quite worthy of the top 10 list. Ah well, of the making– and the mentioning –of many books, there is no end… No doubt I will revise this list from time to time and perhaps, as time permits, I will try to elaborate on each of these in separate blog postings.