Sunday, December 28, 2014

The best books syllabus

More and more, it's becoming a struggle to find a book worth reading. The classics no longer seem relevant to my life. Contemporary novels (half of which seem to be set among the cultural elite in NYC) don't do much for me either. Travel books all seem so wimpy and unambitious. Lately, I've had to resort to nonfiction science writing and biographies. For every four books I start, three are given up by page 30. 

I'd love it if someone, whose tastes are similar to my own, would give me a syllabus of decent books to read to save me the trouble of sampling and discarding so many. With that in mind, I've decided to list my favorite books for those of you who may also be struggling to find a decent book. 

Many books that I admire and respect, but that didn't agree with me (Joyce's Ulysses for instance), didn't make this list. These are simply my favorites. Still, many of my favorites didn't make this list because I felt that they wouldn't appeal to most readers, or maybe I fell in love with them at an impressionable age. And there are many books that I liked that I've regrettably culled; these are books that I loved. I chose the following because they were enriching, entertaining, or beautifully written (or all of the above), and would appeal to the general lover of books. They aren't listed in any particular order, except by genre and alphabetical order by author. 

Fiction 1700 - 1899

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Middlemarch by George Eliot
The Mill on the Floss by George Elliot
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Fiction 1900 - Present

Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner
The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail by Robert Edwin Lee and Jerome Lawrence
Call of the Wild by Jack London
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
1984 by George Orwell
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Stoner by John Williams 

Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
Poldark series by Winston Graham
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

Non-Fiction - Travel/Nature

Desert Solitaire by Ed Abbey
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl
On Nature: Selected Essays by Edward Hoagland
A Walk across America by Peter Jenkins
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez
West with the Night by Beryl Markham
Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller
Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby
Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Iron and Silk by Mark Salzman
Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner

501 Minutes to Christ by Poe Ballantine

Non-Fiction - Philosophy

Consumed by Benjamin Barber

Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry
The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers
Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
A Tolerable Anarchy by Jedediah Purdy
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Abstract Wild by Jack Turner
Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen

But What If We're Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman
Tribe by Sebastian Junger

Non-Fiction - Memoir/Autobiography/Essays

Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
The Discomfort Zone by Jonathan Franzen
The Stars, the Snow, the Fire by John Haines
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
Denial by Jonathan Rauch
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
Naked by David Sedaris

Essays from the Nick of Time by Mark Slouka

Non-Fiction - History

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis
Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz
The Endurance by Alfred Lansing
Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Nash
In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Non-Fiction - Biography 

Che by Jon Lee Anderson
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
The Days of Henry Thoreau by Walter Harding
Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer
Henry Thoreau: Life of the Mind by Robert Richardson
Saint Joan of Arc by Vita Sackville-West
Grant by Ron Chernow

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

Non-Fiction - Special Interest

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Suburban Nation by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk
What We Know about Climate Change by Kerry Emanuel
Story by Robert McKee
The Conundrum by David Owen
Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
The Social Conquest of Earth by E.O. Wilson


Anonymous said...

Hello! You don't know me, but I read your blog, and I couldn't resist responding because I think we have about a 75% overlap in terms of book taste!

Here are some of my recommendations... Hope I'm not suggesting too many things you've already read.


The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life by Tom Reiss

if you read and like that, try:

The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography by A.J.A. Symons

I'd also suggest Edmund Morris's three-part biography of Teddy Roosevelt, starting with The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.


The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.
Impossible to put down.

Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell. Mitchell basically went around talking to interesting people and collecting what amount to oral histories about all kinds of strange characters in mid-20th century America. Might not be the best to read straight through -- better to savor one essay at a time.

When the Going Was Good by Evelyn Waugh.
If you like Waugh's fiction at all, you might like his tales of pre-WWII world travels. Though he gets a bit churlishly imperialistic at times, it's still an interesting look at travel in an age past.

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich.
A totally devastating but important book.


The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

Villette by Charlotte Bronte.
Even better than Jane Eyre!

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood.
The New York Review of Books "Classics" series publishes lots of great but all-but-forgotten books like this one in an attempt to revive them & bring them back into public consciousness. You might be interested in some of their stuff.

The Confidence Man by Herman Melville.
To be honest, I haven't read this yet, but multiple people have recommended it to me in recent months, & I have a feeling it is good.


Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.


Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott.

and if you like that, you might also want to read Domination and the Arts of Resistance by the same author.




Diogo Martins said...

Have you tried the new book about Chris McCandless?

It's the next that I have to read, I'm just finishing "1984".

There is also "My Year Without Matches", which I intend to buy, but probably only after read my "To Read" list (5 or 6 books right now).

Big hug.

Jack M said...

Hi Ken, I think we have similar tastes so I'm going to offer up a few suggestions.

Early Retirement Extreme by Jacob Lund Fisker A practical and philosophical guide to developing a strategy to become a renaissance man (and financially independent in the process).


Ishmael by Daniel Quinn A man searching for truth finds it in a gorilla as they explore the great myth of our society. An eye opening book dealing with history, ecology and philosophy among other subjects

The Alchemist by Paul Cohelo A shepherd boy leaves on a treasure quest but finds something else along the way. A classic.

The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey A band of eco-terrorists roam across the desert southwest as they try to prevent or delay the almighty developers/development of the wild. If you liked Desert Solitaire you should enjoy this.


Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kanter A story of a young boy as he grows up in a sod house with his family in remote Alaska outside a native village.


One Man's Wilderness by Richard L. Proenneke The journals of a man who set out to build a cabin (simply and by hand i.e. no chainsaws etc) in the Alaskan wilderness in what is now Lake Clark National Park. He ended up living there off and on for 30 years.

Shopping for Porcupine: A Life in Arctic Alaska by Seth Kanter The author of Ordinary Wolves tells stories of his own upbringing and life from growing up in a sod house on the Kobuk River (Western Brooks Range) to current life today.

And I guess last but not least I'd certainly hope you've read Arctic Village: A Portrait of 1930's Wiseman by Bob Marshall or his other book Exploring the Central Brooks Range after all the time you spent up there.

I have more to offer but I think I'll stop there for now. As you can probably tell, I like Alaska quite a bit. Cheers.

Scott said...

We know what you like to read. Now, how do you read? That is, what is your reading routine, and are you back to paper exclusively, or do you use your tablet still, too? Cheers,

Myosotis said...

Have you read anything by Ursula Le Guin? You might like the Earthsea books. They're childrens fantasy, but they're Daoist and wonderful. Or if not, I recommend some of her Hainish Cycle sci-fi like The Dispossessed.

Templeton said...

Hi Ken,

Here are a few that might appeal to you:


'Of Human Bondage' by W. Somerset Maugham

'David Copperfield' Dickens

'You Can't Go Home Again' by Thomas Wolfe

'Darkness at Noon','Arrival and Departure' both by Arthur Koestler

'The Long Dream' by Richard Wright

'All Quiet on the Western Front' by Erich Maria Remarque

Guy de Maupasaant short stories

'The Little Prince' by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

'Untouchable' by Mulk Raj Anand

'Germinal' by Emile Zola

'Pere Goriot' by Balzac


'Scum of the Earth', 'Arrow in the Blue' both by Arthur Koestler

'Tally's Corner' by Elliot Liebow

'Manchild in the Promised Land' by Claude Brown

'And The Band Played On' by Randy Shilts

'Survival in the Killing Fields' by Haing S. Ngor

'Einstein: His Life and Universe' by Walter Isaacson

'The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda's Road to 9/11' by Lawrence Wright

Anonymous said...

Yes yes yes to Bronte's Villette. I could live inside that novel.

I also think you'd probably enjoy A Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell about his years living alone (with an otter) in an isolated cottage on a remote Scottish Island.

I'm adding several of your suggestions to my own list. Many thanks.

Rebecca said...

"Dirt Work" by Christine Byl (about, you guessed it - trail work!), and Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry (his fiction is even better than his non-fiction, or anything by David Mitchell.

Tim said...

for your Non-Fiction: Nature category, Grizzly Years by Doug Peacock and Winter by Rick Bass

Unknown said...

Hi Ken,

Here a few more books you might like. I think you will enjoy Niels Lyhne. It is my go-to book.

Letters to a young poet by Rilke

Niels Lyhne by J. P. Jacobsen

Complete essays by Montaigne

The confessions by Rousseau

I just recently came across your blog. The way you conduct your life is truly inspiring. It reminds me of a quote from Niels Lyhne "...for a life lived soberly, without the light burden of dreams, was not a life worth living--life, after all,, has only the value dreams gave to it."

Unknown said...

Hi Ken,

Here a few more books you might like. I think you will enjoy Niels Lyhne. It is my go-to book.

Letters to a young poet by Rilke

Niels Lyhne by J. P. Jacobsen

Complete essays by Montaigne

The confessions by Rousseau

I just recently came across your blog. The way you conduct your life is truly inspiring. It reminds me of a quote from Niels Lyhne "...for a life lived soberly, without the light burden of dreams, was not a life worth living--life, after all,, has only the value dreams gave to it."

Anonymous said...

I'm very surprised not to see anything about Harlan Hubbard on your list. His embrace of frugal non-conformity was extreme and life long. Read "Shantyboat" by Harlan Hubbard or "Harlan Hubbard, Life and Work" by Wendell Berry.

Michael Goeller said...

I second One Man's Wilderness by Dick Proenneke, which I read after watching Alone in the Wilderness for the 20th time. I'd be surprised if you do not know his work or have not seen the film, but it is not on your list.

I am a big fan of "survival" memoir and recently rediscovered Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, which I read long ago but did not appreciate as much as I do now.

On the survival theme, I also recommend In the Land of White Death: An Epic Story of Survival in the Siberian Arctic by Valerian Albanov (which is a wonderful translation that likely captures the spare style of the original) and Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors by Piers Paul Read.

There is a great book on survival literature: Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales. Also good is The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes by Amanda Ripley (who is an excellent journalist).

Michael Goeller said...

Thought of one more:

Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen. It is very well written and has some very compelling scenes.

Garrett Fisher said...

East of Eden by John Steinbeck is quite a pensive piece.

I am not a die hard capitalist, nor a Republican, nor do I fully agree with the economic theory, though I do recommend Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, probably for reasons she didn't intend. She nails components of the human psyche quite well, though her solution is doubtful.

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand also seems to hit the anti-individualist sentiment prevalent among the masses. Again, I don't agree with her solutions, though I found the problems she posited in her fiction works to be worthy of contemplation.

Trish said...

Just thinking of a couple more books for you Ken - one book I really love is 'A tree grows in Brooklyn', set in the early 1900s. and as far a biographies, I enjoyed 'Daughter of Empire', by Lady Pamela Hicks, daughter of Lordl Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, who was killed by an IRA bomb in the late 70s. Lady Pamela lived thru an incredible age. Her book makes no mention of her father's death. Lady Pamela's daughter, India Hicks, was a bridesmaid to Diana Spencer.

Kristen said...

Elizabeth Goudge will take you on a journey....

Carly Abney said...

Kingbird Highway by Ken Kauffman

Anonymous said...

Letters to a young contrary an by Christopher Hitchens

Anonymous said...


Dammit spellcheck

Ian Large said...

Totally enjoyed your list of books.
I second Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales, and add:

Waterlog by Roger Deakin - a quest through swimming holes across Great Britain.
The Old Ways by Robert Macfarland - series of accounts of walks.

Any book about walking long distances!

And I'm a tragic for The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy.

I have a van that I have had set up for 5 years, lived in for nearly 4 of those. Not out of necessity, but out of preference. Simple setup, but looking at your van I would say that if you stepped in, you would feel right at home. Though I have 2 sets of triple plastic drawers...

Enjoying your book.

Ian Large (Australia)

Juanita said...

Hi, Ken: If you want 19th C, try Balzac!!!
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest!!!!!
Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth.
Powell's Books sometimes publishes Best Books lists which are interesting.
You could look me up on goodreads and see my taste by sampling some reviews of books you've read, or check my blog "Opining Remarks" (bad pun) on blogspot.

Yr ex-hostess: Juanita Rice

Jen said...

I definitely second Edith Wharton. I have mixed feelings about Somerset Maugham, but based on your list I agree with that too. I also love Willa Cather and Thomas Hardy. Of more modern stuff, I really enjoyed Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer, Janisse Ray's the Seed Underground, Pete Fromm's Indian Creek Chronicles, and Michael Pollan's Second Nature. These titles don't have a ton in common except how much I enjoyed them, but it's a fair representation of the cross section of our reading likes based on your list.

Anonymous said...


Your list is pretty great since our interests are similar. You've probably read more classics than I have, but there is a lot of overlap. My top pick not on your list: Fearless by Eric Blehm. It's the biography of a truly fascinating man, and very well done...It's better than Where Men Win Glory.


Ethan Maurice said...

Ken, I just finished Walden On Wheels a couple weeks ago. Twas' remarkable! Congrats on inspiring so many people and thank you. Have you read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? It's one of my favorite books of all time and right up your alley.