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June 06, 2010

Sunday Book Thread: Desert Island Books

Back when I was in college majoring in Anguish and felt the kind of existential pain that only snot-nosed college kids with no real experience of life can feel, I drew up a list of so-called "Desert Island books": books that I'd want to have with me if I were ever stranded on a desert island. The idea being that these books would serve as food for brain and spirit during the long years of isolation.

The list has changed over the years as my tastes and philosophy changes, but it's remained pretty stable now for a number of years. I'm not sure if this means that I've (finally) attained maturity, or if it just means that I'm getting cranky and mulish in my dotage.

List of books after the jump.


Göedel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. Nearly every computer and math wonk I've ever known loves this book. To me, it is a wonderful tool for discovering the deep intertwining of math, art, and music. It reminds me that Nature is mysterious and will remain so no matter how smart humanity gets. (It also helped me to understand the notion of recursion, which came in handy when I started writing software for a living.)

Zen and the Art of Motorcylce Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. I'm more ambivalent about this book now than I was as a young 'un, but it was a foundational book for me. It has some really good things to say about systems and cladistics, as well as the conflict between the conceptual world and the real world.

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. I've never much liked Atlas Shrugged as a novel, but The Fountainhead still stands up. It was my first introduction into the Objectivist viewpoint of Rand. As with Pirsig's book, I'm more ambivalent about it now than I used to be, but it's still a foundational book. (A fountainhead, if you will.)

Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard. This, along with Augustine's City of God, was what drew me back to my faith after a long time away. Non-Christians may find value in it as an exploration of how to reconcile religious ideology with ethics and morality. The framing device is God's command to Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, and the morality and ethics of such a command (even in light of the fact that God sent an angel to stop Abraham at the last moment). Many Christians believe that this prefigures God's own sacrifice of Jesus Christ. A difficult but very necessary book.

The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi. A slim little book, translated from the Italian, about Levi's experiences in the Nazi Auschwitz concentration camp. This book affected me more than any other on the Holocaust. The utter horror and the desolation of the Holocaust are almost beyond imagining, but Levi brings part of it into sharp relief by focusing on the small cruelties and constant degradation that was the Jew's lot during that time. It is not a happy book, nor an uplifting one -- Levi offers many questions and few answers. Levi committed suicide in Italy in 1987 (though some authorities dispute this and say that his death was accidental).

And of course my extensive, carefully-curated collection of Juggs magazines. Because sometimes the body needs stimulation of another kind. Know what I mean? Yeah, you know what I mean.

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posted by Monty at 07:32 AM

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