Book recommendations: All-time favourites (the Desert Island Ten)

10 December 2009
Categories: From the armchair

coverZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
Quite possibly my all-time favourite book, I re-read it every few years and each time I get something more out of it. An investigation into the concepts of truth and quality, sprinkled with commentary on Western academia, it uses the metaphor of a motorcycle to explain logic and rational thought. Though the book uses the narrative framework of a cross-country trip, the motorcyle one is taught to maintain is not the piece of hardware on which the author rides: it is one’s own self. Here’s an odd book report.

cover“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” (Adventures of a Curious Character) by Richard P. Feynman
Here’s a book report.

coverA Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin
If you only ever read one book on the Space Race, this must be it, the book that was the basis for the award-winning HBO series From the Earth to the Moon. Chaikin explains the events and difficulties of the Apollo project with such detailed understanding that one might think he was himself one of the astronauts, except that no astronaut ever had such a gift for storytelling. Both the exhilirating highs and the disastrous lows will bring tears to your eyes.

coverA Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Winner of a Pulitzer prize, published posthumously by the author’s mother. I won’t even try to summarise it. A masterpiece of pure genius. Here’s a book report, if it can be called that.

coverPrometheus Rising by Robert Anton Wilson
A guidebook for self-programming what John Lilly called the “human biocomputer.” Wilson uses his incomparable humour to explain the eight-circuit model of the brain and how each circuit is imprinted and conditioned. Mental games and exercises help the reader to understand the “programs” unintentionally imprinted on one’s brain during various stages of development, and enable one to rewrite detrimental programs and augment beneficial ones. You’ll find lots of quarters, too. Avoids the whacked-out zealotry of Timothy Leary, who pioneered the eight-circuit model.

coverThe Straight Dope by Cecil Adams
When I was in high school my grandfather gave me an early printing of this book, and it has remained one of my most prized possessions ever since. It’s not so much because he died not long after, but because I’m still curious to know what prompted him to give me a book that tells the true story (and, of course, the bawdy rumour) about Catherine the Great and the horse, as well as the caloric content of human sperm. These are just two of the hundreds of questions unabashedly and caustically answered by Uncle Cecil in this book and its sequels. What are the original lyrics to “Louie, Louie?” Why is there no Channel One? How many Eskimo words for snow are there really? Hilarious and informative, truly a “Compendium of Human Knowledge.”

coverThe I Ching, or Book of Changes translated by Wilhelm/Baynes
Both an oracle and a philosophy. I have read several different translations of this classic. Some are overly New Age. Some are so cryptically and tersely written that you’re probably better off learning Chinese and reading the original. This version is a bit academic and has a definite European cant, but it conveys some nice poetry and contains extensive commentaries on each of the 64 hexagrams.

coverVALIS by Philip K. Dick
This is (partly) a semi-autobiographical attempt to come to terms with an inexplicable mind-altering experience that PKD had in the early ’70s, which among other things allowed him to diagnose a life-threatening congenital defect in his young son that had gone undetected by physicians. Could it be that the “living word” of early Christianity was really an intelligent, symbiotic information packet which, when learned under the proper conditions, gave a person immortality? Could orbiting satellites be capable of firing pink laser beams of information directly into a person’s mind? These are but two of PKD’s many theories on the origin of his strange visions.

coverThe Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes
Even before the moment in 1933 when Leo Szilard stepped off a curb and had his epiphany of nuclear fission, the Atomic Age was inevitable. Rhodes’ Pulitzer prize-winner makes the difficult concepts of physics and chemistry understandable without oversimplification, and explains the background of each discovery as well. This could have made for a dull, tedious read, but Rhodes uses honest drama and solid characterizations to create a ripping good tale. No other book covers both the history and the morality of this subject better.

coverSlaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

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