Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages

Culturally-Significant Texts? What the Hell Does that Mean?

This blog is dedicated to producing a list of texts – from theology to novels, chemistry to philosophy – that have profoundly shaped the english-speaking western world over hundreds, and in some cases thousands of years. Continue reading “Culturally-Significant Texts? What the Hell Does that Mean?”

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Everyman (a play by Anonymous)

everymanThe Summoning of Everyman, 1480-1500? by Anonymous

Referred to as Everyman, this a morality tale in the form of a play, written sometime during the late 1400s by one or more anonymous authors (possibly monks or priests). The play was mounted frequently in the 75 years following its writing, though no records of any of the productions survive. Continue reading “Everyman (a play by Anonymous)”

Casino Royale

Casino Royale
Ian Fleming

In April, 1953 the world was introduced to one of the most enduring and iconic fictional characters of the Cold War 20th century. Casino Royale is the first of the James Bond novels, and launched a series of 13 books, numerous adaptations for the big and small screens, comic strips and more. And made Bond the symbol of the western spy – at least until John Le Carre showed up and did his best to offer an alternative, darker and more realistic version. James Bond is the guy – the epitome of the masculine ideal, he’s charming and suave, brave and cool in the face of danger, sipping martinis and bedding women across the world as he saves us all from assorted evils and takes care of the bad guys. Oh, we swoon, we drool, we aspire and emulate – Bond. James Bond.

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Simulacra and Simulation

Simulacra and Simulation
Jean Baudrillard

You’ve got to be quite the academic mind to pick up Simulacra and Simulation – or anything by critical philosopher Jean Baudrillard. But that doesn’t mean you’ve not been impacted by his work. Indeed, if you’ve seen The Matrix, you’ve been introduced. The film was profoundly influenced by Simulacra…, and the book was required reading for actors who were going to participate in what became one of the most important and successful films of recent decades. Now, Baudrillard himself  certainly had his concerns about the link between his philosophizing and Keanu Reeves, calling The Matrix’ interpretation of his work a misreading or distortion at best. But whatever, Baudrillard. That’s what happens when you toss ideas out there. They get altered with every reading.

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Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Robert Frost

“And miles to go before I sleep.”

The last line (well, two lines, as it’s repeated) are among the best-known of Frost’s poetry and have found a place as common reference in North American culture, used particularly as eulogy. Parts of the poem were used in reports on the death of John F. Kennedy, and in the funeral of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. It’s a simple little poem, like so much of Robert Frost’s work, and one that best represents the poet’s ability to capture quiet moments of daily life, the emotional states they inspire, and the calm individual reflections that touch on universal experience.

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The Souls of Black Folk

The Souls of Black Folk
W.E.B. DuBois

W.E.B. DuBois’ collection of essays is a foundational work not just of the politics of race in America, but of processes of racialization and of sociology in general. Based upon a series of articles first published in The Atlantic Monthly it is at once a work of history, political struggle, social theory and literature. The Souls of Black Folk is huge. And essential reading for anyone who wants to examine how social relationships are built, maintained, and potentially transformed. As a biographer wrote, “Few books make history and fewer still become foundational texts for the movements and struggles of an entire people. The Souls of Black Folk occupies this rare position. It helped to create the intellectual argument for the black freedom struggle in the twentieth century. Souls… justified the pursuit of higher education for Negroes and thus contributed to the rise of the black middle class. By describing a global color-line, Du Bois anticipated pan-Africanism and colonial revolutions in the Third World. Moreover, this stunning critique of how ‘race’ is lived through the normal aspects of daily life is central to what would become known as ‘whiteness studies’ a century later.”

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Curious George

Curious George
H.A. (and Margret) Rey

Curious George – that crazy little monkey whose ADD-like hijinks always got him into trouble. There’s alot of them, and as a kid I loved them all, and still can’t stop myself from flipping through when I come across one. But, as with many such series, it’s the first one that is the stand-out for our purposes here, that introduces the character that becomes iconic, the idea that lasts. The original Curious George – the one in which George comes to live with his great friend, the Man in the Yellow Hat. It’s quite the story to reflect upon and reconsider so many years later.

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Novum Organum

Novum Organum
Francis Bacon

“New Instrument” would be the English title – a new instrument of science, of logic, which would come to be known as ‘the Baconian method’. Observation of phenomena, reduction of those observations to their core similarities or dissimilarities – it is a gradual process, it takes time and commitment and slow, careful study of what is in order to derive what general principles might lie behind the specific. It’s induction, the opposite of deduction, the opposite of assumed truths that take shape in particularities. Scientific method? Not really. But it’s close, it’s in the same order of thinking, and it certainly is important in the development of empiricism and the methodical, observational approach of science. But Bacon is a philosopher not a scientist. He’s not out to discover anything in particular, but to examine the nature of existence, of truth, of knowledge.

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My Love’s Like a Red Red Rose

My Love’s Like a Red Red Rose
Robert Burns

One of the most famous poems of the great Robbie Burns was not, in fact, really written by him. “My Love is Like a Red Red Rose” is actually a song, collected by Burns in the last decade of his life as he sought to gather, print and preserve old Scots folk songs. Burns himself collected some 300 tunes (the most famous being the New Year’s standard “Auld Lang Syne”) on behalf of the Scots Musical Museum and, too, a book project under the editorship of George Thomspon, who would publish five volumes of A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice. So why do we associate “Red Red Rose” with Burns rather than Thompson, or even folksong generally? Cause Thompson didn’t care for Burns’ find. Robbie Burns noted that this “simple old Scots song which I had picked up in the country” seemed to him beautiful and important, simple and wild, while to Thompson’s mind it represented nothing but “the ludicrous and the absurd”. And so Burns passed the words on to his friend Pietro Urbani to set to music and publish in his smaller collection, Scots Songs – directly attributing the find to the “celebrated Scots poet”, who had heard, transribed, and re-worked the traditional piece into the version we now know.

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Moby Dick

Moby Dick
Herman Melville

Reviews were initially mixed when Herman Melville published this now-classic of American literature. His friend Nathanial Hawthorne liked it, but many responses went more along these lines: “an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed.”

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