Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages


March 2011

Fear of Flying

Fear of Flying
Erica Jong

A classic of the second-wave of feminism, Fear of Flying is Erica Jong’s first and best-known novel. The story of Isadora Wing’s self-discovery, in-marriage sexual frustrations and exploration of fantasy with another man, the book struck a chord with married women and made Jong a household name. What is more, it made Fear of Flying not only an important book in American literature, but a major text of the 1970s women’s movement.

Hugely controversial and hugely popular for its explicit treatment of a woman’s sexuality and extensive pornographic episodes, the book introduced the term “zipless fuck” – a purely sexual encounter between strangers – which remains in usage in popular culture today. It is not, though, merely or even predominantly a novel about sexual escapades; likely based upon Jong’s sister – who has vocally condemned Jong for exploiting the story of her marriage – Fear of Flying is more generally about a young woman struggling to make sense of love, sex, freedom, and what it means to be a woman.


Go Tell It On The Mountain

Go Tell It On The Mountain
James Baldwin

James Baldwin’s coming of age story based on his own life is a cornerstone of modern American fiction – a story of race, family and the complex role of religion in society. Drawing heavily from the rythym and language of biblical text, Go Tell It On The Mountain follows the story of John on his fourteenth birthday, and his confrontation with three different parts of his personal and family story – his relationship with his father, the coming of his adulthood, and his religious faith.

Though centred upon John and his relationship to his preacher father, Gabriel, the novel employs distinct sections, or prayers – poetic reflections – each in the voice of a different character to spin a complex story of family history, faith and temptation, sin and redemption. Florence – neglected daughter of a freed slave,  resentful sister of Gabriel, abandoned by her husband, traces the link between the past and the present, the enduring  legacy of slavery; Gabriel reflects upon his religious conversion, his previous and lingering sins, secrecy and temptation, the continuity of his troubled relationships as son and father; Elizabeth, John’s mother, examines the place of family and the collapse of family, the psychological toll of racism and the possibility of a resistance that is more than just hatred. And then, back to John, to the church and the visions, angels and demons that visit him there, to the reckoning of family history, of fathers and sons, of historical burdens passed generation to generation.

Novelist, essayist, playwright, poet – James Baldwin is a towering figure in twentieth century American literature, and his ability to explore themes of race and sexuality through intensely personal stories continues to influence writers today. Go Tell It On The Mountain is perhaps not his greatest book; it is, though, a hugely influential work, and one that established Baldwin as one of the century’s most important and enduring literary voices.

The Wealth of Nations

The Wealth of Nations
Adam Smith

The definitive theory of the free market, the basic economic premise of the current order, the very foundation of what we call economics – if all of sociology is a dialogue with Karl Marx, all of economic theory is dialogue with Adam Smith. An economist and philosopher of morality, Smith’s Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations analyzed the emerging industrial revolution and its attendant economic framework to produce the theory of the free market as we know it and to situate that particular economic arrangement in a broader analysis of human nature and human morality.

The few-sentence summary? We have natural instincts of both duty and self-interest that together cause us to behave, overall, in ways that are socially-beneficial; economically-speaking, the ideal arrangement is one free of domination by either monopolies or the state, in which the creativity of and competition among producers allows for a stable and expanding economy. In pursuing our own individual interests and allowing our produce/ skills to be judged and assigned a value by the free operation of the market, we achieve a society that grows stronger as a result of natural competition. The market is, in effect, an ‘invisible hand’ guiding productive development, and by which the pursuit of individual ends brings positive collective results. (Or, as Keynes put it, critically and somewhat unfairly to Adam Smith, at least, though less unfairly to his followers – “the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men, for the nastiest of reasons, will somehow work for the benefit of us all.”)

Increasing complexity in the division of labour, the centrality of industrial technology for boosting production, the role of exchange and development of currency, the relationship between labour and scarcity in determining prices of commodities in the marketplace, the relationship between capital and labour, the role of the state in economic activity, debt, taxation, the opportunities and inequalities produced by the market – it’s all here in Adam Smith, who with David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus forms the great triumvirate of neoclassical economic theory.

The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King
T.H. White

The legend of King Arthur and his knights of the round table is traced far back in our history, and each telling is distinct in significant ways. T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, then, is by no means a definitive version of the story; it is, though, a comprehensive imagining of the legend, and one that not only articulated the basic contours for a modern audience, but some of White’s own additions have been adopted by other latter-day versions, and the novel profoundly influenced the development of fantasy as a literary genre.

The boy Arthur pulling the sword from the stone, the magician and mentor that is Merlin, the love affair between Lancelot and Guenevere, Sir Galahad, the round table, and the myth of Arthur’s reign as an imagining of the ideal society – it’s all here.

Written in four parts over twenty years between 1938 an 1958, The Once and Future King continues to exert a profound influence on writers from Neil Gaiman to J.K. Rowling. Reading the Arthur story in centuries-old verse is alot of fun, and well-worth the effort; but if you want a damn good story about it, something that comes alive and puts some human flesh on the characters, you can’t beat this.

Pippi Longstocking

Pippi Longstocking
Astrid Lindgren

The pig-tailed redhead with oddly-superhuman physical strength, the wild and unconventional kid who courts adventure and opens the world to other kids while demonstrating a clear intolerance for the pompous authority of most adults, Pippi Longstocking is one of the most endearing and enduring figures in twentieth century children’s literature.

Created by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, the character of Pippi emerged out of a story Lindgren told to her daughter to pass the time on a day off sick from school. But over the next few decades, she grew into first a book, then a series, and later television and movie productions all of which have been wildly popular internationally, particularly with young girls who recognize in Pippi a self-confidence, irreverence, swagger, courage and wit all-too-rare in the heroines of kid’s literature.

Pippi is a little bit Peter Pan, a little bit Supergirl, a little bit Harriet the Spy – and all original.

The Book of Optics

The Book of Optics
Ibn al Haytham

Over a ten-year period, under house arrest for his refusal to follow state orders, scientist and philosopher Ibn al Haytham (known also as al-Basri) produced a monumental seven-volume work covering mathematics, psychology, physics, optics and more. The Book of Optics not only opened up optics as a whole new area of scientific enquiry; it is a foundational text of the scientific method, and the role of experimentation in particular, and was a major influence upon Europe’s scientific and philosophical revolution some centuries later.

Rays of light travel in straight lines? He’s the guy who proved it. The invention of the camera obscura? His. The variability of the speed of light? Yup, that’s him, too. And the first magnifying glass, and the method of hypothesis, experimentatation, analysis, conclusion which is the very basis of scientific scholarship. It’s all here in Ibn al Haytham. Outside of academic circles, his name is not widely known in the Euro-American tradition today, but to conduct a cursory review of those influenced by his work is to trace the wide arc of Europe’s most enduring thinkers – Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon and on and on and on.

If ever there was an example of how much knowledge we miss by limiting ourselves to the European tradition, and how much that tradition itself owes to others, and the intellectuals of the Arab world in particular, it’s Ibn al Haytham. OK, you may not want to read the seven volumes of The Book of Optics. But read about this guy, and learn his name, We owe him that much.

The Second Coming

The Second Coming
W.B. Yeats

As the First World War drew to a close, as revolution in Russia and rebellions across Europe threatened to topple the established order, as Dadaists and other cultural radicals worked to turn the world upside down, as the world seemed equal parts revolutionary fervor and widespread slaughter – amidst all of this, Irish poet William Butler Yeats penned what is perhaps his most famous poem, and one whose imagery and language continue to hold sway.

“The falcon cannot hear the falconer”; “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”; “What rough beast, its hour come round at last/ Slouches toward Bethelem to be born”. Four lines out of only twenty-two are widely recognized and repeated even today, and a read of the poem will find still more familiar turns of phrase for many. Yeats clearly hit something significant here, capturing a profound sense of anxiety at a world gone mad, a world that seemed intent upon its own destruction, a world that would clearly never be the same – but with what to follow?

“The Second Coming” is a snapshot of the Great War and its aftermath as the apocalypse, armageddon and – perhaps, but without certainty – the Second Coming  of Christ as allegory for a Europe characterized by devastation and anxiety. But not only that moment, as its staying-power attests. Here is something deeper than political and economic crisis, something about the instability of civilization, about modernity and the every-present threat of collapse, about a humanity that has built a world it somehow knows cannot stand, about waiting for the fall, and wondering. It’s a poem for forever.

Midnight’s Children

Midnight’s Children
Salman Rushdie

12:00 midnight of August 15, 1947, Saleem Sinai was born – precisely the moment of India’s independence and partition. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children tells the story of India since partition through the story of Saleem, his life unfolding as an allegory for history of the nation.

The challenges of nation-building, the legacy of colonialism, the question of identity in a place of religious and political diversity, multiculturalism and multilingualism in the struggle for national unity, memory and collective amnesia in the construction of a national story, a national mythology – the novel explores these and more through the devices of both historical fiction and magical realism.

Rushdie’s story of colonization, freedom and statehood is recognized as one of the most significant novels of the late twentieth century, and a foundational text of post-colonial literature. Protagonist and telepath Saleem Sinai is – with all other children born in the hour of India’s birth as a nation – the new country made human, personal embodiment of India, its promise, its faltering, its transition from idea to state.

Rob Roy

Rob Roy
Sir Walter Scott

Set in the years immediately preceding the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715, in which supporters of James VII of Scotland (known as James II in England) sought to restore him to the British throne, Rob Roy is an historical novel depicting the social conditions and political upheaval of Scotland at the time, as seen through the eyes of a young man of a Jacobite family. The name of the book is taken not from its principal character, but from the real-life person of Robert Roy MacGregor, who appears at various times in the story and whose presence and personality shape both the plot and the context in which Rob Roy is set.

A Jacobite himself, the historical Rob Roy is something of a Scottish folk-hero not unlike Robin Hood. Landowner and later debtor, nationalist and notorious outlaw, he represents the struggle of Scotland for freedom from foreign rule as represented by the House of Hanover dynasty, the German royal dynasty that took power in England and Scotland following the fall of James VII/James II. More broadly. Rob Roy symbolizes the anti-colonial impulse generally, Sir Walter Scott’s novel appearing as sympathy towards those colonized in the Americas and elsewhere took root in the UK and drawing clear parallels between the experiences of the Highland Scots and the indigenous peoples of North America.

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