Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages


August 2011

The Symposium

The Symposium
385-380 BCE

If you are looking for an entry point into Greek philosophy but worried that nothing could be more dull, this short little book is not a bad place to start. Philosophy as so much philosophy happens – with intellectual sitting around, drinking and talking about sex. Continue reading “The Symposium”


The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds
H.G. Wells

One of the earliest books about human-alien conflict, H.G. Wells’ story is a classic of science-fiction whose direct remakes and influences continue to shape our collective imagination about space and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Journalistic in style, The War of the Worlds is a fictional documentation of Martian invasion by a mid-level scientist who manages to hide out in a partially-destroyed building while Martians and their mobile, tripod weapons wreak havoc across England. Continue reading “The War of the Worlds”

Charge of the Light Brigade

Charge of the Light Brigade
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Then-poet Laureate of Britain Tennyson’s poem is most-famous for two short lines in its first stanza:

“Theirs not to reason why
Theirs but to do or die”

Tennyson regularly wrote verse based on the events of the day, this one apparently scribbled in just a few short moments after he read an account from the front-lines of the Crimean War, fought between Russia and an alliance of European powers over the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Continue reading “Charge of the Light Brigade”

Native Son

Native Son
Richard Wright

“The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever.” So wrote Irving Howe in his essay “Black Boys and Native Sons”. Richard Wright’s novel does not make a particularly good read today – with limited character-development and a plot that by contemporary standards reads as cliched and over-simplistic – but it profoundly shook 1940 America, starkly portraying both the violence of racialization and the patronizing liberalism of the time and served as a major influence for subsequent generations of black writers. It is widely-recognized today as a landmark of American fiction, and one of the most important novels of the twentieth century. Continue reading “Native Son”


Mikhail Gorbachev

Translated to English as ‘restructuring’, Perestroika was the term coined by then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for his wide-ranging program of political and economic restructuring – a program which initiated a half-decade of rapid transition culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union altogether, profound crisis for the socialist left around the world, and the end of the Cold War. The book, then, is not the significant issue here. Rather, it is important as a discussion of a tremendously-significant time in modern history and as a document of economic, geopolitical and cultural upheaval that re-drew the socio-political borders of the world in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Continue reading “Perestroika”

Kubla Kahn

Kubla Kahn
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“Kubla Kahn” is second only to Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in popularity, it’s opening lines
“In Xanadu did Kubla Kahn
A stately pleasure-dome decree”
being among the most-memorable of romantic poetry.  Actually a fragment rather than a complete poem, it was written in the aftermath of an opium-binge and drug-induced dream while Coleridge was reading about Kublai Kahn, famed Mongol leader and founder of the Yuan dynasty in 1271. Composed nearly twenty years before it was published at the urging of Coleridge’s friend and fellow poet Lord Byron, the poem envisions a cavernous garden-city, at once reminiscent of Eden and yet wild and untameable; it marks the gap between imagination and execution, not unlike the gap between the poet’s inspiration and his poem as written. If only, Coleridge laments, that moment of inspiration could be held indefinitely, it might be possible to capture the vision in a form more tangible and lasting.


Approx 442 BCE

One of three plays concerning the city-state of Thebes during and immediately following the reign of Oedipus, Antigone is one of Sophocles’ best-known plays and by all accounts a classic not only of Greek literature but of western civilization in general. In the aftermath of the Theban civil war and during the reign of Creon, two brothers are dead – they are sons of Oedipus, killed in battle, fighting for opposing sides. Creon orders a burial of honors for the brother who fought on his side, and subjects the body of the other to public shame, forbidding any burial whatsoever and condemning his body to lie untouched, to be fed up on by vultures while it rots. Antigone, sister to the two brothers, is determined to provide her shamed brother with full traditional burial rites, despite Creon’s order of death for anyone attempting to touch the disgraced corpse.

Antigone deals with a moment of profound transition in Greek society and, in particular, the competing demands of traditional law as reflected in custom and state law as embodied in the rule of the king. Where does the authority of the monarch end? What constitutes legitimate civil disobedience? What is relationship between natural or traditional law and the state? What is citizenship, and on what terms can it be revoked? These are common questions and themes in classical Greek literature, and provide insight into the reconstitution of political order during a transition from traditional to state-based  forms of governance.

A contemporary of such important playwrights as Aeschylus and Euripides – who with him are the trio of Greece’s great tragedians –  Sophocles was the most-celebrated dramatist of his day, and is said to have written well over a hundred plays, though only seven have survived intact to the present. A politician and military leader, his life – some ninety years – spanned a remarkable period in Greek history, including the Persian and Pelopponesian Wars. His contributions to Greek culture and governance were well-recognized in his own day, and his impact upon Greek theatre lasting and profound – most notably for the use of additional characters to reduce the reliance on narration through a chorus, and for his more-detailed and in-depth drawing of his dramatic characters as individuals.

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