Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages


February 2012

Being and Nothingness

Being and Nothingness
Jean-Paul Sartre

He wrote novels and plays and stories that earned him the Nobel Prize in 1964 – thought he refused to accept it; he became a prominent socialist (and later, he said, anarchist) thinker and hung out with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara; he was partner to Simone de Beauvoir, a literary, philosophical and political heavyweight in her own right, and – many would argue – smarter and more significant historically than he; and his name became synonymous with existentialism. Jean-Paul Sartre was 4’11” of smarts. And Being and Nothingness probably the best-known of his smarty-pants ramblings. Continue reading “Being and Nothingness”


The Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz
Frank L. Baum

OK, it’s The Wizard of Oz. It’s Dorothy and little Toto, Scarecrow, Lion, Tin Woodsman, witches good and bad. It’s one of the best known children’s books, the inspiration for countless re-tellings, and the source material for Gregory McGuire’s Wicked series – which is, I gotta say, one of the greatest adult variations on an old standard I’ve read, and one that each and every one of you should read, too. I don’t need to tell anyone why this book is culturally important, or how it continues to shape us. So instead, I’ll focus on something else about Frank L. Baum’s fairytale. Continue reading “The Wizard of Oz”

Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus

Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus
John Gray

Nothing on this list has earned more objections than this little book. Dreck. Drivel. Garbage. Yup, I agree. But it ain’t about what’s good, it’s about what is significant, and while we can hope and pray that Men Are from Mars… will be thoroughly forgotten in the not-too-distant future, the fact of the matter is that today, 20 years after its publication, it is a part of the cultural landscape. It’s one of the best-selling non-fiction books of all-time, and though that may be a sad reflection on the state of the world, a reflection it is. TV shows, seminars, cruises, and a Broadway show have all grown out of John Gray’s pop-psychology on gender and relationships, not to mention the flood of equally-offensive books published in its wake. Continue reading “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus”

Germ Theory and its Application to Medicine and Surgery

Germ Theory and its Application to Medicine and Surgery
Louis Pasteur

Fermentation is a biological process carried out by micro-organisms. And that little discovery changed the world. ‘Pasteurized’ as in milk, the existence of vaccines, home-brewing – they all owe a whole lot to Louis Pasteur who laid the groundwork for microbiology and biochemistry and gave us some of the most basic foundations of modern scientific knowledge. All over the world, universities, hospitals and city streets are named for him, a man known as one of the greatest benefactors of the contemporary world. Continue reading “Germ Theory and its Application to Medicine and Surgery”

The Gulag Archipelago

The Gulag Archipelago
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn

Published in the west beginning in 1974, Solzhenitsyn’s massive discussion of forced labour in the USSR was widely circulated underground in that country until 1989, and is now part of Russia’s standard high school curriculum. The Gulag – an acronym for Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps – was a network of forced labour facilities most notable for its punitive use against political prisoners and critics of the state, which was largely downplayed if not outright denied in the Soviet bloc and came to represent to critical socialists the very worst of Stalinist totalitarianism and to pro-Western advocates the natural outcome of the socialist project. Solzhenitsyn described a vast penal apparatus that functioned both politically and economically – to isolate ‘anti-social’ and anti-state elements while serving as quiet deterrent to the general population and provide a massive pool of effectively-slave labour for the construction of infrastructure and public works. Continue reading “The Gulag Archipelago”

The Trial

The Trial
Franz Kakfa

Kafka’s one of those writers who doesn’t leave us just with significant texts or contribute words to the language – he becomes a word in himself, his legacy so profound that we need a whole new term to capture it: the distortingly surreal, menacingly absurd, the strangely and dangerously complex, the kafkaesque. He not only published little in his lifetime, but didn’t even finish much, leaving partial and incomplete stories and novels to be filled it, edited, and published by his friend Max Brod. Well, kinda. Kafka left explicit instructions that it all be burnt unread, but Brod would have no part of that, and set to organizing and disseminating the work. Continue reading “The Trial”

Arms and the Boy

Arms and the Boy
Wilfred Owen

“Protest – the unnaturalness of weapons” Wilfred Owen wrote as he sought to categorize this short poem. It would become his most famous, and make this young man – who spent virtually all of his short adult life either in the trenches or in a military hospital – synonomous with First World War poetry, though in his own lifetime only five of his pieces ever saw publication. It was the war that made Owen the poet he was, leading him to abandon his previously-Romantic sensibilities for a realism inspired by blood and dirt, training in murder, and Freudian psychoanalysis – and his fellow soldier and poet Sigfried Sassoon. Continue reading “Arms and the Boy”

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
James Joyce

Named by the Modern Library the third greatest English-language novel of the 20h century, James Joyce’s  semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story has been enormously impactful. First serialized in The Egoist, A Portrait… is Joyce’s first novel and established the modernist and subjectivist stream-of-consciousness he would become famous for. Continue reading “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”

Tao te Ching

Tao Te Ching
Lao Tzu
Approx. 600 BCE

Lao Tzu – or Laozi – may or may not be a real dude. He’s often said to have been a court record keeper during the period of the Zhou dynasty, though a signficant number of historians believe he’s actually a philosophical character, a composite of real historical figures and mythological ones. Doesn’t really matter, either way, for our purposes – the Lao Tzu we know is the recognized founder of Taoism, and to many a near-deity.

Continue reading “Tao te Ching”

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