Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages


March 2012

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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Critique of Pure Reason

Critique of Pure Reason
Immanuel Kant
1781 (revised 1787)

Kant’s “First Critique” – before those of Practical Reason and Judgement – is not only his most significant, but one of the most important books in all of western philosophy. A reaction to the rational skepticism of David Hume, Kant’s work seeks to explore and understand knowledge that is independent of experience. We do understand the world through experience, but that isn’t the whole of it.  We also know the world a priori – meaning, in the words of contemporary philosopher Galen Strawson, “you can see that it is true just lying on your couch. You don’t have to get up off your couch and go outside and examine the way things are in the physical world. You don’t have to do any science.”

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The Tell-Tale Heart

The Tell-Tale Heart
Edgar Allan Poe

It’s such an incredibly effective image. The heart of the murder victim still beating beneath the floorboards, pounding in the ears of the killer until he is driven to confess his crime. Poe’s device to explore the crippling and maddening power of guilt is not easily forgotten, and sticks with us as readers. Indeed, it sticks with us as a culture whether we’ve read the story ourselves our not, the heartbeat in the eardrums a lasting symbol of conscience.

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The Power of Myth

The Power of Myth
Joseph Campbell

When George Lucas was putting together Star Wars, he didn’t just want to tell a good story or introduce some crazy special effects. He was reformulating some of the central myths of the western world, adorning their archetypes in new garb, and telling a tale that is as old as human memory. And in this, George Lucas was profoundly inspired and influenced by Joseph Campbell, a scholar and author who delved deep into comparative mythology and religion to understand how and why some stories last, how and why some stories differ according to time and place, and how and why some stories are near-universal, their central contours of plot, character, and meaning recurring again and again in human history. And so in the mid 1980s the creator of science fiction history invited Campbell and journalist Bill Moyers up to his ranch to talk about myth-making and why it matters. Those videotaped interviews played as a series on PBS in 1988, shortly after Campbell’s death, and were published in book form later that year – packaged as The Power of Myth, the discussions became massively important, popularizing Campbell’s scholarship and significantly increasing cultural literacy around myth and ritual not only in the past but in the here and the now.

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