Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages



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 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”

Waiting for Godot

Waiting for Godot
Samuel Beckett

Long before Jerry Seinfeld dubbed his TV sitcom a ‘show about nothing’, Irish playwright Samuel Beckett had staked out that territory in a simply brilliant piece of writing for the stage. An exploration of the existential, the absurd, the question of meaning in a world without God, Waiting For Godot is the definitive story about nothing. And it’s so full of nothing you can read and re-read and re-read again, and watch production after production, always walking away with something new. Continue reading “Waiting for Godot”

Love in the Time of Cholera

Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez

First off, whatever you do, do NOT watch the movie. Please.

Garcia Marquez’ reflection on love and heartache is, with his Hundred Years of Solitude, the Nobel prize-winner’s best-known work and a classic of modern literature. Less ‘magical realist’ than his Hundred Years of Solitude, it is a book known more for its mastery of language, the depth and beauty of its storytelling than for the story itself. Continue reading “Love in the Time of Cholera”

The Magic Mountain

The Magic Mountain
Thomas Mann

Beginning as a fiction rooted in Thomas Mann’s reflections while his wife spent months in a Swiss sanitarium, The Magic Mountain would not be the book it is but for the coming of the Great War, which interrupted the writing. The plot itself is not complex – man winds up in a sanitarium in the Alps, his stay continually extended until it spans some seven years; man meets a diverse cast of characters along the way, is released and joins the military. But what began as something of a comic novella became altogether different in the aftermath of the war – a reflection on modernity, on European enlightenment thought, on the nature of civilization and the competing theories and moralities of post-war Europe.

Influenced in no small part by the skepticism-bordering-on-nihilism of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Mann writes something akin to a typical coming-of-age story in which it is not the individual character so much as all of Europe that makes the journey, confronting its fractures, its failures, its evils, and beginning the process of coming to terms with the chasm between its mythology and its reality. And unlike your typical growing-up tale, too, The Magic Mountain stops short of the great revelation that brings insight, ending instead with the precipice, the dark unknown.

Mann’s writing is intellectual, challenging, critical, his novels and short stories intended primarily to engage in reflection upon and discussion of issues of human psychology and society. Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, he remains one of the most important voices of modern German literature.

The Golden Notebook

The Golden Notebook
Doris Lessing

The Golden Notebook by Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing is a powerful piece of feminist writing that explores themes of Communism and the Cold War, anti-Stalinism, and the emergence of a women’s movement in Britain as well as sexual liberation and identity. Examined through the first-person narrative of Anna Wulf, a writer who keeps notebooks in which to record her life (the Golden Notebook being the one which ties the others together), the story realistically follows the lives of Molly and Anna and the people who surround them (lovers, children, ex-husbands) through the internal and external challenges they face as women of the late-fifties/early-sixties.

The Golden Notebook shows up on most of the “best-of” lists of the 20th century including the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die, The Guardian 100-best list and the TIME Magazine 100-best from 1923-2005 list. Not only is this an excellent example of Lessing’s finer writing, it was profoundly influential in the feminist movement of the early sixties and continues to provide an essential insight into the lives of women during these transition points in British and women’s culture.

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