Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages

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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The Velveteen Rabbit

The Velveteen Rabbit
Margery Williams

Pinocchio wants to be a real boy; the Velveteen Rabbit wants to be real, too.  Margery Williams’ first book for children is her best-known, still selling huge and seeing adaptation after adaption almost 100 years after its initial publication.

He’s not the most exciting of toys to appear on Christmas morning, and initially not paid a whole lot of attention. But over time he becomes the constant companion of his young owner, until the boy is diagnosed with scarlet fever and all his toys are marked for burning to eliminate further spread of the disease. Tears for the plush rabbit, a new stuffed friend for the boy, a magic fairy, and… A children’s classic.

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Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost
John Milton

Over 10,000 lines of verse on the fall of man, temptation, knowledge, sin, and exile from the Garden of Eden. Paradise Lost is a tremendous work, and to attempt to summarize it is kinda pointless – you’ve got to read it to get it, and read it we all should, several times in fact. Think you know the story of Adam and Eve? Not this one. It’s not that Milton’s epic version is entirely at odds with the short, canonical version; but it is detailed, nuanced, and tells one hell of a back story. The serpent, the Tree of Knowledge, the shame of nakedness – those are here. But also Satan’s story, his version of the angelic rebellion that led to his expulsion from Heaven, his own experience on the path that Adam and Eve – real people, with personalities, love, and relationship in this account – are about to walk.

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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”

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