, Port Arthur, Texas

Port Arthur

October 30, 2013


PORT ARTHUR — I’ve had some medical issues lately (not the point), and an upside is that my treating physician, a broadminded and curious person, asked me, as a librarian, to list what I thought were the 10 most significant writings I have read, and that s/he would read them (we’re staying gender-neutral here).

This is an impossible task, a moving target. I would not have picked the same 10 works 10 years ago, nor 10 years from now. But it’s fun: it makes me ask myself why I would pick these works as opposed to countless others. It also makes me realize I want these works to be interesting to my physician. For that reason, I chose these works for literary clarity and intellectual depth, and to show that those two qualities easily coexist.

Herewith, in no particular order:  

• The Herring Gull’s World. Niko Tinbergen. received the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology in 1973. The delightful aspect of this book is in the way in which he relates to and observes the birds, and figures out what motivates their behaviors.

• Human Nature and Conduct. John Dewey.  “Man is a creature of habit,” says Dewey in 1922. Thus he begins, as a philosopher, to explore what it is to be human from an observational perspective rather than, as had been the case in Western philosophy with Descartes and Kant, from a position of “oughtness.” Warning: Dewey is best appreciated if one has a grasp of the prior philosophers. There are many concise online renderings.

• Ragtime. E.L. Doctorow.  A historical novel published in 1975 but dealing with events taking place in New Rochelle and New York City between 1902 and the outbreak of World War I.  It blends three fictional families — one black, one Jewish, and one white middle class — with historical events and a host of real characters (J.P. Morgan, Houdini, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, among others). I have used this work in my college writing classes as an excellent example of clear, concise prose.

• Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions. Lisa Randall.  Randall is a theoretical physicist at Harvard. This book (2005) is a discussion of string theory and the scientific position that the universe is better explained as multi-dimensional than three-dimensional (e.g., a three-dimensional model cannot explain why Teflon works, although a one-dimensional model explains why Ronald Reagen didn’t work.)  This is not easy reading, although Randall does a good job of tying the immensity of the universe (or possibly the multiverse) to quarks.

• Henry IV, Part 2. Shakespeare.  Shakespeare must be on any list that includes literature. I think that this play, involving Falstaff and Prince Hal, and of course Hal’s concerned father, is more realistically drawn than the tragedies.

• Forests: The Shadow of Civilization. Robert Pogue Harrison.  When I was in graduate school in literature at McGill, my major project was “The Hero and the City.”  This was an analysis of the idea of the hero going into the wilderness to protect the civilization from whatever enemies, monsters, or evils were there. The earliest recorded was Gilgamesh, more than 4,000 years ago. It included “The Divine Comedy,” “Gawain and the Green Knight,” and “Moby Dick.” “Forests” was Harrison’s approach: wilderness was necessary to define ourselves as humans. It was not simply that we were fomenting ecological disaster?true enough?but that we are destroying ourselves as well. Harrison, a classical scholar, does not give us current ecological arguments. He give us a human history of involvement with the forest, the land, the sea.

• The Anatomy of Revolution. Crane Brinton. This is a classic work from 1965 in which Brinton, who taught at Harvard, analyzes the English, American, French and Russian Revolutions as organic entities which progress through stages in time in much the same way. Brinton was a very thoughtful writer, and the book, only 320 pages, is a pleasure to read.

• War and Peace. Tolstoy. This fictional account of the time of the Napoleonic campaigns in Russia is one of the finest literary pieces in the Western Canon (even if you don’t agree that there is a Western Canon). Do not be put off by its size (1200 or so pages) or its complexity (more than 500 characters): it is eminently readable and events follow events in a very rational fashion. One of Tolstoy’s major observations is that wars are not won or lost by strategy, but by accident.

• Modern Architecture. Vincent Scully.  Scully was the preeminent historian of modern architecture (I took his famous course, History of Art 53B, at Yale in 1966).  Good architecture distills the best of art, industry, community cooperation, pragmatics, and technology. In this little book (160 pages), Scully pithily takes us from the roots of modern architecture through Adler & Sullivan and the Chicago School, H.H. Richardson, Greene and Greene, Frank Lloyd Wright, Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier, and many other architects of the 19th and 20th Centuries. He describes the aesthetics in straightforward language, with extensive illustration.

• Dubliners. James Joyce.  Like Shakespeare, Joyce cannot be ignored. “Dubliners,” his collection of short stories, is his most accessible work.  Pay particular attention to his use of puns and metaphors. The last story in the work, “The Dead,” takes place around a dinner table. It was made into an excellent movie, with the dialogue intact, by John Huston.

Rick Whitaker is assistant director of the Port Arthur Public Library, 4615 Ninth Ave. Contact him at 409-985-8838 x2241.

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