1. Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans
For at least four centuries, Plutarch's classic, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans was prescribed reading in academia across Europe. It holds the distinction of being one of the most widely translated works. Thomas North's acclaimed translation of the work is regarded as one of the earliest masterpieces of English prose and formed the basis for Shakespeare's classics, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens and Coriolanus. These are not mere biographies of eminent people but veritable studies in human nature, vigour, discipline, inspiration, sacrifice and heroism. Reading out from these books aloud to one's children is the best gift parents can give them.
2. Life of Samuel Johnson
This is the biography of biographies. A landmark and trendsetter that actually spawned and popularised the biography genre. Notwithstanding ignorable criticism, its author James Boswell has fulfilled his self-declared promise and of recreating Samuel Johnson's "life in scenes." It is rich, vivid, intimate, and even indiscriminate but overall provides an excellent, comprehensive picture of Samuel Johnson's life, career and achievement as a lexicographer par excellence. Life of Samuel Johnson became an instant success and attracted generally favourable reviews from a range of eminences including Edmund Burke, Thomas Carlyle, and Macaulay. For good reason. To quote a literary critic, Boswell's work was the "crowning achievement of an artist who for more than twenty five years had been deliberately disciplining himself for such a task."
3. Democracy in America
One of the most comprehensive and insightful studies of not just the fledgling new democracy in America but a classic nonfiction work that has almost a literary quality to it. While Alexis de Tocqueville didn't set out to write a textbook--it was originally envisioned as a report on the US prison system--the mastery he displayed made it an inevitable prescribed textbook for all political science courses across the world. A measure of its enduring impact is couched in just three words: The Tocqueville Effect to describe a social phenomenon. Democracy in America is also notable for its clairvoyance. It predicted two major historical events: the American civil war and the emergence of the Cold War between the US and Russia.
4. Essays and English Traits
A superb collection of timeless essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, which finds a place in every "great books" list: from Harvard Classics to Everyman's Library. A finer curation is hard to find. Emerson, the "Boston Brahmin" wrote them (some are lectures) at the height of his productive best. Masterpieces such as Self Reliance, Compensation, The American Scholar, The Poet, Beauty, and University beckon you to them again and again. These are foundational works in a sense...the earlier one is introduced to them, the better.
Henry David Thoreau can't be far behind in any mention of Emerson. Walden is rightfully his best-known work. To borrow from Sri Devudu Narasimha Sastri, Walden is a book for those who regard it as a book, a life-instruction for those seeking inspiration and a meditation for those inclined towards quieter pursuits. Walden is an outpouring of a monk who built his own hermitage with materials drawn from the earth and his own spirit.
6. Brave New World Revisited
This is the brilliant and scary nonfiction sequel to Aldous Huxley's dystopian classic novel, Brave New World. It is prophetic in many ways but a lot of social, political and cultural phenomena that he had predicted in Brave New World Revisited in 1959 has come horribly true today. Huxley like George Orwell, lived in an era where totalitarianism was a reality, most horribly in the USSR and sought to keep warning the world about just how easy it is to slip into it. Each chapter in the book is akin to warnings and the manner in which Huxley builds his case is frightening. Here are a few chapter names that give you a flavour of the work: Overpopulation, Propaganda in a Democratic Society, The Arts of Selling, and Chemical Persuasion.
7. Among the Believers and (8) Beyond Belief
This is another book by the talented V.S. Naipaul which has stood the test of time. It is at once an insightful mix of spectacular travel writing, a religious, cultural, ideological, social and political study, but it is above all these. Among the Believers is a first-hand adventure that provides details of the physical and psychological workings of the generational manufacture of Jihad across a substantial geography of the world. Told in first person. It is a brilliant but scary excursion into the Islamic laboratories of Malaysia, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Iran. Among the Believers was first published in 1981. All we will say is: read it now. Or read it again if you had already read it back then. Then read its sequel or companion volume, Beyond Belief. Enough said.
9. The Trial of Socrates
A valuable but timeless piece of advice is as simple as it is difficult: keep your eyes and ears open at all times. It is incredible what life lessons one garners in the most innocuous things. There's a book, its title and author name. In this case, it is The Trial of Socrates by I.F. Stone. But when we investigate a little deeper, we learn that Stone enrolled for a Bachelors degree in Classical languages at the ripe young age of 64! Not only did he master Greek, he wrote the aforementioned book on Socrates in which he argues that Socrates invited the death sentence upon himself in order to shame the Athenian democracy with his death. It is one of the landmark works on Socrates, a valuable addition to scholarship about the Greek sage.
10. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
An extraordinary biography of one of the most unique American presidents by Edmund Morris. In a sense, it is Boswell's contemporary equivalent of writing a comprehensive and lucid biography. One can daresay that The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt surpasses Boswell in the sheer elegance of its prose and for its breathtaking readability. Roosevelt was--to rub it in the faces of "social justice warriors" -- in a sense the ultimate patriarch, and to use an archaic phrase, "endowed with sturdy manhood," whose central mantra was to lead the strenuous life. A memorable incident in his life is when as a deputy Sheriff, he hunts down boat thieves, frightens them with the mere force of his personality. They follow him meekly, there's no need for him to handcuff them. Over 40 hours in freezing cold, Roosevelt finishes Anna Karenina even as he guards them. Then he writes, "and I wonder why people complain that they have no time." Read the biography. It's rich, rewarding, insightful and inspiring.
That brings us to the end of The Dharma Dispatch reading list during the Corona lockdown period. Do let us know if you enjoyed our selections in the comments box below.
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