What follows is a smorgasbord of books, movies, plays, television shows, and works of music that broaden,deepen, or define the experience of being alive.
They will stretch your thinking, stir your soul, and maybe even offer some startling insights on what to cook for dinner tonight. We created this list out of thousands of recommendations from authors, activists, professors, book club members, spiritual teachers, and bemused observers of the human condition. It’s offered not as a checklist to measure your intellectual standing, but as an inspiration, to give you an incentive to pursue your own blissful course of study.
The real value of self-learning is that it connects you with a whole web of knowledge, each new discovery moving you in the direction of further insights. That’s why every one of the main selections here points to another work we’ve listed, which of course will lead you to more and more. Please let us know where this list takes you, and what else you would include.
–Jay Walljasper and Jon Spayde
150 GREAT WORKS…
The Book of Isaiah (ca. 8th – 2nd centuries B.C.E.). The fieriest of the Hebrew prophets zaps the rich, the greedy, and the unjust as well as the ungodly, and calls eloquently for an end to war. The Zohar (ca. 1275) The most beloved and influential of all kabbalistic books, finding magical, mystical meaning at the heart of the Torah.
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching (3rd century B.C.E.). A political treatise as much as a spiritual text, but readers in China and the West have long been fascinated by its enigmatic doctrine of wise compliance with nature’s way. Chuang Tzu: Chuang Tzu (3rd century B.C.E.) The other classic of Taoism is full of delightful stories that illustrate the vast mystery of the world.
Thucydides: History of the Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 B.C.E.). The story of antiquity’s Vietnam: a punishing conflict between Athens and Sparta that ripped the Greek world apart. Hesiod: Works and Days (ca. 700 B.C.E.). While his contemporary, Homer, sang of battles and wanderings, Hesiod stayed home and penned hymns to the seasons and the right way to live on the land.
Mahabharata (ca. 400 B.C.E. – 200 C.E.). The Iliad on acid. This vast, fantastically elaborate Indian epic of warfare is also a profound meditation on duty; it contains a religious allegory (The Bhagavad Gita) that has shaped Indian culture as no other book has. Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj: I Am That (1983). Brilliant teachings on the true nature of the self and other tenets of Eastern mysticism from a simple Indian householder.
Marcus Aurelius: Meditations (ca. 2nd century). Somber and eloquent musings on human community, duty, and fate by one of the few Roman emperors who wasn’t a murderer or a moron. Lucins Apuleius: The Golden Ass (ca. 2nd century). The opposite side of the Roman mind. Irrepressible high spirits fill this picaresque tale of an apprentice magician who gets turned into a donkey and is rescued by a goddess
Hildegarde of Bingen: Scivias (1141 – 1151). The mystical visions of a Christian seer who was also the enemy of ecclesiastical and political corruption. Elaine Pagels: The Gnostic Gospels (1979). An insightful exploration of the spiritual fluidity of New Testament times and the various forms of Christianity that existed then — including doctrines of God the Mother.
Jalal ad-Din ar-Rumi: The Divan of Shams-i-Tabriz (13th century). Passionate poems by the greatest Sufi master. In Rumi, earthly love, including sexual desire, always joins the great river of love that flows to God. Margaret Smith: Râbi`a (1994). A biography of the greatest female saint in Islam, an eighth-century Sufi teacher whose spiritual passion recalls the great women mystics of the West.
Fran*ois Rabelais: Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532 – 1546). In this baggy monster of a book, giants cavort, defecate, fornicate, and celebrate the forces that the Renaissance unleashed: human power and passion. Wu Ch’eng-en: Monkey (or, Journey to the West) (1592). Buddhism goes Rabelaisian in this Chinese tale of a monkey with superpowers and his mind-blowing adventures with gods, demons, and the King of Death.
William Shakespeare: Coriolanus (1608). This story about the fall of a Roman general isn’t the Big Bard’s most famous tragedy, but it is unmatched as a study of what happens to heroism when it’s forced to confront political reality. Akira Kurosawa: The Seven Samurai (1954). Out-of-work samurai defend a village against bandits in the greatest action movie ever made, resonant with the noblest themes: justice, loyalty, love, memory, and the resilience of the downtrodden.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Suites for Solo Cello (1720). Bach’s magnificent genius shines no matter who’s performing — Pablo Casals, Yo-Yo Ma, or (our favorite) Mstislav Rostropovich. Arvo Part: Te Deum (1993). Spiritual wonder at the immensity of existence still lives in our age, as seen in the majestic work of this Estonian composer.
Samuel Johnson: Rambler, Adventurer, and Idler Essays (1750 – 1760). None of the mundane emotions of daily life — boredom, embarrassment, daydreams, vague dissatisfaction — was too trivial for Johnson to take on and ennoble with his rolling ocean of prose. Freya Stark: The Journey’s Echo (1920s – 1960s). Excerpts culled from the many books of an extraordinary Englishwoman who camped with desert nomads, explored forbidden cities, and crafted one of the 20th century’s finest writing styles.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Don Giovanni (1787). Breaking musical rules, flaunting moral conventions, Mozart’s opera was hailed as a masterpiece opening night — and ever since. Alban Berg: Wozzeck (1922). Berg translated opera for the 20th-century sensibility: a hapless soldier in place of romantic heroes, flourishes of dissonance and atonality on top of arias.
William Blake: The Book of Urizen (1794). One of the most accessible of the poet-visionary’s books, this is the story of Urizen (‘your reason’), a chilly deity whose kingship over human beings keeps the imagination on the defensive. Allen Ginsberg (with Eric Drooker): Illuminated Poems (1996). A late collection that matches some of the Blake-loving New York poet’s best works with Drooker’s gritty-but-grandiose illustrations.
Jane Austen: Persuasion (1818). A serene story of love regained between two proud people, written by a novelist for whom the comedy of manners is a way into deeper truths. Lady Murasaki: The Tale of Genji (ca. 1000). The world’s first novel of manners (the world’s first novel, period) is a Japanese tale of a supremely attractive prince whose lovers form an unforgettable gallery of female sensibilities.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Ninth Symphony (1824). Reaches for the heavens, and gets as close as any music ever written. Gustav Mahler: Fourth Symphony (1902). Another musical imagining of life beyond this realm, joyous but with the recognition of loss.
Henry David Thoreau: Walden (1854). Thoreau is as much a satirist as a nature rhapsodist in this famous memoir as he mixes serene reflection with political and social zingers. Mary Oliver: New and Selected Poems (1992). Nobody puts fewer human beings in her poems than this singer of the magnificence and cruelty of nature. For Oliver, the world of moles, bears, and lilies is a vehicle for understanding deeper truths.
Walt Whitman: Song of Myself (1855). The greatest long poem in American English — an epic that imagines a human self that’s as vast as our landscape. Muriel Rukeyser: A Muriel Rukeyser Reader (1935 – 1976). This poet, activist, and explorer of the American psyche was probing the relationship between sexuality, history, the body, and politics decades before the advent of feminist cultural studies.
Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina (1875 – 1877). Tighter and more tragic than War and Peace, this story of doomed adultery is no less of a panorama of the corruption and idealism of Russian society. Alexander Herzen: My Past and Thoughts (1852 – 53). The most humane of Russian socialist revolutionaries tells, in prose as vivid as the great Russian novelists’, the story of his adventures as a thorn in the czar’s side.
Mohandas Gandhi: The Gandhi Reader (1900s – 1950s). No one in the 20th century more profoundly nor successfully challenged the prevailing order — it’s a life well stocked with lessons and inspiration for those seeking to change the world. Paulo Freire & Myles Horton: We Make the Road by Walking (1990). A seminal Brazilian educator trades ideas about social change and education with a legendary American organizer.
Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition (1910). The classic edition, acclaimed for its fine writing, offers a window on the world as it existed before the shiny-new, high-speed values of the 20th century took over. Bill Bryson: Made in America (1994). A riotous and grandly researched romp through the history of English that also serves as handy revisionist history of our land.
Marcel Proust: Remembrance of Things Past (1913 – 1927). The Everest of novels, offering a similarly spectacular view of nature — in this case, human nature. E.M. Forster: Howard’s End (1910). Even better than the movie, a story of how modern society muscled out the traditional ways of English culture.
Rainer Maria Rilke: Duino Elegies (1923). The greatest spiritual poet of the century shows the beauty and the terror of wrestling with all that’s unfathomable in life. Tu Fu: Poems (8th century). Somber and reflective, Tu Fu lived in a turbulent era of Chinese history and wrote political poetry of a beauty and density rarely equaled anywhere.
Antonio Gramsci: Prison Notebooks (1926 – 1937). An Italian Marxist martyr whose keen thinking on the role of mass media, civil society, and power politics in society is still important in the postcommunist world. Subcomandante Marcos: Shadows of Tender Fury (1995). Communiqu*s from the masked rebel who speaks for the insurgent Mexican peasants of Chiapas: ‘We are nothing if we walk alone; we are everything when we walk together in step with other dignified feet.’
Marx Brothers & Leo McCarey: Duck Soup (1933). Amidst all the hilarious mayhem, the brothers Marx offer trenchant commentary on the all-out idiocy of war. Stanley Kubrick: Dr. Strangelove (1964). Not only the best (and probably only) comedy about nuclear war, but also one of the funniest satires on any subject.
Robert Johnson: Complete Recordings (1936 – 37). Haunting distillations of hard living from the most legendary blues singer of them all. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five: The Message (1982). Stark scenes of ghetto life comin’ at ya in a riveting rhythmic recitation — rap music at the peak of its powers.
Pablo Neruda: Canto General (1938 – 1950). In this book-length epic, the towering Chilean leftist poet explores the geography, history, and troubled fate of Latin America from a life-affirming point of view. Clarice Lispector: The Hour of the Star (1977). In exquisitely simple prose, this Brazilian Jewish novelist turns the heartbreakingly ordinary life of a forgettable young girl of the slums into heroic poetry.
Duke Ellington: In a Mellotone (1940). In the absence of a royal family, America created an aristocracy of jazz — in which the Duke always holds court. John Coltrane: A Love Supreme (1964). The giant of free jazz saw playing the saxophone as a form of prayer.
Billie Holiday: Lady in Autumn (1940s – 1950s). Pain crackles through her voice, but there’s also a deep passion and poignance that may be unsurpassed in recording history. Amalia Rodrigues: Monitor Presents . (1960). Fado is Portugal’s blues — sad and stirring sounds rising out of slums and shanties — and Rodrigues’ powerful voice makes her the master of the form.
Hank Williams: 40 Greatest Hits (1940s – 1950s). Although he’s worshipped as the patron saint of Nashville, Hank goes further than anyone in country music at evoking both the sorrow and joy of being alive. Johnny Cash: The Sun Years (1950s). A sharecropper’s son with his hand on the pulse of American music — call it country, rock, or folk, it’s all Johnny Cash.
James Agee & Walker Evans: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). A roving reporter and photojournalist find poetry as well as pain in the lives of Depression-era cotton farmers. John Berger: Pig Earth (1979). A celebration of French peasants living close to the land, sparing none of the blood, sweat, or splendor.
Orson Welles: Citizen Kane (1941). This echt-American tale of the making of a capitalist titan gets better with every viewing. Robert Altman: Nashville (1975). Altman’s chaotic, everybody’s-talking style meshed perfectly with the theme in this country-music saga: America adrift socially, sexually, and politically — and looking for a reason to believe.
Gore Vidal: United States: Essays (1951 – 1990). Elegant and incisive analysis of American literature, politics, and history from our most brilliant wit. His patrician bearings don’t stop him from exposing the darkness lurking in the heart of the American dream. Howard Zinn: A People’s History of the United States (1980). From Columbus to corporate power, here’s what your high school history teacher glossed over: bare-knuckled injustice and ruthless class bias that has sparked an impassioned tradition of resistance.
Howlin’ Wolf: His Best (1950s – 1960s). Rawboned, wailin’ Chicago blues with undertones of pride, hope, and even joy. Los Lobos: Just Another Band from East L.A. (1980s – 1990s). A wonderful blend of bar band boogie, Mexican folk styles, mythic borderland themes, and serious dedication to rock ‘n’ roll artistry.
Simone de Beauvoir: The Second Sex (1952). In the opening volley of the modern struggle for women’s rights, Beauvoir portrays women as a distinct class in need of economic freedom. Mary Daly: Gyn/Ecology (1978). A radical feminist combines theology, mythology, philosophy, history, and biology in her examination of centuries of sexism.
Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man (1952). This stark parable illuminates the plight of African Americans by way of existentialism, absurdism, and other currents of international postwar thought. Nathaniel Mackey: Bedouin Hornbook/Djbot Baghostus’s Run (1986-1993). Avant-garde literature you can love: an evolving multivolume novel of the jazz world that plays with language and ideas the way Thelonious Monk plays with flatted fifths.
James Baldwin: Collected Essays (1955 – 1986). Angry and eloquent, Baldwin expresses the complicated experience of being black before, during, and after the civil rights movement. Cornel West: Race Matters (1993). A preacher and Harvard professor looks deep into the soul of contemporary American culture in search of ways to overcome racism and the self-destructive impulses that racism spawns.
Satyajit Ray: The Apu Trilogy (1955 – 1959). Effortlessly told, luminously portrayed, this growing-up story of a Bengali boy insists that life’s simplest truths are always its most resonant ones. Abbas Kiarostami: Where Is My Friend’s Home? (1995). This Iranian director is often called the heir to Ray — and his quiet film about a little boy trying to return a notebook to a friend has a lot of the Indian master’s less-is-more sense of conviction.
Naguib Mahfouz: The Cairo Trilogy (1956 – 57). In a leisurely, sensual family saga, the Arab world’s first Nobel laureate tells the story of modern Egypt from street level. Pramoedya Ananta Toer: The Buru Quartet (1969 – 1979). Deprived of paper in prison, this often-jailed Indonesian novelist dictated his multivolume masterpiece of anti-colonialism (and veiled anti-Suharto-ism) to fellow prisoners, who kept it alive in their memories till he could write it down.
Ingmar Bergman: The Seventh Seal (1957). A gripping philosophical inquiry into whether God exists played out in the story of a medieval knight home from the Crusades. John Sayles: The Secret of Roan Inish (1995). An enchanting fairy tale about family secrets and the endurance of tradition set among the myth-lush scenery of Ireland’s west coast.
Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong: Verve Recordings (1956 – 57). Two vocal masters at the height of their powers make this roster of standards, including all of Porgy and Bess, completely their own — a truly joyful occasion. Louis Armstrong: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1922 – 1934). Few CD box sets could live up to this title, but this collection captures the young Armstrong at his most inspired, creating the music that turned the jazz age inside out.
Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart (1958). This saga of a Nigerian villager torn from his past by missionaries and colonialists, yet unwilling to ‘modernize,’ sums up the central spiritual dilemma of the ‘developing’ world. Edward Said: Culture and Imperialism (1993). Palestinian-born critic Said wants us to understand the colonialism implicit in many of the great 19th-century works of literature — not just to be PC, but to make them richer reading experiences.
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