Books I Should Have Read

Matt Yglesias handed me the baton on the latest meme, books you should have read but haven't. And since the tag came from Matt, where better to start than with the guy he did his thesis on?

John Rawls' A Theory of Justice: I've cracked this one open a number of times. I've battled my way through part one. But, in the end, I never reach -- hell, I never even catch sight of -- the finish line. Bonus: I'm particularly ashamed whenever Jonah Goldberg goes on his "liberals need to read their philosophers" tangent. Bonus Bonus: Since I often go on a liberals have read their philosophers rejoinder and display Rawls prominently within the post, I have a secret suspicion that Jonah's no more finished his than I've finished mine. Bonus Bonus Bonus: I can joke that I'm speaking about Rawls' veil of ignorance from behind my own veil of ignorance. Awesome.

The Bible: I've read a lot of this one. Most of the Gospels, most of the Tanakh (I refuse to call it the Old Testament), but I always fail somewhere around Paul's letters. This is particularly galling as my non-political intellectual interest is religious history, so I should probably have the source document straight. Nevertheless, the Bible's tough to get through. The Gospels aren't bad (though they are redundant), but have you tried trudging through Leviticus? Staying awake through the endless genealogies? Tough stuff. (As an aside, the Koran is really much easier and more pleasant to read. So far as Holy Books go, Islam definitely had the best wordsmiths.)

Literature: This is a canon, but I'm woefully ignorant of it. Hemingway? Think I read a short story once. Faulkner? Nothing at all. Dostoevsky? Crime and Punishment is taunting me from the bookshelf. I've never read Macbeth, can't allude to King Lear, never finished anything by Joyce, and have somehow avoided cracking open John Updike. Now, I've got a few loves among the greats -- mainly Saul Bellow and John Steinbeck -- but on the whole, I'm terribly out of the loop. One day I'd love to do a Great Books project, but so long as I've got a blog to feed and current events to contextualize, I can't see where I'll get the time.

George Orwell's Collected Essays and Letters: Nick Confessore had his rules for writing hung up in the office. Paul Glastris would refer to him during editorial meetings. The Economist bases their style guide on Orwell's essay, "Politics and the English Language". Christopher Hitchens just wrote a book on him. Hendrick Hertzburg venerates him. He's the patron saint of journalism. And so, awhile back, I ordered his collected works, sat down to go through it, and got distracted two essays in. Orwell is a great writer, his reportage vibrant and organic without resorting to the rhetorical fireworks needed by today's wordsmiths. But I don't find him particularly transformative. His rules for writing are fine, but basic, and he broke them often (indeed, he warned against using the passive voice while writing in the passive voice). In the end, he's good, but I can't figure out what makes him so pressing.

Karl Marx's Anything: I like old Karl. Indeed, I just read a biography of him simply because I find the guy interesting. His critique of capitalism is pretty solid, even if his prediction of what would come next failed on (approximately) a million levels. But I can't make it through the guy's writing. Not the Communist Manifesto, not Capital, not The Collected Works...I like reading through his ideas, but only if they're rewritten by someone else.

So there's your five. They may not be the books I most wish I'd read, but they are the ones I most often find myself pretending I've read. Thank God for book reviews, lit crit, and summaries, I guess. I pass the bat to Greg from the Talent Show, Neil Sinhababu, and the off-hiatus Lindsay Beyerstein. Further, in a shameless show of favoritism, I'm adding a fourth and tagging Kate.