Wednesday, October 03, 2007

My Top Dozen Books

I have just added a list of favourite books to my profile. They are, in fact, the favourite books from each category of my favourite writers and they appear in the order in which I first read them. I list them below, with explanations as to why they are included.

1. John Buchan "John Macnab". At 12 the first novel I read which wasn't aimed at just a children's market was his "Mr. Standfast". In the next few years I bought and read many of John Buchan's works. To me John Macnab was the best. So Buchan started me into serious reading.

2. George Bernard Shaw "Man and Superman" (including the preface). From around 15, on my way to Sunderland football matches I started to purchase the Penguin editions of Shaw's plays. I started to visit the Theatre and enjoyed reading plays. Later I discovered Shaw's novels and his specifically political writings.

3. William Shakespeare "Hamlet". When I was 17 I went to the Theatre Royal at Newcastle and saw Richard Burton in both Hamlet and Twelfth Night. When I then undertook my National Service at 18, I purchased a book entitled "The Complete Works of Shakespeare" in Basra and continued with my habit of reading plays.

4. James Joyce "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man". During my National Service I was introduced to the works of James Joyce by a fellow airman, a Irishman called Murphy. He was an atheist. Many years later as an MP, I came to take a keen interest in matters on the island of Ireland.

5. GDH Cole "World Socialism Restated". I came across GDH Cole's writings in the forces in Iraq when I started reading the air-mail editions of the New Statesman. He wrote regularly in that weekly. Although he wrote numerous books, the work of his which I have selected is a New Statesman pamphlet first published in July 1956. After my National Service, I went to hear GDH at the setting up of the International Society for Socialist Studies (ISSS) at a Conference in London which was held 50 years ago. His pamphlet was influential in the move to establish this body. Unfortunately, the ISSS only survived for a short period - see here. His most lasting works are his early ones advocating Guild Socialism and his later five volumes of "A History of Socialist Thought".

6. John Stuart Mill "On Liberty". When I went to study full time as an adult at Ruskin College, the subject which influenced me the most was Political Theory as taught by Jay Blumler. The best essay I wrote was probably about "On Liberty".

7. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels "Manifesto of the Communist Party". I also first read this whilst studying at Ruskin and then started to examine Marxist writings. Other giants of political thought whom I then read included Rousseau, Locke and Hobbes.

8. George Orwell "Homage to Catalonia". Whilst I started to read Orwell before going to Ruskin, I first read what I feel is his greatest book just after leaving College. It is an account of his experiences as a militiaman in the Spanish Civil War. He moves between the military struggle against fascism and the internal political struggle against Communism.

9. David Hume, especially "Hume on Religion" as selected by Richard Wollheim. After Ruskin I moved on to Hull University to study Politics and Philosophy. In the first year I also undertook American Studies, which introduced me to some fine American Literature. And whilst there was plenty that was new in my politics reading, it was Philosophy which was opening up new horizons. I have picked out an area of David Hume's fine writings. There were, of course, many others who I was introduced to and have turned to since including Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Russell and (see next) Wittgenstein.

10. Ludwig Wittgenstein "Philosophical Investigations". Wittgenstein's language analysis dominated the form of philosophy I studied at Hull. I now feel that this concentration was restrictive. I am, however, happy to included his major work here, even though it was mainly a repudiation of his only other work "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus": especially as I have a bookshelf of works about Wittgenstein.

11. Bryan Magee "Confessions of a Philosopher". It was after University when I properly came across the works of Bryan Magee, I now read whatever he produces. Whether it is on philosophy, politics, Wagner or the work-in-progress on his full autobiography that has so-far produced two volumes. Although he is a former Labour MP who defected to the Social Democrats, it is due to his influence that I now have CD's of all Wagner's Operas and DVD's of most - even though I know that Wagner was a terrible person and a fascist to boot. Wagner and Magee also both have had an interest in the Philosopher I list next.

12. Arthur Schopenhauer "On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason". In dealing with the question of causation, Schopenhauer provides a serious intellectual challenge to David Hume. That is saying something. Like Wagner he had his faults, as he was sexist. But as with Wagner, when you know a person's serious failings it is still possible to appreciate their positive contributions.


ModernityBlog said...


they're a bit deep for me :)

no history book?

surely politics must be seen in a historical context?

a favourite biography?

no humour? what about Bostal boy?

go on, expand the list to the top 25!

mrs k said...

Don't apologise for liking Wagner - its the music not the bloke what wrote it ( to use M&W)

Like modernity, no fun in your reading!!!

Harry Barnes said...

modernityblog and mrs k; my choices were dictated by who my favourite authors are. People who I would read if I came across a book or article of theirs which was new to me. I then selected books that are important to me amongst them. This meant that,say, Nye Bevan's "In Place of Fear" does not make my list as it was his only book. I read plenty of history and biographies, but who I turn to is dictated by the subject matter rather than the writers in these areas. Perhaps I should come up with a list in different areas - such as "Alice in Sunderland" by Brian Talbot.

mrs k said...

I bought Alice in Sunderland for a present and ended up keeping it and buying another. I even learned things I did not know about my own area.

PS Harry have you noticed that Last Of Iraqis has stopped posting?

Harry Barnes said...

mrs k; Last-of-Iraqis posted a very telling item on Monday. It has been followed by 27 comments to date - including one from himself on Tuesday. I provided a link to his post in my own item on Tuesday entitled "Death In Iraq". He was away from his blog for a period, due to a very messy visit which his wife and himself paid to
Syria. His posts have not been so regular since, but they are still telling. See -

I agree that "Alice in Sunderland" is very informative on matters I knew nothing about. It is also good fun.

Bluzgram said...

I am in the middle of reading Magee's "Confessions" and just beginning to read philosophy. It's a great read and I feel closer to taking on Hume and Kant, or should it be Schopenhauern next?
Interesting list of books.

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