Books On Which to Build a Civilization: The Thursday Night Bar Fight Results

Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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59 Responses

  1. Mike Schilling says:

    Quibble: The Newton work is called, in full, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica or, for short, Principia. Principia Mathematica is Russell and Whitehead’s work on the logical foundations of mathematics.Report

    • Oh, God. Look, Newton is important from a historical perspective. But unless the original “all the how-to things are otherwise covered” premise included decent modern math and mechanics texts, it’s a terrible choice. Consider just the calculus end of things. Outside of economics, his notation lost out to Leibniz from the beginning (and Britain’s refusal to adopt Leibniz’s notation put them in second-class status in analysis for more than a century). Over the period of roughly 1830-1850, the mathematicians tossed his entire development in favor of one based on set theory and limits, which could be extended. Other than the historical perspective, it’s a terrible choice.Report

    • So I was thinking of the Russell and Whitehead work…not Newton’s.Report

      • Honestly Newton’s thing while historically nice, wouldn’t be as useful…in fact I’d say Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle would tell us more about the Newton/Leibniz and calculus debate than their work actually would…Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

        What Michael said about Newton applies to Russell and Whitehead. It’s a pioneering work, but it’s not an approach to set theory that anyone uses these days, since it’s clumsy and over-complicated. And their notation is obsolete among mathematicians, though philosophers like Rose still use it.Report

        • So, if they want something that shows the broad sweep of mathematics/science/engineering, what do we give them? Maybe Ball’s A Short Account of the History of Mathematics? Obviously it doesn’t cover the 20th century, and I always found it a bit dull and over-emphasizing analysis, but it does provide a view of the grandeur of that aspect of human creativity. Bell’s Men of Mathematics? It’s historical accuracy is at least as good as Shakespeare’s, right? What’s the equivalent of those for engineering? Is Burke’s Connections (the book) anywhere near as informative and entertaining as the series?Report

  2. James Hanley says:

    Civilization is doomed, because my proposals didn’t make the cut. I may as well throw myself overboard. 😉

    Next week’s barfight: Did Tod use the right vote-counting method, or should he have used a Borda count?Report

  3. zic says:

    I am not a trustworthy person when it comes to recalling names.

    The book of children’s poetry:

    Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young edited by Jack Prelutsky; I believe I said Arnold Lobel.Report

  4. KatherineMW says:

    I’m impressed with the second choice, given that I’d wager somewhere between 75% and 90% of our commenters are male.

    Rather surprised no works of economics made it on, considering many site members’ interest in economics, but the voting method favours the less controversial picks.

    The Count of Monte Cristo – Nominated to inspire the people on to get off the island and exact dire revenge on whoever sent them there, I suppose?Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to KatherineMW says:

      When fleeing a sinking ship, signaling one’s feminist credentials should be a top priority.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        Maybe not signaling so much as the expression of apprehension about an otherwise existing eventuality?Report

      • zic in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        Women and children first.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        Because lord knows we only read women’s writing to signal our feminist credentials… it’s not like there is any ACTUAL value to their work.Report

        • Brandon Berg in reply to Kazzy says:

          Of course there is. But if you only get to take three books, taking an anthology whose selection criteria filter out the majority of prime candidates based on the sex of the author strikes me as a pretty weak choice. Unless, of course, you’re more concerned with ideology or signaling than with literary quality.Report

          • RTod in reply to Brandon Berg says:

            So, by my count that’s one book of four written entirely by women, three of four written entirely by men.

            What percentage do we need to get that 25% down to in order for it to no longer be feminist signaling?Report

            • Mike Schilling in reply to RTod says:

              I found a table of contents at . And it’s ridiculous. Who’d want to read anything by one of these people:

              * APHRA BEHN
              * JANE AUSTEN
              * MARY SHELLEY
              * CHARLOTTE BRONTË
              * EMILY DICKINSON
              * EMILY BRONTË
              * GEORGE ELIOT
              * CHRISTINA ROSSETTI
              * EMMA LAZARUS
              * EDITH WHARTON
              * WILLA CATHER
              * AMY LOWELL
              * VIRGINIA WOOLF
              * ISAK DINESEN
              * HILDA DOOLITTLE
              * MARIANNE MOORE
              * EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY
              * DOROTHY PARKER
              * ANAÏS NIN
              * EUDORA WELTY
              * MARY McCARTHY
              * JAMES TIPTREE JR. (AKA Alice Sheldon)
              * CARSON McCULLERS
              * NADINE GORDIMER
              * FLANNERY O’CONNOR
              * URSULA K. LE GUIN
              * JOYCE CAROL OATES
              * MAXINE HONG KINGSTON
              * ALICE WALKER
              * OCTAVIA BUTLER

              except as a matter of feminist signaling.Report

          • Kazzy in reply to Brandon Berg says:

            I dunno… as I understand it, this particular anthology contains over 200+ authors, many of them hugely influential. Given that you are limited to three books, such a selection serves to effectively multiply what you retain many times over. I’m not a bibliophile and can’t speak to whether or not a similar collection exists that does not limit itself to female writers, but absent one of the same quality as that which is suggested here, it seems that the book was just as likely, if not moreso, chosen on its merits than for any reason related to signaling.

            For me, your immediate jump to such a conclusion is more instructive of your signaling than any of the people who suggested it.Report

            • Bob2 in reply to Kazzy says:

              There are other Norton Anthologies that are not just comprised of women writers, though this particular anthology was quite good. I think the initial question may have been better if collected works were not allowed.

              “Only two writers had more than one work nominated; those were Plato and Ken Follet. (Though it should be noted that Follet’s two works were each nominated by the same person).”
              Shakespeare definitely had more than one work nominated. It’d have been more interesting to force people to pick between Hamlet or The Tempest or The Winter’s Tale or something.

              If you’re trying to repopulate the world, you’d think you’d want to know the perspective of women, which other than from a couple of female commenters here, tends to be absent from the League. If you want to know why women seem to love Jane Austen and other female writers, it’s not because the writers were women, but because they have a perspective male writers lack. A book I absolutely can’t stand, Pride and Prejudice, was listed as a favorite book in my high school by a lot more female classmates than I ever expected. Jane Eyre was on that list also. And if you’re trying to rebuild a world….Report

              • Kim in reply to Bob2 says:

                You might try reading Austen again. Rose, who’s quite a fan, says that Austen is quite a bit more fun when you grow up a bit.Report

              • Bob2 in reply to Kim says:

                Kim, I just find that style of social satire very dull.
                My eyes glaze over waiting for the funny bits.Report

              • Kim in reply to Bob2 says:

                *nods* it’s not for everyone. Not terribly my cup of tea either.
                But it’s /really/ not for teenagers!Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Bob2 says:


                Personally, I felt like anthologies were sort of cheating. They seemed to violate the spirit of the question, as I read it, since they made a difficult choice slightly easier. However, it was Tod’s question so whatever works for him, works for me.Report

          • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Brandon Berg says:

            Unless, of course, you’re more concerned with ideology or signaling than with literary quality.

            False dichotomy.

            The entire publishing industry from right about the written word until a few decades ago pre-filtered out almost all of the women. They were excluded probably mostly on ideology.

            (Never mind that the Norton Anthology selected includes a whole bunch of people selected on literary quality)

            Geeze, dude, I like many of your contributions but this is a pretty petty comment.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

              Tangentially, for my money, a given author’s body of work speaks for itself. I understand and appreciate what women bring to the table, but once it’s on the table, like any other work of art, it takes on a life of its own.

              The author has done her job, his job, whatever. Frankenstein, for all the retelling of that story in various forms, is written by a woman. I’m not alone in seeing Mary Shelley describing her husband Percy Shelley, or how she couches herself in the preface:

              How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?

              Long ago, I wrote a paper about Mary Shelley. I asked several women in my class about their interpretation of Frankenstein. Every single one of them saw a woman describing a man. In real life, Percy Shelley had a child he did not love. Mary Shelley gave birth to his premature baby and Percy scarpered off to have an affair. Percy Shelley was truly an uncaring creator and many people who once loved him came to bitterly hate him.

              Women, at least the women I interviewed, grasped this immediately. Why don’t men, I wonder?Report

            • Pinky in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

              Patrick, can you back that comment up? It may not have been easy for women authors to be successful, but there have been a lot of them.

              You seem to be saying that all cultures agreed to ban women authors on the basis of the women’s ideology, or on the basis of the cultures’ ideology, but I don’t think that either idea stands. All women authors don’t share an ideology; all cultures don’t share an ideology. Ideologies are notoriouslly inflexible, so the fact that some women authors made it through the gauntlet means that it’s unlikely that an ideology was their primary difficulty. I think that the historical literacy rates of men and women explain much of the difference in publication.Report

              • Bob2 in reply to Pinky says:

                Pinky, what Patrick is saying isn’t all that controversial.
                He can defend himself on his points, but on the history, with few exceptions, women writers weren’t particularly famous in their lifetimes unless they used pen names. Emily Dickinson and quite a few others weren’t even well known until they were dead. Quite a few of them didn’t become famous until the 1900’s when their work was made popular by critics like Virginia Woolf.
                Literacy rates for men and women were not particularly good, but for a good chunk of early British lit, women were largely confined to writing lousy romances lest they be seen as unfeminine. That women largely didn’t have financial autonomy was far more important than the literacy rates.

                I mean, some of the authors in the list above:

                “In May 1846 Charlotte, Emily and Anne self-financed the publication of a joint collection of poetry under their assumed names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. … Of the decision to use noms de plume, Charlotte wrote:
                “Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because — without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’ – we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise.[5]”

                “Mary Anne (alternatively Mary Ann or Marian) Evans (22 November 1819 – 22 December 1880), better known by her pen name George Eliot, was an English novelist, journalist and translator, and one of the leading writers of the Victorian era….
                She used a male pen name, she said, to ensure her works would be taken seriously. Female authors were published under their own names during Eliot’s life, but she wanted to escape the stereotype of women only writing lighthearted romances. ”

                “Austen’s works critique the novels of sensibility of the second half of the 18th century and are part of the transition to 19th-century realism.[4][C] Her plots, though fundamentally comic,[5] highlight the dependence of women on marriage to secure social standing and economic security.[6] Her work brought her little personal fame and only a few positive reviews during her lifetime, but the publication in 1869 of her nephew’s A Memoir of Jane Austen introduced her to a wider public, and by the 1940s she had become widely accepted in academia as a great English writer. The second half of the 20th century saw a proliferation of Austen scholarship and the emergence of a Janeite fan culture.”Report

              • Kim in reply to Pinky says:

                Nancy Drew vs the Hardy Boys.

                Nancy Drew was the better series, simply because it was one of the few places that would hire women. The Hardy Boys was scut work.

                This bespeaks an ideology that women ought to only be allowed to write for girls.Report

            • zic in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

              Yep. We have the full set of Harvard Great Books upstairs; 20+ volumes or whatever it is.

              Not a women in the mob of great minds.

              That’s a large part of why I felt Norton was a good alternative.

              I notice that there was no objection to Lord of the Flies, though there’s not a girl in it. (Well, I objected, I have in the past here, too, so I didn’t feel it necessary to repeat myself and risk nagging.)Report

  5. Stillwater says:

    Heh. I should’ve played the game. Now, I’m stuck self-banishing from the Island Paradise because having to read or listen to item 4 sounds very unparadisaical. Maybe Russell could coach me up on the infinteness of jesting and I’d learn the error of my ways. I don’t see it, myself, but I’m open to the possibilities. I mean, the tome has been sitting on my bedside table right for over two years now, and I’ve not felt emanations of either I or J in all that time.

    It’s not you IJ fans. It’s me.Report

  6. NewDealer says:

    The first thing I want to do is cast a production of the Tempest with the survivor’s.

    Who wants to be Prospero?Report

  7. That is one hell of a reading list.

    Once we make the switch over to Ordinary Times or whatever, we should publish something like this annually.Report

  8. mark boggs says:

    “(Though it should be noted that Follet’s two works were each nominated by the same person).”

    Well, in my defense, you can’t really read the second with out reading the first (carts before horses principle) and, God knows, if you read the first, you’ll be damn glad there is a second with which to continue. Sue me.Report

    • mark boggs in reply to mark boggs says:

      And, I did also nominate The Joy of Sex. If there were a part II of that, I’d have nominated them both. Unfortunately, for us men, it’s usually just a one act Joy.Report

  9. Michael Drew says:

    To my chagrin, I didn’t read the Bar Fight post closely enough to understand that what was going on was basically a ‘desert island books’ discussion, and even if I had I’m to sure I’d have known how to start arriving at just three books.

    But given that the comments eventually arrived at the question, “What’s the other crucial “thing” to cover? Science, I think, but I’m not sure what book to recommend,” I thought I’d offer my response to it despite it being too late to be included. From a pure science perspective (meaning apart from Jason’s wise advice to include practical technical texts first), I’d nominate Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett. He’s not a leading evolutionary biologist, not a biologist at all, but for conveying the foundational ideas about evolution that have shaped civilization since the discovery of evolution (the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis), I don’t know that a more elegant presentation of that set of ideas in the context of the history of related and competing ideas that it supplanted, has ever been presented. (And if there are candidates for that distinction that I don’t know of, I’d love to hear about them).

    Of course, as a central science text, I can’t argue with the Principia, but in terms of actual use, I worry that it would sit on the shelf as we built out new civilization. Over time, as the foundational principles of Newtonian physics became hazier and hazier to us, we’d probably regret taking the Dennett, so I probably come down with those who voted for Newton. But I wanted Dennett’s essay to be mentioned.Report

  10. Damon says:

    While Heinlein’s book IS science fiction, the subject is 4th generation warefare/revolution to free the Moon from an oppressive Terran gov’t. and form a society with much less gov’t involvment in people’s lives.

    It was in that context that I put it forth as a suggestion.Report

  11. Sam says:

    I completely blew it on forgetting Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Apologies all. Also, I’d wager there are an awful lot of impressive intellectuals here…and then there’s me and my books.Report

    • zic in reply to Sam says:

      Sam, I’m feeling bad I didn’t mention the Phillip K. Dick/Roger Zelazney book, Deus Irae.

      As I recall, it includes an awesome scene of giant cock roaches worshiping a VW Bug. And it’s an excellent look at primer on how a religion get’s a toe hold in a crisis.Report