Thursday Night Bar Fight #13: Even In A Perfect World, Where Everyone Was Equal…

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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100 Responses

  1. George Turner says:

    What kind of book best defines us? Easy. The phone book. Next question.Report

  2. Chris says:

    The aliens have an inherent and otherworldly knack for comprehension.

    I say we send them some Hegel to see if that’s really true.Report

  3. Jaybird says:

    If I’m going to have some aliens eat me under the guise of “helping”, I want to be properly prepared.

    Julia Child – Mastering the Art of French Cooking.Report

  4. Kim says:

    The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, Her LoverReport

  5. dexter says:

    Huckleberry Finn immediately came to mind. It shows the real human race. Most people will lie, steal, murder and be just plain stupid while, if you are lucky, you will get to meet someone who will defy god and society to free a good man.Report

  6. Kolohe says:

    Book: Cat in the Hat
    Movie: Casablanca
    TV Show: The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
    Painting: Guernica
    Poem: To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time
    Architecture: Eiffel Tower
    Location: Grand Central Station at 5:15 pm

    The real problem is that it’s near impossible to do this without a Western (and moreover American) bias.Report

    • NewDealer in reply to Kolohe says:

      Nitpick: Grand Central is a Terminal, not a Station.

      Also subject to this poem by Robert Penn Warren:

      “Caleb Winthrop, Harvard ’53, crew, Porcellian,
      Sits in the bar car of the 5:02, Grand Central, and
      Shuts his eyes, and
      Shudders. He has just downed two highballs,
      And he wishes he had not has that Martini at lunch…”

      The poem is much longer and this comes from section three but I love the imagery even if it is very quaint especially someone being on the 5:02 train home.Report

      • NewDealer in reply to NewDealer says:

        Never mind, it is a much shorter poem. The full poem is:

        Caleb Winthrop, Harvard ’53, crew, Porcellian,
        Sits in the bar car of the 5:02, Grand Central, and
        Shuts his eyes, and
        Shudders. He has just downed two highballs,
        And he wishes he had not has that Martini at lunch

        He will take a cold bath, no matter
        What his wife says about getting ready to go out

        Suddenly, he feels very old.

        His wife, not yet dressed, thank God, is talking to the new baby-sitter.
        His dinner jacket is dutifully laid out, he sees,
        As he heads to the bathroom.
        He lies in the icy water, shudders, shuts his eyes.Report

      • Chris in reply to NewDealer says:

        If I when my wife is sleeping
        and the baby and Kathleen
        are sleeping
        and the sun is a flame-white disc
        in silken mists
        above shining trees,–
        if I in my north room
        dance naked, grotesquely
        before my mirror
        waving my shirt round my head
        and singing softly to myself:
        “I am lonely, lonely.
        I was born to be lonely,
        I am best so!”
        If I admire my arms, my face,
        my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
        again the yellow drawn shades,–

        Who shall say I am not
        the happy genius of my household?


    • Chris in reply to Kolohe says:

      The real problem is that it’s near impossible to do this without a Western (and moreover American) bias.

      Romance of the Three Kingdoms, then?Report

    • Kim in reply to Kolohe says:

      Like hell it is, Kolohe,
      1) Book: The End of Sexual Instinct and the Hydrogen Bomb War
      2) Movie: Tenkousei: Sayonara Anata
      3) TV: Panty Stocking and Garter Belt
      4) Painting:
      5) Poem: (no, not by ebichu. tempting, but…)
      6) Architecture: (choose something)
      7) Location: Tokyo Tower, looking towards Mt. FujiReport

  7. NewDealer says:

    The World of Our Fathers: The Journey of Eastern European Jews to America and the Life they Found and Made by Irving Howe.

    This should teach them about an immigrant experience, escaping prejudice to find another, assimilation, separate media, and going up the socio-economic ladder potentially.

    So far I seem to be the only serious answer.Report

  8. Jaybird says:

    If I could be convinced that the aliens did not, in fact, want to eat us, I might be tempted to send them something else.

    Would Lord Of The Rings in the single volume edition be counted as an “anthology”?Report

    • RTod in reply to Jaybird says:

      It’s three books. Any single combing would be an anthology.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to RTod says:

        These aliens are a real PITA.Report

      • zic in reply to RTod says:

        Actually, it’s six.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to RTod says:

        Okay, so I was thinking that I had to pretty much hit all of the high notes. But what would that *MEAN*?

        If we gave them, say, Moby Dick, they’d get here and then be surprised that we have females.

        Hamlet? Lear? They’d get here and be surprised that we carve time out to watch “Pimp My RV, Starring Poison’s Brett Michaels”.

        I’d want to give them something that would give them more or less everything they need to know, cover the whole “crazy” thing but also the whole “hey, sometimes stuff is worth it” thing and hope that if they come down, they’ll know which of the characters are the ones we’re supposed to emulate and which ones are the ones we’re (they’re) supposed to help us fight against.

        Catch 22 by Joseph Heller.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to RTod says:

        Other books that could work:

        Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut (pretty much anything by Vonnegut)

        Books that flashed up as if they were mocking me for thinking about it included “Catcher in the Rye” by Salinger and “Ham on Rye” by Bukowski.

        There’s that Proust book but… I think we can just get them to say “oh, yeah, I read that” but they won’t actually read it. Maybe that’s the one we can use to cheat.Report

      • Chris in reply to RTod says:

        There’s that Proust book but… I think we can just get them to say “oh, yeah, I read that” but they won’t actually read it. Maybe that’s the one we can use to cheat.

        Or Finnegans Wake, so that they can explain it to us.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to RTod says:

        No, it’s one book which was published in three volumes. Seriously. Authors trump publishers.Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to RTod says:

        No, Lord of the Rings is a single book. It was published in 3 parts due to post-WWII paper shortages and the resulting costs (if it was published in one volume not enough people could have afforded it), but Tolkien always regarded it as a single book.Report

      • Kim in reply to RTod says:

        within reason. if GRRM decides ASOIAF is one long book, I’m just gonna go ahead and call bullshit. Tolkien had intended it (until it actually hit the publisher) as one book…Report

    • dragonfrog in reply to Jaybird says:

      I think a cookbook (and Julia Child is not a bad choice) is an ideal one to send them. Even if they’re not going to eat us, they’ll still be eating with us. I don’t want a bunch of extraterrestrials showing up to my potlucks with hummus and chips and grocery store fruit trays.Report

  9. J@m3z Aitch says:

    A River Runs Through It (book, not film, although the film is excellent).Report

  10. George Turner says:

    Well, I hate to throw water on this thread, but we live in the real world with real decision makers. We wouldn’t actually have any say over which single book our government gives to the aliens, but we can perhaps urge a choice between the only two possibilities.

    So do we give the aliens “Dreams of My Father” or “The Audacity of Hope”?Report

  11. zic says:

    American Gods.Report

  12. Cascadian says:

    Wind in the Willows I want a tear jerker that makes them feel warm and fuzzy.Report

  13. First choice: The American Red Cross First Aid and Safety Handbook.

    At first blush one might think that this doesn’t say very much about the nature of our society. Really, though, it does. It will also be very useful if a human ever gets hurt and only aliens are around.

    Second choice: Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett. It will show that humans are making progress toward understanding who and what they are. It would be my hope that aliens would see this and appreciate it, thereby generating mutual understanding.

    A distant third choice: Go: A Complete Introduction to the Game by Chikun Cho. Playing games together is a way to build friendship and understanding, and go is probably the best game we humans have ever invented.

    I’d rank this book higher, but, as Edward Lasker once said, “the rules of go are so elegant, organic, and rigorously logical that if intelligent life forms exist elsewhere in the universe they almost certainly play go.” So they probably know all about the game already.Report

  14. Patrick says:

    Oh, come on.

    Chicago Mobs of the Twenties.Report

  15. BlaiseP says:

    Won’t play this game if LOTR or Collected Tales of Gogol are out of the running. The very idea, that my red leather bound copy of LOTR is not a single book. Preposterous.Report

    • Kim in reply to BlaiseP says:

      If tolkien wanted it one book — which he did, and it’s probably a pinch shorter than martin’s tomes (certainly with a trifle editing)… it ought to count as one book.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Kim says:

        The entire genre of Swords ‘n Sorcery ‘n Suchlike which sprang up in the wake of LOTR varies between merely bad to terrifically awful. Were every book in the entire genre thrust into the flames, the world would be a better place, by far, with anything written by GRRM used for kindling, lest any of it escape. Deus ex Muck.Report

      • Kim in reply to Kim says:

        If you read a bit more, and spoke a bit less, I might listen to you more.
        Do check out ShadowWorld.
        They say an author puts his heart into the world he builds…Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Kim says:

        Like El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha, who went mad from reading too many books, I read too much already, Kim. Swords ‘n Sorcery is useless twaddle. Same goes for most SciFi, most of which is neither good science nor good fiction. Both genres feature a few fine authors who do some original thinking — the rest are all cud chewers who ought to be crucified in the hot sun for plagiarism. Were most of these folks to fire enough neurons to have an original thought, they would spontaneously combust.Report

      • Kim in reply to Kim says:

        “The fool and his money…”
        Naturally, so long as you’re willing to say that there
        are indeed some (1%?) people who do decent writing,
        you are correct.
        I have noticed you prone to large and sweeping generalities
        that verge on stereotyping.
        Allow me to at least suggest some reading.
        Who knows? Someone else might read it.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Kim says:

        If you read a bit more, and spoke a bit less, I might listen to you more.

        When Kimmi chooses to be intelligible, she’s pretty deadly.Report

  16. j r says:

    Whatever the book is, shouldn’t it be in Chinese?Report

    • j r in reply to j r says:

      By the way, this is an impossible question to ask for largely tautological reasons. If there were one book that could adequately capture the human experience, it would be so obvious that there would be no need to pose the question in the first place.Report

    • Pinky in reply to j r says:

      Why would it be Chinese? That assumes that the human condition isn’t universal, that people are more like their race than their fellow man, that the human condition is the condition which best explains the most people, rather than explains what we have in common. Statistically, it may be more likely that it was written in China, but even that is questionable given world history and world literacy rates.

      That being said, Confucius’s Analects should at least be a contender.Report

  17. Michael Drew says:

    How To Win Friends And Influence People.


  18. John says:

    The Book of BebbReport

  19. Reformed Republican says:

    I would go with Terry Pratchett, though it is tough to pick just one. “Small Gods” perhaps?Report

  20. Michael Drew says:

    Also, I wonder whether. for those integrating into American society, this might not be a place where Zinn’s flawed work could actually be useful, to give them a sense of how Americans understand their own history that is neither overly institution- or elite based- (though accurate as far as it goes) nor accurate but divorced from popular understanding (basically most of academic American history). Zinn might lead them somewhat astray in terms having an accurate sense of what happened, but give them a good sense of how Americans in fact (often mistakenly) understand themselves (while also offering an alternative account, however dubious). Tocqueville obviously would be pretty good for that too, except it leaves the story off a bit too soon to give them a sense of how the last, oh, couple of centuries played out in the American imagination.

    I’d be interested in other candidates for this candidate of a one-volume historical survey of the America that gives a good sense of the people’s self-understanding.Report

  21. KatherineMW says:

    We can’t just send them a link to Wikipedia?

    More seriously, this is a really good challenge. I wouldn’t send them science fiction or fantasy because it could give them some rather skewed ideas of what the Earth is really like; I don’t want to confuse our visitors by having them show up here expecting Middle-earth; we can introduce them to the concept of speculative fiction once they’re here and have a bit of a better grasp on what humanity is like.

    Similarly Les Miserables is an amazing text, but loses something when the reader knows nothing of its historical context, and it’s a little too melancholy to use for first contact.

    My New History of Western Philosophy text would give them a decent overview of human ideas on a wide range of subjects (including practical ones like ethics and politics), and as a bonus they could explain it to me when they got here. It’s a single book by a single author, so it fits the requirements, and it’s not limited to a specific point in time so it gets across the idea that we are a species that has undergone a great deal of change both in our world and our ideas over the last few centuries. So off the top of my head, that will be my choice.

    A world history text could also do well, but nothing that’s both good and fairly comprehensive springs to mind at the moment, and there are some parts of world history I’d rather not tell them about until they know us better.Report

  22. Major Zed says:

    Want to understand the human condition? Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death.

    Either that or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – assuming they understand humor.Report

  23. Dan Miller says:

    I like the direction that Jason is going with his first suggestion, but I’d put a slight twist on and send “The Way Things Work”.Report

  24. Screw it. I have tried to come up with an answer other than my usual choice of “Infinite Jest,” and I can’t think of one I like better. Nothing better sums up the human experience of grasping at happiness, and so I’m going with it.Report

  25. Jason Tank says:

    I was going to go with “Hamlet” by Shakespeare, but upon reflection, I think a musical would do better. And I have one that does an end-run around the “no anthologies” rule…

    “Into the Woods”, Stephen Sondheim, James Lapine.

    (And there’s a great filmed version, so we can send THAT if they’re lazy.)Report

  26. Kazzy says:

    I have an issue with rule #1. First off, there are references even I don’t get. Would they get those? Second, if I were to hand them a piece of paper that said, “Thank God for Abe Lincoln,” would they instantly understand “God” as we understand him and Abe Lincoln, including the context under which I might be thanking god for him (e.g., the Civil War, slavery, etc.). And if they understand the Civil War, does that also mean they’ll understand the history of the USA before that to make proper sense of it? And if they do, then do they understand the history of England? Etc, etc, etc. If all that true, and the rule seems to indicate such, than we could simply write a couple pages with as many major figures, events, places, etc. on it and let them work backwards.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Kazzy says:

      “If all that true, and the rule seems to indicate such, than we could simply write a couple pages with as many major figures, events, places, etc. on it and let them work backwards.”

      If you believe that the human condition can best be summed up by a laundry list of famous people and events, then I suppose.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Let’s say the list said Joe Blow, who is the protagonist in the great novel “Higgly Piggly”.

        Would the aliens see Joe Blow’s name and understand him only as the protagonist in the great novel “Higgly Piggly”? Or would it suddenly be as if they read and understood “Higgly Piggly” and, as necessary, any books that “Higgly Piggly” makes reference to?

        Because if you mean the latter, well, a comprehensive list should about do it.

        Otherwise… I’m tempted to say we’d be just as likely to pick the “right” book by choosing at random. Else we risk offering them a non-universal (or should I say planetary?) set of norms that would prove of little use once they left our specific context.Report

  27. Burt Likko says:

    Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It’s a sampler platter of the whole of human experience, and a condensation and one of the primary capitulations of the myths that transcend individual cultures, from the Great Flood to human apotheosis.Report

  28. LeeEsq says:

    The Bible.Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Won’t fly. It’s an anthology.Report

    • Glyph in reply to LeeEsq says:

      The book may be a religious text, but the rules on anthology still apply. The Bible, therefore, would not be acceptable. However, Genesis, The Book of Job, or Paul’s Letter to Corinthians would be.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Glyph says:

        We will split the difference and settle for the Torah.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Glyph says:

        Boy, I thought that thing about y’all driving a hard bargain was just a stereotype, but now…;-)Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Glyph says:

        The Torah is typically written on a scroll and is considered one work if you follow the Orthodox account of it being handed directly to Moses on Mount Sinai. As such, it should be considered one work. Jews refer to it and treat it as such.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Glyph says:

        In the book of 2nd Kings chapter 22 (Hebrew Sefer M’lakhim) we are told of the High Priest finding the book of the law, sefer haTorah, singular. Then again, you’re as likely to hear sifrei haTorah, plural, the books of the law.

        But sefer is just “a scroll”, Hebrew, being a triliteral language, uses samech-pei-reish, SFR, for most things having to do with scribes and written scrolls, sofer a scribe, Sefer Torah, a handwritten Torah.

        But the text of the Torah in a regular book is five books, chumash, from five, fully written out: chamishah chumshei Torah, the five books of the law.

        Thus endeth the Torah Trivia lesson for today.Report

  29. Maribou says:

    I’d give them The Bone People by Keri Hulme. Characters with the worst and best aspects of humanity, sometimes both in the same person, and it’s stuffed to the gills with allusions to both Western and Maori canons. Also, it uses more than one language and the characters’ skins aren’t all the same shade.Report

  30. Freeman says:

    Book: Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas
    Movie: Animal HouseReport

  31. Chris says:

    I say send them the instructions for putting together bunk beds from Ikea. When they get here, they’ll go after the Swedes first, so we’ll have time to prepare.Report

  32. Just Me says:

    I suggest someone publish this website in book form. You want them to have a real window on who we as a human species are? Here is a pretty good snap shot.Report

  33. Ooops. I’ve changed my mind. I now vote for The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.Report

  34. Pinky says:

    Eugene Onegin. I don’t even know what to say in defense of this choice. It’s brutally Russian in its dissection of humanity’s worst traits, but beautiful and whimsical and ennobling. I’d put it up against any other choice.Report

  35. Andrew says:

    Honest question having nothing to do with the actual intent of the question, but more with the mechanics of it… If these aliens are going to provide no tangible benefit to the human race except more people, why the hell would we want them to stay? Seems like the question, as framed, would require coming up with a completely unsatisfactory example with which to drive them away…. No?Report

  36. Fish says:

    Romeo and Juliet. Love, hope, youthful indiscretion, complications, misunderstandings, jealousies, anger, despair, death.

    Or heck, just send it for Mercutio’s bad jokes.Report

    • Cascadian in reply to Fish says:

      Especially the movie version…. Hussey was my first love (swoon).Report

      • Fish in reply to Cascadian says:

        I was thinking about that movie as I wrote my comment. As seniors in high school, we watched it in English class. We managed to make it through her very brief nude scene with just a few titters (pun) and some embarrassed shifting in our seats.Report