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Five favourite books

The following meme has been bouncing around blogdom and what the heck, I’ll join in.

What are the five books that mean most to me?

  1. The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas. This blockbuster of treachery, revenge and high excitement reads as fresh today as when I first came across the tale of Edmond Dantes’ imprisonment and dramatic escape. Some say it is the best thriller ever written, and I am not going to disagree.
  2. The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe (the movie is pretty good too). As an unashamed fan of aviation and Wolfe, I reckon this is his best non-fiction work. His description of Chuck Yeager’s record-breaking adventures and the early Mercury rocket series has not been bettered.
  3. The Happy Return. Never mind Patrick O’Brien, who was excellent, but C.S. Forester’s Hornblower novels are my favourite stories of life set in the age of Lord Nelson. You can smell the gunpowder and the salt air.
  4. Cryptonomicon. Neal Stephenson’s masterpiece, in my view. Complex and very moving at times.
  5. The Constitution of Liberty. Hayek lays out the case for classical liberalism and I pretty much agree with every word of what the great Austrian said.

Honourable mentions: Heinlein, Ayn Rand (of course!), John Varley, Vernor Vinge, Ian Fleming, Joseph Conrad, Victor Hugo, Evelyn Waugh and Wodehouse.

42 comments to Five favourite books

  • GCooper

    How refreshing to see John Varley mentioned! A very neglected writer, I’ve often thought.

  • I tried to read Horatio Hornblower and got as far as “Horatio and the man who felt queer.” I giggled so much my spouse took the book away in disgust.

  • veryretired

    OK– I’ll play.

    Atlas Srugged;

    The Foundation Series;


    The Guns of August (and anything else by Barbara Tuchman);

    An American history text I had for a class as a junior in High school by Richard Hofstader.

    Before I could even finish the list, I thought of several more, starting with “A Soldier of the Great War”, Dune, and anything by Clarke or Michner. I like things with a large scope. Too much Sci-fi to try to remember.

  • I think you had a different link in mind…

  • Verity

    Shannon Love, it seems odd that you aren’t able to make allowances for changes in the language without breaking into helples giggles, but as the old Yorkshire saying goes, “There’s nowt so queer as folk”.

  • Jack Maturin

    The Foundation Series?

    Asimov was a communist. Galaxia is the veritable description of a communist hell.

    Atlas Shrugged?

    You’ll notice Ms Rand never actually describes how her heroes restore the world, after they’re called back to save it, because Randism was a busted flush. So she ends the novel at exactly the point where it starts to become interesting. I reckon she was too frightened of writing a proper ending, because it would easily have been torn to shreds by all of her opponents. It would be really interesting to see someone write a post-quel to Atlas Shrugged, as to what John Galt et al would have actually done to rebuild North America, after its (fictional, Bushite; take your pick) socialist collapse.

    The Constitution of Liberty?

    Hayek was a socialist! 🙂

    Miseian dogma aside, I really would try to avoid believing every word of M. Thatcher’s favourite book, as I think Hayek never really managed to throw off his early socialism, as is evidenced by his support of Popper, another “piece-meal state interventionist quasi-socialist” dressed up as a libertarian.

    Popperian piece-meal intervention? Even Polly Toynbee would be in support of that.

    Even Mises isn’t really Miseian enough these days, and neither is Rothbard. You need the full Hoppe or Rockwell to be a real Miseian these days! 😉

    Okay, so that, I suppose, means I have to nominate five books. Bugger.

    Oh well, here goes:

    1. Lord of the Rings (easy peasy, lemon squeezy, surely the greatest book ever written)

    2. Sense and Sensibility (as I’m in Hampshire this week, I have a soft spot for Jane Austen country).

    3. White Goddess. Robert Graves. The greatest book ever written which nobody knows about.

    4. Democracy, the God that Failed. Hoppe.

    5. “Any Damn Thing” by Robert Heinlein.

    Oh, let’s do five more. What the hell:

    6. 1984. Mr Orwell, a socialist.

    7. Dammit, Atlas Shrugged. Yes, it’s flawed, yes, it’s wooden, yes, it’s horrible to read, especially the radio speech by John Galt, but hell, yes, it is perhaps one of the most significant books of the twentieth century (though it pains me to say so). Even more bugger.

    8. Lord of the Flies.

    9. Utopia. Thomas More. If you haven’t read this book yet, get it from Amazon RIGHT NOW (Penguin Classic).

    10. The Prince. Machiavelli. Tony Blair’s favourite bedside reading (and every other fascist demagogue).

    And that concludes the voting from North Hampshire.

    Sorry, can I be greedy and have eleven?

    11. The First Circle. Solzhenitsyn.

    I think that’s probably enough.

  • Chris Goodman

    Five Classics

    Homer – The Iliad

    Aeschylus – The Orestia

    Thucydides – The Peloponnesian War

    Aristophanes – [hard to pick out one comedy but] The Clouds

    Plato – [hard to pick one dialogue but] The Symposium

  • Hayek was a socialist! 🙂

    I think you may cause Brian Micklethwait, who met Hayek personally, to injure himself laughing. That is one of the dafter things ever to grace our comment section.

    Let me guess… when Hayek famously said “I am not a conservative”, you took that to mean ergo he must be a socialist because those are the only two possible things.

    Well I also ‘support’ Popper, but not for his politics but rather his intellectual methodology.

  • It varies, but the top 5 as of this second

    1. Evelyn Waugh, Sword of Honor
    2. Alan MacFarlane, Making of the Modern World
    3. F.W. Maitland, Constitutional History of England
    4. George Orwell, Collected Essays
    5. Lord Acton, Essays in the History of Liberty

    I have so many books I like, 5 is way too few.

  • veryretired

    Dear, dear jack—even if I knew who you were, or who you thought you were, what makes you think I would give a flying —- about your opinion of what books I happen to like?

  • Winzeler

    Congratulations you guys, I don’t think I’ve ever read five books.

  • Al Maviva

    1. Road to Serfdom, Hayek. Constitution of Liberty Lite. All you need to know about political economy.

    2. Shakespeare’s complete works. All you need to know about absolutely everything else important in life.

    3. Foucault, Discipline & Punish. Wrong about the motives and the prime movers, right about the techniques of power and the threat of the surveillance state. Good destruction of utilitarianism & the panopticon in here.

    4. Moby Dick, Melville. Best opening paragraph ever. Same basic (excellent) narrative as the new testament, but more skillfull author.*

    5. Five way tie.

    Any pre-1990 Le Carre. Smiley’s such a decent chap, and his wife is such an incredibly horrid, mean bitch, it hurts every time she betrays him.

    Confederacy of Dunces.

    Madame Bovary, Flaubert. What goes ’round, comes ’round.

    A Mencken Chrestomathy. (Any collection of Mencken’s criticism will do).

    Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy. Groundbreaking work, captures the spirit of the roaring 20s, the Red Scare, and new blank verse.

    *I realize I’m going to hell for that comment.

  • In no particular order:

    1. Cultures trilogy, Thomas Sowell
    2. Rings trilogy, J. R. R. Tolkien
    3. Economics in One Lesson, Henry Hazlitt
    4. Dune, Frank Herbert (screw the sequels)
    5. Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis

  • Johnathan

    The guy calling Hayek at the top a socialist must have been imbibing a bit of wine when he wrote that. A socialist?

    Christ, I thought I was a fairly hardline libertarian but some of you guys are waaaaaay on the edge.

  • Delmore Macnamara

    I second “The White Goddess”, which is an amazing and fascinating book but is it really true no-one’s ever heard of it? Plus I’d emphasize that I’m not sure I really believe a word of it; Graves seems to have been a bigger loony even than Rand (altho I’m sure he’d’ve called it “poetic unreason”).

  • Delmore Macanamara

    And “Dune Messiah” is by far the best in the series

  • Delmore Macnamara

    Anyway, let me have a go at this

    1.Karl Marx “Das Kapital”. This is the first serious book I read, when I was about 12, in an edition produced by the Soviet publishing house. I am afraid to say that I was entirely convinced, altho’ in my defence, twelve years of hearing “The Red Flag” beerily sung down the local Labour Club may have influenced me unduly.

    2.Isaac Asimov “Foundation Trilogy”. Everyone sneers at this book for both stylistic and political reasons. I admit that I _definitely_ identified Seldon’s plan with some kind of hyper-advanced dialectical materialism. But it is an exciting story and ultimately led me to an appreciation of genuine science via Asimov’s many excellent popular essays. Upon rereading it, I understood why highbwows say that the prose style is pedestrian and the characterization minimal, but guess what? I still loved it.

    3.Popper “The Poverty of Historicism”. This is the book that effectively deprogrammed me from Marxism. I am less sure than I used to be that historical prediction is always essentially impossible, but I owe an awareness of the very many ways in which it is implausible to this book.

  • Delmore Macnamara

    4.Robert Graves “The White Goddess”. I can’t help thinking of Wordsworth’s comments about Blake when I consider Graves. This is a mad book, filled with historical and legendary facts and quasi-facts and suggesting a powerful if crazy (and now unfashionably structuralist) view of what poetry is.

    I think my adolescent poetry and other writing was slightly less awful than it otherwise would have been thanks to this book, and also to the highly prescriptive prose style guide Graves wrote in collaboration with Laura Riding, “The Reader Over Your Shoulder”. Graves at least impressed on me the need to write clearly and accurately, even on “poetic” subjects, and to have some awareness of history and fact in my writing.

    5. Frege “Grundlagen der Arithmetik” – the Austin transation with the parallel English text, since my German is pretty terrible. I think this is the most succesful piece of philosophy since the Greeks. It disposes entertainingly and viciously of some all the previous “psychologist” nonsense in the foundations of mathematics and also represents the start of analytic philosphy.

    Further Frege does the groundwork for the system set out in “Grundgesetze der Arithmetik”, which although unsuccesful because of the notorious contradiction derivable from the excessively general Basic Law V, nonetheless certainly is one of the main sources for modern mathematical logic. And his system can be salvaged as a foundation for mathematics in any case, via the replacement of Basic Law V with the Hume-Cantor Principle.

  • In science fiction circles there are rumours of Herbert’s unpublished masterpiece Episcopalians of Dune.

  • Duncan Sutherland

    1) Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury… I read this every year.

    2) House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski

    2) Atlas Shrugged/Fountain Head (I like the latter better.. but Hank Reardon is my favorite character.)

    3) Hyperion (and the other 3 books in the series) – IMO sci-fi at its best

    4) The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Heinlein

    5) Animal Farm – Orwell

  • Michael Taylor

    C’mon guys, is no one holding a candle for Saul Bellow and “Herzog”? The man caught the agonies of the death-throws of the liberal/libertarian intellect in the mass society/defensive-ironic age.

  • Nous

    I’m surprised at the lack of Jack Vance mentions in the sf category. Especially of his novella “Alastor: Wyst”.

  • The problem with the five books meme is that I’ve heard of most of the books. How about the five best books noone has ever heard of?

  • steves

    I suppose I will have a go as well

    1 Free to Choose – The Friedmans
    was the book that really started me thinking

    2March Battalion – Sven Hassel as a young pup the books that stopped war being adventure

    3 Heinlein – The moon is a harsh mistress

    4 Fountainhead – Rand, the better of the two books, but Fransico d’ Ancoma defence of money would be my extraxt from Arlas Shrugged

    5 The Magician trilogy – Raumond E Feist better than Lord of the rings

    6 Asimov – Foundation series (read the trilogy first) but actually anything by Asimov would qualify

    I could spell once upon a time but methinks I should invest in an implanted spellchecker.

    Last books I bought was a replacement Road to Serfdom, that well known socialist tract and the Mystery of Capital by Henando de Soto

  • Nick Timms

    Heinlein (my favourite), Rand, Hayek, Hazlitt, Asimov, Tolkien, CS Lewis, Varley etc etc All great but where are the laughs? What about Pratchett and George McDonald Fraser. And biographies? especially travel like Newby’s “Last grain race”. How can anyone narrow it down to just 5? Life is just too short for all the great literature that exists. Then one has to find time for films and music (and reading blogs).

  • Julian Taylor

    Awesome to see that so many people select The White Goddess- it is one of my favourite books and also the book I did for my O-level Eng. Lit. Personally I’d choose:

    John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath.
    Joseph Heller, Catch 22
    Robert Graves, I Claudius
    Martin Gilbert, Churchill (by far the best biog ever)
    Terry Pratchett, Small Gods

    I presume that in addition to this shortlist you also get The Bible (King James version) plus The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (unabridged) and JRR Tolkein’s full version of The Lord of The Rings, complete with notes and appendices?

  • J

    I like the 5 unheared of books idea.

    Here are my five heared of in no order

    The Book of Common Prayer
    To Kill a Mockingbird
    T.S.Elliot Wasteland and other Poems
    The Gormenghast trilogy

    Unknowns (or at least unreads)

    Ridley Walker – Russell Hoban
    The Golden Bough – James Frazer
    Salome – Oscar Wilde
    Pincher Martin – William Golding
    England Made Me – Graham Greene

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Nick Timms, I like a laugh which is why Wodehouse is there in my collection. Newby’s Great Grain Race is a wonderful book.

  • veryretired

    I like the 5 least heard of idea, so here are mine—

    A Confederacy of Dunces has been mentioned. I read it right after it was published and it is extraordinary.

    An odd little book called “Trout Fishing in America”.

    A series of comic sci-fi by Keith Laumer from the 70’s about a inter-stellar diplomat called Retief—some pointed political commentary.

    The series by Allen Drury which started with “Advise and Consent” but went on for 4 or 5 more very satirical political novels. Anybody who thinks the problems with the UN are something new might be surprized to find very similar criticisms in this series from the 60’s and 70’s.

    A book I have mentioned before by Tuchman called “A Distant Mirror—The Calamitous 14th Century.” My personal opinion is that anyone who wants to understand the history of Europe needs to grasp the horrors of the wars and Black Plague that so scarred this period. (Similar to trying to understand the meaning of the Civil War in the US).

  • Bob Mologna

    Surely A Confederacy oF Dunces can’t be on the list of books no one has read..? I was delighted to see it mentioned here and surprised not to see it more. I’ve got a dog named Miss Trixie and I’m sorely tempted to name my next son Ignatious. OK that might be cruel, but we all know that Fortuna’s wheel turns in perverse and unexpected ways… (where the hell did I leave my copy of The Consolation Of Philosophy?)

    What about Candide by Voltaire as a candidate?

    How about the unabridged OED set? I’ll pick that up to find a word or check it’s etymology and find myself reading for hours.

    I was a big fan of the Foundation Trilogy but it’s been a while, I’d need to re-read it to pass judgement

    Here are two books some of you have no doubt read that I can’t remember the names of… One is about a Paris parfumier that delves into the world of scent. The other is about a Canadian bistro called “The Beanery” and it’s all about food, yadda, yadda, yadda.

  • Bob Mologna

    Surely A Confederacy oF Dunces can’t be on the list of books no one has read..? I was delighted to see it mentioned here and surprised not to see it more. I’ve got a dog named Miss Trixie and I’m sorely tempted to name my next son Ignatious. OK that might be cruel, but we all know that Fortuna’s wheel turns in perverse and unexpected ways… (where the hell did I leave my copy of The Consolation Of Philosophy?)

    What about Candide by Voltaire as a candidate?

    How about the unabridged OED set? I’ll pick that up to find a word or check it’s etymology and find myself reading for hours.

    I was a big fan of the Foundation Trilogy but it’s been a while, I’d need to re-read it to pass judgement

    Here are two books some of you have no doubt read that I can’t remember the names of… One is about a Paris parfumier that delves into the world of scent. The other is about a Canadian bistro called “The Beanery” and it’s all about food, yadda, yadda, yadda.

  • Julian Taylor


    Patrick Suskind’s Perfume by any chance?

  • Matt

    How about a little Dostoevsky?

    Crime & Punishment – Dostoevsky
    The Trial – Kafka
    1984 – Orwell
    On The Road – Kerouac
    * – Terry Pratchett

    Some many books, so few choices…

  • “How about the five best books noone has ever heard of?”

    Okay. From my collection:

    The Big Spenders, 1966, Lucius Beebe — You might not know this, but America was once a place where gloriously rich people knew how to play with their money in a big, big way. This is a wonderful history of a culture savagely beaten to death by envy.

    Economic Theory of the Leisure Class, 1914, Nikolai Bukharin — The golden-boy of Bolshevik economics attempts to sneer-off the Austrian School, twenty-three years before Stalin thanks him with a bullet in the back of the head.

    Alexander Dolgun’s Story (“An American In The Gulag”), Alexander Dolgun and Patrick Watson, 1975 — a harrowing true story of survival of twenty-four years in GULAG by an American embassy worker in Moscow picked-off by MGB in 1948.

    Capitalism The Creator, Carl Snyder, 1940 — a really astounding voice crying in the wilderness of the time.

    Individuals And Their Rights, 1989, Tibor Machan — An intensely focused presentation of the case for rights from metaphysics up through politics. Comprehensive, compact, and hard-hitting.

  • Barry Arrowsmith

    It was quite by chance that I recently happened upon Samizdata. Following links from one site to another, via this blog or that, and suddenly …. what’s all this? Good God! A paucity of Lefties! Must investigate. So between chortles at the venom thrown at the unthinking classes I’ve been browsing the Categories section. Oh dear. Something is amiss, very amiss.

    It’s the Science Fiction section.
    I suppose in this day and age it probably would be a touch ostentatious to head the section with a gold-plated icon of Eric Frank Russell, even though the man hated imposed authority, bureaucracy and politicians with a passion (“The Great Explosion”, “Wasp”, “Next of Kin” etc.). His prose and slang can read a bit awkwardly these days, but even so, he’s still the only sci fi writer that blatantly nailed his colours to the mast and never wavered in his irreverent opposition to imposition. English, too – and one can’t help but admire someone who when asked to describe his appearance, replied “I look as if I should have been hanged at Nuremburg.” For that one may even forgive his Fortean tendencies.

    Star Wars, the Trek stuff, Galactica. It’s mostly film that gets the page space – (I may be being unfair – I’ve not yet waded through all the replies to the main header pieces) – understandable I suppose, though other media do creep in. Enthusiasm for Stephenson (good), likewise Dr Asimov, (not so good IMO) but most of what skiffy fandom would regard as classics or neo-classics seem forgotten. Fans are a tolerant lot – except when someone annoys them by praising a writer they don’t rate or by ignoring one they admire.

    So I hope the knowledgeable and the already converted will forgive just 5 recommended books for those who have only skimmed the surface of the genre, quite like the flavour and don’t object to advice on where to delve deeper.

    1. The afore-mentioned “The Great Explosion” – an expansion of the classic anti-authoritarian tale “And then there were none”.

    2. “The Tomorrow File” – Lawrence Saunders. The only SF book he wrote, I think – a sort of updated 1984-type society but from the point of view of an ambitious functionary.

    3. “Earth Abides” – George R. Stewart. A post pandemic world is the setting for what is an extraordinary book.

    4. “A Canticle for Leibowitz” – Walter Miller. History proceeds in cycles, Dark Ages come and go.

    5. “The Forever War” – Joe Haldeman. Inter-stellar war with no worm-holes or FTL travel. If it takes 100 years in deep-freeze to get to the battle and 100 years to get back what happens to society in the meantime? And if you fight lots of battles ……

    And a bonus, a book of criticisms, essays and transcribed convention speeches, mostly on SF and all enjoyable – “The Silence of the Langford” by David Langford, many times Hugo winner.

    Oh – and I do read other books, believe it or not.

  • I read for fun, so you can leave out the boring Rand and Popper textbooks. In fact (to paraphrase Hermann Goering), every time someone says the word “economics”, I reach for a pistol.

    My five favorites:

    1. Les Miserables. The book, nothing else.

    2. Count of M. C. For all the reasons above.

    3. Catch-22

    4. Any Thomas Hardy novel. I can’t pick just one — that’s like asking me to pick one Shakespeare play. Okay, maybe Mayor of Casterbridge. Or Jude The Obscure. Aaaaaargh.

    5. The Cruel Sea (Nicholas Monsarrat)


    1. Loss of Eden Trilogy (John Masters) One of the great works of British fiction in the 20th century.

    2. Sarum (Edward Rutherfurd).

    3. The Magus (John Fowles).

    4. Goshawk Squadron (Derek Robinson).

    5. Rags of Glory (Stuart Cloete)

  • Unknown/forgotten books:

    1. Resurrection Days, Wilson Tucker (not recommended for feminists or FDR fans)
    2. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. LeGuin (read this in Utopian Lit class)
    3. Red Horizons, Ion Mihai Pacepa (exposee on the Ceaucescus)
    4. Ten Philosophical Mistakes, Mortimer J. Adler
    5. The Dobsonian Telescope: A Practical Manual for Building Large Aperture Telescopes, David Kriege, Richard Berry

  • “3. Red Horizons, Ion Mihai Pacepa (exposee on the Ceaucescus)”


    “Darling, so many people all over the workd are so grateful for my scientific effort. I feel that the scientific mind I was born with shouldn’t be just for the well-being of my own country but for all mankind. I should invent something that will last forever, like fire or nuclear energy.”

    (Elena Ceaucescu, p. 182)

    “Red Horizons” is definitely a worthwhile look at really awful banalities. A towering outrage that was overshadowed in the general evil of the twentieth century., and that says a lot.

  • Findlay Dunachie

    How about books that are important, but people don’t read (or read much)? My list:

    The Bible
    The Works of Shakespeare
    The Wealth of Nations (Adam Smith)
    Das Kapital (Karl Marx)
    The Koran

    I don’t think I’ve seen The Bible and The Koran mentioned in the comments. Yet from these two books stem our present religious troubles.

    Shakespeare goes on the desert island with the Bible – representing the arts.

    The Wealth of Nations and Das Kapital represent our conflicting social ideologies.

    Only Shakespeare is (sometimes) a pleasure to read. No sense of humour in any of the others. All chores to read – but think of their total impact.

  • David Mercer

    My list of Five books you would take to a desert island:

    Hmmmm…..Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, the Witter Bynner translation of the Tao Te Ching, the Barbara Miller translation of the Bhagavad Gita, the latest version of the Marine Corps survival handbook (whatever the hell its exact title is!), and a KJV Bible.

    In a ‘non-desert island’ list, I’d replace the last 2 with the Dune series and Godel, Escher, Bach.

  • Julian Taylor

    Ah, but to quote a certain Desert Island Discs participant recently, “If I get to choose a book to take to a desert island – can I take any book that will inflate to a yacht with a full food and g&t supply onboard?”

  • Preston

    1. Hobbit + LoTR
    2. Foundation Trilogy
    3. Dune
    4. Sphere – Michael Crichton
    5. Eragon Series