Whose entire body of work is worth reading?

by on May 15, 2013 at 7:15 am in Books, History, Philosophy, Uncategorized | Permalink

Ryan T. asks:

I’d be curious to see Tyler’s “completist” list. In other words, authors whose entire body of work merits reading. If this does get a response, I’m most interested in seeing the list begin with literature.

I’ll repeat my earlier mention of Geza Vermes.  And to make the exercise meaningful, let’s rule out people who wrote one or two excellent books and then stopped.  Adam Smith is too easy a pick.  I won’t start with literature, however, but here are some choices:

1. Fernand Braudel.

2. George Orwell.  Plato.  Nietzsche and Kierkegaard.  Hume.  William James.

3. Franz Kafka, he died young.

4. T.J. Clark, historian of art and European thought.

5. J.C. D. Clark, the British historian.

Let’s stop here and take stock.  Many historians will make the list, because if they are good they will find it difficult to produce crap.  Without research, they cannot put pen to paper, and with research a careful, thoughtful historian is likely to be interesting.  With thought you could come up with a few hundred historians who were consistently interesting and never wrote a bad book.  Then you have a few extreme geniuses, and J.S. Mill might make the list if not for System of Logic, which by the way Mill himself thought stood among his best works.  Timon of Athens hurts Shakespeare but he also comes very close.

Do any producers of “ideas books” make this list?  Other than those listed under #2 of course.  And are there truly consistent (and excellent) authors of fiction, other than those with a small number of works?  I’m not thinking of many.  How about Virginia Woolf or John Milton or Jane Austen?

One also could make an “opposite” of this list, namely important authors whose works are mostly not worth reading, and you could start with Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, and Aldous Huxley.  The existence of Kindle makes it easier to discover who these people really are.

1 Ted Craig May 15, 2013 at 7:27 am

Do you really want to read all of Orwell? Some of the journalistic pieces are very dated.

2 Pub Editor May 16, 2013 at 10:40 am

A lot of Orwell’s journalistic pieces are somewhat dated, but they are just about always well written and, if nothing else, seem to provide insights into his time and place (whether that is colonial Burma or London during the Blitz). So, I would keep Owell on the list.

I suggest C.S. Lewis.

In the realm of historians, I would recommed Alistair Horne.

3 Todd May 15, 2013 at 7:48 am

In addition to historians, those nonfiction authors who are able to carve out deals with publishers wherein they can write about just about anything also seem to be high on the overall quality scale.

John McPhee, Robin Lane Fox, Stephen Jay Gould are examples

4 Scoop May 15, 2013 at 11:46 am

Not Gould. Much of his stuff on evolutionary biology is just wrong, as Dawkins and others spent a lot of time demonstrating.

That’s actually going to be a problem with all science writers. No matter how great they were, either in making breakthroughs (Newton) or summarizing the science of the age (Dawkins, when not prattling on about religion, Haldane the younger), much of what they write will eventually turn out to be wrong.

Actually, should that be a disqualifier? Gibbon is wrong on many points about the Roman Empire but he’s still brilliant to read.

But I’ll add one in your vein of interesting gadflies: Michael Lewis. Not right about everything, obviously, but every sentence he writes is lucid and interesting. Gladwell, though often very wrong, was a great writer of stories, though he has gone downhill. It’s got to be hard to keep turning out good work when you can make $50,000 an hour giving the same damned speech several dozen times a year and then go to a lot of fun parties.

5 dbgarf May 15, 2013 at 11:58 am

I would be MORE inclined to read science writing that has, later and after substantial research, proved to be wrong. Science is largely the enterprise of falsifying hypotheses. A scientific idea that was later proved wrong is basically guaranteed to be an idea that was of substantial interest and importance to the field.

6 Pshrnk May 15, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Agree with Lewis.

7 Todd May 15, 2013 at 12:52 pm

Well, this post is about “writing” that you would want to read, not the accuracy of hypotheses.

And I’m not going to get into a biological debate here, but I would not really hold up Dawkins as some authoritative corrective to Gould’s writing. Dawkins functions as a popularizer of what has come to be called the adaptationist paradigm, along with guys like Daniel Dennett (himself not a biologist at all). Gould’s main contribution to the literature of popular biology writing was try to pull the reigns on the unproved claims of ultra-adaptationists, the sociobiologists, the evolutionary psychology proponents, and others. I’m not sure how “much” of these these positions as stated in his writings has yet been proved to be “just wrong”.

8 Brian Donohue May 15, 2013 at 1:14 pm

I will always be indebted to Gould for making the study of natural history accessible to laymen.

The guy did some groundbreaking stuff.

But he joined the establishment chorus against Wilson’s ‘Sociobiology’. Nowadays, don’t Wilson’s insights garner at least grudging acknowledgment?

His ‘punctuated equilibrium’ theory was interesting but ultimately overblown.

Eventually, he equivocated on Darwinism itself and sought refuge in his beloved ‘spandrels’.

I’m not sure if the fighting is over, but it seems to me that Dawkins et al kinda kicked Gould’s ass.

9 Todd May 15, 2013 at 1:35 pm

I don’t think Dawkins really has much problem with the actual theory of punctuated equilibrium (it’s a perfectly fine scientific theory), but he did react harshly to the way it was presented by the media to the public (a constant problem for science).

Yes, Gould and those in his circle felt Darwin’s theories need a littler more correction than did Dawkins et al…, but always remembering that all of these biologists agree on the vast majority of everything they discuss/analyze/argue about.

There is not much room for anyone else but Dawkins, according to Dawkins. Here he is throwing E. O. Wilson under the bus as well:


10 Shane M May 15, 2013 at 1:10 pm

Re Gould: I haven’t read all of his essays, but right or wrong they are consistently thoughtful and insightful.

11 Tim May 15, 2013 at 8:00 am

For fiction Patrick O’Brain’s 20 off Aubrey/Maturin series, his others are still good but not as good.

12 Dave May 15, 2013 at 2:24 pm


13 gavinf May 15, 2013 at 11:28 pm


14 Bolocko May 19, 2013 at 3:56 pm


15 cthulhu May 15, 2013 at 9:56 am

Flann O’Brian (pen name of Brian O’Nolan); “At Swim Two Birds”, “The Third Policeman”, “Dalkey Archive”, all of the Myles stuff.
Raymond Chandler; “The Long Goodbye” is one of the great American 20th century novels, but all of his stuff, including the marvelous nonfiction essay “The Simple Art of Murder”, is eminently readable and rewarding.

16 londenio May 15, 2013 at 10:06 am

Borges once said that writers who have produced the best poems (in Spanish) also produced the worst ones.

17 Larry May 16, 2013 at 12:05 am

Borges is a great choice.

18 londenio May 15, 2013 at 10:18 am

The second work of the amazon link to JCD Clark is for the film D.C. Cab, starring Mr. T. Below are some books on “Hemp Diseases”, packs of “Cotonelles”, a filtering system, and a film called *Tart*, featuring a girl with a short skirt. And no, this is not related to my previous purchases, in case you were wondering.

The singularity is not here yet.

19 Ted Craig May 15, 2013 at 7:52 pm

That organ book does look interesting, though.

20 Michael G Heller May 15, 2013 at 10:24 pm

What I wondered was whether J C D Clark and T J Clark are related. Interestingly they are not from the same family of historians. The first thinks English history was determined by ecclesiastical ideas not secular things, and the second (a Marxist) believes art history is determined by social, political, and economic change. I’m old fashioned I guess. I prefer the other Clark, the author of Civilization and The Nude — Kenneth Clark. And not only because his Amazon page is free of clutter. His Wiki page points out that, unlike the other two Clarks, he was “a self-described “hero-worshipper” … an ardent pro-individualist, Humanist and anti-Marxist. I hope every family has at least one.

21 ChE May 15, 2013 at 10:19 am

Bill Watterson

Harper Lee?

22 Pshrnk May 15, 2013 at 12:10 pm

+1 Harper Lee

23 Ape Man May 15, 2013 at 4:58 pm

+1 Bill Watterson.

I think bringing up Harper Lee is cheating given the scale of her output.

24 rocinante May 15, 2013 at 10:19 am

A few other candidates:

1) Ian Hacking has written excellent books about topics as diverse as the emergence of probability and the construction of multiple personality disorder.
2) I’d consider adding a few anthropologists – e.g. Ernest Gellner (most fond of “Plough, Sword, and Book”, but most of his other books are also good, although they do tend to repeat some of the same themes a bit too often) and Clifford Geertz (guess opinions would be quite divided about that candidate, both regarding style and content; I happen to enjoy him on both counts).
3) Agree though that historians would probably have most good candidates – everything William McNeill wrote was good; Richard Hofstadter maybe not in quite the same class but worth mentioning; didn’t care for Hobsbawm’s politics but he was a good historian; Donald Kagan, Natalie Zemon Davies, Robert Darnton and Carlo Ginzburg all quite good in their own ways.

25 Thor May 15, 2013 at 2:30 pm

Jon Elster and Ernest Gellner

26 David E May 15, 2013 at 10:22 am

How about Will Durant?

27 Pub Editor May 16, 2013 at 10:42 am

+1 Durant

28 C May 15, 2013 at 10:22 am

“Entire body of work” is such an extremely difficult thresshold. And does it potentially foreground *some* writers who are brililant, expressed repeatedly in their works, but do not otherwise take huge risks with form or content? I’m sliding off the topic somewhat with these reservations, I know.

29 GiT May 15, 2013 at 4:00 pm

I don’t think it could be said that neither Nietzsche or Kierkegaard did not take huge huge risks with form or content.

30 C May 15, 2013 at 9:57 pm

I did underscore *some* writers in my comment. My point was a general one.

31 Master of None May 15, 2013 at 10:23 am

For fiction, I would suggest:

Neil Gaiman
Kurt Vonnegut (if we are limiting to books only)
Michael Chabon (although have not read his latest)

32 Sam May 15, 2013 at 11:19 am

I am nearly a Vonnegut completest as far as novels go and fair warning that he’s got a couple stinkers. Good news is everything Vonnegut wrote was pretty short and fast.

33 Bryan May 15, 2013 at 10:30 am

Barbara Tuchman.

Didn’t write too much (at least books) and all her work is eminently readable. Anyone reading “The Guns of August” for the first time will wonder why most history books are dull.

34 Yancey Ward May 15, 2013 at 10:31 am

How about authors whose entire body of published work should be completely skipped?

35 Jack Sparrow May 15, 2013 at 10:33 am

probably Vonnegut and Hemingway too, but ‘worth’ can also depend based on the readers interests and inclinations!

36 Jon May 15, 2013 at 10:37 am

Primo Levi, Richard Feynman, Charles Dickens?, Richard Dawkins?, Chekhov (apart, possibly, the very early
short stories), Flaubert (at least all the novels)

I’m amazed at Tyler’s reaction to H. G. Wells. At least half of his prolific output in both science fiction and other
genres is worth reading.

37 Levi May 15, 2013 at 11:13 am

Perhaps if we limit Dawkins only to biology. His writings on religion aren’t worth reading. Steven Pinker is up there now in my opinion, but he hasn’t gotten to the geriatric stage where most scientists/social scientists publish their worst works.

38 dbg May 15, 2013 at 12:01 pm

Dawkins’ science writing is wonderful. His polemics against organized religion are less wonderful. Still of value though. They simply aren’t intended for everyone. They are intended to create some agitation in the media and spark conversation. Some works are intended to be talked about more than they are intended to be read.

39 Brian Donohue May 15, 2013 at 12:55 pm

Good call on Pinker. Haven’rt read his latest tome though.

40 David C May 15, 2013 at 11:18 am

I agree about Wells. Not only is his work original and well written, the comedic parts still hold up. You have to read him just to keep track of all the people who are stealing from him. How many Time Machine, Invisible Man, War of the Worlds derivatives has Hollywood produced. His work is also good for understanding how smart, liberal westerners viewed communism pre-Soviet Union.

41 Mark Thorson May 15, 2013 at 11:49 am

Not to mention that Wells is one of the few writers to make a significant contribution to technology, in his case by inspiring development of the tank.


42 othomas May 15, 2013 at 10:40 am

For the list of completists (everything worth reading), I nominate Alfred Bester, although he only wrote two novels. Other candidates are Dashiell Hammett, Wallace Stevens, Italo Calvino (although I haven’t finished reading his entire oeuvre yet it’s great so far) and Horace

For the inverse list- important writers whose oeuvres are not worth reading much- Sigmund Freud. One of the most revolutionary intellects of his age and of his thirty+ books, most are predominantly bullspit.

In a similar vein, at the end of the last millennium Rolling Stone magazine created a list of the 100 Greatest Rock albums of all time. Lou Reed (including Velvet Underground) had three albums on the list (only the Beatles also had three) and another honorable mention. By their reckoning he had produced more of the greatest, most influential rock ever. . . but he has also unquestionably released a slew of the very worst albums ever published. Should we create a list of the highest variance authors? Those would be the ones for whom it is most essential to rely on informed recommendations. My nominees to start that list are Niall Ferguson and Steven Pinker (both of whose most recent books are truly dreadful but whose first books are excellent), Norman Mailer, Umberto Eco and A.S Byatt.

43 Allen Varney May 15, 2013 at 4:32 pm

Alfred Bester wrote eight novels, but only two are remembered: The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination.

For my part, I love everything Alan Moore has written (possible exception: Skizz), and Bruce Sterling’s work is remarkably consistent.

44 cthulhu May 15, 2013 at 11:27 pm

Hammett wrote five novels: the first two are good (Red Harvest and The Dain Curse); the third and fourth are classics (The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key), and the fifth stinks on ice (The Thin Man). I confess I have not read Hammett’s short stories. I also confess I prefer Chandler to Hammett. James Ellroy is sort of like the bastard stepchild of both.

45 Larry May 16, 2013 at 12:07 am

I was going to say Ross McDonald. James Lee Burke?

46 Arbor Landon May 16, 2013 at 4:44 pm

I’ve read absolutely everything Hammett’s written. (All from a ten-year period, before he fell into one of the more famous cases of writer’s block)

The five novels are classics, and at least 95% of the short stories are brilliant. (The only true dud is a 50-page attempt at a novella he wrote late in life, meandering and dull.)

…Interesting to pick on The Thin Man as a stinker– it’s atypical (it’s a burnt-out novel, but intentionally so), but there’s such feeling..

47 cthulhu May 17, 2013 at 1:12 am

The Thin Man isn’t just burnt out, it is gratingly superficial and dull. Especially after The Glass Key, probably his finest work.

48 Rahul May 15, 2013 at 10:43 am

Somerset Maugham? Mark Twain? Dickens? Dumas?

They were pretty consistently good I thought.

49 Rahul May 15, 2013 at 10:44 am

Though, I can hardly claim I’ve read their entire body of work.

50 Steven Kopits May 15, 2013 at 10:51 am

I’ve read most of Maugham. It’s all good to excellent.

51 Ted Craig May 15, 2013 at 11:00 am

Twain and Dickens wrote a lot, so there are some duds in there. I haven’t read works like Tom Sawyer, Abroad, so it might be better than other novels, but I’m not sure it’s worth the time unless you’re dedicated to reading all that Twain wrote.

52 Rahul May 15, 2013 at 11:05 am

Part of this depends on your metric: Are we talking about the largest fraction of “worth reading” as a percent of all the books an author wrote? Or largest body of good work, period.

Dickens, Dumas, Twain and Maugham were all very prolific I think. Even weeding out duds, their corpus of good work might be huge.

53 Ted Craig May 15, 2013 at 11:09 am

Yes, but the topic is “entire body.”

54 John B. May 15, 2013 at 10:43 am

i’d add William McNeil (“Plagues and Peoples”, “The Pursuit of Power”, etc.).

55 ac May 15, 2013 at 10:51 am

Those who die young perhaps have an advantage here. DF Wallace and Flannery O’Connor come to mind, though obviously they’re fiction.

On the other end, Dostoevsky, obviously. But that could just be personal.

56 MC May 15, 2013 at 1:56 pm

+1 on Dostoevsky. It’s not just personal.

57 Ape Man May 15, 2013 at 5:00 pm

+1 on Dostoevsky

58 David Foster Wallace May 15, 2013 at 10:52 am

I only wrote a few things.

59 Bjartur May 15, 2013 at 11:10 am

You wrote everything, and more. Who’s got time for that?

60 Affe May 15, 2013 at 10:58 am

Richard Scarry.

61 Joe May 15, 2013 at 11:00 am

Can anyone reccomend a good historical book on Christ and the rise of Christianity? Preferable something contextual, and unbiased.

62 Thor May 15, 2013 at 2:28 pm

See the relevant pages in D. MacCollough, Christianity: the First Thousand Years.

Also, anything by Peter Brown.

63 Joe May 15, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Are you sure you don’t mean Dan Brown. JK! Seriously, thanks.

64 AR May 16, 2013 at 2:38 am

MacCullough is very good, also I suggest New Testament History by FF Bruce.

65 RPLong May 15, 2013 at 11:01 am

Other than Kafka, your list is not really for me.

I would add Edgar Allen Poe and Herman Melville. Shakespeare, of course. I’d say Umberto Eco and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but I swear I don’t watch Oprah.

66 Tyler Cowen May 15, 2013 at 12:03 pm

*Clarabel* rules out Melville, I fear…

67 Amateur Reader (Tom) May 15, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Clarel not Clarabel. Also, Clarel is excellent. Difficult, weird, pure Melville.

68 Bill May 15, 2013 at 11:12 am

“And are there truly consistent (and excellent) authors of fiction, other than those with a small number of works?”

How many is “small?” I’m thinking Austen and Wolfe may fit into the category of small number that are all worth reading? Also, your reader asked which “merit” reading as opposed to are “worth” reading – I think of them as being somewhat different. All of Fitzgerald is “worth” reading but not all of his works “merit” reading, if you catch my drift.

I would submit Cather, Graham Greene, and Faulkner. -1 for Vonnegut, and Plato as well for that matter (his ideas would be more palatable if his dialogues weren’t actually monologues) I would think a French or Russian novelist would need to be on the list though can’t claim to have read all of any of their works.

69 Bill May 15, 2013 at 2:57 pm

Oh, and for an outside the box pick howsabout Benjamin Graham?

70 Ape Man May 15, 2013 at 5:02 pm

It is probably just because I am heathen, but there is a long list of authors I would recommended before I had anyone read Wolfe. And that would still hold true if I limited myself to female authors. But then, I only manged to make myself read one of her novels in their entirety.

71 dead serious May 15, 2013 at 11:18 am

Don DeLillo. William Gibson.

72 efp May 15, 2013 at 1:36 pm

Fine, I’ll say it: Neal Stephenson. There’s always gotta be one, right?

73 Brian Donohue May 15, 2013 at 2:45 pm

Two, actually. I don’t get the sneering at Stephenson. The guy did some excellent sci-fi/cyberpunk stuff, then he drops 2,700 pages on the making of the modern world, which I found completely absorbing, informative, and hilarious.

74 dbeach May 15, 2013 at 3:35 pm

I love Stephenson, and indeed I’d say the Baroque Cycle is one of the best things I’ve read. But I don’t think I’d ever recommend to someone that they read Diamond Age. Maybe it’s interesting enough to be “worth” reading though. I guess.

75 Zach May 15, 2013 at 4:03 pm

The Diamond Age is one of my favorites. It’s extremely well imagined and has interesting things to say about the meaning of culture.

The Big U is forgettable, but it’s more a case of an early novel that shouldn’t have been published but inexplicably was. If you dug it out of his papers posthumously, it would be an interesting look at the evolution of his style.

I kept on waiting for Reamde to shift out of first gear and turn into the Baroque Cycle, but it never did. It’s never actively bad, but it’s not good, either.

76 Derek May 15, 2013 at 8:33 pm

I also loved The Diamond Age, although the ending sort of falls apart, but I absolutely loathed what I read of The Baroque Cycle. (I personally don’t think that any of his books offer a satisfying conclusion besides Anathem.)

77 Gunnar Tveiten May 15, 2013 at 3:17 pm

I dunno about Gibson, there’s some “meh” in there, a high fraction of what’s he has written is worth reading, but you’re not really missing much if you don’t read Mona Lisa Overdrive.

78 middle aged vet May 15, 2013 at 11:31 am

Several once-a-day comic strip writers from the 20th century.
St Therese of Lisieux from the 19th.
Maybe Samuel Richardson from the 18th (only a few novels but one of them is longer than
Austens collected works).

79 Ryan Cousineau May 15, 2013 at 11:44 am

Hm. Which once-a-day strip writers by name? I think Bill Watterson (“Calvin & Hobbes,”) and then after that maybe Charles Schulz, if you were generous, and ?

(I’d specifically exclude, for example, Berke Breathed, who I like very much, but he produced entire comic strips that were pretty bad. I’m on the fence about Gary Larson).

80 GiT May 15, 2013 at 4:03 pm

Ooh, yes, Bill Waterson. I wouldn’t have thought of that, but all of Calvin & Hobbes is quality.

81 middle aged vet May 15, 2013 at 8:31 pm

I was thinking of Schulz (despite his long 70s- 80s trough), Waterson (despite the borderline smugness) and George Herriman (Krazy Kat et al., the Platonic ideal of cynical and beautiful comics), but would not be surprised if a few of the others I haven’t read as much of (Lil Abner? Pogo? Farley and Better or Worse? Far Side, Dilbert, Apt 3-G? ) turned out to be just as good from day one to the final appearance …

82 John Mansfield May 15, 2013 at 11:34 am

Joseph Conrad

83 Thor May 15, 2013 at 2:32 pm


Absolutely spot on. (Compare Henry James: largely irrelevant. Can’t believe someone mentioned W. Gibson, who has written perhaps one or two worth reading, at best.)

84 matt May 15, 2013 at 11:36 am

Conan-Doyle not worth reading? Nonsense I say.

85 Ryan Cousineau May 15, 2013 at 11:49 am

Surprised by this one too. It’s definitely NOT worth reading his entire body of work (“The Edge of the Unknown” makes the argument), but I think you’d have to hate the mystery genre pretty hard to dump on the better Holmes stories.

86 Scoop May 15, 2013 at 11:51 am

A particularly curious comment from Tyler given that “On Conan-Doyle,” a book about the merits of the author, ranked high on his list of last year’s best books. I got the book on Tyler’s recommendation. It was excellent. And I have read more of C-D’s stories as a result and enjoyed many of them. Obviously the stuff he wrote on spiritualism doesn’t look quite so good now, but still, the guy turned out a fair amount of good work.

87 Tyler Cowen May 15, 2013 at 12:04 pm

The point is that his best stuff is worth reading, but not most of his work, same with H.G> Wells.

88 cthulhu May 15, 2013 at 11:34 pm

Agree. I just finished reading all of the Sherlock Holmes stories (had a go of this about 30 years ago, and couldn’t make it through The Hound of the Baskervilles or A Study in Scarlet, did read about half of the short stories, then gave up). About half of it is worthwhile, the rest not. Unfortunately for the novels, the two halfs generally occur in the same novel (all of them I think except maybe The Sign of Four). ACD really liked large sections of boring expository text.

89 matt May 15, 2013 at 11:38 am

Important author not worth reading: Ayn Rand.

90 dbgarf May 15, 2013 at 12:01 pm

(in)famous is not synonymous with important.

91 Mark May 15, 2013 at 11:39 am

While he was just an actor, and a supporting one at that, consider the filmography of John Cazale. He appeared only in the following films, before passing away at a young age.

The Godfather I and II
The Conversation
Dog Day Afternoon
The Deer Hunter

He also dated Meryl Streep!

92 nerdbound May 15, 2013 at 11:45 am

Does this mean that you’ve read Hume’s entire History of England? And liked it?

93 Matt May 15, 2013 at 11:49 am

I _suspect_ that J.M. Coetzee fits, though I’ve not read all the novels, and I worry a bit about the essays. Has anyone read many of his essays?

94 FredR May 15, 2013 at 2:15 pm

I’m a fan of his fiction, but I found his essays pretty pedestrian.

95 Sean May 15, 2013 at 11:52 am

Tyler, on the non-fiction side, you previously nominated Vaclav Smil: “His books are excellent, you probably should read them all.” (http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2011/04/vaclav-smil.html).

96 Kent Guida May 15, 2013 at 11:59 am

Henry James

97 Pshrnk May 15, 2013 at 12:08 pm

John Kennedy Toole

98 Brian Donohue May 15, 2013 at 12:52 pm

Heh. I thought about this, but apparently he had a second novel, The Neon Bible, that he wrote as a teenager. Did you read it? If so, is it good?

99 Pshrnk May 15, 2013 at 5:34 pm

It is Very good for a 16 year old. Or for a 26 year old.

100 Jason W. May 15, 2013 at 6:58 pm

It’s not a very good book. Good for a 16-year-old, yes, but it goes no further than that. Toole himself called it bad. Then again, I would hesitate to count it among Toole’s works for an exercise like this. Most are lucky enough to not have their teenage scribblings published.

101 Andrea May 16, 2013 at 11:32 am

I disagree, it’s more than ok, better than most crap that fills bookstores’ stacks.

102 Scoop May 15, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Not historians and not already mentioned

Entire body (except newspaper stories) worth reading:
1. Joseph Mitchell: the author that nearly all professional authors would like to write like.
2. AJ Liebling: Mitchell’s friend. Another brilliant stylist, yet totally opposite. Read the two together to see how far apart good writing styles can be.
3. Casanova
4. Patrick Leigh Fermor
5. George MacDonald Fraser
6. Bill Bryson
7. John Kennedy Toole (a single great book = obvious choice)

Well regarded authors who are generally not worth reading
1. Salinger
2. DeLillo
3. Gaddis
4. Pynchon

103 Andreas Moser May 16, 2013 at 6:54 am

I would have put Salinger on the list though. I find it sad that most people only read or know “The Catcher in the Rye” when his short stories or novellas are also wonderful, especially once you discover that they are all interwoven.

104 Christopher Moore May 15, 2013 at 12:13 pm

My books are funny and easy- every one of ’em.

105 AbeFroman May 15, 2013 at 12:16 pm

Frank Easterbrook

106 Another Tom (Though There Are Others) May 15, 2013 at 6:38 pm

Too many of the opinions are on recondite subjects, inevitably so. That they are eminently readable for opinions is not enough for me to recommend them generally. If your tastes run to the mordant and the hard application of jurisdictional rules, though, he may be the most likely to satisfy your yearnings.

107 Dan Cole May 15, 2013 at 12:28 pm

Fiction: Thomas Mann, Richard Powers,

Nonfiction: Thomas Schelling, Herbert Simon, David McCullough.

108 Andreas Moser May 16, 2013 at 6:57 am

Thomas Mann’s books are of so different character that I am not sure many readers will like ALL of them: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2012/02/01/death-in-venice/ I am currently struggling with “Joseph und seine Brüder”.

109 Kent Guida May 15, 2013 at 12:36 pm

Vladimir Nabakov

Alexis de Tocqueville

Charles Murray

Have read virtually all of these three, can recommend without hesitation. Nabakov’s pre-Lolita fiction is work of genius. Tocquevill’e two ‘secondary’ books, Old Regime and Recollections, are brilliant, and I can’t get enough of Murray.

110 Thor May 15, 2013 at 2:35 pm

Excellent. Can’t agree with you on H. James, however. (William, yes.)

Elster, Hirschman, Gellner, Conrad + ??

111 Slocum May 15, 2013 at 12:37 pm

Is this a question about consistent quality? Or scope and variety? Consider Jane Austen — a small oeuvre with consistent quality, but not much scope. Once you’ve read ‘Pride and Prejudice’, you can certainly go on to read the others with pleasure, but do you need to? Doesn’t P&P ‘cover’ about 90% of Austen? Should we rule out authors who achieve consistently high quality by limiting themselves to minor variations on the same themes?

112 P.G. Wodehouse May 15, 2013 at 12:48 pm

“A certain critic — for such men, I regret to say, do exist — made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained ‘all the old Wodehouse characters under different names.’ He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have out-generalled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.”

113 RR May 15, 2013 at 6:33 pm

P.G.Wodehouse certainly belongs on the list. John Le Carre. , John Fowles , Wole Soyinka, Nikos Kazantzakis .

114 zmil May 15, 2013 at 8:28 pm

“P.G.Wodehouse certainly belongs on the list.”

Checked the comments mainly to make sure this was here.

115 Derek May 15, 2013 at 8:36 pm

This is quite obviously a question about consistency and quality.

And each of Austen’s novels, especially the ampersand ones, have much to offer.

116 Tracy W May 16, 2013 at 11:22 am

Yes, you do need to read all of them.
P&P is a story where a poor, but beautiful, and witty girl wins the heart of a rich handsome man and then refuses them, inducing him to change for her. This has become a fairly standard romance plot (though few of her imitators can give their heroine anything like Elizabeth Bennet’s wit).
In Emma, however, JA pulls off something amazing – she takes the penniless girl (worse off financially than Elizabeth), and shoves her to the side to focus on a rich, beautiful, spoiled heroine, with a happy home life, and makes us, or at least the vast majority of her readers, care massively about the heroine. She also writes a good mystery novel, sans murder. IMO Emma is JA’s best novel.
Meanwhile in Mansfield Park, while I don’t like it, goes in a completely separate direction, with a very passive heroine in Fanny.
Persuasion is about rekindling old love, Sense and Sensibility is about the contrast between two emotional responses to the world, and Northanger Abbey is quite a different love story, about an innocent girl entering the world, with a delightfully ordinary love story, unlike P&P’s wish fulfilment elements.

117 Nicholas Marsh May 15, 2013 at 12:51 pm

I have never regretted reading anything by JG Ballard.

118 Brandon T. May 15, 2013 at 12:52 pm

I’m not sure what to make of the claim that Timon of Athens hurts Shakespeare. By all means, read everything Shakespeare wrote!

Hume is a good choice. Smith is not. I would add Hobbes and Foucault to the list of political philosophy.

For literature: Flaubert and O’Connor, Melville and Cervantes. I would add that I have loved everything by Cormac McCarthy.

119 Mike H May 15, 2013 at 1:01 pm

Richard Pipes. His books on Russian Revolution and Bolshevik regime provide the most insightful account on this tragic chapter of the human history. He advanced a theory that it was Russian intelligentsia and not the workers or the peasants that generated the revolution. Highly recommended for anyone interesting in the study of modern revolutions and USSR in general.

He also wrote a lesser known book called Property and Freedom which basically reaffirms what Hayek said about private property being an indispensable institution to the growth of any civilization.

120 John 4 May 15, 2013 at 1:02 pm

There are a couple of additional easy/obviously philosophers, as long as we allow people with 3 or 4 books: Quine, David Lewis, van Inwagen, Parfit…

121 Thor May 15, 2013 at 2:36 pm

Davidson. (But did he ever write a book?)

122 rules of reason May 15, 2013 at 1:03 pm

Borges, Dante, Homer, Nabokov, Bukowski (even the fiction)

123 Anon. May 15, 2013 at 4:33 pm

Borges wrote over 1500 pieces of nonfiction. Many of them are not worth the time.

124 Donald Pretari May 15, 2013 at 2:09 pm

I would add Henry Adams. There are many Writers I would offer who have already been mentioned. Primo Levi means more to me than any other Writer. I want to offer support to Tyler’s point about Kindle. I have the Complete Works of hundreds of writers now, many downloaded for free, precisely in order to dip into their lesser works. It’s a Mixed Bag, heavily weighted by “I’ll stop now.”

125 Donald Pretari May 15, 2013 at 2:13 pm

Also, the Talmud never leaves me unsatisfied.

126 efp May 15, 2013 at 2:43 pm

And who was the author of that? Fail on every level.

127 Donald Pretari May 15, 2013 at 3:19 pm

That’s why I made my comment an aside. Pardon me for recommending something to read.

128 middle aged vet May 15, 2013 at 10:20 pm

Welcome to the internet, where misunderstood comments reign …I appreciated your recommendation …

129 Ali Choudhury May 15, 2013 at 3:36 pm

H L Mencken

130 Will May 15, 2013 at 3:43 pm


131 Ryan T May 15, 2013 at 4:00 pm

My question made it through! I enjoyed reading the post and the comments.

132 Harold Lloyd May 15, 2013 at 4:06 pm

Harry Turtledove

133 David May 16, 2013 at 10:44 am

Seriously ?!? This is the guy who wrote a trilogy of trilogies and then a tenth novel to cap the whole series, right?

Guns of the South is very good. The shorter works compiled in Departures are excellent. The series of linked short stories featuring the quaestor or whatever he is are also excellent. The rest is painful.

134 somethingblue May 15, 2013 at 4:16 pm

Angela Carter
J.L. Austin

135 somethingblue May 15, 2013 at 4:18 pm

Penelope Fitzgerald

136 dirk May 15, 2013 at 6:42 pm


137 thehova83 May 15, 2013 at 7:55 pm

Jane Austen is a no brainer.

I’m working my way through Henry James. James deals with a lot of the same themes in nearly all of his novels. But he’s such a master that I didn’t mind the repetition.

138 kaelen May 15, 2013 at 8:14 pm

how about john irving?

139 critic May 15, 2013 at 8:15 pm

This is totally silly. Every one of the supremely great in any field -even Rembrandt- have produced at least on thing which is really bad.

140 middle aged vet May 15, 2013 at 9:36 pm

But then there are the not supremely great who never are bad – Sappho, Scott Joplin, Bix Beiderbecke, Karen Carpenter; and the legendary great who are never bad – King Solomon, the architects of Chartres and the Hagia Sophia, the princes (notice, not kings…) of painters Tiziano Vecellio and of composers/pianists Chopin … not to mention Julia Child and that little animal who cooked in Ratatouille

141 critic May 15, 2013 at 8:17 pm

I apologize for the grammatical slip.

142 Stephen Cowdery May 15, 2013 at 8:20 pm

Halldór Laxness, all of his adult novels are great.

143 Patrick Molloy May 15, 2013 at 8:34 pm

James Q. Wilson
Edward Banfield
Edward Shils
Frank Knight

144 egl May 15, 2013 at 9:11 pm

Shakespeare? Definitely not if we include the stuff he wrote under those other pen names. The Francis Bacon stuff in particular is almost unreadable.

145 JIm Foley May 15, 2013 at 9:22 pm

Richard Feynman. It wouldn’t hurt to learn a bit of Physics.

146 Dario May 15, 2013 at 9:35 pm

Chekhov and Dostoevsky– by far the best short story writer and novelist respectively

147 MyName May 15, 2013 at 9:50 pm

The only good authors that didn’t have at least one work worth skipping are the ones who barely wrote anything. Even Austen managed to write Northanger Abbey, which was somewhat disappointing and definitely skippable.

You read through an author’s work because you love the writer and their writing, even if they still have flaws. But if they’re any good, they’re going to take a risk that doesn’t pay off or write something because they need the money rather than having a good story to tell.

148 Adam First May 15, 2013 at 10:19 pm

I’m very thankful to those who have commented. I have a lot of good reading ahead of me.

Although his work has been looked down upon, I nominate John Steinbeck for his humanity and deep sense of the American character. (I admit to having only read 70%).

149 Pub Editor May 16, 2013 at 10:45 am

+1 Steinbeck

150 matt May 15, 2013 at 10:20 pm

Anton Chekhov, Stefan Zweig, John Keane

151 Alex May 15, 2013 at 11:04 pm

Spinoza is an obvious choice.

152 nassimtaleb.org May 16, 2013 at 12:18 am

Nassim Taleb’s body of work; culminating in Antifragile is a essential reading!

153 manuel May 16, 2013 at 12:33 am

Probably the most consistent is satire – like warren murphys destroyer series. Much like married with children is the best thing ever on tv.

154 AR May 16, 2013 at 2:40 am

There are probably more genre authors with consistent bodies of work. If you like Terry Pratchett’s humor, most every one of his books is uniformly funny. Likewise Rex Stout for whodunnits, and there must be many other mystery authors who can be read the same way.

155 ChrisA May 16, 2013 at 3:01 am

I have read everything I can find of the following; Conrad, Ballard, Kingsley and Martin Amis, Harry Harrison, Phillip K Dick, Tolstoy and Updike, and never regretted the time spent.

156 David May 16, 2013 at 5:38 am

In the category of excellent, readable popular historians, I’d add John Julius Norwich, whom I first encountered in the single-volume edition of hi three-volume history of Byzantium. It is a tribute to his writing that I then went back and read the original, unabridged, three-volume version. He writes interestingly about interesting and obscure places, e.g. Norman Sicily, and has an excellent sense of both humor and of the dramatic: as an example of the former, in the UK his history of Norman Sicily is titled “The Other Norman Conquest.”

In the realm of fiction, I would nominate Jack Vance, who is always imaginative, never dull. There is a complete set of his works available both in hardback (though as a limited edition it is very hard to find) as well as in ebooks.

157 Andreas Moser May 16, 2013 at 6:59 am

To leave this high-brow area and move on to the thriller department: Robert Ludlum.

158 BartA May 16, 2013 at 8:07 am

Antal Szerb: a small body of work, not all of which has been translated (I’m only familiar with the English translations):
Journey by Moonlight; Oliver VII; The Pendragon Legend; The Queen’s Necklace

Thoroughly enjoyable works, with fairy-tale like qualities.

Also: Turgenev

159 Pub Editor May 16, 2013 at 10:45 am

C.S. Lewis (fiction and non-fiction)

Mary Renault (fiction)

John Keegan (historian)

Alistair Horne (historian)

Maybe Antony Beevor (historian)?

160 Sean Crockett May 16, 2013 at 11:05 am

William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy. I’ve read most from both, and everything I’ve read is no worse than excellent.

161 Tracy W May 16, 2013 at 11:26 am

Issac Asimov, even when the science is outdated. (Sometimes he re-printed stories with comments on how the science had changed since he’d first written them).

162 egl May 16, 2013 at 11:32 am

Shakespeare? Not if you include the stuff he wrote under pen names. The Francis Bacon stuff in particular is almost unreadable.

163 andy May 16, 2013 at 11:32 am

Robert Lucas, Ken Arrow, James Heckman

164 dan mangan May 16, 2013 at 2:07 pm

I’ve read all of Alan Furst’s novels (only about 15 or 20 so far). Eminently readable and no one is better at capturing the pre-WW II atmosphere in Europe and the Balkans. And as a bonus, the novels are meticulously researched so that one can’t help learning about the origins of the War. Possibly as good as reading AJP Taylor.

165 dsgntd_plyr May 16, 2013 at 4:59 pm

Michel Houellebecq

166 Andrew W May 17, 2013 at 3:55 am

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Okot p’Bitek and Gabriel García Márquez.

Would have suggested Camus, but I can’t vouch for his essays.

167 David McKenzie May 17, 2013 at 4:54 pm

John McPhee – there is no subject that McPhee cannot make interesting. An entire book about the shad, for heavens sakes – and it is wonderful!

Joseph Mitchell, ditto, although on a much smaller body of work.

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