Artistic musts

Not long ago, a group of people were sitting around a New York City Laotian restaurant and a challenge was made.  The challenge was to create a list of a particular kind, drawing upon the wisdom of the groups.  The producer of the dare (not myself, the person wishes to remain anonymous) put it like this:

…these are MUSTS, not “here’s something I like.”  You aren’t recommending, you are obligating.  That is a much larger responsibility and I urge you to use it with extreme caution.  Also, adding to the list constitutes a commitment to take in the list [emphasis added by TC], with the one caveat.

There is currently no food or visual art on the list.  We briefly discussed adding some food but I think it was going to get out of hand, plus Amazon can’t drone you tacos from Tyler’s favorite gas-station Mexican restaurant.  If the food or visual art is in NYC and readily accessible it could be considered.

Yes, we all obliged ourselves to consume the resulting list.  And what did we put on it?

Primer (movie)
[I am going to remove Upstream Color from the list.  I think it’s a better movie than Primer, and I would watch it again twice back to back right now, but it’s less of a cultural touchstone. ]

The Power Broker (book)

Nature’s Metropolis, especially Chapter 3 (book)

“Blink” (episode of Dr. Who from TV)

Before Sunrise trilogy (movies)

A State of Wonder: The Complete Goldberg Variations 1955 & 1981 (music)

The Forever War (book)

A Deepness in the Sky (book)
[Redacted and I agree that the first book, A Fire Upon the Deep, is excellent but not as good as this.  All voices say the third book is a pass]

Prisoners of War (TV series, Israeli)

Loveless (music, 1991 album by My Bloody Valentine)

The Lives of Others (movie)
[there was some controversy around this one]

Thought of You (animated short)

Persona (movie, Ingmar Bergman)

The Godfather (movie)

Beethoven String Quartet Opus 132 (music)

What would you add to such a list?  Of course from this list I do not endorse every pick, but I can report that I do not have “too much extra work to do.”


Maybe I'm just stupid, or I am not used to thinking hard enough about the artist's intention, but I could see myself consuming at least half of that list while wondering what I am supposed to get out of the experience. Maybe I just haven't learned enough about how to appreciate art or maybe art is targeted at people that are smarter than me. Assuming that becoming smarter is difficult, what resources are good for learning to appreciate this type of art?

I know that one person had a profound experience with all of the art listed above (to put it on the list). I would appreciate learning why they put each item on the list, and I would hope that at least a few people would deign to explain why each item on the list is there, or what I can hope to get out of it.

I also do not feel confident in any the recommendations I would give, after viewing the ones above and wonder how many people in the group at the restaurant felt the same way.

"The Lives of Others" is a masterful choice. I would replace "Persona" with "Fanny and Alexander", IMHO Bergman's best. And add two Miyazaki movies to this list, "My Neighbor Totoro" and his swan song "The Wind Rises" - doing what all fine art does, exploring the depths of human ambition, love, fear and wonder.

As far as books go, Mikhail Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita" is probably the finest Russian novel of the 20th century, and is woefully unknown in the US - you should rectify this situation. Non-fiction wise, Steven Pinker's "The Blank Slate" and Richard Dawkins' "The Ancestor's Tale" remain the finest works by these two extraordinarily fine scientists and authors, and everybody should be familiar with them.

Richard Thompson's "Mock Tudor" is a chunk of music that, like most of Thompson's oeuvre, is remarkable and remarkably under appreciated by the public. Listen and be amazed.

Not sure about this list but my movie nominations: Barry Lyndon / Werner Herzog's Aguirre / Adams Aebler

I'd replace The Wind Rises with Grave of the Fireflies.

>“The Lives of Others” is a masterful choice.

No, it really isn't. If you want to believe that East German communists had hearts of gold, and that even the mean ones were just using their powers to get laid, you might find it powerful. I'm a bit more sympathetic to the 100 million people slaughtered by communism, so the movie falls rather flat for me.

I would suggest a documentary called "Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father." It highlights, in a very personal way, the kind of judicial/governmental nightmare that happens all the time -- and yet the world shrugs. It's an amateur film, and it shows. But it will change you.

You have completely missed pretty much everything in "The Lives of

Indeed. Someone who thinks "The Lives of Others" portrays Communists as having hearts of gold failed to understand what the movie was saying. It's an excellent pick. But even better is "Aguirre the Wrath of God".

Thinking about the list overall, I would opt not to participate. I have only seen/read/heard/consumed a minority of the items, but though they are of good quality, there are in all cases better examples of their genre. In other words, this list is weak, given its apparent goal of being a list of things that you have to see. Such a list needs to have truly superlative items, not merely very good ones.

The two great Miyazaki movies are Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. My Neighbor Totoro has the genius of innocence, which means it has no depth or complexity.

You have completely missed pretty much everything in "My Neighbor Totoro".


I'm unsure of the aim of this list, and hence of what the challenge is intended to achieve.

Should I put my favourite recording/book/film on it, so that people somehow better understand the real me?

Should I add an item as a corrective to others, because I see that they all make an error of thinking and I wish to improve the world?

Is it actually, thanks to the 'wisdom of a crowd', the creation of a cultural canon that could then be inserted into the compulsory education experienced by a society?

I just don't get it. Perhaps if I'd consumed all the items on it, I would get it.

As with all kinds of art in general, it's a thinly veiled attempt at proving the list creators superiority. Feel free to ignore it.


I follow Samuel Butler's advice: "I should like to like Schumann's music better than I do; I dare say I could make myself like it better if I tried; but I do not like having to try to make myself like things; I like things that make me like them at once and no trying at all." (Notebooks, 1919)

I would like most of the liquors I enjoy today if I hadn't made some effort in developing an appreciation. But I've got a threshold beyond which I am not willing to put forward any more effort on the presumption that I will never like it no matter what I do.

I'm the opposite of Kevin Burke. I usually grasp what it is I'm supposed to 'get' out of a work of art - and what the getters are getting - pretty easily, but that doesn't mean I experience the aesthetic pleasure of the presentation itself, or even the intellectual thrill of 'getting' something subtle and esoteric.

Argh! *wouldn't like.

That's a great way of putting it I think.

"Great" works of art always have a lesson/moral of some kind beyond the mere aesthetic of it, and generally if the moral is repugnant to me it seriously reduces my enjoyment of the work in question even if it's otherwise fine aesthetically.

To be Hansonian: signalling.

OK, I can see that listing one's favourite things might be signalling (not just signalling that they're one's favourites, but signalling taste or similar).

But people aren't picking up on the obligatory-ness of the items. You're saying "you MUST read or see this". Presumably on pain of punishment. Prof Cowen suggests that this adds a burden of responsibility. I don't think it does: you can read an awful lot of crap without being exactly harmed by it.

The Doctor Who episode recommendation is spot on. I never liked sci-fi anything until my wife showed me that one.

And it requires essentially no understanding at all of Dr Who to watch it.

+1 for Blink.

But A Deepness in the Sky, while pretty good, is relatively ordinary isn't it?

I tried reading A Fire Upon the Deep but following Tyler's advice I put it down. I didn't see what the big deal was.

As the Singularity continues to conspicuously not happen, Singularity themed sci-fi is going to start to look dated.

But I did think the whole zones of thought thing was a nifty way for Vinge to sidestep the question.

Did the group really consider Gould's 1955 Goldberg to be as good as the 1981?

Since so many other things I like are on the list, I wonder if my favourite album, Mingus' Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, might make it on too? It's not more inaccessible than Loveless, and similarly cited as transformative. Surely one of the Tarkovsky films should make it in too. And I'm sure many others here would agree that Douglas Hofstadter's books, particularly Godel Escher Bach, are top picks for must-read-before-you-die - or was that considered and rejected? Permutation City by Egan? Anime? Before Miyazaki gets in I would suggest either Neon Genesis Evangelion or Serial Experiments Lain. And what exactly is the criterion for accessibility, could we include say mathematical proofs? Computer programs?(Measurement, by Paul Lockhart is a mathematics popularization that everyone should read, order of magnitude better than anything Ian Stewart wrote.) I also feel that a video game might make the list too, though I'm not sure what I'd put besides maybe Civ IV.

Just remembered that Eliezer Yudkowsky had Portal and Planescape Torment as his favourite video games; I believe that MoMA had Portal as an installation at a videogame exhibit at one point as well. He mentioned a couple of Japanese visual novels he swears by as well. Braid is another game that could well qualify. And before someone else suggests it: I'm not quite sure that The Legend of Zelda quite makes it...

>He mentioned a couple of Japanese visual novels he swears by as well.

One of those was *Fate/stay night* which I also quite enjoyed but I'm not sure it's good enough to force on anyone who wasn't already interested, especially at 50 hours + of long-windedness.

Final Fantasy 7 was the peak of the Japanese Anime experience. If you read between the lines, you'll find a rather engaging epic between a stoic teenage hero and an evil Koch Brother-esqe super villain. Unfortunately the rest of the series has turned into a straussian disaster of hayek proportions, but as with Bretton Woods and the gold standard, so go Aerith. (Aeris for you english speakers)

Surely you mean Final Fantasy 6? Final Fantasy 7 had the halo of upgraded graphics and Aeris but the story seemed to be a mess - and it didn't have Kefka.

Kudos for mentioning FFVI\III, but Final Fantasy isn't really something that needs to be forced upon every intellect (how many random monster battles must be engaged to earn the intellectual pedigree?). On the other hand the game Bioshock Infinite does belong here - in the parallel universe where the E3 demo version was the one that actually got made.

I agree with the ones on that list that I'm familiar with. (Maybe not "The Forever War", but it's not a *bad* choice). I've been on an anime kick lately and the one anime series I'd describe as a must-watch for intellectuals (even those not otherwise interested in the medium) is *Neon Genesis Evangelion*.

(The plot is basically giant robots vs. space monsters, but thematically it's like a much darker and more cynical take on *Ender's Game*).

Just noticed I was beaten by Saturos, and I'd agree that Lain is another good choice.

I feel that Shinji's issues are very different to Ender's issues, though - I'm tempted to say more universal...

I could empathize with both to some extent. I would have considered recommending Ender's Game too if it hadn't obviously already been considered and rejected, given the other content of the list.

Oh yeah, and *The End of Evangelion* movie is a required follow-up.

Perhaps we should hold off on recommending Evangelion and evaluating its meaning until the Rebuild is finished - it still has the chance to surpass the original, I think.

NGE isn't even the best giant robots anime. I watched NGE after a friend of mine raved about it. It's really laughably bad. Tons of demented Freudian pop-psych nonsense, a character is introduced and killed off in one episode but treated like he's super-important (apparently this is because the writer ran out of time to complete the subplot). The ending is a mess. I'm always amazed people are fooled by that show. Morose dreck.

It's certainly a divisive show as you've demonstrated here and I'd agree that it's flawed, but it's best parts are as good as anything (not just anime) and I'll stand by the suggestion.

I agree that NGE isn't a good "giant robots anime". For that you want something like Gundam.

I would also like to put in a vote for Chopin's Nocturnes here.

Also, to me Byrne's edition of Euclid ( is a profound and essential work of art that ought to be far better known.

I am uncertain as to the particular kind of the list, but note most of it is quite recent. With that caveat I suggest Rambrandt's Negress Lying Down. Others in the collection at the NY Met would suffice, but this is most representative.

I note no still photography in the list, but cannot rectify that.

I agree completely about Deepness in the Sky and Fire Upon the Deep. Both of these books are incredible science fiction.

For SF, I would select The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell.

The King James Bible. No other work (of god or man) has had its influence on western culture.

The Vulgate has had far more influence on Western Culture in toto than the English translation.

How big of an influence is the King James bible outside the Anglosphere? In Germany the Luther bible is clearly much more influential.

The Anglosphere is pretty big and influential.

If the KJ Bible can make it there, it can make it...

This list is too pretentious for the Bible.



Exactly, but probably less pretentious than its authors.

Is that true? Certainly the religion based on the Bible has had an enormous influence, but how much of that is really attributable to the contents of the Book itself? Certainly my experience as a non-Christian having read the Bible is that it didn't give me a whole lot of insight into what Christians think and do or why they think and do those things. I'm tempted to conclude that the words written on the page are not very important, maybe even entirely irrelevant, to the influence that Christianity has had on western culture. If the purpose of the list is to encourage some sort of growth or deeper understanding in the person who experiences the items on it, you'd probably get more out of reading some thoughtful writings about religion than from reading the source materials.

The bible is pretty long.

Oh, and Rodin's Thinker. Can a drone deliver that?

Thinking about what I've read and liked on that list and what I would never even consider putting on it or bothering to consume, I can safely conclude: I do not belong to your in-group. BAda bing... Other than that, I have no idea what this list does except to say, "Hey guys, we have similar tastes, let's put stuff on there that the others should consume." Presumably implying that dissenters are philistines.

This is a pretty middle-brow list,I don't think it is useful for accusations of philistinism. This is a list my teen-age sons would enjoy, and have probably already consumed in large part. It seems directed at "consumption" rather than edification or self-improvement, i.e. just a list of things you enjoy and are sure others will enjoy.

Great to see the Vinge books here. I would recommend Banks' The Algebraist, Player of Games and Use of Weapons.

For a near-religious experience for atheists, The Singularity is Near.

For anime, the Ghost in the Shell series and most Miyazaki movies.

Venge's good, as I though The Forever War was (I think it's the only one I've seen actually deal with how big space is and how slowly we are likely to be able to move across it) and I've enjoyed a number of his books. There are others on par I think. Several of Philip K Dick's books might fit well on the list. I think perhaps David Brin's series (Hoochi? series) had some interesting takes on SciFi and alien societies.

Lost Illusions, Balzac

Just realized not confined to sci fi.

The Collector and The Magus by John Fowles.

Great picks!
Also, what's wrong with the classics, like Empire strikes back, Dune, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Simpsons (and/or South Park)?
Since TV series are making a great comeback, why not the one that started this resurgence in quality, The Sopranos?
A personal favorite that I know is not everybody's cup of tea is also Voyage at the End of the Night by Celine.

If we're recommending TV series, a good case could be made for Futurama:

I want to hear what Tyler thinks about Laotian cuisine!

The whole list is a gag. Giveaway was The Power Broker. No one has ever through and entire Robert Caro work except the man himself.

I made it through last month, as an audiobook, and it was one of the best things I've ever read.

Liner notes by Bill Evans on Miles Davis's "Kind of Blue" album.

The contents of Marcel Duchamp's "Green Box"

Those are unforgettable liner notes. Good choice.

"The Periodic Table" by Primo Levi

"The Logic of Scientific Discovery" by Karl Popper

"The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" by Thomas Kuhn

A good dose of C.P. Snow seems called for.

+1 for Kuhn. What a paradigmatic achievement !

Popper's Conjectures and Refutations can be added to the list

Or just "Carbon", the final chapter of Levi.

"The Man Who Planted Trees" (the film) an animated short by Frédéric Back

"Landscape And Memory" by Simon Schama

Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman

good one. This book should be as famous as War and Peace

Is everyone who made a suggestion taking upon themselves the obligation to read everything in the list + the comments?

I would add "In the Mood for Love" (Wong Kar-wai)

So would I

"The Dead" -- the long-ish short story/short-ish novella by James Joyce.

The Wire — certainly season four but really all of it except for the last season.

A Time of Gifts (book)

Ella & Louis (1956, Verve)


Good God! This is a gag, right?

Any other Stephen Pressfield fans? His Gates of Fire and Tides of War are some of my favorite fiction of all time.

I really find this list interesting. Kinda scary how many of these titles are unknown to me, but maybe that is the whole idea.

Book: Lonesome Dove
Movie: To Kill A Mockingbird

Egad, I hated Upstream Color. Prime was very good. I would add or replace it with Memento.

The new Cosmos with NdGT

Beethoven 7, conducted by Carlos Kleiber.

Seriously though. Are we supposed to believe that, on a list of all possible works of art in the history of humanity, "The Forever War" makes it in above, say, Hamlet? Or even the Lord of the Rings?

Of course the list is all signaling (damn you Robin Hanson). Jack White once said that any serious music lover, when asked what his favorite bands are, would include the Beatles & Bob Dylan right off the top. Anyone who didn't mention those two might be interested in collecting records, and showing off their collection - the more obscure the better! - but wasn't actually interested in music. I like Jack White a lot.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Highway 61 Revisited

Jack White knows whereof he speaks.

...and: W.A. Mozart - Requiem. Every time I hear it, I think of Mozart dying at 35 and I want to weep.

Neil Young, After the Gold Rush

"The producer of the dare (not myself, the person wishes to remain anonymous) put it like this: ... "

Anyone have a theory as to why "myself" is replacing "me"?

For the second questions isn't it the pods that is doing that?

I am thinking about doing something like this with my friends, but I am concerned about the incentive structure for the project. How do you prevent bad actors from polluting the list with many of their own idiosyncratic top choices? How do you incentivize people to recommend choices that have the highest possible ratio of value/time, as opposed to simply the highest value? And how do you get people to recommend works that are well-suited to the tastes of the other members on the list?

Not have jerks for friends?

Will and Ariel Durant's the Story of Civilization. It is really good in Audio book form. Audible only has the first 4 volumes so that is all I can recommend. I am look forward to the remaining 300 hours once they finish the production.

I guess this recommendation is visual (sort of), but trucking out to Statute of Liberty park, just south of Jersey City, alone before sunrise (best in the early fall) and finding a quiet place to sit and watch the sun rise over the southern Manhattan skyline.

"Blue" - The Jayhawks
"Dress Blues" - Jason Isbell
"Creep" - Radiohead
"A Charlie Brown Christmas" - Charles Schulz
Machu Picchu - ????
The National Farmers' Bank building - Louis Sullivan
"Breaking Bad" - Vince Gilligan
"The Wire" - David Simon

Beethoven's own favorite among the late quartets was op. 131 (and I presume to agree).

"Blindsight" - a (sci/fi) novel by Peter Watts in which the argument is offered that consciousness is an evolutionary mistake. I offer in extension the suggestion that art, too, is a mistake

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester.

If I could really force everyone to read something it would probably be Peter Singer's The Life You Can Save, though...

Film: The English Patient.

The inclusion of the Before Sunrise trilogy causes me to lose faith in the rest of the list.

Seriously. They're ok but that sort of maudlin sentimentality as a "must?" Questionable.

The only thing on the OP list that strikes me as a "must" -- and only a must for someone seeking an active intellectual life -- is Op. 132.

The Forever War was garbage. Worse than that really.

I'm always instantly turned off when someone uses the phrase "you MUST see/listen to/read this." I haven't so far, and I'm still breathing, right?

The only thing I've seen/listened to/etc. on that list is THE GODFATHER, and I'm living a very full life.

No punk music? Seems not.

I think the list could benefit from art regarding the nature of adolescence. Although I'm sure most will disagree I would recommend "My So-called Life, "Skins (the British version)," and "Friday Night Lights" in that order.

"Ryan" is a 2004 animated documentary created and directed by Chris Landreth about Canadian animator Ryan Larkin, who had lived on skid row in Montreal as a result of drug and alcohol abuse.

Beethoven certainly belongs but op. 132 seems to me the wrong choice. I'd vote for his Piano Sonata no. 32, op. 111 (which recording? THAT's a hard question. Schnabel? Arrau? Maybe i'll go for someone new: Igor Levitt.) And then there's Mozart - NO MOZART? For me, his "The Marriage of Figaro" stands out as the greatest of all operas. To be sure, plotwise it's the ultimate screwball comedy, and it's premised on a historical fiction (the "droit du seigneur") but its characters and situations feel utterly 3-dimensional and human, thanks to the perfect "marriage" of a great libretto with Mozart's hitting his absolute peak as a composer (the later operas are not as perfect). So: remove op 132, and add op. 111 and the Marriage of Figaro and I'm in. (But then maybe I also need to add the Mass in B minor or St. Matthew Passion and Well-Tempered Clavier... Maybe some other time...)

No, the greatest of all operas is Wagner's Parsifal ;)

We seem to be sure of the following:
1) We have no idea what this list is for.
2) But it should definitely include X instead of Y.

Sans Soleil

That's one I was thinking of. Worst case scenario with respect to whomever is required to view it, it's brief. Concentrated impact.

You've made some really good points there. I
looked on the internet for moee information about the issue and found most individuals will go along with your views oon this web site.

L'Appartement, Mothman Prophecies, Kings of Summer, Siberiade, Twilight New Moon,

Since when is the "wisdom of crowds" disjunctive rather than conjunctive? If it is disjunctive, then it must evolve into being everything/nothing, if it is conjunctive, then I don't see how one can add to it. Some sort of group vote/selection is necessary.
The list reminds me of when my kids were young and ready for toilet training. They were just SO PROUD of the little pile of crap they created...who would criticize?

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