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September 1, 2011 5:26 PM   Subscribe


 
The first book, Graphic Diagrams, does look very nice indeed, but I fear I must expose myself as a philistine by saying that the rest leave me very cold indeed.
posted by tumid dahlia at 5:42 PM on September 1, 2011


I'm sure that each of the 10 books are very good about their subjects, but the list seems like an arbitrary sampling of what constitutes Culture.

For instance, how are there two books on music (jazz and classical music), and how broadly does science fiction really cover cultural issues? I might have picked something that has more to do with war and conflict, something about scientific history, and then some books on food.

That said, these are compelling books that I'll add to my library queue.
posted by jabberjaw at 5:48 PM on September 1, 2011


An Incomplete Education should be on there. Truth be told, I'd be very interested in a "how to fake your way through any conversation ever" list.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:48 PM on September 1, 2011 [5 favorites]


As much as I loved The Rest Is Noise, I have to disagree with including two books about music in a top-ten about human culture. Make it eight books and two CDs, if you must -- Alex Ross comes closer than anyone I've read to conveying what music I haven't heard sounds like, but if you want to learn about the music you have to listen to the music.
posted by Jeanne at 5:49 PM on September 1, 2011


So Jazz & Classical are culture but Rock and Roll, R&B, Hip-Hop etc aren't?
posted by jonmc at 5:52 PM on September 1, 2011


Information theory: yes. James Gleick: meh.
posted by DU at 5:55 PM on September 1, 2011


Great, now I needn`t return to university!
posted by Meatafoecure at 5:58 PM on September 1, 2011


Idiocracy here we come...

I wonder if she likes money?
posted by ennui.bz at 6:05 PM on September 1, 2011


So All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten is off the list?
posted by Max Power at 6:07 PM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]




(Almost) Everything You Need to Know about Contemporary Middlebrow Culture in 10 Books
posted by Nomyte at 6:14 PM on September 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


Not even close to everything you need to know about ten very thin slices of culture in ten books.
posted by rocket88 at 6:21 PM on September 1, 2011


The Algebraist ain't a Culture book, dammit.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 6:25 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Fish book on writing is a waste product.
posted by Postroad at 6:26 PM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


I accept that I can only have a shallow understanding of most fields of human knowledge, but I do not want that little knowledge filtered through seven layers of people who also only have a shallow understanding.
posted by grobstein at 6:36 PM on September 1, 2011 [8 favorites]


Isaac Asmov's Chronology of the World.

OK, the scholarship dates to the early '80s, when it was written (a shit-ton of cosmology as well as prehistoric, pre-columbian and ancient history has been done since then to outdate the earlier portions of it), and it's unabashedly biased toward Western Culture (you're soaking in it!) but, goddamn. The book is a few thousand page long timeline, with the earlier chapters covering vast stretches of time (when history is sparse on the ground), and the later entries getting much more detailed and nuanced as multiple sources come into play with the march of literacy.

It's his single finest work. Forget the science fiction, this is his best and most brilliant book. It's snarky (He hates the Romans, and doesn't bother to hide it), it's prejudiced (Western history, with special detours for biblical references, so long as they're supported by archaeology), it's complete and unflinching and detailed, and it's broken out into digestible articles of three to five paragraphs, based on what civilization/nation was doing what and when. The civilizations/nations are fascinating to watch change over the millennia (Romans -> Franks, Burgundians, etc. -> France and Burgundy -> France).

After reading it, or better yet, browsing through it at random and at leisure, you come away with the dangerous notion that you, ordinary off the street you, can know and understand history.

Also, Jared Diamond's "Guns Germs and Steel", which takes the shine off of the notion that civilization is civilized, or that the good guys win - it's environmental and economic factors that determine the winners and losers.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:36 PM on September 1, 2011 [7 favorites]


I think the problem here is that anyone genuinely curious about culture would be appalled at the idea of boiling a lifelong pursuit down to ten books (or ten anything).
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:47 PM on September 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


Ah yes, all lists of what you should know about culture should have a book on data visualization and nothing on the history of art.

Also, who needs to think about literature if you can have a secret history of science fiction.

Satire is great, but this is far too heavy handed.
posted by sien at 6:47 PM on September 1, 2011 [5 favorites]


How To Become As Idiosyncratically Philosophically-Anemic As I Am
posted by Greg Nog at 6:53 PM on September 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


I think the problem here is that anyone genuinely curious about culture would be appalled at the idea of boiling a lifelong pursuit down to ten books (or ten anything).

This really is true, plus the hubris of calling it everything you need to know about culture.

This is a list of 10 interesting books. Someone gave it a super catchy title which no 10 books in the world could live up to. They still look like quite good books, but really. It's not everything. It's not even an especially good start.

Anyway, I'm glad to read about the books, so thanks for posting.
posted by Miko at 6:56 PM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Must. Stop. Reading. Top. 10. Lists.
posted by gwint at 6:58 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


If only this had been called "10 Books in Different Subjects I Thought Were Neat" there would be considerably less harumphing. (Not upbraiding anyone here; I agree dragging ideas of "culture" into any short list of this type is odd, but pageviews amirite? I hope I am not rite, actually.) Anyway, once you ignore the title it's neat enough, and the premise of the site is cool too. SO THANKS FOR POSTING THIS, POSTER!
posted by Nattie at 7:03 PM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Isaac Asmov's Chronology of the World.

I've read a lot of Asimov's non-fiction and it's usually good (his biochem books get a little too detailed--having a PhD will do that to you). But if you want a Chronology of the World that is not only fun and informative but also global, look no further than the Cartoon History of the Universe series. They need to give Larry Gonick a Nobel Prize for Cartooning.
posted by DU at 7:06 PM on September 1, 2011 [6 favorites]


Alex Ross comes closer than anyone I've read to conveying what music I haven't heard sounds like...

I swear to all that is Holy that I parsed this as: Axl Rose comes closer than anyone ...
posted by joe lisboa at 7:17 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Second the Cartoon History of the Universe! Years ago I never would have thought I'd be interested in ancient Chinese history, but damn that shit is crazy.
posted by echo target at 7:17 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Didn't include the Redneck Manifesto so it's not a complete list. Fuck you and your list, you list making motherfucker!!!
posted by nola at 7:30 PM on September 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


I see nowhere any mention of GCUs or personal droids. Sad now.
posted by Ber at 7:38 PM on September 1, 2011


The Algebraist ain't a Culture book, dammit.

Neither is Feersum Endjinn or Against a Dark Background. Although one supposes in the latter case that it could be in the same Universe but there is no evidence that it is.
posted by Justinian at 7:39 PM on September 1, 2011


I live 30 minutes away from Ed Bruce, the guy that famously wrote; "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" but more importantly to me also wrote; " Ruby don't take your love to town. Which is one of my most favorite songs since "Roses for Mama". And when I say I live 30 minutes away I don't mean 30 minutes away in a place. I mean 30 minutes away in a time capsule. A town lost in what can only be called southern weird. A place were the man industry is the Tyson chicken prosessing plant. A town now known as "little mexico" to the surrounding locals because no one but the Mexicans work at the plant and the town is mostly dead like most little towns in the nobody flies over anyway state, here in the south. I don't know what the hell the point of this comment is I just felt like sharing, cause of culture and all.
posted by nola at 7:43 PM on September 1, 2011 [7 favorites]


A list like this needs a slang dictionary.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:42 PM on September 1, 2011


Guys, guys, let's lighten up ā€“ the title is clearly very tongue-in-cheek (I do, after all, explicitly say "Okay, maybe not everything ā€” Iā€™m keenly aware of how laughable that proposition is") and the piece is A) not a "ranking", B) obviously incomplete and subjective, as the massive caveat in the introduction suggests, and C) more than anything, simply a way to share 10 books that have changed the way I look at 10 (out of an infinite number) facets of culture, and an invitation to start a conversation around the books that changed other people's understanding of (facets and fragments of) culture.

This being said, even in the context of the general ganging up and cynicism here, I'm delighted to find some fantastic suggestions. (The Asimov people especially ā€“ I love you to bits. The Roving Mind is by far my favorite of his, and IMO one of the 10 most important books on education ever published.)
posted by brainpicker at 9:02 PM on September 1, 2011


Having in depth knowledge about only one of these subjects (Science Fiction), I decided to see if I could find out a bit more about the book being recommended. While I have no doubt that it contains many fine stories (given the author list, I'd be very surprised if the material wasn't excellent), but as an introduction to science fiction, the premise of the book falls flat. From the introduction (or as much as I can read in the amazon preview), the dismissal of all science fiction that has a happy ending or believes in a rational, functional universe makes me kind of despise the anthologists. I'd happily buy a book containing those stories, but not collected by those editors.

So, on the basis of that book, I'm more or less ready to chuck the list. If that's her definition of a good introduction to science fiction, a book that dismisses 90% of science fiction for not being literary enough, I wonder what the book on classical music is like? Does it say that up until the romantics, the world of symphonic orchestra was flat and dull?

I'm getting more bothered by a simple introduction than I should, I know. But to claim a book as a foundational document, something that can help explain the rest of a subject to you, well, I expect better for such a grandiose claim.

On the other hand, this discussion is wonderful. I devoured almost all of Asimov's fiction when I was in middle school but hardly touched his non-fiction. I suppose I'll take a look.
posted by Hactar at 9:06 PM on September 1, 2011


Nice to see that under-appreciated Suber book on there. He's responsible for the greatest commentary track ever recorded: the one that accompanied The Graduate's Criterion laserdisc.
posted by dobbs at 10:00 PM on September 1, 2011


And brainpicker, thanks for showing up.
posted by dobbs at 10:00 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


From the introduction (or as much as I can read in the amazon preview), the dismissal of all science fiction that has a happy ending or believes in a rational, functional universe makes me kind of despise the anthologists. I'd happily buy a book containing those stories, but not collected by those editors.

Looking over the whole introduction, I'm not seeing how it could be read to say that.

I haven't read the anthology yet, but Kessel and Kelly are both accomplished writers of decades' standing and their own work includes happy endings (I'd say Kelly's is consistently optimistic) and generally are set in rational, functional universes (though Kessel has sometimes veered toward the absurd; then again, he also rewrote Faust as a Mark Brothers movie.)
posted by Zed at 10:05 PM on September 1, 2011


I'm not bothered by the word "everything"; as you said, it's clearly tongue in cheek.

I was looking forward to 10 guide books to other cultures. I'm already familiar with this one.
posted by BurnChao at 10:57 PM on September 1, 2011




See, I was expecting a solid Anthropology list. Or maybe Sociology. I was wondering, would they include Marvin Harris, or some other materialist? Which Linguist would they choose? Chomsky?

Would there be a book for each subfield? Or would the books represent schools of thought?


How would positivism be treated? We talk about this a lot, do we still value a scientific view of culture, or do we value a narrative? Of course, that discussion inevitably goes to, "well, it's a continuum. Very few people are jammed over at each end of that divide, being in between doesn't allow you to fall into some abyss.)

All of that, as the page loaded. I saw the actual list and realized, it's 3 in the morning and I'm geeking out about Anthropology.

And also that I really had wanted to get my hands on these ten books, read them and see how they compared to my undergraduate education.
posted by bilabial at 12:12 AM on September 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


The Gleick book on information theory (NYT review) seems interesting; just might be my weekend reading if I can get the ebook tonight. :)
posted by the cydonian at 12:23 AM on September 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Hawking book is terrible.

I think many people believe it is necessarily incomprehensible because the subject is abstruse. That is not the case. It is incomprehensible because it is badly written.
posted by vacapinta at 4:10 AM on September 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


For Information Theory, I highly recommend Pierce's An Introduction to Information Theory, Symbols, Signals and Noise. I've seen no better introduction. It doesn't shy away from math and yet is written for the layperson.
posted by vacapinta at 4:16 AM on September 2, 2011 [8 favorites]


Guys, guys, let's lighten up

I know, I hate to be Debbie Downer actually. I just think there's been a steady trend toward the proliferation of over-the-top titles like this and it's starting to feel old. It's like writers think no one will read their stuff unless they tag it with a bombastic title full of superlatives. In fact, most really good things don't trumpet their wares in that way. If the content is good and the title is properly expressive of the content, people will read and share it.
posted by Miko at 6:38 AM on September 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


I highly recommend Pierce's An Introduction to Information Theory, Symbols, Signals and Noise.

Nthing. I accidentally got that one once and it was remarkably clear. I was going to list it above where I dissed Gleick, but I only know it by the distinctive cover, not name or author.
posted by DU at 7:03 AM on September 2, 2011


For instance, how are there two books on music (jazz and classical music)

This wound me up. I have the Ross book on my shelf to read, and I know I know shamefully little about jazz, but really now - can you understand contemporary culture without looking at rock, at hip-hop, at dance? Even a single book about the Beatles (Revolution in the Head?) or punk (England's Dreaming) wouldn't scratch the surface. It reminds me of how broadsheet newspapers dedicate pages to classical music and then lump anything else together under 'Pop', in the small column next to the ad flogging bargain slacks.
posted by mippy at 7:52 AM on September 2, 2011


Guys, guys, let's lighten up

YOU CANT FUCKING MAKE ME
posted by Greg Nog at 7:56 AM on September 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


Anyone recommend a good overview of the history of philosophy?
posted by jasonsmall at 8:48 AM on September 2, 2011


Anyone recommend a good overview of the history of philosophy?

I feel like there are a lot of ways to answer this question, but Russell's History of Western Philosophy is fun.
posted by grobstein at 8:57 AM on September 2, 2011


i personally got my mind blown eighteen ways by reading cultural amnesia this year, which i humbly submit instead of the damn sci fi book
posted by beefetish at 2:09 PM on September 2, 2011


environmental and economic factors that determine the winners and losers

This is not news to anyone who has had a two cow and two gold starting position.
posted by Meatbomb at 6:37 AM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


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