The best books on chaos and disorder

The Books I Picked & Why

Chaos Imagined: Literature, Art, Science

By Martin Meisel

Book cover of Chaos Imagined: Literature, Art, Science

Why this book?

A comprehensive, elegantly written survey of the territory from a genuine polymath, Chaos Imagined considers the philosophical issues raised by the turn to disorder and chance in everything from cutting-edge artistic movements to mathematical chaos theory. Meisel moves with agile ease from historical narrative to considerations of some quite knotty theoretical problems in a style that is genuinely readable and elegant, rather than academically abstruse. He is as assured on avant-garde art movements as he is on the more elusive aspects of western philosophy.


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The Order of Things: An Archaeology of Human Sciences

By Michel Foucault

Book cover of The Order of Things: An Archaeology of Human Sciences

Why this book?

Foucault’s groundbreaking work from the 1960s looks at how systems of order and classification came into being during the age of rationalism with Descartes, culminating in the 18th-century Enlightenment’s project of subjecting every field of knowledge to its own self-enclosed order. It remains of the great works of theoretical synthesis, patiently dissecting the structures of knowledge, of order and priority, that western learning continues to take for granted. At half a century’s distance, Foucault is the one French thinker whose legacy remains intact for his lucidity, polemical edge, and refusal of esoteric linguistic games.


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Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science

By N. Katherine Hayles

Book cover of Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science

Why this book?

In a study of great conceptual daring, Hayles examines the links between scientific chaos theory and the representations of disorder in modern literature, from Stanislaw Lem to Doris Lessing. She is more or less unique in the present day in being able to align hard science with contemporary aesthetics, a world away from the half-digested appropriation of scientific chatter by those who love nothing better than an algorithm. Her grasp of contemporary theory is sound, and her readings of modern literature are sensitive and enlightening.


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Gravity's Rainbow

By Thomas Pynchon

Book cover of Gravity's Rainbow

Why this book?

In this monumental novel of 1973, Pynchon envisions a world that has surrendered, in the late stages of the second world war, to eruptive cognitive and moral chaos. The writing is tirelessly explosive, exhilarating, occasionally obscene, and formally liberating. Sustained over 900 pages, it is hard to encapsulate the degree to which this writing deliberately unmoors its readers from the expectations of traditional narrative and character development. No creative writing manual will teach you to write like this, and yet Pynchon’s work inspired David Foster Wallace and others of America’s recent literary golden age. I wouldn’t like to have to defend the sexual presumptions in Gravity’s Rainbow before a modern-day tribunal, but the relentless energy of the writing reflects a world that has come unhinged from its ethical bearings. 


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The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus

By William Shakespeare

Book cover of The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus

Why this book?

A very early effort at a blood-soaked Roman tragedy written (at least partly) by England’s poet laureate. It throws its characters into a boiling cauldron of destructive evil, devising ghastly ways of killing most of them, and features one of the Elizabethan theatre’s most uncompromising villainous monsters, the racially profiled Aaron. It is customary among Shakespeare scholars to try to disown Titus for its lurid gratuitousness, but it does contain some fine poetic writing, brief flashes of the riches to come, and an anticipation of the subtler malevolence that would come to dominate the English stage in the succeeding Jacobean era. Those inclined to celebrate chaos as a purely constructive force might profit from lingering amid Shakespeare’s horrors.


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