The best books to discover forgotten masterpieces of world culture

Who am I?

I’ve always been driven by curiosity about other cultures. I grew up in Germany but became restless and studied in Italy before moving to the United States. Some of the texts I recommend here I discovered while working on the Norton Anthology of World Literature. When I began this work, I realized just how narrow my own education had been and spent the next several years reading world literature and world culture. Ever since, I’ve been on a mission to expand how culture is taught. This is why I became an academic: to excite students about world culture.

I wrote...

Culture: The Story of Us, From Cave Art to K-Pop

By Martin Puchner,

Book cover of Culture: The Story of Us, From Cave Art to K-Pop

What is my book about?

What good are the arts? Why should we care about the past? For millennia, humanity has sought to understand and transmit to future generations not just the “know-how” of life, but the “know-why”—the meaning and purpose of our existence, as expressed in art, architecture, religion, and philosophy. This crucial passing down of knowledge has required the radical integration of insights from the past and from other cultures. 

From Nefertiti’s lost city to a time capsule left behind on the Moon, Puchner tells the gripping story of human achievement through our collective losses and rediscoveries, power plays and heroic journeys, innovations, imitations, and appropriations. Culture is an archive of humanity’s most monumental junctures and a guidebook for the future of us humans as a creative species.

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The books I picked & why

Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave

By Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel Deschamps, Christian Hillaire

Book cover of Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave

Why this book?

The Chauvet Cave in Southern France is a unique time capsule that gives us a glimpse into the imaginary world of humans living 30,000 years ago.

Dawn of Art is written by those who discovered the cave and recognized it as the earliest masterpiece of human-made art.

What I found most fascinating about the cave as described in this book is the fact that humans decorated it over a period of thousands of years, perhaps as many as two hundred generations.

This is a remarkable achievement of collective artmaking, with one generation passing down the required artistry to the next generation. It made me wonder whether we have lost the reverence for the past that our distant ancestors must have possessed.

Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave

By Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel Deschamps, Christian Hillaire

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dawn of Art as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An intriguing study of the early evolution of human artistic endeavors focuses on recent discoveries in the Chauvet cave, Stone Age paintings and engravings of animals that are more than thirty thousand years old. BOMC Div. Natural Science Main.

Book cover of Nefertiti's Face: The Creation of an Icon

Why this book?

Ever since her rediscovery in 1912, the statue of Nefertiti has become the best-known face from antiquity—after having been buried for over three thousand years.

But more remarkable than the statue is what it stands for.

The historical queen Nefertiti, along with her husband Akhenaten, built a new city, worshipped a new god, and introduced a new style of art. This experiment, which anticipated monotheism, was so radical that it was subsequently erased from history.

Archeologists had to piece together what Nefertiti did through excavations such as the one that unearthed the world’s most beautiful statue.  

Nefertiti's Face: The Creation of an Icon

By Joyce Tyldesley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Nefertiti's Face as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Little is known about Nefertiti, the Egyptian queen whose name means "a beautiful woman has come." She was the wife of Akhenaten, the pharaoh who ushered in the dramatic Amarna Age, and she bore him at least six children. She played a prominent role in political and religious affairs, but after Akhenaten's death she apparently vanished and was soon forgotten.

Yet Nefertiti remains one of the most famous and enigmatic women who ever lived. Her instantly recognizable face adorns a variety of modern artifacts, from expensive jewelry to cheap postcards, t-shirts, and bags, all over the world. She has appeared…

Book cover of The Kebra Nagast: King Solomon, The Queen of Sheba & Her Only Son Menyelek - Ethiopian Legends and Bible Folklore

Why this book?

This book, completed in the 14th century, takes its point of departure from an episode in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament): the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon.

In the Bible, the queen visits the famous king, cross examines him, and leaves again.

According to the Kebra Nagast, she also becomes pregnant with his son. When the son comes of age, the queen sends him to his father in Jerusalem, who recognizes him and wants him to stay. But the son yearns to return home to Askum, in Ethiopia.

Before he and his companions leave, they steal the Ten Commandments and bring them back to Ethiopia, where they become the foundation for Ethiopian Christianity.

This remarkable story shows the interconnection of cultures, the ties between the Hebrew Bible and Ethiopian Christianity. In the 20th century, it was used by Jamaicans seeking to connect to ancient African traditions and become important for the Rastafari movement. 

The Kebra Nagast: King Solomon, The Queen of Sheba & Her Only Son Menyelek - Ethiopian Legends and Bible Folklore

By E. A. Wallis Budge,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Kebra Nagast as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Kebra Nagast is an ancient text, detailing the relationship between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; this work examines these legends, and how they correspond with Ethiopian folklore and the Holy Bible.

Written by Ethiopian scholar Is'haq Neburä -Id in the 14th century, the Kebra Nagast is a complete narration of the meeting and relationship between the ancient King Solomon and the Ethiopian Queen named Sheba. Drawing heavily upon the Biblical lore, the Kebra Nagast includes further detail upon pertinent topics; other ancient monarchs, prophetic visions, and the culture of the court of Ethiopia. The final chapters allude…

Book cover of The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite

Why this book?

Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize laureate from Nigeria, was steeped in both Yoruba traditions and Greek tragedy as well as Shakespeare.

This combination of influences shaped his adaptation of The Bacchae, by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides.

He brings this play into the modern world of slavery, using White and Black actors. At the same time, he captures the original’s blend of ritual and performance.

This explosive mixture is the most compelling study I know in what theater can do: mobilize bodies in front of an audience. It also shows how theater can bridge vast historical and cultural differences.

The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite

By Wole Soyinka,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Bacchae of Euripides as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Wole Soyinka has translated-in both language and spirit-a great classic of ancient Greek theater. He does so with a poet's ear for the cadences and rhythms of chorus and solo verse as well as a commanding dramatic use of the central social and religious myth. In his hands The Bacchae becomes a communal feast, a tumultuous celebration of life, and a robust ritual of the human and social psyche. "The Bacchae is the rites of an extravagant banquet, a monstrous feast," Soyinka writes. "Man reaffirms his indebtedness to earth, dedicates himself to the demands of continuity, and invokes the energies…

Cloud Cuckoo Land

By Anthony Doerr,

Book cover of Cloud Cuckoo Land

Why this book?

I read this novel the day it came out, in the fall of 2021, just after sending my book to the printer.

Immediately, I felt a kinship. In this novel, Doerr thinks about cultural survival, and imagines the city of Constantinople as a kind of Noah’s Ark in which fragments from antiquity make it into the present.

The ancient Greek story at the center of the plot is fictional, but the mechanisms of cultural survival are real. It’s a superbly imaginative way of tackling the subject—and way funnier than anything I was able to come up with.

The project asks us to think about how we transmit culture from one generation to the next and how difficult it is to imagine what future readers will be like.

Cloud Cuckoo Land

By Anthony Doerr,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Cloud Cuckoo Land as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On the New York Times bestseller list for over 20 weeks * A New York Times Notable Book * A National Book Award Finalist * Named a Best Book of the Year by Fresh Air, Time, Entertainment Weekly, Associated Press, and many more

“If you’re looking for a superb novel, look no further.” —The Washington Post

From the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of All the Light We Cannot See, comes the instant New York Times bestseller that is a “wildly inventive, a humane and uplifting book for adults that’s infused with the magic of childhood reading experiences” (The New York Times…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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