The best books on meaning and mutability

Who am I?

I grew up in an area that had been forest, then became farms, then became a suburb. The world around me was a palimpsest, the old stories always vaguely discernable beneath the new ones, and always in some way part of the new ones. Until recently there was always a working farm in my life as well, two in Oregon and one in North Central Washington, where I saw the daily labor of trying to make the earth say “wheat” or “cattle” instead of “dust” or “sagebrush.” My poems try to preserve that experience.


I wrote...

Terminal Park: Poems

By Richard Wakefield,

Book cover of Terminal Park: Poems

What is my book about?

Richard Wakefield's third collection of poetry, Terminal Park, bears truthful and often wryly humorous witness to a wide range of human experiences. His portraits of life in rural Washington State are particularly compelling, in a way that evokes the best of Frost without sacrificing Wakefield's own distinctive voice. A showcase of given and nonce forms, Terminal Park is the work of a master craftsman, delivered with wit, empathy, and grace.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of A Collection of Poems by Robert Frost

Richard Wakefield Why did I love this book?

In his hundreds of poems, Frost wrote about a lot of things, but almost always about the fluid nature of the world and our efforts to give it shape and meaning. The very form of a poem, he believed, embodies those efforts. The question always remains: What form do we find, what form do we impose, and what self do we construct in doing so?

Start with “For Once, Then, Something,” in which he adapts the meter of classical poetry to the cadences of the English language and the ambiguity of modern life. Take a long look at the long poem “Home Burial,” in which a grieving couple clash over incompatible ways of understanding nature’s apparent indifference to human desire. Re-read “Mending Wall,” in which two people disagree about the meaning of the form they cooperate in imposing on the landscape.

And don’t neglect the letters in which Frost acknowledges his dept to William James, the psychologist who explored how we make meaning of what he called the “blooming, buzzing confusion” around us – and find something like ourselves in the process.

By Robert Frost,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Collection of Poems by Robert Frost as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The early works of beloved poet Robert Frost, collected in one volume.

The poetry of Robert Frost is praised for its realistic depiction of rural life in New England during the early twentieth century, as well as for its examination of social and philosophical issues. Through the use of American idiom and free verse, Frost produced many enduring poems that remain popular with modern readers. A Collection of Poems by Robert Frost contains all the poems from his first four published collections: A Boy’s Will (1913), North of Boston (1914), Mountain Interval (1916), and New Hampshire (1923), including classics such…


Book cover of Hamlet

Richard Wakefield Why did I love this book?

A young man pretends to be something he isn’t, and (perhaps) discovers that he is what he pretends to be – and isn’t.  Nothing remains fixed. The slippery language is essential: Trying to make his experience mean something coherent and actionable challenges his enormous skill with language. After all, words are one of the ways we try to fence off the flux, but it won’t be contained. The language is confusing in the truest sense, mixed up. The first words of the play are “Who’s there?” and Hamlet’s first words are a slippery attempt at an answer: “A little more than kin, and less than kind.” Our words are approximate at best, downright wrong at worst. Through the following five acts the play explores what that question and answer mean, and especially how the struggle to put the answer into words is itself part of the answer.

By William Shakespeare,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'The Mona Lisa of literature' T. S. Eliot

In Shakespeare's verbally dazzling and eternally enigmatic exploration of conscience, madness and the nature of humanity, a young prince meets his father's ghost in the middle of the night, who accuses his own brother - now married to his widow - of murdering him. The prince devises a scheme to test the truth of the ghost's accusation, feigning wild insanity while plotting revenge. But his actions soon begin to wreak havoc on innocent and guilty alike.

Used and Recommended by the National Theatre

General Editor Stanley Wells
Edited by T. J. B.…


Book cover of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

Richard Wakefield Why did I love this book?

Work! It’s one of the most neglected topics in literature, and yet it’s what most of us spend our lives doing, trying to create something where there was nothing. How can we make it meaningful? Pirsig shows us that by investing ourselves in the most ordinary activities we shape the shapeless world, and ourselves, into something transcendent, if only briefly. His keyword is “quality,” by which he means the essential whatness of things: What they are is what we make of them, and in doing so, we make ourselves, in work that is never finished.

By Robert M. Pirsig,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Acclaimed as one of the most exciting books in the history of American letters, this modern epic became an instant bestseller upon publication in 1974, transforming a generation and continuing to inspire millions. A narration of a summer motorcycle trip undertaken by a father and his son, the book becomes a personal and philosophical odyssey into fundamental questions of how to live. Resonant with the confusions of existence, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a touching and transcendent book of life.


Book cover of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat And Other Clinical Tales

Richard Wakefield Why did I love this book?

In these accounts of strange neurological misfires, Sacks shows how unreliable we can be as narrators of our own lives. The examples are extreme, sure, but they question the foundations of our certainty about the world and ourselves. Ordinarily, our senses make sense of the flux, label it and archive it for future reference; when the wires get crossed, we see hints of the essential changeableness of things and of the fictional self that tries to tame them. The book is a guided tour of what Sacks call our cerebral habitat: “Forcing or finding order in an imagined chaos.”

By Oliver Sacks,

Why should I read it?

11 authors picked The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat And Other Clinical Tales as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Celebrating Fifty Years of Picador Books

If a man has lost a leg or an eye, he knows he has lost a leg or an eye; but if he has lost a self - himself - he cannot know it, because he is no longer there to know it.

In this extraordinary book, Dr. Oliver Sacks recounts the stories of patients struggling to adapt to often bizarre worlds of neurological disorder. Here are people who can no longer recognize everyday objects or those they love; who are stricken with violent tics or shout involuntary obscenities, and yet are gifted with…


Book cover of The Nature of Things

Richard Wakefield Why did I love this book?

It’s the oldest book I know of that tries to explain the mutable material world in strictly material terms. Appropriately, or maybe paradoxically, Lucretius puts his treatise into the form of poetry, following strict rules of prosody, as if the conventions of verse could create order out of chaos. Two thousand years later, the master poet A.E. Stallings translates it into formal English poetry. Nothing remains fixed, especially not language, and yet we never quit trying.

By Lucretius, Coralie Bickford-Smith (illustrator), A.E. Stallings (translator)

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

One of a major new Classics series - books that have changed the history of thought, in sumptuous, clothbound hardbacks.

Lucretius' poem On the Nature of Things combines a scientific and philosophical treatise with some of the greatest poetry ever written. With intense moral fervour he demonstrates to humanity that in death there is nothing to fear since the soul is mortal, and the world and everything in it is governed by the mechanical laws of nature and not by gods; and that by believing this men can live in peace of mind and happiness. He bases this on the…


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The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


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