The best books about Western culture

3 authors have picked their favorite books about Western culture and why they recommend each book.

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On Garbage

By John Scanlan,

Book cover of On Garbage

Sh*t happens (bad relationships, business failures, burnt toast). That’s OK, says Scanlan, because making garbage is an essential part of any activity. In fact, you can’t get anywhere, or achieve any kind of personal or intellectual growth, without some detritus. To me, this explains why humans make so much trash of the kind that I’ve spent my life digging up in archaeological sites. And it makes me feel quite OK about spending a day writing stuff that might go straight into the shredder tomorrow…

Who am I?

I’m an archaeologist, which means that I’ve been lucky enough to travel to many places to dig and survey ancient remains. What I’ve realized in handling those dusty old objects is that all over the world, in both past and present, people are defined by their stuff: what they made, used, broke, and threw away. Most compelling are the things that people cherished despite being worn or flawed, just like we have objects in our house that are broken or old but that we keep anyway.

I wrote...

Cities: The First 6,000 Years

By Monica L. Smith,

Book cover of Cities: The First 6,000 Years

What is my book about?

Cities are such a strange concept that they had to be invented: in the deep past, everyone lived in villages. Yet cities provide so many things that a village cannot: diversity, entertainment, higher education, economic opportunities, and a sense of excitement accompanied by ever-increasing quantities of stuff. How did cities get started? What characteristics do modern cities share with ancient ones, both positive and negative? And what is it like to actually dig a city as an archaeologist, going down to the very bottom of the earliest urban centers to find out what made them so attractive to ancient inhabitants? 

The Memoirs of a Survivor

By Doris Lessing,

Book cover of The Memoirs of a Survivor

Doris Lessing is one of the genuinely great authors of the 20th century. A true visionary, she moved effortlessly between naturalistic writing and her own unique variety of science fiction/fantasy—the latter written with such conviction that it seems completely real (while her naturalistic writing is so vivid is to seem almost more than real). In this book, a middle-aged woman looks out of her window at a civilization that is rapidly falling apart. As the woman retreats into her own inner world, a strange girl comes to live with her, bringing an animal called Hugo that is somewhere in between a dog and a cat. It’s a spell-binding piece of world-building and a reminder that everything that seems permanent will one day crumble.

Who am I?

I like books that aren’t easy to categorize by genre because that’s the kind of book I like to write. Most of my novels are defined as science fiction for marketing purposes and placed on the science fiction shelves of book shops, but they aren’t very typical of science fiction and don’t necessarily always appeal to those looking for a lot of futuristic tech, or tales of galactic empires. In some ways, the things I write about are more typical of the concerns of readers of non-SF ‘mainstream’ (I hate the term, but there it is!) literary fiction, but many such readers will find them too science fictional.

I wrote...


By Chris Beckett,

Book cover of Tomorrow

What is my book about?

In an unnamed country with its own unique fauna and history, a would-be author (also unnamed!) has rented a cabin by a river in the remote interior, hoping to write a novel there.  The surroundings are so enchanting that it is hard to get started, and then the outside world violently intervenes, resulting in a long period in captivity and then a grueling escape. 

The story, told in the first person, skips back and forth across the author’s life before and after this episode, and includes a love affair that in the end doesn’t work out, and even an encounter with something that purports to be the Holy Grail. The author’s novel is never written, in spite of many attempts, while the story about the author becomes a kind of lifetime search for identity and meaning.

Cultural Amnesia

By Clive James,

Book cover of Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts

Clive James will probably be remembered in this country for his moving poem Red Maple, and for a decade’s worth of wry commentary talking about the Japanese Gameshow, ‘Endurance’ on TV, but his essays and literary criticism were every bit as significant (and often just as funny). Cultural Amnesia is a peculiar collection of short essays on important literary, cultural, and historical figures of the past, which James compiled over the course of his life. Many of the subjects will be familiar to everyone: Charlie Chaplin, Coco Chanel, Adolf Hitler, but many will not (but should be): Egon Friedell was an extraordinary man of letters who encapsulated Vienna at its most sparkling, but who killed himself when the Nazis arrived; Ricarda Huch was a brilliant historian of Germany who went into voluntary exile at around the same time. As these examples suggest, the struggle between cultural and totalitarianism is…

Who am I?

Andy Merrills teaches ancient and medieval history at the University of Leicester. He is a hopeless book addict, writes occasionally for work and for the whimsical periodical Slightly Foxed, and likes nothing so much as reading elegantly-composed works which completely change the way he thinks about everything. (This happens quite a lot). 

I wrote...

The Vandals

By Andy Merrills, Richard Miles,

Book cover of The Vandals

What is my book about?

The Vandals explores the sudden rise and dramatic fall of a fascinating kingdom which ruled Carthage during the twilight years of the Western Roman Empire. This complete history provides a full account of the Vandals and re-evaluates the social and political structures of the fifth- and sixth-century world. It analyses a complex Vandal ‘foreign policy’, which combined diplomatic alliances and marriages with brutal raiding, an extraordinary cultural renaissance of Latin poetry, and the religious struggles that threatened to tear the state apart. The Vandals conquered North Africa, sacked Rome and inherited some of the richest provinces of the ancient world before being destroyed utterly; this is their story.

Letting Go!

By Dr. Sharie Coombes, Ellie O’Shea (illustrator),

Book cover of Letting Go!

Grief, unfortunately, is a part of life. Western culture has a habit of ignoring and minimizing grief in detrimental ways. When we gently turn toward the difficult stuff in life, we can “feel and deal” in ways that benefit mental health. There are many books about grieving the death of a loved one (a list for another day, perhaps), but few acknowledge the other intense and life-altering kinds of loss and change that children are grieving. Dr. Coombes’ book is much more inclusive–plus, it delivers a treasure trove of activities to help children (and adults) navigate this challenging part of being human. The delightful doodles will appeal to upper elementary and quite a few tweens and teens.

Who am I?

My super-power is making brain science accessible and entertaining for children and adults alike. I am living this out as an author, mental health counselor, and the founder of BraveBrains. In addition to training parents and professionals, I have the joy of sharing my passion and expertise through podcast appearances, blogs, and articles. The lightbulb moments are my favorite, and I'm committed to helping people bring what they learn home in practical ways. I write picture books because the magic of reading and re-reading stories light up the brain in a powerful way. But don’t worry…I always include some goodies for the adults in the back of the book.

I wrote...

What's Inside Your Backpack?

By Jessica Sinarski, Joanne Lew-Vriethoff (illustrator),

Book cover of What's Inside Your Backpack?

What is my book about?

Zoey Harmon just wants to feel light-hearted and carefree. Unfortunately, she keeps getting weighed down by pesky “books” in her backpack, like Worry and Shame. Much to her surprise, she’s not the only one! Zoey learns that the adults in her life deal with these difficult feelings too! Luckily, they have some bright ideas that can help her set aside the books she’s not meant to carry! Will it be enough to help her with the biggest book of all?

While there are no quick fixes for all of life’s complex problems, What’s Inside Your Backpack? highlights some of the ways we can nurture resilience in body and mind.

The Condition of Postmodernity

By David Harvey,

Book cover of The Condition of Postmodernity

A sweeping study and critique of modern culture! If you are looking for a comprehensive and passionate analysis of time and space in the “late capitalist era,” this is the one to read. Nobody has written more authoritatively on modern and post-modern “time-space compression” (you have to read the book to see what this means). Harvey’s intellectual breadth and depth are astonishing. No wonder he is one of the most cited scholars of our time.

Who am I?

I love cities and I teach about them. I was born in the capital of Sofia, Bulgaria, and landed in the US (mostly by chance) in 1993. Spent most of my professional life in US academia (Michigan, Virginia Tech, Harvard, Maryland, and now Georgia). I never stopped wondering how cities change and why American cities look and function so differently than European cities. So, I wrote a few books about cities, including Iron Curtains; Gates, Suburbs and Privatization of Space, which is about changes in East European Cities after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I wrote...

Zoned in the USA: The Origins and Implications of American Land-Use Regulation

By Sonia A. Hirt,

Book cover of Zoned in the USA: The Origins and Implications of American Land-Use Regulation

What is my book about?

So, what’s up with American cities? Everyone knows we sprawl more than anyone else in the world and we drive more than anyone else in the world. In my book, I argue that the reason we live this way because we have adopted local laws that mandate this lifestyle. Other developed societies (I reviewed the UK, Germany, France, Russia, Japan, and Australia) don’t have the same laws. We borrowed the laws from the Europeans a hundred years ago but then we changed them beyond recognition. So how about changing the laws?

Natural Supernaturalism

By M. H. Abrams,

Book cover of Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature

When I was a student I found this book an inspiration. Beautifully written, it brings out deep affinities between the poetry and ideas of Wordsworth, Shelley, and other poets in England and the idealist philosophers in Germany, and the ways both groups rewrote the cosmic ideas of Christianity and ancient esoteric systems. It continually sets off sparks with its surprising comparisons. In the fifty years since it appeared, scholars have complained about how many writers the book leaves out, but given that its theme is “The High Romantic Argument” and not all of Romanticism, I am still impressed by how much it takes in.

Who am I?

I fell in love with the British Romantic poets when I took a course about them, and I fixated like a chick on the first one we studied, William Blake. He seemed very different from me, and in touch with something tremendous: I wanted to know about it. Ten years later I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Blake, and then published quite a bit about him. Meanwhile there were other poets, poets in other countries, and painters and musicians: besides being accomplished at their art, I find their ideas about nature, the self, art, and society still resonate with me.

I wrote...

Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction

By Michael K. Ferber,

Book cover of Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction

What is my book about?

In this book I explore Romanticism during the period of its incubation, birth, and growth, covering the years from 1760 to 1860. It incorporates not only the English but the Continental movements, and not only literature but music, art, religion, and philosophy. It sheds light on such subjects as the "Sensibility" movement, which preceded Romanticism; the rising prestige of the poet as inspired prophet; the rather different figure of the "poetess"; Romanticism as a religious trend; Romantic philosophy and science; and Romantic responses to the French Revolution, the Orient, and the condition of women. Some two hundred people are cited or quoted, many at length, including Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Emerson, Hugo, Goethe, Pushkin, Beethoven, Berlioz, Chopin, and Delacroix.


By Hermann Hesse, Basil Creighton (translator),

Book cover of Steppenwolf

Like many readers of my generation, I discovered Hermann Hesse when I was in high school. I think my favorite back then was his Narcissus and Goldmund, but Steppenwolf was the book that really stuck with me, with its portrayal of midlife anxieties and grumpiness paired with wild yet strangely wise youth—both somehow seeking enlightenment. When rereading Steppenwolf as an adult, I also began to realize the extent to which it is a novel about the Weimar Republic, set during that brief, culturally vibrant period between postwar economic disaster (Germany suffered hyperinflation of approximately 29,500 percent in 1923) and Hitler’s rise to power. The generational fears and hopes, and morose “Steppenwolf” Harry Haller’s curious redemption or rediscovery of self through sex, jazz, and drugs, eventually inspired my own novel.

Who am I?

I’ve always been fascinated by our creative urges and ambitions, and by what makes us who we are and why we make the choices we do. While I’m interested in many aspects of human experience and psychology, from the mundane to the murderous, I’m especially drawn to narratives that probe our deeper psyches and look, particularly with a grain of humor, at our efforts to expand our understanding and create great works—or simply to become wiser and more enlightened beings. What is our place in the universe? Why are we here? Who are we? The books I’ve listed explore some of these matters in ways both heartfelt and humorous.

I wrote...

In Search of the Magic Theater

By Karla Huebner,

Book cover of In Search of the Magic Theater

What is my book about?

In Search of the Magic Theater, narrated alternately by the twentyish Sarah and the fortyish Kari, begins as something of a female version of Hermann Hesse’s renowned Steppenwolf. Why, the rather staid young cellist Sarah wonders, should her aunt rent their spare room to the perhaps unstable Kari Zilke? Like the nephew in Steppenwolf, Sarah finds herself taking an unexpected interest in the lodger, but Sarah is unable to stop at providing a mere introduction to Kari’s narrative of mid-life crisis and self-discovery, and develops her own more troubled tale of personal angst and growth, entwined with the account Kari herself purportedly left behind.

Art, Politics, and Development

By Philipp H. Lepenies,

Book cover of Art, Politics, and Development: How Linear Perspective Shaped Policies in the Western World

I love the way this book brings together two seemingly unrelated topics, art, and socio-political organization, to offer a new perspective on the development of human societies—linear, of course. The policies and practices of development agencies do not just draw on the latest fads of economics, rather, our thinking about the shape and trajectory of ideal societies has long been influenced by the way we quite literally see and perceive the world.

Who am I?

The search for meaning in history is all part of the search for meaning in life. Whether archaeologists or historians, economists or physicists, they are not just looking for artefacts when digging in the dirt or scanning the skies, they are looking for evidence to piece together a bigger picture—meaning in the minutiae. I’m sceptical, but the philosophy of history remains a fascinating subject, which is why I’ve explored ideas about civilization, progress, and progressive history in a number of books and articles. My primary concern about teleological accounts of history is that they tend to deny people's agency, especially non-Western peoples.

I wrote...

The Strange Persistence of Universal History in Political Thought

By Brett Bowden,

Book cover of The Strange Persistence of Universal History in Political Thought

What is my book about?

Prominent in Western political thought since the middle of the eighteenth century, the idea of universal history holds that all peoples can be situated in the narrative of history on a continuum between a start and an end point, between the savage state of nature and civilized modernity. Despite various critiques, the underlying teleological principle still prevails in much contemporary thinking and policy planning, including post-conflict peace-building and development theory and practice. Anathema to contemporary ideals of pluralism and multiculturalism, universal history means that not everyone gets to write their own story, only a privileged few. For the rest, history and future are taken out of their hands, subsumed and assimilated into other people’s narrative.

A Stroll With William James

By Jacques Barzun,

Book cover of A Stroll With William James

In my college days, it seemed that everyone was carrying around a copy of Barzun’s book on Darwin, Marx, and Wagner, and I remember devouring his two-volume book on Berlioz and the Romantic Century, just for fun. When I began to seriously study William James, I was amazed to see that Barzun had written about him too. A Stroll with William James has one of my favorite titles, signifying a certain American informality and inherent movement that is characteristic of both James the man and his philosophy of pragmatism.

Barzun’s engagingly written book contains chapters on James’s life, his relation to his brother Henry James the novelist, and on William’s masterwork, The Principles of Psychology, with its great chapter on “the stream of thought.” Barzun also considers the brilliant “study in human nature” that James calls The Varieties of Religious Experience, with its chapters on conversion, mysticism, and…

Who am I?

Russell Goodman is a Regents Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of New Mexico. Russell loved the remark by the philosopher Wittgenstein that "James was a good philosopher because he was a real human being". This list is inspired by that statement. Russell picked books that he loves and admires and would happily read again, and which explore in their various ways what it is to be a human being.

I wrote...

Wittgenstein and William James

By Russell B. Goodman,

Book cover of Wittgenstein and William James

What is my book about?

This book explores Wittgenstein's long engagement with the work of the pragmatist William James. In contrast to previous discussions, Russell Goodman argues that James exerted a distinctive and pervasive positive influence on Wittgenstein's thought. He shows that both share commitments to anti-foundationalism, to the description of the concrete details of human experience, and to the priority of practice over intellect. Considering in detail what Wittgenstein learned from his reading of William James, Goodman provides considerable evidence for Wittgenstein's claim that he is saying "something that sounds like pragmatism."

Proust's Way

By Roger Shattuck,

Book cover of Proust's Way: A Field Guide to in Search of Lost Time

"Like the Bible, In Search of Lost Time embodies its own sources, myths, and criticism. Like an archaeological site, the novel has come to stand for a state of civilization.” Roger Shattuck is masterful in reach and insight; his “field guide” is aptly named. The reader journeys alongside him to traverse the vast and incomparable terrain of a seven-volume novel. Full of wit and provocation, he leads us through thick and thin, and best of all, he allows our own reading of the great work to revive within us, illuminating the very experience of reading that Proust so brilliantly mined.

Who am I?

I first read Swann’s Way when I was seventeen. Throughout the following five decades, In Search of Lost Time has always remained within reach, a parallel universe more enriching than words can express. As a painter, I’m drawn to Proust’s subtle use of paintings to reveal and mystify the relationship between what we see and what we know. I’ve spoken on Proust at Berkeley, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Houston, and was invited to give the annual Proust lecture at the Center for Fiction in New York as well as the Amon Carter Lecture on the Arts at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin.

I wrote...

Paintings in Proust: A Visual Companion to in Search of Lost Time

By Eric Karpeles,

Book cover of Paintings in Proust: A Visual Companion to in Search of Lost Time

What is my book about?

A lavishly illustrated and comprehensive guide, Paintings in Proust offers a feast for the eyes, celebrating the close relationship between the visual and literary arts in Proust’s masterwork. All of the paintings to which Proust makes exact reference are identified, and where only a painter’s name is mentioned, a representative work has been selected to illustrate the impression the novelist sought to evoke. Botticelli maidens, Mantegna warriors, and Manet courtesans stand amidst Whistler and Vermeer landscapes to flesh out the novel’s palpable and impalpable realities.

The book opens with an essay, includes contextual commentary, and closes with extensive notes and an index of all painters and paintings referenced. The NY Times announced the arrival of the book with "the literary equivalent of a hosanna.”

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