A Reading List

Here you'll find a collection of writings I admire. The criterion for a title to appear is significant long-lasting emotional and intellectual impact. The presented order is insignificant.

Über die Formfrage (On the Problem of Form), Wassily Kandinsky

Few essays in my experience have so effortlessly driven a stake through the psyche as Kandinsky's Über die Formfrage; fewer yet have—seemingly in the same gesture—sewn back the fragments into a pattern newly-formed in its wake.

"...The form must not be accepted or rejected either for the qualities, which are held to be positive, or for the qualities, which are felt to be negative. All of these notions are completely relative, as one observes instantly, in the endless, changing series of forms—which have already existed. And like these changing notions of what is beautiful, what is ugly, the very form itself is just as relative..."


The Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot.

From the 2nd Quartet: East Coker

Gods, Vladimir Nabokov

A fundamental frequency.

Conformal Field Theory, Francesco, Philippe, Mathieu, Pierre, Sénéchal, David

Permanently altered perceptions of space and time.

Finite and Infinite Games, James P. Carse

"There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite.

A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play."

Il Sistema Periodico - The Periodic Table, Primo Levi

Pungent, elemental and necessary.

How Children Fail, John Holt

Today Andy had a long, tough session with me. He finally solved the problem I had given him. But I can't help wondering what he learned. Not much; he certainly didn't gain any insight into the property of multiplication in which I was interested. All that he had to show for his time was the memory of a long and painful experience, full of failure, frustration, anxiety, and tension. He did not even feel satisfaction when he had done the problem correctly, only relief at not having to think about it anymore.
He is not stupid. In spite of his nervousness and anxiety, he is curious about some things, bright, enthusiastic, perceptive, and in his writing highly imaginative. But he is, literally, scared out of his wits. He cannot learn math because his mind moves so slowly from one thought to another that the connections between them are lost. His memory does not hold what he learns, above all else because he won't trust it. Every day he must figure out, all over again, that 9 + 7 = 16, because how can he be sure that it has not changed, or that he has not made another in an endless series of mistakes? How can you trust any of your own thoughts when so many of them have proved to be wrong?
I can see no kind of life for him unless he can break out of the circle of failure, discouragement, and fear in which he is trapped. But I can't see how he is going to break out. Worst of all, I'm not sure that we, his elders, really want him to break out. It is no accident that this boy is afraid. We have made him afraid, consciously, deliberately, so that we might more easily control his behaviour and get him to do whatever we wanted him to do.
I am horrified to realize how much I myself use fear and anxiety as instruments of control. I think, or at least hope, that the kids in my class are somewhat more free of fear than they have been in previous classes, or than most children are in most classes. I try to use a minimum of controls and pressures. Still, the work must be done----musn't it?----and there must be some limits to what they can be allowed to do in class, and the methods I use for getting the work done and controlling the behaviour rest ultimately on fear, fear of getting in wrong with me, or the school, or their parents.
Here is Andy, whose fears make him almost incapable of most kinds of constructive thinking and working. On the one hand, I try to dissipate those fears. But on the other, I have to do something to get him to do the work he so hates doing. What I do boils down to a series of penalties, which are effective in exactly the proportion that they rouse the kind of fears that I have been trying to dispel. Also, when children feel a little relieved of the yoke of anxiety that they are so used to bearing, they behave just like other people freed from yokes, like prisoners released, like victors in a revolution, like small-town businessmen on American Legion conventions. They cut up; they get bold and sassy; they may for a while try to give a hard time to those adults who for so long have been giving them a hard time . So, to keep him in his place, to please the school and his parents, I have to make him fearful again. The freedom from fear that I try to give with one hand I almost instantly take away with the other.
What sense does this make?

The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov

An autobiographical account uniquely positioned as a pseudo-fictional recount of Nabokov's life, while simultaneously presenting a tour de force of storytelling style and technique.

Sources of Chinese Tradition: Vol 1 & 2, compiled by WM. Theodore de Mary & Irene Bloom.

A magnificent gift of a book delivered by a dear friend, Volume 1 was consumed cover-to-cover in a few feverish, sleepless and yet extraordinarily prolific few nights.

Quantum Groups, V. G. Drinfeld.

Drinfeld on an exquisite idea wrought from the 20th century's deep analysis of the notion of a quantum field.

The Computer And The Brain, John von Neumann

Originally intended for the Yale Silliman Memorial Lectures. Interesting for its conjectural computational perspectives on the human brain, and more generally Von Neumann's perspective; different from the contemporary view.

On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie, Jean Epstein

Let's let Epstein speak for himself:

"The cinema seems to me like two Siamese twins joined together at the stomach, in other words by the baser necessities of life, but sundered at the heart or by the higher necessities of emotion. The first of these brothers is the art of cinema, the second is the film industry. A surgeon is called for, capable of separating these two fraternal foes without killing them, or a psychologist able to resolve the incompatibilities
between these two hearts.

I shall venture to speak to you only of the art of cinema. The art of cinema has been called ‘photogénie’ by Louis Delluc. The word is apt, and should be preserved. What is ‘photogénie’? I would describe as photogenic any aspect of things, beings, or souls whose moral character is enhanced by filmic reproduction. And any aspect not enhanced by filmic reproduction is not photogenic, plays no part in the art of cinema."

Ithaka, Constantine P. Cavafy
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean. 
The Mind's Eye, Henri Cartier-Bresson

A compendium of elegant meditations reaching beyond the realm of photography-proper: reads closer to a philosophy of observation.

As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner

"It is as though the dark were resolving him out of his integrity, into an unrelated scattering of components—snuffings and stampings; smells of cooling flesh and ammoniac hair; an illusion of a co-ordinated whole of splotched hide and strong bones within which, detached and secret and familiar, an is different from my is. I see him dissolve—legs, a rolling eye, a gaudy splotching like cold flames—and float upon the dark in fading solution; all one yet neither; all either yet none."

Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov


Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta."

Kubla Kahn, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
Sculpting in Time, Andrei Tarkovsky

A constructive meditation on the artist. Exceedingly broad, it covers a philosophy that explicates Tarkovsky's idea of "life as a reflection".

Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud

A playful meandering through the syntax and semantics of visual language. Travels far beyond the confines of the comic book medium.

Algebra I: Basic Notions of Algebra, Igor Shafarevich

A masterful tour through Abstract Algebra. Subtly (at least at my first encounter) skewed towards the Algebro-Geometric perspective.

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

The world in a novel.

Sleepy, Anton Chekhov

An elegant short work of horror.

Six Memos For The Next Millenium, Italo Calvino

Unfinished lectures intended for the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard. Outlines the values Calvino thought literature ought to uphold.

Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu

An early work fundamental to Taoism. The form alone is interesting: contradictory, yet paradoxically sensible.

Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein

Meditations at the boundary between language and action.

Wittgenstein's Mistress, David Markson

"In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street. Somebody is living in the Louvre, certain of the messages would say. Or in the National Gallery.
Naturally they could only say that when I was in Paris or in London. Somebody is living in the Metropolitan Museum, being wat they would say when I was still in New York.
Nobody came, of course. Eventually I stopped leaving the messages.
To tell the truth, perhaps I left only three or four messages altogether.
I have no idea how long ago it was when I was doing that. If was forced to guess, I believe I would guess ten years.
Possibly it was several years longer ago than that, however.
And of course I was quite out of my mind for a certain period too, back then.
I do not know for how long a period, but for a certain period.
Time out of mind. Which is a phrase I suspect I may have never properly understood, now that I happen to use it.
Time out of mind meaning mad, or time out of mind meaning simply forgotten?"

Words by Wallace.

Metamorphoses, Ovid

A compendium in poetry of fables and mythology. The penguin translation comes highly recommended.

Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges

Combinatorial search through the space of literary forms. An exerpt.

Elementary Mathematics From An Advanced Standpoint: Algebra, Arithmetic and Analysis and Geometry, Felix Klein

Should be required reading for all interested in the sciences.


A few patterns present themselves:

  • A vague sense of "Universality": the author's subject appears broader than stated.
  • Beauty
  • Russia

However, none of these are a priori reason for inclusion of any work.