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STEPHEN’S “BOOKS THAT HAVE BEEN IMPORTANT TO ME”

(This list is meant to be suggestive and exhausting, but not exhaustive.)


REFERENCE FOR WRITERS

Frank Barron (ed), Creators on Creating: Awakening and Cultivating the Imaginative Mind. Introduction is a useful overview of recent creativity research.

William Rose Benet, Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia. Every writer and student of literature should own this volume.

Dorothea Brande, Becoming a Writer. One of the best how-to writer’s books. Help for writer’s block.

Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols.  More extensive than the Cooper listed below, though in the main I find the Cooper more immediately useful.  Excellent supplement.

The Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers.

J. C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols. Wonderful reference work, beautifully illustrated.

Ivor H. Evans, ed., Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable

Wilfred Funk, Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories. [Out-of-print] Great fun for writers. Odd genesis of words. For instance, “villain” originally meant “farmer.” “Addle head” meant “urine-head.”

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, On Becoming a Novelist [the last is Out-of-print]   The Art of Fiction offers the most practical and useful advice on fiction of any book on the subject I’ve examined.  I suspect Gardner took just enough time out from his real writing to compose this necessary book, for ironically the writing itself in here is rather make-shift—but certainly the advice is not. 

Brewster Ghiselin, ed. The Creative Process. Explained in their own words by thirty-eight creators: Einstein, Van Gogh, Nietzsche, Jung, Yeats, etc.

Teresa Ferster Glazier, The Least You Should Know about English Writing Skills.  A self-paced guide to grammar and punctuation, which is boring but utterly necessary for all writers to master.

Ian Hamilton, The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry.  Much info on 20th-Century poets and poetry.

Patrick Hanks & Flavia Hodges, A Dictionary of Surnames.  Expensive but the most extensive available (for naming your characters by meaning).

C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature. One of the best handbooks available.

Henry James, “The Art of Fiction” (famous critical essay). His prefaces to his novels constitute an education in themselves for a writer.

Richard Jones (ed), Poetry East (lit mag), Origins: Poets on the Composition Process.

Alfred J. Kolatch, Dictionary of First Names (for naming your characters by meaning—for instance, in Equus, Peter Shaffer’s main characters are Martin (from “war”) and Alan (from “peace”)—do you get the sense he knew what he was doing . . . ?

Tom LeClair and Larry McCaffery, ed., Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Novelists. [Out-of-print] Barth, Hawkes, Gardner, Barthelme, Coover, Morrison, etc.

Jack Myers and Michael Simms, The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms. [Out-of-print]  Very fine section on line breaks.

Paris Review Interviews: Writers at Work. [Out-of-print] Interviews with many major modern writers. Get whole series.  I think of this as the main reference work for learning your craft.  How writers really do it.  Invaluable. 

Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English.  For character dialog, for what to generally avoid when you’re writing in your own voice, for creative use of clichés (they might purposefully be used as related image clusters, for instance - feather my nest, birds of a feather, bird-brained, etc.).  A frighteningly thorough work.

Ian Paterson, A Dictionary of Colour.  To supplement your thesaurus.

Susan K. Perry, Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity.  Based on interviews with the top poets and novelists, offers inspiration, motivation, insight into the creative process.

Arthur Quinn, Figures of Speech: 60 ways to turn a phrase.  This book is as entertaining as it is instructional.  I used this book in a class I taught at U.C.L.A. for writers wanting to make the transition from very very good to extraordinary. 

Miller Williams, Patterns of Poetry: An Encyclopedia of Forms.  It’s fun to experiment in forms.  Prosody, particularly mastery of meter (hell, even just an elementary understanding of it) is what I find most bewilders most young poets.
 

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ART

Van Gogh, Dear Theo. (letters) Almost as fine a writer as an artist.

BIOGRAPHY / AUTOBIOGRAPHY

Peter Green, Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B.C.

Bernard Cooper, Truth Serum.  (Others also!)

Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin.

Richard Feynman, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!,” “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”  Among other things, a way of fine-tuning your own individuality.  What an extraordinary man!

Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (one of the best literary biographies I’ve read).

Kenneth S. Lynn, Hemingway.  I find this the most insightful of the many biographies available. 

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory.  The autobiography as work of art.

Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years; Vladimir Nabokov:  The American Years

Vincent Cronin, Napoleon. [Out-of-print]

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LITERARY CRITICISM

M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism and The Mirror and the Lamp. Outstanding criticism on the philosophy of Romanticism in literature; complex; not for the faint-hearted.

Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawapha County, a novel-by-novel examination.

Anthony Burgess, Re Joyce (on James Joyce).  Absolutely delightful. 

John Ciardi, Dialogue with an Audience. [Out-of-print] Fine introduction to understanding poetry.  His straight-forward approach to explication is worth emulating.  The section on negative letters in response to his analysis of a Frost poem is particularly instructive and amusing.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. by James Engell and W. Jackson Bate.

Malcolm Cowley, Exile’s Return. On the migration of writers overseas during the 20’s.

Richard Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition. Superb criticism. Covers Moby-Dick.

Frederick C. Crews, The Pooh Perplex. [Out-of-print] A parody of literary critics. Very funny.

William Goldhurst, F. Scott Fitzgerald and His Contemporaries. [Out-of-print]  The best analysis of the man and the writing I’ve seen.

Fredrick J. Hoffman, William Faulkner.

Fredrick J. Hoffman, The 20’s. One of the most helpful books of literary criticism that I’ve read. Covers The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and others.  Hoffman is one of those rare critics to see the larger patterns.

Henry James, “The Turn of the Screw” (famous short story), “The Art of Fiction” (famous critical essay). His prefaces to his novels constitute an education in themselves for a writer.

Joseph Wood Krutch, The Modern Temper. Social and literary philosophy. Influenced intellectuals of 20’s. Insidiously argued little book.

D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature. Champion of the Irrational. Calls Benjamin Franklin “a little snuff-colored man.” Poems of interest: “Tortoise Gallantry,” “The Elephant is Slow to Mate—” Kinnell is a great fan of his nature and animal poems as well.

F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance. Literary criticism.

Gifford, Siedmann, Ulysses Annotated. Comprehensive examination of the allusions in Joyce’s Ulysses (one volume also available for Dubliners by same editor).

Walter Sutton, Modern Criticism: Theory and Practice, Modern American Criticism. [Out-of-print] Hard going, but you come out of this book with a thorough introduction to the major schools of thought.

E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture. More intrinsically interesting than you might suspect.

Ronald Wallace, The Last Laugh:  Form and Affirmation in the Contemporary American Comic Novel.  Wallace knows everything that has ever been written on the subject and brings it all together.  And if you think he’s only a theoretician of humor, you’ll find otherwise when you read his poetry.  I’m rather surprised that we’ve had so few major poets who let their sense of humor loose in the poetry—his is a big iridescent cross between a muscular canary and a tiger, which none-the-less can bite. 

Philip Wheelwright, Metaphor and Reality, [Out-of-print] The Presocratics. Philosophy.

ESSAYS

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Lectures. Library of America edition.  Poetic transcendentalism.  Emerson was thumped in his time for being too universally positive. 

Stephen Jay Gould—anything. Very consistent. Don’t get too caught up with Punctuated Equilibrium, howevery—many of his colleagues dismiss it. 

Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell, etc. Poetic essays on biology, science and beyond by a very clear, likable writer.

Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude, Convergences: Essays on Art and Literature. Esteemed Mexican author.  Scintillant poetic prose.

S. J. Perelman, “Dental or Mental, I Say It’s Spinach.” Comic writing. See collection The Most of S. J. Perelman. [Out-of-print]

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FICTION

Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim.  One of the funniest books I’ve ever read. 

Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio. Short stories.

James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room. Novel dealing with homosexuality. Black author.  Baldwin had an fluent, poetic style.

Nicholson Baker, Vox. Very very sexy, but highly articulate short novel.   I believe Baker said in an interview he had to type this whole novel with one hand.

Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot. Wonderful, witty book.  A must read. 

John Barth, Lost in the Funhouse, [Out-of-print] especially “Night-Sea Journey” (the last is a short story from the point of view of a sperm). Highly experimental fiction which draws attention to itself as artifice.

Donald Barthelme, Great Days. [Out-of-print] Experimental writer.  A post-modern romp.

Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths. Complex short stories by an Argentine writer. A Universal History of Infamy. [Out-of-print] Novel. Borges: A Reader [Out-of-print] edited by Emir Monegal and Alastair Reid is a good general anthology. 

bulletJorge Luis Borges (1899–1986): Argentine writer who stated that:[10]
"Being an agnostic means all things are possible, even God, even the Holy Trinity. This world is so strange that anything may happen, or may not happen. Being an agnostic makes me live in a larger, a more fantastic kind of world, almost uncanny. It makes me more tolerant."

 

T. Coraghessan Boyle, Without a Hero. A collection of acidulous, biting, but very funny short stories.  “Hopes Rise” is one of my favorites.

Samuel Butler, Way of All Flesh.

Italo Calvino, Mr. Palomar. Point-of-view control here is phenomenal. Seriously humorous.

Albert Camus, The Plague, The Stranger, “The Artist at Work” from the collection Exile and the Kingdom. French, humane, existential writer and philosopher.

Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking Glass and Alice in Wonderland. Both annotated by Martin Gardner in one volume.

Raymond Carver, Where I’m Calling From. Minimalist writer famous for his short stories.

Joyce Cary, The Horse’s Mouth. Masterfully sustained point-of-view with a moderately insane artistic protagonist.

John Cheever, “Goodbye, My Brother.” Poetic short story.

Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim. The Heart of Darkness.

Robert Coover, Pricksongs and Other Descants [Out-of-print] (short stories as adult fairy tales), The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (Novel: Waugh should be read as symbolizing God, the game, Life. Pun on “J-Waugh.”) A Night at the Movies has only two stories I like—but they are incredible: “Shootout at Gentry’s Junction” which is built out of ethnic clichés and the experimental “After Lazarus.”

Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage. Impressionistic novel.  Ravel with a quill.  Pay attention to color and perspective here.

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Holy the Firm, Teaching a Stone to Talk.  Poetic prose for mystics.

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, The Sound and the Fury, “The Bear.”  Necessary.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

          —William Goldhurst, F. Scott Fitzgerald and His Contemporaries. [Out-of-print]

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary. Translated by Francis Steggmuller. Be sure to read Nabokov’s lecture on his work in Lectures on European Literature. Flaubert in Egypt was extracted from Flaubert’s journals by Steggmuller. Zesty reading! As are The Letters of Gustave Flaubert. Flaubert was the consumate artist in everything he did.

E. M. Forster, A Passage to India.

Harold Frederic, The Damnation of Theoron Ware. Novel by early American writer on problem of belief.

John Gardner, Grendel, The Sunlight Dialogues.  Grendel is the Beowulf legend from the point of view of the monster.

William Golding, Lord of the Flies.

Jane Hamilton, A Map of the World.

Knut Hamsun, Hunger. Novel by Norwegian writer.

John Hawkes, Travesty and Death, Sleep and the Traveler. One of the best of our experimental writers, along with Gass, Coover and Barth.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Tales and Sketches, Scarlet Letter, House of the Seven Gables.

Hermann Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund, Siddhartha.

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man and the Sea, A Farewell to Arms, The Complete Short Stories.

            —Kenneth S. Lynn, Hemingway (biography)

Rachel Ingalls, Mrs. Caliban.

Henry James, “The Turn of the Screw” (long short story—did James do anything tersely?)

James Joyce, Dubliners (short stories), Ulysses.

             —Anthony Burgess, Re Joyce

Franz Kafka, The Trial, Complete Stories, Amerika.

Jerzy Kosinski, The Painted Bird.

Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City. Uses unusual second-person point-of-view.

Bernard Malamud, The Assistant. Jewish American writer.

Thomas Mann, Confessions of Felix Frull, Confidence Man; Doctor Faustus; The Magic Mountain. Nabokov calls Mann a ponderous fake. Joseph Campbell, the comparative mythologist, venerates him (see Creative Mythology for an analysis of The Magic Mountain). Slow-moving but powerful writing. Those with a good background in classical music should like Doctor Faustus. Confidence Man is essentially a metaphor for the artist.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick, edited and annotated by Charles Fiedelson, Jr.  In my top ten. Cranky Nabokov loved Melville.

Toni Morrison, Beloved. Pulitzer-prize winning Black author. Wonderful poetic language.

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (get the annotated edition), Bend Sinister; King, Queen, Knave; The Defense; Pale Fire; Invitation to a Beheading; Pnin. Lectures on Literature is excellent too. “Interviews” with Nabokov in Strong Opinions.  Really everything Nabokov ever wrote is brilliant.  Well, maybe with the exception of his poetry. 

            — Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years (biography).

Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past. (Nabokov covers this work in his lectures.)

E. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News.

Antoine De Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince.

Jean Paul Sarte, “The Wall” (existential short story)

Jane Smiley, Moo. Satire of academic life in a rural college, among other things.

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels. Norton Critical Edition.

Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Roughing It, Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Letters from the Earth, “Fennimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” One of our best writers.

John Updike, Problems. See title story.

Nathaniel West, Miss Lonelyhearts.

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, her collection of short stories. Very poetic prose. Can be very complex.
 

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FILM

Frederico Fellini, Fellini on Fellini. Interviews with a very articulate film maker.

Charles Thomas Samuels, Encountering Directors (Truffaut, Bergman, Fellini, Renoir, Hitchcock, etc.)

HISTORY

Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers.

Vincent Cronin, Napoleon. [Out-of-print]

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Vol 1-3Vol 4-6.  Really.

Peter Green, Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B.C.

Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Great, even if you’re not a history buff. Tacit comparison of medieval times with our own. Wry, understated humor.

HUMOR

Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim.

John Barth, “Night Sea Journey” from Lost in the Funhouse.  A pondering of the meaning of life from a philosophical sperm as it travels to the ovum.

Billy Collins, Questions About Angels; The Art of Drowning; Picnic, Lightning. (poetry)

Italo Calvino, Mr. Palomar. Point-of-view control phenomenal. Humorous, sad, profound.

Frederick C. Crews, The Pooh Perplex. [Out-of-print] A parody of literary critics. Very funny.

S. J. Perelman, “Dental or Mental, I Say It’s Spinach.” Comic writing. See collection The Most of S. J. Perelman. [Out-of-print]

Jane Smiley, Moo. Satire of academic life in a rural college, among other things.

MISCELLANEOUS NONFICTION

Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia. Travel writing and fiction merged.

Henry Thoreau, Walden. One of my favorites. Poetic prose.

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MYTHOLOGY

Thomas Bulfinch, Myths of Greece and Rome. Joseph Campbell introduces an excellent illustrated version, which includes great paintings and sculptures.

Joseph Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces. The Masks of God (four volume set): Primitive Mythology, Oriental Mythology, Occidental Mythology, Creative Mythology. The Power of Myth (interviews). Flight of the Wild Gander. [Out-of-print] Comparative mythology. All his works are good.

Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough. One-volume edition of social anthropology and myth, by a man whose work influenced T. S. Eliot.

Homer, The Odyssey. Fitzgerald translation.

Carl G. Jung, Man and His Symbols, Psychological Types, The Portable Jung, ed. by Joseph Campbell. Psychology. A bit on the mystical side, but quite astute on the human spirit and temperament—see his “Theory of the Types” in the Campbell volume.

Ovid, Metamorphoses. Translated by Rolfe Humphries. Roman mythology in poetry form.

PLAYS

Edward Albee, Zoo Story, American Dream, A Delicate Balance, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Jean Anouilh, Eurydice. [Out-of-print] Play based on myth.

Fernando Arrabal, Guernica and Other Plays. Includes The Labyrinth. Surreal plays by a celebrated Spanish playwright. In the last, “God” hangs out his dirty laundry, which forms an immense maze in which people lose themselves.

Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot. Absurdist playwright.

Chekhov, The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard.

Christopher Fry, The Lady’s Not for Burning. Play in verse. If the 1974 PBS production with Richard Chamberlain is ever rebroadcast, try to catch it.  The only version now available on video is the one with Kenneth Branagh, which I haven’t seen.

Henrik Ibsen, Hedda Gabler, The Wild Duck.

Eugene Ionesco, Rhinoceros (play with people transforming themselves into animals). Amadee, or How to Get Rid of It. The Chairs.

Arthur Miller, The Crucible, Death of a Salesman, A View from the Bridge, Incident at Vichy.

Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey into Night. Depressing and poetic play of a family’s fatal influence on one another. Naturalism at its best.

Luigi Pirandello, Six Characters in Search of an Author.

Harold Pinter, Betrayal, The Dumb Waiter, The Homecoming, No Man’s Land. English playwright.

Jean Paul Sarte, “The Wall” (existential short story), “No Exit” (existential play)

Peter Shaffer, Amadeus, The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Equus, etc.

William Shakespeare. Everything, of course. Get the Riverside or Harrison edition. Excellent annotations in both.

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POETRY

Charles Baudelaire, “The Albatross.” Translation by Richard Wilbur is the best.  It appears in the New Directions edition of The Flowers of Evil, Edited by Marthiel and Jackson Mathews, which contains numerous translators, Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, and  Stanley Kunitz being the best.  Richard Howard's translation of Les Fleurs du Mal won an American Book Award.

Marvin Bell, The Book of the Dead Man, Ardor:  The Book of the Dead Man, Vol. 2, Nightworks, A Marvin Bell Reader (“To Dorothy” is his signature poem.  Bell is one of our most important and protean poets.  His work is always original and vital.  In The Book of the Dead Man he fathered the Dead Man.  In Ardor he became his son.  In Nightworks, he finally killed the Dead Man, although the Dead Man has a way of turning up, even when he’s not here or there. 

(The Dead Man is pissed because he’s out of work, like a window that refuses to frame the glass, or a reflection that has walked away. The Dead Man feels abandoned, but isn’t that always the way?  The Dead Man has seen his heart turn to moss, but only on one side of the tree.  The Dead Man doesn’t know a spathe from a steeple, an anther from an antler. The Dead Man knows the elk’s horns abandon it too. It’s just he never expected it.)

William Blake, The Complete Poetry and Prose. Sample “The Chimney Sweeper,” “The Clod and the Pebble,” “The Sick Rose,” “The Tyger,” “Ah! Sun-flower,” “The Garden of Love,” “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”—particularly “Proverbs of Hell.”

Marianne Boruch, Descendant. (An expert in metaphor.  Boruch should be much better known. All her books are good; this is just my favorite.)

Lucille Clifton, Book of Light, The Terrible Stories (Compassionate, humane, a wonderful teacher, a superb critic, an incomparable poet.)  Her poems have a directness that reminds me of Lucille herself.  But still, they’re foxy.   Sometimes, I feel, her poems are mis-read, or rather, not read carefully enough.  For instance, take a careful look at her King David poems.  I’ll see if she’s available to do a Critical based on one of them . . .)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. by James Engell and W. Jackson Bates. Criticism. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, “Kubla Khan; or a Vision in a Dream.”

Billy Collins, Questions About Angels; The Art of Drowning; Picnic, Lightning.  Billy Collins is another major poet whose poems haven’t been properly appreciated for their catacomb depths.  The risk “accessible” (and popular) poets run is that they’re seen as only out for a lark, as apparantly innocent  a boy who has noosed a bee’s neck and takes it out “for a walk.”

Evan S. Connell, Points for a Compass Rose. Bizarre book in free verse. Incredibly erudite, but fascinating.

Hart Crane, The Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose of Hart Crane. “Black Tambourine,” “Chaplinesque,” “Royal Palm.”

e. e. cummings, “in Just—,” “the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls,” “I like my body when it is with your,” “Humanity I love you,” “she being Brand,” “my sweet old etcetera,” “since feeling is first,” “if I have made,mylady,intricate,” “if there are any heavens my mother will, all by herself, have,” “my father moved through dooms of love,” “all ignorance toboggans into know,” “when serpents bargain for the right to squirm.”  I dislike, however, cummings’ sloppily Romantic and sentimental side . . . sometimes too simplistic a thinker.  A gingerbread man sucking on a lollypop, or, better, his shriveled cherry heart.  I do like his rebel side, however.

Peter Davison, The Poems of Peter Davison.  A poet whose work should be more widely known and appreciated.  Try “Literary Portraits” as your introduction to this humane, passionate and compassionate poet.  A Voice in the Mountain is my own personal favorite of his many books.  His non-fiction, especially The Fading Smile:  Poets in Boston, from Robert Frost to Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath, 1955-1960, enriches our understanding of the poetry of our times.

Emily Dickinson. The Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. by Johnson. Most of these poems are superb. Also see Selected Letters.  Be warned:  there are many terrible editions of the poems available.  The trouble is that many editors have mucked about with Dickinson’s poetry, “improving it.”  Some adding bogus titles, some dropping lines, many altering punctuation and uncapitalizing Caps.  To complicate matters, sometimes Dickinson herself had alternative versions she sent in letters to friends, etc. etc.  Formerly, the definitive edition was Thomas H. Johnson’s, in particular the variorum edition (contains all variants, even the specious ones).  I’m told that the new ed. by W. Franklin is more authoritative but I haven’t seen it.  His variorum has the virtue of being more readily available than Johnson’s and has a few more poems.  List price on Amazon:  $130.00.  Run out now and get it!  For those on more of a shoe-string budget, a standard reading paperback edition by Franklin is available for $16.95 list.  Cheapskates!

John Donne, The Complete Poetry, ed. by J. Shawcross. 17th-century metaphysical poet. “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward,” “Nocturnall Upon S. Lucies Day, Being the Shortest Day,” “The Apparition,” “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” “The Good-Morrow,” “Song,” “Twicknam Garden,” “The Extasie,” “The Funerall,” “Hymne to God My Body, in My Sicknesse” And so on. Fantastic metaphors.

T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays. Try “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “Portrait of a Lady,” “Preludes,” “La Figlia che Piange,” and “The Waste Land.”

Odysseus Elytis, The Little Mariner, trans. by Olga Broumas. Contemporary Greek poet.

Carolyn Forchè, Gathering the Tribes, The Country Between Us.

Robert Frost, “Birches,” “The Witch of Coos,” “Fire and Ice,” “Two Look at Two,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “The Road Not Taken.”

Deborah Garrison, A Working Girl Can’t Win:  And Other Poems.  Garrison hides away her art.  This is a brilliant debut.  I’m becoming more and more convinced that nobody—most reviewers, critics, editors, even high-ranking poets—knows how to properly read poetry.  This is a very sobering realization, with depressing implications.  Her poems have garnered acclaim, but without insight into their true nature.  It’s as if a violinst got applause for only how fast his fingers could move . . .

Frank Gaspar, The Holyoke, Mass for the Grace of a Happy Death, A Field Guide to the Heavens. Why has this man not won a Pulitzer for poetry already?  If you think you’re reading the best contemporary poets and you’re not reading Frank Gaspar, you’re not.

Donald Hall, The Museum of Clear Ideas, Without.  To start with.  Another on my short list for the National Book Award (for which he’s been nominated three times), the Pulitzer and Nobel.  Yes, yes, he’s won the Lamont Poetry Prize, the Edna St Vincent Millay Award, the Sarah Josepha Hale Award,   the Lenore Marshall Award (1987), the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry (1988), the NBCC Award (1989), the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in poetry (1989), and the Frost Medal (1990).  But that’s not nearly enough.

Robert Hass, Human Wishes (sample his other books as well).  Absolutely excellent poet.  Referred to by Peter Davison as the “man who knows everything.”  And he does.

Seamus Heany, Poems: 1965-1975. The book North in this collection is my favorite: on the peat-bog mummies.

Anthony Hecht, Flight Among the Tombs.  A wry volume features Death as an inquisitor, an Oxford don, a Mexican revolutionary, a poet, and a whore, among other personalities. Start with this volume, then expore the more serious (and difficult) poetry in Collected Earlier Poems and Collected Later Poems.

George Herbert, The Temple. 17th-century religious poet. Try “The Altar,” “Redemption,” “Easter,” “Easter-Wings,” “Prayer,” “The Windows,” “Vertue,” “Man,” “Life,” “The Collar,” “The Pulley,” and “Love.”

Edward Hirsch, On Love.  See in particular the title poem. 

Robinson Jeffers, Rock & Hawk (shorter poems selected by Robert Hass)

John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to Melancholy,” “To Autumn,” “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” “When I Have Fears.” Complete edition edited by Jack Stillinger. Good paperback annotated edition by Douglas Bush: Selected Poems and Letters.

Galway Kinnell, When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone (my favorite, though Book of Nightmares is very highly esteemed).

Philip Larkin, Collected Poems, edited by Anthony Thwaite.  This edition preserves all the poems Larkin wished to keep.  For a poet whose major subject was death, he was a very funny man.  His letters are astringent, honest, penetrating, stupid, opinionated, witty—but always artciulate and always worth reading.  Sample some poems:  “Winter,” “Reasons for Attendance,” “Next, Please,” “Wants,” “Maiden Name,” “Born Yesterday,” “Whatever Happened?,” “No Road,” “Wires,” “Church Going,” “Myxomatosis,” “Toads,” “Poetry of Departures,” “Triple Time,” “Spring,” “Deceptions,” “Love Songs in Age,” “Toads Revisited,” “Ambulances,” “Sunny Prestatyn,” “First Sight,” “Dockery and Son,” “Ignorance,” (I’m sorry I started typing these, there’s just so many), “An Arundel Tomb,” “The Trees,” “High Windows,” “The Old Fools” (yes!), “This Be The Verse,” “Annus Mirabilis,” “Vers de Société,” “Money,” “A Stone Church Damaged by a Bomb,” and if nothing else, “Aubade.”

D. H. Lawrence, “Tortoise Gallantry,” “The Elephant is Slow to Mate—” As I noted somewhere else, Galway Kinnell loves his nature and animal poems.

Philip Levine, What Work Is, The Simple Truth (One of our best.  Anything of his is worth reading—I’m not about to make the same mistake of listing all I like, as I did with Larkin; I’d wear my fingerprints off.)

Robert Lowell, “To Delmore Schwartz”  And many others, of course.  Strangely, I remain rather cold to some of his longer, more famous poems.  I need to do more exploration now that the Collected Poems: Edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter is out.  Every few years, I confront my own expectations and evaluations and experiment to see if they have changed.  (Maybe someday I’ll even like Henry James.  “Once you've put one of his [Henry James] books down, you simply can't pick it up again.” —Mark Twain)

J. D. McClatchy, The Rest of the Way.  Anything he’s written.  His poems are carefully wrought.  Although he tends to wave off applause at readings, his basso profundo recitals are not to be missed.  Emotional asides on an English Horn.  Deep and intellectually satisfying as well.  But you have to give your full attention.  Othersize, as with proper appreciation of Haydn, you’ll miss the subtleties.  And the wit as well. 

Osip Mandelstam, Osip Mandelstam: Selected Poems.  Chosen and translated by James Greene.  A fine Russian poet who died in exile in Siberia.

Andrew Marvell, Andrew Marvell: Selected Poetry, ed. Frank Kermode. Or George de F. Lord’s Andrew Marvell: Complete Poetry. 17th-century poet. “To His Coy Mistress” “The Garden.” A good anthology of 17th century poetry is White’s Seventeenth-Century Verse and Prose: Volume One: 1600-1660. Original spelling preserved.

James Merrill, Late Settings—“Think Tank,” “Revivals of Tristan.” Complete Poems.  I’m more captivated by his short works.  Sometimes, Merrill’s work seems like perfect little ice sculptures to me.  In the new Collected Poems, I believe, there’s an anecdote of someone reading a new manuscript poem of Merrill’s and complaining, “But there’s no emotion in it!”  Merrill slapped his forehead, went upstairs, and revised it in. 

Czeslaw Milosz, The Collected Poems.  A poet of survival and joy. 

John Milton, “L’Allegro and Il Penseroso,” “Comus,” “Samson Agonistes,” Paradise Lost.

Ed Ochester, Allegheny, Changing the Name to Ochester.  Anything of his, really.  Searingly funny and honest poet.  A highly respected editor, but as a poet shamefully neglected.  I have no notion why he’s not recognized as one of our very best.

Sharon Olds, Anything. I like most of her work. Contemporary confessional poet, but a very private person.  One quote from her, live, that has had quite an effect on me:  “We poets write what other people want to say, but are afraid to say.”  Not a bad start for any poem . . . or poet for that matter.

Frank O’Hara, “Poem: The eager note on my door . . .” A very inventive, unusual modern poet. New York school.  Died when he was run over by the only jeep on a island.  He even had to insist on an original death.

Mary Oliver, anything. Very consistent contemporary nature poet. Lyric poetry with mystic harmonics.

Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems. “Blue Moles,” “Blue Notes from a Reedy Pond,” “Mushrooms,” “Candles,” “Morning Song,” “Tulips,” “Insomniac,” “Blackberrying,” “The Surgeon at 2 A.M.,” “Mirror,” “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” “Crossing the Water,” “Poppies in July,” “Daddy,” “Nick and the Candlestick,” “Mary’s Song,” “Winter Trees,” “Sheep in Fog,” “The Munich Mannequins” “Child,” “Words,” “Balloons,” many others.

Edgar Allan Poe, The Unabridged Edgar Allan Poe. Poems: “Alone,” and “Sonnet: To Science,” “The Bells,” “The Raven.” Stories: “Ligeia,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontaillado,” “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Poe should be read primarily as a symbolist and psychological writer rather than as a writer of the grotesque.

Donald Revell, New Dark Ages, Erasures, Beautiful Shirt, etc.  Difficult but damn good.  One of the best poets of the last quarter century.  Truly innovative.  His poems have the effect on me of not having a key signature. 

Kenneth Rexroth, his translations of Chinese and Japanese poetry especially.  His Complete is available now in paperback.

Arthur Rimbaud, Illuminations. Translated by Louise Varese. Pure music.

Edwin Arlington Robinson, “Eros Turannos,” “Luke Havergal,” “Mr. Flood’s Party,” “The Sheaves.”

The world is not a prison house but a kind of spiritual kindergarten where millions of bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks. 

Percy Shelley, “When the Lamp is Shattered,” “The Question,” many others.

Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems. One of my favorite poets. Most of the poems are good, but often very complex. Keep your Oxford English Dictionary at hand; often obscure secondary meanings of words are activated. Main theme: relationship of imagination and reality, and the final fluctuating merging into the One of a Supreme Fiction. (“Domination of Black,” “The Metaphysician,” “Banal Sojourn,” “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” “Tea at the Plaza of Hoon,” “Disillusionment of Ten O’clock,” “Sunday Morning,” “Six Significant Landscapes,” “Bantams in Pine-woods,” “Anecdote of the Jar,” “The Bird with the Coopery, Keen Claws,” “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” “The Death of a Soldier,” “The Idea of Order at Key West,” “Mozart, 1935,” “Botanist on Alp (No. 2),” “A Fading of the Sun,” “Gray Stones and Gray Pigeons,” “A Postcard from the Volcano,” “The Man on the Dump,” “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts,” “Connoisseur of Chaos,” “Asides on the Oboe,” “No Possum, No Sop, No Taters,” “Wild Ducks, People and Distances,” “Credences of Summer,” “The Plain Sense of Things,” “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” “Not ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself.”

—Frank Kermode, Wallace Stevens. Probably still the best short introduction to the work of this complex poet.

—Helen Hennessy Vendler, On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens’ Longer Poems

Gerald Stern, This Time: New and Selected Poems (consistently good, odd, contemporary poet)

Mark Strand, The Continuous Life, Dark Harbor, Blizzard of One.  Fantastic imagination.  Consistantly surprising and interesting.  One of our most important living poets.

Dylan Thomas, Collected Poems. (“The Force that Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower,” “Out of the Sighs,” “If my Head Hurt a Hair’s Foot,” “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London,” “Poet in October,” “The Hunchback in the Park,” “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night,” “In My Craft or Sullen Art,” “Fern Hill,” “Poem on His Birthday.”

William Carlos Williams, Collected Poems (New Directions). Very consistent.

James Wright, Above the River:  The Complete Poems.  Absolutely masterful. 

William Butler Yeats, The Poems of W. B. Yeats. Paperback: Selected Poems and Two Plays of William Butler Yeats, edited, introduction by M. L. Rosenthal. Superb annotations. Yeats is one of our best. Very consistent, musical in his language. Sample at least: “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time,” “Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea,” “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” “The Valley of the Black Pig,” “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,” “Adam’s Curse,” “No Second Troy,” “Against Unworthy Praise,” “The Fascination of What’s Difficult,” “A Drinking Song,” “To a Poet, Who Would Have Me Praise Certain Bad Poets, Imitators of His and Mine,” “These are the Clouds,” “Brown Penny,” “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing,” “Paudeen,” “The Three Hermits,” “To a Child Dancing in the Wind,” “The Cold Heaven,” “The Magi,” “A Coat,” “The Wild Swans at Coole,” “The Collar-Bone of a Hare,” “The Scholars,” “Lines Written in Dejection,” “A Thought from Propertius,” “The Second Coming,” “Sailing to Byzantium,” “Leda and the Swan,” “Among School Children,” “Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931,” “Byzantium,” “Vacillation,” “Three Things,” “The Gyres,” “Lapis Lazuli,” “The Wild Old Wicked Man,” “The Statues,” “News for the Delphic Oracle,” “Long-Legged Fly,” “John Kinsella’s Lament for Mrs. Mary Moore,” “Why Should not Old Men be Mad?,” “The Statesman’s Holiday,” “Crazy Jane on the Mountain,” “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” “Under Ben Bulben.”
 

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PHILOSOPHY

William Gass, On Being Blue. What does it mean? What does it matter? Philosophy and metaphors from one of our best poetic prose stylists.

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Oxford Philosophical Texts), A Treatise of Human Nature (Oxford Philosophical Texts), Dialogues and Natural History of Religion (Oxford World’s Classics).  A thoroughly logical, thoroughly skeptical philosopher, with a very engaging sense of humor and humility.  He complained that his first book “fell still born from the press” and that he had looked forward to friendly and robust conversations with other philosophers, which was not to be, but he quickly reacquired his equanimity.  One of our most important—and likable!—logicians.  His whole opus has a consistency I find in no other philosopher.

Albert Levi, Philosophy and the Modern World. Hideously complex, but worth it. Levi certainly knows his literature . . .

Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann.

Plato.  Anything where Socrates is Socrates and not Plato.  The account of Socrates’ death is particularly compelling.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, Unpopular Essays, Why I Am Not a Christian, Portraits from Memory. Interesting, touching portrait of his brief friendship with D. H. Lawrence in the last.  He’s not been treated entirely benignly or fairly by contemporary biographers.  Reading his two volumes of letters is probably the best and closest and most convivial portrait of the man we may ever get.  His work on social and emotional issues generally has been less interesting and vital for me.

Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West.

PSYCHOLOGY

Wendall Johnson, People in Quandaries. (Psychology from the viewpoint of a General Semanticist.)

Carl G. Jung, Man and His Symbols, Psychological Types, The Viking Portable Library Jung, ed. by Joseph Campbell. Psychology. Quite astute on the human spirit and temperament—see his “Theory of the Types” in the Campbell volume.

Susan K. Perry, Writing in Flow:  Keys to Enhanced Creativity.  Not just a presentation of theory, but a definitive practical guide to a state of mind that’s essential for most creators . . . and I’m not just saying this because I’ve slept with the author.

SCIENCE

Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses.  Particularly the last section on inspiration and creativity, “Courting the Muse,” which originally appeared in The New York Times Book Review as “O muse! you do make things difficult!”

Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers.

J. Bronowski, The Ascent of Man, The Identity of Man. Passionate social, scientific and artistic philosophy.

Antonio R. Damasio, Descarte’s Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain

Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design.  You’ll never think about the argument from design the same way.  Almost anything he writes is captivating.  The Selfish Gene is one of the most seminal and influential books of the 20th century.  In Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder, he issues a fervent and heartfelt call for poets to restore more of the awe into science and reverse current clichéd prejudices.  In many of his lectures, Joseph Campbell makes the point that one of the main functions of myth is to cultivate a sense of awe for our universe.  And since the cosmological function of myth has now been taken over, legitimately by science . . .

Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin. (Biography.)

Richard Feynman, The Character of Physical Law, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!,” “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”

Martin Gardner, The Ambidextrous Universe: Mirror Asymmetry and Time-Reversed Worlds. Physics. Fascinating.

Stephen Jay Gould – Anything.

Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.  Who we are through our neurobiology. 

Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden. Fanciful scientific speculations. Very entertaining.  Sometimes more compelling for their imaginative rather than scientific aspects.  Most of Sagan is worth reading.  He was a formidable opponent of cranks and cultists.

Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell, etc. Poetic essays on biology, science and beyond by a very clear, likable writer.  Two of my favorite essays on death, both surprisingly comforting, are “Death in the Open” from The Lives of a Cell and “On Natural Death” from The Medusa and the Snail.

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BOOKS BY ATHEISTS

    (with cameos by Agnostics)

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  But please don't read the last of the series, Mostly Harmless.  Trust me.

"'I refuse to prove that I exist' says God, 'for proof denies faith, and without faith, I am nothing.'  'Oh,' says man, 'but the Babel Fish is a dead give-away, isn't it?  It proves You exist, and so therefore You don't.  Q.E.D.'  'Oh, I hadn't thought of that,' says God, who promptly vanishes in a puff of logic. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

"Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?"

"Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, "This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!" This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for."

“Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

 "If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat. Life is a level of complexity that almost lies outside our vision; it is so far beyond anything we have any means of understanding that we just think of it as a different class of object, a different class of matter; 'life', something that had a mysterious essence about it, was god given and that's the only explanation we had. The bombshell comes in 1859 when Darwin publishes 'On the Origin of Species'. It takes a long time before we really get to grips with this and begin to understand it, because not only does it seem incredible and thoroughly demeaning to us, but it's yet another shock to our system to discover that not only are we not the centre of the Universe and we're not made of anything, but we started out as some kind of slime and got to where we are via being a monkey. It just doesn't read well."

 "Sometime around my early thirties I stumbled upon evolutionary biology, particularly in the form of Richard Dawkins's books The Selfish Gene and then The Blind Watchmaker, and suddenly (on, I think the second reading of The Selfish Gene) it all fell into place. It was a concept of such stunning simplicity, but it gave rise, naturally, to all of the infinite and baffling complexity of life. The awe it inspired in me made the awe that people talk about in respect of religious experience seem, frankly, silly beside it. I'd take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day."  —The Salmon of Doubt

Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim.  One of the funniest books I’ve ever read. 

"He was of the faith chiefly in the sense that the church he currently did not attend was Catholic."

"One of the great benefits of organized religion is that you can be forgiven your sins, which must be a wonderful thing. I mean, I carry my sins around with me, there's nobody there to forgive them."

Yevgeny Yevtushenko asked him if he were an atheist.  Amis replied, "Well yes, but it's more that I hate him."

Death has this much to be said for it:
You don't have to get out of bed for it.
Wherever you happen to be
They bring it to you—free.

James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room. Novel dealing with homosexuality. Black author.  Baldwin had a fluent, poetic style.

"Christianity has operated with an unmitigated arrogance and cruelty — necessarily, since a religion ordinarily imposes on those who have discovered the true faith the spiritual duty of liberating the infidels."

"If the concept of God has any validity or use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him."

"Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have."

Dan Barker, Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists

"Truth does not demand belief. Scientists do not join hands every Sunday, singing, 'Yes, gravity is real! I will have faith! I will be strong! I believe in my heart that what goes up, up, up must come down, down, down. Amen!' If they did, we would think they were pretty insecure about it."

Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot. Wonderful, witty book.  A must read.  Nothing to Be Afraid of.  Death from the perspective of an atheist.

"I don't believe in God, but I miss him."

"I regard myself as a rationalist, but my brother — who's spent his life teaching ancient philosophy — is a super-rationalist and makes me seem sloppy and barely reasonable, and so part of the book is a friendly fraternal argument with my brother. He says, "I'd hate to have to spend eternity in the presence of saints and martyrs," and I say, "Well, actually, saints weren't just pious, boring fellows. They were often at the cutting edge of social change and they had often very interesting deaths, as well. And in medieval times they're probably some of the most intelligent, sophisticated people on the earth. After all, Dom Pérignon — after whom the champagne is named — was a monk." I don't see why you should think that heaven must be infinitely boring."

"Pride makes us long for a solution to things, a solution, a purpose, a final cause; but the better telescopes become, the more stars appear."

Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godet, Endgame, Krapp's Last Tape.

"The bastard! He doesn't exist!"

Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths. Complex short stories by an Argentine writer. A Universal History of Infamy. [Out-of-print] Novel. Borges: A Reader [Out-of-print] edited by Emir Monegal and Alastair Reid is a good general anthology. 

"Being an agnostic means all things are possible, even God, even the Holy Trinity. This world is so strange that anything may happen, or may not happen. Being an agnostic makes me live in a larger, a more fantastic kind of world, almost uncanny. It makes me more tolerant."
 
Tim Callahan, Secret Origins of the Bible.  A remarkable book.  Comprehensive in debunking Biblical nonsense.

Joseph Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces. The Masks of God (four volume set): Primitive Mythology, Oriental Mythology, Occidental Mythology, Creative Mythology. The Power of Myth (interviews). Flight of the Wild Gander. [Out-of-print] Comparative mythology. All his works are good.

"God is a metaphor for that which transcends all levels of intellectual thought. It's as simple as that."

"Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble."

"Myth is what we call other people's religion."

"Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy."

"Awe is what moves us forward."

"Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer."

George Carlin, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?

"Religion has actually convinced people that there's an invisible man—living in the sky—who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever 'til the end of time!...But He loves you."

"I would never want to be the member of a group whose symbol was a guy nailed to two pieces of wood."

Sean Carroll, Spacetime and Geometry: An Introduction to General Relativity, The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World.  A wonderful lecturer; if you get a chance to see him, do.

"Scientifically speaking, the existence of God is an untenable hypothesis. It’s not well-defined, it’s completely unnecessary to fit the data, and it adds unhelpful layers of complexity without any corresponding increase in understanding. Again, this is not an a priori result; the God hypothesis could have fit the data better than the alternatives, and indeed there are still respected religious people who argue that it does. Those people are just wrong, in precisely analogous ways to how people who cling to the Steady State theory are wrong. Fifty years ago, the Steady State model was a reasonable hypothesis; likewise, a couple of millennia ago God was a reasonable hypothesis. But our understanding (and our data) has improved greatly since then, and these are no longer viable models. The same kind of reasoning would hold for belief in miracles, various creation stories, and so on."

Anton Chekov, The Cherry Orchard, The Sea-Gulls, "The Lady with the Dog."  Nabokov thought this last short story "one of the greatest short stories ever written."

"Do you see that tree? It is dead but it still sways in the wind with the others. I think it would be like that with me. That if I died I would still be part of life in one way or another."

"This life of ours...human life is like a flower gloriously blooming in a meadow: along comes a goat, eats it up---no more flower."

"I still lack a political, religious, and philosophical world view. I change it every month, so I'll have to limit myself to the description of how my heroes love, marry, give birth, die, and how they speak."

Billy Collins, Questions About Angels, The Art of Drowning, Picnic, Lightning, Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes, Sailing Alone Around the Room, Nine Horses, Ballistics and more.  I don't know for sure he's an atheist.  I'll ask him.

 "Well I’m the kind of recovering Catholic.  I went to Catholic school from the 1st grade right through college – the full metal jacket of Catholic education.  When I got to graduate school, it was the first time I’d been in a classroom with a female since the 8th grade.  So I’m unsure of the effect of that on me. So I have all the imagery of Catholicism.  It’s still very vivid and vibrant. 

"And the faith is something else.  It’s very difficult in a way to maintain a connection to a church that is so full of flaws and hierarchically-structured church.  Martin Sheen, I think, summed it up best when he said, 'I don’t believe in God, but I believe that Mary was His mother.'  In other words, you can lose contact with the theology, but you can never lose contact with the iconography, the imagery and the stories."

(See his poem "Catholicism" in his latest book.)

Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim.

Robert Coover, Pricksongs and Other Descants [Out-of-print] (short stories as adult fairy tales), The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (Novel: Waugh should be read as symbolizing God, the game, Life. Pun on “J-Waugh.”) A Night at the Movies has only two stories I like—but they are incredible: “Shootout at Gentry’s Junction” which is built out of ethnic clichés and the experimental “After Lazarus.”

Italo Calvino, Mr. Palomar. Point-of-view control here is phenomenal. Seriously humorous.  In two autobiographical essays published in 1962 and 1970, Calvino described himself as "atheist" and his outlook as "non-religious."

Albert Camus, The Plague, The Stranger, “The Artist at Work” from the collection Exile and the Kingdom. French, humane, existential writer and philosopher.

I shall not, as far as I am concerned, try to pass myself off as a Christian in your presence. I share with you the same revulsion from evil. But I do not share your hope, and I continue to struggle against this universe in which children suffer and die.

I do not want to found anything on the incomprehensible. I want to know whether I can live with what I know and with that alone

Since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn't it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him, and struggle with all our might against death without raising our eyes towards the heaven where He sits in silence?

Jim Crace, Being Dead.

"Crace professes himself to be 'an atheist, impatient with the simple-mindedness of orthodox religion, its lack of imagination, its bafflegab.' So, in writing Quarantine, he intended 'to inflict some bruises on religious dogma,' and as a result, 'Quarantine with Science as its sword would kill Christ after only thirty days in the wilderness. There’d be no Ministry or Crucifixion. The novel would erase two thousand years of Christianity. This would be my party-pooper for the Millennium.'"

"There is no remedy for death--or birth--except to hug the spaces in between. Live loud. Live wide. Live tall."

Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse:  How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

Antonio R. Damasio, Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain

Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design.  You’ll never think about the argument from design the same way.  Almost anything he writes is captivating.  The Selfish Gene is one of the most seminal and influential books of the 20th century.  In Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder, he issues a fervent and heartfelt call for poets to restore more of the awe into science and reverse current clichéd prejudices.  In many of his lectures, Joseph Campbell makes the point that one of the main functions of myth is to cultivate a sense of awe for our universe.  And since the cosmological function of myth has now been taken over, legitimately by science . . .

"The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."The God Delusion

“There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point… The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it.”

Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle.  A very lucid and engaging writer.  I haven't read his other works yet, but plan to.

"What a book a devil's chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature!"

"With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.– I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I [should] wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.— Let each man hope & believe what he can."

Daniel Dennett, The Mind's Eye, Consciousness Explained, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Breaking the Spell, Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking.  My favorite contemporary philosopher.

"Cults and prophets proclaiming the imminent end of the world have been with us for several millennia, and it has been another sour sort of fun to ridicule them the morning after, when they discover that their calculations were a little off. But, just as with Marxists, there are some among them who are working hard to 'hasten the inevitable,' not merely anticipating the End Days with joy in their hearts, but taking political action to bring about the conditions they think are the prerequisites for that occasion." Breaking the Spell

Bart D. Ehrman, God's Problem.  Extremely engaging expert on the Bible.  All his other books great as well.  "a happy agnostic"

  • Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, The World as I See It, Out of My Later Years.

    "The family that prays together...is brainwashing their children."

    "I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own—a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his body, although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotisms."

    "The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can change this." 

    "It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropological concept which I cannot take seriously. I also cannot imagine some will or goal outside the human sphere... Science has been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust. A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death."

    M. D. Faber, Becoming God's Children:  Religion’s Infantilizing Process.

    Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough. One-volume edition of social anthropology and myth. 

    Richard Feynman, The Character of Physical Law, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!,” “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”

    Erich Fromm, *

    Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion.

    William Gass, On Being Blue. What does it mean? What does it matter? Philosophy and metaphors from one of our best poetic prose stylists.

    "It is common knowledge - no, if it is common, it isn't knowledge, - it is widely bruited abroad that worshippers exist, by the tens, the thousands, loyal to the law, as patriotic as a standing prick, full of cross-my-heart and-hope-you-die desires, pious folks who do indeed adopt an attitude of worship, light candles, tell beads, go about in a beanie, can you imagine? wear black and bind their breasts, cover their lips, only let their eyes peek upon the world, bind feet, circumcise, scarify, flagellate, fire rifles at the sky, eat only vegetation, only meat, only blood sausage, water their wine, catsup their fries, religiously wipe their ass with soft quilty clouds of pillow feathers,....they, those who have such a bent, they, since they worship by the tens, the thousands, in the morning, in the evening, kneeling east, praying may God kill everyone who ain't like me, doesn't like me, slay those who believe Darwin, read Freud, think Marx, feel de Sade, O Lord, salt their earth, sterilize their cattle, dewomb their wives, dedickie an entire generation of their hairy males, X out their smart-ass sugar mouthed kids..."Were There Anything in the World Worth Worship

    Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  His sardonic asides on Christianity are priceless.  I was reading this on my honeymoon . . .

    "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful."

    Rebecca Goldstein, Betraying Spinoza.  Wonderful.  She blurbed Susan's book.  What a coup!

    Stephen Jay Gouldanything. A fine stylist, who open challenges tradition opinion. Don’t get too caught up with Punctuated Equilibrium, however—many of his colleagues dismiss it.  Richard Dawkin is not fond of Gould's science, to say the least.

    Luis Grandados, Damned Good Company: Twenty Rebels Who Bucked the God Experts

    Alan Guth, The Inflationary Universe.

    Sam Harris, The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation,

    "Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, 'atheist' is a term that should not ever exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a 'non astrologer' or a 'non-alchemist'. We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs. An atheist is simply a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (87 percent of the population) claiming to 'never doubt the existence of God' should be obliged to present evidence for his existence-and, indeed, for his BENEVOLENCE, given the relentless destruction of innocent human beings we witness in the world each day." —Letter to a Christian Nation

    August Bernharde Hasler, How the Pope Became Infallible:  Pius IX and the Politics of Persuasion

    Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, The Grand Design.

    When people ask me if a god created the universe, I tell them that the question itself makes no sense. Time didn’t exist before the big bang, so there is no time for god to make the universe in. It’s like asking directions to the edge of the earth; The Earth is a sphere; it doesn’t have an edge; so looking for it is a futile exercise. We are each free to believe what we want, and it’s my view that the simplest explanation is; there is no god. No one created our universe, and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realization; There is probably no heaven, and no afterlife either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that I am extremely grateful.

    "'I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first.
    ‘I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail.
    ‘There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.’"

    Seamus Heany, Poems: 1965-1975. The book North in this collection is my favorite: on the peat-bog mummies.

    Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man and the Sea, A Farewell to Arms, The Complete Short Stories.

                —Kenneth S. Lynn, Hemingway (biography)

    "All thinking men are atheists."

    Heraclitus, Heraclitus by Philip Ellis Wheelwright (best presentation of the fragments)

    "This cosmos was not made by gods or men, but always was, and is, and ever shall be ever-living fire."

    Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great, The Portable Atheist, Mortality.

    "The man who prays is the one who thinks that god has arranged matters all wrong, but who also thinks that he can instruct god how to put them right. Half–buried in the contradiction is the distressing idea that nobody is in charge, or nobody with any moral authority. The call to prayer is self–cancelling. Those of us who don’t take part in it will justify our abstention on the grounds that we do not need, or care, to undergo the futile process of continuous reinforcement. Either our convictions are enough in themselves or they are not: At any rate they do require standing in a crowd and uttering constant and uniform incantations."

    "What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence."

    "Faith is the surrender of the mind; it’s the surrender of reason, it’s the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other mammals. It’s our need to believe, and to surrender our skepticism and our reason, our yearning to discard that and put all our trust or faith in someone or something, that is the sinister thing to me. Of all the supposed virtues, faith must be the most overrated."

    "Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody—not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms—had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion."

    "The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more."

    Julian Huxley, OK, I admit it; I included this atheist just for the marvelous quote below:

    "I recall the story of the philosopher and the theologian. The two were engaged in disputation and the theologian used the old quip about a philosopher resembling a blind man, in a dark room, looking for a black cat—which wasn't there. 'That may be,' said the philosopher: 'but a theologian would have found it.'"
    The Creed of a Scientific Humanist

    David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Oxford Philosophical Texts), A Treatise of Human Nature (Oxford Philosophical Texts), Dialogues and Natural History of Religion (Oxford World’s Classics).  A thoroughly logical, thoroughly skeptical philosopher, with a very engaging sense of humor and humility.  He complained that his first book “fell still born from the press” and that he had looked forward to friendly and robust conversations with other philosophers, which was not to be, but he quickly reacquired his equanimity.  One of our most important—and likable!—logicians.  His whole opus has a consistency I find in no other philosopher.

    "The BRAHMINS assert, that the world arose from an infinite spider, who spun this whole complicated mass from his bowels, and annihilates afterwards the whole or any part of it, by absorbing it again, and resolving it into his own essence. Here is a species of cosmogony, which appears to us ridiculous; because a spider is a little contemptible animal, whose operations we are never likely to take for a model of the whole universe. But still here is a new species of analogy, even in our globe. And were there a planet wholly inhabited by spiders, (which is very possible,) this inference would there appear as natural and irrefragable as that which in our planet ascribes the origin of all things to design and intelligence . . . Why an orderly system may not be spun from the belly as well as from the brain, it will be difficult for him to give a satisfactory reason."

    James Joyce, Dubliners (short stories), Ulysses.

                 —Anthony Burgess, Re Joyce

    "There is no heresy or no philosophy which is so abhorrent to the church as a human being."

    “Stephen jerked his thumb towards the window, saying:
    — That is God.
    Hooray! Ay! Whrrwhee!
    — What? Mr Deasy asked.
    — A shout in the street, Stephen answered, shrugging his shoulders.”

    If anyone thinks that I amn't divine
    He'll get no free drinks when I'm making the wine
    But have to drink water and wish it were plain
    That I make when the wine becomes water again.

    "The Ballad of Joking Jesus"

    "His shadow lay over the rocks as he bent, ending. Why not endless till the farthest star? Darkly they are there behind this light, darkness shining in the brightness, delta of Cassiopeia, worlds. Me sits there with his augur's rod of ash, in borrowed sandals, by day beside a livid sea, unbeheld, in violet nigh walking beneath a reign of uncouth stars. I throw this ended shadow from me, manshape ineluctable, call it back. Endless, would it be mine, form of my form? Who watches me here? Who ever anywhere will read these written words?"

    Franz Kafka, The Trial, Complete Stories, Amerika.

    "In Christianity neither morality nor religion come into contact with reality at any point."

    "The word 'Christianity' is already a misunderstanding - in reality there has been only one Christian, and he died on the Cross."

    "The Christian resolution to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad."

    "There is not enough love and kindness in the world to give any of it away to imaginary beings."

    Jonathan Kirsch, God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism.

    Philip Larkin, Collected Poems, edited by Anthony Thwaite.  This edition preserves all the poems Larkin wished to keep.  For a poet whose major subject was death, he was a very funny man.  His letters are astringent, honest, penetrating, stupid, opinionated, witty—but always articulate and always worth reading.  Sample some poems:  “Winter,” “Reasons for Attendance,” “Next, Please,” “Wants,” “Maiden Name,” “Born Yesterday,” “Whatever Happened?,” “No Road,” “Wires,” “Church Going,” “Myxomatosis,” “Toads,” “Poetry of Departures,” “Triple Time,” “Spring,” “Deceptions,” “Love Songs in Age,” “Toads Revisited,” “Ambulances,” “Sunny Prestatyn,” “First Sight,” “Dockery and Son,” “Ignorance,” (I’m sorry I started typing these, there’s just so many), “An Arundel Tomb,”“The Trees,” “High Windows,” “The Old Fools” (yes!), “This Be The Verse,” “Annus Mirabilis,” “Vers de Société,” “Money,” “A Stone Church Damaged by a Bomb,” and if nothing else, “Aubade.”

    Church Going

     Once I am sure there's nothing going on

    I step inside, letting the door thud shut.

    Another church: matting, seats, and stone,

    And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut

    For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff

    Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;

    And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,

    Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off

    My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

     

    Move forward, run my hand around the font.

    From where I stand, the roof looks almost new -

    Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don't.

    Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few

    Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce

    'Here endeth' much more loudly than I'd meant.

    The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door

    I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,

    Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

     

    Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,

    And always end much at a loss like this,

    Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,

    When churches will fall completely out of use

    What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep

    A few cathedrals chronically on show,

    Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,

    And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.

    Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

     

    Or, after dark, will dubious women come

    To make their children touch a particular stone;

    Pick simples for a cancer; or on some

    Advised night see walking a dead one?

    Power of some sort will go on

    In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;

    But superstition, like belief, must die,

    And what remains when disbelief has gone?

    Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

     

    A shape less recognisable each week,

    A purpose more obscure. I wonder who

    Will be the last, the very last, to seek

    This place for what it was; one of the crew

    That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?

    Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,

    Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff

    Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?

    Or will he be my representative,

     

    Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt

    Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground

    Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt

    So long and equably what since is found

    Only in separation - marriage, and birth,

    And death, and thoughts of these - for which was built

    This special shell? For, though I've no idea

    What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,

    It pleases me to stand in silence here;

     

    A serious house on serious earth it is,

    In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,

    Are recognized, and robed as destinies.

    And that much never can be obsolete,

    Since someone will forever be surprising

    A hunger in himself to be more serious,

    And gravitating with it to this ground,

    Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,

    If only that so many dead lie round.

     Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, If This Is a Man, The Drowned and the Saved, If Not Now, When.

    "There is Auschwitz, and so there cannot be God."

    “She had asked the older women: 'What is that fire?' And they had replied: 'It is we who are burning.'"

    Leon M. Lederman, The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?, Beyond the God Particle, Quantum Physics for Poets.

    "Physics is not religion. If it were, we'd have a much easier time raising money."

    Lucretius (99 BC–55 BC): Roman poet and philosopher.  De Rerum Natura.

    Ian McEwan, Atonement: A Novel, Saturday, Enduring Love, Amsterdam: A Novel, The Child in Time.

    Now, I'm an atheist. I really don't believe for a moment that our moral sense comes from a god.

    "A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn and not easily mended."

    "No one knows anything, really. It's all rented, or borrowed."

    "He never believed in fate or providence, or the future being made by someone in the sky. Instead, at every instant, a trillion trillion possible futures; the pickiness of pure chance and physical laws seemed like freedom from the scheming of a gloomy god."

    "We go on our hands and knees and crawl our way towards the truth."

    John Stuart Mill, The Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill: On Liberty, The Subjection of Women and Utilitarianism: And Other Writings, Autobiography.

    "I will call no being good, who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow-creatures; and if such a being can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, to hell I will go."

    "God is a word to express, not our ideas, but the want of them."

    "On religion in particular, the time appears to me to have come, when it is a duty of all who, being qualified in point of knowledge, have, on mature consideration, satisfied themselves that the current opinions are not only false, but hurtful, to make their dissent known."

    "The nec plus ultra of wickedness is embodied in what is commonly presented to mankind as the creed of Christianity."

    "Christian morality (so called) has all the characters of a reaction; it is, in great part, a protest against Paganism. Its ideal is negative rather than positive; passive rather than action; innocence rather than Nobleness; Abstinence from Evil, rather than energetic Pursuit of Good: in its precepts (as has been well said) 'thou shalt not' predominates unduly over 'thou shalt.'"

    "It is better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied."

    The famous philosopher declared his atheism, and that of his father, in a famous essay published posthumously.

    Arthur Miller, Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1944-1961.

    "The wedding of Christianity or Judaism with nationalism is lethal."

    "[W]e conceive the Devil as a necessary part of a respectable view of cosmology. Ours is a divided empire in which certain ideas and emotions and actions are of God, and their opposites are of Lucifer. It is as impossible for most men to conceive of a morality without sin as of an earth without 'sky'. Since 1692 a great but superficial change has wiped out God's beard and the Devil's horns, but the world is still gripped between two diametrically opposed absolutes. The concept of unity, in which positive and negative are attributes of the same force, in which good and evil are relative, ever-changing, and always joined to the same phenomenon - such a concept is still reserved to the physical sciences and to the few who have grasped the history of ideas."

    Pablo Neruda, The

    A Dog Has Died

    My dog has died.
    I buried him in the garden
    next to a rusted old machine.

    Some day I'll join him right there,
    but now he's gone with his shaggy coat,
    his bad manners and his cold nose,
    and I, the materialist, who never believed
    in any promised heaven in the sky
    for any human being,
    I believe in a heaven I'll never enter.
    Yes, I believe in a heaven for all dogdom
    where my dog waits for my arrival
    waving his fan-like tail in friendship.

    Ai, I'll not speak of sadness here on earth,
    of having lost a companion
    who was never servile.
    His friendship for me, like that of a porcupine
    withholding its authority,
    was the friendship of a star, aloof,
    with no more intimacy than was called for,
    with no exaggerations:
    he never climbed all over my clothes
    filling me full of his hair or his mange,
    he never rubbed up against my knee
    like other dogs obsessed with sex.

    No, my dog used to gaze at me,
    paying me the attention I need,
    the attention required
    to make a vain person like me understand
    that, being a dog, he was wasting time,
    but, with those eyes so much purer than mine,
    he'd keep on gazing at me
    with a look that reserved for me alone
    all his sweet and shaggy life,
    always near me, never troubling me,
    and asking nothing.

    Ai, how many times have I envied his tail
    as we walked together on the shores of the sea
    in the lonely winter of Isla Negra
    where the wintering birds filled the sky
    and my hairy dog was jumping about
    full of the voltage of the sea's movement:
    my wandering dog, sniffing away
    with his golden tail held high,
    face to face with the ocean's spray.

    Joyful, joyful, joyful,
    as only dogs know how to be happy
    with only the autonomy
    of their shameless spirit.

    There are no good-byes for my dog who has died,
    and we don't now and never did lie to each other.

    So now he's gone and I buried him,
    and that's all there is to it.

    George Orwell, 1984, Animal Farm.

    "One cannot really be a Catholic and grown up."

    Susan K. Perry, Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity.  Based on interviews with the top poets and novelists, offers inspiration, motivation, insight into the creative process.  Kylie's Heel (a recent novel, published by Humanist Press).

    "I like picturing souls as adapted parasites interwoven with the dendrites in people's brains, much like the favorable bacteria that live in a vagina. Neither uninvited visitor can be asked to leave without unforeseen results. Douche either of them away and you might fall prey to fungal infection or devil infestation, respectively. Just kidding. Try imagining that somewhere within you, your spiritual subdivision has found a comfortable and cozy niche and keeps itself hidden because it can't operate in bright light."

    Stephen Perry, Questions About God.

    Harold Pinter, Betrayal, The Dumb Waiter, The Homecoming, No Man’s Land. English playwright, a favorite of mine.  

    "The existence for 100 years of a freethought organisation such as the National Secular Society is something to celebrate. However, the fact remains that children are still indoctrinated in schools at public expense, the blasphemy laws are still on the Statute Book, and many humane and rational reforms remain opposed."

    "Be careful how you talk about God. He's the only God we have. If you let him go he won't come back. He won't even look back over his shoulder. And then what will you do?"

    "I ought not to speak about the dead because the dead are all over the place."

    Luigi Pirandello, Six Characters in Search of an Author and Other Plays.

    Every true man, sir, who is a little above the level of the beasts and plants does not live for the sake of living, without knowing how to live; but he lives so as to give a meaning and a value of his own to life.
    Read more at http://www.ranker.com/list/a-list-of-famous-luigi-pirandello-quotes/reference#zxrfP0lrBJY5D0uA.99
    Every true man, sir, who is a little above the level of the beasts and plants does not live for the sake of living, without knowing how to live; but he lives so as to give a meaning and a value of his own to life.
    Read more at http://www.ranker.com/list/a-list-of-famous-luigi-pirandello-quotes/reference#zxrfP0lrBJY5D0uA.99
    Every true man, sir, who is a little above the level of the beasts and plants does not live for the sake of living, without knowing how to live; but he lives so as to give a meaning and a value of his own to life.
    Read more at http://www.ranker.com/list/a-list-of-famous-luigi-pirandello-quotes/reference#zxrfP0lrBJY5D0uA.99
    Every true man, sir, who is a little above the level of the beasts and plants does not live for the sake of living, without knowing how to live; but he lives so as to give a meaning and a value of his own to life.
    Read more at http://www.ranker.com/list/a-list-of-famous-luigi-pirandello-quotes/reference#zxrfP0lrBJY5D0uA.99

    Every true man, sir, who is a little above the level of the beasts and plants does not live for the sake of living, without knowing how to live; but he lives so as to give a meaning and a value of his own to life.

    Katha Pollitt, Antarctic Traveller, The Mind-Body Problem: Poems.  All of her work is wonderfully direct, honest, unpretentious, well-argued, and interesting.  A feminist who writes for The Nation.

    Her poem, "Small Comfort" can be found here:  http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/082.html.  Note the sly twist on small comfort being a comfort of sorts after all.

    Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past (or In Search of Lost Time).  C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin probably best translation.

    "...the highest praise of God consists in the denial of him by the atheist who finds creation so perfect that it can dispense with a creator."

    François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel.  Or maybe a Christian Humanist, in the style of Erasmus. 

    Supposed last words:  "I'm going to seek the great perhaps."

    Edwin Arlington Robinson, “Eros Turannos,” “Luke Havergal,” “Mr. Flood’s Party,” “The Sheaves.”

    "The world is not a prison house but a kind of spiritual kindergarten where millions of bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks." 

    Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, Unpopular Essays, Why I Am Not a Christian, Portraits from Memory. Interesting, touching portrait of his brief friendship with D. H. Lawrence in the last.  He’s not been treated entirely benignly or fairly by contemporary biographers.  Reading his two volumes of letters is probably the best and closest and most convivial portrait of the man we may ever get.  His work on social and emotional issues generally has been less interesting and vital for me.

    "As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God. On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think that I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because, when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods."

    "If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time."

    Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.  Who we are through our neurobiology. 

    "During the war the congregation was largely broken up […] and it was never really reconstituted after the war. […] Before the war my parents (I, too) had known almost every shop and shopkeeper in Cricklewood […] and I would see them all in their places in shul. But all this was shattered with the impact of the war, and then with the rapid postwar social changes in our corner of London. I myself, traumatized at Braefield, had lost touch with, lost interest in, the religion of my childhood. I regret that I was to lose it as early and as abruptly as I did, and this feeling of sadness or nostalgia was strangely admixed with a raging atheism, a sort of fury with God for not existing, not taking care, not preventing the war, but allowing it, and all its horrors, to occur."

    "As I write, in New York in mid-December, the city is full of Christmas trees and menorahs. I would be inclined to say, as an old Jewish atheist, that these things mean nothing to me, but Hannukah songs are evoked in my mind whenever an image of a menorah impinges on my retina, even when I am not consciously aware of it."

    "I cannot conceive of any spirit sort of which is above nature. The term supernatural is unintelligible to me. But on the other hand, nature itself seems so wonderful that I don't feel a hunger or any concept beyond it."

    "My religion is nature. That’s what arouses those feelings of wonder and mysticism and gratitude in me."

    Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden. Fanciful scientific speculations. Very entertaining.  Sometimes more compelling for their imaginative rather than scientific aspects.  Most of Sagan is worth reading.  He was a formidable opponent of cranks, cultists and fundamentalists.

    "It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring."

    "God for you is where you sweep away all the mysteries of the world, all the challenges to our intelligence. You simply turn your mind off and say God did it."

    José Saramago, The Collected Novels of Jose Saramago.

    “Your questions are false if you already know the answer.”

    “Whether we like it or not, the one justification for the existence of all religions is death, they need death as much as we need bread to eat.”

    "I'm not able to fear death... We will all turn skeletons and everything shall end. The skeleton becomes, therefore, the most radical form of nudity."

    "Deep down, the problem is not a God that does not exist, but the religion that proclaims Him. I denounce religions, all religions, as harmful to Humankind. These are harsh words, but one must say them."

    "God, the devil, good, evil, it's all in our heads, not in Heaven or Hell, which we also invented. We do not realize that, having invented God, we immediately became His slaves."

    "Remembering the river of blood and suffering that would flow from his side and flood the entire earth, [Jesus] called out to the open sky where God could be seen smiling, Men, forgive Him, for He knows not what He has done."

    Dan Savage, American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics.

    “...the moment you begin to believe you're worthy of the good things in your life - God gets all Old Testament on your ass and does something vicious, something insane, something totally uncalled for. He gives you lupus or He allows Satan to slaughter your children and cattle or He delivers Ohio to George W. Bush.”

    "Savage also said how whenever he has people come up to him and tell him that gay people cannot biologically produce a child, he just tells them 'Anything is possible for God,' and 'I’m gonna keep inseminating my husband and keep my fingers crossed.'

    “We can learn to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about gay people, the same way we have learned to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about shellfish, about slavery, about dinner, about farming, about menstruation, about virginity, about masturbation. We ignore bullshit in the Bible about all sorts of things.”

    Erwin Schrödinger, What Is Life?

    "I shall quite briefly mention here the notorious atheism of science. The theists reproach it for this again and again. Unjustly. A personal God can not be encountered in a world picture that becomes accessible only at the price that everything personal is excluded from it.

    "We know that whenever God is experienced, it is an experience exactly as real as a direct sense impression, as real as one’s own personality. As such He must be missing from the space-time picture. ‘I do not meet with God in space and time’, so says the honest scientific thinker, and for that reason he is reproached by those in whose catechism it is nevertheless stated: ‘God is Spirit’."

    Jean Paul Sartre, “The Wall” (existential short story)

    "Existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position. Its intention is not in the least that of plunging men into despair. And if by despair one means as the Christians do – any attitude of unbelief, the despair of the existentialists is something different. Existentialism is not atheist in the sense that it would exhaust itself in demonstrations of the non-existence of God. It declares, rather, that even if God existed that would make no difference from its point of view. Not that we believe God does exist, but we think that the real problem is not that of His existence; what man needs is to find himself again and to understand that nothing can save him from himself, not even a valid proof of the existence of God. In this sense existentialism is optimistic. It is a doctrine of action, and it is only by self-deception, by confining their own despair with ours that Christians can describe us as without hope."

    Percy Shelley, “When the Lamp is Shattered,” “The Question,” many others.

    When the Lamp Is Shattered

    When the lamp is shattered
    The light in the dust lies dead -
    When the cloud is scattered,
    The rainbow's glory is shed.
    When the lute is broken,
    Sweet tones are remembered not;
    When the lips have spoken,
    Loved accents are soon forgot.

    As music and splendour
    Survive not the lamp and the lute,
    The heart's echoes render
    No song when the spirit is mute -
    No song but sad dirges,
    Like the wind through a ruined cell,
    Or the mournful surges
    That ring the dead seaman's knell.

    When hearts have once mingled,
    Love first leaves the well-built nest;
    The weak one is singled
    To endure what it once possessed.
    O Love! who bewailest
    The frailty of all things here,
    Why choose you the frailest
    For your cradle, your home, and your bier?

    Its passions will rock thee,
    As the storms rock the ravens on high;
    Bright reason will mock thee,
    Like the sun from a wintry sky.
    From thy nest every rafter
    Will rot, and thine eagle home
    Leave thee naked to laughter,
    When leaves fall and cold winds come.

    Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems. One of my favorite poets. Most of the poems are good, but often very complex. Keep your Oxford English Dictionary at hand; often obscure secondary meanings of words are activated. Main theme: relationship of imagination and reality, and the final fluctuating merging into the One of a Supreme Fiction. (“Domination of Black,” “The Metaphysician,” “Banal Sojourn,” “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” “Tea at the Plaza of Hoon,” “Disillusionment of Ten O’clock,” “Sunday Morning,” “Six Significant Landscapes,” “Bantams in Pine-woods,” “Anecdote of the Jar,” “The Bird with the Coopery, Keen Claws,” “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” “The Death of a Soldier,” “The Idea of Order at Key West,” “Mozart, 1935,” “Botanist on Alp (No. 2),” “A Fading of the Sun,” “Gray Stones and Gray Pigeons,” “A Postcard from the Volcano,” “The Man on the Dump,” “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts,” “Connoisseur of Chaos,” “Asides on the Oboe,” “No Possum, No Sop, No Taters,” “Wild Ducks, People and Distances,” “Credences of Summer,” “The Plain Sense of Things,” “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” “Not ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself.”

    —Frank Kermode, Wallace Stevens. Probably still the best short introduction to the work of this complex poet.

    —Helen Hennessy Vendler, On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens’ Longer Poems

    See this complete text of "Sunday Morning," one of the great poems of the 20th century:  http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/2464

    Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  See Nabokov's Lectures on European Literature for analysis.

    In a letter written on February 2, 1873, after his father discovered a pro-atheist document of his, Stevenson wrote:

    "MY DEAR BAXTER, - The thunderbolt has fallen with a vengeance now. On Friday night after leaving you, in the course of conversation, my father put me one or two questions as to beliefs, which I candidly answered. I really hate all lying so much now - a new found honesty that has somehow come out of my late illness . . . Of course, it is rougher than hell upon my father, but can I help it? They don't see either that my game is not the light-hearted scoffer; that I am not (as they call me) a careless infidel. I believe as much as they do, only generally in the inverse ratio: I am, I think, as honest as they can be in what I hold. I have not come hastily to my views. I reserve (as I told them) many points until I acquire fuller information, and do not think I am thus justly to be called 'horrible atheist.'"

    The letter is signed:
    " Ever your affectionate and horrible atheist,

    Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, How Are We to Live?: Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest, Writings on an Ethical Life.

    "The belief that the animals exist because God created them - and that he created them so we can better meet our needs - is contrary to our scientific understanding of evolution and, of course, to the fossil record, which shows the existence of non-human primates and other animals millions of years before there were any human beings at all."

    "Moreover, the assertion that our intelligence is puny in comparison with God’s presupposes just the point that is under debate – that there is a god who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all good. The evidence of our own eyes makes it more plausible to believe that the world was not created by any god at all. If, however, we insist on believing in divine creation, we are forced to admit that the god who made the world cannot be all-powerful and all good. He must be either evil or a bungler."

    —In a debate with D'Souza on suffering and the Christian God - http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/the-god-of-suffering-

    Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons.

    "Whatever a person may pray for, that person prays for a miracle. Every prayer comes down to this - Almighty God, grant that two times two not equal four."

    Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell, etc. Poetic essays on biology, science and beyond by a very clear, likable writer.  Two of my favorite essays on death, both surprisingly comforting, are “Death in the Open” from The Lives of a Cell and “On Natural Death” from The Medusa and the Snail.

    "The greatest of all the accomplishments of 20th century science has been the discovery of human ignorance."

    "My mitochondria comprise a very large proportion of me. I cannot do the calculation, but I suppose there is almost as much of them in sheer dry bulk as there is the rest of me. Looked at in this way, I could be taken for a very large, motile colony of respiring bacteria, operating a complex system of nuclei, microtubules, and neurons for the pleasure and sustenance of their families, and running, at the moment, a typewriter."

    "The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music."

    "Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you'd think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise."

    "A poet is, after all, a sort of scientist, but engaged in a qualitative science in which nothing is measurable. He lives with data that cannot be numbered, and his experiments can be done only once. The information in a poem is, by definition, not reproducible. ... He becomes an equivalent of scientist, in the act of examining and sorting the things popping in [to his head], finding the marks of remote similarity, points of distant relationship, tiny irregularities that indicate that this one is really the same as that one over there only more important. Gauging the fit, he can meticulously place pieces of the universe together, in geometric configurations that are as beautiful and balanced as crystals."  [OK, not about God, but I like it.]

    Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Roughing It, Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Letters from the Earth, “Fennimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” One of our best writers.

    "The difference between a Miracle and a Fact is exactly the difference between a mermaid and a seal."

    "Man is the only animal with the one true religion – several of them."

    "Noah and his family were saved—if that could be called an advantage. I throw in the if for the reason that there has never been an intelligent person of the age of sixty who would consent to live his life over again. His or anyone else’s. The Family were saved, yes, but they were not comfortable, for they were full of microbes. Full to the eyebrows; fat with them, obese with them; distended like balloons. It was a disagreeable condition, but it could not be helped, because enough microbes had to be saved to supply the future races of men with desolating diseases, and there were but eight persons on board to serve as hotels for them. The microbes were by far the most important part of the Ark’s cargo, and the part the Creator was most anxious about and most infatuated with. They had to have good nourishment and pleasant accommodations. There were typhoid germs, and cholera germs, and hydrophobia germs, and lockjaw germs, and consumption germs, and black-plague germs, and some hundreds of other aristocrats, specially precious creations, golden bearers of God’s love to man, blessed gifts of the infatuated Father to his children—all of which had to be sumptuously housed and richly entertained; these were located in the choicest places the interiors of the Family could furnish: in the lungs, in the heart, in the brain, in the kidneys, in the blood, in the guts. In the guts particularly. The great intestine was the favorite resort. There they gathered, by countless billions, and worked, and fed, and squirmed, and sang hymns of praise and thanksgiving; and at night when it was quiet you could hear the soft murmur of it. The large intestine was in effect their heaven."

    James D. Watson, The Annotated and Illustrated Double Helix.

    When asked by a student if he believed in God, Watson answered, "Oh, no. Absolutely not... The biggest advantage to believing in God is you don't have to understand anything, no physics, no biology. I wanted to understand."

    Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View Of The Origin Of The Universe, Lectures on Quantum Mechanics, Lake Views: This World and the Universe, Facing Up: Science and Its Cultural Adversaries, "A Designer Universe?" http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1999/oct/21/a-designer-universe/?pagination=false

    "In an e-mail message from the American Association for the Advancement of Science I learned that the aim of this conference is to have a constructive dialogue between science and religion. I am all in favor of a dialogue between science and religion, but not a constructive dialogue. One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious. We should not retreat from this accomplishment. "

    Andrew D. White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.  I confess; White was not an atheist, but this book will be of interest to those who are.

    "This difficulty had now assumed a magnitude of which St. Augustine never dreamed. Most powerful of all agencies to increase it were the voyages of Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Magellan, Amerigo Vespucci, and other navigators of the period of discovery. Still more serious did it become as the great islands of the southern seas were explored. Every navigator brought home tidings of new species of animals and of races of men living in parts of the world where the theologians, relying on the statement of St. Paul that the gospel had gone into all lands, had for ages declared there could be none; until finally it overtaxed even the theological imagination to conceive of angels, in obedience to the divine command, distributing the various animals over the earth, dropping the megatherium in South America, the archeopteryx in Europe, the ornithorhynchus in Australia, and the opossum in North America . . .

    "More and more it became difficult to reconcile the dignity of the Almighty with his work in bringing each of these creatures before Adam to be named; or to reconcile the human limitations of Adam with his work in naming 'every living creature'; or to reconcile the dimensions of Noah's ark with the space required for preserving all of them, and the food of all sorts necessary for their sustenance. ...Origen had dealt with it by suggesting that the cubit was six times greater than had been supposed. Bede explained Noah's ability to complete so large a vessel by supposing that he worked upon it during a hundred years. ...He also lessened the strain on faith still more by diminishing the number of animals taken into the ark—supporting his view upon Augustine's theory of the later development of insects out of carrion."

    Elie Wiesel, Night.  A maybe atheist or agnostic.

    "I was very, very religious. And of course I wrote about it in 'Night.' I questioned God's silence. So I questioned. I don't have an answer for that. Does it mean that I stopped having faith? No. I have faith, but I question it."

    Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf: Second Edition.

    "Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely? All this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?"

    "But beauty must be broken daily to remain beautiful."

    "She thought there were no Gods; no one was to blame; and so she evolved this atheist's religion of doing good for the sake of goodness."

    "I read the book of Job last night - I don't think God comes well out of it."

    "Nothing, however, can be more arrogant, though nothing is commoner than to assume that of Gods there is only one, and of religions none but the speaker’s."

    "I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with dear Tom Eliot, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic believer in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was shocked. A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is. I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God."