Five Books I Love

by Scott London

As part of a book project I’m involved with, I was asked to submit a list of five great books — personal favorites that, for better or worse, have challenged and inspired my work, perhaps shaped my way of seeing the world. It was an fun assignment, but also an impossible task. For every book that deserved a place on the list, ten others recommended themselves. I asked myself whether any list could be complete without Blake or Rilke? Without Nietzsche or Schopenhauer? Where did Hamlet fit in? Or The Grand Inquisitor? Or the essays of George Orwell? Okay, I thought, how about something simple and straightforward, like an informal list, in no particular order, of books I keep by the bed — works that nourish my meditations and inspire me when cupboard of ideas is bare. These are the five I came up with…

Aldous Huxley: The Perennial Philosophy

In this classic anthology published in 1945, Huxley suggests that there is an identifiable transcendent unity at the core of the enduring wisdom traditions — a common vision as to the nature of ultimate reality, knowledge, ethics, and spiritual life — despite the great surface variety of doctrines, practices, and cultures. He refers to it as the “perennial philosophy,” saying that the outlook is common to people everywhere and at all times, with the notable exception of the modern West. Using excerpts from classic spiritual texts, mystical writings, visionary poetry, and other sources, Huxley sketches the broad outlines of this philosophy with penetrating insight and originality. A sublime collection.

Paramahansa Yogananda: The Autobiography of a Yogi

This spiritual classic is not only absorbing and beautifully written, it is as inspiring and relevant today as it must have been when it appeared in 1946. The book is a chronicle of the life of one of India’s most revered spiritual teachers, beginning with tales from his unusual childhood, accounts of his meetings with saints and sages, a description of his rigorous course of study with his guru, and a chronicle of his subsequent travels to the West to live and teach. Yogananda casts a light not only his own spiritual evolution but also his relationship to the religious traditions of the West, such as the teachings of Jesus, offering a probing look at the ultimate mysteries of human existence. (An unabridged audio version of the book, brilliantly read by actor Ben Kingsley, was released in 1997.)

Lewis Mumford: The Transformations of Man

The Transformations of Man is a masterful survey of those rare and pivotal moments in human history when an entirely new way of perceiving the world broke into popular consciousness and thereby changed the course of civilization. The book appeared in 1956, about a decade before the human potential movement hit its stride. Mumford was among the first philosophers to propose that “if life, in its fullness and wholeness, is to furnish our criterion for all development, then our philosophy must respect … above all, the tendency to self-actualization and self-transcendence.” He also made a forceful case for the cultivation of our capacity as human beings to love: “Without a positive concentration upon love in all its phases, we can hardly hope to rescue the earth and all the creatures that inhabit it from the insensate forces of hate, violence, and destruction that now threaten it.”

Richard Tarnas: The Passion of the Western Mind

In this sweeping intellectual history published in 1991, Richard Tarnas surveys the evolution of Western thought from ancient Greece to the Renaissance, from the scientific revolution to the dawn of the 21st century, illuminating the pivotal ideas in philosophy, religion, and science that have forged our unique cultural outlook. He also reflects on our curious postmodern predicament at the end of the millennium. Today, he says, we find ourselves wandering disconsolately between two worlds — one dying and the other struggling to be born. On the one hand, the spiritual and intellectual certainties of the past no longer command our allegiance. On the other, the promises of a more integral worldview, a cosmology of tomorrow — one based on a deeper relationship with nature and with the larger cosmos — require of us a leap of faith few are as yet willing to take. With the future of the human spirit and the future of the planet hanging in the balance, he says we have no choice but to embrace courage, imagination, and our deepest inner resources.

Theodore Zeldin: An Intimate History of Humanity

Published in 1995, An Intimate History of Humanity is a wide-ranging survey of human feelings and emotions that have helped to shape not only the lives of individuals but the course of entire civilizations. Rather than focus on social, economic, or political history, Theodore Zeldin looks at, among other things, courage, friendship, fear, loneliness, conversation, misunderstanding, frustration, and the yearning to escape. He presents some two dozen chapters that address a variety of themes, including “Why compassion has flowered even in stony ground” and “How travelers are becoming the largest nation in the world, and how they have learned to see only what they are looking for.” Each chapter begins with a biography of a living person, usually based on author interviews. These portraits are then placed against the backdrop of a universal history. The idea, as Zeldin says, is “to look at the facts through two lenses simultaneously, both through a microscope, choosing details that illuminate life in those aspects that touch people most closely, and through a telescope, surveying large problems from a great distance. I hope I can say enough to show that humans have many more options before them than they currently believe.” A beautifully written book and a remarkable achievement.