Ira’s Books

Ira’s fabled book collection included nearly 5,000 titles, which covered every wall in his modest one-bedroom¬†apartment. ¬†Some of his favorite and most influential books are noted below.

The full collection was cataloged shortly after Ira’s death by a number of his friends, and can be viewed online here:



( Excerpted from Ira’s book, A Little Kinder)

Part 1

These are a handful of the master magicians who turned words into reality instead of, like most of us, turning reality into words. I have listed, in most cases, one or more of their works, though I would suggest reading them all.

Aristophanes, Frogs (B. B. Rogers’ translation.) All of his great comedies, with humor which has not been dimmed by time, throw more light on the ancient Greeks than the would-be weightier Tragedians.

Aeschylus, Persians (The Lattimore translation.) Neither the Persians nor the Greeks nor the rest of the world have taken seriously that which Aeschylus makes abundantly clear; i.e., that Hubris (overweening pride) always and everywhere results in nemesis (retribution, vengeance).

Sophocles, Antigone (The Lattimore Translation.) This develops the lonely, moral grandeur of a single woman defying the might of an empire and the superstitions of a culture.

Euripides, Trojan Women (Edith Hamilton translation.) If art could have put an end to war this play would have done it. Only Goya’s “Disasters of War” may be more powerful.

William Shakespeare, It’s arrogant to attempt to list only two of his works; however, with this said, my suggestions are Measure for Measure and King Lear.

William Blake Blake’s vision, at once red hot and ice cold, never faltered. His poetry, unlike that of any others’, is the language of life and death for, as it has been said, he dared “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.”

Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy (The Singleton translation) If Shakespeare is the supreme fox of literature (surveying everything), Dante is the supreme hedgehog (Dante’s single vision not only permeated but transcended all of the later Middle Ages in an Italian that was close enough to Latin so it could be read beyond his native borders). “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”-Archilochus, Greek poet of the 7th century, B.C.

Johann WoIfgang Von Goethe, Faust Parts I and 11. (David Luke translation.) Goethe delineates in searing language the aspirations, the exhaltations, the prejudices and the baseness of Western culture.

Cervantes, Don Quixote (The Putnam translation) Dostoevsky called it the Bible of the world. It’s funnier, sadder, saner and more humane than the Bible with which most of us are allegedly familiar.

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (Louise and Aylmer Maude translation.) Tolstoy saw these translations and approved.) Although Anna Karenina is concerned with a woman in the Russian Society of the 19th century, the book contains, with incredible intensity, all the things with which men, women and children have always been concerned. In some ways his more famous novel, War and Peace, has much the same attributes, but what he loses in intensity here, he makes up for in the vast panorama he puts forth. Moreover, miraculously enough, no character is duplicated in either book.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation.) At first reading the book appears so wild and deranged that it seems out of our ordinary experience. On second reading, it seems closer to life than anything we are ever likely to read. Memoirs from the House of Dead (Jessie Coulson translation.) This is an account of Dostoevsky’s year in Siberia. It will be timely and poignant so long as men are imprisoned anywhere.

Michel De Montaigne The French have a happy way of making their classics not only first rate but delightfully readable. Unpretentious and casual, Montaigne lets us know in the simplest language what it is to be civilized. His third book of essays is the best. Yet my experience is that once this is read, one will eagerly seek to read his entire works.

Marcel Proust His major work In Search of Lost Time might easily be compared to the best of the Russian novels. He saw everything, felt everything, and understood everything, and was able to convey it to those of us measurelessly less endowed. I would add to this incredible work a book entitled Marcel Proust-Chosen and Translated by Gerald Hopkins. This and Proust’s earliest publication, Pleasures and Days, comprise most of the author’s shorter pieces. They show him warming up for his Magnum Opus and a very impressive warm-up it is. To savor further this remarkable man and his times, I would suggest reading Jean-Yves Tadie s Marcel Proust, A Life. Proust’s countryman and fellow writer of belles lettres, Andre Maurois, has written a good, one-volume biography.

Francois Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel-This 16th century French physician, humanist and satirist produced the most extraordinary, vivacious and rollicking picture (one would like to use the adjective Rabelaisian) of French society in all its tumbling variety. It’s as serious, and possibly even funnier, than Don Quixote.

Franz Kafka, The Trial. In this book, alarmingly, everyone recognizes his or her own trial. The Complete Short Stories (published by Shocken). Here we find a world of fantasy that our century has turned into one aspect of grim reality.

Lao Tzu, The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu (The Witter Bynner translation.) The Way and Its Power (The Arthur Waley translation.) Both these books are translations of the Chinese Tao Te Ching, and together they comprise that one perfect volume for the desert island or the subway. In these uncertain days, it would be wise to have at least one of these volumes with you at all times. Shelley had in his pocket a copy of Sophocles when he drowned.

Bhagavad Gita This is a long sanskrit poem incorporated into the longer work of the Mahabharata. The Gita is the most popular devotional book of the Hindus, of both the simple and the sophisticated. There are many translations, but the most readable for us is the one done by Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda. In Gandhi’s library, this book held a pride of place inasmuch as its central teaching is his; that our concern should always be primarily with out labor, never with the fruits of our labor. In short, the means are absolutely everything and the ends are dependent, if not wholly identical with, the means we use.

Attributed to Buddha The Dhammapada (translation by Irving Babbitt.) Of all the beautiful, simple and complex volumes on Buddhism, this one has the advantage ot being lucid and straightforward. It not only tells us of the necessity of wise social ethics, but also of the grounding that can make those ethics a reality.

Jalal al-Din Rumi The Masnavi (The Arberry translation.) The original in Persian and the translation by A. J. Arberry rank, by common consent, among the world’s greatest masterpieces of religious literature. Anecdotes, parables and poetry; sublime.

Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ 14th century Christianity was a remarkably productive time and this little book is one of its finest offerings, “All men desire peace,” Thomas a Kempis tells us, “but few men desire these things which make for peace.”

The Apocrypha The contents of this volume were excluded from the Bible, perhaps God only knows why. They are all of great interest, particularly the Wisdom of Solomon.

Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels The Communist Manifesto This is in the great tradition of the Hebrew prophets. The vision, the drama and the self-righteousness stream forth as a not minor addition of the Old Testament.

Part II

The following is but an infinitesimal sampling of the apprentice magicians. And like many apprentices, a stroke of theirs here and there is more brilliant than the masters.

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels and The Tale of a Tub If you read these and thought they were children’s stories, read them again.

Samuel Butler, Erewhon and Erewhon Revisited. Despite the title, Erewhon is not a mythical place. It is England in the 19th century and although England and we have changed, it’s only to have partially caught up with Butler’s meditations which, incidentally, are some of the funniest in the English language. The Way of All Flesh Here, once and for all, we see family life as we all tremblingly know it. It makes Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” seem like a comedy of domestic good manners.

Italo Suevo, A Man Grows Older, A Life, The Confessions of Zeno, and Further Confessions of Zeno are novels of heart-breaking beauty.

Cesare Pavese, The House on the Hill and Among Women Only are two of this flinty man’s finest books. The Burning Brand is the title of the remarkable diaries he kept from 1935 to 1950. In 1950 Pavese received Italy’s major literary prize, Premio Strega, after which he took his life.

Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin, The father, if not the grandfather, of all great Russian literature. Norton Press publishes his complete stories and prose. There are many editions of his long, moving poem, “Eugene Onegin.”

Anton Chekhov, His plays “The Seagull,” “Uncle Vanya,” “The Three Sisters” and “The Cherry Orchard” are 19th century Russian-set pieces which have, curiously enough, touched the hearts and minds of subsequent generations throughout the world. His short stories are perhaps even better; more authentic than those of that superb artist de Maupassant.

Thomas Mann, Read all of his fiction, from Buddenbrooks to Confessions of Felix Krull, Dr. Faustus and The Magic Mountain. In varying colors, he depicts our time’s superficial delusions and tragic defeats.

Bertolt Brecht, His Mother Courage, St. Joan of the Stock-yard, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Good Woman of Setzuan, and Galileo are all dramatically concerned with means and ends, circumstances and responsibility. Also his book of poetry, Manual of Piety, should be read.

Ralph W. Emerson, He is often talked about and more often ridiculed and consistently less read than many of his lesser compatriots. Yet Emerson, Melville, and Whitman still have much to say to our world. Only Emerson’s most common essays (not that they aren’t good) are available, even in most libraries. Perhaps there will be a revival of his work as there has been periodically of that of Henry James. Any of the writings of the above-mentioned authors will not be a waste of anyone’s time. See Henry James Daisy Miller, Princess Cassamasima, and The Golden Bowl.

George Santayana, The Last Puritan. This elegant Spanish and American philosopher wrote only this one work of fiction. It may be his best work, as well as the most accurate reading of the American soul.

Goustave Flaubert, His most widely read and one time notorious book is Madame Bovary. It’s a moving work of ambitious, provincial France, though he went on to do different and better things in Sentimental Education, Three Tales and Bouvard and Pecuchet. His earliest novel, November, makes interesting reading, as does his Intimate Notebook 1840-1841. Recently published is Flaubert in Egypt, which is a translation of letters and journals which are both observant and amusing. Enid Starkie’s two-volume biography of Flauert is vintage Starkie: I The Marking of the Master, I1 Flaubert the Master.

Andre Malraux, The Voices of Silence. With unwonted timidity, Edmund Wilson thought this probably was one of the greatest books of the 20th century. There was absolutely no cause for Mr. Wilson’s timidity, except that he did not write it himself. The translation is by Stuart Gilbert. Also his Man’s Fate may be not only the best political novel of our time, but also may surpass in intelligence all the recent plethora of books that have been written on China. His penultimate book, Anti-Memoirs gives an astute look at the political forces crowding in on us today, as well as some of their antecedents.

Karl Kraus, To date there is nothing translated of this man’s fantastically original satirical work. I cannot believe, difficult as such a translation would be, that this will not be done soon. Kraus, as an iconoclast and a polemicist has few, if any equals. He influenced people from Schoenberg to Wittenstein. As an example of his style, he wrote that “Vienna was a proving ground for world destruction.” Another example is “Psychoanalysis is that spiritual disease of which it considers itself to be the cure.”

Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities. In this book perhaps more than any other novel set in pre-World War I Vienna, we are able to see the conflicting seeds, good and bad, that have flowered in our century.

Chuang Tzu-Chuang, Tzu is both the name of a Taoist philosopher and Chinese mystic as well as the tit1e of his work. This man of the 3rd and 4th centuries before Christ was either the wisest humorist who ever lived or the most humorist wise man. Herbert A. Giles gives, to date, the best translation of the writings of this wholly delightful man. See also Arthur Waley s Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China.

Wu Ch’eng-en, Monkey. This is an extraordinary 16th century Chinese masterpiece. Monkey represents human cleverness without the realization of the Buddha nature. His adventures are comic, mischievous, ingenious, and ultimately self-destructive. Its lightness of tone makes its timeless impact all the more inescapable.

Radhakrishnan, A Source Book in Indian Philosophy. I’m usually wary of general survey books of this sort, but this is a superb and full picture of Indian thought with specific sources given and admirably translated and historically documented.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine. The admirers of de Chardin will find Aurobindo has developed a synthesis that makes The Phenomenon of Man seem like a kiddy’s primer of the spiritual life.

Lady Murasaki, The Tale of the Genji. This is a novel in six parts written in Japan’s 10th century. It is as sophisticated as any of the great European 18th century works. It has often been compared in minutiae, subtly and in depth to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The only adverse criticism I’ve heard of it is that Japanese scholars have remarked that Arthur Waley’s excellent English translation is a little better than the original.

D. T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture. The writing and the illustrations of this book make the Western view of Japan one long inconsequential platitude.

Julio Corrazar, Cronopios and Famas. Cortazar’s work has the fantasy of reality and the waking quality of dreams.

Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths. This book consists of a selection of stories and essays that have appeared in the last forty years. He has the poet’s genius in making manifest the simple and the obvious which most of us never see, and that genius includes the strictest economy of expression.

Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude. To those of us who are not familiar with the South American landscape, much unusual beauty will be revealed; however, the passions and aspirations in this novel, although vigorous and unsentimental, will in no way seem strange.

Camara Lye, The African Child. This autobiography resounds throughout the whole world of the dispossessed.

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Mask. Fanon deals specifically with the blacks as a psychological and historical prey of the white world, and at the same time he offers a way out of this mutually destructive relationship. In my opinion, the importance of the book lies in the fact that he makes clear the urgency, perhaps on the pain of universal death, of the removal of all idealogical and national masks. The writing is bitingly beautiful.

Plato, Collected Dialogues. Edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. These are the most important Platonic dialogues in their best English translations.

F. M. Cornford, Before and After Socrates. A tiny, exquisite volume that tells more of Greek thought than all the ponderous tomes on the subject.

Werner Jaeger Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture. A three-volume work which gives you the clearest sense of what the ancient Greeks were all about.

E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational. Professor Dodds shows the primitive and irrational forces which operate and give shape to this highly sophisticated society.

Seneca, The Stoic Philosophy. In these essays and letters we discover the origins of the life and thought patterns that have become a part of every culture.

Epicurus, Epictetus, Lucretius, and Marcus Aurelius, The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers. (The original sources) is assembled in one volume by W. J. Oakes. As usual, it is between the lines that we perceive slave and citizen trying to create some order out of the growing chaos of the later Roman times.

Spinoza, Ethics. Although much of his formulation would ill fit our times, the powerful affirmative spirit animating this great work is one of the things for which we have a pressing need.

Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms. (Penguin Publication.) Too long has our century simply dismissed Schopenhauer as a pessimist. His insight into creative resignation and the awareness of one’s limitations, have and will always have a compelling relevance to man. He’s also a writer of the first rank.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. To date there is no adequate English translation of this work which, in my amateur estimation, has close affinity with Lao Tzu’s Toa Teh Ching. The silences that ring through the Chinese sage’s small volume ring also through the last part of the Tractatus. Wittgenstein, like Loa Tzu, knew that the unsayable could only be suggested and hinted at.

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents. We may often disagree with the observations in this book, but it would be hard to deny that it has had and has a widespread impact, consciously or unconsciously, on our world.

F. W. Myers, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death. If Freud has exhumed the dark and sordid chambers of our mind, Myers explores perhaps the even deeper passageways of light and freshness.

Chinese Poems. Translation by Arthur Waley. In this volume Waley has included almost all of his translations of the great Chinese poems. I know of nothing in any language simpler, more striking and beautiful.

C. P. Cavafy, The Complete Poems of C. P. Cavafy. Not knowing a word of modern Greek, it is not only difficult, but also presumptuous to comment on this work. Cervantes once said that translations were like viewing tapestries from the hidden side. In short, the colors, the nuances, and the delicacy, all are missing. Nevertheless, I would maintain there is yet not a work that, as the Quakers say, “speaks to our condition” as marvelously as those that Carvafy has wrought (even in translation).

From Copernicus to Einstein by Hans Reichenbach, One, Two, Three . . . Infinity by George Gamorv, The ABC of Relativity by Bertrand Russell, and Physics and Politics by Max Born. All of these books give us in non-technical language the principles, and effects of the physical sciences.

Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey. This book puts nature and all of us in our place. And we discover that our place is multiple and as beautiful as it is bewildering.

Harlow Shapely, Of Stars and Men. The galaxies are brought closer and we can see ourselves in perspective.

H. G. Wells, The Outline of History. Though Mr. Well’s book was written in 1920, his opening sentence still has real validity in spite of the nuclear revolution. He says it “is an attempt to tell truly and clearly, in one continuous narrative, the whole story of life and mankind so far as it’s known today.”

Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In spite of the all too facile analogies relating our idea to that of the Roman Empire, this magnificently written three-volume history could aid us in coming to grips with the entire suicidal concept of empire and its consequences. (J.B. Bury Edition)

Aristotle, The Politics. Wherever one begins or ends in the strivings, ideals and chaos of the body politic, one must start and return to the tutor of Alexander the Great.

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism. I wish this book were easier to read because it’s a handbook we should carry with us always. It not only raises all the overwhelming questions of the day, but answers them with the lucidity and intelligence that we have unhappily ignored.

J. Krishnamurti, Education and the Significance of Life. Heartbreakingly, this is the way education could be, but so far as I know, has never been. The age-old task remains — by whom and how are the educators to be educated?

The Teacher and the Taught: Education in Theory and Practice from Plato to James B. Conant. Lively contrary disquisitions, at times abrasive, but gloriously lacking the stuffiness of a classroom.

The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud by Ernest Jones, Karl Marx by Franz Mehring, Charles Darwin by Sir Gavin DeBeer. Without knowing the life and thoughts of these three men, we will be further victimized by not knowing what formed and still forms, for good and for ill, our age. And for those of you who will live into the 21st century, you would do well to know of the lives and thoughts of Max Plank (the Quantam Theory), Albert Einstein (the general and special theories of relativeiy), and Mahatma Gandhi (the principle method of resisting oppression without spilling blood and the means to carry out radical social change without violence).

M. K. Gandhi, My Experiments with Truth. This autobiography is doubtless the most scrupulous that has ever been written. Unlike most works, particularly autobiographies, truth with a small t is the central nagging character.

Charles Dickens, The only English novelist that has something of the depth of the great Russian writers: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Turgenev. See Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.

Hermann Broch, This Austrian writer, 1886 - 1951 surpassed all the 20th century novelists save for Marcel Proust. See his Trilogy, The Sleepwalkers, and The Death of Virgil.