Epic Reading

15 Books to Understand the Self and the Other

Always looking for interesting books to read, I put several gems on my ‘to read’ list. The list of books below offer insights about one’s own culture and the cultures of others, about one’s own life and the lives of others. In random order:

The Song of Hiawatha (1855)

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The song of Hiawatha

The Song of Hiawatha | Source: Wikipedia

The Song of Hiawatha is a poem that submerges the reader in the lost civilization of the Native Americans or ‘indians’. At the time, a reviewer for the New York Times wrote a harsh commentary:

“[…] embalming pleasantly enough the monstrous traditions of an uninteresting, and, one may almost say, a justly exterminated race. As a poem, it deserves no place.”

But let yourself be the judge, and learn of an extinct world that predated European civlization.


Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854)

by David Henry Thoreau

Walden Pond | Source: Wikipedia

Many students of philosophy learn to ask the question whether Thoreau was a coward for hiding in the woods, or a hero for abanding an undesirable society, deciding to live in the woods all by himself? Thoreau found strength in solitude:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”


The Secret History of the Mongol Empire (~1230)

by an unknown author

Bataille entre mongols et chinois | Source: Wikipedia

This extraordinary book was written by an unknown author shortly after the death of Genghis Khan, the greatest conquerer of all. The short time between Khan’s death and this book allows for speculation that it was written by someone who had actually known Khan personally. It takes the reader back to a time of a lost warrior culture and its brave people. The book had long been lost, only to be rediscovered in the 19th century, then translated into English for the first time.


Fragments (~500 BCE)

by Heraclitus

Heraclitus by Johannes Moreelse | Source: Wikipedia

Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, promoted a personal philosophy which contains elements of what we now perceive as distinctly Eastern and Western philosophies. Legend has it that philosopher Heraclitus wrote a book and left it at the famous temple of Delphi where, among others, Plato alledgedly had read it. Hercalitus’ work did not survive, but his words have been cited by many who presumable have read the original book. His words are known to be obscure, because Heraclitus made an effort not to be understood.

“You cannot step into the same stream twice.”

The river always changes, but so do you — you are also never the same person twice.


Bashō: The Complete Haiku (1644–1694)

by Matsuo Bashō

Statue of Basho in Ogaki | Source: Wikipedia

Bashō, a pseudonym meaning banana tree, was a Japanese poet who single handedly popularized the haiku poem. For a long period of time, Bashō deliebrately retreated from life, deciding to spend his life walking thousands of miles along Japan in solitude. At some point, he gained a following of students. Near the end of his life he would adopt the Buddhist attitude of ‘greeting the mundane world’ rather than separating himself from it.

“the rough sea / stretching out towards Sado / the Milky Way” (1689)


The Drama of the Gifted Child (1979)

by Alice Miller

Alice Miller | Source: Wikipedia

Miller was a Polish-Swiss psychoanalyst, one of the first to reject outdated theories of Sigmund Freud. Her revolutionary insight that children are not born bad has since shocked the psychoanalytical world:

“Many people suffer all their lives from this oppressive feeling of guilt, the sense of not having lived up to their parents’ expectations. This feeling is stronger than any intellectual insight they might have, that it is not a child’s task or duty to satisfy his parents needs.”


Meditations (161–180 AD)

by Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius | Source: Wikipedia

Marcus Aurelius, the only Roman emperor who had rather been a philosopher, wrote his Meditations in the form of a personal diary, never intended for publication. Nonetheless, the thoughts of this great man have survived, providing insight into the directing mind of a the most powerful Roman of his time.

“The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.”


The Illiad and The Odyssey (~800–700 BC)

by Homer

Source Wikipedia

Both The Illiad and its sequal The Odyssey tell of the battles and events during the weeks of a quarrel between King Agamemnon of Troy and the warrior demi-god Achilles. We’ve all heard about these stories, but who has really read them? The writing style is pleasantly down to earth, full of creative insult. Although Heraclitus, meantioned earlier, would go on to say of Homer, “he’s an idiot who deserves to be beaten with a stick”. But you can be the judge of that.


The Prose Edda (1220) & The Poetic Edda (1200–1300)

the prose by Snorri Sturluson, the poetry by oral tradition

The Wolves pursuing Sol and Mani, the Sun and the Moon | Source: Wikipedia

These independently written books represent the earliest writings of Norse mythology, telling of the pre-Christian deities of Nothern Europe and the peoples who believed in them. Norse cosmology is unique: it is the only one in which the Earth and its people came into being out of and act of aggressive destruction rather than divine creation, namely through the slaughter of the giant Ymir by the gods Odin (also Woden or Wotan) and his brothers Vili and Vé.

“Cattle die, kinsmen die, you yourself die; I know one thing which never dies: the judgment of a dead mans life.”


One Thousand and One Nights (around 1300)

by various authors

Sheherazade and the Sultan | Source: Wikipedia

The Arabian Nights / Sheherazade is a collection of stories compiled during the so-called Islamic Golden Age. However, many stories’ origins predate Islam and are of Western- and Southern-Asian origin. There are numerous different publications that go by the same name, each adding or dropping stories, and changing the contents notably. Stories known to most Westerners include Aladdin’s Lamp, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and Sinbad the Sailor.


Kalevala (1835)

by Elias Lönnrot

Scene from the Kalevala | Source: Wikipedia

This is the story of the Finnish creation myth. The author Elias Lönnrot asked himself if he could source enough material from Finnish oral folklore to write an epic tale of the stature of an Illiad or Edda. He succeeded and the result played an important role in the development of a Finnish national identity.


The Epic of Gilgamesh (2100–1800 BCE)

by various authors

Source: Wikipedia

This book is probably the oldest written epic available to humankind, and considered the world’s first great work of literature. A central theme of the book is the struggle of man and woman and the quest for eternal life:

“Life, which you look for, you will never find. For when the gods created man, they let death be his share, and life withheld in their own hands.”


Man’s Search for Meaning (1946)

by Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl | Source: Wikipedia

Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust-survivor of both the Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz camps, was a pychiatrist. During his captivity, he applied his training to analyze the souls of his fellow inmates in the concentration camps. His experience later resulted in the foundation of logotherapy, a therapy which focuses on discovering a will to meaning (“Der Wille zum Sinn”), as oppoased to a Nietzschean will to power (“Der Wille zur Macht”).

“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”


The Song of the Nibelungs (around 1200)

by an unknown author

Sigurd (Siegfried) and Brunhild | Source: Wikipedia

This is the famous Middle German mythological story of Siegfried and Brunhilde. This book was a source for Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen and arguably provided the mythological landscape for J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Either way, they both involve a magical ring, or rings, dragons and swordplay.

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Epic Reading by Mathijs Koenraadt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.