The universe is huge: books that make you philosophize, reflect and shiver?
February 4, 2005 2:04 AM   Subscribe

You know that feeling you get when you contemplate how big the universe is? (Java) Or when you see a picture of the earth from space? Or you hear a piece of music that always makes you feel just a little bit happier? (MIDI) What are some books that can inspire that same reflective/philosophical/shivery state of mind? I'm looking for any type of book - not just science or philosophy (though those are good too) but anything - non-fiction, fiction, poetry, children's - that will "make your head spin" while reading it.
posted by Jaybo to Writing & Language (43 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I guess any good metaphysics work should produce that state of mind.

From my current bookshelf, only Godel, Escher, Bach springs to mind. I guess you could try reading some of the Hindu/Buddhism-oriented works, like those of Alan Watts (which I haven't read).

As for fiction, Jorge Luis Borges is the only one I can currently think of.
posted by Gyan at 2:27 AM on February 4, 2005

Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino
posted by dhruva at 3:03 AM on February 4, 2005

The Cosmic Trigger series by Robert Anton Wilson.
posted by john-paul at 3:21 AM on February 4, 2005

Cosmos by Carl Sagan absolutely blew me away as a teenager, and still does to this day. Many parts of his books have this affect on me, but Cosmos was and still is my favorite for the feeling you talk about (I linked the hardcover because I adore the illustrations, but I first read it in paperback).
posted by nelleish at 5:18 AM on February 4, 2005

The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle.
posted by brheavy at 5:33 AM on February 4, 2005

V.S. Ramachandran writes accessible books about the human mind/brain -- gives you that "everything you think you know is wrong" kind of feeling.
posted by kmel at 5:35 AM on February 4, 2005

Leonard Cohen's The Favorite Game.
posted by katie at 5:43 AM on February 4, 2005

Maybe not exactly what you're looking for, but The Magus, by John Fowles took me for a bit of a ride.
posted by willpie at 5:48 AM on February 4, 2005

By the way, that feeling is known as "the sublime" in philosophy, and some 18th-19th c. philosophy on the sublime can also produce it... If you're curious, check out Kant's theory.
posted by mdn at 5:53 AM on February 4, 2005

Asimov's Foundation series.
posted by Jairus at 6:38 AM on February 4, 2005

I second The Magus. The book is both fascinating and infuriating.

Also, this suggestion is less intellectually impressive than the other books, but Madeline L'Engle's books, especially A Ring of Endless Light somehow make me feel a mystical connection to the rest of the world, no easy task considering my 20-year agnosticism.

I guess, with a few exceptions, I associate that sensation you mention with children's literature. Maybe I've just gotten jaded as an adult reader.
posted by bibliowench at 6:52 AM on February 4, 2005

The Discovery of Heaven, Harry Mulisch.
Cyberiad, Stanislaw Lem.
Giles Goat-Boy, John Barth
The Glass Bead Game, Herman Hesse.
posted by 31d1 at 6:59 AM on February 4, 2005

Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman
posted by Jeff Howard at 7:09 AM on February 4, 2005

The Salmon of Doubt. Anything by Douglas Adams, really.
posted by casarkos at 7:16 AM on February 4, 2005

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard and The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra do it for me.
posted by nixxon at 7:19 AM on February 4, 2005

From my current bookshelf, only Godel, Escher, Bach springs to mind.
posted by Gyan

I second Godel, Escher, Bach - eeringly mind blowing.
posted by neilkod at 7:31 AM on February 4, 2005

I've never read it, but my mom feels that way about Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. She teaches that book in her class every year.
posted by SisterHavana at 8:04 AM on February 4, 2005

First thing to pop to mind: Proust. A few pages of Remembrance of Things Past and I need to stop, not because of the endless dependent clauses, but because his writing has sparked some hitherto unknown part of my brain.

I experience this "sublime" feeling often when reading. Or if not often, than with enough regularity that it's a high I seek out. It's difficult for me to remember specific instances of it, though.

I do know that one author capable of producing it regularly is Patrick O'Brien. I'll be reading an Aubrey/Maturin book and thinking that O'Brien's writing on cruise control when all of a sudden I'll hit a passage — a paragraph, a page, four consecutive chapters — that simply blows me away, leaves me in awe for days. Seriously. It's a combination of great writing and great narrative.

As I say, it's hard to remember specific instances, but other books I seem to recall providing a similar feeling include Moby Dick, my first Dickens (David Copperfield), Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and various bits and pieces from science fiction (Vernor Vinge's A Deepness Upon the Sky, John Varley's early short fiction, Ursula LeGuin).

As I say, though: I crave this feeling like a drug. It's why I read.

On preview: SisterHavana, I felt this sense of awe the first time I read Ishmael, too. And the first time I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. And the first time I read Ayn Rand. For some reason, of these three only Zen holds up upon rereading.
posted by jdroth at 8:06 AM on February 4, 2005

Tau Zero, by Poul Anderson. The magazine version ("To Outlive Eternity") blew my teenage mind.
posted by languagehat at 8:21 AM on February 4, 2005

Read some Emerson--get his collected essays. He is incredible; his essay Circles is probably pretty appropriate for the question.

Also, Wordsworth's poem "The Prelude" is basically the main moment of the sublime in poetry, along with some other poems by the romantics: Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight," Keats's "Odes," which are pretty incomparable. Yeats's poems "The Collar-Bone of a Hare," "The Stare's Nest by My Window" and "Long-Legged Fly" are great too and quite sublime. And Wallace Stevens, too. I'd link to more poetry, but I can never find it online in a format that's not in, like, Comic Sans; but if you were to buy The Stillinger Keats, The Collected Yeats, Wordsworth's Major Works, the Collected Stevens, and the Norton edition of Emerson you will have a great library of sublime literature. (The Emerson volume is quite good, actually, despite the weird anti-intellectual reviews on Amazon.)

And novel-wise, I think the best novel I've read in a long time that produces this feeling is Willa Cather's novel "The Professor's House." I cannot recommend this enough; I read it for my graduate school orals (in English literature) and it was the biggest surprise on a huge list--a totally incredible book, exactly about the sublime, that I had never thought of reading.
posted by josh at 8:26 AM on February 4, 2005

Here's Long-Legged Fly.
posted by josh at 8:35 AM on February 4, 2005

(Complete with typos and semi-lame study notes!)
posted by josh at 8:37 AM on February 4, 2005

Second Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and the Cosmic Trigger trilogy, third Godel Escher Bach and for fun I'll throw out Philip K Dick's Valis trilogy (actually all PKD; I got that shiver from A Scanner Darkly as well) and those twin stars of debunked-and-outdated-yet-still-culturally-relevant mythology, Frazer's Golden Bough and Graves' White Goddess. I've also heard many good things about Elaine Pagel's books on the Nag Hammadi scrolls.
posted by jbrjake at 9:23 AM on February 4, 2005

John Donne (1572-1631)

Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to'another due,
Labor to'admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly'I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me,'untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you'enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

OR, just to show I'm not proseletyzing (I think it's an awe-inspiring poem for agnostics too!), from the same poet:


NOW thou hast loved me one whole day,
To-morrow when thou leavest, what wilt thou say ?
Wilt thou then antedate some new-made vow ?
Or say that now
We are not just those persons which we were ?
Or that oaths made in reverential fear
Of Love, and his wrath, any may forswear ?
Or, as true deaths true marriages untie,
So lovers' contracts, images of those,
Bind but till sleep, death's image, them unloose ?
Or, your own end to justify,
For having purposed change and falsehood, you
Can have no way but falsehood to be true ?
Vain lunatic, against these 'scapes I could
Dispute, and conquer, if I would ;
Which I abstain to do,
For by to-morrow I may think so too.

--Of course, Shakespeare's sonnets too.
posted by Pattie at 9:34 AM on February 4, 2005

The science fiction of Greg Egan.
posted by kindall at 10:59 AM on February 4, 2005

The Beatles Sergeant Pepper at the end of the album. Also Beck's Odelay. I get that expansive feeling after listening to something that feels complete, especially when there is that one last, expansive, perfect song.
posted by xammerboy at 10:59 AM on February 4, 2005

Ooh, Hesse seconded. Any Hesse will do.
posted by willpie at 11:11 AM on February 4, 2005

Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body does it for me; she turns the object of desire into a whole world in a way that gets my head spinning metaphysically.

Also, Henry James. He puts so much eloquence into people *not* saying things that a pause can feel like a whole universe of possibles. (On the other hand, his novels tend to end unhappily; not sure if you're only looking for "Yay, the universe is great!" works!)
posted by occhiblu at 11:12 AM on February 4, 2005

Seconding some suggeestions by others here. Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek ("it snowed all day and never emptied the sky") and Proust are both right up that alley.

Wow, can't believe that someone beat me to Written on the Body too. It is an amazing work.

I got a little more limited sublime feeling from Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace) and One Hundred Years of Solidtude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez).

For a quick fix, you might try The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, Ursula K. LeGuin.
posted by ontic at 11:46 AM on February 4, 2005

The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Utter simplicity.
posted by mireille at 12:14 PM on February 4, 2005

The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel.
posted by pmbuko at 12:31 PM on February 4, 2005

Greg Egan's Diaspora in particular, if you don't mind excursions into N-dimensional topology. The scale of the story just keeps expanding.

And I must fourth G-E-D.
posted by squidlarkin at 1:30 PM on February 4, 2005

I feel lowbrow for saying this, but I had a good feeling all the way through The Dark Tower series by Stephen King - the intricate interconnections between the books of the series and many of his other works was fascinating.

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins was probably one of the most exhilarating books I read, as it opened my mind up to the wonder of life. It was one of the first serious non fiction books I read, and it sparked off a personal quest to learn as much as I could. I now have shelves groaning under the weight of my personal non fiction library.
posted by tomble at 1:41 PM on February 4, 2005

I'll second The Life of Pi. Martel also has a collection of 4 short stories, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, which he wrote before The Life of Pi (but only recently published in the US, at least, in December, 2004) and which is amazing. I am surprised no one has mentioned Robertson Davies yet. Especially the Deptford Trilogy. It'll bend your brain.
posted by Alylex at 2:35 PM on February 4, 2005

Japanese Death Poems
posted by mcguirk at 2:52 PM on February 4, 2005

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Life: A Users Manual by George Perec. Stunning by itself. Even more stunning when you realise it was written using OuLiPian techniques.
posted by ninthart at 3:10 PM on February 4, 2005

The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker.
Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter.
The Annotated Alice, by Lewis Carroll and Marvin Gardner.
Great Apes, by Will Self.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:56 PM on February 4, 2005

Zoom, Re-Zoom and REM by Istvan Banvai.

Check out his Zoom (Quicktime) movie for Nickelodeon.

Also, Looking Down by Steve Jenkins.
posted by ericb at 4:02 PM on February 4, 2005

Hourglass + Garden, Ashes + The Encyclopedia of the Dead by Danilo Kis all blew me away. What is especially wonderful about Kis is his use of a russian formalist lit. theorist, Victor Shklovsky's defamiliarization to write about the disappearance of his father and other documented events, making them into fiction by using documentary sources as the core of the text but making them "less familiar." All of his stories are created with this technique, with the documentary source apparent to varying degrees. The results are amazing, IMO.
posted by sophie at 4:04 PM on February 4, 2005

Greg Egan's Diaspora in particular, if you don't mind excursions into N-dimensional topology.

Personally, I found Quarantine to be more mind-blowing -- especially the part where the narrator, um, subverts (don't want to spoil it) -- and Distress also has a nice "wow" in it.
posted by kindall at 4:32 PM on February 4, 2005

Oh yeah, and definitely don't neglect his short fiction. I particularly liked "Luminous."
posted by kindall at 4:34 PM on February 4, 2005

High-brow, philosophical, "head-spinning" novels: The Brothers Karamazov, Chimera, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Unbearbale Lightness of Being.

Plain old, "head-spinning" philosophy: Zeno's Paradoxes and Parmenides.

High brow meets low brow with head spinning, philosophy, reflectiveness, "the universe is big," and a little bit of happiness thrown in too? Vonnegut.
posted by Wayman Tisdale at 5:10 PM on February 12, 2005

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