Mensa Toilet Books
September 1, 2010 3:26 PM   Subscribe

What are some of the big, important, instructive, informative books that you could keep on your bedside table, dip into night after night, and continue to be inspired by for years?

I am thinking of works along the lines of:

- The now-ubiquitous Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstaedter

- The White Goddess and The Golden Bough by Robert Graves and James Frazer, respectively

- The Seven Mysteries Of Life by Guy Murchie

- Benjamin's Arcades Project (sort of)

- Ideas That Matter by A.C. Grayling

- Indeed, the majesterial Ideas by Peter Watson

A page here, a page there, and no matter what it is, you learn a little something which, while perhaps not directly applicable in real life, or even in your own head, nevertheless gives you a feeling of "That it a wonderful way of putting it" or "My goodness, I never thought of it like that" or "Aha, so that's what that's about!" Or even "Holy shit that is incredible I am dropping that into every conversation I have from now until I die!"

The above are, to my mind, some of the ultimate "commonplace book fillers" - a wealth of the sort of stuff you just want to write down so you don't forget it. What are some others I need to know about?
posted by turgid dahlia to Media & Arts (36 answers total) 118 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The Timetables of History is a bedside must.
posted by Lutoslawski at 3:28 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee.
posted by electroboy at 3:29 PM on September 1, 2010 [4 favorites]

Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chogyam Trungpa and Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki
posted by Dmenet at 3:33 PM on September 1, 2010

Best answer: The Discoverers by Daniel J. Boorstin.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 3:38 PM on September 1, 2010

Response by poster: Hardcore Poser: That is awesome, because I was looking at a beat-up old copy of The Discoverers in the book exchange yesterday and while I fear I didn't pick it up, it is precisely what inspired me to ask this question.

Great answers so far guys.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:44 PM on September 1, 2010

Best answer: The Complete Essays of Michel de Montaigne.
posted by invitapriore at 3:46 PM on September 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

Job's Body: A Handbook for Bodywork, by Deane Juhan.
posted by headnsouth at 3:51 PM on September 1, 2010

Ah this one, the best.
The life of Oscar Wilde by Hesketh Pearson
posted by zulo at 3:52 PM on September 1, 2010

If you liked the idea of The Discoverers, you might also be interested in another book he wrote called The Creators. I haven't picked it up yet but have heard good things - though people say it isn't quite as engaging as Discoverers, it still has that wide-ranging free prose approach to exploring the creative minds of history.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 3:56 PM on September 1, 2010

Bill Bryson: A Short History of Nearly Everything.
posted by matildaben at 4:10 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I asked a similar question last week that may have some relevant answers for you to look into.
posted by carsonb at 4:22 PM on September 1, 2010

The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II by Fernand Braudel. I've never read it cover to cover, but it is fun as hell to dip into.
posted by marxchivist at 5:00 PM on September 1, 2010

I liked both The Creators and The Discoverers by Boorstin. He wrote a third called The Seekers as well.

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.
New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton
Metamagical Themas, also by Hofstadter. This is a collection of all of his Scientific American columns.
Code by Charles Petzold
Notes On the Synthesis of Form and A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander
The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser (basically, everything he wrote, available in various editions)
posted by jquinby at 5:11 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

One Two Three...Infinity by George Gamow

Some parts of it might be outdated but I highly recommend.
posted by laptolain at 5:31 PM on September 1, 2010

The Whole Earth Catalog, The Next Whole Earth Catalog, and The Essential Whole Earth Catalog are gigantic books full of book reviews and excerpts of books about a million things you didn't know you were interested in.

They're out of print, but you can find them for cheap on Abebooks and Amazon.
posted by wayland at 5:48 PM on September 1, 2010

This isn't highbrow at all, but if you can ever find a super cheap old copy of the Guide to Contemporary Authors it's surprisingly fun to flip through at night before sleep. You may learn about a lot of writers you didn't know about, and while the brief reviews and lists in it are by no means definitive or unusually illuminating, they're a great casual way to open doors. And it's fun to see what they have to say about your favorite authors and reception to certain books (IIRC the entry on Pynchon was a tidy example).

P.S. I love, love that you included Benjamin's Arcades Project...kind of makes me want to mention Gadamer's Truth and Method or Gramsci's Prison Notebooks, even though they don't really fit. Meanwhile, Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World is about the politicized function of toilet humor...Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy also sort of comes to mind.

Also, Edna Lewis' The Taste of Country Cooking isn't a general guide or anything, but it's pretty much the perfect bedtime book. You'll learn how to make proper fried chicken as well as what life was like in Freetown, the area founded by freed slaves where she lived. It's history, it's food, it's gauzy comfort like a lullaby.

If you go that route, there are more cookbooks after that that work in the same perfect all-encompassing cultural-historical way. Claudia Roden's A Book of Middle Eastern Food and The Book of Jewish Food, for example.
posted by ifjuly at 6:00 PM on September 1, 2010

I have been dipping into The Stories of English by David Crystal for the past few months. It's a very readable narrative that traces the history of various standard and nonstandard English dialects from Old English to the present. It is set up so that you can read it in small chunks without losing the bigger picture. It just might change the way you think about variation in language and why we say things the way we do, and it's full of fascinating little bits of trivia that are fun to drop in conversation.
posted by c lion at 6:08 PM on September 1, 2010

Best answer: Pliny's Natural History (either the selected version, or a volume of the unabridged)
posted by BundleOfHers at 6:51 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Bertrand Russell's "History of Western Philosophy"
posted by minkll at 7:10 PM on September 1, 2010

An Incomplete Education is a perfect bathroom book.
posted by Jonathan Harford at 7:18 PM on September 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

as an artist, I find myself coming back to Fractals: The Patterns of Chaos
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 7:44 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Brewer Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, is very informative.
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 7:46 PM on September 1, 2010

Ulysses by James Joyce. It's not really satisfying if you plow through it front to back, but only if you read one random page at a time, before sleep.
posted by ovvl at 8:39 PM on September 1, 2010

Best answer: Here are some of my favorites. They don't precisely meet all your criteria, but they offer up riches and can be approached pretty much randomly:

The Heart of Emerson's Journals, edited by Bliss Perry

The Practical Cogitator
Intimate With Walt: Selections from Walt Whitman's Conversations with Horace Traubel
The Journals of Mircea Eliade
Boswell's Life of Johnson
Heart of Boswell's Journals
Key Ideas in Human Thought
John Aubrey's Brief Lives

--- and finally, any biographical dictionary. I love biographical dictionaries.
posted by jayder at 9:02 PM on September 1, 2010

Complete Prose of Woody Allen, of course.
posted by zemblamatic at 5:12 AM on September 2, 2010

Although not a book filled with facts, per se, I think The Assassin's Cloak, which is an anthology of a huge number of diarists, is great bedside reading. It never fails to please.
posted by OmieWise at 5:19 AM on September 2, 2010

Moby Dick. It's full of poetry and mystery and wonderful, wonderful 2-3 page character studies. Lots of interesting stuff about whales, too.
posted by Cookiebastard at 7:08 AM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

The Portable Atheist, edited by Christopher Hitchens.

Proust's In Search of Lost Time - you might want to read it all the way through the first time. But there's so much of it, so much of life and thought finely observed, that once you're familiar with it it would reward dipping back into later on. (Sort of like the comment above about "Ulysses.")
posted by dnash at 8:46 AM on September 2, 2010

Time and the Art of Living does a great job of getting my perspective on track.
posted by mearls at 9:10 AM on September 2, 2010

Shakespeare After All by Harvard professor Marjorie Garber provides short, entertaining, but in-depth analysis of all each Shakespeare play.
posted by zoomorphic at 11:10 AM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Universal Principles of Design
Also seconding Petzold's Code.
posted by oulipian at 5:07 PM on September 2, 2010

Seconding The Practical Cogitator.
posted by wittgenstein at 11:20 AM on September 4, 2010

The Intimate Sex Lives of Famous People. Not sleazy but packed with interesting historical tidbits and mini biographies.
posted by nickyskye at 9:24 PM on September 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you're into history: The Birth of the Modern. Years ago, someone on MeFi recommended it and now I can do the same. And there's the old standbys: The Decline and Fall and Herodotus.

And if you're into the crazy: The Anatomy of Melancholy
posted by gwint at 10:11 PM on September 7, 2010

The Art of Looking Sideways is a visual compendium of interesting stuff which is perfect to pick up for random inspiration.
posted by rongorongo at 3:28 AM on September 27, 2010

« Older Presidiwhat?   |   Help me identify a watch Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.