20 LIST

CARTOONS: 1970 - 2004




  / Charles Johnson / 20 List


Photo Credit: Mary Randlett

Charles Johnson, University of Washington professor and author ("Middle Passage"), has recently received an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Charles Johnson
Student Awards at
Southern Illinois



 Charles Johnson
My Top 20 Favorite Books
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
This novel needs no annotation, does it? Ahab's war with the great white whale created the tradition from which springs my novel, Middle Passage.

Poetry, Language, Thought by Martin Heidegger
I first studied Heidegger while working on my doctorate in philosophy, in fact, I had to because my field is phenomenology. These splendid essays on art ("The Thinker as Poet" and "Language and The Origin of the Work of Art") are more accessible than Heidegger's masterpiece "Being and Time," and deepen our understanding of artistic creation. This is a text I've used with my graduate students for over twenty years.

What is Literature? by Jean-Paul Sartre
An essential work for any writer who hopes to understand political or engaged fiction, as Sartre calls it. His phenomenological analysis of the act of reading has never been surpassed, and in his opening chapters Why Write?, What is Writing?, and For Whom Does One Write?, we have the most systematic and brilliant account of the writing process ever published.

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
I could well have chosen almost any fiction by Wells as one of my favorites, but I've decided to list his first novel, published in 1895 because in it the author reveals his genius by giving us (for the first time in history) time travel achieved by a machine, a stroke of brillance that has shaped all fictions on this subject ever since. Yet consider: his other works--The War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Invisible Man--defined the shape of several sub-genres of twentieth century science-fiction. For me, Wells is an imaginative genius, and endures as one of the seminal English writers (See also his ambitious, two-volume study of history).

Candide by Voltaire
A hilarious and perennially influential satire of Leibniz's philosophy, Candide is the father of all modern philosophical tales, including my first novel, Faith and the Good Thing.

A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume
This text, which pushes John Locke's empirical method to its limits, challenges our presuppositions about God, the self, and even causation, and led directly to the next work on this list.

The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant
In his Doomsday Book (as it was popularly called when published), Kant provides one of the gems of the Enlightenment and answers Hume's denial that the self can be found in experience because subject and object arise simultaneously in experience. Here we have one of the foundations for Husserlian phenomenology and the inspiration for the next book on this list.

The Odyssey by Homer
In my opinion, this is the archetype for all adventure stories in the Western world, and certainly my novel Middle Passage is indebted to it in more ways than one.

The Sea Wolf by Jack London
This novel, obviously, was influential for Middle Passage (See the similarities between captains Wolf Larsen and Ebenezer Falcon). But even beyond The Sea Wolf, London was one of my guilty pleasures when I was growing up. Stories like To Build a Fire, The Call of the Wild and The Iron Heel are testaments to London's great gifts as a pure storyteller. True, he was an intractable racist enraged, for example, by the success of black boxer Jack Johnson, but I can fault him only so much for being a racially atavistic creature of his times when, in book after book, and story after story, he delivers superbly crafted tales of adventure that satisfy novelist John Gardner's belief that fiction should be for the reader a vivid and continuous dream.

Essentials by Jean Toomer
This profound collection of philosophical aphorisms was self-published in 1931 by the visionary author of Cane, the classic that began the Harlem Renaissance in 1923. Toomer belongs easily in the company of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Kahlil Gibran, Rumi, and Henry David Thoreau--a black American transcendentalist who builds through his work spiritual bridges between the East and West. See my introduction to Hill Street Press's 1999 edition of Essentials, edited by Dr. Rudolph Byrd, for a full discussion of Toomer's significance for American letters.

Native Son by Richard Wright
This 1940 classic by the father of modern black American literature, is also one of the enduring classics of naturalism. For my discussion of Richard Wright see Chapter One in Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970 and my review, Richard Wright: Works in I Call Myself an Artist: Writings By and About Charles Johnson, ed. by Dr. Rudolph Byrd (Indiana University Press, 1999).

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Clearly, this 1953 winner of the National Book Award is one of the most influential novels in the twentieth century. Along with Wright and Toomer, Ellison contributed what I feel are foundational works for the creation of a genuinely philosophical black American fiction. My discussion of Ellison appears in an introduction for the Modern Library's commemorative edition of Invisible Man and in a preface for his second, posthumously published novel, Juneteenth.

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
This posthumously published work by my friend and former teacher is simply the best, most thoughtful and complete handbook on writing ever published. I've assigned it to my students for over 20 years, and anyone who takes my writing classes must complete Gardner's challenging exercises on craft in the last section.

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
A must-read for any writer, for Fielding's masterpiece--along with Samuel Richardson's Pamela, Daniel DeFoe's Robinson Crusoe, and Lawrence Stern's Tristram Shandy--defined the essential features of the English novel, which in form has not significantly changed since these gentlemen established its basic structure and scaffolding.

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
This remarkable, long-enduring novel by Noble laureate Hesse was partly the inspiration for my second novel, Oxherding Tale. Its achievement can be found in the fact that Hesse, a German writing in the 1920s, creates a compelling fiction that conjures with amazing accuracy the life of Shakyamuni Buddha right up to the moment Hesse imagines his experience of enlightenment at the novel's end.

Bhagavad Gita by Stephen Mitchell
I'm a Sanskrit student now in his third year of study with a Vedic priest who meets monthly with a small group in Seattle. In our monthly, all-day study sessions we translate passages from the Gita, a work I've loved since my late teens. Not only is the Gita the embodiment of a breathtaking Indian vast democracy of Being, it is also a wonderful story, that of Prince Arjuna who refuses to fight during a battle, sits down in meditation, and is counseled on his duty--and the nature all of existence--by Lord Kirshna. Reading this in the original Sanskrit has been one of my life's great pleasures lately.

The Dhammapada by Eknath Easwaran
As a Buddhist, I recommend this classic for anyone who hopes to understand the Dharma. It is an essential text.

The Phenomenology of Mind by G.W.F. Hegel
One of Hegel's great feats was to find a way to do metaphysics again after Kant's Doomsday Book supposedly brought an end to that enterprise. Surely his Phenomenology is one of the most influential works in Western intellectual history. Its emphasis on dialectics provided me often with patterns for plotting in my novels and short fiction.

The Holy Bible: King James Version by [n/a]
The King James Bible must be read by every aspiring writer for the beauty of its language, and its stories, figures and tropes that have inspired authors for centuries.

The Upanishads by Eknath Easwaran
Another essential work of eastern philosophy, crucial (in my view) if one wishes to broaden--and deepen--one?s understanding of cultural visions different from the Judeo-Christian tradition.


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