Five books

Nassim Nicholas Taleb on the books that continue to inform him as a writer

Demons by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I keep reading this novel, and I don’t know why. Perhaps because the characters became my friends.

The Opposing Shore by Julien Gracq

I wrote in The Black Swan that Dino Buzzati's Il deserto dei tartari was my favourite novel, perhaps my only novel, the only one I cared to keep re-reading through life. This is, remarkably a very similar story about the antechamber of anticipation (rather than "the antechamber of hope" as I called Buzzati's book), but written in a much finer language, by a real writer (Buzzati was a journalist, which made his prose more functional); the style is lapidary with remarkable precision; it has texture, wealth of details, and creates a mesmerizing atmosphere. Once you enter it, you are stuck there. I kept telling myself while reading it: "This is the book."

The Complete Essays by Michel de Montaigne

Montaigne is more of a companion than a teacher. Until recently he had a bad reputation in erudite circles, as he wasn’t a scholar but a regular person with limited erudition but an intellectual hunger. This makes him a perfect portal to the classics. It is like a guide. I never travel without a copy of Essays as I am afraid of being stranded in an airport.

Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges

This is something very hard to find, almost by definition: a literary writer who thinks in abstract terms (the only other such author I've read is Stanislaw Lem). These are philosophical thought experiments in their purest form, yet somehow magically delivered in a playful literary atmosphere. Borges is a mathematical philosopher, first and last. Ignore the “Latin American” categorisation and the nonsense about his background and personal life: one should resist embedding him in a socio-cultural framework; he is as universal as they come. It is good to read a short story once in a while to see how literature and philosophy can be saved by the parable.

 

A History Of Private Life, Volumes I to V

The method of the Annales School of history is based in more prosaic daily life, away from the sensational events of history, such as who ruled, which coup, which war, which geopolitical BS, etc – things that appear learned but are in fact journalistic.

It is vastly more sound statistically as it explores robust series of facts rather than the personalities and biographies or accounts of wars (a modern approach would be to focus on diabetes and traffic jams rather than sensational shark attacks or plane crashes). So instead of studying Roman history in terms of Caesar and Pompey, you study the daily life and body of laws and customs. For the past 25 years, I have been reading and rereading these five volumes.