Charles J. Styles

Interviews by Charles J. Styles

The Best Goethe Books, recommended by David E. Wellbery

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) has been described as ‘the last true polymath to walk the earth’. A defining figure in German literature, Goethe coined the concept of world literature. And his literary and dramatic achievements are matched by his scientific work. David E. Wellbery, Professor of Germanic Studies at the University of Chicago and recipient of the Golden Goethe Medal, introduces us to the life and work of Goethe. He explores why figures such as Beethoven and Napoleon were magnetised to him, how Rousseau influenced Faust, and why Goethe’s Faust does not sell his soul to the devil.

The Best Augustine Books, recommended by Catherine Conybeare

Christianity has been profoundly influenced by Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE), but the fifth-century North African bishop has impacted almost every area of western thought: philosophy, theology, political theory, linguistics, and rhetoric. His Confessions is one of the most recommended titles on Five Books, but is it really the first autobiography? Professor Catherine Conybeare introduces us to the life, thought, and personality of this controversial yet brilliant figure. She picks the best books to learn more about St. Augustine and explores how he has been unfairly maligned.

The Best Franz Kafka Books, recommended by Stanley Corngold

“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin”—Kafka, The Metamorphosis. This is one of the most famous opening lines in all of world literature, but how ‘Kafkaesque’ was Franz Kafka? What are our misconceptions about his life and work? Professor Stanley Corngold, one of the most influential Kafka scholars, introduces us to an “athlete of anguish”.

The Scariest Books, recommended by Xavier Aldana Reyes

Whether you’re scared most by graphic body horror, the uncategorisable, or the blurring of boundaries between supernatural menace and psychological unraveling, this list will have something for you. Reflecting on the complex nature of fear, Xavier Aldana Reyes surveys the best modern horror and explores whether the genre might offer consolation as well as terror.

The Best Mystery Books, recommended by David Baldacci

The best mystery books are completely unputdownable and addictive, the entertainment they provide more portable than watching TV and so much more satisfying than looking at your phone. Bestselling author David Baldacci, one of the masters of the genre and a passionate advocate for literacy and reading, talks us through some of the best mystery books ever written—as well as the contemporary authors he most admires.

The best books on Verdi, recommended by Francesco Izzo

Nearly everyone knows the photo of Verdi’s funeral, the streets of Milan packed with people paying homage to the great composer. How did the son of an innkeeper from Le Roncole become not only one of the most famous opera composers of all time but also a prominent symbol of Italy’s Risorgimento? Verdi expert Francesco Izzo discusses the books to read to best understand the man, the myths, and the music.

The best books on The History of Science and Religion, recommended by Peter Harrison

Have science and religion been fundamentally at war throughout history? Are they incompatible? Has religion always held back scientific progress? These views may seem intuitive but few historians would defend them. Professor Peter Harrison looks at the complexity of science-religion interactions, including the cases of Galileo and Darwin, and considers how we frame the debate.

The best books on Justice and the Law, recommended by The Secret Barrister

The English legal system is struggling to ensure justice. Drastic government cuts and disastrous reforms have led to innocent people being let down by the system again and again. Reporting anonymously from the front line, The Secret Barrister sees it as their duty to keep the public informed. Here they discuss the books that have shaped the way they think about justice and its relation to the law.

The best books on Chernobyl, recommended by Kate Brown

While widely regarded as the world’s worst nuclear accident, Chernobyl’s legacy remains fiercely contested, with death tolls ranging from 31 to 200,000. MIT historian Kate Brown, who has spent years in the Chernobyl archives, picks the best books on the disaster, compares its impact with atomic bomb testing, and argues for more research into low-dose radiation exposure

The best books on Swearing, recommended by Melissa Mohr

Linguistically, swear words are unique—they can shock and offend, are processed differently in the brain, and saying them may allow you to withstand pain for longer. But where do they get their distinctive power? And how has this changed over time? Melissa Mohr gives us a badmouthed tour of the best fucking books on swearing . . .

The Best Philosophy of Science Books, recommended by Stathis Psillos

Science is often held to give us the best insight into the nature of reality, with a prestige unmatched in other disciplines. But what is the scientific method and how does it operate? Does it give us objective knowledge or does it just ‘work’? And if an electron is an “unobservable entity”, why should we believe that they exist? Professor Stathis Psillos gives a detailed look at the philosophy of science

Robert S Miola on Shakespeare’s Sources

William Shakespeare has a strong claim to be the most influential writer of all time. But whose works influenced him? And how? Robert S Miola discusses the breadth of Shakespeare’s reading, the vexed question of how we can reconstruct what he read, and the staggeringly innovative ways that Shakespeare shaped his sources

The Best Voltaire Books, recommended by Nicholas Cronk

The eighteenth-century philosopher wielded his powers of ridicule and witticism against religious fanatics—but always championed free speech and religious toleration. He was also a historian, scientist, poet, playwright, and political activist. Nicholas Cronk, General Editor of the Complete Works of Voltaire gives a detailed look at the polymathic philosophe.

The best books on Death, recommended by Sue Black

As one of the most distinguished forensic anthropologists and human anatomists in the world, Professor Dame Sue Black has spent her working life in close proximity to death. Here she discusses the history of corpses supplied to anatomy houses, the misleading nature of shows like CSI, and how she intends to keep on teaching after her own death: by bequeathing her body.

Andrew Graham-Dixon on His Favourite Art Books

Art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon takes us through his favourite art books, one of which is the best thing he has ever read about art. He contends that Monet is a follower of Turner, reflects on how the purpose of history of art has changed, and introduces us to the diaries of an “astonishingly bad” painter which reveal him to be one of the nineteenth century’s greatest prose writers.

The Best Samuel Beckett Books, recommended by Mark Nixon

Samuel Beckett remains one of the most significant writers of the twentieth century. Ruthlessly experimental, his plays, novels, and poems represent a sustained attack on the realist tradition. Dr Mark Nixon looks at the mutating nature of Beckett’s literary style and explains why he didn’t choose Waiting for Godot.

The Best Music Books of 2018, recommended by Laura Snapes

From a social history of the sexual and racial dynamics at play in American pop music to a meditation on how we consume music in the digital age, deputy music editor at The Guardian, Laura Snapes, picks the best music books of 2018.

The best books on Wittgenstein, recommended by Peter Hacker

A pioneering figure in analytic philosophy, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) is a clear example of philosophical genius. A profoundly intense, tortured, and solitary man, he produced two masterpieces of philosophy with fundamentally opposed views of language — both of which have been wildly influential. Peter Hacker introduces us to perhaps the most important philosopher since Kant, and explains why Wittgenstein would be horrified by Noam Chomsky.

The Best Hegel Books, recommended by Stephen Houlgate

G W F Hegel is one of the most divisive figures in western philosophy. He influenced Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Adorno and countless others. And yet, he is seen as perhaps the most obscure and inaccessible philosopher to read. Is he worth engaging with? How should we read him? Stephen Houlgate, a philosopher at Warwick University, gives us an in-depth look at Hegel.

The best books on Arguments for the Existence of God, recommended by Edward Feser

Is the existence of God incompatible with evil? What is the difference between ‘classical theism’ and ‘theistic personalism’? What is the best argument against there being a God?  From Aristotle through Aquinas to the present, philosopher Edward Feser gives an in-depth look at arguments for the existence of God.

The best books on Wagner, recommended by Michael Tanner

Richard Wagner’s works are as immense as they are influential: the four-part, 15-hour saga Der Ring des Nibelungen is the most analysed opera of all time. And yet, Wagner was arrogant and virulently anti-semitic. Can we separate the musical genius from the man? Opera critic Michael Tanner recommends the best books on Wagner.

The best books on Foucault, recommended by Gary Gutting

“Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same,” wrote Michel Foucault; a brilliant transdisciplinarian whose work spanned philosophy, history, social theory and literary criticism. He mined past ways of thinking so as to see present-day assumptions and practices afresh, explains the philosopher Gary Gutting.

The best books on The Marquis de Sade, recommended by Will McMorran

The word ‘sadism’ derives from the Marquis de Sade, the infamous 18th century French aristocrat. His works such as Justine and The 120 Days of Sodom are profoundly disturbing, retaining the ability to shock, disgust, and unsettle. Will McMorran, Sade’s translator, looks at the way Sade destabilises the idea of benevolent narrators, and how we must remain ethically engaged when reading him