By Rebekah Hunt
As the middle of summer approaches, people are getting ready to go on vacation (or are already on vacation, if they don’t go to summer school like I do). Anticipating the free time we’ve suddenly got, many of us are thinking about leisure activities like camping and going to the beach, or if you’re a huge nerd like me, reading for fun! The internet is absolutely chock-full of summer reading lists. However, I am constantly disappointed by the lightweight, pop-lit content of these lists. If we don’t want our brains to atrophy while we soak in the sunshine, we should probably read something intellectually stimulating. I’ve compiled a list of amazing, novel, bizarre, and interesting books guaranteed to keep your brain as bright as your glowing beach tan!
The Consolation of Philosophy
Boethius (A.D. 524)
Sixth-century Roman philosopher Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius’ The Consolation of Philosophy is the last great Western work of the Classical Period. He wrote it while in exile awaiting execution on a trumped-up treason charge, and it was the last effort in his lifelong struggle to preserve ancient classical knowledge, particularly philosophy. It is written as an imaginary dialogue between himself and philosophy, personified as a woman.
The book argues that despite the apparent inequality of the world, there is, in Platonic fashion, a higher power and that everything else is secondary to that divine providence. While not explicitly Christian, it is considered to be the single most important and influential work in the West on Medieval and early Renaissance Christian philosophy.
The Liber Monstrorum
Possibly Aldhelm, et al. (late-seventh or early-eighth century)
The Liber Monstrorum is an Anglo-Latin catalogue of marvellous and fantastic creatures, which may be connected with the incredibly important and influential Anglo-Saxon scholar Aldhelm. It is transmitted in several manuscripts from the ninth and tenth centuries, but is often studied in connection with the far more popular Beowulf, since the Liber makes reference to some of the same people, including King Hygelac of the Geats.
This old English text is short enough to read while waiting for a bus, but offers a brilliant, thrilling, and often hilarious glimpse into the terrors that people believed walked the earth, and their ideas about things that actually did: from elephants and leopards to Minotaurs and Titans. For example, “…next to the river Euphrates they write that there is an animal which is called antelope, because with its long horns which have the shape of a saw it cuts through mighty oaks and fells them to the ground.” Amazing!
Hartmann Schedel (1493)
Hartmann Schedel was a German physician, humanist, historian, and one of the first cartographers to use the printing press. His Chronicarum (popularly known as the Nuremburg Chronicle, for where it was written) is an illustrated world history, in which the contents are divided into seven ages (First age: from creation to the Deluge; Second age: up to the birth of Abraham; Third age: up to King David; Fourth age: up to the Babylonian captivity; Fifth age: up to the birth of Jesus Christ; Sixth age: up to the present time; Seventh age: outlook on the end of the world and the Last Judgement). The Chronicarum’s beautiful maps were the first ever illustrations of many cities and countries, and are definitely worth looking over as an important piece of history and art.
While admittedly a short story rather than a full book, French philosopher and satirist Voltaire’s Micromégas (available as a free ebook!) is more than deserving of a place in this list. It is a significant development in the history of literature because, along with his story Plato’s Dream, it is a seminal work in the genre of science fiction. It recounts the visit to Earth of Micromégas, a being from a planet circling the star Sirius, and of his companion from the planet Saturn.
The home world of Micromégas is 21.6 million times greater in circumference than the Earth, and he stands 20,000 feet tall. He is banished from his world for writing a scientific book about insects, and takes the opportunity to travel around the Universe in a quest to develop his intellect and spirit. Micromégas and his friend wind up encountering humans, who test the philosophies of Aristotle, Descartes, Malebranche, Leibniz, and Locke against the travelers’ wisdom. I won’t spoil the ending because it’s pretty awesome, and if you’ve never laughed at jokes created before the electric light bulb, you’ve basically never lived.
Image by Anne Adrian. Used with permission under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.