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Read on a Beach

David Cowles

Jul 15, 2023

“Tell us what you did (read) on your summer vacation!”

Sorry, it’s not ‘Sex on the Beach’, nor is it a steamy page turned. But at a time when most folks are craving romance and comedy, I know that our loyal readers are pining for some ontology and cosmology to help them while away the long summer days.

With that in mind, I thought that a list of beach reads might not go awry. But let’s make it interesting. No anthologies! So, for example, The Bible doesn’t qualify. If you want to read scripture this summer, you’ll have to do it book by book. Same with Plato’s Dialogues, the Collected Works of William Shakespeare, etc. Exception: anthologies of poems by a single author.

Speaking of beaches, we all expect to come home from our waterfront retreats in time for fall. But what if we don’t? What if circumstances are such that each of us ends up having to spend the remainder of her life on her own private islands? Better pack something a bit more engaging than When Harry Loved Sally.   

“How many books can I pack?” Good question. Now you’re getting it! How many books can you carry? Let’s impose an absolute limit of 10 – a required core of 4, plus up to 6 electives. Here’s the core (don’t leave civilization without these 4 works in tow): 

#1) The Gospel of John (The Evangelist) – an excellent summary and exposition of Judeo-Christian theology and a groundbreaking work of philosophy on its own, wrapped-up in an incredibly simple and poetic Greek. Read it in the original if you can! (It’s worth learning Greek just for this!)

#2) Process and Reality (Alfred North Whitehead) – Whitehead carries the Johannine sensibility into the arena of 20th century philosophy…and beyond. To date, at least, this 100-year-old work is our last best attempt at Systematic Philosophy – a ‘Theory of Everything.’ (TOE).

#3) Being and Nothingness (Jean-Paul Sartre) – An avowed atheist, Sartre probably never read Whitehead and, as far as I know, never referred to the Gospel of John in his writings. Nevertheless, he plows the same field, albeit from a different angle.

#4) Ulysses (James Joyce) – It is said that the English novel was born in London (Fielding?) and died in Dublin. A strong case can be made that Ulysses is the ultimate expression of the novel as an art form – that nothing remains to be said in this medium. 

Joyce’s great work is fractal; its structure is the same at every scale. Each episode, like one of Leibniz’ Monads, is a reflection of the whole. Superficially, Joyce rhymes events in Dublin, imagined to have happened on June 16, 1904 (Bloomsday), with the adventures of Odysseus, 3 millennia earlier (The Odyssey). 

But Joyce’s ‘rhyme scheme’ is much more elaborate than that. He rhymes-in much of what we know as ‘Western Civ’. For example, Ulysses follows the contours of Roman Catholic Liturgy. 

Not a believer himself, Joyce does not limit Incarnation to an event that occurred in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago; he does not even limit it to what takes place on the altar every day at every Mass (transubstantiation). For Joyce, Incarnation is what is, and so he echoes Exodus 3:14 – “I am what am!” Odysseus is every man, as is Jesus, as is Bloom! 

Joyce and Whitehead, contemporaries creating in different media, tell a common tale: the whole is present in each and every part, just as each and every part is present in the whole. As such and with full irony, Ulysses is perhaps the clearest statement of Roman Catholic cosmology formulated in the 20th century!

That’s the core. Leave out anyone at your peril, but now on to the electives. What’s your passion?

  • Want more Scripture? Try Job, Ecclesiastes, and Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. 

  • More World Civ? Ezra Pound’s Cantos. It’s Joyce on steroids! (BTW, Pound was a ‘daily communicant’ during his time in Pisa.)

  • More philosophy? Learned Ignorance by Nicholas of Cusa (c. 1450), Being and Time by Martin Heidegger.

  • Politics? Mikhail Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy; John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice.

  • Drama? Shakespeare’s King Lear and The Tempest.  

  • The classics? You guessed it: Homer’s Odyssey

  • Poetry? Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, and Thomas Aquinas (the latter preferably in the original Latin). 

  • Post Joycean fiction? Yes, there are some worth reading, especially Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Djinn (the latter is short, which is good because you’ll need to read it at least twice). 

What have I missed? Share your summer adventures with the Aletheia Today community. Tell us what you did (read) on your summer vacation! React!


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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