Quantum Libraries

I recently began rereading my copy Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty II, the third volume in Burton Watson‘s translation of Sima Qian‘s famous Shiji. I have made it something of a goal to reread at least one portion of Sima Qian’s record every year. As I began this year’s reading my thoughts turned to a post Mark Safranski wrote several years ago about his “Quantum Library.” [1] In essence, “quantum library” is a term used to describe all of the books and articles that, no matter how often they are returned to, provide fresh insights and new knowledge. They are the books that can be read and reread and then reread again without exhausting their contents.

My quantum library copy 
of Democracy in America.

Some people do not reread books: with so many other books in the world yet unread it can seem like a waste of time to return to old favorites. This attitude is both common and regrettable. In defense of rereading, I have found two arguments to be particularly convincing: 1) It is far more rewarding to master a masterwork than it is to finish four or five more lackluster titles; 2) Many of the books we read spend our time reading have a short shelf life. “Keeping up with the literature” is a task that never ends, but if a book is good enough to read two or three times then you can be sure that the knowledge or inspiration you gain from reading it will still be valuable several decades down the line.

 My quantum library is below. There are books I have read whose worth merits a place on this list (Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian WarThe Secret History of the Mongols, Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and numerous novels by Joseph Conrad come to mind) but I cannot include them because I have only read them once. Likewise, there are works that I love and have read on multiple occasions (Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice, “The Devil and Daniel Webster) that I do not include because they are reread more for entertainment than for enlightenment. 


The Standard Works of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, especially the New Testament and the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ.

Preach My Gospel: A Guide to Missionary Service.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America.

James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers .

Theodore Roosevelt, The Free Citizen: A Summons to the Service of the Democratic Ideal (ed.) by Herman Hagedorn.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.

Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian.

Various Authors, Seven Military Classics of Ancient China.

Xunzi, Xunzi.

 Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddihmah.
Azar Gat, War in Human Civilization.
Vaclav Smil, Energy in Nature and Society: General Energetics of Complex System.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451.

Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons.

Robert W. Service, The Collected Poems of Robert W. Service.


Talks (sermons) by: Dallin H. Oakes, “The Challenge to Become,”; David Bednar, “Seek Learning by Faith“;  Richard G. Scott, “The Transforming Power of Faith and Character,”; D. Todd Christopherson, “Justification and Sanctification,“; Brad Wilcox, “His Grace is Sufficient,”; A. Legrand and Cindy Richard’s, “Parables and Promises: An Approach to Learning by Faith.

Seneca, “De Providentia,”and selected letters.

Hyrum W. Smith, “Self Worth.[2]

Ashwin Paramsweran, “All Systems Need a Little Disorder.”  

Constitution of the United States.

Various essays and articles prepared by Clayton Christensen for the Massachusetts-Cambridge Stake ‘stake missionary’ program. Many of these articles (but not all of them) have been published on the website missionaryleaders.org.


Rod Serling’s  The Twilight Zone (1959-1964).

Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko’s children’s show Avatar the Last Airbender (2005-2008).

Errol Morris’ Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert McNamara (2003).

I am curious what books the readers of the Stage would include in their quantum libraries. A few friends of this blog, like Lynn Rees, Michael Lotus, and Adam Elkus, posted their lists in the comment thread of the original quantum library post referenced above. However, there are plenty of people in this corner of the blogosphere who were not present for that discussion. I would be very interested in seeing what titles make it into the quantum libraries of Ashwin Parameswaran, Bryn Hammond, John Kranz, LFC, Charles Cameron, commenters Ishaan and A.E. Clark, Isegoria Adam G. and the boys at Jr. GanymedeNick Nielson, Pseudoerasmus, and if they are still around, Martin Hewson and YT. If you have the time and feel like sharing, please consider doing so. Of course, other readers are welcome to post their lists as well!

EDIT (1 Aug 2014): See the response posts at JrGanymede and Isegoria.


[1] Mark Safranski, “My Quantum Library,” Zenpundit (10 October 2008). For the origin of the term see this archived Innovationist post

[2] This is not the full devotional, just a selection of it. I have in my personal belongings a copy that is 20 minutes longer or so but have not been able to find a version of this online.

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I could not agree with you more: it is eminently worthwhile to master a small number of books to which one returns repeatedly throughout one's life. Poetry especially bears re-reading as one ages. There is a passage in Hegel where he writes about the difference between a young child and an old man reciting a prayer (cf. http://geopolicraticus.tumblr.com/post/4172002291/russell-on-hegel-on-prayer), and this is not only true of prayers.

That being said, my "quantum library" includes, inter alia, Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals, Sartre's essay "Existentialism is a Humanism," Barbara Tuchmann's The Guns of August, and any papers by Einstein or Gödel.


I believe I But that was before I started re-reading books…

@Nick- The Hegel quote is on point! On a similar note, I remember reading/hearing somewhere that everybody should Moby Dick at least three times in their life, once as a young man, once in middle age, and once while old. The experience you will have reading the book, and most especially the characters with whom you empathize most, will change with each reading.

Food for thought.

Inexhaustible books: I am with you. I cannot like the conception of ‘short shelf-life books’ and have always believed it more worthwhile to read a masterpiece five times than to read five lesser books.
Dostoyevsky crowds out my fiction list. I don’t feel I waste my time to read Karamazov again instead of another great.

Dostoyevsky The Brothers Karamazov
Dostoyevsky The Idiot
Dostoyevsky Crime and Punishment
Melville Moby Dick

Beowulf (not in translation, sorry)
Malory, Morte d’Arthur
Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene
Shakespeare: Hamlet, Lear, Coriolanus, Othello, Winter’s Tale
The Secret History of the Mongols (I’ll add that one for you)

Things I’d like to add but haven’t read often enough:
George Steiner, Death of Tragedy
Manas, the Kyrgyz oral epic
It’s possible I’ll want to name The Forest of Hours by Kerstin Ekman when I read it more than twice. She’d be the only living author.

I've kept it short and haven't mentioned poems.


A good, literary list.

I have many times looked at a copy of Brothers Karamazov on the library shelf and thought of picking it up. One thing that has always deterred me is fear that whatever copy I see in the library is an inferior translation. Brothers reputation is so great that I want to read the best available. What translation do you prefer?

A related question — where does one read The Epic of Manas? It seems that the Silk Road Foundation has a version, but is that available in print (or even PDF…) form?

correction: by my last sentence I meant short, probably modern poems.

T, in translations of The Brothers Karamazov, my own preference is David McDuff (Penguin), while I have Ignat Avsey (Oxford) lined up — he sounds an interesting option. However, I discovered the book in the Constance Garnett revised by Ralph E. Matlaw (Norton), and this did me no harm. The Pevear and Volokhonsky I didn't find as 'different' as bruited. I found the McDuff more different and revelatory than what I'd known before. I've nothing to say against the P&V, though, and dislike none of them.

Manas has been put into a book by A.T. Hatto, The Manas of Wilhelm Radloff, Otto Harrassowitz, Weisbaden, 1990. Wilhelm Radloff being the Russian who recorded 19th century performances.

The online Manas you link to is a very different beast from what Hatto gives up. Because it's an oral tradition, there is no fixed text… The online, I think, has a more elaborate 20th century rendition, while Hatto used the earliest recordings and did not approve of 20th century improvisations. (I'd argue, it's a living oral tradition and didn't stop dead in the 19th century).

Just saying, because I love the online myself. I printed it out. It's only the early sections. I hope it's to be continued but don't know. Neither Hatto nor the online even tries to put it into English verse.

Valuable. Really great, in fact!

You too on Pride and Prejudice? I thought I was the only sane man in the world. But you are underselling the book and your own experience of it if you think that it's only for entertainment. There is an intellectual learning, but there is also the kind of learning that comes from beauty and sympathy. I re-read Pride and Prejudice because I'm not done refining my soul. When you see what I mean and pay attention, you will notice that there is a distinct difference between simple entertainment and the kind of work that is literally elevating.

Persuasion, by Austen.
The Aubrey-Maturin books, Golden Ocean, and Richard Temple, by O'Brian. They skew a little bit more in the entertainment direction, but I find myself suppressing the urge to write essays about the truth of the human condition while I'm reading them, so they count. Reading the Golden Ocean was literally a revelatory experience for me.
The movie Master and Commander is also on the list for me.

While I'm thinking of movies, Casablanca, It's a Wonderful Life, which has a lot of schmaltz but almost because of the schmaltz is pretty bittersweet, maybe almost grim. The 6-hour Pride and Prejudice BBC version. Paltrow's Emma, which for me shines perhaps a little brighter than the book.
You’ve hit most of the LDS-specific material. I’d add the temple endowment. I just learned a lot last Friday about entropy and the phenomenon of ark-steadying, though I’ve been in it for years.
I honestly don’t think that Romance of the Three Kingdoms belongs. Maybe you have to be Chinese to appreciate it. To me it read like an old-fashioned buttkicking serial adventure story. I’m sure I missed lots, but even so.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

The Lord of the Rings – besides the beauty, there is considerable intellectual depth there that I am now discovering.

The First Circle, by Solzhenitsyn. The Gulag Archipelago too, but especially the First Circle. I’m starting the Red Wheel now. I think it will probably go on the list.

The Last of All Suns and City Beyond Time, by John C. Wright.

The Face of Battle, by Keegan
For Cause and Comrades, McPherson
The classic Civil War epics. Take your pick: McPherson, Foote, Catton
Of Plagues and Peoples

C.S. Lewis. Yes, including the kid’s stuff. But especially the Great Divorce, Perelandra, and Till We Have Faces. A Grief Observed should be on here, but it’s too hard to reread.

Reflections on the Revolution in France, by Burke

Poems I reread and think about: Benet’s American Names, Lewis’ Cliché Came Out of Its Cage, and Arnold’s the Sea of Faith
I’ll put this up at the JG and see what responses I get.

Oh, and Tuchmann's the Distant Mirror and the Churchill Bio the Last Lion are ones that I keep rereading, though whether for entertainment or enlightenment, I can't say.

I also reread the Perfection of the West, but whether that's for enlightenment or for mourning John C. Reilly, whom I deeply miss, I cannot say.

I have a deep appreciation for Austen’s style and message. I once read somewhere (I now forget where) that Austen is to the English novel what Mozart is to the classical composition: perfection. When one listens to Mozart every note seems delicate, planned, and just perfectly placed – a trait shared with every word in an Austen novel. Both find beauty’s greatest expression in the marriage of structure and elegance – they do not need the grand bombastics of Beethoven or the raw, brooding passion of a Bronte to touch a heart and move the soul. With the gentle moments of everyday life they find the sublime.

Austen is an edifying writer. At times I find her instructive – the following quote I have copied many times, hoping to internalize and memorize it:

"How despicably I have acted!" she cried; "I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our aquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself."

(from Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter XXXVI)

I share with Elizabeth a gift for discerning the desires and intentions of others I meet; I also share the crippling temptation to rely blindly on the judgments I then make! I try to keep her admission of folly close to my heart that I may not make the same mistake.

So no, I don’t think is only for entertainment. Looking back on it seems that I should properly divide books reread into three categories: those read again for the sake of “intellectual learning,” as you say it, or perhaps or poetically, the books that enlighten; books reread for purely for amusement or escape, the books that entertain; and last of all, books that gives us snap shots of the beautiful or sublime, that increase our capacity to feel sorrow for the sorrowful or inspire us to the greater deeds of greater men – or in short, the books that edify.

In some cases the lines between these categories may blur. But I put P&P squarely in the last category.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms, on the other hand, I would place in the first two categories. Three Kingdoms reads like a paradox – it is a book of both sweeping vistas and ceaseless tedium, glory on the grandest scale filtered through a convoluted succession of events and characters hard for anyone to follow, made even more inscrutable for Western readers by the arcane geography and culture of the novel’s setting. East Asians have it a bit easier, for the novel’s scenes, characters, and locales are so imbued in popular culture that even those who have never touched the book – or any book – in their life can give you a fair summary of its contents. But if you know these things – and can keep track of the Chinese names, another challenge for Western readers – certain patterns and themes emerge which are easy to miss if events are taken out of their broader context.

Still Luo Guanzhong does not have the same sort of presence in his text that Austen has in hers. If edification is what you seek then this is probably the wrong book to read. Part of my interest in the book is purely historical. They say Three Kingdoms is two parts true and one part fiction, and it is obvious that the villains and heroes of the story were morally ambiguous figures in real life. But the dilemmas and choices they faced are portrayed real enough, and I have benefited from slowing down and asking at the chapter break what the entire political situation of the empire looked like at that time and what options each warlord had moving forward. Just as interesting to me is how these decisions and strategies have been preserved (and warped!) by the author of the Luo (and by extension, Chinese culture at large). I’ve spent countless hours reflecting on and studying how Chinese throughout history have perceived problems of power and strategy, and the way Three Kingdoms presents the decisions made in that era cuts straight to the heart of all this.

But I can understand how one not as invested as I am in this topic will not find the book as thought provoking as I have.

I just reread Lord of the Rings last month actually. I cannot decide just where I put it. I remember how much impact it had on me the first time I read it (at the end of 5th grade). I balled my eyes out. My parents came to see why I was crying. My father, who had grown up with the series himself, was sympathetic. My mother, who had never touched the books, just laughed!

I’ve reread it a few times since then, but this was the first time in five or so years. For the first time I really paid attention to the poems and the songs included. I was surprised by how many symbols and small details chocked full of meaning I had missed in earlier readings and amazed at the depth of Tolkien’s world. I am quite sure there is not a hill in Middle Earth that does not have a name, and if you asked Tolkein about it he could tell you not only its name but everything that had transpired there in the 2,000 years preceding it. But he only hints at these things in the book itself. The amount of restraint it must have taken to limit the narrative to the tip of the ice berg is amazing (and more fantasy authors *cough*Bryan Sanderson*cough* would do well to follow his example!).

But I also felt like the book has lost much of its magic for me. Emotionally it does not hold the same resonance that it once did. It was pleasant, interesting, but I did not come away from it with many new insights (accept for a few on how to write fiction effectively). Nor did I feel particularly inspired or ennobled by this reading.

P.S. Also like Emma the movie better than the book. Emma set the template for romantic comedies before those were a thing, but I felt the same discomfort while reading it I do whenever I watch them. Watching a romantic comedy is like watching an approaching train wreck. After the main characters are introduced the characters are soon set off in a direction that the audiences know is doomed for disaster but that the characters themselves never seem to fathom. The emotional reaction these works try to elicit is the laugh and the cringe. In a movie that is ok, but in 200 pages of 18th century English it can be a bit too much. The cringe is 100 pages long. You are not just watching a train trek – you are watching a train wreck in slow motion.

Around page 160 I got tired of cringing, and decided to go pop in the (shorter!) movie instead.

I'm flattered that you consider my essay worth re-reading.

Books that I can recall off the top of my head in my "quantum library" –

James Scott "Seeing like a State",
William McNeill "Plagues and Peoples",
Zhuangzi (Burton Watson translation),

C.S. Holling "Resilience and stability of ecological systems",
"Engineering resilience versus ecological resilience".

There is no question that the Three Kingdoms is one of the great works of Chinese civilization, so I am perfectly willing to believe that the fault is in me, not in it.

On the Lord of the Rings, I came down on the enlightenment/edification side after realizing that the distinction between the eternal fate of elves and of men/hobbits had some illuminating parallels to the distinction between the Celestial kingdom and the other degrees of glory. Which by itself wouldn't be so much, until I realized that the distinction ws present throughout the works, tied to larger themes that were and are pretty poignant to me about how trying to preserve the good can sometimes result in its destruction. but at the same time, I sometimes feel like the LOTR is not a work of the first rank, and I'm not sure why. I have been pretty puzzled the last few years to find myself preferring the Hobbit.

@T Greer

My reading is nearly-all re-reading- and only a relatively small proportion of my reading is of new stuff. For example, when I go on holiday, I often find that I have brought only books I already know.

So, I am continually re-reading the Inklings (Tolkien, Lewis etc), Thoreau and Emerson, Chaucer (and middle English poems) and Robert Frost…

And among fiction, Salinger's Glass family saga, those of Terry Pratchett's fantasy comedies that focus on the witches, Lloyd Alexander's Taran fantasies, Harry Potter, and (this may be relevant to a Jane Austen fan) the novels of Barbara Pym (all the early ones including the posthumously published gems of Civil to Strangers, Crampton Hodnet and an Unsuitable Attachment but not the last four) – indeed I am re-reading the Pym novels aloud to my wife (last thing at night) for the second time (plus my own individual re-readings between).

I haven't been a Christian long enough to know which are the classics there – Pascal's Pensees may turn out to be, and maybe McMurrin's Mormon theology – I have already read the Givens's God that Weeps three or four times…

In scripture, I find myself equally prone to re-read particular parts. In the King James Bible the Psalms, Gospel of John and first Letter of John. I am a BoM novice but already find myself inclined to recur to a few favourite parts.

In philosophy, I fairly often return to William James, Colin Wilson; and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was a favourite for many years – although there was a seven year gap since I last read it before doing so a couple of months ago (in fact I listened to it read aloud on audiobook).

Samuel Johnson is a special favourite…

In sum, my long term tastes could be described as Middlebrow – and few of the Highbrow authors have proved to be worthy of multiple re-readings – whether in philosophy, poetry, novels or whatever.

My list, off the top of my head, would have to include:

Hermann Hesse, the Glass Bead Game, since I've devoted twenty odd years of my life to developing a playable variant of the game Hesse hints at.

Henry Corbin, Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi, possibly the most demanding book I've ever read, and

Anon, Meditations on the Tarot, an amazing work blending hermetic esotericism with Catholic theology, not that I agree with it at all point, but because three pages are a feast.

A handful of books that have defined poetry for me:

Robert Graves, The White Goddess
Elizabeth Sewell, The Orphic Voice

The poets themselves:

Hopkins, Yeats, Blake..
Rumi (in the Arberry translations), Kabir (in the Linda Hess versions), Han Shan (Snyder or Red Pine)

And then a couple of others for good measure:

Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language
John Farella, The Main Stalk