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Lionel Trilling and Allen Ginsberg: Liberal Father, Radical Son

ISSUE:  Summer 2009

A column-fronted building at Columbia University, with a budding tree in the foreground.

Min Lee / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the spring of 1944, as the Second World War neared its turning point, the first skirmishes of the generational battle that would define postwar America were taking place in a lecture hall at Columbia University. When Allen Ginsberg, then a seventeen-year-old freshman, signed up to study the Great Books with Lionel Trilling, neither one of them could have suspected that they were about to begin a lifelong friendship that was also a mortal combat—over literature and politics, morality and maturity, liberalism and radicalism. The Sixties, historians have variously said, started with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, or the Montgomery Bus Boycott, or Elvis Presley’s appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. But a good case can be made that the Sixties really began when Ginsberg walked into Trilling’s classroom.

Years later, Ginsberg recalled that Trilling took a special interest in him from the start. During the war years, Columbia, like all American universities, was overloaded with officer training candidates; most of these had no real interest in Trilling’s thoughts on the Great Books, but in Ginsberg, the eminent critic and intellectual found a student who was already an aspiring writer. Ginsberg also later suggested that “I was probably closest to Trilling because we were both Jewish and he sort of empathized with me.” It was just over a decade since Trilling had overcome the WASP legacy of Columbia’s English Department to become its first tenured Jewish professor, and while he always maintained a certain distance from his own Jewishness, it is certainly plausible that Trilling might have taken a special interest in this precocious Jewish student from provincial Newark, New Jersey.

Ginsberg’s time at Columbia would turn out to be largely unhappy. Looking back, he complained to the poet and fellow alumnus John Hollander about

the whole horror of Columbia, there just was nobody there . . . who had a serious involvement with advanced work in poetry. Just a bunch of dilettantes. And THEY have the nerve to set themselves up as guardians of culture? Why it’s such a piece of effrontery—enough to make anyone paranoiac, it’s a miracle Jack [Kerouac] or myself or anybody independent survived—tho god knows the toll in paranoia been high enough.

But it was not just disagreements about poetry that made Ginsberg feel out of place at the college. As an undergraduate, he found himself involved in two notorious campus scandals, which ended in his being forced to withdraw from Columbia for a year. The first, and by far the more serious one, came in 1944, when one of Ginsberg’s best friends, a student named Lucien Carr, murdered a man named David Kammerer, who was pursuing him in a way that we would now refer to as stalking. After the murder, Carr immediately confided in another of Ginsberg’s closest friends, Jack Kerouac, who helped him get rid of the murder weapon and the victim’s eyeglasses. The next day, Carr confessed to the crime, and because of the circumstances—because his attack on Kammerer could be portrayed as a young man defending himself against a homosexual predator, though in fact their relationship was much more intimate and complex than that—Carr ended up serving only two years in a reformatory.

Ginsberg was not as directly implicated in the scandal as Kerouac, who was a Columbia dropout. But he was very close to both Carr and Kerouac—he visited Carr in jail, bringing him a copy of “Dead Souls” to read—and campus gossip connected him to the whole affair. It was especially devastating to Ginsberg because of the role of homosexuality in the scandal, just as he was trying to come to terms with being gay. (Ginsberg admitted his homosexuality to his draft board, a rare thing to do in the 1940s, and was graded 4-F as a result.)

The second scandal, the one that got Ginsberg suspended from Columbia, was indirectly related to the first one, but much more trivial. Here is how he described it in a letter he wrote in 1979, thirty-four years after the events in question:

What I finger-traced in dust on Livingston Hall dorm window to attract attention and cause window-cleaning by Irish lady whom I sophomorically contemned as inattentive to her duty to a window thick enough with dust to write on was as follows:


[2 drawings]


The first slogan was paraphrased from a local “Barnard” song “No balls at all/No balls at all/She married a man who had no balls at all.” The second slogan, jejune as it was, was also in the mode of college humor aimed at the cleaning lady who I thought was, being Irish, anti-Semitic, and therefore maybe not cleaning up my room. The drawing was a cock and balls and also (unless my memory’s mistaken on this final detail only) a death’s head.

I wouldn’t have thought the matter of serious importance but the cleaning lady, who did apparently have some edge of querulousness, reported these dusty terrors to the authorities instead of cleaning the window and obliterating any evidence of my evident depravity.

As it happened that very weekend Jack Kerouac who’s been banned from setting foot on the campus as an “unwholesome influence” on his friends . . . came to see me. . . . We talked of life and art long into the night, and as it was too late for him to return to Ozone Park he bedded down with me, chastely as it happens, since I was a complete virgin, much too shy to acknowledge loves that dare not speak names, as far as I understood, on that campus, in that time and of that place.

Morning came and with it a Dean of Student–Faculty Relations coach to athletic department and football team that Kerouac had quit to study poesy . . . who rapped loudly on the suite entrance, then burst in the unlocked door, we were still snoozing innocent in bed. Kerouac opened an eye, saw the enemy coach loose in the dorm-suite jumped out of bed in his skivvies, rushed into the entrance room and jumped into the bed there . . . leaving me alone trembling bare legged in my underwear to face the fury of the assistant dean who pointed angrily at the window and demanded: “Who is responsible, who did this?” “Me,” I admitted my guilt and he insisted, “Wipe that off immediately.” . . . I was wanted in the Dean’s office in an hour. Entering Dean McKnight’s office he greeted me, “Mr. Ginsberg, I hope you realize the enormity of what you’ve done.”

The result of this farcical episode was that Ginsberg was made to withdraw from school for a year.

Ginsberg could be sure that the reader of this letter would notice his allusion to the title of Lionel Trilling’s best-known short story, “Of This Time, Of That Place,” because he was writing to his teacher’s widow, Diana Trilling. Diana Trilling had been a close and hostile observer of Ginsberg’s career ever since he was her husband’s student. For at the same time that Ginsberg was making friends with Beats-in-training like Kerouac and William Burroughs, experimenting with sex and drugs, and making enemies of the Columbia administration, he was also forming a strong and perplexing relationship with Lionel Trilling.

Almost immediately, Ginsberg cast Trilling in the role that he was to play in his mental and emotional life for decades to come: as the father figure, the superego, the embodiment of literature itself. Ginsberg visited Trilling at home and sent him long letters. He even showed him the poems he was writing, which he was afraid to do with his father, Louis Ginsberg, who wrote conventional magazine-style poetry. Ginsberg told Trilling that “my father and I differ so violently on poetic method that I hesitate to ask him for advice and criticism”: in other words, he was asking Trilling to serve in his father’s place. But this wasn’t enough; in 1947, he sent Trilling a letter saying that he was trying to write “fully and directly enough to break down—what is it? Our mutual distrust.”

Trilling, as might be expected, tried to hold this eccentric, passionate student at arm’s length, to preserve some of the teacher-student hierarchy. He replied to Ginsberg’s letter this way: “In itself it is really quite simple: it is that I think our relationship is not intended to be the kind you assume in your letter. Its right condition is set by the original connection between us, that of student and teacher, and by the difference in our ages. . . . If you present your life to me in the manner that you have done, I am willing to receive seriously and affectionately what you tell me, but I can do that only as your teacher and older friend; it would be impossible and pointless for me to reciprocate in anything approaching kind.”

But Trilling could not keep Ginsberg at a comfortable distance, because every time the student got into trouble, he called on his teacher for help. When the Kammerer murder took place, Ginsberg went to Trilling for advice—and also to Mark Van Doren, another favorite professor. More important, when his graffiti got him in trouble, he turned to Trilling to intervene with the Dean. Diana Trilling recalled the episode in her essay “The Other Night at Columbia,” her mordant account of Ginsberg’s poetry reading at Columbia in 1959:

It seems that Ginsberg had traced an obscenity in the dust of a dormitory window; the words were too shocking for the Dean of students to speak, so he had written them on a piece of paper which he pushed across the desk to my husband: “Fuck the Jews.” Even the part of Lionel that wanted to laugh couldn’t; it was too hard for the Dean to have to transmit this message to a Jewish professor—this was still in the forties when being a Jew in the university was not yet what it is today. “But he’s a Jew himself,” said the Dean. “Can you understand his writing a thing like that?” Yes, Lionel could understand; but he couldn’t explain it to the Dean. And anyway, he knew that to appreciate why Ginsberg had traced this particular legend on the window required more than an understanding of Jewish self-hatred . . .”

To Diana Trilling, Ginsberg’s graffiti was self-evidently the product of Jewish self-hatred, though Ginsberg himself insisted that by writing “Fuck the Jews” he was merely trying to bait an anti-Semitic chambermaid. What bothered Diana Trilling most about Ginsberg, however, was not his alleged “Jewish self-hatred.” It was the way he seemed to believe that being a poet gave him special privileges. If it was up to her, the essay makes clear, her husband would not have lifted a finger to protect Ginsberg from the consequences of his actions and his relationships:

Allen Ginsberg had been a student of my husband’s and I had heard about him much more than I usually hear of students for the simple reason that he got into a great deal of trouble which involved his instructors, and had to be rescued and revived and restored; eventually he even had to be kept out of jail. Of course there was always the question, should this young man be rescued, should he be restored? There was even the question, shouldn’t he go to jail? We argued about it some at home but the discussion, I’m afraid, was academic, despite my old resistance to the idea that people like Ginsberg had the right to ask and receive preferential treatment just because they read Rimbaud and Gide and undertook to be writers themselves. . . . Why should I not also defend the expectation that a student at Columbia, even a poet, would do his work, submit it to his teachers through the normal channels of classroom communication, stay out of jail, and, if things went right, graduate, start publishing, be reviewed, and see what developed, whether he was a success or failure?

But Lionel Trilling, as his actions proved, did not share this uncomplicated view of literature as a career in which you progressed by regular steps, like a junior executive racking up promotions. Not only did Trilling help Ginsberg in his difficulties as a student, he even rode to his rescue a third time, in 1949, when Ginsberg had already left Columbia. This was when Ginsberg got arrested for being the accomplice to a thief named Herbert Huncke, one of the lowlifes Ginsberg glamorized as an example of Beat alienation; Ginsberg had allowed Huncke to use his apartment to store stolen goods. Once more Ginsberg’s father turned to Lionel Trilling for help, writing to him: “ever since Allen entered college, your name has been a household word with us. He has read, and we have discussed, your articles (in The Partisan Review, Kenyon Review, etc.) Allen looks up to you with something of veneration.” Trilling helped convince the police to send Ginsberg to a mental hospital rather than to jail. It was during his year at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, on West 168th Street, that Ginsberg met Carl Solomon, the saintly psychotic who was the addressee of “Howl.” In this strange, roundabout way, Trilling made “Howl” possible.

The great irony is that while “Howl” was Ginsberg’s masterpiece, the poem that made him famous and guarantees his place in American literature, Trilling couldn’t stand it. In 1956, Ginsberg sent Trilling a copy of the book of “Howl” that had just been published by City Lights in San Francisco. Trilling wrote back saying, surprisingly enough, that he found the explosive poem “dull.” “As to the doctrinal element of the poems,” he explained, “apart from the fact that I of course reject it, it seems to me that I heard it very long ago and that you give it to me in all its orthodoxy, with nothing new added.”

This was surely the reaction Ginsberg least hoped or wanted to hear. For at many points, “Howl” reads like an explicit attack on Columbia and its intellectual culture, of which Trilling himself was a living symbol. The first strophes of the poem mention “negro streets,” invoking the Harlem neighborhood next to Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus. The poem’s “angelheaded hipsters” are specifically cast as students who rebel against “universities” and “academies.” The faculty, on the other hand, are “scholars of war”—a shorthand attack on the Cold War alliance of anti-Communists in government and academia, of which Trilling was again a prominent example. There is even, perhaps, an allusion to Ginsberg’s notorious dorm-room graffiti when he writes about “obscene odes on the window of the skull”—after all, his obscene writing on the dust of his window was accompanied by a death’s-head.

In place of Columbia’s liberal civilization, Ginsberg hopes to substitute a radically hedonistic culture of youth, music, drugs, and above all, sex: “Howl” famously extols “a vision of ultimate cunt and come eluding the last gyzym of consciousness.” It’s not hard to see why such a poem became tremendously popular at just the time when the youth culture was forming and sexual liberation was on the way. “Howl” can be read simply as an advertisement for fun, for sex, drugs, and rock and roll—that is one reason why young readers liked it, and why older readers like Diana Trilling scorned it. In “The Other Night at Columbia,” she contrasts the earnestly political radicalism of her generation, in the 1930s, with the hedonism of the Beats:

Everyone judged everyone else; it was a time of incessant cruel moral judgment; today’s friend was tomorrow’s enemy; whoever disagreed with oneself had sold out, God knows to or for what. . . . But it was surely a time of quicker, truer feeling than is now conjured up with marijuana or the infantile camaraderie of Kerouac’s On the Road. . . . Ginsberg says he lives in Harlem, but it’s not the Harlem of the Scottsboro Boys and W. C. Handy and the benign insanity of trying to proletarianize Striver’s Row; their comrades are not the comrades of the Stewart Cafeteria [where the radicals gathered to talk in the 1930s] nor yet of the road, as Kerouac would disingenuously have it, but pick-ups on dark morning streets. . . . It is no accident that today in the fifties our single overt manifestation of protest takes the wholly nonpolitical form of a group of panic-stricken kids in blue jeans, many of them publicly homosexual, talking about or taking drugs, assuring us that they are out of their minds, not responsible. . . . Is it any wonder, then, that Time and Life write as they do about the “beats”—with such a conspicuous show of superiority, and no hint of fear? These periodicals know what genuine, dangerous protest looks like, and it doesn’t look like Ginsberg and Kerouac. Clearly, there is no more menace in “Howl” or On the Road than there is in the Scarsdale PTA.

This is rather exaggerated, but it points to an important truth about Ginsberg and the Beat phenomenon. It was perhaps the first example of the commodification of dissent, of turning radicalism into a mere lifestyle choice that posed no real threat to the established order. What Diana Trilling notes here, in 1959, would play out on a much larger scale in the disappointments of the New Left and the hippie movement in the 1960s.

But Ginsberg’s passion and anger makes clear that he, at least, did not see the Beat movement, or “Howl” in particular, as simply advertisements for a hedonistic lifestyle. For all his theatrics and self-indulgences, Ginsberg’s writing was intended to be moral, even prophetic. He took spiritual questions with the utmost seriousness, and he believed that his message, if America could only hear it, would transform our private and public lives.

And if Diana Trilling took issue with Ginsberg’s frivolousness, Lionel Trilling was disturbed by this serious message. It is what we might call, using Trilling’s own term, Ginsberg’s “militant” mysticism. In his essay “Wordsworth and the Rabbis,” Trilling writes that this militancy is the hallmark of modern literature:

With us the basis of spiritual prestige is some form of aggressive action directed outward upon the world, or inward upon ourselves. During the last century and a half this ideal has been especially strong in literature. If the religious personality of preceding times took to itself certain of the marks of military prestige, the literary personality now takes to itself certain of the marks of religious prestige, in particular the capacity for militant suffering.

If modern readers have trouble appreciating Wordsworth, Trilling suggests, this is precisely why. We are more used to a different kind of poetry, the visionary, antinomian kind that Trilling associates with William Blake. “Blake,” he writes in this essay, “suggests . . . the quality of the militancy of most modern writers.” Elsewhere, Trilling writes that “nothing is more characteristic of modern literature than its discovery and canonization of the primal, nonethical energies,” giving as the chief examples Nietzsche’s Dionysus and Blake’s Hell. And in one of his last essays, “Why We Read Jane Austen,” he explicitly associates Blake with the social chaos of the 1960s:

American undergraduates seem to be ever more alienated from the general body of English literature, but they had for some time made an exception of William Blake, pledging him their unquestioning allegiance, and in 1968, when the large majority of the students at my university were either committed to or acquiescent in its disruption, they found him uniquely relevant to their spiritual aspirations.

In the summer of 1948, as Allen Ginsberg was finishing his last credits before graduating Columbia, he had a series of disturbing but exhilarating mystical experiences. The most significant of these came one day when he was masturbating, and at the moment of orgasm he heard what he knew to be the voice of William Blake reciting his poem “Ah, Sunflower.” This was a fitting poem to hear in those particular circumstances—Blake writes about embracing sex and desire, about escaping the pale, pining, repressed earth for the blazing, golden sun. But sex, in Blake, is not just sex. It is bliss and holiness, it is the road to universal communion. And for a moment, in the summer of his twenty-first year, Ginsberg believed that he had experienced the universal oneness that is the goal of mystics in every religious tradition. “These experiences,” he later said, “because of their absolute and eternal nature [became] . . . the keystone and reference point for all of my thought—a North Star for life; much as Dante says, Incipit Vita Nuova.”

Seven years later, when Ginsberg finally found a way to translate this exaltation into verse, he produced “Howl.” It is a Blakean poem through and through, whose epigraph might be “everything that lives is holy.” Or, as Ginsberg puts it:

Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!

The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!

Everything is holy! Everybody’s holy! Everywhere is holy! Everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an angel!

The bum’s as holy as the seraphim! The madman is holy as you my soul are holy!

Ginsberg needs those fifteen repetitions of “Holy,” just as he needs words like cock and asshole, because he knows how unwilling we are to hear and believe his message. It is the same reason why he sometimes took his clothes off at his poetry readings, and was once photographed naked. We need to be shocked out of our respectable, defensive habits, and forced to acknowledge truths that, in fact, we cannot easily dispute: that there is no shame in nakedness and sex, or in poverty or suffering for that matter. As Ginsberg wrote in his most explicit homage to Blake, “Sunflower Sutra”: “We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not our dread bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we’re all golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed & hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset.”

Ginsberg’s way of outraging convention could be seen as simply outrageousness, a child’s way of getting the attention of grown-ups. That is certainly how Diana Trilling interpreted Ginsberg’s behavior at his poetry reading:

I suppose I have no right to say now, and on such early and little evidence, that Ginsberg had always desperately wanted to be respectable, or respected, like his instructors at Columbia, it is so likely that this is a hindsight which suits my needs. It struck me though that this was the most unmistakable and touching message from platform to audience the other night, and as I received it, I felt I had known something like it all along.

As a result, Diana Trilling was unable to understand Ginsberg on his own terms. He remained for her “a ‘case’—a gifted and sad case, a guilt-provoking and nuisance case, but, above all, a case.”

But while Trilling told Ginsberg “as to the doctrinal element of the poems . . . I of course reject it,” he did not at all reject Ginsberg personally, by reducing him to a mere mental case. On the contrary, the professor repeatedly intervened for his student when he was involved in scandals and even crimes. In part this was because of personal loyalty and concern; but it was also because Trilling could not simply disclaim all connection with the kind of radical antinomianism that Ginsberg was putting into practice. “I venture to say,” Trilling once wrote, “that the idea of losing oneself up to the point of self-destruction, of surrendering oneself to experience without regard to self-interest or conventional morality, of escaping wholly from the societal bonds, is an ‘element’ somewhere in the mind of every modern person.”

In fact, Trilling devoted his best story, “Of This Time, Of That Place,” to precisely this dilemma—the dilemma of a teacher faced with a mad, uncontrollable, overly intimate student, whom he simultaneously fears and identifies with. In the story, the Trilling figure is named Joseph Howe—a young professor who is also a poet—and the Ginsberg figure is named Ferdinand Tertan, a student who hero-worships Howe. He presents himself at Howe’s office one day and announces, “Some professors are pedants. They are dryasdusts. However, some professors are free souls and creative spirits. Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche were all professors. It is my opinion that you occupy the second category.”

Tertan is prone to making brilliant but absurd speeches like this, and eventually Howe comes to realize that his student is actually losing his mind. He knows the right thing to do is to hand the matter over to the Dean; but when he does it, Howe is plagued by guilt, by his sense that he should have remained loyal to the “creative spirit” he and Tertan share. Certainly Howe infinitely prefers Tertan to another student, Blackburn, who is ruthlessly ambitious and unethical—worldly in the worst sense. Tertan’s madness seems more sane to him than Blackburn’s sanity—precisely the kind of reversal that Ginsberg makes in “Howl,” when he prefers addicts and drop-outs to the society he calls “Moloch.”

So close are the parallels that, reading the story today, it is hard to avoid thinking of Tertan as a fictional version of Allen Ginsberg. Yet in fact, the story was published in the summer of 1943, six months before Trilling met Ginsberg. In a real sense, then, Trilling’s whole relationship with Ginsberg was a case of life imitating art. That is why it became so important to Trilling: it brought to life the very issues of art and authority, sanity and madness, that he had been thinking about his whole life.

Trilling respected Ginsberg because Ginsberg took the destructive and liberating power of literature seriously. One of the best-known passages in Trilling’s work comes in the essay “On the Teaching of Modern Literature,” when Trilling observes that his students encounter the most desperate modern works without the slightest sense of existential demand:

I asked them to look into the Abyss, and, both dutifully and gladly, they have looked into the Abyss, and the Abyss has greeted them with the grave courtesy of all objects of serious study, saying: “Interesting, am I not? And exciting, if you consider how deep I am and what dread beasts lie at my bottom. Have it well in mind that a knowledge of me contributes materially to your being whole, or well-rounded, men.”

This is one charge that could never be made against Allen Ginsberg. On the contrary, when he read Blake, he knew that Blake was making a demand on his whole life, and he answered that demand. He took literature seriously, in just the same way that Kierkegaard, in The Book on Adler, demands that we take religion seriously. The Book on Adler was Kierkegaard’s response to a Danish priest who claimed to have received a direct revelation from God, which he went on to expound in several books. Kierkegaard recognized the preposterousness of this, but he also praised Adler for forcing his readers to confront the real scandal of revelation. He placed nineteenth-century Danes in the same position as first-century Romans confronted with Christianity: he made it possible, in Kierkegaard’s words, for men to be offended by religion, instead of simply taking it for granted.

In the same way, Ginsberg made it possible for people to be offended by literature, at a time when “advanced” readers were accustomed to every kind of outrage in their canonical novels and poems. And there is no doubt that he wanted people to be offended. Above all, of course, he wanted Lionel Trilling to be offended. Reading Ginsberg’s correspondence, it is amusing and almost touching how he forces Trilling to serve as a symbol for the literary establishment he wants to upset. In 1955, just after writing “Howl,” Ginsberg raged in his journal: “Trilling doesn’t think the individual is important. Just his Wisdom. As if his Wisdom could be separated from the mistakes juices & privacies of his life. He’s rejected himself.” A quarter-century later, five years after Trilling’s death, Ginsberg was still at it. In an interview, he described the genteel tradition he thought he was rebelling against as a compulsion to “only choose the loftiest thoughts, or the most poetic thoughts, and you had to intercede or intervene in your mind with another mind from somewhere else, someone else’s mind really, Lionel Trilling’s mind . . .”

The final irony, however, is that Trilling’s mind was the one Ginsberg could not outrage. What he said about “Howl” was not just that he rejected its doctrine, but that he was bored by it: “it seems to me that I heard it very long ago.” And of course he had: he had read it in Blake, and in Nietzsche, and in the modernist novelists and poets, and he had made his decision against it. The antinomianism and mysticism that were new to Ginsberg, and that he embraced with the intensity and heedlessness of youth, were possibilities Trilling had already lived through inwardly and rejected.

This does not mean that Trilling was right to dismiss “Howl”; the poem has the integrity of its radicalism, and he should have acknowledged it is a very powerful expression of Ginsberg’s experience, even if that was an experience he could not endorse. But Trilling’s verdict does suggest the perpetual advantage of liberalism, which is the doctrine of complexity and possibility, over radicalism, which is the doctrine of utopian singlemindedness. Trilling comprehended Ginsberg, as Ginsberg could not comprehend Trilling; just so, liberalism comprehends radicalism, as radicalism cannot comprehend liberalism. This comprehension, this tolerance, can raise acute problems in the political sphere—as it famously did at Columbia, and universities across the West, in 1968, when Trilling’s generation of teachers found it so difficult either to embrace or to reproach the generation of student rebels that had grown up reading Ginsberg. But in literature, there is no question that many-mindedness is a better endowment than ardent simplicity; which is why today, when “Howl” seems nearly as unthreatening and as “period” as The Catcher in the Rye, Trilling’s work continues to present us with a living challenge.


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