Discover the 1126 Books in John Cage’s Personal Library: Foucault, Joyce, Wittgenstein, Virginia Woolf, Buckminster Fuller & More

Image by or Rob Bogaerts/Fotocollectie Anefo

To properly honor your cultural role models, don’t try to do what they did, or even to think what they thought, but to think how they thought. This goes at least double for John Cage, the experimental composer whose innovative works can be, and often are, re-staged (go on, have four minutes and 33 seconds of silence to yourself), but it takes a different kind of effort altogether to cultivate the kind of mind that would come up with them in the first place. As a means of activating your own inner Cageness, you could do much worse than read through his personal library, a list of whose books you’ll find at

The volumes number 1126 in total, and if you load the library’s main page, it will present you with a list of ten randomly selected books. (You can get a list of all of them by selecting the “See Entire Library” option on the left sidebar.)

Hitting refresh a few times will give you a sense of the breadth of Cage’s reading: Emma Goldman on anarchism, Chinese poetry gathered by Kenneth Rexroth, M. Conrad Hyers’ Zen and the Comic Spirit (two of Cage’s driving forces if ever I’ve heard them), How to Play Backgammon, essays on Ulysses (an interest shared with Marilyn Monroe), and even essays on John Cage. Here we’ve assembled a list of ten books from Cage’s library of particular interest to the Open Culture reader:

To those who know anything of Cage’s life and interests, his shelves on healthy eating—on which Dining Naturally in Japan: A Restaurant Guide to Wholesome Food also appears, as, naturally given the era and Cage’s acquired northern-Californianness, The Tassajara Bread Bookand especially the eating of mushrooms, come as no surprise, nor might his inclination toward philosophy. But we should note what looks like a particular fascination with the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, evidenced by 22 of the books in his library: his best-known works like the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, but also his letters, lectures, and notebooks, as well as biographies, commentaries, and Wittgenstein and Buddhism, which Cage must have considered an exciting find indeed.

In one of his most quotable quotes, Cage describes college as “two hundred people reading the same book. An obvious mistake. Two hundred people can read two hundred books.” And indeed, 1126 people can read 1126 books—or many more people can each read a different subset of those books. While you could methodically read your way through Cage’s entire library, and would surely learn a great deal in the process, wouldn’t making use of the unthinking guidance of the ten-random-books function, surrendering the direction of this informal education to the kind of chance that places Paul Bowles next to the common fungi of North American and Charles Ives next to Italian futurism, be a much more Cagean way of going about it?

(h/t @lrlarson)

Related Content:

Avant-Garde Composer John Cage’s Surprising Mushroom Obsession (Which Began with His Poverty in the Depression)

The Music of Avant-Garde Composer John Cage Now Available in a Free Online Archive

John Cage Unbound: A New Digital Archive Presented by The New York Public Library

Jorge Luis Borges Selects 74 Books for Your Personal Library

The 321 Books in David Foster Wallace’s Personal Library: From Blood Meridian to Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder

A Look Inside Hannah Arendt’s Personal Library: Download Marginalia from 90 Books (Heidegger, Kant, Marx & More)

The 430 Books in Marilyn Monroe’s Library: How Many Have You Read?

Darwin’s Personal Library Goes Digital: 330 Books Online

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • The Poem Pros says:

    Sometime it isn’t the books in your library but the books that others share from theirs with you.

    Today’s edition of Poetry Hour is dedicated to a friend who let us borrow a book of poems from him, they just so happened to be John Cage’s poetry.

    Super interesting dude. Did you know that he wrote poetry?

    When you wanna check out another poet’s take on mesostic poetry:

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.