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.

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  • 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:‑3

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