Somebody just asked me to provide them with a list of books that I recommended in a lecture. It occurs to me that this list might be of value to others, so here it is. First off are some books from my essay on The Greatest Books I Have Read. Then some others that, while not the greatest, are still important.
Walden, by Henry David Thoreau
Everybody should read this book in their late teens or early twenties; it amplifies the natural idealism of youth. Old cynics will reject it as impossibly idealistic, but everybody should confront the issues that Thoreau raises. A separate essay, “Civil Disobedience” is often included along with the main book. It presents some brilliant ideas about the relationship between the citizen and the government; it was the inspiration for Ghandi and Martin Luther King. A quote:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live life deliberately, to confront only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deeply and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”
Systems of Survival, by Jane Jacobs
Who would’ve thought that there was anything new to say about morality? The subject has been hashed, rehashed, mashed, twisted, stretched, spun, and masticated by thousands of writers since before Socrates, and you would think that it’s time to just leave this overwrought subject in peace. You could spend an entire life reading all of humanity’s thoughts on morality, and not learn much new after the first month. Then along comes Jane Jacobs with an astounding new concept: that there are two fundamental systems of morality in play in society. The first is a guardian ethic that emphasizes hierarchy with responsibilities in both directions. The superior must protect and care for the inferior, and the inferior must obey the superior. The second is a business ethic that emphasizes the freedom of the individual, integrity, and hard work. These are gross simplifications of a complex notion, presented in a novel format from which it is impossible to extract a properly representative quote. I strongly urge everybody to read this book; it describes how many of our moral conundrums arise from collisions between the two moral systems.
The Story of Civilization, by Will and Ariel Durant
This is a twelve-volume series on, well, everything from the beginnings of civilization up to and including the Napoleonic Wars. It was written over three decades, starting in the 1930s. Historians love to sneer at these books because they are, after all, popular history, not academic history, but I think it appropriate to tell the historians to go jump in the lake; the books are excellent. True, they are somewhat dated; there have been some new discoveries, especially regarding ancient history, since the Durants wrote their early volumes nearly 70 years ago. However, those new discoveries have not invalidated the content of those volumes; the differences are mostly in the details.
I’ll say it simply: these volumes are the best multi-volume introduction to the history of civilization that you can read. There are loads of single-volume approaches, but they all suffer from the enormous compression required to fit everything in. Nobody has had the breadth of learning, the moral courage, and the skill as a writer to attempt what the Durants accomplished. If you’re ready to go past your freshman history course, this is the way to go.
The writing is magnificent. I present a collection of brilliant quotes from the book on another page. My own writing falls far below the standard set by the Durants, but I draw inspiration from their writing.
If you truly want to understand human history, read these books. They’re easily found and quite cheap on eBay. If you want to sample just one or two, I’d recommend The Life of Greece or The Age of Faith.
The Way Things Work, by David Macauly
The author has written a series of delightful books explaining clearly, with excellently drawn imagery, how things work. He has books on the construction of the pyramids and gothic cathedrals. He’s also published books on how the underground systems in cities keep everything working. But this is his best, a huge collection of explanations of all the major technologies in our world. You should read it just to demystify the technology of the world you live in.
The Richness of Life, by Stephen Jay Gould
A prolific author on biology and evolution, Gould’s essay span several decades and all sorts of fascinating topics. This is merely a collection of some of his best works; if you like it, you should read more of his books. I am amazed to report that this book is out of print, so you’ll have to buy a used copy.
The Language Instinct, by Steven Pinker
Another out-of-print classic, this book was a best-seller twenty years ago. It explains how language developed in the human mind. Pinker has written a great many other books, mostly on the human mind, but one breaks the mold: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond
Yet another out-of-print best seller, this book explains how geography gave a huge advantage to the Europeans in conquering the world.
This is not a book; it’s a news magazine. It is simply the best you can find, leaving Time, Newsweek, and their ilk in the dust. It could be better described as “current history” because the stories in it are about events that affect history. No sensationalism, no pictures of plane crashes, war dead, or starving children. This magazine is not trying to sell sensational news; its purpose is to inform readers, mostly businesspeople, about what’s happening in the world. Few American readers appreciate just how parochial American news media are. Believe it or not, there’s news coming from all sorts of countries you never even heard of.
A History of Warfare, by John Keegan
The best overall summary of military history you can get. Keegan has written a number of other excellent books on military history.
The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, and the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, by David Crystal
Visual Explanations, by Edward R. Tufte
The classic work on how to express an idea in visual form.
Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud
Homo Ludens, by Johann Huizinga