A response to Amazon’s editors: my own suggestions for a well-read life
A few months ago, the “Amazon Book Editors” put up a list with the description “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime: A bucket list of books to create a well-read life”.
It contains some good (1984, Pride and Prejudice, The Right Stuff), some decent-but-thought-provoking (Man’s Search for Meaning), some leftist cant (Silent Spring), and a disproportionate amount of lightweight fiction, books for children, and books for young adults. I’m guessing this is a consequence of Amazon editors skewing rather young.
I think the list lacks broad perspective. It is weak on science, with only the often-purchased-but-seldom-read Brief History of Time plus an obscure book on nutrition. There’s nothing on technology, nothing on business unless you count Moneyball, nothing military (though it does have two books about the victims of WWII), and weak on history.
Fittingly for a Seattle-based company, the list leans left. I mentioned that Silent Spring is there, which is disturbing given the damage and death caused by its inaccuracies and environmental hysteria. It also contains Fahrenheit 451, which is the soft lefty’s go-to entry when they think they just have to cite a science fiction book. I could name a hundred better science fiction books off the top of my head, but most are from authors who have a nasty habit of not leaning left.
While the list is worth browsing through, I thought the largest bookseller in the world should have done better. That started me thinking about the list I would recommend. My list would contain books that gave me some of the greatest return on investment in reading them. That might be by changing or refining my worldview. It might be simply great entertainment. Some of the very best combine both.
It would be the best books I could name from a wide variety of fields. Being easily bored, I’m more of a generalist than a specialist, and I like to read lots of different kinds of books. So I began composing a list, and extended and refined it several times over a few months.
Creating such a list involves some tough choices between certain books that cover the same territory. I have dodged that by having some of my entries be categories, in which I think a well-read person should be exposed to the category, but not necessary any single work in the category.
For some works and authors, I also included some follow-on suggestions.
I ended up with about 50 books and categories. Here, then, are the books I think ought to be a bucket list for a well-read person, in alphabetic order except that I separated out the science fiction and placed it at the bottom.
The ones that are also on Amazon’s list have an asterisk. No doubt I’ve left off some obvious works, and no doubt our sharp and excellent commenters will remind me.
Before Cameron made his movie, this was the only way to get a decent sense of the timeline of the sinking of the Titanic. It’s still better and more detailed than the movie, I think.
I don’t really understand how a shy professor could pop off an amazing fantasy storyline this good and this enduring just to entertain a young girl one afternoon.
For a general look at evolution of the human species starting with the diaspora from Africa 50,000 years ago, this is the book you want. It’s written by Nicholas Wade, who until recently was a science writer for the New York Times. Using results of modern DNA research throughout the world, it fills in so many gaps in how humanity spread across the planet that you’ll know more than a lot of anthropologists whose understanding froze solid in the 1970s. I should also mention that the author has two more books in the same general area. I’ve read the The Faith Instinct, concerning the evolution of religious tendencies, and it is excellent. Apparently he loves to dive into controversy, because his new book, A Troublesome Inheritance, explores the genetics of race, and you can guess how that’s turning out. I just got it last week, so I can’t vouch for the quality, but based on his other books, I’m betting it’s well written and thought-provoking. By the way, all his books are more accessible if you have some grounding in genetics and basic statistics.
Like it or not, cultures that know how to apply violence are the ones that survive in the long term. Victor Davis Hanson makes the case that what’s special about Western Civilization is that we know how to do war better than any culture in history. Our culture’s distributed decision making plus the voluntary allegiance of the common citizen have combined over the millennia to beat all comers so far. This book covers the major battles over that time, with analysis of the how culture was the determining factor
How could Joseph Heller write this masterpiece, and then fail to write anything else of consequence? Surreal, cynical, funny, and disturbing all at once, this book ought to be read twice. It’s such an atypical work stylistically that you’ll never get all its good stuff in one reading. As a bonus, the movie from the book, with screenplay by Buck Henry and pitch-perfect casting, captures the spirit of the book very well indeed.
I read history, but I find very little of it outstanding. Too much is about dates, wars, and the goings-on in the ruling class. This book helps fill one of the major gaps in other history books, which almost universally ignore the effect of technological innovation on history. The book, and the PBS series based on it, is essential reading if you want to look at history through the lens of innovation.
The best quick summary of logical fallacies I’ve ever seen. Scrupulously non-political, by the way. It’s short, accessible, and essential to anyone who regularly participates in Internet discussions.
Neal Stephenson is one of the smartest fiction writers on the planet. Maybe the smartest. Cryptonomicon is his most accessible work, but everyone I ever recommended it to ended up reading more of his stuff. Diamond Age and Snowcrash are both imaginative, riveting, and the sort of books that will stay with you. I also recommend his book of essays, Some Remarks.
I recommend a number of books when I teach user experience design classes, and this one gets me more “this book changed my life” emails than all the other ones I recommend combined. Seriously, you won’t believe what Betty Edwards can teach you to draw in two weeks. If you are interested it giving it a try, you might as well go ahead and get the starter kit assembled specifically to be used with the book instead of running around arts and crafts stores to get what you need.
In honors economics, we read and contrasted the predecessor to this book, Capitalism and Freedom, against John Kenneth Galbraith’s Economics and the Public Purpose. The latter is described on Wikipedia with the phrase “Galbraith advocates a ‘new socialism’”. It was impenetrable, filled with logical errors, and has faded into a well deserved obscurity. Friedman’s book was lucid and logical, and eventually became broadly influential, inspiring people such as Ronald Reagan. Free to Choose, along with the video series based on it, introduced many people to the radical idea that government was more likely to be the problem than the solution. There are other books that do a good job of introducing economics from a free market perspective – Economics in One Lesson by Hazlitt and Basic Economics by Sowell come to mind, not to mention a nice, concise book by some guy named Dale Franks – but if you are only going to read one such book, make it Free to Choose.
Few books deserved their Pulitzer as much as this one. Douglas Hofstadter’s name probably sounds vaguely familiar, because Big Bang Theory’s Leonard Hofstadter’s name is inspired by Douglas and his dad. Hofstadter has been interested in the nature of consciousness his whole adult life, and this book is his attempt to come to terms with some of its contradictions. It’s dazzling in it’s range of topics, but somehow they all fit together. It’s not easy to read, but it will make you think. A significant lesson is that some of the things that we intuitively think can be clearly categorized are actually so fuzzy that they can never really be categorized. Which, if you think about it, destroys one of the tenets of leftist collectivism as a governing philosophy.
Don’t just see the movie. As good as it is, the story is much, much deeper than that. And, as someone who grew up in the South when a few traces of that culture remained, I believe it is spot on in how it portrayed the South and southerners.
Critics have said that J.K. Rowling is not a great writer. I’m not exactly sure how one writes the best selling book series in history (450 million so far) without being a great writer. True, her phrasing can occasionally be clumsy and cutesy. Doesn’t matter. She is a master storyteller and capable of creating compelling characters through the entire range of good and bad. I started reading this book to my then 9-year-old son, and ended up reading all seven books twice.
Mark Twain is a world-historical writer, and most people have been exposed to Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer at some point. But I like Letters From the Earth better. It’s Twain at his cynical, biting, humorous best, published posthumously so no one could get back at him for it.
If you took the usual history classes, you think the Roman Empire fell in 476 AD. Well, kind of. It depends on how things are defined. The history books mostly define them that way based on the most influential historian of the Roman Empire of all time, Edward Gibbon. Problem is, he has a distaste for that other Roman Empire, which we now call the Byzantine Empire. It began as the eastern half of the Roman Empire, and lasted a thousand years after the fall of the western half. This book is the best one I know to plug that gap of ignorance, which I had until about five years ago. Without Byzantium, it’s highly unlikely that Christianity would have survived, and it also served as the bulwark preventing the spread of Islam through Europe at the height of Islam’s power and influence. Plus much of our legal system is founded on the code produced by Justinian. Plus… oh, forget it. Just go read the book, There’s also a fabulous free set of podcasts by the author you can download and play in your car.
The most powerful book on ethics and morality that I’ve read in the last twenty years, or maybe ever. It uses comparative anthropology and evolutionary biology to sketch the development of human morality as a survival trait. Think humans are different from animals because they have a moral sense? This book agrees, but it supports that assertion with science.
Some books are helpful just to get a feel for the times. This book, by humorist James Thurber, is in that group. The humor is gentle, and will rarely make you laugh out loud, but it’s an enjoyable bedtime book that will help you understand life in the early part of the twentieth century in a painless way.
John Cleese likes it. What else do you need to know? Seriously, I’ve read a couple dozen books on creativity, and this is one is the best. Too many of them are all “Rah, rah, be creative, isn’t it fun?”, but this book delves into the philosophy of creativity, why our schools are so bad at advancing it, and why most regular people have latent stores of creative ability they’ve never tapped. As someone who teaches software development teams to do creative user experience design, I can absolutely attest to this – you don’t have to be an artsy type to participate in creative work. If you doubt it, read this book for explanation and inspiration. If you then want to go on and read something that is more prescriptive about applying creativity in your life, I suggest Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit.
I’ve been reading P.J. O’Rourke since I had a subscription to National Lampoon in the 1970s. This, though, is his best work. He takes government apart in the funniest way possible.
The mold from which a hundred thousand romantic novels were cast. And it’s still the best of them all. Jane Austin had supreme writing talent and a passion for her subject. It’s no accident that all of her books have been made into movies, and this one the most times of all. Bonus: watch the 6 hour adaptation with Jennifer Elle and Colin Firth, which is eminently faithful to the book, and beautifully done. Men often dismiss this book as chick lit. Their loss. If you like it, go on to read Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion, which are both almost as good.
The central lesson of this book is this: stop brutal authoritarianism in its tracks as early as possible, or the butcher’s bill can be horrifying and catastrophic. This is the definitive book about WWII from the German perspective. (For other perspectives, there are six volumes from Winston Churchill and a powerful video series narrated by Laurence Olivier called World at War.)
The only book I was forced to read in high school that stuck with me. It’s a profound morality tale about what’s important in life, and much more accessible than draggy stories such as A Separate Peace.
Vonnegut has become a bit of the old lefty caricature in recent years, but this is still a powerful work about the horrible impact of war. All of us need to know that and internalize it. We just need to balance it against the fact that, while war is always bad, sometimes all the alternatives are worse. (Bonus: make sure you read Vonnegut’s best short story, Harrison Bergeron. For added relevancy, imagine Michelle Obama in the role of Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General.)
One of the most intelligent and interesting people in the 20th century was Richard Feynman. This book captures his early life and goes through his participation in the Manhattan Project. He’s a delightful character and an engaging writer. If you have even the slightest interest in science, I can just about guarantee you’ll enjoy it.
I recently re-read them all on Kindle, and was surprised by how much I still enjoyed them. Holmes is one of the iconic characters in literature, and one of the most quoted. Don’t overlook the short novel The Valley of Fear, which is a powerful story but has never been turned into a Holmes movie or episode as far as I know because Holmes is only in about a quarter of it. It is included in the collection linked above, which contains all the Conan Doyle stories except some of the later, inferior ones
Whether you are religious or not, the Bible is a source of philosophy, life guidance, cultural archetypes in mythology, and other essential understandings. The Old Testament is the sacred book of three of the largest religions, which is easily enough to make it required reading for anyone who wants to understand how the world works. Plus Song of Salomon and Psalms are great poetry, and Proverbs is the original self-help book.
A powerful novel and the definitive fiction on the Mafia subculture in America. By the way, if you liked it, the next time you are in Las Vegas, visit the Tropicana and see their exhibit/show on the mob.
This is the first book on the subject of design that I ever read, back in 1987. Or, to be exact, I read the first edition, which was titled The Psychology of Everyday Things. The publisher found that bookstores were putting in the wrong place, so the title changed for the second edition. I’ve recommended it to many people over the years, and several have said that it “infected” them with the tendency to observe good and bad design in the real world. You’ll never see the things around you the same way after reading this book.
One of the most important and underappreciated ideas of the twentieth century was the game theoretical conceptual framework developed around a game called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Most of you have heard of it, but you probably don’t realize its deeper implications. Those were uncovered by a tournament organized by Robert Axelrod, in which he invited all comers to design programs to win at an iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma. The research inspired by that tournament, summarized in this book, affects human systems in so many ways it’s pointless to even start listing them. The book is accessible, and does not require any math beyond arithmetic to understand, yet you will not look at human societies the same way again after you read it.
Beautifully written and one of the most fun things you can read to your young child. It’s for pure entertainment only – you won’t be teaching many moral lessons, and the ones that do come out (finding a house where no one is home means you can claim it) are not good ones. But it’s still some of the most delightful prose written for children.
The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill (Three volume set, also sold as separate books)
For all his flaws, Churchill was one of the great men in history, and this is generally considered to be his definitive biography. The three volumes cover his life chronologically from the beginning. It’s worth getting through the first two volumes to read the third one, which starts in 1940 when he ascended to Prime Minister.
The original book on how software development projects work, based on development of OS/360 at IBM. The concepts outlined in this book have become truisms in the technology industry. If you want to understand why so much of the software that undergirds our complex society is so sucky, this book is a good place to start.
The best cartoonist of all time is Gary Larson, artist of The Far Side. If you think otherwise, well, you’re wrong. Even other famous cartoonists will tell you it’s true. This book has a collection of his very best work, and explains how this genius came within a few minutes of dropping his comic drawing aspirations completely before he really got started.
Tom Wolfe’s best work, and Tom Wolfe is one hell of a writer. I’ve enjoyed everything of his I ever read, from The Electric Koolaid Acid Test to From Bauhaus to Our House (a devastating and hilarious critique of modernist architecture). This work, though, is his best character study, piercing the PR facade of the first Mercury astronauts, and in the process it publicized and humanized a great man, Chuck Yeager. Plus, you get to see the odious Lyndon B. Johnson as his true self.
Speaking of Sowell, this is his devastating takedown of what we often call the political class. It explains their conceptual errors, their motivations, and their fallacies. My bottom line when reading this book was the realization that people in the political class are not nearly as smart as they think they are. Sure, this is old hat to a lot of us these days, with examples all around us, but this book was written in 1996 and anticipated an awful lot of what we’ve seen from the political class this century.
This is the go-to book for explaining why certain designs work and others don’t. As you might expect from a book on design, it’s well designed. It contains 125 design principles, with each one summarized in one page of text and with the facing page showing photos or illustrations about the principle. It’s not about software, by the way. When they say “universal”, they mean it. Some of these principles have been known and understood since the Greeks and the Romans, and maybe even longer.
I consider these to be one book split into two. This single story, following a family’s experiences before and during WWII, is over 2000 pages. You might think you would never get through a “book” that long, but this is the best historical fiction ever written, in my opinion. It will help you understand the spirit of the times during WWII even better than a history book. Some prefer From Here to Eternity, but I think Wouk’s WoW/WaR is both a more compelling story and a better exposition of the war. (Side note: I have linked to the library binding versions because I’ve seem some of the paperbacks of these books to have cheap, smeared type.)
Not much to say. Orwell figured out a lot of things way ahead of the rest of us, which is even more amazing when you realize he was a democratic socialist. “Big Brother”, doublethink, and “memory hole” are all part of our lexicon now, and they were created by Orwell for this book.
Essential Science Fiction
I’ve been reading tons of SF since junior high, but I only like to recommend the best of best: works so engaging and accessible that you can enjoy them even if you are not a typical SF fan. I’ve also tried to highlight the very best works of some of the pre-eminent authors in the field.
My favorite sci-fi book of all time. They ought to make a movie out of this book. It is detailed, gripping, and has plenty of twists. The best first contact book every written, by far.
Robert Heinlein’s best, in my opinion, and I consider him the best SF writer who ever lived. This grabbed one of his four Hugo awards. A revolution on the moon because of impending doom on resources, with plots, group marriages, fighting, duplicitous diplomacy, and an intelligent computer who might be the most interesting character in the book. Sure, you say, but remember that this was first published in 1965. And the computer, named Mycroft Holmes, in a more interesting character than HAL by a wide margin. One minor caveat – the modern edition of this book has errors due to bad character recognition. I cringe every time I see what should be “fiat money” replaced with “flat money”. So find an old copy in a used book store if you can. If you don’t know much about Heinlein but find you like this one, the next ones I’d suggest trying are two other Hugo winners, Double Star and Starship Troopers, about which I’ll say a bit more later.
Too bad the movie last summer didn’t do justice to the book, because this book managed the feat of becoming standard reading for the Marine Corps. It’s that in-depth on strategy and psychology of leadership. If you like it, there are two forks for sequels, of which I prefer the Ender’s Shadow series. For those who are already big Ender fans, you might want to look at a wonderful little fill-in-the-gaps book of short stories, First Meetings in Ender’s Universe. I have one of the spotlight reviews on Amazon for that book if you want some more detail.
I liked this a lot better when I was young. It was written by a twenty-something Issac Asimov, and reading it with some more perspective exposes some of it’s weaknesses. But it’s still good, and makes you think about the grand span of human history. Not surprising, since it was inspired by Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
On one level, this is an interesting SF what-if – what if a simple operation could triple a person’s IQ? But what makes this story special is the human consequences. Anyone who has seen the decline of their own capabilities with age will feel some dread when reading about what happened to Charlie Gordon.
Categories, but you have to figure out the exact book:
As I mentioned at the beginning, sometimes I think a well-read person would have been exposed to a certain category of works, but not necessarily to any single best work in the category. Here are the categories I would suggest to someone aspiring to be well read.
At least three plays by Shakespeare from the following list: MacBeth, Hamlet, A Midsummer Nights Dream, Taming of the Shrew, Julius Caesar, Richard the Third, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It
A good Edgar Allan Poe collection
At least one Ernest Hemingway work from the following set: The Sun Also Rises, Old Man and the Sea, A Farewell to Arms. I could never get much out of Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the rest of that generation of American writers, but Hemingway has a simple, direct style that draws you in before you know it. Faulkner was famous for criticizing Hemingway’s direct style, but Hemingway’s reply was devastating: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”
Either Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead. Yes, Ayn Rand can be preachy. I don’t care. If you are not willing to read one or both of them, all the way to the end, then you should shut up about Rand the rest of your life because you don’t really understand what you’re talking about.
A futuristic super-soldier novel. Starship Troopers is the founder of the genre, but The Forever War, Armor, and Old Man’s War are all good successors. Even the novelization trilogy of the original Halo game is a surprisingly decent entry in this category, but don’t bother with that one unless you play the game. I’m reading a new entry in this category right now, All You Need is Kill, which is the basis for a Tom Cruise movie coming out in a couple of weeks called Edge of Tomorrow. One reason I think you need to read in this category is to understand that the way war will be fought in the future isn’t necessarily very much like war was fought in the past.
Something that explains chaos theory. Any number of characteristics of the modern world are much better grasped if you have some intuition about non-linear, chaotic systems. If calculus didn’t cause you too much grief in college, the book you ought to read is Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos, but it’s a textbook and can be heavy going. In the popular works category, James Glieck has the classic work Chaos: Making a New Science, and it’s pretty good, but it is more about how the field developed than explaining the implications of it. I’m told that a better and newer treatment is Does God Play Dice? The New Mathematics of Chaos, but I have not read it.
An in-depth history of your hometown or home state
This list is missing some typical works that similar lists often include, and I thought it might help for readers to understand why I did not include them on my list. Following are some works and categories that are intentionally left out, for various reasons:
Lightweight popularizations masquerading as science. A typical example is Guns, Germs, and Steel, which has one decent chapter, and otherwise is a polemic for the “blank slate” theory at the level of cultures instead of individuals.
Overreaching popular social science. Typical example: Freakanomics. If you have not read it, the basic pattern is “We always thought X was influenced/controlled by factors A, B, and C. We’ve discovered a new factor D.” The pattern should have stopped right there, but unfortunately, it always seemed to continue with the weakly supported assertion “Factor D is much, much more important than these other factors, and aren’t we clever for finding it?”
Anything by James Joyce. You can read any number of people who will tell you they see deep meaning in these works, but that doesn’t mean the author put that meaning there. Lots of people see animals in Rorschach tests too. The human brain has a tendency to see pattern in nonsense, and I have to wonder if Joyce was just trying to prove it.
Stuff that is excellent, deep, or influential and you really ought to read it, but you won’t unless you’re a specialist because it’s just too hard to get through. Examples include Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Henry’s Kissinger’s Diplomacy, and The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose.
Anything about quantum physics. OK, fair warning: I’m going to sound elitist here. If you don’t have solid math skills up through abstract algebra, including vector spaces, dimensionality, and linear independence, then you are never going to understand quantum physics even at a simplistic level. It’s just too counter-intuitive. Anything about quantum physics in English without the math is like trying to explain how an internal combustion engine works through silent interpretive dance. If you read a work for general readers, such as In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat, you’re almost guaranteed to end up misunderstanding more than you understand. Assuming you have the math, there are some decent books. I liked Quantum Reality by Nick Herbert, but it was written over 25 years ago, before some of the experimental work on Bell’s Inequality really shook things up. A recent work, The Quantum Universe, written by a couple of quantum physicists, was pretty good, though I wish they weren’t so dismissive of questions about deep reality.
Mid-quality-or-worse SF fashionable among non-SF, left-leaning readers, such as Fahrenheit 451 and The Left Hand of Darkness.
Anything by Dickens. This is just my personal bias. I’ve yet to successfully get all the way through a single book of his, and I’ve tried three. My rule: as soon as he starts describing the wallpaper, I know he’s out of interesting stuff to say, so I just stop right there. Go read Silas Marner or Far From the Madding Crowd instead.
Anything by Jules Verne or H.G. Wells. Those works were enormously influential, and powerful for their day. But science fiction doesn’t age well, and that problem is particularly acute for first generation SF. I can’t recommend these over the best of modern works. If you want your mind stretched, read Snow Crash or Diamond Age.
Anything in the fantasy genre other than Harry Potter. Another personal bias. Even major works in the genre, such as Tolkien’s works, just don’t do anything for me. I barely made it through the first Lord of the Rings movie, and never did finish reading The Hobbit.
That’s it. I hope you found something on the list interesting enough to try. Put your suggestions for additions in the comments, and if we have enough interest, I’ll update with the suggestions I like the best.
NB: Any list of this sort by one person will be, um, personal. It will reflect the preferences and biases of that person. I’ve tried to take that into account as best as I can. In my lifetime, I have read more SF than anything else, but I’ve tried to keep the amount of SF in this list to 10-15% (depending on how you define SF). I’m fascinated with the biggest war in history, WWII, and grew up when it was being dissected and analyzed, so the list has several works about that. I like science and math, so there are several works in those areas. I do a lot of design work and teach classes in that, so there are a few entries that I consider the best works on creativity and design. And, of course, any poster on this site will lean libertarian, and my selection of social science works reflects that. But there are also works by left-leaning authors, books that would be considered anti-war, and what I think is the best of classic literature. There is a touch of fantasy, some works for children, and some humorous works. I hope that, overall, this list is broad enough for a wide range of people to get something out of it. These books have certainly brought me a ton of enjoyment and enlightenment.
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