Free Markets, Free People


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.

 

A Night to Remember

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.

Alice in Wonderland*

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.

Before the Dawn

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.

Carnage and Culture

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

Catch 22*

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.

Connections

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.

Crimes Against Logic

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.

Cryptonomicon

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.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain

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.

Free to Choose

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.

Godel, Escher, and Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid

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.

Gone With the Wind

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.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone*

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.

Letters From the Earth

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.

Lost to the West

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.

Moral Origins

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.

My Life and Hard Times

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.

Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative

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.

Parliament of Whores

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.

Pride and Prejudice*

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.

Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

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.)

Silas Marner

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.

Slaughterhouse 5*

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.)

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman

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.

The Adventures (Memoirs, Return, Etc.) of Sherlock Holmes

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

The Bible

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.

The Godfather

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.

The Design of Everyday Things

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.

The Evolution of Cooperation

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.

The House at Pooh Corner*

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 Mythical Man Month

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 Pre-History of the Far Side

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.

The Right Stuff*

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.

The Vision of the Anointed

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.

Universal Principles of Design

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.

Winds of War / War and Remembrance

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.)

1984*

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.

The Mote in God’s Eye

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.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

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.  

Ender’s Game

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.

The Foundation Trilogy

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.

Flowers for Algernon

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 

Intentionally omitted…

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.

(Notice for new readers: the first comment on this site from a particular email address is moderated. There may be a delay before your comment is posted. Sorry – it’s how we keep the comment spammers under control. Once your email has been approved once, comments from that point appear at once.)

(Notice of experimental policy: I am declaring the comment thread for this post to be an Erb-limited zone. For new readers, be aware that we have a resident troll in the form of a political science professor from an obscure New England college. Unlike most posts where we give him free rein, in the comments here I will only allow one comment from said troll, to be no more than 200 words, but which may contain a link to a blog post of his own if he is so inclined. But I will not allow comment thread hijacking for this post. I put too much work into it.)

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63 Responses to A response to Amazon’s editors: my own suggestions for a well-read life

  • First comment reserved for administrative notes.

  • I LOVED Letters from the Earth!  The short essay “At a Funeral” makes for some great quotes.  Also, in the title essay, Twain goes on about how the problem with man’s concept of heaven is that everybody sings (when few people on Earth have any kind of musical talent).  I quote that a lot, though depending on the audience, you might have to watch mentioning Twain’s observation of the fact that man left sex out of heaven.
    On the leave-off list:  Catcher in the Rye by Salinger.  It has all the excitement of a telephone book.  All characters and setting and no plot.  Maybe it’s because I read Steinbeck (Of Mice and Men) at the same time in high school.

  • AWESOME post.
    My personal list would begin with To Kill a Mockingbird
    Harry Potter over Tolkein…..well I’ll just chalk that up to differences of opinion and taste. The Hobbit was the book that hooked me on reading as a kid. Perhaps we could agree on a mutual alternative: The Chronicles of Amber?  And speaking of Roger Zelazny - “Lord of Light” is just outstanding.
    My off-the-wall recommendation would be “The Death of WCW” detailing the history of the wrestling promotion. Besides being hilarious, it’s actually a great case study of how dopes ca run a profitable business into the ground.
     

    • Oh….and anything by Phillip K Dick…

    • I do like Chronicles of Amber, and anything by Philip K.

      Lord of Light is ok, but it clearly didn’t grab me as much as some others.

      I tried to stick to SF that would be accessible even to people who didn’t read it much. And to keep the number of works modest. So no Sturgeon, no Pohl, no Spider Robinson, no Harry Harrison, etc. Though the last SF book to be cut from the list was The Adventures of the Stainless Steel Rat.

    • To Kill a Mockingbird definitely deserves a place, too.  Good catch.

  • The Prince…Machiavelli

    The Wealth Of Nations (and everything else he wrote)…Adam Smith

    A Bridge Too Far…Cornelius Ryan

    The Patton Papers

    The LBJ bios by Robert Caro

    The Myth Of The Robber Barons…Burton Folsom

    Basic Economics…Thomas Sowell

    My Grandfather’s Son…Clarance Thomas

    Liberal Fascism…Jonah Goldberg

    Tom Jones…Henry Fielding

    The Immortal Wife…Irving Stone (excellent story of two really fascinating and little known people in history…, John Freemont and Jesse Benton Freemont, as historical novel)

    Trashing The Planet…Dixy Lee Ray

    I LIKE Dickens.

    The entire Horatio Hornblower canon (kept me semi-sane in high school, and I learned a lot in the bargain)

    Anything on management by Peter Drucker.

    Some other stuff I’ll remember sometime…

     

  • What ???  No “Catcher in the Rye” by J. D. Salinger …. a book that too many high schoolers were forced to read but it has no redeeming social value whatsoever.  And this is before the many stories on the book business about what an ass J. D. Salinger was.
    As for that Quantum Physic phobia, I’m looking at a copy here of “WCDMA for UMTS – HSPA Evolution and LTE”.  It makes those quantum physics books look like light reading.  Most of the good quantum physics isn’t in text books anyway.

    • I wouldn’t know enough about quantum physics to know what books might actually be best accessible to an educated person.  I studied engineering, science, and math but only took the minimal amount of physics and chemistry.  Stephen Hawking, Neil Degrasse Tyson, and others target a less educated audience.  Their metaphors and models tend to give people with less familiarity wrong ideas, and (as we all know) such people can get very annoying when they stupidly try to generalize their trite notions.
      I’d love to see something targeted to someone like me, who isn’t afraid of higher math or non-simplified versions of complex theories, without actually having to take courses.  I’m willing to dig out old textbooks and refresh my memory, or do some further research.
      Lawrence Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing is slightly better than Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, but not quite what I’d like.
      Likewise with string theory.  I’d like to know something more than what I get from goofy graphics on science documentary shows, some hint of the actual math.

      • I’d love to see something targeted to someone like me, who isn’t afraid of higher math or non-simplified versions of complex theories, without actually having to take courses.

        I think in that case you’d be better off getting an actual good textbook on quantum theory. Really the maths is not that difficult for the most part (unless you try and tackle the really advanced stuff) and once you accept that the universe does appear to work this way and it isn’t some sort of mystical handwaving then it all follows rather neatly.
        I agree that most popularizations, such as you get these days with Tyson, Cox or Greene, just end up giving people the wrong idea. No distinction is made between the “mundane” quantum physics which they usually get right (although Cox at least has made a spectacular ass of himself on at least one occasion) and their own flights of fancy with no real foundation. It is of course these flights of fancy that catch the attention of the armchair quantum magicians who can’t discard the failed ideas such as hidden variables, non-locality etc.
        Really to get into it from a level where you understand maths and engineering I would think that Feynman’s lectures are a very good place to start since he is also brutally pragmatic, entertaining and not interested in dealing with much nonsense. They are not modern now in any sense, but the fundamentals have not really changed.
        String theory is tougher, but you’d already need a grasp of quantum field theory to appreciate much of it that would be beyond the goofy graphics I think.

        • Hey, I like the Goofy graphics.  Even Claribel was good in some of her later stuff.

        • Doc, are you familiar with Quantum Mechanics: The Theoretical Minimum; by Leonard Susskind? It’s new this year and I have not read it yet, but it looks like it might be in the territory Eliot is requesting.

          .

          It has several marginal reviews, but on close examination, one was from a crank, and the others seemed to be slamming the formatting in the Kindle edition.

          • I haven’t read that one, Billy. But Susskind is well known and one of the fathers of modern string theory who also has quite a lot of educational videos on youtube, so I would think it would be a good start. The reviews were amusing, the negative ones at least…

  • I’d like to add “On Killing” by LTC Dave Grossman. Disturbing but essential reading for the subject. I also humbly submit “Hyperspace” by Michio Kaku as an excellent primer on advanced physics.

  • The GULAG Archipelago, Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn
    Human Action, Ludwig von Mises
    The Art of War, Sun Tzu
    You also need some foundation in Greek philosophy, as well as Greek and Roman mythology, some Shakespeare, Beowulf, and maybe some Chaucer, Dante, and Cervantes.
    God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens–even if you are religious, this can help dispel false notions of what motivates atheists, what exactly they think, etc.
    I also recommend reading the Christian bible, cover to cover, employing critical thinking.
    The 13th Valley and For the Sake of All Living Things, John Del Vecchio (semi-fictional military, about Vietnam and Cambodia, respectively)
    Huck Finn, Life on the Mississipi, and Roughing It, Mark Twain (I prefer those to Letters to the Earth)  I didn’t care for A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, particularly when I read it the first time as a pre-teen.  As an adult, I caught a lot more of the sarcasm, but I regret wasting my time slogging through it a second time.
    Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper (even though Twain loved to poke fun at him)
    Red Storm Rising, Tom Clancy
    Isaac Azimov
    Jack London (fiction, not the communist nonsense)

    • Some excellent suggestions  there.

      I admit I have never read Gulag Archipelago. I keep putting it off because I know it’s going to be dreary, and I don’t need any persuasion to loathe the Soviets.

      Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy is in the SF section.

      • Your reluctance to read Solzhenitsyn are definitely understandable–I still haven’t finished it myself, having put it down many times to get an emotional breather.  (The same for For the Sake of All Living Things which had vivid accounts of Cambodia.)

        But there is some powerful material in there, which goes beyond simply documenting the USSR.  Just as stories of the Nazi atrocities aren’t only about Germans of the Third Reich, but about what leads a civilized people to allow such savagery.
         

  • Many thanks… I’m headed to Asia next week and have been looking for some things to load up on the Kindle, given all the airline time I’ll be spending (not to mention the “up at weird hours jet lag” that I’ll have).

    I selected a number of the books I hadn’t already read that sound interesting. This should keep me busy a while.

  • Hmmmm no wonder so many of us are often at least in the same chapter if not on the same verse/page around here.
    Nice list Billy, I agree completely with the Quantum mechanics bit.  Not that I have the math, but I recognize that you guys who DO, see things in your heads in a different way, and were it not for the fact it is constantly demonstrated in real world creations I would otherwise swear sometimes that like Dopeymort (master of Moosesqueeze) Y’all are just makin it up as ya go along :)

     

  • Hmmmmm…….no military history? I’d expect VDH deserves a slot. Maybe something like “with the old breed” ?

  • I agree with the sci fi list to about 90%, but only because Dune is not on there ;) I am not sure why but I can read the series over and over again and still appreciate more of it each time. Frank Herbert wrote lots of stuff but Dune remains probably my favorite sci fi, closely followed by many of those listed above.

    • Dune is another one of those works that didn’t light me up as much as it did other people. It’s good, but I don’t feel the need to go back and re-read it. And I couldn’t get through the sequels.

       

      Perhaps it’s that bias of mine, but I consider it a bit less accessible to non-SF readers than the ones on my list.

      • Fair enough. Some of the sequels do drag, like Messiah or God Emperor, and it took quite a long while to appreciate the wholeness of the series… the striving to be free and how people will happily live under the worst totalitarian if they feel secure.

  • I barely made it through the first Lord of the Rings movie

    I re-read Lord of the Rings every now and then and still like it a lot, even though Tolkein’s philosophy on the world was rather messed up. But I have to agree that the movies sucked… it isn’t that they are badly done per se, but I thought the choice of actors was s**t. The hobbits were hamming it up and ruining the characters, the dork playing Aragorn just came across as an up-himself, well, dork and they had to give the hot elf more screen than she deserved just so that they’d have a hot elf appear a lot.
    I’ve read a ton of fantasy in my younger days, but nothing really sticks out more than say Cugel’s Saga or Suldrun’s Garden by Jack Vance, one of the better Conan stories (which I have not read in a long time so the names have faded) and likewise one of Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories.

    • On the other hand, the movies leave out the vast majority of the songs of the novels, which is a good thing.
      My biggest complaint was they left out the Razing of the Shire.

      • which is a good thing

        Yep, unless you are a linguist and into that stuff. As you say the ending was a bit of a let down. If they had cut down on all the ridiculous Arwen stuff they could have at least shown the point of the ending where the emphasis is on there being nowhere safe to hide when evil goes unchecked, even for little people of no consequence. Maybe that idea is just not too fashionable these days.

    • Grrrrr – don’t get me started on the elf-chick.

      My big question on the elves was – who shoveled the shit from the stables?  Maybe you love horses, so….instead then…Who cleaned out the middens (magic I suppose…)    Who cooks dinner?

      Awesome to have a society of nimble, clever, heroic, talented, beautiful people – but who does the scut work in such a place?    What if everyone wants to be the heroic bowman and doesn’t want to make the beds every morning or sweep the halls and dust the statues.
       

      • but who does the scut work in such a place?

        Undocumented cave-trolls just looking for a better life? Mind you, judging by the looks on the elvish faces it looked like they were permanently constipated so no doubt their horses didn’t crap very often either.

    • I love the Conan stories and the Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories as much as I love The Lord of the Rings. Great stuff.

  • Shogun … James Clavell

    Trinity/Exodus … Leon Uris

    Invasion, They’re Coming … Paul Carel

    Dune … Frank Herbert

    Santiago … Mike Resnick

    The Gates of Fire … Stephen Pressfield

    the Possleen Series … John Ringo

    Tom Jones…Henry Fielding

    That’s all I can think of for the moment

    • I like most of those suggestions, but I honestly can’t recommend the Posleen series to most people. Those numbing body counts… I understand why I’ve seen it called “carnography”.

       

      Seeing those slimy Darheel get comeuppance was the main reason for me to get to the end of the series.

       

      It did have some imaginative stuff in it, though, and if it were not so long I’d probably consider it as another option in the “futuristic super soldier” category.

    • Bolo. In the age of the smarter and smarter drone, this is where we’re headed.

    • It is difficult to put Dune on a list if you’re trying to avoid multiple books by the same author.  The saga really needs the first four books to tie up many loose ends.

      When I re-read Dune and some of the sequels, I made it to book 5 (Heritics) and then wondered how in the world I slogged my way through that as a kid.

  • Up Front, Back Home, and The Brass Ring by William Maulden

    Hell In A Very Small Place, Street Without Joy, by Bernard Fall (among other works)

    Anything by Solzhenitsyn, (A Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich is only 158 pages). If you can wade through Ayn Rand Solzhenitsyn is a piece of cake.

    Bruce Catton’s Civil War series.

    Pork Chop Hill and other stuff by SLA Marshall.

    I would add King Lear to the Shakespeare section.

    Lots of Rudyard Kipling. It’s easy to read, for one thing.

    The Wages Of Destruction by Adam Tooze.

    Another category you may want to consider is film. With the availability of Youtube there is no reason not to see classic movies by Eisenstein, Welles, Kurosawa, Fellini, etc.

     

  • Nothing by Douglas Adams?

    • I read Hitchhiker’s Guide, smiled and enjoyed it, and never picked it up again. It’s a good book, just not something I consider essential reading.

       

      Of course, there are those who rank it a lot higher. For me, especially with humor, one of the factors on whether I consider it essential reading is whether I find myself going back to it after the first time for another reading.

       

      I think some books make an impact on some readers that depends on where they were in their lives when they read it. I knew guys in college that considered Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance life changing, but I just thought it was a good read that provoked some interesting thoughts. Nothing life changing or essential about it for me.

       

      On the other hand, Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions just hit me in the cranium when I read it in my late teens. It is actually pretty good, but I read in twenty years later, and it was just a set of pretty good SF stories. (Though I still get a smile out of reading the title of Theodore Sturgeon’s entry: If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister.)

      • I think some books make an impact on some readers that depends on where they were in their lives when they read it.

        And that is the crux of anyone’s ‘best of’ list.  I was forced to watch Gone With the Wind at age 14 on folding chairs in the assembly area of the 97th General Hospital, Frankfurt am.  It may be a good book, but I will never pick it up.

      • Billy, Confess! You’re just jealous because you haven’t figured out the quantum workings of the “Somebody Else’s problem field”.

        Barack Obama,  on the other hand, probably wrote a dissertation on it’s internals and how it is used to best effect.

        If Adams was alive I think he’d have a great time seeing his farcical ideas combined with those of Orwell, both of which seem to form the operational foundation for the current administration.

  • Six Frigates
    Castles of Steel (Dreadnaught is also supposed to be excellent, but I haven’t read it)
    Sieze the Fire

  • I would say that H.P. Lovecraft is a must-read. Some of his better known works are great (I’ll always love Dunwich Horror) but all of them need a glance.

  • My own list would’ve been full of Agatha Christie titles.  I get uncomfortable when people use the term well read.  Usually it’s liberal higher education bureaucrats who want to promote diversity nonsense.  No thanks.

    • I get uncomfortable when people use the term well read.  Usually it’s liberal higher education bureaucrats who want to promote diversity nonsense.”


      That’s part of the reason for my own list. I think/hope there are people out there who want more diversity in their reading than what they get from the left-leaning education and publishing industries. Nothing wrong with finding what you like and sticking with it, but every time I do that, I find that eventually the good stuff runs out.

    • I prefer to be widely read rather than well read. As we all know, intellectual fashion changes from time to time and the definition of “well” changes with it. I figure if I read widely enough I will get most of the important ideas from one source or another.
      Much of it, fiction anyway,  is a matter of taste.

  • books for children, and books for young adults

    I noticed that at the end of their list that they say this is for reading over a whole lifetime, hence the books for the younger people. Which is fair enough, but then really… 100 books over a lifetime? If we are starting at Winnie the Pooh then people have a chance to read quite a few books in a lifetime. So a well-read life should be including at least 300 books (say 50 years reading 6 books a year), which I think is low for a well-read life. I think I can manage a book (novel) every couple of weeks if I am not too distracted.

    • Agreed, and my list also contains some entries for children and young adults. But their list was, I thought, top-heavy with such entries. Plus leaving off entire categories that I think a person ought to try out over a lifetime.

       

      I’d certainly agree 100 books isn’t much over a lifetime. That’s a book a month for less than nine years. Even 300 is low for a lifetime. I think I’ve probably had more 300 books that I read *twice*.

       

      But I try not to project my own circumstances too much onto others. I’m a reading addict, and have been since age 7. People are reading fewer long works in the course of a lifetime these days, I think, because they have other options such as Internet pages, video games, Netflix, etc. Which makes it even more important to get some variety into what they do read, if they are to have a broad perspective about things.

       

      Now, some people don’t want a broad perspective, or at least don’t want to get it from their reading. They just want to read for pleasure, and it might be Louis L’Amour westerns or Harlequin romances or (as the comment above) Agatha Christie mysteries. Nothing wrong with that, and I think some of them get so much dreck pushed on them in high school that when they find something they like just stick with it. As the earlier commenter said, too often the phrase “well-read” means “has been shamed into reading enough stuff approved by left-leaning educators”.

       

      • Which makes it even more important to get some variety into what they do read, if they are to have a broad perspective about things.

        Not to mention that reading, even if it is lefty nonsense or somewhat vapid romance, requires a different kind of concentration… one that lets you think deeper and longer.

      • Bah, should have been “reading *books*”, not just “reading”.

  • “Darkness At Noon”, Arthur Koestler.

  • Has anyone mentioned The Bible? I could not find it here or on Amazon’s list. It is such an integral part of Western Civilization ( or just Civilization as some of us evil eurocentric types believe) that it is easy to overlook. I did until 15 minutes ago.
    Well read or widely read, you ain’t read at all without at least a nodding acquaintance with the Bible. You don’t have to believe it, you just have to know it.

  • 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.

    I live in Vegas, and I think the Mob Experience at the Tropicana is cheesy.  Much better is the Mob Museum near downtown, just off Fremont Street.  Just my two cents, and worth about as much.

  • Billy, just to cap it off, thanks for your list… it inspired me to order a few books (mostly the non-fiction).
    By the way, does anyone have a recommendation for a good book on WW1??

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