A friend asked me to come up with a reading list that would grant a decent approximation of the broad, well-rounded knowledge, insight, and culture traditionally sought through formal liberal arts education. The idea intrigued me. Of course, most of the benefit of a liberal arts education is in the diploma more so than anything one learns. Self-education cannot simulate that credential. Even so, there is intrinsic value in education, and for the intellectually curious, it is an enriching experience. Coming up with this list was no easy task, though. With some difficulty, it was whittled down to 25 books, with another 25 of optional reading.
How I Chose the List
This list is obviously compiled from the pool of books I have read. While I am an avid reader, I am not a walking library. There are many worthwhile books that I have not read, many that I will never get to read barring some Matrix-like breakthrough that allows direct data uploads to the brain. The books I’ve chosen are filtered for relevance, historical influence, enjoyability, and length. I will not, for example, inflict Kant’s “Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals” on readers, regardless of how important and influential it is, because most would find it drier than vermouth in the Sahara Desert. I will not recommend Bertrand Russell’s magnum opus “The History of Western Philosophy”, because although well-written and informative, it’s 2,000 pages — hardly fitting for a “crash course.” Likewise, there is a panoply of pop-politics, history, and social science books I’ve read that, while enjoyable and not overlong, lack the substance and intellectual rigor to merit inclusion on a list of only the very best.
Readers may notice that this list is very light on literature, poetry, and art — traditionally included components of the “liberal arts.” This spirit in which the request to write this essay was made was for its applicability to politics and public discourse. In addition to providing a grounding in liberal arts, this list also aims to challenge an unhealthy and sophomoric mindset that university tends to instill in students. It’s best described by Harvard political scientist Yascha Mounk, in his “The People vs. Democracy” (a solid book, though not included in this list):
“In the humanities and the more politicized fields of the social sciences, many professors hope to affect a real change of attitude in their students. But far from seeking to preserve the most valuable aspects of our political system, their overriding objective is, all too often, to help students recognize its manifold injustices and hypocrisies.
This basic reflex takes different form in different disciplines. In many English departments, it is to deconstruct the values of the Enlightenment, all the better to expose them as racist, or colonialist, or heteronormative. In many History departments, it is to give the lie to stories of political progress, demonstrating the degree to which liberal democracies have always produced immense injustice. In many Sociology departments, it is to shine a light on the deepest pockets of poverty and disadvantage in the country, showcasing the manifold ways in which today’s America remains discriminatory.
Each of these approaches points to some important insights. And yet, their combined effect is to leave many students feeling that a disdain for our inherited political institutions is a hallmark of intellectual sophistication.”
History and Biography
“The Histories” (~440 BCE) by Herodotus. The Histories holds special importance as the first work of Western history — the first to have been compiled through investigation, travel, interview, and research. Herodotus may not be the most reliable narrator — impressive and unprecedented though his efforts were, there were undoubtedly many gaps in the narrative filled in with conjecture. Taken with a grain of salt, the Histories, which in many cases constitutes the only thing we know about certain events, is coherent, informative, and interesting.
“The Lessons of History” (1968) by Will and Ariel Durant. Historians Will and Ariel Durant spent four decades working on their colossal 11-volume, four million word series “The Story of Civilization.” “Lessons” is a single book containing the accumulated wisdom they learned from history during that epic undertaking. 80 years of combined work distilled into less than 150 pages.
“The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time” (1996) by Will Durant. Published posthumously, Will Durant’s list of the greatest thinkers, poets, books, and historical dates condenses decades of careful study into relatively few pages, and makes a perfect companion to “The Lessons of History.”
“What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam & Modernity in the Middle East” (2002) by Bernard Lewis. Written prior to 9/11, but published after, this history of Islam’s interactions with the West provides a useful crash course on the subject. Believe it or not, this one’s a page-turner.
“Black Rednecks and White Liberals” (2005) by Thomas Sowell. A series of essays challenging conventional readings of history, culture, and modern society. The subjects cover black vs white culture in the US, Jewish success and "middleman minority" groups, slavery from a global perspective, and “Germans and history”, among others. On nearly every page, Sowell introduces historical information likely to be unknown to most readers. "Black Rednecks" offers a different perspective and context which, when combined with the version of events most educated people have been taught, provides a more complete picture of society and history.
“Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” (2011) by Yuval Noah Harari. A multi-disciplinary macro-historical look at the history of humanity. Harari invokes over a dozen different fields in his approach to human history that gives Sapiens a truly unique and invaluable perspective. If you only read one book from this section, make it this one.
“Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning” (2015) by Timothy Snyder. Histories of the Holocaust are a dime a dozen, but Snyder goes deeper. He frames the Holocaust's roots not only in hatred or bigotry, but in scapegoating from resource panic and a mindset of scarcity; not merely from totalitarianism, but from the collapse of states and institutions. I have been steeped in the history of the Holocaust my entire life, and I have never come across an accounting with such chilling clarity and elegance as “Black Earth.”
Optional further reading:
“Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” (1963) by Richard Hofstadter.
“A People’s History of the United States” (1981) by Howard Zinn.
“Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man: A Biography” (2006) by Christopher Hitchens.
“Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times” (2017) by Kenneth Whyte.
“The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s” (2018) by William I. Hitchcock.
“The End is Always Near: Apocalyptic Moments, from the Bronze Age Collapse to Nuclear Near Misses” (2019) by Dan Carlin.
Religion, Mythology, and Epic Poetry
“The Iliad” (~800 BCE) by Homer. One of the oldest extant works of Western literature, and perhaps the foremost work of ancient Greece, the Iliad is of too much significance not to read.
“The Holy Bible: King James Version” (1611, originally mid-1st millennium BCE - 2nd century CE) by anonymous. This is the only recommendation in my list that ignores the filter for length. As the single most influential text in history, the Bible’s tendrils reach into nearly every area of thought, study, art, and culture. To go about in the world without having read the Bible deprives one the ability to fully understand anything they see.
“The Quran” (650) by anonymous. As the second largest religion in the world, and one of the fastest growing, it behooves any educated person to read Islam’s central scripture, which, unlike the Holy Bible, can be read over a weekend.
Optional Further Reading:
“The Epic of Gilgamesh” (~1800 BCE) by anonymous.
“Ramayana” (~4th century BCE) by Valmiki.
“The Dhammapada” (~4th century BCE) by anonymous.
“The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” (1819) edited by Thomas Jefferson.
“Who Wrote the Bible?” (1987) by Richard Elliott Friedman.
Politics and Economics
“Political Ideals” (1917) by Bertrand Russell. This elegant little treatise on politics, government, progress, and society hits nearly every note perfectly. It is a testament to the depth of Russell's vision and wisdom that this century-old book rings as true and relevant as though it were written today.
“Proposed Roads to Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism, and Syndicalism” (1918) by Bertrand Russell. An accessible and succinct exploration of Marxism’s various strains.
“Marx: A Very Short Introduction” (1980) by Peter Singer. A very good overview of Karl Marx’s biography, ideas, and influence.
Optional Further Reading.
“Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” (1967) by Martin Luther King Jr.
“Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought In Twentieth-Century America” (1998) by Richard Rorty.
Philosophy and the Human Condition
“The Art of War” (5th century BCE) by Sun Tzu. Perhaps the most famous work of military strategy ever written, Tzu’s understanding of psychology, human nature, and tactics have almost infinite applicability to other areas.
“The Republic” (~375 BCE) by Plato. Written as a freewheeling dialectic between Socrates and several companions, Plato's Republic delves deep into issues of ethics, politics, and governance. Enormously astute, and an entertaining read, too.
“Man’s Search for Meaning” (1946) by Viktor Frankl. This short book captures an extraordinary amount of wisdom and insight into suffering, flourishing, and the human condition. Nobody who reads this can walk away honestly saying they've gained nothing from it. Nobody.
“A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” (2008) by William B. Irvine. A well-structured and marvelously practical work, Irvine doesn't merely recite history or explore and analyze ideas. He does what modern philosophy has forgotten how to do: he tells you how to use these ideas to make your life better. I recommend this guide over any primary Stoic sources.
Optional Further Reading:
“Meditations” (180) by Marcus Aurelius.
“The Age of Reason” (1794) by Thomas Paine.
“What I Believe” (1925) by Bertrand Russell.
“The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty” (2009) by Peter Singer.
“Mortality” (2012) by Christopher Hitchens.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1851) by Harriet Beecher Stowe. One can see how such a moving, beautifully written novel could influence a nation and play a role that led to the American Civil War. There is a power in these words, and even after a century and a half, you can feel it course and crackle through the pages.
“Animal Farm” (1945) by George Orwell. A masterful fairy tale exploring the nature of power, governance, revolution, injustice, group psychology, and totalitarianism.
“1984” (1949) by George Orwell. A chilling, dystopian masterpiece whose enduring influence and acclaim are well-deserved indeed.
Optional Further Reading:
“Crime and Punishment” (1866) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
“The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature” (2002) by Steven Pinker. This book refutes three influential concepts. The first is the "Blank Slate", the notion that people have very little innate human nature — that everything is the product of parenting, education, and socialization. The second is the "Noble Savage," the doctrine that people are fundamentally good, the myth that pre-modern civilizations are peaceful and harmonious, and the implication that whatever is natural is therefore good. The final concept is the "Ghost in the Machine", the belief that everyone is endowed with a soul, spirit, and/or free will which gives them full agency to decide what they do and who they will be.
“The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” (2010) by Steven Pinker. “Better Angels” charts the history and decline of nearly every conceivable form of violence, exploring the mechanisms that cause and curb violence. This is an important book to gain a fuller perspective on modern society.
“The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion” (2012) by Jonathan Haidt. There have been many books written on this thesis, but Haidt’s is the best, and it ain’t even close. The psychological insights into roots of people’s morals, politics, and religion are hugely illuminating.
Optional Further Reading:
“Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness” (2008) by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.
“The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice” (2020) by Fredrik deBoer.
Science and the Future
“The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” (1996) by Carl Sagan. “Demon-Haunted World” is Carl Sagan’s anthem of reason, perhaps the best encapsulation of his contributions to humanity. In it, he explains science in its most fundamental sense, and argues why scientific values are needed for society to flourish.
“The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World” (2011) by David Deutsch. This book challenges the reader to see the world through the lens of explanations and their infinite capacity. Deutsch will make you question all manner of concepts, notions, and assumptions you previously held, and will get you thinking in his almost revolutionary way.
Optional Further Reading:
“Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” (2017) by Yuval Noah Harari.
Miscellaneous Optional Further Reading:
“The World as I See it” (1934) by Albert Einstein.
“Letters from the Earth: Uncensored Writings” (1966, published posthumously) by Mark Twain.
“How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide” (2019) by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay.
Happy reading. : )