What should the well-educated student read?

My interest was caught by this Quartz article about a new database of the set texts at top US colleges, revealing which texts are the most-frequently set for different universities and subjects. The most often observed are Plato, Hobbes and Machiavelli. Interesting.

It set me thinking about a somewhat different challenge, one that turned out to be much harder than selecting my eight pieces of music for Desert Island Discs (or, my variant, the top ten foods I would have to have on the desert island). What ten books would you absolutely want a young person to read – whatever their subject – to be well-rounded? The idea is a kind of summer reading list for someone about to go to university – what kind of broad mental hinterland should they have before arriving to start a social science degree?

Any selection is bound to reveal cultural bias as well as personal interests, but here is my list for starters, divided into three categories. It’s European rather than American. I’m very disappointed that I couldn’t in all honesty include more female authors.

Needless to say, other lists or additions are welcome.

Understanding how the world is:

On the Origin of Species – Charles Darwin

An Enquiry Concerning Human UnderstandingDavid Hume

Thinking Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 – Tony Judt

How the world ought and ought not to be:

The Idea of Justice – Amartya Sen

The Second Sex – Simone de Beauvoir

L’Etranger – Albert Camus

Making the world better:

Seeing Like A State – James Scott

Reinventing the Bazaar – John McMillan (or maybe Al Roth’s Who Gets What and Why)

Cities and the Wealth of Nations – Jane Jacobs


38 thoughts on “What should the well-educated student read?

  1. Some great choices there, and some odd ones. Did you mean Jacobs’s Cities and the Wealth of Nations? An odd book, though I love her Life and Death of Great American Cities (which I would include instead). Sen’s Idea of Justice much less readable than e.g his Development as Freedom.

    I’d add Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air.

    • I dithered between the Jane jacobs books but did mean Cities and the Wealth of Nations – maybe I should have dithered in the other direction. I chose Idea of Justice because it does refer back so explicitly to Rawls, but you’re right again, Development As Freedom could have been better. I’ll gather up all the suggestions people make in a follow-up post.

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  3. I certainly feel like I understand the world a lot better from reading Judith Rich Harris’s The Nurture Assumption, although I understand a large segment of expert opinion would say it’s likely to have had the opposite effect.

  4. My eccentric list of some books every young person should read:
    The Pocket Popper edited by David Miller: Karl Popper’s work is needed to remind us of what it means to think critically and humbly

    The Western Canon by Harold Bloom: to remind us that that there are books which are truly great, even if they are not best-sellers

    Creative Destruction by Tyler Cowen: this book on how globalization can actually enrich indigenous cultures is also an excellent corrective to those prudes who run down commercialization of culture

    Creating Capabilities by Martha Nussbaum: a deep reflection on what it means to be human and live a life of well-being, irrespective of what culture you belong to. Warns us to not to support “tradition” merely because it is tradition , especially an important lesson in countries like India where I live

    The Story of Art by E,H. Gombrich: I am re-reading it for the nth time, a terrific education about what it means to be creative in the arts

    Flow by M. Csikszentmihályi, a book about how to make life worth living even in times of crisis.

  5. I like your categories, but should there be one something like “understanding why people have spent and continue to spend so much time talking/writing about things which the first four books suggest are wrong/trivial”?

    I have in mind that quote from Keynes about supposedly practical hard headed businessmen basing their ideas on theories of long dead economists. For example, I think that to understand the way societies are and their differing concerns, it helps to know something about religious history.

  6. Great choices! I would switch Hume’s Enquiry for the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. And if I’m allowed another Scottish Enlightenment figure, would have Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Agree with The Western Canon, although I go back to Bloom’s book on Shakespeare more often. Also agree with The Second Sex – absolutely essential.

    Three modern non-fiction books that had a big impact on me during that 18-20 period: Collier’s Bottom Billion, John Kay’s How Markets Work, and Peter Singer’s How Are We To Live.

  7. This is an irresistible game to play 🙂

    I understand why you put On the Origin of Species in the list. But I would find it risky to expose a young person to Victorian prose. He/she could get the same message in a more modern package like: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wonderful_Life_(book)

    The same with Hume. Wouldn’t more modern secondary literature do the trick better?

    Like my chemistry teacher used to say: “One should not read Faust by Goethe until one is older than 50 …”

      • “Darwin is very readable!”

        I think you should test that belief. I would never wish upon a young person the requirement to read this book. By the time I read it, I found it mind numbingly boring – and science is what I mostly read.

        Nice list.

      • The book is long, it is filled with technical terms (articulata, balanus, cirripedes, etc.), and the prose style is just not congenial to most moderns. Darwin is not a bad writer, but this is pre-Hemingway time; the sentences are long and involved.

    • I would recommend The Selfish Gene as a short, modern account of how evolution works. I haven’t read Origin of Species, so I’m not claiming that it is better, but I think that the reader must end up with a better understanding of the details of evolution from The Selfish Gene, as it includes details which Darwin didn’t know — and rather than the details making things more complicated, they simplify the story.

  8. What I think is a good compromise between depth, conciseness and readability for young persons:

    Metaphysics: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Mumford
    How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton
    The Myths of Innovation by Scott Berkun
    The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Baltasar Gracián
    The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
    The Great Mathematical Problems by Ian Stewart

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  10. I’d add in a couple, both by women:

    Meadows, D., & Wright, D. (2008). Thinking in systems. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Pub.

    (An intro to systems is desperately needed for most students.)

    Mooij, M. (2004). Consumer behavior and culture. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

    (There are many other possible books about culture, none are perfect, but what’s neat about this one is that it throws up plenty of evidence from commercial life.)

  11. It’s a mostly nice list. The problem I’d have with the Sen book picked, though, is that it just isn’t a very good book. It’s a sort of “grand old man” book, but the particular arguments in it are not very good, and he’s quite bad at presenting the positions he’s arguing against. (I was left completely unsure if he was straw-manning them or just really, really, didn’t understand them.) (It’s not for nothing that the reviews have mostly been respectful but luke-warm, I think.) Sen is an important thinker, but this was far, far from his best work. I can see why lots of people find the writing style of _A Theory of Justice_ not for them, though I myself like it a lot, but whatever one thinks of the relative positions of Sen’s book and _Theory_, _Theory_ is just on a different level in terms of the quality of argument. If you really think you need something newer (and more readable, depending on your tastes) than _theory_, than maybe something from Nussbaum, as mentioned above, would be good.

  12. I think the forthcoming Sean Caroll book “The Big Picture” would be a far better choice the the Origin of Species. There’s a bit more to science than 19th century evolutionary theory.

  13. Great list.

    Here are my suggestions:

    – The Better Angels of Our Nature and The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker (I think they should be just one book)

    – Moral Tribes by Joshua Greene

    – A Random Walk Down Wall Street , by Burton Malkiel

    – House of Cards, by Robyn Dawes

  14. One of my philosophy profs, years ago, said that everyone living in a liberal democracy should read Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies. I agree.

  15. How the world is: The True Believer by Eric Hoffer It explains so much and is easily read. Gave it to both my twenty something children…one actually read it and agrees with me.

  16. Every educated person in ancient Greece and Rome read Homer. They cannot be understood today by students without Homer.

  17. Odyssey
    The Republic
    Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems
    Marx, Capital: An Abridged Edition, ed. David McLellan
    Beethoven, Symphony no. 9
    Charles Darwin On the Origin of Species
    Richard Lewontin Human Diversity
    Emile Durkheim Elementary Forms of Religious Life
    Shostakovic Symphony no. 7
    Ravi Shankar East Meets West with Yehudi Menuhin

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  19. Nice list. True wisdom began with the discovery of anti-teleology and radical skepticism. Don’t listen to those people who would have you waste your time on The Bible, Hobbes, or Nietzsche.

  20. There is a catch-22 in making any list like this. Any person who has read enough and knows enough to put together such a list cannot put herself in the position of a student who is neither. The list maker can’t know what the student will get from any of the books. If honest and self-aware, she is actually saying, “Subject to the ten book constraint, these books contain the ideas that I think every young person should know. Given what I know of young people, they are the best presentation of these ideas that I have encountered.”

    This list is not for all or even most young people. I teach high school in a fairly good American district and most of the students would give up on Darwin and Hume fairly quickly. (Actually, getting most American high school students to read any long-form writing is quite a chore.)

    Perhaps a good half of all twenty year olds lack the intellectual firepower to get much out of most of the books on the list. Like Pauline Kael not knowing anyone who voted for Nixon, most of us find this simply unimaginable. But that represents the narrowness of our acquaintances, not the make-up of the world.

      • Short and captivating, such as “Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams.”

        Or even better “Lies My Teacher Told Me”

      • Diane, after more than a week of puzzling, I still don’t have an answer to your question.

        My 11th grade honors students spend so much time and energy building a resume for college applications that they don’t have much of either left over for “ideas and discussions.” In college, they have a lot more freedom and some do indeed find that world worth entering.

        My 9th grade non-honors students spend a lot more time on non-college-directed activities but are generally less interested in ideas in the abstract. We would love for them to be and try to encourage it but are generally unsuccessful (and perhaps have inadvertently sabotaged ourselves; schools are largely set up so students advance by “memorizing and forgetting.” Knowledge is useful to the extent that it allows you to pass a test, do a project, etc., and then be done with it).

        I’m afraid teaching has made me pessimistic–for two big reasons. One: post-pubescent people are curious, want to do new things, and have lots of interests–but those interests are generally not academic: relationships with peers and potential romantic partners, prospects for the future/making money, music, sports, movies and TV, video games. Their lives can be so filled with these, even overwhelmed by these, that there is little room for a “life of the mind.” To the extent that “ideas” can be connected to these, perhaps young people will want to pursue them. (American schools do a corrupt version of this, “Are you worried about your future? Well, you better pass this class or you won’t have a future. You can’t get a good job unless you have at least a high school diploma.”)

        Two, the alternatives to “ideas and discussion” are generally easier. Watching television, listening to music, playing sports, drinking, smoking. And so on and so on. And as people are richer and more connected, these alternatives are easier to obtain. (How much time do 17-year-old males spend watching free internet porn?) To put it a different way, the relative price of “ideas and discussion” has gone up.

        On the other hand, people like lots of things because those things are difficult and challenging–though as I understand it, people are most engaged when things are difficult but not too difficult. Video games, I am told, are constructed so the player is always in such a situation. Perhaps education should be structured so people advance through “levels” determined by their ability to master each level. Challenges that are constantly built on. Though administratively (and perhaps politically), that would be a nightmare.

        Of course, as people grow up, interests change. Things that seemed important at 14 don’t seem as important at 20. But what now seems important is more likely to be job and family (or potential job and potential family) than ideas. Here my 9th graders are ahead of my 11th graders.

        Maybe the answer to your question is that there is no answer. Though I wish the reality were different, I fear that nobody will be able to come up with anything that “would entice a majority of students into the world of ideas and discussion.”

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  22. I don’t think there is a universal list for all students. I think that the list is best tailored to balance out the culture the student comes from and the way they engage the world.

  23. I like your list – though Hume might be a bit too challenging, and I thought Sen’s Idea of Justice was too long-winded, much as I admire his other work.
    I’d add Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. It’s part history of moral philosophy, part analysis of our modern-day malaise. I’d also add some Richard Sennett eg The Hidden Injuries of Class.
    And of course, it should be a criminal offence for anyone to express any view whatsoever on the social sciences without having read Jon Elster, eg Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences.

    • I teach Elster’s Explaining Social Behavior over a month, but here are a few problems.
      1. The critique of multiple regression analysis and ideas such as statistical significance are not especially well-done. I supplement with Richard Nisbett and Jordan Ellenberg.
      2. There is not enough of what I shall call an anthropological sensibility, e.g. how and why kinship systems have changed over time (I think here of Susan MacKinnon and Marshall Sahlins) or the Foucauldian problem of how human kinds come into existence, such the child or the prostitute or the mad.
      3. I’ll confirm in a couple of months but I don’t think Elster sufficiently covers basic problems with basic methods such as experimentation (external and internal validity) or the historic comparative method (cherry-picking comparisons).

      All that said, the book is a brilliant defense of a mechanisms-based approach to explanation, and I am happy to be teaching it.

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  25. This emailed comment is from John Saunders:

    Students are presented with bewildering, significant life choices at a time of unprecedented change and upheaval in their lives. We know that pressure increases people’s ‘need for closure’, and that this is not conducive to creative thinking. Added to this, they have been encouraged to plan and think about their life in a very causal way: identifying their goals and working backwards to figure out the causes that will lead to their fulfilment. The degree of technological, societal and other change that will take place in their working lives (not to mention the sheer complexity of the modern economy) makes selecting from a narrow list of options that come to mind a rather unhelpful approach to say the least.

    So with this in mind, I recommend Tim Harford’s Adapt as an easy-going intro to the upshots of emergence / evolution / complexity for leading a successful life, and Carol Dweck’s Mindset for thinking about themselves as they undertake ceaseless change. Also Uri Bram’s Thinking Statistically because it’s VERY short and covers selection bias, omitted variable bias and Bayes’ theorem. The more entrepreneurial may wish to consider Effectual Entrepreneurship (Sarasvathy and Read).

    Something that helps put people inside the head of anyone from a radically different historical or geographical context would be good, too – though hard to pick a single best book from fiction / travel writing / social history etc.

    An ideal undergraduate degree / university and syllabus (starting from a blank sheet of paper) on the other hand, would look more like this: https://www.minerva.kgi.edu/learningoutcomes/

    All the best – and thanks for the blog!


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