Print Story Ask Husi: Greatest Works of Nonfiction
By codemonkey uk (Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 07:50:39 AM EST) (all tags)
Last week, at some point, I teased a slacker acquaintance of mine, who had 3 hours left till his deadline for an essay about Marxism, that he was dooomed, since he "couldn't read Das Kapital in three hours".

Which got me thinking, I really should read Das Kapital myself.  Amongst others.  And that actually, now I think about it, I am embarrassingly not well read when it comes to non-fiction.

Which is where you come in, dear reader.

I'd like to make a reading list.  Non-fiction.  The greatest works of mankind.  Deep thinkers best thoughts.  What should that list contain, do you think?

Influential classics, non-fiction, books about peoples original ideas.  Ideas that changed the world.  Great thinkers, who influenced the way we think, with what they wrote.  Politics, philosophy, science, and to a lesser extent, economics, history, psychology.

People like (and these are examples only, provided to set the tone): Karl Marx, Adam Smith, Noam Chomsky, Nietzsche, Sun Tzu, Ann Raynd, & Sigmund Freud.

Try to limit yourself to no more than one book per author.  If someone was prolific, what was their best and most important work?

Note: These should be books that can be understood by a reasonably intelligent non-expert.  I realise Einstein's 'Relativity: The Special and General Theory' is an important work in the field of physics, but I would expect it to be way over my head without extensive study in maths and prior physics.

I'd also like to avoid works which have since been largely discredited (which is why Freud comes last on my list of example authors).

Lastly, if the author wrote in a languge other than English (ie, Das Kapital, or Art of War) I'd appreciate the suggestion including the specific translation recommended for the English reader.

I look forward greatly to reading your suggestions!  And then reading them.


< As always: data inconclusive. | Death has no terror; only a Death of shame! >
Ask Husi: Greatest Works of Nonfiction | 57 comments (57 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback
The enlightenment in a nutshell by Merekat (4.00 / 1) #1 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 08:09:22 AM EST
Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (this one is tedious but a good insight into fear of change).

I'd not have picked those for Enlightenment by lm (2.00 / 0) #9 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 09:00:21 AM EST
For the Enlightenment, I would have tagged Descartes (Discourse on Method), Rousseau (Second Discourse), Kant (What is Enlightenment and Perpetual Peace) with Voltaire (Candide) thrown on top.

There is no more degenerate kind of state than that in which the richest are supposed to be the best.
Cicero, The Republic
[ Parent ]
Would you have picked them at all? by Merekat (2.00 / 0) #10 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 09:06:04 AM EST
I like them because they are representative of the changes in the way people were thinking on quite a practical level, rather than being what we might call purely philosphical. It is people saying how they wanted things to be.

[ Parent ]
In that case you can add by wiredog (4.00 / 1) #12 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 09:13:16 AM EST
"The Declaration of Independence" by Jefferson

"The Constitution of the United States" by Madison, et alia.

Earth First!
(We can strip mine the rest later.)

[ Parent ]
Well worth reading by Merekat (3.50 / 4) #14 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 09:20:09 AM EST
If more people did, the US might have been a better place for the last 8 years.

[ Parent ]
a tangent by garlic (2.00 / 0) #43 Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 10:22:47 AM EST
I just read a book on the past 2 decades history of the supreme court, and the thing that I find pretty interesting is that the US hasn't been operating on a purely constitutional basis for probably the last century or so. Supreme court precedent has built up that extends on modifies the constitution in ways that have made us a better country which is good, but which can be easily overturned if not actually written out as ammendments, which is bad.

[ Parent ]
I'd definitely have picked Paine and Burke by lm (2.00 / 0) #16 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 09:24:40 AM EST
I have to confess ignorance of Wollstonecraft.

The thing about the Enlightenment is that there were very few purely philosophical treatises. Most of the thinkers of the Enlightenment were hugely influential in the arts or sciences in addition to writing philosophy. So, in some ways, most Enlightenment philosophy is the very stuff of being practical.

There is no more degenerate kind of state than that in which the richest are supposed to be the best.
Cicero, The Republic
[ Parent ]
Kant by garlic (2.00 / 0) #42 Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 10:19:16 AM EST
I don't know that I would call Kant readable for a lay person.

[ Parent ]
His political essays are very readable by lm (2.00 / 0) #49 Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 03:29:09 PM EST
`What is Enlightenment' is considered to be the definitive answer to what the Enlightenment was.

`Perpetual Peace' is considered to be the impetus for the creation of the United Nations and was written in response to Kant going into a pub and seeing a picture of a graveyard with `perpetual peace' written as a slogan on it.

My introduction to Kant came by way Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals and his political essays. For the life of me I couldn't figure out why people thought Kant was impenetrable. Then I had to read his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. Crikey!

There is no more degenerate kind of state than that in which the richest are supposed to be the best.
Cicero, The Republic
[ Parent ]
I like ... by me0w (4.00 / 1) #2 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 08:20:06 AM EST
Hrm ... there are many more ...

"the only reason we PMS is because our uterus is screaming at our brain to go out, get fucked, and have a baby ... and it makes us angry."

My list by anonimouse (4.00 / 3) #3 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 08:25:59 AM EST
Sun Tzu - Art of War
Machievelli - The Prince

The above stand head and shoulders above the rest as the principles have been applied to more than just war and politics.

Like you I'm not too convinced about Freud; his work doesn't stand up today but on the other hand, he probably is the grandfather of psychiatry as a "proper" science (sugar spun can probably say this better)

Contrary to misslake, I think Darwins works On the Origin of Species should be read despite the high boredom factor. It plods because Darwin needed to tread carefully and be methodical to overcome the opposition.

Girls come and go but a mortgage is for 25 years -- JtL
Freud by ucblockhead (2.00 / 0) #20 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 10:46:48 AM EST
Freud is to psychology as Aristotle is to science in general.
[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman
[ Parent ]
Freud's most important work by Dr H0ffm4n (2.00 / 0) #32 Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 02:37:45 AM EST
Was published by his daughter, Anna: The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence (IMHO).

[ Parent ]
art of war by clover kicker (4.00 / 1) #27 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 01:41:17 PM EST
Get a decent translation with commentary, the literal translations are full of idioms that require some explanation, at least for me.

[ Parent ]
for The Prince also: Get a good translation by greyrat (2.00 / 0) #35 Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 04:12:03 AM EST
I have a relatively new one from Penguin edited and translated by Peter Bondanella and Mark Musa which, for example translates the famous "...the ends justify the means" as a more correct and less sinister "one must consider the final result".

[ Parent ]
It doesn't plod by debacle (2.00 / 0) #40 Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 08:55:13 AM EST
Glaciers make faster progress than Darwin.


[ Parent ]
Richard Dawkins is highly readable by jump the ladder (4.00 / 1) #4 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 08:42:44 AM EST
If you want to get the gist of Neo-Darwinism. I recommend The Blind Watchmaker and The Ancestor's Tale.

If you want a semi-scientific view of history then Jarred Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years is excellent.

funny by codemonkey uk (2.00 / 0) #5 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 08:46:44 AM EST
I've read Dawkins (The Selfish Gene, and The Extended Phenotype, but not the Blind Watchmaker), and Jarred Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel.

--- Thad ---
Almost as Smart As you.
[ Parent ]
Diamond's Collapse was pretty good by Breaker (2.00 / 0) #25 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 12:50:22 PM EST

[ Parent ]
Fans of Jared Diamond would do well to read by chuckles (2.00 / 0) #15 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 09:22:45 AM EST
The 10,000 Year Explosion.

"The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin [...] would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities"
[ Parent ]
Too many to list by wiredog (2.00 / 0) #6 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 08:48:24 AM EST
Anonimouse has a good start. Especially Machiavelli. People who say something is "Machiavellian" haven't read The Prince.

De Toqueville's "Democracy in America".

"A Brief History of Time"

Locke, "Second Treatise on Government".

Clausewitz, "On War".

Rhodes, "The Making of the Atomic Bomb"
A good overview of the development of particle and quantum physics in the late 1800s through mid-1900s. "The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb" is a very different, but still good, book.

Tuchman, "A Distant Mirror".

Earth First!
(We can strip mine the rest later.)

One must read book is by wiredog (2.00 / 0) #7 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 08:53:41 AM EST
"From Dawn To Decadence" by Barzun. He was in his mid-80s when he started writing it. Damn good book.

Earth First!
(We can strip mine the rest later.)

[ Parent ]
Owell, can't forget Orwell by wiredog (1.00 / 1) #11 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 09:11:55 AM EST
Any collection of his essays.

"Why Orwell Matters" by Hitchens.

Earth First!
(We can strip mine the rest later.)

[ Parent ]
Homage to Catalonia by Herring (2.50 / 2) #18 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 10:20:56 AM EST
A must-read.

christ, we're all old now - StackyMcRacky
[ Parent ]
The Mythical Man-Month by wiredog (4.00 / 1) #24 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 12:39:55 PM EST
and The Peter Principle.

Earth First!
(We can strip mine the rest later.)

[ Parent ]
The Mythical Man-Month by ucblockhead (4.00 / 1) #38 Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 06:53:05 AM EST
I started rereading that after many years a year ago and had to stop.  Too depressing.
[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman
[ Parent ]
reading about this on wikipedia lead me to this: by garlic (2.00 / 0) #44 Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 10:34:54 AM EST
The Dilbert Principle draws upon the idea that in certain situations, the upper echelons of an organization can have little relevance to the actual production and the majority of real, productive work in a company is done by people lower in the power ladder. It is possible for both Principles to be simultaneously active in a single organization.[citation needed]

That [cite needed] is pretty funny.

[ Parent ]
best nonfiction by misslake (2.00 / 0) #8 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 08:54:23 AM EST
the double helix, james d watson

operating manual for spaceship earth, buckminster fuller

what is life?, erwin schrodinger

of course my valentine, charles darwin, and the voyage of the beagle

though i know they don't meet your criteria, i want to reccomend the best american science writing series, yearly from 2000, series editor jesse cohen.
this is a collection of the very best science writing from newspapers, journals, magazines, and each year a different scientist-author selects that year's best. i found a copy in the edmonton public library because it was edited by oliver sacks, and i got hooked on the series. it's great for transit reading, and you can get a taste for all the major or interesting discoveries and authors in the modern non-fiction realm.

questions by garlic (2.00 / 0) #45 Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 10:36:36 AM EST
What sorts of things get chosen? I know a lot of newspaper science writing is really terrible, and a lot of it also is reporting on the early stages of studies that are too soon to make reasonable predictions from.

[ Parent ]
more often writing from journals by misslake (2.00 / 0) #52 Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 05:13:11 PM EST
than newspapers, and never the sorts of NEW STUDY: DEADLY COFFEE AND CANCER LINK!!! stories.

pieces by oliver sacks, james gleik, atul gawande, douglas hofstadler, stephen jay gould...

i can recall some things from nature, science and scientific american. 

actually, now that i am thinking carefully about it, i can't recall a specific story that said it came from a newspaper, i may be wrong about that part.
i recall there was one that i recognised from national geographic, and a few short essays exerpted from books.

the writing was excellent. that was what stood out about the science articles, more than just the topics being interesting, the way the science was presented was really engaging.

[ Parent ]
Titles not yet mentioned elsewhere by lm (4.00 / 1) #13 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 09:19:55 AM EST
For Marx, I'd suggest the so called Paris writings rather than Das Kapital.

For Adam Smith, I'd suggest Theory of Moral Sentiment.

I'd add the Apology of Socrates, Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, at least one of Plotinus' Enneads, The Divine Names by Pseudo-Dionysius, al-Gazali's Incoherence of the Philosophers and Ibn Rushd's reply The Incoherence of the Incoherence, Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed, Marsilus of Padua's Defender of the Peace, something by Thomas Aquinas -- Book I or Book II of Summa Contra Gentiles would be pretty approachable, Hugo Grotius' The Free Sea, the first half of Hobbes' Leviathan (also the second half if you're interested in his materialist take on the proper role of religion in the modern state), The Federalist Papers by Jay/Hamilton/Madison, Husserl's Cartesian Meditations, some of Levinas' essays (Unforseen History is a very nice collection), the Autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi, Alex Haley's Autobiography of Malcolm X.

There is no more degenerate kind of state than that in which the richest are supposed to be the best.
Cicero, The Republic
Adam Smith - why Theory of Moral Sentiment? by codemonkey uk (2.00 / 0) #30 Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 01:15:27 AM EST
Why not The Wealth of Nations, isn't that generally considered to be his crowning glory, the work for which he is remembered?

--- Thad ---
Almost as Smart As you.
[ Parent ]
Yes, it is by lm (2.00 / 0) #50 Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 03:33:11 PM EST
But Theory of Moral Sentiment is thinner and puts forth a very modern and sensible theory of morality based on the concept that morality is based on the idea of imagining ourselves in the position of other people. From this comes some fantastic insights such as people being creeped out by death because we imagine ourselves to be under the cold, dark earth being eaten by worms.

Besides, I also recommended Hugo Grotius who layed the fundamental argument for free trade upon which Smith would build.

There is no more degenerate kind of state than that in which the richest are supposed to be the best.
Cicero, The Republic
[ Parent ]
Some History Texts by Gedvondur (2.00 / 0) #17 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 09:45:29 AM EST
Churchill's The Second World War

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

A Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin


"I love my brain. It's the only organ I can afford to lose." --frijolito
Churchill by ucblockhead (4.00 / 1) #21 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 10:49:25 AM EST
The unabridged WWII books can be very dry because he has a tendency to throw in 20 page memos to various parties.  But extremely good.  I suspect the abridged ones just cut out all the tedious details.
[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman
[ Parent ]
Tao Te Ching by ucblockhead (2.00 / 0) #19 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 10:44:25 AM EST
Can be read in about an hour.  There are lots of translations...I'm not informed enough to say which ones are good.

Given recent anniversaries, "Origin of the Species" is an obvious one.

But are you only talking original works?

An oddball one I really liked is Mackay's "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds".
[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman

How to Win Friends and Influence People by georgeha (2.00 / 0) #22 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 11:06:51 AM EST
I started rereading it again.

Nonfiction by dn (4.00 / 1) #23 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 11:17:59 AM EST

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman (a bit fictional)

The Soul of a New Machine by Tracey Kidder

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

    I ♥   

just because a work is discredited by LilFlightTest (4.00 / 1) #26 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 01:37:25 PM EST
does not mean it's not valuable, even if it serves to show you how far we've come since then.

if de-virgination results in me being able to birth hammerhead sharks, SIGN ME UP!!! --misslake
I'm currently reading by dev trash (4.00 / 1) #28 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 04:56:28 PM EST
A brief history of time

Some suggestions. by Tonatiuh (2.00 / 0) #29 Mon Feb 16, 2009 at 09:43:01 PM EST
Allow me to contribute here with fiction from the Spanish Speaking world  (I never read translations, so I can't recommend any in particular).

"Don Quixote" by  Cervantes (the best novel ever written. In any language).

"The Plain in Flames" (aka "The burning plain")  and "Pedro Paramo" by Juan Rulfo (read both, they are tiny, they  will explain where a lot of XXth century literature comes from. Rulfo is the grand daddy of all modern magical realists, from Garcia Marquez to Salman Rushdie, most Spanish speaking writers will chose Rulfo as one of their top 3, a poll conducted some years ago actually placed it as the most influential in par with Borges. He only wrote those 2 books, then he retired to a life of relative obscurity as a civil servant and died as a much beloved Mexican cultural heroe, his books are so influential that were enough to make him an ethernal Nobel Prize candidate, the only prize of note he didn't win. In other words Rulfo is perhaps the XXth century's Cervantes).

Any poetry by Pablo Neruda (I know poetry does not translate well, but I urge you any everybody else to read poetry).

And although I class religious texts as works of fiction, no cultured western person should omit The Bible from their reading list. Special brownie points if you read the Quoran.

In politics I would highly recommend Nelson Mandela's autobiography. It is thick and hard going at places, but it puts you in the mind of one of the best political activists we have ever seen (remember that he came after both Gandhi and Martin Luther King, so he learned from their experiences).

For a philosophy pointer "Sophie's World" by Jostein Gaarder is hard to beat, it has the charming ability to make you realize that many of the great realizations in life have been thought about by some of the great philosophers already, which makes you feel both smug and ignorant in equal measures, it serves equally as a handy philosophy manual.

As an alternative to the frankly boring, overlong, but still  commendable "Goedel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid"  I recommend  "Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture" by Apostolos Doxiadis which delves in mathematics, philosophy, family relationships, etc, etc, etc in a bit more than a couple of hundred pages. This is all what the other book should have been.

In the "books about peoples original ideas" department one should really read "On the origin of species" by Darwin, this book is so fundamental to our understanding of life and science that one should not skip it.

I'm about 3/5ths through by yicky yacky (2.00 / 0) #36 Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 04:49:01 AM EST

Don Quixote. If it wants the "best ever" tag, the last 40% is going to have to rock a lot harder than any book I've ever read. At the moment, it's nowhere near attaining even 'Watchmen' status, let alone 'Moby Dick' or 'Gravity's Rainbow'.

Vacuity abhors a vacuum.
[ Parent ]
Don Quixote... by Tonatiuh (4.00 / 1) #39 Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 07:11:46 AM EST
Don Quixote fights giants, sorcerers, knights and wizards. He alone defeats enemy armies and fights for the honour of the most beautiful woman that has ever lived. All this while new stories come to life in the middle of the book that are tales of caution. And he is mad, not bad as a certain Captain chasing a certain whale. Don Quixote is the blood of the Spanish speaking world! Don Quixote is our language.

Captain Ahab nemesis is an angry white whale. Whales are vegetarian or eat plancton. And they get stranded on beaches. They are like cows. Where is the dramatism on that?

[ Parent ]
Dearest Tonatiuh: by greyrat (2.00 / 0) #48 Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 12:59:18 PM EST
Spermaceti whales are devout carnivores, battling and eating some of the larges sea animals at the greatest depths reachable by any air breathing creature. They are also quite capable of sinking the ships that pursue them. The fictional account of Ahab and his doomed companions is based in fact and reality. 

Quixote, on the other hand, is based in the totally fictional lunatic ramblings of some pathetic, lovelorn and misguided wannabe "knight".

[ Parent ]
So it is a carnivore cow. by Tonatiuh (2.00 / 0) #53 Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 11:14:51 PM EST
No difference.

[ Parent ]
Mmmmmm... Carnivore cow.... by greyrat (2.00 / 0) #54 Wed Feb 18, 2009 at 04:44:09 AM EST
...and Quixote is just a nut job. No difference.

[ Parent ]
Nut jobs explain the complexities of life. by Tonatiuh (4.00 / 1) #55 Wed Feb 18, 2009 at 10:52:16 PM EST
Van Gogh, Schumman , Goedel.

When did a carnivore sea cow do as much?

[ Parent ]
Jonah. And the whale. by greyrat (2.00 / 0) #56 Thu Feb 19, 2009 at 04:02:26 AM EST
People thought Jonah was nuts too.

[ Parent ]
It's certainly not an easy read. by garlic (2.00 / 0) #47 Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 10:47:05 AM EST

[ Parent ]
I agree with you on Don Quixote by lm (4.00 / 1) #51 Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 03:37:48 PM EST
It probably reads better in its native tongue. My translation had a tremendous number of footnotes trying to explain the humor of the original play on words. Then again, for all I know you're reading it in Spanish.

It is rather influential in that a tremendous amount of popular culture directly descends from themes or plot devices in Don Quixote. Ever notice how many cartoons have a bumbling, tall and thin hero with a squat, wise-cracking sidekick?

There is no more degenerate kind of state than that in which the richest are supposed to be the best.
Cicero, The Republic
[ Parent ]
Christopher Alexander by codemonkey uk (2.00 / 0) #31 Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 01:27:19 AM EST
But: "The Timeless Way of Building", or "A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction"?

--- Thad ---
Almost as Smart As you.
Personally influential by Dr H0ffm4n (2.00 / 0) #33 Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 02:41:25 AM EST
My personal list would actually be two fairly obscure books but they were directly influential to me about how humans reason.
Forty Studies That Changed Psychology - Roger R. Hock
Computability and Logic - George S. Boolos et al

The Gulag Archipelago by greyrat (2.00 / 0) #34 Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 03:43:35 AM EST
It's a monster to wade through -- seven books in three volumes in the edition I have -- but it's an amazing historical document and a fine warning about what a totalitarian government (like the modern United States) is capable of. I bought my now tattered and broken paperback copies as a wee lad more than 25 years ago, and I still reread them every couple years.

Random Selection by yicky yacky (2.00 / 0) #37 Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 05:15:49 AM EST

Vacuity abhors a vacuum.
All of these books are well and good by debacle (4.00 / 1) #41 Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 09:02:32 AM EST
But all you really need is the Kama Sutra, The Way to Cook, and On Writing.


reccomendation by garlic (2.00 / 0) #46 Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 10:45:51 AM EST
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriot Jacobs, published in 1861 about her early life as a slave in North Carolina.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom by greyrat (4.00 / 1) #57 Thu Feb 19, 2009 at 05:03:45 PM EST
Available online too.

Ask Husi: Greatest Works of Nonfiction | 57 comments (57 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback