Books Every Educated Person Should Read

by Harry on February 9, 2004

This is a request for help. A student came to me with Will Durant’s list of 100 necessary books which he (the student) thinks needs updating. He, the student, wants to know what books the educated person should have read, that have been published since 1970. I am just about the worst person for him to come to, since unlike all my CT colleagues I am narrowly read and utterly lacking in erudition in subjects other than cricket, children’s TV, the history of the far left, and my professional interests. But you, the readers, are a different matter, and I have access to you. So, submissions, please, of the two books you think every educated person should have read, published 1970 or later. Your reward will be in heaven…

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Kuutio » Arkistojen aartehia
10.19.05 at 12:20 pm



Omri 02.09.04 at 5:52 pm

Some candidates: Doing Our Own Thing (John McWhorter). Never mind his thesis. McWhorter’s book
stands on its own as a cultural survey book.
Influence (Cialdini), as necessary as a flu shot, but much more enjoyable.
The Crooked Timber of Humanity (Isaiah Berlin), again, a good survey book.
The Mind’s I (Hofstadter & Dennet)
because at one point or another, you’ll have
to speak with geeks. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Edward Tufte)
is a good lesson both in how to write and how
to read a graphical argument.
How about fiction?


humeidayer 02.09.04 at 5:58 pm

The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins.
Godel, Escher, Bach – Douglas Hofstadter


Jon H 02.09.04 at 6:00 pm

May I request a followup post with a condensation of the suggestions into a coherent and easily copied list?


chun the unavoidable 02.09.04 at 6:02 pm

Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon.

Radical Son, David Horowitz.


des 02.09.04 at 6:03 pm

Chance and Necessity, Jacques Monod. _The_ great popularisation of neo-Darwinism, absurdly neglected in the English-speaking world.

The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat – Oliver Sacks. Very popular as neurological freakshow fun, but repays more thoughtful reading.


Anne C. 02.09.04 at 6:08 pm

Anarchy, State, & Utopia – Robert Nozick.
A Theory of Justice – John Rawls.


jam 02.09.04 at 6:14 pm

The History and Geography of Human Genes, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza.

I’ll have to think about others.


micah 02.09.04 at 6:15 pm

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Primo Levi, The Periodic Table


jacob 02.09.04 at 6:17 pm

James C. Scott, “Seeing Like a State”
Natalie Zemon Davis, “The Return of Martin Guerre,” and/or Carlo Ginzburg, “The Cheese and the Worms”

Also, I second Jon H’s request.


Matt 02.09.04 at 6:18 pm

First, a comment- let’s all please try to follow the “Two Book” rule, to keep this in line!

1)The Economics of Feasible Socialism by Alec Nove.

2) Justice as Fairness: A Re-statement by John Rawls. I recomend this even though the arguments are much more telgraphed than in TJ or PL only because it’s much shorter and more likely to be able to keep a general reader’s interest than the two big books, which should of course be consulted for the full view.


Chris Bertram 02.09.04 at 6:20 pm

Hard to pick from so many. But I’ll go for

Philip Roth, _American Pastoral_ (1998).


William Shawcross, _Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia_ . (1979)


Fergal 02.09.04 at 6:22 pm

Landes – Wealth and Poverty of Nations


praktike 02.09.04 at 6:22 pm

Justice as Fairness and Beyond the Limits


Abiola Lapite 02.09.04 at 6:25 pm

Here’s my list of candidates:

In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust. Arguably the finest single literary work of the 20th century.

The Open Society and its Enemies (Vols.I-II), Karl Popper. A useful antidote against revolutionary utopianism.

Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, John Allen Paulos. This ought to be mandatory reading for everyone. If it were, perhaps the New York Times wouldn’t be running astrology op-eds.

How to Lie with Statistics, by Darrell Huff. I recommend this with the old Disraeli quote in mind; it’s shameful how many “intellectuals” are easily taken in by statistical flimflam.


sennoma 02.09.04 at 6:25 pm

Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics. Probably a bit intellectually underpowered for the CT crowd, but a good intro to thinking about ethical issues. Also Parfit’s Reasons and Persons.


Chris Bertram 02.09.04 at 6:27 pm

Abiola: Harry wants suggestions for books published since 1970!


chun the unavoidable 02.09.04 at 6:28 pm

Abiola forgot the after 1970 bit and also thinks “underinformed rant” and “useful antidote” are equivalent.


bg 02.09.04 at 6:34 pm

Out of Control, Kevin Kelly
Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson


Abiola Lapite 02.09.04 at 6:38 pm


Thanks for pointing that out. My mistake.


Do you make it a hobby of yours to be an asshole?


chun the unavoidable 02.09.04 at 6:43 pm

Abiola–is that a complex question?

I see that you’ve abandoned your claim about the Popper book, one of the pleasing ironies of which is the author’s own immense hubris and authoritarianism. If we’re going to talk about the ills of revolutionary utopianism, then the forthright Horowitz volume I mentioned earlier is at least something with a bit of heft.


Jeremy Osner 02.09.04 at 6:44 pm

Gravity’s Rainbox has to be in there, absolutely. And, I would like to see The Satanic Verses on the list as well.


Andrew Edwards 02.09.04 at 6:45 pm

If there’s a two-book limit, I’d add

Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie


Constantine’s Sword by James Carroll

I also second the votes especially for Rawls, Nozick, and Hofstadter.


Thomas 02.09.04 at 6:47 pm

JR — William Gaddis
After Virture — Alaisdair Macintyre


Abiola Lapite 02.09.04 at 6:48 pm

Here’s a revised list with post-1970 titles:

1 – Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, John Allen Paulos.

2 – The Mathematical Experience, Phillip Davis and Reuben Hersh. A nice mix of history, philosophy and the odd bit of actual mathematical insight. Useful for dispelling the notion that maths is the dry stuff taught to engineers and economists.

3 – Whither Socialism?, Joseph E. Stiglitz. Why socialism is doomed to failure: Hayek was right about the price system, and both neoclassical economiscs and market socialism are wrong.


Andrew Edwards 02.09.04 at 6:49 pm

Incidentally, anyone have a link of Duirant’s original list?


miss representation 02.09.04 at 6:49 pm

1. Contingencies of Value Barbara Herrnstein Smith

2. For sheer persistence (in certain circles): The Anti-Aesthetic Hal Foster (ed.), but I assume you were looking for primary works.
3. Orientalism seems obvious.

Mefisto John Banville


Jon Buis 02.09.04 at 6:55 pm

The Stone Raft .
By Jose Saramago


mikem 02.09.04 at 7:01 pm

I wold add Tufte’s “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” and Stigler’s “The History of Statistics: The Measurements of Uncertainity Before 1900.”


dglynn 02.09.04 at 7:08 pm

Up In The Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell

The Triumph of Politics by David Stockman


MQ 02.09.04 at 7:14 pm

“Whither Socialism” is indeed an excellent book, but I would not say it is about socialism being doomed. Rather it is an attempt to reimagine it and put it on firmer ground.

I am surprised no one has mentioned Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago”, first published in English in the early 70s. I think that is certainly a work that will live on from the 20th century, even if no one really does read all three volumes.

And if I wanted to recommend a Philip Roth book written since 1970, it would be “Sabbath’s Theatre” over “American Pastoral” in a heartbeat. American Pastoral is more tired aging-Jewish-male neoconservatism about how great the 50s were; Sabbath’s Theatre is almost Shakespearean.


Dinesh Gaitonde 02.09.04 at 7:31 pm

It is interesting to see so few Math & Science books in this list. Why?

(1) Is it that this forum is more liberal arts inclined?
(2) Is it assumed that any educated person will know enough about Math & Science?
(3) Is it because, unlike liberal arts, the books that a educated person should read in Math & Science are textbooks?

In any case, my contribution to this thread are Feynman’s Lectures on Physics. He makes the subject appear maddeningly easy.


msw 02.09.04 at 7:38 pm

Love in the Time of Cholera (1996’s 100 Years of Solitude doesn’t make the cutoff date) I think it’s safe to call Marquez the most important novelist of the last 30 years.

The Mis-Measure of Man – Steven J Gould.



Jane 02.09.04 at 7:40 pm

Stephen E. Ambrose, “The Rise to Globalism” and Paul Fussell, “The Great War and Modern Memory.”


Gavin 02.09.04 at 7:43 pm

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
A History of Economic Thought by Lionel Robbins


Keith M Ellis 02.09.04 at 7:52 pm

Adaptation and Natural Selection by G. C. Williams[1]
Beloved by Toni Morrison

…but, really, there could be so many more. I suggest these because they’ve not yet been mentioned.

[1] Admittedly, this doesn’t quite qualify as the original publication date was 1966.


Ken 02.09.04 at 7:57 pm

I think I’d have to recommend two by David Berlinski: A Tour of the Calculus and The Advent of the Algorithm.


blueshoe 02.09.04 at 8:01 pm

Limiting to fiction:

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick Suskind.

I second the Proust, esp. the new Lydia Davis translation, esp. “Combray,” the first half of “Swann’s Way.”


Carlos 02.09.04 at 8:01 pm

The Pound Era, Hugh Kenner.

Weapons and Hope, Freeman Dyson.


mjones 02.09.04 at 8:04 pm

If the cut-off date were earlier, I would suggest either Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series (1952-69), or her The Golden Notebook (1962). Otherwise, I’d echo the suggestion of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and add (deep breath) Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren (1975).


brayden 02.09.04 at 8:05 pm

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy


The Second Shift by Arlie Russell Hochschild


EKR 02.09.04 at 8:05 pm

“The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins

“General Relativity from A to B” by Robert Geroch. It’s a treatment that only uses geometry and simple algebra.


todd. 02.09.04 at 8:09 pm

If we have to make a choice between the two previously suggested works of Rushdie’s, I vote for Midnight’s Children.

I also second the suggestion of Love in the Time of Cholera, as well as the claim that Marquez is the most important novelist of the last 30.

Also, for an undergraduate intent upon joining academia, I’ve found Menand’s The Metaphysical Club a nice combination of informative and inspiring, if a little spread out.


Booker 02.09.04 at 8:12 pm

The question is akin buying contemporary art: the best strategy is to discern genuine esthetic value, figuring that it what will make the work most likely valuable/valued fifty years hence.

So this question is like speculating what book is most likely to be read fifty and hundred years from now as the Second Treatise, Critique of Pure Reason, Don Quixote, Origin of the Species are read today.

One reasonable guess is Rawls’ Theory of Justice.
Larkin (too early?) and Heaney?
Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics

Anyway, the game goes to ENDURING worth and being incapable of supercession. Philosophy and literature have it easier than social science and history.


Keith M Ellis 02.09.04 at 8:12 pm

Geroch’s book (which I am not familiar with) brings to mind:

Space, Time, and Gravity: The Theory of the Big Bang and Black Holes by Robert M. Wald

…which doesn’t sound so great but it has a very nice treatment of SR. His book on GR is considered one of the standard texts. But not appropriate for a general reader.


Communist Daughter 02.09.04 at 8:16 pm

John Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice” (1971)

Jurgen Habermas (pick one);
-Knowledge and Human Interests (1971)
-Towards a Rational Society (1971)
-Legitimation Crisis (1975)

Ronald Dworkin;
-Law’s Empire (1988)

Don Delillo;
-White Noise (1984).


Russell L. Carter 02.09.04 at 8:19 pm

Mosley’s Hopeful Monsters and White’s Genet. And I do think an early Cormac M. ought to be in there but I’d pick Suttree over Blood Meridian.


bob mcmanus 02.09.04 at 8:21 pm

Pynchon,Gaddis,Rawls,Nozick as above. 4 books but short post.


Ampersand 02.09.04 at 8:28 pm

What, no comics? Let’s fix that.

Maus, by Art Spiegleman (both volumes).

Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud.


jamie 02.09.04 at 8:35 pm

I’d go with:

The Ecology of Fear by Mike Davis. I don’t know how accureate his predictions will turn out to be, but apocalyptic eco-marxism makes for a compelling read, and re-read come to that.

I see no-one’s mentioned JG Ballard: pick any from Cocaine Nights, Crash, Rushing to paradise…in fact, pick any.


Martin 02.09.04 at 8:38 pm

Michael Herr – Dispatches
Don DeLillo – Underworld (I’d take him over GGM as the novelist of the last 30 years)


PanJack 02.09.04 at 8:47 pm

(1) Women and Human Development, by Martha Nussbuam

(2) Development as Freedom, by Amartya Sen


Norman Geras 02.09.04 at 8:53 pm

Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars; Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved; Jose Saramago, Blindness. (OK, so it’s three.)


wolf 02.09.04 at 8:56 pm

The Prize – Daniel Yergin, understanding the oil industry in the Petroleum Age.


st_vis 02.09.04 at 9:11 pm

HST: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.
Italo Calvino: If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.


cure 02.09.04 at 9:12 pm

Gulag Archipelago has been mentioned, but since the fall of communism is surely the most important event of the last 30 years, I’ll add “The End of History and the Last Man” by Fukuyama and the just published, yet powerful, “Red Color News Soldier” by Li Zhensheng.

I think some type of non-fiction on computers is warranted as well, so I’ll go with “The Age of Intelligent Machines” by the mastermind Kurzweil.

Finally, de Soto’s “The Mystery of Capital” is the most important development book of the last couple decades, especially given the overwhelming respect he recieves from world leaders, both on the left and the right wing.


BP 02.09.04 at 9:12 pm

A Brief History of Time (S. Hawkings)
The Dilbert Principle (S. Adams)


goethean 02.09.04 at 9:15 pm

Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae.


Mary Kay 02.09.04 at 9:33 pm

What, no Drexler?



anon 02.09.04 at 9:41 pm

Thomas Nagel, The Possibility of Altruism (published in 1970)

Gareth Evans, The Varieties of Reference (published posthumously in 1982)


Mark 02.09.04 at 9:41 pm

I guess reflecting the readership of the blog a lot of the current suggestions seem to be “academic” in nature so I’ll second a lot of the earlier suggestions (Rawls, Nozick, Gould, Ambrose, etc.) and add a few of my own from further afield:

Umberto Eco – The Name of the Rose
Seamus Heaney – The Cure at Troy
John Irving – The World According to Garp

and one non-fiction:

Michael Walzer – Just and Unjust Wars


chutney 02.09.04 at 9:44 pm

From religion/theology but for a general reader:

Stages of Faith: Psychology of Human Development by James Fowler. Virtually all non-fundamentalist clergy-types of several faiths have read this.

History of God by Karen Armstrong. A strong intro to the three monotheistic traditions.

Why Religion Matters by Huston Smith. A re-mapping of religious options by the premier expert in comparative religion.


Jonathan Derbyshire 02.09.04 at 9:50 pm

Saul Bellow, Humboldt’s Gift
Philip Roth, The Human Stain
W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants
Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars
Raymond Aron, Memoires


dglynn 02.09.04 at 10:02 pm

I’ll second that call for Dispatches by Michael Herr. Damn fine book.

As a companion for The Prize one might include The Reckoning by David Halberstam.


Steve Laniel 02.09.04 at 10:03 pm

American Pastoral is more tired aging-Jewish-male neoconservatism about how great the 50s were; Sabbath’s Theatre is almost Shakespearean.

Um … not that there’s any one true reading of a text, but I’m puzzled how you got that meaning out of American Pastoral. Have you read the book that follows it, namely I Married A Communist? American Pastoral, I Married A Communist, and The Human Stain are of a piece, and they make clear that Roth isn’t inflating the Fifties. But even reading it on its own, I don’t see how it’s possible to get that kind of interpretation out of American Pastoral. I’d love to hear more — either on this page or in an email — about how you got this interpretation.


Bill Sebring 02.09.04 at 10:03 pm

Roberto Calasso’s “Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony,” and Rushdie’s “Shame.”


Chris Martin 02.09.04 at 10:06 pm

Midnight’s Children Salman Rushdie

The Oxford History of the Twentieth Century
ed. Michael Eliot Howard, William Roger Louis (I suppose a compilation of essays counts as a book?)

followed closely by

Austerlitz W.G. Sebald

and not so closely by

From Dawn to Decadence : 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present Jacques Barzun


Sigivald 02.09.04 at 10:10 pm

Can someone please tell me why it is that an “educated person should have read” Toni Morrison at all?

(For that matter, why “Orientalism”? Hasn’t Bernard Lewis savaged the late Said enough? Why should any educated person have to wade through “post-colonialist” posturing? Sure, it’s an “important” book, but not in a way that means you have to actually read it. Its importance is at this point mostly historical and probably entirely negative. But I’m sure people will strenuously disagree with me… which is fine, but I want to know why.)


mikemudd 02.09.04 at 10:11 pm

HST: Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas
Tom Wolfe: The Right Stuff

Agree with most of the others. Never got into Roth or Rushdie but I love Hofstatder. David Halberstam should get a mention somewhere too. War in a Time of Peace is a gem. What about Steve King?


Anthony C 02.09.04 at 10:11 pm

If I’m allowed to cheat:

Carl von Clausewitz – “On War”, translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret with accompanying essays by Bernard Brodie. Yes, the book was written in the 19th century, but this is the definitive translation and was published in 1976.

Field Marshal Viscount Slim – “Defeat into Victory”. Again, this was written (and the first edition published) before 1970. But… er… the paperback edition didn’t emerge until the 1970’s.

If I’m not allowed to cheat:

Williamson Murray, Macgregor Knox and Alvin Bernstein (eds) – “The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States and War”

Colin Gray – “Modern Strategy”

Or possibly:

Martin van Creveld: “Supplying War”


zizka 02.09.04 at 10:15 pm

Ilya Prigogine: Order out of Chaos
Louis DuMony: From Mandeville to Marx
Alistair MacIntyre After Virtue
Steven Jay Gould: Wonderful Life
Stephen Toulmin Cosmopolis
Antonion Damasio Descartes’ Error

Arundhati Roy God of Small Things


Liz 02.09.04 at 10:15 pm

Igoring the primary sources part, (1)Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living, which captures mindfulness, the mind-body problem, non-Western approches to health and managing physical and emotional pain; and
(2)Scientific American’s How Things Work Today–an illustrated encyclopedia of all kinds of technology, from mundane (vacuum cleaners) to smart cards, the human genome project, adn the Hubble Telescope.


Harry Tuttle 02.09.04 at 10:19 pm

The Origin of Consciousness in the
Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
by Julian Jaynes.

Appleseed by Shirow Masamune.

How’s that for ecclectic?


jj 02.09.04 at 10:21 pm

Boorstin’s The Searchers, The Discoverers, or The Creators. Good overviews of philosophy, science/technology, and art, respectively.


JL 02.09.04 at 10:28 pm


Agree with you on both Morrison and Said. I used to include “Orientalism” on one of my course reading lists, mostly by reputation and habit, until one year a student submitted a brilliant term paper that elegantly demolished the book. That effectively cured me of my habit.


swampdawg 02.09.04 at 10:29 pm

Pynchon, HST..yep

but has anybody mentioned William Gibson. Or are we really that far inside the box he foretold?


anon 02.09.04 at 10:29 pm

Looks like Durant’s original list (haven’t found it yet, only references) included 4 british poets — this seems excessive, as I can name world-class poets from ten countries (and I don’t even like poetry).
Anyway, I would add:
Ted Chiang’s short story collection _Stories Of Your Life_ has philsophy, fiction, science, and excellent writing. What more could you ask for, except more works?
And suggest that _Metamagical Themas_ would be a better choice for Hofstadter, because (a) it’s broader and (b) it contains one of my favorite essays


Rosanne 02.09.04 at 10:36 pm

I second Thompson’s “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas” and Irving’s “World According to Garp,” and Spiegelman’s “Maus” and add the graphic novel series “Barefoot Gen” by Keiji Nakazawa and “Watchmen” by Alan Moore.


Nicholas Weininger 02.09.04 at 10:37 pm

Strong second to the Barzun. Add:

Benny Morris, _Righteous Victims_
Paul Johnson, _Modern Times_
Dmitri Volkogonov, _Lenin_


son volt 02.09.04 at 10:51 pm

Northrop Frye, The Great Code
Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

Though the best book I’ve read that was written since 1970 is Libra, by Don DeLillo. But I haven’t read White Noise, so I’ll defer to whoever nominated it (also enjoyed Mao II, didn’t care as much for Underworld).


Anthony 02.09.04 at 10:54 pm

Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhyenitsyn

Lectures on Physics by Richard Feynman

The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker


Dick Thompson 02.09.04 at 10:55 pm

A few years ago New Scientist, I think it was, asked twenty big names in and about science to name the book they would take to a desert island. Only two books appeared more than once on the list, Goedel Escher Bach, and The Eighth Day of Creation. Hofstader was one of the selectors, and his choice had been Eighth Day.. I had never heard about it, but I immediately got it out of the library and read it. And I was blown away. It’s the history of meolecular biology from 1900 to about 1978. All the people, all the lab stories. The project that knocked vitalism on the head. For a bunch of philosophy types who think science is about Prigogine’s speculations, I can’t recommend it too highly. Along with G-E-B, of course.


Chirag Kasbekar 02.09.04 at 10:57 pm

…these are the ones I could think of easiest — out of the ones not mentioned already:

“The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” — Milan Kundera, not for its anti-totalitarianism/anti-communism but just as a stimulating rumination on the mechanisms of collective consciousness

“The Economist’s View of the World” — Steven E. Rhoads; several reasons why the econ point of view needs to widespread, several reasons why the limitations of that view need to be seen

“Emergence” — Steven Johnson

“What Evolution is” — Ernst Mayr


harry 02.09.04 at 10:58 pm

Good grief, I posted, went to teach, and came back to all this. Yes, I’ll make up some manageable summary when it dies down. Please keep it up — I know people enjoy this, but still its very generous of you to give all this thinking to it.


rosalind 02.09.04 at 11:00 pm

Even if a published refutation of Orientalism is reason not to read it (which I’m not allowing), what in the world does that have to do with not reading Morrison? Wuh?


Chirag Kasbekar 02.09.04 at 11:00 pm


“needs to widespread” — “needs to _become_ widespread”


shelby clark 02.09.04 at 11:02 pm

Second “The Name of the Rose,” by Eco, though I’m torn between that and his “Foucault’s Pendulum.”

If graphic novels are an option, I loved both “Maus” and “Watchmen,” but neither was as good as “Sandman” (Neil Gaiman) or “V for Vendetta” (Alan Moore and David Lloyd). Of those, “Sandman” gets my nod.

I don’t know his corpus well enough to single one book out, but I’m surprised no one’s mentioned Friedrich Hayek.


alkali 02.09.04 at 11:08 pm

Nominating: Larkin, High Windows (1974); Conquest, Stalin: Breaker Of Nations (1991).

Seconding: Tufte, Visual Display; Walzer, Just And Unjust Wars; Hofstadter, GEB; Spiegelman, Maus; Eco, Rose; Solzhenitsyn, Gulag; Calvino, Winter’s Night; Rawls, Theory; Irving, Garp; Marquez, Cholera; Dawkins, Selfish Gene; Sen, Development; Rushdie, Midnight.

Not seconding: Paglia, Personae; Roth, Human Stain (far from his best); Paulos, Innumeracy (a good book but too trivial); Wilbur; Pynchon; DeLillo; other Hofstadter; HST, Fear & Loathing; Ballard; Fukuyama; Gould; Frye.

Ineligible or mostly so: Feynman lectures (first published in 1960s); Hayek (most important work was pre-1970).


Adam Kotsko 02.09.04 at 11:21 pm

I approve of those who suggested Gravity’s Rainbow and White Noise.

For those who care about theology, I might add God without Being by Jean-Luc Marion.


Jack 02.09.04 at 11:31 pm

QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter by RP Feynman

Real insight for real people. One of the few science books for the layman that tells it like it is and yet it can be understood by even the most innumerate.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling

From park benches in New York to bootlegs in China, it is everywhere. Study the hand that rocks the cradle.


Stanton 02.09.04 at 11:38 pm

Randy Shiltz And the Band Played On.
Taylor Branch Parting the Waters.
Almost anything by J. M. Coetzee.


Felix 02.09.04 at 11:46 pm

1. The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, by Hernando DeSoto.
2. Basic Economics: A Citizens Guide to the Economy, by Thomas Sowell.

Not having seen Will Durant’s list recently, I don’t recall if these next two are on the list. If not, they ought to be (though they were obviously published well before the cutoff date).

3. Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville
4. The Federalist Papers, by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison


Prometheus 6 02.09.04 at 11:52 pm

If second copyrights count, I’d suggest “How To Solve It” by George Polya. If second copyrights don’t count, I’d suggest changing the criterion.

“Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid” by Douglas Hofstader(sp? I’m not getting up to look);

“What’s The Name Of This Book” by Raymond Smullyan, which I doubt anyone has heard of. It’s a series of original logic puzzles that start with the classic “island of knights and knaves” form and escalates such that you have to apply theorems from boolean algbra to solve them. In one of his books he takes you all the way to Godel’s incompleteness theorem. In another he lost me entirely in the middle of combinatory logic. I’m recommending the one I understood.


Colin G 02.10.04 at 12:01 am

Strong Second to Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel”

J.K. Galbraith’s “New Industrial State”


Michael Fisher 02.10.04 at 12:11 am

The Economic Consequences of Democracy by Samuel Brittan

Negative Dialectics by Theodor Adorno (first English edition in 1971)


Adrianne 02.10.04 at 12:19 am

Granted, it was first published in 1962, but I’m surprised no one has mentioned Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Also, no poetry. How about Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck?


rilkefan 02.10.04 at 12:26 am

I’d vote for The Extended Phenotype over Selfish Gene; and for Consciousness Explained by Dennett.

The Complete Poems 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop;
Little, Big by John Crowley.


seth edenbaum 02.10.04 at 12:32 am

Written in english, my only language.
(translations not allowed)
Thomas Pynchon- Gravity’s Rainbow.
James Merrill- The Changing Light at Sandover.

I haven’t read all of it, but it’s the only thing that shook me, in the same way as Pynchon’s book.

Horowitz !!? That’s just bizarre. Being called an asshole by Abiola L. is a plus, but Horowitz is a lost cause.

I’d say Pynchon’s a keeper as far as the readers at CT are concerned, but I’d add: probably for the wrong reasons. For all the high conceptual theatrics, the novel is deeply horribly tragic. It’s one long death spiral of predetermination: a cruel commentary on science and technocracy, and deeply anti liberal.. Richard Dawkins as written by Mephistopheles


s.e. 02.10.04 at 12:37 am

No insults intended. Modern pluilosphy does not make room for tragedy. It’s foreign.
But that’s for a different post.


bob mcmanus 02.10.04 at 12:37 am

“probably for the wrong reasons. For all the high conceptual theatrics, the novel is deeply horribly tragic. It’s one long death spiral of predetermination: a cruel commentary on science and technocracy, and deeply anti liberal.. ”

And here I thought it was a light-hearted farce on the end of WWII, an affirmation of American values, a whimsical parody of parapsychology

Golly, ya think I got “JR” all wrong too. Does that have dark undertones I missed while rolling in laughter? Nah couldn’t be


chun the unavoidable 02.10.04 at 12:38 am

As should be obvious, I suggested Horowitz’s book because it is the worst written since 1970. Much can be learned from such an effort.


Bombadil 02.10.04 at 12:41 am

Not sure about my second choice (maybe Atlas Shrugged) but my first choice would be Applied Cryptography.


Zoltar 02.10.04 at 12:43 am

I’m not sure I understand the purpose of this list. Is it that any person who has not read a clear majority of the books on the list cannot be considered educated? Or is it simply a list of books which might be enjoyed by people who are already educated? I suppose the intention might be that a person who wishes to become educated about the world could read all or most of the books, and thus achieve a great portion of his or her goal. From that perspective, it’s difficult to see how Hunter S. Thompson, William Gaddis or various comic books would advance a reader along that path, however enjoyable they may be.

If I were writing a complete list, I imagine a great portion of it would be devoted to pop science books, beginning with Stephen Hawking. That said, I don’t think it would require more than ten or twenty texts on evolution. I’d be extremely tentative about including any books on economics, as these mostly seem to addle the mind and cloud the judgement. Forced to choose between Hofstadter’s books on AI and consciousness, I’d vote for Searle’s “The Mystery of Consciousness” or Dennett’s “Consciousness Explained”, depending entirely on my own private pettiness.

I imagine I’d feel compelled to include a maths textbook or two, except that it’s difficult for most people to learn maths from a book, so what would be the use? Let’s assume that the reader will learn enough maths in school to get by in most professions. I’m increasingly sure the list is intended to help the reader acquire an informed outlook, not a GED.

As a final recommendation, I believe a well-rounded education will be better served by at least one thick, high quality cookbook than by any number of works by either the excellent Thomas Pynchon or the indefatigable Don Delillo. Preferably Italian, but varying according to taste.


Matt 02.10.04 at 12:44 am

You know, what is really interesting about things like this to me is people’s near total inability to do as asked- to list _two_ books _published after 1970_. That’s not so hard,is it? I suppose nothing matters here, but it’s an interesting phenomena, and one that repeats itself all the time- the total inability of blog commentors to follow simple directions. Funny.


Conrad Barwa 02.10.04 at 12:54 am

1) Imagined Communities – Bendict Anderson

2) The Sublime Object of Ideology – Slavok Zizek


Matt McIrvin 02.10.04 at 12:58 am

I wouldn’t recommend Hawking, whose popular works I find overrated and more opaque than necessary. Feynman’s “QED” is a great choice, and I think it’s from the 1980s, but somebody already said that.

So… How about Heinz Pagels’ “The Cosmic Code” and Rudy Rucker’s “Infinity and the Mind”? Both had an immense effect on me.


Curtiss Leung 02.10.04 at 1:09 am

Seconding Gaddis’ JR and also suggesting his underrated Carpenter’s Gothic and A Frolic of his Own.


robbo 02.10.04 at 1:11 am

Perhaps a little college-reading-listy, but I got a lot out of Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

Jonathan Weiner’s “The Beak of the Finch” is extremely engaging and might just make you believe in evolution!


TR 02.10.04 at 1:14 am

I’m noticing several gaps. I’ve seen very few books so far about music, nature, travel and computers, none about building relationships with colleagues, friends, or loved ones. That is, there’s a major paucity of “right-brain” books. (Well, I’m not sure if music belongs exclusively in the right-brain category, but…)
I think these gaps are important – in that someone truly ‘educated’ ought to understand something about these topics – but I can’t really come up with any great ideas. Anything come to mind?


sophie 02.10.04 at 1:16 am

So many books to mention! A tiny proportion of must-reads include for me: Kanan Makiya’s 1992 book, ‘Cruelty and Silence’ (the ultimate answer to anyone who thinks it was best to leave Saddam in place); Christopher Koch’s marvellous, unusual novel of the Vietnam War, ‘Highways to a War’; Piers Brendon’s The Dark Valley(on the 1930’s) and all the Tintin books!


tr 02.10.04 at 1:19 am


You were quicker on the draw with your post. I suppose Zen does grapple with relationships, personal growth, and life in general. That’s not a bad choice.


zizka 02.10.04 at 1:30 am

Matt, I’ll have you know that I’m a finalist on Wampumblog for Left Blog Commentator of the Year, and I can tell you that staying on topic and following simple instructions were not among the skills which brought me this great honor.

I keep trying and trying to convince nice left-liberals that the rules in the rulebook are not really important, it’s the rules on the floor that are important.


alkali 02.10.04 at 1:38 am

You know, what is really interesting about things like this to me is people’s near total inability to do as asked- to list two books published after 1970. That’s not so hard, is it?

If I were to ignore just one of the instructions given, it would be the limitation to two books and the limitation to books published after 1970.


jasminedad 02.10.04 at 1:44 am

In my opinion, Herbert Simon is quite underappreciated in spite of his phenomenal contributions spanning several disciplines. His “Sciences of the Artificial” is a masterpiece.


jam 02.10.04 at 1:55 am

Lots of good stuff between my bites at the apple. It’s difficult to come up with others that are so obvious as the Cavalli-Sforza.


2. Inward Bound, Abraham Pais.
3. The Civilizing Process, Norbert Elias (written well before 1970, of course, but not published until after)
4. The Face of Battle, John Keegan

Only just out of the time period:

5. The Rise and Fall of T. D. Lysenko, Zhores A. Medvedev (actually published in 1969)
6. On The Shoulders of Giants, Robert K. Merton (actually published in 1965)

And clearly cheating:

7. The Essential Gombrich


Paul Craddick 02.10.04 at 1:59 am

Two works at the crossroads of morality and psychology:

Without Guilt and Justice: From Decidophobia to Autonomy, by Walter Kaufmann (The translator and scholar/commentator on Nietzsche, Hegel, Goethe, etc.)
The Doctor and the Soul by Viktor Frankl (Holocaust survivor, and renowned Viennese professor of neurology and psychiatry ).

And another (pre-1970) … The Painted Bird, by Jerzy Kosinski – surely one of the most powerful, harrowing novels of all time.


fyreflye 02.10.04 at 2:18 am

Understanding Media – Marshall McLuhan (this one *still* hasn’t been sufficiently assimilated by the intellectual class.)
The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins
Darwin’s Dangerous Idea – Daniel Dennett
The Problem of the Soul – Owen Flanagan
Why People Believe Weird Things – Michael Shermer
Goedel, Escher, Bach – Douglas Hofstadter
The Age of Spiritual Machines – Ray Kurzweil
How the Mind Works – Steven Pinker
Sociobiology – E O Wilson

Please note that I didn’t say any of these is necessarily *true*, only that they are among the books essential to understanding the current intellectual climate.


Andrew Edwards 02.10.04 at 2:28 am

Extremely strong second to Benedict Anderson, about whom I’d forgotten. As a counterpoint, Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism does a nice little dance with Anderson. It also has the benefit of being quite short.


Ralph E. Luker 02.10.04 at 2:29 am

Since Umberto Ecco’s Name of the Rose is already listed, I’d go with John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and Garry Wills’s Nixon Agonistes.


cafl 02.10.04 at 2:30 am

For computer science: The Art of Computer Programming, V.I and V.II. Donald Knuth.


Matt McG 02.10.04 at 2:49 am

Hmmm…. just about impossible to think of two.

Katherine Dunn – Geek Love (awesome, awesome, awesome. An everyday story of circus freaks, Todd Browning meets David Lynch, etc. but funny and life-affirming at the same time…) [and I never thought I’d use the phrase ‘life-affirming’ without vomiting]

David Lewis – Collected Papers (do collections count? and it’s two volumes.)



s.e. 02.10.04 at 2:53 am

Dear Chun,
I am in truly an unviable situation.
And I’m drunk. My sincere apologies.
(I was sober.)



Dustin 02.10.04 at 3:06 am

Just a couple books of poetry:

1. Carolyn Forsche, The Angel of History

2. Lucille Clifton, The Book of Light

And I second the call for cookbooks and Harry Potter and just want to slip in as an uncounted third book, A People’s History of The United State (Howard Zinn)


Josh Lukin 02.10.04 at 3:19 am

I’d second the Rawls and the Delany, and also share some ambivalence as to whether Morrison lives up to her hype: I think her books are beautiful and intelligent, but I’m not moved or awed enough to put any of them in the top two. Two influential books from my discipline that I haven’t seen mentioned and that I think important to one’s education are Macksey and Donato’s Structuralist Controversy and Millett’s Sexual Politics.


cfp 02.10.04 at 3:34 am

History: A Different Mirror, by Ronald Takaki

Fiction: White Noise, by Don DeLillo


Dan Shannon 02.10.04 at 3:39 am

I’ve got a big thing for Howard Zinn’s work, and I think that his autobiography was a brief but wonderfully inspiring work.
1) You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train — Howard Zinn

And maybe this is just a personal bias, but I think that everyone should read Angels in America. (It’s in two pieces, and a play—am I cheating?) Kushner is one of my favorite authors of all time.
2) Angels in America — Tony Kushner


Mike 02.10.04 at 4:32 am

Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors: Susan Sontag on what surely is one of the great issues of our time. A book everyone should read.

The Demon-Haunted World: Carl Sagan making the case for skepticism and science.

The Mismeasure of Man: Stephen Jay Gould doing what needs to be done. His Hedgehog, Fox and Magister’s Pox is also wonderful.

Fiction: Barry Unsworth, Sacred Hunger; also like you guys said.

Poetry: Wislawa Szymborzska, Czeslaw Milosz; Fagles’ translations of Homer and Heaney’s Beowulf.


drapetomaniac 02.10.04 at 4:50 am

– mahmood mamdani’s citizen and subject

– indrani chatterjee’s gender, slavery and law in colonial india, which i found most interesting for its unpacking of the continuum between family and slavery


mjw 02.10.04 at 4:58 am

I’d second many of the books on this list, but in the interests of novelty:

ENDER’S GAME, Orson Scott Card
THE GLASS TEAT, Harlan Ellison


gowingz 02.10.04 at 5:03 am

Skinny Legs and All- Tom Robbins…

Monkeywrench Gang- Edward Abbey…

(“And now for something completely different!”)


Ian 02.10.04 at 5:09 am

Joan Robinson: “What are the Questions?” [1981]

J.R. McNeill: “Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th Century” [2000]


Christian Waugh 02.10.04 at 5:13 am

Bauer, Peter. From Subsistence to Exchange.
Diamond, Larry, ed. The Global Resurgence of Democracy.


msg 02.10.04 at 5:13 am

Dustin way to go, Forche, yes.

Joan Didion Salvador
W.S. Merwin The Folding Cliffs

Seth- Pynchon wrote up from despair, not down toward it. Slothrop’s transcendence is his hapless inability to surrender, to entropy, to Them.
Darwin as written by Disney.


David Williams 02.10.04 at 5:20 am

2 books?
1) How To Read A Book. Although origianlly published around 1940, this book by Van Doren and Adler has had updates and revisions since 1970. The logic of this title should be self-apparent.
2) The Goldbug Variations by Richard Powers, covers vast intellectual terrain (including Science, Music and Computers) in an engaging fiction.


john 02.10.04 at 6:24 am

1) John Ashbery, Flow Chart

2) Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason


jacob 02.10.04 at 7:36 am

I already posted with my ideas at the very beginning, but I’m going to second some things I’ve read as I just read through all the comments. Anderson’s “Imagined Communities” (can’t believe I forgot that!) and “Beak of the Finch” (by I forget whom, but it’s in the comments elsewhere), which really should make any nonbeliever of evolution into a believer.

Also, I agree with the idea of a cookbook. Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything” doesn’t have excellent recipes, but it does provide a good introduction to cooking and choosing ingredients. It’s rather more basic than anything else we’ve got on this list, though. Perhaps one by Marcella Hazan?


Yoursinthedesert 02.10.04 at 8:04 am

Forrest Gump, Winston Groom
Paris 1919, Six Months that Changed the World; Margaret MacMillan

Gump is the funniest book ever written.
Paris 1919 – explains how have managed to get into the shitfest we are currently living in. A great starting place for understanding the world today.


Chris Bertram 02.10.04 at 9:40 am

I’m cheating here as I’ve already made two suggestions. So think of these are books that others might endorse ….

Marshall Berman, _All That Is Solid Melts Into Air_ .
Christopher Alexander, _A Pattern Language_ .


DJW 02.10.04 at 10:16 am

I’ll follow Chris Bertram and second Berman.

Some other good ones listed, but in the interests of being different I’ll say:

City of Quartz, Mike Davis
History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault
Weapons of the Weak, James Scott


Matthew 02.10.04 at 10:41 am

Let me reiterate the recommendations for Don DeLillo – White Noise and Arundhati Roy – The God of Small Things: they both say a lot about our modern world without seeming to, and are wonderful to read!


Danny Yee 02.10.04 at 12:42 pm

Well, picked just for the readers of this blog: Juan Goytisolo’s The Marx Family Saga and Stewart Guthrie’s Faces in the Clouds.

Check out my best books selection for more.



Lance Knobel 02.10.04 at 12:43 pm

The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963, Taylor Branch


kevin quinn 02.10.04 at 12:44 pm

Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness

Richard Powers, The Gold Bug Variations


Andrew Edwards 02.10.04 at 12:52 pm


I’d like to replace my Rushdie suggstion with S/Z by Roland Barthes


Mrs Tilton 02.10.04 at 2:09 pm

I see that a few people have suggested Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene. I would think that, if that is the concept one wishes to get across, one would do better to nominate GC Williams’s Adaptation and Natural Selection; but that fails the cut as having been published in 1966. So if it is Dawkins you want, I’d opt for The Blind Watchmaker instead.

I will second the nomination of Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. This book is very interesting for what it explains, but much more valuable for what it deflates.


todd. 02.10.04 at 2:22 pm

I agree that Roy’s God of Small Things is quite good, but I don’t think White Noise does anything without seeming to.


Phersu 02.10.04 at 2:37 pm

1. Gerard Genette, Figures II (ok, it’s 1969 in French)

2. Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity (1970/1980).

Someone mentioned The Blank Slate. Surely the Language Instinct is much better than this disappointing book, if we want some popular account of Chomskysm mixed with evolutionary Panglossism.


Zywotkowitz 02.10.04 at 3:57 pm

Bloom’s “Closing of the American Mind” reads like an 80s book, but its main points are still quite relevant.

Maybe noone mentioned it yet because it’s such an obvious choice.


Ted 02.10.04 at 4:34 pm

Samuel Huntington: The Clash of Civilizations

Bernard Lewis: What Went Wrong


jdw 02.10.04 at 5:22 pm

I like this sort of thread. Ask for a recommendation for a book, and you’ll get 37 suggestions apiece from 400 people, half of them scholarly peacocks eager to make a vulgar display of learning, and the other half sadists looking to inflict Pynchon and Habermas on an innocent.

If your friend wants to chat books with another educated adult, he should read _A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius_ and a bunch of Harry Potter. If he wants something a little more substantial, at least than AHWOSG, _The Lovely Bones_ and _The Five People You Meet in Heaven_. If he wants two relatively literary good reads, _Duluth_ by Gore Vidal and _Foucault’s Pendulum_. If he wants knowledge, I believe the A and S volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica are the fattest.


Rich 02.10.04 at 6:00 pm

I have to second:

Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon: The death dream of the twentieth century.

The Eighth Day of Creation, by Horace Freeland Judson:
A history of the scientific discoveries that will have as big an impact on the twenty-first century as Einstein did on the twentieth.

I’d also second the choices by DeLillo, Mike Davis, and Stephen Jay Gould.


mjones 02.10.04 at 6:07 pm

I know I’ve commented already, but as we are ignoring the rules: I’d like to second the recommendation of Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, and can’t believe I didn’t think of it before. And how about Seamus Heaney’s recent translation of Beowulf? And I’d like to include something by Margaret Atwood, possibly The Handmaid’s Tale or Alias Grace.


archtopus 02.10.04 at 6:07 pm

Have to second, or third Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond and add The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. (The second is a little before 1970, but is, I think, more applicable today than when originally published.)


Backword Dave 02.10.04 at 6:16 pm

Steven Weinberg’s Dreams of a Final Theory which I easily recommend before anything by Hawking. It’s more than a description of the hunt for a Grand Unified Theory; it’s about what science is, why it matters, how it works. Weinberg isn’t merely one of the greatest scientist of the past half-century, he’s also a very good writer, attentive to both details and the movements of history.

The Selfish Gene. This almost well, duh. Everyone should have read this already. A textbook, a book which changed biology (by pulling diverse elements together into a new synthesis), and a intelligent popular introduction. Again Dawkins is a very clear writer: but the central ideas are so hard to get that they’re misrepresented more often that understood.


gabe 02.10.04 at 6:35 pm

I second Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and would add Ian McEwan’s Atonement.


jackson 02.10.04 at 6:38 pm

Maybe I missed it, but I haven’t seen anyone mention “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York,” by Robert Caro, yet. An essential.

Following up on someone’s suggestion of books about music and other “right-brain” subjects, how about Harold Solomon’s Mozart biography? I think it’s post-1970.

And one extra (sorry): Roger Penrose, “The Emperor’s New Mind.”


disgruntled 02.10.04 at 6:46 pm

The Great Shark Hunt by Hunter S. Thompson Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison


dave 02.10.04 at 6:51 pm

1) The Public Burning, by Robert Coover. Possibly the greatest piece of post-war fiction around.

2) The Final Days by Woodward and Bernstein. Essential history.


DHow 02.10.04 at 6:58 pm

Iris Murdoch, The Black Prince, and
Richard Price, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance — they’ve both given me an enormous amount of pleasure.


Jay 02.10.04 at 7:05 pm

I can’t understand this Gravity’s Rainbow obsession that so many people seem to have. A more unreadable piece of dreck I have never encountered. When will people understand that inaccessibility is not the same thing as depth?

I’d go with The Mathematical Experience and something by Kazuo Ishiguro. My favorite is An Artist in the Floating World but Remains of the Day seems more popular.

Whoops, that’s three isn’t it? Forget I mentioned the second Ishiguro book…


Tlachtga 02.10.04 at 7:14 pm

Well, Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose have already been mentioned; so I’ll add Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. It may seem like an odd choice, but I really think it’s the best work of fantasy written in decades, and deserves to be considered literature (whereas most of that genre is drek).

Also, David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day is more than just a collection of humorous essays, it’s an examination of how language can be an inclusive and exclusive force. Read it in that context, and it becomes more than a fun read.


harry 02.10.04 at 7:38 pm

Geez, you’d think the request was for the books every educated post-modernist should have read. I wouldn’t suffer anyone to plod through Gravity’s Rainbow unless they had a genuine interest in the arcane or esoteric. And it certainly isn’t for everyone (Do we really need anymore self-righteous hipsters channeling Pynchon in decadent undergrad writing workshops? Isn’t that dangerous?).

And as for all the Rawls? Well, sure, Theory was monumentally important in philosophy. But outside that discipline, who would want to study through all 600 or so pages? The veil of ignorance and maximin, sure, but the intricate details on page 400?

I guess all this is to say, different people will need to read different books. The American historian or the biographer may need to read Robert Caro and the writer might want to bend the 1970 rule and grab 1969’s Portnoy’s Complaint or The Things They Carried (better handbooks for writing than anything Pynchon’s produced). I’d love it if some of our politician’s had read Gordon S. Wood or our Defense Dept. had checked out A Peace to End All Peace. Or maybe The Best and the Brightest. The casual scientist would a be a fool to miss A Brief History of Time. Laurie Garrett has written two great books about global public health, that any public policy type would want to take on.

These are, of course, just the little bits I pick up from my perspective. But it will remain to see what will stand the test of time. Go back to 1950, and then you start to see some real essentials. James Baldwin. Rachel Carson. Vladimir Nabokov.


jm 02.10.04 at 7:39 pm

1. One of the books should be the John McPhee geologies(Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, and Rising from the Plains)separately published originally but later collected under some title like Annals of the former World(?)
2. Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Pulitzer winner in 1974)


gbh 02.10.04 at 7:41 pm

Since American Pastoral has already been mentioned a couple of times (it seems to me very clearly superior to Sabbath’s Theater) I will mention two I have not seen listed:

Less Than One Joseph Brodsky
The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Three volumes published so far) Robert Caro


Eugene Oregon 02.10.04 at 7:42 pm

“We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda”
by Philip Gourevitch


“A Very Thin Line: The Iran-Contra Affairs”
by Theodore Draper


David Gillies 02.10.04 at 8:14 pm

Julian Simon: The Ultimate Resource II
Bjørn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist
Anything by Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Helena Cronin, Matt Ridley and Paul Davies.


goethean 02.10.04 at 8:21 pm

Without Guilt and Justice: From Decidophobia to Autonomy, by Walter Kaufmann

Posted by Paul Craddick at February 10, 2004 01:59 AM

Another Walter Kaufmann fan! Wow!


dooflow 02.10.04 at 8:25 pm

JR by William Gaddiss
Blood & Guts in High Scholl-Kathy Acker
Frisk-Dennis Cooper
My Life-Lynn Hejinian
Terra Nostra-Carlos Fuentes
Gravity’s Rainbow-Thomas Pynchon
My Cousin My GAstroentroligist-Mark Leyner
American Psycho-Brett Easton Ellis
Crash-JG Ballard
Hour of the Star-Clarice Lispector


dooflow 02.10.04 at 8:27 pm

sorry-only two?
JR by William Gaddiss
My Life-Lynn HEjininan


dooflow 02.10.04 at 8:29 pm

not fiction?
Anti-Oedipus-Deleuze and Guattari
Judith Butler-Gender Trouble


dooflow 02.10.04 at 8:34 pm

I want to agree with the poster who put Mosley’s Hopeful Monsters on the list and state that JR by Gaddis is much much better and relevant that Pynchon (who I love) and Delillo (who i can appreciate but find boring)


dooflow 02.10.04 at 8:34 pm

I want to agree with the poster who put Mosley’s Hopeful Monsters on the list and state that JR by Gaddis is much much better and relevant than Pynchon (who I love) and Delillo (who i can appreciate but find boring)


nolo 02.10.04 at 8:39 pm

Well, people keep mentioning cookbooks, but no one’s listed any. So I’m stepping into the breach. The most current edition of “Joy of Cooking” is a must-own (and must-read) for basic home-cooking knowledge (albeit of a Western cultural bent). The most recent version is a substantial departure from pre-1970 editions. Food literacy is important!!!!!!!! As for accessible Italian cooking lore, Marcella Hazan’s “Classic Italian Cook Book” and “More Classic Italian Cooking” are wonderful.

Also, aside from some very appropriate mentions (Delany, Gibson, and Ellison being among them), I see very little of what has recently been dubbed “speculative fiction” being mentioned here. Which is a shame. So add Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Left Hand of Darkness” to the list as well.


R. Porrofatto 02.10.04 at 8:43 pm

Sometimes a Great Notion (1964) by Ken Kesey. (To the caviling pedants it may have been published before 1970, but I didn’t read it until 1982.) One of the greatest American novels of the last 50 years, IMO.

I second Libra and a bunch of others mentioned. And just to be even more off topic I recommend the poetry of James Wright.


matt 02.10.04 at 9:37 pm

Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky

Culture and Imperialism by Edward Said


judson 02.10.04 at 9:39 pm

something happened-heller


matt 02.10.04 at 9:40 pm

i left “sometimes a great notion off” since it was published in the sixties but that is one of the best books ever written, without a doubt


Basharov 02.10.04 at 9:55 pm

For Philip Roth, I’d pick The Zuckerman Trilogy or The Counterlife over his more recent stuff (good as it is).

I’ll second Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Suttree and raise you a Child of God.

In non-fiction, you can’t beat Walter Karp’s The Politics of War: The Story of Two Wars Which Altered Forever the Political Life of the American Republic 1890-1920 (Bush’s misadventure in Iraq has some very disturbing predecessors) and Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent (the indispensable guide to how a “free” press gets co-opted and yet its practitioners don’t even know how they’ve been played).


Murph 02.10.04 at 10:03 pm

NF – The River That Flows Uphill by William H. Calvin.

F – Brittle Innings by Michael Bishop.


boonie 02.10.04 at 11:08 pm

Cookbooks did you say ? Completely frivolous and NOT in the spirit of the original list, BUT:

1) Simple French Food, by Richard Olney (I’d choose Elizabeth David’s books, which have the additional virtue of being recently reissued by Penguin, but the best ones were published prior to 1970).
2) The Curious Cook, by Harold McGee – You won’t learn to cook, but you won’t mind. You can pretty much open this tome to a random page, and be absorbed for a good half-hour.


lordwhorfin 02.11.04 at 12:08 am

Maybe I’m ‘The Duck Named Ping’ here, and my thoughts are too late, but I recommend:

‘The Culture of Narcissism’ by Christopher Lasch


‘Power’ by Festus Ieyeye


cornfarmer 02.11.04 at 12:46 am

Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin
Burger’s Daughter by Nadine Gordimer


jg 02.11.04 at 1:09 am

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. Bowles was arguably the best post-war American writer. Do not see the Bertulocci film of the same name – read the book!


robbo 02.11.04 at 2:39 am

Hearty seconds to “A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” and “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” Both are true page-turners, and I can attest that the former is excellent for reading aloud to one’s mate on a long trip.

The posts here suggest to me that I should read “Gravity’s Rainbow” — even if I won’t like it — so it’s on order from Amazon. I’m hoping it won’t be as awful as “Atlas Shrugged,” the last book I read on this particular principal.

I can’t wait to see the final list. Thanks to everyone for your contributions!


Keith 02.11.04 at 2:58 am

Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk
Illuminatus!, Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea


matt 02.11.04 at 3:00 am

Leviathan and the Air Pump — Stephen Shapin and Simon Shaffer

We have never been Modern — Bruno Latour

The Printing Press as an Agent of Change — Elizabeth L. Eisenstein


Ed Petsche 02.11.04 at 3:35 am

Crabgrass Frontier – The Suburbinization of the United States by Kenneth T. Jackson, and Freedom From Fear by David Kennedy.

I second Power Broker, City of Quartz and Up In The Old Hotel.


Bekah 02.11.04 at 3:46 am

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
Underworld by Don DeLillo


Matt McIrvin 02.11.04 at 4:24 am

More post-1970 science fiction? Hmmm… it’s hard to pick two. I’ll say “Fiasco” by Stanislaw Lem and “Permutation City” by Greg Egan.


zoeae 02.11.04 at 4:25 am

Charles Taylor – Sources of the Self
Richard Rorty – Contingency, Irony & Solidarity
Bruno Latour – We Have Never Been Modern


J Edgar 02.11.04 at 4:28 am

Chun the Unavoidable is told –
“Being called an asshole by Abiola L. is a plus”

For certain. I am so jealous.


a Phoenician in a time of Romans 02.11.04 at 4:57 am

“On Equilibrium” – John Ralston Saul.

“Finite and Infinite Games” – James Carse.

“Silverlock” – John Myers Myers.


Karen 02.11.04 at 5:32 am

I’m way too late on this, but…these aren’t so much books I everyone should read as books I would recommend to everyone.

“Arcadia”, by Tom Stoppard.

“Angels in America”.

“We Wish to Inform You…” by Gourevitch and/or “My Traitor’s Heart” by Rian Malan.

“The Making of the Atomic Bomb” by Richard Rhodes. A little bit of science in that one. (I find his crush on Nils Bohr endearing.)

“Encounters with the Archdruid” by
John McPhee.

But I have to say, none of these compare to what I could come up with from the 1940s and 1950s. The amazing thing is how short some of these are:
“A Sand County Almanac”, Aldo Leopold.
“Here is New York,” E.B. White (not even a book, of course, but I’m sentimental and the last page is truer now than then.)
“The Fire Next Time,” James Baldwin.
“Resistance, Rebellion and Death,” Camus.

If you’re looking for radical views of U.S. history I’ll take I.F. Stone over Zinn.


Stephen Hill 02.11.04 at 7:12 am

I agree that Paul Bowles is an extraordinary writer, one of the finest American writers in the 20th century, but isn’t ‘Sheltering Sky’ before 1970. Also I think ‘The Spider’s House’ was an even better work to his debut novel. Definitely read Bowles, and avoid the film.

My picks

Jose Saramago – The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis
Don Delillo – Underworld


Zizka 02.11.04 at 7:39 am

A pattern of wrongness seems to be emerging, except on Arundhati Roy.


Mary Kay 02.11.04 at 9:24 am

Wow. Somebody besides me has read The Glass Teat. I am amazed.



clive 02.11.04 at 11:07 am

‘The Mismeasure of Man’ by Stephen Jay Gould. ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’ by Manuel Puig.


Backword Dave 02.11.04 at 11:59 am

Hah! I’ve read the Glass Teat as well, but then was when I was a teenager, and all I can remember is that he didn’t like Reagan (then Governor of California) or Sprio Agnew (Nixon VP) much.


chester 02.11.04 at 4:11 pm

John Ashbery – Houseboat Days
Ursala Le Guin – The Dispossessed


max rockatansky 02.11.04 at 4:25 pm

Jesus’ Son – Denis Johnson

Sympathy for the Devil – Kent Anderson


Chico 02.11.04 at 5:01 pm

What an excellent list idea! I’d love to see this boiled down as well.

Addressing the dearth of music books:

Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs, and
A Nick Tosches Reader

(And seconding Delillo, Rushdie, Marquez and Thompson, and leaving Infinite Jest on the table for someone else.)


apsiegel 02.11.04 at 5:02 pm

David Rieff and Joan Didion’s Miami books.


gail 02.11.04 at 9:30 pm

Cooking — “Madhur Jaffrey Indian Cooking”
Music — “Sounds and Society: Themes in the Sociology of Music” by Peter J. Martin


sadie the unobtainable 02.11.04 at 11:00 pm

“Kieslowski on Kieslowski”
“The Dirt, Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band” by Motley Crue with Neil Strauss


Tom 02.12.04 at 3:05 am

Cities of Salt, Abdelrahman Munif
I’ve Gor the Light of Freedom, Charles Payne


dfinberg 02.12.04 at 3:06 am

triage – leonard lewin
the forever war – joe haldeman


carrie 02.12.04 at 3:25 am

Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From and Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever


von Ogenstein 02.12.04 at 5:50 am

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

Voltaire’s Bastards by John Ralston Saul

Worth reading and re-reading.

p.s. I like Jane Jacobs’ American Cities but you’d need to go back forty years for it to qualify.


dock boggs 02.12.04 at 5:52 am

LANARK–Alisdair Grey



J Edgar 02.12.04 at 6:29 am

More timely than ever, Being There by Jerzy Kosinski, 1971.

I was a Jerzy Kosinski fan before I read this, and then I was thrilled when Hal Ashby and Peter Sellers made such a great movie.


Arne 02.12.04 at 7:42 am

Lots of books I’d recommend have already been recommended.

Recipe-type books: I can’t recommend anything specifically for this (but still, I’d say go for Marcella Hazan, Julie Sahni, Paula Wolfertt (her book on the cooking of SW France is canonical, as far as I’m concerned), or, especially, my favorite cookbooks: _Floyd on Spain_ by Keith Floyd, British Penguin, 1992, or anything at all by Evan Kleiman and/or Vianna La Place.

But yes, Richard Olney’s “Simple French Food” really is great, but then so is the cookbook I picked up in Madrid in 1995: _Recetas de 200 Cocineros de Sociedades Vascas” by Jose Castillo. It includes a recipe for stewed cat (two of them!).

Food books that everyone should know about:

_History of Food_ by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, translated by Anthea Bell. OK, it’s opinionated, but her chapter on caviar is the most informative, and funny, that I’ve ever read.

_Food: A Culinary History_ by Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari (good but just not as catchy)

_The True History of Chocolate_ by Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe

And my new favorite book — even though it’s a two volume compilation — is _The Legacy of Muslim Spain_ edited by Salma Khadra Jayyusi. It’s truly amazingly complete about one of the world’s most fantastic civilizations.

I take that back — Grossman’s translation of _Don Quixote_.



tm 02.12.04 at 2:40 pm

William Gass, On Being Blue

Gaston Bachelard, La psychanalyse du feu


Chris O 02.12.04 at 2:44 pm

1. “Demon Haunted World” by Carl Sagan
– You’re educated, but can you *think*?

2. Any Harry Potter book.
– So you can talk to normal people.


tm 02.12.04 at 2:58 pm

Robert Bresson, Notes sur le cinématographe

Richard Wright, Black Boy (first published in its entirety in 1991)


todd m 02.12.04 at 4:12 pm

William Gaddis, Agape Agape [the first ‘e’ wears a macron but i don’t know how to make it don it]

Rupert Everett, Hello Darling, Are You Working?


rams 02.12.04 at 7:05 pm

Assuming the original rules meant ONLY TWO books which one should be able to assume an educated person has read (as opposed to those you believe crucial to completing their education), SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE by Vonnegut (calm down, he only missed by a year) and BELOVED (whence the Morrison backlash?)


kadia 02.12.04 at 9:42 pm

The Corner–by David Simon & Edward Burns:
Shattering portrait of drug addiction and desperation in the U.S. inner city in the 1990s.

Random Family–Adrian Nicole Leblanc: Follows a small group of young people grappling with poverty, un(der)employment, addiction, and other challenges.


Michael Ravitch 02.13.04 at 3:21 am

I’d second many of the suggestions (Gaddis, Kundera, Marquez) but I’d like to suggest two writers whose work has been deeply influential on literary writers: the poet Elizabeth Bishop, and the short story writer Alice Munro.

They may not have the overtly intellectual pizzazz of some of the books mentioned here, but I think the depth of their humanity and the mastery of their craft make them two of the greatest, most defining authors,of our time.


Michael 02.13.04 at 3:22 am

I’d second many of the suggestions (Gaddis, Kundera, Marquez) but I’d like to suggest two writers whose work has been deeply influential: the poet Elizabeth Bishop, and the short story writer Alice Munro.

They may not have the overtly intellectual pizzazz of some of the books mentioned here, but I think the depth of their humanity and the mastery of their craft make them two of the greatest, most defining authors of our time.


Yehudit 02.13.04 at 7:44 am

“Ted Chiang’s short story collection Stories Of Your Life has philsophy, fiction, science, and excellent writing. What more could you ask for, except more works?”

I will second that.
For Delany I would pick Triton rather than Dahlgren.
For Le Guin I would pick Always Coming Home over The Dispossessed, which is a preachy deeply-flawed book.

No one has mentioned Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean. Amazing book. One of its kind.

Also sui generis works are Little Big by John Crowley and The Unconquered Country by Geoff Ryman. Sort of magic realism but more so.

Until the Sun Falls by Cecelia Holland. Excellent historical fiction.


Anne Myers 02.13.04 at 10:52 pm

The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness by Simon Wiesenthal

The Examined Life: Robert Nozick


PrestoPundit 02.16.04 at 10:35 pm

TWO BOOKS post-1970 Every Educated Reader Should have Read:

1. Law, Legislation and Liberty by Friedrich Hayek

2. From Marx to Mises by David Ramsay Steele.


Tom McMahon 02.20.04 at 2:57 pm

“The Effective Executive” by Peter Drucker. Might as well have the most influential business consultant of the past century on the list too.


Nate 02.26.04 at 5:18 am

1) Lucifer Principle – Howard Bloom

2) The Demon-Haunted World – Carl Sagan

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