The Books You Think Every Intelligent Person Should Read: Crime and Punishment, Moby-Dick & Beyond (Many Free Online)

crime and punishment cover

While I nor­mal­ly try not to get involved with com­ments on web sites (you know what I mean), I’d rather get involved with the com­ments of some web sites than oth­ers. I doubt that under­neath any Youtube video, for exam­ple,  you’d find dozens and dozens of well-con­sid­ered sug­ges­tions for the canon of books every intel­li­gent per­son should read, as we did here at Open Cul­ture when we put the ques­tion to you on Wednes­day. In the com­ments to that post as well as on our Face­book Page, we received a host of respons­es scat­tered sat­is­fy­ing­ly across the tex­tu­al map: every­thing from Michel Fou­cault to Fou­cault’s Pen­du­lum, Gib­bon’s His­to­ry of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to Bryson’s Short His­to­ry of Near­ly Every­thing, 18th-cen­tu­ry Ger­man philoso­pher Immanuel Kant to rep­til­ian con­spir­a­cy-envi­sion­ing ex-foot­baller David Icke. The top-rank­ing vol­ume? Fyo­dor Dos­toyevsky’s Crime and Pun­ish­ment (avail­able, inci­den­tal­ly, in our free eBook col­lec­tionKin­dle from Ama­zon – Read Online), fol­lowed by Her­man Melville’s Moby-Dick (avail­able there too: iPad/iPhone — Kin­dle + Oth­er For­mats — Read Online). Let none say that Open Cul­ture read­ers shy away from weighty lit­er­a­ture.

Oth­er, short­er nov­els pop­u­lar­ly sug­gest­ed include Voltaire’s Can­dide (iPad/iPhone — Kin­dle + Oth­er For­mats — Read Online), Joseph Con­rad’s Heart of Dark­ness (iPad/iPhone – Kin­dle + Oth­er For­mats — Read Online), and George Orwell’s 1984 (Kin­dle For­mat — Read Online). We also received a num­ber of votes for books famous­ly pored over for thou­sands upon thou­sands of hours by their enthu­si­asts, such as the Bible, Dan­te’s Divine Com­e­dy (iPad/iPhone – Kin­dle + Oth­er For­mats – Read Online), and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. (Giv­en the for­mi­da­ble inter­net pres­ence of Rand’s read­ers, I expect­ed more of an inun­da­tion of her titles, but they must not have turned out in force this time.) Such clas­sic and decep­tive­ly uni­ver­sal guides to strat­e­gy as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (iPad/iPhone — Kin­dle + Oth­er For­mats – Read Online) and Nic­colò Machi­avel­li’s The Prince (iPad/iPhone — Kin­dle + Oth­er For­mats — Read Online) also placed well, as did books like Pla­to’s Repub­lic (iPad/iPhone – Kin­dle + Oth­er For­mats — Read Online), Hen­ry David Thore­au’s Walden (iPad/iPhone – Kin­dle + Oth­er For­mats — Read Online), and Her­mann Hes­se’s Sid­dartha (iPad/iPhone – Kin­dle + Oth­er For­mats) — the ones you prob­a­bly got assigned once, but that you may not then have under­stood why you should actu­al­ly read. 

The rec­om­men­da­tions fas­ci­nate, but so do their jus­ti­fi­ca­tions. (My per­son­al favorite: “It’s a book about shaman­ism, although it’s not what you would expect from a social­ly accept­ed descrip­tion of shaman­ism.”) Jo Stafford calls Crime and Pun­ish­ment and Moby-Dick, the two big win­ners, “per­fect exam­ples of how great fic­tion can pose the ‘big ques­tions’, par­tic­u­lar­ly around what it means to act moral­ly.” Moira pitch­es Robert M. Pir­sig’s Zen and the Art of Motor­cy­cle Main­te­nance as a “mod­ern study of the schism between clas­si­cist and roman­ti­cist think­ing.” Nick Williams says Can­dide “still feeds the inner cyn­ic,” and Jason con­sid­ers Walden “a bet­ter les­son on cap­i­tal­ism than The Wealth of Nations.” Arthur McMil­lan rec­om­mends Julian Barnes’ A His­to­ry of the World in 10½ Chap­ters by hold­ing out the promise that it “encap­su­lates the sheer futil­i­ty of everything[ness].” Anoth­er read­er sug­gests William Godwin’s Polit­i­cal Enquiry “to be remind­ed what books inspired us to be: free.” Wise words indeed, Mr. Beer N. Hock­ey.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

575 Free eBooks: Down­load Great Books for Free

What Books Should Every Intel­li­gent Per­son Read?: Tell Us Your Picks; We’ll Tell You Ours

See Nobel Lau­re­ate Joseph Brodsky’s Read­ing List For Hav­ing an Intel­li­gent Con­ver­sa­tion

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (6)
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  • mike dickman says:

    I would cer­tain­ly imag­ine that Elias Canet­ti’s ‘Auto da Fe’ and John Crow­ley’s Aegypt Cycle should be in there, not to men­tion just about any­thing by Ms. Ursu­la Leguin, Dor­ris Less­ing or Mar­garet Attwood


    It’s rather tricky to ask any­one what books are on your favourite lists and equal­ly tricky to reply such ques­tions!

    But,everyone enjoys know­ing items in oth­er’s cup­board !

    OPEN CULTURE has come up with this lists of books any intel­li­gent peo­ple ought to read !


  • Seven says:

    What would be the book on shaman­ism? i was real­ly curi­ous. tks!

  • Andrea says:

    Fou­cault’s pen­du­lum was penned by Umber­to Eco, of course, not by the french­man him­self.

  • Christine Evans says:

    What’s depress­ing is that this list is 100% male. The world entire­ly from the per­spec­tive of men. What about Harp­er Lee, Sylvia Plath, Toni Mor­ri­son, Vir­ginia Woolf, George Eliot, the Brontes, Mary Shel­ley and so many oth­ers?

    • Hiptobesquare says:

      Flan­nery O’Con­nor, Sei Shonagon, Bar­bara King­solver, Ntzoke Shange, Colette, Anne Sex­ton, Iris Mur­doch, Doris Less­ing, Joan Did­ion, etc., etc., etc.

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