Back in 2011 we featured astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s list of the books “every single intelligent person on the planet” should read. His picks include the Bible (“to learn that it’s easier to be told by others what to think and believe than it is to think for yourself”); Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (“to learn that capitalism is an economy of greed, a force of nature unto itself”); and Machiavelli’s The Prince (“to learn that people not in power will do all they can to acquire it, and people in power will do all they can to keep it”). The list, which has generated a great deal of interest and discussion, leads you to think about the very nature of not just what constitutes essential reading, but what defines an “intelligent person.” Should every such individual really read any book in particular? Does it matter if others already acknowledge these books as essential, or can they have gone thus far undiscovered?
Admirably, Tyson manages to compile his selections of books well-known across the English-speaking world into a list that, as a whole, somehow avoids dullness or predictability. In eschewing obscurantism, he makes the perhaps daring implication that an intelligent person must connect to a widely shared culture, rather than demonstrating their brainpower by getting through volume upon little-read volume, written in the most labyrinthine language, expounding on the most abstract subject matter, or grappling with the knottiest philosophical problems. This inspires me to highlight five more pieces of reading material, all intellectually stimulating but accessibly written, all referenced frequently in countless areas of human endeavor, and all available in our collection of free eBooks:
- Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (iPad/iPhone – Kindle + Other Formats), because the ideas that “you have power over your mind, not outside events,” or that “the happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts,” or that “everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact” and “everything we see is a perspective, not the truth” apply as much today as they did in antiquity.
- Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (iPad/iPhone (Vol 1 – Vol 2) – Kindle + Other Formats – Read Online), because we could all use a firmer grasp on what we mean when we label someone “quixotic,” a simple description that takes its name from a surprisingly complex and unexpectedly admirable character.
- James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (iPad/iPhone – Kindle + Other Formats – Read Online) because, whatever ideas you may have about Joyce — positive or negative — if you haven’t yet cracked his first novel, I guarantee a reading experience unlike any you might expect.
- Michel de Montaigne’s Essays (iPad/iPhone – Kindle + Other Formats — Read Online), because not only do his pieces exemplify (because they practically invented) the strongest short form to capture the paths of human thought, but they feel especially relevant now in this internet-driven “age of the essay.”
- Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (volume 1: iPad/iPhone – Kindle + Other Formats — Read Online; volume 2: iPad/iPhone — Kindle + Other Formats — Read Online), because the Frenchman’s diagnosis of the advantages and liabilities of this then-young and experimental country still give us much to consider today, not just in regard to America, but — now that so many countries have gone democratic, each in their own way — most of the world.
None will have come as news to you, but some it may take you a moment to realize that, hey, you never did get around to them in the first place. Take in books like these, and not only will they resonate richly with everything else already knocking around your brain — you do read Open Culture, after all — but they’ll let you in on what, exactly, all those readers and writers around the world and through history have meant when they cite them so readily.
We also invite you to tell us: which books, freely available or otherwise, do you consider essential reading for the intelligent? Have I missed the boat by failing to include Finnegans Wake (Kindle Format — Read Online), say, or the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (iPad/iPhone — Kindle + Other Formats — Read Online)? Let loose your own recommendations and we’ll create a compilation of your best picks in the comings days.
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.