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.
William Godwin’s “Political Enquiry” to be reminded what books inspired us to be: Free.
Alvin Toffler´s books are the Ones to read too. It really gives you the news which has not yet appeared in the newspapers. His books inform you and explains you in logic ways the ´how´and ´why´ things develope the way they go. Therefore you a better informed after reading his books, in order to make better decisions for your own future. A real MUST so to say !
Just ask Harold Bloom
“Martin Eden” by Jack London – for the obvious reasons. To be read preferably several times during a lifetime.
“The Man Who Counted” by Malba Tahan (pen name of Júlio César de Mello e Souza) – a collection of fable-like stories about a benevolent traveler applying mathematical knowledge to solving people’s everyday problems. Kids would love this, and parents might be amazed at how eager may they become to learn maths.
“The Parrot’s Theorem” by Denis Guedj – you cannot NOT fall in love with mathematics after this!
“The Discoverers/ Creators/ Seekers” trilogy by D.J.Boorstin – reading them forever changes the perception we have of our own species and civilization, removing commercialized perceptions.
“The Americans” trilogy by (again) D.J.Boorstin – depicting, in a unique and unprecedented way, how the Land of the Free shaped and turned throughout history, removing (again) commercialized perceptions.
Rubaiyat of Khayyam to learn that skepticism is an inevitable condition of human life and one can get rid of it pestering your mind with a joyous life
Heart of Darkness
Three books that become more profound with subsequent readings.
Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance ~ Robert Pirsig : a modern study of the schism between classicist and romanticist thinking.
For the sake of balance:
The Gospel of John
The Dialogues of Plato
The Ethics of Aristotle
The Confessions of St. Augustine
The Search for the Historical Jesus by Dr. Albert Schweitzer
Pacem in Terris by Pope John XXIII
The Dhammapada – Buddhist Scriptures
Das Glasperlenspiel by H. Hesse
The poetry of W.B. Yeates
The poetry of William Blake
Absolutely everything by Tom Robbins
The Drunkard’s Walk, by Leonard Mlodinow. It is a very succint and well-written treatise on how randomness govern our universe, and what are the tools we use to understand it.
Jonathan Livingston Seagul – R. Bach
Myth of Sisyphus and other essays – A. Camus
Carlos Castaneda – all books:)
Mosquito – Roma Tearne
Walden would be a better lesson on capitalism than The Wealth of Nations
Victor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’
C.G. Jung’s ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflections’ (actually pretty much everything by Jung)
‘A Short History of Nearly Everything: Illustrated Edition’ by Bill Bryson
‘The Importance of Living’ by Lin Yutang
Some gr8 business books:
Brand Engagement – Ian P Buckingham (potent mix of astute business and ethics)
First Break all the Rules – Marcus Buckingham
True North – George (authenticity)
The Empty Raincoat – Charles Handy
The Prince – Machiavelli
Lorainne Hansberry “A Raisin in the Sun”
bell hooks “Ain’t I a Woman?”
Benjamin Hoff “The Tao of Pooh”
Edward Said “Orientalism”
The Communist Manifesto – Karl Marx – because few people actually know what he said but think they do because of impact and repercussions.
Philosophical Investigations – Ludwig Wittgenstein – because his ideas on language and society still ring true about on how we interact and speak to each other
Candide – Voltaire – it still feeds the inner cynic
The Republic – Plato – ideas of the just society are still as relevant today as they were 2.5 thousand years ago
The Prince – Machiavelli – because this is what people are like in power
I’ll also permit myself to quote 5, only the first of which is freely available:
1. Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General System Theory (a theory that perhaps is the single most important one since it was announced, considering its influence over so many areas);
2. Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, The Capital (I believe it’s kind of self-explanatory why);
3. Plato, The Republic (Idem);
4. Augustine, De Libero Arbitrio (birth certificate of the most important concept of freedom in Western thought);
5. Walter Benjamin, The work of art in the age of its technical reproducibility (ok, not a book, but essential to an understanding of cultural phenomena from the XXth century on).
of course, lists are lists, and as based on impressions, are very weak. But it’s fun anyway :) thanks!
In the previous message, I meant only the first is NOT freely available: Bertalanffy’s General System Theory is still under copyright as far as I know.
Love on the Dole
Down and Out in Paris and London
In Search of Lost Time (1-7)
Diary of a Nobody
The Great Gatsby
The Princess Bride
What about something written by a woman?
Bill Bryson, “A Short History of Nearly Everything”
Umberto Eco “Focault’s Pendulum”
Norton Juster “The Phantom Tollbooth”
Philip K Dick “The Man in the High Castle”
René Descartes “Discours de la méthode”
Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals
Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” — SO timely right now! — and “The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell.
All listed so far are great. Here are some fun ones:
84 Charing Cross Road ~ Hanff (Do you love to read? You’ll fall in love with this book if you do)
Desert Solitaire ~ Abbey (Wisdom, plain and simple. Ancient and natural.)
Atlas Shrugged ~ Rand (If any book can teach one how to grow up, this one can.)
The Terror ~ Simmons (You’d be surprised how good this is)
Divine Comedy ~ Aligheiri (One could spend one’s entire life reading and studying this book and its three parts)
Anything by Sylvia Plath (So wickedly deep her pain tears at your very soul. )
The list goes on and on…..
The Way of All Flesh, Samuel Butler
Ulysses, James Joyce
The Art of War, Sun Tzu
The Pearl, John Steinbeck
For Whom The Bell Tolls, Hemingway
Norbert Elias “The Established and The Outsiders”
The list is long, but I wouldn’t miss these five.
Crime and Punishment – Fiodor Dostoievski
Moby Dick – Herman Melville
Light in August – William Faulkner
The Alienist – Machado de Assis
Malone Dies – Samuel Beckett
Should not the title read something like what every intelligent English speaking person should read…..these lists are western centric but still fun lists
One more to add to this already great list:
John Uri Lloyd – Etidorhpa, or, the End of the Earth: the Strange History of a Mysterious Being and the Account of a Remarkable Journey (1895)
An intelligent person should read at least one book that is banned where they live. Which one doesn’t really matter.
My absolute, must-have, carry around in my heart book is “F*ck It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way” by John C. Parkin. A half serious self-help book that has helped me many, many times. It’s funny, irreverent and completely true. (Kindle edition, audiobook & paperback)
I have brainpickings.org in my RSS feed (alongside openculture), they have reviews of all manner of excellent books.
Invisible Man -Ellison
Zorba the Greek-Katzanzakas
Call it Sleep- Roth, Henry
Raintree County – Lockridge
Read about Germany in the 1930s to see how a thought can turn and overturn a society; read about the rise of Stalin to see how a person without scruples leading the administrative backbone owns the system; read “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman”, the Richard Feynman biography, to learn about combining knowledge, curiosity and creativity; read Cosmos by Sagan to understand your size in it all – no more and no less – and the nature of examination and exploration; read Fathers and Sons by Turgeniev to feel what happens between generations.
And finally, learn about statistical inference. It will help you every day of your life to prevent you from getting screwed or at least to know when you are.
Not Wanted on the Voyage – Timothy Findley
Galore – Michael Crummey
Neuromancer by William Gibson to understand the difference between cyberspace and the Internet; while not being satisfied until the Internet resembles cyberspace.
There are way too many books, but these are essential: Just about anything by George Eliot (but especially Middlemarch) or Henry James for their insight into the human heart and psyche. Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and Maura O’Halloran’s Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind for great examples of a spiritual quest and enlightenment.
Fahrenheit 451 / Ray Bradbury.
1984 / George Orwell.
Cryptonomicon – Neal Stephenson
Diplomacy – Henry Kissinger
The Fountainhead – Ayn Rand
Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand
Unbearable lightness of being
And any Kundera written in Czech.
If on a winter’s night
And all others by Calvino.
The Water Margin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms: because to understand China you need to understand it foundational myths.
Why is this list even being created? It seems like an attempt to create an objective list from subjective sources. Reading the books listed here will not make one intelligent.
I would that an intelligent person should read every book that he/she can on whatever topic that interests him/her.
Are we saying that the books not in this list should NOT be read by intelligent people?
The Thirukkural-1330 rhyming couplets on life, largely relevent – written more than 2000 years ago
‘Wind, Sand and Stars’ by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It’s part travel adventure, part philosophy and profoundly beautiful in its entirety.
peter matthiessen, the snow leopard
Without separating books as for intelligent and unintelligent people, I recommend these:
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s all books
Crime and Punishment
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman
Three books (no particular order):
– Huck Finn
– The Wisdom of Insecurity, by Alan Watts
– Language in Thought and Action, by S.I. Hayakawa
Joseph Conrad “Heart of Darkness”
(1) Plutarch – The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans
(2) Jonathan Swift – Gulliver’s Travels
(3) Gibbon – The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
(4) Immanuel Kant – his complete works
(5) Charles Darwin – his complete works
(6) William Shakespeare – his complete works
(7) William James – (a) The Principles of Psychology, and (b) Pragmatism
(8) Charles Dickens – his complete works
(9) Kafka – his complete works
(10) Peter Senge – The Fifth Discipline
(11) David McCullough – Truman
(12) Carl von Clausewitz – On War
(13) Coram – Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War
(14) John Le Carre – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
3 Books, not particular order:
The Rest is Noise (Ross)
Godel, Escher and Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (Hofstadter)
Paradise Lost (Milton)
The Master and Margarita
Of Human Bondage
A book that changed my view of history is THE AFRICAN ORIGIN OF CIVILZATION: Myth or Reality by Cheikh Anta Diop.
Razors Edge – Maugham
Power and the Glory – Greene
Brothers Karamazov – Dostoyevsky
Pensees – Pascal
Gulag Archipelago – Solzhenitsyn
Fear and Trembling – Kierkegaard
Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz
She begins the book with a quote by Moliere:
“It infuriates me to be wrong when I know I’m right.”
It’s a very powerful message to learn that you could be wrong, even if you are absolutely positively sure you are right. It changes your life to understand that. It changes your relationships. It changes EVERYTHING.
(Therefore, it made my “must read” list, although it’s not a classic…. Love these other suggestions as well.)
“Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe because it shows the negative effects of Western imperialism on other cultures.
“The Unfettered Mind” by Takuan Sōhō because it shows the root of our downfall is often ourselves.
“Moby Dick” by Herman Melville — because of destiny or something …
“Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens because it proves the assumptions we make based on limited information in our grasp are often wrong.”A Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez because it points out the human experience over the passage of time, and Marquez’ imagery.
“Like for Water for Chocolate” by Laura Esquivel for the magical realism, passionate love story.
“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien because of the lasting horrors of war.
“The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett because it values solitude and sacred places.
“Catch 22” by Joseph Heller because it illustrates the contradiction between the elegant advantages and the frustrating consequences of bureaucracy.
The Trial (and everything else he ever wrote) by Kafka
Notes From Underground is my favorite book by Dostoyevsky, but again, everything he ever wrote.
The Stranger and Myth of Sisaphys by Camus if you haven’t time to read everything he ever wrote as well.
My personal favorite Philip K Dick book is Man in the High Castle and think everyone should read it. I’d recommend pretty much everything by him too, but I know some people might not love VALIS and that is understandable.
Everything ever written by Jorge Luis Borges
Everything ever written by Nabakov, although my personal favorite is Invitation to a Beheading.
Being And Nothingness
Left Hand of Darkness
My memory isn’t great, so I know I’ll leave out a lot of stuff. More recent fiction like A Hundred Years of Solitude, The Road and House of Leaves should be mentioned.
Most anything by Jarad Diamond. “Collapse” is my favorite.
*Myth of Sisyphus
(that misspelling is a testament to my aging mind. Yikes!)
No edit button?
These are for the intelligent person who is not well read in the sciences but wants to have a basic familiarity with them
Understanding Physics by Isaac Asimov. It’s a little dated but still solid
Mathematics For The Nonmathematician by Morris Kline. Also very easy to grasp and very enlightening
Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin. One of the best books on evolution I’ve read in a while
Off the top of my head, these were good reads:
‘On the Shortness of Life’ (Seneca)
‘Finite and Infinite Games’ (James Carse)
‘Tragedy and Hope: History of the World in Our Time’ (Carroll Quigley)
‘Body Electric’ (Robert O. Becker)
‘Pattern Language’ (Christopher Alexander)
‘Underground Histroy of American Education’ (John Gatto)
The Brothers Karamazov-Dostoyevsky
The Count of Monte Cristo-Dumas
“Stranger in a Strange Land” (Robert Heinlein) has a comprehensive yet popular paradigm for religion’s being both ubiquitous and dangerous;
“Slaughterhouse Five” (Kurt Vonnegut) provides a view of reality through minds exposed directly to and shaped by aerial warfare; “The Handmaids Tale” (Margaret Atwood) foretells a logical outcome in a not-too-distant future of unspoken bases of men’s fear and hatred of women; “The Pilgrim’s Progress” (John Bunyan) paves the unborn usa’s path of a fanciful and fundamental journey of Christian morality applied as government before the Constitution separated Church and State; “East of Eden” depicts hypocrisy of evil and sin as the usa’s inheritance; “The Grapes of Wrath,” (John Steinbeck) account of how the wages of usa sin are paid and who pays them and how nothing’s changed in feudalism
Whatever your interests, read all you can on them, THAT will make you intelligent.
I agree with most of the suggestions already given and would say them again, but want to add a few I think deserve consideration too. And, as an aside, those of you whining about the list and whether it can/should be made, and whether there’s any reason to think these books and not others will make people intelligent, and whether there are enough books written by lesbians in swahili or something, and who do we think we are prescribing reading to each other….just relax. It’s just a fun exercise the point of which is simply to tell other readers about books that touched us and to maybe hear about one we can go read and be touched by in turn. Geez. I also have nothing against either lesbians or swahili speakers, some of whom are terrific writers I’m sure, so just relax about that too.
The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey
The Genealogy of Morals, F. Nietzsche
Pierre Bourdieu’s “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste.” He was a modern day sociologist and his work provides underlying causes of various contemporary socio-economic and cultural phenomena.
The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow.
The Golden Notebook—Doris Lessing, who’s smart, tough and fair, or my favourite by her The Children of Violence (the Martha series).
Lolita—Nabokov’s play with language will leave you in a dolorous haze. a terrific take on mid-20th century America.
Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee
The Island by Aldous Huxley
I’m Sorry You Feel That Way by Diana Joseph
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
The Pugilist at Rest by Thom Jones
Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman
Where Water Comes Together with Other Water by Raymond Carver
Forever by Judy Blume
The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Infinite jest by dfw
Ulysses by Joyce
Hamlet (or any play) by Shakespeare
To the Lighthouse by Woolf
The Sound and the Fury by Faulkner
Paradise Lost by Milton
Don Quixote by Cervantes
The Social Contract by Rousseau
The Aeneid by Virgil (in the original Latin, please, learn the entire language for this epic poem)
The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Tolstoy
The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer
A Doll’s House by Ibsen (Feminists, this is one of the greatest works on feminism written by a man)
1.Siddartha by Hermann Hesse, A mans journey through life and the attainment of the enlightened
2.The Republic by Plato, The creation of a just society
3.The Analects of Confucius, A practical guide to life which has influenced billions
4.Discipline & Punish by Foucault, Understanding the evolution of mechanisms of power
5.Answer to Job by C.G. Jung, A Psychological look into the question of evil, also any others from Jung
6.The Capital by Marx & Engels, the name explains it
7.One Dimensional Man by Marcuse, advanced capitalist expose
8.The Stranger by Camus, A look into the Absurd
9.Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Nietzsche, The “madman” comes down from his mountain to educate the masses
10.Discourses on Livy by Machiavelli, The Prince looks to the ruler but Discourses looks to the Republic
11. There are many more that have not been referenced but this is a decent start.
Upon reading the title I was going to add my own long list, but then I’ve read the body of the article and the recommendations in the comments and there is one title I strongly suggest everyone read: “Intellectuals” by Paul Johnson.
Have you read through this list and thought “I wouldn’t like that?” Perhaps you missed reading the one book that would tell you “try it! You may like it!” Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss.
Brave New World by Huxley needs to be added. The Island gets a mention above.
Journey to the end of the night by Celine
Dubliners by Joyce
West of Rome by Fante
Pulp by Bukowski
Everything Beckett ever wrote.
And of course that epic work by Marx, Groucho and Me.
What books should intelligent people read is one of the most insulting, ignorant, statements I have ever read.
I am a teacher who knows that with people’s reading and comprehension levels are different (not mentioning taste), so I think that anyone who reads anything is intelligent already.
Utopia – Thomas Moore
I read it the first time when I was 15 and it opened my eyes like only Catcher in the Rye opens 15 year old boys’ eyes.
The Gulag Archipelago – Alexandr Solzjenitsyn
I agree, it’s not a fun, relaxing or satisfying read. But it’s the only book I ever had to stop reading on a train because I was crying.
Winnie-the-Pooh – A. A. Milne
Because it’s probably the best book ever written.
The bible It is the only one you need to read. It has History, Geog. mystrey , past present and it tell you future.
Canterbury Tails, in it’s orignal form, I read it in my 20’s and boy was it hard, for a person who’d never finished high school. However, I did and loved it. It was on MY personal list of books I should read, and stood out, still does.
Second is To Kill a Mocking Bird, I read it every year from when I was about 13 to well into my 20’s and I got something different out of it every time!
I would add the Age of Civilization by WillDurant (all 11 volumes_ and the recently released “Finding Yourself in the Town of Geniuses” with its 39+ incredible videos
A Moveable Feast is so interesting.
“The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire” by Gibben.
I would definitely add “Sapiens” by Yuval Harari and also his more recent “Homo Deux”. The first book has received highly positive accolades from many including Barack Obama and Bill Gates. Thes second book, though retracting some of the steps of the first is as viable prediction of humankinds future as you will find out in these in our current “noosphere” (cf. Teilhard de Chardin).
Gregory Bateson Steps to an ecology of mind. Almost a course in thinking in terms of systems.
Any decent maths or physics textbooks, because you cannot do much without this understanding.
Kropotkin Mutual Aid – because it points to the truth that humans cooperate as well as compete if free – as does the rest of nature.
Probably the major works of Aristotle and Plato, because that is where Western Philosophy is born.
Annalects and Tao de Ching because that is where Chinese philosophy is born, and they are good correctives to the Western philosophers, and A and P are good correctives to them
I’d add Shakespear for poetry, drama and practical wisdom.
Of course nobody will be able to read any of them in the future.
1. The Bible (NAS)
2. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The Revised and Updated Translation of Sacred Gnostic Texts Complete in One Volume
3. The Kybalion: A Study of The Hermetic Philosophy of Ancient Egypt and Greece
4. Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace by Peter Janney
5. The 12th Planet by Zecharia Sitchin
6. Chemtrails, HAARP, and the Full Spectrum Dominance of Planet Earth by Elana Freeland
7. Dark Alliance by Gary Webb
8. Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia by William Shawcross
9. Another Nineteen: Investigating Legitimate 9/11 Suspects by Kevin Ryan
10. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
God Speaks by Meher Baba