Carl Sagan’s Ambitious College Reading List: Plato, Shakespeare, Gide, and Plenty of Philosophy, Math & Physics (1954)

List of titles that Carl Sagan planned to read during one of his semesters at the University of Chicago. Library of Congress Manuscript Division

Carl Sagan may have passed away almost twen­ty years ago, but he con­tin­ues to influ­ence minds of all gen­er­a­tions through intel­lec­tu­al heirs like Neil DeGrasse Tyson (host of the remake of Sagan’s beloved 1980 TV series Cos­mos) as well as through the books he wrote in his life­time. But what books influ­enced Sagan, launch­ing him on the jour­ney toward astron­o­my, cos­mol­o­gy, astro­physics, astro­bi­ol­o­gy, and glob­al celebri­ty? Thanks to the Library of Con­gress’ Carl Sagan Archive, we now know at least forty titles from the no doubt volu­mi­nous amount of read­ing mate­r­i­al he digest­ed dur­ing his youth and edu­ca­tion.

Sagan wrote this read­ing list (which a fan has tran­scribed with links and post­ed to Red­dit) in 1954, as an under­grad­u­ate at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. On it he iden­ti­fies the books, as a young Charles Dar­win once wrote on his own list, to be read, whether whol­ly, par­tial­ly, or as a part of his course­work:

In Whole

In Part

Course Read­ings:

Pret­ty ambi­tious mate­r­i­al for a twen­ty-year-old, but remem­ber: we’re talk­ing about some­one who, around a decade ear­li­er, had already sketched out his ideas for human­i­ty’s space­far­ing future. It makes sense that such a child would grow up to read sci­ence fic­tion — and with the pub­li­ca­tion of Con­tact thir­ty years after that, write it — and even that he would take up math­e­mat­ics and physics as a course of aca­d­e­m­ic study.

But it takes a mind like Sagan’s not to lose sight of the impor­tance of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the non­spe­cial­ist pub­lic, as evi­denced by the pres­ence on his list of Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can and Extra­or­di­nary Pop­u­lar Delu­sions. Nor did he neglect, even before his career began, the need to con­tex­tu­al­ize sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­er­ies in the realm of human thought and feel­ing, which extends from Pla­to and the Bible to Shake­speare, André Gide, and John Gun­ther — that last writer’s work, and cer­tain oth­er vol­umes on his list, also show­ing an advanced con­scious­ness of human lim­i­ta­tions and mor­tal­i­ty. All of it placed Sagan well, despite his trun­cat­ed time on Earth, to do work that will out­last us all.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

See Carl Sagan’s Child­hood Sketch­es of The Future of Space Trav­el

Carl Sagan Presents His “Baloney Detec­tion Kit”: 8 Tools for Skep­ti­cal Think­ing

Carl Sagan on the Virtues of Mar­i­jua­na (1969)

New Carl Sagan Archive Fea­tures His Dig­i­tized Home Movies, Stu­dent Jour­nal­ism, Draft of His Pale Blue Dot & More

What Did Charles Dar­win Read? See His Hand­writ­ten Read­ing List & Read Books from His Library Online

Neil deGrasse Tyson Lists 8 (Free) Books Every Intel­li­gent Per­son Should Read

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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