The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Reading List

A few years ago someone asked me for a reading list. I recently came across it again when someone else asked, and I thought I’d share it with everyone.

I wouldn’t necessarily read this exactly in order, and what you need to read will will depend on your background, the person asking had very little in the social sciences and humanities.

Writers who had an outsize affect on me compared to how others view them are Randall Collins, Jane Jacobs and Damasio.

“Conflict Sociology” is dense and long and many would be served by skipping it, but it’s also the book I read that no one else has that has done me the greatest service. “Debt” is also long.

“Cities in Civilization” is long, but each chapter is on one city and it can be read in gulps, and it’s excellent.

The List

To start in Philosophy I would read A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russel, it’s a bit dated so you won’t get a lot of 20th century, but excellent for the rest, just remember he has a point of view.

I would read the two Collins books I reviewed: Max Weber, A Skeleton Key” & An Introduction to Non-Obvious Sociology.

If you like those find a 1970s copy of Conflict Sociology, and read Interaction Ritual Chains by Collins as well.

I would read Jane Jacobs Economy of Cities & Cities and the Wealth of Nations“. If you like those the next two would be Death and Life of the Great American Cities and Systems of Survival.

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of scientific revolutions – short, to the point

Justice by Michael Sandel – reviewed on my site

(I am fundraising to determine how much I’ll write this year. If you value my writing and want more of it, please consider donating.)

Mancur Olson, Power and Prosperity (be careful to see how this applies to more than the USSR.)

Confucius and the Chinese Way by Creel (older book)

I would read some Freud, because you can’t understand the 20th century, especially mid 20th century, without him. Three or four of his early books. They’re short and well written.

Wealth and Democracy by Kevin Phillips

Pandora’s Seed by Spencer Wells — an understanding of the effects of the agricultural revolution is necessary

The Creation of Inequality by Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus (be sure to google the critiques of it, particularly with respect to women’s religion.) Dense, very dense, but fascinating.

Bad Samaritans by Ha-Joon Chang.

The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi, in the commons, you can probably find a *.pdf, but it’s long.

Debt, the first 5,000 years by Graeber.

Medieval Cities, their Origins and Revival of Trade — nice short book, .pdfs available

Sun Tzu, The Art of War. (Get one with commentary)

If you have time on your hand Peter Hall’s Cities in Civilization will reward you, it’s about much more than cities.


Machiavelli, The Prince and Discourses on Livy. Do not skip Livy, the Prince is all most people read and it gives a skewed vision of Machiavelli’s thought. Discourses is longer and more important.  Remember that Machiavelli gets a lot of history wrong, but it doesn’t really matter.

If you don’t have much background in them, Karen Armstrong’s books on Buddha and Muhammed are decent introductions, bearing in mind that Armstrong clearly doesn’t understand meditative accomplishments, so it’s an outsider look at Buddha.

Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, largest land empire in history, probably good to learn about it, and Genghis Khan was an amazing leader.

Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Skinner (despite behaviouralism’s issues, it really does describe a lot of human behaviour very well, and you can easily apply it to mental events even if behaviouralists frowned on that.)

Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I got a lot out of this back in the day. It’s light in some ways, but still worthwhile)

Descartes Error by Anthony Damasio (I found his other books weak, this one is very important.)

There really should be more on India, and China but the topics I consider most worthwhile there are hard to find good introductions that aren’t misleading to people who don’t have a background. In particular Buddhist/Hindu metaphysics and epistemology is very strong, but also very hard to read and understand.  Pagan religion is missing, Roman history and culture, etc, etc.  Obviously if you haven’t read the New and Old testament’s you should, ideally with a very annotated version to guide you in the meaning where it’s less than obvious.  There’s a fair bit to be said for reading some Plato (especially the early stuff) and Aristotle, as well as Cicero, but I’d read Russel first, to get some background. Philosophy tends to be a pain to read until you learn the lingo of the specific type/period of philosophy; it seems harder than it is.

What are some books that had a huge influence on you?


Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – November 28, 2021


Groups and Coalitions: Politics Chapter V


  1. profan

    After Freud, almost anything by Fromm on human nature/ethics: Escape from Freedom, The Art of Loving. Anatomy of Human Destructiveness has his views on Hitler and his approach to the Sanford Prison Experiment.

  2. profan

    Also, of course Noam Chomsky. I think my first book of his was Understanding Power. It’s set up as a question-and-answer discussion, and his reasoning changed my world.

  3. Soredemos

    Jack Weatherford isn’t credible. He’s basically a Mongol equivalent of a weeaboo, and goes out of his way to downplay their brutality and to overemphasis their achievements. His historiography leaves a lot to be desired; he makes a lot of bold claims that I’ve had a hell of a time corroborating from other historians (for instance he claims the Forbidden City in Beijing started as a Mongol enclave where they could relax and just ‘be Mongol’ away from the eyes of their Chinese subjects. I’ve been unable to verify this claim at all from any other source).

  4. Eric Anderson

    Community and the Politics of Place by Daniel Kemmis is “the book I read that no one else has that has done me the greatest service. ”

    And, one read no more than The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama to know everything you need to know about our civilizations’ future trajectory 🤣

  5. Dan Lynch

    Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine.” It’s useful to know your enemy.

    While a bit U.S.-centric, James Loewen’s “Lies My Teacher Told Me” and “Lies Across America,” and generally anything Loewen wrote. Loewen’s focus is most often on race, but I think Loewen comes closer than anyone at setting the standard for how history in general should be taught or studied. He excels at considering multiple points of views, challenging conventional wisdom, and encouraging critical thinking. In fact he wrote a book on how to teach history that I intend to get around to reading.

    Howard Zinn’s “The Bomb” and his autobiography “You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train.” While Zinn is best known for his “People’s History,” his own life was remarkable history in itself. A turning point came when he learned that as a WWII bombardier he had unknowingly dropped napalm on civilians in the town of Royan, France. You can imagine the guilt, and the remainder of his life seems to have been an attempt to compensate for that error by doing good.

    Moritz Thomsen’s “Living Poor” and “My Two Wars.” The first is about his experience in the Peace Corp and has a lot to say about how expensive it is too be poor and how many well intentioned social programs fail. The second is about his experiences as a WWII bombardier. Moritz gives a no-bullshit account of how the WWII bombing of Europe was ineffective, hardly ever hitting the intended targets. The U.S. still has not learned that lesson and still has a fairy tale belief in the effectiveness of its air power. And like Howard Zinn, Moritz seemingly spent the remainder of his life attempting to do good. It’s interesting how some of the best people are shaped by horrible experiences.

    “Coming of Age in Mississippi” by Ann Moody. For one thing, it gives white people a way to understand what it is like to be black in America. Secondly, it gives an unvarnished account of the 60’s civil rights movement. Most “leftists” today believe that the civil rights movement succeeded by marching with cardboard signs and giving “I have a dream” speeches. Moody documents how most of the tactics they tried were actually an abject failure. We tend to forget today that the failures outnumbered the victories, and the few victories were often obtained as a result of strikes and boycotts — collective economic pressure — not by marching with cardboard signs.

    “Twelve Years A Slave” because it gives us a no-bullshit understanding of what it was like to be a slave.

    Victor Klemperer’s diaries, because it gives the most complete account of what it was like to be a Jew in Nazi Germany, and how it was difficult for Germans to resist the Nazis, once the Nazis were in power.

    I like reading personal histories of people who went through hard times, because that is a feeling I can relate to.

  6. Mark Level

    Hi, Ian. A great list, not surprised, but some things I’d add off the top of my head: As far as the modern hellscape we inhabit, I was warned what was coming when I started reading Henry Miller, around age 20– “the future belongs to the machine,” indeed!! And Henry wrote that in the 1930s . . . Malcolm X’s Autobiography certainly impressed and influenced me as a youth also. As to the Beats who followed Henry Miller, I think Burroughs’ work has stood up the best, I personally preferred the Western Lands trilogy to the more erratic (for both good & ill) cut-up stuff. Ginsberg too has a lot of great stuff, in that he was a disciple of William Blake’s gnostic teaching. I found Lewis Mumford pretty indispensable for technology and its relationship to culture, urban and non-urban development. . . on the squishier, “spiritual” side, I stumbled across Joseph Campbell also around the time I was 20. His chief value to me was in leading me to older stuff, like that wild Victorian tome, Sir Frazier’s The Golden Bough, which then got me interested in anthropology and the corruptions of anthropology . . . also I think he led me to Weston Labarre’s The Ghost Dance, that so thoroughly explored the Native cultures which our murderous settler-colonial society wiped out . . .The Nag Hammadi Library, of course– those Gnostic purists are far more interesting than the Pauline perversion. Having been raised in guilt and fear-filled primitive Catholicism, I ignored Rabbi Yeshua’s valid contributions to spirituality for 4 decades of my life, until Fox News’ denigration of Reza Aslan’s “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” reminded me that before Paul and the Roman Empire got their hands on the revival of the Egyptian Osiris myths thru Jesus, there might’ve been some useful ideals there. Galeano’s Las Venas Abiertas de Latinoamerica is a pretty solid contribution to modern history for the Southern 2/3rds of this hemisphere, nothing wrong with the English translation either . . .More folklore/anthropology would be James Hinckley Allen’s wonderful “Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning”– this really helped me to understand the greatness of medieval Arabic civilization as transmitting astronomy, science and classical studies to the modern “civilization” of the benighted white ghosts who took over the world. If the stupid Islamophobes understood why so many stars have “Deneb” in their name, they’d be better informed. For fiction, I always loved Doris Lessing, who also branched out into sci-fi similar to others like Ursula K. LeGuin, Phillip K. Dick, and a host of other oddballs . . . Can’t neglect fantasists like Borges, Eco, etc. In a related vein, Bolano’s works are mind-blowing, and The Savage Detectives and 2066 are among the best (the latter a slog in places, considering the misogynist murders theme.) The best not as recent fiction I’ve read includes DeLillo (esp. Libra), Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. More recently Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer deserved all the awards it won, a truly harrowing historical novel of Empire and resistance, & good intentions poisoned by politics . . . Pynchon remains fun, Against the Day was pretty good even though if one compares the characters to Bolano, e.g., they seem fairly 2 dimensional and not nearly as real, the political themes & weird metaphysical speculation are interesting. Someone mentioned “Lies My Teachers Told Me,” and as a public school teacher that was certainly very useful to me. To close with a 3rd Victorian, I’m currently reading Enid Starkie’s Rimbaud biography and it is impressive, she really researched the occult stuff he was into (& no, she wasn’t a true Victorian like Frazier or Allen, who publ. his Astronomy lore book in the 1890s, but she was at least born in that period, & her 1960 biography is redolent of that style.) Oh, and finally back to anthropology and ancient history, I highly recommend Evan S. Connell’s “Aztec Treasure House” for both ancient history and oddities (Alchemy and Paracelsus, Atlantis mythology), as well as conventional accounts of early Imperialist exploration, the Spanish lost in the sprawling, empty US West (Coronado’s doomed expedition), etc. To return to politics in closing, Lewis Lapham and Gore Vidal are pretty good examples of Elite contrarians who tattle on their own class and its ignorance and depredations of the rest of us. There’s probably more I forgot, but enuf said with the preceding.

  7. Jan Wiklund

    For those who can’t find these books in the local library, try They have about 8 million books as pdf or epub.

  8. Robert Hertz

    Sexual Suicide, by George Gilder in about 1980. Gives the best account of family breakdown in the USA.

    Yes, Gilder is kind of a tech-hustler today, and yes, he was funded by the Rockefellers. But his insights are still very valuable.

  9. Jan Wiklund

    Changs book Bad samaritans is very good, but there are more readable books on the same theme, perhaps even better because they are focused not on what we shouldn’t do but on what we should.

    – Erik Reinert: How rich countries got rich and why poor countries stay poor. Main thesis is that it is only when you command the most recent industrial technology that you can earn money, and that advice to poor countries to stick to their “comparative advantage” is as sensible as advice your children to stick to their good dishwashing skill. Very funny written, almost Chang class.

    – Alice Amsden: The rise of the rest. In-depth report about how a poor country may do to gain the knowledge needed to advance to the high-technology level. Uses China as the main example, but contrasts it also to whose who failed, and tells the difference.

    – Mariana Mazzucato: The entrepreneurial state. Tells the story about how every little step in the development of the smartphone was fostered, guided and goaded by the government, and how the same government let Apple take all the profits of it. She has written other books about the same thing – that “the market” will never take any step that is regarded as risky.

    – Carlota Pérez: Technological revolutions and financial capital. About how the industrial society has developed in waves, each building on a new set of technology, and how these waves eventually break down and need the kind of government goading Mazzucato writes about to lead to a new wave. In other books and articles at, Pérez has written about what is needed now to get out of the stagnation and set the stage for a wave founded on f.ex minimization of energy and raw materials.

    – Finally Brett Christophers: Rentier capitalism. About how most of the capitalist class has abandoned production to establish itself in the more leisurely life as tollbooth capitalists, i.e. takin a toll rather than produce. Unfortunately the book focuses on UK – according to Christophers the most rentierized country in the world – but there is no other about this extremely important theme. As Marx said about Manchester: it shows your own future.

  10. Jan Wiklund

    Oh, I forgot:

    – Bas van Bavel: The invisible hand. Tells the stories about Iraq 500-900, Italy 1100-1500, and Holland 1400-1800 – how a country grows rich and comparatively equitable through markets in consumer articles and grows poor and increasingly inegalitarian when the market forces begin to favour investment in high finance and luxury. It is a very good application of Polanyi.

  11. Mary Bennett

    For classical history, begin with Michael Grant. The Twelve Ceasars made his reputation. I like Rise of the Greeks, about Greek exploration and colonization. If you like the subject, move on to A R Burns, and after that, try the classical historians themselves, Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, Tacitus and Polybius.

    For the Middle Ages, the best I have found are Marc Bloch and Freidrich Heer.

    Two books by David Hackett-Fischer are essential, Albion’s Seed about colonial America and The Great Wave, the best discussion of historical cycles I have seen. Hackett-Fischer tracked prices, essential data to which neither Spengler nor Toynbee paid any attention.

    To get some kind of understanding and appreciation of distant cultures, try reading their great literature. Tale of Prince Genji and Heike for Japan; Dream of the Red Chamber, Golden Lotus (not its’ correct title but that is what some English language publisher called it) and Tale of Three Lands for China.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén