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Tag: Reading List

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

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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?

So You Want to Understand the World? A Reading List

On occasion, I get requests for reading lists. Here’s one, not exhaustive.

Olson, Mancur.  “Power and Prosperity”

This book is really about information and the failings of both central planning and market economies. There is an extended discussion of why the USSR both worked and then didn’t. This explanation is easy to apply to late capitalism if you have a bit of imagination. Folks go on about oil prices and so on, but if the USSR’s economy had been working properly an oil price collapse would not have taken it out.

This book is also good as a study of the way people at the peripheries always try to manage the center (or up). You can never trust the information from people who have incentives to manage information.

Jacobs, Jane. “The Economy of Cities” and “Cities and the Wealth of Nations”

These two volumes are really one extended book. This is an extensive examination of how innovation happens, why it usually happens in cities, the beginning of agriculture and the way cities affect non-city areas and how those areas affect cities back.  It is also good for a diagnosis of what goes wrong with cities at a higher level than her “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.”

Virtually everything Jacobs wrote will reward you for reading it, but start with these two. Also, even combined, it’s shorter than Death and Life.

Machiavelli, Niccolo.  “Discourses on Livy” and  “The Prince”

Read BOTH. Do not just read the Prince. It is incomplete without the Discourses. The two are essentially pieces of one work. I recommend the Penguin edition because Bernard Crick’s forward is particularly good and balanced. Machiavelli deals with both popular and aristocratic Republics as well as Principalities. Some of this is dated, but a remarkable amount is eternal. If you want to understand the role of conflict to keep a State alive, the question of personality, the matter of selecting leaders, and so on, Machiavelli is the place to start. You probably won’t like a lot of it – Machiavelli wrote during a period when Italian cities were being sacked regularly, a violent and rapacious period, and his lessons are hard. But he is a believer in freedom, and it is important to understand his pragmatic arguments for Republics.

As you read it, apply it to modern societies. Oh, and Machiavelli gets a fair bit of the history wrong, but as Crick notes, it’s not a big deal. Evaluate his hypotheses yourself.

Collins, Randall. “A Guide to Non-Obvious Sociology”

This is a nice short book, and it covers topics like crime and religion that most people don’t understand how to evaluate properly.

Collins, Randall. “Max Weber: A Skeleton Key”

This is the best introduction to Weber, especially his economic thinking, that I’ve read, and an excellent antidote to the Parsonian emphasis on “The Protestant Ethic” which misrepresents Weber. In particular, Weber’s look at how status, class, and wealth interplay is important. It may be fashionable to sneer at his theories about how ideas and religious life affected economic life, but I believe they are still important.

Polanyi, Karl. “The Great Transformation”

How did capitalistic industrialization happen? Hint: People didn’t embrace it, because early industrial capitalism was shit. It was literally worse, far worse, than being a serf. People had to be forced off the land and made to work by Marx’s whip of hunger. Understanding how it happened is really, really important. If you don’t understand how capitalism and industrialization occurred, you understand neither. We sneer at Luddites, but if you had fight in you and were a worker, you’d have been one too.

Hall, Peter.  “Cities in Civilization”

Ok, here’s your door-stopper. Hall covers the golden ages of cities from Athens thru Berlin and onto modern London. Each section is a serious analysis of how a particular city really worked; but by that he means much more than city. For example, the section on Berlin basically covers how Prussia industrialized. This book will reward more than one reading, and it shows that there are a lot of different ways to create Golden Ages. When you can recognize both the differences and the similarities, you’ll have gotten what the book has to offer.

Flannery and Marcus. “The Creation of Inequality”

A magisterial survey of societies from the virtually completely egalitarian to the most inegalitarian with an eye to how we went from being “hopelessly egalitarian” to extremely stratified societies. Most people don’t read enough anthropology, and what they do read isn’t in context. This will cure you of both problems, and the details of the societies make for fascinating stories besides. Not a short book.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. “The Spirit Level.”

This is the book that glues the thesis “inequality is bad for everyone including people at the top” to the door with superglue.  The data is extensive, conclusive and absolutely brutal. Because inequality is the subject du jour, this is required reading, and demolishes the argument that what matters is just “what people have,” and not their position relative to others in their society.

Ha-Joon Chang. “Bad Samaritans”

There are a lot of books telling you why neo-classical and neo-liberal economics are bunk. This is the most accessible of the bunch, and maybe the best I’ve read. It concentrates mainly on how countries industrialize and why the standard advice does not work.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.  “The Age of Roosevelt” series.

The transition to the New Deal economy is extraordinarily important for us to understand. We have seen the transition from the post-war economy (essentially a modified New Deal economy) to neo-liberalism if we’re old enough. We’ve seen the left to right; but not the right to left.  This is a long work, but it rewards the reading and is particularly good on explaining how Roosevelt iterated: If one thing didn’t work, he’d try something else. (h/t @mathewstoller).

Concluding Remarks and Further Reading

I don’t have access to my full library right now, so this is a sketch of a list. But it will still reward your reading. I’ll note that you can’t understand 20th century history without understanding Freud and Marx. Lenin is very brief and as such there’s no reason not to read him. The same is true with Freud, who is a good writer besides. As for Marx, well, a collection of excerpts can work, or you can find any number of good summaries. You aren’t reading to agree, you are reading to understand the people who created the intellectual background of an entire century, without whom you cannot understand the rest, including the vast majority of literary fiction in the mid-20th century and the “serious” plays.

Everyone should also read a good translation of Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”.  Read Mao on guerilla warfare (you can find this online, it is brief.)  Read Marshall DuSaxe “My Reveries Upon the Art of War” because people need to understand how terrible early firearms were (and DuSaxe is an entertaining writer.)  Military history in general is important, in particular you need to understand the affect of military technology on society and vice-versa.  There are weapons technologies which tend to produce egalitarian societies (close order infantry weapons, mass conscription weapons life firearms, for example) and those which tend to produce inegalitarian societies.

You may hate religion, but you cannot understand Western thought if you have not read the Bible.

Pick up a book of Plato’s dialogues and suck it up, they’re actually well-written. For a general introduction to Western philosophy, Bertrand Russel’s “History of Western Philosophy” is a good start, you can grab what he doesn’t cover later. Remember that he’s an analytical philosopher, but he’s still good at covering what you need to know.

At some later point I’ll post some introductory texts to Chinese and Indian thought. These traditions are as rich as Western thought, and for most of history they were more technologically advanced than us. For now, just note that Western Philosophy and Eastern took decidedly different turns: Much of Eastern philosophy is concerned with the actual experience of consciousness through  mind- and body-altering disciplines. They are supplements to meditation, breathing exercises, and so on, and are hard to understand if you don’t take that into account. Even someone as secular as Confucius is offering a system which has significant elements of cultivation culture within it (for example, it has the equivalent of the Bhagavad-Gita’s “Karma Yoga,” where you do the right thing no matter the results. It also has thought auditing, an active style of meditation where you stop all non-virtuous thoughts.)

A more complete reading list would also deal with fundamental issues of human nature and would have a reading list for psychology, mass psychology, and neuroscience. For now, start with Antonio Damasio’s “Descartes Error,” read Irving Goffman’s “Interaction Ritual,” and peruse a copy of “The Sociological Imagination” by C. Wright Mills. For feminism, I suggest Simone deBeauvoir’s “The Second Sex,” which I have found touches on almost all issues that later feminists raise. These will get you off to a good start.

Remember also that much that seems social includes physical roots.  Climate change, for example, had a lot to do with the French Revolution and Dark thru Middle Ages history can be read to the accompaniment the weather records.

And you must understand the change from hunter-gatherer societies to horticultural and agricultural societies as well as the cycle between them and nomadic or barbarian societies.  There are no good works on the latter that I am aware of, unfortunately, understanding tends to arise from reading the history.  Understand that much of this is due to economies of violence and disease.  Hunter-gatherers lose because of these factors even though hunter-gathering is generally a much more pleasant way to live than most agricultural societies.

Take a look at the physical geography of change: how did steam power spread, what did it demand?  How does this differ from the wind and water revolution that preceded it?  How do soil, climate and planting technology work together to configure society?  Why did Greeks, who made toy steam engines, not industrialize? (It’s not just about slaves.)

Please feel free to include other books you think worth reading in comments.

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