What are the most well-written textbooks?
October 21, 2009 9:19 PM   Subscribe

What are the most well-written (i.e., enjoyable to read) textbooks and/or books written for an academic audience? I'm not looking for the "best" textbook on any given subject, but textbooks on any topic that are compelling to read because of the wit and lucidity of the writing style.

I generally enjoy reading nonfiction about various topics, but I find the prose of many books that try to make academic or technical concepts accessible to popular audiences a little too simple and tedious. On the other hand, much academic writing is bad writing. But I have come across a few textbooks that really bring their subject to life through great writing. The one that prompted me to write this question was an older edition of Sidney Painter's Western Europe in the Middle Ages. Another example might be Gombrich's A Story of Art. I'd like to find more books along these lines, and they can be on any academic or technical subject, so long as you enjoyed reading them. What I'm not looking for are books that might be described as popular nonfiction, no matter how good they might be (e.g., Brian Greene or Bill Bryson). And I'm not necessarily looking for the book that provides the most comprehensive or most accurate analysis of its subject. My focus is on writing style -- the substance need not be perfect. Thanks!
posted by crLLC to Writing & Language (32 answers total) 86 users marked this as a favorite
Manning Clark's Short History of Australia and the six-volume History of Australia from which it was abridged are acknowledged both as required introductory reading for Australian history students and works of literature in their own right.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 9:33 PM on October 21, 2009

A Novel Approach to Politics, affectionately known to Political Science students and professors as, "the popcorn book".
posted by SkylitDrawl at 9:35 PM on October 21, 2009

Best answer: How to Do Things With Words by J.L. Austin. Not a textbook, but a classic technical book in philosophy(/linguistics) that students often read. It's about "performative utterances", which are sentences such that, when you say them, you are performing an action—like "I promise...", "I name this ship...", and "I do" (in a marriage ceremony). It's fun to read even if you have no preexisting interest in the subject.

Probably many people will mention the Feynman Lectures on physics.
posted by k. at 9:48 PM on October 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

An Introduction to the Conjugate Gradient Method Without the Agonizing Pain.

Perhaps too short to quite qualify as a textbook, but I don't think the text we used in my for-math-majors stats class was much longer.
posted by ZeroDivides at 9:49 PM on October 21, 2009

Although the humor is sometimes forced, overall Biostatistics: The Bare Essentials is a funny, well-written textbook on an often dull and complex subject. Its not "great writing" in the classic sense, but it does an admirable job under difficult circumstances.
posted by googly at 9:53 PM on October 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Art of Computer Programming is a series of computer science textbooks written with great love, and it shows. Donald Knuth writes lucidly and humorously about a subject that he clearly thinks kicks every ass in town. I should say that it's not light reading, even by textbook standards; he covers some heavy topics, but if anyone is capable of leading the reader to understanding, it's him.
posted by invitapriore at 10:00 PM on October 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

While I'm at it, an example of his sense of humor: he offers a hexidecimal dollar (100 cents in base-16, often written as 0x100, and equivalent to 256 cents in base-10) to anyone who locates an error in the book.
posted by invitapriore at 10:05 PM on October 21, 2009

Also, in a style and purpose completely opposite spirit from The Art of Computer Programming, there's Why's (Poignant) Guide to Ruby. I have only read some of this, and it's not exactly a book either, but it's a pretty bizarre and entertaining take on the usually dry and poorly-written genre of computer programming language textbooks (illustrated with comics).
posted by k. at 10:05 PM on October 21, 2009

Oops, speaking of poorly-written.
posted by k. at 10:07 PM on October 21, 2009

I was a big fan of Greg Mankiw's intro economics textbook ("Elements of Economics" or somesuch). It's lucid, and although I only used it in my intro class, when I look back at my whole econ major I think I can say most of the deepest lessons came from that book.

I have fond memories of Enderton's mathematical logic textbook, but it's the kind of thing you at least need to do the exercises to make your way through. Other math textbooks of possible general interest: uhhh can't think of anything.

A good applied-statistics textbook seems like a good suggestion for any citizen, but I can't recommend one.
posted by grobstein at 10:11 PM on October 21, 2009

Everything's an Argument rhetoric textbook. Linear Algebra Done Right. Both, especially the latter, read unlike other books on their fields.
posted by jbb7 at 10:12 PM on October 21, 2009

The purple-trimmed functions-of-a-real-variable was really awesome, we all thought . . . but I can't figure out what it was called.
posted by grobstein at 10:24 PM on October 21, 2009

I have to credit a previous AskMe for this, but I'm currently reading through The Heart of Mathematics and its a pretty stellar of the fun parts of math. Highly recommended.
posted by Wulfhere at 10:29 PM on October 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is a related question.
posted by Zed at 11:05 PM on October 21, 2009

Best answer: Nagel's Mortal Questions isn't a textbook. It's a collection of original essays, written by a philosopher for other philosophers, that are broad enough and well enough written that a reasonably smart person can read 'em on the bus. I'm just gonna quote one of the Amazon reviews here: This book is unique in fulfilling two criteria that are very important to me. It is i) a work of twentieth-century analytic philosophy full of carefully-developed and rigorous arguments for controversial conclusions, of the sort that could be expected to generate lively and subtle debate amongst some of the greatest thinkers of the present age, and ii) it's the sort of thing that my mom would enjoy.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:37 PM on October 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Death by Theory and Dug to Death are archaeological textbooks written in the form of novels/mysteries.
posted by gudrun at 12:25 AM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's not a textbook, but Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language" is required reading for any editor and makes my heart sing. The Complete Plain Words, though a little dated, is also as amusing as it is invaluable.
posted by stuck on an island at 1:38 AM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding The Art of Computer Science. There's some seriously arcane stuff in there, but also -- if you skip around a bit -- quite a lot of wonderful things approachable by a general reader. Knuth et al's Concrete Mathematics is also a classic of the field. Easier than most of TaoCP, and genuinely entertaining. Knuth even had students he tested the material out on contribute marginalia to the book, which made the book an interesting mixture of fascinating, rigorous, and beautiful mathematics... and really dumb puns. So yeah.

Easier still, to the point where you shouldn't need more than basic arithmetic to work through 95% of the book, is Edward R. Scheinerman's Mathematics: A Discrete Introduction. It gives a good introduction to a lot of more abstract fields of mathematical study, and five years after the class I needed it for is over, I still flip through it every few months.

I hope that didn't come off as patronizing -- I shouldn't assume anything about your math skills, but I wanted to cover my bases if that was an issue.

And of course, while I'm not sure it whether this counts as a textbook, The Feynman Lectures on Physics is worth looking into for anyone with any interest in physics whatsoever.
posted by Limiter at 2:57 AM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Less a textbook and more just a general academic book I enjoyed - James Morone's Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History. I may be biased though, the author is a friend/mentor.
posted by quodlibet at 2:57 AM on October 22, 2009

Lawrence and Bennets's Pharmacology Textbook is very funny and full of practical tips. Robbins Pahology has a lot of funny nuggets which means a lot for the morbid field of pathology. Boyd's Pathology, now out of print, is probably the funniest of the genre of not so boring medical books.
posted by london302 at 3:33 AM on October 22, 2009

Best answer: Krebs and Davies' An introduction to Behavioural Ecology
posted by dhruva at 7:08 AM on October 22, 2009

Elliot Aronson's The Social Animal is a fine intro to social psychology -- fun to read, well-organized, and edifying. And its narrative descriptions of experiments and their later permutations give the reader the sense that science is an ongoing process.

Academic nonfiction I enjoyed includes American Taxation, American Slavery by Robin Einhorn. If institutional competence in government agencies interests you, you might like this take. And it refutes damaging "taxation=slavery" rhetoric, not least by diagnosing it as projection by slaveowners.

The Crooked Timber thread on academic books "fit for human consumption" reminds me of Cialdini's Influence, on the science of persuasion.
posted by brainwane at 7:17 AM on October 22, 2009

Response by poster: Lots of good responses so far. I marked a couple that I'm most likely to read, but the others are exactly the kinds of things I'm looking for, too. If it helps to stimulate more responses, I just thought of some other books I've read that would qualify: Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy and Rippetoe and Kilgore's Starting Strength.
posted by crLLC at 7:18 AM on October 22, 2009

This question is similar, but the focus is not on the writing but accessibility for the lay reader. However, there is overlap in the titles suggested, so perhaps it might be worth skimming.
posted by girlpublisher at 7:50 AM on October 22, 2009

I read Prof. Stephen Angle's Human Rights in Chinese Thought: A Cross-Cultural Inquiry as orientation for a topically related translation job I had late last year; enormously impressed with his clarity of thought and style on what can be pretty abstruse topics.
posted by Abiezer at 1:58 PM on October 22, 2009

Trading and Exchanges by Larry Harris.
posted by BigSky at 2:14 PM on October 22, 2009

Not a textbook, but I've immensely enjoyed dipping into the 11-volume Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant.

Here's the bit I like to quote to people to demonstrate what a fine writer Durant was, from Volume 8, The Age of Louis XIV:

"Prostitution was despised if it had no manners, but a woman like Ninon de Lenclos, who gilded it with literature and wit, could become almost as famous as the King.


"There was so much more in her than the courtesan that she soon enlisted among her devotees many of the most distinguished men in France, including several members of the court, ranging from the composer Lully to the Great Conde himself.


"She outlived nearly all her friends, even the nonagenarian Saint-Evremond, whose letters from England were the consolation of her old age. 'Sometimes,' she wrote to him, 'I am tired of always doing the same things, and I admire the Swiss who throw themselves into the river for that very reason.' She resented wrinkles. 'If God had to give a woman wrinkles, He might at least have put them on the soles of her feet.' As she neared death, in her eighty-fifth year, the Jesuits competed with the Jansenists for the honor of converting her; she yielded to them graciously, and died in the arms of the Church (1705). In her will she left only ten ecus for her funeral, 'so that it might be as simple as possible'; but 'I humbly request M. Arouet'- her attorney- 'to allow me to leave his son, who is at the Jesuits, one thousand francs for books.' The son bought books, read them, and became Voltaire."

Isn't that FABULOUS?

I've had no trouble finding the set (or several volumes at a time, anyway) at thrift stores and library sales.

(And apologies if that's more "popular non-fiction" and not so much the academic/technical direction you asked about.)
posted by kristi at 10:09 PM on October 22, 2009 [8 favorites]

I like maitland jones' conversational style in organic chemistry.
posted by lalochezia at 9:47 AM on October 23, 2009

I enjoyed reading The Elements of Style.
posted by clorox at 1:19 AM on October 24, 2009

The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making by Plous. There's plenty of textbooks on the study of cognitive biases, there are plenty of popular books for that matter. This one's the best i've come across.

It starts with a fun quiz that you take before reading the book. The text proceeds to explain clearly why many people get the answers wrong because they rely on intuitive but faulty decision mechanisms. The book also has plenty of pictures, diagrams and cartoons which makes for an entertaining read.
posted by storybored at 9:05 PM on October 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Baddely Essentials of Human Memory (or very similar title) psychology of memory, the centre of the self although it sounds dull
Rewriting the Self ed Roy Porter
An Introduction to Language by Victoria A. Fromkin, Robert Rodman, and N.M. Hyams
as it's a textbook, old editions are worth thruppence, and it's full of hilarious cartoons. Not sure the syntax chapter answers your needs, but all the others are easyreading and fascinating
posted by maiamaia at 4:37 PM on July 21, 2010

Gombrich's the Story of Art; a textbook which several people i've met who never studied art owned and loved. It's partly the choice of reproductions, but reading it is lovely too.
Mario Vargas Llosa (?) The Perpetual Orgy it's lit crit not a textbook, but litcrit is always awful, except this
posted by maiamaia at 5:20 PM on July 21, 2010

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