What are the best books being published in the modern age?
October 21, 2010 7:33 AM   Subscribe

Best Modern Books Filter: Darwin's Origin of Species, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, Smith's The Wealth of Nations... these books have stood the test of time and should probably be on my bookshelf (only Darwin right now). What non-fiction books have been published in the past 50 years that will also stand the test of time, that I should definitely own and read, that are classics of their field or, more to the point, any field? Bonus points for books published in the last 10 years.
posted by HopStopDon'tShop to Writing & Language (28 answers total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
A useful starter for ten might be the all time classic: What single book is the best introduction to your field (or specialization within your field) for laypeople?
posted by bright cold day at 7:40 AM on October 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action (1981);
Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)
posted by goethean at 7:41 AM on October 21, 2010 [4 favorites]

Guns Germs and Steel
posted by griphus at 7:43 AM on October 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins (1976)
A Theory of Justice, John Rawls (1971)
Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick (1974)

At the same time, I argue with your premise. Unless you are specifically interested in the field you probably don't need to read the classic text and would be better off with a modern overview of the field itself.
posted by ninebelow at 7:47 AM on October 21, 2010

The Story of Art by Gombrich is the definitive primer to art history.
posted by londonmark at 7:48 AM on October 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Most scholars doing foundational, ground-breaking work are not writing general interest monographs in the style of Darwin and Smith. Books such as Guns, Germs, and Steel are certainly interesting and groundbreaking, but they are retellings of long-running research programs rather than initial contributions. You're better off reading overviews, review articles, or the above-cited AskMe thread, rather than trying to identify groundbreaking books. Further, we are now in an era of hyper-specialization, so the approachable general interest monograph is much less common in the realm of original research.
posted by proj at 8:02 AM on October 21, 2010 [4 favorites]

I asked something similar and got awesome answers.
posted by signal at 8:02 AM on October 21, 2010

Gulag. It's an intense read. Also, a problem from hell was great.
posted by bessel functions seem unnecessarily complicated at 8:20 AM on October 21, 2010

The Face of Battle, John Keegan.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:27 AM on October 21, 2010

McCormick's Origins of the European Economy (2002) is a fucking rock-star work of pre-modern European history with all sorts of exciting implications for historians in the field, but if you're a civilian, I'd expect it might be totally impossible to get through.

The last general interest, big-picture, non-fiction book that really impressed me was Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything.
posted by oinopaponton at 8:28 AM on October 21, 2010

Yes on Habermas.
John Rawls: A Theory of Justice (1971)
posted by salvia at 8:32 AM on October 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thirding Rawls. Along those same lines, I'd also suggest Dworkin's Law's Empire.
posted by saladin at 8:35 AM on October 21, 2010

In terms of finance and economics, Galbraith's The Great Crash 1929 is essential. As I've posted many times on Metafilter, there is nothing new in finance, rather variations on themes we've seen time and time again. And, unfortunately, will probably see again. This book provides excellent insight into human nature in matters financial. The most recent edition was published in 2009.

I read this book several times before the recent - ahem - "unpleasantness" - and I've read it twice since. The similarities between that crash and recent events are amazing.
posted by Mutant at 8:51 AM on October 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures.

Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory.
posted by drlith at 9:23 AM on October 21, 2010 [4 favorites]

In philosophy of mind, Nagel's What Is It Like To Be A Bat? and Searle's Minds, Brains and Programs are going to be read and discussed for a long, long time. Both are journal articles and not books, but they're highly influential within philosophy, widely reprinted, and also very easy for non-(academic)-philosophers to get into.

It's hard to find anything that broad and influential in recent linguistics that's well respected inside the field and also readable by non-specialists. (In my experience, most professional linguists think Chomsky is required reading and Pinker is an oversimplifying hack, and most amateur linguists think Pinker is required reading and Chomsky is an obscurantist tool.* So it goes.) George Lakoff's Women, Fire and Dangerous Things seems like one possibility.

*At least when it comes to linguistics. I know a fair number of amateur linguists who love his political stuff and just wish he'd quit yapping about language. Meanwhile, a lot of the professionals wish he would give up on politics....
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:25 AM on October 21, 2010 [4 favorites]

The Road to Serfdom, by Hayek.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:49 AM on October 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

David Fromkin: Europe's Last Summer

Rachel Carson: Silent Spring

John Howard Griffin: Black Like Me
posted by jgirl at 9:51 AM on October 21, 2010

The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
posted by bibliogrrl at 11:06 AM on October 21, 2010

Hannah Arendt: Eichman in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil

Jean Baudrillard: Simulacra and Simulation

Norman: The Design of Everyday Things

The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire
posted by xammerboy at 11:50 AM on October 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

Michel Foucault: The Order of Things

Norbert Elias: The Civilizing Process (recommended for the descriptions of the table manners of Middle Age nobility).

Seconding Geertz and Kuhn, and thirding Habermas.
posted by daniel_charms at 12:16 PM on October 21, 2010

Mikhail Bakhtin's essays in *The Dialogic Imagination*
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:45 PM on October 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

The Mediterranean by Braudel

The Crusades Stephen Runciman

The Civil War Shelby Foote
posted by IndigoJones at 2:57 PM on October 21, 2010

Feynman, QED.

Ernst Mayr, What Makes Biology Unique?

Einstein, Relativity: The Special and the General Theory.
posted by phliar at 3:17 PM on October 21, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks all, some great suggestions which will certainly keep me busy for at least the next year.

@bright cold day - yup, I love that list too but it's so daunting and quite a different filter to this one.

@signal - that is a fantastic list, the first thing I'm getting from that are the books that you mentioned in your question though!

@ninebelow - I get something extra out of the work required to understand specialist texts. I've read the overviews (not of everything, obviously) and they help but there's so much more to be gained from going to the source. Thanks for the suggestions, The Selfish Gene is one of those books that's been sitting on my shelf, unread, for over a year now (and having just recently read The God Delusion and The Greatest Show on Earth back-to-back I might have to give Dawkins a break for a little while).

Thanks again.
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 7:05 AM on October 22, 2010

One Less Car by Furness
posted by aniola at 2:45 PM on October 22, 2010

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (2007) and/or Sources of the Self (1989)
posted by goethean at 3:10 PM on October 23, 2010

Wild at Heart by John Eldridge
posted by patriot329 at 8:26 AM on October 27, 2010

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