If you had five books to educate yourself from start to finish, which?
September 13, 2018 7:12 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in how Abraham Lincoln self-educated with specific regard to the books he chose to do so. The common story is he got most of his education from "Euclid, Shakespeare, and the King James Bible." I'm want to read books that have extremely high auto-didactive value, that have historically been influential and preferably can instruct in more than one area. More follows.

In a high-information era I like to think in contrary directions, and consider how far you could get if you only had a handful of sources to educate yourself from, and if so, what those would be.

My historical example here is Abraham Lincoln, who only had 12 months of formal education. The rest he did on his own. The sources from which he educated himself could be summed up, at least synecdochally, as Euclid, Shakespeare and the King James Bible (52:26). (At minimum, he probably didn't have access to a personal library.)

In the case of Euclid, Harold Holzer apparently shows how great an influence Euclid's techniques of proof and developing axiomatic systems had on Lincoln's speeches, one in particular. (Summary blog post which refers to this book).

That leads me to an interesting question. If you had to limit yourself to a mere few books (say 5) to educate yourself with, which would you pick? Assume you get the above three books as well, so don't list those.

(I'd like to actually go read the books people give as answers - that's what I'm after.)

Books generally applicable are best - Euclid doesn't just give you geometry, it gives you logic; Shakespeare doesn't just give you a series of sonnets, it illuminates human nature. And so on. (Polya's How to Solve It would be a good response, probably, in the sense that it's about math, proof technique, but also problem-solving in general. Wide applicability.)

Field-specific books are ok, just, but only if they're field-defining and the standard reference over a long period - e.g. De Re Metallica, if you're looking to metallurgy.

Restricting yourself to 5 books is an interesting thought exercise, I think, though that's a maximum. Feel free to list one book.

Thanks fellow bibliophiles.
posted by iffthen to Education (24 answers total) 67 users marked this as a favorite

My quick winnowing-down would probably leave me with:

- The most comprehensive possible volume of the works of Samuel Johnson (so his dictionary + essays)
- The most comprehensive possible volume of the works of Voltaire (so his own dictionary + stories + essays)
- The most comprehensive possible volume of William Hazlitt's essays
- The most comprehensive possible volume of Guy de Maupassant's short stories
- The most comprehensive possible volume of the works of Ambrose Bierce (so, again, his dictionary + stories + fables)

Cheating even further and stretching it to six: the most comprehensive possible volume of George Orwell.

Yes, I fully recognise that this selection reveals a staggering predilection for white European (well, with one exception) men, which in turn opens the window on my own universe of ignorance and cis het white guy privilege, but in the interests of expediency, these were my immediate reactions based on the question.
posted by turbid dahlia at 7:46 PM on September 13, 2018 [4 favorites]

The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism.
posted by Buddy_Boy at 7:49 PM on September 13, 2018 [4 favorites]

Education to what end? My list is different if you're trying to use the term as broadly as possible, or if you want to be President some day, or if you mean in a more strictly academic sense.
posted by Wretch729 at 8:07 PM on September 13, 2018 [4 favorites]

Will and Ariel Durant's The Story of Civilization is 11 volumes, but it aspires to be a thorough history of the world. It's Eurocentric, but it at least recognizes that the concept of civilization includes non-western cultures.

Personally, I'd recommend La Rochefoucauld's Maxims and maybe Anna Karenina. Maybe also some G. K. Chesterton.

I'd also suggest The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey. For a book about tennis, it's actually a surprisingly helpful guide to life.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:14 PM on September 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

A university-level introductory textbook on anatomy and physiology would be worth your consideration. Elaine Marieb seems to be the leader in this area. Here's a link to her Human Anatomy and Physiology.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 8:16 PM on September 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

The Way Things Work Now
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:31 PM on September 13, 2018 [5 favorites]

Five Books has groups for different domains selected by specialists.
posted by bwonder2 at 8:51 PM on September 13, 2018 [7 favorites]

If I had to stick with only five books for a long period of time—selecting them for the educational benefit of total immersion in just those five books over x years, rather than for their entertainment or calming value—I would keep Lincoln’s complete Shakespeare and his Bible (the KJV is fantastic for style but you can get style from Shakespeare and so I would probably substitute a modern scholarly edition with proper footnotes), and add

- the Mahabharata (+Bhaghvad Gita as part of the deal)
- the complete works of Aristotle
- a comprehensive grammar book for any language other than my first language
posted by Aravis76 at 9:08 PM on September 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

Principia Mathematica?
posted by kalimac at 10:20 PM on September 13, 2018

Turbid Dahlia’s list is a good one, and I admire their courage going first. This is a daunting Ask. So, let’s highwire it a bit and avoid compilations. Let’s also note the caveats: my five will be poorly representative and they will reflect my limitations as a reader.

Jack London: The Sea Wolf. This is the classic Western mind/body conflict played out on the deck of a seal hunting sailing ship (I shit you not). Wolf Larson is one of the greatest tough man characters in American Literature, and he is bested by a San Francisco philosopher/literati and a brain disease. I would have picked London’s novel Martin Eden for this slot as Martin Eden is an autodidact, too, but shit howdy Wolf Larson. A good primer on the fundamental philosophical split going back to Athens.

John McPhee: Annals of the Former World. This is a giant book about North American geology. Giant. You will use it as a side table when you aren’t reading it, which won’t be often because it is full of life and sucks you in to it’s discussion of epochs and fossils. Only McPhee can make the conversation about stones a million years buried about the men and women who uncover them.

Karl Marx: Wage Labour and Capital. This is sort of an intro to Capital, but the major themes are here, and for this American reader, a good intro to continental theory via familiar Anglo concerns. This’ll make you work, but once you recognize it, the framework is applicable in so many ways, not least as a useful base from which to understand macroeconomics.

Okay that’s only three for now. During our last move I gave away all my books and now have nothing to browse to jog my memory. I’ll return with two more selections in the morning. I think I want to include Marquez’ Los Cien Anos, but I am concerned I am only doing so because it is so sweet and a favorite and similarly so for Saramago’s Blindness, and honestly I haven’t yet figured out how they fit my curriculum and I’m going to miss them if they don’t, so maybe sleeping on it is the best.

What a wonderful Ask!
posted by notyou at 11:50 PM on September 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

The Complete Essays of Montaigne (teaches you how to human)

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee (teaches you how to write) (see also these related articles: (a) The Mind of John McPhee: A deeply private writer reveals his obsessive process; (b) Assembling the written word: McPhee reveals how the pieces go together; (c) How Rebecca Skloot Built The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks)

Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley (teaches you how to design experiments, and good group decision-making techniques)

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish (teaches you how to empathize and communicate with other people)

(this list intentionally left incomplete - I keep thinking of Torture and Democracy or maybe The New Jim Crow, some sort of history and some sort of warning, but I'm not sure. And I'll strongly second How to Solve it.)
posted by 168 at 5:47 AM on September 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

Lincoln was a lifelong learner who was aggressively curious, constantly learning and so ostentatiously good at listening to people that part of it had to be a politician's performance but even so he was adjusting his own views, opinions and approaches right up to the end of his life. (I really like Foner's A Fiery Trial on this subject.) So for Lincoln at least I'd say the five book question was what he started with, not what he limited himself too. I can't imagine any five books that would leave you feeling educated unless they infected you with a truly severe case of Dunning-Kruger.

Which is sincerely meant but also a round about way for apologizing for my possible entry, Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy. Chapter length summaries of thought from pre-Socratics to the early 20th century, communicated through a lively, sharp, witty but not necessarily fair or reliable commentary.
posted by mark k at 7:03 AM on September 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Vulgar Errors by Thomas Browne
Complete Essays of Michel de Montaigne
Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Basho
A The Forager's Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants by Samuel Thayer (if you're in central or eastern North America)
posted by matthewfells at 7:18 AM on September 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

I would add to any history book What Happened on Lexington Green: An Inquiry into the Nature and Method of History. This book was absolutely life changing for me in terms of learning how to read and understand history.
posted by FencingGal at 9:16 AM on September 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

The "I Ching", (Chinese Book of Changes)
The "Tao te Ching", a Chinese classic text traditionally credited to the 6th-century BC sage Laozi.
The "Tibetan Book of Living and Dying", (I've already read the Book of the Dead, and this seems to be more comprehensive, so a continuation...)
The "Kabballah", Jewish book of Mysticism
The "Mahābhārata", in Sanskrit (which I cannot read)... is the earliest classical Sanskrit works on Ayurveda, from the 4th century BCE.

I know, it's an eclectic list...
posted by itsflyable at 6:48 PM on September 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

'Plutarch's Lives' is essential reading for old Classical era history. If you're a bit jaded, Gibbon's 'Decline & Fall of The Roman Empire' is hilarious. I luv Will & Ariel Durant, but it's a big pile of books, great stuff.

5 things in my desert island backpack:

A Brief History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (an overview of most sciencey things)
A History of God by Karen Armstrong (not just religion, but atheism and modern philosophy too)
A Shakespeare collection
A Bible (King James is the classic, but other versions are good)
Plutarch's Lives

(I'll leave out the Euclidian maths for now, I'll never figure it out)
posted by ovvl at 7:19 PM on September 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

How to Invent everything?
posted by blue_beetle at 7:25 PM on September 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

One place needs to go to one of the Stoic philosophers.

Whatever the other 3 choices were, and there are some great ones mentioned above, I'd have to go with one of these three for the final book: Spinoza (Ethics), Machiavelli (The Prince), or Solzhenitsyn (A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich).
posted by Calvin and the Duplicators at 1:49 AM on September 15, 2018

Marcus Aurelius Quotations
Theory and practice of group psychotherapy by Irving Yalom
Wage Labor and Capitol by Karl Marx
Back to Basics by the readers digest for practical skills
Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine
posted by SyraCarol at 6:19 PM on September 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations
Ovid's Metamorphoses
The Feynman Lectures on Physics
... I'll repost my last two... thinking...
posted by xammerboy at 9:05 PM on September 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh wow. Really great answers from everyone!

There's a few that I'd never have considered, so I consider this a successful Ask. (Montaigne, Maupassant, Norton Theory & Criticism, The Sea Wolf (fiction is fine), Vulgar Errors, What Happened On Lexington Green, McPhee, History of God, and the pointing in the direction of anatomy/physiology are exactly what I was after.)

I'm aiming in the direction of academic / personal / self-sufficiency education, but self-education *to work in a particular field* (like medicine or botany) is fine too.

I'm not so much asking about how to educate a president, but on that note, I have two recommendations (I think Obama read The Power Broker at some point)

The Power Broker, Robert Caro

This is about Robert Moses, a New York City official and how he accumulated and wielded an enormous amount of power, despite being unelected.

Caro also wrote The Path to Power, about Lyndon Johnson's early life; Means of Ascent, Master of the Senate, and Passage of Power are all about his subsequent career. It's said that the US Senate functioned like it was designed only during Johnson's presidency, with his bullying and manipulations.

Principia Mathematica (Russell's and Whitehead's) is a good recommendation for math.

Gödel, Escher, Bach is a good one-book recommendation for Computer Science.

As for Lincon's ongoing education - mark k, I'm trying get book recommendations of the highest possible quality, and to help with that I've introduced a (somewhat) arbitrary restriction. The five-books-only constraint helps with the quality, I think.

Also - fivebooks.com seems to have disappeared. Does anyone know what became of it?
posted by iffthen at 7:00 PM on September 16, 2018


It's still there.
posted by xammerboy at 7:47 PM on September 17, 2018

Thanks, it didn't resolve yesterday but that must be on my end
posted by iffthen at 7:54 PM on September 17, 2018

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