Give me the good books from the upper level courses' reading lists.
May 16, 2004 3:54 PM   Subscribe

I want to learn (nothing's that simple, keep reading)

I just finished a (required) college class about science and how it relates to society. It was basically a crash course in the history of science. I keep getting teasers like this. I got a brief bit of information about the history of rhetoric last term, I get little bits of history in art history and political science, but I want more!

I don't think I'm going to have much time to take classes just for the sake of learning next year, so I need books or videos to give me the knowledge I'd like to have. We watched at least eight James Burke videos in the class mentioned above, and that's really what spurred on this desire to learn all of this stuff I don't know about. I looked through the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy when it was posted in the thread about preparing for Jeopardy, and that's the kind of thing I'm looking for. I just want things that are more in depth than that, and maybe specialized in a certain area.

Things I'm most interested in are history in general (I know nothing, seriously), maybe some primers on different religions, science, and maybe some music (especially in the last 200 years or so) and art, hell, I wouldn't even mind some sports history, just to be well rounded. This seems kinda vague to me, but if there are good books, halfway between basic and technical, tell me about them! What, in your opinion, should everyone know about?
posted by evilbeck to Education (31 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
How long are you willing to spend with a book? The books I'm going to recommend tend to run long, but reward you with wide-ranging knowledge gained by comparatively little effort on your part:

--William Vollmann's Rising Up and Rising Down, which I've been reading for a couple of months now, and which I posted about in this thread. One thing that Vollmann is good at is explaning complicated historical conflicts in clear, concise prose--for example, because of this book I now have a reasonable grasp of the Yugoslavian conflicts of the 1990s (Kosovo, etc.), a subject that I'd never been able to get my mind around no matter how hard I tried. There are lots of short chapters on similarly difficult concepts like Marxism and Soviet collectivization, Julius Caesar's battle strategies, etc. It's all over the map, but it all holds together in the end. Plus Vollmann is just lots of fun to read.

--Eighteenth-century historians can often be pleasurable to read as well. I like Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (get the Penguin edition edited by David Womersley), and Prescott's History of the Conquest of Mexico and History of the Conquest of Peru. If you're unfamiliar with 18th-c. writing, don't worry: it's really close enough to 20th-c. writing so that you won't notice. And both Gibbon and Prescott are great writers--lively, and never dry.

--The Library of America has an excellent series of two-volume sets that recount major historical events through anthologizing contemporary newspaper reportage, and those books are good for people who are coming into a study of a particular era with little prior knowledge. Check out Reporting World War II, Reporting Civil Rights, and Reporting Vietnam. The Debate on the Constitution is another good one, but I found it to be really rough going (though worth the effort in the end).

I could go on and on about this question (and probably will, later, when I remember something obvious that I'm now forgetting).
posted by Prospero at 4:24 PM on May 16, 2004 [1 favorite]

great question. here are some books i enjoyed learning from:
art theory (ish)/history
holocaust experience/history/politics
free will/existentialism/historical
game theory
posted by andrew cooke at 4:29 PM on May 16, 2004

The Penguin History of the World is a pretty good overview of world history.
posted by cmonkey at 4:36 PM on May 16, 2004

another interesting world history (written by a freedom fighter while in jail - later he went on to lead the world's largest democracy)
posted by andrew cooke at 4:58 PM on May 16, 2004

I have my problems with Boorstin but I'd still recommend something like The Discoverers along with his other two books (Creators, Seekers) as an excellent and very readable history primer.

The recent bestseller A World Lit only by Fire, covering the end of the Middle Ages is also good.

I second The Penguin History although I browse through it, reading selected pieces, and so have read it all but not from beginniing to end.

If you havent read books like The Odyssey, do so now. It'll reward you in so many ways and the new Robert Fagles translation is really fun to read.

Get a book like Harold Bloom's The Western Canon. It will not only give you a good overview of whats important but also help you decide which books you want to invest time in reading.
posted by vacapinta at 5:04 PM on May 16, 2004

I have found the Variety of Life to be an excellant mid-level book on biology and evolution.
It strikes a good balance between entertaining and educational.

Also the History of Britain DVDs cover a lot of ground in an easy to follow way. It's a good framework for learning the history of other countries post-1000ad. ( I find them as enjoyable as the Burke DVDs, you do know those are available for purchase, right?)
posted by milovoo at 5:05 PM on May 16, 2004

For specific history subjects, the books in the "Modern Library Chronicles" series are uniformly readable, informative and erudite. Each book is written by an expert in the subject but intended for a general (informed) reader. They don't "talk down" to you like some of the "...for dummies"-type books, but they definitely aren't over your head if you've had a few college classes. I highly recommend them, though I've only read a handful. Here's the entire list.

If you're interested in the "classics" of literature, check out David Denby's Great Books.
posted by arco at 5:08 PM on May 16, 2004

Anything and everything by Carl Sagan, most especially Cosmos (the book or the documentary series, whichever you have easier access to) is perfect for the "history of science and human society" bit you've mentioned. I really can't easily describe the impact his books have had on me, as both a student and as a person. His writing is accessible and brilliant, I regret never having the chance to hear him speak.

Also: The Map That Changed the World, and by the same author, Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 if you have even the remotest interest in geology and/or earth science although this books spill into so many subjects. I really enjoy Simon Winchester, and I'd like the read more, he has the gift of turning what might be considered very dry but historically important subjects (the Oxford English Dictionary? What?!) into very real and dynamic reading.

Great question, I'll be checking out many of the above mentioned resources myself!
posted by nelleish at 5:15 PM on May 16, 2004

Oh, also The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius was thankfully one of the first Roman history books I ever read. It reads like it was written by a modern-day gossip columnist which is exactly what makes it so readable.
posted by vacapinta at 5:22 PM on May 16, 2004

The Dancing Wu-Li Masters is an excellent layperson's tour of quantum physics. No math required. I took a fair amount of science in college but still found it informative and challenging in a good way, especially concerning the conceptually difficult stuff like being in two places at once, etc.
posted by scarabic at 5:26 PM on May 16, 2004

British history that fits your bill includes Linda Colley's Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837; John Brewer's The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century; T. M. Devine, The Scottish Nation: A History 1700-2000; R. F. Foster, Modern Ireland: 1600-1972.

For literature, I'd suggest checking out the various "Cambridge Companions to..." Although some are too technical for non-specialists--the one on Victorian poetry comes to mind--they mostly offer high-quality introductory essays for general readers and undergraduates.
posted by thomas j wise at 5:43 PM on May 16, 2004

from dawn to decadence
posted by callicles at 6:18 PM on May 16, 2004

browse wikipedia until you're blue in the face. i read about an hour of it every night on any number of topics. yesterday it was the story of the hms bounty. today -- who knows?
posted by ruwan at 6:27 PM on May 16, 2004

Scattershot, but I recommend Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything (which is also available in an excellent audio version), Ken Burns documentaries (The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, etc.), Sister Wendy's art show, and anything by David Attenborough, especially the Secret Life of Plants and the Life of Birds.

For movies, just about anything in the Criterion Collection is worth a look and I can't recommend the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die highly enough. If you've an interest in movies, Easy Riders and Raging Bulls (the book and the movie) are fantastic and Peter Biskind's other book about filmmakers is also fun. A Decade Under the Influence is also worth a watch though is a little more of a puff piece for those involved. Film Art is a good introductory text to movies--in fact, it's generally the first book any film school theory department recommends. For a more personal and deeper understanding of the construction of movies, I recommend reading some Walter Murch. For a history of the industry, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood is superb, though I'd avoid the documentary of the same name.

To help you better appreciate drama/theatre/nature of story telling, there's David Ball's Backwards and Forwards (an excellent and brief text on dissecting drama) and these three books by David Mamet. Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment is also a must. James Ryan's Screenwriting from the Heart is an enlightening book about screenwriting and it's certainly the most unique and passionate book on the topic (there are a billion books on the subject).

For "contemporary" music, check out Please Kill Me or the writings of Lester Bangs.

David Macauley's books are great references (The Way Things Work, City, and Mosque), as is The Visual Food Encyclopedia.

Last but not least, I doubt you could find a better text on writing than Stephen Wilburs' Keys to Great Writing.
posted by dobbs at 6:54 PM on May 16, 2004

Is historical fiction acceptable? There are some good works out there, including Colleen McCullough's Roman history, Edward Rutherford's British history, and such others. Michener even, though I doubt his have quite the same historical authority.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:55 PM on May 16, 2004

russel's history of western philosophy is a good read - very opinionated and gives you an overview (somewhat personal) of the evolution of western thought.
the authority of law by raz is pretty obscure, but fundamentally altered my views on free speech.
george woodcock's anarchism is a classic introduction/history of, well, anarchism (not libertarianism, although sometimes i wonder).
j e gordon's books - new science of strong materials and structures - are brilliant.
said's culture and imperialism is another good book related to history/reading texts.
(i just went to my bookshelves picking out my favourites :o)
posted by andrew cooke at 7:06 PM on May 16, 2004

Doh! Forgot to plug Derrick Jensen's devestatingly good books.
posted by dobbs at 7:09 PM on May 16, 2004

oh, and one more - the extended phenotype by dawkins. the most kick-ass book on evolution evar.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:10 PM on May 16, 2004

Response by poster: Wow, thank you! I was just at my school's library and picked up a bunch of the earlier recommendations, and I come back to find many more. I can't wait to read some of these. Keep them coming!
posted by evilbeck at 7:53 PM on May 16, 2004

Well, you did say history, the following books involve quite a bit of history, but generally more on the history of particular ideas, I found them to be interesting and accessible and thorough while also providing enough technical detail that one would know how to pursue the subjects further. They are not textbooks, but explanations of principles in a different light. These are my pet subjects, but I found reading these books gave me a different perspective and a better understanding of the overall processes.

Godel, Escher, Bach is a fantastic, and fantastically difficult book that covers much of the intellectual developments in the 20th century. It weaves similarites in patterns through computing, game theory, mathematics, philosophy, biology, art (particularly escher), and music (particularly bach). Although quite a bit has happened since the original publication (1979), the second half of the book, devoted to artificial intelligence, is so far-sighted much of it has yet to play out. Also, it has a great sense of pacing, with a simple foundation that builds to a very coherent explanation of some extremely abstract concepts. Simple dialogs are used between chapters to illustrate the concepts in an accessible manner. You should be able to find a cheap copy in any used book store. (Metamagical themas is also quite good, but is a series of separate articles on a broad range of topics, it lacks the coherence of GEB).

In a similar vein, Berlinski's a tour of the calculus gives a fascinating history of the characters and developments that went into modern mathematics, as well as a solid overview of the concepts involved (basic calculus is not especially difficult, as he aptly demonstrates), an excelllent alternative to those who suffer from mathophobia or innumeracy. He also wrote the advent of the algorithm takes a similar approach to the development of processes and functions, from survival in early society to modern engineering.

And, of course, Dawkins has written quite a few books on the nature of evolution and society. I find him to be extremely lucid and articulate in explaining the details of concepts that people often choke on when trying to express, though I have heard other people say that he good ideas, but cant write worth a damn. Personally, I think it takes a certain knack to take academic subjects out of their isolated enclaves and present them in a manner that is easily understood. Also, he coined the term 'meme' (in The Selfish Gene).
posted by lkc at 9:08 PM on May 16, 2004

Guns, Germs, and Steel should be on everyone's list of books to read.
posted by whatzit at 10:16 PM on May 16, 2004

I'll put in a very strong second for "Godel, Escher, Bach."

And if you're really into the math history, you might check out an awesome-looking book I was thumbing through the other day, Leo Corry's "Modern Algebra and the Rise of Mathematical Structures," which concerns the evolution of some of the most important mathematics of the last two or three hundred years, from Group Theory (Galois et al. attempt to solve the Quintic) to Category Theory (a bunch of more recent wackos try to solve mathematics).
posted by kaibutsu at 10:17 PM on May 16, 2004

The Prize. History and Economics in one book.
posted by Kwantsar at 10:23 PM on May 16, 2004

Some of my picks:

An Incomplete Education - Broad but shallow book covering what a liberal arts education would teach you: literature, history, music, art, philosophy, etc. -- kind of a teaser, but you'll have a better idea what you might want to read up on next

A World of Ideas - Similarly broad but shallow book focusing on ideologies and philosophies, again useful for getting the lay of the land, and also for looking up references you don't get (it's in a dictionary format)

Vintage Guide to Classical Music - the history of classical music is the history of Western culture; this'll help you understand what you're listening to, and what you should listen to
posted by kindall at 10:33 PM on May 16, 2004

I've enjoyed the lectures presented by The Teaching Company . They're from real profs at major universities. My public library offers many of these on CD, so you might not have to plunk down the cash to listen. I'd recommend the American Civil War discs.
posted by herc at 10:37 PM on May 16, 2004

If you can find 'em, The Book of Lists (1-3) are wonderful for all sorts of out-of-context information. Or you could just pick up a couple of Trivial Pursuit games and memorize all the questions and answers...
posted by Guy Smiley at 11:13 PM on May 16, 2004

kaibutsu - can you describe that book in more detail? it's a bit expensive for a book with no amazon reviews, but it sounds tempting... what level is it aimed at? how much maths knowledge is assumed? does it read nicely? does it have pictures (seriously! - trying to get some idea what it's like)?
posted by andrew cooke at 11:47 PM on May 16, 2004

History: top of my list of recommends would be Robert Darnton's The Great Cat Massacre, for the way it gets you thinking about the past as a foreign country. It's short, it's accessible, and it seems to me to be just what you're looking for in terms of "specialized in a certain area" and "halfway between basic and technical".
posted by verstegan at 4:24 AM on May 17, 2004

The Dancing Wu-Li Masters is an excellent layperson's tour of quantum physics.

I've never heard anyone who actually knew something about physics say a good word for this book; it's full of misleading analogies and mystical gobbledygook. Not only that, it's almost a quarter-century old now. You can do much better.

I'll put in a plug for Plagues and Peoples by William McNeill, an excellent overview of history from the point of view of infectious disease, and The Encyclopedia of World History, a well-written reference work that gives you a summary of what happened in each part of the world at every point in history and is an extremely useful backup for more discursive works. (The latest edition goes up to the turn of the millennium.)
posted by languagehat at 1:08 PM on May 17, 2004

I was very much entertained and intrigued by Asimov's History of the World. It's a bit dated, and some things it says no longer align with contemporary majority opinion, but Asimov is a great writer and the book is a ton of fun to read. Beware - it's big and heavy.
posted by blindcarboncopy at 2:50 PM on May 17, 2004

« Older delicious airy chocolaty goodness   |   Who was the most unppular president in modern US... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.