Written by the historian, novelist, world traveler, caustic observer, and informal presidential advisor, The Education of Henry Adams was privately printed in 1907 and posthumously published in 1918 to great acclaim. It was a popular bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize. If you read nothing else, check out pages 17 to the top of page 19 (in the Modern Library edition) for a study in concision, empathy, and cutting criticism in his narrative portrait of his grandmother, “The Madam,” wife of John Quincy Adams and daughter-in-law of the “stern” and “efficient” Abigail Adams.
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The Varieties of Religious Experience was an immediate bestseller upon its publication in June 1902. James discusses conversion, repentance, mysticism, and fears of punishment in the hereafter—as well as the religious experiences of such diverse thinkers as Voltaire, Whitman, Emerson, Luther, Tolstoy, and others. The result is a book that encourages readers to ask new questions rather than feel that the old ones have been answered.
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Published to great acclaim in 1901, this memoir helped make Washington the most prominent black spokesman of his time. Washington vividly recounts his birth into slavery, his yearning for education, and his vision of an educational center for black students. A shrewd politician and a tireless promoter of the importance of education, Washington was devoted to advancing the cause of racial equality. On reading this classic autobiography, Langston Hughes noted, “[Washington’s] story of himself, as half-seen by himself, is one of America’s most revealing books.”
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Based on a series of lectures Woolf delivered at Cambridge in 1928, A Room of One’s Own argues that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of great books that could have been written by women—if they had been given the time, means, education, and space that have always been granted to men. A brilliant, early feminist text, Woolf argues for a woman’s right to create, rather than be relegated to the role of domestic angel or idealized beauty.
First published in The New Yorker in 1962, Silent Spring documented the many envirnomental problems caused by pesticides, from alarming mutations to cancer in human beings. As a result of Carson’s compelling argument, as well as public outcry, the U.S. government banned the use of DDT (a synthetic pesticide), and the EPA was formed. Sir David Attenborough (narrator of Planet Earth and other documentaries) believes that Silent Spring and The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin are the two books that have most changed the scientific world.
Witty, learned, and filled with quips like “It is a question of some nicety to decide how much must be read of any particular poet,” this collection of literary criticism from T. S. Eliot, the author of “The Wasteland” and other poems, provides insight into Eliot’s literary theory with essays on Seneca, Shakespeare, Dante, William Blake, and Charles Dickens. This is an insightful—if slightly academic—take on Western literary tradition by one of the most brilliant minds of the twentieth century.
The autobiographical account of the discovery of the structure of DNA, The Double Helix is unusual because of its memoir-like and colorful approach. Harvard University Press declined to publish it for that very reason, while other readers criticized Watson for dismissing Rosalind Franklin (whose data Watson used). Nonetheless, The New York Times said that “anyone seeking to understand modern biology and genomics could do much worse than start with the discovery of the structure of DNA, on which almost everything else is based.”
Written by the author of Lolita and Pale Fire, this memoir traces Nabokov’s life from his childhood up until his emigration to the United States. Nabokov describes his aristocratic background, his lifelong love of butterflies, his education in Cambridge, a young love affair, and meeting his wife, Vera, in his signature rhapsodic style. John Updike, author of The Witches of Eastwick and the Rabbit series, wrote that “Nabokov has never written English better than in these reminiscences. . . Nabokov makes of his past a brilliant icon—bejewelled, perspectiveless, untouchable.”
Published in 1919, this book defends American English as a language in its own right, instead of a perversion of British English. Mencken also celebrated the fact that American English was, despite the massive sprawl of the United States, a single dialect: “There may be slight differences in pronunciation and intonation—a Southern softness, a Yankee drawl, a Western burr—but in the words they use and the way they use them all Americans, even the least tutored, follow the same line. . . . A Boston street-car conductor could go to work in Chicago or San Francisco without running the slightest risk of misunderstanding his new fares.”
Keynes departed from classical economics by suggesting that a free market required government structure to operate efficiently. In doing so, The General Theory made economics and economists socially relevant and introduced the idea that economics and politics were intertwined. Keynes argued against the “long run” view of economics, quipping that “thislong runis a misleading guide to current affairs.In the long runwe are all dead.Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task, if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us, that when the storm is long past, the ocean is flat again.” In 1971, President Nixon stated: “We are all Keynesians now.”
What does the mitochondria do? How are men similar to giant clams? How does language affect science? Weaving together music, biology, and medicine, this collection of essays tackles these questions in an introduction to science that is also a pleasure to read. When it was first published in 1974, Joyce Carol Oates praised Thomas for his “effortless, beautifully toned style” and described Thomas’s essays themselves as “undogmatic, graceful, gently persuasive . . . insist[ing] upon the interrelatedness of all life.” The book would go on to receive two National Book Awards.
In this hugely influential essay, Turner introduced the idea that the frontier—from the first Puritan settlers to the pioneers—shaped American democracy. Turner suggested that Americans had essentially “evolved” from a more European mindset to a distinctly American one, and argued that this evolution was a product of the American population moving west. The frontier mindset was distrustful of centralized authorities and hierarchies, more violent, and less artistic—and that, Turner thought, explained a great deal about the United States.
Originally titled American Hunger, this book is an autobiographical account of life in the Jim Crow South. Renowned for its radical portrayal of the realities of African American life under the oppression of Jim Crow, Black Boy was an instant success, a landmark achievement that earned Wright an audience unlike any other African American writer of the time commanded. Wright’s powerful, pressing work foretold his eventual ascendance to being one of the most important American authors of the twentieth century, and paved the way for authors like James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lorraine Hansberry after him
A series of lectures on the essential parts of the novel, delivered in 1927 by the author of Howards End, A Room with a View, A Passage to India, Where Angels Fear to Tread, and others. Forster distinguishes between “flat” vs. “round” characters, discusses the importance of rhythm, and explains the difference between plot and story: “ ‘The King died, and then the Queen died’ is a story; ‘the King died and then the Queen died of grief’ is a plot.”
Shelby Foote’s tremendous, sweeping narrative of a war that lasted four long, bitter years begins with Jefferson Davis’s resignation from the United States Senate and Abraham Lincoln’s departure from Springfield for the national capital. These two leaders are only the first of scores of exciting personalities that in effect make The Civil War a multiple biography set against the crisis of an age. When the novelist Walker Percy read the final book, he wrote to Foote: “It’s a noble work. I’m still staggered by the size of the achievement. . . . It is The Iliad.”
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In this Pulitzer Prize–winning account, renowned historian Barbara W. Tuchman re-creates the first month of World War I: thirty days in the summer of 1914 that determined the course of the conflict, the century, and ultimately our present world. Beginning with the funeral of Edward VII and spectacularly peopled by the war’s key players, Tuchman’s magnum opus is a classic for the ages. The Chicago Tribune called it “more dramatic than fiction . . . a magnificent narrative—beautifully organized, elegantly phrased, skillfully paced and sustained.”
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When Isaiah Berlin died in 1997, one of his obituaries declared him “the world’s greatest talker, the century’s most inspired reader, [and] one of the finest minds of our time.” The Proper Study of Mankind brings together essays on everything from Machiavelli’s morality, Tolstoy’s theory of history, the meaning of liberty, and his own conversations with the great poet Anna Akhmatova. The New York Review of Books praised Berlin as the “everyman’s guide to everything exciting in the history of ideas.”
A collection of theological lectures delivered by Niebuhr in 1939, The Nature and Destiny of Man tackles the Christian concept of human nature, the powerlessness of man, and Christianity’s impact on human history. Delivered just before the outbreak of World War II, these lectures were so influential that Cold War containment policies and aspects of realpolitik can be traced back to them. Highly recommended for fans of ontology.
Written by the author of Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, Another Country, and The Fire Next Time, this series of essays confronts the issue of race in both the United States and Europe. Reviewing the collection for the New York Times, the poet Langston Hughes wrote: “Few American writers handle words more effectively in the essay form than James Baldwin. . . . I much prefer Notes of a Native Son to his novel Go Tell It on the Mountain.”
A faux-memoir told in the voice of Stein’s partner, Alice B. Toklas, the wryly titled The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is an account of life in the avant-garde and love on the Left Bank. The Autobiography became a runaway success for its portrayal of life as, and among, artists, invoking a cast of characters like Picasso, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald, which cemented its legacy as a classic account of an American in Paris. Hemingway called it a “damned pitiful book,” but many cherish it today as a testament of love to Alice, Gertrude’s enduring muse.
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William Strunk Jr. was a professor at Cornell University when he self-published a simple guide to American grammar in 1919. Decades later, Strunk’s former student E. B. White worked with Strunk to revise the text; the resulting book was published in 1959 and it swiftly became a revered guide to grammar and usage. Dorothy Parker quipped: “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”
Published in 1944 and nearly 1,500 pages long, An American Dilemma is a thorough study of race and democracy in America. Funded by the Carnegie Corporation and written by a Swedish American (in an attempt to find an unbiased author), the book details the many ways in which racism impedes African-American success and social mobility. Myrdal came to the happy conclusion that democracy would triumph over racism—and, while that day of ultimate triumph is still TBA, Myrdal’s book was cited in the landmark case of Brown v Board of Education.
A three-volume examination of formal logic, this text is most popularly known for proving that 1+1=2 and was hailed by the poet T.S. Eliot as “perhaps a greater contribution to our language than [it is] to mathematics.” Principia Mathematica created a new kind of mathematical notation—one that all mathematicians could use—as well as fostering connections between mathematics and philosophy. A fundamental text, but not a fun read.
Published in 1981, The Mismeasure of Man argues that the notion of an IQ—that intelligence can be accurately measured—is not only wrong, but often classist and racist. This book, part theory, part history of science, explores how the definition of intelligence has been shaped by unconscious bias and sloppy conflations of correlation and causation—effectively calling out scientists for limp reasoning and forcing their facts to fit their hypotheses. Gould reserved special scorn for The Bell Curve, a bestseller which argued that poverty was the result of inherited lower intelligence. Recommended reading for those opposed to eugenics.
A work of scholarly analysis, The Mirror and the Lamp explores the difference between eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English literature. The “mirror” is a metaphor for the eighteenth-century approach, which held that literature should reflect the real world. The “lamp” is a metaphor for the approach of the Romantics, who believed that the soul of the author should illuminate their work. If you’ve ever wanted to know how John Locke’s notion of mind-dependent secondary qualities influenced Wordsworth, this is the book for you.
Dubbed “the wittiest of all science writers” (Richard Dawkins) and “perhaps the greatest science writer of his generation” (New Scientist), Sir Peter Medawar won a Nobel Prize in 1960 for his work on skin grafts. The Art of the Soluble is a meditation on the joys of science that also compares scientists who prioritize data over hypotheses to “cows grazing on the pasture of knowledge.” Equal parts snark and brilliant observation.
Winner of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, this scientific textbook details everything you ever wanted to know (and then some) about ants. The Ants received rave reviews from nonscientists, with The Chicago Tribune calling it “a monumental achievement,” and The New York Times Book Review noting that “science is rarely good literature. The Ants is an exalting exception.” At 746 pages, it’s a long read but—if you like ants—a riveting one.
Regarded as the twentieth century’s most important work of political philosophy, A Theory of Justice explores how a modern civil society can be just and fair to as many of its citizens as possible. A Theory of Justice was widely reviewed and discussed when it was published in 1971, with many critics comparing it to the work of Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Writing in Civilization, Will Blythe praised “the simple carpentry of its arguments, its egalitarian leanings, and its preoccupation with fairness” and claimed that “A Theory of Justice is as American a book as, say, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
“Works of art are not mirrors,” Gombrich wrote, “but they share with mirrors that elusive magic of transformation which is hard to put into words.” Nevertheless, Gombrich tried to do just that in this exploration of how and why art changes over time. Blending the history of art with a scientific theory of perception, Gombrich writes crisply and clearly about a wide range of topics, including (but not limited to) Ancient Greek society, Renaissance art, and how artists develop style. A useful book if you’ve ever wondered why babies in Medieval paintings look nothing like babies in Renaissance paintings.
Published in 1963, Thompson’s book focuses on the working class of the Industrial Revolution: the weavers, artisans, and croppers whose collective class identity, he argues, was formed during this time. Thompson’s conclusions were highly controversial, since hypothesizing about the hopes and dreams of an entire socioeconomic class is tricky business. But by choosing to focus on the story of a class, rather than an individual with power and clout, Thompson changed how history is studied. An excellent book for readers interested in mass political identity.
When first published in 1903, The Souls of Black Folk redefined the history of the black experience in America and introduced the now famous “problem of the color line.” Today it ranks as one of the most influential and resonant works in the history of American thought. It was so contentious when first published that the Nashville Banner warned its readers that “This book is dangerous for the Negro to read, for it will only incite discontent and fill his imagination with things that do not exist, or things that should not bear upon his mind.”
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Regarded among philosophers as a revolutionary guide to ethics and logic, this knotty text defines right acts as those acts that produce the most good, and also states that “good” is indefinable. Filled with sentences like, “Philosophers are constantly endeavoring to prove that ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ will answer questions, to which neither answer is correct, owing to the fact that what they have before their minds is not one question, but several, to some of which the true answer is ‘No,’ to others ‘Yes.’”
A collection of eighteen essays by one of the most influential minds in twentieth-century education reform. Dewey wrote extensively about the importance of educating children in order to advance civilization, and feared that American philosophy was hampered by its reliance on borrowed ideas and borrowed institutions. Though copies are now hard to find, you might agree with the review in the January 1934 edition of The International Journal of Ethics, which declared this book “an imaginative delight.”
Written in 1917, this heavy tome—over 1,100 pages—introduced many readers to the field of mathematic biology. Examining everything from soap bubbles to molluscs to humans, Thompson explores how living things grow and, more amazingly, why they take a particular shape when they do. Scientists, architects, and anthropologists alike have all praised the book for its intellectual daring, though the science writer Phillip Ball noted that “like Newton’s Principia, D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form is a book more often cited than read.”
A collection of the essays, letters, speeches, and interviews of Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions provides a quick glimpse into the mind of one of the most brilliant men of all time. Discussing everything from classic literature to Marie Curie to explanations of general relativity, this book brings a reader into close contact with Einstein’s genius, his wide-ranging interests, and even his sense of humor.
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Winner of the 1946 Pulitzer Prize for History, The Age of Jackson was praised by The New York Times as “a remarkable piece of analytical history, full of vitality, rich in insights and new facts, and casting a broad shaft of illumination over one of the most interesting periods of our national life.” (It has since been criticized for failing to discuss slavery and the plight of Native Americans.) Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. would later serve as a Special Assistant to President John F. Kennedy and would win another Pulitzer Prize for A Thousand Days, his book about JFK’s presidency.
A character-driven narrative about the history of the atomic bomb, from the nineteenth century to Nagasaki, this nonfiction classic reads like a compelling novel (it opens with Leo Szilard, the scientist who patented the nuclear reactor, being grumpy about the rain in London). Isaac Asimov described The Making of the Atomic Bomb as “the best, the richest, and the deepest description of the development of physics in the first half of this century that I have yet read, and it is certainly the most enjoyable.” Could you wish for a better recommendation?
Born in 1892, Rebecca West was a British journalist, early feminist, and writer. The famously witty George Bernard Shaw claimed that “Rebecca West could handle a pen as brilliantly as ever I could and much more savagely” and President Truman called her “the world’s best reporter.” Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is West’s combined history and travelogue of modern-day Yugoslavia, based on a six-week journey she made in 1937. West dedicated the book “To my friends in Yugoslavia, who are now all dead or enslaved.” (The Nazis invaded Yugoslavia shortly after she left.) Larry McMurtry, the author of Lonesome Dove, wrote “there are only a few great travel books. Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is one.”
Autobiographies brings together six volumes of Yeats’s personal memoirs, each one detailing a different period of his life. From his Reveries over Childhood and Youth to his 1923 Nobel Prize lecture, the Autobiographies lay bare the inner thoughts of this famous Anglo-Irish poet. The Autobiographies do roam from subject to subject, but readers who are fond of Yeats’s poetry may be interested in gaining an in-depth understanding of the man.
Joseph Needham was a well-known historian and biochemist when he began working on this series of books in 1954. Over the course of fifty years and seven volumes (the most recent volume was published in 2004), Joseph Needham and his research team sought to understand the long history of Chinese science, mathematics, astronomy, nautical technology, mechanical engineering, windmills, aeronautics, civil engineering, metallurgy, botany, physiological alchemy, and printing. More textbook than beach read.
A classic of World War I literature that is a memoir of childhood and a farewell to the pre-WWI way of life. Graves’s honest account of trench warfare, which faithfully records the heroism and brutality of military life, was extremely unpopular with the reading public. One contemporaneous reader wrote to Graves: “You are a discredit to the Service, disloyal to your comrades and typical of that miserable breed which tries to gain notoriety by belittling others.”
A personal account of the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), written by the author of 1984 and Animal Farm. Orwell was thirty-three when he traveled to Spain to fight against the nationalist and fascist forces led by General Franco. Homage to Catalonia depicts the evils of both sides of the war, the filth and the grime, the idealism and the intrigue. According to the historian Raymond Carr: “The Spanish Civil war produced a spate of bad literature. Homage to Catalonia is one of the few exceptions and the reason is simple. Orwell was determined to set down the truth as he saw it.”
Dictated during the last years of his life, The Autobiography of Mark Twain is more like a transcription of a standup routine than a traditional memoir. Filled with scathing, winding anecdotes—many of which Twain did not want published until he had been dead for a century—The Autobiography is Mark Twain in exactly, precisely his own words, from his concerns about money to his dislike of Theodore Roosevelt and everything in between.
A Pulitzer Prize–winning series of interviews with American children, Children of Crisis focuses on how children of different ages, races, and social classes confront change and construct personal identities. In his attempt to “evoke, apprehend, and come to terms with the psychological realities of particular men, women, and children,” Robert Coles lived with the migrant workers, urban poor, and sharecroppers whose children he interviewed, and his study destroyed long-held stereotypes about these men and women.
Toynbee traces the rise and fall of nineteen different civilizations in this twelve-volume, 7,000- page work of history. Arguing that civilizations arise out of society-wide responses to challenges, Toynbee attempted to create a universal theory of civilizations, identifying and labeling different phases. The first volume was published in 1934, and the last in 1961; this monumental effort was hailed by Clifton Fadiman as the book “most assured of being read a hundred years from now.” (We’ll let you, the reader, be the judge of that.)
The Affluent Society tackles how the post-WWII American economy was making the rich richer, yet keeping the poor just as poor. Galbraith was a committed capitalist who also argued for a government willing to invest in roads, schools, and hospitals as well as businesses. Ultimately, Galbraith was interested in finding tailored solutions to large problems: “Where the market works, I’m for that. Where the government is necessary, I’m for that. I’m deeply suspicious of somebody who says, ‘I’m in favor of privatization,’ or, ‘I’m deeply in favor of public ownership.’ I’m in favor of whatever works in the particular case.”
A Pulitzer Prize–winning memoir by a former secretary of state and architect of government foreign policy during World War II, the beginning of the Cold War, and the Korean War. Foreign Policy revisited the memoir in 2017, writing that “Acheson stood like a ringmaster at the center of a complex diplomatic and political circus. . . . This is a must-read book not only for historians, but also for anyone interested in national policy, diplomacy, or military strategy. It is essential, especially today, to understand how America came to play the central role in the world, and the consequences of failure.”
The Great Bridge reveals the saga behind the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge: one of the oldest suspension bridges in the world and a beautiful feat of engineering. The Los Angeles Times praised The Great Bridge as “a book so compelling and complete as to be a literary monument.” Newsday wrote that The Great Bridge is “a stupendous narrative about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, with a cast of thousands (give or take 100), whose major characters come alive on the page as authentically, as creatively, as would their fictional counterparts if one had the imagination to dream up such a yarn.”
A survey of American Civil War literature, with thumbnail portraits of various novelists, poets, and diarists. Wilson read many forgotten memoirs and novels in an attempt to find the best Civil War literature—he wanted Northerners to read Southern literature, and vice versa. Wilson also included unknown writers, including women and some African Americans, in his survey. The result is a wide-ranging look at how the United States chronicled the Civil War.
The son of a bookseller, Samuel Johnson is considered one of the greatest minds in English history. He was a well-known critic, political commentator, and the author of Rasselas, and later A Dictionary of the English Language (which reigned supreme until the Oxford English Dictionary was published a hundred years later). Published in 1977, Bate’s biography of Samuel Johnson won an astonishing array of prizes: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. A marvelous book about a genius who literally defined the English language.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X is the “brilliant, painful, important” (New York Times) story of one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated and controversial figures. Malcolm talks frankly about his conversion to Islam, his fight against racism, his belief that “American society makes it next to impossible for humans to meet in America and not be conscious of their color difference.” Eloquent, brutally honest, and humorous, this book is as relevant now as it was when it was first published in 1964.
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Published in 1979, The Right Stuff contrasts the first astronauts (also known as the “Mercury Seven”) with the Edwards AFB test pilots. A portrait of the space age and a pulse-pounding look at daring pilots and courageous astronauts, The Right Stuff was called “an exhilarating flight into fear, love, beauty and fiery death” (People), “superb” (The New York Times), “breathtaking” (Los Angeles Times), and “the best book I have read in the last ten years” (Chicago Tribune). The 1983 film The Right Stuff, starring Sam Shepard, Ed Harris, and Dennis Quaid was based on this book.
Eminent Victorians debunks old myths of high Victorianism by revealing the chauvinism, hypocrisy, and not-so-stiff upper lips that characterized many of its heroes from the self-seeking ambitions of Cardinal Manning to the neuroticisms of Florence Nightingale. The famous mathematician Bertrand Russell read the book while he was imprisoned in Brixton for his antiwar campaigning, and wrote that: “I often laughed out loud in my cell while I was reading the book. The warder came to my cell to remind me that prison was a place of punishment.”
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Bestselling oral histories are rare, but when Working was published in 1974, it struck a chord with readers. A series of interviews with different workers, from parking attendants and gravediggers to prostitutes and brokers, Terkel explored what work means to the individual, and how our self-worth is often tied to what we do, and how we feel about what we do. There is little to no plot, but Terkel’s portraits of men and women are deeply moving.
A work of great personal courage and a literary tour de force, this bestseller is Styron’s true account of his descent into a crippling and almost suicidal depression in 1985. The author of Sophie’s Choice, Styron is perhaps the first writer to convey the full terror of depression’s psychic landscape, as well as the illuminating path to recovery. A short and incredibly powerful memoir of despair and inner strength.
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Published at the beginning of the Cold War, Trilling’s thoughts on Huckleberry Finn, the Kinsey Report, and F. Scott Fitzgerald challenged many commonly held beliefs of postwar America and had an immense impact on Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, Irving Howe, and others. Upon publication of The Liberal Imagination, Trilling became the United States’ most recognizable intellectual—a fact he hated. He wrote in a journal, “I have one of the great reputations in the academic world. This thought makes me retch.”
The Second World War is Winston Churchill’s six-volume memoir from the end of World War I to the end of World War II. Though this is a personal account, British law prevented many wartime files—as well as many top secret missions—from being openly discussed. As such, The Second World War is patchy in places, and far from objective in others; nevertheless, it is a chronicle of a crucial period, written by one of the key men of that era.
“In Africa,” Isak Dinesen would later comment, “I learned how to tell tales.” First published in 1937, this memoir is a reminiscence on the years the author spent living on a coffee plantation in Kenya. It is a nostalgic picture of African colonial life and the characters that populated it. Written after her return to her native Denmark, the descriptions of the Africa she knew are an evocative portrait of the country she had once called home.
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This massive six-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson was published over the course of thirty-four years: the first volume was published in 1948, and the sixth in 1982. Praised as a “masterly achievement of scholarship” by The New York Times Book Review, the book has fallen out of favor, due to its extreme length. Nevertheless, Malone’s dedication to his subject is remarkable: he lost his eyesight in 1977, but continued work on the biography for another five years. At over 3,000 pages, this is a daunting read but likely an exciting one for anyone who felt that Jon Meacham’s The Art of Power was too easy.
Published in 1925, In the American Grain was Williams’s attempt to “get inside the heads of some of the American founders or ‘heroes,’ if you will, by examining their original records.” Beginning with the Vikings and including Ponce de Lyon, Cotton Mather, Aaron Burr, and Abraham Lincoln, this unorthodox approach to U.S. history involves Williams writing as his heroes, in order to understand what being American means. Short but complicated, this is a thought-provoking take on U.S. history.
Subtitled “The American West and Its Disappearing Water,” this 1986 book explores the history of the American West through a single lens: the human demand for water. The most precious natural resource of all, water determines how cities grow, and which ones die—a fact that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Reclamation Bureau were keenly aware of. Ultimately, their efforts to control the flow of water continue to have serious long-term effects on water quality. Tales of corruption, price rigging, and “water wars” abound in this eye-opening book.
Written by the author of Alexander Hamilton, the National Book Award–winning The House of Morgan is the story of J. P. Morgan’s empire, from its beginnings as his father’s company to the crash of 1987. Along the way J. P. Morgan bailed out the United States government; his son helped finance World War I; and subsequent generations helped finance World War II and pioneered the hostile takeover. More than a story of a company, this is a guide to the key people and events of the twentieth century.
Named “The Greatest Sports Book of All Time” by Sports Illustrated, this collection of essays is a taut, beautiful homage to the sport of boxing. Written between 1951 and 1955, Liebling’s pieces covered some of the greatest fights of the twentieth century: Louis-Savold, Cerdan-Marciano, Ray Robinson-Turpin, Robinson-Maxim, and Marciano-Walcott, to name a few. Liebling created moving portraits of the boxers and their trainers, and paid attention to boxing lore and history. The result is a tribute to the golden days of American boxing.
A work of political philosophy that explores, among other things, the dangers of fascism, The Open Society raised eyebrows because Popper criticized Plato, Hegel, and Marx. However, Popper defended his argument by saying that his “motive was not, I hope, the wish to belittle them. It springs rather from my conviction that, if our civilization is to survive, we must break with the habit of deference to great men.” Upon its publication in 1945, Bertrand Russell praised the book as “a vigorous and profound defense of democracy, timely, very interesting, and very well written.”
The Art of Memory is a history of human memory before the printed page made storing and referencing information simple. What mnemonic systems and tricks did other civilizations use to remember information that we can jot down with a pen? The answers are surprising. For example, a Roman lawyer pictured a man lying in bed holding a cup in his right hand and the testicles of a ram in his left to remember details of a poisoning case. Other systems used puns, or a memory structure (ie, Sherlock Holmes’s “memory palace”) to store vast amounts of information. A groundbreaking look at what the human mind is capable of, sans paper.
This historical work argued that the rise of Protestantism made industrial organization possible in Europe. Indeed, two tenets that we now consider essential to modern capitalism—hard work and the importance of individuals—are foundational aspects of the Protestant faith. However, Tawney was no fan of capitalism, declaring that: “The revolt of ordinary men against Capitalism has had its source . . . in the straightforward hatred of a system which stunts personality and corrupts human relations by permitting the use of man by man as an instrument of pecuniary gain.”
Written in 1929, and addressed to the nonreligious, A Preface to Morals argues that humanist values—as espoused by thinkers like Plato, Confucius, and Buddha—are eternal, while religious values rely on outdated understandings of government, law, and social custom. Lippmann is renowned as a leading thinker of the twentieth century; he won two Pulitzer Prizes, helped found The New Republic, created modern journalism as we understand it, coined the term “stereotype,” influenced President Woodrow Wilson, and feuded with President Lyndon B. Johnson.
A history of the Chinese revolution told through the letters and testimonials of different Chinese authors and essayists. Foreign Affairs praised Spence for bringing “the past 100 years of the Chinese revolution to life with a novelist’s flair and an historian’s grounding in fact” and called the book “intellectual history of the first order.” Spence also includes women writers as well, bringing their often overlooked voices to the fore.
Before Kuhn, it was believed that science advanced by gathering data, with each new data point contributing to the upward trajectory of human knowledge. But Kuhn argued that scientific progress was actually dependent on short, explosive periods where scientists discarded old models, or “paradigms,” in favor of new ones. These revolutions, in turn, were dependent on social change. The idea that science could depend on irrational social forces was widely scoffed at by scientists. But Kuhn’s ideas have seeped into the mainstream, as evidenced by the fact that terms like “the Copernican Revolution” are accepted labels for periods of time.
Based on a series of lectures that Woodward delivered at the University of Virginia, The Strange Career of Jim Crow discusses the history of segregation. Woodward argues that Jim Crow was not an inevitable result of slavery, the Civil War, or even the Reconstruction era; the fact that Jim Crow laws were enacted in the 1890s, a quarter of a century after the Civil War ended, was part of Woodward’s proof. This slim volume (150 pages) was hugely influential when it was published in 1955, with Martin Luther King, Jr. dubbing it “the historical bible of the Civil Rights movement.”
Winner of the 1964 National Book Award, The Rise of the West examines how different civilizations rose, fell, and interacted with one another, and argues that these interactions contributed to the ultimate fate of said civilizations. Though this conclusion is taken for granted now, it was a new and startling conclusion when The Rise of the West was first published. Reviewing the book in The New York Times, Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote: “This is not only the most learned and the most intelligent, it is also the most stimulating and fascinating book that has ever set out to recount and explain the whole history of mankind.”
In 1945 an Egyptian peasant unearthed what proved to be the Gnostic Gospels, thirteen papyrus volumes that expounded a radically different view of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ from that of the New Testament. Early Christians dared to ask many questions that orthodox Christians later suppressed—and their explorations led to profoundly different visions of Jesus and his message. This exploration of the mysteries and beliefs of the first Christians won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and is still considered a landmark study of the long-buried roots of Christianity.
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Dubbed “the greatest literary biography of the century” by Anthony Burgess, this book “translates James Joyce’s books back into his life” (The New York Times). Affectionate, clear-eyed, and thorough, Ellmann reveals that understanding Joyce’s fiction is the key to understanding the man himself, and vice versa. An excellent book for people who have struggled with Joyce’s fiction, or who want to learn more about the genius compelled to write such groundbreaking (and frankly, pretty challenging) novels.
Published in 1951, Florence Nightingale is an authoritative biography that restored Florence Nightingale’s reputation (Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, also on the Modern Library list, had not treated Nightingale well). An Oxford-trained historian, Smith put her career on hold while raising her children, though she wrote potboilers on the side. As a result, Florence Nightingale is both well researched and very readable, and it transformed Smith into a respected historian and a bestselling author practically overnight.
The survivors of World War I produced great literature: All Quiet on the Western Front, Parade’s End, A Farewell to Arms, Goodbye to All That, Testament of Youth, Storm of Steel, and Under Fire, to name a few. The Great War and Modern Memory explores how and why World War I (called “the Great Fuck-Up” by the infantrymen who fought it) produced great art. Winner of the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, this is a rare example of culturally relevant literary criticism.
What is a city? Why has humanity—across time and different cultures—sought to create cities? Written by an autodidact who never earned a college degree yet became one of the twentieth century’s most renowned scholars, The City in History argues that language and communication, but not technology, are crucial to a successful city. The City in History, which won the National Book Award, is “one of the major works of scholarship of the twentieth century” (Christian Science Monitor).
This Pulitzer Prize–winning history of the Civil War era delves into the war and argues that Abraham Lincoln’s political acuity, and not the North’s larger population, was the deciding factor. Battle Cry of Freedom received rave reviews when it was published, with The New York Times writing: “[Battle Cry of Freedom] is the best one-volume treatment of its subject I have ever come across. It may actually be the best ever published. It is comprehensive yet succinct, scholarly without being pedantic, eloquent but unrhetorical. It is compellingly readable. I was swept away, feeling as if I had never heard the saga before.”
The published version of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” this book is one of the most important documents in United States history. Why We Can’t Wait is a personal account of the civil rights movement, an explanation of the decision to use nonviolent resistance, and a moving reminder of the sacredness of equality. Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. wrote, “No child should graduate from high school without having read this book. In telling the story of the third American Revolution, it is as integral to American history as the Declaration of Independence.”
Winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt tells the story of Roosevelt’s irresistible rise to the presidency: a story so prodigal in its variety, so surprising in its turns of fate, that previous biographers have treated it as a series of haphazard episodes. This book, the only full study of Roosevelt’s pre-presidential years, brings all of his characteristics together into an educational and genuinely entertaining story.
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Panofsky pioneered a multidisciplinary approach to art that stressed the importance of understanding art within its particular historical context. Studies in Iconology focused on Renaissance art, and Panofsky was able to unearth new symbols and elements that revealed hidden layers of meaning. Panofksy was, essentially, the real-life version of Robert Langdon, the “symbologist” of The Da Vinci Code.
The Face of Battle bluntly confronts the psychological toll of warfare on individual soldiers. Examining three famous conflicts—Agincourt in 1415, Waterloo in 1815, and the Somme in 1916—Keegan described what happens in the fever of war, from the physically disgusting aspects of combat to the shameful execution of prisoners. Keegan was described as “the best military historian of our generation” by Tom Clancy, and The Face of Battle is considered his best book.
Published in 1935, this book suggests that the British Liberal Party’s decline was caused by four separate rebellions before World War I. This thesis ran counter to the common belief that the Liberal Party died after World War I. The Guardian wrote: “This is no staid parliamentary history, it is a sweeping cultural interpretation of what Dangerfield sees as the death of Victorian rationalism and sobriety.” Great for people who want to read about British politics.
Written by a painter and a self-taught art historian, this biography of Johannes Vermeer was praised for its nuanced and loving approach to Vermeer’s body of work. Vermeer was not an especially successful painter in his lifetime; after he died, he was forgotten until the nineteenth century. Gowing’s approach blurred the line between an artist and the art he creates, and the result is a book that uses Vermeer’s paintings (Girl with a Pearl Earring among them) as a way into his character and elusive personality.
This story of U.S. Army Lt Col Paul Vann and his consistent opposition to the Vietnam War won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Vann was an early proponent of the war, but his time on the ground—where he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery during the Battle of Ap Bac—convinced him that the corruption of the South Vietnamese government and the United States’ refusal to change tactics would doom the war. The New York Times Book Review wrote that “if there is one book that captures the Vietnam war in the sheer Homeric scale of its passion and folly, this book is it.”
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Beryl Markham was the first person to fly nonstop from England to North America, and her memoir West with the Night chronicles her adventures and her drive to succeed. Her writing is so excellent that Ernest Hemingway raved about it to his editor, Maxwell Perkins: “Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West with the Night? . . . She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. . . . It really is a bloody wonderful book.”
Tobias Wolff’s memoir catalogues his travels with his mother as a teenager. Roaming the United States, the two grow closer as they try to stay one step ahead of Tobias’s abusive and sadistic stepfather. One critic marveled, “So absolutely clear and hypnotic is Tobias Wolff’s painful memoir of growing up in the 1950s that a reader wants to take it apart and find some simple way to describe why it works so beautifully. . . . Superb.” (Disclaimer: the Modern Library does not recommend disassembling books. We do recommend reading them, though.)
A Mathematician’s Apology is about the beauty of “pure mathematics” (math with no practical application). A Cambridge scientist who focused on prime number theory, Hardy believed that “a mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas.” Funnily enough, Hardy’s devotion to pure mathematics had a very real-world application when number theory was used to break the German’s Enigma code in World War II.
A collection of brilliant and accessible lectures by a Nobel Prize–winning theoretical physicist. Feynman was famous for his teaching ability, which earned him a reputation as “the Great Explainer.” While working at Cal Tech, though, Feynman became discouraged with how many bright students were dropping out of the physics program—so Feynman redesigned the curriculum and presented it himself to a test group of undergraduates. A great choice for readers who enjoyed Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics or Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.
This Pulitzer Prize–winning book is a meditation on life in Tinker Creek, Virginia, and an homage to Thoreau’s Walden. The nameless narrator roams the Blue Ridge Mountains, observing the wildlife around her and writing in a reverent, spiritual tone. William Deresiewicz commented: “Her field notes on the physical world are recorded as researches toward the fundamental metaphysical conundra… What, in other words—with crayfish and copperheads and giant biting bugs, with creeks and stars and human beings with their sense of beauty—does God have in mind?”
In The Golden Bough, Scottish anthropologist Sir James Frazer posited that all religions are based in a belief in magic. Frazer compared different cultures’ religions before coming to the conclusion that all societies transitioned from a belief in magic to a belief in a divine being to a belief in science. Although Frazer’s theory has fallen out of favor with contemporary anthropologists, writers as diverse as H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Graves, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway were influenced by Frazer’s then-shocking arguments.
Published thirteen years after Invisible Man, these essays were being praised as “Ralph Ellison’s real autobiography—in the form of essays and interviews—as distinguished from the symbolic version given in his splendid novel” (The New York Review of Books). The New York Times commented, “In the course of these pages, the portrait of a strong, reserved and honest man emerges . . . by reaching so far into himself [Ellison] reaches right through to the other side and fetches forth truths he could have got in no other way.”
The Power Broker is the Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of Robert Moses, the man who used his political connections and business acumen to shape New York City. Caro’s detailed take on this abrasive visionary is over 1,300 pages and is considered one of the most extraordinary biographies of all time. Even Jane Jacobs—who famously opposed Moses’s attempt to build a highway through the West Village in her book The Life and Death of American Cities—praised The Power Broker as “sheer good reading” and “an immense public service.”
Written as a series of mini-biographies, this 1948 book argued that all U.S. politicians were united—to varying degrees—by a common belief in self-help, competition, and free enterprise. Still, Hofstadter was critical about many of these leaders: His portrait of Thomas Jefferson reveals a brilliant if inconsistent thinker, and his take on Abraham Lincoln suggests a man motivated primarily by ambition. Hofstadter would win the Pulitzer Prize twice, once in 1956 and again in 1964.
Williams identified the United States as an imperial power long before such an argument was popular, and linked the U.S. history of expansionism to British political history—a controversial and important argument in 1961. For all its literary significance, the book is dense: one reviewer complained that Williams had “produced a volume so packed with erudite and obscure references and sesquipedalian words that it defeated one reader completely” (Kirkus Reviews).
The co-founder of the New Republic, Herbert Croly was one of the most famous and respected public intellectuals of early twentieth-century America. The Promise of American Life is an argument for a nation that, through education, unionization, and social welfare, provides all of its citizens with an equal shot at the American Dream. Theodore Roosevelt reviewed the book for a weekly magazine and proclaimed it “the most profound and illuminating study of our National conditions.”
In 1959, Truman Capote read a 300-word article in The New York Times about the savage murder of an entire family. Intrigued, he traveled to Holcomb, Kansas, to investigate with his childhood friend and fellow author Harper Lee. As Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, he writes with both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy. In Cold Blood grew out of Capote’s 8,000 pages of notes and interviews, and is the second-biggest-selling true crime book in publishing history.
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Janet Malcolm uses the Jeffrey MacDonald case—in which a doctor was convicted of murdering his pregnantwife and two daughters and which was turned into Joe McGinniss’s true crime bestseller Fatal Vision—as a launching-off point for exploring the journalist-subject relationship, which Malcolm argues is one of mutual manipulation.
Statistics saturate our conversations, our news, and our governments—but how, and why, did these numbers attain such outsize influence? Hacking argues that our belief in statistics reflects our attitudes toward randomness: Do we believe that randomness exists? Or do we believe that chance is merely ignorance of undiscovered laws of the universe? Although this book may not be for everyone, it did earn rave reviews from the American Historical Review and the Journal of the American Statistical Association (“very pleasant reading”). A book that has shaped how we talk about probability and our attitudes toward science.
Subtitled “A Journal of My Son’s First Year,” Anne Lamott’s hilarious account of being a single mother at age thirty-five was heralded as a “smart, funny, and comforting” (Los Angeles Times Book Review) story written by “a gifted novelist and journalist” (The Washington Post). Lamott, a former alcoholic, writes about the sleep deprivation, the moments of bliss, and the confusion that accompanies parenthood. The Chicago Tribune praised Lamott as “a wonderfully lithe writer. . . . Anyone who has ever had a hard time facing a perfectly ordinary day will identify.”
William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, was a prime minister of England best known as the political guide and close friend of the young Queen Victoria (there were rumors that she would marry him, despite their forty-year age difference). A politician who was bored by politics, Lord Melbourne nevertheless created a stable coalition of moderates. Lord Cecil’s two-volume biography (The Young Melbourne and Lord M) was heralded as “brilliant, beautiful, and utterly absorbing” by The New York Times Book Review and Cecil was dubbed “A historian of the heart” by L. P. Hartley.