This page will be a quick run-down of some books that I would recommend!
The first book I always insist someone should read if they are interested in philosophy is Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. This book ranks right at the top in terms of impact on my way of thinking. Before I read this book, I had only a little experience with philosophy. I had given Friedrich Nietzche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra a once through but I did not quite see what all the fuss was about (since the book is perpetually lauded by many as a great book). One day, after a discussion on Nietzsche had me wanting to understand the topic of philosophy better, I picked up Russell’s History on a whim. Each chapter in the book covers a major period of thought and specific individuals. I first started with Nietzsche but ended up going back and reading the book cover to cover. I will admit it was a very arduous experience for me since my brain had a tough time coping with some of the more jargony or esoteric aspects of philosophy (some ideas found in philosophy really do require a whole new way of thinking about the world). But, in the end, I think it was a watershed moment for my views on life and the world. Non-fiction books, in my experience, can attempt to do one of two things. They can give you knowledge of the world (like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time would) or help you to better understand the world. This book, undoubtedly, falls squarely in the latter category of non-fiction.
Additional (non-comprehensive) list of philosophy books I would recommend: Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy (another secondary source of philosophy), Plato’s The Republic (a classic that needs to be read!), The Classics of Western Philosophy edited by Steven Cahn (an anthology of primary works), Baruch Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise (though I would wager most Spinoza students would say to read his Ethics first), Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile (not only an interesting take on education but on society as well), Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (a devastating indictment of higher education by one of America’s best political philosophy minds), and Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly’s All Things Shining (a recent book covering the challenges of secularism in the modern world).
Writing a brief recommendation list about a field so sweeping and massive in scope is a fool’s errand. Instead I will simply mention some of the recent history books I have read that I found fascinating. Before I do so, I should mention that I have a particular fondness for ancient Greek history, of philosophy, science and math, and education. So if you see those themes recurring in my reading suggestions, well… you have been forewarned!
Of the ancient Greek books I have (those required for my studies and those for fun), I thought Thomas Martin’s Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times was a brilliant read given the page length (I think it clocks in somewhere around 280 to 300 pages?). For such a topic that many students still find room to write 200-page dissertations on, Martin does an excellent job in staying focused on some of the principle events and ideas that altered Greek history.
An author that I wish I have read more by is Gordon Wood. I recently read his book The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. The title is undoubtedly an attempt to be compelling given Franklin’s place among the founding fathers. Yet the title is, given Wood’s analysis of Franklin, extraordinarily apt. Wood’s paints a picture of the founding father as a passionate young man who strives with one ambition in mind: to hold public office in the English government. While I may be stretching a bit of his conclusions, Wood’s take on Franklin leaves the founding father looking much less heroic and noble than many of the fantastic stories about him have made him out to be. But I think this is a good thing for Franklin’s lasting impression on American history. He is a good analogy of America. He is human, fallible, but supremely ambitious and innovative. Perhaps his ambitions led him astray or left him bitter when they could not be fulfilled, but it is the human aspect of his character that makes his biography a bit more charming if he was otherwise cast (as is common) only as the self-made gentleman, brilliant scientist, diplomat, and political philosopher that so many other historians have distilled him as without giving time to the human being beneath the legends.
This book may very well be more appropriate in the philosophy section, but seeing as how it does more to tell the famous meeting of two the world’s most eminent philosophers of their time (Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Liebniz), I think this may be a more suitable category for the book. Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and the Heretic is an interesting read on the lives of both Spinoza and Liebniz, their widely divergent (yet both rationalist) philosophies, and the supposed influence one had on the other. While some argue that Spinoza had little, if any, influence on Liebniz, the evidence Stewart gives is at least compelling. Despite the controversy in this aspect of the book, the story is very interesting for those interested in the history of thought and the tale of two very influential thinkers. While Liebniz is arguably intellectually superior to Spinoza, Spinoza does proffer a much more “sublime” (to use Russell’s characterization) philosophy. For those not familiar with either, Liebniz is the co-inventer (or discoverer depending on your views) or calculus and the developer of monadology (an abstract, highly mathematical approach to rationlist philosophy). Spinoza, while similarly rationalistic and still somewhate mathematical in his approaches, is more concerned with morality rather than metaphysics. While Spinoza’s writings are indeed concerned with metaphysics, they are in place to motivate action and belief rather than to complete the system (as may be Liebniz’s intent with monads and his oft-ridiculed conclusion that “this world is the best of all possible worlds”). If any of this seems somewhat interesting to you, please read Stewart’s book! I am certain I have not done his book as much justice as it deserves.
SCIENCE and MATH
As I mention on my “About” page, I am a bit of a sci-fi nerd. I believe I had read other sci-fi books prior to Frank Herber’s Dune but none captured my imagination like this book did. Dune is a story so sweeping, epic, and literary in its telling that much of the sci-fi aspects can be foregone and it would remain just as entertaining. I believe there are some other novels like this that transcend the genre and garner much larger audiences (such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings triology). One of the main attractions to the story is undoubtedly the political intrigue that the entire story is embroiled with. The power struggles, deception, and outright battles fought at enormous stakes to everyone involved is downright Shakespearean. Indeed, it may be apt to call this sci-fi done Shakespeare. Anyhow, if you find yourself inclined to read some sci-fi and have no yet readDune, I cannot recommend it more. Also, if you have read and enjoyed it you must readDune Messiah(the second book in the series). I will not suggest you read any further unless you are truly dedicated and enthralled by the story because it starts getting stranger and weirder which has, I have heard, turned off many fans of the first two books.
Another book series which I thoroughly enjoyed was Gene Wolfe’s Latro in the Mist. This book is a historical fiction with elements small elements of fantasy. As fans of the author may already be aware, Wolfe utilizes the unreliable narrator in several of his stories. You are never quite certain what the truth of the matter as the narrator either implies some discrepency between what they are recounting or there is an explicit inconsistency in the story. Latro tells the story of a roman mercenary (Latro) who suffers a head wound and no longer remembers who he is. His problems are compounded by the fact that once he falls asleep he loses all his recent memories from the previous day. Latro wanders around, groping for some semblance of direction and understanding of the things happening around him, and only able to make progress by consistently writing down each day’s events on a scroll he carries with him so that he may read and remember the next day. More disturbing yet are the visions he is having of godlike beings which no other person can see. These may simply be his hallucinations due to his head wound or he may in fact have the ability to see the ancient gods of the Greek world. Throughout the story he is manipulated both by fate and by the people around him that leads him on an adventure through the ancient Greek world.
Other fiction books I would recommend include many more Gene Wolfe books! Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun is excellent series as well as his books Pirate Freedom and An Evil Guest. Philip K. Dick’s Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, Valis, Ubik, and A Scanner Darkly are all great. Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho is very dark and disturbing but still hilarious and thrilling at other parts. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is a great fantasy satire which, in normal Gaiman fashion, is as hilarious as it is dark. I cannot say much for 2001, but Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendevouz with Rama is an excellent short read. For some pulpy scifi stuff, I would recommend Issac Asimov’s I, Robot (his Foundation series is much lauded by fans, but unless you are really interested in “hardcore” sci-fi, I would recommend staying away from this series), Robert Heinlen’s Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers, Roger Zalazny’s Damnation Alley, and Robert Silverburg’s Tower of Glass. Last, but certainly not least, a book that I can never overstate as being a thoroughly enjoyable and profound read: George Orwell’s 1984. While it is always mentioned in lockstep with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s classic is truly a head above those in terms of literary skills as well as the profoundness of the story. It is no wonder that so many people rip Orwell’s 1984 off.