What Books Should You Read?
If you care about reason, truth, or your life, you should read the books of humanity’s smartest thinkers. But which ones? People get frustrated because many “great books” they’re told to read are actually bad. Other “great books” have historical importance but are surpassed by modern books. Reasonable people often give up and conclude that intellectual books are boring, impractical and false.
I’ve read extensively to find out which books offer the most value to learn from today. And I’ve debated extensively to find out which ideas are true or false. While you’ll have to judge for yourself, I can point you in the right direction.
If you want to understand the world, you’re better off reading these books than going to university.
Note: It’s very easy to misunderstand books you read. And a misunderstanding on page 2 can lead to a further misunderstanding on page 5 which causes another misunderstanding on page 8. You should expect to form over 100 misunderstandings per book-about-ideas you read alone. To do better, discuss books as you read them (don’t wait until the end of the book). Join the Fallible Ideas discussion group and share what you’re learning. The helpful membership has people who already understand these books and can offer corrections.
Note: If you don't like a book, stop reading it. Ask a question about it, share a criticism, or try something else. If it's too difficult, stop reading and seek help or try something else. Reading books you don't like, or don't understand, won't help you. Book recommendations are a starting point, but it's up to you to evaluate the book for yourself after you've read some (specifically evaluate its value to you, right now, not its value in general).
I made a video introducing the reading list:
Green text indicates a link. Click on a book to get it.
If you haven’t read these, you aren’t in a good position to have productive, intellectual discussions. You should be familiar with humanity’s best ideas if you want to have educated views or contribute anything. Without putting some effort into learning about reason, you shouldn’t expect to be good at it.
Ayn Rand (1905-1982) (summary) was the greatest philosopher. Her philosophy is called Objectivism. Her specialties include reason, morality, liberalism (freedom and capitalism), individualism, self-interest, productivity, objectivity, art, and writing. She explained the power of ideas.
Rand explained great ideas and also criticized bad ideas such as socialism, environmentalism, pragmatism, altruism, mysticism, collectivism, skepticism (denial humans can know things), and idealism (denial the world is real). You are making many of these mistakes without realizing it.
You should read all of Rand’s books. Below I highlight her very best work.
This novel is about how ideas affect a country and individuals. It has major lessons for politics (limited government), economics (capitalism), and how to live your life (productively, heroically, rationally). It reveals how good men support and enable their own destroyers. It’s the best book ever written.
This novel is about having your own individual self. Don’t let memes and other people’s judgements rule your life. Have integrity, don’t compromise. If you think that sounds easy, I can guarantee that you’re failing at it, and you desperately need this book. If you think it sounds hard, good, now read the most helpful book about it.
Chapter: The Ethics of Emergencies
Rand explains how to deal with emergency situations, and why they shouldn’t be central to moral philosophy.
Chapter: The “Conflicts” of Men’s Interests
There are no conflicts of interest among rational men. This means you never have to fight with people. No one ever has to lose for you to succeed.
Chapter: Doesn’t Life Require Compromise?
Compromising is dangerous. Rand explains when not to compromise, and why.
Chapter: How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?
Pronouncing moral judgment is key to maintaining one’s integrity in an irrational society (including every society today). In summary: “Judge, and be prepared to be judged.”
Chapter: Philosophy: Who Needs It
Everyone needs philosophy. Everyone has philosophical ideas. Your only choice is whether you consciously consider and choose your philosophy, or you passively and uncritically pick up ideas from your culture.
Chapter: An Untitled Letter
Rand does a close reading of a New York Times article and their book review of A Theory of Justice by John Rawls. Rand reveals techniques being used to spread irrational ideas and traces them back to Kant.
Chapter: The Anatomy of Compromise
Compromising on principles helps evil and irrationality. Rand summarizes with three rules, which the chapter explains:
- In any conflict between two men (or two groups) who hold the same basic principles, it is the more consistent one who wins.
- In any collaboration between two men (or two groups) who hold different basic principles, it is the more evil or irrational one who wins.
- When opposite basic principles are clearly and openly defined, it works to the advantage of the rational side; when they are not clearly defined, but are hidden or evaded, it works to the advantage of the irrational side.
Chapter: The “Inexplicable Personal Alchemy”
Young, “independent minds” are “perishing in silence, unknown and unnoticed”. They are destroyed by a “cult of irrationality” including our “academic and cultural Establishment”. Rand discusses the grave problem.
Chapter: How to Read (and Not to Write)
Rand does a close reading of a New York Times editorial, and highlights some typical anti-reason writing. Learning how to read closely is one of the best skills you could develop.
I no longer recommend reading David Deutsch. I discovered that he wrote many misquotes. I also realized that his books were worse than I thought. They don't explain ideas in enough depth, which I didn't see clearly because I filled in the missing information by having conversations with David. I'm leaving this section here for the record. I don't like to delete information, but I retract it.
David Deutsch (1953-present) is physicist and philosopher. His books contain concise explanations of Popperian epistemology. I suggest reading Deutsch before Popper, and I recommend reading FoR before BoI. The main chapters discussing Popperian philosophy are FoR ch. 1, 3-4, 7-8 and BoI ch. 1-4, 10, 13. All the ideas fit together, so I recommend everything (except the time travel and singularity parts in FoR).
Deutsch’s first book connects four major topics: the philosophy of knowledge, evolution, the theory of computation, and quantum physics. Learn about how to think rationally, while also finding out about parallel universes, virtual reality, life, universality, and how to know what’s real (and how to refute solipsism). Deutsch explains that all our ideas can be mistaken – even mathematical “proofs” – and how to handle that.
Deutsch writes about reason and where it can lead: unbounded progress. He covers topics like science, universality, artificial intelligence, beauty, and voting systems. But what’s most important is the underlying philosophy and the explanations of how knowledge is and isn’t created. Deutsch also presents his breakthrough idea about rational and anti-rational memes.
Karl Popper (1902-1994) (summary) was a philosopher of knowledge and science. He also did great work on ancient Greece and mixed work on political philosophy.
Popper made a huge philosophical breakthrough. The philosophy of knowledge (epistemology) was stuck since Aristotle. Popper identified, and corrected, the major errors which were leading everyone to dead ends for over 2000 years.
The errors include induction (the myth that we learn by extrapolating general patterns from observations), justificationism (including the claim that ideas can be supported by arguments and evidence), strong empiricism, and the skepticism/infallibility false dichotomy (Popper offers a third way: fallible knowledge).
Popper’s solution is that fallible knowledge is created by trial and error. This is evolution, literally, in the form of guesses and criticism. Thinking involves replicating ideas with variations, and criticism performs selection.
The quality of Popper’s writing varies for two main reasons. First, he made such a huge breakthrough that he was unable to understand all of it immediately. His later work explains it better, and he didn’t finish considering all the implications during his lifetime. Second, Popper made mistakes, especially in political philosophy.
So I don’t recommend reading Popper’s books cover to cover. Instead, I present the specific chapters to read. His other writing contains tons of value, but it’s harder to learn from.
Part 1, Chapter 1, Sections 1-4
Popper addresses the problem of induction. He explains that we can sort out good and bad scientific theories just by criticizing the bad ones. We don’t need, and can’t have, an additional process to support or justify good theories.
Chapter: Conjectural Knowledge: My Solution to the Problem of Induction
Popper summarizes his epistemology and philosophy of science. He refutes induction (including the myth that people use inductive thinking even though it doesn’t rationally work) and explains the growth of scientific knowledge.
Chapter 2, Section 34: Summary: A Critical Philosophy of Common Sense
The chart concisely clarifies how Popper differs from other philosophers. The rest of the chapter is good but difficult, so save it for later.
Appendix: The Bucket and the Searchlight
The bucket theory of knowledge says people are passively filled up with information like sense perceptions. Popper advocates the searchlight view: people must actively make choices about what to pay attention to, and seek out solutions to problems in a goal-directed search.
Introduction: On the Sources of Knowledge and of Ignorance
Truth is never obvious. You can’t understand the world just by looking at it. You have to make guesses about the truth and criticize them. And ideas must be judged by their content not their source. Instead of trying to get knowledge from good sources, Popper emphasizes the question, “How can we hope to detect and eliminate error?”
Chapter: Back to the Presocratics
Popper connects his ideas to the early Greeks. Topics include fallibility and criticism. Popper is the best commentator on the Presocratics because he’s not in the tradition of Plato or Aristotle, and neither were they. (This chapter is also in The World of Parmenides.)
This is a two-book set (here’s volume 1) in which Popper replies to critics. 33 philosophers wrote essays. Popper’s replies are in part 3 which is in the second volume.
Part 3, Chapter 3, Sections 13-14: My Solution of Hume’s Problem of Induction, The Psychological and Pragmatic Problems of Induction
Popper explains his solution to the problem of induction, which he calls the problem of human knowledge. Induction is logically invalid and unjustified. And it’s a myth that anyone has ever thought inductively. Induction isn’t necessary or even useful to rescue or defend. People’s actual thinking works in a different way.
Introduction: Aristotle’s invention of induction and the eclipse of Presocratic cosmology
Popper discusses knowledge. Excerpt:
This is the main reason why I do not like Aristotle: what to Plato is a scientific hypothesis becomes with Aristotle epistēmē, demonstrable knowledge. And for most epistemologists of the West, it has remained so ever since.
Chapter: The Myth of the Framework
Discussing disagreements between people with very different perspectives can be productive and is important.
Popper’s Second Best
Chapter: On the Theory of Democracy
Democracy is a way to remove bad leaders and policies. But thinking of democracy as “rule by the people” is authoritarian. Popper also criticizes proportional representation.
Chapter: The Unknown Xenophanes
Popper looks at what problems historical thinkers were trying to solve, and what solutions would have made sense to people at the time. He focuses on good explanations instead of literal translations. Popper’s analysis of Xenophanes illustrates his historical method and discusses some of his own views.
Chapter 2, Addendum 2: Some Principles For A New Professional Ethics Based On Xenophanes’ Theory Of Truth
There are no valid intellectual authorities. It’s impossible to avoid all mistakes, but we should constantly make a large effort to avoid and fix mistakes. A self-critical attitude is crucial, and criticism from others is necessary too.
Chapter: Concluding Remarks On Support And Countersupport
Popper gives a disproof of induction with difficult math. He also discusses the general issue of Socrates and Aristotle.
Chapter: The Rationality of Scientific Revolutions
Science is an evolutionary process which creates knowledge by variation and selection. Evolution selects genes that create copies. Scientific knowledge is better because ideas are selected by whether they solve problems.
Chapter: On the So-called Sources of Knowledge
No source of knowledge should be treated as an authority. They provide ideas that should be judged by whether the ideas solve problems.
Chapter: Epistemology Without a Knowing Subject
Knowledge can exist outside of minds, e.g. in books.
Chapter: Science: Conjectures and Refutations
Popper discusses his epistemology.
Chapter: The Nature of Philosophical Problems and their Roots in Science
There are real philosophical problems which arise from problems outside philosophy.
Chapter: Three Views Concerning Human Knowledge
Popper criticizes different ways of understanding human knowledge (essentialism and instrumentalism) and explains how reason works.
Chapter: Towards a Rational Theory of Tradition
Traditions are a starting point that can be improved by pointing out problems and suggesting solutions.
Chapter: Utopia and Violence
Popper contrasts reason with violence, and argues against utopian thinking.
Part 3, Chapter 1, Section 2: The Popper Legend
People have spread myths about Popper’s views. Popper corrects some misunderstandings.
Ludwig von Mises
Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) was a liberal (pro-freedom, pro-capitalism) Austrian economist. He is the greatest economist we’ve ever had, and he wrote amazing political philosophy. Read his books (mises.org, Amazon) starting with his best books (listed below).
What if you’re not very interested in politics and economics? Economics is for everyone, similar to science. Not everyone needs to be an expert on science or economics. But basic familiarity with the scientific mindset and methods is good for everyone. It gives you a valuable perspective on the world. Scientific thinking helps you avoid superstition, and have some rough idea of what’s going on with all the advanced technologies in the world. And learning about science lets you find out about evolution, find out the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, learn what a star is, understand the concept of microscopic bacteria, and realize that many facts about the universe are counter-intuitive. It’s also good to have heard of randomized double-blind trials, placebos, sources of error, and rejecting any hypothesis which contradicts experiment. It’s worthwhile understand that a lot of hard, precise work goes into figuring out science, which is worthy of respect, and that you shouldn’t contradict science lightly.
The value of knowing how economists think is similar to the value of knowing how scientists think. It gives you a new perspective on the world. You can see how to rationally analyze the consequences of actions (instead of relying on good intentions). You can learn about sunk costs, comparative advantage, specialization, division of labor, the broken window fallacy (behind which are selective attention and the seen and unseeen), negotiation, insurance, pricing and investing. You can understand what money is, how capitalism, trade and business work, and the mindset behind how to rationally analyze these matters. And economics enables thinking well about incentives, risk, and purchasing decisions.
This short book is a great explanation of liberal thinking.
Mises’ 1944 book explains liberalism, statism, nationalism, the Nazis, and related European history.
Mises’ masterpiece extensively covers basic and advanced economics. That doesn’t just mean money and business, it includes rigorous study of all human action.
This short book discusses why people dislike capitalism.
If you want to understand what’s wrong with socialism – including why it’s literally impossible for it to work economically – read this.
These amazing thinkers are better than more famous names.
William Godwin (1756-1836) (summary) is the best thinker you’ve never heard of. Only two thinkers from before 1900 are still important reading today in order to learn good ideas (rather than for historical interest). Everything else has been written better by a more recent author like Rand, Mises or Popper. Godwin is still relevant because he was over 200 years ahead of his time! Though, unfortunately, Godwin’s old writing style can be difficult reading.
Godwin was a classical liberal writer with insight into government and society. And he was extraordinarily rational in his pursuit of truth. He remains one of the only liberals to actually believe that liberal principles should be applied to all human beings – even children. (John Locke, for a contrasting example, thought “liberty … can do no good to children”.)
Godwin understood that using aggressive force is irrational. He pointed out that people use persuasion when they can, and resort to force when their arguments are inadequate.
Godwin’s best book masterfully applies rational thinking to broad political philosophy issues. This is the best book from the Enlightenment. For example, Godwin solved the nature/nurture problem in one chapter, with correct arguments, before science had much to say on the matter. (Most people today either consider the problem unsolved or have the wrong answer. The correct answer is nurture, not major influences from both.)
These essays cover various topics. In particular, Godwin is the only thinker to have good ideas about parenting and education before David Deutsch developed Taking Children Seriously in the 1990s. (Parenting is the topic people are worst at because it’s most important to the spread of ideas. That means parenting anti-rational memes faced the strongest selection pressure and became the most advanced.)
Godwin wrote lots of books, but only some of them have modern relevance. Avoid secondary sources because they’re frequently wrong (including editors’ introductions to primary source books).
Edmund Burke (1729-1795) (summary) is the only other pre-1900 thinker who isn’t obsolete today. He was a liberal reformer who changed the world. Burke’s biggest achievements were peace between Britain and America after the War of Independence (which his King opposed), and persuading people to oppose the French Revolution.
Burke is difficult to learn from because he was a politician rather than a philosophical writer. You have to figure out the thinking methods he was using. You also have to deal with an old writing style. If you can understand Burke, you can learn a lot about liberalism, tradition, reform and rhetoric.
This is a Burke biography. I rarely recommend secondary source books about anything. I read two dozen books about Burke and all the rest were bad. But The Great Melody is so good that you should read it first!
Burke’s best known book warned the world against the French Revolution. The philosophical themes deal with tradition, reason and reform. The French Revolutionaries thought they were representatives of reason, but Burke explains how they were dangerously mistaken.
You’ll read passages from Burke’s speeches in The Great Melody. These two are particularly good. There’s more Burke writing online.
Psychiatry hurts people and deprives them of liberty. That’s its purpose. We live in a pretty tolerant, liberal, open society where people sometimes want to be intolerant, restrict liberty, and control others. Psychiatry provides this service while lying about its nature to make it socially acceptable.
Psychiatry also interferes with the legal process. It imprisons people in “mental hospitals” without trials, and it excuses criminals with the “insanity defense”.
Psychiatry violates liberty to control people who are unwanted by themselves or others. Psychiatry especially serves the government and the powerful.
Psychiatry developed to control deviants, not help its “patients”.
Seeking the prestige and authority of science, psychiatry falsely claims many life problems are medical issues.
Modern “neuroscience” is full of errors due to bad philosophy.
“Mental illness” is a category error. Bad ideas and misbehavior aren’t illnesses, that’s a metaphor at best. Calling someone mentally ill is a stigmatizing label masquerading as a medical “diagnosis”.
Typical views on suicide today contradict freedom.
Schizophrenia is bullshit.
Psychiatrists hurt people and call it “treatment”.
Szasz has over 30 books. They’re all great. Most of them are short, easy reads.
These books are way better than pretty much everything else you could read.
The previous books are largely timeless. They deal with broad issues and principles like how to learn, how to think, how to live, how to organize society, and economics. Those will always be important subjects. (Psychiatry will hopefully be forgotten one day, but Szasz’s books also help you understand liberalism and rational thinking)
Many people are really interested in current politics. But to judge which side is right on which issue requires philosophy. The reason political debates are usually so fruitless is because none of the participants are good enough thinkers.
With that said, here are the best current political authors:
EDIT: I deleted the politics section. Please stop caring about politics. It's so tribalist. Getting angry and disliking the outgroup is bad. Go read Critical Fallibilism instead.
Feynman’s Stories: Richard Feynman was a brilliant physicist with broad interests. He appreciated Popper and had wise philosophical ideas. These books share entertaining stories from his life. If you consider what they mean instead of just having fun, you can learn a lot. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feymnan! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?.
Capitalism: Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics. George Reisman was a student of Mises and Rand. This economics treatise equals Mises in quality, and does a wonderful job of including Objectivist ideas.
Objectivism: Understanding Objectivism is the best book about Objectivism that isn’t by Ayn Rand. (It's more helpful than Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.) Understanding Objectivism is based on recorded lectures by Leonard Peikoff. You can buy audio recordings of many other lectures by Peikoff, e.g. he covers the history of philosophy.
War: Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History has an Objectivist author. It covers seven major parts of military history and uses them to illustrate important political philosophy principles.
??: Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid is wide-ranging. It’s a curiosity that offers insight into abstract topics like math, mind, meaning, programming, logic, art, music and patterns.
History of Capitalism: The Myth of the Robber Barons differentiates market entrepreneurs and political entrepreneurs while dispelling myths about the history of U.S. capitalism.
Evolution: Have you read and discussed David Deutsch’s books, but don’t understand evolution well? And read my writing about evolution, including searching the discussion group archives for multiple groups and asking questions? That’s OK, evolution is hard. Read The Selfish Gene.
Economics Introduction: Economics in One Lesson is the best way to get started understanding economics. (Don’t worry, no math.)
Computation: Feynman Lectures On Computation. Feynman discusses computers at a low level and connects computing concepts to physical hardware. He also covers some important computing theories. This book isn’t for learning to program.
Programming: Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs is the best book for understanding programming conceptually. If you want to be a good programmer, read this. If you want to learn basic programming and make an app quickly, look elsewhere.
Dating and Social Dynamics: The best book on dating-related social dynamics is How to Make Girls Chase. It includes the law of least effort: the person appearing to put in less effort gains a social status advantage. The Mystery Method: How to Get Beautiful Women Into Bed is great too. Mystery's reality TV show "The Pickup Artist" (two seasons on VH1) is helpful too. I don't know where you can buy Mystery's 8 Revelation DVDs anymore, but they're particularly good, and you can get the Revelation ebook. The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists is a decent book but less educational. All of this material has important implications beyond dating about other social dynamics. It all comes from an internet forum community which applied rational, scientific thinking to an area where everyone else is irrational.
Business: Eli Goldratt used rational thinking to excel at business management. He did consulting, seminars and books. He wanted to teach the world to think. His approach to business was to use good thinking methods, including some borrowed from science. Several of his books are business novels, like The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement, which are easy reading and very good. His most philosophical book, and my favorite, is The Choice, which covers an extended discussion with his daughter about how to apply his way of thinking to life in general (not just to business).
I made a free video presentation giving introductory info about the reading list.
Watch on YouTube: Elliot presents the reading list
I recorded two three-hour conversational discussions commenting on the reading list. They'll help you get interested, provide context and summary information about the books, provide advice on reading and learning, explain a few philosophy ideas, and share some stories and tangents.
Use this free Reading List Spreadsheet to see all the books at once and track which you've read. (Click the wrench icon on the top right to download a copy.)
Email me questions or comments: [email protected]