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Great Books Program

November 2020

(Click here to go straight to the list.)

“I certainly understand the value of knowing key ideas from different disciplines and building my own latticework, but I didn’t learn any of that in school, and I’d be starting from ground zero."

Charlie Munger, quoted in Robert Hagstrom's Investing: The Last Liberal Art.

Familiarity with the great works has moral, civic, social, economic, and progress-related benefits. Taken together, they give a fair history of humanity's inventing, improving, and imagining.

You can probably skip 99.9% of all books. You can read them (to borrow Mortimer Adler's idea) for knowledge or for entertainment, but the books that truly matter likely number only in the few hundred, and not more than a thousand. These are the books, as Adler says, that grow with you, as time goes on. These are the books that have much to teach us on philosophy, science, and living a good life. These are great books.

They form the basis of the humanities, and of a classic liberal arts education. Reading them helps you cheat, as it were, and get ideas and wisdom from other people.

This project has two underlying theories: first, everything in life is about communication, and reading great books improves your ability to think, speak, and write. Being able to articulate your position is a necessary element of leadership. Second, these books are, as Jordan Peterson put it, the intellectual ancestors of many of the great ideas today -- ideas like democracy or how to live a good life. One can debate the Bible's veracity, but not its influence.

This project has two inspirations:

The plan:

To read around 150 classic works in the next four years, one year per topic of: antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Enlightenment, and modernity. (Each year also has a couple of "wild card" books to avoid burning out.)

The List

Year One

The aim is to have the first year finished by December 31, 2021.

Extras:

Year Two

Extras:

Year Three

Extras:

Year Four

Questions

Can I suggest a book you should include?

Please do! You can send me an email or find me on Twitter.

What are you reading currently?

I'm about to start Homer's The Iliad.

Can I join for a book or two?

Yes, with the caveat that I don't know what a group reading session looks like. I have a couple of ideas though -- stay tuned.

Are you going to write about the books as you go?

Probably, with the caveat that I don't know how, exactly. I might just take notes for myself, I might write things based on what I learn, or I might keep a running commentary. Not sure yet.

How did you choose which books to include?

I started with the St John's College list as a base, and then made a handful of additions and subtractions. I also moved around the order a lot -- a year full of Ancient Greeks might be a little dry. For the non-Western great books, I used the list offered by the St. John's graduate program in Eastern Classics.

I also used Stewart Brand's list, Dan Becker's ten year reading plan, Columbia's humanities syllabus, and the programs at Yale Directed Studies, the University of Chicago and the University of British Columbia.

Thanks to Tyler Cowen, David McDougall, David Perell, Mitchell Stephens, and Lindsey Talley for suggesting individual books for this list. Thanks also to Jack Ambrose for sharing Teddy Roosevelt's reading list with me and to Steve McGinnis for pointing me to the Eastern classics.