Great Books Program
(Click here to go straight to the list, or here to get ISBN info.)
“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.
“I found out that with 150 well-chosen books a man possesses a complete analysis of all human knowledge, or at least all that is either useful or desirable to be acquainted with.”
Abbé Faria, The Count of Monte Cristo.
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:
- Graham Allison and Niall Fergon's idea of "Applied History," and
- Daf Yomi, the Jewish tradition in which people read the (roughly) 2,700 pages of the Babylonian Talmud in (roughly) seven-and-a-half years.
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.)
(A book struck through indicates that I've read it.)
Agamemnon, Prometheus Bound.
- Sophocles: Oedipus at Colonius, Oedipus Rex,
- Thucydides: History of the Peloponnesian War.
- Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Days.
- Aristophanes: Clouds, Lysistrata.
- Euripides: Bacchae.
Meno, Gorgias, Republic, The Last Days of Socrates (Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo).
On the Nature of Things.
- Plutarch: "Lycurgus," "Solon".
- Nicomachus: Arithmetic.
- Virgil: Aeneid.
- Lavoisier: Elements of Chemistry.
- Harvey: Motion of the Heart and Blood.
- Enchiridion of Epictetus.
- Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic.
- Confucius: Analects, #1–14 (Translation: Slingerland).
- Chuang Tzu: The Book of Chuang Tzu.
- The Bhagavadgītā in the Mahābhārata (Translation: van Buitenen)
- Mo Tzu: Basic Writings of Mo Tzu, Hsun Tzu, and Han Fei Tzu.
- Lao Tzu: The Way of Lao Tzu.
- The New Testament. (I'm familiar with the Torah -also known as the Old Testament- but if you aren't, you should read Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, the Book of Job, and maybe Lamentations.)
- Plato: Symposium, Parmenides, Theaetetus, Sophists, Timaeus, Phaedrus.
- Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, Eudemian Ethics, Rhetoric,
- Apollonius: Conics.
- Plutarch: “Caesar,” “Cato the Younger.”
- Epictetus: Discourses, Manual.
- Tacitus: Annals.
- Ptolemy: Almagest.
- Augustine: Confessions.
- St. Anselm: Proslogium.
- Aquinas: Summa Theologica, Summa Contra Gentiles.
Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso.
- Des Prez: Mass.
- Boswell: Life of Johnson
The Prince, Discourses.
- Copernicus: On the Revolution of the Spheres.
- Luther: The Freedom of a Christian, “Preface to Romans,” “Concerning Governmental Authority,” “The Twelve Articles of the Swabian Peasants,” "Friendly Admonition to Peace Concerning the Twelve Articles of the Swabian Peasants."
- Rabelais: Gargantua and Pantagruel.
- Palestrina: Missa Papae Marcelli.
- Montaigne: Essays (Of Custom, and That We Should Not Easily Change a Law Received; Of Pedantry; Of the Education of Children; That It Is Folly to Measure Truth and Error by Our Own Capacity; Of Cannibals; That the Relish of Good and Evil Depends in a Great Measure upon the Opinion We Have of Them; Upon Some Verses of Virgil).
- Viete: “Introduction on the Analytical Art.”
- Shakespeare: Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, The Tempest, As You Like It, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth,
King Lear, Coriolanus, Sonnets, Antony and Cleopatra, The Winter's Tale, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice.
- Confucius: Analects #14–20 (Translation: Slingerland).
- The Rigveda.
- Swift: Gulliver’s Travels, A Modest Proposal.
- Austen: Pride and Prejudice.
- Mill: Autobiography.
- Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby.
- Marquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude.
- Brontë: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights.
- Woolf: To the Lighthouse.
- Heller: Catch-22.
- Hobbes: Leviathan.
- Galileo: Two New Sciences.
Meditations, Rules for the Direction of the Mind.
- Milton: Paradise Lost.
- La Rochefoucauld: Maxims.
- La Fontaine: Fables.
- Pascal: Pensées (Numbers 72, 82-83, 100, 128, 131, 139, 142-143, 171, 194- 195, 219, 229, 233-234, 242, 273, 277, 282, 289, 298, 303, 320, 323, 325, 330-331, 374, 385, 392, 395-397, 409, 412-413, 416, 418, 425, 430, 434-435, 463, 491, 525- 531, 538, 543, 547, 553, 556, 564, 571, 586, 598, 607-610, 613, 619-620, 631, 640, 644, 673, 675, 684, 692-693, 737, 760, 768, 792-793).
- Huygens: Treatise on Light, On the Movement of Bodies by Impact.
- Spinoza: Theological-Political Treatise.
- Locke: Second Treatise on Government.
- Racine: Phaedra.
- Newton: Principia Mathematica.
- Kepler: Epitome IV.
- Leibniz: Monadology, Discourse on Metaphysics, Essay on Dynamics, Philosophical Essays, Principles of Nature and Grace.
- Frederick Douglass: Autobiography.
- Hume: Treatise on Human Nature, Enquiry, Dialogues on Natural Religion, Essays.
- Rousseau: The Social Contract, On the Origin of Inequality, Confessions.
- Molière: The Misanthrope.
- Adam Smith: Wealth of Nations.
- Kant: Critique of Pure Reason, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals.
- Mozart: Don Giovanni.
- Francis Bacon: Essays, Civil and Moral.
- Dedekind: Essays on the Theory of Numbers.
- Kālidāsa, Kumārasaṃbhava: in The Origin of the Young God (Translation: Hifetz).
- “Discourses on the Noble Quest,” “Discourse to Kālāmas,” and “The Greater Discourse on Cause” from Early Buddhist Discourses, edited and translated by John Holder.
- Vimalakīrti Sūtra, The Holy Teaching of Vimalakīrti (Translation: Thurman).
- The Tale of the Heike (Translation: McCullough).
- Kūkai: "The Difference Between Exoteric and Esoteric Buddhism," "Attaining Enlightenment in This Very Existence," "The Meanings of Sound, Word, and Reality."
- Shōnagon: The Pillow Book.
- Morrison: Beloved, Song of Solomon.
- Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises,
The Old Man and the Sea.
- Rand: Atlas Shrugged.
- Hesse: Siddartha.
- Articles of Confederation.
- Declaration of Independence.
- Constitution of the United States.
- Supreme Court Opinions.
- Voltaire: Candide.
- Hamilton, Jay, and Madison: The Federalist Papers.
- Darwin: Origin of Species.
- Hegel: Phenomenology of Mind, “Logic” (from the Encyclopedia).
- Lobachevsky: Theory of Parallels.
- De Tocqueville: Democracy in America.
- Kierkegaard: Philosophical Fragments, Fear and Trembling.
- Wagner: Tristan and Isolde.
- Marx: Capital, Political and Economic Manuscripts of 1844, The German Ideology.
- Dostoyevsky: Brothers Karamazov.
- Tolstoy: War and Peace, Anna Karenina.
- Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
- O’Connor: Selected Stories.
- William James: Psychology: Briefer Course.
- Nietzsche: Birth of Tragedy, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil.
- Freud: General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, The Interpretation of Dreams, Civilization and its Discontents, Mass Pyschology and Other Writings.
- Valery: Poems.
- Booker T. Washington: Selected Writings.
- Du Bois: The Souls of Black Folk.
- Heidegger: What Is Philosophy?
- Heisenberg: The Physical Principles of the Quantum Theory.
- Einstein: Selected Papers.
- Millikan: The Electron.
- Dickens: David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations.
- Conrad: Heart of Darkness.
- Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury, The Bear, Go Down, Moses.
- Melville: Benito Cereno, Moby Dick.
- Jayadeva: "The Gītagovinda" in Love Song of the Dark Lord, edited and translated by Barbara Stoler Miller.
- Kundera: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
- Roth: American Pastoral, Sabbath's Theater.
- Gaskell: North and South.
- Steinbeck: In Dubious Battle,
Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, Cannery Row.
Can I suggest a book you should include?
Please do! You can send me an email or find me on Twitter.
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?
Yes! Check out the blog.
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 The Long Now's Manual for Civilization, 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 Dallen Allred, Tyler Cowen, David McDougall, Rowan Morrison, Eleanor O'Mahony, Vince Passaro, David Perell, Simon Sarris, 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.
Notes on Translations and Editions
I'm occasionally asked which version of a book I read. I'll note those here.
- The Odyssey: I read and thoroughly enjoyed Emily Wilson's excellent new translation. ISBN 978-0393356250.
- Antigone: On Lindsey's recommendation, I read the Fitts/Fitzgerald translation. I need to go back and read the other two works in the Oedipus Cycle. ISBN 978-0156027649.
- The Last Days of Socrates: I read the Penguin edition, which Amazon tells me is translated by Harold Tarrant and Hugh Tredennick. ISBN 978-0140449280.
- The Old Man and the Sea: I can't actually put a hand to my copy of this, but given its comparative recency, you'll be fine with any edition!
- The Iliad: Continuing my bias for more recent translations, I read Caroline Alexander's. ISBN 978-0062046277.
- Don Quixote: Edith Grossman's translation on book and occasionally audiobook. The back of the paperback edition compares a couple of the translations, which was interesting. Grossman also has an excellent quote on translation, that "Any time I could, I chose a longer word instead of a shorter word, as if Hemingway had never lived." ISBN 978-0060934347.
- Agamemnon: The Fagles translation. ISBN 978-0140443332.
- Prometheus Bound: I read the Joel Agee translation, which I seem to remember from discussions is an uncommon one. I enjoyed it, and found the introduction quite good, but then again, I don't know any better. :) ISBN 978-1590178607.
- Meditations: Playing it safe again with the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Martin Hammond. ISBN 978-0140449334. The Daily Stoic, Ryan Holiday's thing, appears to recommend the Hays edition, ISBN 978-0812968255.
- Elements: I bought three editions of this book, and so I feel I can say with some authority that you want Dana Densmore's edition, with discussion questions. Densmore is a professor at St. John's College! ISBN 978-1888009460. Edited 10/25/21 to add that this edition is excellent for use in a St. John's College tutorial.
- Metamorphoses: I didn't enjoy this book, but people whose opinion I trust love it, so I suspect I didn't get the optimal translation. I read Lombardo's, ISBN 978-1603843072.
- Beowulf: Heaney. How could I not? ISBN 978-0393320978.
- Canterbury Tales: A translation by David Wright, which was eminently readable. ISBN 978-0307743534.
- Inferno: Robin Kirkpatrick's mediculously footnoted version did the job nicely. "When in doubt, go with the Penguin Classics edition" isn't bad advice. ISBN 978-0141197494.
- The Prince: This one's a doozy. St. John's seems to recommend the Mansfield translation, which I read and enjoyed (978-0226500447). Twitter pushed hard for the George Bull, whose introduction I read and liked (978-0140441079), and David McDougall, my Interintellect cohost, recommends the footnotes/supplementary info included with the Norton edition (978-0393962208).
- Meditations on First Philosophy: I went with the Cambridge Texts edition, and was impressed with the introductory material, and the clarity of the translation. ISBN: 978-1107665736.
- Frankenstein: I very much enjoyed the footnotes and supplementary essays of the Guston, Finn, and Robrt edition. ISBN: 978-0262533287
- Middlemarch: Penguin Classics edition with Rosemary Ashton. Recommended, although text is on the smaller side. ISBN 978-0141439549
- Meno: I read a PDF provided by St. John's College, which looks like the GMA Grube translation, ISBN 978-0915144242.
- On the Nature of Things: The consensus seems to be the A.E. Stallings edition. ISBN 978-0140447965.
- Of Mice and Men: Not sure how much variation you'll see here -- I picked up the Penguin edition. IBSN 978-0140177398.
- Physics: I enjoyed, and people I trust recommend, the Sacks edition. ISBN 978-0813521923.
- Novum Organum: After enjoying their version of Meditations so much, I immediately went with them for Francis Bacon. Recommended! ISBN: 978-0521564830