Great Books Program
(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:
- 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.)
The aim is to have the first year finished by December 31, 2021.
- Homer: Iliad,
- Asechylus: Agamemnon, Prometheus Bound.
- Sophocles: Oedipus Rex,
- Ovid: Metamorphoses
- Thucydides: History of the Peloponnesian War.
- Aristophanes: Clouds.
- Plato: Meno, Gorgias, Republic,
The Last Days of Socrates (Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo).
- Euclid: Elements.
- Lucretius: On the Nature of Things.
- Plutarch: "Lycurgus," "Solon".
- Nicomachus: Arithmetic.
- Lavoisier: Elements of Chemistry.
- Harvey: Motion of the Heart and Blood.
- Enchiridion of Epictetus.
- Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic.
- Aurelius: Meditations.
- Swift: Gulliver’s Travels, A Modest Proposal.
- Austen: Pride and Prejudice.
- Eliot: Middlemarch.
- Chaucer: Canterbury Tales.
- Mill: Autobiography.
- 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.
- Montgomery: Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations.
- Asimov: The Foundation Trilogy.
- Gibbon: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
- 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.
- Virgil: Aeneid.
- Plutarch: “Caesar,” “Cato the Younger.”
- Epictetus: Discourses, Manual.
- Tacitus: Annals.
- Ptolemy: Almagest.
- Augustine: Confessions.
- St. Anselm: Proslogium.
- Aquinas: Summa Theologica, Summa Contra Gentiles.
- Dante: Divine Comedy.
- Des Prez: Mass.
- Boswell: Life of Johnson
- Machiavelli: 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.”
- Bacon: Novum Organum.
- 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.
- Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby.
- Marquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude.
- Brontë: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights.
- Woolf: To the Lighthouse.
- Heller: Catch-22.
- Cervantes: Don Quixote.
- Hobbes: Leviathan.
- Galileo: Two New Sciences.
- Descartes: 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.
- Rand: Atlas Shrugged.
- Hesse: Siddartha.
- Articles of Confederation.
- Declaration of Independence.
- Constitution of the United States.
- Supreme Court Opinions.
- 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.
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.