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The reading list: 3. How do we choose the books?

Once we’ve decided how many books to read and what topics need to be covered we need to choose the books themselves.

I touched on this problem in an earlier post about Best Books. We want to find the very best books on a particular topic. Ideally we need to find people who are widely read in a subject and can answer a question like “If I’m going to read three books about religion, what are they?” There is no single correct answer to such a question.

If we couldn’t find experts in every field there might be other ways of compiling lists of books. It may simply involve a lot of research to find what books are widely read and recommended. Or maybe there’s a way of compiling the reading lists for university courses and finding which books are the most popular for each subject (this is almost a website in itself…).

A related question is what level of education the books should be pitched at. Previously I linked to John Baez’s How to Learn Math and Physics page which includes a lot of recommended books. I studied maths until I was 18 but that was twenty years ago and it sounds like even the most introductory texts there would be hard going.

Maybe a good rule of thumb would be that books should be accessible to someone who’s educated to the equivalent of degree level but in a completely unrelated subject. Someone who’s ready to learn, has general intelligence, but hasn’t studied the subject in hand since they were in their mid-teens (which might be a long time ago).

Any thoughts on any of this, related to this or earlier posts, are more than welcome.


You would probably be very interested in the “Great Books of the Western World” published by Britannica and originally published in the 1940s. It set out to do exactly what you are desiring. In fact, the first volume has many short essays on why the education you are seeking is important. When I was in high school, my library had a set and I was fascinated with them. I had always thought about purchasing a set. However, when my grandparents were moving to a smaller residence, I stumbled upon a set in their attic. Many of the books were still covered in the original plastic. I was so grateful when they let me have them. Check it out. I’m sure you’ll be impressed.

Posted by Drew at 9pm, 31 March 2009 #

Thanks Drew — looks interesting.

Posted by Phil Gyford at 11am, 1 April 2009 #