I read a lot. Wide, deep and across quite a number of different fields. As a self-proscribed ‘writer’ and ‘editor’, reading much is both satisfying an intellectual desire and a professionally useful practice in familiarize myself with various styles, voices and topics. A common tip for aspiring writers is to read someone they admire and try to imitate their style; at this, at least, I am somewhat successful, as a friend recently told me that my style reminded him of Deirdre McCloskey. Full of idolized admiration for Deirdre’s work, I couldn’t imagine a higher praise.
As readers, the eternal curse of modernity is our laughable inability to keep up with the couple of millions of books that are published every year. Not to mention written materials on blog or respectable outlets or in magazines and journals. As consumers of the written word, we are completely outstripped, utterly defenseless and overwhelmingly inundated.
When in September I published my discussion of geographer and anthropologist Jared Diamond’s impressive work, I got a lot of feedback of astonishment from friends and family – including the friend that praised me for occasionally (accidentally…?) write like McCloskey: “Wow,” he said, “I’ve never heard of him before!”
Huh, I thought. I wonder what other household names of public intellectuals are not read as much as they deserve.
My exact reaction of astonishment was more like a gaping “What?!”, betraying my wanna-know-everything attitude, slight elitism and writer lifestyle. Contrary to the belief that our times is one of all talking and no listening (well, writing and no reading), it takes a vast amount of reading before you can produce anything that others want to read. Sure, anybody with a laptop and an internet connection can start a blog and flush out their thoughts (I did so for years) but it takes knowledge to say something intelligent and interesting – knowledge acquired by extensive reading.
It also takes a lot of practice to develop a voice of one’s own. Authors with astonishing and recognizable writing styles are made, not born.
What, then, should you read?
In light of this surprise, I decided to make a list of intellectuals I would advise anybody to read. Note that this is not a list of the most important thinkers ever, nor is it a collection of the most profound academic contribution to various disciplines. Instead it’s a gathering of writers whose popular writing (often in addition to their rigorous academic work) is exactly that – popular. That means that a lot of others liked them (and if you’re anything like others, you might too) and more importantly: a lot of smart people you meet are rather likely refer to these authors or to the ideas contained in their work. Here are 11 authors I would consider to be household names and whose writing will make you a much smarter and interesting person.
Let’s begin our list with aforementioned Jared Diamond, whose trilogy on humanity is compulsory reading for pretty-much everyone. This year he released Upheaval, which received very mixed responses and that I decided to skip after hearing his pitch on Sam Harris’ Making Sense podcast. Diamond’s publisher maintains that this is the third installment of his “monumental trilogy” of how civilizations rise and fall, but to me that was The World Until Yesterday:
- Guns, Germs and Steel is the book that definitely made Diamond a well-known name, the kind of Big Picture civilizational economic history we have recently seen in Yuval Harari’s work – the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, that strangely boring book that everyone seems to be reading these days – or the less well-known but more captivating Columbia professor Ruth DeFries’ The Big Ratchet. If you like, you could describe this Pulitzer prize-winning book as well-written geographical reasons for why the West is rich and the Rest isn’t. If that’s your thing, read away.
- Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, the book that my September piece was mostly concerned with, is a dense story of many different human civilizations falling apart: Easter Islanders, Native Americans in the dry southwest or central America and my favourite chapter: The Greenland Norse. Complemented with the Fall of Civilizations podcast and Dan Carlin’s recent book The End is Always Near would make you ridiculously interesting to talk to in these hyper-catastrophist times. Upheaval is a natural extension of Collapse so if you crave more, that one is for you.
- I would rather point to The World Until Yesterday for Diamond’s third gem as it is a deep dive into the lives of traditional societies in general, but in practice mostly New Guinean societies. Somehow, Diamond made anthropology exciting!
Rapidly moving up in controversy, Paul Collier is an Oxford development economist whose work most intellectuals have a distinctly firm opinion about. His popular claim to fame rests on:
- Exodus, a very cool (and prescient!) take on global migration. Highly recommended.
- The Bottom Billion, for a plunge into global poverty and development economics. It might be slightly outdated (published in 2007) as many of the 60 failing countries he identifies have seem quite some growth in the last decade.
I should also recommend his latest book, Future of Capitalism, but I wasn’t very impressed with it. In these times of political polarization, populist uprisings, urban-rural divides and worries about AI, it is still a relevant read.
Whenever Collier speaks, you want to listen.
The Four Horsemen of Atheism (or “New Atheism”):
Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett
Together, these 5 brilliant minds may have helped many out of their religiosity, but their contributions loom much larger than that. As most of the Western world has gradually abandoned faith, their religious inclinations have turned to other areas: environmentalism (Mike Munger’s take on recycling never gets old!), invented hierarchies or social justice. The writings of these five horsemen can be hugely beneficial here too. Some recommended reading includes:
- Dawkins: The God Delusion (update: Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide, just released last month, apparently at first intended for children/teenagers)
- Hitchens: God Is Not Great
- Dennett: Darwin’s Dangerous Idea
- Harris: The End of Faith (but I like The Moral Landscape even more. Disclaimer: I’m a voracious consumer of his Making Sense podcast)
- The Ascent of Money, which was my introduction to Ferguson during second year of Uni and still my favourite book of his
- The Cash Nexus, which I confess to not having read. Shame, I know.
- House of Rothschild (Money’s Prophets + The World’s Banker), the massive two-volume biography of the Rothschilds and an absolute treasure trove for 19th century European finance. Whenever I need some background info on that topic – or I find myself bored around a well-equipped academic library – I browse Ferguson’s diligent archival work.
- Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, the controversial “maybe it wasn’t all bad…?” take on British imperialism. Predictably, Ferguson generated some outrage over this.
- Civilization, “a book that belongs at the more populist end of the Ferguson oeuvre” which we can also say about:
- The Great Degeneration (which I didn’t mind reading, but wasn’t overly impressed with).
I should also mention his two-volume biography of Henry Kissinger (first volume 2015, next probably finished next year), which I ignored (politics is boring) and his recent book The Square and the Tower, which I heard very bad things about – and so downgraded for now.
Ah, this Harvard cognitive scientist and linguist-turned-public-intellectual is a must-read. His top trilogy, which I voraciously consumed last fall, includes:
- The Blank Slate, the best description of this book that I ever heard came from Charlotta Stern, sociologist at Stockholm University: every sound argument against the “Nurture Only”-idea that biology doesn’t matter compiled into a single book. Yes, you want to read it.
- The Better Angels of Our Nature, a Big Picture humanity-scale look at violence, resurrecting Norbert Elias’ Civilizing Process theory to explain why we hurt and kill each other less than at probably any point in human history. Nassim Nicholas Taleb (see below) is decidedly not convinced.
- Enlightenment Now! The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, as if Better Angels wasn’t Big Picture enough, here’s the ultimate case for why humanity is doing pretty well, why doomsday sayers are wrong on every count and why we shouldn’t despair. Many of the topics of Better Angels re-occur in Enlightenment Now!, but I don’t regret reading both as Pinker’s prose is easy to follow and his content well-sourced should you require more convincing. Originally a cognitive scientist, he has a ton of more books you might wanna check out – The Language Instinct, for instance, ranks pretty high on my Next Up list:
Speaking of optimistic people taking a Big Picture view of humanity, zoologist and science writer Matt Ridley is a must. Tall (like me!), Oxford-educated (like me!) and techno-optimist (like me!), no wonder I like him.
- Rational Optimist, a book in the same style as Pinker’s Enlightenment Now!, Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, Johan Norberg’s Progress, and Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape, briefly summarised as: Shit is getting better. Accept it.
- The Origin of Virtue, one of his earlier books in the 1990s that I haven’t read yet (together with Genome and The Red Queen), but I imagine is similar in content to Nicholas Christakis 500-page Blueprint from earlier this year (which I have read).
- Ridley’s most recent book is from 2015 Evolution of Everything and we’ll blame his House of Lords duties for distracting him from his forthcoming book on Innovation that I’ve written about before (How Innovation Works and Why It Flourishes in Freedom).
At last, How Innovation Works is schedule for May 2020.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Oh, boy – here’s a controversial one. Frequently does he get into loud and hostile arguments with other high-profile intellectuals, and rarely does he pull any punches. His popular writing is found in the “Incerto” serie – the Latin term for ‘doubt’ or ‘uncertainty’ that capture Taleb’s core work. The set of books are together described as “an investigation of luck, uncertainty, probability, opacity, human error, risk, disorder, and decision-making in a world we don’t understand:”
They are intended to push One Big Idea: that we frequently overlook how random the world is, ascribing causality where none belongs and overestimate what we can know from (relatively recent) past events. Black Swans, the proverbial unpredictable event, dominates the social sciences in Taleb’s view. While the 2000-odd pages worth of the Incerto series may seem daunting, the books (and even the individual chapters) are designed not to fall very far from each other. The interested reader can, in other words, pick any one of them and work backwards in accordance with whatever is of interest. You wanna read all – or any – of them.
Having read Fooled by Randomness first, I’ve always held that highest. Be ready for a lot of sarcastic and frequently hostile (but thoughtful) objections of things you took for granted.
In sum: just bloody read more
Any selection of important contemporary intellectuals is arbitrary, highly skewed and super-unfair. There are more, many more, whose fantastic writings deserve attention. As I said, the eternal curse of modernity is our laughable inability to keep up with avalanche of cool stuff written every year.
As readers, we are overrun – and the only thing you can do to keep is is to read more. Read widely.