Books Worth Reading

I really like all the books in this list, for various reasons. Unless otherwise noted, the summaries are excerpted from the books themselves -- either the cover flaps or the introduction.  All book titles contain a link to the appropriate page at

Infinite Jest. David Foster Wallace
In a sprawling, wild, super-hyped magnum opus, David Foster Wallace fulfills the promise of his precocious novel The Broom of the System. Equal parts philosophical quest and screwball comedy, Infinite Jest bends every rule of fiction, features a huge cast and multilevel narrative, and questions essential elements of American culture - our entertainments, our addictions, our relationships, our pleasures, our abilities to define ourselves. ( review)

War and Peace. Leo Tolstoy (Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky, transpators - the translation really does matter for this one)
War and Peace broadly focuses on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and follows three of the most well-known characters in literature: Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a count who is fighting for his inheritance and yearning for spiritual fulfillment; Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who leaves his family behind to fight in the war against Napoleon; and Natasha Rostov, the beautiful young daughter of a nobleman who intrigues both men.

A s Napoleon’s army invades, Tolstoy brilliantly follows characters from diverse backgrounds—peasants and nobility, civilians and soldiers—as they struggle with the problems unique to their era, their history, and their culture. And as the novel progresses, these characters transcend their specificity, becoming some of the most moving—and human—figures in world literature.

Mediated. Thomas de Zengotita
In a deceptively colloquial, intellectually dense style, de Zengotita posits that since the 1960s, Americans have belonged to a culture of reflexivity, and the media in all their forms have put us there. We're bombarded from childhood with so many images putting "us"—the individual person—at the center of the universe that we cannot help thinking that this is where we belong. We live in a Times Square world, says the Harper's contributing editor, and thus we become the ultimate Descartesians: media think only of us, therefore we think only of ourselves. The result of this self-centeredness is that we become increasingly numbed by the bombardment of images and, in a variation on the "if a tree falls in the woods" query, we can no longer imagine our premediated lives. Media imagery has given us an omniscient perspective—we can be on the grassy knoll, by the Twin Towers, on the beach as the tsunami hits—while never having to incur the horrors of being there. "Mediation" inevitably closes us off to the unmediated world, home of those victims of the tsunami whose lives are hideously hard and where no media put them front and center. This provocative, extreme and compelling work is a must-read for philosophers of every stripe. (Publisher's Weekly)

. Robert Reich

Reich, professor of public policy and former secretary of labor, argues that as the U.S. has grown stronger as a capitalist economy, it has grown weaker as a democratic nation. Reich begins by looking at the political and economic history that has contributed to the particular brand of capitalism and democracy practiced in the U.S. and how democracy is threatened as more and more Americans are engrossed in their roles as consumers and investors and less so as citizens. He recalls the "almost Golden Age" of the 1950s, a period of stability as large corporations, big labor, and government managed the interests of consumers, workers, management, and investors for the "common good." The spread of capitalism to a global level hasn't corresponded with a spread of democracy throughout the world and has led to some negative social consequences at home, including widening inequalities and a shrinking social safety net. Reich asserts that although Americans dislike what lower wages are doing to us as a nation, when weighed against lower prices or higher return on investments, we vacillate or look the other way. Reich uses tables and charts and plain speech to describe how the economy has grown so efficient and effective that the human equation is lost and how the democracy has become less and less responsive to common values. As citizens, we need to "make our purchases and investments a social choice as well as a personal one," Reich maintains. (Booklist)

Lolita. Vladimir Nabokov
Awe and exhiliration — along with heartbreak and mordant wit — abound in Lolita, Nabokov's most famous and controversial novel, which tells the story of the aging Humbert Humbert's obsessive, devouring, and doomed passion for the nymphet Dolores Haze. Lolita is also the story of a hypercivilized European colliding with the cheerful barbarism of postwar America. Most of all, it is a meditation on love — love as outrage and hallucination, madness and transformation.

The Happiness Hypothesis. Jonathan Haidt
This is a book about ten great ideas. Each chapter is an attempt to savor one idea that has been discovered by several of the world’s civilizations – to question it scientifically, and to extract from it the lessons that apply to our modern lives.

Jonathan Haidt skillfully combines two genres—philosophical wisdom and scientific research—delighting the reader with surprising insights. He explains, for example, why we have such difficulty controlling ourselves and sticking to our plans; why no achievement brings lasting happiness, yet a few changes in your life can have profound effects, and why even confirmed atheists experience spiritual elevation. In a stunning final chapter, Haidt addresses the grand question "How can I live a meaningful life?," offering an original answer that draws on the rich inspiration of both philosophy and science.

The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations. James Surowiecki
In this endlessly fascinating book, New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki explores a deceptively simple idea that has profound implications: large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant—better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future.

This seemingly counterintuitive notion has endless and major ramifications for how businesses operate, how knowledge is advanced, how economies are (or should be) organized and how we live our daily lives. With seemingly boundless erudition and in delightfully clear prose, Surowiecki ranges across fields as diverse as popular culture, psychology, ant biology, economic behaviorism, artificial intelligence, military history and political theory to show just how this principle operates in the real world. 

Despite the sophistication of his arguments, Surowiecki presents them in a wonderfully entertaining manner. The examples he uses are all down-to-earth, surprising, and fun to ponder. Why is the line in which you’re standing always the longest? Why is it that you can buy a screw anywhere in the world and it will fit a bolt bought ten-thousand miles away? Why is network television so awful? If you had to meet someone in Paris on a specific day but had no way of contacting them, when and where would you meet? Why are there traffic jams? What’s the best way to win money on a game show? Why, when you walk into a convenience store at 2:00 A.M. to buy a quart of orange juice, is it there waiting for you? What do Hollywood mafia movies have to teach us about why corporations exist?

The Wisdom of Crowds is a brilliant but accessible biography of an idea, one with important lessons for how we live our lives, select our leaders, conduct our business, and think about our world.

A Fine Balance. Rohinton Mistry
With a compassionate realism and narrative sweep that recall the work of Charles Dickens, this magnificent novel captures all the cruelty and corruption, dignity and heroism, of India. The time is 1975. The place is an unnamed city by the sea. The government has just declared a State of Emergency, in whose upheavals four strangers -- a spirited widow, a young student uprooted from his idyllic hill station, and two tailors who have fled the caste violence of their native village -- will be thrust together, forced to share one cramped apartment and an uncertain future. As the characters move from distrust to friendship and from friendship to love, A Fine Balance creates an enduring panorama of the human spirit in an inhuman state.


"Astonishing. . . . A rich and varied spectacle, full of wisdom and laughter and the touches of the unexpectedly familiar through which literature illuminates life." --Wall Street Journal"Monumental. . . . Few have caught the real sorrow and inexplicable strength of India, the unaccountable crookedness and sweetness, as well as Mistry." --Pico Iyer, Time

"Those who continue to harp on the decline of the novel . . . ought to consider Rohinton Mistry. He needs no infusion of magic realism to vivify the real. The real world, through his eyes, is magical." --The New York Times

(summary and editorial comments taken from Barnes & Noble)

Buddhism: A Concise Introduction. Huston Smith and Philip Novak
Beginning with the life of the Buddha and continuing through the current emergence of Buddhism in the West, the internationally revered world religions authority Huston Smith and award-winning teacher Philip Novak -- an expert in historical and contemporary Buddhism and a longtime Buddhist practitioner himself -- explore all aspects of this 2,500-year-old religious tradition in all its rich variety: its history, the central doctrines and practices, and its evolution and continuing development. With consummate expertise and respect for Buddhism in all its manifestations, Huston Smith and Philip Novak reveal the vital wisdom that makes Buddhism so appealing not only throughout Asia but increasingly in the Western world.

Going well beyond the masterful presentation of Buddhism in the bestselling The World's Religions, Huston Smith and his premier student Philip Novak offer an expert, contemporary, yet highly readable and incisive guide to the heart of this vibrantly diverse and rapidly growing tradition, one that has an increasing presence and importance on the American scene. Smith is universally regarded as the leading authority on the world's religious traditions, and Novak is an award-winning professor of world religions and a Buddhist practitioner immersed in the contemporary worlds of American and Asian Buddhism.Smith and Novak respectfully cover the essential teachings, practices, and historical development of Buddhism in all its rich variety. Beginning with the life and legend of the Buddha, Buddhism explores core Buddhist doctrines such as the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, nirvana, and emptiness. The authors go on to discuss the split between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, Vipassana -- the Theravadin Way of Insight, the continued divisions of Mahayana into Pure Land, Zen, and the quite distinct Vajrayana/Tantric tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. The second half of the book follows the global migration of Buddhism and its continuing diversification and development in the West, especially in America. This compelling work by two great scholars -- a legendary teacher and his long-time student and colleague -- is the most insightful, up-to-date, and accessible introduction to this great and immensely appealing religious tradition available today.

An Education For Our Time.  Josiah Bunting III
John Adams - billionaire industrialist, high-tech pioneer, war hero - lies dying of cancer at the age of 71. In the months before his death, Adams, through a series of letters to his lawyer, sketches a blueprint for the ideal American college, He will endow the college with his entire fortune, ensuring that his vision will become reality. Set in the High Plains of Wyoming, the college will open its doors in the fall of 2000.The new college will be radically unlike any that exists today. As Adams writes, "The things our country requires are simply not the things our colleges are prepared to deliver. So let us have our shot."His purpose: To train "virtuous and disinterested leaders" for a nation that needs them desperately, men and women "whose bent is to command not to chatter, to lead not to criticize, to serve not to whine, and to give rather than calculate the cost."

The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life. Jean-Francois Revel, John Canti (Translator), Matthieu Ricard
The Monk and the Philosopher is a collection of father-son dialogues between Jean-François Revel, a French philosopher and journalist famous for his leadership in protests of both Christianity and Communism, and Matthieu Ricard, his son, who gave up a promising career as a scientist to become a Buddhist monk in the Himalayas. The conversations recorded in this book took place during 10 days at an inn in Katmandu. The range of their subjects is immense: What is Buddhism? Why does it have such appeal to many in the West? Why do Buddhists believe in reincarnation? What are the differences between Buddhist and Christian monastic life? How do science and individualism make authentic Buddhist practice difficult for Westerners to achieve?

      --Michael Joseph Gross ( review)

Nothing Special: Living Zen.  Charlotte Joko Beck (with Steve Smith)
A companion to the underground bestseller Everyday Zen, Nothing Special shows how to awaken to your daily life and discover the ideal in the everyday. Here is an unparalleled opportunity to site with a fully contemporary Western master and learn in the authentic Buddhist tradition -- through dialogue between teacher and student.

All the King's Men.  Robert Penn Warren
Set in the '30s, this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel traces the rise and fall of demagogue Willie Stark, a fictional character who resembles the real-life Huey "Kingfish" Long of Louisiana. Stark begins his political career as an idealistic man of the people but soon becomes corrupted by success and caught between dreams of service and an insatiable lust for power. The model for 1996's best selling political novel, Primary Colors, and as relevant today as it was fifty years ago, All the King's Men is one of the classics of American literature.

American Psycho.  Brett Easton Ellis
Patrick Bateman is handsome, well educated, intelligent. He works by day on Wall Street, earning a fortune to complement the one he was born with. His nights he spends in ways we cannot begin to fathom. He is twenty-six years old and living his own American Dream. American Psycho is set in a world (Manhattan) and an era (the Eighties) recognizably our own. The wealthy elite grows infinitely wealthier, the poor and disturbed are turned out onto the streets by the tens of thousands, and anything, including the very worst, seems possible. Even so, Bateman, who expresses his true self by torture and murder, prefigures an apocalyptic horror that no society could bear to confront. 

Buddhism Plain and Simple.  Steve Hagen
The observations and insights of the Buddha are practical and eminently down-to-earth, dealing exclusively with awareness in the here and now. Buddhism Plain and Simple offers readers these fundamental teachings, stripped of the cultural trappings that have accumulated around Buddhism over the past twenty-five centuries. The newcomer will be inspired by the clear, simple principles found in Buddhism Plain and Simple, and those familiar with Buddhism will welcome this long-needed overview. 

Narcissus Leaves the Pool: Familiar Essays.  Joseph Epstein
Joseph Epstein's sixth collection of personal pieces winningly and brilliantly rounds off more than two decades of his writing under the name Aristides for The American Scholar. "The trick with these essays," he recently wrote, "is to tale what seems a small or mildly amusing subject and open it up, allow it to exfoliate, so that by the end something arises that might be larger and more intricate than anyone - including the author - had expected." Among the things that arise here are naps, Gershwin, name-dropping, long books, growing older, talent versus genius, Anglophilia, and surgery. These are essays about the head and the heart.

A Brief History of Everything.  Ken Wilber
A Brief History of Everything is an altogether friendly and accessible account of men and women's place in a universe of sex, soul, and spirit, written by an author of whom New York Times reporter Tony Schwartz says: "No one has described the path to wisdom better than Ken Wilber."Wilber offers a series of striking and original views on many topics of current interest and controversy, including the gender wars, modern liberation movements, multiculturalism, ecology and environmental ethics, and the conflict between this-worldly and otherworldly approaches to spirituality.  The result is an extraordinary and exhilarating ride through the Kosmos in the company of one of the great thinkers of our time.

Arrogant Capital.  Kevin Phillips
Washington - mired in bureaucracy, captured by the money power of Wall Street, and dominated by 90,000 lobbyists, 60,000 lawyers, and the largest concentration of special interests the world has ever seen - has become the albatross that our Founding Fathers feared: a swollen capital city feeding off the country is should be governing.   Using history as a chilling warning, Kevin Phillips compared the paralysis in today's Washington to that of formerly mighty and arrogant capitals like Rome and Madrid.   Unchecked, Washington will - like other great powers before it - lead the country to its inevitable decline and fall.

T.R.: The Last Romantic.  H.W. Brands
Theodore Roosevelt emerges as considerably more than his toothy Rough Rider legend in this extensively researched, psychologically penetrating biography of our 26th president. Even as an asthmatic child, when he began to mold his mind with tales of heroes and his body with physical exercise, Roosevelt saw life as a series of struggles and achievements, according to Brands (History/Texas A&M Univ.; The Reckless Decade, 1995). In young adulthood, this quest for heroism redoubled with the death of his father, who set a near-impossible moral standard. ... Brands accords Roosevelt full credit for blazing a path for future presidents in assuming responsibility for the economy and international security, and for using his office's ``bully pulpit'' to goad the national conscience. Missing some of the brio of Edmund Morris's The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and of the colonel himself, but a life that pays its subject the ultimate tribute of taking him seriously as an adult. (Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.)

The Way You Wear Your Hat:  Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin'.  Bill Zehme
Masterfully assembled within are the most personal details and gorgeous minutiae of how the role of Frank Sinatra was played in everyday life ... Matters of the heart and heartbreak, coolness and swank, friendship and leadership, drinking and cavorting, brawling and wooing, tuxedos and snap-brims, talking the lingo and ring-a-ding-dinging -- here is a stunning exploration of the Sinatra mystique.

He ruled the world on his own terms, inspiring other mortals to ponder their own lives and wonder, What would Frank do?  The answers are here at last.  Capturing the timeless romance and classic style of the fifties and sixties, when Sinatra was at the peak of his heroic powers, The Way You Wear Your Hat is a fresh, insightful look at the man and the way he swaggered.

Class: A Guide Through the American Status System.  Paul Fussell
In Class Paul Fussell explodes the sacred American myth of social equality with eagle-eyed irreverence and iconoclastic wit. This best-selling, superbly researched, exquisitely observed guide to the signs, symbols, and customs of the American class system is always outrageously on the mark as Fussell shows us how our status is revealed by everything we do, say, and own. He describes the houses, objects, artifacts, speech, clothing styles, and intellectual proclivities of American classes from the top to the bottom and everybody -- you'll surely recognize yourself -- in between. Class is guaranteed to amuse and infuriate, whether your class is so high it's out of sight (literally) or you are, alas, a sinking victim of prole drift.

The Good Life and its Discontents.  Robert J. Samuelson
This is the story of the postwar American Dream. I call our era -- from the end of the Second World War until now -- the age of entitlement. By entitlement, I mean the set of popular expectations that arose about the kind of nation we were creating and what that meant for all of us individually.

We had a grand vision. We didn't merely expect things to get better. We expected all social problems to be solved. We expected business cycles, economic insecurity, poverty, and racism to end. We expected almost limitless personal freedom and self-fulfillment. For those who couldn't live life to its fullest (as a result of old age, disability, or bad luck), we expected a generous social safety net to guarantee decent lives. We blurred the distinction between progress and perfection.

Up to a point, we made progress on all fronts. But of course, we did not fully attain any of our goals, because they all required perfection. Our most expansive hopes were ultimately unrealistic. We transformed the American Dream into the American Fantasy. How this happened is the subject of this book.

Amusing Ourselves to Death. Neil Postman
Television has conditioned us to tolerate visually entertaining material measured out in spoonfuls of time, to the detriment of rational public discourse and reasoned public affairs. In this eloquent, persuasive book, Neil Postman alerts us to the real and present dangers of this state of affairs, and offers compelling suggestions as to how to withstand the media onslaught. Before we hand over politics, education, religion, and journalism to the show-business demands of the television age, we must recognize the ways in which the media shape our lives and the ways we can, in turn, shape them to serve our highest goals.