Books worth reading

Ruskin wrote that what good books give us is not knowledge, but sight. This is an eclectic mix of fifty books that have piqued my interest and broadened my understanding of the human condition.

Philosophy

Man on his Nature by Charles Sherrington

In 1940, Sir Charles Sherrington was appointed to present a series of lectures on natural theology for the prestigious Gifford series and this book is the edited transcripts. As a bacteriological researcher in Spain and Italy during the cholera epidemic in the 1880s, his views on the philosophical question of life was profoundly influenced by his pathogenic research. He contrasts his views with that of Jean Fernel, who was the preeminent physician of his day. Sherrington covers a lot of ground, dealing with the fundamental question of life and its theological implications; but perhaps the most insightful are his inferences on the mind.

Pragmatism (and other essays) by William James

The brother of the novelist Henry James, William James is widely acknowledged as the father of modern psychology. James’s borrowed the term pragmatism from his friend Charles Sanders Pierce, but defined it in a more personal way—that in which truth is validated by its subjective value in achieving future results for the individual. Among the essays in this collection, The Will to Believe is probably the one that was the most polarising in its time and stands out as an exemplar of James’s philosophy of subjective truth.

The Ethics of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir

Beauvoir’s premise is that in considering our present actions, we must retain some ambiguity in proceeding according to our past ethical and moral lines because the future effects of our present choices cannot be known. In three parts, Beauvoir attempts to substantiate and reconcile this claim and makes a strong case for existentialism. This is a dense, pithy, philosophical read, but also very rewarding for the depth and breath of its ideas.

The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt

Arendt makes the prescient observation in her prologue to this book—that we have ceased to apply thought to our actions and so knowledge is reduced to know-how, which type of reasoning may be undertaken much more efficiently by machines. What follows is Ardent’s erudite exposition of work, labour, and freedom from the time of the Ancient Greeks.

Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume

This book tackles the most pressing philosophical questions of humanity: ideas, instinct, inspiration; what they are and wherefore they arise.

Science

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf

What enables the new-born brain to translate the symbols of written language as if we have an innate ability to do so? Cognitive neuroscientist and educator Maryanne Wolf traces the evolution of the reading brain, a must-read for anyone interested in the inner workings of language in the brain.

The Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought:Kepler to Einstein by Gerald Holton

Seven Clues to the Origin of Life by Graham Cairns-Smith

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

How God Changes Your Brain by Andrew B. Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman

Literature

The Brothers Karamazov by

Dostoevsky’s works are essential reading for anyone seeking to understand human nature and the human condition. Apart from his major novels, Dostoevsky also kept an extensive diary of all his thoughts that contributed to his major works, articles, and short stories. His entire oeuvre is as instructive to the reader as it is to the writer.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Another of the Russian Masters, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is an exploration of human relationships, desires, and the consequences they entail.

The Odyssey by Homer, Trans. Alexander Pope

Although Robert Fagles’s prose translation comes highly recommended and Emily Wilson’s recent translation reimagines the verse in a more contemporary and accessible form, Pope’s couplets are still the best translation of this epic whose authorship is still unresolved to this day.