Eight Books To Read

[Cross­posted from my Medium blog]

A few years ago, I was asked by a friend what news sources they should fol­low to un­der­stand the Syr­ian Civil War. I replied they shouldn’t fol­low any news at all. My recom­men­da­tion in­stead was a six month break from Syr­ian news, sup­ple­mented by leisurely read­ing through six books on Syr­ian poli­tics, eco­nomics, and cul­ture. I pointed out they could read them on their phone just as con­ve­niently as they could read tweets or ar­ti­cles. My friend was taken aback but fol­lowed the ad­vice.

Cri­tiques of news me­dia are much more in vogue now than they were in 2015. Peo­ple be­moan the poor fac­tual ac­cu­racy or man­i­fest poli­ti­cal bias of to­day’s me­dia, whether that means es­tab­lished news­pa­pers like The New York Times or so­cial net­works like Face­book. But there is a more fun­da­men­tal prob­lem with news: it can provide in­for­ma­tion, but isn’t struc­tured to ed­u­cate you into some­one who could un­der­stand this cherry-picked in­for­ma­tion. For­mal ed­u­ca­tion of­ten fails to provide this vi­tal foun­da­tion.

After six months, my friend thanked me. They said they now barely fol­low any news on Syria, but when they do it has gone from per­plex­ing to un­der­stand­able. The frag­ments of in­for­ma­tion no longer landed only as emo­tional bursts of ex­cite­ment or anx­iety, but rather helped con­tribute to a solid pic­ture of the re­gion. They asked me a more difficult ques­tion: what books should they read to un­der­stand not just Syria, but global so­ciety as a whole?

Books are in­com­plete in­stru­ments for in­struc­tion. They don’t re­spond to the reader and can­not di­rectly an­swer ques­tions, and they re­quire a strange and sys­tem­atic pro­cess of study that goes be­yond mere read­ing. In physics ed­u­ca­tion, for ex­am­ple, one will pair up the mas­tery of the­o­ries with tests of solv­ing math­e­mat­i­cal puz­zles as well as a course of prac­ti­cal ex­per­i­ments that tie those to one’s senses. For the study of so­ciety, there would have to be analogues.

Fur­ther, true au­to­di­dac­ti­cism is a rare gift. To main­tain mo­ti­va­tion over a few months, learn­ing has to be its own re­ward. This re­ward of learn­ing must some­how be tied to un­der­stand­ing the world as it is, rather than pur­su­ing the­o­ries for the sake of en­ter­tain­ment.

Much has hap­pened through­out hu­man his­tory, and much is hap­pen­ing right now. Too much to ever fully catch up on. The fo­cus should rather be on equip­ping some­one with the the­ory and skills needed so they will pro­cess, ab­sorb, and re­tain the in­for­ma­tion they en­counter through­out their in­tel­lec­tual lives. This mer­its a method­olog­i­cal ap­proach tai­lored to in­di­vi­d­ual in­ves­ti­ga­tion and prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tion.

The or­der in which one reads also mat­ters. Im­por­tant parts of cer­tain books are un­locked by the un­der­stand­ing gained from an­other. This is ob­vi­ous for dis­ci­plines like the­o­ret­i­cal physics, but the same goes for a se­ri­ous study of so­ciety.

While I have made it my core area of re­search, I can’t claim to fully un­der­stand so­ciety. All I could do was try to think of the most effi­cient way to ac­quire a mea­sure of com­pe­tency in the ar­eas I pur­sued.

So with those caveats, I gave him a list of the se­quence of books I recom­mend read­ing:

  1. How to Read a Book — Mor­timer Adler

This book con­vinced me that while skim­ming was per­haps use­ful for min­ing in­for­ma­tion, it would never be a vi­able path to rigor. Adler ad­vo­cates a dis­ci­plined and deep read­ing of challeng­ing books. The book lays out a sys­tem­atic method that, if fol­lowed, no­tably in­creases the skill of read­ing com­pre­hen­sion to the level of most grad­u­ate pro­grams, im­prov­ing one’s abil­ity to learn from books. You can then af­ford to read more slowly be­cause you gain more in­for­ma­tion from each read­ing. This is a ne­ces­sity for the sys­tem­atic study of so­ciety. Ex­am­ples of books you’ll want to read in such an in­tel­lec­tual pur­suit are pri­mary sources for case stud­ies, books lay­ing out poli­ti­cal the­ory, eco­nomics, as well as the other books on this list. He wrote this book in the 1950s as his at­tempt at an an­ti­dote to short­en­ing at­ten­tion spans. Un­for­tu­nately, in the age of so­cial me­dia, we need his rem­edy much more than he could have pos­si­bly imag­ined.

2. The Repub­lic — Plato

A de­sign for the cre­ation of a new ideal so­ciety, the ul­ti­mate aim of so­ciolog­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Plato’s work is a nice ex­am­ple of both the strengths and the limits of a the­ory-driven ap­proach. The book not only lays out the ma­jor re­search tasks needed to en­g­ineer such a so­ciety, but lays out a plan to con­struct it.

He in­tro­duces a de­cent the­ory of psy­chol­ogy, al­low­ing for some ba­sic pre­dic­tions of how peo­ple will re­spond to changes in their so­cial and ma­te­rial cir­cum­stances. The model of learn­ing in­tro­duced is among the best I’ve found.

The qual­ity of his mod­els is suffi­cient to be worth know­ing and oc­ca­sion­ally us­ing. His var­i­ant of the the­ory of cy­cles of so­cial trans­for­ma­tion, of how city states change be­tween regimes of sta­tus- and emo­tion-driven reg­u­la­tion and their re­lated poli­ti­cal con­sti­tu­tions, re­mains pre­dic­tive. The the­o­ries of psy­chol­ogy, ed­u­ca­tion, and so­ciety are tied to­gether into a the­ory-driven de­sign for an elite.

The prac­ti­cal­ity of this book as a man­ual for such efforts is un­der­rated. As an ex­am­ple, it illus­trates how to di­alogue un­der ad­ver­sar­ial cir­cum­stances. This is use­ful for both for your own abil­ity to man­age in­for­ma­tion, and your abil­ity to suc­cess­fully in­ter­pret texts pro­duced un­der such cir­cum­stances.

3. His­tory of the Pelo­pon­nesian War — Thucydides

The ul­ti­mate pri­mary source. Thucy­dides fought as a gen­eral dur­ing the Pelo­pon­nesian war and was ul­ti­mately ex­iled from Athens due to poli­ti­cal machi­na­tion. After the end of the war, he spent his en­er­gies and wealth to fol­low up on the con­nec­tions, both friend and foe, he had built. He thought the role of a his­to­rian was to chron­i­cle and com­pe­tently nav­i­gate the era in which he lived to pre­serve its les­sons for the fu­ture. Be­cause Thucy­dides was a prac­ti­tioner, and one who played a crit­i­cal role in the events de­scribed, his ac­count should be taken se­ri­ously.

A clear enough demon­stra­tion of ex­cel­lent anal­y­sis, such that one can pro­duc­tively use his ap­proach as a pro­to­type. He suc­cess­fully com­bines in­for­ma­tion sources such as in­ter­views, texts, and per­sonal ex­pe­rience of war and poli­tics. This is then paired with the skilful ap­pli­ca­tion of the­o­ret­i­cal con­structs to an­a­lyze a con­crete cir­cum­stance.

4. Poli­tics — Aristotle

Clas­si­cal sources credit Aris­to­tle with 170 “con­sti­tu­tions”, that is, re­search pa­pers de­scribing the poli­ti­cal struc­ture and so­ciety of var­i­ous Greek city-states. Many of these con­sti­tu­tions were likely writ­ten or drafted by his stu­dents. Of this ex­ten­sive em­piri­cal re­search done in prepa­ra­tion for the Poli­tics, the only con­sti­tu­tion pre­served is that of Athens. This mar­riage of em­piri­cal data and philos­o­phy proves hard to beat.

Aris­to­tle’s ob­ser­va­tions on Greek so­ciety should round out what was learned fol­low­ing Thucy­dides’ ex­haus­tive ac­count and help com­plete a ba­sic un­der­stand­ing of a pe­riod of his­tory one can then rea­son about. Fur­ther, an al­ter­na­tive frame of anal­y­sis of Greek poli­tics al­lows for com­par­i­son with Thucy­dides’ of­ten cyn­i­cal ex­pla­na­tions.

Aris­to­tle cri­tiques a num­ber of Plato’s ideas, which should im­prove your un­der­stand­ing of the Repub­lic, help you learn how to iden­tify po­ten­tial so­ciolog­i­cal rea­son­ing flaws, and illus­trate how to re­fute a so­ciolog­i­cal the­ory.

He demon­strates how to trans­late the anal­y­sis of so­cial roles and pro­fes­sions into a gen­er­al­ized anal­y­sis of a so­ciety. So­ciol­o­gists and economists have di­vorced the two, but they are in­sep­a­rable when done well. This forms the ba­sis of class anal­y­sis as used by later thinkers like Smith, Marx, and Ve­blen.

It is rare for a so­cial sci­en­tist to ex­am­ine so­cial tech­nol­ogy as lu­cidly. For ex­am­ple, the Aris­totelian ac­count of hi­er­ar­chy and why it arises is su­perb. The con­cep­tu­ally clean dis­tinc­tions be­tween the differ­ent forms of in­ter­per­sonal co­or­di­na­tion can greatly aug­ment one’s abil­ity to nav­i­gate and study such pat­terns.

Fi­nally, as an ex­am­ple of a good sci­en­tist and philoso­pher, he can be used to help un­der­stand sci­en­tists and philoso­phers in gen­eral.

5. On War — Carl von Clausewitz

Clause­witz was a Prus­sian staff officer in the wars against Napoleon and later be­came an in­fluen­tial mil­i­tary the­o­rist. Good mil­i­tary the­ory is rarely spread pub­li­cly, but Clause­witz’s wife was a promi­nent no­ble­woman who pub­lished his mag­num opus af­ter his death.

His work pro­vides a demon­stra­tion of ex­cel­lent the­o­ret­i­cal so­ciolog­i­cal method­ol­ogy, es­pe­cially as re­gards the proper use of case stud­ies, how to tell the gen­eral from the par­tic­u­lar, and how to tell the fun­da­men­tal from the sub­or­di­nate.

Clause­witz’s model of how armies func­tion pro­vides a foun­da­tion for un­der­stand­ing the method­ol­ogy and con­clu­sions of Great Founder The­ory as ap­plied to the mil­i­tary.

This book shows how an es­sen­tially philo­soph­i­cal ap­proach can be brought far enough to be prac­ti­cally use­ful.

6. Great Founder The­ory — Samo Burja

A work in progress, but a de­cent in­tro­duc­tion. This ex­plains my cur­rent so­ciolog­i­cal paradigm.

7. The Evolu­tion of Civ­i­liza­tions — Car­roll Quigley

This book pro­vides a good macro the­ory of civ­i­liza­tion. Much of the pre-his­tor­i­cal spec­u­la­tion can be skipped, but the overviews of his­tor­i­cal civ­i­liza­tions provide an ex­am­ple of first-rate in­sti­tu­tional anal­y­sis.

Quigley’s ca­reer demon­strates an ex­cel­lent piece of so­ciolog­i­cal method­ol­ogy around gath­er­ing in­for­ma­tion to test your the­ory: he builds a the­ory that em­pha­sizes the im­por­tance of elites, and sub­se­quently goes and talks to mem­bers of the elite to test and ap­ply the the­ory. Note, how­ever, that he is not a prac­ti­tioner, so his use­ful­ness as an ex­em­plar who tests and acts on their the­ory is some­what limited.

8. Per­se­cu­tion and the Art of Writ­ing — Leo Strauss

Thinkers can pro­voke so­cial or le­gal penalties in all so­cieties. An im­por­tant way to avoid at­tack that can de­rail a ca­reer, in­tel­lec­tual pro­ject, or a life is to learn to write be­tween the lines. Leo Strauss’ work helps you learn im­proved text in­ter­pre­ta­tion pro­ce­dures by teach­ing you to read be­tween the lines, rep­re­sent­ing a good up­grade on what you learned from Adler. It is a very good prac­tice to at­tempt a ‘Straus­sian’ read­ing of a text even when there is no hid­den mes­sage, since it en­tices to a higher level of in­for­ma­tion pro­cess­ing.

At this point, you can con­tinue on your jour­ney or re­curse to reread Quigley, Plato, and Thucy­dides. Quigley writes obliquely and at a dis­tance re­gard­ing An­glo-Amer­i­can elites. Thucy­dides is a poli­ti­cal ex­ile from Athens. While Thucy­dides is sig­nifi­cantly freed from con­straints and re­tri­bu­tion, he will con­tinue to have no­table con­flicts of in­ter­est and mes­sag­ing agen­das. Plato writes trick­ily for ped­a­gog­i­cal pur­poses, in­ten­tion­ally set­ting challenges and puz­zles for the reader, hop­ing the reader uses his text as an ob­sta­cle course to grow stronger.

Some­one who makes it through this list, if they ap­proach the texts with the rigor ad­vised by Adler, will have the foun­da­tional un­der­stand­ing nec­es­sary for in­ter­pret­ing so­cial events. They will be bet­ter equipped to do so than the vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple.

The most im­por­tant thing to be gained from these texts is a set of method­olog­i­cal tools, a way of think­ing about and in­ter­pret­ing so­cial events, that one can then use to gen­er­ate one’s own in­sights about so­ciety. Th­ese au­thors try to bridge the gaps be­tween the prac­ti­tioner, the the­o­rist, and the em­piri­cist. This is some­thing a great so­ciol­o­gist must do. One of the most tragic flaws a his­to­rian can have is a my­opic in­ter­est in events, rather than so­cieties. The most tragic flaw of a so­cial sci­en­tist is the ig­no­rance of his­tory that triv­ially re­buts the most beau­tiful statis­ti­cally-de­rived or philo­soph­i­cally-de­rived the­ory of so­ciety.

Se­con­dar­ily, these au­thors provide su­perb ex­am­ples of what good so­ciol­ogy looks like, which can then be used to con­struct one’s model of real ex­per­tise in this do­main. This is crit­i­cal for eval­u­at­ing the host of sup­posed ex­perts who claim to have an un­der­stand­ing of so­ciety that gives au­thor­ity to their in­ter­pre­ta­tions of events. Separat­ing the wheat from the chaff is nec­es­sary for nav­i­gat­ing the con­tem­po­rary dis­course with­out be­ing mis­led.

Many oth­ers have since asked me for such lists, so I’ve kept it around and shared it when­ever my friends or ac­quain­tances have asked for book recom­men­da­tions. Now you have it. Will you take a break from the news to read and think?