The Best Textbooks on Every Subject
For years, my self-education was stupid and wasteful. I learned by consuming blog posts, Wikipedia articles, classic texts, podcast episodes, popular books, video lectures, peer-reviewed papers, Teaching Company courses, and Cliff’s Notes. How inefficient!
I’ve since discovered that textbooks are usually the quickest and best way to learn new material. That’s what they are designed to be, after all. Less Wrong has often recommended the “read textbooks!” method. Make progress by accumulation, not random walks.
But textbooks vary widely in quality. I was forced to read some awful textbooks in college. The ones on American history and sociology were memorably bad, in my case. Other textbooks are exciting, accurate, fair, well-paced, and immediately useful.
What if we could compile a list of the best textbooks on every subject? That would be extremely useful.
Let’s do it.
Post the title of your favorite textbook on a given subject.
You must have read at least two other textbooks on that same subject.
You must briefly name the other books you’ve read on the subject and explain why you think your chosen textbook is superior to them.
Rules #2 and #3 are to protect against recommending a bad book that only seems impressive because it’s the only book you’ve read on the subject. Once, a popular author on Less Wrong recommended Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy to me, but when I noted that it was more polemical and inaccurate than the other major histories of philosophy, he admitted he hadn’t really done much other reading in the field, and only liked the book because it was exciting.
I’ll start the list with three of my own recommendations...
Recommendation: The Great Conversation, 6th edition, by Norman Melchert
Reason: The most popular history of western philosophy is Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, which is exciting but also polemical and inaccurate. More accurate but dry and dull is Frederick Copelston’s 11-volume A History of Philosophy. Anthony Kenny’s recent 4-volume history, collected into one book as A New History of Western Philosophy, is both exciting and accurate, but perhaps too long (1000 pages) and technical for a first read on the history of philosophy. Melchert’s textbook, The Great Conversation, is accurate but also the easiest to read, and has the clearest explanations of the important positions and debates, though of course it has its weaknesses (it spends too many pages on ancient Greek mythology but barely mentions Gottlob Frege, the father of analytic philosophy and of the philosophy of language). Melchert’s history is also the only one to seriously cover the dominant mode of Anglophone philosophy done today: naturalism (what Melchert calls “physical realism”). Be sure to get the 6th edition, which has major improvements over the 5th edition.
Recommendation: Cognitive Science, by Jose Luis Bermudez
Reason: Jose Luis Bermudez’s Cognitive Science: An Introduction to the Science of Mind does an excellent job setting the historical and conceptual context for cognitive science, and draws fairly from all the fields involved in this heavily interdisciplinary science. Bermudez does a good job of making himself invisible, and the explanations here are some of the clearest available. In contrast, Paul Thagard’s Mind: Introduction to Cognitive Science skips the context and jumps right into a systematic comparison (by explanatory merit) of the leading theories of mental representation: logic, rules, concepts, analogies, images, and neural networks. The book is only 270 pages long, and is also more idiosyncratic than Bermudez’s; for example, Thagard refers to the dominant paradigm in cognitive science as the “computational-representational understanding of mind,” which as far as I can tell is used only by him and people drawing from his book. In truth, the term refers to a set of competing theories, for example the computational theory and the representational theory. While not the best place to start, Thagard’s book is a decent follow-up to Bermudez’s text. Better, though, is Kolak et. al.’s Cognitive Science: An Introduction to Mind and Brain. It contains more information than Bermudez’s book, but I prefer Bermudez’s flow, organization and content selection. Really, though, both Bermudez and Kolak offer excellent introductions to the field, and Thagard offers a more systematic and narrow investigation that is worth reading after Bermudez and Kolak.
Recommendation: Meaning and Argument by Ernest Lepore
Reason: For years, the standard textbook on logic was Copi’s Introduction to Logic, a comprehensive textbook that has chapters on language, definitions, fallacies, deduction, induction, syllogistic logic, symbolic logic, inference, and probability. It spends too much time on methods that are rarely used today, for example Mill’s methods of inductive inference. Amazingly, the chapter on probability does not mention Bayes (as of the 11th edition, anyway). Better is the current standard in classrooms: Patrick Hurley’s A Concise Introduction to Logic. It has a table at the front of the book that tells you which sections to read depending on whether you want (1) a traditional logic course, (2) a critical reasoning course, or (3) a course on modern formal logic. The single chapter on induction and probability moves too quickly, but is excellent for its length. Peter Smith’s An Introduction to Formal Logic instead focuses tightly on the usual methods used by today’s philosophers: propositional logic and predicate logic. My favorite in this less comprehensive mode, however, is Ernest Lepore’s Meaning and Argument, because it (a) is highly efficient, and (b) focuses not so much on the manipulation of symbols in a formal system but on the arguably trickier matter of translating English sentences into symbols in a formal system in the first place.
I would love to read recommendations from experienced readers on the following subjects: physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, probability theory, economics, statistics, calculus, decision theory, cognitive biases, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, molecular biochemistry, medicine, epistemology, philosophy of science, meta-ethics, and much more.
Please, post your own recommendations! And, follow the rules.
Recommendations so far (that follow the rules; this list updated 02-25-2017):
On history of western philosophy, lukeprog recommends Melchert’s The Great Conversation over Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, Copelston’s History of Philosophy, and Kenney’s A New History of Western Philosophy.
On introductory logic for philosophy, lukeprog recommends Lepore’s Meaning and Argument over Copi’s Introduction to Logic, Hurley’s A Concise Introduction to Logic, and Smith’s An Introduction to Formal Logic.
On representation theory, SarahC recommends Sternberg’s Group Theory and Physics over Lang’s Algebra, Weyl’s The Theory of Groups and Quantum Mechanics, and Fulton & Harris’ Representation Theory: A First Course.
On basic Bayesian statistics, jsalvatier recommends Skilling & Sivia’s Data Analysis: A Bayesian Tutorial over Gelman’s Bayesian Data Analysis, Bolstad’s Bayesian Statistics, and Robert’s The Bayesian Choice.
On non-relativistic quantum mechanics, wbcurry recommends Sakurai & Napolitano’s Modern Quantum Mechanics over Messiah’s Quantum Mechanics, Cohen-Tannoudji’s Quantum Mechanics, and Greiner’s Quantum Mechanics: An Introduction.
On machine learning, alexflint recommends Bishop’s Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning over Russell & Norvig’s Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach and Thrun et. al.’s Probabilistic Robotics.
On systems theory, Davidmanheim recommends Meadows’ Thinking in Systems: A Primer over Senge’s The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization and Kim’s Introduction to Systems Thinking.
On probability theory, SarahC recommends Feller’s An Introduction to Probability Theory + Vol. 2 over Ross’ A First Course in Probability and Koralov & Sinai’s Theory of Probability and Random Processes.
On probability theory, madhadron recommends Grimmett & Stirzaker’s Probability and Random Processes over Feller’s Introduction to Probability Theory and Its Applications and Nelson’s Radically Elementary Probability Theory.
On decision-making & biases, badger recommends Bazerman & Moore’s Judgment in Managerial Decision Making over Hastie & Dawes’ Rational Choice in an Uncertain World, Gilboa’s Making Better Decisions, and others.
On neuroscience, kjmiller recommends Bear et al’s Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain over Purves et al’s Neuroscience and Kandel et al’s Principles of Neural Science.
On statistical mechanics, madhadron recommends Landau & Lifshitz’ Statistical Physics, Volume 5 over Sethna’s Entropy, Order Parameters, and Complexity and Reichl’s A Modern Course in Statistical Physics.
On criminal justice, strange recommends Fuller’s Criminal Justice: Mainstream and Crosscurrents over Neubauer & Fradella’s America’s Courts and the Criminal Justice System and Albanese’ Criminal Justice.
On partial differential equations, orthonormal recommends Strauss’ Partial Differential Equations over Evans’ Partial Differential Equations and Hormander’s Analysis of Partial Differential Operators.
On numerical methods, Epictetus recommends Press et al.’s Numerical Recipes over Bulirsch & Stoer’s Introduction to Numerical Analysis, Atkinson’s An Introduction to Numerical Analysis, and Hamming’s Numerical Methods of Scientists and Engineers.
On ordinary differential equations, Epictetus recommends Arnold’s Ordinary Differential Equations over Coddington’s An Introduction to Ordinary Differential Equations and Enenbaum & Pollard’s Ordinary Differential Equations.