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The Best Books

For years, long before the idea for this site, I’ve been mildly obsessed by the idea of the “Best Books”. For any given topic, I imagine, there must be a single Best Book to read. If you’re going to read a single book about something, which should it be?

I expect this question is easier to answer for some subjects than others. Maybe it’s also easier if the subject is narrow. For example, if you want a good overview of typography then The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst (Amazon US, UK) is usually suggested as the Best Book. But what if you want to learn about the history of the world in one book? There are such books but in a single volume they will probably be necessarily sketchy or else lean toward a particular period or region (for English-language books, probably Western civilisation).

Breaking a large topic into smaller chunks isn’t necessarily easy either. If you wanted to cover all of history in two books, is that easier? Maybe it’s even harder. What about three books? Six? Ten? How would you best break the subject up into smaller ones? Is it better to read one brilliant, but narrow, book over two or three broader ones?

Years ago I came across, a site which now only exists at It enabled anyone to contribute names of books to a directory of subjects with the aim of finding the “definining works” for each one. It’s very patchy but there are some interesting books there and it suggests one way of gathering this kind of information.

In 2007 someone on Ask Metafilter asked What single book is the best introduction to your field (or specialization within your field) for laypeople?. Again, there’s some fascinating reading in there in a vast array of topics, from the broad to super specific. It also makes apparent the importance of the book-suggesting-person’s qualifications (in the loosest sense of the word) — some posters are obviously well read and suggest a single book after reading well around the topic. Others suggest a title with no backup information and, unless many others agree with them, I wouldn’t take their advice without further research; maybe this is the only book they’ve read on the subject and they’ve missed better ones.

An example of the well-read book-suggester is John Baez on his page How to Learn Math and Physics. I know nothing about him but his recommendations for books on these topics make it clear he knows what he’s talking about (as far as I can tell). No doubt others with similar levels of knowledge would suggest different titles but having to choose between suggestions from several well-read people is a good problem to have.

Often, without access to experts in a particular domain, finding out the Best Book on a topic is, like finding the answer to many difficult subjects online, a case of research, reading many points of view, and triangulating the right answer as best you can.

If you have ideas for how to find out the Best Books for many different domains, I’d love to hear them.


Perhaps one starting point is the people who are already acknowledged experts in those domains – a bit like the guests Melvin Bragg gets on In Our Time.

Smashing idea, this, Phil. I’ve always been very keen on “share what you know” kinds of web site, and this looks like it could head in some interesting directions.

Posted by giles at 10pm, 19 February 2009 #

Perhaps one starting point is the people who are already acknowledged experts in those domains – a bit like the guests Melvin Bragg gets on In Our Time.

Here’s the weird thing, giles: I actively avoid the In Our TIme programmes where I consider myself knowledgeable in a particular subject. It’s not just because I know that the format will inevitably cut corners, smooth out subtleties and complexities, and lead to false conclusions; it’s sometimes because I have ongoing disagreements with the experts who show up regularly. (To be specific: John Mullan is a very, very good scholar, but on the things I’ve done most work on, he’s prone to perpetuating some very suspect ideas.)

Of course, knowing this about my own area of specialisation, I have to assume that the IoTs on other subjects annoy specialists in those fields in similar ways.

So it’s necessary to make allowances, knowing that in many fields there’s a stage of knowledge that gets chipped away by more advanced knowledge: the best example that comes to mind is the simplified model of the cell that’s taught in GCSE biology, versus that in A-level classes.

In that sense, the best book is probably the book that motivates you to read further, and read further in a way that might lead you, ultimately, to disagree with some of its assertions and conclusions.

Posted by nick s at 8am, 4 March 2009 #

[…] I’m still keen on the idea of finding the very best books available on a given topic I thought today I’d discuss some other […]

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[…] talking about the Best Books I linked to this great Ask MetaFilter thread from 2007: What single book is the best introduction […]

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