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Ask MetaFilter’s best introductory books

When talking about the Best Books I linked to this great Ask MetaFilter thread from 2007: What single book is the best introduction to your field (or specialization within your field) for laypeople?.

The whole thing’s worth a read but a while back I decided to go through, give it a squeeze, and extract the juicy bits: the books themselves. So below is a list of books, grouped into topics, as recommended by the thread.

This doesn’t list every book mentioned. I left out some where the topic was particularly narrow and I left out others where the poster give no impression of knowing anything about the field other than having read the single book they recommend.

And, of course, this is quite an arbitrary list of subjects and books — ask the same question of a different group of people and most of the list will no doubt be different (although the books that are the same… those will be the interesting ones). Anyway, here’s the list:

Most of the links are to the pages the original Ask MetaFilter posters linked to; I’ve added some where no link was given.


Please consider making Metafilter the affiliate instead of yourself.

Posted by metafilter user at 8am, 10 May 2009 #

I did consider it.

I’m not going to be an arse about it, and refuse to change things, but perhaps you could explain in more detail why I should?

If I understand correctly, MetaFilter automatically makes all Amazon links posted by its users use its own affiliate links.

In spending some time compiling this list myself, and linking to the original source and encouraging people to go and read it, I felt justified in changing the affiliate links. If nothing else, it’s more transparent — it seems odd that an Amazon link on one site contributes some money to another.

Although either way, no one’s going to make their fortune — with this new post the number of unique visitors to this site jumped dramatically yesterday from an average of about 3 to the giddy heights of 31.

Posted by Phil Gyford at 9am, 10 May 2009 #

Now that I re-look, I’m amazed at how long the list is. You’re right in that compiling it must have taken you quite some effort. Thanks for the fair reply!

Posted by metafilter user at 4pm, 11 May 2009 #

Yeah, I’m cool with you making the links to your account Phil, no worries. It was a shit-ton of work to compile the list and you’re welcome to point the few bucks anywhere you want.

Posted by Matt Haughey at 4pm, 12 May 2009 #

Exhaustive metafilter analyzers unite!

Posted by Josh Millard at 4pm, 12 May 2009 #

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Posted by Ask MetaFilter’s best introductory books « RobotSkirts at 4pm, 12 May 2009 #

[…] A big list compiled from this Metafilter thread, entitlted “What single book is the best introduction to your field (or specialization within your field) for laypeople?”, it is a massive list. […]

Posted by The Best Introductory Books | Extra Future at 5pm, 12 May 2009 #

Great, thanks Matt. I don’t think I’ll be retiring on the proceeds :)

Posted by Phil Gyford at 5pm, 12 May 2009 #

This is interesting. Brings up questions of organization and the criteria for “best introductory work” and who should or can make that declaration. Hmmm…

Many thanks for pointing out that Metafilter thread…I’m going to have to track down ‘Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.’

(Choked to see no one mentioned ‘The Art of Writing’ by John Gardner, though. :/)


Posted by Marri at 6pm, 12 May 2009 #

The following site seems to be trying a similar project for sub-fields of the law; they don’t seem to be culling very strictly, but as a source for shortlists, it’s not bad:

Posted by Tom at 10pm, 12 May 2009 #

W/r/t the above — that’s announcing-underscore-the-underscore.html; linked via my name, below.

Posted by Tom at 10pm, 12 May 2009 #

I keep getting miffed that I missed the original thread, so here is my chance to go on record:

ESL / EFL Teaching:

Learning Teaching, by Jim Scrivener

Posted by Meatbomb at 11pm, 12 May 2009 #

For the history of rhetoric:

Herrick’s The History and Theory of Rhetoric (new edition this year)

Posted by Courtney at 12am, 13 May 2009 #

Excellent list, thank you for this.

Couple extremely minor HTML formatting niggles: – Filmmaking; “Film Directing Shot by Shot” by Katz ends the link (strictly speaking, the anchor tag) in front of the first “by” instead of the second – Teaching; “How Children Learn” by John Holt is the only one that includes the author’s name in the linked text, instead of after it.

(Maybe I should write a book on nitpicking.)

Posted by jesse at 12am, 13 May 2009 #

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Posted by Magnetbox - links for 2009-05-12 at 1am, 13 May 2009 #

[…] Septivium – Ask MetaFilter’s best introductory books (tags: mefi books list) […]

Posted by links for 2009-05-12 at 4am, 13 May 2009 #

For those unaware, there’s a discussion of this list going on at MetaFilter’s MetaTalk.

Posted by Phil Gyford at 8am, 13 May 2009 #

Just as an organizational matter, Stream Ecology would fit very nicely under your Biology header and doesn’t really need its own header.

Posted by hydropsyche at 10am, 14 May 2009 #

Thanks hydropsyche — I’ve moved Stream Ecology under Biology now. I’ve kept the slightly superfluous header just for consistency’s sake.

Posted by Phil Gyford at 12pm, 14 May 2009 #

[…] Intro books on a whole raft of subjects. A nice compilation of the best primers to various disciplines. […]

Posted by Fluffy Links - Monday 18th of May 2009 « Damien Mulley at 4am, 18 May 2009 #

[…] Septivium – Ask MetaFilter’s best introductory books – […]

Posted by Bookmarks for May 21st through May 22nd at Logicola at 11am, 22 May 2009 #

Great job!

May be about music, you could include the Schoenberg book which is a milestone in understanding modern composition.

Posted by musicaltales at 4pm, 17 July 2009 #

[…] best introductory books – “Introductory books in dozens of specialties…” […]

Posted by Interesting Reading #386 – Geek to-do list, mystery sea lions, compact Hummer, halfway to Pluto and much more… – The Blogs at HowStuffWorks at 1am, 30 December 2009 #

[…] Septivium – Ask MetaFilter’s best introductory books (tags: books list reference education) […]

Posted by links for 2009-12-29 « Mandarine at 4am, 30 December 2009 #

Thanks so much for compiling this list! I had that old thread bookmarked for awhile and was planning on going through it myself, but you saved me a lot of work in building my new reading list!

I hope I can contribute to your amazon affiliate paycheck in return for your service 😀

Posted by Karl Keefer at 12am, 24 January 2010 #

[…] Want to learn something new? A collection of the best books to introduce a given topic, as suggested by users of Ask Metafilter. Handy. (tags: askmetafilter advice best books education introduction learning howto metafilter reading reference blog post septivium) […]

Posted by links for 2010-04-15 « pootling at 9am, 15 April 2010 #

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Posted by Best Introductory books « bellhants at 6am, 18 February 2012 #