“If you could recommend only one book for me to read…”

by on February 12, 2016 at 2:12 am in Books, Education, Philosophy, Uncategorized | Permalink

That is a question from a very smart person, over thirty years of age, who claims not to have read very much (I don’t know how much).

So which book should I recommend?

Conditional on the person knowing me, the idea of simply introducing economics is not going to win, even if that would be the correct recommendation for many others.  And “Collected Works” are not allowed.

How about a broadly philosophical novel, such as Don Quixote or Homer’s Odyssey or In Search of Lost TimeMoby-Dick?  A play of Shakespeare?  A current favorite, such as Ferrante or Knausgaard?

How about a perfectly constructed travel book, touting the virtues of a new and magical place?  But most travel books I find dull, unsatisfying, and too scattered with wasteful, overly subjective sentences about sunsets and train trips.

A didactic, moralizing book, perhaps on charity or Effective Altruism?

For many people music may be more powerful than the written word, so perhaps the recent Jan Swafford biography of Beethoven, or John Eliot Gardiner’s book on Bach, or any number of good books on Mozart.  A critical guidebook to some of the best movies available?  Almost everyone can glean new ideas for their Netflix queue, even if they already have seen lots of films.

I don’t know of a biography which is inspirational for everyone or even most people, and I figure an intelligent person older than thirty already has been exposed to the world’s major religions.

How about a book which is a compendium for a hobby, such as a bird watcher’s guide, a Sotheby’s auction catalog, or a Fuchsia Dunlop cookbook?

I keep finding myself drawn to recommend a book which leads the advice recipient away from books, rather than toward them.  Is that a strength or weakness of the book medium?

1 Dzhaughn February 12, 2016 at 2:14 am

If you could recommend only one book, you would. But you can’t recommend just one.

2 Thomas Sewell February 12, 2016 at 12:46 pm

I think the key is “who claims not to have read very much”, which I’d diagnose as doesn’t already love to read.

Therefore the first step would be to develop a love of reading by reading something they’ll enjoy.

Without knowing their specific interested (i.s. SF vs Fantasy, physics vs. economics, mystery vs thriller, etc…), It’s hard to give a good recommendation for a specific title, i.e. The unabridged Count of Monte Cristo would be great for many, but not for some. So my recommendation would be for an enjoyable (i.e not too tough to slog through) read in an area they’re interested in, and to not discount fiction, with the goal of having them experience enjoying a book or two first.

3 Adrian Ratnapala February 12, 2016 at 1:19 pm

Actually, if you wanted a pleasant book for someone who is no word-adict, an properly abridged version might do it. The full book begins with a charming portrait of bourgoise-yet-chic life with danger lurking under the surface. That surface breaks and the plot seems to turn into a good – if slow – adventure.

But the Dumas never bothers with the adventure, and instead spends the second half of the book on a vulgar, amoral and above all tedious wet-dream about conspicuous consumption. And yet within that matrix he buries half a dozen plot threads that would each be a cracking good story in itself.

The good 50% The Count of Monte Christo might well be the best ever novel written.

4 Adrian Ratnapala February 12, 2016 at 1:31 pm

I agree with the notion of going for something fun. And I would also go for short.

But if you want a good book, unabridged, I would pick The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. As long as the reader is not the sort who freaks out about Christianity. For those who do, you can make picks along similar lines — the best books written for kids and teenagers are good books for all ages.

5 kromer February 12, 2016 at 3:00 pm

Agree with Thomas on generating interest, which you could approach in a couple of different ways.

One would be to recommend a ‘survey’ type book that gets the reader excited about literature, provides context that aids in understanding important works, and ideally, makes the case for why reading is important:

Several of Harold Bloom’s popularizing books would fit the bill perfectly—one is even called How to Read and Why. I was lucky enough to stumble upon Bloom’s Shakespeare book during adolescence, and ever since he’s served as the brilliant literature prof that I never had.

In poetry Edward Hirsch’s outstanding How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry would be a good choice. Bloom also has a poetry anthology that includes biographical notes and analysis for the major English poets through appx 1950.

Another approach would be to recommend writing of an exquisite quality (beautiful prose, deep themes, interesting narrative) that is also accessible. That rules out Steven King and JK Rowling (shite,) as well as Faulkner and Joyce and Lowry (density) as well as Proust (no plot.) But there is plenty that remains:

– Any Cormac McCarthy after and including All the Pretty Horses.
– Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Secret Agent
– Norman Mclean’s A River Runs Through it, or better, Young Men and Fire
– Short stories of Fitzgerald, Hemmingway or Flannery O’Connor
– For poetry, go with the more accessible stuff the carries the Romantic torch: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Whitman, Hart Crane.

When in doubt, just give him Hart Crane. If a person cannot be transported by a poem like At Melville’s Tomb or The Bridge, best to look for another hobby.

6 Nathan W February 12, 2016 at 3:18 pm

I don’t think the survey book would be interesting unless the interest were pre-existing. I would suggest a compilation of abridged versions as an alternative, but not only does this miss out on a lot of the best parts of the literature (the writing), collections are against the rules of the mind game presented to us.

7 Dzhaughn February 12, 2016 at 2:16 pm

On reflection, I nominate Mark Twain for the devoted non-reader.

C.S. Lewis? Or T. H. White? Probably too childish a 30 year old; better wait until they are 50.

Another way of solving the problem is to find author events with devoted young audiences with an affinity for the non-reader. Jeannette Winterson springs to mind, as an example for women of a certain disposition and not yet of a certain age.

8 Nodnarb the Nasty February 12, 2016 at 2:17 am

The Fountainhead. Le duh!

9 Doug February 12, 2016 at 3:23 am

“Yes, at first I was happy to be learning how to read. It seemed exciting and magical, but then I read this: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I read every last word of this garbage, and because of this piece of s**t, I am never reading again.”

10 middyfeek February 12, 2016 at 7:22 am

I’m betting that you didn’t read it at all (it’s 1167 pages in the paperback edition). You never read an 1167 page book in your life. Now cereal boxes, those I believe you have read.

11 Adrian Ratnapala February 12, 2016 at 1:21 pm

“The Fountainhead” is just two words (three if you’re generous), but he didn’t seem to read them either.

12 Matthew February 12, 2016 at 1:47 pm

See the quotation marks. You are responding to a South Park character whom Doug has quoted, not to Doug.

13 Anon February 12, 2016 at 2:21 am

A “very smart person” over 30 who has not read very much? Is that possible? Are we talking about an idiot savant? I say this as a PhD economist…

14 Thiago Ribeiro February 12, 2016 at 5:45 am

It depends on what one means by “smart”, I guess. Raw intelligence? High I.Q? Plausible. Accomplished on some narrow field? Plausible, too. I have met accomplished professionals who have only read textbooks photocopies all their lives. Also depends on what “not to have read very much” means.

15 dan1111 February 12, 2016 at 6:11 am

Wow, narrow perspective here and in other comments. As if book larnin’ were the only thing that smart people could do.

You can be brilliant and excel in many areas without reading “much”. Examples: engineer, software developer, inventor, entrepreneur, musician, doctor.

16 Dan Weber February 12, 2016 at 9:20 am

I do “slow reading” the same way people do “slow food.” Sometimes I go back and savor paragraphs I liked. I once spent 5 minutes on a single page in one of the Game Of Thrones books, which is already a long book.

I have no desire to speed-read, the same as a slow-food person would have no desire to figure out how to eat faster.

I like Tyler’s book posts because it gives me summaries of books I’ll never ever get around to.

And I, too, would like a pointer to just one book. I could even handle a list of three books.

17 Mark Thorson February 12, 2016 at 11:10 am

You might like Assignment in Utopia. It’s a first-person account of the early years of the Stalin period. Very well-written, among my favorite books. The author was the Moscow correspondent of United Press.

18 JWatts February 12, 2016 at 11:19 am

“Assignment in Utopia” Thanks for the recommendation.

19 Nathan W February 12, 2016 at 3:26 pm

Speed reading is for the daily news and exhaustive reports on stuff you’re interested in. Literature, philosophy, etc., should generally be read at a pace where you can a) enjoy the use of rhythm, meter and other aspects of writing, and b) where you are able to make the deeper connections within the material.

If you’re going to speed read literature, save yourself the time and just read the Wiki summary.

20 Sam Haysom February 12, 2016 at 9:25 am

It’s Ta-Nehisi Coates.

21 werner February 12, 2016 at 9:50 am

we’re back to an introductory economics text

22 David Condon February 12, 2016 at 10:19 am

Dyslexia, ADHD, etc.

23 Jeff R. February 12, 2016 at 11:25 am

Maybe he spent his first 20-odd years or so in a remote Alaskan fishing village where the only books available were pulp romance novels from the grocery store.

24 gamma February 13, 2016 at 6:00 pm

Broaden your mind a bit. There are very smart people who do not like to read, just as there are foolish and silly people who do like to read. A Venn diagram can demonstrate this model; as a PhD economist, you could probably draw it for yourself.

I am a dedicated reader, but my brother doesn’t care much for poring over books. He is very smart indeed, with the enviable ability of getting to the heart of complex questions. He took up reading well past thirty, when he traveled a lot for work and reluctantly starting reading to pass the time on airplanes. His first foray into recreational reading was Louis L’Amour, the prolific producer of paperback westerns. A year ago he asked me to recommend a book on economics. I was both floored and flattered.

25 carlolspln February 12, 2016 at 2:23 am

1) “That is a question from a very smart person, over thirty years of age, who claims not to have read very much”

How many internal contradictions does this statement contain?

2) Its too late. One needs to develop the lust for reading when one is v young – & the ocular motor skills, using one’s subconscious when speed reading & all the cognitive short cuts important in plowing through text while remembering it.

3) The most appropriate response is a title in one of his areas of interest. But how can he have these if he doesn’t read in the first place?

26 Pshrnk February 12, 2016 at 9:04 am

What BS

27 Ryan McKean February 12, 2016 at 12:26 pm

+1

28 carlolspln February 12, 2016 at 9:02 pm

Hey, you boys are just sore ’cause I made good points.

& you need to read more: http://www.amazon.com/Proust-Squid-Story-Science-Reading/dp/0060933844 [see point two, above]

29 Dzhaughn February 12, 2016 at 2:20 pm

It is not too late.

Many math or hard-science Ph.D.s potentially fit into the category of not having read much but being very, perhaps extremely, intelligent.

30 Heorogar February 12, 2016 at 3:23 pm

heh. The genius S.T.E.M. PhD’s on TV’s “The Big Bang Theory” seem to limit their reading to comic books and academic science stuff.

31 Dots February 12, 2016 at 2:24 am

Catch-22, Quixote or Sjvek. something funny

32 JWatts February 12, 2016 at 11:21 am

Somebody that has never read much is probably not going to enjoy any of those books.

33 Adrian Ratnapala February 12, 2016 at 1:27 pm

Of those, I have only attempted Don Quixiote. I liked it, but put it down because I don’t like gross-out humour. I don’t see why it would put off a non-reader.

Translated books like Don Quixiote also have the “advantage” that they will be in roughly contemporary language — I imagine it is less of a beginner book for Spanish readers. I would recommend it to anyone with a median-or-higher tolerance for vomit jokes.

34 Jeff R. February 12, 2016 at 11:27 am

Catch 22 is the same joke repeated 85 bajillion ways over 300 pages. No reason to read beyond the first chapter or so.

35 Dots February 12, 2016 at 2:34 pm

The spy who came in from the Cold
Money by Amis
Amis’s first

36 S February 12, 2016 at 2:37 am

Dune

37 Chip February 12, 2016 at 5:00 am

Good choice. Anyone who hasn’t read much shouldn’t be given Kirkegaard. They will never read again.

Dune or any book that fires their imagination – preferably a series that leads them to the next book.

38 iluvtacos February 12, 2016 at 5:45 am

Or The Stories Of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. Great engaging short science fiction. Obviously if they don’t like Sci-fi don’t go with this.

But something that will leave them wanting more.

39 kimock February 12, 2016 at 9:14 am

Can someone explain why? I read Dune as a teenager, and re-read again at age 40. I did not like it the second time. I am not being adversarial. I am genuinely curious what people see in it, to the point of making it their top choice.

40 JWatts February 12, 2016 at 11:27 am

Meh, not everything is going to click with everyone. To like Dune, it probably has to hit a certain meme that you like, to love it, it’s going to have to hit two or more memes that you like. And Dune is a baroque-feudal future history mix with a heavy ecological influence. A lot of it is more fantasy than science fiction.

Someone that loves Asimov, Heinlein or Campbell, might well find nothing they like in Dune.

41 Adrian Ratnapala February 12, 2016 at 1:40 pm

As a teenager I found Dund too dull to finish — probably because I am exactly the kind of “sciency” SF reader you have in mind. As an adult, I found it vulgar.

And yet as a teenager, and as an adult, I enjoy Magician. If you want fantasy, why put spaceships in it?

42 dbp February 12, 2016 at 9:24 am

Dune is great, but the problem is that the sequels steadily decline in quality.

43 JWatts February 12, 2016 at 11:23 am

And they rapidly decline in quality. I love science fiction. I found Dune excellent. The sequel was mediocre at best and everything else I read (from father and son) was El Ron Hubbard bad.

44 CorvusB February 12, 2016 at 1:29 pm

Concur with the declining quality of the sequels. I read Dune as a complete SF fanboy when it was first printed. Back then I was reading almost nothing else for pleasure. I wasn’t even all that enthused by Dune. I thought is was a nice bit, but not spectacular. I haven’t the faintest idea why it should be the single recommended book.

45 Harun February 12, 2016 at 6:11 pm

I read L Ron Hubbard’s dekalogy with my friends.

We all thoroughly enjoyed them, but we thought Soltan Gris was the hero and Jettero Heller was the bad guy.

Its way more fun that way.

46 Dave Barnes February 12, 2016 at 11:45 am

I read it in one sitting. Pulled an all-nighter in college. Loved it.

47 David February 12, 2016 at 2:39 am

You want to inspire a love of reading, to start him on a journey where he will make his own way through literary culture. Here you must consult his tastes, and not urge upon him your own. Ask him what sort of things he likes, and make suggestions accordingly. A good trashy novel, a book of poems, a popular biography–it all depends upon the person.

48 BDK February 12, 2016 at 9:36 am

This is the key point: Is the subject interested in developing a love of reading? Or is she/he looking to get as much as possible out of one book and then be done with it?

Personally, I would go with Moby Dick in both cases, but I would only recommend it if the new reader has enough knowledge of western history and religion to be drawn in to the metaphors. If the person asking the topic is someone who has spent 30 years reading decent magazines (New Yorker etc.) and a wide variety of online material and watching above-average film and television, that person may love Moby Dick. But if the person asking the question is less familiar with western culture–for example, an econ grad student from China–he or she may have a tougher time with it.

49 JWatts February 12, 2016 at 11:36 am

“Here you must consult his tastes, and not urge upon him your own. Ask him what sort of things he likes, and make suggestions accordingly. A good trashy novel, a book of poems, a popular biography–it all depends upon the person.”

This is the best advice of the thread. Frankly Tyler, with the description as written, it’s unlikely any suggestions written here are going to be worth anything.

“That is a question from a very smart person, over thirty years of age, who claims not to have read very much (I don’t know how much). So which book should I recommend?”

That’s just too general to work off of. A love of reading doesn’t come from a “good” book. Or everyone would love reading. A love of reading comes from finding books that you “love”. There are plenty of people who love reading historical romances. They might well hate every single book anyone on this list would recommend.

50 Joel February 12, 2016 at 2:53 am

If this person has kids, or intends to have kids, I would recommend “Impro”, by Keith Johnstone. It is not in any way a parenting book, yet it is by far the most important parenting book I have read.

51 Jeff Gould February 12, 2016 at 2:59 am

The Devils, Dostoevsky

52 Stuart February 12, 2016 at 8:15 am

Can someone explain to me why a novel would be better than a book on effective altruism?

I guess it depends on what you hope the book to accomplish. In my view, the goal is to have them become a better human being and do more good in the world. Perhaps the people suggesting novels disagree, so I’m curious what they hope their selection would achieve.

53 Droid February 12, 2016 at 8:25 am

The only reason to read novels to become a better human being and do more good in the world. That is their whole point. Really the whole point of any art is to satisfy human needs. Even the most base novel can satisfy some basic need in a reader thereby contributing to human growth and actualization.

54 Stuart February 12, 2016 at 10:01 am

I don’t feel like a lot of people read Fifty Shades of Gray or The DaVinci Code (both novels, if I’m not mistaken?) with the express goal of improving wanting to do more good in the world. I think a lot of people read novels to be entertained. Which isn’t a bad thing. It can contribute to human growth as you said. But some books have a bigger impact on changing people’s actions in a way that positively impacts the world than others. I’m curious how something like Dostoevsky is more likely to do that than a book on effective altruism. Novels seems like a very indirect way of getting people to change their actions for the better, and many may be turned off by the literary style (Russian literature is not for everyone) – whereas effective altruism makes a direct, persuasive case in (hopefully) broadly accessible style and language for changing your actions for the better.

55 Droid February 12, 2016 at 11:57 am

“effective altruism makes a direct, persuasive case in (hopefully) broadly accessible style and language for changing your actions for the better.” Absolutely, however, the two are not mutually exclusive. How does one come to be deeply committed to wanting to be a better person? You are absolutely right that Dostoevsky is not for everyone, yet I would argue that a character like Sonya in Crime and Punishment or Alyosha in Brothers Karamazov have inspired, enriched, supported in hard times, and strengthened more people’s moral compasses than all the non-fiction ever written. Sure, many people read for entertainment. Just as they listen to music, in part for entertainment, but why does Aristotle devote so much of Politics to music? Its because, music, like novels, can satisfy so many additional other human needs. Ted Gioia gives a great lecture on this topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4NT-fbu4b40

56 Stuart February 12, 2016 at 12:47 pm

The problem is that even if Crime and Punishment consciously or, more likely, subconsciously motivates you to a better person – you will still be ill-equipped to be a good person in an effective way. Like most people who think they are being very moral, you will probably donate to a relatively ineffective first-world charity with little to no research. Or maybe you never entertain the idea that the most moral (and fulfilling) option) you could do is take a high-paying job and donating most of your income to effective charities. That is a fairly new idea and practice, and despite novels like Crime and Punishment having been around for a long time, they never prompted someone to grapple with that idea in the way effective altruism has.

57 Adrian Ratnapala February 12, 2016 at 2:07 pm

You are right that the point of novels — and all stories — is to entertain.

But I think novel when a novel improves human beings, it works in a very direct way — more directly than non fiction. Fiction trains emotional faculties, especially those to do with sympathy.

You or I might — for example — have harsh views about dole bludgers or street hoodlums, but when you read a story about them and join their point of view your heart finds a place for them. Perhaps your political opinions change not one iota, but now those opinions will be held by a more sensitive hand and your reasons for harshness will not be so emotional.

58 Asher February 12, 2016 at 3:08 am

War and Peace. It is a great novel, one of the greatest, and long (good if you only read one). Also lots of history and a smattering of social science.
A Suitable Boy has similar virtues, involves more recent history.

59 Doug February 12, 2016 at 3:17 am

No. Long’s the opposite of what you want to go for. If you can only recommend one beer to a person who hasn’t really tried beer, you don’t recommend them the hoppiest double-IPA you can find. If you can only recommend one album to someone who doesn’t listen to much music, you don’t pick Tago Mago. If someone hasn’t really been to many museums, you don’t send them to PS1.

60 Rusty Synapses February 12, 2016 at 12:42 pm

I agree. You want a “gateway” book.

61 TDM February 13, 2016 at 6:04 pm

The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster. Easy, fun, and “gateway”–reading as adventure, learning, and sustaining.

62 Dylan February 12, 2016 at 12:48 pm

+1

War and Peace reads very quickly and is simply a wonderful book, perhaps minus its epilogues. Few authors describe humans as well as Tolstoy does.

63 Watson February 14, 2016 at 1:56 pm

Growing up, I absorbed through osmosis the background pop-culture sponsored insinuation that War and Peace was so interminably long and boring that it was essentially unreadable.

When I eventually read it, I wished it was much longer.

Upon mature reflection, I think that its undeserved reputation as being unreadably long springs from the negative reactions it engenders among chattering-class Jews for its unflattering, realistic portrayal of Jews.

It’s a fantastic book.

64 Elephant Stone February 12, 2016 at 3:14 am

The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley

Not my favourite book but it has a bit of everything in it while still being an easy, enjoyable read.

65 Chip February 12, 2016 at 5:02 am

An eye-opening assault on conventional wisdom.

And you’re the guy at the next dinner party.

66 Nathan W February 12, 2016 at 3:19 am

Why not the Bible or the Qur’an or something? Even if the historical details are probably fudged a lot and there is clearly plenty of quackery going on, there are the number one ethical/moral/social/legal guiding light for the first and second largest groupings of people on the planet.

I’m not saying convert. But read the book. Or even both of them, since one of them is practically a revision of the first.

67 Pshrnk February 12, 2016 at 9:08 am

Why not a good survey of world history?

68 JC February 12, 2016 at 10:00 am

“Why Nations Fail” would fill that space.

69 Nathan W February 12, 2016 at 3:37 pm

I would support that suggest based on the same reason. Or a good book in comparative religion with a heavy dose of archaeology and history to tangle out some of the parts that are basically undisputed (except by the eternally faithful who ignore evidence that the actual story might have gone slightly differently than the goat herders passed on orally).

70 French February 12, 2016 at 11:32 am

“Even if the historical details are probably fudged a lot”

Even if? You’re hedging on whether the bible – which contradicts itself so many times, where humans live to be hundreds of years old, which implies the value of pi is 3 – is 100% accurate?

71 Steve-O February 12, 2016 at 12:02 pm

Seems like he’s hedging on whether it’s some percentage accurate. I don’t know that that percentage is 100%. If I say a lot of the details are fudged, I’m guessing you’d say the book isn’t that close to 100% accurate. If I say they were probably fudged, then I’m saying it’s probably not close to 100% accurate, and definitely not 100% accurate.

72 Nathan W February 12, 2016 at 3:52 pm

It’s quite normal to find contradictions in the historical record, and factual knowledge through most of history has been weak enough for unreaslitic details to slip through the storytelling.

Anyways, I wasn’t suggesting to read them as a source of truth, rather, as a critical source of perspective respectively for the first and second largest groupings of people on the planet.

73 Dzhaughn February 12, 2016 at 2:23 pm

Any ancient book is incomprehensible without much background.

74 Doug February 12, 2016 at 3:30 am

The Count of Monte Cristo.

Is it the best, most meaningful or deepest book ever written? Certainly not. But it’s a solid piece of literature, while still being an exciting page turner. Someone who hasn’t read much by age 30 probably has a low IQ, an untrained attention span or a prejudice to thinking of books as boring slogs. Given that the question-poser is intelligent, the answer should focus on books that quickly capture and persistently hold the flighty reader’s attention

75 Steve Sailer February 12, 2016 at 4:56 am

Interesting idea. The idea is not to find the perfect book, but the gateway drug to reading books in general. Dumas père may have been the most gateway author of all time.

I haven’t read “The Count of Monte Cristo,” but while watching the 2002 movie with Jim Caviezel, I was struck by what a great plot it has, which I’d already absorbed from, I dunno, “Tom Sawyer” and Classic Comics.

I was thinking they should remake it with Christian Bale of The Dark Knight. But I see that Warner Bros. beat me to the idea that “The Count” is basically “Batman” avant la lettre, greenlighting a remake directed by The Dark Knight’s screenwriter David S. Goyer.

76 JWatts February 12, 2016 at 11:41 am

“I haven’t read “The Count of Monte Cristo,””

What? You Philistine!

It’s a great adventure tale. If you read it, be aware the common version is an abridged text. I’m not sure I’d recommend one over the other for someone who reads a lot. However, the movies tend to follow the abridged version, which skips from, (he escapes) to (he comes back extremely wealthy and vengeful).

77 Steve-O February 12, 2016 at 12:05 pm

Why is the goal to get this person to read more, rather than maximizing the value of the hours spent reading the book themselves? If this person is a workaholic, exercise fanatic, or any one of a number of other things, I’m not sure more reading is a good substitute.

78 Deek February 12, 2016 at 5:59 am

Someone age thirty will have grown up with the internet and could very well spend most of their free time reading The Economist and The New Yorker on line as well as various newspapers and delving into wikipedia articles, its sources and message boards pertaining to their interests. There is a huge amount of detailed, worthwhile information online. This is someone who hasn’t read many books, not someone who has never read. They may have made their way through various reading lists whilst at university but done most of their reading in shorter formats.

I can easily see how someone could be “very smart” for a thirty year old without having read very many books. Of course this depends on your definition of “very smart”. I feel many here are relating it to their already elevated IQ and not considering what “very smart” is relative to the population at large.

79 kevin February 12, 2016 at 10:46 am

29 yo here, so I speak from experience. The internet was in its infancy in the 90’s (wikipedia didn’t start until 2001), when I developed my love of reading. Could someone be reading the economist/new yorker etc. as they graduated high school in the early 2000’s? I suppose so, but it seems like a leap to go from not reading the first 15-18 years of your life to jumping into serious reading online.

80 Axolotl Jones February 12, 2016 at 10:03 am

IMHO, “The Three Musketeers” is a better gateway drug than “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Also there are two excellent-but-largely-forgotten sequels for the addicted. “Twenty Years After” is a little too obviously intended to appeal to people who liked “the Three Musketeers,”, but the five volume “Vicomte de Bragelonne” has entirely different concerns and includes some of Dumas’ best writing.

81 jim jones February 12, 2016 at 3:35 am

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

82 WH February 12, 2016 at 3:39 am

Adapt by Tim Harford. From there it opens you up to the world of ideas and so much other literature

83 Jeff Lonsdale February 12, 2016 at 3:39 am

This one is easy! For the type of person who asks that question and doesn’t read much…

How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard.

84 Tom February 12, 2016 at 8:02 am

Endorsed.

85 Thor February 12, 2016 at 12:28 pm

No. Piece of dung. Tried to read it. Then also tried his revisionist book on Sherlock Holmes. A Gallic poseur of the highest order.

86 Tom February 12, 2016 at 3:01 pm

To be fair, the title sort of hints it. Useful for the cocktail party circuit or perhaps even for our esteemed host.

87 WH February 12, 2016 at 3:42 am

Adapt by Tim Harford. The book introduces the concept of ideas and being open to new experiences. Being open to new experiences then allows you to find all the other great books, sensations, personal interactions and physical experiences. A case of increasing returns to networks (ideas).

88 EJMRBear February 12, 2016 at 3:46 am

Mahabharat or Bhagvad Gita

89 Droid February 12, 2016 at 8:27 am

+1 Fascinating on so many levels and a gateway to many new worlds.

90 Kinch February 12, 2016 at 3:49 am

A good question. Agree that trying to engender a love for reading is probably less useful than a book that the person will enjoy and/or learn something from.

Variations are also interesting:
Which book do you recommend if they have to read it?

What if they had to re-read it several times?

91 Donald Pretari February 12, 2016 at 4:04 am

I would recommend The mechanization of the world picture : Pythagoras to Newton / by E.J. Dijksterhuis. A great book for understanding the modern worldview.

92 Dave February 12, 2016 at 4:07 am

“who claims not to have read very much (I don’t know how much).”

Without knowing the answer to “how much” this question really doesn’t seem worth attempting to answer.

93 bob February 12, 2016 at 4:08 am

Ecclesiastes.

94 Axa February 12, 2016 at 5:47 am

Yes, books don’t have to 500+ pages to be good =)

95 Todd K. February 12, 2016 at 4:15 am

The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil,of course.

First, if he hasn’t absorbed exponential computing power, the first 50 pages might blow his mind.Mind blowing is good. More importantly, if he is 30, he will be happy to know he can just read this one book and then download the rest of the Library of Congress into his brain when he is 50.

96 Chip February 12, 2016 at 5:03 am

+1

97 Aleksandar Maksimović February 12, 2016 at 4:19 am

Under no circumstance should you recommend that Gardiner Bach book. Bach is my favorite composer. Gardiner is my favorite conductor. This book, however, bored me to death.

98 Mcsimilian February 12, 2016 at 4:25 am

How about “Sophies World” for a start

99 Anonymous February 12, 2016 at 4:52 am

(Not very relatedly,) I used to read a lot when I was younger but mostly lost interest in books in my late 20s for some reason. I still read a lot via blogs and forums, but can’t really be bothered with books even if they sound interesting.

100 Anonymous February 12, 2016 at 4:54 am

Also the book in the picture looks like a cheesy self-help thing, is it actually good?

101 Ken Payne February 12, 2016 at 5:16 am

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn. How thought actually develops.

102 Todd K. February 12, 2016 at 10:33 am

Except that it doesn’t develop the way Kuhn states in the hard sciences. See Steven Weinberg’s and David Deutch’s critiques.

103 Thor February 12, 2016 at 12:29 pm

No, no, no! A very biased book. As Popper said — and he was also very tendentious — Kuhn’s philosophy of science is mob rule.

104 Andrew February 12, 2016 at 5:53 am

Clive James – Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margins of My Time

105 Melmoth February 12, 2016 at 11:15 am

Seconded, brilliant piece, combines a survey of (mainly 20th c) history and a subtle lesson on humanism, and a book which really makes you realise how much you haven’t read.

106 Roy LC February 12, 2016 at 6:01 am

“The Corner that Held Them” – Sylvia Townsend Warner

107 Thiago Ribeiro February 12, 2016 at 6:06 am

Brazil, Land of the Future, by Stefan Zweig
Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, by Peter L. Bernstein
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!– Richard Feynman

108 gopal February 12, 2016 at 6:44 am

Obliquity by John Kay. Like Harford’s Adapt, it introduces you to a world of ideas in several disicplines

109 Thor February 12, 2016 at 12:30 pm

+1

110 Michael Savage February 12, 2016 at 6:52 am

I’d like to recommend a book that might inspire reader to want to read more books. Either a great long novel that draws you in, like Anna Karenina, or a great tough book of ideas that might inspire reader to work at understanding, and expand to secondary sources – Kant, maybe. Definitely not one of the good but ephemeral popular books recommended on this thread; they’re easily found on any airport bookshop.

I do love the idea of a Sotheby’s catalogue. It’s interesting that Tyler suggests an auction catalogue rather than an exhibition catalogue – in praise of commercial culture? But I agree, Sotheby’s catalogues are good at selling the merchandise!

111 Ralph em. February 12, 2016 at 6:55 am

modern times – Paul Johnson. It will inspire to travel as well. Lord of the rings.

112 Thor February 12, 2016 at 12:30 pm

It is indeed a great work of history.

113 Rusty Synapses February 12, 2016 at 12:48 pm

I thought of LOTR but it’s too long. I would say “Cat’s Cradle” – it’s really short, easy to read, but it’s funny and gives you something to think about.

114 mc February 12, 2016 at 6:58 am

First books should make passionate readings and plant the lust to find out more. Therefore:
Fiction: One hundred years of solitude
Non-fiction: The Republic

115 A B February 12, 2016 at 7:05 am

I like the Count of Monte Cristo and Cultural Amnesia recommendations, but I will throw this one into the mix: Paradise Lost, by Milton. The greatest Fantasy Novel of all time.

116 Axa February 12, 2016 at 7:21 am

I’m surprised why short stories are ignored. They’re entertaining and as insightful as long serious books for adults. Short fiction from Jorge Luis Borges (The South), Fernando Pessoa (The Anarchist Banker), Chesterton’s Father Brown, Jack London & Jim Ballard were both masters of short stories, Alexander Belyayev (Professor Wagner’s Inventions). Plenty of half hour or less stories.

117 Edward Burke February 12, 2016 at 11:45 am

Jean Richepin “Constant Guignard”.
Maupassant “A Vendetta”.
Ambrose Bierce “Oil of Dog”.
Dostoevsky “Dream of a Ridiculous Man”.
O’Connor “Good Country People” and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”.
Andrei Platonov “The Potudan River”.
Ryunosuke Akutagawa, “Kesa and Morito”.
Swift’s “Modest Proposal”.
Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

118 freethinker February 12, 2016 at 7:23 am

Capitalism and Freedom by Friedman

119 John L. February 12, 2016 at 11:03 am

Hahaha.

120 freethinker February 12, 2016 at 8:11 pm

“Hahaha” Never heard of that book. When did Friedman write it?!!

121 John L. February 13, 2016 at 10:52 am

It is more like an accurate review of his works.

122 freethinker February 13, 2016 at 12:05 pm

Oh I now understand : saying Hahaha is easier than making a substantial point

123 Too Late February 12, 2016 at 5:31 pm

Seconded.

124 mike shupp February 12, 2016 at 7:34 am

THE CITY AND THE STARS by Arthur C, Clarke.

125 Peter M February 12, 2016 at 7:39 am

I’d say a collection of essays by Mencken, or his volume Treatise on the Gods. He was a sharp observer of the human circus, and could see through institutional falseness. His commentary is also humorous. A reader of him should suddenly develop an interest in reading lots of other books.

126 Matt February 12, 2016 at 7:51 am

Yes, A Mencken Chresthomathy is the perfect introduction, compiling humorous critical essays on all of the big topics (music, literature, history, politics, philosophy, religion) and serving as a gateway to all of them. Why choose one topic for this person when you can introduce them to all through one book, and let them decide where to go from there?

127 Henrique February 12, 2016 at 7:42 am

If I were to recommend a biography it would be Nock’s Memoirs of a Superfluous Man.No other book instilled me to read more as much as this one.

128 The Devil's Dictionary of Economics & Finance February 12, 2016 at 7:46 am

No one has come up with Kama Sutra yet?!

129 Thor February 12, 2016 at 12:48 pm

He doesn’t need it. He’s 30 … and probably has been too busy gettin’ busy to read.

130 GW February 12, 2016 at 8:00 am

The Georgics of Vergil. It’s the perfect gateway to reading poetry, fiction, and non-fiction as it is a gateway to reading a text in many ways at once. On its surface, it’s a didactic poem about agriculture in four books (about farming, vineyards, animal husbandry, and beekeeping, respectively), but the overarching theme of the relation of men to nature is carried by ritual and myth (including the best classical narration of the Orpheus story) and the whole becomes a book about and for all of us, and although there might appear something antiquarian and parochial about these stories, when, for example, Vergil tells of the plow in the field banging against metal abandoned from some war, it becomes clear how the whole is beautiful, wise, and timeless.

131 Jpa February 12, 2016 at 8:02 am

Harry Potter. Most effective gateway book in a generation.

132 kimock February 12, 2016 at 9:16 am

I agree with your sentiment. But for a 30 year old?

133 Melmoth February 12, 2016 at 11:21 am

Sadly, yes. As someone attracted to arty/bookish looking women, how many times do I have to be disappointed on the subway to see she’s actually reading Harry Potter.

134 Sherwood Belangia February 12, 2016 at 8:11 am

Plato’s Republic, hands down. I have read it at least once a year for the last thirty years and have never failed to learn from it. It is the fountainhead of moral philosophy, political philosophy, psychology, educational philosophy, metaphysics, criticism, mythology. The term “theology” first appears in it (Book III). The first defense I know of the benefits and necessity of a division of labor occurs there (Book II). Reading an ancient work helps break us out of our chronological provincialism. The characters are well-drawn and interesting. I just read it again and my new takeaway is that the family drama of the oligarchic father raising a democratic son sheds much light on the difficulties of passing a family business to the second generation.

The Gorgias is a good fall-back — shorter but very insightful and universally applicable.

135 JS February 12, 2016 at 8:13 am

The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell. Well-written, guaranteed to hold interest, exposes one to how much can change – and indeed has – how quickly. Leads a mind to extrapolate about where we are, where we’re going, and just how quickly everything might change.

136 kromer February 12, 2016 at 2:35 pm

Great choice.

Fussell’s book Class could be another fun choice. It’s still the best conceptual framework we have for explaining class in the Anglosphere. Plenty of bloggers have spilled ink recently restating Fussell’s framework with different terminology (either by accident or plagiarism,) but none are as entertaining as the original.

137 Art Deco February 12, 2016 at 5:50 pm

God no. That book was insufferable, as was its author. His estranged wife published a funny work devoted in part to skewering him.

138 Nathan W February 13, 2016 at 8:02 pm

Do you Google this stuff or do you just know some insane amount of quirky details? Where do you pick it all up from?

139 joe February 12, 2016 at 8:14 am

Martin Eden by Jack London.

140 Tom February 12, 2016 at 8:18 am

Well, first of all, why does he want to read a single book? Someone like the man described sounds like a practical fellow, so if nothing else is known, I would start there, perhaps trying to elevate things to the next level. So if the first idea is bird watching, the second might be to instead choose a book on animal behavior.

141 Vivian Darkbloom February 12, 2016 at 8:20 am

Read, cover to cover, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (and with Addenda).

Much more topical, informative and gripping than Knausgaard. An introduction to nearly everything.

142 Basil Leus February 12, 2016 at 8:54 am

plus the dictionary has all these other books in it, just not in the right order (s. Wright)

143 Ted Craig February 12, 2016 at 9:00 am

I almost posted that, but I didn’t want to be a smart ass. I’m glad you have better self-esteem.

144 Willitts February 12, 2016 at 9:17 am

M*A*S*H*

Hawkeye Pierce

145 AlanG February 12, 2016 at 8:23 am

‘JR’ by William Gaddis is still relevant today as when it first appeared back in 1976. It’s probably the closest we have to a satirical send up of our entire financial system.

146 buddyglass February 12, 2016 at 8:32 am

Above all, I would recommend a book I think he’s likely to enjoy, so as to get him “hooked” on reading in general. Hopefully motivating him to read other books of his own volition.

147 buddyglass February 12, 2016 at 8:33 am

Above all I’d recommend a book I think he’s likely to enjoy, so as to get him interested in reading in general and hopefully motivate him to read other books of his own volition in the future.

148 Richard Harper February 12, 2016 at 8:38 am

1. The Great Conversation (the introductory volume to the Great Books Encyclopedia), http://www.amazon.com/Great-Conversation-Books-Western-World/dp/B000BO9PHY .. 2. Or a more quirky pick — John Watson’s Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy, http://www.amazon.com/John-Watson/e/B001IGUPN2/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1 .. (A brilliant synopsis of the history of chess strategy. Roughly, it’s about the increasing the evaporation of general strategic principles as playing ability and accumulation of expertise gets into the strongest levels. As some reviewer once wrote, it’s about the supremacy of the specific. Everyone interesting in cognitive biases and in the highest levels of expertise should at least read the final chapter. And yes, it does trump Sun Tzu.)

149 David Riceman February 12, 2016 at 8:39 am

You seem to want something that’s not self contained, to encourage further reading. How about a book about taking books seriously, like Strauss’s “Persecution and the Art of Writing”?

150 Richard Harper February 12, 2016 at 8:42 am

1. The Great Conversation, (the introductory volume to the Great Books Encyclopedia) 2. Or a more quirky pick — John Watson’s Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy (A brilliant synopsis of the history of chess strategy. Roughly, it’s about the supremacy of specific positions have the effect of increasing the evaporation of general strategic principles as playing ability and accumulation of expertise gets into the strongest levels. Everyone interesting in cognitive biases and in expertise should at least read the final chapter. And yes, it trumps Sun Tzu.) (… Earlier post didn’t seem to go through. Removed links and trying again.)

151 Anderson February 12, 2016 at 9:01 am

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Kahneman or for fiction 100 Years of Solitude by Marquez

152 KMandel February 12, 2016 at 9:05 am

I wish Tyler would have a wiki on great books. He has so many disparate posts on great books, but it can be hard to figure out what to read from those. I feel like those are good for answering the question: is this book good? What I really want to know is: If I was going to read a book on [topic/genre], what are the 20 timeless classics in that [topic/genre] and what are some great recent additions to the body of knowledge? If a new book is good, should I read that, or is there a book from 5 years ago that I should read instead, if I have not already read it? Tyler has a website about food, which is great, but I think it’s a huge missed opportunity to not have more compiled opinions about great books!

153 Dave Smith February 12, 2016 at 9:10 am

This book is sappy, but anyone with a spouse or significant other should read “Five Love Languages.”

(And if you do have a spouse or significant other, your One Word should be their name for a year.)

154 Willitts February 12, 2016 at 9:15 am

1984

155 Michael Tinkler February 12, 2016 at 9:23 am

Why all the skepticism about the person never having read much?

I teach at a nice liberal arts college and occasionally have had students confess that they have never read a book that hadn’t been assigned. I know lots of medical doctors who seem to have read nothing before they’re in their 40s – and then the first thing they read turns them into crackpots.

I’m stumped for a single recommendation unless I know more about the target – interest, profession, place of birth. For instance, if the functionally-literate person is a born Southerner, a book of Flannery O’Connor stories or a Walker Percy might do. I’m a born and bred Southerner, but I live in Upstate New York. For someone from up here, John Gardner is a good bet (Batavia born – I’m rereading Mickelsson’s Ghosts right now). If said person is a Canadian, the first novel of a Robertson Davies might be a good gateway read. Hand an engineer some nice Whiggish history, like Boorstin.

156 chuck martel February 12, 2016 at 9:28 am

Tough Trip Through Paradise, Edward Garcia Jr.

157 JC February 12, 2016 at 9:37 am

“Animal Farm” George Orwell.

I love another small well written novel by Brazilian author João Ubaldo Ribeiro it’s called “Miséria e grandeza do amor de Benedita” but I’d recommend this only if you could speak Portuguese because I don’t think any translation can match it’s brilliance in the original Portuguese with that Bahian flair.

158 Sam Haysom February 12, 2016 at 9:37 am

Maybe you could recommend Persecution and the Art of Writing and then he could explain to you how you keep using the word Straussian wrong.

159 carpenter February 12, 2016 at 9:43 am

Red Sky At Morning, Richard Bradford

160 Urstoff February 12, 2016 at 9:44 am

Start with Dr. Seuss and the work your way up.

161 Brian February 12, 2016 at 9:52 am

Conflict of Visions by Sowell.

162 Jon February 12, 2016 at 9:55 am

How about James Wood’s How Fiction Works or Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer? Or maybe Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel? They’re all accessible books that introduce how to read fiction as literature, provide some context for the history of the novel, and would maybe be a springboard for further inquiry. The more I think about it, the more the Jane Smiley book might be a great choice if you wanted to steer this person toward literature. Of course, if the spirit of the question is “what one book has all the answers,” how about Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal? Help prepare this person for the end.

163 David Condon February 12, 2016 at 10:23 am

Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction by Samir Okasha

164 lemmy caution February 12, 2016 at 10:28 am

If he is OK with comic books, the “Cartoon History of the Universe” series is really good and you can get cheap copies on amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_3_8?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=cartoon+history+of+the+universe&sprefix=cartoon+%2Cstripbooks%2C183

165 Adrian Turcu February 12, 2016 at 10:40 am

All you need is a good story. How about “A deepness in the sky”. For a more exotic setting I’d say “Kira Kiralina” by Panait Istrati.

166 Aretino February 12, 2016 at 10:43 am

Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living

167 Nick_L February 12, 2016 at 10:45 am

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: Western philosophy, travel, motorcycles and a small mystery. Not too heavy yet will frequently prompt further thought.

168 Matt February 12, 2016 at 10:58 am

What is Tyler’s “one word ” for this year?

169 Marc February 12, 2016 at 10:58 am

How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler

170 GoneWithTheWind February 12, 2016 at 11:09 am

Ceasar and Christ by Will Durant

171 steve schiwetz February 12, 2016 at 11:17 am

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West; history, travelogue and prologue to WW II, it describes a trip through Yugoslavia with her husband in the late thirties. Endlessly comic, thoughtful and descriptive of how local history and prejudices work their way in the world.

Or Thucydides

172 Owen February 12, 2016 at 11:22 am

If this person is highly literate (lots of online reading or magazines) but not a book reader, then the goal should be to pick one book to sell them on the virtues of reading more books. . .Les Essais is surprisingly easy reading, wide-ranging with lots of vignettes but it adds up to a good reason to read more books. Many younger people have been hooked on reading by The Diary of Anne Frank, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Dumas, C.S. Lewis, Asimov’s Foundation, or any number of good mysteries, romances or adventure tales. Little Drummer Girl by Le Carre, Harlot’s Ghost by Mailer and Tales of the City by Maupin all kept me up reading under my sheets after bedtime as a young person. Not sure if all of those will work as well for a 30-year old non-reader.

If the person in question has no intention of becoming a reader and just wants to read one good book, then something like The Power Broker, Making of the Atomic Bomb, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, or Brothers Karamozov would be my choice for one book to leave a lasting impression. I would never use those as a first recommendation to lure in a non-reader because they both require/reward a capacity for focus and engagement that builds up over years of reading.

If you just want to offer one book that will teach them something that they will find useful but probably cannot learn without reading a book then I’d be tempted to go with some sort of book-length argument of explication of something important and practical. How the Mind Works or the Language Instinct by Steven Pinker? Shadows of our Forgotten Ancestors by Sagan? War and the Rise of the State? Thinking Fast and Slow? Does Robin Hanson have a book-length explication of his ideas about politics not being about policy and social signaling?

Since Professor Cowen asks for one book, I realize that I am evading the question by listing so many. Forced to choose, my one recommendation is. . .Pride and Prejudice. It’s funny, an inviting read that practically everyone who starts will finish, and it has one of the cleverest and wisest moments in English literature.

173 Regular guy February 12, 2016 at 11:34 am

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstien wouldn’t be a bad place to start. It is easily consumed and has multiple intelligent depths for them to think about later.

A Brief History of Time would also be a pretty good recommendation. I remember being so inspired by that book I gobbled up another half dozen soft physics books. Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces might make the candidate list for the same reasons.

A warning though, I’m not an intellectual (just a regular guy) and rarely, if ever, like the books academic intellectuals recommend.

174 Warren Meyer February 12, 2016 at 11:35 am

Hmm, I would think the goal would not be to teach the most possible with one book, but to try to instill a love of reading with one book. To that end, I would pick the best page-turner I could find. Hunt for Red October? Davinci Code? Something of that genre.

Reading was a school imposed exercise for me until my mom through me a Robert Ludlum novel (Materese Circle, maybe) and for the first time ever spent all night reading a book. Soon after I stumbled on the Foundation Trilogy on my school’s summer reading list. And I have been reading from then on.

175 John February 12, 2016 at 11:41 am

To not recommend your own book would be an affront to Adam Smith, just sayin’.

176 whatsthat February 12, 2016 at 11:51 am

Conditional on being in English: PG Wodehouse.

177 whatsthat February 12, 2016 at 11:53 am

Conditional on being in English (there are many books in other languages that I or you may not have heard of): PG Wodehouse, the Psmith series. He’s someone you could really “read”.

178 anon February 12, 2016 at 11:53 am

Why point away from books? Either they will take, or they won’t.

Halting State, by Charles Stross

A light read, still timely, hopefully convinces that books are a different sort of experience.

Or Saturn’s Children

179 Merijn Knibbe February 12, 2016 at 11:54 am

Saint Augustin: Confessions.

180 David February 12, 2016 at 11:55 am

The Old Testament.

181 Edward Burke February 12, 2016 at 12:02 pm

Because the querist does take pains to ask for the recommendation of a single book: Dante’s Divine Comedy (I still recommend the Ciardi translation).

182 Archibald Meatpants February 12, 2016 at 12:09 pm

Would definitely go with a good translation of War and Peace.

183 Richard H February 12, 2016 at 12:11 pm

Being philosophically inclined, I’d probably suggest Matthew Crawfords, The World Beyond Your Head.

184 Michael February 12, 2016 at 12:20 pm

A better response would be along the lines of recommending that person go to the library and check out 10 books that look somewhat interesting. Read a random chapter or two from each then continue on with the ones that drawn his attention. This type of ‘grazing’ is how I developed a wide taste in all types of fiction and non-fiction.

185 Larry Wade February 12, 2016 at 12:31 pm

Easy question. AK Raychaudhuri, General Relativity, Astrophysics, and Cosmology.

186 Jason W. February 12, 2016 at 12:35 pm

I think Tyler’s being sly here and I suspect the person he refers to is not real. The real purpose of this post is to introduce his readers, who he maybe suspects of being generally intelligent but in possession of reading histories that are too narrowly focused, to some books that might diversify their interests and passions.

The punchline is that he ends it with a self-help book. Haha. Burn!

187 Mark Brown February 12, 2016 at 12:48 pm

Vocationally I’d have to say The Gospel of Matthew or Genesis/Exodus. But the big problem with saying read scripture is that moderns don’t know how to read them. Slowly and preferablly with others. We’ve all been educated to read fast and expect the content spoonfed directly to us.

For much the same reason you’d have to reject much of what is written in the litureature cannon because our imaginations are stunted by our educations. But you’d reject modern literary authors becuase they just don’t have anything to say, but say it with nice soothing words. You need an introductory book that is easy enough to read and grasp what it going on beyond the surface, but that does have something going on beyond the surface.

So, I think you are left with books like The Children of Men (PD James), The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (CS Lewis) or YA staples like A Separate Peace (Knowles) or yes Harry Potter. They all are driven by plot and pose questions. They have compelling characters. There is more going on that it easily understood. And except Knowles they have sequels or the authors themselves were prolific which invites further reading before branching out or going deeper.

188 F February 12, 2016 at 12:58 pm

“Ficciones”, by JL Borges. Good for those not used to reading much, since the language not convoluted, stories are entretaining and short. They are also deep, and keep you thinking about them long after you’ve finished.

189 Mark Brown February 12, 2016 at 1:00 pm

Vocationally I have to say the Gospel of Matthew or Genesis/Exodus, but the problem with saying read scripture is that moderns can’t read it. It is meant to be read slow and preferrably with others. Our ediucations teach us to read fast and expect everythign spoonfed.

For the same reason you really have to rule out the literary canon. It is too deep for someone not attuned. And you would rule out modern literary works because they have nothing to say, but just say it in very smooth words. You need something that both says something, but also says it in a way that is very simple that everyone picks up on it. An introduction or an education to actual reading.

For that reason I think you are reduced to The Children of Men (PD James), The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (CS Lewis) or yes Harry Potter. They all are good reads. They all have plot and good characters. They all say something. And they all have sequels, or the authors were prolific in similar fashion. So, you could read more before deciding to go deeper or branch out.

190 CorvusB February 12, 2016 at 1:32 pm

I have the perfect answer. It is a great read for those who dislike reading, and it comprehensively covers EVERYTHING that needs to be covered.

The Cartoon History of the Universe. Gonick. A small cheat, as it consists of two volumes, but I don’t think you would get much objection, since it is graphic.

191 Nick_L February 12, 2016 at 1:58 pm

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – intro to philosophy, travel, motorcycles and also a minor mystery. Not too hard and frequently encourages further contemplation.

192 Matthew February 12, 2016 at 2:03 pm

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is easy reading and satisfying at many levels. I offer ‘East of Eden’ in the same vein. Reading through these comments, the rhythm of the recommendations takes me back … ‘Under the Grand Stands’ by Seymor Butz and the other classics http://www.boyscouttrail.com/content/joke/books_never_written-850.asp

193 kromer February 12, 2016 at 2:28 pm

There are a couple directions I would think about taking for this situation.

One would be to recommend a ‘survey’ type book that gets the reader excited about literature, provides context that aids in understanding important works, and ideally, makes the case for why reading is important:

Several of Harold Bloom’s popularizing books would fit the bill perfectly—one is even called How to Read and Why. I was lucky enough to stumble upon Bloom’s Shakespeare book during adolescence, and ever since he’s served as the brilliant literature prof that I never had.

In poetry Edward Hirsch’s outstanding How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry would be a good choice. Bloom also has a poetry anthology that includes biographical notes and analysis for the major English poets through appx 1950.

Another approach would be to recommend writing of an exquisite quality (beautiful prose, deep themes, interesting narrative) that is also accessible. That rules out Steven King and JK Rowling (shite,) as well as Faulkner and Joyce and Lowry (density) as well as Proust (no plot.) But there is plenty that remains:

– Any Cormac McCarthy after and including All the Pretty Horses.
– Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Secret Agent
– Norman Mclean’s A River Runs Through it, or better, Young Men and Fire
– Short stories of Fitzgerald, Hemmingway or Flannery O’Connor
– For poetry, go with the more accessible stuff the carries the Romantic torch: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Whitman, Hart Crane.

When in doubt, just give him Hart Crane. If a person cannot be transported by a poem like At Melville’s Tomb or The Bridge, best to look for another hobby.

194 The Original D February 12, 2016 at 3:14 pm

“A Man in Full,” by Tom Wolfe

I’m not a huge fan of Wolfe but that book changed the way I think. Or maybe “feel” is the better word.

195 chuck martel February 12, 2016 at 4:07 pm

“Tough Trip Through Paradise”, Edward Garcia, Jr.

196 Andrew February 12, 2016 at 4:41 pm

Living Well Spending Less

197 Edward Burke February 12, 2016 at 4:42 pm

It’s possible, I suppose, that prefatory to our bright 30-something querist’s encounter with one single impressive printed book, an encounter with this fellow may be entirely appropriate (contemporary fare cannot always be dismissed): http://fictionaut.com/users/strannikov

198 byomtov February 12, 2016 at 4:51 pm

How is it possible to answer without knowing the questioner’s objective?

Is it to be entertained? To find out if further reading would be enjoyable? To learn something about some topic? What?

199 anon February 12, 2016 at 5:51 pm

Reasons and Persons by Derek Parfit

200 Art Deco February 12, 2016 at 5:51 pm

The problem is the question. Literature is nonsense without its context.

201 Agra Brum February 12, 2016 at 6:06 pm

You certainly need to know more about the person. But with a total blind, one book is of course not enough, so it has to be a book that will lead them to read more books in general with their free time, rather than watch movies or be online. So it should be something that doesn’t have a filmed analogue. I, Claudius is a good one if into history. Or perhaps Blood Meridian. Or if more levity is desired, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

202 JB February 12, 2016 at 6:45 pm

I know many smart people for whom the prospect of having their eyes rest on written language for an extended period is anathema. Some of them feel a sense of guilt about this, as they would a character flaw, like not being able to control their weight or dressing poorly.

I hear in Tyler’s framing a person with a sense of guilt needing to be assuaged, rather than a passion needing to be awakened.

My answer: life is too short, don’t worry about it. To have the experience of sitting with a physical object, being transported via symbols imprinted on it, start with a graphic novel, something like Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson.

203 Rex February 12, 2016 at 7:33 pm

Any sweeping historical novel

‘Love in the Time of Cholera’, ‘Les Miserables’, “War and Peace’

‘100 Years of Solitude’ too

(Note: Any one that’s gone through European/American novelists, and hasn’t read Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Well, there’s a place to start)

204 Chris Nisbet February 12, 2016 at 7:47 pm

A very smart person, over thirty years of age, who claims not to have read very much, is likely a modest person.

It seems that most comments have disregarded the advice-givers suggested criteria.

Walden Two, by B.F. Skinner, would be a broadly philosophical novel which touts the virtues of a new and magical place – a place that is new and magical due to its systematic Effective Altruism. Few novels can emulate its didactic qualities, even less can claim to cover its breadth of intellectual topics.

Some years have passed since I’ve last picked this book up, but I only recall one mention of a sunset (in the concluding lines of the novel). To assuage the advice-givers additional (and justified) reservations, the characters preferred locomotion via collective ambulation, which permitted contemporaneous intellectual discourse. No melancholy train rides to fear here.

205 Jeremiah February 12, 2016 at 8:34 pm

Emma. Recommend other Austen as a follow-up. Short, enjoyable, brilliant. Also the basis for many modern movies, so it will provide ongoing rewards.

If he this, it could be a gateway to countless other ‘easy’ brilliant books. Like with exercise, going too heavy too soon isn’t worth it.

206 Nick_L February 12, 2016 at 8:46 pm

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Intro to philosophy, travel, motorcycles and a small mystery. Not too hard to get through and frequently thought provoking.

207 AJM February 12, 2016 at 8:52 pm

1984

Will tell you all you need to know about language, psychology and power.

208 gaddeswarup February 13, 2016 at 4:50 am

‘In an antique land’ by Amitav Ghosh

209 bruce February 13, 2016 at 6:00 am

The House of Intellect by Jacques Barzun

210 Ali Choudhury February 13, 2016 at 8:42 am

A Mencken Chrestomathy, Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, Battle Cry of Freedom by James Macpherson, the collected essays of George Orwell or The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

211 Roger February 13, 2016 at 11:13 am

The most important book to read is of course:
How the West Grew Rich
By
Nathan Rosenberg & LE Birdzell

Why recommend fiction when someone can actually expand their mind and contribute to the welfare of humanity?

My runner up, is available free on the Internet…

Barriers to Riches
By
Stephen L. Parente and Edward C. Prescott

212 gamma February 13, 2016 at 7:29 pm

What does the intelligent non-reader want from the book? Something to seduce them into wanting to read more? Something to gnaw on, for years perhaps? Something to talk about at cocktail parties, so they can sound like they have read something? Are they trying to get a glimmer of what all the reading-just-because-you-want-to fuss is all about? Do they want to explore something completely different, or visit familiar territory in another medium?

[Anecdotal aside: an eminent musician, whose name is buried in some files half a country away, once said that a child’s first piano teacher should teach them to love to play. The second should teach the child technical proficiency. The third should teach the child creative expression. There is a parallel to be drawn.]

If the first, something short and delicious. P. G. Wodehouse, Louis L’Amour, Georgette Heyer, Hodge Podge: A Commonplace Book by J Bryan III, a lighter Agatha Christie, Ender’s Game, Mark Twain, The Hobbit, Cold Comfort Farm, depending on the tastes and interests of your friend. To gnaw on? Nonfiction would depend on interests; fiction should probably be something with a compelling narrative, so avoid books that devote divergent chapters to philosophy, travelogues, or history. For cocktail party conversation, something from the best-seller lists. For a glimmer into the world of reading, I’d probably go back to the short-and-delicious list.

But it bounces back to this: you were asked for a recommendation. Why you? Who are you to s/he? Why did not that person ask Dear Abby or Michael Dirda or a coworker? And what burden does that place upon you? Why are you “drawn to recommend a book which leads the advice recipient away from books”? What does that say about your perception of what is wanted?

213 jorod February 14, 2016 at 4:36 pm

Hamilton by Chernow.

214 SamChevre February 14, 2016 at 8:05 pm

I’d pick something with a conceptual framework that will seem wrong, but is revealing as applied to the background information that an intelligent person will have just by living in this society. Assuming the person is American, I’d recommend Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s Leftism: from de Sade and Marx to Hitler and Marcuse; readable, tons of interesting detail about Central and Eastern Europe, and a different enough conceptual framework that pretty much any American will say “no way, that makes no sense” at some point.

215 TallDave February 14, 2016 at 10:37 pm

The Golden Age, John C Wright.

216 Max Weismann February 17, 2016 at 8:34 pm

Hello,

We are a not-for-profit educational organization founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery—three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos—lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading on one DVD. A must for all readers, libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are—we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

http://www.thegreatideas.org/HowToReadABook.htm

ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

Thank you,

Max Weismann, Co-founder with Dr. Adler

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