This is not a comprehensive list. I’ll expand it and give more information on the individual books as time allows.
On Human Nature and Society
The Birds, a play by Aristophanes, C 440 BCE
This is a broad and sometimes raunchy play in the old Greek style, concerning two Athenian men who decide to leave the hurlyburly of the city behind and live in the land of the birds. They are visited by a cast of characters we would recognize, from a phony religious prophet and a greedy lawyer, to a bad, pretentious poet. They talk the birds into helping them blackmail the gods, and one ends up betraying the other and becoming an emperor. It seems we haven’t changed much in 2,400 years.
History of the Peloponnesian Wars, by Thucydides, circa 411 BCE
Thucydides was the first historian in the modern sense, and better than many that have followed him. He recounts the politics and battles of the wars between Athens and Sparta. The hawks on one side were led by a corrupt politician who hoped that his performance in the war would distract people from his corruption. The hawks on the other side were led by a general who wanted name recognition to get into politics. Familiar? It is interesting reading.
The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccachio (1313-1375 C.E.)
Boccachio was a man for spare storytelling. The one hundred stories in the Decameron are quick, well plotted, and short on characterization, except as revealed by action. The setup is a group of ten young noblemen and ladies who have fled their city to a country estate to escape the plague. (The author was 34 when it swept Europe) They spend ten days telling stories, with one person picking the theme of the day. Their tales explore every human foible and twist of fate.
Anything by William Shakespeare
Read the plays, see the plays, see the movies, act out the plays, read the sonnets, love them all. The man knew how to translate the human condition into drama.
How Children Fail, by John Holt
Holt was an elementary school math teacher for many years. He spent a lot of time watching children and how they reacted, not to the subject matter, but to the environment of school. He concluded that our standard, accepted method of education is based on fear and guarantees failure for a certain percentage of our kids. Every teacher, school administrator, parent, and taxpayer should read this book.
Giving Up the Gun, by Noel Perrin
Ned was a personal friend who wrote a number of successful humorous books about country living. This book was his response to the nuclear arms race and the contention that “you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.” In the early 1600’s, Japan had more and better firearms than any other country in the world, by far. The warrior class found that firearms deprived them of the opportunity for individual bravery and fomented more destructive wars. They pursued policies to eliminate firearms from their society, and virtually eliminated firearms from general use within decades. There ensued two centuries of relative peace, until the intrusion of Europeans. With loose nukes on the front burner again, it is an inspiring book.
The Trouble With Testosterone, by Robert M. Sapolsky
Sapolsky is consistently entertaining as he explores the ways that our physical chemistry screws around with our social behavior.
The Great Thoughts, Edited by George Seldes
A book of quotations with a difference. Seldes avoided the worn proverbs and famous quotes in favor of the statements that changed the course of human thought. Warning: Not bedtime reading - your mind will keep you awake.
Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches, by Marvin Harris
Entertaining explanations of the practical reasons behind seemingly nonsensical human customs and institutions.
Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond
Question: Why did Europe and Asia take over the rest of the world, and not the other way around? Answer: Geography is destiny. A counter argument to all the imperial, religious, and racist claptrap that still clouds our view of history.
Blood Rites, by Barbara Ehrenreich
Thesis: All religion was born in blood sacrifice, back in the days when we were as often prey as predator.
Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Ms. Goodwin offers us a new and intersting view of our much mythologized and simplified martyr, President Abraham Lincoln. He was considered a dark horse candidate for the Republican nomination and then for the presidency, but his natural political aptitude, plus his rivals’ deficiencies, got him to the top. What Goodwin reveals is an ambitious, shrewd, driven politician, and yet a patient, forgiving, and steadfastly moral person. He retained his understanding of the common people and exhibited a nuanced understanding of public sentiment and political timing. This book offers a beautiful window into Lincoln’s humanity and the political family he formed.
Interaction Ritual Chains, by Randall Collins
Professor Collins lays out his theory encapsulated in the title; that we spend our lives in a series of ritual interactions, each leading to the next. The most common ritual is the status ritual, establishing our mutual membership in a group and our place in it. Collins explores the breadth of human ritual from casual interactions to formal religious and political ceremonies, and from one-on-one interactions to those of mobs and rock concerts. A fascinating micro-sociological take on how we relate to each other. Warning: dense academic prose. But worth it.
The Prize, by Daniel Yergin
The definitive history of the world oil industry. It explains a lot about why the Middle East is always in the news.
Beyond Oil, by Kaufmann, Vorosmarty, et al
There’s only so much of the stuff down there, and we are spending more and more energy per barrel to get it out. It doesn’t look good for the soccer moms in SUVs. A scholarly but readable book on the functional problems of the oil economy, and why conventional economists don’t get it.
The Long Emergency, by James Howard Kunstler
We are in the beginning of it. Why suburbia was the greatest misallocation of capital and land in history. A good scary partner book to Beyond Oil. Kunstler writes well and convincingly.
On Contemporary Politics
Slow Democracy, by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout
The process, history, and techniques of direct, deliberative democracy. That is, getting beyond the ballot box to real discussion and decision making by ordinary citizens. Clark and Teachout make the case for the necessity of involved and empowered citizens and then tell us how it is done. A must-read for political activists and municipal government officials.
Unequal Protection, by Thom Hartmann
How corporations almost-but-not-quite legally achieved personhood, but convinced everyone that they actually had. What this means for us as humans and citizens. What we should do about it. Required reading.
The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, by Greg Palast
The name says it all. So you thought you lived in a democracy, eh? Silly person. Get a bootleg prescription for blood pressure medicine before reading, but read it.
Armed Madhouse, by Greg Palast
Palast gives us deeper insight into the reasons behind the invasion of Iraq, thanks to a gullible GOP staff member, plus a look at the economics of China/US trade, the travesty of “No Child Left Behind,” and other contemporary insanity. He gets peak oil completely wrong, but then partially corrects himself later in the book - an odd slip for a very smart guy. Still, well worth the price.
Is That A Politician In Your Pocket? By Micah Sifry and Nancy Watzman
Again, the name says it all. This book describes the direct influence of legal campaign contributions on legislation. Necessary for understanding those dumb things they do in D.C. Combine the prescription mentioned above with a mild sedative.
Sultans of Sleaze, by Joyce Nelson
This book describes the relatively unknown role of huge PR firms in shaping our national discourse and government policy. You will want to shower after reading.