Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Very Good Introductions

Oxford University Press has a wonderful series they call Very Short Introductions. The books are small, short, colorful paperbacks with titles like “The Brain”, “Political Philosophy” or “The Tudors”. For each one, the editors find an expert in the field, have them write a brief overview of all the relevant areas of study (thus the book on “Globalization” covers economics, politics, culture, environment, ideology, and the opposition movement) and edits them to be clear and concise.

The result is a very good series of books, and I’ve enjoyed them immensely, but it’s not quite what I want. For one thing, the shortness of the books (they’re usually about a hundred half-size pages) makes them unfulfilling. It’s impossible to get a real understanding of a big topic in fifty pages, especially when many of them are taken up summarizing related concerns. (Perhaps you could provide a nice overview of economic globalization in fifty pages, but covering economic, political, cultural, environmental, and ideological globalization in that space is absurd.)

And the other is that, however great the editors at OUP, it seems impossible that they would be able to commission the best exposition of every topic for one series. Many of the greatest writers are not going to accept a particular commission, do not approve of some piece of the series’ style, or perhaps want credit or attention for themselves rather than being just another book in a huge OUP series.

So that’s why I’d like us to put together our own series — not of very short introductions, but of very good ones. These are books which a) try to explain a whole subject with b) clarity and even joy while making c) no strong assumptions of prior knowledge and d) not dumbing the subject down. It’s an extremely rare combination — there are many books on subjects that are good but unreadable by the average person, while there’s a whole industry churning out pop sci pageturners that communicate little actual knowledge of a subject. But the rare book that actually achieves all four of these goals is a true gem, and ought to be promoted more widely.

Please post your suggestions in the comments and I’ll try to assemble a list of them next week. I’ll go first:

Law 101: Everything You Need to Know about the American Legal System by Jay M. Feinman

This delightful book goes over the key points of constitutional law, civil procedure, torts, contracts, property, criminal law, etc. with wit, style, and lots of great examples. Sit down not knowing anything about the subject and come away with a clear enough understanding of torts, contracts, and crimes to apply the ideas in your daily life.

OK, your turn.

You should follow me on twitter here.

February 22, 2008


Two of the best of the VSI series I’ve read: Consciousness, Susan Blackmore Literary Theory, Jonathan Freeland

posted by tom s. on February 22, 2008 #

Somebody already did:


posted by David McCabe on February 22, 2008 #

Machine Learning, Tom M. Mitchell, McGraw-Hill International Editions for the field of machine learning.

Probabilistic Robotics, Sebastian Thrun and Wolfram Burgard and Dieter Fox, The MIT Press.

posted by Carsten van Weelden on February 22, 2008 #

Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach by Norvig and Russell

Programming Collective Intelligence by Segaran

something (Character of Physical Law?) by Feynman

posted by Aaron Swartz on February 22, 2008 #

History of hip hop culture and music - “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” - Jeff Chang

The blues tradition in America - “The Land Where The Blues Began” - Alan Lomax

posted by maetl on February 22, 2008 #

The Selfish Gene - by Richard Dawkins. Short and excellent description of evolution

posted by Mahesh Kamat on February 22, 2008 #

A few that come to mind:

Will Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction, 2nd ed., Oxford, 2001

D. T. Suzuki, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, New York, 1964

C. S. Nino, Introducci贸n al an谩lisis del derecho, Buenos Aires, 1980. [By far the most lucid, intelligent and comprehensive introduction to legal theory I know of, still awaiting translation.]

Alexander Miller, An Introducion to Contemporary Metaethics, Cambridge, 2003

Robert Winkler, An Introduction to Bayesian Inference and Decision, 2nd ed., Gainsville, 2003

David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind, Oxford, 1996

Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, London, 1912

posted by Pablo Stafforini on February 23, 2008 #

This is cheating, because I begged him to write it, but the best (and afaik) only book about etymology for non-linguists is Word Origins and How We Know Them by Anatoly Liberman. (Also OUP)

posted by Erin on February 23, 2008 #

Norman Davies, “Europe: a History”, Harper Perennial, 1998.

posted by Will Britton on February 23, 2008 #

for civil engineering:

J E Gordon, Structures

Explains how structures carry a load, examples are usually taken from nature. There are helpful illustrations. Some basic equations and tables are included.

-this is one of my favorite books, I am about to read it for the second time.

posted by R. Mutt on February 23, 2008 #

That Russell and Norvig book is what got me started studying AI (my brother lent it to me). It’s actually referred to at my faculty as the “AI Bible”.

Although I personally don’t love it, it is extremely comprehensive, showcasing almost all facets covered in the AI bachelor at University of Amsterdam.

posted by Carsten van Weelden on February 23, 2008 #

posted by Hay on February 23, 2008 #

“The Story of Philosophy” - Will Durant

That being said —a recommendation that Bryan Magee makes and I’ll pass along— with philosophy there are between 12 and 22 or so ‘great philosophers’ and I think you’re much better served reading one of their books than reading any commentary on their works. Many of them are notoriously misunderstood because a secondary text becomes the orthodox reading and then this incorrect interpretation becomes the more powerful meme. I also find that a lot of introductions to particular philosophers actually make it more difficult instead of less so. Only when you can’t grasp the work of philosopher directly is it really helpful to go to a secondary source and then only in order to get you back to the primary source as soon as you can.

So not every realm of inquiry is going to lend itself well to abbreviation.

I pretty much avoid intros now except when it’s a large subject and I don’t plan to get very deep in it later. If I do plan on going deep I just jump right in.

posted by Mike on February 24, 2008 #

The stock market / how to invest

As an introduction, and enough to get you investing: A Random Walk Down Wall Street by Burton Malkiel

A comprehensive overview which will give you a complete understanding: Stocks for the Long Run by Jeremy Siegel

posted by Joseph Perla on February 25, 2008 #

Bucky Fuller’s “Critical Path”


posted by William Loughborough on February 25, 2008 #

Designing graphics for data:

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Tufte)

A quick, clean read, and one of the more beautiful books you’ll find.

Typography: Thinking with Type (Ellen Lupton)

posted by Phil Crosby on February 25, 2008 #

Aaron, you think AIMA is understandable for the “average person”?

Perhaps you need to explain what you mean by ‘average’.

posted by anonymous on March 2, 2008 #

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