What are you reading?

Posted on May 25th, 2011 by

"Be all you can be. Read." When I was a kid, this was the motto for National Library Week two years running. Still seems like a good idea to me.


On the last day of class, a couple of  students came up to ask me for suggestions for summer reading. I have a sneaking hunch they asked me because I’d earlier confessed to the class that I almost always find reading philosophy to be a kind of agony of the first water. They probably figured it was safe to assume I wouldn’t respond by suggesting they plow their way through the rest of Kant’s First Critique.

But their question prompted an interesting discussion with Peg, on the topic: “Is the intersection of ‘fun summer reading’ and ‘philosophy’ the empty set? What if we lower the bar, say, to ‘tolerable summer reading,’ or even ‘not absolutely agonizing summer reading?’ Is the set still empty?”

Nope. And here’s some proof: books that deliver at least a glancing blow at philosophy and are downright readable. Most of them have been written in the last five years or so, though I’ve included a couple of “modern classics.”

Philosophical Biographies

Reading about a philosopher, via an intellectual biography, can be a great way to learn about profound philosophical ideas in their context. My current absolute favorite is How to Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne, by Sarah Bakewell. (And of course it goes without saying that a person could do worse than spend their summer reading Montaigne himself!) The Metaphysical Club, by Louis Menand (a gifted writer), is not so much the biography of a person as the biography of an entire group of people, the men (I think they’re all men) who created American pragmatism.  Examined Lives: Socrates to Nietzsche, by Jim Miller, looks at twelve philosophers whose philosophies don’t necessarily match their social and political activities.  A spectacular graphic novel, Logicomix, explores the life of Bertrand Russell, intriguingly entwining his work in logic with a sub-plot about American entry into World War II.

Philosophical-ish (Philosophical-esque? Philosophical-ly?) Essays

Alain de Botton has made quite a living working in this genre. I liked The Art of Travel quite a lot. But did I mention Montaigne? Botton likes Montaigne too….

Philosophically-smart genre fiction (you know—like murder mysteries and true crime novels)

Alexander McCall Smith’s Sunday Philosopher’s Club series, which stars Isabel Dalhousie, a woman with a PhD in philosophy who edits a journal of ethics, and encounters any number of small and mid-size ethical crises in her own life. The tone of these works is gentle, sardonic, and very, very smart. McCall Smith himself was heard to say during a reading that he likes to think of Isabel as a Humean moral character, though Doug Huff says she’s really Aristotelian. (Read them and decide for yourself.)

Philosophy and….

I’m not over-fond of books that set out to Teach About Philosophy by a wrapping a great, fat wad of philosophical concepts inside a thin, insubstantial and far-fetched little plot; would you wrap an entire roast beef in rice paper and call it a burrito?  (Okay, I will confess that I once gave my niece a copy of Sophie’s World for her birthday—but I never made it all the way through the book myself.) I’d rather read a work that engages me philosophically, whether or not it ever mentions a “real philosopher” by name. But…if I did want or need to learn some basics about, say, Sartre, and I wanted to do it in a somewhat lighthearted way, I might well be inspired to pick up, say, Seinfeld and Philosophy, and read the essay about Sartre and subjectivity that it contains. The essays in those books are written by good, serious scholars, and you could do far worse than to get your first exposure to Sartre or Socrates or solipsism through them. (Full disclosure: okay, I co-edited one, The Atkins Diet and Philosophy. Alas, it was published just as the diet took a huge dive in popularity.)

Speaking of “real philosophers,” what living philosophers would I recommend? In terms of sheer readability, I find it hard to beat Ian Hacking. His book Mad Travelers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses, is a highly engaging exploration of a nineteenth century mental illness in its cultural context.  Philosopher Marilyn Frye is the author of a slim, powerful volume, The Politics of Reality, that has become a classic in oppression studies. Anything by Cornell West or bell hooks is worth reading: Race Matters is a great choice for the former, and Teaching to Transgress for the latter. Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism is short, timely, and erudite.

What about you? What do you recommend? Share your suggestions for philosophical-ish reading with the rest of the vast, vast reading public that ardently follows the philosophy blog.




  1. Joe Lencioni says:

    I thought Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael was a fun read. And, it is part of a trilogy if you decide to keep going with it. I haven’t read the third book yet, but the second was pretty good.

  2. Peg O'Connor says:

    I especially like the Philip Pullman trilogy because of its metaphysics and the possibilities of other words. The first in the series is The Golden Compass, followed by The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. I would also add to the list the fun comic book, Philosophy for Beginners. Readers of that may well recognize a similarity to Bertrand Russell’s classic, The History of Western Philosophy. Russell’s book is a bit gossipy, which makes it fun.

  3. Lisa Heldke says:

    P.S. I’m three chapters into the book ALL THINGS SHINING, by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, both philosophers of great repute (Dreyfus has been at Berkeley for forty years; Kelly is chair of the Harvard department). I’m liking it a great deal. It draws upon the history of philosophy and literature–from Homer to Elizabeth Gilbert (EAT, PRAY, LOVE) to address the question “how are we supposed to figure out how to be?” Notably, it’s a question similar to the one that Sarah Bakewell uses to frame her biography of Montaigne. Have I mentioned Montaigne?

    (I do have some complaints about the SHINING book–specifically about a certain tendency to treat men’s writing as telling us about “human experience,” whereas women’s writing tells us about “women’s experience,”)