How To Get Smart in 2012
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  • earl of Sandwich

    Please sir, how about some maths?

  • Anthony

    Excellent starting reading list for 2012 to better grasp Britain and America’s (as well as western thought) role in making the modern world; however, WRM in our globally wired world AI online must be added to any starter list (specifically your wide ranging essays).

  • Enobarbus

    Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare?

    The Henriad, McBeth, Julius Caesar, and Richard III – just for starters? Apart from the Bible, Shakespeare, I would think, has exerted the most formative influence on the English language, sentiments, and imagination; this is the very air we breathe. His knowledge of people and politics is likewise without rival and comprehensive. He was, after all, Lincoln’s Yale College.

    As much as I like the Bostonians, I find the Princess Casamassima more rewarding and enjoyable, both as a political novel and a novel generally. Its treatment of anarchistic terrorism is also timely. Re-reading Trilling’s superb essay on this novel afterward is a nice treat.

    If you have some time on your hands, Churchill’s History of English-Speaking People is a delightful romp through English and even American history – sort of like listening to your slightly eccentric, highly opinionated, and occasionally brilliant uncle (or something) holding court on anything and everything of interest, but in elegant prose rather than spit-flecked expectorations.

    Churchill’s Marlboro, on the other hand, is a profound work of political thought and a wonderful example of the riches that can be unearthed by diligent historical study. It is the masterpiece of the preeminent statesman of the last century.

    Conrad’s Nostromo is a thought-provoking meditation on the strange brew of Anglo-American idealism and cynicism that has influenced their conquest, exploitation, and attempts to elevate foreign cultures and pre-political traditions into nation-states like our own.

    Is there an equivalent list for super-annuated students or older adults, or are they lost causes?

  • WigWag

    What no Hamlet, Lear, Divine Comedy, Don Quixote or Leaves of Grass?

    Surely anyone wanting to understand western civilization needs to read Homer first.

    What about Origin of the Species or The Interpretation of Dreams?

    I can think of many things I would pick up before reading the Bostonions.

    Why start with Carlyle instead of Edmund Burke?

  • rachel

    I will be using this to supplement my college education, and I will be sharing this article with all my friends at dinner tonight. A year of reading these works will be a nice distraction from reality show filth. Thanks for the recommendations and Merry Christmas!

  • Cromwell

    Just for the sake of obscurity — as well as tying together Milton, the King James and Macaulay — I’m gonna recommend Puritanism and Liberty, edited by Woodhouse. It includes Clarke’s transcription of the debate between the Grandees of the New Model Army (Cromwell, Ireton) and the radicals from the rank and file of the Horse, as led by Thomas Rainsborough, and it’s the first recorded discussion of the principles that were ultimately secured in 1688.

  • Cromwell

    Of course Milton, Cromwell and Ireton and the Puritans likely read the Geneva translation with all its wonderful footnotes.

  • Roy

    Sandwich, old boy, the great mathematician and expositor Barry Mazur, of Harvard, strongly recommends ‘Number: The Language of Science’, by Tobias Dantzig, as a first primer in mathematics, accessible to a layperson but still sophisticated. His own, ‘Imaging Numbers’ is also considered a worthy contribution to the genre of popular mathematics. Both do require effort on the part of the reader.

  • dearieme

    Add Darwin and delete James.

    By the by “The British resisted it until 1752” can be expanded: Great Britain indeed didn’t adopt the new calendar in full until 1752, but in 1600 Scotland had adopted a compromise calendar. That means that for the first 45 years of GB the two constituent ex-kingdoms ran on different calendars since England still ran on the Julian.

  • dearieme

    P.S. Milton: great writer, of course. I wonder though how many people today can cope. I suggest his replacement by Shakespeare.

  • Eric from Texas


    Great list. I would quibble with one recommendation. Ten or fifteen years ago, I would have heartily agreed with your recommendation of “The Economist.” At that time, the magazine understood the US as well as any foreign publication.

    However, since about 2004, “The Economist” has gone reflexively left-wing with respect to the US, to the point where I can no longer bear its bias.

    Instead, I find myself checking Via Meadia, Instapundit, The Telegraph, the Atlantic, and RealClear Politics. They provide a solid mix of insights on the US with a transparent and clear point of view.

  • Pete Dellas

    I know this will be overwhelming to most, but I believe anyone who would aspire to “get smart” would do well to make a habit of reading these books in small chunks until they’ve read them all. This list isn’t complete, but it will certainly go a long way to giving you an understanding of Western Civilization.

    I would add to this list Wesley’s Standard Sermons in two volumes–at least if you are an American. Just my opinion.

  • Pete Dellas

    PS. Wig Wag’s comments go in line with what I wrote above. Reading these is what amounts to a Classical Education, and greatly wanting in our day and age.

  • Eric J

    Allow me to suggest, particularly for those who have read the Bible completely one or more times, to read a Jewish translation of the Old Testament – it may provide additional perspective and spark new lines of thinking. One is available online here:

  • Kris

    Nah, way too much work. But I do thank you for this post, though: I will study it and use it to fake smartness. For example, if I am told that Keynes has superseded Adam Smith, I can solicitously reply: “Yes, I realize that Adam Smith can be difficult to understand. May I recommend that you read The Theory of Moral Sentiments? That will help you better understand Wealth of Nations.”

  • Chase Crucil

    Why do you prefer The Economist and the Financial Times over the New York Times or the Atlantic Monthly?

  • An


    If you have an iPad. There’s a Free holy bible app from, I believe. I have it on my iPad. Has all the versions. example: King James, NIV, NIV 1984, New English, etc.

  • Toni

    I second Eric from Texas on The Economist. I, too, used to subscribe. I loved its breadth and its wit but eventually grew disgusted with its NYT-like liberal dogma.

    Example 1. The Economist is obsessed with race in America. It did a special section on the American South, about a third of which was about racism. Buried in it was this tidbit: blacks in the South report FEWER racist encounters than blacks elsewhere. (Obviously I’m going on memory, but the gist is reliable.)

    Meanwhile, how much of Parliament and Cameron’s government is anything but pasty-faced?

    Example 2. The Economist has been preaching the dangers of global warming for many years. In its science section, though, there appeared a piece about the launch of a NASA satellite that would help scientists better understand the role of clouds in the earth’s climate. Hmm…yet manmade global warming requires the globe to spend collective trillions to halt it?

    “Preaching” is the proper word: The Economist treats its beliefs as if they were facts. Much like the Times.

    On a personal note, after Hurricane Ike, the Economist printed a letter of mine comparing the economies of Texas and Louisiana. They pretty well mangled my original text. I think they printed it because, illustrating political corruption, I used a former La. governor’s prediction that the only way he could fail to be reelected was if he was caught in bed with a live boy or a dead girl.

    He was correct, and corrupt. I think Edwin Edwards is still in prison.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Toni. I believe he is out and married again. On the broader point, there is a big difference between best available and perfect.

  • Toni

    Prof. Mead, thank you for this list. Would you please make it an annual feature, so I’ll be prodded annually? And newcomers won’t have seen it, of course.

    You might qualify your recommendation of The Economist to acknowledge its bias.

  • Luke Lea

    “8. Read two books by Adam Smith: The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. The Theory of Moral Sentiments is shorter and easier to read than the more famous Wealth of Nations; reading it first will make the second book easier to understand — and help you understand why Smith and so many other people consider capitalism ultimately a moral system.”

    I am not the first to observe that there is tension between these two books, one emphasizing the virtues of self-interest, the other of human sympathy and the pleasures of approbation.

  • WigWag

    It occurs to me that if the goal is to help young people become smart, modern classics should be included in Professor Mead’s list. Two books that are “must reads” are Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 masterpiece “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” and Italo Calvino’s wonderful and pace setting novel from 1972, “Invisible Cities”.

  • Luke Lea

    To my comment above I should add that Jeremy Bentham’s neglected classic, Principles of Morals and Legislation, does a good job of bridging the gap between Smith’s two books. His catalog of human pleasures is much more comprehensive than he is generally given credit for. The first five or six chapters say it all.

  • Luke Lea

    Incidentally, it is precisely the kinds of moral ideas that Smith and Bentham write about which seem not to fly in inbred societies such as we see in the Middle East (see Mead’s previous post). I hope I am proven wrong about this.

  • kerry

    And Mr. Obamacles, if Mr. Meade’s list of ten reaches your ears in Hawaii, be assured most of his recommendations will be beneath you, and can be, as you so do with all other things, be ignored, sneered at, degraded or demagogued, but cannot be dismissed. Et tu arugula! Then choke on endive.

  • Bart Hall (Kansas, USA)

    For people only a bit familiar with the Bible there are two versions I would recommend for the educational purposes you describe.

    The first is a re-arrangement of the New International translation into *chronological* order. FL Smith, published by Harvest House. It’s a great way to understand the historical context of the Bible.

    For example, the assorted psalms of David are woven together with the appropriate parts of Samuel. Passages from Kings are associated with the analogous parts of Chronicles (which was even at the time of writing essentially a commentary on Kings).

    Second is ‘The Message’, a modern language paraphrase which makes scripture far easier to understand. I would suggest reading the two versions together. There might even be a chronological version of the message out there. Just remember, however, that the Message version was developped for improved understanding, not “scriptural authority.”

    On a different note, I would have substituted Jacques Barzun’s ‘Dawn to Decadence’ for any of several books you listed.

  • In 1960 at some program at Dartmouth for graduating High School seniors, CP Snow’s The Two Cultures (about the split between Science and the Humanities) was urged upon us. In the fall during Freshman week at another Ivy we got the book and were required to read it and discuss it at length. I got it real clear that elite educators sure thought it was important that we think about that book. Professor Meade’s list seems to me the antithesis of that kind of group think. It is individualistic. eccentric even. The Bible and the Economist! And great suggestions in the comments. I’m putting Carlyle and the chronological bible at the top of my list. And I have a contemporary recommendation – Heaven of Earth by Richard Landes. It is a medievalist’s view of Millennialism that has something new to say about the topics raised by Prof. Meade’s reading list.

  • Roland Hirsch

    The English Standard Version is a recent translation of the Bible that is literal yet very enjoyable to read. It can be downloaded free for the Amazon Kindle or Kindle for PC (usable on almost every kind of computer):

  • RedWell

    Good list, but gotta quibble about Gibbon. If his scholarship is not so great but his prose is good, you might as well read someone like Edumund Burke, who is still relevant.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Where to start? I guess the best and most diplomatic way is to thank Dr. Mead for this manageable reading list, and wish him and his readers a happy 2012.

    Next, I am going to acknowledge that even this manageable reading list is something that I have not yet managed.

    Next, I second Eric and Toni wrt The Economist, with qualifications: I have been reading it since 1983, but I spend much less time on it nowadays, because it seems to have been taken over by Americans: its world-view is more like that of Time and Newsweek than like that of The Economist of the 1980s and 1990s.
    It’s not just the US that they “get wrong”, it’s Europe as well.

    My comments on the books (items 8 to 1) in a follow-up comment.

  • Snorri Godhi

    WRT the books, I note that they are all concerned with politics to some extent, and almost all are strictly about politics (or political history).
    Most of the books that changed the way I think have nothing to do with politics, at least not directly: they are about epistemology and psychology. So I won’t mention them here.
    Nonetheless, I have a quibble and a question.

    My quibble is that Western civ. springs from a combination of the Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman, and Germanic cultures.
    Therefore, in addition to the Bible, one should read at least Aristotle’s Politics and the Sagas of Icelanders.
    Some Herodotus, Thucydides, and Plato’s political works, as well as Tacitus’ Germania, are also relevant.
    I rate Herodotus, Thucydides, and Tacitus higher than Gibbon, and the Sagas of Icelanders even higher; but you are entitled to your own opinion.

    My question is: why Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution? this is not a criticism: I really want to know.
    The only full-length book about the French Rev. that I read is Tocqueville’s L’Ancien Regime et la Revolution — which is not really about the revolution at all, but nonetheless changed the way I think about the French Rev, France, and the very concepts of Left and Right.
    I tried reading Burke’s Reflections but I found it too emotional for my taste (not at all like Thucydides and Tacitus, let alone the Sagas of Icelanders).
    Then there is Lord Acton’s history of the Revolution, which I have downloaded but not yet started. Could somebody convince me that I should start with Carlyle instead?

  • Toni

    Prof. Mead, I take your point about best available vs. perfect.

    Forgive me if I repeat myself about comparing Texas and Louisiana. My letter responded to and particularly to “But Houston, which marshalled vast resources to aid evacuees from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, is well qualified to help itself.”

    To the extent that oil and gas built Texas, it could have built Louisiana, and La. has the Mississippi River to boot. But Huey Long’s legacy was a high toleration of political corruption combined with his spread-the-wealth approach. What made Katrina such a catastrophe was those factors at work on the Levee Board. One crucial levee failed, and the lowest parts of the city flooded.

    Incompetence at the mayoral and governor’s level made the situation worse from start to finish. The golden lining, I think, is that Louisianans are less likely to vote for incompetents.

  • Toni

    My Bible recommendations:

    I’ve read it all my life, even as an atheist because I couldn’t let go of Jesus’s beautiful message. (Making me a Bible-toting atheist.) Now I find the NIV Student Bible useful because of its exploration and explanation of verses and themes that may not be obvious.

    It also has “tracks” that the reader can use to get all the way through the Bible in one year or, I think, three.

    Don’t confuse the NIV STUDENT Bible with the NIV STUDY Bible. The latter insists on a narrower conception of God’s message.

    Alternatively, there’s Tyndale House’s One Year Bible, with Old and New Testament passages in order for each day. The translation is the New Revised Standard Version, but it lacks the sort of commentary my other recommendation has.

  • gs

    Most if not all of the books you cite are available for free at Project Gutenberg, including the five-volume Macaulay.

  • Borsch Belt

    Wow, Eric, Toni and Snorri (all earlier posters) are on the same page that I’m on re. The Economist!

    The Economist should, in theory, be great. Its life began as an attempt to argue free-market, rational principles amidst a backdrop of the British Empire’s refusal to repeal the Corn Laws, heavily protectionist laws designed to keep foreign agricultural imports out of Great Britain and keep prices high for British farmers.

    When poor harvests in the British Isles in the 1840s led to the Irish Famine and food shortages in the rest of Great Britain (of which Ireland was then a part), free-market proponents pushed for a repeal of the Corn Laws. It was at this time that The Economist came about, and for most of the magazine’s history it was a rational, free-market, right-leaning publication.

    In its reporting about every country on Earth save the United States, The Economist retains its strong editorial voice and argues sharply for free-market, pro-growth and (what we in the US would call) conservative policies.

    However, like Eric, Toni and Snorri, I too have noticed for the last number of years that The Economist has done a veritable 180 in its reporting on the US. Quite different from its stance on what is happening anywhere else on Earth, The Economist has taken on an editorial tone in the US not unlike that of the NYT: it is seldom pro-market or pro-growth in its US reporting these days, taking on instead the various policy positions of the Left; it typically repeats the lazy mainstream media slurs about Republicans and conservatives; and it has become obsessed with the topics of social justice, inequality, etc., etc., that one is more likely to hear from the OWS crowd than from Economist reporters based anywhere but in the US.

    I don’t know what’s happened to it, and frankly I find it surpassingly odd (have they installed an ideologue as their US editor? is it due to the fact that so many reporters in the US do lean left … though that would be the case in many other geographies as well, does the UK editorial office simply have a prejudiced and uncharitable view of the US?). Still, it is what it is, and I would argue that The Economist is still useful for getting smart on international politics and business but that its US reporting is best left unread.

  • xenophon

    I had the good fortune to study political theory with Joseph Cropsey in the 1990s at the University of Chicago. I recall asking him how to approach Adam Smith. His suggestion was to read Wealth of Nations first and then Theory of Moral Sentiments! He thought a solid grasp of Wealth would make Theory more digestible.

  • Henry A

    Thank you for the list. The most important thing a human do to become smarter is learn a new language!

  • Toni

    @Borsch Belt: I’m guessing, but I’d trace the change to how the Internet is gutting much of the traditional media.

    I think the Wall Street Journal’s news articles are the best old-fashioned, fact-based reporting around. It practices a strict separation between news and opinion, and the opinion is generally conservative.

    Maybe The Economist thinks it has to go the other direction, to steal readers and ads from the New York Times and other liberal media. The Times used to be a strong competitor in business and economic coverage.

    And/or they think catering to anti-Americanism worldwide will be popular. And/or they simply loathe the Tories and want to make a stand.

    Whatever the reason, I miss the old Economist.

  • Kris

    Since we seem to have a versions-of-the-Bible sub-thread, here are two recommendations:

    1. Everett Fox’s “The Five Books of Moses.” This translation of the Pentateuch is as close as one can get to reading the Bible in Hebrew.
    2. The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb. Unconventional, but respectful of the source material and occasionally thought-provoking.

  • I just downloaded the Macauly and Carlyle from the project Gutenberg connected in .awz for the kindle for no charge. The actual Kindle .awz file was served from an amazon s3 server! Note: the book I recommended is Heaven on Earth by Richard Landes a BU academic. I mistyped the word on. Happy reading.

  • Eric R.

    Another problem with the Economist is that like almost all European publications, its coverage of the Middle East is so biased against Israel that al-Jazeera seems fair by comparison.

    I’ve noticed this with a lot of otherwise more reasonable like the Times of London and the UK Telegraph. Bring up Jews and Israel, and they become frothing nutcases.

  • Disgusted in DC

    What??? No Belloc?

    I imagine, though, one would be placed immediately into the “reject” pile if one quoted from Belloc in lieu of Carlyle in a Rhodes interview.

  • Roland Hirsch

    The Economist is not as bad as some commenters make it seem. This week’s issue has a three-page thoughtful memorial to Vaclav Havel and a one page obituary that is unfriendly to Kim Jong Il. Most of the media barely noticed Havel and made much of Kim. The issue also has articles that are critical of the Social Democrats in Denmark and Sweden. I do not find it as unbalanced as some other readers here do.

    The Economist also brought attention to the imbalance between male and female in many east and south Asian countries for the first time for a wide audience with a cover feature two years ago that had “Gendercide” in bold letters on the cover. The editors admitted that they were wrong to support an unlimited right to abortion. Again, not as biased on this issue as many of the prominent media. I doubt that the Ny Times has ever put “Gendercide” in a headline.

  • Don’t know if it’s always better late than never, BUT:

    “The Theory of Moral Sentiments is shorter and easier to read than the more famous Wealth of Nations; reading it first will make the second book easier to understand — and help you understand why Smith and so many other people consider capitalism ultimately a moral system.”

    I suspect that’s some very sound reading advice. But I’m wondering if it might be more accurate to say: Smith believed capitalism to be MOST moral when it’s pursued by participants – be they individuals, companies or countries – who operate from out of a common moral framework (and I think Smith might even have added – though I haven’t a clue what terminology he would have used – a common CULTURAL understanding). In short, try as I may, I have a hard time imagining Smith citing the traditional US-Saudi bond – or even historical US-Mexico relations – as prime evidence of the moral superiority of capitalism.

    Lastly, much as I enjoyed and concur with the bulk of your list, I’m afraid I have to echo a common sentiment here: NO SHAKESPEARE?!!! And Carlyle over Burke?

  • elisa

    Coming in very late, but I appreciate this list and will be downloading some reading to my tablet. Thank you WRM for this NYE fodder for all ages.

    I agree with the other posters re: The Economist. I read it as a teen in the 80’s and it was the only magazine I carried a subscription to throughout college and my 20s. Then I dropped it around 2007 for the same reasons previously cited.

    It used to offer analysis and insight that was different and better. Now I use the Real Clear websites, Via Meadia and The American Interest and the WSJ.

  • These are some great tips on stirtang a blog and understanding what your voice should be. I think bloggers forget who is listening or who they want to be listening as a prime example. I really, think that if you want a successful blog you need to figure out what type of engagement you are with your listeners and that niche community as well. You could know very little about SEO or the background but if you keep pumpiing out great content and engaging with your niche with it’s various sites, blogs, and forums people will listen to your voice I’m sure of it. I really like this post for various reasons and have gone ahead and bookmarked it for later use. Thanks!

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