Ultimate reading lists
August 3, 2010 1:05 PM   Subscribe

Five Books claims to make you an instant expert, which it may or may not. What it does do is interview an important thinker every day about a topic, and have them select five books on the subject. The results are often eccentric and usually fascinating. Some samples: Rebecca Goldstein on reason's limitations; John Timoney on policing; Calvin Trillin on memoirs, Marcus du Sautoy on the beauty of math, Judith Herrin on Byzantium, Jonathan Haidt on happiness, and lots more, including five books on puppeteering, Nabokov, books for kids, moral philosophy, video games, terrorism, the enemies of Ancient Rome, and cookbooks.
posted by blahblahblah (34 comments total) 108 users marked this as a favorite

 
Good post. Sort of a double, since FiveBooks is mentioned in the post on TheBrowser,
http://www.metafilter.com/90436/Best-of-the-Web-minus-Snark.

I really like FiveBooks. It makes me wish I was as dedicated at reading as I am at finding books to read.
posted by codacorolla at 1:09 PM on August 3, 2010 [10 favorites]


Oh great. Another source to lengthen my reading list!

No really, great post!
posted by cross_impact at 1:13 PM on August 3, 2010


This is great -- thanks.

I love this gem from Calvin Trillin because it's so absolutely true:

Most memoirs in America seem to be about childhoods that are unpleasant at least, and maybe more than that. There’s been an unfortunate atrocity race in memoirs in the United States. You’re meant to reveal some hideous secret in your memoir if you expect it to go anywhere. Probably at least incest or bestiality or something like that. Which I think is unfortunate. And I think that was the problem with that book A Million Little Pieces [James Frey]. There he was, a middle class druggie. I can go outside and throw a rock and hit a middle class druggie. He doesn’t stand out. So there’s a kind of pressure to make things worse than they were.

Try to write and publish a memoir about an ordinary (i.e., non-atrocity-filled) life these days. You'll be laughed out of the publisher's office.
posted by blucevalo at 1:15 PM on August 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


The recommendations for "moral philosophy" don't give me a lot of confidence in the site.
posted by Jaltcoh at 1:18 PM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Going through their archives (it's not the best site design in the world, imo, archives are an image link at the bottom of the page) some of my favorites are:

Lev Grossman on the Internet

Tom Chatfield on video games

Hillary Chute on graphic narratives
posted by codacorolla at 1:21 PM on August 3, 2010


Ditto Jaltcoh on Jonathan Glover's moral philosophy list. Interesting books? Yes. Books that make you an expert in moral philosophy? At best, these books (and any number of others you might have substituted) could make you a more sensible and sensitive conversationalist in an ethics seminar which, despite your expertise, you would seriously bomb.
posted by Beardman at 1:50 PM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've never been especially impressed by the recommendations on FiveBooks, at least for the areas I know something about. As little capsule interviews/"what is your favorite book?" questionnaires, the guides work well, but as introductions to any given field or question they are awful. Usually the selections are either too lay and superficial to effectively introduce the reader to anything, or they require a background of scholarly context that nobody but an expert would have, or they're just the interviewee showing off his varied and sophisticated literary tastes. (Take the Russia region, for instance. Robert Service's selections are mind-bogglingly pointless, Andrei Maylunas's are horribly impressionistic, and Thomas Keneally's are more or less equivalent to Stephen Ambrose books: possibly interesting to read, but not leading to "expertise" even in theory. (Who the hell is Thomas Keneally to be telling people what to read about Russia, anyway?))
posted by nasreddin at 1:51 PM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Newsflash: Website with pithy slogan may not actually deliver expertise in five books but instead may provide interesting reading and basic overview of topic area. Commence outrage and derision.
posted by proj at 1:51 PM on August 3, 2010


People often ignore the word "philosophy" for some reason. A book can say something interesting about morality or ethics itself without offering any moral philosophy.
posted by Jaltcoh at 1:53 PM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


"The city became Istanbul in 1930, the capital of modern Turkey."

I think this is fivebook's mistake, not Judith Herrin's, but it doesn't inspire confidence.
posted by bonecrusher at 1:55 PM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Great. Looks like I'm headed back to old Constantinople.
posted by General Tonic at 1:56 PM on August 3, 2010


That's nobody's business but the Turks.
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:59 PM on August 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


Hand and Rod Puppets: A Handbook of Technique [Hardcover]

Damn you puppet people! You taunt me with out of print books that cost a fortune and aren't even available used!
posted by cjorgensen at 1:59 PM on August 3, 2010


Try to write and publish a memoir about an ordinary (i.e., non-atrocity-filled) life these days. You'll be laughed out of the publisher's office.

What about Samantha Bee's new memoir? Or Steve Martin's, for that matter?
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 2:07 PM on August 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


proj, on the assumption that we all knew the "expert" slogan wasn't literal, I was using the word in the loosest conceivable way, i.e. "knowing anything whatsoever about a topic," and pointing out that the moral philosophy list falls short even by that standard. The reason is that 4 of the 5 books aren't philosophy books, or even popular books about philosophy. I'd like to think that choosing books from the field in question would be a minimum requirement even to fulfill the 'promise' of a pithy slogan on a website.

The failure, of course, is more Glover's than the site's. It's a bummer that someone who knows they're representing a tradition which has produced at least five great books would decline the opportunity to recommend four of them to a wider audience. Again, no five books would make one a genuine expert or satisfy any philosopher (or philosophy major, for that matter). That's not the annoying thing. The annoying thing is that a philosopher chose to tell interested laypeople that philosophy itself has little to say about morality that might excite them, which is false.
posted by Beardman at 2:18 PM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


You taunt me with out of print books that cost a fortune and aren't even available used!

Tell me about it.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:20 PM on August 3, 2010





Related AskMefi: What single book is the best introduction to your field or specialization within your field for laypeople?


This thread, I think, works a lot better than the site, even though the people that commented weren't generally world-class experts. When you have to pick one book rather than five, it really forces you to cut down on the wanking and actually help people who want to learn something.
posted by nasreddin at 2:30 PM on August 3, 2010


This thread, I think, works a lot better than the site, even though the people that commented weren't generally world-class experts

It probably helps that they weren't world class experts. Unless they spend a great deal of time teaching undergraduates, world class experts may not have a solid grasp of how much or how little the layman knows about their subject.
posted by atrazine at 2:40 PM on August 3, 2010




"The city became Istanbul in 1930, the capital of modern Turkey."

I think this is fivebook's mistake, not Judith Herrin's, but it doesn't inspire confidence.


This is not a mistake.
posted by empath at 3:43 PM on August 3, 2010


Huh. Lots of snark here. I've only visited one of the linked pages, Byzantium, but that one is terrific. Psellos, Brown, and Bury might be gimmies (though starting off with Psellos, one of my favorite premodern historians, won my heart right away), but to go on to recommend Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World by Cook and Crone is both incredibly ballsy and thoroughly justified. She says "Hagarism is the most exciting book I read as a young graduate. It made sense of the rise of Islam," and I completely agree. And Freely is a fine choice as well.

Now, back to the snark.
posted by languagehat at 3:44 PM on August 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


This is fucking awesome, thanks so much! I've already added a number of volumes to my requested items list through the local library system.
posted by kavasa at 4:01 PM on August 3, 2010


Not snark, but curious. I was intrigued by Hagarism and eager to read it, but now I read that the authors have since had second thoughts. Do you know anything about this?

(Not that I'm going to drop north of 200 dollars on it, but still.)
posted by IndigoJones at 4:03 PM on August 3, 2010


Time to feel even guiltier about what I'm not reading.
posted by Gin and Comics at 4:10 PM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


empath, the issue isn't the date or the nature of the name change, the issue is the location of the capital of modern Turkey.
posted by EvaDestruction at 4:23 PM on August 3, 2010


Heh, I was interested to see that Phillip Vannini's five books on The Ethnography of Music included a book on club cultures (Sarah Thornton's 1995 Club Cultures, to be precise). I don't think that would've been included as a fundamental text in a general music-ethnography reading list 4 or 5 years ago. It's sorta encouraging for me and my work, but it also makes me worry that my field is starting to get a bit too normal and hiring committees will be yawning at my research topic by the time I finish this !@#$ dissertation. </dissertation_angst>

Anyway, an interesting and somewhat surprising list for Ethnography of Music. I can think of at least three other versions of this list that would be just as interesting/useful…
posted by LMGM at 4:27 PM on August 3, 2010


It's discoveries such as this that keep bringing me back to MetaFilter. Thanks.
posted by governale at 4:34 PM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


> Not snark, but curious. I was intrigued by Hagarism and eager to read it, but now I read that the authors have since had second thoughts. Do you know anything about this?

That statement comes from Liaquat Ali Khan in "Hagarism: The Story of a Book Written by Infidels for Infidels." I don't think we need take it very seriously. I mean, I'm sure they've had further thoughts about it, given that it was published over thirty years ago and was deliberately written provocatively, but so what? It's full of details you won't find anywhere else and is an incredibly exhilarating and mind-opening read. No, you shouldn't spend a couple hundred bucks on it, but you can probably find a library copy like I did. (I've, uh, heard that it's possible to photocopy the book while you've got it checked out, but I wouldn't advocate anything like that, even if it's pretty short and long out of print and the price is ridiculous.)
posted by languagehat at 5:11 PM on August 3, 2010


I wouldn't take the 'instant expert' thing at face value- really, this is some interesting people recommending some books that they happen to personally find informative. And that's awesome!
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:33 PM on August 3, 2010


Thank you for this.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 12:56 AM on August 4, 2010


I don't know about books, but I know of one website that turns people into expert snarky know-it-alls.
posted by Optamystic at 2:01 AM on August 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I like Five Books a lot because it got me to read this book and I really enjoyed it.
posted by interplanetjanet at 7:26 AM on August 4, 2010


Danke, Languagehat. Off to the liberry, then the Xer- I mean, and then home.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:06 PM on August 5, 2010


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