10 Books For the Well-Rounded Man
Although media seem dedicated to portraying men as oblivious to anything outside of sports, tools, and sex, the truth is that until a few decades ago any self-respecting man was expected to have a wide range of knowledge. “I have taken all knowledge to be my province,” says Bacon, while Marlowe encourages us to have “aspiring minds” and to climb “after knowledge infinite.”
To this end, we offer one book for each of ten categories with which the well-rounded man should have at least some familiarity.
1) Adventure: Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
It isn’t often that we celebrate explorers who fail, but Shackleton’s disastrous third attempt to lead a party to the South Pole is such an astounding and inspirational tale that it has come to be honored as a success in its own right. Stranded on a frozen island 1,200 miles from the nearest human settlement, Shackleton’s leadership and courage brought his crew through one of the worst ordeals imaginable without a single life being lost.
Additional reading: Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer, by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell.
2) Classics: Hamlet, by William Shakespeare
It’s impossible to find one work that can encompass all the merits of classical literature, but Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which wraps a ghost story within a murder mystery and a play within a play, comes surprisingly close. So influential is it that even the most uneducated English speakers unknowingly quote from it on a regular basis. Each time we mention our “mind’s eye,” do something “more in sorrow than in anger,” or feel we must be “cruel to be kind,” we are echoing the words of the tormented Danish prince.
Additional Reading: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, by Tom Stoppard
3) Science: The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, by James D. Watson
From biologists exploring the mysteries of life, to criminalists tracking the murderers who destroy it, one of the most important tools of the modern world is DNA. In The Double Helix, Watson offers his readers an intimate look into the frantic race between competing teams of researchers as they sought to reveal the nature of our genetic code. With breathless narrative and clearly-explained scientific principles, Helix is a Boy’s Own adventure story about this remarkable chemical that makes us who we are.
Additional Reading: The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins
4) Religion: A History of God: The 4000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, By Karen Armstrong
Where did we get our idea of God? How can the God represented in Judaism, Christianity and Islam be so different to his various followers, and how have our views of Him changed over the millennia? In this ambitious and meticulously researched book, Karen Armstrong traces the evolution of God through the last 4,000 years looks to answer the question, “Does God have a future?”
Additional Reading: The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James
5) Women Authors: Saint Maybe, by Anne Tyler
While Accidental Tourist is probably her most famous novel, a better introduction to her work is Saint Maybe. This story about a young man who is indirectly responsible for his brother’s suicide and his sister-in-law’s fatal overdose is laugh-out-loud funny as Tyler’s refreshingly honest observations of men and women touch upon the quirks and foibles of us all. She remains one of the few female authors who treats men as human beings rather than villains or comic relief.
Additional Reading: Mister Sandman, by Barbara Gowdy
6) Detective: The Murders in the Rue Morgue, by Edgar Allen Poe
Considered by many to be the first detective novel, The Murders in the Rue Morgue introduces the brilliant theorist, C. Auguste Dupin, who solves crimes in the seclusion of his own home. There he is attended by an assistant who, foreshadowing Dr. Watson, also narrates the story. As an added bonus, this book also has the distinction of giving us one of the most peculiar murderers in the history of the mystery novel.
Additional Reading: The Doorbell Rang, by Rex Stout
7) Politics: The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli
Despite its reputation as endorsing cold-blooded manipulation, the underlying principle of Machiavelli’s most famous work is that a population enjoys more personal freedom and security from a stable government than from a government that is always in conflict. Other books may give insight into this or that specific political situation, but with The Prince, readers gain an understanding of the fundamental complexities of nation building.
Additional Reading: The Art of War, by Sun Tzu
8) Humor: The Thurber Carnival, by James Thurber
Thurber set standards for humor writing that have occasionally been equaled, but rarely excelled. His stories, often factual, convey the most extraordinary events in the most mundane fashion. No matter how loudly the bed falls on father, how many shoes mother throws through the neighbor’s windows, or how many miles the townsfolk run before realizing the damn has not, in fact, broken, Thurber recites it all in such a calm manner the reader can’t help feeling that this is the stuff of normal life.
Additional Reading: The Best of Robert Benchley, by Robert Benchley
9) Philosophy: The Story of Philosophy: the Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers, by Will Durant
With the clarity and brilliance that made him one of the world’s best philosophical writers, Durant takes the reader on a journey of philosophy through the millennia. Beginning with Plato and ending with Nietzsche, The Story of Philosophy is a revealing glimpse not only into the major philosophical schools that have influenced Western Civilization, but also into the minds of the philosophers who founded them.
Additional Reading: Philosophy Made Simple, by Richard H. Popkin
10) Crime: The Criminal History of Mankind, by Colin Wilson
Using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Values as a starting point, Wilson traces criminal motivations as they progress from simple needs (muggings and murder for profit), through sexual gratification (Jack the Ripper), to the self-actualizing spree killer (Ted Bundy). Careful scholarship, intelligently passionate writing, and a clear, provocative thesis make this one of the most compelling books on crime you’ll ever read.
Additional Reading: Thinking About Crime, by James Q. Wilson