Great introductory books

I will from time to time interrupt our ongoing tale to talk about something else. Think of these liminal posts as the breaks between Acts at the theatre.

Today I was at a party, and the topic came up of introductory books by great experts. These books are, by definition, not geared toward one who is practiced in the field. Generally speaking, you can pick up such a book and read it from cover to cover with no preparation whatsoever.

The best of them not only give you insights into some field of intellectual discourse, but also convey the immense love of that field by its practitioners. As far as I know, no systematic compendium exists that lists the best of such books.

At the party today I got to talking with another NYU professor on this topic. She studies neurology, so of course I mentioned Oliver Sacks’ classic The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. It turned out that reading this book had profoundly influenced her decision to enter the field.

We started to list books that have had a similar impact in other fields. There is Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct. Anyone reading that book will surely fall in love with Evolutionary Linguistics.

There is Stephen J. Gould’s Wonderful Life for Paleontology, Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting for theater acting, Walter Murch’s In the Blink of an Eye for film editing, and many more. It would be wonderful to create an authoritative list.

We decided that there should be an option for an NYU professor to take an extra semester sabbatical, with the proviso that he or she read twenty books from that list, and then lead an undergraduate seminar on what has been learned.

I think such a program will improve the level of scholarship at NYU. I wonder whether the University administration will go for it.

4 Responses to “Great introductory books”

  1. J. Peterson says:

    Ansel Adams series on photography (The Camera, The Negative & The Print) come to mind, though I think it’s been superseded by Marc Levoy’s Lectures on Digital Photography ( )

    [OK, Levoy’s lectures aren’t a book in the regular sense, but I just finished watching the series and they’re excellent]

  2. Bg Porter says:

    Pierce’s “Symbols, Signals, and Noise, an Introduction to Information Theory”?

  3. Dennis Davidson says:

    Ludy T. Benjamin’s “A Brief History of Modern Psychology”
    Provides a thorough overview of a rather wide-ranging body of knowledge from its mid-19th century, pre-scientific origins to its late-20th century overlap with neurophysiology and cognitive science.

  4. admin says:

    Ah, wonderful! I feel we are gradually building up our library. :-) :-) :-)

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