Great Books of the 20th Century

So, most universities have some sort of “Great Books” curriculum. Plato, Aristotle, Chaucer and the rest of the Western canon are taught year after year to new college students.* For some reason, I got to thinking about what a modern great books would look like. And since I don’t know much about literature**, I started wondering, what would a Great Books of 20th Century Social Science look like? I don’t have in mind here books written just by social scientists as much as very influential works of non-fiction about society – the kind of books that shaped whole academic fields and also, perhaps, spawned social movements or reshaped identities. Here’s a short list that might help get at what I was thinking about. These books share the fact of being routinely cited, but perhaps accessible without a lot of disciplinary background, and also of being books that I “know” mostly without having ever really read or been assigned.*** I’ve also focused on books written in English, with a few books that were prominently translated into English (which, coincidentally, are the ones closest to my own field and work). Perhaps as a typical, if regrettable, boundary condition we can limit the discussion to things that were influential in the United States (if not written here).

Great Books of the 20th Century

  • Civilization and its Discontents by Sigmund Freud
  • Sexual Behavior in the Human Male – Alfred Kinsey et al.
  • The Death and Life of Great American Cities – Jane Jacobs
  • Silent Spring – Rachel Carson
  • The Feminine Mystique – Betty Friedan
  • The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – Thomas Kuhn
  • Orientalism – Edward Said
  • Discipline & Punish and/or The History of Sexuality v.1 – Michel Foucault****
  • Development as Freedom – Amartya Sen
  • Possible inclusions that I feel less confident about (in part because many are closer to my own work):

  • The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism – Max Weber*****
  • The General Theory of Interest, Money and Employment – JM Keynes (except you really wouldn’t want to read this with undergrads… or anyone… maybe “Economic Consequences of the Peace” instead?)
  • Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy – Joseph Schumpeter
  • The Road to Serfdom – Friedrich von Hayek
  • The Great Transformation – Karl Polanyi
  • Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man – Marshall McLuhan
  • The Visual Display of Quantitative Information – Edward Tufte
  • What do you think? What else should make the cut? I’m definitely missing out on a few biggies – anthropology, for example, is unrepresented. Is this a silly endeavor? Would it serve any pedagogical use?

    * I failed to take Great Books, of course, though I got some of that canon in a class on “Classical Sources of Modern Culture”.
    ** Except mid-20th century Latin American magical realist short fiction, and genre Sci-Fi.
    *** Many of these books I have not read at all, so I don’t actually know which would stand up as works in their own right as opposed to as cultural touchstones. One reason I think it’d be fun to construct such a class would be as a reason to read all of these works!
    **** Foucault is tricky. He’s hugely influential, like many of the other figures here, but less associated with a single work. D&P and History of Sexuality are both accessible and widely read, so they seem the best candidates for inclusion.
    ***** Weber was a tough choice, but I think this book in particular has a ton of resonance outside of academia, or at least outside of the narrow social sciences. But that could be some sort of availability bias or somesuch of noticing something because you’ve been forced to slog through it so many times.

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    17 Comments

    1. Max

       /  March 18, 2011

      I had barely begun to skim this when I noticed the similarity to a book list I saw many years ago, Human Events’ list of the Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Century: http://www.humanevents.com/article.php?id=7591
      The overlap isn’t anywhere near 100%, but it’s still high enough to be worth mentioning, especially when you consider their ‘Honorable Mentions.’
      And a review of the Honorable Mentions give me a recommendation for an addition to your list: Unsafe At Any Speed, by Ralph Nader, which, as I understand it, was very important in motivating Consumer Protection groups in the 1960s and 70s.

      • Nice! Dewey and Margaret Mead would be good additions, and some others are certainly worth considering.

    2. JL

       /  March 18, 2011

      Wow, this is such an awful list that I’m unsubscribing your blog. Freud, Foucault, Said? Ugh.

    3. CharlieMcMenamin

       /  March 18, 2011

      The lack of history books in your list is a bit sad – well, unless one makes a case for the Weber as being history, which I don’t think it is, quite. No EP Thompson, no Annales, no Hobsbawm ? That’s not a 20th Century I recognise.

      (Or maybe what you call ‘Great Books’ has a specifically North American connotation that I’m not quite catching sitting here in Sarf Luhdun)

      • It may be a cultural translation issue… I thought about E.P. Thompson, for example, but I’ve never seen him discussed outside academic history or sociology (that may have more to do with the sorts of things I read than his lack of influence!). So, I was going for texts that had been academic impact but were also cultural touchstones of the sort that come up in the occasional New Yorker or Time article, or that get referenced by academics in very different fields (e.g. the lingering influence of Freud in lots of places well outside of psychology). Were Thompson or Hobsbawm widely read when new? I know very little about their reception.

    4. CharlieMcMenamin

       /  March 18, 2011

      EP Thompson was very,very widely read in Britain: at one point ‘The Making of the English Working Class’ was a mainstay of the A Level history syllabus(A Levels are the exams we take at 18 to qualify for university. Furthermore, he became something of a public figure, at least on the left, in the 1980s through his role in European Nuclear Disarmament (END.

      Hobsbawm is simply a ‘national treasure’ and is treated as such in the media read by the chattering classes. Admittedly, that’s not too difficult a thing to be when one is in one’s nineties – but the interesting thing is that he still inspires hatred from people who dislike the fact the stayed in the CP to the bitter end (albeit in a very mild, Eurocommunist way: he describes himself as having been a ‘spiritual member’ of the PCI). I think the continued hatred is a sign of his importance and also reflects how widely read he was (he too was on the A level curriculum in the 1970s:I recall slogging through ‘Industry and Empire’ as a teenager).

      But all this may be just me being parochial – all countries will have their culturally specific ‘Great Books’. And yet, and yet…. the Annales school of French historians must surely have affected North America in some way? I still think your list feels a bit North American.

      P.S. Despite – or perhaps because of – its popularity, is there not a case for Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’?

    5. “I don’t have in mind here books written just by social scientists as much as very influential works of non-fiction about society – the kind of books that shaped whole academic fields and also, perhaps, spawned social movements or reshaped identities.”

      Hmm….I guess you would need differentiated lists for your categories. Like: books that shaped the discipline (that would include Simmel, Schuetz and Parsons) and books that were influential outside (like of course Marx: Capital, Dewey: Logic, Bell: Post Industrial Society, Castells: Network Society, Beck: Risk Society)…maybe even more lists…

      • Dewey I definitely like – Democracy and Education I think would be the book? Bell too. Marx is pre-20th century and thus misses the arbitrary cutoff date. Beck is perhaps “too soon to tell”. Definitely influential, but I am trying to shy away from anything too recent.

    6. E.O. Wilson, Sociobiology

    7. Brian A. Pitt

       /  March 19, 2011

      I am not too much into literature either Dan. I do, however, enjoy love novels; please do not tell anyone!
      Here is my short list:
      1. The Logic of Collective Action (Mancur Olson)
      2. Human Action (Mises)
      3. Socialism (Mises)
      4. The Calculus of Consent (Buchanan and Tullock)
      5. Economy and Society (Weber)
      6. Phenomenology of the Social World (Schutz)
      7. Booker T. Washington (Harlan)
      8. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Bailyn)
      9. Philosophy of Money (Simmel)
      10. The Constitution of Liberty (Hayek)

      • I love literature! But it wasn’t what I was going for here – with the possible exception of “The Jungle” which certainly is about society and is frequently referenced in academic debates.

        Olson’s an interesting one, definitely something I’d consider. I think, for example, Economy and Society is *not* where I’m going – hugely influential in Soc, but encyclopedic, and very much not a cultural touchstone.

    8. Brian A. Pitt

       /  March 20, 2011

      Dan,
      I am sure that this is a dead-thread, but I was thinking about your list (and mine), and consider these to be great 20th century books as well:
      1. Intelligence in Children (Alfred Binet)
      2. The Mismeasure of Man (Stephen Gould)

    9. In anthropology, Mead is of course a good addition, and I would add my bid for Clifford Geertz’ The Interpretation of Cultures.
      As far as sociology goes, I think Parsons is a definite ‘yes’ and I’d also add Mills’ The Sociological Imagination purely for its value in explaining what sociology is to a SOC 101 class and as being a counterpoint to Parsons.

      • Geertz was seriously influential across disciplines, so that might be sufficient. I certainly love his stuff – well, the few essays that I (and everyone else) read.

        Parsons… hrmph. What would you read? He was an important figure, but super dry, and I’m not sure which of his works really holds up as something that people point to. Mills is great as an intro to Soc, but if I were to add Mills to this list it would be “The Power Elite” and not Soc Imagination.

    10. n1i2c3o4l5e

       /  March 21, 2011

      You read a lot! Have you tried M. Proust? I enjoy him but I can read him only when I drink a beer.

    11. Boas is probably the other (or one other) Anthropologist who should make the list.

    12. bpitt

       /  March 28, 2011

      I can probably add/delete from my list infinitely – but I will not. That said, I have to include one of the most important historians of the twentieth century and his quite well-known classic:
      The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 (Gutman)