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
Possible inclusions that I feel less confident about (in part because many are closer to my own work):
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.