Books are popular again. Reading is now cool. Bragging about what you read is even cooler. And writing a book? Well, that’s even coolerest.
However, there are so many books out there and so few people to brag to about what you’ve read. So, to help you out, I’m going to give you the seven books that you absolutely have to read in order to become a more intelligent and interesting person. Or, at the very least, which books you should say you’ve read.
The following books were selected based off my own judgment as well as the Open Syllabus Explorer, an online database of books assigned in over one million college courses from the past decade or so.
If you want to look smart then you absolutely, positively must read these seven books right now. Good luck.
The Republic by Plato
Amongst the Ivy Leagues, Plato’s The Republic is the most assigned book. It’s also the most influential and famous text on political science ever written and is considered the cornerstone of western philosophy. Virtually every book ever written on philosophy can trace its ideas back to The Republic. But be warned: it’s long (500+ pages). If you want to act like you know what you’re talking about then I highly suggest reading the CliffsNotes rather than the book.
One sentence summary: Justice is superior to injustice. Be just regardless of the consequences.
A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
“If you want to read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States. That book will knock you on your ass.” – Will Hunting, played by Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting.
A People’s History of the United States is to most history books what Honey Boo Boo is to Joe Dirt. One is real, the other is just a funny joke with a mullet. This book explains what most history books leave out. In a 1998 interview, Zinn said he set “quiet revolution” as his goal for writing A People’s History. Did he succeed? You decide.
One sentence summary: Christopher Columbus was an evil man.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
In 1969, a 31-year-old American novelist named John Kennedy Toole placed a garden hose in his running car’s exhaust pipe, put the other end in the car’s window, and killed himself from carbon monoxide poising. 11 years later, when finally cleaning out his bedroom, his mother found an unpublished manuscript in her son’s dresser. That manuscript was A Confederacy of Dunces.
While not as popular as the other books on this list, this book has a cult following and is regarded as one of the funniest books ever written. The famous frat-boy author Tucker Max said, “This is the type of book that humbles you, and makes you understand how great writing can be.”
Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Chris Farley, John Belushi, and Nick Offerman have all tried to turn this book into a movie. It’ll happen eventually, and when it does you can be smug and whine to your friends about how much better the book was than the movie.
One sentence summary: Imagine a 30-something-year-old Chris Farley or Zach Galifianakis living with his mom and doing stupid stuff everyday.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Stoicism is in nowadays, so you need to learn about the stuff. If you’re not one of the hip kids, stoicism is possibly the only school of philosophy that’s actually practical to daily living. Marcus Aurelius is the godfather of Stoicism. If you’re interested in learning practical ways to deal with stress, hardship, or depression then Stoicism is for you. Meditations is a fast read, but it’ll most certainly make you a smarter person.
One sentence summary: Prepare to encounter stupid and mean people every day and address their concerns logically without getting upset.
The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli
“That is such a machiavellian thing of you to do.” Everyone who reads The Prince will inevitably use the word “machiavellian” five times a week. And for good reason. The Prince was written by Italian war strategist Niccolò Machiavelli in 1532. In the text, Machiavelli explains exactly how to be a powerful and manipulative leader. Interestingly, The Prince is one of the top five most assigned books to Ivy League students. Hmmmm…
One sentence summary: It’s better to be feared than loved. And doing evil things in order to achieve power, survival, and glory is okay as long as you aren’t a horrible person once you gain power.
The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr.
Look, grammar nazis may be the mayor of smugville, but we all know how awesome it feels to properly correct someone on their grammar. “Um, actually I believe it’s ‘whom is a vegan,’ not ‘who’.”
The Elements of Style teaches people how to write well. While the title is mind numbingly boring, this 48-page book is actually quite engaging and fun to read. It’s also the most assigned college text of all time.
One word summary: Omit needless words when writing, and use an active voice, not passive.
Letter From Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr.
If there’s a time to read this book, it’s now. Like the name suggests, this book is actually a 35-page letter written by Martin Luther King, Jr. while sitting in jail after getting arrested for a peaceful protest. While sitting in his cell, King wrote this letter on the margins of a newspaper that was smuggled in his cell. This is a beautiful read and one of the top ten most assigned college books.
One sentence summary: Break unjust laws through civil disobedience.