The Educated Layperson’s Guide to ______

I like to read; I think most of us who hang out here do. But I have discovered that as soon as I get even a teeny bit beyond topics that I studied in school, I don’t really know where to go for book recommendations.

One book that I read recently, and enjoyed immensely, was Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. But I mention that with some trepidation, for fear that any scientists reading will mock my pleasure in it. (Although we might want to acknowledge that it is impossible to write about some topics for the non-specialist without painting with broad strokes.)

So, I am calling on all of you to provide, for the non-specialist or non-professional, some titles from your own field of study/profession.

Kristine, you have perhaps heard me talk about my idiocy when it comes to music. Is there a ‘Music for Dummies’ type book that you can recommend?

Jim, I never made it past the textbook for Philosphy 101. What can I start with that won’t make my head hurt?

Nate, I think it was you who didn’t like Nina Totenberg. Can you recommend a few titles for those of us with no legal training?

I’ll provide a few titles that I recommend when people tell me that they want to read more about the scriptures:

Barlow’s Mormons and the Bible (which I know has been mentioned here before.)

Malina’s The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, which is just what it sounds like.

Fowler’s Let the Reader Understand, which shows how reader-response criticism can work and reveal new insights about a text (in this case, Mark).

Meeks’ The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul; good background to the epistles.

Murphy’s The Word According to Eve, which is the only decent starting place for the proliferating world of feminist biblical studies (can you tell that I wish I had read this first?)

22 comments for “The Educated Layperson’s Guide to ______

  1. April 22, 2004 at 3:12 pm

    A book I enjoyed was “Jesus, the Jewish Theologian”

  2. April 22, 2004 at 3:19 pm

    Jim may disagree and I must confess I’ve not read it, but many people have said that _Sophie’s World_ was a great introduction for non-philosophers to at least get the idea of what’s going on. It isn’t really a formal introduction to philosophy, but is purportedly very good for the total non-philosopher.

  3. April 22, 2004 at 3:50 pm

    I’ve read Sophie’s World, which is not a bad “introduction” to philosophy. _The Passion of the Western Mind_ is also pretty good.

    For law, I would look at some of these:

    On the legal profession read Mary-Ann Glendon, _A Nation Under Lawyers_ or if you are more adventuresome Anthony Kronman, _The Lost Lawyer_.

    On legal philosophy I think Coleman & Murphy, _An Introduction to Legal Philsophy_ is readable and convers the ground pretty well.

    On comparative law, I would take a look at Martin Shapirio. _Courts: A Comparative Perspective_.

    On law and religion see Stephen Carter, _The Culture of Disbelief_ and John Noonan, _The Lustre of Our Country_.

    For judicial biographies see Gerald Gunther, _Learned Hand_ and Althauser, _Law Without Values: The Life and Legacy of Oliver Wendell Holmes_. (Menad’s _The Metaphysical Club_ also has some great sections on Holmes).

    To understand the history and role of constitutional law in the U.S. you really need to understand John Marshall. I have heard that _What Kind of Nation_ is a nice treatment of the (decisively important) Marshall v. Jefferson debates. I don’t know of a good intro into modern constitutional law that is not dated and partisan or journalistic and simplistic. Help Kaimi!

    On law and Mormonism look at Firmage & Mangrum, _Zion in the Courts_ or Sarah Barringer Gordon, _The Mormon Question_. Gordon in particular is very well written, sophisticated, and accessible to a non-lawyer. (_Zion in the Courts_ is a great book but at times falls into a string of lets-summarize-the-holdings of some of the early polygamy cases.)

  4. Greg Call
    April 22, 2004 at 3:55 pm

    The first thing I read in law school was a little book called _The Ages of American Law_, by Grant Gilmore (late Yale law prof). It is a pretty brief (150 pages), very readable set of lectures on American legal history — both theory and doctrine.

  5. Kaimi
    April 22, 2004 at 4:39 pm

    It’s dated, and has some problems, but one of the best Con Law intros has to be Ely, Democracy and Distrust. It covers a lot of interesting ground and is a very influential book.

    A few other ideas:

    Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously

    Sunstein, One Case at a Time

    Sunstein, Democracy and the Problems of Free Speech

    Scalia, A Matter of Interpretation

    Epstein, Takings (super controversial, no one agrees with it, but it lays out many of the issues for the Takings Clause, and you can’t talk about the Takings Clause without mentioning Epstein).

    I haven’t read Akhil Amar’s The Bill of Rights, but it has gotten some good reviews (and some critical ones).


    Gilmore, Death of Contract
    Chirelstein’s contracts book
    Bork, The Antitrust Paradox (if you want antitrust; it’s very readable, though not everyone agrees with it).

  6. Kaimi
    April 22, 2004 at 4:43 pm

    In Constitutional-legal history, Gordon S. Wood is considered very good, his Creation of the American Republic is highly viewed by lawyers (and I understand by many historians, though I’m not an historian).

  7. Adam Greenwood
    April 22, 2004 at 4:46 pm

    I just finished reading Washington’s Crossing, by David Fischer. He has an extended bibliographic review in an appendix in which he speak highly of Gordon S. Wood.

  8. greenfrog
    April 22, 2004 at 5:04 pm

    Evolution: _The Selfish Gene_ by Richard Dawkins and _The Beak of the Finch_ by Jonathan Weiner
    Network Theory: _Linked_ by Barabasi
    Law: The Path of the Law (essay) by Oliver Wendell Holmes
    AI Potential: _The Age of Spiritual Machines_ by Ray Kurzweil

  9. MDS
    April 22, 2004 at 5:05 pm

    Ely is great. One nice thing about my less-than-Ivy League education at U. Miami was the fact that so many Ivy League professors decided to retire there, Ely among them.

    Because of UM’s strong ties to U. Chicago, the law school is still engaged in an adulation of Soia Mentschikoff and Karl Lewellyn that borders on hero worship. Accordingly, my first introductions to the law and legal reasoning were Lewellyn’s _The Bramble Bush_ and Mentschikoff’s (co-authored by Irwin Stozky) _The Theory and Craft of American Law_

  10. Matt Grow
    April 22, 2004 at 5:12 pm

    Gordon Wood’s definitely well-respected by historians. I’d recommend his _The Radicalism of the American Revolution_ as more interesting (and a better read) than _Creation of the American Republic_.

  11. April 22, 2004 at 5:26 pm

    I hadn’t thought of Llewellyn. The Bramble Bush is great. Gilmore is a good read, the problem is that his history is a little…er…fictional…at times. For example, the Death of Contract is universally regarded by historians of contract law as a perversely inaccurate history of the field, and Gilmore himselft back pedalled from much of the book claiming that it was meant as a joke.

    Jack Rakove, _Original Meanings_ is another good constitutional history book.

    Also J.M. Kelly’s _A Short Introduction to Western Legal Theory_ is the best historical treatment of the philosophy of law that I have seen. (It is short in the 454 pages sense of the word.) Carl Joachim Friedrich, _The Philosophy of Law in Historical Perspective_ is also fairly readable, but it is badly dated since it came out before mid-century renessiance in Anglo-American legal philosophy.

    Another classic that ought to get mentioned is Benjamin Cardozo, _The Nature of the Judicial Process_.

    A Mitchell Polinsky’s _An Introduction to Law and Economics_ is a very approachable — if somewhat dry — summary to an important school of legal thought. I also think that Michael Trebilcock’s book _The Limits of Freedom of Contract_ is a wonderful intro into the problems of contract law, which I find facinating. (Should you be able to sell internal organs? What constitutes “exploitation”? etc.)

  12. ed
    April 22, 2004 at 5:38 pm

    I’ve seen plenty of lawyers, but no economists yet. Here are a few good books about economics:

    _The Economist’s View of the World : Government, Markets and Public Policy_ by Steven E. Rhoads: This book (actually written by a political scientist) gives a detailed explanation of some basic concepts underlying economic analysis (opportunity costs, marginalism, and incentives). It shows how these concepts apply to public policy questions, and also discusses the limits of this way of thinking. These ideas are really the basis of economics, and it is surprising how often the seemingly simple points are missed by educated people.

    _Peddling Prosperity: Economic Sense and Nonsense in an Age of Diminished Expectations_ by Paul Krugman: Before he was a shrill partisan writing the same column twice a week in the Times, Krugman was a first-rate economist. This is a well written introduction to macro-economic policy issues.

    _New Ideas from Dead Economists: An Introduction to Modern Economic Thought_ by Todd G. Buchholz, Martin Feldstein: A history of economic thought built around short bios of famous economic thinkers. I would defininitely recommend this over Heilbronner’s _Worldly Philophers_.

    Avoid (or read with extreme skepticism) anything by John Kenneth Galbraith or William Greider.

  13. April 22, 2004 at 6:10 pm

    A final contracts book — because we all know that what Julie really wants to read about is contract law — James Gordley, _The Philosophical Foundations of Modern Contract Doctrine_, which comes to the wonderfully bizarre conclusion that the intellectual structure of modern contract law — and therefore modern markets — was created by the Spainish monks during the Counter Reformation.

  14. Steve Sandberg
    April 22, 2004 at 6:15 pm

    I’m only an interloper in this area (both physically and as a matter of study), but I still heartily recommend:


    _Coming Into the Country_ by John McPhee. Nearly 30 years young, and its insights to Alaska are still accurate.

  15. April 22, 2004 at 6:15 pm

    I won’t add to the fine “law books for laypersons” suggestions above. Nate’s suggestions on good introductions to legal theory look especially inviting. For more general reading I’ve had good fortune expanding my range of reading outside history by sifting through the new books shelves at the local libraries I frequent. Finds:

    – Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue (Oxford Univ. Press, 2001).
    – Madness: A Brief History (Oxford Univ. Press, 2002).
    – Desire of the Everlasting Hills (Anchor, 2001) which I know Julie would find interesting.
    – In Ruins (Pantheon Books, 2001).

    I squeeze a blog or two out of every book I read (why else would a blogger bother with books?) collected in my Books category here:

  16. April 22, 2004 at 6:22 pm

    I agree that _Sophie’s World_ is an excellent introduction to philosophy for the non-specialist. I also like Stanley Rosen’s collection of readings in philosophy, _The Philosopher’s Handbook_ and Amelie Oksenberg Rorty’s book, _The Many Faces of Philosophy_. I’m trying to decide which of those to use in my intro class next Fall. Rorty’s book is especially interesting to me because it is a collection of essays on philosophy by philosophers, sort of “What philosophers have said philosophy is.”

    For particular areas in philosophy, I highly recommend Oxford University Press’s series, “A Very Short Introduction to . . . .” Each of those I’ve read is written by a knowledgeable person, written for the non-specialist, interesting, accurate, and a reasonably short read.

  17. Julie in Austin
    April 22, 2004 at 7:20 pm


    Ironically, I *have* Coming into Country on my shelf–a gift from my grandfather when he visited Alaska. I haven’t read it yet; I will now.

    Oh, and for those who are wondering what to do with this bounty of titles, might I suggest . . . go to, make a wishlist, and when they get a copy at a price you want, they’ll email you. I can’t support my book addiction at list price; I don’t know what I’d do without If you want it NOW, you can go to and find the lowest current price on the net.

  18. Frank McIntyre
    April 23, 2004 at 12:26 pm

    I trust Ed’s recommendations for economics in general, for those interested in the fascinating world of third world poverty i’d suggest:

    “The Elusive Quest for Growth” by William Easterly

    and the ever populat

    “The Other Path” by Hernando De Soto.

    Neither of these is a general handbook of economic theory, but both have interesting things to say and know what they are talking about. There are an unfortunately large number of books about economics that fulfill neither or only one of those two criteria.

  19. Kristine
    April 23, 2004 at 12:43 pm

    Julie, I’m not a real musician, just a serious wannabe. We need Jeremy’s title list of music books–I might start with Aaron Copland’s _What to Listen For in Music_ and _The NPR Guide to Building a Classical Music Collection_ and _NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to Classical Music_.

    I trust that few people would be interested in my German Lit. for Beginners list, but I’ll recommend a few literary criticism books that I think are worth reading: Wayne Booth’s _An Ethics of Fiction_, Eric Auerbach’s _Mimesis_, and Helen Vendler’s _The Music of What Happens_. If you really want a quick intro. to what those nutcases in the English department are up to, Terry Eagleton’s _Literary Theory: An Introduction_ is a useful and approachable way to get a grip on basic terminology and methods. It is necessarily somewhat shallow, and Eagleton’s Marxist biases are readily apparent, but he has the virtue of being *obviously* opinionated.

  20. Kristine
    April 23, 2004 at 12:47 pm

    Oh yeah, for what it’s worth: my dad, a physics professor, sent me Bill Bryson for my birthday–he thinks it’s good, so at least one scientist wouldn’t mock you for liking it, Julie.

  21. April 23, 2004 at 1:49 pm

    You know, as good as most introductions to philosophy are to the person unfamiliar with it all, I must confess that I personally get a lot more out of guides. The Blackwell Guides are excellent with 5 – 10 paragraph summaries of most positions in a clear and concise formulation. They have them for most areas of philosophy (metaphysics, philosophy of mind, epistemology, aesthetics, etc.)

    For literature I really found the Norton Guide to Literary Criticism excellent. It isn’t summaries, but excerpts of representative texts of all the major figures through history. It’s a tad expensive and *very* big. But its one of those books I keep in the bathroom for purusing while doing other things. (grin)

  22. April 23, 2004 at 1:58 pm

    I read Terry Eagleton’s _Literary Theory: An Introduction_ in college and remember enjoying it, but I have to confess that I don’t remember much of anything from it. I passed briefly through literary criticism, but it doesn’t seem to have passed through me… ;->

Comments are closed.