The best books by and about Isaiah Berlin

Who am I?

I had the supreme good fortune to know Berlin (1909–97) for nearly twenty-five years, and to work with him as his principal editor for most of that time; I continued this work after his death and it still occupies me now. He was one of the great human beings of the twentieth century, an essayist and letter-writer of genius, and a bewitching bridge between academia and the general civilised life of the mind. His ideas are fertile and illuminating to this day, and the immediately recognisable voice of his prose is the best possible intellectual company.

I wrote...

In Search of Isaiah Berlin: A Literary Adventure

By Henry Hardy,

Book cover of In Search of Isaiah Berlin: A Literary Adventure

What is my book about?

Isaiah Berlin was one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century – a man who set ideas on fire. His defence of liberty and plurality was passionate and persuasive and inspired a generation. His ideas – especially his reasoned rejection of excessive certainty and political despotism – have become even more prescient and vital today.

But who was the man behind such influential views? In Search of Isaiah Berlin tells the compelling story of a decades-long collaboration between Berlin and his editor, Henry Hardy, who made it his vocation to bring Berlin's huge body of work into print. Hardy discovered that Berlin had written far more than people thought, much of it unpublished. As he describes his struggles with Berlin, who was almost on principle unwilling to have his work published, an intimate and revealing picture of the self-deprecating philosopher emerges. This is a unique portrait of a man who gave us a new way of thinking about the human predicament, and whose work had for most of his life remained largely out of view.

The Books I Picked & Why

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The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays

By Isaiah Berlin,

Book cover of The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays

Why this book?

This is the book for readers who wish to sample Berlin’s kaleidoscopic, multidisciplinary work in a single volume across its whole range. It includes his most celebrated essays in philosophy, political theory, the history of ideas, and twentieth-century portraiture. His two most famous pieces, The Hedgehog and the Fox (on Tolstoy’s view of history) and Two Concepts of Liberty (on ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ political freedom), are here, as are his accounts of his formative meetings with the great Russian poets Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak, his impressions of Churchill and Roosevelt, and his pellucid accounts of romanticism and nationalism. The essays are linked by his ruling preoccupation with understanding human nature in all its irreducibly various guises: what he called, following Kant, ‘the crooked timber of humanity’.

Russian Thinkers

By Isaiah Berlin,

Book cover of Russian Thinkers

Why this book?

As a Russian Jew and Russian-speaker by birth, a witness of the Russian Revolution, a historian of ideas by vocation, and a consummate prose-writer, Berlin was able to extract the pith of the nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia and present it in English as no one else has before or since. Belinsky, Herzen, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and others come to life in these ten essays and speak to us and our concerns today in Berlin’s ventriloquistic tours de force.

In particular, Herzen’s passionate denunciation of political extremism plays a central role, and provides a moral underpinning for Berlin’s commitment to liberty. The book is a major contribution to the explanation of Russia to the West, and the reader is left in no doubt about the relevance and power of the ideas that Berlin illuminates.

Isaiah Berlin: A Life

By Michael Ignatieff,

Book cover of Isaiah Berlin: A Life

Why this book?

Ignatieff’s intensely readable authorised biography of Berlin is based on a decade of recorded conversations with his subject about all aspects of his life, as well as on a study of the massive archive of letters and other papers that Berlin left at his death. As a result it has many of the characteristics of the autobiography that Berlin never wrote, but one filtered through Ignatieff’s shrewd critical intelligence, deployed in the service of the liberal humanist outlook that he shares with his subject.

Isaiah Berlin: An Interpretation of His Thought

By John Gray,

Book cover of Isaiah Berlin: An Interpretation of His Thought

Why this book?

John Gray’s encounter with Berlin’s ideas, first published in Berlin’s lifetime, remains one of the most intriguing and challenging explorations of the intellectual territories that he inhabited. Gray is not afraid to disagree with Berlin, but makes clear where he goes beyond him to present his own interpretation of the topics by which they are both preoccupied: freedom, pluralism, history, nationalism, Romanticism, the Enlightenment, and liberalism.