The best books about human culture

7 authors have picked their favorite books about culture and why they recommend each book.

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The Interpretation of Cultures

By Clifford Geertz,

Book cover of The Interpretation of Cultures

This collection of essays by one of the greatest anthropologists of the last century inspired a whole generation of historians—for example, Joan Scott and William Sewell, Jr. as well as myself.  The essays also should appeal to the general reader because of their well-wrought style and wit.  Drawing on Max Weber, Geertz treats cultures as symbolic systems and shows how they helped ordinary people make sense of the world.  Far from wandering off into abstractions, he offers fine-grained descriptions of actual events, notably a Balinese cockfight in an essay that has been cited and debated endlessly among social scientists.

Who am I?

I am an emeritus professor from Harvard and have spent decades trying to develop an anthropological mode of understanding history. Far from being “one damned thing after another,” as Henry Ford allegedly put it, history is an attempt to understand the human condition. It brings us into contact with people in the past, showing us how they thought, felt, and acted. For many decades, anthropologists have endeavored to do the same thing, concentrating on people separated from us by space rather than time. By applying anthropological insights to historical research, I think it is possible to make the past come alive to modern readers, while at the same time making it interesting and even amusing.

I wrote...

Pirating and Publishing: The Book Trade in the Age of Enlightenment

By Robert Darnton,

Book cover of Pirating and Publishing: The Book Trade in the Age of Enlightenment

What is my book about?

This book tells the story of how the world of books operated during the crucial era that established modern views of the world. World-views are the main concern among anthropologists, and the five recommended works overflow with ideas about how ethnographic insights can be applied to history.

Pirating and Publishing makes use of those insights in order to get inside the way publishers thought and behaved in a wild-West kind of environment without copyright or inhibitions by entrepreneurs determined to cash in on the growing demand for literature. More than half the books that circulated in France during the second half of the eighteenth century were pirated. Produced outside France and smuggled across the border, they reached readers through an elaborate underground. To show how this literary underworld functioned, Pirating and Publishing uncovers plots, coups, and skulduggery typical of capitalism in a wild and woolly era, when writers defied censors and their publishers made and lost fortunes by taking risks and outwitting the book police.

Intelligence and How to Get It

By Richard E. Nisbett,

Book cover of Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count

Richard Nisbett is one of the most influential social psychologists in the world, and we collaborated on the 1987 book Induction. His book on intelligence gives a good introduction to the psychology of intelligence and an incisive critique of attempts to use dubious research on a genetic basis for intelligence to explain racial inequality.

Who am I?

I became fascinated by the highest achievements of human intelligence while a graduate student in philosophy working on the discovery and justification of scientific theories. Shortly after I got my PhD, I started working with cognitive psychologists who gave me an appreciation for empirical studies of intelligent thinking. Psychology led me to computational modeling of intelligence and I learned to build my own models. Much later a graduate student got me interested in questions about intelligence in non-human animals. After teaching a course on intelligence in machines, humans, and other animals, I decided to write a book that provides a systematic comparison: Bots and Beasts.  

I wrote...

Bots and Beasts: What Makes Machines, Animals, and People Smart?

By Paul Thagard,

Book cover of Bots and Beasts: What Makes Machines, Animals, and People Smart?

What is my book about?

Octopuses can open jars to get food, and chimpanzees can plan for the future. An IBM computer named Watson won on Jeopardy! and Alexa knows our favorite songs. But do animals and smart machines really have intelligence comparable to that of humans? In Bots and Beasts, Paul Thagard looks at how computers (“bots”) and animals measure up to the minds of people, offering the first systematic comparison of intelligence across machines, animals, and humans. 

Thagard explains that human intelligence is more than IQ and encompasses such features as problem-solving, decision making, and creativity. He uses a checklist of twenty characteristics of human intelligence to evaluate the smartest machines—including Watson, AlphaZero, virtual assistants, and self-driving cars—and the most intelligent animals—including octopuses, dogs, dolphins, bees, and chimpanzees.

Discourses of the Vanishing

By Marilyn Ivy,

Book cover of Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan

I was extremely lucky to conduct my PhD research on Tokaido road in the 1990s. Books by scholars of Japanese Studies like Marily Ivy were extremely influential and opened my eyes to aspects that would not have been visible to me otherwise. 

The Discourses of the Vanishing was one such book that dispelled deeply rooted myths of Japan, especially the belief that Japan is a fully modernized country, that Japanese society is monolithic, and that Japan’s most noteworthy locales are its highly urbanized areas. What brought me to the book was Ivy’s examination of the Exotic Japan campaign of Japan’s railways in the late 1980s. This campaign was woven with powerful notions of furusato (nostalgia for one’s native place), neo-Japonesque exoticism, and other imaginary references of post-bubble Japan meant to appeal to women as new targets of Japan’s consumption campaigns.

Across the book’s six chapters, Ivy also takes us to…

Who am I?

I am an architect from Greece who traveled to Japan in the 1990s as an exchange student. Visiting Japan in the early 1990s was a transformative experience. It led me to a career at the intersection of Japanese studies and spatial inquiry and expanded my architectural professional background. I did my PhD on the Tokaido road and published it as a book in 2004. Since then I have written several other books on subjects that vary from the Olympic Games to social movements. In the last 16 years, I've taught at Parsons School of Design in New York where I am a professor of architecture and urbanism. My current project is researching the role of space and design in prefigurative political movements.

I wrote...

The Tôkaidô Road: Travelling and Representation in EDO and Meiji Japan

By Jilly Traganou,

Book cover of The Tôkaidô Road: Travelling and Representation in EDO and Meiji Japan

What is my book about?

The Tokaido Road bridges my two interests: travel and Japan. I love reading travelogues and thinking about the role of travel in our individual and collective imagination. The Tokaido road connects Tokyo with Kyoto and it was a much-celebrated road in Japan’s Edo era (1600-1868). It become a densely urbanized megalopolis in the post-WWII period. In this book, I study the transition of the Tokaido road from the Edo and Meiji eras. I look at everything from maps, to guidebooks, to woodblock prints, to gardens, textiles, and photography.

The book also brings to life the broader “movement culture” of the Edo period with its post-stations and multitude of characters (samurai, merchants, courtesans, poets) who travelled along the road, as well as the transformations that the establishment of the railway brought to travel and to the landscape of Japan’s coastal region with the advent of modernity.

The Anthropocene Reviewed

By John Green,

Book cover of The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet

I’m not lying when I say that this book saved my life. I was going through a particularly difficult moment when I read it, and let’s say that it made me find the beauty in life once again. After reading The Anthropocene Reviewed, my once monochrome world burst with colors. This essay collection points out ideas about things in daily life that an average person would never notice. It makes you smile dumbly at the ceiling and say, “this world is beautiful.”

Who am I?

I am a dystopian author who loves using writing to spread awareness about different social issues in society. As an avid reader, I feel like nowadays, the quality of literature has decreased. Authors have been focusing more on how close to trending topics and easy-to-read a book is than on its depth, themes, or any kind of element that is crucial in storytelling. This is why many recently published books have been difficult for me to connect with. As an author myself, I want that to change. Here’s a list of books that are so well written that it’ll feel like you’re riding a rollercoaster—of emotions.

I wrote...

A Gleaming Shard of Glass

By Sowon Kim,

Book cover of A Gleaming Shard of Glass

What is my book about?

Every six months on Regulation Day, children from the honorable city of Nepenthe take a required intelligence examination. Those who pass resume their lives as valuable students, but those who fail are imprisoned, no longer considered human.

When fourteen-year-old Grecia Rivera fails the examination—despite being one of the best artists of her age—her life is turned upside down. To avoid her prison sentence, she must abandon everyone she loves and escape from Nepenthe. But Grecia soon discovers that the outside world is just as brutal as the city she left behind. Now trapped within a society of runaways, Grecia must risk her life for freedom once again.

The People

By Zenna Henderson,

Book cover of The People: No Different Flesh

Zenna Henderson's entire The People series is worth reading, including the original short stories. These were all published at a time when very few female sci-fi authors were published. There is also a film that is fairly faithful to the books. Her creativity, her understanding the experience of immigrants and those who are “different,” and her depictions of the ways humans and immigrants are likely to re/act are timeless, offering stellar insights into our modern-day experiences. Sci-fi authors would do well to read all her books to learn how to do world-building, draw parallels between non-human species and humans, and analogize modern dilemmas as speculative fiction plots.

Who am I?

I started reading sci-fi in 1962 with 1957's Miss Pickerell Goes to Mars and have loved it ever since. I became a sci-fi writer with my first three books in utopian speculative fiction, The Spanner Series. Unfortunately, I stalled out due to a TBI, a cross-country move, and other distractions, but I do plan to continue with the other 7 volumes in my utopian speculative fiction series some day. The writers in my “best of” list are some of my lifelong inspirations, so I hope newer readers can enjoy and learn from their works as much as I have.

I wrote...

This Changes Everything: The Spanners Series, Volume I

By Sally Ember, Ed.D.,

Book cover of This Changes Everything: The Spanners Series, Volume I

What is my book about?

Dr. Clara Ackerman Branon, 58, has secret visits from holographic representations from the Many Worlds Collective (MWC), a consortium of planets in the multiverse. When the MWC invites Earth to join, Clara and her media partner, Espy, make the visits public and the MWC selects Clara as the Chief Communicator (CC).

Clara and the Psi-Warriors try to quell the rebelling Psi-Defiers during the Psi Wars. The CC has to manage family's and friends' reactions as well as multiple timelines. Clara and her long-time love, Epifanio Dang, get to be together and she is alone and with other partners. This Changes Everything touches on many parts of the 30 years of Clara's term as Earth's Chief Communicator in The Spanners Series. Are YOU ready for the changes?

13 Ways of Looking at the Novel

By Jane Smiley,

Book cover of 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel

Smiley classifies and defines the novel and provides a primer of supportive instructions to the struggling writer. She explores the reasons why some novels succeed and some don’t. She provides the reader with a list of 100 books she has read, from thousand-year-old texts to recent bestsellers, offering her own insights and assessments of each work. Smiley provides a glimpse into the creative process and gives writers and readers new ways to be aware of what goes on between the lines. This book contains important and joyful advice for aspiring writers and is a gift to lovers of literature.

Who am I?

I’ve always wanted to write. It took years to get started, and after working in the library and information technology fields for over thirty-five years, I quit the day job routine in 2011 to write full time. I've learned two valuable lessons since I started writing which have been of immense help. The first is a quote from writer and activist Mary Heaton Vorse, who said, "The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair." The second is from novelist Rachel Basch, who told me that "the story has to move down, as well as forward." Both sound simple. Neither is.

I wrote...

Road of Bones

By James R. Benn,

Book cover of Road of Bones

What is my book about?

Billy Boyle is sent to the heart of the USSR to solve a double-murder at a critical turning point in the war in this latest installment of critically acclaimed James R. Benn's WWII mystery series.

It’s September 1944, and the US is poised to launch Operation Frantic, shuttle-bombing missions conducted by American aircraft based in Great Britain, southern Italy, and three Soviet airfields in Ukraine. Tensions are already high between the American and Russian allies when two intelligence agents—one Soviet, one American—are found dead at Poltava, one of the Ukrainian bases. Billy is brought in to investigate is paired, at the insistence of the Soviets, with a KGB agent who has his own political and personal agenda.

The Bi-ble

By Lauren Nickodemus (editor), Ellen Desmond (editor),

Book cover of The Bi-ble: Volume Two

If it’s personal accounts and many different voices you are looking for, The Bi-ble: Vol. 2 is perfect. It includes essays by various bisexual people, giving brief and poignant insights into their lives. 

This easy-to-read collection is a good example of the long tradition of anthologies in bi+ literature. Some stories are deeply relatable, others challenge you to look beyond your own experiences. It helped me to realise that while there is a commonality between the experiences of bisexual people, there are important individual differences that we need to keep in mind. No one person can speak for the entire bi community, so this book lets many people have their own voice.

Who am I?

I am a psychological scientist, BBC science communicator, and best-selling author. I am also bisexual. As an academic, my tendency is to immediately look for research and scholarly writing about topics that interest me. But for bisexuality, I found that this was incredibly hard to do. So, I dug into archives and journals, connected with hundreds of bisexuality researchers and activists, and after much searching, I finally found the answers to questions I had had my entire life. I wrote them all down in my new book Bi.

I wrote...

Bi: The Hidden Culture, History, and Science of Bisexuality

By Julia Shaw,

Book cover of Bi: The Hidden Culture, History, and Science of Bisexuality

What is my book about?

Bi challenges us to think deeper about who we are and how we love. I found a colourful and fascinating world that I am bringing out of the shadows. 

In Bi, I explore how people have defined and measured bisexuality, and uncover its surprisingly long history. I examine behaviourally bisexual animals, and to try to understand whether there is a bi gene. I look into the big bi closet and come to understand the devastating reality of criminalization that so many bisexual people around the world face. I also explore the world of bisexual communities and look at research on the fun and thorny topic of consensual non-monogamy. Bi is a fun, informative, and wild ride through human sexuality.

The Female Man

By Joanna Russ,

Book cover of The Female Man

The Female Man gives the reader a slice of the 1970s up close and personal from the perspective of young women who don’t fit it, who don’t want to be used as an object, who both come from and see into a different way of life. A challenging read, but as one of my students said when you get finished, you have so much to talk about you could talk for days. Russ, too, is somewhat overlooked today, which is a shame because she was brilliant, funny, and angry, really, really angry and somehow, I appreciate the depth of that anger—and share it. Joanna was also a dedicated teacher/scholar and her book How to Suppress Women’s Writing still hits the nail on the head.

Who am I?

I am a professor of English at the University of Florida, and an author of SF/F myself; I teach it both as a creative writer, and as a scholar of both American Literature and feminist thought. This is my subject and I am passionate about it, and I’ve been teaching SF/F, American literature of the 19th and 20th centuries for thirty years, so I know my topic well.

I wrote...


By Stephanie A. Smith,

Book cover of Asteroidea

What is my book about?

Asteroidea is about regeneration: personal, professional, cellular. As the novel opens, marine biologist Claire Holt is at a crossroads. Having spent her career experimenting on starfish, seastars or asteroidea, to transfer their regenerative capabilities to mammals, she’s grown depressed.

With her grants running dry, and her two daughters facing their own life changes, Claire feels defeated. To cope, she takes a journey back to her childhood home, only to discover several destabilizing facts about her past. As she tries to handle the resulting intergenerational and emotional fallout, a graduate student arrives at her lab with a newly discovered species of asteroidea. Juggling emotional and familial upheaval, as well as this fresh direction for her research challenges Claire to re-engage in both her work and in life.

A Place Called Schugara

By Joe English,

Book cover of A Place Called Schugara

I write character-driven fiction and it is always the people and their relationships that most engage me in any story. I found the characters here complex, real, engaging, and, in some instances, foul specimens demonstrating that existence for survival alone is an inadequate way of life for any person. These are fully developed people, though they are mostly unusual individuals; archetypes rather than stereotypes. The people hooked me from the start. I cared what happened to these adventurers. I also cared that those who deserved retribution would receive it.

Who am I?

I’ve been reading for 69 years, writing fiction for 43 years. I’ve read many more than 10,000 books. In my own writing, I begin with characters I create from combinations of traits and personalities I’ve met in life. I get to know them as friends. I then put them into the setting I’ve devised and given them free rein to develop the story. I know the destination, but the route is left to them. This involves much re-writing once the story is down on paper, but allows me to experience the excitement, concern, fear, love, and delights felt by the characters as I write the tale.

I wrote...

An Excess Of ...

By Stuart Aken,

Book cover of An Excess Of ...

What is my book about?

Six strangers escape a shipwreck and land on a deserted tropical island, isolated and without any means of contact with the outside world. From very different cultures and backgrounds, they must bury their differences and learn to cooperate if they are to survive. But passions, beliefs, superstitions, and developing relationships create a corrosive, divisive atmosphere laced with potential violence. Who will live to return to a world made unrecognizable by Covid and climate change?

Understanding the Analects of Confucius

By Peimin Ni,

Book cover of Understanding the Analects of Confucius: A New Translation of Lunyu with Annotations

Peimin Ni’s translation of the foundational Confucian text, the Analects of Confucius, is not for those who want to zoom through the book looking for catchy phrases. Ni presents the text as a living document, embedded in two thousand years of conversation over its meaning. He strives to mirror ambiguities in the original in his translation, and his comments do a lovely job of opening the text up for the reflective reader. 

Who am I?

The first time I ever had Chinese food was as a 20-year-old junior in college, on the first night of studying abroad for a semester in Nanjing, China. (Luckily, I liked it.) Confucianism was not in my upbringing, at least not explicitly or on purpose. I happened upon China as a freshman at Yale in the 1980s, immersed myself in the language, and went on to earn a PhD in Chinese philosophy. I have taught at Wesleyan University since 1994, and my favorite comment from students is that they find my classes among the most “relevant” things they take—even when we’re studying twelfth-century medieval Confucianism. 

I wrote...

Growing Moral: A Confucian Guide to Life

By Stephen C. Angle,

Book cover of Growing Moral: A Confucian Guide to Life

What is my book about?

For over three decades I have studied Confucius and all the brilliant philosophers who came after him, developing his ideas for their own times. I gradually came to realize this wasn’t just “academic” to me: Confucian insights and values made sense of my life, here and now. At its core, Confucianism describes a way for us to live and grow together in our worlda way characterized at its best by joy, beauty, and harmony. By drawing on the greats of the Confucian tradition as well as modern feminists, psychologists, and even Jimi Hendrix, I explain what Confucianism is and make a case that it is worth trying out today.

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