The best intellectual books

Who picked these books? Meet our 21 experts.

21 authors created a book list connected to intellectual, and here are their favorite intellectual books.
Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission

What type of intellectual book?


Wounds of Passion

By bell hooks,

Book cover of Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life

Kendra Allen Author Of The Collection Plate: Poems

From the list on finding inspiration and motivation.

Who am I?

As a person who reads solely for pleasure regardless of research, I make it a mission while writing to read books I actually enjoy on topics I wanna learn more about. I chose the books on this list because I’m also a person who reads multiple books at once in various genres, it keeps me honest; aware of holes and discrepancies in my own work and pushes me towards some semblance of completion. All the writers on this list do multiple things at once and I admire their skill and risk in coupling creativity with clarity.

Kendra's book list on finding inspiration and motivation

Discover why each book is one of Kendra's favorite books.

Why did Kendra love this book?

What bell hooks has shown me about the possibility of personal narrative and memoir writing is endless because she consistently shows that your story is never-ending. But mostly bell hooks likes to hurt me on purpose. This is my favorite memoir by her because it centers on two of my favorite topics: words and whirlwind romance that refuses to interfere with the words at stake, and I knew this book would be one I would return to in order to figure out my own priorities once I read, “I’m willing to give up everything I love if it means I won’t be crazy.”

By bell hooks,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Wounds of Passion as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“bell hooks’s brave memoir of struggling to find her own work, love, and independence.” ―Gloria Steinem
With her customary boldness and insight, brilliant social critic and public intellectual bell hooks traces her writer’s journey in Wounds of Passion. She shares the difficulties and triumphs, the pleasures and the dangers, of a life devoted to writing. hooks lets readers see the ways one woman writer can find her own voice while forging relationships of love in keeping with her feminist thinking. With unflinching courage and hard-won wisdom, hooks reveals the intimate details and provocative ideas of the life path she carved…

Book cover of This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking

Sam Ita Author Of Fun with Origami Animals Kit: 40 Different Animals! Includes Colorfully Patterned Folding Sheets!

From the list on creative dads.

Who am I?

When my kids were toddlers, there was a Burger King in the neighborhood with an indoor playground. It was glorious. A random guy walked up to me while we were there. “How do you do it, you know, the whole Dad thing” he asked. "Well… you don’t necessarily need to do a whole lot. Mostly just show up. Stick around." Never mentioned that by this time, I’d written and/or illustrated at least a couple dozen children’s books. I asked my nine-year-old daughter how she’d describe me as a Dad. “Most people think you’re creative, but I think you’re pretty average.” That’s good enough for me.

Sam's book list on creative dads

Discover why each book is one of Sam's favorite books.

Why did Sam love this book?

I read this book a few years ago. Some of its essays really stuck with me. This is a popular science book, largely having to do with the limitations of popular science. I like to read anything that challenges my assumptions. Spending so much time in Dad mode, your brain can really atrophy. 

My Dad was always interested in science. He never finished high school. In the pre-internet days, he subscribed to science magazines. He read instruction manuals cover to cover. I think he would’ve really enjoyed this book.

There is so much we don’t know. We tend to misinterpret what we do. Too often, we have good ideas and abandon them. This book serves as a reminder that creativity requires diligence and reflection alongside imagination.

At its core, I think these essays speak with indomitable optimism. Things could be better. My kids will grow up to be much more…

By John Brockman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked This Will Make You Smarter as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Over 150 of the world's leading scientists and thinkers offer their choice of the ideas, strategies and arguments that will help all of us understand our world, and its future, better. This title includes contributions from: Richard Dawkins, Stephen Pinker, Daniel Dennett, Clay Shirky, Daniel Goleman, Sam Harris, Lee Smolin, Matt Ridley, Mark Henderson, David Rowan, Sir Martin Rees, Craig Venter, Brian Eno, Jaron Lanier and David Brooks ...among others. With his organisation, the literary agent and all-purpose intellectual impresario John Brockman has brought together the most influential thinkers of our age. Every year he sets them a question,…

Marriage and Revolution

By Siân Reynolds,

Book cover of Marriage and Revolution: Monsieur and Madame Roland

Peter McPhee Author Of Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life

From the list on understanding Robespierre.

Who am I?

I have been intrigued by Maximilien Robespierre ever since, as a student, I pondered how it could be that someone who articulated the highest principles of 1789 could come to be seen as the personification of the “Reign of Terror” in 1793–94. This is the great conundrum of the French Revolution. Was this a tragic case of the dangers of ideological and personal rigidity, or rather an extreme example of how great leaders may be vilified by those they have served and saved? Or, as I found while researching and writing my biography, something quite different, the tragic, human story of a vulnerable but determined young man who put himself at the heart of one of the world’s greatest upheavals?

Peter's book list on understanding Robespierre

Discover why each book is one of Peter's favorite books.

Why did Peter love this book?

Jean-Marie Roland and Marie-Jeanne Phlipon (later Madame “Manon” Roland) were the Revolution’s power couple, their lives both entwined and contrasting with Robespierre’s. Their fascinating and tragic story, expertly researched and retold by Siân Reynolds, has much to tell us about the power and passions of the Revolution and the personal relationships at its heart. We also learn much about provincial life, parenthood, and a companionate marriage. The Rolands were initially political allies of Robespierre, and “Manon” sought to cultivate personal friendship with him, but their bitter falling-out would be fatal for them in November 1793 – and ultimately for Maximilien in July 1794.

By Siân Reynolds,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Marriage and Revolution as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Marriage and Revolution is a double biography of Jean-Marie Roland (1734-1793) and Marie-Jeanne Phlipon, later Madame Roland (1754-1793), leading figures in the French Revolution. J.-M. Roland was minister of the Interior for a total of eight months during 1792. The couple were close to Brissot and the Girondins, and both died during the Terror. Mme Roland became famous for her posthumous prison memoirs and is the subject of many biographies, but her
husband, despite being a key figure in administration of France, seldom out of the limelight during his time in office, is often marginalized in histories of the Revolution.…

Book cover of The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy

Susana Aikin Author Of We Shall See the Sky Sparkling

From the list on Russian literature that I consider masterpieces.

Who am I?

I am a writer and a filmmaker who has lived in New York City since 1982. In 1986 I started my own independent film production company, Starfish Productions, through which I produced and directed documentary films that won multiple awards, including an American Film Institute grant, a Rockefeller Fellowship, and an Emmy Award in 1997. I started writing fiction full-time in 2010. My debut novel, We Shall See the Sky Sparkling (Kensington Books) was published in 2/2019; my second novel The Weight of the Heart (Kensington Books) came out in 5/2020.

Susana's book list on Russian literature that I consider masterpieces

Discover why each book is one of Susana's favorite books.

Why did Susana love this book?

After worshiping Leo Tolstoy and his writing for long decades, the much later discovery of Sophia’s diaries came to me as a huge revelation: I learnt that no writer or artist is an island, but always part of a human ecosystem that nurtures and feeds their art. In the case of Tolstoy, it was his family and most particularly his wife. In her personal writings we meet the woman behind the great writer, married to him for 48 years, and who bore him 13 children. She was pivotal to his work, encouraging and supporting his literary career. Through her pages, we find out about her love for Tolstoy and their tormented marriage, in which she often felt neglected and provoked. We see the hidden, dark side of the great man of letters, a vastly gifted but troubled individual, and we also learn about Sophia’s undying vital energy that allowed her…

By Cathy Porter,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Sofia Behrs married Count Leo Tolstoy, the author of "War and Peace", husband and wife regularly exchanged diaries covering the years from 1862 to 1910. Sofia's life was not an easy one: she idealized her husband, but was tormented by him; even her many children were not an unmitigated blessing. In the background of her life was one of the most turbulent periods of Russian history: the transition from old feudal Russia to the three revolutions and three major international wars. Yet it is as Sofia Tolstoy's own life story, the study of one woman's private experience, that the…

Home Is Not Here

By Wang Gungwu,

Book cover of Home Is Not Here

Brantly Womack Author Of China and Vietnam: The Politics of Asymmetry

From the list on China perspectives.

Who am I?

Where you sit determines what you see. China is complex, and so it pays to move around and view it from as many perspectives as possible. My view of China is formed by visits to all of its 31 provinces and to most of its neighbors.  A professor of foreign affairs at the University of Virginia, I have taught and written about Chinese politics for the past forty years, and I have worked with Chinese universities and scholars. This list suggests some excellent books presenting different vantage points on China’s past and present.

Brantly's book list on China perspectives

Discover why each book is one of Brantly's favorite books.

Why did Brantly love this book?

Home is Not Here is a touching autobiographical account of a past Chinese world completely different in time and place from that of Hessler’s explorations. In the first half of the twentieth century millions of Chinese left China and migrated to Southeast Asia, including Wang’s parents. Wang traces their struggles to maintain their Chinese identity as minorities in different cultures. In telling his family’s story he gives a vivid picture of the upheavals and tribulations of both China and Southeast Asia in a troubled era. Wang Gungwu is my favorite historian of China, and author of many books on the grand sweep of Chinese history, but here we see China’s and Asia’s most turbulent era from a personal perspective.

By Wang Gungwu,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Home Is Not Here as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of Asia's most important public intellectuals, Wang Gungwu is best-known for his explorations of Chinese history in the long view, and for his writings on the Chinese overseas. Here the historian of grand themes turns to the intimate scale of a single life history: his own.

"As someone who has studied history for much of my life, I have found the past fascinating. But it has always been some grand and even intimidating universe that I wanted to unpick and explain to myself.... While we talk grandly of the importance of history, we can be insensitive to what people…

In Other Words

By Goenawan Mohamad, Jennifer Lindsay (translator),

Book cover of In Other Words: 40 Years of Writing on Indonesia

Terence Ward Author Of Searching for Hassan: A Journey to the Heart of Iran

From the list on counter history to enrich your world view.

Who am I?

The excitement of new visions! Ever since growing up surrounded by Arabian deserts and then Iran’s mountains, I’ve been fascinated with diverse cultures. My path led me to Cairo and Berkeley for university and then onto Greece, Indonesia, and Italy. Today’s dominant world histories remain rooted in Anglo-American narratives. Only by challenging enshrined status quos, can we capture the truth, often long hidden. Now, an interest for critical storytelling may capture a fuller picture. History needs to be told not only from the point-of-view of the victors, but also the vanquished. Counter histories create bridges of dialogue, where there were none. This is what inspires me.

Terence's book list on counter history to enrich your world view

Discover why each book is one of Terence's favorite books.

Why did Terence love this book?

Open this treasure chest! A perceptive, elegant collection by SE Asia’s leading journalist, public intellectual, and poet. His magnus opus represents 40 years of essays from 1968 – 2014 and each of his 100 brief passages can stand alone as sledgehammers of provocative thought. Often called the Borges of Asia, Goenawan’s dexterous mind tackles issues of identity, literature, nationalism, culture, colonial crimes, terrorism, Islam, mythologies, historicity, and destiny. As he grapples with universal themes, his deep wisdom offers fascinating insights and compassion into questions that concern us all.

By Goenawan Mohamad, Jennifer Lindsay (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In Other Words as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A wide-ranging and beautiful collection of essays from one of world literature's most important writers.

Goenawan Mohamad is one of Indonesia's foremost public intellectuals, and this translated volume of essays spanning from 1968 to the present day demonstrates the breadth of his perceptive and elegant commentary on literature, faith, mythology, politics, and history.

Through the worst days of Indonesia's authoritarianism, in the face of the trauma of great violence and the chaos of democratic transition, Goenawan has never lost faith in the act of writing. Many of his essays from In Other Words were first published for Tempo, the Indonesian…

Richard Hofstadter

By Richard Hofstadter, Sean Wilentz (editor),

Book cover of Richard Hofstadter: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life the Paranoid Style in American Politics, Uncollected Essays 1956-1965

Katy Hull Author Of The Machine Has a Soul: American Sympathy with Italian Fascism

From the list on the history of extremism in the United States.

Who am I?

I am fascinated by how and why extremist thought enters the mainstream. It is what drew me to researching American fascist sympathizers in the 1920s and 1930s, and it is what scares me about the direction of politics in the United States today. When I am not hanging out with my family in Washington, DC, I am teaching in the American studies department at the University of Amsterdam. It’s a long commute, but my students make it worth it. I love to teach courses about protest traditions and democratic challenges in the United States in the twentieth century up until the present. 

Katy's book list on the history of extremism in the United States

Discover why each book is one of Katy's favorite books.

Why did Katy love this book?

Reading Hofstadter’s essays can be an eerie experience. Yes, he was writing in the early 1960s, and often about historical phenomena (although the recent antics and influence of Senator McCarthy were clearly at the front of his mind). But many of his observations about status anxiety and conspiracy theories feel spookily relevant today. With typical eloquence, Hofstadter wrote that McCarthy was buoyed by Americans who were revolting against the “tormenting manifestations of our modern predicament”; I saw something similar in fascist sympathizers in the interwar years. This edition contains both of Hofstadter’s famous essays on “anti-intellectualism” and “the paranoid style,” along with fifteen other essays. 

By Richard Hofstadter, Sean Wilentz (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Richard Hofstadter as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Together for the first time: two masterworks on the undercurrents of the American mind by one of our greatest historians

Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and The Paranoid Style in American Politics are two essential works that lay bare the worrying trends of irrationalism, demagoguery, destructive populism, and conspiratorial thinking that have long influenced American politics and culture. Whether underground or--as in our present moment--out in the open, these currents of resentment, suspicion, and conspiratorial delusion received their authoritative treatment from Hofstadter, among the greatest of twentieth-century American historians, at a time when many public intellectuals and scholars did…

The Stammering Century

By Gilbert Seldes,

Book cover of The Stammering Century

Christina Ward Author Of American Advertising Cookbooks: How Corporations Taught Us to Love Bananas, Spam, and Jell-O

From the list on the hidden history of America.

Who am I?

For me, history is always about individuals; what they think and believe and how those ideas motivate their actions. By relegating our past to official histories or staid academic tellings we deprive ourselves of the humanity of our shared experiences. As a “popular historian” I use food to tell all the many ways we attempt to “be” American. History is for everyone, and my self-appointed mission is to bring more stories to readers! These recommendations are a few stand-out titles from the hundreds of books that inform my current work on how food and religion converge in America. You’ll have to wait for Holy Food to find out what I’ve discovered.

Christina's book list on the hidden history of America

Discover why each book is one of Christina's favorite books.

Why did Christina love this book?

I stumbled upon this 100-year-old book during my research for my upcoming book. Seldes proved to be the exact type of irascible storyteller I needed to read to frame my work. He is irreverent, lyrical, and highly opinionated! Seldes is a self-proclaimed (maybe the first) pop culture critic who turned his finely honed intellect to profiling the religious seers and conmen of the first two decades of the United States.

The Stammering Century set the template for the newly minted genre of author—the ‘public intellectual.’ Seldes weaves disparate first-person accounts and his own ideas about how religion in America twists and turns to become something entirely new and not always welcomed. This edition features a delightful essay by noted cultural historian, Greil Marcus that inspires us to read history not just as a series of dates but as a wildly entertaining and oft-times accidental series of bad ideas.

By Gilbert Seldes,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Stammering Century as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Gilbert Seldes, the author of The Stammering Century, writes:

      This book is not a record of the major events in Ameri­can history during
      the nineteenth century. It is concerned with minor movements, with the
      cults and manias of that period. Its personages are fanatics, and radicals,
      and mountebanks. Its intention is to connect these secondary movements
      and figures with the primary forces of the century, and to supply a back-
      ground in American history for the Prohibitionists and the Pente­costalists;
      the diet-faddists and the dealers in mail-order Personality; the play censors
      and the Fundamen­talists; the free-lovers and eugenists; the cranks…

The Metaphysical Club

By Louis Menand,

Book cover of The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America

Ruth Brandon Author Of Surreal Lives: The Surrealists 1917-1945

From the list on group biographies.

Who am I?

I love writing group biographies (I‘ve written four and my next book, Spellbound by Marcel: Duchamp, Love, and Art, will be another). I enjoy the intellectual scope they offer, the way they let you explore a world. I’m less interested in the details of individual lives than in the opportunity biography offers to explore social history, and group biography is particularly suited to that. They’re not easy to do, it’s no good putting down just one damn life after another, but I enjoy the challenge of finding the shape that will let me fit everyone’s personalities and ideas into a coherent story. 

Ruth's book list on group biographies

Discover why each book is one of Ruth's favorite books.

Why did Ruth love this book?

The Metaphysical Club is about the Pragmatist philosophers: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. This sounds forbidding, but it’s anything but. Group biography shows how and why particular ideas occur to particular people at a particular moment, and this is a brilliant example of it.

By Louis Menand,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Metaphysical Club as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A riveting, original book about the creation of the modern American mind.

The Metaphysical Club was an informal group that met in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1872, to talk about ideas. Its members included Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., founder of modern jurisprudence; William James, the father of modern American psychology; and Charles Sanders Peirce, logician, scientist, and the founder of semiotics. The Club was probably in existence for about nine months. No records were kept. The one thing we know that came out of it was an idea - an idea about ideas. This book is the story of that idea.…

Free Thinker

By Kimberly A. Hamlin,

Book cover of Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener

Allison Lange Author Of Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women's Suffrage Movement

From the list on American suffragists.

Who am I?

I’m Allison Lange, and I’m a historian who writes, gives talks, teaches, and curates exhibitions. For the 19th Amendment centennial, I served as Historian for the United States Congress’s Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission. I am also creating the first filmed series on American women’s history for Wondrium (formerly The Great Courses). My first book, Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women’s Suffrage Movement focuses on the ways that women’s voting rights activists and their opponents used images to define gender and power. My next book situates current iconic pictures within the context of historical ones to demonstrate that today’s visual debates about gender and politics are shaped by those of the past.

Allison's book list on American suffragists

Discover why each book is one of Allison's favorite books.

Why did Allison love this book?

Helen Hamilton Gardener secured crucial support from leading politicians in Washington, DC for the 19th Amendment’s ratification. Despite her significance, few know the story of her exciting and controversial life. Fortunately, Kimberly Hamlin tells Gardener’s dramatic story in her book Free Thinker. Born Alice Chenoweth in 1853, she had to leave her job as a teacher in Ohio after an affair with a married school commissioner in 1876. She adopted the name Helen Hamilton Gardener and a range of modern ideas: women’s rights, opposition to the sexual double standard, and freethought. Gardener eventually became the highest-ranking female official in the federal government by the time of her death in 1925. Free Thinker provides a fascinating glimpse into the behind-the-scenes politics that led to the 19th Amendment’s ratification.

By Kimberly A. Hamlin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Free Thinker as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Ohio newspapers published the story of Alice Chenoweth's affair with a married man, she changed her name to Helen Hamilton Gardener, moved to New York, and devoted her life to championing women's rights and decrying the sexual double standard. She published seven books and countless essays, hobnobbed with the most interesting thinkers of her era, and was celebrated for her audacious ideas and keen wit. Opposed to piety, temperance, and conventional thinking, Gardener eventually settled in Washington, D.C., where her tireless work proved, according to her colleague Maud Wood Park, "the most potent factor" in the passage of the…

Spies and Scholars

By Gregory Afinogenov,

Book cover of Spies and Scholars: Chinese Secrets and Imperial Russia’s Quest for World Power

Sören Urbansky Author Of Beyond the Steppe Frontier: A History of the Sino-Russian Border

From the list on Russia in Asia.

Who am I?

Sören Urbansky was born and raised in East Germany next to the Iron Curtain. Since embarking on an overland journey from Berlin to Beijing after high school, he became hooked by peoples’ lifeways in Northeast Asia. In college, Sören began studying history in earnest and grew intrigued by Russia and China, the world’s largest and most populous countries. He has published widely on this pivotal yet forgotten region. Sören is a research fellow at the German Historical Institute Washington and is currently embarking on a new project that examines anti-Chinese sentiments from a global perspective.

Sören's book list on Russia in Asia

Discover why each book is one of Sören's favorite books.

Why did Sören love this book?

In recent years, we have seen a surge in books on contemporary Russia-China relations. Gregory Afinogenov’s Spies and Scholars takes us back to their humble beginnings in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. This pioneering study sheds new light on how the emergence of the Russian Empire as a global power was shaped through intelligence gathering in imperial China. A must-read not only for historians. 

By Gregory Afinogenov,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Spies and Scholars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Financial Times Best Book of the Year

The untold story of how Russian espionage in imperial China shaped the emergence of the Russian Empire as a global power.

From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire made concerted efforts to collect information about China. It bribed Chinese porcelain-makers to give up trade secrets, sent Buddhist monks to Mongolia on intelligence-gathering missions, and trained students at its Orthodox mission in Beijing to spy on their hosts. From diplomatic offices to guard posts on the Chinese frontier, Russians were producing knowledge everywhere, not only at elite institutions like the…

Russian Thinkers

By Isaiah Berlin,

Book cover of Russian Thinkers

Henry Hardy Author Of In Search of Isaiah Berlin: A Literary Adventure

From the list on 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.

Henry's book list on Isaiah Berlin

Discover why each book is one of Henry's favorite books.

Why did Henry love 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.

By Isaiah Berlin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Russian Thinkers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Few, if any, English-language critics have written as perceptively as Isaiah Berlin about Russian thought and culture. Russian Thinkers is his unique meditation on the impact that Russia's outstanding writers and philosophers had on its culture. In addition to Tolstoy's philosophy of history, which he addresses in his most famous essay, 'The Hedgehog and the Fox,' Berlin considers the social and political circumstances that produced such men as Herzen, Bakunin, Turgenev, Belinsky, and others of the Russian intelligentsia, who made up, as Berlin describes, 'the largest single Russian contribution to social change in the world.'

Simone de Beauvoir

By Deirdre Bair,

Book cover of Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography

Karen Offen Author Of Debating the Woman Question in the French Third Republic, 1870-1920

From the list on remarkable French women.

Who am I?

I have always been fascinated by France and things French. In graduate school, no women’s history was on our required reading lists. As a young woman, though, entering a professional field in which women were few on the ground, much less studied, I became an avid reader of biographies of achieving women – partly to learn how they were able to surmount (or not) the obstacles that confronted them in a male-dominated world. The five stellar biographies of French women I present here are products of the newer work in retrieving women’s histories. They are deeply researched and engagingly written. They confirm the saying that “truth is stranger than fiction.”

Karen's book list on remarkable French women

Discover why each book is one of Karen's favorite books.

Why did Karen love this book?

How does an American biographer write about a French philosopher and public intellectual who published copious memoirs of her own life, from girlhood to old age? The multi-talented Deirdre Bair succeeded in gaining access to the extraordinary Simone de Beauvoir and, supplemented by lengthy interviews over a five-year period and research in Beauvoir’s unpublished papers, produced a biography for the ages. In contrast to the biographies recommended above, the author had almost too much material to sift through, plus the challenge of writing about a living person. This is necessarily a fat book but one that is a “must-read.”

By Deirdre Bair,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Simone de Beauvoir as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Simone de Beauvoir was one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century, as a philosopher, feminist, novelist and author of the landmark work The Second Sex. Yet as Deirdre Bair shows in this definitive biography, de Beauvoir's remarkable life was dominated at every stage by another intellectual giant - Jean-Paul Sartre. Born into the French Catholic aristocracy, de Beauvoir became "the most notorious woman in France". Her scandalously unconventional relationship with Sartre and her dedication to his theories and his work is one of the most intriguing and contradictory aspects of her life. The two became, in de…


By Nikolei Berdiaev, Sergei Bulgakov, Mikhail Gershenson, A.S. Izgoev, Bogdan Kistiakovskii, Petr Struve, Frank Semen

Book cover of Vekhi: Landmarks

David Satter Author Of Never Speak to Strangers and Other Writing from Russia and the Soviet Union

From the list on understanding the Soviet Union and Post-Soviet Russia.

Who am I?

David Satter is a leading commentator on Russia and the former Soviet Union. He is the author of five books on Russia and the creator of a documentary film on the fall of the Soviet Union. He has been affiliated with the Hudson Institute and the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is presently a member of the academic advisory board of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

David's book list on understanding the Soviet Union and Post-Soviet Russia

Discover why each book is one of David's favorite books.

Why did David love this book?

In a vain effort to prevent the disaster they knew was coming, Russia’s leading religious philosophers in 1909 called on the increasingly radical Russian intelligentsia to return to religion as a means of grounding the individual. The philosopher, Nikolai Beryaev wrote that the intelligentsia sought a universal theory but was only ready to accept one that supported their social goals. They, therefore, denied man’s absolute significance. Bogdan Kistyakovsky wrote that the intelligentsia’s attraction to formalism and bureaucracy as well as its faith in the omnipotence of rules contained the seeds of a future police state. The authors of the various essays in this classic book, in fact, foresaw all of the characteristics of the future Soviet police state that arose out of the drive of Russian radicals to create “heaven on earth.”

By Nikolei Berdiaev, Sergei Bulgakov, Mikhail Gershenson, A.S. Izgoev, Bogdan Kistiakovskii, Petr Struve, Frank Semen

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Vekhi as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A collection of essays first published in Moscow in 1909. Writing from various points of view, the authors reflect the diverse experiences of Russia's failed 1905 revolution. Condemned by Lenin and rediscoverd by dissidents, this translation has relevance for discussions on contemporary Russia.

The Age Of Conversation

By Benedetta Craveri,

Book cover of The Age Of Conversation

Edith de Belleville Author Of Parisian Life: Adventures in The City of Light

From the list on French women according to a French woman.

Who am I?

Edith de Belleville is a native Parisian woman who was an attorney for many years. Her passion for Paris led her back to university to get her official tour guide license. Deeply inspired by great Parisian women of the past, Edith decided to write a book, in French, entitled The Beautiful Rebels of Paris (Belles et Rebelles Editions du 81). She just published her memoirs in English to share her literary & dreamy adventures in Paris, Parisian Life, adventures in the City of Light. When she's not at Versailles or the Louvre Museum to do her 'Beautiful Rebels of Paris Tour' Edith is sitting on a café terrace in Paris watching the world go by.

Edith's book list on French women according to a French woman

Discover why each book is one of Edith's favorite books.

Why did Edith love this book?

Have you ever seen Parisians on cafés terraces?

They drink coffee for hours while they are talking. French people like to argue, to talk, and even to fight for their opinions. This phenomenon so French comes from Le salon.

Benedetta Craveri, Italian historian, explains how the art of conversation was invented by witty Parisian women as Madame de Rambouillet or Madeleine de Scudéry who were ruling literary salons in the 17th century. Those women taught men how to be gentlemen and not smelling garlic.

I'm a fan of Benedetta Craveri. She explains well how the past lightens the present. Everything Mrs. Craveri writes is smart, clear, and she is never pedantic.

In one word, she masters the French Art of conversation.

By Benedetta Craveri,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Age Of Conversation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Now in paperback, an award-winning look at French salons and the women who presided over them

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, between the reign of Louis XIII and the Revolution, French aristocratic society developed an art of living based on a refined code of good manners.

Conversation, which began as a way of passing time, eventually became the central ritual of social life. In the salons, freed from the rigidity of court life, it was women who dictated the rules and presided over exchanges among socialites, writers, theologians, and statesmen. They contributed decisively to the development of the modern…

The Greater Journey

By David McCullough,

Book cover of The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris

Suzanna Eibuszyc Author Of Memory is Our Home

From the list on the trials and tribulations of the generation that came before us.

Who am I?

Professor Elie Wiesel was instrumental in my translating and researching my mother’s journals. My awakening to the dark period in the chapter of the Jewish history happened between 1971-1974 at CCNY, when our paths crossed while I was taking his classes at the department of Jewish studies. It was in his classes that the things that bewildered me as a child growing up in communist Poland in the shadows of the Holocaust aftermath started to make sense. I asked my mother to commit to paper the painful memories, she buried deep inside her. She and the next generations have an obligation to bear witness, to be this history's keepers.

Suzanna's book list on the trials and tribulations of the generation that came before us

Discover why each book is one of Suzanna's favorite books.

Why did Suzanna love this book?

I came to America as a young teenager, and my interest in learning America’s history stayed with me till today. David McCullough is an amazing storyteller; using firsthand accounts, letters, and diaries, his books become powerful.

After a hazardous journey, Americans, politicians, architects, artists, doctors, and writers, traveled to the city of lights, Paris. They learn a new culture, achieve success, and return home to greatly alter American history. This, in a sense, is my story as well. I have always had that strong attitude of being grateful, of being able to exist in a free world.

By David McCullough,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Greater Journey as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Greater Journey focuses on the period between 1830 and 1900, when hundreds of Americans--many of them future household names like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Mark Twain, Samuel Morse, John Singer Sargent and Harriet Beecher Stowe--migrated to Paris. McCullough shows first how the City of Light affected each of them in turn, and how they later moved back to America to help shape American art, medicine, writing, science, and politics in profound ways.The Greater Journey is filled with wonderful descriptions of the old Paris before it was re-made by Haussmann's grand boulevards, and of the city's great places, especially the Louvre,…

The Equivalents

By Maggie Doherty,

Book cover of The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s

Heather Clark Author Of Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath

From the list on group biographies of women.

Who am I?

Heather Clark is the author of Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath which was a finalist for the 2021 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography, and a Book of the Year at The Guardian, O the Oprah Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, The Times (London), Lit Hub, Good Morning America Book Club, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a new group biography about the Boston years of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, and Maxine Kumin, under contract with Knopf. She is a professor of Contemporary Poetry at the University of Huddersfield in Yorkshire, England.

Heather's book list on group biographies of women

Discover why each book is one of Heather's favorite books.

Why did Heather love this book?

Maggie Doherty tells the story of five women artists—Anne Sexton, Maxine Kumin, Barbara Swan, Tillie Olsen, and Marianna Pineda—who were among the first fellows at Radcliffe’s new Institute for Independent Study. The fellowship was originally designed for women who needed a room (and a paycheck) of their own to resume work interrupted by marriage and motherhood. Doherty weaves a history of Radcliffe’s pioneering venture with moving stories of the first fellows, whose friendships strengthened their resolve to pursue art in the face of male skepticism.

By Maggie Doherty,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Equivalents as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


In 1960, Harvard’s sister college, Radcliffe, announced the founding of an Institute for Independent Study, a “messy experiment” in women’s education that offered paid fellowships to those with a PhD or “the equivalent” in artistic achievement. Five of the women who received fellowships—poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, painter Barbara Swan, sculptor Marianna Pineda, and writer Tillie Olsen—quickly formed deep bonds with one another that would inspire and sustain their most ambitious work. They called themselves “the Equivalents.” Drawing from notebooks, letters, recordings, journals, poetry, and prose, Maggie Doherty weaves a moving…

The Collaborator

By Alice Kaplan,

Book cover of The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach

Rosanna Warren Author Of Max Jacob: A Life in Art and Letters

From the list on France modern art, culture, and political conflict.

Who am I?

I’m a poet, literary critic, translator, and biographer, and I grew up partly in France. I became obsessed with Max Jacob when I was twenty. Max Jacob—mystic, poet, painter, and suffering lover—took hold of me, and I found myself writing poems to him, in his voice, in my sketchbooks. They were among my first published poems: he redirected my life. A few years later I stumbled into writing his biography, never imagining that it would take thirty-five years: it came out from W. W. Norton in 2020, along with my most recent book of poems So Forth. I teach Comparative Literature in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.

Rosanna's book list on France modern art, culture, and political conflict

Discover why each book is one of Rosanna's favorite books.

Why did Rosanna love this book?

An expert in French fascism, Kaplan meticulously documents the career and the fate of the anti-Semitic, collaborationist novelist and journalist, Robert Brasillach. He was one of the few prominent intellectuals executed after the Liberation in France. His trial in late 1944 and execution in February 1945 put on the public stage the drama the country had just experienced: the Occupation, collaboration with the Nazis, the Resistance. As Kaplan presents it, Brasillach’s eloquent defense lawyer, the equally eloquent prosecutor, and Brasillach himself articulated the collision of visions of what it meant to be French and what it meant to be a patriot (or a traitor), arguments that still agitate France today. 

By Alice Kaplan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Collaborator as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On February 6, 1945, a 35-year-old French writer and newspaper editor named Robert Brasillach was executed for treason by a French firing squad. He was the only writer of any distinction to be put to death by the French Liberation government during the violent days of score-settling known as the Purge. In this book, Alice Kaplan, author of the memoir "French Lessons" tells the story of Brasillach's rise and fall: his emergence as the golden boy of literary fascism during the 1930s, his wartime collaboration with the Nazis, his dramatic trial and his afterlife as a martyr for French rightists…

Book cover of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

Gary Clayton Anderson Author Of Massacre in Minnesota: The Dakota War of 1862, the Most Violent Ethnic Conflict in American History

From the list on stories so engaging you loose track of time.

Who am I?

I grew up on the Northern Plains, visiting Indian Reservations where my mother was a social worker. The poverty, hopelessness, and general lack of medical care and schooling made a profound impact on me. It led me to Graduate School and the study of American Indians. Of my twelve books, two have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and several others have won minor prizes. As a historian, I realize that we can turn things around. We can strive to better understand the past, and prepare our children and grandchildren for the future. But this will never happen by banning books. We must face the brave, new world that is upon us.

Gary's book list on stories so engaging you loose track of time

Discover why each book is one of Gary's favorite books.

Why did Gary love this book?

I doubt that there is any American who can look at our country over the past four or five years and conclude that the ship is running smoothly.

Hofstadter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian from the 1950s, is the first historian to really put his finger on what makes America tick. He sees a clear relationship between concern over Status (and one could include race), anxiety, paranoia, irrational fear, and the evolution of politics. 

And while the book is not quite as pessimistic as the title might seem, I wonder what he would say about the country’s status today? Are we as a nation really committed to democracy? It would seem that a considerable percentage of people are not. Those same people seem to promote violence.

And has not the massive increase in shootings been a major factor in increasing our anxiety, and paranoia? Such an increase in those concerns has…

By Richard Hofstadter,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Anti-Intellectualism in American Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the 1964 Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life is a book which throws light on many features of the American character. Its concern is not merely to portray the scorners of intellect in American life, but to say something about what the intellectual is, and can be, as a force in a democratic society.

"As Mr. Hofstadter unfolds the fascinating story, it is no crude battle of eggheads and fatheads. It is a rich, complex, shifting picture of the life of the mind in a society dominated by the ideal of practical success." —Robert Peel in…