The most recommended books about Western culture

Who picked these books? Meet our 52 experts.

52 authors created a book list connected to Western culture, and here are their favorite Western culture books.
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Book cover of La Passione: How Italy Seduced the World

Margo Sorenson Author Of Secrets in Translation

From my list on to take you to enchanting Italy.

Why am I passionate about this?

I spent my first seven years in Spain and Italy, devouring books and Italian food and still speak (or try!) my childhood languages. The Italian language and culture are precious to me—an integral part of my life. Our visits back to Italy, speaking Italian with friends, cooking Italian meals, writing for the Italian Language Foundation's website, and enjoying our community's Italian movie nights maintain my Italian experience. Sadly, I can't be in Italy all the time, but have found some fabulous books that take me right back! Il cuore e italiano—my heart is Italian.

Margo's book list on to take you to enchanting Italy

Margo Sorenson Why did Margo love this book?

If you love Italy—and if you don't love it now, you definitely will—after reading this engaging, vibrant tribute to Italy! Knighted by the President of Italy for her writing about Italy, author Dianne Hales describes the native, inherent passion of Italians—la passione italiana— as the source and nurturer of our civilization's love for art, music, architecture, cars, ceramics, sculpture, design, literature, film, food, and wine. Bursting with talent and passion, the legacy of Italian passion for life in our culture is ubiquitous and all-encompassing. Italy and its passion itself have taken hold of our imaginations, and your imagination will take you directly to la bella Italia, as it did for me, while reading this engaging book.

By Dianne Hales,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A jubilant celebration of Italy’s outsize impact on culture, from literature to art, music to movies, that “masterfully examines the multitude of reasons why so many people fall in love with Italy and the Italian lifestyle” (Forbes)

Can you imagine painting without Leonardo, opera without Verdi, fashion without Armani, food without the signature tastes of pasta, gelato, and pizza? The first universities, first banks, first public libraries? All Italian.

New York Times bestselling author Dianne Hales attributes these landmark achievements to la passione italiana, a primal force that stems from an insatiable hunger to discover and create; to love and…

Book cover of The Secret Life of Puppets

Brandon R. Grafius Author Of Lurking Under the Surface: Horror, Religion, and the Questions that Haunt Us

From my list on horror and religion.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve been a fan of horror since I got sucked into Scooby-Doo as a three-year-old. When I started my academic career, I kind of kept that passion tucked inside as something to be embarrassed about – after all, I wanted to do serious work, and horror movies aren’t serious, right? Graduate school made me rethink that assumption, and pushed me towards seriously considering the engagement of horror and religion. I wrote my dissertation on a chapter of the Book of Numbers as a slasher narrative, and I haven’t looked back since.

Brandon's book list on horror and religion

Brandon R. Grafius Why did Brandon love this book?

Nelson’s book is a revelation in how it explores the work that both religion and popular culture can do – her readings of Lovecraft’s work are particularly evocative. I’m not on board with the sharp line she draws between high and low culture, but it’s one of those books that’s fascinating even when you disagree with it.

By Victoria Nelson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Secret Life of Puppets as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this work, Victoria Nelson illuminates the deep but hidden attraction the supernatural still holds for a secular mainstream culture that forced the transcendental underground and firmly displaced wonder and awe with the forces of reason, materialism, and science. In a backward look at an era now drawing to a close, "The Secret Life of Puppets" describes a curious reversal in the roles of art and religion: where art and literature once took their content from religion, we came increasingly to seek religion, covertly, through art and entertainment. In a tour of Western culture that is at once exhilarating and…

Book cover of Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic

Andrew Hiscock Author Of Shakespeare, Violence and Early Modern Europe

From my list on thinking about how violence can shape our lives.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am Professor of Early Modern Literature at Bangor University, Wales UK and Research Fellow at the Institut de Recherche sur la Renaissance, l'Âge Classique et les Lumières, Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier 3, France. I am someone who has been interested throughout his career in all aspects of what used to be called the European Renaissance and especially in establishing a dialogue between cultural debates raging four hundred years ago and those which dominate our own everyday lives in the twenty-first century. In the past, my work has addressed ideas, for example, concerned with social theory, the construction of cultural space, and the significance of memory.

Andrew's book list on thinking about how violence can shape our lives

Andrew Hiscock Why did Andrew love this book?

This book engages with questions of violence, suffering, and cultural value both in terms of literature and critical debate.

Eagleton asks us to consider how society may invest in and elsewhere venerate certain kinds of experience (e.g., inflicting pain, victimisation, witnessing destruction), which initially we may expect to be demonised.

By Terry Eagleton,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Terry Eagleton's Tragedy provides a major critical and analytical account of the concept of 'tragedy' from its origins in the Ancient world right down to the twenty-first century.

A major new intellectual endeavour from one of the world's finest, and most controversial, cultural theorists.
Provides an analytical account of the concept of 'tragedy' from its origins in the ancient world to the present day.
Explores the idea of the 'tragic' across all genres of writing, as well as in philosophy, politics, religion and psychology, and throughout western culture.
Considers the psychological, religious and socio-political implications and consequences of our fascination…

Book cover of Art, Politics, and Development: How Linear Perspective Shaped Policies in the Western World

Brett Bowden Author Of The Strange Persistence of Universal History in Political Thought

From my list on humankind’s place in history.

Why am I passionate about this?

The search for meaning in history is all part of the search for meaning in life. Whether archaeologists or historians, economists or physicists, they are not just looking for artefacts when digging in the dirt or scanning the skies, they are looking for evidence to piece together a bigger picture—meaning in the minutiae. I’m sceptical, but the philosophy of history remains a fascinating subject, which is why I’ve explored ideas about civilization, progress, and progressive history in a number of books and articles. My primary concern about teleological accounts of history is that they tend to deny people's agency, especially non-Western peoples.

Brett's book list on humankind’s place in history

Brett Bowden Why did Brett love this book?

I love the way this book brings together two seemingly unrelated topics, art, and socio-political organization, to offer a new perspective on the development of human societies—linear, of course. The policies and practices of development agencies do not just draw on the latest fads of economics, rather, our thinking about the shape and trajectory of ideal societies has long been influenced by the way we quite literally see and perceive the world.

By Philipp H. Lepenies,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In his groundbreaking study, Art, Politics and Development, Philipp Lepenies contributes to the ongoing controversy about why the track record of development aid is so dismal. He asserts that development aid policies are grounded in a specific way of literally looking at the world. This "worldview" is the result of a mental conditioning that began with the invention of linear perspective in Renaissance art. It not only triggered the emergence of modern science and brought forth our Western notion of progress, but ultimately, development as well.Art, Politics, and Development examines this process by pulling from a range of disciplines, including…

Book cover of The Consecration of the Writer, 1750-1830

Michael K. Ferber Author Of Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction

From my list on how romanticism transformed western culture.

Why am I passionate about this?

I fell in love with the British Romantic poets when I took a course about them, and I fixated like a chick on the first one we studied, William Blake. He seemed very different from me, and in touch with something tremendous: I wanted to know about it. Ten years later I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Blake, and then published quite a bit about him. Meanwhile there were other poets, poets in other countries, and painters and musicians: besides being accomplished at their art, I find their ideas about nature, the self, art, and society still resonate with me.

Michael's book list on how romanticism transformed western culture

Michael K. Ferber Why did Michael love this book?

France also had a rich Romantic movement (Chateaubriand, Madame de Staël, Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset, to name a few writers, not to mention Delacroix and Berlioz), though it flowered later than those in Germany and England, probably because of the distraction of the Revolution. Bénichou’s book traces the origin of the “consecration” of the poet and creative genius, an idea fundamental to romanticism and still with us in our skeptical times. It is the first of four volumes on French romanticism, and it is a pity that the other three have yet to be translated.

By Paul Bénichou, Mark K. Jensen (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Consecration of the Writer, 1750-1830 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Consecration of the Writer is the definitive study of the first stages of a phenomenon that has profoundly affected world literature: the process by which modern writers ceased to speak as representatives of some religious or political power and instead seized the mantle of spiritual authority in their own right, speaking directly to and in the name of humanity. Paul Benichou identifies three great moments in this process: the advent of the Enlightenment faith in philosophy and the rise of its literary concomitant, the man of letters; the literary creations of the counterrevolution and their surprising involvement in the…

Book cover of The Good, the Bad, and the Cyborg

Cara Bristol Author Of Blown Away

From my list on sci-fi romances that you won’t be able to forget.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve read romance since I was teenager, and I’ve written all my professional life, first in journalism, then public relations, finally as an author. Being a sci-fi romance author is my dream job! There is nothing on this planet I’d rather do. I love the freedom and creativity of science fiction romance. There are new worlds to explore and fascinating characters to meet. The best books of any genre are those with “legs.” Years after reading them, you still remember the story. My goal is to send my readers on an unforgettable emotional journey to an exciting new world filled with characters they can’t help but fall in love with.

Cara's book list on sci-fi romances that you won’t be able to forget

Cara Bristol Why did Cara love this book?

What makes The Good, the Bad, and the Cyborg unforgettable is the genre mash-up and the story’s poignancy.

It combines two disparate genres--western historical fiction and futuristic sci-fi romance. Mars is being colonized. Tasked with providing law and order are cyborg rangers riding their sentient robotic horses. While cyborgs play critical roles in the settling of Mars, they are considered less than human and are denied the same rights as regular citizens. When they meet their human heroine and fall in love they rediscover their humanity.

So well written and crafted, this story leaves a lasting impression on the reader.

Book cover of The Fatal Shore

Ken Banks Author Of The Pursuit of Purpose: Part Memoir, Part Study - A Book About Finding Your Way in the World

From my list on living unusual, adventurous or alternative lives.

Why am I passionate about this?

From a young age, I was not only curious but obsessively driven to find some sort of purpose in life. I was also incredibly sensitive, and always felt I was put on the earth for a reason. My search took me across the world, taking many turns as I grabbed at every opportunity. Thanks to a motorbike accident in Nigeria, scattered pieces of my past suddenly began to fall into place. Finding our own purpose is exploration in its purest form, and I’ve long been fascinated by other curious minds – those that either struggle to find it, and those that find it and live it, or those that turn their back on convention. 

Ken's book list on living unusual, adventurous or alternative lives

Ken Banks Why did Ken love this book?

I thought I’d finish my list with something a little different. Everyone else in the books I’ve chosen made some kind of personal decision to take their life in a different direction, but the people in this last book didn’t. The Fatal Shore is about the earliest convicts, banished to Australia to start new lives in unfamiliar, hostile territory. The first chapter alone is fascinating, documenting peoples from a ‘civilised’ part of the world struggling for survival while aboriginal ‘savages’ thrived. It’s more than just a story of survival in a new world, but also a fantastic example of where we went wrong, turning our backs and our noses up to indigenous knowledge in the assumption that we know best. This book is a brilliant example of where Western civilisation went wrong, and how dangerous assumptions can be. 

By Robert Hughes,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Fatal Shore as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An award-winning epic on the birth of Australia

In 1787, the twenty-eighth year of the reign of King George III, the British Government sent a fleet to colonise Australia.

Documenting the brutal transportation of men, women and children out of Georgian Britain into a horrific penal system which was to be the precursor to the Gulag and was the origin of Australia, The Fatal Shore is the definitive, masterfully written narrative that has given its true history to Australia.

'A unique phantasmagoria of crime and punishment, which combines the shadowy terrors of Goya with the tumescent life of Dickens' Times

Book cover of From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life

Steven D. Smith Author Of The Disintegrating Conscience and the Decline of Modernity

From my list on why Western civilization is falling apart.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a misplaced law professor, you might say: I never wanted to be a lawyer; I went to law school almost by accident; and for four decades I’ve used law as a window into my deeper interests– religion, history, and philosophy. I couldn’t make myself write books unless the subjects were personally engaging; and in defiance of editors, I insist on writing readable prose. If this adds up to “dilettante,” so be it. My books, published by the university presses of Harvard, Oxford, Notre Dame, Duke, and NYU, as well as Eerdmans, have dealt with constitutional law; Roman, medieval, and modern history; legal philosophy; and religious freedom.

Steven's book list on why Western civilization is falling apart

Steven D. Smith Why did Steven love this book?

Barzun, who lived to be 104, was in his lifetime possibly the most erudite human being on the planet. 

And this book, published when he was much younger (as a spry 93-year-old) is an almost perfect history of the modern age: a superb, readable sort-of survey that is not surveyish but rather earnestly engaged with themes that were important in the 16th-century beginnings of our modern civilization and are important still. 

Barzun doesn’t seem to be a gloomy naysayer, and he admires and appreciates the achievements of Western civilization; but as his title suggests, he came to believe that the culture is exhausted and unraveling. An informative and provocative read!

By Jacques Barzun,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked From Dawn to Decadence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A stunning five-century study of civilization's cultural retreat."  — William Safire, New York Times

Highly regarded here and abroad for some thirty works of cultural history and criticism, master historian Jacques Barzun has set down in one continuous narrative the sum of his discoveries and conclusions about the whole of Western culture since 1500.

Barzun describes what Western Man wrought from the Renaissance and Reformation down to the present in the double light of its own time and our pressing concerns. He introduces characters and incidents with his unusual literary style and grace, bringing to the fore those that have…

Book cover of The Cognitive Revolution in Western Culture: Volume 1: The Birth of Expectation

Brian J. McVeigh Author Of The 'Other' Psychology of Julian Jaynes: Ancient Languages, Sacred Visions, and Forgotten Mentalities

From my list on the bicameral mind, mentality, and consciousness.

Why am I passionate about this?

I have always been fascinated by how the human mind adapts, both individually and through history. Julian Jaynes, who taught me while pursuing my PhD in anthropology from Princeton University, provided me with a theoretical framework to explore how the personal and cultural configure each other. Jaynes inspired me to publish on psychotherapeutics, the history of Japanese psychology, linguistics, education, nationalism, the origin of religion, the Bible, ancient Egypt, popular culture, and changing definitions of self, time, and space. My interests have taken me to China and Japan, where I lived for many years. I taught at the University of Arizona and currently work as a licensed mental health counselor. 

Brian's book list on the bicameral mind, mentality, and consciousness

Brian J. McVeigh Why did Brian love this book?

This book, in a fashion similar to Julian Jaynes’s theories about bicameral mentality and consciousness, challenges comfortable assumptions. It does this by demonstrating that though what we think (content) differs by place and period, mentalities (processes) themselves are neither invariant nor universal.

Specifically, it offers a detailed study of literature and shows how notions of causality and temporal thought processes that we take for granted were undeveloped in earlier centuries. 

By Don LePan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Cognitive Revolution in Western Culture as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

LePan challenges the assumption that everybody thinks in the same way by examining a particular mental faculty - expectation. He concludes that certain forms of expectation did not exist in the minds of most medieval people, any more than they do in children or adults in many primitive societies.

Book cover of Tinsmith 1865

Michelle Rene Author Of Hour Glass

From my list on western historical fiction.

Why am I passionate about this?

Growing up in West Texas, westerns were just as good as bedtime stories to me. I grew up with all the greats… and the not as greats. The quality didn’t always matter because the spirit was the same. Freedom, opportunity, and possible lawlessness. Survival of the quickest draw. An untamed place where anything could happen. Someone once said that the western genre was America’s genre. It was invented here and our frontier spirit inspired the world. When I decided to write Hour Glass, I channeled the independent spirit of those westerns I grew up with. I wrote the first draft in sixteen days out of pure passion for the subject matter. 

Michelle's book list on western historical fiction

Michelle Rene Why did Michelle love this book?

I should preface this with some bit of transparency. One reason I love Tinsmith is because I personally know the author. Not only is she a great writer, but she’s one of the only female tinsmiths working in the United States. She makes her own cookware, and it is amazing.

The main character, Marie Kotlarczyk, moves to the Dakota territories with her tinsmith family. When the family encounters disaster, Marie has to learn the family trade in order to survive. It’s not an easy task when women were not meant to do such things. 

Sarah puts so much of herself in this book, it’s enchanting. Since she’s a professional tinsmith, every scene is tangible. I can’t recommend it enough.

By Sara Dahmen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Tinsmith 1865 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When her tinsmith father and brothers head West, Polish immigrant Marie Kotlarczyk has no choice but to go along. Family, after all, is family. The Dakota Territories are anything but welcoming to the Kotlarczyks, and as the months trip by, Marie must pick up the hammers she’s secretly desired but also feared. When she faces the skeptical people of Flats Town, the demands of the local Army commander, and her public failures, her inner voice grows destructively, forcing Marie to decide exactly who she is and what it means to be a woman smith.