Neil deGrasse Tyson’s List of (Free) Books for Smart Folks

Photo: Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks on a video by the United States Department of Education in 2012. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When Neil deGrasse Tyson did a Reddit AMA, one reader took advantage of the opportunity to delve deep inside his mind, asking, “Which books should be read by every single intelligent person on the planet?”

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The American astrophysicist and author, who has been the director of the Hayden Planetarium for over 20 years, provided a fantastic list of eight books that are available as both free audio books and free eBooks through various Internet providers of content available in the public domain.

Tyson provided a list with succinct reasons behind his choices, writing:

The Bible (eBook): “to learn that it’s easier to be told by others what to think and believe than it is to think for yourself.”

The System of the World by Isaac Newton (eBook): “to learn that the universe is a knowable place.”

On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (eBookAudio Book): “to learn of our kinship with all other life on Earth.”

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (eBookAudio Book): “to learn, among other satirical lessons, that most of the time humans are Yahoos.”

The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (eBookAudio Book): “to learn how the power of rational thought is the primary source of freedom in the world.”

The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (eBookAudio Book): “to learn that capitalism is an economy of greed, a force of nature unto itself.”

The Art of War by Sun Tsu (eBookAudio Book): “to learn that the act of killing fellow humans can be raised to an art.”

The Prince by Machiavelli (eBookAudio Book):  “to learn that people not in power will do all they can to acquire it, and people in power will do all they can to keep it.”

Tyson concludes his reading list with the observation that, “If you read all of the above works you will glean profound insight into most of what has driven the history of the western world.”

His suggestions sparked extensive debate with more than 7,400 comments on this one thread alone. Many people took his zippy insights as a comment on the content of the books. Tyson later clarified that the one-liners referred to the context that created the culture, which informed the people who prized them.

Applying the scientific method, Tyson’s conclusions were drawn from his observations of how the West has used these books as tools for their own agendas—rather than necessarily following what the message that they provide, recognizing that “it does no good to say what the Bible “really” meant, if its actual influence on human behavior is something else.”

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.