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What is the best chemistry textbook?

by Maxwell Peterson1 min read11th May 20218 comments

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I saw an Organic Chemistry recommendation on the Best Textbooks page, but no base chemistry one. Is it important to read a base chemistry book before going to OChem, or is starting with an OChem book good enough? If the former, what book do people recommend?

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When I was an undergraduate we used Atkins and Jones' Chemical Principles: the Quest for Insight (link is to a slightly older edition because it's not a field whose basic principles have changed much in the last few years).  If memory serves, it was pretty good.  I'd also recommend checking out the MIT OCW site for 5.112 (that course will do a better job of preparing you for organic chemistry than 3.091, which is more materials focused).  

It is certainly possible to start with an organic chemistry textbook as long as you have a good grasp of some fundamentals (what a chemical bond is, ionic vs. covalent bonding, electronegativity, bond dissociation energies, etc.) so if organic is really what you're after, feel free to give that a try.  You can always pause that and go back to the general chemistry textbook if you feel like you're lacking foundation.

If memory serves, the Best Textbooks list has Clayden et al, which is the one that all the UK universities seem to use.  It's a good textbook but if you're looking for an alternative suggestion, I used and liked Wade.  Again, I'll put in a plug for OCW: 5.12 is the intro semester, with 5.13 following on.  

Can I ask what the end goal for studying organic chemistry is?  MCAT prep, learning biochemistry, and preparing to work in a synthesis lab all benefit from somewhat different approaches.

I want to learn biochemistry so I can reason about stuff that goes on in the body! I’ve started Lehninger’s Principles of Biochemistry and I mostly get it, but some of the stuff it assumes (e.g. covalent vs. noncovalent bonds) I’m not familiar with.

1chemslug1moIf covalent vs. noncovalent bonds are something you're not familiar with, it sounds like you'd benefit from reading the chapter(s) on chemical bonding (every gen chem textbook should have one). I'd also infer from that that you won't have much of a background in thermodynamics, which rears its head when you try to understand the energy-storing and energy-releasing reactions of metabolism.
1Maxwell Peterson1moThat’s right, I don’t - I was talking to a friend about vaccines expiring and he said “things want to be in a low energy state”, which sounded like the kind of thing people say a lot and is probably right, but I didn’t, like, feel it. Thanks for your recommendations!

I'm learning basic chem, and I've really enjoyed The Cartoon Guide to Chemistry. It introduces the basic concepts in an accessible, entertaining, and fast-to-read way, allowing you to look up Wikipedia details as you please. 

Ahh nice, I very much might not have the stomach to get into a whole chemistry textbook - not sure yet - in which case this sounds like a good compromise. Thanks.

Chemistry & Chemical Reactivity (Kotz, Treichel, Townsend)

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I do think organic chemistry texts assume you start out with notions of molarity, chemical equations, conservation of energy, change of phase, the kinetic theory of temperature, a basic grasp of the periodic table, and as you go deeper into them they might start to expect you to know some quantum mechanics from elsewhere. So if I was teaching a child from scratch, we would certainly need to cover basic chemistry material before opening an organic chemistry textbook. But if you've taken a high school chemistry course and want to jump straight in to college-level orgo, you'll almost certainly be fine (speaking from experience).