For years, my self-education was stupid and wasteful. I learned by reading a nearly random smattering of blog posts, Wikipedia articles, podcast episodes, popular-level books, video lectures, peer-reviewed papers, Teaching Company courses, and Cliff's Notes.

I've since discovered that textbooks are usually the quickest and best way to learn a new subject. That's what they are designed to be, after all. Less Wrong has often recommended the "read textbooks!" method.

But textbooks vary widely in quality. I was forced to read some awful textbooks in college - the ones on American history and sociology were memorably bad, in my case. Other textbooks are superb: exciting, accurate, fair, well-paced, and immediately useful.

There have been other pages of recommended reading on Less Wrong before, but this post is a very specific one. Here are the rules:

  1. Post the title of your favorite textbook on a given subject.
  2. You must have read at least two other textbooks on that same subject.
  3. You must briefly explain why you think your favorite is superior to the others you have read on that subject.
Rules #2 and #3 are to protect against recommending a bad book that only seems impressive because it's the only book you've read on the subject. For example, I really like Rational Choice in an Uncertain World by Hastie & Dawes, but I haven't read any other textbooks on that subject, so I can't tell if it is a relatively good textbook on that subject or not.
I'll start the list with two of my own selections:

Subject: History of Western Philosophy
Selection: The Great Conversation, 6th edition, by Norman Melchert
Reason: The most popular history of western philosophy is Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy, which is exciting but also polemical and inaccurate. More accurate but dry and dull is Frederick Copelston's 11-volume A History of Philosophy. Anthony Kenny's recent 4-volume history, collected into one book as A New History of Western Philosophy, is both exciting and accurate, but perhaps too long (1000 pages) and technical for an introduction to philosophy. Melchert's book is accurate but also the easiest to read, and has the clearest explanations of the important positions and debates, though of course it has its weaknesses (it spends too many pages on ancient Greek mythology and barely mentions Gottlob Frege, the father of analytic philosophy).

Subject: Cognitive Science
Selection: Cognitive Science, by Jose Luis Bermudez



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