Kagan says: These are books I would readily recommend to anyone, books that have stayed with me and that I think about, books that everyone should read.
1. The Selfish Gene — Richard Dawkins. This is the best general introduction to evolution that I know, with particular emphasis on the evolution of behavior. Beautifully written and fascinating, it begins to tell the story of how we came to be what we are.
2. The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat — Oliver Sacks. The mind is an amazingly complex thing, a fact we more readily appreciate when we read about ways in which it can fail to function properly. Sacks’ elegant case histories are heart-breaking, mind-boggling, thought-provoking and profound.
3. Night — Elie Wiesel. The story of how we treat one another is something that we should all be horrified by and ashamed of. This classic memoir of the Holocaust tells about one part of the nightmare that is human history.
4. Utilitarianism — John Stuart Mill — and The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals — Immanuel Kant. Two rather more optimistic accounts of how we should treat one another, and why. The truth about ethics, I suspect, lies somewhere in the proper combination of the two.
5. The Lord of the Rings — J.R.R. Tolkien. The greatest fantasy story ever written. (Because after reading Kant you deserve a break.)
6. The Socratic Dialogues of Plato (such as the Euthryphro, the Apology, the Crito and the Phaedo). This is the very best way to see what philosophy is all about and to get a feel for why some of us are driven to make philosophy our life’s work. (Also a very good way to see just how annoying a philosopher can be.)
7. The Hebrew Bible. OK, this one is really a cheat, since it is actually a collection of several dozen different books. What’s more, I don’t just mean the Bible proper, but also the more than 2,000 years worth of commentaries, discussions and debates that the Jewish tradition has drawn from this infinitely deep well. Turn it over and turn it over; everything is contained in it.