The 50 Best Books of the Century

This is one of the 200 lists we use to generate our main The Greatest Books list.

  • The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams

    "The Education of Henry Adams" is an autobiographical account that explores the changes in society and politics during the 19th and 20th century from the perspective of an individual who is both a product and critic of that era. The narrative is structured around the author's self-perceived failure to understand or adapt to these changes, despite his privileged education and social status. The book is a reflection on the author's life, his attempts to make sense of the world around him, and his struggle to reconcile his traditional upbringing with the rapid advancements of the modern world.

  • The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis

    This philosophical book explores the concepts of objective value and natural law, arguing that these are essential for moral reasoning. The author criticizes modern education for producing "men without chests," by which he means individuals who deny the importance of moral absolutes. He suggests that this could lead to the "abolition of man" as we traditionally understand him, replacing moral individuals with conditioned responses. The book also discusses the dangers of scientific advancement without moral considerations.

  • Witness by Whittaker Chambers

    "Witness" is a gripping autobiography that chronicles the author's life as a Communist party member, his espionage activities for the Soviet Union, and his eventual renunciation of communism. The book also details his role as the key witness in the 1948 Alger Hiss trial, a high-profile case that had a major impact on American politics during the Cold War. The narrative explores themes of ideology, betrayal, and redemption, and provides a unique perspective on the ideological battles of the 20th century.

  • Selected Essays of T. S. Eliot by T. S. Eliot

    This book is a collection of critical and reflective essays by a renowned poet and literary critic. The author explores a variety of topics including literature, culture, society, and religion. The essays offer an insightful and thought-provoking commentary on the works of other writers, as well as the author's own views on literary theory and criticism. The collection serves as an important resource for understanding the author's intellectual development and his influence on 20th century literature and criticism.

  • A Study of History by Arnold J. Toynbee

    "A Study of History" is an extensive 12-volume universal history, exploring the development and decay of world civilizations throughout the ages. The author proposes that civilizations rise and fall based on their responses to challenges, both physical and social. The book also puts forth the idea that religions play a crucial role in the rise of civilizations and that the failure of a civilization's creative power can lead to its decline. The work is renowned for its scholarly depth and its controversial theories about the cyclical nature of history.

  • The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt

    The book explores the roots of totalitarian systems, particularly focusing on Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. It delves into the historical, social, and political circumstances that led to the rise of these oppressive regimes, including anti-Semitism, imperialism, and the decline of the nation-state. The author further discusses the nature of power, the role of propaganda, and the manipulation of the masses in these systems, providing a comprehensive analysis of totalitarianism.

  • Teacher in America by Jacques Barzun

    "Teacher in America" is an insightful examination of the American education system and the role of teachers. The author provides a critical analysis of the challenges faced by educators, the importance of pedagogical methods, and the necessity of fostering a love for learning in students. The book also highlights the role of teachers in shaping society and emphasizes the need for educational reform to better equip students for the future.

  • Samuel Johnson by Walter Jackson Bate

    This biography provides an in-depth look into the life of Samuel Johnson, an 18th-century English writer who contributed greatly to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, and lexicographer. The book explores Johnson's struggles with depression, fear of death, and various physical ailments, as well as his intellectual prowess and his impact on literature. It also delves into his relationships with other notable figures of his time, offering a comprehensive portrait of a complex and influential man.

  • Understanding Poetry by Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren

    "Understanding Poetry" is a comprehensive guide that aims to educate readers about the art of poetry, its interpretation, and its appreciation. It breaks down complex concepts into easily understandable language, making it a suitable read for both novices and seasoned poetry enthusiasts. The book covers a wide range of topics, from the basics of rhythm and meter to more advanced concepts like symbolism and imagery, and includes examples from a variety of poets to illustrate these concepts. It also encourages readers to engage with poetry on a deeper level, fostering a greater appreciation for this form of literature.

  • The Whig Interpretation of History by Herbert Butterfield

    This book is a critical examination of the Whig interpretation of history, which tends to present past events and people in a way that validates the present. The author argues that this approach oversimplifies complex historical events and imposes modern values onto the past, thereby distorting our understanding of history. He emphasizes the importance of studying history in its own context, without projecting contemporary beliefs and values onto it.

  • Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton

    "Orthodoxy" is a classic work of Christian apologetics that explores and defends the beliefs that are central to Christian faith. The author presents his personal journey towards faith, arguing for the reasonableness of Christianity. He challenges popular assumptions of his time about religion, faith, and the world while presenting a compelling case for orthodox Christian belief, using both logic and wit. The book combines personal anecdotes, historical critique, and philosophical discourse to present a deeply intellectual and sincere exploration of Christianity.

  • The Second World War by Winston Churchill

    This book provides a comprehensive overview of the Second World War from the perspective of one of its most influential leaders. It covers the entire span of the war, from its origins in the political and economic turmoil of the 1930s, to the major battles and strategic decisions that shaped its course, to its aftermath and impact on the world. The author's unique perspective and firsthand experience, combined with his eloquent and insightful writing, make this a definitive account of one of the most important events in modern history.

  • A History of Philosophy by Frederick Charles Copleston

    This book is a comprehensive overview of Western philosophy, starting from the Pre-Socratic philosophers to contemporary thinkers. It meticulously traces the evolution of philosophical thought, providing in-depth analysis of key figures and their contributions. The book also critically examines various philosophical doctrines, their influences, and their relevance to contemporary society. It's a valuable resource for anyone interested in understanding the origins, developments, and complexities of philosophical ideas.

  • Religion and the Rise of Western Culture by Christopher Dawson

    "Religion and the Rise of Western Culture" explores the deep influence of Christianity on the development of Western civilization. The author examines how Christianity shaped the cultural, political, and social aspects of Europe, particularly during the Middle Ages, and how it played a crucial role in the rise of the West. The book provides a comprehensive analysis of the interplay between religion and culture, highlighting the profound impact of religious beliefs on the evolution of Western society.

  • The Stripping of the Altars by Eamon Duffy

    "The Stripping of the Altars" provides an in-depth look into the religious practices and beliefs of the English people before, during, and after the Protestant Reformation. The book challenges the traditional narrative of a corrupt Catholic Church being replaced by a more pure Protestantism, instead arguing that Catholicism was a vibrant and beloved part of English life. The author uses a wealth of historical evidence to show that the Reformation was a violent rupture rather than a smooth transition, resulting in a profound loss for the people who were forcibly separated from the rituals and traditions that had structured their spiritual lives for generations.

  • The Civil War by Shelby Foote

    This comprehensive three-volume series provides an in-depth and detailed narrative of the American Civil War. It encompasses the political, social, and military aspects of the war, offering a balanced view of both the Union and Confederate sides. The series also delves into the personal experiences of key figures, including generals and soldiers, as well as civilians affected by the war. This work is known for its meticulous research, vivid descriptions, and engaging storytelling style.

  • R. E. Lee by Douglas Southall Freeman

    "R. E. Lee" is a comprehensive biography that provides a detailed account of the life of the famed Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The book dives deep into his personal life, his military strategies, and his role in the American Civil War, offering a balanced and nuanced portrayal of Lee. It also explores his relationships, his character, and his post-war life, giving readers a well-rounded understanding of this significant figure in American history.

  • Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman

    This book explores the role of competitive capitalism - the organization of the bulk of economic activity through private enterprise operating in a free market - as both a device for achieving economic freedom and a necessary condition for political freedom. The author further examines how freedom could be preserved in a society where the roles and importance of government are ever expanding, and presents his view on topics such as monetary policy, fiscal policy, education, discrimination, and the alleviation of poverty.

  • Roll, Jordan, Roll by Eugene Genovese

    "Roll, Jordan, Roll" is a comprehensive exploration of slavery in the United States, specifically focusing on the complex relationships between slaves and their masters. The book examines how slaves managed to preserve their culture, humanity and dignity, while also highlighting the paradoxical nature of a system where slave owners were dependent on their slaves for their livelihoods. It delves into the ways in which slaves resisted their oppression, and the strategies they employed to survive and create their own communities within the confines of the brutal institution of slavery.

  • The Constitution of Liberty by Friedrich von Hayek

    This book is a comprehensive analysis of the concept of liberty, emphasizing the importance of individual freedom in political, societal, and economic contexts. The author argues that a free society, where individuals can act according to their own decisions and plans, is the most effective system for human progress. He also explores the relationship between law and liberty, the role of government in a free society, and the challenges to liberty posed by concepts such as social and economic justice.

  • Protestant, Catholic, Jew by Will Herberg

    This book is a comprehensive exploration of religious diversity in the United States, particularly focusing on the three major faiths: Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism. The author delves into the historical roots and evolution of these religions, their influence on American culture and society, and how they have shaped the nation's identity. The book also examines the unique American phenomenon of religious pluralism and how it impacts the country's social and political life.

  • The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

    This book is a critique of 1950s urban planning policy, which it holds responsible for the decline of many city neighborhoods in the United States. The author argues that modernist urban planning rejects the city, because it rejects human beings living in a community characterized by layered complexity and seeming chaos. The book introduces groundbreaking ideas about how cities function, evolve and fail, providing a new perspective on the essentials of vibrant city life. The author also provides concrete examples of the unexpected consequences of urban renewal.

  • Modern Times by Paul Johnson

    "Modern Times" is an in-depth historical analysis of the 20th century, covering major events, movements, and figures that have shaped the modern world. The author critically examines the impacts of World War I and II, the Cold War, the rise of totalitarian regimes, and the influence of religion and ideology on politics and society. The book also explores significant scientific and technological advancements, and their effects on human perception and behavior. It provides a comprehensive understanding of the complexities and contradictions of the 20th century, and how they continue to influence the 21st century.

  • The Face of Battle by John Keegan

    "The Face of Battle" is a military history book that examines warfare from the perspective of the common soldier. It explores three significant battles in detail - the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and the Battle of the Somme in 1916. By focusing on the experiences of the individual soldiers, the book provides readers with a unique insight into the reality of war, the strategies employed, the conditions faced by soldiers, the impact of technological advancements on warfare, and the human cost of these historic battles.

  • The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk

    "The Conservative Mind" is an exploration and analysis of conservative thought in Western political history. The author delves into the ideologies and philosophies of prominent conservative thinkers, tracing the evolution of conservative ideas from the 18th century to the mid-20th century. The book also discusses the principles that underpin conservatism, including belief in a transcendent moral order, the importance of social hierarchy, and the value of property rights. It is both a historical overview and a defense of conservative ideology.

  • The Great Chain of Being by Arthur Lovejoy

    "The Great Chain of Being" is an intellectual history that traces the philosophical idea of the "Great Chain of Being" from the ancient Greeks through the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Enlightenment, and into the 19th century. The concept posits a hierarchical structure of all matter and life, with God at the top, descending through angels, humans, animals, plants, and minerals. The book explores how this concept has influenced Western thought, particularly in relation to the natural world, social order, and God's place in the universe.

  • After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre

    This book is a critique of contemporary moral philosophy, arguing that modern ethical theories have failed to provide a coherent basis for moral judgments. The author believes that the Enlightenment project of justifying morality through reason has ultimately failed, leading to a culture of emotivism where moral arguments are reduced to expressions of personal preference. The author suggests a return to Aristotelian virtue ethics, emphasizing the importance of moral character and the role of community in ethical life.

  • Jefferson and His Time by Dumas Malone

    "Jefferson and His Time" is a comprehensive six-volume biography that explores the life and legacy of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States. The series delves into his political philosophy, his role in the formation of America, his relationships, and his personal life. It also examines his contributions to the United States, including his work as the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, his time as president, and his founding of the University of Virginia. The biography is a detailed and insightful examination of one of the most influential figures in American history.

  • Prejudices by H. L. Mencken

    "Prejudices" is a collection of essays that offers a critical and humorous look at American culture and society in the early 20th century. The author provides biting commentary on a variety of topics, including literature, politics, and the arts, while also offering his own unconventional and often controversial viewpoints. The book is known for its satirical style and its critique of American life and values.

  • The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton

    This book is an autobiography of a man who, after a youth filled with worldly experiences and ambitions, converts to Catholicism and chooses to live his life in a Trappist monastery. His journey from a secular life to a deeply spiritual one is filled with introspection and profound insights about the nature of faith and the quest for a meaningful life. His story is a powerful testament to the pull of spiritual enlightenment and the peace that comes from dedicating one's life to a higher purpose.

  • The Quest for Community by Robert Nisbet

    "The Quest for Community" is a sociological analysis that examines the rise of individualism and the decline of community in Western societies. The author argues that the erosion of traditional communities and associations has led to increased state power and control, creating a society where individuals are increasingly isolated and disconnected. He emphasizes the need for a return to stronger community bonds as a means to resist this trend and to foster a healthier, more balanced society.

  • The Habit of Being by Flannery O'Connor

    "The Habit of Being" is a collection of personal correspondence by a renowned southern writer, offering a profound insight into her private life, thoughts, and creative processes. These letters, written over a span of two decades, reveal her struggle with lupus, her strong Catholic faith, her sharp wit, and her dedication to writing. The book also provides a glimpse of her relationships with literary contemporaries and her insightful thoughts on contemporary issues, literature, and religion.

  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

    The book is a personal account of the author's experiences during the Spanish Civil War, specifically his time with the POUM (Partit Obrer d'Unificació Marxista) militia in Catalonia. He provides an in-depth look at the social revolution that took place, the daily life of a soldier, the political infighting and betrayals among the Republican factions, and his eventual disillusionment with the cause he initially supported. The book is both a war memoir and a detailed analysis of a complex political situation.

  • Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy

    The book is a satirical self-help guide that explores the human condition and our place in the universe through a series of thought experiments, quizzes, and essays. It delves into topics such as existentialism, semiotics, philosophy, science, and religion, all with a humorous twist. The book challenges readers to examine their lives, their beliefs, and their perceptions of reality, ultimately suggesting that we are all a little lost in the cosmos.

  • The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes

    This comprehensive book provides an in-depth account of the development of the atomic bomb during World War II. It explores the scientific advancements that made the bomb possible, the political decisions that led to its creation, and the moral dilemmas faced by the scientists involved. The book also details the personalities of key figures in the Manhattan Project, the effects of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the impact of nuclear weapons on the world.

  • The Triumph of the Therapeutic by Philip Rieff

    This book explores the shift in Western society from a community-oriented, moralistic perspective to a more individualistic, therapeutic one. The author argues that the rise of psychotherapy and the decline of traditional religious authority have led to a culture that values self-fulfillment and personal happiness over communal responsibility and moral duty. He suggests that this shift has profound implications for the future of society, as it undermines the shared values and beliefs that hold communities together.

  • Persons and Places by George Santayana

    "Persons and Places" is an autobiographical work that explores the author's early life, education, and experiences. The writer, a philosopher, poet, and critic, delves into his upbringing in Spain and his time in Boston, shedding light on his philosophical views and how his experiences shaped them. The book provides a deep and insightful look into his personal life and the influences that molded his intellectual journey.

  • Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy by Joseph A. Schumpeter

    The book provides an in-depth analysis of the interplay between capitalism, socialism, and democracy, arguing that capitalism is a catalyst for creative destruction and innovation, but also paves the way for socialism due to its inherent instability and tendency to create wealth inequality. It further suggests that democracy, while imperfect, is the best system to manage these economic systems. The author presents a unique perspective on the inevitable rise of socialism, not through revolution as Marx predicted, but through the legal and systematic erosion of capitalism by democratic means.

  • Natural Right and History by Leo Strauss

    This book is an exploration of the concept of natural rights and their relation to history. The author argues that the idea of natural rights is a fundamental aspect of Western civilization and is essential for its survival, but also notes that this concept has been largely forgotten or misunderstood in the modern world. The book examines the origins and development of natural rights, from ancient Greece to the American Revolution, and critiques modern political philosophies that have moved away from this idea. It also discusses the relationship between natural rights and history, and the implications of this relationship for the future of Western civilization.

  • The Elements of Style by E. B. White, William Strunk Jr.

    This book is a definitive guide and classic manual on the principles of English language read by millions of readers. The 18 main topics are organized under headings such as Elementary Rules of Usage, Elementary Principles of Composition, A Few Matters of Form, Words and Expressions Commonly Misused, and An Approach to Style. The book's unique tone, wit and charm have conveyed the principles of English style to millions of readers, making it a beloved resource for those who want to write clear, correct and effective prose.

  • The Liberal Imagination by Lionel Trilling

    "The Liberal Imagination" is a collection of essays that scrutinize and challenge the ideas, politics, and cultural norms of liberal society. The author argues that liberalism often simplifies complex issues and overlooks the inherent contradictions and conflicts in human life. Using literature as a tool, he delves into the nuances of these issues and encourages readers to engage in critical thinking and self-examination. The book is a profound exploration of the strengths and weaknesses of liberal thought and its impact on society.

  • The Frontier in American History by Frederick J. Turner

    "The Frontier in American History" examines the importance of the unsettled, western frontier in shaping the political, economic, and social identity of the United States. The book argues that the constant westward expansion and the challenges it presented played a crucial role in developing American democracy, individualism, and innovative spirit. The author further posits that the closing of this frontier at the end of the 19th century marked a significant shift in American society, which now had to find new ways of growth and innovation.

  • The New Science of Politics by Eric Voegelin

    "The New Science of Politics" is a seminal work in political philosophy that explores the nature of political societies, the symbolism of political power, and the essence of modernity. It delves into the evolution of political thought, from ancient civilizations to the modern era, and critically examines the ideologies that have shaped the contemporary political landscape. The author argues that understanding the spiritual and religious dimensions of political reality can provide a more comprehensive view of society and governance. The book is a profound meditation on the philosophy of history and a radical critique of modern political ideologies.

  • Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington

    The book is an autobiographical account of a former slave who rises to become a prominent educator and speaker. It chronicles his journey from enslavement during his childhood, through his struggles for education and his founding of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The narrative emphasizes the importance of education, hard work, and self-reliance as the keys to African American advancement, and provides a firsthand perspective on post-Civil War American South.

  • The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA by James D. Watson

    This book is a personal account of the race to discover the structure of DNA, told from the perspective of one of the co-discoverers. It provides an insider's view of scientific research, the collaboration and competition, the dedication, the doubt, the exhilaration of discovery, and the often fraught relationship between science and the rest of life. The book also explores the personalities, quirks, and conflicts of the scientists involved in the groundbreaking discovery.

  • Patriotic Gore by Edmund Wilson

    "Patriotic Gore" is a comprehensive study of American literature during and after the Civil War. The author examines the works of writers such as Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, among others, to present a nuanced understanding of how the war influenced American literature and culture. The book offers a unique perspective on the Civil War, focusing on the intellectual and cultural responses to the conflict rather than the military and political aspects.

  • Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein

    This book is a seminal work in 20th-century philosophy, presenting a detailed critique of the notion that our language directly corresponds to reality. The author argues that the meaning of words is not inherent, but rather derives from their use within specific forms of life. The book also introduces the concept of language games, suggesting that our understanding of language is akin to learning the rules of a game. The author further explores the limits of language, the nature of understanding, and the relationship between public and private language.

  • The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

    "The Right Stuff" is a non-fiction novel that explores the lives and experiences of the first Project Mercury astronauts selected for the NASA space program in the 1960s. The book delves into the personal and professional lives of these astronauts, highlighting their courage, competitiveness, and the immense pressure they faced. It also provides a detailed account of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War era.

  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley

    This book is an autobiography narrating the life of a renowned African-American activist. It delves into his transformation from a young man involved in criminal activities to becoming one of the most influential voices in the fight against racial inequality in America. The book provides a deep insight into his philosophies, his time in prison, conversion to Islam, his role in the Nation of Islam, his pilgrimage to Mecca, and his eventual split from the Nation. It also addresses his assassination, making it a powerful account of resilience, redemption, and personal growth.

  • Nature and Destiny of Man by Reinhold Niebuhr

    This work is a theological exploration of human nature and destiny, examining the intersection of Christian doctrine and contemporary thought. The author provides an in-depth analysis of human nature, arguing that an individual's capacity for self-transcendence and self-integration is a fundamental part of their nature. The book also tackles the concept of destiny, asserting that the ultimate human destiny is to realize the Kingdom of God. It delves into the paradoxes of human existence, touching on themes of sin, grace, love, and justice.

About this list

Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 50 Books

ISI defined "best" as "volumes of extraordinary reflection and creativity in a traditional form, which heartens us with the knowledge that fine writing and clear-mindedness are perennially possible."

All the books are non-fiction.

The first 5 are ranked, the rest are alphabetical.

Added about 10 years ago.

How Good is this List?

This list has a weight of 64%. To learn more about what this means please visit the Rankings page.

Here is a list of what is decreasing the importance of this list:

  • Limited to a single language
  • Limited to 100 or less years

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