12 Books Every Independent Thinker Should Read in College

If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. —Isaac Newton

There’s more to life than power.

Intersectionality doesn’t explain, or define, human suffering.

And the dignity of human beings goes far deeper than sexual orientation and skin color.

Any of that resonate with you?

If you’ve entertained similar thoughts, chances are you’re feeling dissatisfied, even frustrated, by trending political ideas. You expected more from higher education. You’re sick of shallow worldviews infiltrating nearly every subject and activity. You’re tired of the world being reduced to power grabs and victim contests.

And you’re right: there’s so much more to the world. Human beings are complex.

Understanding how humans relate to one another, how they ought to, and what makes for a truly just and free society can easily be the study of a lifetime.

Or at least the study of your time at college.

We’ve compiled a list of 12 books we think every independent thinker should read. You can start right now.

Take a look at this list and start adding some of these titles to your shelves. You won’t regret it.

Classics of Intellectual Conservatism

C. S. Lewis wouldn’t read a contemporary book until he’d read a classic. This is generally a good reading practice, so let’s start with some “classics” before getting to the list of must-read contemporaries.

These five classics will reveal the intellectual roots of libertarian and conservative ideas. They’re the best place to start if you want to understand your intellectual roots better, or if you find yourself gradually moving from the left to the right.

The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek

Coming out of World War II, America faced a communist empire abroad and a rapidly growing government at home.

The worldwide shift to government-planned economies alarmed the Austrian economist F. A. Hayek. In 1944 he published his response, The Road to Serfdom.

“Socialism means slavery,” he writes. His point was that government control of the economy does not merely have economic consequences; it requires the “suppression of freedom” and utterly transforms entire lives. It is inherently totalitarian.

Socialists operate under the guise of equality but lead us to a condition of political and economic servitude.

But what about “democratic socialism”? Hayek calls it “unachievable” and “the great utopia.” Read his landmark book to understand why.

Witness by Whitaker Chambers

Whittaker Chambers’s classic book Witness is a gripping account of his days as a Communist agent. Chambers played the key role in exposing Alger Hiss, a high-ranking official in the U.S. State Department, as a Soviet spy in 1948.

But Witness is more than a spy thriller. Chambers saw his struggle with Hiss as embodying the much larger conflict between “the two irreconcilable faiths of our time—Communism and Freedom.”

Witness sounds like a relic of the Cold War, but its themes are timeless. Chambers writes: “The crisis of the Western world exists to the degree it is indifferent to God. It exists to the degree in which the Western world actually shares Communism’s materialist vision.”

Decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, his warnings remain as prescient and moving as when they were first published in 1952.

The Quest for Community by Robert Nisbet

Community is a buzzword of the twenty-first century. Everyone, right and left, is concerned that we’re losing it, if we haven’t lost it already.

Nearly seventy years ago, the sociologist Robert Nisbet zeroed in on why community is declining and what’s at stake. In The Quest for Community (1953), Nisbet links the decline of community to the decline of the institutions that give us identity and meaning—the family, the neighborhood, the church, and so on. Nisbet shows that the rise of the powerful modern state had eroded these traditional sources of community.

But here’s the thing: as the traditional ties that bind fall away, the human impulse toward community leads people to turn even more to the government itself. So Nisbet’s book is not simply a warning against statism. It also reminds individualists and libertarians that the institutions of civil society can’t be overlooked.

Ever wonder why more and more Americans turn to national politics for a sense of meaning and belonging? The Quest for Community shows you why.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat said it well when he wrote, “Nisbet’s Eisenhower-era analysis of the modern political predicament looks as prescient as it’s possible for any individual writer to be.”

This book is a must-read, no matter your political persuasion.

The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 by George H. Nash

Let’s be honest: the word conservatism is weighed down with so much political baggage that it’s hard to say what it means anymore.

But for the people who know better, it’s an intellectual force in its own right.

George Nash’s history is a great place for any curious reader to start exploring the history of conservatism, particularly if you’re somewhere on the right and want to understand your own worldview better.

The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 is the authoritative study of conservatism’s intellectual birth. Nash shows how three intellectual groups came together—sometimes uneasily—to form the American conservative movement: libertarians, anticommunists, and traditionalists.

Read this book to find out why the noted political analyst Michael Barone calls Nash “the leading light of historians of the American conservative movement.”

The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk

Russell Kirk, a leading traditionalist and a prolific man of letters, wrote perhaps the seminal work of the conservative movement, The Conservative Mind (1953).

Kirk argues that there is no such thing as a conservative ideology. He sees conservatism as a disposition, a way of living and viewing life.

The Conservative Mind traces an impressive intellectual genealogy of Americans and Brits that included Edmund Burke, John Adams, John Randolph, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and T. S. Eliot.

Mainstream academics have generally dismissed conservatism. Kirk’s book demonstrates that conservatism has always been central to the American experience.

7 Must-Read Works About Society, Politics, History, and Economics

Now that we’re acquainted with the classics, let’s turn to some more recent works.

The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations by Christopher Lasch

Regardless of where you fall on the 2016 election, the results surprised nearly everyone. But Christopher Lasch predicted something like it all the way back in 1979.

Politics has become a form of spectacle, Lasch argues, and our ability to discuss politics across class lines has ruptured. The Culture of Narcissism shows how—and why—these disturbing trends happened.

If you want to better understand the growing distrust of those who govern—and the accompanying rise of individualistic egotism—you’ll want to read Lasch’s book.

Fun fact: this book garnered criticism from both left and right, which testifies to its endurance.

The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left by Yuval Levin

What do conservatism and progressivism have in common? Very little, except that both are much older than you think.

Political analyst Yuval Levin traces the divide between left and right back more than two centuries, to Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine.

These thinkers were diametrically opposed when it came to the French Revolution: Paine praised it; Burke was horrified by it.

Levin’s book shows that their disagreement came down to different understandings of human nature. Backed by excellent scholarship, The Great Debate will enrich your understanding of our contemporary political divide.

A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles by Thomas Sowell

Here’s another key text for understanding our political divisions.

The economist and historian Thomas Sowell noticed something puzzling: over and over again, the same people line up on opposite sides of issues—even when those issues have little or nothing in common.

Why?

It’s not simply a matter of Republicans versus Democrats, or conservatives versus liberals. The real issue, Sowell shows, is that these groups have fundamentally different visions of how the world works.

Visions can be helpful. As Sowell says, they “are like maps that guide us through a tangle of bewildering complexities.” But visions also leave out a lot—and the people launching crusades are often the least aware of the assumptions that underlie their vision.

Reading A Conflict of Visions “is like looking up at the night sky and discovering a new constellation,” in the words of the Christian Science Monitor. It is “a classic of a very special kind.”

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff

You know what they say about good intentions: they make a smooth road to hell.

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, expanding on their popular Atlantic essay, prove why overprotection in the classroom and on campus does more harm than good.

The Coddling of the American Mind debunks three core claims of higher education:

  1. “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker”
  2. “Always trust your feelings“
  3. “Life is a battle between good people and evil people“

George Wood, top reviewer on Amazon, says it’s a book that “every American concerned with the future of our nation’s public discourse and democratic culture should read.” It’s definitely a good book for our times.

The De-moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Morals by Gertrude Himmelfarb

The Victorians have a PR problem. Most Americans remember them as repressed puritans.

But Victorians weren’t all petticoats and prudery.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, one of the most underrated historians of our time, shows why we can—and should—learn from Victorian virtues.

They believed in thrift and hard work. They believed in God and in country. And the collapse of such beliefs has brought severe consequences to American society.

The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America by Arthur C. Brooks

Given mainstream coverage of conservatism, you’d think that anyone right of center hates the poor.

But Arthur C. Brooks argues that conservatives have done more for the poor than any progressive policy. Conservatives donate more. They volunteer more. And they empower people, rather than turn them into powerless dependents.

You could say The Conservative Heart is a social justice agenda for the right. You wouldn’t be wrong.

But Brooks’s insights provide indispensable alternatives to trendy ideas like democratic socialism.

How to Be a Conservative by Roger Scruton

Maybe by now you’re noticing a trend: conservatism isn’t about guns, God, and unbridled freedom. It’s a disposition, a way of understanding and living in the world. It’s about timeless principles and values.

But what does that look like in practice?

The late Sir Roger Scruton’s book is the ultimate guide to living authentic conservatism in an age so hostile to it.

And so it’s the perfect close to this list.

There you have it: 12 books that every independent thinker should read. We’d love to know your thoughts! DM us on Facebook or Instagram to share your thoughts and what books you would add.

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