While I went to some great schools like MIT, I was primarily self-educated. Anyone can pick up the ability to think through problems independently and do the research needed on the Internet, but it helps to have a base of organized knowledge to give yourself a head start on your individual contribution to the world’s knowledge. A great book on a subject area will allow you to quickly reach the level of understanding needed to start your own research; then a bit of reading on the more recent research results available online will catch you up to the current edge of the field and where you can contribute.
If you or someone you love want to have a deeper understanding of how the world works, these books are a great way to start. I’ve read all of them and guarantee that reading them will boost your understanding of what you may have learned in school, where textbooks are watered-down, homogenized committee efforts and subject to political bias.
Many of these authors are prolific and have written more than one book amplifying their thoughts. If one turns you on to a topic, you may want to go on and read others they’ve written. I’ll be filling in my take on each book later, but for now you can read the Amazon description to get an idea.
Jane Jacobs is one of those amazing outsiders who can take a collection of clippings from the newspaper, historical texts, and conversations with friends, and identify patterns no one else has so clearly seen. Here she has pointed out an entire field for future study — the social evolution of meme-complexes, patterns of self-reinforcing beliefs that have evolved over time in human populations. One can quibble about the undisciplined frame for the arguments, but it does make the book an easy read (and no doubt was much easier to write than a more formal treatment would have been). I certainly recognized myself and my friends (and political opponents) in her syndromes, and have found the insight they provide invaluable in working with people who are “syndrome-inflexible” (cannot swing from one syndrome to the other as appropriate) — especially on local development issues, where the clash of the syndromes is exceptionally obvious.
A great tour through physics and information science, culminating in a grievous error: Penrose thinks free will lurks in quantum effects in neurons. His leap of faith is unjustified, but there is no better book for filling in the background needed to understand computation and cognition.
Early anarcho-capitalist bible. While many of his ideas would be ineffective or politically impossible, he questions assumptions that need to be questioned, and a reader will gain a valuable perspective on issues of governance and regulation.
Seminal work on the elaboration of the Golden Rule into the just minimalist government.