Discover our expert guide with books for intellectuals that will prompt you to ponder important questions and start looking for deeper meaning in your life.
Searching for the meaning of life? Questioning your religion and how the world got its start? Curious about how others manage the many moral dilemmas we find ourselves in throughout our lives? The best books for intellectuals listed here will introduce new ideas, help you think about tough questions, and show you new ways of thinking. Be warned: these are not light reads; you’ll want to set aside some time to read and reflect. If you’re interested in this topic, you’ll also love our round-up of the best books for twenty somethings.
- Best Books For Intellectuals
- 1. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
- 2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- 3. The Art of War by Sun Tzu
- 4. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
- 5. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
- 6. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
- 7. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
- 8. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
- 9. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
- 10. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
- 11. Trust by Hernan Diaz
- 12. Cosmos by Carl Sagan
- 13. 1984 by George Orwell
- 14. The Stranger by Albert Camus
- 15. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
- 16. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- 17. Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant
- 18. The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts
- 19. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
- 20. The Opium of the Intellectuals by Raymond Aron
- 21. Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
- 22. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
- 23. Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
- 24. Socrates: A Man for Our Times by Paul Johnson
- 25. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
Best Books For Intellectuals
1. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
A Short History of Nearly Everything follows author Bill Bryson’s quest to find the answers to life’s hardest questions, from how the universe started to how humans managed to form functioning civilizations. In addition to digging into the research independently, Bryson also worked with mathematicians, anthropologists, archeologists, and other experts to help shape his answers to seemingly unanswerable queries. Bryson is praised by many for his ability to write about complex topics with extreme clarity while also keeping readers entertained and excited for more.
“If this book has a lesson, it is that we are awfully lucky to be here-and by ‘we’ I mean every living thing. To attain any kind of life in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans we are doubly lucky, of course: We enjoy not only the privilege of existence but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better. It is a talent we have only barely begun to grasp.”Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything
2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Known for her timeless novels, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice forces readers to consider tough topics, including human nature, character, and whether people can change. Set in the English countryside, Pride and Prejudice follows the five Bennet sisters as they search for love and meaning. Fans of the novel find themselves especially invested in the journey of Elizabeth and her suitor, Mr. Darcy, as they work their way through a will-they-or-won’t-they storyline. Spoiler alert: the unlikely pair eventually find their way to one another and realize their sometimes clashing personalities are a perfect match.
“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! – When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.”Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
3. The Art of War by Sun Tzu
The Art of War details the inner workings of the Chinese military in the 5th century B.C. Tzu’s teachings on leadership, discipline, and a winning mindset remain true today. The author’s philosophies were controversial initially, as Tzu moved away from the spiritual aspect of war that was accepted at the time in favor of a more tactical approach. Tzu also emphasized that war should be an absolute last resort and discussed the benefits of using diplomacy to avoid violence whenever possible.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”Sun Tzu, The Art of War
4. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
Thinking, Fast and Slow asks readers to consider the two ways we think. Kahneman states that the brain functions with two different cognitive systems. System 1 is fast and emotional, relying on intuition to make decisions. System 2 functions more logically, taking its time to think through options. The author uses real-world examples to explain when it makes sense to rely on System 1 – and when we need to slow down and utilize System 2.
“A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact.”Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow
5. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
War and Peace blends real events and a fictional story to take readers on a journey through the era of Napoleon Bonaparte. Set in Russia, War and Peace transports readers to the French invasion while following the journeys of five elite families. Considered Tolstoy’s highest literary accomplishment, the author was hesitant to classify War and Peace as a novel, as he famously stated the work was “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle.” While the work includes more than 500 characters, less than half existed in reality, allowing Tolstoy to expertly blend fact and fiction.
“We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
6. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
From black holes to quarks to quantum mechanics, Stephen Hawking takes readers on an unforgettable journey in A Brief History of Time. The bestseller has sold more than 25 million copies to date. Before publication, Hawking’s book had countless equations, and his publisher warned him that such complicated math would cut his readership. Hawking kept his explanations but ditched the equations, resulting in a more readable way to get answers to big questions.
“Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?”Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
7. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Atlas Shrugged is a dystopian novel set in the United States, where author Ayn Rand ventures into a mishmash of genres, including romance, mystery, and science fiction. The book follows female executive Dagny Taggart and steel tycoon Hank Rearden as they fight against looters working to benefit from their work. Workers begin to collectively strike in a stand against heavy government regulations–a concept developed by Rand when she pondered what would happen if the creatives of the world went on strike.
“Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swamps of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won. It exists.. it is real.. it is possible.. it’s yours.”Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
8. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The Catcher in the Rye is a coming-of-age novel that follows the story of protagonist Holden Caulfield. While the book was originally intended for an adult audience, it has become a generation-spanning symbol of teenage angst. It can take some time to get used to the first-person point of view narration, but readers quickly pick up on Salinger’s unique style, as it provides unmatched insight into the character’s personality.
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
9. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Dostoevsky’s sophomore novel, Crime and Punishment, follows Rodion Raskolnikov, a poor law school dropout in Saint Petersburg. Using logic gymnastics, Raskolnikov decides that he has the right to murder an elderly pawnbroker and ends up murdering her half-sister as well. Struggling under his conscience, Raskolnikov eventually turns himself in and is sentenced to nearly a decade of hard labor. Over years of suffering through his sentence in Siberia, he realizes he’s worthy of love and happiness.
“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.”Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
10. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide since it first hit the market in 1936. The book’s basic principles, being genuine in your communications with others, sincerely working to make others feel important, and working to stay positive in all interactions, have held up over the years. Known as one of the first books in the self-help genre, many self-improvement and self-help authors today borrow principles from Carnegie to set the stage for their strategies.
“It isn’t what you have or who you are or where you are or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about it.”Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends & Influence People
11. Trust by Hernan Diaz
Winner of the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Trust starts in the 1920s in New York City and follows Benjamin and Helen Rask as they flaunt their way through a highly wealthy lifestyle. In 1937, the novel, Bonds, was released and focused on unraveling exactly how the Rask family acquired their seemingly impossible wealth. Diaz perfectly melds historical fiction, mystery, and a story-within-a-story to keep readers on their toes, constantly working to separate the truth from lies.
“Each time we find a way to minimize our effort and increase our gain we are making a business deal, even if it is with ourselves. These negotiations are so ingrained in our routine that they are barely noticeable. But the truth is our existence revolves around profit.”Hernan Diaz, Trust
12. Cosmos by Carl Sagan
Cosmos was published by astronomer Carl Sagan in conjunction with his CBS miniseries Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Throughout the 13-chapter novel, Sagan delves into topics including the inner workings of DNA, the potential implications of nuclear war, and the nature of the universe. One of Sagan’s goals in writing Cosmos was to help anyone interested in space and other complex scientific topics further their understanding. The book’s conversational tone, easygoing style, and presentation of issues that previously seemed out of reach to many helped the book spend more than a year on the New York Times bestseller list.
“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”Carl Sagan, Cosmos
13. 1984 by George Orwell
If you haven’t picked up 1984 as required reading at some point in your education, the 1949 George Orwell novel is worth reading. The novel follows Winston Smith as he moves through a futuristic world led by Big Brother, a leader created by the Thought Police and a dictatorship that rules Airstrip One, formerly Great Britain. Orwell’s 1984 World has characteristics of both Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Nazi Germany and serves as a cautionary tale of what can happen when power runs unchecked.
“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”George Orwell, 1984
14. The Stranger by Albert Camus
The Stranger is a 1942 novella set in French Algeria. Meursault, the novella’s protagonist, is a settler grieving his mother’s loss. There are two parts of the story, one before Meursault murders a man and one after. The protagonist’s lack of attachment to the world lends itself to the author’s goal of explaining the theory of Absurdism; the idea that the only meaning in life is that which we create for ourselves.
“Mother used to say that however miserable one is, there’s always something to be thankful for. And each morning, when the sky brightened and light began to flood my cell, I agreed with her.”Albert Camus, The Stranger
15. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
For good reason, Brave New World is often compared to Orwell’s 1984. In Huxley’s 1932 dystopian novel, citizens are organized into a hierarchy based on intelligence. Huxley’s predictions for the future include classical conditioning, sleep-learning, and more. Based in 2540 A.D. in London, the characters appear to happily benefit from society’s advancements, but a more sinister truth lies just below the surface. The book digs into the idea that when everything is readily available, achievement loses its meaning.
“Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
16. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Fahrenheit 451 is set in a dystopian United States, where all books have been banned–and government officials known as “firemen” burn any books that turn up post-ban. Fahrenheit follows fireman Guy Montag, who begins to question whether he should remain loyal to the government or stay true to what he believes is right. The heralded novel touches on themes of censorship, identity, ignorance, and individualism.
“Stuff your eyes with wonder, he said, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
17. Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant
The Critique of Pure Reason is not exactly light reading. German philosopher Immanuel Kant digs into the limits of metaphysics, transcendental idealism, and the rejection of empiricism. Throughout the critique, Kant works to prove German metaphysics philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz wrong in his idea that the human mind can find the truth about morality, religion, and freedom through thought alone. In his work, Kant argued that the human mind cannot find truth through reason and must have concrete proof to arrive at a legitimate conclusion.
“All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.”Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason
18. The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts
In The Wisdom of Insecurity, author and philosopher Alan Watts helps readers realize that insecurity, anxiety, and questioning the meaning of life are parts of the human condition. Watts discusses how changes in society, including less reliance on religion, can lead to uncertainty, which naturally leads to insecurity. According to the author, many people in modern society have worked to overcome this feeling with consumerism, addiction, and other destructive methods of creating a temporary sense of well-being. However, all hope is not lost. Watts explains how embracing the idea that both pain and happiness come with each major life event can help people beat their insecurity in an increasingly uncertain world.
“Tomorrow and plans for tomorrow can have no significance at all unless you are in full contact with the reality of the present, since it is in the present and only in the present that you live. There is no other reality than present reality, so that, even if one were to live for endless ages, to live for the future would be to miss the point everlastingly.”Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity
19. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Considered one of the greatest literature of all time, Great Expectations follows the story of Pip, a child who has worked to adulthood as a blacksmith’s apprentice. Suddenly, he comes into great wealth due to a gift from an anonymous benefactor. As Pip works his way into affluent circles in London, he works to discover who provided him with his fortune–and is surprised when he finds out his good fortune was from a man he helped years prior. Readers watch Pip learn, grow, and fall in love as he learns tough lessons.
“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried, than before–more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.”Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
20. The Opium of the Intellectuals by Raymond Aron
Karl Marx once referred to religion as the opium of the people, and in 1955, Raymond Aron played on Kant’s statement with his novel The Opium of the Intellectuals. Aron believed that Marxism allowed people to become deeply critical of certain types of society, such as capitalistic societies while dismissing crimes and issues that plague societies that subscribe to more acceptable ideologies. The book’s critique of anti-American countries allowed Aron to make strong contacts with the United States following the book’s publication.
“Are revolutions worthy of so much honour? The men who conceive them are not those who carry them out. Those who begin them rarely live to see their end, except in exile or in prison. Can they really be the symbol of a humanity which is the master of its own destiny if no man recognises his handiwork in the achievement which results from the savage free-for-all struggle?”Raymond Aron, Opium of the Intellectuals
21. Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
Moonwalking with Einstein follows Joshua Foer’s journey to learn from “mental athletes” to boost his memory as he trains for the USA Memory Championship. Foer combines the latest scientific research, the importance of memory in a cultural context, and the tips and tricks of memory masters to help their brains achieve superior feats. Readers love Foer’s ability to provide in-depth science with a light tone, providing tips and tricks that anyone can use to make their way out of the “Ok Plateau,” his term for mediocre memory performance, and move toward success.
“Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches.”Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein
22. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
From classism to the dark side of ambition to war, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar takes readers and theater audiences on the journey of the emperor’s slow fall from power, and his eventual murder. As Caesar’s power over Rome grows, so does his ambition for more. His colleagues, including his best friend, Brutus, become concerned over the level of power he’s gained and develop a plot to kill him. At the end of the play, readers and viewers are left wondering exactly how much power is too much of a good thing.
“Men at some time are masters of their fates. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
23. Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
It’s common knowledge that the human species has evolved. Sapiens looks at the past and present to understand where humans are biologically headed in the future. Harari offers a wide view of humanity, presenting the world’s first humans as insignificant animals who created modern society through a series of revolutions. One of Harari’s most fascinating themes in Sapiens is the Cognitive Revolution, a period that began 70,000 years ago, in which humans began to develop art, economies, social classes, and religion.
“History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.”Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens
24. Socrates: A Man for Our Times by Paul Johnson
Socrates: A Man for Our Times is a delightful deep dive into Ancient Greece and the life of Socrates, as well as other thinkers in his circle. In addition to learning more about how Socrates thought, Johnson provides an interesting look at the lesser-known aspects of his personality. The book looks at the philosopher’s belief that appetites and problems are mortal issues associated with the body, leaving only the soul behind after death. Socrates believed that living a virtuous life could lead one to a virtuous afterlife, and Johnson does a fantastic job showing readers how Socrates thought and how he lived according to his principles.
“In knowledge of death, we have not advanced one centimeter in all that time. Our perception of life to come, if there is any, is no more vivid. If anything, cloudier. But thanks to Socrates – and to Plato for recording him – we have at least learned, if we choose, to approach death and an unknown future with decorum, courage, and honor.”Paul Johnson, Socrates: A Man for Our Times
25. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
Outliers delve into how some people (wildly successful tech moguls, professional athletes, acclaimed musicians) manage to get to the top of their field and the intentional and unintentional factors that play a role in their success. Gladwell discusses the idea of “accumulate advantage,” meaning that people tend to get more of what they already have, whether it’s success or failure. The idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in a field, often referred to as the 10,000-hour rule, is discussed in the book. Readers finish Outliers understanding that while genius and other inherent factors can aid in a person’s success, there are also actionable factors that can contribute to the development of great talent.
“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers
Looking for more? Check out our round-up of the best books on psychology for beginners!