Tom Edsall, preparing to start teaching at Columbia Journalism School, asks what his students need to read. Concretely, if you knew someone whose career choice involved covering American politics as a journalist, what ten books, and what ten shorter documents, would you recommend that he or she read? I invite your suggestions; I start off below with some of mine.
I’ve excluded documents requiring close reading or a specialist teacher; I’ve been told that Aristotle’s Rhetoric is the best book ever written on the practice of political argument, but my attempt to read it on my own only left me puzzled. The Confucian Doctrine of the Mean, the Platonic dialogues, the Tao-te Ching, and the Pirke Avot, to the value of which I can testify personally, all have something of the same character. (Arguably, the same is true of The Prince, but even though I think there’s a deeper meaning that a naive reader is almost certain to miss, there’s plenty of intellectual nourishment on its surface, and it’s mercifully short.)
I have omitted very long documents, on the grounds that they mostly won’t be read even if assigned. That left out Democracy in America and Macaulay’s History of England, among others. I’ve also given preference to documents that are especially well-written.
So here’s my partial list. Note that I have fewer books and more shorter documents than requested.
Machiavelli, The Prince
Neustadt, Presidential Power
Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action
Shakespeare, Henry V (Students might require some guidance to see the hero/anti-hero’s psychopathy, but it fairly jumps out at you once you start looking for it. They’ll meet many Henries among our political class and among the captains of industry. [The Laurence Olivier film is faithful to the poet; Kenneth Branagh’s is not.])
And, speaking of film, I’d also have my students see Wag the Dog and read first a collection of articles about Jessica Lynch written around the time of her capture and then some follow-up pieces written a year or two later.
There’s a book’s worth of Orwell that belongs on the “must-read” list, but it’s not all in one book. I’d pick “Politics and the English Language,” “Notes on Nationalism,” “Wells, Hitler, and the World State,” and the “Principles of Newspeak” from Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The same is true of Tom Schelling. My nominees would be the “Essay on Bargaining,” “On the Ecology of Micromotives,” and “Economic Reasoning and the Ethics of Policy.”
Iliad, Book I. (If I were teaching a course on political journalism, I’d be tempted to assign it as the first reading, and require each student to write a news story based on it, for either an Achaean daily newspaper on an Achaean newsmagazine: “Hellenic hopes of bringing the Trojan adventure to a quick and successful conclusion took a heavy blow yesterday, as …”)
Federalist #10 and #51, and Frankfurter’s opinion in the first flag-salute case.
Baumol’s “Macroeconomics of Unbalanced Growth”
Keynes’s “Economic Prospects for our Grandchildren”
“On the Value of Skepticism”
Popper’s “Toward a Rational Theory of Tradition” from Conjectures and Refutations
(And, since it pays to advertise, I can’t resist adding Kleiman and Teles on “Market and Non-Market Failures,” from the new Oxford Handbook of Public Policy. I’m told I shouldn’t post the essay, but send me an email if you’d like a copy.)