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Short Books That Changed The World

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by Linda Hirshman
The minute I pressed the send button on my plea for a little more discipline in the writing trades, I knew someone would come up with a list of indispensable doorstop books. But now that the topic is on the table, I am delighted that others are willing to warn us away from authorial excess, even in otherwise excellent choices. In support of the readers' liberation movement, here's my list of books that did their work without reader abuse:

Plato's Republic, 408 pp.;

Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, 400 pp.;

Hobbes' Leviathan: With Selected Variants from the Latin Edition of 1668, 584 pp.;

Locke, Two Treatises of Government And a Letter Concerning Toleration, 180 pp.;

all of Rousseau's political writings, 249 pp.;

Utilitarianism, On Liberty, and Essay on Bentham: Together With Selected Writings of Jeremy Bentham and John Austin by Jeremy Bentham, J.S. Mill, John Austin, Mary Warnock, 352 pp.

Jacob mentions John Rawls' Theory of Justice. Even in the history arena, I am pleased to note that Jacob had to fudge my example--a three pound, 700 page text plus 150 pages of notes and stuff--to make his list (Creation of the American Republic, 675 pp., Machiavellian Moment, 648 pp.). It is true that most people would go to the grave without finishing the five volumes of Aquinas' Summa Theologica or all of Kapital.

And so, I am all for essays that make specialized literature available; bringing important developments in particular disciplines to a more general public would be a great service in the creation of a civic community, and, of course, everybody can't read everything. That's why Douthat's criticism is so transparently foolish. Maybe the essays could carry a legend, though--say, "Read what I say, not what I read"?

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