Five books for a high-school dropout?

Here’s an interesting question a friend of mine posted to Facebook:

If you could only choose five books to give to a high school drop-out to get them through the rest of their life, what books would they be and why?

Two assumptions:
1) The person is competent enough to absorb the information.

2) The person won’t go on to get their GED or attend college. They’ll only have the information in these books on which to go.

Here are my answers:

1) The Bible, New Revised Standard Version: Actually reading the Bible might inoculate them against religious leaders who announce “the government should do X because it’s in the Bible.” And the NRSV is probably the most accurate translation into English.

2) Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works: best book on the mind ever written. For serious.

3) Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World: Not very in-depth, but still good for teaching basic skepticism.

4) Any good collection of George Orwell’s essays: His novels are great, but unless you can see the real-world applications on your own, you’re probably better off with his non-fiction where he can explain it himself.

5) A good book on math. Not sure which one, though

Runner-up: some kind of good book on practical applications of psychology, probably Richard Wiseman’s 59 Seconds. But I wouldn’t rank it higher priority than these five. Except maybe the math book, if there isn’t a sufficiently good math book out there to put on the list. I kind of cheated by saying “a good book on math,” even though I haven’t read any book of the sort I have in mind, I’m just assuming one is out there.

What are your answers?

  • ischemgeek

    For good books on math: My enriched calc prof gave me the third edition of A Friendly Introduction to Number Theory by Silverman in first year for winning a class integration competition (long story there). It’s got a very fun, chatty style that I enjoy immensely so it’s fun to read.

    Some of the concepts might go over a high school dropout’s head a bit on the first read-through, but what I like is that the author doesn’t concern himself too much with abstract concepts, but rather more with getting you to learn the thought process of mathematical thinking with progressively harder problems that themselves teach you the abstract concepts and proofs of number theory. So, really if you know some algebra and arithmetic and are willing to do every problem Silvermen poses, you know enough to “get” this book. In so doing, the book teaches you a lot more about the core thought process of math than any book I’ve read before or since. The author is chatty-but-consice, accurate, and frank with the reader.

    Reading through the book felt very unlike reading a textbook, though I can’t really compare it to anything else, except maybe a “do it yourself” guide. It had an attitude of “Figure it out yourself! You can do it, and when you have, you’ll have a better understanding than if I just told you, plus it’ll be a lot more fun and less dry.” More importantly than teaching just the number theory, Silverman teaches the thought process of math, which is something that most people are expected to either pick up via osmosis in school or get by without.

    Really fun, informative book, and I’d strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in math.

    And I solemnly affirm that I have no affiliation with Silverman or his university. It’s just a really good book. :)

  • HP

    Not really a recommendation, but I’ve found that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is very popular with high-school dropouts.

    It took me years to get over that one, but, like the Bible, it might be a necessary first step.

  • wunelle

    Give a person a book and they’ll read to the end. But give them a library card…

  • Randomfactor

    But give them a library card…

    …and they’ll read, to the end.

  • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

    Annie Hill, Voyaging on a Small Income.

  • Ma’am

    Once the drop out has read and understands the writings of Pinker, Sagan and Orwell, they would have no need — or interest — in the Bible.

  • Annatar

    The Bible would be necessary in order to have any kind of understanding of western literature, and Shakespeare would be a close second.

    The Bible–to understand western literature

    A good math book–to understand some math (duh)

    For teaching skepticism, maybe Demon-Haunted World, but Letters to a Young Contrarian (Hitchens), or Believing Bullshit (Stephen Law) might also do well.

    Either “Why Evolution is True” or “The Greatest Show on Earth.”–to give an account of “who am i?” or “where did I come from?”

    The Myth of Sisyphus (Camus)–to give a more “humanist” account of “who am i?” Also to tell you that “life is struggling, and that’s OK.”

  • machintelligence

    I would recommend Dan Dennett’s “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” with the caveat that it isn’t necessary to read it cover to cover.

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  • hotshoe

    Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” … the scientific consensus of everything from the big bang to evolution of Homo sapiens, infused with Bill’s keen delight in being able to explain it to the “average person”. It’s not in depth about any subject (how could it be) but it does hit all the important concepts and facts you would want a citizen to have as part of their basic education.


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