Reverse-engineering one of the greatest minds of all time by his information diet.
“Success,” concluded this 1942 anatomy of inspiration, “depends on sufficient knowledge of the special subject, and a variety of extraneous knowledge to produce new and original combinations of ideas.” Few are the heroes of modern history more “successful” and inspired than the great Carl Sagan, and his 1954 reading list, part of his papers recently acquired by the Library of Congress, speaks to precisely this blend of wide-angle, cross-disciplinary curiosity and focused, in-field expertise — and is balanced with a healthy approach to reading and “non-reading”, with some books read “in whole” and others “in part.” (Sagan, as we know, was an avid advocate of books.)
Besides books immediately relevant to Sagan’s work as a scientist and educator in cosmology and astrophysics, he took great care to also touch on history, philosophy, religion, the arts, social science, and psychology. A small but revealing sample, fodder for your own cognitive bookshelf:
- Extraordinary Popular Delusions (public library; public domain) by Charles Mackay
- The Uses of the Past: Profiles of Former Societies (public library) by Herbert Joseph Muller
- The Immoralist (public library) by André Gide
- Education for Freedom (public library) by Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chapter One: “The Autobiography of an Uneducated Man”)
- Young Archimedes and Other Stories (public library) by Aldous Huxley
- Timaeus (public library; public domain) by Plato
- Who Speaks for Man? (public library) by Norman Cousins
- The Republic (public library; public domain) by Plato
- The History of Western Philosophy (public library) by W. T. Jones
- But We Were Born Free (public library) by Elmer Holmes Davis
Wash down with Alan Turing’s reading list.