Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Which Books to Take to Africa?

Tyler Cowen passes along an interesting question:
Niall writes me:
I have an optimization problem that I thought you and other loyal MR readers, like myself, could help me with.

The Question: How should I go about selecting books to bring with me for a year of field research in rural Africa?

1. I have a limited amount of weight I can carry on the flight
2. There is little or no access to additional books where I will be
3. I only expect to return to the US once during that year

Thanks for continuing the to make MR the most educational blog on the web.
Sadly I do not know this fine gentleman. But I'll suggest the following five books: Moby Dick, The Bible (but it must be a serious translation), Plato's Dialogues, Homer's Odyssey, and a long, fun book of science fiction or fantasy that you haven't already read. LOTR would be a fine first choice if it fits that bill, otherwise ask around. The basic principles are that the works should be long, deep, divisible into smaller parts, capable of sustaining rereadings, culturally central in some way, and last of all you need one piece of pure fun. Readers, can you improve upon these tips?

I'll add that if you read some language other than English, and thus read more slowly in that language, pick a book or two there as well.
Below are the comments I left on Cowen's post:
Assuming he is away from electricity (if he has electrical access, a loaded eBook reader is a great idea), I'd agree with Tyler's recommendation for a Bible, Moby Dick, and something fun like Lord of the Rings for light reading. I'm ashamed to say I've never read either Plato's Dialogues or Homer's Odyssey, so I can't comment on either of them. As one who loves both reading and traveling, I can appreciate the dilemma this guy is facing.

Here are a few books that would probably make my shortlist (#1 and #2 definitely would):

1) A Bible. Two translations that are excellent are the New American Standard (NASB) and English Standard Version (ESV). A reference Bible is a great idea as it has cross-references and a concordance that would allow it to be used for in-depth studies and keep you occupied for months. Zondervan publishes a small NASB compact reference Bible that has very legible text and is smaller than many paperback books. It is a perfect Bible for travel.

2) The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. Reading this book while being in Africa could really get his mind going with questions and ideas for the contrast in economic conditions between where he is coming from and where he is going. (I didn't "discover" economics until later in life and after traveling to many developing countries. It changed the way I saw the world.)

3) Tom Jones by Henry Fielding.

4) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

A few other ideas would include:

1) Bring a copy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style to work on his writing skills while there. It's extremely small and a classic for learning how to write better. It would also compliment journaling on the trip (something that would be a shame not to do on a trip like that).

2) Buy a book in a foreign language that he doesn't speak and a small, pocket-sized language dictionary. Have fun working his way through the book and learning how to read the language. (One of the commenters mentioned Don Quixote.)

3) Oxford Press has started publishing a series a books called A Very Short Introduction on a broad array of topics. Each book is smaller than Strunk and White's The Elements of Style and very travel friendly. If he's interested in any particular area, it's a great way to get an introduction to the topic.

4) Someone mentioned bringing some type of math book to work through. As a former math teacher, I love the idea. A good mathematics book that covers a broad array of topic and is not terribly heavy is Mathematics: Its Content, Methods and Meaning by Aleksandrov, et. al. by Dover Publications. It is much ligther than most textbooks and believe it has some problems to solve (though not that many). The breadth of topics it covers is astounding. (A reviewer on Amazon equates it to an entire undgrad mathematics curriculum.) This was originally published as a three volume set and all three are now published as one paperback book. Another similar, complimentary idea would be to bring some type of physics book and work through the problems.

Just a few thoughts. It's an intriguing optimization problem and is making me think about my own collection and the need to read more fiction, classics, and philosophy. Also, about the need to escape from things for a few days and find a nice, quiet spot with a stack of good books.
Follow the link to the original post to see what other readers suggested.


C# said...

I'm partial with ESV, too. And my study Bible is NASB. however, for personal devotions.. i like NLT. specially the OT part.

Lewis said...

I use the Reformation Study Bible (ESV) but am considering buying the John MacArthur Study Bible (NASB).

The NKJV is difficult to read; It has the awkward phrasing of the NASB without the beauty of the KJV.

thinking said...

I would humbly suggest that Thoreau's Walden might be a good book to carry.