10 of the Most Commonly Misused Words in the English Language

There are certain words that trip up even the most erudite among us. Some of them sound just like another word that means a completely different thing, others are so close to another word that we (wrongly)  substitute one for the other, and still others are words we think we know the meaning of (but actually don’t).  Here’s a quick look at 10 of the most commonly misused, abused, and confused words in the English language, excerpted from our new book That Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means, along with actual examples of how not to use them from leading newspapers, web sites, and more.

1. bemused/amused

“Mr. Obama maintained a placid and at times bemused demeanor . . . as he parried the attacks.”
—New York Times

Even the New York Times with its professional copy editors does it (and Times editors cop to it themselves; the above example was included in their After Deadline blog)—using bemused as a presumably erudite way of saying “amused.” This bemuses us, because bemused does not mean “amused;” it means “to find something confusing or perplexing.”

But people who should know better keep using bemused as amused. When we did a quick Google search of news articles with bemused in their headlines, we found only one correct usage of it on the first page of results. Sigh. As Queen Victoria might say, we are not amused.

(Note: Merriam-Webster’s does define bemused as “to cause to have feelings of wry or tolerant amusement.” But it is one of the only major dictionaries to do so and lists this meaning third.)


2. cliché/clichéd 

“Changing rooms are so cliché: Courtney Stodden’s pal strips in middle of shop.”
—Headline, Daily Star [UK]

This headline is wrong, and not because reality show celeb Courtney Stodden’s pal stripped down to black underwear in the middle of the shop—which, incidentally, was probably not a good idea. We agree with the thought behind the headline, just not the choice of words.

See, cliché is a noun, not an adjective. It is a thing, not a descriptor. Saying “the changing rooms are so cliché” is like saying “the changing rooms are so platitude,” or “the changing rooms are very overused phrase,” because that’s what cliché means.
The headline should have said changing rooms are so clichéd, an adjective describing the noun phrase “changing room.”


3. discreet/discrete

“Fashion designers offer discrete ways for women to carry firearms.”
—Chattanooga [TN] Times Free Press

We would like to discreetly point out that there are discrete meanings for discreet and discrete. They are not the same word with a slightly different spelling. Discreet means “capable of keeping secrets or unobtrusive” while discrete means “separate or distinct.” Both are offspring of the same Latin word, discrētus (separate, distinct, like the current discrete), but they evolved to become very distinct words.

But many people nowadays don’t seem to know the difference, thinking that discrete is just another way of spelling discreet. This leads to usages that conjure up fascinating images like this one from a bridal site: “The bodice with a mermaid neckline blends into the back through a discrete short sleeve on the shoulder.” On the plus side, we haven’t seen any reference to the classic film The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Yet.


4. grisly/grizzly

“I see the intrigue, the back-stabbing, and the grizzly horror of a good old right-wing food fight.”
—Huffington Post

Stop! We can’t, er, bear it! Not the concept of a food fight, but that grizzly. Unless there was something ursine going on, the word should be grisly.  This is a case of what we call homophonic horror. Because the two words sound alike, they are confused with one another even though they are spelled differently and mean entirely different things.

Something grisly causes horror or terror, while grizzly means “gray or grayish.” Nowadays, you typically don’t see grizzly used unless referring to the North American bear which was named in 1807 by a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition. A grizzly can cause horror or terror, but isn’t grisly itself.

Yet grizzly for grisly pops up quite often. So we read of grizzly crime scenes (involving no bears) or, our favorite, grizzly zombies, which we were sorry to read were not zombified bears at all, but your run-of-the-mill human zombie.


5. penultimate/ultimate

“[Producer Steven Spielberg was] determined to find an actor from across the pond to play the penultimate American president.”
—Huffington Post story about a planned film biopic about Abraham Lincoln

We don’t think HuffPo meant to say Lincoln was the second to last American president in history, but that’s just what they said . . . because penultimate means “second to last.” But to many of us, penultimate sounds like it’s the ultimate in ultimateness. People often get it wrong, especially when they’re trying hard to sound erudite, since penultimate isn’t one of those run-of-the-mill words one typically slips into conversation. So we get glaring errors like this in a program for the San Francisco Symphony: “All the otherworldly ability that Mozart possessed was brought to bear in the Jupiter Symphony, the final—and perhaps penultimate—symphony he produced.” (Perhaps the symphony knows something quantum mechanical about Mozart that we don’t know . . .)

(If you really want to irritate people, there’s this ultimate “ultimate” word: preantepenultimate, which means the fifth from the last. Linguists indubitably use this word to indicate words that are stressed on the fifth from the last syllable—such as, well, indubitably.)


6. prodigal

“President Obama in Kenya: Prodigal son returns—but can he bring much needed change to his father’s homeland?”
—The Independent

Taking the preferred definition of prodigal, this headline can be rewritten as “President Obama in Kenya: Recklessly wasteful spendthrift son returns.” Although we imagine a certain subset of the electorate would enthusiastically agree, we doubt the headline writer meant this.

For many of us, prodigal means “wandering,” not the correct “wasteful.” The problem is that most of us know the word from the New Testament parable of the Prodigal Son about the youngest of two sons “who set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living” (Luke 15:13). For some reason, the going to distant parts took hold, the wild living didn’t. But today prodigal meaning wandering has become so often used it’s almost acceptable, although most dictionaries still frown on it.  They don’t frown, however, on using prodigal a bit more in a positive sense, meaning “lavish, luxuriant” as of a mouth-watering peach pie, prodigal with whipped cream that melts into the warm fruit. And neither do we. Now let’s eat.


7. restive/restful

“Here in Siouxland it might be a restive day at the fishin’ hole or a contemplative walk at Bacon Creek.”
—Sioux City [SD] Journal

A restive day at the fishing hole means a strange day of fishing—fidgeting and maybe even straining at restraints, chains, ropes, or controls imposed by outside authorities— more of a BDSM day and not exactly our idea of a peaceful fun time in Siouxland. The writer presumably meant a “restful” day at the fishin’ hole.

Restive looks restful, but it isn’t by a long shot. In fact, you might say that restive means almost the exact opposite of restful, even though it doesn’t look that way. Restive comes from the Latin verb restare,(to remain), and means “difficult to control, nervous, restless,” often with the idea of being externally restrained. Restless, a similar word, means “restive without any external restraint,” but nowadays both words are relatively synonymous. Still, it’s best to try and maintain the helpful distinction between the two. For example, if you say you had a restive night sleeping with your partner, your friendly neighborhood grammarian might think certain things about your bedtime practices you’d rather not broadcast . . .


8. simplistic/simple

“IKEA has many items that are bargains. Not only does it offer affordable and simplistic solutions to home décor and furnishings . . .”
—Living Green and Frugally website

Here’s a simple but not simplistic rule of thumb: simple = good, simplistic = bad. Well, okay, it’s really not as simple as that, but almost.

Simplistic means “characterized by a great deal of simplicity”—which sounds good, but it almost always means too much simplicity, as in an overly simple solution to a complex problem. The writer of the example above was not trying to disparage IKEA home furnishings, but to say they give easy and simple solutions to home decor.

One word of warning: Never modify simplistic with “overly” or similar words. Since simplistic already means overly simple, saying something is “overly simplistic” means something is “overly overly simple” and that is a clear tautology. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s not all over the place, such as this recent utterance by Apple CEO Tim Cook: “That is overly simplistic, and it is not true.”


9. tough road to hoe/tough row to hoe

“The Senator—who’s retiring this year—admits it’s a tough road to hoe for any conservative to get love from members of the Academy.”

Ask yourself: Can a road ever be easy to hoe? Why bother saying a specific road is metaphorically tough to hoe if all roads are and no one ever did or does hoe them?

To make sense, the phrase obviously should be a tough row to hoe, which is the original idiom that comes, naturally enough, from farming. In a cornfield, there are many rows, and some can be much harder to hoe than others. Ask any farmer.

The problem with idioms is that we really don’t think about the meaning of the individual words. Because roads are more common than rows in today’s urbanized world, people commonly (and wrongly) replace row with road. (This kind of substitution is called an “eggcorn,” for “acorn,” and we meet it all time in phrases like “dull as dishwater” with “dishwater” substituting for “ditchwater.”)


10. wet your appetite/whet your appetite

“[T]o wet their appetite the singer-songwriter released the visuals for his single ‘Animal’ which not only leaves little to the imagination, but you may lose your virginity for a second time after watching it.”


If you talk about wetting your appetite, you’re, um, whrong. You can dampen your appetite or wet your whistle, but those are other things entirely. The word should be whet not wet.

Whet means “to sharpen” and always has, dating back to its first appearance back in 897. When you whet your appetite, you are sharpening it, stimulating your desire for something—a very different thing from wetting it.

But over time, “wet your appetite” has became more and more common. This could be because it is similar to the older phrase “wet your whistle,” to wet your throat, i.e., take a drink. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s okay, though. Use whet . . . unless you want to drive us to drink.

Illustrations © Nathan Gelgud


By Ross Petras and Kathryn Petras, September 5, 2018, first appearing on Signature Reads

Editor’s Note:

Ross Petras and Kathryn Petras, a brother and sister writing team, are the authors of many non-fiction books including the New York Times bestseller You’re Saying It WrongThat Doesn’t Mean What You Think It MeansVery Bad Poetry, and Wretched Writing.

A program series for all us

The story of our ancestors, our country and us.

Becoming American Slide

No registrations is required to attend any of the programs in this Quad Cities-wide film and discussion program series.

Becoming American: A Documentary Film and Discussion Series on Our Immigration Experience is a project of City Lore in collaboration with the Immigration and Ethnic History Society and the International Coalition of the Sites of Conscience.  The project has been made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: “Exploring the Human Endeavor.”


When I started graduate school, I was stunned by how much grad students were expected to read. I’ve always been a fast reader and a pro at carving time out of my schedule to squeeze in a few more pages, so heavy reading loads in undergrad hadn’t fazed me. But when I looked at my grad school syllabi and realized I had to get through at least three to five thick academic books per week, I panicked. How could I do that while also attending classes, writing lengthy papers, and still holding down two part time jobs to pay the rent? I didn’t know how to read faster while still absorbing the heavy theory involved in these academic texts.

Due to a serious case of imposter syndrome, I was terrified to admit that I didn’t think I could keep up with this much reading. Luckily, one of my classmates wasn’t so shy. On the first day of my Gender, Sexuality, and American Culture course, she boldly raised her hand after the professor walked us through the syllabus. “You’ve assigned us a lot of reading. Do you have any suggestions for how we can get through two books a week for this course alone?” I feared we were about to receive a lecture on commitment to academia and giving up sleeping and eating in order to expand our minds.

Instead, the professor was totally open to her question. “You’re all new to grad school,” he said. “I’m going to let you in on a little secret. None of your professors expect you to read every word of every book assigned. It’s nearly impossible to read that much!” I nodded enthusiastically, pleased that someone was finally getting real with us. “The key is to skim—and to skim in a calculated way.”

He proceeded to give us advice that truly saved my life in grad school. There’s no way I would have graduated (especially with a 3.9 GPA!) if it weren’t for this wisdom from Professor Heap. And because not every professor is as forthcoming with advice on skimming, I want to pay it forward. If you want to know how to read faster, please enjoy this former student’s guide to speed reading.

The Bookends Method

I like to think of this as the bookends method. The key is to focus on the beginning and the end of every component of the book. This method works best for nonfiction, particularly the kinds of academic texts you may be assigned in undergrad or grad school. However, I’ve also used it for fiction in some circumstances.

Read All of the First Chapter and Last Chapter

In academic texts, the introductory chapter and concluding chapter tend to be very useful for grasping overarching concepts. Authors will introduce what scholarship they’re building upon, what they’re contributing to the conversation, and why it’s important in the introduction. In the conclusion, they typically provide some kind of summary of what was discussed and any important closing points. Reading the first and last chapters closely will provide you with helpful context and high-level arguments. You don’t have to read the last chapter before the rest of the book. Just keep in mind that you shouldn’t skip out on it.

Read All of the First and Last Section of Each Chapter

In most academic texts, each chapter will represent a new concept or theme. Read all of the introduction and conclusion of each chapter to get an idea of what the author wants you to take away from that section. Even if you don’t catch every single piece of information presented in the chapter, you’ll still get a good idea of what concepts are being presented and how they relate to the overall argument the book is making.

Read All of the First and Last Paragraph of Each Section

If each chapter is broken down into sections, you can presume that each section presents a new concept important to the overall argument of the chapter. This makes it even easier to skim! Be sure to read the first and last paragraph of each section carefully for a high-level summary of the concept.

Read the First and Last Sentence of Each Paragraph

To make sure you’re staying on track with the information presented throughout the book, read every word of the first and last sentence of each paragraph. This will help you follow the direction of the conversation and avoid missing big shifts in subject matter or argument.

Skim the Rest

Here’s how this works in practice. You’ll read the introductory chapter closely. Then you’ll move on to the next chapter, where you’ll read the first section carefully. For the next section, you’ll read every word of the first paragraph. For the other paragraphs, you’ll read the first sentence, skim, and read the last sentence. Then you’ll read all of the last paragraph of that section. Repeat this process for each section until you get to the end of the chapter. Then read the concluding section carefully. This is how it will work for every chapter until you reach the end of the book, where you’ll read every word of the conclusion. If you come across anything that confuses you or seems important to your personal research interests, spend more time there and don’t skim.

If you’re more visual, I created this handy graphic to help you see remember these tips for how to read faster when it comes to academic texts.

By , September 

29 of the Best Philosophy Books of All-Time

The questions of the universe are seemingly never-ending and unanswerable. But luckily we have access to some of the greatest philosophical minds in history through their writing. This reading list of the best philosophy books of all time features works from the greats like Plato and Nietzsche as well as modern reads from inspiring thinkers like the Dalai Lama. Though nothing is absolute in philosophy, one thing is sure — these books will have you thinking long after the last page. Publishers’ descriptions included.

The Tried and True Classics

From Ancient Greek philosophers to 20th-century thought leaders, these best philosophy books of all time feature the must-read ancient and modern classics.

Beyond Good And Evil
by Friedrich Nietzsche

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Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil is a critical response to metaphysical writings that try to define good and evil. Nietzsche advocates for an individualized way of thinking that focuses on the realities of life and that ignores traditional moral conventions, including religion, free will, and self-consciousness.

Divided into nine subjects areas, Beyond Good and Evil was written in a polemical style consisting of 296 short sections. Published shortly after Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil expands on and adds to the ideas of that previous work.


Being and Nothingness
by Jean-Paul Sartre

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Revisit one of the most important pillars in modern philosophy with this new English translation — the first in more than 60 years — of Jean-Paul Sartre’s seminal treatise on existentialism.

In 1943, Jean-Paul Sartre published his masterpiece, Being and Nothingness, and laid the foundation of his legacy as one of the greatest 20th-century philosophers. A brilliant and radical account of the human condition, Being and Nothingness explores what gives our lives significance.

In a new, more accessible translation, this foundational text argues that we alone create our values and our existence is characterized by freedom and the inescapability of choice. Far from being an internal, passive container for our thoughts and experiences, the human consciousness is constantly projecting itself into the outside world and imbuing it with meaning.

Now with a new foreword by Harvard professor of philosophy Richard Moran, this clear-eyed translation guarantees that the groundbreaking ideas that Sartre introduced in this resonant work will continue to inspire for generations to come.


The Complete Essays of Michel de Montaigne
by Michel de Montaigne

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With the goal of describing man with complete frankness and using himself as his most frequent example, Michel de Montaigne first published his Essays in 1580.

This collection of 107 chapters encompasses a wide variety of subjects, originally inspired by his study of Latin classics, and later by the lives of the leading figures of his time. Michel de Montaigne saw the most basic elements of man as variety and unpredictability, and this idea permeates the entire work, even as he explores a myriad of topics, including theology, philosophy, law, fame, memory, death, and his own daily schedule.

The longest essay, entitled ‘Apology for Raymond Sebond,’ contains his most famous quote: “What do I know?” This perhaps embodies the spirit of the entire volume, for it reflects both the inquisitory search for intellectual knowledge as well as the more personal anecdotal quality of a work that has had an enduring impact on both French and English literature for hundreds of years. This edition includes the complete collection of Montaigne’s Essays.


The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
by Marcus Aurelius

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Marcus Annius Verus was born in Rome, A. D. 121, and assumed the name of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, by which he is known to history, on his adoption by the Emperor T. Aurelius Antoninus. M. Aurelius was educated by the orator Fronto, but turned aside from rhetoric to the study of the Stoic philosophy, of which he was the last distinguished representative. The Meditations, which he wrote in Greek, are among the most noteworthy expressions of this system, and exhibit it favorably on its practical side. The Meditationspicture with faithfulness the mind and character of this noblest of the emperors. Simple in style and sincere in tone, they record, for posterity, the height reached by pagan aspiration in its effort to solve the problem of conduct; and the essential agreement of his practice, coupled with his teaching, proved that even in a palace life may be led well.


The Dialogues of Plato
by Plato

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Socrates’s ancient words are still true, and the ideas found in Plato’s Dialogues still form the foundation of a thinking person’s education. This superb collection contains excellent contemporary translations selected for their clarity and accessibility to today’s reader, as well as an incisive introduction by Erich Segal, which reveals Plato’s life and clarifies the philosophical issues examined in each dialogue. The first four dialogues recount the trial and execution of Socrates — the extraordinary tragedy that changed Plato’s life and forever altered the course of Western thought. Other dialogues create a rich tableau of intellectual life in Athens in the fourth century B. C., and examine such timeless — and timely — issues as the nature of virtue and love, knowledge and truth, and society and the individual. Resounding with the humor and astounding brilliance of Socrates, the immortal iconoclast, these great works remain powerful, probing, and essential.


Confessions of Saint Augustine
by Augustine of Hippo

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St. Augustine’s Confessions was written between AD 397-400. An autobiographical work, it was written in 13 parts, each a complete text intended to be read aloud. Written in his early 40s, it documents the development of Augustine’s thought from childhood into his adult life — a life he considered in retrospect to be both sinful and immoral. He was in his early 30s before he converted to Christianity, but was soon ordained as a priest and became a bishop not long after.

Confessions not only documented his conversion but sought to offer guidance to others taking the same path. Considered to be the first Western autobiography to be written, Augustine’s work (including the subsequent ‘City of God’) became a major influence on Christian writers for the next 1,000 years and remains a much-valued contribution to Christian thinking.

This edition uses the classic translation from Latin by E.B. Pusey (1838) with a partial modernization of the text to assist the modern reader.


Meditations On The First Philosophy
by Rene Descartes

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In Meditations on First Philosophy, French philosopher René Descartes, now regarded as the father of Western philosophy, introduces the concept of the dichotomy — the separation of mind and body — by determining, “I think, therefore I am.”


Man’s Search For Meaning
by Viktor E Frankl

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Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s memoir has riveted generations of readers with its descriptions of life in Nazi death camps and its lessons for spiritual survival. Between 1942 and 1945 Frankl labored in four different camps, including Auschwitz, while his parents, brother, and pregnant wife perished. Based on his own experience and the experiences of others he treated later in his practice, Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose. Frankl’s theory — known as logotherapy, from the Greek word logos (“meaning”) — holds that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, as Freud maintained, but the discovery and pursuit of what we personally find meaningful.

At the time of Frankl’s death in 1997, Man’s Search for Meaning had sold more than 10 million copies in 24 languages. A 1991 reader survey for the Library of Congress that asked readers to name a “book that made a difference in your life” found Man’s Search for Meaning among the ten most influential books in America.


The Second Sex
by Simone de Beauvoir

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Simone de Beauvoir’s essential masterwork is a powerful analysis of the Western notion of “woman,” and a revolutionary exploration of inequality and otherness. Unabridged in English for the first time, this long-awaited edition reinstates significant portions of the original French text that were cut in the first English translation. Vital and groundbreaking, Beauvoir’s pioneering and impressive text remains as pertinent today as when it was first published, and will continue to provoke and inspire generations of men and women to come.


A Treatise of Human Nature
by David Hume

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One of the most significant works of Western philosophy, Hume’s Treatise was published in 1739-40, before he was 30 years old. A pinnacle of English empiricism, it is a comprehensive attempt to apply scientific methods of observation to a study of human nature, and a vigorous attack upon the principles of traditional metaphysical thought. With masterly eloquence, Hume denies the immortality of the soul and the reality of space; considers the manner in which we form concepts of identity, cause and effect; and speculates upon the nature of freedom, virtue, and emotion. Opposed both to metaphysics and to rationalism, Hume’s philosophy of informed scepticism sees man not as a religious creation, nor as a machine, but as a creature dominated by sentiment, passion, and appetite.


The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle
by Aristotle

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Nicomachean Ethics focuses on the importance of habitually behaving virtuously and developing a virtuous character. Aristotle emphasized the importance of context to ethical behavior, and the ability of the virtuous person to recognize the best course of action. Aristotle argued that happiness and well-being is the goal of life, and that a person’s pursuit of such, rightly conceived, will result in virtuous conduct.


Tao Te Ching
by Lao Tzu

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No other English translation of this greatest of the Chinese classics can match Ursula Le Guin’s striking new version. Le Guin, best known for thought-provoking science fiction novels that have helped to transform the genre, has studied the Tao Te Ching for more than forty years. She has consulted the literal translations and worked with Chinese scholars to develop a version that lets the ancient text speak in a fresh way to modern people, while remaining faithful to the poetic beauty of the work. Avoiding scholarly interpretations and esoteric Taoist insights, she has revealed the Tao Te Ching ’s immediate relevance and power, as well as its depth and refreshing humor, in a way that shows better than ever before why it has been so much loved for more than 2,500 years. Included are Le Guin’s own personal commentary and notes on the text. This new version is sure to be welcomed by the many readers of the Tao Te Ching as well as those coming to the text for the first time.


Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic
by Seneca

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As chief adviser to the emperor Nero, Lucius Annaeus Seneca was most influential in ancient Rome as a power behind the throne. His lasting fame derives from his writings on Stoic ideology, in which philosophy is a practical form of self-improvement rather than a matter of argument or wordplay. Seneca’s letters to a young friend advise action rather than reflection, addressing the issues that confront every generation: how to achieve a good life, how to avoid corruption and self-indulgence, and how to live without fear of death.

Written in an intimate, conversational style, the letters reflect the traditional Stoic focus on living in accordance with nature and accepting the world on its own terms. The philosopher emphasizes the Roman values of courage, self-control, and rationality, yet he remains remarkably modern in his tolerant and cosmopolitan attitude. Rich in epigrammatic wit, Seneca’s interpretation of Stoicism constitutes a timeless and inspiring declaration of the dignity of the individual mind.


The Social Contract
by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” This statement exemplifies the main idea behind The Social Contract, in other words that man is essentially free if it weren’t for the oppression of political organizations such as government. Rousseau goes on to lay forth the principles that he deems most important for achieving political right amongst people. Contained within this volume are also two discourses by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In ‘A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality,’ Rousseau examines the causes of the inequalities that exist among men, concluding that it is the natural result of the formation of any civilization. In ‘A Discourse on Political Economy,’ Rousseau examines the nature of politics and their effect on people. These three works lay a solid foundation for the political philosophy of Rousseau and are a must read for any student of political science or philosophy.


The Critique of Pure Reason
by Immanuel Kant

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Immanuel’s Kant’s groundbreaking work, considered to be among the most influential philosophical texts in the Western canon.

Familiar to philosophy students through the centuries, The Critique of Pure Reason is in many ways Kant’s magnum opus. First published in 1781, it seeks to define what can be known by reason alone without evidence from experience. Kant begins by defining a posteriori knowledge, which is gained through the senses, versus a priori knowledge, or self-evident truths understood without the benefit of experience. He then examines these two types of knowledge in the context of analytic and synthetic judgments, using the relationship between them to conclude that through reason alone, humans are capable of reaching deep universal truths. Kant then demonstrates how  even as much of the world around us can never be truly known — the laws of the universe are in fact made possible by the human capacity for reason itself.

Sparking intense and lasting discussion, The Critique of Pure Reason remains essential reading for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the ideas that, since their initial publication, have gone on to shape much of Western philosophy.


The Prince
by Niccolò Machiavelli

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As a young Florentine envoy to the courts of France and the Italian principalities, Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) was able to observe firsthand the lives of people strongly united under one powerful ruler. His fascination with that political rarity and his intense desire to see the Medici family assume a similar role in Italy provided the foundation for his “primer for princes.” In this classic guide to acquiring and maintaining political power, Machiavelli used a rational approach to advise prospective rulers, developing logical arguments and alternatives for a number of potential problems, among them governing hereditary monarchies, dealing with colonies, and the treatment of conquered peoples. Refreshing in its directness, yet often disturbing in its cold practicality, The Prince sets down a frighteningly pragmatic formula for political fortune. Starkly relevant to the political upheavals of the 20th century, this calculating prescription for power remains today, nearly 500 years after it was written, a timely and startling lesson in the practice of autocratic rule that continues to be much read and studied by students, scholars, and general readers as well.


History of Western Philosophy
by Bertrand Russell

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Hailed as “lucid and magisterial” by The Observer, this book is universally acclaimed as the outstanding one-volume work on the subject of Western philosophy.

Considered to be one of the most important philosophical works of all-time, A History of Western Philosophy is a dazzlingly unique exploration of the ideologies of significant philosophers throughout the ages — from Plato and Aristotle through to Spinoza, Kant, and the 20th century. Written by a man who changed the history of philosophy himself, this is an account that has never been rivaled since its first publication over 60 years ago.

Since its first publication in 1945, Lord Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy is still unparalleled in its comprehensiveness, its clarity, its erudition, its grace, and its wit. In 76 chapters he traces philosophy from the rise of Greek civilization to the emergence of logical analysis in the 20th century.

Modern Philosophy Books

Looking to branch out to some of the more modern best philosophy books of all time? Here are releases from recent years that are sure to get you thinking.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
by Robert M. Pirsig

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Acclaimed as one of the most exciting books in the history of American letters, this modern epic became an instant bestseller upon publication in 1974, transforming a generation and continuing to inspire millions. This 25th Anniversary Quill Edition features a new introduction by the author; important typographical changes; and a Reader’s Guide that includes discussion topics, an interview with the author, and letters and documents detailing how this extraordinary book came to be. A narration of a summer motorcycle trip undertaken by a father and his son, the book becomes a personal and philosophical odyssey into fundamental questions of how to live. The narrator’s relationship with his son leads to a powerful self-reckoning; the craft of motorcycle maintenance leads to an austerely beautiful process for reconciling science, religion, and humanism. Resonant with the confusions of existence, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a touching and transcendent book of life.


The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom
by Don Miguel Ruiz and Janet Mills

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In The Four Agreements, don Miguel Ruiz reveals the source of self-limiting beliefs that rob us of joy and create needless suffering. Based on ancient Toltec wisdom, The Four Agreements offer a powerful code of conduct that can rapidly transform our lives to a new experience of freedom, true happiness, and love.


The Book of Joy
by Dalai Lama XIV, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Carlton Abrams

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Nobel Peace Prize Laureates His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have survived more than 50 years of exile and the soul-crushing violence of oppression. Despite their hardships — or, as they would say, because of them — they are two of the most joyful people on the planet.

In April 2015, Archbishop Tutu traveled to the Dalai Lama’s home in Dharamsala, India, to celebrate His Holiness’s 80th birthday and to create what they hoped would be a gift for others. They looked back on their long lives to answer a single burning question: How do we find joy in the face of life’s inevitable suffering?

They traded intimate stories, teased each other continually, and shared their spiritual practices. By the end of a week filled with laughter and punctuated with tears, these two global heroes had stared into the abyss and despair of our time and revealed how to live a life brimming with joy.

This book offers us a rare opportunity to experience their astonishing and unprecendented week together, from the first embrace to the final good-bye.

We get to listen as they explore the ‘Nature of True Joy’ and confront each of the ‘Obstacles of Joy’ — from fear, stress, and anger to grief, illness, and death. They then offer us the ‘Eight Pillars of Joy,’ which provide the foundation for lasting happiness. Throughout, they include stories, wisdom, and science. Finally, they share their daily ‘Joy Practices’ that anchor their own emotional and spiritual lives.

The Archbishop has never claimed sainthood, and the Dalai Lama considers himself a simple monk. In this unique collaboration, they offer us the reflection of real lives filled with pain and turmoil in the midst of which they have been able to discover a level of peace, of courage, and of joy to which we can all aspire in our own lives.


The 48 Laws of Power
by Robert Greene

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Amoral, cunning, ruthless, and instructive, this multi-million-copy New York Times bestseller is the definitive manual for anyone interested in gaining, observing, or defending against ultimate control — from the author of The Laws of Human Nature.

In the book that People magazine proclaimed “beguiling” and “fascinating,” Robert Greene and Joost Elffers have distilled 3,000 years of the history of power into 48 essential laws by drawing from the philosophies of Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, and Carl Von Clausewitz and also from the lives of figures ranging from Henry Kissinger to P.T. Barnum.

Some laws teach the need for prudence (‘Law 1: Never Outshine the Master’), others teach the value of confidence (‘Law 28: Enter Action with Boldness’), and many recommend absolute self-preservation (‘Law 15: Crush Your Enemy Totally’). Every law, though, has one thing in common: an interest in total domination. In a bold and arresting two-color package, The 48 Laws of Power is ideal whether your aim is conquest, self-defense, or simply to understand the rules of the game.


The Path
by Christine Gross-Loh and Michael Puett

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For the first time, an award-winning Harvard professor shares his wildly popular course on classical Chinese philosophy, showing you how ancient ideas — like the fallacy of the authentic self — can guide you on the path to a good life today.

Why is a course on ancient Chinese philosophers one of the most popular at Harvard? Because it challenges all our modern assumptions about what it takes to flourish.

Astonishing teachings emerged 2,000 years ago through the work of a succession of Chinese scholars exploring how humans can improve themselves and their society. And what are these counter-intuitive ideas? Transformation comes not from looking within for a true self, but from creating conditions that produce new possibilities. Good relationships come not from being sincere and authentic, but from the rituals we perform within them. A good life emerges not from planning it out, but through training ourselves to respond well to small moments. Influence comes not from wielding power but from holding back. Excellence comes from what we choose to do, not our natural abilities.

In other words, The Path “opens the mind” (Huffington Post) and upends everything we are told about how to lead a good life. Its most radical idea is that there is no path to follow in the first place — just a journey we create anew at every moment by seeing and doing things differently.


How to Live
by Sarah Bakewell

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How to get along with people, how to deal with violence, how to adjust to losing someone you love — such questions arise in most people’s lives. They are all versions of a bigger question: how do you live? How do you do the good or honorable thing, while flourishing and feeling happy?

This question obsessed Renaissance writers, none more than Michel Eyquem de Monatigne, perhaps the first truly modern individual. A nobleman, public official, and wine-grower, he wrote free-roaming explorations of his thought and experience, unlike anything written before. He called them “essays,” meaning “attempts” or “tries.” Into them, he put whatever was in his head: his tastes in wine and food, his childhood memories, the way his dog’s ears twitched when it was dreaming, as well as the appalling events of the religious civil wars raging around him. The Essays was an instant bestseller and, over 400 years later, Montaigne’s honesty and charm still draw people to him. Readers come in search of companionship, wisdom, and entertainment — and in search of themselves.

This book, a spirited and singular biography, relates the story of his life by way of the questions he posed and the answers he explored. It traces his bizarre upbringing, youthful career and sexual adventures, his travels, and his friendships with the scholar and poet Étienne de La Boétie and with his adopted “daughter,” Marie de Gournay. And we also meet his readers — who for centuries have found in Montaigne an inexhaustible source of answers to the haunting question, “How to live?”


The Wisdom of Insecurity
by Alan W. Watts

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We live in an age of unprecedented anxiety. Spending all our time trying to anticipate and plan for the future and to lamenting the past, we forget to embrace the here and now. We are so concerned with tomorrow that we forget to enjoy today. Drawing from Eastern philosophy and religion, Alan Watts shows that it is only by acknowledging what we do not — and cannot — know that we can learn anything truly worth knowing. In The Wisdom of Insecurity, he shows us how, in order to lead a fulfilling life, we must embrace the present — and live fully in the now.


Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity
by Richard Rorty

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In this 1989 book Rorty argues that thinkers such as Nietzsche, Freud, and Wittgenstein have enabled societies to see themselves as historical contingencies, rather than as expressions of underlying, ahistorical human nature or as realizations of suprahistorical goals. This ironic perspective on the human condition is valuable on a private level, although it cannot advance the social or political goals of liberalism. In fact Rorty believes that it is literature not philosophy that can do this, by promoting a genuine sense of human solidarity. A truly liberal culture, acutely aware of its own historical contingency, would fuse the private, individual freedom of the ironic, philosophical perspective with the public project of human solidarity as it is engendered through the insights and sensibilities of great writers. The book has a characteristically wide range of reference from philosophy through social theory to literary criticism. It confirms Rorty’s status as a uniquely subtle theorist, whose writing will prove absorbing to academic and nonacademic readers alike.


Sophie’s World
by Jostein Gaarder

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One day Sophie comes home from school to find two questions in her mail: “Who are you?” and “Where does the world come from?” Before she knows it she is enrolled in a correspondence course with a mysterious philosopher. Thus begins Jostein Gaarder’s unique novel, which is not only a mystery, but also a complete and entertaining history of philosophy.


Philosophy as a Way of Life
by Pierre Hadot

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This book presents a history of spiritual exercises from Socrates to early Christianity, an account of their decline in modern philosophy, and a discussion of the different conceptions of philosophy that have accompanied the trajectory and fate of the theory and practice of spiritual exercises. Hadot’s book demonstrates the extent to which philosophy has been, and still is, above all else a way of seeing and of being in the world.


Aristotle’s Way
by Edith Hall

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From renowned classicist Edith Hall, Aristotle’s Way is an examination of one of history’s greatest philosophers, showing us how to lead happy, fulfilled, and meaningful lives.

Aristotle was the first philosopher to inquire into subjective happiness, and he understood its essence better and more clearly than anyone since. According to Aristotle, happiness is not about well-being, but instead a lasting state of contentment, which should be the ultimate goal of human life. We become happy through finding a purpose, realizing our potential, and modifying our behavior to become the best version of ourselves. With these objectives in mind, Aristotle developed a humane program for becoming a happy person, which has stood the test of time, comprising much of what today we associate with the good life: meaning, creativity, and positivity. Most importantly, Aristotle understood happiness as available to the vast majority us, but only, crucially, if we decide to apply ourselves to its creation — and he led by example. As Hall writes, “If you believe that the goal of human life is to maximize happiness, then you are a budding Aristotelian.”

In expert yet vibrant modern language, Hall lays out the crux of Aristotle’s thinking, mixing affecting autobiographical anecdotes with a deep wealth of classical learning. For Hall, whose own life has been greatly improved by her understanding of Aristotle, this is an intensely personal subject. She distills his ancient wisdom into ten practical and universal lessons to help us confront life’s difficult and crucial moments, summarizing a lifetime of the most rarefied and brilliant scholarship.

By Alyssa Hollingsworth


In case you haven’t heard, a climate disaster is looming. The effects of climate change—like rising seas and intensifying weather patterns—are already here. Even though the worst is yet to come, there are still things that we can do to fight for our planet. One thing you can do right now is to educate yourself by reading climate change books.

10 Climate Change Books to Help You Understand Our Environment



By the year 2050, Earth’s population will be closing in on 10 billion people. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. Journalist Lisa Palmer’s book Hot Hungry Planet digs into the possibilities of famine and food scarcity and the innovations that might save us all from hunger.


What will the future look like? The past may have a clue. Over the ages of our planet’s history, there have been five mass extinction events, one of which all but wiped out the dinosaurs. In the Anthropocene period, the next casualty may be us. In The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert takes a closer look at the past to tell us more about our future.




We’re getting more used seeing images of stranded polar bears and hearing about our dwindling bee population, but most reporting on climate change leaves out what it can do to our own health. Linda Marsa’s Fevered delves into the increasing rate of illnesses associated with global warming, like asthma, allergies, and mosquito-borne diseases, just to name a few.


The past few generations have taken advantage of the planet, polluting the oceans, ravaging the land, and filling our skies with smoke. What were we thinking? In The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh argues that we weren’t, we have been deliberately blind to the disasters looming in our future—until now.




One of the scariest things about plastic is that it’s kind of immortal. It can churn in the ocean for hundreds of years before it finally breaks down. Humans fell in love with this toxic material in 1950s, and since then, it has managed to work its way into almost everything we touch. Susan Freinkel recounts this love story in Plastic by digging deeper into the ways plastic affects our lives and the life of the planet.

STAYING ALIVE: WOMEN, ECOLOGY AND DEVELOPMENTStaying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development book cover BY VANDANA SHIVA

Originally published in 1988, activist Vandana Shiva’s seminal work, Staying Alive, explores the relationship between women and our natural world. In many places, the freedom of the women is directly related to a country’s outlook. More recent research has shown that women’s rights directly impacts sustainability. You could say that Shiva is the mother of that idea.




Research has shown that climate denialists do, in fact, have brains. It’s just that they haven’t been using them. We have been manipulated, and logic has been twisted to distort the truth. In The Madhouse Effect, climate scientist Michael E. Mann comes together with cartoonist Tom Toles to create a funny, sad portrait of the mad world we’re living in.


From the author of The Shock Doctrine, this book delves into the war between capitalism and the planet. In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein argues something that many of us already know: we have to change our destructive habits that are rooted in capitalism. It may be the only way we can save our environment before it’s too late.




Not everyone will experience climate change equally. The poor and working class are already disproportionately affected by the problems of climate change. In Dumping in Dixie, Robert D. Bullard, a professor and environmental justice activist, asserts that living in a healthy environment is a right for all Americans, regardless of their race, class, or social standing.


For years, poor and minority communities have found themselves becoming the dumping ground for businesses hoping to get rid of waste on the path of least resistance. Shockingly, entrenched segregation and zoning laws have paved the way to make this possible, making communities of color sick for years—literally.

By , January 

Libraries are beautiful! Well, these libraries are at least.

Planning your holiday or maybe even spring vacations? Don’t forget to check out the local libraries. You never know what you’ll find.

The 20 most beautiful libraries in the U.S.

Stunning buildings designed for architecture-loving bibliophiles

Geisel Library on the campus of the University of California-San Diego.
 Nagel Photography / Shutterstock

From museums to churches, architecture in U.S. cities ranges from jaw-dropping modernist masterpieces to historic gems hidden on side streets. But an oft-overlooked category of Instagram-worthy architecture is our country’s libraries.

Although the first function of a library is to house books and manuscripts, they also serve as places to study, research, and contemplate. Historic libraries from New York to California feature massive reading halls—many with coffered ceilings, chandeliers, and the warm glow of reading lights.

More modern buildings—like the Seattle Central Library or the Billings Public Library—are not only architectural marvels, but also function as community gathering spaces and technology hubs. Today’s libraries don’t just stop at books; new designs include recording studios, computer labs, and even art exhibition spaces.

In honor of their beauty, and to underscore their continued relevance in an increasingly digital world, we’ve rounded up 20 architecturally significant libraries throughout the United States.

The Seattle Central Library in Seattle, Washington

The Seattle Public Library in downtown Seattle. 

After a landmark bond measure in 1998 that proposed a $196.4 million makeover of the Seattle Public Library system, the original downtown library was redesigned by Rem Koolhaas and his Office for Metropolitan Architecture in partnership with the Seattle firm of LMN Architects.

The Pritzker Prize-winning architect designed an 11-floor, 362,987-square-foot library that features a diamond-shaped exterior skin of glass and steel. The new Central Library—which opened in 2004—also features a “Books Spiral” that displays the entire nonfiction collection in a continuous run, a towering “living room” that reaches 50 feet in height, and a brightly lit “Red Room” on the 4th floor that uses deep crimson and red lights.

Boston Central Library in Boston, Massachusetts

Bates Hall in the Boston Public Library on July 27, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. 
Nagel Photography / Shutterstock

The crown jewel of the Boston Public Library system, the Central Library is made up of two buildings by Charles Follen McKim and Philip Johnson. The McKim Building in Copley Square was constructed in 1895 and houses a massive reading room—called Bates Hall—that’s full of green lamps and classic wooden tables.

Bates Hall also features a barrel vault and coiffured ceiling, all surrounded by 15 arched and grilled windows. A $50 million restoration of the reading room that began in 1996 recently added new woodwork.

The Fisher Fine Arts Library in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Image result for the fisher fine arts libraryDesigned by American architect Frank Furness in 1888, the library at the University of Pennsylvania rejected the popular marble or granite designs of the late nineteenth century in favor of fiery red brick. The building contains a mix of towers, chimneys, and sky-lighted rooms that mimic the factories of downtown Philadelphia.

The library experienced several additions and alterations over the years, and went through a major restoration in the late 1980s and early 1990s before taking on the name of the Fisher Fine Arts Library.

Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

The Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress in Washington D.C.. 
Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

No round up of the most stunning libraries in the United States would be complete without the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. The largest library in the world, the Library of Congress is housed in three buildings on Capitol Hill.

The most famous structure is the Thomas Jefferson Building, which opened in 1897 and houses the iconic Main Reading Room. Inspired by the reading room at the British Museum Library, the domed Main Reading Room is the central access point for the Library’s collections and is open to any researcher 16 and older. Interested in seeing more of Washington D.C.’s beautiful libraries? Head over here.

Phillips Exeter Academy Library in Exter, New Hampshire

New Hampshire — Phillips Exeter Academy Library

Image Source: Flickr user gnrklk

Phillips Exeter Academy may be a boarding school, but it has an oversized library; its shelf capacity of 250,000 volumes makes it the largest secondary school library in the world.

The library is also famous thanks to its design by celebrated American architect Louis Kahn. Commissioned in 1965, Kahn structured the library in three concentric square rings. While the brick outer rings hold the exterior walls, middle rings made of concrete house the heavy book stacks, and an inner ring creates an Instagram-worthy atrium.

New York Public Library in New York City, New York

Photo by Jonathan Blanc and courtesy of NYPL

The reading room of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building in the New York Public Library. 
Photo by Jonathan Blanc and courtesy of NYPL

The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library system is a masterpiece of Beaux-Arts architecture, centrally located next to Bryant Park on Fifth Avenue and 42nd street in Manhattan.

Construction began in 1902 and was eventually completed for $9 million in 1911. Today, it houses some 15 million items, including medieval manuscripts, ancient Japanese scrolls, and contemporary novels.

The library’s Rose Reading Room—with its iconic 52-foot-tall ceilings and vibrant cloud murals—recently reopened after a renovation that required the entire room to be sheathed in scaffolding. Read more about the renovation and see a time lapse of the incredible project, over here.

Arabian Library in Scottsdale, Arizona

The exterior of the Arabian Library in Scottsdale. 
Courtesy of the Arabian Library

Designed by richärd+bauer architects and opened in 2007, this modern library pays homage to Arizona’s desert environment. The sloping angle of the roof line and the earthen and stone roof echo the stone walls of the state’s desert slot canyons. The library’s exterior—made up of weather steel plates—also mimic the color of the terra-cotta walls of stone.

State Library of Iowa’s Law Library in Des Moines, Iowa

The State Library of Iowa’s Law Library in the Capitol building.

This library in Des Moines, Iowa, provides Iowa lawmakers, government employees, the Iowa legal community, and the general public access to 105,000 volumes of legal treatises on state, federal, regulatory, and case law.

Originally created thanks to an act of Congress in 1838, the law library’s collection moved from location to location until 1886 when it settled on the second floor of the State Capitol Building in Des Moines. The library’s grand hall is intricately decorated in the Victorian style, boasting painted ceilings, stained glass inserts, and book-lined alcoves forty-five feet in height.

Billings Public Library in Billings, Montana

An exterior shot of the Billings Public Library in Montana. 
Via Will Bruder Architects

Recently completed in 2015, the architecture team at Will Bruder Architects designed this building to be a sustainable, transparent, and dynamic gathering space for the community. Sitting along Billings’ busy 6th Avenue, the light-filled library cost $20 million to build.

According to the architect, “The library’s architecture is thus a hybrid of both the handsome and beautifully restored 19th century main train depot on Montana Street and the powerful block long warehouse buildings of brick masonry and metal that serve to shelter the transfer of resources at this point of commerce.”

George Peabody Library in Baltimore, Maryland

The interior of the Peabody Library, a research library at John Hopkins University. 
Andrea Izzotti / Shutterstock

Housed in the Peabody Institute of Music, the George Peabody Library has often been described as a “cathedral of books” and it’s easy to see why. Constructed in 1878 and designed by Baltimore architect Edmund D. Lind, the library contains a huge open air atrium in the center that allows each level of the library a view down below.

Huge skylights allow natural light to filter in, and the library’s iconic marble floors and ornate railings make it a popular wedding venue. Although you won’t see many students perusing the stacks, the George Peabody Library remains a non-circulation library open to the general public.

Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago, Illinois

The Harold Washington Library Center in downtown Chicago. 

As the Chicago Public Library’s main branch, the Harold Washington Library Center broke ground in 1988 after a competition to design a new central library in the South Loop. An 11-member citizen jury selected the design by Thomas Beeby from Hammond, Beeby & Babka, Inc., and the building opened in 1991.

The building’s design has always been controversial, with some deriding the classical facade and the rooftop ornaments. But many love the postmodern structure, saying it celebrates iconic Chicago architecture and blends in well with its nineteenth-century neighbors.

Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library in New Haven, Connecticut

The interior book tower at the Beinecke Library. 
Beinecke Digital Studio

One of the world’s largest libraries devoted entirely to rare books and manuscripts, the Beinecke Library sits on the Yale University campus. The building—made of Vermont marble and granite, bronze and glass—was designed by Gordon Bunshaft, of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Work began on the building in 1960 and was completed in 1963.

While the white and gray exterior of the building looks intimidating, the interior is simply stunning. A huge glass tower of books rises through the core of the building while two stairways ascend on either side to the mezzanine level. The Gutenberg Bible, the first Western book printed from movable type, and Audubon’s Birds of America are on permanent exhibition.

Geisel Library in San Diego, California

Geisel Library on Gilman Drive on the campus of the University of California-San Diego.
 Nagel Photography / Shutterstock

Located at UC San Diego, the Geisel Library was designed in the late 1960s by William Pereira as an eight-story, Brutalist concrete structure. It sits at the head of a canyon near the center of the campus, and the lower two stories form a pedestal for the six-story, stepped tower.

It is named in honor of Audrey and Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. The building houses seven million volumes, including the Dr. Seuss Collection—an extensive portfolio of original drawings, sketches, proofs, notebooks, manuscript drafts, books, photos, and memorabilia.

William W. Cook Legal Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan

The reading room of the Legal Research Library at the University of Michigan. 

Located on the University of Michigan campus, the William W. Cook Legal Research Library was built in 1930 and looks a bit like a modern-day Harry Potter library.

The grand building has large spires, stained glass windows, and metal work by the best metal worker of the time, Samuel Yellin. But the most stunning aspect of the library is likely its huge reading room, where large desks, wooden paneling, and elegant chandeliers create a peaceful and elegant hall.

Lawrence Public Library in Lawrence, Kansas

Photo courtesy of Gould Evans

Set in downtown Lawrence, Kansas, the Lawrence Public Library—originally constructed in 1974—had struggled with poor attendance before the community rallied to expand and renovate the building. A $19 million expansion added a 250-space parking garage and opened in 2014.

The new design—from the firm Gould Evans—uses glass and terra-cotta to create a welcoming space that’s bright and airy. A wraparound reading room was a major addition, and the renovation also included new communal meeting spaces, a music recording studio, and teen gaming zones. Outside the library, locals can enjoy a butterfly garden in the summer and an ice skating rink in the winter.

San Francisco Public Library in San Francisco, California

The central atrium at the Main Library building of the San Francisco Public Library. 
Thomas Hawk/Flickr

The Main Library of the San Francisco Public Library system opened at its current site in 1996 and features seven floors with two million items. The building was designed by James Ingo Freed of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners (New York) and Cathy Simon of Simon Martin-Vegue Winkelstein & Moris (San Francisco) and represents the largest public/private partnership in the history of San Francisco at a cost of more than $122 million.

The most recognizable feature of the library is a dramatic skylight in the building’s five-story central atrium. Bridges connect the floors across lightwells, and the design includes a grand staircase that rises four stories.

The Doe Library in Berkeley, California

The Doe Library on the campus of UC Berkeley. 

Set on the UC Berkeley campus, the Doe Library—which sits adjacent to the Bancroft Library—features a Neoclassical-style building completed in 1911. Named after its benefactor, Charles Franklin Doe, the structure’s iconic columns and grand scale make it one of the most recognizable buildings on campus.

Sawyer Library in Williamstown, Massachusetts

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Photo courtesy BBL Construction Services

Williams College demolished a 1970s-era library building to make room for the new Sawyer Library, but the architects of the project—Bohlin Cywinski Jackson—also had to incorporate the classical styling of the historic Stetson Hall, built in 1921.

The result cost $66.8 million and is a blend of old and new, with a modern five-story facility housing the new Sawyer Library, the Chapin Library of Rare Books, and the Center for Education Technology. The new section features a central atrium that prioritizes natural light and offers beautiful views of campus.

Los Angeles Central Library in Los Angeles, California

The Los Angeles Public Library in downtown Los Angeles, California. 

As the largest public library in the west, the Los Angeles Central Library has been captivating book and architecture lovers since its construction in 1926. The building’s architect—Bertram Goodhue—drew upon design elements from ancient Egypt to create a geometric facade that is an early example of Art Deco.

The library’s most recognizable feature is the tiled pyramid at the top that has a golden hand holding a torch. A 1993 addition added 330,000 square feet of space—called the Tom Bradley wing—and helped to restore the original Goodhue building as well.

Suzzallo Library in Seattle, Washington

The reading hall of Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington. 

Designed in the early 1920s by Seattle architects Carl F. Gould, Sr. and Charles H. Bebb, the Suzzallo Library boasts a facade made with sandstone, precast stone, terra-cotta, and brick. Reminiscent of a large European cathedral, the library’s Collegiate Gothic style makes it one of the best-known buildings on campus.

While the exterior is impressive, the 65-foot high and 250-foot long reading room is simply awe-inspiring. A vaulted ceiling with bright colors and gilded details is accented by oak bookcases and hard-carved friezes. Large leaded-glass windows let in natural light and long desks provide plenty of study room.

What are your favorite libraries in the United States? Let us know in the comments!