20 Tiny and Mind-Blowing Documents for Learning

I recently sent a few documents to a 13-year-old girl that is intelligent, but is annoyed by reading long texts that take too long to get to the point. I've read thousands of books, and the more I read the more I value writing that can change your perspective on the world in just a few pages.

My book list is always changing. I update it every few days, but right now I have 388 things listed in 10 sections. Some of them are large book series. But, some of them are small. Some, very small.

So I looked through my list and pulled out a few small things that I thought might surprise her as to how valuable a small work can be. My selection was excellent. But, there were too many things. And, even though they were smaller than you would think, some of them could still be considered a book. I wanted to make the list smaller, and I wanted the works to be smaller. I went through it again.

This time I guessed at how long each work was and included the length. I got it down to 20 items. And I was pretty close on my guesses too.

I didn't send her the list in any order, but here I've listed them in a very approximate order of length.

4 words - "l(a" by E. E. Cummings

"l(a" is a poem that cannot be read, it can only be looked at. The symbology used in the spacing, the breaks, the shape, the letters and numbers, and the words, is immense. It's constructed vertically, and inside of the word "loneliness" it says "a leaf falls". Sometimes people pass over something so small thinking that it can't hold much meaning, but they are wrong. This small poem is an inexhaustible work of art.

581 words - "What We Mean by Civilization", Chancellor's Address, Bristol University, 2 July 1938 by Winston Churchill

Maybe I should have included something else by Churchill. He wrote so many papers and gave so many speeches that it's an overwhelming amount of material. I have a few things from him on my personal list. His 1950 unpublished article "This Is Freedom" is amazing, and that could be here. Alas, in the speech that I did send he is talking about authority and peace, and these are important concepts to contend with. Here's one line, "The central principle of Civilisation is the subordination of the ruling authority to the settled customs of the people and to their will as expressed through the Constitution." Churchill is an excellent place to dive into such a daunting subject.

5 paragraphs - "Cain and Abel" by Unknown Genius

How to interpret the world and how to act in the world are subjects that are too large for humans to comprehend. And yet, we must interpret the world, and we must act in the world. One of the ways that we cope with this problem is by using the tools of narrative, metaphor, and art. We are able to condense an enormous amount of information in a very small space. The ideas of good and evil, resentment, revenge, initiation of force, betrayal, rejection, aggression, economics, justice, truth, etc. are all contained in the story of "Cain and Abel". The great narratives contain more truths than the author can fathom. A well of insight that never runs dry, that we can return to over and over again. And "Cain and Abel" is one of the greatest, and tiniest, narratives in human history.

98 sentences - "The 95 Theses" by Martin Luther

It's rare for people to read actual documents from history, even though some of the most important documents are rather small. Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation in 1517 with this document. He was a professor that was debating moral theology, and started a religious revolution that resulted in a whole bunch of wars. But, as far as I can tell, almost no one reads this little document that transformed all of the Christian world and broke the Catholic Church apart. It's probably different than you would expect. The whole document is about repentance. The word "indulgence" is used 45 times. An indulgence was where you could pay to absolve yourself of sin. Luther was against that. If you think about the context while you're reading it, it's an intense document, and well worth the reading of 98 sentences.

1 page - "Politicians' Uniquely Simple Personalities" by Gian Vittorio Caprara and Philip Zimbardo

We don't think of politicians like we do normal people, or famous people, or athletes, or celebrities. We think of them in a special way. Normally people can rate people across five major personality traits. But with politicians it's reduced to a simplified two. What these researchers call energy/innovation and honesty/trustworthiness. If you combine this idea with some insights on elections from the economist Joseph Schumpeter it paints a unique picture of how the process really works.

2 pages - From John Adams to Benjamin Rush, 27 September 1808

Letters offer amazing insights into history. One of the great things about the Founding Fathers of the United States is that so many of them kept their letters. These were some of the best educated men in the world in political theory, working to apply those principles in unique practical circumstances. And we can read what they were saying to each other at the time, we can read what they were thinking. In this letter John Adams is talking to Benjamin Rush about how hard it is to maintain a republican form of government. How corruption and a lack of virtue can tear a nation apart. Lessons for us all.

2 pages - "Constitution of Medina; Or, Charter of Medina" by Muhammad

In this little document you can see the problems Muhammad was working on in trying to form his new religion. He was converting pagan Arab tribes. He was trying to get them to stop killing each other. He was trying to reconcile them with the Jews that would join him. But, he was also trying to make sure that they were definitely separate from outsiders, and thus rules didn't apply when dealing with outsiders. Dividing people into in-groups and out-groups is a universal difficulty. One of the things that I find the most interesting is how much trouble Muhammad was having with blood-feuds, and he was working hard at stopping them. From Muhammad, to the Vikings, to the Hatfields and McCoys, blood-feuds have been a major problem for human societies throughout time.

2 pages - "“Multicultural” Education" speech by Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is the greatest living economist. In this little speech he defends the idea of teaching the history of Western culture. Something that has been strongly attacked over the last few decades by people that oppose freedom. Here's one line, "Much of the advancement of the human race has occurred because people made the judgment that some things were not simply different from others, but better." It's an excellent idea to keep in mind.

2 pages - "Objections to the Constitution of Government Formed by the Convention" by George Mason

Many of the most important Founding Fathers didn't sign the Constitution. Some had logistical difficulties, but others opposed it so much that they would not sign it. One of the major objections was the lack of a declaration of rights. That should have gone first. Luckily it was added a couple of years later. But, his insights about the division between the North and the South were ignored. His paragraph about the problems in the legal system is applicable to this day. And here's how he ends it, "This Government will commence in a moderate Aristocracy; it is at prese[nt] impossible to foresee whether it will, in it's operation, produce a Monarchy, or a corrupt oppressive Aristocracy; it will most probably vibrate some years between the two, and then terminate in the one or the other." It's an interesting look into the mind of the godfather of the American Bill of Rights.

3 pages - "Erro, Ergo Sum: An Evolutionary Map for Consciousness, Cognition and Free Will" by Andrew W. Notier

This ingenious little paper is almost completely unknown. I only know about it because we both belong to The International Society for Philosophers. As soon as I read this paper I emailed Andrew and thanked him for his insights. He's emailed me about some of my original ideas as well. It was a nice exchange. Here's the basic idea of the paper from one sentence, "Life appears to be unique in the universe in its ability to produce erroneous information, and human beings have the ability to generate these errors on a staggering scale." To adjust for perceptual errors you need four things: separateness, data access, evaluative facility, and authority to act. That is, thinking and free will. He makes a strong case that at the deepest level we humans are mistake-makers and truth-seekers.

3 pages - "Original Rough Draught of the Declaration of Independence" by Thomas Jefferson

Five important Founding Fathers were on the committee to write the "Declaration of Independence": Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston. Benjamin Franklin turned down writing it because he didn't want to write something that other people would edit. And it did get edited. I like both versions, but there are a few pieces in the original that I wish made it into the final version.

4 pages - "The Address of Gen. Washington to the People of America on His Declining the Presidency of the United States" by George Washington

Washington tried to leave the office of President after his first term. He had James Madison prepare a farewell address for him. But, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson both convinced him to stay for one more term. Then, after 8 years as the first President of the United States, Washington finally had enough and retired to his farm. He had Hamilton redo the address and issued it. He talks about what's needed to support the continued integrity of the nation, and about the dangers to it, like party politics.

6 pages - "Of Society" by Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de Tracy

This is a chapter from "A Treatise on Political Economy" by de Tracy. It was translated from the French by Thomas Jefferson. There are a ton of great insights in these few pages. For instance, before the subjective theory of value became popular in the 1870s, de Tracy had already clearly explained it, "It is equally true that an exchange is a transaction in which the two contracting parties both gain." The man was a genius that is now largely forgotten.

7 pages - "Of the Market for Products" by Jean Baptiste Say

This is a chapter from "A Treatise on Political Economy; or the Production, Distribution, and Consumption of Wealth" from 1819. And it contains one of the most important ideas in the history of economics, often called Say's Law, or Say's Law of Markets, or supply-side economics. It's the basic idea that to exchange things, you first have to have things to exchange. As Say notes, "It is worth while to remark, that a product is no sooner created, than it, from that instant, affords a market for other products to the full extent of its own value." It's an idea that's commonly forgotten, often by economists, to the great detriment of everyone.

8 pages - "The State" by Frederic Bastiat

Bastiat directly confronts many of the contradictions in politics and economics. And they are the same in September of 1848 in France as they are in any other place, at any other time. For instance, "The state is not and cannot be one-handed. It has two hands, one to receive and the other to give; in other words, the rough hand and the gentle hand. The activity of the second is of necessity subordinate to the activity of the first." At some point these things always come to balance, then as now.

8 pages - Edmund Burke’s Letter To Charles-Jean-Fran├žois Depont, November 1789

Burke was a Brit that saw the justice in the American Revolution, and the danger in the French Revolution, at the time they were happening. That's a unique record. Several of the Founding Fathers of the United States were involved in the French Revolution: Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. But, there was a major difference. I would say it's an emphasis on individual rights. Burke said this, "Believe me, sir, in all changes in the state, moderation is a virtue, not only amiable but powerful." So true.

10 pages - The "Jacques Bonhomme" articles by Frederic Bastiat

Bastiat published four issues of the journal "Jacques Bonhomme" during the French Revolution of 1848. Yes, there were a lot of French Revolutions. In the selection I have there are 8 of his articles. It's extraordinary to see him trying to explain economics to people, to convince them to do good during a time of tumult. It's an attempt at reconciling practical politics and economics with ideals. Even when being translated from the French to the English Bastiat still has a way with words, "Do you seriously have such faith in human wisdom that you want universal suffrage and government of all by all and then you proclaim these very men whom you consider fit to govern others unfit to govern themselves?" That's a contradiction that we have never resolved.

12 pages - "I, Pencil: My Family Tree As Told To Leonard E. Read" by Leonard Read

Read uses the complexity of what it actually takes to make an simple pencil to demonstrate some important concepts. And here's the moral of the story, "The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative energies uninhibited." To the extent that society can do that, it thrives.

16 pages - "There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon" by Jack Kent

The psychological depth of this children's book cannot be overstated. I'll give you the first two pages, so you're already a ways into the book. "Billy Bixbee was rather surprised when he woke up one morning and found a dragon in his room. It was a small dragon, about the size of a kitten." And, I'll give the whole idea away, so you can jump right into gathering insights from the metaphor. The dragon is a problem, on multiple levels of analysis.

61 pages - "A Contract with God" by Will Eisner

When I sent this as a recommendation I had forgotten how long it is. But, it's a comic book. Many people count it as the first true graphic novel, ever. And, it's not your average comic. Let me read page 5 to you. "Not so unusual, a father brings up a child with care and love only to lose her... plucked, as it were, from his arms by an unseen hand - the hand of God. It happens to lots of people every day." Oh yes, this is a comic with an immense amount of depth, and not for the faint of heart. I highly recommend it.

Anyone can read these works. They're small, but they're powerful. Often the most powerful insights are communicated in such a condensed way that it doesn't seem possible for them to hold so much meaning in such a tiny package. But they do. From art to economics, politics to religion, philosophy to psychology, and history to humanity. It's all contained in these 20 little documents, just waiting for their riches of knowledge to be explored, and their depths of wisdom to be plumbed.


To read more from Jeff go to JeffThinks.com or JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com


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