So Walt published his top 10 IR books at FP. It is a good list, except that I was not required to read any of them in my grad program. Hah! Pieces of a few of them were listed in secondary suggested reading. By FP’s own ranking, I attended a top 20 IR PhD program. Why is this so?
1. The most important ‘books’ in IR at any one time are not this or that actual book, but the latest issue (book-length) of International Organization, International Studies Quarterly, or International Security. 75+% of my IR reading in grad school was articles. This is where the most recent research was (critical to know because it made you sound smart and ‘cutting edge’ at department gatherings), and the articles usually summarized the major arguments from previous work. So you didn’t need to read books or previous articles unless you had the time, which of course you never did. A lot of the IR books I like and recommend below, I read before or after my course work. Then I had time to actually ‘soak’ in the work and not just plow through the theory chapter as fast as possible so I could get to the next reading assignment.
2. No one had time in grad school to read books. Books are for wimps and generalists; plowing through dense, turgid article prose is the mark of a real social scientist! Besides, they were way too long, and you were already exhausted and out-of-shape from living in your basement, eating badly, rarely going into the sun (your implacable enemy), and binging on the weekends in breakouts of ‘freedom.’ I think I read only 3 IR books cover-to-cover in grad school – Waltz’ Theory of International Relations, Schelling’s Arms and Influence, and Gilpin’s War and Change in World Politics. I read these in my first year when I still thought books were to be read in their entirety. That fantasy disappeared quickly.
3. Walt stress lots of history and history of ideas stuff – like Guns, Germs and Steel or The Best and the Brightest. I would love to have had him as a professor, because these are the sorts of ‘big idea’ books with exciting history attached to them that made me go into IR in the first place. But that is hardly what I read. It was all theory, formalism, and models. This stuff made me a sharper abstract thinker, but it sure wasn’t as exciting as Walt’s list. So I can drone on about escalation dominance or the ideational structures of the ‘new regionalism,’ but undergrads and basically the rest of the world zone-out pretty fast when you shift into ‘social science voice.’
4. Here are my top ten IR books, in order:
Waltz, Theory of IR
Wendt, Social Theory of IR
Fukuyama, End of History
Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations
Carr, 20 Year Crisis
Gilpin, War and Change
Gilpin, Global Political Economy
Huntington, Clash of Civilizations
Schelling, Arms & Influence