This blog was written Jean-Marc Pascal, an experienced IB Philosophy teacher. To read more Philosophy blog for students and teachers, click here.
If you are tempted to choose Philosophy as one of your IB subjects, or simply want to enrich your culture, you may be looking for non-academic reading to whet your intellectual appetite and put you in good stead for your future studies. All selections are, by deﬁnition, subjective but some works stand out so much above the rest that ignoring them is simply unthinkable. If you have one (fairly short) novel to read and enjoy before you start your IB Philosophy course, it has to be ‘The Outsider’ by Albert Camus. It is, by far, the most extraordinary personal account of an ordinary man’s life and thoughts, set in 1930’s French Algeria. Telling you more would spoil your pleasure but this story is guaranteed to awake in you some fundamental questions on life and death. You may even want to ﬁnd out more about the author and what ‘existentialist philosophy’ is all about.
My second choice would go to Voltaire’s ‘Philosophical Tales’ in which the French eighteenth-century ‘philosophe’ makes the best possible use of his vast imagination and scathing irony to ridicule his contemporaries while encapsulating the spirit of tolerance and rational enquiry of his ‘enlightened’ age. The most well-known tale is the story of ‘Candide’, a naïve young man who is forced to travel the world in search of meaning and love. His travelling companions are intended to represent the various philosophical positions and religious views, admired or rejected by Voltaire himself. Along with ‘Candide’, I would also recommend two other tales whose themes should ﬁnd an echo in your budding philosophical mind: ‘Zadig’ is the story of a young Oriental prince confronted with injustice and superstition and in ‘Micromégas’, a thirty-nine kilometre high young scientist leaves his planet to travel the universe before coming across a species of arrogant and violent creatures, calling themselves ‘mankind’.
But enough of French writers. Let’s now introduce Milan Kundera, a Czech writer, just like the great Franz Kafka, author of the twentieth-century chilling classics ‘Metamorphosis’ and ‘The Trial’. Unlike his distinguished predecessor, Kundera does not create a psychologically oppressive world but instead, celebrates the beauty of everyday life through the lives of his reﬂective characters. Kundera is widely read by adolescents (and adults) all across Continental Europe and because he is a master stylist, all his writings are full of light but inspiring philosophical insights. The best introduction to his works is probably ‘The Postcard’, the story of a young student who is sent down from his university for sending a postcard which contains some derogatory comments on Comrade Stalin. Kundera uses Voltaire-like irony to debunk the dangerous contradictions of the communist system and its unexpected effects on ordinary citizens. If you like ‘The Postcard’, you will, sooner or later, move on to ‘Immortality’ and ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ whose themes may even inspire you when choosing a topic for your Internal Assessment essay.
My last recommendation is a fascinating book, half-way between a novel and a fun primer in Philosophy. With its intriguing title, ‘Zen or the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’, Robert Pirsig introduces the reader to the world of moral values through the discussions of a father and his son on their four-week motorbike journey, from Minnesota to California.
Finally, if you are into books and if, during the course of your IB preparation, you are looking for the best essays or novels on any given subject, I would strongly invite you to visit the ﬁvebooks.com website, dedicated to ‘the best books on everything.’
Want to get ahead in the IB? Attend a Pre IB Summer School in Oxford, UK or Boston, US to meet students from all over the world and be taught by world-class IB teachers.