5 of Albert Einstein's favorite books

Some books had a profound influence on Einstein's thinking and theories.

  • Einstein had a large library and was a voracious reader.
  • The famous physicist admitted that some books influenced his thinking.
  • The books he preferred were mostly philosophical and scientific in nature.

Undoubtedly considered one of the brightest individuals who ever lived, Albert Einstein did not become so accomplished in a vacuum. The physicist learned from the best minds of history, as is evidenced by his voracious appetite for reading and his extensive personal book collection.

In "Einstein for the 21st Century," the authors describe the famous scientist's library. It contained "much of the canon of the time," write the editors Peter Galison, Gerald J.Holton, and Silvan S. Schweber, referring to the great collection of German books. Among these were such names as Boltzmann, Buchner, Friedrich Hebbel, two editions of the works of Heine, Helmholtz and von Humboldt. There were also many books by the philosophers Immanuel Kant, Gotthold Lessing, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer.

But what were Einstein's favorite books? Perhaps there's no one simple answer to that but we do know which works the creator of the theory of general relativity seemed to come back to over and over.

Here are his 5 favorite books and writers, as we know it.

5. “Analysis of Sensations” by Ernst Mach

Einstein's development of the theory of relativity was by his own admission influenced by the work of Ernst Mach – a 19th-century Austrian philosopher and physicist. In his Analysis of Sensations," Mach wrote about the elusive nature of the human senses and the mutability of the ego.

Mach's work also included criticism of Newton's theories of time and space – another source of inspiration for Einstein's own ideas. In fact, Einstein named a hypothesis that he derived from Mach as 'Mach's Principle' – the idea that inertia is originated in an interaction between bodies, which was an idea Einstein himself saw as instrumental.

In a 1915 letter he wrote to Moritz Schlick, Einstein explained what writers influenced his thinking in coming up with the theory of relativity, saying:

"You have also correctly seen that this trend of thought [positivism] was of great influence on my efforts, and specifically E. Mach and still much more Hume, whose treatise on understanding I studied with fervor and admiration shortly before the discovery of the theory of relativity. It is very well possible that without these philosophical studies I would not have arrived at the solution."

While he revealed in this letter that the work of Ernst Mach and David Hume inspired his thinking, it is known also that in later years Einstein came to repudiate Mach's work and positivism in particular – the logic-centered philosophy that rejects theology and metaphysics, maintaining that every rational assertion can be scientifically verified and that "positive" knowledge is based on natural phenomena and their properties.

Ernst Mach.

Photo by H. F. Jütte. 1902.

Ernst Mach.

4. “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes

Leopold Infeld, who worked with Einstein, wrote in his autobiography "The Quest" about how much Einstein loved Cervantes's classic tale of the chivalrous knight Don Quixote:

"Einstein lay in bed without shirt or pajamas, with Don Quixote on his night table. It is the book which he enjoys most and likes to read for relaxation…"

3. “Ethics” by Baruch Spinoza

Baruch Spinoza was a 17th-century Jewish-Dutch philosopher whose writings provided the groundwork for the Enlightenment and contemporary biblical criticism. Spinoza's "Ethics" is one of the fundamental works of Western thinking, describing full cosmology and a picture of reality, while providing instruction for leading an ethical life. The book describes God as the natural order, with humans being the "modes" of God. Everything that happens, per Spinoza's thinking, follows from the nature of God.

This "pantheism" of Spinoza was part of Einstein's own spiritual view of the world, as he told to Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein:

"I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind."

Check out this video on Spinoza's philosophy:

The philosophy of Baruch Spinoza

2. “A Treatise of Human Nature” by David Hume

By his own admission, this book by an 18th-century Scottish philosopher, that looked to understand the link between science and human nature, had a big influence on Einstein. Hume's accomplishment of articulating a scientifically moral philosophy appealed to the physicist as did the book's call to move from metaphysical speculation towards facts you can observe. There was also an important caveat to this, according to Hume, that observation alone cannot grasp the laws of nature. This implication had a profound impact on the development of Einstein's counter-intuitive ideas.

1. Johann von Goethe’s oeuvre

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Johann Goethe.

Perhaps the most sizable part of Einstein's large collection of books belonged to the German author Johann von Goethe. The physicist owned the collected works of the author in a 36-volume edition, along with an additional 12 volumes as well as 2 volumes of the "Optics" (including a letter exchange between Goethe and Schiller), and another volume of "Faust".

Einstein kept a bust of Goethe and was known to quote the writer to his German-speaking assistants. In a 1932 letter to Leopold Casper, Einstein wrote that he admired Goethe as "a poet without peer, and as one of the smartest and wisest men of all time." He added that "even his scholarly ideas deserve to be held in high esteem, and his faults are those of any great man."

If you're looking for more great books enjoyed by the world-changing scientist, it is known that he also loved "The Brother Karamazov" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and "Isis Unveiled" – a mystical tract by the theosophist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky.

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What was it like to live in a Japanese concentration camp?

During World War II, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps throughout the West.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
  • After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps, ostensibly for national security purposes.
  • In truth, the incarceration was primarily motivated by racism. What was life like in the U.S.'s concentration camps?

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

How did the camps get their start?

With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

"I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

Life in the camps

Japanese American concentration camp

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

"They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

The aftermath

When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.