Reading Archive


  • Yuval Harari, Sapiens. Read half of it, then lost interest. I'm ambivalent about this book. On the one hand, it provides a useful, somewhat contrarian perspective on human history. (For example: the agricultural revolution probably sucked for the people who went through it.) On the other hand, it's full of sweeping pronouncements that I can't fully endorse. Here's an interview of Harari by Russ Roberts of EconTalk.
  • Charles Murray, By the People. Read half of it, then got distracted. Not my usual fare; it's much more explicitly political than what I typically like to read. That said, of all the political causes out there, liberty is the one I'm most eager to embrace. My favorite chapter was chapter 2, which helped me to appreciate how many things go into "the rule of law" besides a strict, literal following of the law.
  • Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems. There's some good stuff in this book, but it's not at all what I was hoping for. I wish it had spent more time discussing systems that include selfish/strategic agents. Instead, the book is focused mostly on mindless systems. If you want to understand stocks, flows, and feedback loops, this is a great primer. If you want to understand human systems... well, I suppose it's a good starting point, but it doesn't go nearly far enough. For example, there's almost no game theory in the book. At some points, Meadows seems to treat system failures like "tragedies of the commons" as arising from insufficient information, as if agents would act for the good of the whole system, if only they knew how.
  • Sarah Perry, Every Cradle is a Grave. More unsettling to my worldview than anything else I've read in the past few years. Not sure how many of Perry's conclusions I agree with, but they're extremely thought-provoking. For example: I'd always taken for granted that, if life isn't worth living, it's easy to cash in the chips. Now I understand it's much harder than that. Suicide is hard, and therefore we can't use people's continued "choice" to stay alive as evidence that their lives are tolerable. See a related argument by Perry in this blog post.
  • Mark Changizi, The Vision Revolution. Pretty neat hypotheses about the evolution of human vision. Particularly fascinating were the chapters on color vision and optical illusions. Changizi argues that human color vision evolved to detect subtle changes in skin color among our associates(!!). My priors for such a hypothesis were pretty low, but my posteriors are considerably higher. He also argues, very persuasively, that most of the geometric optical illusions arise from our brains' attempt to model a fraction of a second into the future.
  • John Lee, The Persian Empire [ lecture series]. Not the most compelling lecturer OR subject matter. It turns out we don't hear much about the ancient Persians (the Achaemenids) not because of Western bias, but because there isn't a ton of information about them.
  • Bart Ehrman, From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity [ lecture series]. Awesome glimpse into the early, chaotic, "startup" years of the Christian religion. The lecturer was especially keen to the idea that theology is just the continuation of politics by other means — or perhaps early Christian era is just an especially good case study in that idea.
  • Eliezer Yudkowsky, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. Pretty great, if you ask me. And this is coming from someone who hasn't read or even watched Harry Potter and who generally snubs his nose at fan-fiction.
  • David Christian, Big History [ lecture series]. Probably my favorite Audible lecture series to date. As I wrote in Border Stories, "Big History is an emerging discipline that seeks to explain all the interesting structures in the universe in one grand, sweeping narrative. This, as you might imagine, is a bit of a mindfuck — but one that I can't recommend highly enough." If you don't want to commit to 24 hours' worth of lectures (12 if you listen at 2x!), you can get a taste for this material in a TED talk (18 minutes) or a Crash Course video series (2 hours).
  • E. O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth. Great information on the evolution of the social instincts; terrible (IMO) speculation about human evolution. The subtext of the book is strongly political: We all have to band together or we'll destroy the planet — and "science says" we evolved to band together. Yuck.
  • Douglas Kenrick, Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life. One of the best and most accessible overviews of evopsych I've read. I especially enjoyed Kenrick's formulation of human cognition as "deep rationality," i.e., rational in light of our evolutionary goals, if not our proximate utility maximization.
  • Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style. Solid advice, and I learned quite a bit. But for writing advice, I vastly prefer George Gopen's The Sense of Structure: Writing from the Reader's Perspective.
  • [Assorted authors], Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition [ lecture series]. Great way to develop a passing familiarity with the canon. Not a lot of great ideas in this lecture series, however.
  • Jean-Louis Dessalles, Why We Talk: The Evolutionary Origins of Language. Most eye-opening book I've read all year. More later.
  • John Gray, Straw Dogs. Ultimately I disagreed with about 80% of this book, but I did find it extremely interesting and worth reading, especially paired with The Beginning of Infinity. Gray and Deutsch seem to be have taken positions that are about as opposite as possible, given a deep understanding of science, and so it was fun and productive to compare their arguments.
  • David Deutsch, The Beginning of Infinity. Even better than Fabric of Reality (thanks Mills, David, Andy). Deutsch offers the most compelling left-brain worldview I imagine it's possible to construct, given our current understanding. Of special note are (1) his emphasis on knowledge as a physical phenomenon, and (2) his ideas on the evolution of creativity. Probably going on the all-time greatest list.
  • Gregory Aldrete, History of the Ancient World [ lecture series].
  • Marc Zender, Writing and Civilization [ lecture series]. Interesting to hear about the development of different writing systems. Good lecturer.
  • John Hale, Exploring the Roots of Religion [ lecture series].
  • Brian Fagan, Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations [ lecture series].
  • Richard Baum, The Fall and Rise of China [ lecture series]. Great intro to modern Chinese history. Unlike the previous history series I finished (Brier's history of ancient Egypt), this one offered analysis in addition to raw stories. Most interesting for me were the many many lectures devoted to Mao and the Community Revolution.
  • Bob Brier, The History of Ancient Egypt [ lecture series]. Decent quick intro to ancient Egyptian history, if you listen at 2x or 2.5x and don't mind Brier's (the lecturer's) verbal tics. Lots of facts, very little theory. You can tell that Brier cares mostly about the stories, less about the mechanics of Egyptian society. He attributes way too much power to the pharaohs and their actions, and hardly mentions the economy, for example. Still, useful to me, at least for giving the broad-strokes outline of people and events in Egyptian history. 
  • John McWhorter, The Story of Human Language [ lecture series]. Awesome lecture series. A more accurate title might be "The Sociology of Language." Discusses the way languages are used and how they evolve in human populations. Also, McWhorter is an excellent lecturer, one of my favorites. His sentences are precise, dense with information, and spiced with a nice, dry wit and colorful turns of phrase. Highly recommended.
  • Alan Sepinwall, The Revolution Was Televised. I read about half of these chapters, each of which covers one of the "modern" TV shows (Oz, Sopranos, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, etc.). Interesting to hear some of the back stories, but ultimately this was very specific to TV, and pretty devoid of takeaways for media more generally.
  • Grant Hardy, Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition [ lecture series]. Got about 5/6 of the way through this before realizing that the marginal utility of each lecture was getting too low. A good primer on Eastern thinking, something I was in sore need of. These lectures were interesting, insofar as they were a chance to see the world through the lens of three cultures (India, China, Japan) who, unlike the West, didn't get particularly hung up on mind/body dualism. Unfortunately a lot of it — just like a lot of historical thinking in the West (and if Sturgeon is to be believed, 90% of everything) — is utter crap.
  • Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. Alan Watts isn't for everyone, but if you like the topics I write about (especially the weirder ones), you'll probably like him. I recommend starting with his two lectures, Myth of Myself and Man in Nature, available free on YouTube.
  • George Gopen, The Sense of Structure. So, so, so good — the best book on writing I've ever read. Its subtitle is, "Writing from the Reader's Perspective." Rather than presenting a series of rigid writing rules (do this, don't do that), Gopen focuses on how readers read — how they parse sentences and paragraphs, where they look for topic orientation, where they expect the emphasis to be, etc. I eagerly await Pinker's new book, The Sense of Style, in the hope that it will follow in Gopen's footsteps.
  • Robert Garland, The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World [ lecture series]. Not really a book or even an audiobook, but a lecture series I found on Audible. This is (Western) history from the perspective of the common people and their daily lives — a good complement to the history of famous names and events. Nothing particularly earth-shattering, but it was good material and very easy to listen to (e.g. for commuting), even at 3x speed. I'll certainly be listening to more of these lecture series.
  • Robert Provine, Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. A great antidote to the Morreall book (below). Provine sheds a lot of great empirical light on laughter. This book suffers from a deficit of theory, but the data is great.
  • John Morreall, The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor (skimmed). Fantastic overview of a 2,500-year tradition that's been shown, by more recent studies, to be completely bankrupt. Good summary of this book at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • Thomas Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict. This is one of those great books that portrays, with exacting precision, concepts which seem obvious, except that somehow you never quite realized them until they were pointed out. Will be referencing this in an upcoming essay or two.
  • Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process. Etiquette as a lens on society. Fascinating read, if a little tedious at times. I wrote a blog post inspired by some of Elias's ideas: UX and the Civilizing Process [].
  • Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness. Second time through was even better than the first (10 years ago). I think I've learned a lot in the intervening decade, to help me better appreciate what Jaynes was doing. Here's part 1 of my review.
  • David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Fascinating and frustrating. I think Greg Rader's review captures my opinion on this one.



Last updated September 21, 2016.