What I'm Reading

A list of books at various stages of my reading pipeline.

Last updated: March 2019. If this gets more than a few months out of date, I'd appreciate a gentle reminder to update it (@kevinsimler).

Currently reading

On the radar

Recently finished

  • Garrett Fagan, The History of Ancient Rome [lecture series]. Great. I really liked Fagan's style and approach to telling history, and found him a very reliable narrator. This series is organized more thematically than Duncan's series (below), especially during the imperial period, which I greatly appreciated.
  • Mike Duncan, The History of Rome [podcast]. Nominally a podcast, but more like an audiobook or lecture series. Duncan takes you through the full history or Rome, from its early Regal period, through the Republic, and to the very end of the Empire. I gave up on it shortly after the Republic turned to the Empire, though, when it turned into an endless parade of palace intrigues. At first I was pretty happy with the series, but after listening to the Garrett Fagan's version of it (above), I became disenchanted with Duncan's version. It was too much a series of events, not organized thematically enough for my tastes.
  • James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. Excellent. Highly recommended for just about everyone. There are two things in particular I appreciated about this book: (1) States are deeply important to how our world works, and Against the Grain investigates them in their earliest, inchoate forms. The logic of things is often laid bare at their beginnings, and this is a perfect instance of the phenomenon. (2) Scott inquires about the origin of states from a contrarian perspective. The default view that you may have inherited from our culture (as I did) portrays states as unequivocally beneficial. Civilization = good, barbarism = ugly. But Scott nearly turns this on its head. He understands life in a state — especially an early agrarian state like Uruk — to be oppressive, crowded, monotonous, and subject to all sorts of ecological and political shocks (famine, drought, pestilence, war). As you might imagine, this turns out to be an especially interesting perspective from which to inquire about early statehood, because he can't assume that life in a state is straightforwardly better than life outside it.
  • Richard O. Prum, The Evolution of Beauty [skimmed around to get the gist of it, but didn't read it cover to cover]. Provides a valuable perspective on evolution, namely, that runaway sexual selection is real and exceptionally arbitrary. Overall I was pretty disappointed in it, though. The book purports to be about beauty but focuses exclusively on sexual selection (mate choice), without so much as an index entry for flowers (smh...). In other words, the title is misleading.
  • Tara Westover, Educated. Memoir of a woman who was raised in very fringe and isolated family of Mormon survivalists, who later reconnected with mainstream society by getting into college. I don't read a lot of memoirs so I'm not well-calibrated here, but I thought it was an interesting story and very well told.
  • Ron Milo and Rob Phillips, Cell Biology by the Numbers [read about half of it]. This book pairs really well with The Machinery of Life (below). Together they paint a detailed picture of what happens inside a cell. This book, unsurprisingly, takes a more quantitative approach. It focuses on the sizes, speeds, concentrations, intensities, and many other aspects of the key objects and processes inside a cell.
  • Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life. One of the most disappointing books I've read in a long time. It was more about octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish (which are certainly cool) than about "other minds" or intelligent life per se.
  • David Goodsell, The Machinery of Life. Spectacular book for developing intuition of what goes on inside a cell. The text is OK but the illustrations are absolutely stunning and make the book worthy of a strong recommendation. If you like this blog post by Ken Shirriff, you'll probably like Goodsell's book. You can also check out most of the illustrations on Google image search.
  • Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, The Dictator's Handbook. Very good, highly recommended. See tweetstorm for more details.
  • Geoff Manaugh, A Burglar's Guide to the City [audiobook]. Strong meh. The book was entertaining enough, I suppose, and well-written, but I hardly learned anything from it. There was a very small kernel of an interesting concept, but it was spun out too far and couldn't hold the weight of a full book, IMO.
  • Cesar Hidalgo, Why Information Grows.
  • Mervyn King, The End of Alchemy. Not recommended. Offers a concrete suggestion for how to change the incentives around banking/central banking, but it doesn't seem like a great idea to me. This is the best (most critical) review, IMO. Also suggests that modern econ doesn't sufficiently emphasize our "radical uncertainty" about how markets will evolve. IOW, we put too much faith in models and don't realize how often they completely break down. Fair enough.
  • Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny. Great (and short!) book. Probably preaching to the choir, but it's a great sermon. I like Sam Harris's advice (from this podcast): The book is worth reading even if we aren't on the road to tyranny.
  • Geoffrey West, Scale. I'm strongly ambivalent about this book. On the one hand, the topics he covers are extremely important, and he brings a fresh/deep perspective to them. On the other hand, the book is poorly-written. It suffers from long-winded digressions, weird jabs against non-physicists, and (most disappointing of all) a surprising dearth of explanations for the phenomena he describes. Also I think he overstates the case for some of his big claims. If you want a good overview of the main ideas without the bother of having to read the book, I do heartily recommend this lecture of his from a few years ago.
  • Matt Ridley, The Evolution of Everything. Recommended. See tweet (TBD: some choice excerpts).
  • Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Gene. See tweetstorm. Bottom line: not recommended. It's thorough and well-written, but the ideas:stories ratio is way too low for my taste.
  • Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths, Algorithms to Live By (HT: Julia Galef, Ben Mathes). I wanted to hate this book. I expected it to be a vapid popularization of trivial ideas from computer science. Mostly, I was jealous that the authors had identified such a great idea for a book, and I was hoping they would botch the job. Buuuuut they didn't. The book was great. I can't say there was anything radically new for me (although I did learn some things), but the biggest takeaway was just how many different areas of life can be studied algorithmically. (Caveat: I skimmed and skipped around a lot.)
  • Robert Caro, Master of the Senate (HT: Kevin Kwok, Alok Singh). I made it about two-thirds of the way through, so given my track record, I'll count this one as "finished." It was great! And it was exactly as Kevin pitched it to me — simultaneously a portrait of a system and of a man within that system. In other words, it's as much about the Senate as it is about LBJ. If (like me) you dislike traditional biographies for focusing too much on psychological factors, Caro is a breath of fresh air. He's a keen systems thinker, and it shines through in his work. Bonus: some soaring prose.
  • Paul and Shou-Ching Jaminet, Perfect Health Diet. Write-up coming soon.
  • Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Solid self-help book on how to cultivate a more deliberate relationship with your possessions. Full of quirky advice inspired by Shintoism. Here's my full book report.
  • Tudor and Pearson, North Korea Confidential. Write-up coming soon.
  • Philippe Rochat, Others in Mind. I was pretty excited for this book, especially after reading Sarah Perry's riff on it. Its thesis is right up my alley — namely, that we develop self-consciousness by interacting with others and internalizing their models/judgments of us. Unfortunately I didn't get a lot out of the book, and gave up halfway through. I recommend reading Sarah's blog post instead of the book. You can also read my notes and highlights here.
  • Pieter Hintjens, The Psychopath Code. (Amazon paperback; free e-book.) Easy read, pretty insightful. Full "book report" here.
  • YouTube channels. I realize this isn't exactly "reading" material, but it's been intellectually stimulating nevertheless. I recommend PBS Space Time (astrophysics), 3Blue1Brown (math), and Caspian Report (geopolitics).
  • Podcasts. Also not "reading" material, but there's some truly amazing content out there — in particular, Hardcore History and EconTalk. These two podcasts have both been around for a while, but for some reason I didn't start listening to them until just recently, despite many recommendations. Well, let me add one more voice to the chorus: these are both excellent.
  • Martin Nowak and Roger Highfield, SuperCooperators. Read half of it, then got distracted. Excellent overview of the many different ways Nature has found to cooperate. I explored one of these mechanisms in this post, but it's good to understand all the different mechanisms. In particular, the idea that cooperation can evolve because of spatial configurations was new to me (chapter 3).
  • Michael Chwe, Rational Ritual. Read half of it, then got distracted — but it's very good. Subtitle is "Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge." If that piques your interest, you will almost certainly enjoy this book.
  • more...

Recently abandoned

  • Ed Yong, I Contain Multitudes. I know this stuff is supposed to be interesting, but I just couldn't get into it.
  • Paul Feyerabend, Against Method. Wasn't really challenging my Popperianism the way I had hoped. Probably says more about me than about the book.
  • Joseph Henrich, The Secret of Our Success. Probably a great book,
    but I'm easily distracted.

Other people's "reading" pages

All time most influential

These are the three books I recommend to everyone, largely because they're awesome, broadly appealing, and mercifully short:

  • Keith Johnstone, Impro. Packs more fascinating nuggets of insight per page than almost any other book. It's weird to be so enchanted by a book about how to teach improv. But when you're improvising, you need very quick, very accurate rules for parsing a scene and understanding your role in it. As it turns out, those rules are useful both on and off the stage.
  • Will and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History. Clocking in at just over 100 pages, it's a concise, elegant summary of the authors' 11-volume, 10,000-page series, The Story of Civilization. The ideas are broad without being shallow, and the language is absolutely breathtaking. I recommend this book to just about everyone.
  • Alan Watts, The Tao of Philosophy. Takes me very much outside of my Western/scientific/Aspie comfort zone, but in a way that really resonates with me.

And here are the rest of the books that have had the greatest influence on my thinking (in no particular order):

  • Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness. Worth reading even if it's wrong. Here's my review.
  • Erving Goffman, Interaction Ritual. Illustrates, probably better than any other book I've read, the intricate logic of social interaction.
  • Joseph Jordania, Why Do People Sing?. You can read my summary here. An absolute mindfuck of a theory. Like Jaynes, worth reading even if it's wrong.
  • Jean-Louis Dessalles, Why We Talk. Starts out slow and perhaps tedious, but picks up speed at a compounding rate, each chapter more insightful than the last. Chapters 17 and 18 explain the deepest principles of human social behavior better than any other 30 pages I've read.
  • Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest. If you don't really believe, deep in your bones, that human beings are animals, this book will fix you.
  • Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind. How humans actually, empirically, think about morality.
  • Judith Rich Harris, The Nurture Assumption. Why parents have less influence over their children than they think. Her follow-up book, No Two Alike, is also great, and was the basis for my series on personality.
  • Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations. If epistemology is the crux of a worldview, then this is what everything else hangs on.
  • Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett, The Mind's I. A collection of essays and stories illustrating all that is puzzling and fun about the philosophy of mind.
  • Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea. A college-level course in evolution, taught in Dennett's clear and engaging style.
  • Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions. Some good, solid theory about how institutions (rather than individuals) process knowledge and make decisions.
Last updated March 2, 2019.