A list of books at various stages of my reading pipeline.
Last updated: August 2020. If this gets more than a few months out of date, I'd appreciate a gentle reminder to update it (@kevinsimler).
- Will Durant, Caesar and Christ (Goodreads). Recommended by Charlie Songhurst c/o Patrick O'Shaughnessy. I'm only about halfway through, but can already tell this book deserves my hearty recommendation. It's by the author (well, coauthor) of one of my favorite books of all time, The Lessons of History. But despite reading that singular book more than a decade ago, somehow I never picked up anything else by the same author?? C'mon Kevin! The material in Caesar and Christ is classic — Roman Kingdom, Republic, Empire, the familiar story. The sensibility is also classic, as in a classical education; dated in spots, yet mostly timeless. But the best thing about this book is that the writing fucking SOARS. Worth reading for the prose alone.
- Ray Dalio, The Changing World Order (ebook serialized on the web). Recommended by @laura_yao.
- Curtis Yarvin, Gray Mirror Of The Nihilist Prince (ebook serialized on Substack).
- Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed. Recommended by @delta_ark and @danlistensto.
- Sydney George Fisher, The True History of the American Revolution (Goodreads, Amazon ← $1 Kindle). Published in 1902. Recommended by Curtis Yarvin. I really enjoyed this book, but don't feel calibrated enough on the material to recommend it. I think if you're like me — i.e., an American raised pretty uncritically on the Revolutionary War propaganda served up in history classes — then this book is a good corrective. It's the story of the American Revolution from a perspective that sees the revolutionaries as rebels, terrorists, a violent mob. Very stimulating.
- Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility (Goodreads, Amazon). You know, I went into this with an open mind; I really did. Listened to it (audiobook) with my wife, because we're both interested in the current cultural moment. But we gave up after a few chapters because it was badly written and boring. It felt like getting lectured at by a really uninspiring lecturer. I've heard Ibram Kendi's book is better and may check it out, but I couldn't take any more of this one.
- Peter Turchin, Ages of Discord (Goodreads, Amazon). I'm a fan of Turchin's thinking from reading War and Peace and War 15 years ago. And more recently, I've read a bunch of blog posts about "elite overproduction" and related concepts. So I thought I would really enjoy this one, but I gave up after a few chapters. Not entirely sure why. I think the book started to bog down in the details of Turchin's model, which bothered me because the details were kind of boring, but more importantly, the model was painfully abstract without being motivated (for the reader) by a strong intuitive framing. Like, I wish Turchin had spent the first few chapters illustrating what the model is supposed to represent — giving examples in human terms, showing the phenomena from many angles, etc. Instead he gave a brief sketch, then dove into the formal model. This inspired little confidence that the model was worthy of my attention, so I stopped paying it.
- Dierdre McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity (Goodreads, Amazon). Recommended by @antonhowes. A book about the Industrial Revolution. I really enjoyed McCloskey's writing and appreciated her approach, which differs from what I'm used to. Generally I focus on material factors: who benefits from various changes, how they benefit, where the money is going, etc. This book focuses more on ideas and moral talk, i.e., how discourse can influence the course of history. (Imagine that.) For some reason I petered out after a hundred pages or so — but since I liked the book, I can only blame my short attention span.
- Frank Herbert, Dune (Goodreads, Amazon). You shouldn't take my recommendations on fiction (really). I have poorly-developed, not to mention idiosyncratic tastes. I generally don't even like fiction! But about once a year I read a novel, hoping to find myself somehow less broken than in previous years. This year my selection was Dune, a re-read from my teenage years, which had been very formative when I first read it. Astonishingly, it held up really well. I found it a good story, but especially enjoyed the rich overtones of psychology, ecology, and religion. It's a classic for good reason. Also there's a movie coming out soon, and now my hopes are pretty high....
- John McPhee, Basin and Range (Goodreads, Amazon). Recommended by @spikespike, with McPhee in general also recommended (quite fervently) by @jsomers and @michael_nielsen. Unfortunately I only read a few chapters of this book, then got distracted and didn't pick it back up again. It was good though! I definitely see the appeal of McPhee as a writer, and I'd like to spend more time with him. But I'll probably pick up a collection of essays next.
- Bruce Ecker, Robin Ticic, and Laurel Hulley, Unlocking the Emotional Brain (Goodreads, Amazon). Recommended by @QiaochuYuan (IIRC), Kaj Sotala/@xuenay, and others. Read these reviews by Kaj Sotala and Scott Alexander. Poorly-written book, hard to read, but excellent material. If I had written this book, I would have titled it Emotional Learning and Unlearning. The thesis is that people often learn the wrong "emotional lessons" from their experiences, which lessons then get ossified as unhelpful patterns of thinking, feeling, and reacting. These patterns must then be unlearned, and the book gives a therapeutic protocol for doing so. You can think of these emotional problems as "trauma" or PTSD, except that they don't have to be severe or crippling. I like to imagine (as my friend Forrest once told me) that we're all walking around with tons of very low grade trauma. This book tries to explain what's going on + one approach to fixing it.
- Eugene Gendlin, Focusing (Goodreads, Amazon). Recommended by @QiaochuYuan (and others). Really astonishing technique for introspective emotional processing, packaged in a short, well-written, easy-to-read book (although essentially the same material is available for free a number of places online). Before reading this book and trying its technique, I had no first-hand experience of untying a psycho-emotional knot. I'd heard about other people having this experience, but didn't understand it myself. But now I realize that some (perhaps many) of my problems arise because I'm confused about my own feelings — often because there's something I'm unwilling to confront. This book gives a technique for clearing up such emotional problems. Very interesting and potentially life-changing. Pairs nicely with Unlocking the Emotional Brain.
- Dan Carlin, Blueprint for Armageddon [podcast]. Recommended by @alexeyguzey. As most of you know, Dan Carlin is an international treasure. His perspective is broad, balanced, and humane; he's far and away my preferred narrator of history. This is his six-part series on the Great War, and it's worth each of the 23 hours you'll spend listening to it (15 at 1.5x). (All other Dan Carlin/Hardcore History content is highly recommended as well.)
- Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score [paused]. Recommended by Sophia, @delta_ark, and many others. I'm intrigued by this new(?) wave of body-centered therapies and discourse around trauma. A few friends who've spent considerable energy in this idea-space tell me that basically everyone is walking around saddled with traumas. (Or things that can be productively modeled as traumas from the perspective of these therapies.) So I thought The Body Keeps the Score would be a good introduction, but a few chapters in and I'm too bored by the pace of this book. Gonna try Focusing by Gendlin and maybe Unlocking the Emotional Brain instead. Update: Just read the Slate Star Codex review, which is unsurprisingly good.
- Vaclav Smil, Energy and Civilization [paused]. Recommended by @arjunblj. I initially decided to buy this book because, well, energy is a pretty fundamental building block of the universe. It's key to understanding phenomena as disparate as stars, life, and the neoliberal world order. So I thought I would enjoy getting a more detailed understanding of its role in human history. And I have! But I didn't realize how much detail I was signing up for. It's both overwhelming and very cool at the same time. I think the main thing I'm taking away from this book is a sense for the variety and subtlety of different agricultural practices, each needing to be invented and then diffused throughout a culture, even when (as is often the case) the invention isn't clearly superior to its predecessors. Agriculture isn't just sticking seeds in the ground and coming back for the plant a few months later. It's a truly intricate affair.
- Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism [paused]. Meh.
- Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities [paused]. Oh man, this is an amazing read. (Warning: I wouldn't have appreciated this book before living in a proper/dense/walkable urban area.)
- Robert Jackall, Moral Mazes. Recommended by Zvi (quotes) and @s_r_constantin (review). Great book. I'd describe it as an ethnography of middle managers. You get to see a lot of the perverse incentives from the perspective of the players involved. I read it about the same time as watching the Chernobyl miniseries and I thought the two paired well together, since the Soviets had a very corporate system.
- Ian Worthington, The Long Shadow of the Ancient Greek World [lecture series]. I probably finished about half this lecture series before giving up. The content was great, but I found the lecturer's style a bit off-putting.
- Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media. Recommended by @david_perell, @kneelingbus, and many others. Man, I really wanted to like this, but just didn't connect with it. I think it's one of those cases where a book has so thoroughly transformed our intellectual culture that reading the original is a little underwhelming. Because I certainly love McLuhan's ideas. I just didn't enjoy the book.
- 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.
Other people's "reading" pages
- Venkatesh Rao. His was the inspiration for this page.
- David Chapman.
- Patrick O'Shaughnessy.
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.