Tag Archives: Book Recommendations

Spring 2016 Reading List — More Curated Recommendations For a Curious Mind

We hear a lot from people who want to read more. That’s a great sentiment. But it won’t actually happen until you decide what you’re going to do less of. We all get 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. It’s up to you how you’ll spend that time.

For those who want to spend it reading, we’ve come across a lot of great books so far this year. Here are seven recommendations across a variety of topics. Some are newer, some are older — true knowledge has no expiration date.

1. The Evolution of Everything

Matt Ridley is a longtime favorite. Originally a PhD zoologist, Ridley went on to write great books like The Red Queen and The Rational Optimist, and wrote for The Economist for a while. This book makes the argument for how trial-and-error style evolution occurs across a wide range of phenomena. I don’t know that I agree with all of it, but he’s a great thinker and a lot of people will really enjoy the book.

2. A Powerful Mind: The Self-Education of George Washington

What a cool book idea by Adrienne Harrison. There are a zillion biographies of GW out there, with Chernow’s getting a lot of praise recently. But Harrison narrows in on Washington’s self-didactic nature. Why did he read so much? How did he educate himself? Any self-motivated learner is probably going to enjoy this. We’ll certainly cover it here at some point.

3. The Tiger

A Ryan Holiday recommendation, The Tiger is the story of a man-eating tiger in Siberia. Like, not that long ago. Pretty damn scary, but John Vaillant is an amazing writer who not only tells the tale of the tiger-hunt, but weaves in Russian history, natural science, the relationship between man and predator over time, and a variety of other topics in a natural and interesting way. Can’t wait to read his other stuff. I read this in two flights.

4. The Sense of Style

This is such a great book on better writing, by the incomparable Steven Pinker. We have a post about it here, but it’s worth re-recommending. If you’re trying to understand great syntax in a non-dry and practical way — Pinker is careful to show that great writing can take many forms but generally shares a few underlying principles — this is your book. He weaves in some cognitive science, which must be a first for a style guide.

5. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

I really loved this book. It’s written by Ed Catmull, who along with John Lasseter built the modern Pixar, which is now part of Disney. Catmull talks about the creative process at Pixar and how their movies go from a kernel of an idea to a beautiful and moving finished product. (Hint: It takes a long time.) Pixar is one of the more brilliant modern companies, and Bob Iger’s decision to buy it when he was named CEO of Disney ten years ago was a masterful stroke. I suspect Catmull and Lasseter are hugely responsible for the resurgence of Disney animation.

6. The Song Machine

This is a tough recommendation because it simultaneously fascinates and horrors me. The book is about the development of modern glossy pop music. I suspect anyone with an interest in music will be interested to see how this goes, with some people reading out of morbid curiosity and some because they want to learn more about the music they actually listen to. Pursue at your peril. I pulled out my old ’90s rock music to soothe myself.

7. Plato at the Googleplex

Does philosophy still matter? Rebecca Goldstein, who is a modern analytical philosopher, goes after this topic in a pretty interesting way by exploring what it’d be like if Plato were interacting with the modern world. Very quirky subject matter and approach, but I actually appreciated that. There’s a lot of cookie-cutter writing going on and Goldstein breaks out as she explores a timeless topic. Probably most reserved for those actually interested in philosophy, but even if you’re not, it might stretch your brain a bit.

Bonus Bestseller

Alexander Hamilton

Farnam Street related travel has brought me to quite a few airports recently. I make a habit of checking out the airport bookstores because bookstores are awesome. Recently, I noticed that Chernow’s biography of Hamilton was suddenly sitting amongst the bestsellers. Chernow’s books are amazing, but airport bestsellers? It wasn’t until I realized that Hamilton’s life had been turned into a massive smash hit Broadway play, based on the book, that everything clicked. In any case, if you want to learn about an amazing American life and also be “part of the conversation,” check out Hamilton.

Not Sure What to get the Book Worm on Your List? Start here

All of the 2015 Farnam Street Reading lists together in one shareable place.

Start here if you’re still searching for the perfect gift for the book lover on your list. (The curious can compare with the 2014 and 2013 edition.)

Of course there is also the list of what we’ve been reading.

The Best Non-Fiction Books of 2015: The Year of the Biography

One of my favorite sources of reading material is Tyler Cowen. He’s consistently finding exceptional things that I’ve never heard of. His 2015 non-fiction list is no exception.

If he had to pick four favorites out of this list he would choose Musk, Kissinger, Thatcher, and Genghis Khan. (Also revisit his selections from 2014, 2013, and 2012.)

Here is the entire list (in no order).

Kissinger: Volume I: The Idealist, 1923-1968 by Niall Ferguson.
Cowen calls this a “background on America being screwed up.” We were a little more verbose in a recent edition of Brain Food, writing : “We love everything about this book from the font and the way the pages are laid out to the wonderful content. Niall Ferguson offers a rich look at how Kissinger came to be one of the pre-eminent statesmen of the past 100 years. As good as Ferguson is—and he’s magical—it’s the excerpts from Kissinger that really ignite the fire in my mind. A perfect Christmas gift for the intellectually curious.”

Elon Musk: Tesla, Space X, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
We’d love to have Musk on The Knowledge Project. If anyone can connect us …

Japan and the Shackles of the Past by R. Taggart Murphy
I’ve heard conflicting opinions on this book and Cowen seems to emphasize the last section, calling it “brilliant on current Japanese politics.”

Mastering ‘Metrics: The Path from Cause to Effect
We have a tendency to jump from cause to effect. This book offers the statistical tools to underpin doing that in system two thinking.

Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science by Dani Rodrik.
“In this sharp, masterfully argued book, Dani Rodrik, a leading critic from within, takes a close look at economics to examine when it falls short and when it works, to give a surprisingly upbeat account of the discipline.”

The English and Their History by Robert Tombs
“A startlingly fresh and a uniquely inclusive account of the people who have a claim to be the oldest nation in the world. The English first came into existence as an idea, before they had a common ruler and before the country they lived in even had a name. They have lasted as a recognizable entity ever since, and their defining national institutions can be traced back to the earliest years of their history.”

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics by Richard H. Thaler
“Self-recommending,” says Cowen.

Guantánamo Diary, by Mohamedou Ould Slahi
The “first and only diary written by a still-imprisoned Guantánamo detainee.”

Genghis Khan: His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy by Frank McLynn
“Mongol leader Genghis Khan was by far the greatest conqueror the world has ever known. His empire stretched from the Pacific Ocean to central Europe, including all of China, the Middle East, and Russia. So how did an illiterate nomad rise to such colossal power and subdue most of the known world, eclipsing Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon? Credited by some with paving the way for the Renaissance, condemned by others for being the most heinous murderer in history, who was Genghis Khan?”

Hive Mind: How Your Nation’s IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own by Garett Jones

Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science by Daniel P. Todes
“By the way,” Cowen teases, “the whole salivating dog at the bell story is a fiction.”

The Mahabarata, by Carole Satyamurti

The Midas Paradox: Financial Markets, Government Policy Shocks, and the Great Depression by Scott Sumner

Foolproof: Why Safety Can be Dangerous, and How Danger Makes Us Safe
“How the very things we create to protect ourselves, like money market funds or anti-lock brakes, end up being the biggest threats to our safety and wellbeing.”

In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China by Michael Meyer
In a review of this book in the LA Review of Books, Adam Minter writes: “So long as there have been memoirs, potential memoirists have sought out difficult places in which they might learn about the people and history of the place and — ultimately — about themselves. In one sense, Meyer is no different. In Manchuria is a bet that the desolate plains of northeast China will be more interesting to him and his readers than they are to most Chinese, and even to most residents of Manchuria.”

Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession by Ian Bostridge
“Completed in the last months of the young Schubert’s life, Winterreise has come to be considered the single greatest piece of music in the history of Lieder. Deceptively laconic—these twenty-four short poems set to music for voice and piano are performed uninterrupted in little more than an hour—it nonetheless has an emotional depth and power that no music of its kind has ever equaled.”

Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers by Avivah Zornberg
More of Zornberg’s award winning commentary on the Torah.

North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors by Daniel Tudor and James Pearson,
Insight into how things work there.

The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy
A good understanding of Ukraine’s storied past.

Hun Sen’s Cambodia by Sebastian Strangio
Cowen writes this “goes deep into a place most people are ignoring.”

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia
“Journalist Michael Booth has lived among the Scandinavians for more than ten years, and he has grown increasingly frustrated with the rose-tinted view of this part of the world offered up by the Western media. ”

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder
“A brilliant, haunting, and profoundly original portrait of the defining tragedy of our time.”

Who is Charlie: Xenophobia and the New Middle Class by Emmanuel Todd
“In the wake of the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris on 7 January 2015, millions took to the streets to demonstrate their revulsion, expressing a desire to reaffirm the ideals of the French Republic: liberté, égalité, fraternité. But who were the millions of demonstrators who were suddenly united under the single cry of ‘Je suis Charlie’?”

Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane
“How to talk, think, and write about the British countryside,” Cowen offers.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World
The foundations of modern environmentalism. He changed the way we see the world.

The Iran-Iraq War by Pierre Razoux
“From 1980 to 1988, Iran and Iraq fought the longest conventional war of the twentieth century. The tragedies included the slaughter of child soldiers, the use of chemical weapons, the striking of civilian shipping in the Gulf, and the destruction of cities. The Iran-Iraq War offers an unflinching look at a conflict seared into the region’s collective memory but little understood in the West.”

Margaret Thatcher: At her Zenith: In London, Washington, and Moscow, vol.2 of the biography, 1984-1987 by Charles Moore.
“This one I haven’t finished yet,” Cowen writes. “I ordered my copy advance from UK Amazon, it doesn’t come out in the U.S. until early January. There is some chance this is the very best book of the year.”

The 2015 Farnam Street Members Book List

Today’s book list is based on recommendations by Farnam Street Members on Slack over the last few months. If you’re not familiar with it, our community on Slack is a discussion area for members, and one of our ongoing discussions is book recommendations.

We’ve compiled and organized eleven of their favorite choices, especially ones we haven’t seen recommended elsewhere. Enjoy!

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

“The book was initially intended to be a serious travel guide, with accounts of local history along the route, but the humorous elements took over to the point where the serious and somewhat sentimental passages seem a distraction to the comic novel. One of the most praised things about Three Men in a Boat is how undated it appears to modern readers – the jokes seem fresh and witty even today.”

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt

“Haidt sifts Eastern and Western religious and philosophical traditions for other nuggets of wisdom to substantiate—and sometimes critique—with the findings of neurology and cognitive psychology.”

Black Box Thinking: Why Most People Never Learn from Their Mistakes, But Some Do by Matthew Syed

“Syed draws on a wide range of sources—from anthropology and psychology to history and complexity theory—to explore the subtle but predictable patterns of human error and our defensive responses to error. He also shares fascinating stories of individuals and organizations that have successfully embraced a black box approach to improvement, such as David Beckham, the Mercedes F1 team, and Dropbox.” (Pair with Mistakes were Made (But not by Me) by Carol Tavris to see how we rationalize our own mistakes.)

Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious by Gerd Gigerenzer

“Gigerenzer’s theories about the usefulness of mental shortcuts were a small but crucial element of Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Blink, and that attention has provided the psychologist, who is the director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, the opportunity to recast his academic research for a general audience. The key concept—rules of thumb serve us as effectively as complex analytic processes, if not more so—is simple to grasp.” (Pair with Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman for a different approach.)

The Means of Ascent by Robert Caro

The second book in the Lyndon Johnson series, written by Robert Caro. This one tackles his service in WWII, building his fortune, and his 1948 election to the Senate, which Caro concludes that Johnson stole. Charlie Munger once commented that LBJ was important to study, simply because he never told the truth when a lie would do better. (Pair with the other books in the series.)

The Effective Engineer: How to Leverage Your Efforts In Software Engineering to Make a Disproportionate and Meaningful Impact by Edmond Lau

“The most effective engineers — the ones who have risen to become distinguished engineers and leaders at their companies — can produce 10 times the impact of other engineers, but they’re not working 10 times the hours.” Learn how a great engineer thinks, even if you’re not one yourself.

The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World by Jenny Uglow

“In the 1760s a group of amateur experimenters met and made friends in the English Midlands. Most came from humble families, all lived far from the center of things, but they were young and their optimism was boundless: together they would change the world. Among them were the ambitious toymaker Matthew Boulton and his partner James Watt, of steam-engine fame; the potter Josiah Wedgwood; the larger-than-life Erasmus Darwin, physician, poet, inventor, and theorist of evolution (a forerunner of his grandson Charles). Later came Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen and fighting radical.”

Fermat’s Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World’s Greatest Mathematical Problem by Simon Sing

xn + yn = zn, where n represents 3, 4, 5, …no solution “I have discovered a truly marvelous demonstration of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain.” With these words, the seventeenth-century French mathematician Pierre de Fermat threw down the gauntlet to future generations.”  (Pair with Number: The Language of Science by Tobais Dantzig, about the development of mathematics over time by human culture.)

Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World by René Girard

“An astonishing work of cultural criticism, this book is widely recognized as a brilliant and devastating challenge to conventional views of literature, anthropology, religion, and psychoanalysis.”

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales 

“Survivors, whether they’re jet pilots landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier or boatbuilders adrift on a raft in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, share certain traits: training, experience, stoicism and a capacity for their logical neocortex (the brain’s thinking part) to override the primitive amygdala portion of their brains. Although there’s no surefire way to become a survivor, Gonzales does share some rules for adventure gleaned from the survivors themselves: stay calm, be decisive and don’t give up.”

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman

Written in the 1950s, an interesting look at how we present ourselves to others in social settings, using analogies from dramatic theatre. Reminds us of Shakespeare: “All the world’s a stage.”

The Books That Influenced C. Roland Christensen

C. Roland Christensen
I thought C Roland Christensen’s response in The Harvard Guide to Influential Books: 113 Distinguished Harvard Professors Discuss the Books That Have Helped to Shape Their Thinking was one of the more interesting. Christensen was a pioneer in the field of business strategy. We can also thank him for reviving the case method from the ancient Greeks.

In the preface to his response, he writes:

Here are the books—all old, dog-eared, reread and reread, little (no big fat volumes), most committed to memory—of my five-inch bookshelf. But they miss the greatest influence on this educator—Miss Adams, a seventh-grade teacher in Iowa City, Iowa. She introduced me to poetry, where the ultimate wisdom —the philosophy of life—is found. The first step in the development of an anthology was our study of “Miniver Cheevey” by Edwin Arlington Robinson. It is still exciting fifty-four years after that original encounter.

What Is History? by Edward H. Carr

Carr’s little book has a magnificent message—to live we must understand our historical roots. Carr gives us a way of
understanding the past so as to predict the future.

Can Man Be Modified? Jean Rostand

Rostand, a biologist, views man in a very human way, examines how science is impacting that basic humanness and then teases us with what he/she will be in future centuries.

How to Run a Bassoon Factory, or Business Explained by Mark Spade

Spade tickles the mind; with tongue in cheek, he describes business so that one laughs—even roars—at his chosen vocation.

The Insect World by J. Henri Fabre

Fabre looks at the smallest and lowest—insects—and shows us their great abilities—even wisdom. A constant reminder to look at the ordinary to see the extraordinary.

The Art of Scientific Investigation by William I. Beveridge

For the investigator, this little book is a gold mine of reflection and practical suggestion. He brings the power of scientific discipline to bear on everyday life.

Power Without Property by Adolph A. Berle, Jr.

The book raises fundamental questions about modern business organization and ownership. It outlines the quiet revolution which has changed the power bases of our industrial society.

Follow your curiosity, for more in this series check out the books that influenced E. O. Wilson, B. F. Skinner, Thomas C. Shelling, Michael J. Sandel, Jerome Kagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and John Kenneth Galbraith.

Reads for the Curious Mind

summer reading list

Out of the 44 books I read from January to June, here are the 7 that resonated with me the most. (For the curious see the 2012, 2013, I can’t find the 2014 edition.)

  1. Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices make All the Difference — This book is an invitation to be curious, build character, and make better choices. Very much in line with the Farnam Street ethos — so much so that I’m mentioned in the acknowledgements. It belongs on your shelf next to Seeking Wisdom.
  2. Sit Like a Buddha: A Pocket Guide to Meditation — If I could encourage you to look into one thing to think and focus better, this would be it. This is an enormously powerful little book that will help you focus your mind, open your heart, and think with more insight. It’s short enough to consume over a glass of wine (or two) on the patio and simple enough that you’ll want to put it into practice.
  3. The Lessons of History — A concise book of lessons drawn from the survey of history. The book comes highly recommended by someone I met at the Berkshire Hathaway meeting. I can’t believe I haven’t read this before. I’ll be re-reading this a few times and I’ve started listening to the audio version in the car as well.
  4. The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship — A beautiful and thought-provoking book that argues we should stop thinking in terms of work-life balance. “Work-life balance is a concept that has us simply lashing ourselves on the back and working too hard in each of the three commitments. In the ensuing exhaustion we ultimately give up on one or more of them to gain an easier life.”
  5. How to Get Lucky: 13 Techniques for Discovering and Taking Advantage of Life’s Good Breaks — Some people are luckier than others and it’s not always by chance. Lucky people tend to position themselves in the path of luck. They take risks but not stupid ones. They know when to give up on love, stocks, and even opinions. A great read.
  6. Obvious Adams: The Story of a Successful Businessman — a short, yet important, book that I wish more people would read and think about. (You can find a pdf here.) In a nutshell the book represents the mindset that “avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance.” It’s amazing what we see when we focus on the obvious insights that we’re missing because we’re trying too hard to grasp the esoteric.
  7. The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere — An excellent counterbalance to our endless diet of movement and stimulation.