My attitude towards books has oscillated over time. When younger, I'd lick my lips and devour reams and reams of fiction.
As I grew older and transitioned to non-fiction, I started to question why I was reading at all.
I'd reflect on books I'd read, books on topics like criminal law or infectious disease, and I'd think about the amount I'd retained. Books were only worth reading if they pushed your intellectual abilities while reading them, or if you retained most of their contents. I realised that most books did neither.
And so I stopped reading.
From the ages of about 14 to 17, I learned by scouring web forums and watching YouTube videos. It wasn't much--but it was honest, unpretentious work.
At 18, hesitantly, as if tasting a broth that had scalded me in the past, I started reading again. This time, I started reading books 3 times each, making notes where I disagreed, connecting the content to other things I'd read. I'd type up my notes. Then revisit them. Again. And. Again. I found though, that this method lent itself to number chasing. I'd set a topic I wanted to learn about, then read lots on it, taking lots of notes. In the end, I found myself racing to read books and understand their material more than to make insightful links and answer deep questions I had. Now, I find myself straddling a balance. I see books for what they are: a tool. I now set out with a few questions I want answered, and then assess which media will most clinically answer them. Sometimes the answer is a book, other times it's a documentary or a magazine article. So I sadly will not be able to end the year with some sexy statistic of how I read a book a week, because I think that's ultimately focusing on the wrong goal.
The following is a list of books I have read since the start of 2020, or those which I plan to read in the near future. Books that I found particularly excellent or those that had a profound impact on me are highlighted in blue.
Energy, Climate, Environment
- Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe
- Energy for Future Presidents One of my favorite books on energy so far. Muller is the ideal scientist--he takes a very impartial, truly objective, view of climate change--not giving into alarmist rhetoric--and gives advice to politicians from a scientific perspective understanding that they have to balance climate/energy needs with economics, national security, and more. Recommend unreservedly.
- Ten Technologies to Fix Energy and Climate Written with a distinctly British voice, but unfortunately by a non-technical person. Goodall makes lots of presumptuous claims and speculative predictions about the future without understanding the science behind the technologies he forecasts, and turns out to be wrong about almost every prediction he makes (written in 2008). Introduces a few cool new ideas like biochar, but otherwise a very bland book.
- Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash A powerful exposé of an oft-too ignored fact: we produce too much waste, and increasingly don't know what to do with it. Humes shows how consumerist culture and techno-optimism come together to create a problem of waste disposal that can only be solved by reformed culture values and legislative action. Well written, and gave me a glimpse of a world I didn't know existed.
- Energy Myths and Realities: Bringing Science to the Policy Debate
- Energy and Civilisation: A History This straddles the boundary between academic textbook and compelling narrative. Smil beautifully blends physics, geology, history, economics and anthropology into one clear tapestry depicting the past, and future, of humanity. Surveying human history, from foraging societies, waterwheels, to the electricity grid, it makes you reconsider whether technological progress is always a good thing for human happiness.
- Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities
- Feeding the World: A Challenge for the Twenty-First Century
Excellent book, written by the world's leading climate scientist. My only criticism is that he pushes his agenda of trying to convince the reader the world will end (not too much of an exaggeration, to be fair) a bit much, in an attempt to be more dramatic, but he otherwise strikes a wonderful balance between talking about science and policy. I learned a lot about climate physics from this book, even if only on a qualitative level.
- Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World Very easy read--first section about why games are so successful and important was useful, but second and third sections on ARGs and gamifying real life situations were unconvincing and insubstantive, in my opinion. Otherwise, a solid first read about the industry, reaffirming my intutuition that technology is providing a medium through which we can cheaply engineer happiness at scale through video games.
- Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made One-day read; palatable for the layperson but also commensurately shallow. It did leave me with a better understanding of game development culture, incumbent practises and attitudes, as well as how studios work organizationally and logistically, and the role of tech innovation in crafting good gameplay experiences, which is indeed what I was looking for.
- A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players
- Inside the Video Game Industry: Game Developers Talk About the Business of Play A deeper dive into programming, art, design, production, audio, and business, and how they work and interact. I wish more books like this existed: systemic expositions of how industries really operate on day-to-day and macro time scale. Sadly, this content was pre-vetted by the companies mentioned and lacked an engineering/technology focus.
- Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life
- The Well-Played Game: A Player's Philosophy
- This is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education Amateurish, tryhard writing, in my opinion. I was looking for a book examining how American public education is broken, and instead I got a pseudo-autobiography that'd be most useful for someone majoring in African American or Hispanic studies. The chapters on edtech/pedagogy were a summary of his opinions, without any factual justification.
- Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: the Digital Revolution and Schooling in America Concise, well-researched, and written in plain english, I learned more from these 150 pages than I have from almost any other book of similar length. Despite their partisan endorsement of technology in education, the authors cover everything necessary to get a good understanding of education technology's potential.
- Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns Despite lots of hand-wavey arguments and predictions that have turned out completely wrong, this book has some important ideas. Centrally, the author asserts that online courses will first be used for classes schools don't offer, and then as adaptive learning technologies mature, administrators will come around given the right organisational support (which I doubt will happen).
- The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money Engaging and thorough, impressively entertaining criticism to formalize intuitions every student has. Reaffirms that formal education involves little useful learning, and explains why edtech is unlikely to scale in the near future (but will in the long-run). Taught me a lot about how economists think and how truly rigorous social science research is done.
Defense and Military
- The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower Great book. Very readable, concise and written by the right people: former members of the IDF. Excellently peels apart how Israel cultivated a culture of innovation--survival, non-heirarchical and cross-disciplinary approaches to R&D. Scientists have battlefield experience, and vice versa. Isreal's defence and high-tech industries are case studies in innovation economics.
- Countdown to Zero Day—Cybersecurity
- Cyber Mercenaries: The State, Hackers, and Power
- Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible
- Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age
- Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War
Architecture and Urban
- Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities Better than most urban books in the sense that it actually had predictive models and evidence based argument, but almost went too far into the nitty-gritty details, at the expense of a compelling central thesis, in my opinion. I'm fascinated by Bertaud's background, and would have loved to hear more about how exactly he thinks urban planners and economists can be made to better work together.
- A History of Future Cities
- The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York
- Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier Really fun to read, but not very substantive. Despite being a core part of the urbanist canon, I didn't think Glaeser really has a cohesive thesis; he just seems to put forth a mélange of points about urban economics, with overall themes being that skyscrapers are good and ideas spread fast in cities, both of which I agree with. Worth a read, but not all it's made out to be.
- Arrival City: How The Largest Migration in History is Reshaping Our World Cities are powerful because they do two things well: increase social mobility for the poor, and generate disproportionate innovation. This book explores the first, and Glaeser's Triumph book the second. Sanders gives a rich look into how communities at the outskirts of cities promote social mobility in an important way; I feel more worldly as a result of diving into the rough suburbs of Amsterdam, Sao Paolo, Chongqing, and more.
- Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
- The Fountainhead Though I don't agree with her philosophy of objectivism and portrayal of "the independent man", there's no denying that she's a compelling writer with an unusual style. And architecture was the perfect setting through which to send her messages. More importantly, her work is accessible enough to have seriously influenced the outlooks of millions of people, which, as many "intellectuals" seem to forget, is the primary purpose of any work of literature.
- The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Mobility, Manufacturing & Logistics
- Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation Readable introduction the world of logistics, urban planning, mobility, and infrastructure: good as a first read to get intuition for what you want to learn more about, but not as systematic as I'd like. Does a great job, however, of conveying the complicated nature of incentive structures embedded in many transportation and logistical networks.
- The Mobility Revolution: Zero Emissions, Zero Accidents, Zero Ownership
- Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars
- Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate
- Alexander the Conqueror
- Caesar, Life of a Colossus A tyrant towards the end of his life, sure, but also known for his clemency and love for those close to him, and for his state. A master politician, tactician, philosopher, combat engineer and orator, 5 years in Ceasar's life contain more experiences than the entire lives of most other great people. Makes you wonder how these people would've done if they'd been alive today.
- Leonardo Da Vinci A gay, illegitemate, vegetarian who defined independent thinking. Studying Leonardo taught me how to appreciate and criticise Renaissance art, as well as what separates the very greatest from otherwise legendary figures like Michelangelo, Botticelli, Alberti (hint: it's circumstance). This book encourages you to be more curious and value your time more--every second was like liquid gold to the Italian masters, and so it should be for us.
- Bruneschelli's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture
- Shakespeare This short biography by Bryson is a fun and easy read, and I think does reasonable justice to the man--or at least the little we know about him. I wonder why we know more about Caesar than Shakespeare, why he was not really famous in his lifetime. Awesome reading vivid imagery about Elizabethan and Jacobean London, the city that laid the foundations for the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution.
- The Life of Isaac Newton Newton wrangled quantitative, empirical science as we know it today out of the clouds of Aristotlean natural philosophy. Equal parts alchemist, theologian and mathematician, physicist, his mind was characterised by obsession and curiosity. For even this quintessential recluse, his rivalry with Hooke and camaraderie with Halley sparked his invention of classical mechanics. He was less so the first of the scientists, and more the last of the magicians.
- Napoleon: A Life
- Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life
- Einstein: His Life and Universe Einstein lived one of the most interesting lives of all time. A physicist, sure, but equal parts a philosopher and womanizer, someone who had a gentle love for humanity yet was so stunningly an asshole to those close to him. Beyond his genius, it showcases how many things had to align perfectly for him to achieve the level of success and celebrity he did--his legend is largely a product of circumstance, with many equally brilliant scientists being forgotten in his wake.
- Churchill: Walking With Destiny A thousand-page thriller. Roberts does a top job of weaving narrative with amusing factual detail. Beyond Churchill's impressive ability to be playful and inspiring under great pressure, I learned lots about British colonialism, both World Wars, the day-to-day lives of politicians, military history, and more. This book made me think a lot about posterity, and how our descendents will view modern civilisation--as bickering barbarians or visionary ancestors.
- Steve Jobs Jobs epitomises Silicon Valley hubris, and is more conceited than anyone else on this list. He never really invented much himself, but was excellent at identifying hidden gems and being relentlessly resourceful to get them to market. His end-to-end design philosophy enabled Apple to make step-function improvements amidst a landscape of incrementalism. A product visionary and world-class businessman, but not on the same level as others on this list.
- Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact
- The Making of the Atomic Bomb One of my new favorite books of all time. Goes deep into experimental physics, organizational psychology, military history, macroeconomics, and more. It's rare that a single book can simultaneously foment awe, deep curiosity, goosebumps, anguish, and leave you feeling hollow, yet, somehow, intellectually sated at the end. A must-read for anyone who is interested in what makes small groups able to exert a disproportionate impact on the world.
- Skunk Works
- The Wright Brothers Great and concise read; really showcases how "experts" can easily suffer from cognitive biases, and that if you have strong academic foundations and an obsessive interest in a specific subject, you can get up-to speed with "world experts" in a matter of months. Reminder that "so many people are working on this tough problem, how could I possibly hope to solve it" is never a good line of reasoning, since most such people are not trying very hard.
- Organizing Genius Takes a high level view to study what makes small groups "great". From Disney in its early days to Bill Clinton's presidential campaign, Xerox PARC and the Manhattan Project. Has some important take-aways and is a short, easy read, but I didn't think it gave very many surprising or particularly useful insights. Written in a bit of an MBA-esque tone, but definitely worth a read anyways.
- Dealers of Lightning Excellent book, did everything one could hope for, and more. A palatable yet factually detailed overview of the founding, golden-age, and decline of one of the most underappreciated research organizations to have ever existed. Doesn't succumb to popular yet reductionist narratives of Xerox "fumbling the future". Clearly illustrates how scientific research is as much a story of humanity and politics as of science itself.
- The Idea Factory
- The Private Lives of the Impressionists
- Of Men and Numbers Some good stories in here and interestingly told, but I think I knew about enough of it for it to be somewhat uninteresting after a certain point. I'd recommend for others, though I think I'm going to spend more time going deeper into math itself rather than reading about its philosophy and history from now on.
- Idea Makers Some bits are revealing about scientific figures I hadn't known much about before, but the book is eminently unreadable becaues of the pervasive stench of self-righteousness coming from Wolfram. He spends a lot of time reflecting on why his work will go down as great, and why those that have disagreed with him are mistake, or why the great scientists of ages past missed his profound insights.
- Exact Thinking In Demented Times Vienna in the 1930s seems like someplace special. The young intellectuals that wandered university halls consumed science and art to the hilt, and epitomize the idea of intellectual vitality. I can only hope that Cambridge, MA, is a close approximation to this "coffeehouse" culture that characterized the time of the Vienna circle, which seems surreal, to say the least. Excellent book about a topic I don't know much about (philosophy of science).
- One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon
- The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler Fascinating one-day-read sinching together stories of South American conquistadors and German nationalist coups in equal measure. I left with renewed faith in private markets creating value at scale; there are many similarities between Bosch, BASF and modern high-tech. I lament only that Haber is given most of the credit for a process others crucially helped devise.
- Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences My first real foray into historiometry: a fascinating text. Despite some chapters that I found too politically charged or philosophically abstract, much of this book was novel and thought-provoking, giving a phenomenal overview of the human quest for intellectual excellence. A good example of how "progress studies" can be insightful, even if it has a ways to go.
- How to Solve It: An Introduction to Mathematical Problem-Solving
- How to Prove It: A Structured Approach A beautiful introduction to rigorous and abstract university-level mathematics. Gently yet unambiguously, this book goes covers the foundations of symbolic logic to axiomatic set theory to equivalence relations to strong induction and everything in between. Perfectly pitched exercises, I strongly recommend high school seniors considering quantitative majors go through this.
- How Not To Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking
- Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy This book gives you deep intuition for fundamental economic ideas through clear anecdotes. From fractional reserve banking to comparative advantage to fiscal policy, it's all done without using any jargon, equations or graphs. Most people would benefit from a thorough read, and re-read, of this book.
- Good Economics for Hard Times
- Thinking, Fast and Slow For all its reputational heft, this was a disappointment. I think most of the heuristics and biases described in this book are obvious to any seasoned souk merchant (anchoring), insecure teenager (halo effect), or someone who has taken a first course in statistics (regression to the mean), even if they aren't thinking in such formal terms. Gives the impression that most social scientists have never had to actually live in the real world.
- The Black Swan Main take-away was that we're really bad at predicting tail-risks (small probabilities), and events governed by such probabilities are often what move world history. I agree with much of his criticism of statistics (it is unable to predict outliers, which are really the points that matter most) making assumptions of mathematical convienience, but I'd like to hear him talk to statisticians proper since this seemed like a watered-down attack on the subject at large, when I think he has much more substantive stuff to say than he lets on.
- Antifragile This is what I think Taleb will be remembered for in 100 years. This is his actionable conclusion for what we should do "in a world we do not understand," and I think he is right. It's surprising no-one coined such a word as "antifragile" before because it does seem to be an important idea. I think his approach of treating complex systems cautiously and avoiding theorizing about mechanisms in the social sciences is totally right. Another excellent read.
- Skin In The Game Another long-form essay. I like this form because it's easy and fun to read, which is ultimately the point of any book, but I felt like this book in particular was just a 10 page thesis about ownership of risk than something that needed to be an entire stand-alone book. Taleb also articulates one of my hesitations on going into academia. Beyond replication difficulties, the shame of bearing no risk for my actions would hang around my neck like a stone.
- Gödel, Escher, Bach
- When Gödel Walked With Einstein This is mostly an exposition of the beauty and wonder of math for the lay reader. I think it's well written and the topics are well chosen, but since I've seen many of the ideas before, I didn't get much out of this book. I would recommend for someone studying a non-technical subject like computer science or economics.
- Down And Out in Paris and London If the role of fiction is to engage you and help you see through the eyes of the author, then this book does that perfectly. I don't know what it's like to live in Paris, or what it's like to be homeless in a rich country, but this book game me a glimpse at both. As refreshing as it was thought-provoking.
- Wolf Hall
- A Moveable Feast
- The English Patient
- Midnight's Children
- Shōgun Utterly fantastic. Very much like Dune in its emphasis on political intrigue through "feints within feints within feints." The plot is never predictable and always thrilling, teaching you about the history and culture of feudal Japan without you even realizing it. The fact that it finishes in the middle of the action enhances leads to a predictable yet somehow satisfying ending.
- Lonesome Dove
- The Three Body Problem This book kept me up at night. It was gripping, but also haunting. Cixin manages to juggle themes as varied as communism, philosophy of science, Chinese culture, first contact, human morality, environmentalism, virtual reality, history of technology, into one compelling storyline. It makes you more fully appreciate how reality is often stranger than even the most twisted fiction.
- The Dark Forest Just as good as the first book. Loved the plot complexity centred around the Wallfacer project. It explores the scale of the universe more deeply, and the clichéd emotional meanderings--surprisingly--don't come off as cheap. Big Liu presents an ultimately optimistic message about human technological progress masked by a thrilling plot.
- Death's End A let down, as most trilogy finales seem to be. Instead of the subtle, surprising plot twists that characterize the first two books, it feels like big Liu ran out of ideas and tried to make up for it by rapidly escalating the grandeur and scale of the plot. On balance still worth reading, but only just.
- Dune Really amazing, and I can totally see why it's championed as a crown-jewel of sci-fi. It defines the "space-opera" genre, setting Machiavellian political machinations against a background of futuristic, intergalactic-scale civilisation. The otherwise prosaic writing style only serves to make the richness and beauty of the plot stand out even further.
- Dune Messiah A necessary follow-up to the first novel insofar as setting the stage for the rest of the series, but a bit underwhelming. Still had an engaging plot that stayed true to the saga's emphasis on "feints within feints within feints." Herbert went slighly overboard with some of the drama and waxing without establishing sufficient context and world-building, but still a great read.
- Children of Dune I really liked this, which is an opinion that seems to go against the grain. It had the plot pace of Dune with the political complexity and philosophy of Dune Messiah. A fitting end to the first trilogy: starting with an old Duke tragically walking into a trap, and ending with his grandson being crowned perpetual dictator of humanity.
- God Emporer of Dune This book is divisive: some readers herald it as revolutionary, and others discard it as impenetrable. It's Herbert's attempt at a philosophical treatise on power, religion, posterity and the human place in the universe, veiled as a fiction novel. My own stance is somewhere in the middle: it was readable and thought-provoking, but not as good as the first or third novels, which took more subtle jabs at the same themes.
- Hyperion Cantos
- The Diamond Age
- Axiomatic This is a collection of short stories by Greg Egan, a niche hard sci-fi writer. I thought it was absolutely phenomenal. Because he's trained as a mathematician, his world-building is eerily detailed in a way that only furthers immersion, exposing (much in the spirit of 3 Body Problem) how twisted the laws of science can be. This is his work I enjoy most since any longer book by him quickly becomes too dense for me.
- Neuromancer Lots of chat heralding this as "genre-defining" for cyberpunk, which indeed it is, full to the brim with vivid imagery of brain-computer interfaces, god-like AIs, immersive virtual reality, and more, but, nonetheless a slightly disappointing read. It was interesting and well written, but not stunning or gripping in the way you'd expect when told about its reputation.
- The Count of Monte Cristo
- 100 Years of Solitude
- Notes From Underground
- The Man Who Solved the Market: How Jim Simons Launched the Quantitative Revolution At first, I didn't like this book because it used a lot of jargon--"sub-prime mortgages" and "statistical arbitrage strategies". However, once I invested the time to learn what all of them meant, this book was a great exposé of the quant hedge fund space. The book also opened my eyes to the large amount of interplay between academia and industry.
- McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld I couldn't finish this book. Misha Glenny introduces hundreds of ancillary characters and when describing webs of illicit activity, the storylines get so unecessarily convoluted that it becomes very tedious to work through. What I did take away is that crime flourishes in times of political instability, and criminals are all around us, everyday.
- Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China Engaging and very well written. The Chinese blend of authoritarian capitalism has worked wonders for pulling masses out of poverty, but is too constrictive for an emerging middle class to tolerate for much longer. Reminded me that China is not a homogenous black box of censorship, but a country full of a billion unique, hopeful individuals, vying for their own space to breathe and dream.
- String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis DFW is one of my favourite writers ever. He writes tons about the most trivial and inconsequential details, yet somehow breathes life into them. Equal parts pop-culture and classical references, he describes feelings that all tennis players experience, but few have the expository prowess (or wherewithall) to put their fingers on.
- The Heretics: Adventures With the Enemies of Science Mixed feelings. This book certainly did leave me both more understanding of people with "outlandish" beliefs, and appreciative of the psychological tricks we play on ourselves. However, it was broad and shallow in scope, made strong but unfounded comments about psychology, and fell victim to a purple, try-hard style at the expense of clarity.
- The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life
- Out of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China
- Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa
- The Tycoons: How Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and J. P. Morgan Invented the American Supereconomy
- The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century Pinker is a masterful writer, and this book is at its strongest when he is commenting on prose and imbuing his analyses with his background in linguisitics and psychology. This comprises much of the first few chapters. However, much of the latter part of the book devolves into a grammar reference that gives advice that most people with a strong grasp of high school English should already know.
- The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World
- Anthropic Bias (Studies in Philosophy)
- Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic
Got recommendations? Drop me a note!