I read (or listened to) thirty-nine books since my last book list post in 2020. Four were fiction, thirty-five were non-fiction.
Table of Contents
- Table of Contents
- Surely you’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!
- Lost in Thought
- A Mind for Numbers
- The Moral Animal
- The Language Instinct
- Hunter Gather’s Guide
- What I talk about When I Talk about Running
- The Double Helix
- The Happiness Trap
- Blood, Sweat, and Pixels
- Some Remarks
- On Writing
- What if?
- The Price of Time
- How the World Really Works
- Sid Meier’s Memoir!
- Turing’s Cathedral
- Alfred Nobel
- Conan Doyle
- Professor Maxwell’s Duplicitous Demon
- Algorithms to Live By
- Sharlot Herself and Wicked Prescott
- The Botany of Desire
- The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck
- The Book of Eels
- How to?
- Novelist as a Vocation
- World Travel
- This Idea is Brilliant
- This Idea must Die
I posted about books I read in 2019, but haven’t since then. Here’s my update. I’m listing these in descending order, from books I enjoyed the most to those I enjoyed the least. Clicking on the image will bring you to their Amazon page.
The Three-Body Problem
I really enjoyed this science-fiction novel by Liu Cixin. I can’t say much about it without risking spoilers, so I’ll just recommend it for anyone who enjoys science, astronomy, radio, physics, or ethics.
I’ve been a fan of Neal Stephenson’s science fiction for many years, so I thought I’d try his historical fiction. Quicksilver didn’t disappoint. Set in 17th century England, it follows the lives of several prominent natural philosophers (the early term for scientist) throughout the upheaval of plague, fire, political and religious turmoil. Fans of the history of science will enjoy this.
I also tried the sequel, King of the Vagabonds, and didn’t finish it.
Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th century collection of short stories was an unexpected delight. I was told this was a collection of classic stories from Medieval Italy, and expected something akin to adult Aesop’s fables. Instead it was an eclectic collection of hilarious and raunchy stories which were surprisingly relatable. This is one of the oldest pieces of fiction I’ve ever read, yet it touched on so many aspects of human nature which remain unchanged, and it did so in a way that still made me laugh 600+ years later.
Definitely not for children, but good for anyone who wants a laugh (or enjoys romance novels).
Fall, or Dodge in Hell
If Stephenson has a fault, it’s that he cannot resist going into detail unnecessarily. The overall premise and story of this novel was great, and I highly enjoyed reading most of it, but a few portions were a real slog.
If you like Stephenson, read it. If not, skip.
Surely you’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!
I’ve seen Feynman’s memoir recommended many times, and I now understand why. Feynman is an excellent storyteller, and his fascinating life contains much humor and cleverness (and more than a dash of mischief). This isn’t limited to his contributions to the Manhattan project, or physics in general, it goes deeply into many different aspects of his life. If you’ve ever been interested in science or scientists, read this book.
Dave Sobel’s book is the story of how humanity was able to overcome a difficult problem: determining longitude at sea. Navigation was incredibly dangerous in the past, partially because longitude couldn’t be determined. There were many competing theories and attempts to solve the problem, and this book does a wonderful job relaying the history in an interesting way.
Lost in Thought
The subtitle of this book reads, “The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life.” Zena Hitz makes a case for investing deeply in a rich inner life, and she does by appealing to both current and ancient sources. I found her analysis of some modern films and books very interesting, and her case compelling. If anyone is uncertain about whether or not intellectual pursuits are “worth the time,” I’d hand them this book.
This famous book is about Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to be the first group to cross Antarctica on land. Alfred Lansing tells the story well, and it’s hard not to be in awe of what these men endured. If you’re not familiar with the Shackleton Expedition, read this book.
A Mind for Numbers
I’ve done well academically, but math was never intuitive to me. As I’ve been diving deeply into the fascinating world of Artificial Intelligence, I wanted to understand the underlying math, especially linear algebra. This was daunting, and so I began searching for a book to help give me the confidence to tackle learning new mathematical concepts (as I approach 40). I saw this book recommended, and I’m very glad I bought it.
Barbara Oakley shares her own story of disliking math, and how she eventually came to love it. More importantly, she shares her advice on how to learn. I expected this to be specific to math, but the advice was useful for any new concept. It isn’t necessarily groundbreaking - many of the recommendations are staples of independent learning such as using flashcards - but it’s told in a straightforward manner, gives the neuroscience behind why certain techniques work and other don’t, and adds encouraging stories from other learners.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is driven to learn something, but is concerned it might be beyond their capabilities. I can see older teenagers / college students particularly finding this useful.
The Moral Animal
The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology was published in 1995 by Robert Wright. It was meant to introduce the comparatively new field of evolutionary psychology, and apply some of the findings to human relationships, especially human sexuality.
I find evolutionary psychology endlessly fascinating - most people understand how our physical bodies have slowly adapted to our environments over time, yet they often don’t apply this same process to our brain. Our brains and minds have evolved for survival in vastly different conditions than we find ourselves in today, and this can cause serious conflict between what our “animal” bodies want, versus what our “moral” social conditioning will allow.
When an author tackles taboo subjects in a serious, scientific way, the results can challenge preconceived notions, and I found myself surprised at some of the conclusions. Very thought provoking, I highly recommend reading this if you want to understand human nature and sexuality.
The Language Instinct
I’ve enjoyed Pinker’s work, and this book is no exception, with a caveat: some sections go into far more depth about language (especially phonetics) than I desired. I did find myself skipping around a bit. However, I enjoyed the basic case being made: Humans aren’t a blank slate; we were hardwired by evolution to understand language. Pinker makes the case in multiple ways. If language itself doesn’t interest you, then obviously skip this one.
Hunter Gather’s Guide
A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century: Evolution and the Challenges of Modern Life is another book which heavily discusses evolutionary psychology, but is less focused on describing the past and more focused on describing humanity’s current situation. Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein make the case that our ancestral environments were dramatically different from our modern environment, and this causes a whole host of problems.
It was interesting to read this after having read The Moral Animal, which is much more descriptive about the past and also seems to come to the conclusion that our modern beliefs are somewhat incompatible with our ancient bodies. This book instead focuses more on how cultural has evolved alongside our bodies and brains, and that cultural evolution cannot be viewed separately from biological evolution. From that perspective, they are less inclined to disregard our modern “moral” beliefs, but they do worry quite a bit about our new environment.
This is another thought provoking book, and anyone interested in evolutionary psychology should read it.
What I talk about When I Talk about Running
Haruki Murakami is a famous novelist, but I haven’t read any of his novels. I was looking for an audiobook to listen to when I ran, and my brother recommended this.
I haven’t read too many memoirs, but I loved this book. The author is unashamed to lay out his inner monologue for his readers, in a way that borders on self-indulgent, but never crosses the line. It was refreshing to hear an active mind display his thoughts, sometimes in great detail, and reflect on his life. I also appreciated his willingness to give straightforward advice, especially around self-discipline, in a humble way.
The Double Helix
The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA is another memoir, this one by James D. Watson. Anyone who has studied the history of science knows just how human the process is, and this memoir is an excellent example of looking beyond the scientific accomplishments and into the background of how these achievements actually unfold. It’s also a time capsule of the post-war scientific field. The story moves quickly and isn’t very long, but gives just enough detail of the technical aspects to be very engaging.
The Happiness Trap
Russ Harris writes what is essentially an overview of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and how to apply it to our lives. The general idea is counter-intuitive: intentionally seeking out happiness won’t lead to happiness. The book focuses on why this is true, and what a healthier approach to life looks like.
I found this useful, especially the focus on acceptance. I’ve been forced to deal with significant loss in my life, and since reading this book I’ve found it a bit more manageable.
Blood, Sweat, and Pixels
Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made is a book about the video game industry generally, and a collection of stories about several games specifically. Jason Schreier does a great job of choosing a wide variety of games, from massive AAA titles to single-person passion projects.
The stories are well-told and surprisingly dramatic at times. If you’re interested in video game development, definitely read this.
Yes, I love Neal Stephenson. This is collection of random stories he’s written over the years, ranging from short fiction to internet infrastructure journalism. One of the pieces goes into excruciating detail about undersea cables, but just like all Stephenson’s writing, if you can handle the verbosity, you’ll learn something.
If you’re a fan, read it.
I’ve written a lot of non-fiction in my life, but hardly any fiction. My brother recommended this book to me, and initially I was skeptical. I’ve never read a Stephen King novel, and I’m not into the horror genre.
I’m glad I tried it, because this book is a good combination of a memoir and practical tips on writing. His style is sometimes combative, which is fun to read, and it was nice to see the love for his wife and family shine through the text.
I haven’t written much fiction since reading this, but I do still remember some of the tips, and I’m sure they’ll be helpful one day.
What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions is a book by Randall Munroe, the author of the famous XKCD comics. I’ve always enjoyed those, and this book was fun.
The Price of Time
Edward Chancellor’s book isn’t what I expected. I thought I was getting a historical narrative about the history of interest rates. I did get that, but it was probably only 1/3 of the book. The rest is an exhaustive account of modern interest rate policies, and the author can barely hide his disdain for artificially low interest rates.
I’ve been decrying the Federal Reserve’s easy money policy for over a decade, so it was a welcome surprise to see an academic I was unfamiliar with paint such a detailed picture of the problems associated with centralized manipulation of the money supply.
The book isn’t laid out entirely chronologically, and the jumping around time periods is occasionally confusing. Also, I listened to this as an audiobook, and I wouldn’t recommend that, as there are many numbers and charts included.
This is a fairly dense read that I would only recommend to people interested in the history of finance, or in understanding the basis for our current financial system.
How the World Really Works
Vaclav Smil is a well-respected academic who I know best for his study of energy. He’s a prolific author, and this book is meant to be a synthesis of his various works over the decades.
It’s a good read, but just as with The Price of Time, I listened to this as an audiobook, and it suffered greatly as a result. There are endless numbers presented here, and often presented to show change over time. Audio simply isn’t a good format for presenting this data.
I would need to read this in order to properly understand and review it. What I was able to understand was interesting though, and some of it counter-intuitive, such as placing less importance on the computing revolution than you might expect. Having a general grasp of how the world works is important to me, and this book did contribute to my understanding.
Sid Meier’s Memoir!
One of my favorite computer games is Alpha Centauri, and when I saw a memoir from the game’s creator, Sid Meier, it intrigued me. Meier has had an impressive history of creating hit games, and his memoir goes into detail on many of them. He combines that background with memories of what was happening in his personal life at the time, in a frank manner that’s enjoyable to read.
If you enjoy Civilization or that genre of gaming, then you’ll probably this.
Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want is a book by Nicholas Eple about the complexity of the human mind. It makes the case that humans aren’t nearly as good at understanding other’s minds as we think we are, and this gap causes problems.
It’s a combination of providing evidence for this claim, and then making suggestions on what we should do with this information. Some of the evidence comes from psychological studies which I don’t find compelling, but in general I agree with his premise, and his conclusions about the dangers of overconfidence in our own mind-reading ability.
If you have an interest in psychology, this is worth a read.
Mark Kurlansky writes about the history of salt. Given how essential salt is to our lives, it’s no surprise that salt has played an important role in human history. The author does a good job of discussing the importance of salt throughout the ages.
Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe is George Dyson’s book describing the history of computing. The title is somewhat misleading, as Turing is hardly mentioned in this book. It’s really about John von Neumann, and the team of people who created the first computers in the post-war era.
If you want to have a deep understanding of the early computing era, this book is essential reading. It’s good at capturing a lot of of the personalities of those involved, and some of the drama as well. The author also does extensive work setting the stage for the period where the computer was built, giving a depth of information about certain, mathematicians, the institutions involved, and the impact of WWII.
This isn’t a casual read. I sometimes got impatient with the wealth of detail the author offers up about seemingly unimportant details, such as the buildings on the Princeton campus. However, I understand the history of computing far more deeply now.
Alfred Nobel: A Life from Beginning to End is a short biographical audiobook. I picked this up while looking for more history of science, and it was very informative. Nobel led an interesting life. If you’re interested in the era in which he lived, it’s worth listening to this short book.
Ken Jennings is clever and funny, and I like his unabashed nerdiness about maps. There are some good stories in here, even with a fairly dry subject matter. If you like Jennings, or maps, give it a read.
Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters is collection of his correspondence throughout his entire life, interspersed with some details about the author’s life.
It’s a bit odd to read letters which weren’t written for you. Having a peek into someone else’s life was fascinating though, and Doyle was an unusual man.
I’ve always been a fan of Sherlock Holmes, and he does discuss him sometimes, but mostly seemed to dislike his creation.
Unless you have a particular interest in his life, I wouldn’t spend my time on this book.
Professor Maxwell’s Duplicitous Demon
Professor Maxwell’s Duplicitous Demon: The Life and Science of James Clerk Maxwell is a biography by Brian Clegg. This book tries to deliver the narrative about Maxwell’s life in an unorthodox way, and I disliked it. While I enjoyed the history presented, I wish it were told in a more straightforward way, and included less background on other scientists and discoveries.
There are many excellent books on the history of science, and I’d skip this one unless you have a particular need to understand Maxwell’s life.
Algorithms to Live By
Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions is a book by Brian Christian Tom Griffiths. They take on a fairly ambitious task of explaining how some popular computing algorithms can help explain why humans make certain decisions, and how they can help us make better decisions.
This book is meant to be accessible to people without much knowledge of computer science or mathematics, but I would say it only partically succeeds. I listned to this on audiobook, and wouldn’t recommend it. This should be read, and prepare to reread portions if you want to deeply understand it.
Having said that, it exposed me to the explore / exploit concept, which I now see everywhere. So anyone who is willing to put the time into understanding this book will probably find useful information.
Sharlot Herself and Wicked Prescott
I briefly lived in Arizona, and picked up these local books to learn more about the history of the area.
Sharlot Hall was a frontier woman who lived her life her own way. An admirable life, and the book captures that.
Wicked Prescott is an account of the wild west history of the town of Prescott. Interesting historically.
The Botany of Desire
I really enjoyed How to Change your Mind by Michael Pollan, so I picked up this book too. The main premise is that humanity is doing plants’ bidding as much as they’re doing ours. Or to put it differently, that plants have evolved in ways which induce humans to care for them. The author gives four examples: the apple, potato, tulip, and marijuana.
The histories of these plants, and their impact on humanity, are interesting, and he uses them to tell good stories about people. But ultimately, the premise about humans being guided by plant evolution seems a bit forced.
If you’re interested in botany, or the history of agriculture, give it a read. Otherwise skip.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life is a popular self-help book by Mark Manson. The main idea is to stop forcing positivity, which isn’t genuine and doesn’t work.
There’s lots of good in this book, but the author’s approach annoys me. He tries too hard to use relatable language and give “down to earth” examples. It just sounds like a high school teacher trying to fit in with the students by dropping a few curse words.
Adopting some of the lessons from stoics is valuable, as is accepting life as it is, not as you want it to be. But I’d choose The Happiness Trap over this book.
Lifespan: Why We Age - and Why We Don’t Have To is a detailed book about aging by David A. Sinclair.
I really enjoyed the information about our current understanding of aging, and the speculation about how aging might be a problem we can overcome. But I cannot rate this book highly, because the author goes beyond speculation and begins to discuss specific ways to address aging now. This is widely premature, based on research I did after having read the book. This book is only four years old now, and already a few published studies have cast doubts on some of the specific drugs he mentions.
Much of what’s included is anecdotal as well.
If you’re interested in understanding the aging process, give this a read, but approach the specific claims about avoiding aging with caution.
The Book of Eels
The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World is a book by Patrik Svensson about… eels!
The author attempts to weave in memories about his Scandinavian upbringing in with information about eels, which works quite well in the first half of the book. But even I can only listen to so much about eels, and eventually got bored.
This is Randall Munroe’s sequel to What if?, and I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much. Stick to the comics, or the first book.
Novelist as a Vocation
After reading Haruki Murakami’s running memoir, I was eager to read this. I was disappointed. If you’re looking for a memoir, read the running book, and if you’re looking for writing tips, read On Writing by King. This book is more a collection of essays about writing and other topics, but isn’t as coherent a narrative as before. Skip.
I liked Anthony Bourdain. This book is a combination of Bourdain’s opinions on various parts of the world, and their food, alongside some memories that others had about Bourdain. It’s trying to be a sort of tribute piece, but the combination doesn’t work well. I enjoyed Bourdain’s remarks, but just couldn’t listen to everyone else’s.
This Idea is Brilliant
I liked the premise for this book: Give a collection of scientists the ability to present whatever idea they think is more deserving of more attention.
Unfortunately, the short format (only a few pages each) doesn’t allow for anything other than the vaguest description of each idea. There are too many ideas presented, and many of them are too abstract to even attempt.
This Idea must Die
I liked the idea for this companion book even more than the first: Give a collection of scientists the ability to argue against popular ideas which are outdated.
Unfortunately, it suffers from the same format issues as before. Even worse, there is a healthy dose of academic arrogance, which often becomes an insufferable moralistic tirade against old ideas. The book drips with virtue signalling.
Both of these books do contain valuable information, but I would consider them nothing more than a jumping off point. The table of contents is more valuable than the contents themselves.
I hope this list is helpful to you. If you want to discuss any of these books, or make recommendations to me, please contact me.