What I'm reading
A list of books at various stages of my reading pipeline.
Last updated: November 2017. If this gets more than a couple months out of date, remind me to update it (@matttrent).
- Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds.
- Robert Kull, Solitude.
- Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Rest.
- Herbert Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial.
- James Carse, Finite and Infinite Games.
On the radar
- Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight.
- Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History.
- Paul Hawken, Drawdown.
- Matt Ridley, The Evolution of Everything.
- Frank Ostaseski, The Five Invitations.
- L. Steven Sieden, Buckminster Fuller’s Universe: His Life and Work.
- Chuck Closterman, But What If We’re Wrong?
- Cicero, On a Life Well Spent.
- George Polya, How to Solve It.
- Seneca, Letters on Ethics: To Lucilius.
- Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars.
- Robert Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth.
- Daniel Levitin, The Organized Mind.
- Peter Bevelin, Seeking Wisdom.
- Charles Munger, Poor Charlie’s Almanack.
- Phillip M Pierson, Metaphysics of Buckminster Fuller.
- Robert Greene, Mastery.
- Michael Harris, Solitude. First in a series of books on the value of solitude. I’m fascinated by the concept at the moment, but this felt more like reverie with bits of pop neuroscience and complaining about modern digital technology sprinkled in, than containing an real insight.
- Kumiko Kakehashi, So Sad to Fall in Battle. The battle of Io Jima as seen through the letters of Japanese commanding General, Tadamichi Kuribayashi. Doomed from the start, his outfit still managed to hold off an overwhelming force for months. A true study in leadership.
- Jimmy Soni, A Mind at Play. Biography of Claude Shannon, founder of the field information theory. His genius provided us the intellectual foundation for all modern communications. The main thread of the book is how he managed to maintain levity with his work and approach problems playfully.
- Steven Lee Meyers, The New Tsar. Biography of Putin. Started, made it a bit in and put it down. Followed his undistinguished early career and didn’t make it to his rise to power. Will need to resume at some point.
- John Kruschke, Doing Bayesian Data Analysis. I think Bayesian methods are the future of statistical analysis. This book provides a great practitioners introduction and a
warm-upfor the heavier-weight Bayesian Data Analysis by Gelman et al.
- Ian Goodfellow, Yoshua Bengio & Aaron Courville, Deep Learning. The one and only textbook for deep learning. If you’re even remotely interested in the topic, you should own this. The book presents from a theoretical standpoint, and pairs very well with Practical Deep Learning for Coders course. Do both.
- Cixin Liu, Death’s End. Last of the Three-Body Series. Progressed pretty slowly for me, partly retelling previous events from a different point of view, but the end more than made up for it. The final view of the universe Liu paints at the end had my mind spinning for days.
- Cixin Liu, The Dark Forest. Sophomore album. Good in it’s own right. Great in the context of the trilogy.
- Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem. It’s hard to evaluate each of the three books in the series on its own. This had a bit of a slow start, but really drew me in after. I read all three so quickly I forget exactly where one left off and the next started. I’m not normally much a reader of science fiction, but this trilogy is highly recommended.
- James Watson, The Double Helix. Story of the discovering of the DNA helix from one of it’s founders. Got a few chapters in, but didn’t really grab me.
- Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert. The American West, the quest to provide water to an arid landscape when there simply isn’t enough, and the birth of the modern welfare state in subsidized agriculture. The story of the US west is story of its geography and climate.
- Edvard Radzinsky, Stalin. Biography of one of the most ruthless and effective dictators ever. Stalin inherited a rural peasantry and transformed it into an industrial superpower in 20 years, while waging war against Hitler, taking some 50 million lives in the process.
- Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. The life of Temüjin and how the values the Mongols carried with the as they built their empire laid the foundation for much of what we consider the hallmarks of modernity.
- Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus. Loved this book. So much to say about how the next hundred years of technological development will fundamentally change what it means to be human.
- Tyler Cowen, The Complacent Class. Prediction of the increasing tendancy for Americans to keep the country the way it is. It didn’t grab me as much as his previous two, and didn’t pick it up after the flight I started it on.
- Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit. I’ve been trying to restart a creative thinking habit. Picked the book up, put it down, then did so again. I feel I got a better return on investment from The Artist’s Way.
- Walter Isaacson, The Innovators. The 150 year history of the hundreds of inventors and contributors that gave rise to personal computers, the Internet and the modern information age. Similar in spirit to The Making of the Atomic Bomb in all the best ways possible.
- Colin Woodard, American Nations. The separate histories of the 11 different groups that populated the United States, Canada and Northern Mexico, how they’re interacted in the 500 year history of European settlement and how their histories explain our modurn situation.
- John Miles White, Bandit Algorithms for Website Optimization. Basic coverage on the motivation and techniques for using multi-arm bandit algorithms to continually tweak websites.
- Ben Rich, Skunkworks. History and accomplishments of Lockheed’s special projects group responsible for the U2, the
SR-71and the stealth fighter amongst other aircraft. A study in small teams doing amazingly innovative work.
- Vasily Grossman, A Writer at War. Notes from one of the most widely traveled World War II Soviet reporters. Grossman had nearly-unrestricted access to the Soviet Eastern Front and he paints a very comprehensive picture of life on the ground. Chilling, to say the least.
- Dave Asprey, Head Strong. Tour of many approaches to improve cognitive function. I do some already and will need to test the rest before reporting back on efficacy.
- Richard Rhodes, Dark Sun. Followup to the excellent Making of the Atomic Bomb. Expands coverage to include Russian scientific/technical developments and espionage. Somehow it didn’t grab me as much and I put it down half way through.
- Massimo Pigliucci, How to Be a Stoic. Another book on Stoic philosophy. A few good explanations, but mostly a rehash for me. However, I think it’s worth it for the practical spirtual exercises alone, which echo Ben Franklin’s virtues.
- Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff. History of the Mercury 7 program and the first astronauts. Rocket planes, fighter-jock machismo and the willingness to place oneself in the path of danger to prove you have it. I really enjoyed this.
- Cameron Davidson-Pilon, Bayesian Methods for Hackers. Started it and immediately switched to Doing Bayesian Data Analysis for more depth. I find this book best as a tutorial for PyMC3.
- James Gliek, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman. Doesn’t play up his persona as much as Surely You’re Joking but covers the history and implications of his physics well. I didn’t find a whole lot new in it, but I’ve already read most other books on Feynman and his area.
- Chris Bellamy, Absolute War. First in what I imagine will be many books about the Eastern Front of WWIII highly recommend Dan Carlin’s Ghosts of the Ostfront series, if you’re at all curious.. The book focused on military operations and the logistics of those movements, and vignettes of the major characters. While I didn’t want the book to be overwhelmed with stories from the front, I found the book glossed over it to a surprising degree. If you skim too fast, you could miss a million deaths.
- Kim Zetter, Countdown to Zero Day. The story behind Stuxnet, sabotage of the Iranian nuclear program and the vulnerability of infrastructure in the coming age of cyber-warfare. The future is scary.
All time most influential
If I were to recommend a short list of books, they’d focus on helping one get their life priorities straight. With that in place, there’s plenty of time to read on every other topic. As such, there’s a strong philosophical theme.
- Seneca, Letters from a Stoic. Letters from Seneca to his friend, Lucilius, on the thoughts an actions one should consider to lead a good life. The human condition hasn’t changed much in the last 2000 years and the problems the Romans faced are the same as we contend with today. If you replace the names, these could be contemporary lettersIf this resonates with you, I’d highly recommend the full collection of his Letters on Ethics..
- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations. Similar to the previous, the personal journal of the one true philosopher-king to have ever ruled. Marcus Aurelius is the most powerful man in the world and still reminds himself to practice patience and prepare to meet adversity with acceptance. He could have literally any desire granted and reminds himself of his duty. Reading his thoughts really puts your own life and “struggles” in a different light.
- George Vaillant, Triumphs of Experience. The book of the Harvard Grant Study, the greatest longitudinal study ever conducted, following men from university through the rest of their lives. While many books discuss what our elder’s think is most important, this book quantifiably studies what leads to flourishing later in life. Author’s summary: “Happiness is love. Full stop.”
Books that have significantly influenced me, in no particular order:
- Nassim Taleb, Antifragile. Culmination of Taleb’s thesis spanning Fooled by Randomness and the Black Swan. Exploring the concept of things that are not only robust to chaos, but actually thrive in it, across all spheres of life. Also, I love how cranky he is. I could listen to him yell at kids to get off his lawn all day.
- Cal Newport, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Refuting the advice to “follow your passion”, Cal deconstructs the best approach to building a meaningful career. He proceeds to thoroughly map out an approach to define your professional life on your own terms, and gain the credibility to obtain it. Quite possibly the best career book I’ve ever read.
- Wade Davis, One River. Biography of Richard Evans Schultes, one of the most celebrated ethnobotanists to ever live, written by his protege. Recounts his exploration of the Brazilian rainforest, weaving the stories of him, the people he meets, the plants, and the history of the land into one narrative.
- Eiji Yoshikawa, Musashi. Historical fiction of the life of Miyamoto Musashi, the most renowned Japanese swordsman who ever lived. A ronin’s journey through Edo Period Japan for perfection of his art and purification of spirit. This novel reads much like Gone with the Wind, but with more people fighting with swords.
- Chris Kresser, The Paleo Cure. I’ve read a lot of books on the paleo diet and associated lifestyle. This is far and away the best one, focusing how to use it theraputically. It provides a clear conceptual framework on how to remove potentially irritating foods, then test whether you can tolerate them or not. Then moves on to the other lifestyle modifications that can improve one’s health. The one book on diet I recommend to people.
- Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. Fantastic portrait into one of our country’s founders (especially the first ⅔rds). Franklin is quite the character and put a lot of thought into designing his life that’s as applicable today as it was in the 18th century.
- Alfred Lansing, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. The story of Shackleton’s famed Antarctic expedition. Despite his boat being destroyed and being trapped for 18 months, managed to get the entire crew home safely. Perhaps one of the best studies of the quality of leadership.
- Steven Pressfield, Gates of Fire. Fictional, yeh highly accurate, recounting of the battle of the Spartans and the battle of Thermopylae. I could barely put it down.
- Steward Brand, Whole Earth Discipline. Argues that many of the things (nuclear power, GMO crops, etc…) viewed as ecological disasters have been exagerated, and may be necessary to avoid the larger ecological disaster of climate change. If you’re interested in climate change, this is your map.
- Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Short but profound book on the nature of human connection and society. For all of the material weath modern society has us, it seems at odds with our evolutionary history and has not brought a similar increase in happiness, purpose and belonging.
- Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Absolutely fascinating history of the making of one of the most amazing (and horrifying) scientific and technological achievements of humanity. Rhodes does a stellar job of weaving the stories of the science, the people, the philosophy, the politics and the logistics. Will read again.
- Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs. The story of one of the greatest sources of technological innovation in American history. Lots of insight into the creation of new techologies and analysis of modern innovation.
- Wade Davis, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. “The myriad of cultures of the world are not failed attempts at modernity, let alone failed attempts to be us. They are unique answers to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive?” Watch his Long Now talk as well.
A selection of things that I have read not so recently.
- Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code. What is necessary to give rise to talent, in any area. I’m having trouble summarizing it, but there are some good gems among the pop-neuroscience and personal anecdotes.
- William Manchester, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965. Continuing the previous biography about Churchill’s time as Prime Minister during WWII. I got too fascinated in the Eastern Front and stopped in favor of reading on that.
- Timothy C. Urdan, Statistics in Plain English. This is the intro frequentist statistics book I’ve been looking for. There’s dozens of books that cover the basic curriculum, but the majority either assume move too slowly for me or assume too much background. This one hit the sweet spot.
- William Manchester, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Alone, 1932-1940. 2nd in a Winston Churchill biography trilogy. My main takeaway was a greater understanding of the
- Oliver Sacks, Gratitude. Oliver Sacks looks back on his life and contemplates old age. A short, endearing reminder of where one’s priorities should be. This one will be reread many times.
- David Diez, Christopher Barr & Mine Çetinkaya-Rundel, OpenIntro Statistics. Intro stats book. Moved too slowly, and hand-waved away too many details for me. If you want to understand this subject matter, I recommend Statistics in Plain English instead.
- Frank Herbert, Dune. Never fear, I’ve read it before; I’ll read it again. The hardcover edition was too good to pass up.
- Adam Steltzner, The Right Kind of Crazy. Book on curiosity and technical leadership (that is leading both technological development and the people doing it) by the JPL scientist responsible for the Curiosity Sky Crane.
- Edward Hallowell, Driven to Distraction. Definitive work on ADHD, especially in adults. While most pertinent to those with ADHD, I think it’s lessons broadly applicable. On any topic, the best instruction often comes from the ones for which a skill comes the least naturally. The systems and psychology that help the distractable get stuff done are of interest to all.
- Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air. The words of the dying are perhaps the best advice on how to live.
- Norman MacRae, John Von Neumann. Father of the modern computer, among many other accomplishments. While an innate genius (a term much overused, but truly warranted here) his skill was as much nuture as nature. As such, the book provides nuggets to develop your own thinking skills.
- Elizabeth Dunn & Michael Norton, Happy Money. Survey of scientific literature regarding how money affects our emotional well-being. Sadly, some of the examples confuse correlation and causation, but the overall advice is very useful to consider if you want to buy the most happiness for your dollar.
- Benjamin Todd, 80,000 Hours. A well-reasoned examination of how to do the most social good with one’s career, focused on readers just starting theirs.
- Neal Stephenson, Seveneves. After writing Anathem, Neal asked himself “what if instead of 90% plot and 10% orbital mechanics, the next book was the other way around?” Snark aside, I loved this, especially the first 2 acts.
- Neal Stephenson, Anathem. If academia decided to really double-down on the ivory town.
- Gordon Livingston, Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart. 30 statements about making sense of mortality, relationships and modern life. Some of the points hit so deeply it was physically uncomfortable to read at times. This is one of those books you reread portions of every few months until the work their way into your being. Recommended.
- Daniel Yergin, The Quest. Tackling the massive topic of global energy, politics, national security and the course of events that got us to the modern day. Mostly told through small vignettes to illustrate particular points, this grabbed me much more than expected.
- Eric Greitens, Resilience. Lessons on cultivating resiliance from a Navy Seal. I made it through the first 100 pagse but it feels like a book to be digested in small chapters over time.
- Yuval Harari, Sapiens. A Big History book ala Guns, Germs and Steel. Interesting points but, similar to GG&S, the scope is so broad I found it difficult to overcome my skepticism that the author is only picking from the surface to support their chosen narrative. I read the first half and only skimmed the latter. I may just not like the genre.
- Jean Edward Smith, FDR. Detailed biography of of the third great President, along with Washington and Lincoln. I had not appreciated how much the current scope of the executive branch and the involvement of the US government in well-being of all Americans was a result of his terms. See also PBS’s exellent series The Roosevelts.
- Arnold Bennett, How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. A short essay on how not to waste your life. If Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life is the strategy, this is one set of simple tactics.
- Charles Mann, 1491. The New World as it actually was. Contrary to what is taught in school, Columbus did not land in a sparsely settled, near-pristine wilderness and instead encountered a continent populated by advanced civilizations.
- John Vaillant, The Tiger. Tiger in Russia turns man-eater. Combo special ops/animal warden team hunts tiger. Tiger hunts them. Insanity that is Russia. Man vs. alpha preditor.
- Tim Ferriss, Tools of Titans. Agree or disagrees Ferriss’ priorities, he’s excellent at distilling things down into actionable life-hacks. This is his most wide-reaching book yet. Lots of things to apply to your life.
- Ryan Avent, The Wealth of Humans. How does technological progress alter the relationship of Labor and Capital. What does the future look like when there isn’t enough work for the members of society? I can’t tell whether the book was superficial or I simply didn’t understand it.
- Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson, Why Nations Fail. Extractive political and economic institutions that maintain advantage for the minority elite are largely responsible for why nations fail to develop economically.
- Steward Brand, How Buildings Learn. Got distracted half way through, but still got a lot out of it. I’ve always considered architecture and software development to have interesting parallels and this reinforced that idea. Biggest insight: certain buildings being like blue jeans where they improve with use and wear. Many things that interest me share that concept.
- Mortimer Adler & Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book.
How-toguide for reading books. While seemingly obvious, most of us were not taught the skills necessary for digesting difficult reading material. This book presents a 4-levelapproach for understanding great books. Ironically, I didn’t finish it.
- Christian Rudder, Dataclysm. A study of how of human behavior on social networks. How do people think and act towards their fellow members of society when no ones looking. Many of the problems that came to light in 2016 have been around for a long time.
- Reid Hoffman, The Alliance. Thoughts on the nature of modern employer-employee relationships. Some takeaways for me, much of it for managers. Might have been better as a longform blog post.
- Mark Manson, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. Didn’t grab me much. I’d rather read Seneca or Marcus again.
- John Steele Gordon, An Empire of Wealth. A telling of the history of the United States through the lens of economics. Role of central banks and markets. Ability of the government to raise funds to wage war. I really enjoyed this read.
- Brad Stone, The Everything Store. The story of Jeff Bezos and Amazon. If you’re at all interested in the expansion of Tech beyond purely digital pursuits, this book has many lessons.
- B. H. Liddell Hart, Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American. Biography of William Tecumseh Sherman, his life and his Civil War campaign that defined much of modern warfare. I had no idea how bold the march to Savannah really was.
- Chuck Yaeger, Yaeger: An Autobiography. One of a number of military biographies I read this year. The best US fighter pilot there was and first man to break the sound barrier.
- Kai Bird & Martin Sherwin, American Prometheus. The life of Robert Oppenheimer, Los Alamos and the development of the atomic bomb and his subsequent pursecution during the Red Scare.
- Rob Goodman & Jimmy Soni, Rome’s Last Citizen. Biography of Marcus Cato the Younger, enemy of both Caesar and Pompey. One of the few men to fight for the idea of the Republic to the very end against dictators to the very end, choosing suicide over submission.
- Michael Lewis, Moneyball. Someone uses data to overturn conventional wisdom and wins big. Classic data scientist read. Also useful for explaining what I do to regular people.
- Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe. Sadly, not as good as Franklin. Not because Isaacson wrote a poor book, but Einstein’s life wasn’t particulary interesting after general relativity.
- Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. I generally don’t include subtitles here and I generally don’t read much modern pop-philosophy. This book is an exception. It does a fantastic job of weaving many of my philosophical influences into one thread.
- Carl Anderson, Creating a Data-Driven Organization. Good conceptual framework for the steps required to make data and data science effective at a company.
- Ryan Holiday, The Daily Stoic. Daily Stoicism reader. It’s on my bedside table, but I haven’t opened it as much as I think I should.
- Steven Pressfield, The Warrior Ethos. I’m a big fan of Pressfield’s writing and the mentality of doing one’s duty. This book scratches both those itches.
- Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable. Founding editor of Wired discusses future trends in consumer Internet technology. Kelly presents a fascinating view of the technological future, better framing things I had thought of and introducing many new ideas. My main complaint is that it’s an overly rosy picture that doesn’t really consider societal impact of many of these changes.
- Edward Slingerland, Trying Not to Try. Ancient Chinese philosophy meets modern cognition. Reframes the role of Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 in the constellation of Daoist with insights on how to make it applicable to your life.
- Tyler Cowen, Average Is Over. Followup to The Great Stagnation detailing the ongoing bifurcation of American society into the haves and the have-nots. Economic forces will progressively reduce the middle class that has dominated the 20th century.
- Ryan Holiday, Ego Is the Enemy. Another modern Stoicism book. Holiday continues the Stoic tradition of distilling things to a series of life-hacks. Love it, hate it, but if works, use it.
- Steven Pressfield, The War of Art. Modern-day Marcus Aurelius reminding you to show up and do your assigned work professionally, as difficult as it may be.
- Oliver Sacks, On the Move. Endearing autobiography. I’ve always loved Sacks. It was encouraging to read that someone I respect still felt he had no idea what he was doing at the age of 40.
- Jean Edward Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace. I bought it for the perspective on the European theater, but was equally interested in his presidency.
- Michael Lewis, Flash Boys. The dark and dirty world of high-frequency trading. This is absolutely nuts.
- Tyler Cowen, The Great Stagnation. We’ve run out of the major contributors to the last century of American growth. The future will not continue at the same pace.
- Mason Currey, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Delightful little book recounting the daily rituals and working habits of many artists. A wonderful diversity of approaches. My only regret is he didn’t include more scientists and thinkers.
- Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Summary of Kahnemann’s research career into cognitive biases. Got distracted after the first section. While I think the book is right in broad strokes, I don’t think we understand the brain well enough to consider the specifics gospel.
- Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea. True story of the whaleship Essex. Attacked by sperm whale in the Pacific, it was Melville’s inspiration for Moby Dick.
- John Vaillant, The Golden Spruce. Man cuts down golden-needled tree on Haida Gwaii. I mostly enjoyed it for the description of the British Columbian coastal wilderness.
- Winifred Gallagher, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. Author is diagnosed cancer, realizes her life is improved by living more in the present. Sadly this book is mostly pop-psychology and doesn’t introspect much how attention improved her life.
- Pedro Domingos, The Master Algorithm. Summary of the major approaches to machine learning that turns into an ad for the author’s research. A few insights.
- Donald Barlett, Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness. For as much as Hughes is a household name, I was surprised how little I knew about his life. Hughes was a complete nut.