I like book recommendations more than book reviews, although I think that most book recommendations are actually just reports of how much the recommender enjoyed the book. In these recommendations, I try to give you the tools to decide if you are likely to enjoy the book by:
- giving an overall impression, along with some description of which characteristics I suspect would make a reader more likely to value reading the book;
- explaining why I chose to read the book, so you can decide how much my reasons correspond to yours;
- giving a short, spoiler-free, description of my experience of reading the book.
I use a bit of a mix of paper, e-books, and audiobooks. Mostly I don’t think this matters. If something is only available in audio format, or if the audio presentation is particularly good, I mention it.
The books I have written up most recently are on top, so if you are returning after an absence you can find new recommendations.
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood (2016)
Fiction. Categories: drama
Recommendation: If you like Margaret Atwood and Shakespeare, you’ll probably like this. If you like just one of the two, it’s a dicier bet.
Why I read it: I read this because I’ve liked everything I’ve read by Margaret Atwood so far and I thought I’d take a chance on it.
Note: This is really not my kind of book. It is a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in which the characters stage The Tempest while talking a lot with each other about the play. Given that I hate plays-within-plays, navel-gazing stories about stories, and am pretty lukewarm about Shakespeare, this was always going to be an uphill struggle. Despite that, I loved this. Atwood often has a clever line, but this book bristled with them. Her Mr. Duke is outstandingly good as a character. I found the goblins slightly implausible characters and there were some points where the original play was so ridiculous it made me wish that Atwood had left Shakespeare a little further behind and done her own thing a bit more. But I suppose I can’t begrudge her choices given the brief and that many people do like Shakespeare even when he has people falling in love and getting married for, as far as I can tell, reasons of symmetry.
The Path to Power: the Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro (1982)
Non-fiction. Categories: history political
Recommendation: This is a remarkable book, and there is lots in it which could be of interest. But it is also a huge book, requiring serious investment. I’m not sure how to tell who would like it. In particular, I could imagine loving a couple hundred pages of it and hating another couple hundred pages.
Why I read it: I read this because it was recommended on Nick Beckstead’s audiobook recommendations, and I haven’t particularly been that into biography generally and have been told this was an outstanding example of the genre with an insane amount of research going into it.
Note: This is a weird book. When I say there was an insane amount of research going into this book, I mean that borderline literally. The author appears to have spent nearly a decade on this book, and then spent more or less 40 years so far on subsequent Johnson biographies. In some ways, this is phenomenal. The detail is remarkable. Robert Caro clearly uncovered many things that nobody else possibly would have, and if, for example, you care specifically about learning about LBJ, then that might matter to you. But if you don’t, there are some very weird asides. The first few chapters are mostly a history of the settlement of the Texas Hill Country from 1850-1900. There are nearly book-length asides about the biograph of Sam Rayburn and I know more about Lyndon’s political donor Herman Brown than I do about most UK prime ministers. But there are few details that aren’t in some way relevant to understanding what is going on. This biography is eye-opening, both about LBJ personally (what a knob), his complete lack of interest in policy except as a mechanism for generating power, his strategies for seeking power (somehow very effective despite almost everyone who knew him well thinking he was a no-good snake), the widespread corruption of politics at the time, and the development of industrial-scale campaign finance. One thing I did find puzzling is that although Caro clearly wasn’t worried about being concise, and often gives examples of Lyndon aggressively and vindicitively dominating men, there is very little mention of his treatment of the women in his life (which I understand from other sources to have been appalling). I’m also not sure how much I trust Caro’s read of everything. He paints some characters, including Sam Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, and Sam Rayburn, in an almost caricaturish way. He also seems so fascinated by abusive power as a topic that I wonder about his objectivity in describing it.
The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik (2022)
Fiction. Categories: fantasy light young-adult
Recommendation: If you enjoyed the first two books of this series, and if you want more of that world and those characters, I recommend reading this one. Otherwise, I would definitely start with the first. And if you don’t feel hungry for more from that story then I wouldn’t prioritize reading this.
Why I read it: I read this because I enjoyed the first two books of the series wanted a fun and light read.
Note: This is an above average light fantasy read, but I also liked it much less than the other two in the series. The action was pacy and there were some very imaginative locations. Overall, I find the world of this series less compelling than the place of Scholomance. The text felt repetitive with El going over very much the same ideas in her head a lot both within single paragraphs and between chapters. And while a narrative choice that Novik made more-or-less removed much of the interest from one of the characters, I didn’t feel invested enough in the rest of the core cast to really make up for it (partly because El doesn’t seem that into half of them, and the others don’t get enough time). Honestly, this book feels a bit like it was written with a Netflix adaptation in mind, and would probably have made a better screenplay.
Ryria Revelations (series) by Michael Sullivan (2011)
Fiction. Categories: fantasy light young-adult
Recommendation: Not really recommended. If you want light and un-serious young adult fantasy you can do a lot better, e.g., Lies of Locke Lamora or pretty much anything by Naomi Novik.
Why I read it: I was tired of reading books that were dark and gritty. I’d hit the same chapter in The Making of the Atomic Bomb several times and wanted a break. I wanted a fantasy novel that was fun. I found this post on Reddit where someone asked for exactly that, and the top-upvoted comment was this series. So I figured I’d give it a go.
Note: I did actually read the entire series of six books, and it didn’t take that long. It was often pretty fun, but never very fun. It felt a little bit like if someone wrote up their notes from a D&D campaign as a story and polished it a bit. But only a bit. The writing is not great. Often, characters will be described as feeling one way and then in the very next paragraph act the literal opposite way. Although the author is clearly trying to have strong female characters, it feels very male-gazey. Large parts of one of the books build heavily on uncomfortably racist tropes. I guess the books are fun in the sense of feeling un-serious, which maybe is what I needed in that moment. But I wouldn’t recommend, in general.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)
Fiction. Categories: speculative-fiction political
Recommendation: Strongly recommended for people who enjoy speculative fiction that explores dark aspects of our own society through heightened distortions of it. Pretty dark and unpleasant though.
Why I read it: I read this because I’ve been really impressed by everything I’ve read by Margaret Atwood and this is supposed to be one of her most influential books.
Note: I found everything I’ve previously read by Margaret Atwood deeply engaging, but this book was phenomenal. This felt like so much more than a story; it succeeds in transporting you into mental states that you (or at least I) couldn’t normally reach but which are deeply mentally expanding. And you end up feeling like you so strongly know so many characters that only get the barest mention. This book is largely about gender, childbearing, power, social oppression, and sex. These issues are fundamental enough that probably most people would find something interesting in there. The one caveat I would give is that parts of the story can be pretty upsetting, and so it might be a painful experience for some people.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2018)
Fiction. Categories: historical-fiction
Recommendation: Recommended for people who like historical fiction with a small cast of characters focused on relationships but fairly slow-moving and restrained.
Why I read it: I read this because it was recommended by a friend and because I was impressed by the author on EconTalk.
Note: I mostly liked this book, despite the fact that I really disliked the beginning. I found the main character pretty obnoxious and self-regarding, and I didn’t really understand what his deal was for quite some time. A lot of this is that I basically think hereditary nobility is a bad thing and he represented that very strongly. But gradually I came to at least tolerate him and quite like some of the other characters. One real strength of this book is the characterization of his relationship to the two daughter-figures in his life, which I found very touching.
A History of Russia: From Peter the Great to Gorbachev by Mark Steinberg (2013)
Non-fiction. Categories: history audio-only
Recommendation: Recommended for people who want to listen to a lecture course about the history of Russia.
Why I read it: I listened to this because I had liked the course on the rise of communism but wanted to understand its role in Russia specifically within a longer historical context.
Note: I think this covers the content well, and I think I was right to want to start a little earlier and end a little later than the previous course had done. In many ways, for me, the period maybe 1870 to 1980 is the most interesting period of Russian history, but going a little past those periods was nice. If you’re only going to listen to one of the two, I’d probably prefer this one (although it is considerably longer).
Diaspora by Greg Egan (1997)
Fiction. Categories: speculative-fiction science-fiction life-as-information
Recommendation: Recommended for people who like sprawling and mind-bending science fiction exploring themes around consciousness and personal identity. Also, if you like your science-fiction to feature long and detailed speculation of alternative science.
Why I read it: I read this because I enjoyed Permutation City by Greg Egan.
Note: This novel is a sequence of connected short stories whose characters have a lot in common. How much they have in common is one of the interesting questions the book raises. Greg Egan clearly has a fantastic and very weird brain, and if you enjoy his other work you’re likely to enjoy this. I’ve never seen another author as confidently launch into inventing alternative theories of physics and exploring the consequences of those theories in so much detail. Similarly, his conceptual grasp of the ways in which conscious experience doesn’t depend on specific substrates is second to none.
There Is No Antimemetics Division by qntm (2021)
Fiction. Categories: fantasy horror
Recommendation: I strongly recommend this to people who like creepy and unsettling speculative fiction short stories.
Why I read it: I read this because I saw it on a friend’s bookshelf and had previously enjoyed Lena by qntm.
Note: The premise is great. Memes are concepts that spread themselves. Antimemes are concepts that block themselves from being spread. And sometimes some things might be able to use antimemes to protect themselves. I can’t really say anything about the book that wouldn’t make it worse, because the author reveals information so masterfully. Just read it, it’s not even that long. I even found this stimulating for some of my research, but this is unlikely to be true for most people. A friend pointed out that the characters in this book are a bit thin, and that’s true, but it didn’t bother me.
MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood (2013)
Fiction. Categories: speculative-fiction apocalypse
Recommendation: I really liked this, my favourite in the MaddAddam trilogy. Unfortunately I don’t think you can really enjoy this properly without having read the other two first. If you like grim and dystopian speculative fiction this series may well be worth the investment.
Why I read it: I read this because I previously read and enjoyed Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood in the same series.
Note: This book offers vignettes that serve as both prequel and sequel to the others in the series. I loved it. The prequels filled in some of the gaps and confusions I had about the earlier books and made them seem much more plausible to me. The continuation of the story was gripping and I ended up liking Toby as a character and person.
What We Owe the Future by Will MacAskill (2022)
Non-fiction. Categories: longtermism philosophy
Recommendation: Recommended if you have an interest in longtermism or effective altruism, though for a focus on existential risk I would recommend The Precipice by Toby Ord.
Why I read it: I read this because I like Will’s writing and find the topic interesting and important.
Note: Longtermism is a pretty important idea and this is a reasonable exposition of the main thoughts behind it. It’s easy to read. I personally tend to be much more worried about existential risks than stagnation, but this helped me understand the mindset of some people who seem to me to be negligent about x-risks because they worry much more than I do about stagnation (I don’t think that’s Will’s position, the book just helped me understand the view). I really like the attempts to commission large and substantial pieces of research to support the arguments. There are some things I didn’t find very persuasive, in particular although I basically agree with longtermism as an idea I didn’t find the thought experiments or arguments in this book that motivating for that. It is also a slightly awkward time for a book about longtermism insofar as I think there’s a growing consensus among those working on the area that dramatically greater action on existential risks is plausibly motivated just by short term considerations.
The Dark Forest by Cixin Li (2008)
Fiction. Categories: science-fiction apocalypse
Recommendation: Not recommended by me. Many people like this series. I genuinely do not understand why.
Why I read it: I read this because I had borderline enjoyed The Three Body Problem (previous book in the series) and a friend had recommended I finish the series.
Note: I didn’t like this book and don’t intend to finish the series. I find the basic setting somewhat interesting (humanity attempting to deal with a possibly existential threat). But I found a lot of the actions weirdly implausible. It seemed like people kept doing obviously stupid shit, having everyone around them act like it seemed normal, and then finding out shortly that they had done stupid shit. I think the author also just has very different beliefs from me about how people and institutions react to stress, and I update slightly from reading this that I may be wrong about these things for all cultures and slightly more that I might not understand Chinese institutions well at all (something I somewhat believe anyhow). In addition, the ‘big twist’ seemed really obviously telegraphed from more or less the beginning. Maybe there are some translation issues? Lastly, I found the romantic subplot incredibly unpersuasive and very creepy.
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992)
Fiction. Categories: science-fiction life-as-information
Recommendation: Recommended if you like sci-fi thrillers, especially with a grungy early-internet vibe.
Why I read it: I read this because I have enjoyed some books by Neal Stephenson and I heard that this had introduced the concept of meta-verse, so it seemed conceptually influential in a way that might be interesting.
Note: Overall, I thought this was a well-paced action sci-fi novel with some interesting concepts about alternative realities and memetic propagation. Much like similarly influential books (e.g., Neuromancer) some of the tropes which were introduced now feel a little under-developed or played out, because they have been refined and redeveloped over many iterations since then. But, for what it is, this was a fun read. Parts of the book did make me uncomfortable, including because there are some strongly racist or sexist interactions between characters.
Reamde by Neal Stephenson (2011)
Fiction. Categories: action thriller
Recommendation: I think there are better books by this author, and better authors for this genre.
Why I read it: I read this because I previously enjoyed Anathem by Neal Stephenson and because it was recommended by Noah Smith.
Note: This is a long book. It very quickly accelerates into an action-packed thriller. I assumed that there would be some variation in the pacing at some point, maybe things would dip down and step back a bit before ramping up again. But no, it was basically a non-stop high-octane action sequence for a very long read. Compared to other writing by this author, there wasn’t much of conceptual interest. For a while I was half expecting the ridiculousness of the action and the surprising coincidences that continually escalated things to be part of some sophisticated meta-plot about constructed realities, but in the end I thought this was probably just a clunky and overly long action thriller. It was described as science-fiction, but I think it basically isn’t.
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (2009)
Fiction. Categories: speculative-fiction apocalypse
Recommendation: A good book for people who enjoy a dystopian semi-thriller. I think this one probably is slightly better than Oryx and Crake below, but similar content warning applies.
Why I read it: I read this because I liked Oryx and Crake.
Note: Like Oryx and Crake, this book was darkly captivating and mostly disgusting. In contrast, however, I found myself liking several of the characters and rooting for them, which made it slightly more fun, if that can possibly be the right word for this book.
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (1811)
Fiction. Categories: romance
Recommendation: I guess lots of people like Jane Austen’s books. You probably already know if you like this sort of thing, and it’s a decent version of it.
Why I read it: I read this because lots of people I know think Jane Austen is very good, and I’d previously only read Pride and Prejudice, which I thought was only ok, so I wanted to give this a try.
Note: I thought this book was ok. From a historical perspective, some parts were fascinating. For example, the intense earnestness with which the women are contemplating marriage reminds me a lot of start-up founders contemplating their Series A, and I think the reason is basically that this is exactly what marriage was. There’s also this dance of both feeling that marrying for wealth is slightly vulgar but also obviously the main thing. I also found it intriguing that in a book that talks a lot about the good and bad qualities of people, being a diligent and ambitious person who tries hard never comes up as a virtue. On the negative side, it seemed that many characters existed mainly as a caricature of some bad personality type (e.g., gossips too much, too unserious, too self-absorbed) while the main character is just incredibly judgmental in a way that seemed unexamined. Lastly, I was annoyed by who got together at the end.
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003)
Fiction. Categories: speculative-fiction apocalypse
Recommendation: Recommended for people who enjoy a dystopian semi-thriller. Not suited for some moods though: it has very dark moments, brutality, callous disregard for gigadeath, sexual violence.
Why I read it: I read this because it was the prequel to a book recommended by Noah Smith’s list of sci-fi and I don’t like skipping to the middle.
Note: I found this book gripping and fascinating, but also repulsive and grotesque. I’m not sure if there is a single really likeable character in the entire thing. Parts of the world are pretty charicaturish extreme capitalism, which I didn’t find that plausible. This was only a problem because Noah Smith recommended it in the context of economically-interesting novels. But it definitely is a page-turner. Some readers might find the jumpy narrative structure a bit off-putting.
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin (1974)
Fiction. Categories: speculative-fiction societal-exploration political
Recommendation: Recommended for people who like stories that explore alternative social models and don’t mind a slightly jumpy narrative.
Why I read it: I read this because it was recommended by Noah Smith’s list of sci-fi with good economics, and because I have previously enjoyed other books by Ursula K. LeGuin especially The Left Hand of Darkness.
Note: I really liked this book. It felt like it gave a somewhat plausible account of a radically different way of organizing, and did a good job of motivating the ways in which the concepts of people living under different systems of government clash with each other. I enjoyed the story. The book also did a good job of making sure that each of the systems it considered is presented with both up- and down-sides explored. None of them felt perfectly good nor perfectly bad.
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern (2019)
Fiction. Categories: fantasy
Recommendation: I thought this book was ok, and clearly some people love it, but I’m not sure what characteristics would make me recommend this book to someone.
Why I read it: I read this because it was recommended by some friends.
Note: Parts of this book were beautifully written, and I enjoyed some of the story-telling asides, but overall I didn’t enjoy this very much. I think one aspect is that I find creative works that are about other creative works or the creative process a bit navel-gazing, and this is very much a story about storytelling. I found some of the plot quite confusing in the sense that the book was ‘making up the rules’ of the fantasy as it went along. I also found the characterization of the main characters a bit thin, and I wasn’t really able to say why, but which was especially striking because the characters in the vignettes were quite intense.
The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World by Virginia Postrel (2020)
Non-fiction. Categories: history industrial-history economic-history progress
Recommendation: Strongly recommend if you enjoy histories of technology/civilization/economies. Or really just histories.
Why I read it: I read this because I enjoyed her interview on EconTalk.
Note: I was blown away by this book and haven’t stopped harassing my near and dear with facts I learned from this book for the entire time I’ve been reading it. I think a huge realization for me was just how important textiles have been historically (which is especially fascinating given how little of my current attention goes to securing textiles and their products for my own needs). This offers a mind-expanding perspective on economic and technological change and the ways in which resources/techniques/opportunities shape social structures over millennia. You will not look at clothes the same way ever again.
The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik (2021)
Fiction. Categories: fantasy young-adult light
Recommendation: Strongly recommend if you enjoy light young-adult fantasy.
Why I read it: I read this because I liked A Deadly Education and other books by Naomi Novik.
Note: If anything, I think this was better than the previous book. Like the other, it’s fun, conversational, and easy to get hooked. But it deals with the world and its characters’ relationships to it in a more interesting way, and because we already know the characters a bit the book is able to cover more ground with them. My fear that this was off-brand Harry Potter is firmly forgotten. I will read the next one when it comes out.
The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World by Peter Frankopan (2018)
Non-fiction. Categories: history
Recommendation: Not recommended.
Why I read it: I read this book because I enjoyed The Silk Roads and felt quite ignorant of Central Asian politics.
Note: I thought this book was ok, but basically dated itself too quickly because of its focus on the very recent history (mostly 2005-2015). The author is good at capturing sweeping history over millennia, but with things that are just unfolding I think it’s basically too hard to figure out what’s important and a lot of the observations have already shifted either into commonplaces or into views that no longer hold up. When it was written, it probably represented a pretty good impression, but it didn’t keep well. I did learn something about geopolitics in the region though I’m not sure how much I remember.
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan (2015)
Non-fiction. Categories: history
Recommendation: Recommended if you like sweeping global history books. It is both very long and much too short to do justice to everything it covers, so you need to be ok with both of those things. I’m not in a position to evaluate its accuracy or completeness.
Why I read it: I found this a very interesting and wide-ranging history.
Note: The breadth of the scope of this book is both a strength and weakness - you do start to sense some of the connections between issues at a century-scale that wouldn’t appear in a more narrow book. At the same time, discussion of certain periods feels like it probably leaves out important dynamics that are happening slightly out-of-scope (for example, there wasn’t a lot of discussion of the Reformation and Enlightenment). I found the history of post-war Middle Eastern politics especially eye-opening, as well as the history of the Middle East during the European dark and middle ages. I liked the centring on the Silk-roads regions, though at points it felt a little forced. For example, during the chapters on European colonialism of the Americas and India, the Silk Roads somewhat fell out of the picture of this book (while Africa and South America were surprisingly un-mentioned for large parts of the book). This was also true of most of the discussion of the second world war (which, in general, seemed more British-local than, for example, the more dispassionate discussion of the first world war).
The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company by William Dalrymple (2019)
Non-fiction. Categories: history empire-history
Recommendation: Recommended if you are interested in specifically the military history of the East India Company.
Why I read it: I read this because he’s a popular historian I’ve heard of and I was interested in the EIC.
Note: I mostly liked this, and learned a lot about what made it possible for EIC to conquer India, as well as better understanding how this coincided with events in the US/UK/France in the period 1750-1800. But this is basically a history of the conquest, and not really an organizational or economic history. I actually wanted to know about how the EIC was run and structured, and how it was able to outcompete local organizational structures economically, and how the domestic UK politics was involved. I also wanted to have some sense of what living under EIC-controlled land was like for ordinary people, and how this contrasted with other regions. None of this was covered in much detail.
1632 by Eric Flint (2000)
Fiction. Categories: fantasy alternate-history industrial-history
Recommendation: Not recommended.
Why I read it: I read this because it was recommended as a book exploring how to use modern technological ideas without an established industrial base to jump-start modernity.
Note: I only read about half of this book. The small amount on the theme I was really interested in was out-weighed by the irritation I felt at the clunky writing and dated attitudes and views. Large parts of the exploration of the alternate history part seemed implausible and sloppy, especially the interaction of concepts/ideologies of characters from different time-points. It seemed like the author didn’t try that hard to really understand how much 17th century people would feel or think about future people and their cultural imports.
Science in the Twentieth Century: A Social-Intellectual Survey by Steven Goldman (2004)
Non-fiction. Categories: history history-of-science audio-only
Recommendation: Recommended, if you are interested in the history of science, but think of it more as “Science 1900-1950”.
Why I read it: I listened to this because it was recommended by Nick Beckstead in his audiobook list.
Note: A high level survey structured like a lecture course covering the big advances in 20th century science. It focuses quite a lot on physics, which makes sense given the way the 20th century worked, but can be a bit quick on some of the parts of 20th century science that ‘turned out’ to be really important in the start of the 21st century. I think the main issue is that it’s mostly a history of science 1900-1950, and it was basically made too soon after the end of the 20th for it to incorporate the last few decades of work. That’s pretty forgivable, but it means there might now be a better source (not sure, haven’t seen it). Some interesting discussion also of the organizational structure and development of scientific institutions and how that interacts with the practice of science.
Accelerando by Charles Stross (2005)
Fiction. Categories: science-fiction singularity
Recommendation: Tentatively recommend to people who like exploratory science fiction and are interested in visions of accelerating technological progress, especially for the first three or so stories.
Why I read it: I read this because it was recommended by Noah Smith in his sci-fi for economists post.
Note: Series of stories following a family through a few generations of technological acceleration near the singularity. In the near-term bits it gave me the strong sense of disorienting future-shock that I think it was going for. In the later bits (post-singularity) it felt increasingly implausible to me and in some ways felt less future-shocky because the remaining plot disengaged from the singularity enough that in some ways things went back more towards the present than they had been.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (2020)
Fiction. Categories: fantasy mystery
Recommendation: Strongly recommend for people who enjoy some mystery in their fantasy and don’t mind beginning a book very confused and gradually coming to understand what is happening.
Why I read it: I read this because it was recommended by a friend and I have previously enjoyed Strange & Norrell and The Ladies of Grace Adieu by the same author. This book wasn’t remotely like those, and in retrospect I’m not sure that liking them is a reason to read this, but I enjoyed it a lot anyhow.
Note: This book is tentatively a fantasy book, but mostly the fantasy serves to establish one premise and then the book runs with that. The flawed narrator gradually reveals his world and you come to understand what’s going on. I enjoyed this a lot.
The Scout Mindset by Julia Galef (2021)
Non-fiction. Categories: rationality advice
Recommendation: Strongly recommend if you have an interest in knowing or doing things. More seriously, I think this is good for people who like to be reflective about how they think and act.
Why I read it: I read this book because I felt obligated to read such a widely discussed book about a topic that matters a lot to me.
Note: I avoided reading this book for a while because I assumed that my exposure to the rationalist community would mean there wasn’t much new for me. I ended up deciding it was worth finding out if I was wrong about that, and I really was. The book beautifully assembles a decade or so of thought about pragmatic rationalism. I especially appreciated the way it challenged some of my assumptions about the instrumental value of self-delusion. Also, Julia Galef is an excellent writer and doesn’t come across as incredibly arrogant, which can be tricky when you’re writing a book about how to think better.
The Next 50 Things that Made the Modern Economy by Tim Harford (2020)
Non-fiction. Categories: history progress industrial-history
Recommendation: You might enjoy this if you enjoyed his previous 50 things, but it felt like we were getting down the list of things a bit. If you haven’t read 50 Things that Made the Modern Economy and you like progress studies or industrial/economic history, I’d read that instead.
Why I read it: I read this because I liked his previous 50 things, and enjoy a lot of his work.
Note: Like the previous, a book based on the podcast (which is maybe a better format for this) giving little stories about a range of inventions/technologies which have shaped the world. This one felt less tied to the ‘modern economy’ idea (e.g., “bricks”) and a number of the chapters felt like they didn’t really talk about the thing they claimed to be about (e.g., “Cassava”). Most chapters are basically summaries of a book or two about the topic (which isn’t a problem), but in the handful of cases where I knew quite a lot about the topic I felt like they left out some important aspects. Still, a fun read that covers a lot of ground and has good storytelling, like all of Tim Harford’s work.
A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik (2020)
Fiction. Categories: fantasy young-adult light
Recommendation: Recommended if you like ‘young-adulty’ fantasy fiction.
Why I read it: I read this because I previously enjoyed Spinning Silver and Rooted by the same author.
Note: This book is basically just fun and a nice light read. I was initially off-put by the chatty first-person writing style and the very young-adulty teen romance vibes, but I quickly became interested in the creativity of the story and world. When I saw the general ‘school for magicians’ packaging I was expecting an off-brand Harry Potter, but this is definitely not that. I plan to read the sequel.
Letters to a Young Scientist by E. O. Wilson (2013)
Non-fiction. Categories: advice research
Recommendation: Not recommended, there are better books on this theme (such as Medawar’s Advice to a Young Scientist).
Why I read it: I read this because I am generally interested in reflections by scientists about how to do science, and this was widely recommended.
Note: There are lots of good ways to do science, but they have very different cultures. Wilson is basically a systematizer/collector, which is a perfect fit for entomology in the second half of the 20th century (his career). I’m much less interested in this sort of science. Beyond that, it felt like it was mostly anecdotes about his own life, rather than very useful/reliable/generalizable observations.
I was inspired to write these by Nick Beckstead’s outstanding audiobook recommendations. I’ve also liked recommendations from Matt Clifford and Noah Smith.