Reading List 2015

A list of books I read in 2015. Chronological order.

American Nations

Colin Woodard
Amazon · Audible · iBooks

A socio-historical analysis of North America as if it were 11 distinct cultural “nations”. Provides a lot of context for why the culture of various regions turned out the way it did, though it’s worth keeping in mind the extreme subjectivity of stuff like this. As an Appalachian, I particularly enjoyed the author’s perspective on that area.

Delivered from Distraction: Getting the Most out of Life with Attention Deficit Disorder

Edward M. Hallowell & John J. Ratey
Amazon · Audible · iBooks

A book on how to deal with ADHD. Some great suggestions on how to improve focus and organization, but I can’t say I found it life-changing. And without going into a huge rant, I disagree with the idea that ADHD is a chronic disease that must be “managed” and never cured: I prefer to approach mental illnesses as treatable conditions that can be healed with the proper approach and consistent self-improvement. The author of this book seems to vascillate between the two positions without realizing it, and I think that muddles some otherwise positive messages in the book.

The Power of Habit

Charles Duhigg
Amazon · Audible · iBooks

Describes the utility of habits and routines and how to create and implement them. A self-help staple. Worth reading.

Die Empty: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day

Todd Henry
Amazon · Audible · iBooks

Death looms in all of our futures. You’d better get started on living the life you want; it could all be over at any moment. I try to keep my impending death in mind as much as possible. When you know you’re going to die within the next 50 years, it forces you to get your priorities straight.

Thinking, Fast and Slow

Daniel Kahneman
Amazon · Audible · iBooks

The author posits that the brain is divided into a fast “System 1”: an intuitive, subconscious, automatic part, and a slow “System 2”: a logical, conscious and deliberate part. Reminiscent of the “triune brain” concept involving the “reptilian brain”, the “mammalian brain” and the “neomammalian brain”. Like that model (and all models), it’s a simplification — regardless, it’s quite useful, and the book provides some insights on how to live life with the limitations and abilities of each “system” in mind.

The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level

Gay Hendricks
Amazon · Audible · iBooks

The concept is simple: why say no when you can say yes? Many of us, when presented with life’s gifts, often react with some kind of opposition: self-deprecation in response to a compliment, questioning others’ motivations for acts of kindness, or wondering what’s about to go wrong to counterbalance something good that just happened. This book is about examining that tendency and working against it.

The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem

Nathaniel Branden
Amazon · Audible · iBooks

Objectivist-leaning self-help about self-esteem and personal responsibility. Lots of great messages about taking your fate into your own hands, managing your own emotions and self-confidence, setting goals, and giving yourself permission to be what you are and what you want to be. Suffers from a bit of oversimplification when it comes to dealing with others, as is common with Objectivist material — clearly, other people influence us and we must determine how to factor that into our lives — but there’s a good message overall.

The 48 Laws of Power

Robert Greene
Amazon · Audible · iBooks

A classic work on how to achieve and wield power. A manual for becoming a corporate tyrant or political mastermind. Presented in a quasi-ironic way, the text teaches some powerful lessons on manipulative behavior and how to avoid or harness it.

How Music Works

David Byrne
Amazon · Audible · iBooks

A beautiful tour of music by the Talking Heads frontman. Part autobiographical account of the music industry, part pop science lesson. An enlightening description of the history of music and how it works in our brains. Recommended for anyone interested in music.

The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance

Josh Waitzkin
Amazon · Audible · iBooks

An inspirational memoir from a former chess grandmaster and Tai Chi champion. With a little reading between the lines, this book explains how to reach the top of any field. The author talks about deliberate practice, constantly challenging yourself, and perpetually dealing with the discomfort of growth. I put many of Josh’s lessons in action to improve my DanceDanceRevolution skills and achieved some great results.

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

Ed Catmull, Amy Wallace
Amazon · Audible · iBooks

Describes how Silicon Valley companies foster creativity. The entire book boils down to “make sure your employees have chance encounters to promote cross-pollination of ideas” and “give them space to do their best work”. Lots of praise for companies like Pixar, Apple and Google. Maybe it’s because I work in that culture every day, but it seemed to paint an unrealistically saccharine picture of how work gets done at these places. There’s some good stuff in here, but don’t swallow it whole — creativity-limiting bureaucracy exists everywhere, and often that same frustrating bureaucracy contributes heavily to the success of the world’s most “innovative” organizations.

The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World

David Deutsch
Amazon · Audible · iBooks

Pop science at its best. Similar in spirit to Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture in its masterful weaving of philosophy and cosmology. The author builds his view of the world through a philosophy known as critical rationalism, which states that knowledge can only be created through the process of conjecture and the criticism or testing of said conjectures. In other words, instead of looking for confirmation about our hypotheses, critical rationalism suggests creating a hypothesis and then attempting to falsify it at all costs. Through the process of repeated criticism, a conjecture can be crafted into a functional theory like using a chisel to form a sculpture by chipping away at a lump of marble. After reading this book, I followed up with other critical rationalist materials (primarily the work of Karl Popper) and would consider myself a convert to this philosophy. David Deutsch also presents some fascinating insights into aesthetics and objectivity: he suggests a concrete relationship between truth and beauty as recognized in the human perceptual system. Finally, he touches on his own innovative work in fundamental physics, a new underlying theoretical framework known as “Constructor Theory”. As someone obsessed with computing and the idea of a computable universe, I find Constructor Theory extremely compelling: it describes the laws of physics in terms of basic transformations and which of these transformations are possible and which are not. The author applies the falsifiability principle of critical rationalism to the lowest level of our Universe. I take issue with Deutsch’s leanings toward Cartesian dualism and qualia in his description of consciousness, but even he admits that he isn’t so sure about those ideas. That’s only a tiny complaint; I consider The Beginning of Infinity among the more influential books I’ve ever read. Recommended by Colin Barrett.

Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking

Douglas Hofstadter, Emmanuel Sander
Amazon · Audible · iBooks

Presents the argument that all thought stems from analogical associations between concepts. This book transformed my perspective on human cognition; IMO, the information in this book and related works on analogies provide a blueprint for creating a human-like thinking machine. This book further convinced me that all of the pieces of the puzzle exist right now, waiting to be put together by the right people with gumption.

At Home: A Short History of Private Life

Bill Bryson
Amazon · Audible · iBooks

A cute history of everything we find in our homes: plumbing, furniture, architecture and more. To be honest, I can’t remember much about the book a year later. Except the chapter about stairs and how often people fall down: it never occurred to me that stair height and depth is mostly standardized in the US, but isn’t in a lot of other places. Lots of buildings in Japan, for instance, have hella dangerous stairs. This book scared me into paying way more attention when I use stairs. If I never fall down the stairs again, it’s thanks to Bill Bryson.

Write Songs Right Now

Alex Forbes
Amazon · Audible · iBooks

Great tips on songwriting from a chart-topping musician. Practical and straightforward. A huge help in my journey toward musicianship.

Oryx and Crake

Margaret Atwood
Amazon · Audible · iBooks

Revisited of one of my favorite sci-fi books by Margaret Atwood. Great social commentary on the information age, genetic engineering and our postmodern, hypercorporate world.

The Art of Living

Epictetus, Sharon Lebell
Amazon · Audible · iBooks

Stoic philosophy by Epictetus, one of the movement’s originators. Important lessons for how to live a tranquil life.

Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years

Diarmaid MacCulloch
Amazon · Audible · iBooks

The history of Christianity from 1000 BCE to the present, including the relationships between Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Quite long. The author describes nearly every important figure across the timeline of the religion. A lot of it started to run together in my mind. My biggest takeaway from the book: the history of the world is not an incomprehensible blur of billions of nameless people across an unfathomable stretch of time. Instead, human civilization as we know it has existed for less than 500 generations (counting from 10,000 BCE). The cultural distance between us and people who lived 2000 years ago is much more compact than I previously realized.

Moral Letters to Lucilius, Vol. 1

Seneca, Richard Mott Gummere

The ancient Stoic thinker Seneca communicates his philosophy in a series of letters to his friend Lucilius. Contains advice on how to deal with anger, grief, and many of life’s difficulties.

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life

Marshall Rosenberg
Amazon · Audible · iBooks

A self-help book on how to improve communication with others by avoiding criticism and other “violent” speech. Even though stuff like this is hard to remember all the time, it’s worth thinking about how to make better connections with everyone we interact with. A great recommendation by Matt Pollard.

The Martian

Andy Weir
Amazon · Audible · iBooks

Great storytelling and realistic science. Provides hope for the near-future colonization of Mars. The dialogue really sucks, but it’s easy to overlook when the rest is so good.

The Peripheral

William Gibson
Amazon · Audible · iBooks

Fascinating near-future thriller by genre legend William Gibson. This book is extremely my shit. 3D printable everything, anime androids, nanotechnology, smartphones embedded into people’s bodies, and a brilliant conception of a slow, imperceptible apocalypse. Read it. Or listen to it — the Audible narration by Lorelei King fits the chilly aesthetic of the book.

The Three-Body Problem

Liu Cixin (author), Ken Liu (translator)
Amazon · Audible · iBooks

A sci-fi masterpiece from a Chinese perspective. Haunting and thought-provoking. The first in a 3-part series about the interactions between humans and a nearby alien civilization. This series delivers the kind of freshness rarely seen in sci-fi nowadays. Highly recommended; you’re gonna love it.

The Dark Forest

Liu Cixin (author), Joel Martinsen (translator)
Amazon · Audible · iBooks

The second book in the series beginning with the Three Body Problem. Even better than the first. Introduces a number of concepts, including an mind-bending explanation for the Fermi paradox that perfectly suits the tone of the series. Read this along with the next one.

Accelerando (Singularity)

Charles Stross
Amazon · Audible · iBooks

The story of a family living through the Singularity. High-concept post-cyberpunk in the mold of Neal Stephenson with a kind of Futurama vibe. I’d say it relies on even more tech knowledge than most works in the genre; a few friends had trouble getting into it because they weren’t programmers. Not without its flaws, but I still think about many of its ideas a year later. Really entertaining.