Recommended Books

I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.
— Jorge Luis Borges

These are my favorite books, ever. I know they’re my favorite because, while reading each one, first I felt awe. Then I felt jealously–overwhelming jealousy! Jealousy that such books even exist, that they can exist, and that they were written by someone-who-is-not-me.

I have zero qualms about recommending any of these. You should read all of them.

The list is in no particular order. If you ask me for my favorite book, the answer is “these ones.” I don’t have one, specific pick. The best one depends on who you are and why you read.

influenceInfluence: The Psychology of Persuasion

Influence is a brief, easy-to-read review of the different tactics that advertisers use to influence you. It’s written as a guide to protecting yourself from manipulators, I mean, “influencers,” but I suspect most people read it in order to use the tactics on others.

I didn’t like this book when I first read it. It didn’t have enough rigor. I wondered whether any of it was even true. Maybe I was upset about something else. Maybe I’d been burned by believing too many psychology studies that later failed to replicate.

I don’t know.

But then, after a few months passed, I found myself gifting it to people. I’ve given away at least two, maybe three copies.

What changed?

It’s all just so… applicable. I started to see the tactics in the book everywhere– hell, I even use some of them on the site, and I know they work, because I’ve A/B tested pages with and without them.

Recommended for: Anyone who needs to sell, persuade, or influence. So probably everyone.

Check it out.

Proofs and Refutationsproofs-and-refutations

I like philosophy of math. I’ve liked it ever since reading Wigner’s paper, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in The Natural Science.” This line sums up its main thrust: “the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it.”

That is: what, exactly, are these mathematical objects and why is math so effective? This question bugs me. I still have no satisfactory answer beyond the obvious ones. (These are left as an exercise for the reader.)

Thanks to this bothersome itch to know, I’ve since read more philosophy of math than is strictly useful. (I’m not sure any philosophy of math is useful.) But this book, Proofs and Refutations, is the greatest of them all.

The book is structured into a dialogue between a teacher and students. These students are fictional but the author, Lakatos, fills their dialogue with points made by the mathematical greats throughout history. One student parrots Euler, another Kepler.

And, trust me, if you’ve ever felt dumb about some explanation you’ve proposed, Kepler posited far worse.

The dialogue attempts to answer the question, “What is mathematical knowledge and the nature of proof?” But I think the lessons of the book can be generalized, providing insight into the nature of all knowledge, not just mathematics.

Recommended for: the philosophically and mathematically inclined.

Check it out.

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braidgeb

Right. I once saw someone online describe Gödel, Escher, Bach as a logic textbook disguised as a novel. This sounds about right to me, but this probably seems hopelessly cryptic to someone who hasn’t read it.

Try this: Imagine that you travel back in time, kidnap Lewis Carrol–the author of Alice In Wonderland–, transport him to today, and then force him to 1) learn enough logic to prove both of Godel’s incompleteness theorems, and then write a book explaining it. Along with its connections to M.C. Escher, the halting problem, Bach’s fugues, DNA, and about a dozen other topics.

That’s what GEB is like.

It is the most creative book I have ever read.

Recommended for: Anyone who can read an 824 page book and enjoys logic puzzles.

Check it out.

The Little SchemerThe_Little_Schemer

I have two favorite programming books. One is Why’s (Poignant) Guide to Ruby. It’s entertaining, but I don’t know if it will teach you anything about programming. I mean, it’s supposed to, but I don’t know if it will. You can download it and read it for free.

My other favorite programming book is The Little Schemer. It’s entertaining, mind expanding, and it will teach you enough Scheme to be dangerous.

But I mostly like it because it’s entertaining and mind-expanding. The Scheme thing is just a bonus.

The book itself is slim. Amazon says its 216 pages, but it has the heft of a book half that size. But the lessons within take a while to digest. More like a book twice its size. Maybe it cancels out.

The writing itself is in this sort of deranged dialogue format. One Amazon reviewer describers it as, “a little like Sméagol and Gollum discussing fishes.” An apt characterization.

Recommended for: Programmers or would-be programmers.

Check it out.

thinking-and-decidingThinking and Deciding

Okay. I lied. If I had to pick just one book as my favorite, this is the book. It’s a tour de force, pulling from cognitive psychology, economics, decision theory, and psychology. Oh, and ethics.

The book itself is aptly named. It’s on how humans think and decide, and where they deviate from rational choices. That is: how can you, as an individual, make better decisions? The book answers this, in a commendably practical manner.

The emphasis on actionable advice, along with the sheer amount of research covered–39 pages of references!–is what makes this book so impressive. It’s the book that Thinking, Fast and Slow should have been. (If someone tries to explain to me again the difference between system 1 and system 2, I’ll puke all over them.)

Recommended for:

  • Anyone who wishes to understand how to reason under uncertainty and has read at least one research paper in their life.
  • Anyone who identifies as agnostic because “you can’t ever really know, man.”

Check it out.