A reading list
I started this list of "good books I've read recently" back when the web
was nearly new (hence the nostalgic styling), and then got distracted... by
the web, eh. So I'm not reading books as much as back then, but I can still
list some good ones.
The titles are linked to more complete descriptions and reviews from
Amazon.com. It's pretty much the only sort of advertising on my site, a
reasonable quid pro quo
that you're free to take or leave as you see fit. At any rate, my idea
is to have only what I see as first-rate work here.
Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, Kathryn Schulz, 2011
We all had the experience of realizing we were wrong about something,
but as Schulz points out, that's not quite the same as experiencing
being wrong; when we're actually wrong about something, it's
because we think we're right when we aren't. There are more paradoxes
along the way, and she does a fine job of teasing them apart and finding
interesting ways of seeing what we thought was all-too familiar.
You can sample some of the good stuff in
2011 TED Talk, although I will say her writing style is more
engaging than her speaking and presenting was for me. From "Wrongology"
to considering how we obtain, test (or don't test) and lose beliefs,
through heartbreak and to transformation, she does a nice job of turning
the pessimism of inevitable error inside out and into "the optomistic
meta-induction from the history of everything," that by getting things
wrong, we give ourselves the possibility of being right.
Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, Matthew B.
Waxing philosophical about working with one's hands, as that kind of
occupation becomes ever less common. Crawford's an entertaining writer,
with a life journey to inform a fine book. His work as an electrician,
an abstracter, and a tank thinker provide contrast from the bare
knuckled (and yes, also intellectual) contest of man vs. machine. You
don't have to have read Zen and the Art... beforehand (or
recently), but it would be a nice way to set the stage.
Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood,
James Gleick, 2011
From talking drums, to reeds poked in wet clay, the secret of life,
making and breaking codes, words on a wire, quantum computing, the
energy in forgetting, Wikipedia, overload and the sum total of
information in the universe, Gleick carves up a complete history in a
masterful drive from start to finish.
the Clearwater: Living on Stolen Land, Bette Lynch Husted, 2004
A memoir from north Idaho, connecting the land with the history of the
succession of people who have lived on it and made claims against it.
When I was new to this part of the world, I had a weekend adventure at a
friend's ranch, riding horses in the Clearwater breaks, and reading this
felt like filling in the color of my line-drawing of that distant
Ursula K. Le Guin's friendly blurb is featured on the
cover, and having read the book, I see it's spot-on: "Like the river of
its name, Bette Husted's book runs with clarity and passion. Complex,
harsh, and tender, never taking the easy way out, this memoir is
beautiful in its honesty. I never read anything truer to the Western
land and its people."
- The Righteous Mind:
Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt,
A masterpiece by a social psychologist who brings his own life
experience, work, and the work of many others (ethnography, evolutionary
theory and experimental psychology) together to describe and explain the
important differences motivating people of opposing political views,
where they came from, why they matter, and what we might do to move
beyond division. His book's organization and readability demonstrate
his skill as a teacher, and researcher.
by William Saletan in the NYT, and plenty of other views of it in
various media, including
the author's book website,
with Bill Moyers, and one
You can play along at
"where you can learn about your own morality, ethics, and/or values,
while also contributing to scientific research, and
"find and promote evidence-based methods for increasing political
Searching for Whitopia An Improbably Journey to the Heart of White America, Rich Benjamin, 2009
An amazing cross-cultural exploration from a man with a rich
background and a remarkable capacity to ignore the boundaries that most
of us observe by predilection, habit or both. The author has
a book website with lots of
entertaining photos to make up for the unillustrated text. I knew some
of the places he describes before the changes of the last two or three
decades, and appreciated his descriptions of things that have changed as
well as where they came from, from a unique perspective. I finished
the book the same month that
U.S. Census Bureau reported that our younger-than-one population is
now majority minority, foreshadowing the overall population shift
forecast to arrive in 2042.
Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (American Empire Project), Peter Van Buren, 2011
The subtitle provides a succinct summary: the personal account of an
experienced Foreign Service Officer's 12 month stint in Iraq, near the end
of our military occupation, 2009-10. The author's first book is a
collection of vignettes of his direct experience, short on
embellishment, and long on punch. The mayhem is relatively limited, but
one wounded and one "non-combat" killed are expressive enough, as is his
account of the myriad ways we dumped money on problems in the course of
doing almost nothing useful. Required reading for any leaders who think
we need another preemptive war.
Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition,
Michael J. Mauboussin, 2009
A generalist's summary about common errors in thinking, with a focus on
business, but general applicability. Among the topics covered:
confirmation bias (evidence that supports us gets our attention,
evidence that contradicts us gets discounted); unrecognized bias
from the environment ("How accordion music boosts sales of burgundy");
anchoring (unrelated information can create a default starting point);
affect (what we expect, how we feel, how much stress we're under all
modify our decision-making); the halo effect (general impressions lead to
improbably correlated specific assessments); the pull of conformity
(the pull of majority opinion); and the ways we resolve cognitive
dissonance (self-justification, hindsight bias, etc.).
The title alludes in part to the two systems of decision making
described by 2002 Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, most recently in his
Thinking, Fast and Slow:
System 1, the experiential system, is 'fast, automatic, effortless,
associative, and difficult to control or modify.' System 2, the
analytical system, is "slower, serial, effortful, and deliberately
Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, Timothy Egan, 2009
A tremendously moving account of the epic forest fire of 1910, assembled
from copious research, and set in the context of the political
transformation started by the first Roosevelt. A hundred years later, we're
still trying to sort out the issues of resource use, conservation, fire
management, and political bounders.
Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, Michael Lewis, 2010
Lewis is a great storyteller, and a strong researcher, makes a fascinating
and horrific story even more so. You hardly mind that somebody's been
picking your pocket the whole time.
The Art of the Start:
The Time-Tested, Battle-Hardened Guide for Anyone Starting Anything, Guy Kawaskai, 2004
- The time and battle testing always remains to be seen, but
Kawasaki does distill his own experience of starting and funding a
variety of things into a readable book and a nice collection of pithy
advice, from how to design and deliver a presentation with slides ("ten
slides, twenty minutes, thirty-point-font text"), to the larger picture
of doing what's right ("the art of being a Mensch"). He mentions
non-profits several times, and I perked up for specific advice in that
realm, but didn't find much. The emphasis on making meaning
(instead of, you know, money) is a useful touchstone for every
human enterprise (beyond subsistence, anyway).
Thomas Ricks, 2006
- Detailed and well-documented account of how the Iraq war was lost.
The disproportionate response to what proved to be a completely
non-existent threat came with almost no planning for "Phase IV," and
certainly no contingency planning for anything going wrong after "major
combat operations" were complete. Three years on, the one word of
Ricks' title is the succinct characterization of what we have
In Pharoah's Army and
This Boy's Life, two memoirs by Tobias Wolff, 1995 & 2000.
- Maybe I can still remember my own essential stories this clearly
(but more likely I can't), and I wish I could write about them in as
interesting a way as Wolff does. Pharoah's Army is the snapshot
of his experience fighting in Vietnam, newly relevant with Pharoah's Army
off on another adventure.
Stupid White Men ...and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the
Nation!, Michael Moore, 2001
Even for a sympathetic reader, his attitude can get in the
way at times; it's better suited to
film, perhaps. This book was written before 9/11, before the latest
war in Iraq, so it seems dated in some ways, but the collection of facts
he had to work from into early 2001 were damning enough. Read the
details of how Jeb delivered Florida to W. (it was more than just the
Supremes), the Wars on intelligence, Drugs, poor people, and on and on.
He doesn't spare the Democrats, or Clinton/Gore, either; the last minute
barrage of Executive Orders from their administration was more of an
indictment for what they didn't get done, than a grand finale.
(Lest we forget, however, 3/4ths of the Clinton administration was
post-"Contract with America"; they had a lot of help.) The book has a
lot of funny stuff in it, but not so much funny ha ha when it's all said
Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud,
Robert Park, 2000
A readable journey through the hinterlands of pathological science,
junk science, pseudoscience, and of course, fraudulent science.
Park describes the "belief engine" that makes us think A caused
B when B follows A in our experience, and how that has given life to
homeopathy, perpetual motion shams and scams, cold fusion, vitamin O,
scares of microwaves and powerlines, and assorted hoaxes such as X-ray
lasers and magnetic cures. He's got the background to explain it all
succinctly, and the personal anecdotes to make it interesting.
A Shortcut Through Time, George Johnson, 2003
Progress reports about quantum computing seem to make a big deal about a
very small number of qubits. Johnson explains why that should be:
a very small number of quantum computing elements would make for a very
powerful computer, able to do things that are impractical or impossible
with the machines we have today. It's not an easy subject to make
understandable at the popular science level; Johnson does a good job of
it in a short book.
The Battle for God, Karen Armstrong, 2000
An important book for understanding the historical roots, the rise, and
the consequences of fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
After the horrific events of September 11, 2001, this book provides an
exceptional overview of history we'd be better off not
The Inmates are Running the Asylum, Alan Cooper, 1999
Answers to the riddle of why so much software is so bad, and what can
be done about it. His list of "polite" characteristics for software
interactions applies to interactions in general:
"Polite software is interested in me, deferential to me, forthcoming,
has common sense, anticipates my needs, is responsive, taciturn about
its personal problems, well informed, perceptive, self-confident, stays
focused, is fudgable, gives instant gratification, and is trustworthy."
The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,
Malcom Gladwell, 2000
Epidemics are characterized by contagious behavior, little changes that
have big effects, and changes that happen rapidly.
That moment in the spread of an epidemic when a little change
precipitates a big effect in a hurry is "the tipping point." Gladwell's
very readable exploration tells us more about the way we think and the
way our thoughts get transmitted in social groups. Recommended reading
for anyone who wants to change the world.
My Year of Meats, Ruth L. Ozeki, 1998
Everything else on this list is non-fiction, but my sister gave me
this novel for Christmas. I may not be qualified to review fiction,
given how little I read, but I found this to be a gripping piece of work.
Ozeki's experience with two different cultures, the technology of
videography and the industry of meat are an incredible combination.
The Cluetrain Manifesto, Christopher Locke, Rick Levine, Doc Searls, David Weinberger, 2000
The Manifesto's writing is an amusing travel book for some, lightning
bolts of insight for others (I don't know "them" personally),
and an odd treatise in a foreign language to still others. It's sort of a
midterm paper on what the web is all about, and what it's going to mean
for the future of commerce. As reviewer Laurie Kalmanson wrote on Amazon,
"reasonably butt kicking ... and a breath mint, too."
I have an extended response
to this book.
Dialogue and the art of thinking together, William Isaacs, 1999
- Isaacs' principles of dialogue are participation, unfolding, awareness
and coherence, and he teaches how to put these principles in action.
A profound handbook for kindling the fire of conversation into a
productive energy. I have an extended review
of this book.
How We Know What Isn't So, Thomas Glovich, 1991
- Some patterns of misbelief are predictable, and knowing about them may
help us avoid them. Each chapter has multiple useful nuggets, grouped in
provocative categories like "Something out of nothing," "Seeing what we
want to see," and "The imagined agreement of others." Nice companion to
Why People Believe Weird Things, a few items down.
Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer, 1997
- The story of the 1996 Everest disaster that killed 12 people, from one
of the climbers. Intense, gripping adventure into the "Death Zone" at the
top of the world. Krakauer's attempt to document what happened, and who
made what mistakes became a lightning rod for the pain and grief of
survivors, but I understand his need to do it. The truth of it is that at
these kind of altitudes, even the best humans are slow, weak and stupid;
single-minded purpose is required to get there, but even with incredible
mental and physical conditioning, the margin for error is tiny.
Grand Central Winter: Stories from the Street, Lee Stringer, 1999
- What it was like to be a homeless crack addict in New York. A
powerful story, well told, and (most likely!) an opportunity to see the
world from a new perspective.
Why People Believe Weird Things: pseudoscience, superstition, and
other confusions of our time, Michael Shermer, 1997
- By the editor of the
Skeptic Magazine, most of it is "What
Weird things do people believe, and why they are wrong." Alien abduction,
Creationism, the cult of Ayn Rand, Holocaust denial, transcendant Physics.
I clipped and saved his 25 fallacies
in thinking, grouped into scientific,
pseudo-scientific, logical and pyschological problems.
The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher,
Lewis Thomas, 1979
- A collection of eclectic essays; just my thing. "Debating is what
committees really do, not thinking. Take away the need for winning
points, leading the discussion, protecting one's face, gaining applause,
shouting down opposition, scaring opponents, all that kind of noisy
activity, and a group of bright people can get down to quiet thought."
Entertaining, witty, learned, insightful. His earlier collection,
The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, won the 1974 National
Inside the Tornado: Marketing Strategies from Silicon Valley's Cutting
Edge, Geoffrey A. Moore, 1995
- Some business fad books don't deserve a fad. This one
does, and it's a good whack upside the head for marketing in the 90's
Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure,
Jerry Kaplan, 1994
- The rise and fall of GO Corporation, told by its founder.
Some of why pen-based computing hasn't hit the big time, and a look
inside IBM, AT&T and Microsoft. Not always pretty, but a real
page-turner. There may be a new epilogue soon, with reports that
Kaplan now has evidence of Microsoft's malfeasance.
The Edge of the Unknown: 101 Things You Don't Know About Science and No
One Else Does Either, James Trefil, 1996
- Artful, 3-page descriptions
of the frontiers of science. Now out in paperback.
Time: The Familiar Stranger , J.T. Fraser, 1987
- Did you know that not all living things age and die? Sexual
reproduction introduced that little side effect, with the benefit of
speeding up the pace of change. What's the connection? Time looks
different when you age and die, eh? Great book.
A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia , Blaine Harden, 1996
- If you want to understand the Pacific Northwest's "east side," this
book is a fine start. Harden looks at the Columbia basin through the eyes
of his father, who worked on Grand Coulee dam, irrigation farmers, barge
pilots, windsurfers, Native Americans and more. Let's hope that we can
figure out a way to keep this from being an epitaph.
Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water,
Marc Reisner, 1986
- The definitive history of water in the West; power, politics, and
The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are; The New Science of
Evolutionary Psychology, Robert Wright, 1995
- If we evolved, that implies quite a bit about the way we are.
Wright uses biographical material about Charles Darwin to tie his exposition
together in an entertaining way.
Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot: And Other Observations, Al
- I read the paperback, which has a few new chapters. FunNEE!
He doesn't limit himself to the obvious target, either. A local author
wrote "The Bum's Rush" a few years back detailing the deceptive techniques
that Rush uses, but Franken makes it a lot more entertaining.
The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself,
Daniel J. Boorstin, 1985
- We have the paperback, but the local library now has two copies of
the illustrated edition. Might be worth re-reading, I enjoyed his grasp
of history so much.
Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, J Gleick, 1993
- Well written biography, with 48 pgs of notes, a Feynman bibliography,
index. The story of a remarkable man in the center of 20th c. particle
Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition: Science Slightly over
the Edge, Ed Regis, 1990
- Great title, huh? You hope a title like this won't be en empty tease.
It's not. Read
Howard Rheingold's review for a succinct invitation to a wonderful
Life in Moving Fluids: The Physical Biology of Flow, Steven
- Less technical than engineering texts, this gives a better
introduction to fluid mechanics, by being less obsessed with mathematical
analysis (and yet doesn't skip the math).
Tools for conviviality, Ivan Illich, 1973
- I found this book stunning, and hard to put down. I'd like to find a
copy to put in my library and go back to it again, after the ideas
percolate for a while.
Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the
Machine, Donald A. Norman, 1994
- A proposal to have technology serve humans, rather than the
current situation. Don Norman was briefly head of HP's Advanced
Appliance Design Center in the Consumer Products Group, but doesn't
really seem like a corporate guy.
Haven't had enough? There's more...
Tom von Alten