My reading list
For a film list, see films.
This page holds a list of the books I am reading, and a list of books I have read (starting from the 8th July 2013, which is when the list started). I start with high hopes of keeping the list updated in real time, but of course this plan may go off the rails. There is also a list of things I very strongly recommend reading - they changed my thought patterns extensively, and/or are amazing books.
Things you should read
- Don’t Shoot the Dog - Nonfiction book on animal training and operant conditioning: the art of getting obedience (from animals and humans alike) without using punishment. It has clarified my understanding of a whole variety of phenomena related to motivation and so on.
- A Person Paper on Purity in Language, by Douglas Hofstadter (linked to the Wayback Machine version) - it is pretty shocking to realise just how much the English language discriminates against females, and how routine it is. Whether or not you think it’s an issue, this is an excellent satire.
- Gödel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas Hofstadter (an incredible book on pretty much everything - possibly the most meta thing I’ve ever read). Revisiting it now, I realise that I already know quite a lot of the mathematical content from different sources, but then to the extent that I specialised in anything during Part III, I specialised in logic.
- The LessWrong entry on Cached Thoughts - of the many fascinating LessWrong entries, this is probably the one that had the most profound and immediate effect on my thinking. I don’t know if that effect was just a culmination of my previous readings, but this was the moment that I really got the idea that “human thinking was not designed, it’s a bit of a miracle that we can think at all, and there are steps we can take to make our thinking less sloppy”.
- For sheer amazingness, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality - it’s a very long fanfic about what might happen if Harry were extremely intelligent. Give it a try - if you don’t like it by the time we reach Hogwarts, feel free to stop. It’s got its own subreddit, of which the most pertinent post is probably what HPMoR is about. People either find HPMoR horribly dull or absolutely incredible, as far as I can tell.
- Another LessWrong entry, this one on effective altruism (factual summary at Wikipedia) - the holy grail of charitable giving is surely to get maximum bang for your buck. (On a vaguely related note, a link that for ethical reasons doesn’t make it onto the list but seems worryingly insightful is a post from some random blog describing a horrible unit of currency, the “dead child”, being the amount of money required to save the life of one child’s life through charity - it makes very uncomfortable reading, so consider yourself duly warned that you might not want to read it. The idea is to make numbers like “£250,000 spent on a luxury dog kennel” make sense to us. The link is this post on a horrible unit of currency.)
- The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss is the best fantasy book I’ve ever read. It’s the start of a trilogy (the Kingkiller Chronicle) and, if you like fantasy (and maybe even if you don’t), is a stupendous book. I gave it to a friend who professes never to read, and I didn’t see em again for another week.
- Three Men in a Boat - the funniest book I’ve read. After the first two pages, I can barely move after having dissolved in laughter, and it just gets better. I was banned from reading this in the presence of other people, probably because I was having too much fun.
- Midnight’s Children - justly famous mystical fiction, set in twentieth century India. Wonderful book, beautiful turns of phrase and awe-inspiring plot.
- Flowers for Algernon - possibly the saddest book I’ve ever read, and at least one other person has agreed with me.
- Turn The Ship around! - book on the nature of leadership. Central thesis: if a great commander leaves a ship and the ship falls apart straight away, in what sense is it reasonable to say they were a “great” commander?
- Leadership Is Language, by David Marquet (sequel to Turn The Ship Around, discussed above).
Bought and ready to read
- Never Split The Difference, by Chris Voss (nonfiction book on negotiation)
- The Elephant In The Brain, by Robin Hanson
- The Attention Merchants, by Tim Wu
- American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
- More from Less, by Andrew McAfee
- Superforecasting, by Philip Tetlock
- A Formal Solution to the Grain of Truth problem, a paper from MIRI
- Cubical Agda, a paper describing an extension to Agda which supplies univalence and higher inductive types
- Linear Algebra Done Right, by Sheldon Axler (non-fiction, apparently the definitive textbook on linear algebra)
- Reinventing Discovery, by Michael Nielsen (non-fiction: how modern-day collaboration could remake science)
- The Strategy of Conflict, by Tom Schelling (book about game theory by a professional game theorist)
- Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut (depressing fiction)
- The Quincunx, by Charles Palliser (Wilkie Collins-esque Dickensian fiction)
- Genesis, by Bernard Beckett (future ?dystopian fiction)
- Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett (fiction)
- Linked, by Albert Lazlo Barabassi (study of networks)
- Libriomancer, by Jim C Hines (fantasy fiction)
- Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut (fiction of some sort)
- Nature via Nurture, by Matt Ridley (study of interaction of genes and environment and development)
- The Culture series, by Iain M Banks
- A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel
- So Good They Can’t Ignore You, by Cal Newport
- 84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff
- Black Box Thinking, by Matthew Syed
- Impro, by Keith Johnstone
Read some of and then put down
- Legal Systems Very Different From Ours: it’s all in the title, really. Case studies of different legal systems, by the economist David Friedman. I read the first third or so of this, and it was a very interesting set of things to think about. How can a civilisation run itself without our systems of law courts? There have been many answers through the centuries.
- Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, by Charles Mackay - nonfiction about the ways in which the crowd can get things wrong. This book is very, very long; I made it through the first half of the first volume before giving up. A pretty eye-opening book, though: Mackay’s description (from the year 1841!) of the South Sea Bubble is almost indistinguishable from the recent cryptocurrency crazes, right down to an extensive list of some of the crazy companies that were eventually made illegal (“for improving the art of making soap”, “for a wheel of perpetual motion”, “for extracting silver from lead”, “for a grand American fishery”) - all very reminiscent of the various shitcoins.
- Quantum Computing for the Very Curious: essay to teach the fundamentals of quantum computing, with embedded spaced repetition cards.
- The World of Null-A, by A. E. van Vogt - science-fiction from 1948. I believe this book spawned the phrase “the map is not the territory”. It was clearly not modern science-fiction: while I can certainly forgive anachronisms due to failure to predict the future (difficult by all accounts!), I believe the simple art of writing has advanced considerably since this was written. Parts of it are simply clumsy and rushed. The overall premise, though, I enjoyed a lot, and the glimpses into a different way of thinking based on a different philosophy of mind.
- The Debt to Pleasure, by John Lanchester - fiction/cookbook. One of the most erudite books I’ve read; this book really benefits from being read on a Kindle, with its inbuilt dictionary. A joy to read, excellent characterisation of the narrator. I’d advise not Googling the book before you read it (and ideally don’t even read the blurb); there are spoilers to be found, and I think the best experience of this book would be to go in completely blind. Do read it, though; it has many beautiful turns of phrase, and is just generally extremely well written.
- The Full Stack of Society, by Conrad Bastable - a moderately easy-going intro to economics and how to recognise certain general classes of method of wealth-extraction. I found this absolutely fascinating, with a new insight for me every couple of paragraphs; my economics background is pretty lacking (at the time of writing), and I’m sure he’s not saying anything new or groundbreaking, but as an introduction for the novice this appears to be excellent.
- Thief of Time, by Terry Pratchett - one of the more standalone books of the Discworld; I usually recommend newcomers to the Discworld to start with this one. I first started reading Pratchett when I was probably a bit too young to understand him, but much as Pullman does with the Northern Lights trilogy, Pratchett is masterful in writing books that have real appeal to all audiences. The experience of reading Pratchett now is vastly richer.
- Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker - nonfiction pop-science classic about the nature of sleep. This book reads like Walker has bought into some sort of cult; whether or not he’s right, his bright-eyed enthusiasm reads as being naive, and much of what he says pattern-matches into the same class of statements as has caused the replication crisis in psychology. Everywhere you look in this book, you can see motivated reasoning and tortured post-hoc rationalisation. I’m aware that sleep is extremely important, but he could have spared us the improbable evo-psych justifications and the meaningless analogies.
- Unsong, by Scott Alexander - silly fiction, full of puns, lots of Jewish lore. Very amusing; probably insufferable if you’re not into puns.
- Some of the Mistborn books, by Brandon Sanderson - fantasy about a magical system. Sanderson is great at coming up with magical systems, but as I’ve got older I’ve stopped thinking his writing is particularly good.
- Watchmen, by Alan Moore et al - graphic novel about superheroes/masked vigilantes. The film is one of my favourite films, and it turns out to have been very true to the book. I think the book is better after having seen the film: I prefer the portrayal of Doctor Manhattan in the film, and there is a certain wildly silly plot device in the book which was replaced with a much more sensible one in the film. The book contains many little bits which made me go “ooh, that was good”.
- The Signal and the Noise, by Nate Silver - non-fiction about what the founder of FiveThirtyEight has learnt about making predictions. Basically espouses Bayesian reasoning, so its ultimate message is not really new to me. It talks a lot about predictions in the context of American sports; I care not one iota about baseball, basketball or American football, so I just skimmed those chapters.
- Proofs and Refutations, by Imre Lakatos - examining how/whether proofs can be considered to prove things, and how finding counterexamples can change proofs. I’ve been told this book is required reading for students of the philosophy of mathematics, but I didn’t find it particularly interesting.
- The Northern Lights trilogy, by Philip Pullman - brilliant books for both children and adults. I read these as a small-ish child and they were great stories; I’ve just reread them and they are even better. Excellent.
- The Nursery Crime series, by Jasper Fforde - even better than the Thursday Next books (below), taking place in a fictionalised city of Reading where the local population includes nursery-rhyme and other oral-tradition characters.
- The Thursday Next series, by Jasper Fforde - absolutely hilarious fiction, some of it taking place within the BookWorld (the world of the written word). Meta ensues, and also lots and lots of references to other fiction, all written beautifully and very funnily.
- Lectures on the Hyperreals: an introduction to nonstandard analysis, by Robert Goldblatt - mathematical textbook, very readable as textbooks go, with an excellent introduction to hyperreals and some interesting applications. I’ve looked at a few presentations of nonstandard analysis, and this is by far the best I’ve read. It introduces everything neatly and in a good order, and has sufficient exercises.
- Crystal: Society, by Max Harms - fiction about the escape of an artificial intelligence. It’s mostly plausible, and it features some genuinely alien aliens. Fun to read, and I couldn’t put it down at the start (when it was all based in the same laboratory); as it got more complicated and the robot began moving around and interacting in different scenarios, I got a bit less interested. The exploration of the aliens picked it right back up, though.
- Dictator, by Robert Harris - great conclusion to the fictional-autobiographical trilogy following Cicero’s life through the eyes of his secretary. All three books are excellent, and I learnt nearly everything I know about Roman culture from these books.
- Rationality: from AI to Zombies, by Eliezer Yudkowsky - compendium of posts from Less Wrong about the art of rationality. I don’t know what this would be like as an introduction, but it’s designed for that purpose, and I certainly re-learnt a lot from the compendium that I’d forgotten from the individual posts.
- Pact, by wildbow - fictional web serial about a certain system of magic. I preferred Worm (see below); Pact and Worm are both very long, so I’d recommend reading Worm over Pact, because time is actually a factor when reading these. It’s less clear to the reader how the rules of the Pact universe govern the actions of the characters, which is probably why Worm wins.
- Category Theory, by Steve Awodey - non-fiction, “gentle” introduction to category theory, which covers about a third of the Part III course at Cambridge. For a maths book, it takes rather little effort to read.
- Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre - excellent layperson’s introduction to trial design and how medical matters are misreported in the media. This is one of the books which really hammers home the principle that “you know how any news story about your area of knowledge is completely laughable? well, why do you trust the rest of the news?” It’s a little out-of-date now, but for the best of reasons: the transgressions of some of the most topical chapters have been partially fixed in real life.
- Candide, by Voltaire (in English translation by Tobias Smollett) - mildly amusing throughout, with a couple of laugh-out-loud moments. The end is rather too overtly moralising, and I much preferred the first half of the book. Many of the references have dated badly, and without the footnotes I wouldn’t have understood the point of large tracts of it.
- The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka (in English translation by David Wyllie) - tragic in several ways, and sometimes scary. Rather short; if it were longer, I might not say it was worth reading. I think Flowers for Algernon is better at doing what this book tries to do.
- The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas (in English translation; I don’t know who translated it, but it’s the Project Gutenberg version) - fictional story of vengeance served cold. One of my favourite TV series is a French version of this with Gérard Depardieu, but I gave up on the book halfway through because it was just getting more and more boring. The TV series sets everything up beautifully all the time, revealing only parts of the plans as they become important; the book has basically everything going on in parallel, which takes away much of the magic. The characters are just tedious in the book, lacking in much personality at all.
- Operation Mincemeat, by Ben Macintyre (non-fiction about World War II) - gripping, reads like it’s nearly a fiction book, some nice turns of phrase.
- The Gospel of Loki, by Joanne Harris (Norse mythology) - entertaining retelling of the Norse mythos, centred on Loki. Pretty self-aware, beautiful ending, and it’s very fun even if you know the mythology.
- The Slow Regard of Silent Things, by Patrick Rothfuss (kind of fantasy, but mostly a vignette about a character) - a very pretty book, following Auri, a minor character in the Kingkiller Chronicles. It’s short, gentle, and sweet; it bears rereading.
- Queen Lucia, by E F Benson (not sure how to describe it, other than “comedy of manners”) - funny and gentle, lots of characters socially manipulating others. Also all the rest of the Mapp and Lucia series. They’re all great fun. The kind of book I might read when ill.
- Grimus, by Salman Rushdie - very odd, slightly dreamlike book, full of puns and the sort of beautiful writing for which I loved Midnight’s Children. Enjoyed it a lot, though it wasn’t as good as Midnight’s Children.
- Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, by Nick Bostrom (non-fiction treatment of the social and ethical implications of artificial superintelligence) - very well-written and persuasive about the potential dangers of naively-implemented artificial intelligence. Definitely worth a read.
- The Bourne Identity, by Robert Ludlum (thriller fiction) - this is like the film but with about a hundred more plot points. It’s fairly well (but not astonishingly well) written - it’s certainly gripping, but some of Bourne’s panic scenes come across a little clumsy. There is also quite a lot of implausible exposition at various points - people are far too willing to talk about things they have no reason (other than plot) to discuss. Good read, though.
- Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie (mystical fiction) - absolutely excellent book, quite worthy of winning the Best of Booker prize. It is full of truly beautiful phrases, and every so often I literally sat back in awe at what I had just read. The first book of the three which make up Midnight’s Children is extremely gripping in a wonderful-story kind of way, the second is a little less so, but the third is gripping in a riveting-plot way. I really, really recommend this book, and I think it’s a travesty that students sometimes have to study it.
- Thinking: Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman (cognitive science) - I already knew quite a lot of the content of this book (from my perusal of LessWrong, for instance), but it was a good refresher. If you haven’t had much exposure to rationality and cognitive bias, this book is extremely strongly recommended.
- Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card (science-fiction with an overpowered main character) - interesting, but the character doesn’t actually face many challenges. The protagonist of a book should have some difficulty overcoming problems - while Ender is nearly killed by his exertions, there is no particular adversary.
- Flow, by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (cognitive science) - excellent book, although if you are already familiar with the flow phenomenon, you probably won’t learn much. The book sometimes comes across as a bit New Agey.
- Worm (online fiction about superheroes), by wildbow. Excellent superhero story, with characters who actually make sense and do sensible things. A huge variety of fascinating superpowers. Well worth reading, but it’s very long and hard to put down, so choose your starting time well! I’ve scraped it into a PDF for Kindle reading, but the author has specifically requested that ebooks not be distributed, so I will only even consider giving it to you if you are personally a friend of mine.
- Consciousness Explained, by Daniel Dennet (explaining the Multiple Drafts view of consciousness) - very interesting book, thought-provoking, and I’ve absorbed some of its contents into my world-view.
- The Mind’s I, by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennet (various musings on consciousness and the nature of the self) - this is a collection of pieces by other people, with commentary by Hofstadter and Dennet, which wasn’t quite what I expected. I’d read several of the pieces before, although Hofstadter sparkled just as he usually does. I got bored after about the tenth excerpt, but certainly up to the eighth my attention was held.