I am often asked for book recommendations and typically find myself scrambling my brain for suggestions. The problem with this is recency bias – the books that I have most recently read are the ones that come to mind most easily. The purpose of this list (which is a living list) is to provide a list of books that have really shaped my thinking one way or another so that when asked for recommendations, I can just point towards this list and therefore avoid any recency bias.
I keep a list of all the books I own and, for the ones that I have read, I have given them a rating from 1 to 5 with 1 being “Not worth any time” to 5 being “All-timer, has really shaped my thinking/beliefs.” The list given below is a subset of all the books that were rated ‘5.’
The most mind-blowing resolution to a murder mystery I have ever read. In truth, if anyone were to ask me what murder mystery they should start off with if they were new to the genre, it would be this one (over any Sherlock Holmes story).
My favourite book of all time. It isn’t a story about some murderous clown, but it really is a story about friendship, childhood and what it means to grow up.
The creepiest Stephen King book I have ever read.
An incredibly long book (1000+ pages) which, on the surface, seems like a quintessential good versus evil type apocalyptic battle, but is actually fantastic social commentary on what happens to society as the number of people in it grow.
The best love story I have come across. While, like It, the story is ostensibly about something else (in this case, the prevention of the assassination of JFK), it is, at its core, a romance story.
I wouldn’t even know where to begin unpacking this, but I’ll just say that the various philosophies that manifest themselves via the different characters are immensely thought-provoking.
Batman has a ton of great stories (Dark Knight Returns, Batman Begins, among others) but Killing Joke is the only one that, I think, has a really interesting take on ‘just one bad day.’
I’m not kidding – finishing these two volumes drove me into an existential crisis for a week. It really brings to fore the question, “So what will you have accomplished in your life?” The companion reader, also by Don Rosa, that collects supplementary stories is also great.
I got my first Sherlock Holmes book when I was 9. I’ve wanted to be a Detective ever since. Alas, this was not meant to be. But the books and the character have really shaped me.
I read this in secondary school after the Fellowship of the Ring came out in movies. Some of the most beautiful writing I have encountered and some of the most meaningful characters. While Gandalf is my clear favourite, Samwise (“BAMF”) Gamgee is a very close second.
My graduate school roommate, Suthen, introduced this series to me. It is a Sci-Fi series that describes the sociology/economics/anthropology (read: social studies) of what would happen if / when humanity colonises the solar system. A really provocative take on human nature.
The best Michael Jordan book I have read (and I have read a fair few). Halberstam is a master writer, using all facets of his journalistic ability to give a real (though sometimes a bit too kind) portrait of Michael Jordan. What really comes across is Jordan’s inhumanly intense competitiveness spirit.
This book has made me think very differently about what drives the political beliefs and worldviews of different individuals. The moral intuition argument that Haidt lines up is super persuasive (I have written about this in The Edge) and what I like most about it is how he links it to human evolution, particularly group selection (though there is still lots of debate on whether natural selection can take place at the group level). There is, I think, no better (introductory) book to read on how and why people have different moral beliefs.
Harari does a good job here in bucketing our collective history into the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, the unification of humankind, and the Scientific Revolution. It has made me appreciate evolutionary biology and evolutionary anthropology much more and given me a new cornerstone on evaluating what is possible and what is not – “Biology enables, culture forbids.” Also fairly sobering to read how destructive we are as a species, especially to large mammals.
If I were to reset my life, or at least my field of study, I would go into Astronomy. And the main reason for that is more romantic than it is rational – I simply look at a night sky with thousands of stars and I can’t help feeling awe, wonder and small. And I also can’t help but think about things like, “What’s out there?”, “How far does the universe go?” and things like that. Bogard’s book is a terrific read on the importance of preserving the dark, and the things that come along with it. For the more rational (or at least less romantic), the practical and consequential issues of light pollution are also described well.
Sherlock Holmes, based on the stories, was a perfect reasoning machine masquerading as a human being. I wanted to be like that. Daniel Kahneman showed me it was not possible. For the first time in my life, I really questioned the possibility that I was nowhere near as rational/logical as I thought, and that I was actually pretty irrational. Thanks Daniel Kahneman for that (can be read both sarcastically and sincerely).
A thoroughly informative book on how economic development in developed countries has historically been driven, in large part, by government, thereby debunking the common perception that growth and development should only be private sector driven. In Economics, I’ve read the most on Industrial Policy, and I think this book is a must-read as is Dani Rodrik’s paper on “Industrial Policy for the 21st Century.”
When I entered College, I wanted to be an Investment Banker. I know, I know. But then I took a course in my sophomore year called, “Why are some countries rich, and some countries poor?” I was assigned to do a book report on this particular book and reading it has, I can’t overstate this enough, changed my career trajectory towards development policy. This was the book that set me on the path that I am today.
A very readable book on the history of dinosaurs with a special chapter, naturally, on the Tyrannosaurus Rex. While this book is fun even for the most mild dinosaur enthusiast, where I think it really comes to fore is just the appreciation of how long dinosaurs ruled the earth and, in comparison, how much further the human species has to go just to achieve what the dinosaurs achieved in terms of sustained existence.
Culture, whether in terms of Economics, Evolution, Anthropology, and so on, is my favourite academic topic. One of my chief questions was, “How do cultures evolve over human history, and why are some cultures more resilient than others?” This book by Joseph Henrich was exactly what I was looking for and is probably my favourite non-fiction book. It describes the cultural-gene co-evolution pulling together insights from evolutionary biology, anthropology and much more. If there was a book that best described the type of fields where I would want to explore the most and the questions I would ask, this would be that book.
A global history of species’ extinctions from the first organisms till today. A sobering read and one that shows just how much we are losing, and will stand to lose, with unyielding climate change. Goes deep into ecology and preservation, which are fields that I don’t commonly come across. On a side note, the description of how the cause of the Fifth Extinction (the one that killed the dinosaurs) was discovered is truly gripping.
I’m a big believer that luck (which I would probably formally define as ‘deviations from an expected outcome’) is probably 95% responsible (number is approximate) for most things in life. This is particularly true about the lottery of birth. Who you are born to and where you are born really impacts your outcome. Of course, there are those who beat the odds, but those are the exceptions, rather than the norms. This book is a good introductory read on the outsized role of luck.
In Statistics, one of my favourite concepts is the Law of Large Numbers. David Hand introduced, to me at least, the concept of the Law of Very Large Numbers. A different take on statistics, especially statistics with very large samples. The lessons from this book should also give us pause when evaluating insights / analyses drawn from big-data-type work.
This book is a bit more technical in its narrative but it does provide a hugely useful framework in analysing so-called ‘miracle’ events. I like that it draws on statistical distributions (Gaussian versus Cauchy), network theory (I learned a lot from here), and chaos theory in pulling together its thesis. Also helps when thinking about specific issues – are we in a Gaussian world or a Cauchy one?
The best introductory read for anyone looking to learn about how data and statistics can be wilfully manipulated or accidentally misinterpreted to craft narratives and news. Very readable with great examples from sports, finance, politics, and more and is, in general, a very good place to start learning how to be a more educated consumer of statistics and data. Should be mandatory reading in all schools.
I once had a discussion with a good friend of mine, Yeh Chuin, on the nature of intelligent design. Lightman’s book describes what I think about how nature, the universe, humanity, etc. came to be better than I could ever articulate and ends with some very profound questions on the nature of science and the nature of religion and the role for both (which I entirely agree with).
The first part of the title caught my eye (and my obsession with dinosaurs). The second part of the title made me give it a ‘5’. How did dark matter (matter that can’t be traced, at least thus far, directly by any senses and sensors we have) cause the extinction of the dinosaurs? What I really like about it is how it shows that things that happen at a universal scale (or at least at a galactic scale) can have an important impact to life on earth. I’m always looking for ideas which draw links across very different fields and show how our planet – and therefore the life on it – have developed and evolved over millions (billions?) of years.