All the books I read in 2017
This was a hard year for me and every politically-inclined person I know. This was a year of being afraid of New York Times notifications. This was a year of trying to understand the world that produced Trump the president. This was a year of reading for purpose rather than pleasure.
Generally ordered from favorite/most influential down.
Doing Good Better
By: Will MacAskill
This book changed my life. As my first serious introduction to Effective Altruism, Doing Good Better turned despair at the state of the world into meaningful action and introduced me to the most inspiring community of people I’ve ever met. Core thesis: if you live in a developed country, you’re probably in a position to do an enormous amount of good for others through donating to the world’s most effective charities. That’s just the beginning of the rabbit hole that changed the way I think about my life, spend my money, eat my food, and understand my role in the world.
Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies
By: Nick Bostrom
This book, should you believe its premises and implications, will scare the shit out of you. Nick Bostrom is probably the most brilliant philosopher of the future. He’s the source of the famed simulation hypothesis (commonly attributed to Elon Musk, who is an avid reader of Bostrom), and a persuasive parable about the everyday tragedy of aging. In Superintelligence, Bostrom lays out the myriad ways artificial general intelligence could come to be, the ways it could quickly leapfrog our own abilities, and the apocalyptic difficulty in aligning its values with our own (the fabled “Control Problem”). With an entity of limitless intelligence and capability, any tiny misalignment in values could very easily extinguish us and life in the visible universe. This book is not easy to read and may fundamentally alter your thoughts on the future, but if you want to be an informed participant in the AI debate, this is required reading.
East of Eden
By: John Steinbeck
A beautifully written, epically scoped, multi-generational family saga packed with more great dialogues, characters, and aphorisms than just about anything else I’ve read. This is the book Steinbeck was most proud to have written, and for good reason.
The Righteous Mind
By: Jonathan Haidt
Haidt is a brilliant researcher and writer who introduced an extremely robust model for understanding the psychological underpinnings of people’s political and moral beliefs. This book will change the way you think about people and politics.
By: Philip Tetlock
Superforecasting compiles The best takeaways from decades of research on how people can make better predictions. Phil Tetlock was able to use the predictions of thousands of amateur fortunetellers to systematically out-predict the CIA (who had the benefit of classified information). The recommendations for thinking about the world are generally applicable and fun to read.
Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America
By: Richard Rorty
The book that predicted Trump in all but name nearly 20 years ago. An inspiring, succinct, and clear model for how the left can become the dominant political force in America once again. Highly recommend for anyone who cares about politics and wants to be inspired for a change.
Thinking, Fast and Slow
By: Daniel Kahneman
The synthesis of decades of research into the limits of human reason pioneered by author Daniel Kahneman (along with the late Amos Tversky). Kahneman was one of the founders of the field of behavioral economics (along with this year’s Nobel winner in economics, Richard Thaler), which focuses on the overlap between economic theory (how people are expected to behave) and psychology (how they actually behave). Fair warning that some of the research described (not the author’s own), failed to replicate. The core meat of the book remains intact.
The Blank Slate
By: Steven Pinker
I should warn that I’m a Pinker fanboy and have no shame about it. The Blank Slate attacks myths surrounding human nature, tearing down fairy tales describing humans as endlessly malleable clay. Given how much blood has been spilled in pursuit of the perfect man, understanding the limits of our perfectability is important. Incorporating decades of research into evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, and language, Pinker paints a picture of human nature as described by the evidence and explains how we might have gotten this way. Pinker gleefully combats common arguments against being honest with ourselves about ourselves.
Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them
By: Joshua Greene
Joshua Greene has contributed greatly to the nascent field of experimental philosophy, focusing on people’s behavioral and neurological reactions to the infamous Trolley Problem. With clear writing and concepts, Green explains why we’re better at cooperating with each other than pure rationality would dictate (how we’ve solved “the tragedy of the commons”) but fail miserably at cooperating with other groups (“the tragedy of commonsense morality”). Greene goes beyond describing the problem: he proposes and defends a nuanced version of utilitarianism to elevate our moral reasoning and mitigate the effects of tribalism. The problem of Me vs. Us is in our wheelhouse, the problem of Us vs. Them is the primary cause of most of human misery.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
By: Michelle Alexander
This is probably the most influential book in the growing literature on mass incarceration. Alexander has a powerful thesis (American criminal justice is an evolution of the Jim Crow South) and enormous amounts of research to back it. Regardless of whether you agree with her label, it’s hard to dispute that mass incarceration is an enormous tragedy and that racism played a crucial role in its staging.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
By: Hunter S. Thompson
A classic post-mortem of the peace and love generation masked behind a drug-fueled romp through the most American city there is. Thompson is a peerless writer and always a pleasure to read.
The Handmaid’s Tale
By: Margaret Atwood
Deserves the Hulu series. Atwood knows how to keep a reader interested. She creates a chilling theocratic America extrapolating from the religious fundamentalism of the 80s (essentially an American version of the Iranian revolution). Timely in a world where Pence is number 2, but not as prescient as sometimes discussed in a country where organized religion has steadily declined in influence.
The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — But Some Don’t
By: Nate Silver
Taking a deep dive into a wide range of thorny and fun topics through the lens of statistics (particularly of the Bayesian sort), Silver tackles climate change, baseball, poker, earthquakes, economics, and more. Impressive in scope, Signal offers a glimpse into the power of statistics to describe our world.
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
By: Michael Lewis
Lewis is a writer who can make a topic I care nothing about (baseball) into a (temporary) obsession. Part biography, part crash course in statistics, part underdog tale, Moneyball wears many hats, and wears them well.
By: Neal Stephenson
Snow Crash is a pessimistic, often hilarious scifi romp through a completely corporatized America. An iconic contribution to Cyberpunk (along with Neuromancer).
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
By: James Joyce
A beautifully written coming of age story of a man losing his faith in turn of the century Ireland.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
By: J.D. Vance
A touching, intimate, and raw portrait of a man growing up in Appalachian poverty. J.D. Vance is a talented writer with an inspiring and heartbreaking story. I strongly disagree with his diagnosis of the sources of poverty, health failure, and joblessness and his pessimism in the government’s ability to improve the lives and change the culture in the white working class.
The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics
By: Mark Lilla
Lilla’s slim book is a searing critique of the identity politics paradigm dominating Democratic Party politics. Offers a brief history of the two major dispensations in the 20th century American politics (Roosevelt’s New Deal and Reagan’s hyper-individualism) and a call to arms to reorient Democratic rhetoric and policies around our common citizenship rather than individual identity. Too breezy and light on evidence at times given the weight of Lilla’s claims.
Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion
By: Paul Bloom
Paul Bloom really hates empathy. After reading this book, you might too. Contrary to common belief and everyday rhetoric, Bloom argues, empathy is the source of enormous strife. Empathy motivates war through our feelings of solidarity with the victims of violence. Empathy is biased towards those who look like us. Empathy is insensitive to the number of people involved. And empathy makes us more likely to distance ourselves from injustice than confront it (a particularly disturbing letter drives this home: a German woman in view of a concentration camp asks the commandant to stop or at least murder Jews out of her sight). Using psychological research and historical examples, Bloom makes a compelling and contrarian case.
Letters to a Young Contrarian
By: Christopher Hitchens
Hitchens was a brilliant writer and resolute defender of clear ideals (sorely missed in a time of slippery allegiances and alternative facts). If you question the prevailing wisdom of society, this book will speak to you.
By: Christopher Hitchens
For most, final words are about as meaningful as first words. This book is an exception.
By: Ray Bradbury
An ode to books in a dystopic, violently anti-intellectual America.
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
By: Timothy Snyder
A very short set of historically informed guidelines to preventing dictatorship. A little too short for my tastes, but packed with interesting examples from countries that succumbed to totalitarianism.
Marxism: For and Against
By: Robert Heilbroner
This is an approachable, balanced treatment of a contentious and difficult topic. Marx is arguably the most influential philosopher of modern times, and this is a crash course on the theory and practice of Marxism.
The Missionary Position: Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice
By: Christopher Hitchens
A savage takedown of perhaps the most misunderstood woman of the twentieth century. Despite her status as “go-to good person”, Mother Theresa deprived sick people of necessary medicine, associated with tyrants, and savvily played politics while masquerading as a person more concerned with the next world than this one.
The Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq
By: Christopher Hitchens
A series of articles published in the aftermath of 9/11 and the build up to the Iraq war. Previously a Marxist, Hitchens became one of the more confusing supporters of the doomed war. Without the benefit of hindsight, The Long Short War is an honest and flawed series of polemics about the most consequential American foreign policy decision of this millennium.