Thoughts from some books I read in 2019 & 2020

For several years I’ve tried to maintain and share lists of every book I’ve read, primarily as a personal tool to reflect but also to proselytize things written by others that I’ve found insightful. In the past, I’ve ranked the books and written detailed reviews (here are 2016, 2017, and 2018 [part 2, 3], with more full reviews here).

Since I missed posting last year and don’t maintain rankings across years, I’ll instead share short things I learned from some of the books I read the last couple of years — categorized instead of ranked. (Order within category is semi-arbitrary). Disclaimer: I got lazy and so didn’t include or write thoughts about every one.

Science, Technology, & Society

  1. Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor, by Virginia Eubanks. A huge problem with “targetting” benefits: data on who qualifies (for, e.g., unemployment or rehab or abuse shelters) can down the line be used to punish folks.
  2. The Hype Machine: How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy, and Our Health — and How We Must Adapt, by Sinan Aral. Science on how social media affects us is hard and complicated, and many proposed outsider solutions would fail. But if academics like Sinan can predict the Burisma scandal and election misinformation years ahead of time, then there’s no good reason companies couldn’t have been prepared.
  3. Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass, by Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri. AI in practice is currently a lie, powered by “mechanical turkers,” and perhaps more enabled by remote monitoring and work distribution technology than by any ‘intelligent’ algorithm.
  4. Superior: The Return of Race Science, by Angela Saini. Science and education certainly isn’t the cure to racism I once thought it was, but tools for either good or bad.
  5. The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age, by Tim Wu. Gave me the foundation to understand ongoing battles of anti-trust against Google/FB, and how a narrow view of harm to “consumers” as opposed to “citizens/people” might doom what should be slam-dunk cases.
  6. Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia, by Anthony M. Townsend. Lasting urban tools are hard to build, and “top-down” vs “bottom-up” matters.
  7. The Sharing Economy: The End of Employment and the Rise of Crowd-Based Capitalism, by Arun Sundarajan. Many competing models for the “sharing” economy, and that my view of my research area was too U.S. centric and recency-biased.
  8. The Human Network: How Your Social Position Determines Your Power, Beliefs, and Behaviors, by Matthew O. Jackson. Social networks aren’t restricted to modern technologies, and consequences we see today are just scaled up and visible versions of long-standing effects.

Technical

  1. Who Gets What and Why, by Alvin E. Roth. A lay overview of my research field (market design) by the (Nobel-prize winning) expert; entertaining, clear, and informative throughout.
  2. Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models, by Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann. Appropriately used, mental models are perhaps the most useful way to quickly understand a new situation. Over-used, and you sound like a consultant who doesn’t take the time to learn the essential peculiarities of a given situation. This book is a list of such models. Here’s a medium post listing some models by one of the authors.
  3. Thinking in Systems: A Primer, by Donella Meadows. A classic must read, to understand common characteristics of complex systems.
  4. The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect, by Judea Pearl and Dana Mackenzie. Accessible introduction to the essential science of causality. Useful, but skip the parts where Pearl claims too much credit and that his methods are the only way. For the technical reader, Guido Imbens’s review of the book is absolutely essential.
  5. Emperor of Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee.
  6. Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn.
  7. Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe, by Steven Strogatz. Calculus is beautiful, and its story should be taught alongside the math.
  8. Superintelligence, by Nick Bostrom.
  9. Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics, by Richard Thaler.

Memoirs, Bios, and Essays

The powerful, must-read ones—among the best books I’ve read the last few years. Won’t share takeaways because you should just read them.

  1. Becoming, by Michelle Obama.
  2. Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law, by Haben Girma.
  3. Know My Name: A Memoir, by Chanel Miller.
  4. Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson.
  5. Educated, a memoir, by Tara Westover.
  6. The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations, by Toni Morrison

The fun ones.

  1. Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help, by Larissa MacFarquhar. Collection of stories of people who’ve dedicated their life to others, and an exploration of, “When have I done enough for others? How will I know?.”
  2. A Promised Land, by Barack Obama. Pure high-school/undergrad nostalgia porn.
  3. A Primate’s Memoir, by Robert Sapolsky.
  4. Maybe you should talk to someone, by Lori Gottlieb. An entertaining look on therapy as both therapist and patient.
  5. Robin, by Dave Itzkoff.
  6. Calypso, by David Sedaris.

Education

  1. Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, by Jeffrey J. Selingo. Inside look on how admissions committees for undergraduate colleges choose a class. Illuminated how subjective the process is, and how removed academic discourse about legality of considering demographics is from on-the-ground decision-making,
  2. The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure — Without Losing Your Soul, by Kerry Rockquemore and Tracey A. Laszloffy. Full of practical tips on, e.g., time management and office politics. Though not written for us, useful for non-Black folks to know of the additional hurdles our Black colleagues must navigate.
  3. Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity, and Faculty Gatekeeping, by Julie Posselt. Only partway in and intend to finish it soon, but a well-recommended book on graduate admissions in practice.

Race, Economics, History, & Politics

  1. The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, by John M. Barry. History certainly rhymes — from “liberty cabbage” (cf. freedom fries) during WWI to anti-maskers and pandemic deniers. In my favorite, most brutal few paragraphs, the author juxtaposed statements from politicians on how the pandemic was almost over, with subsequent record death counts. The internet certainly hasn’t saved us from ignorance but also hasn’t caused (all of) it.
  2. Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo. If people are doing something (e.g., spending their money) in a way you don’t understand, assume you’re missing something rather than that they are.
  3. Good Economics for Hard Times, by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo. Opinionated summary of empirical economics on the biggest domestic political debates — e.g., that immigration probably doesn’t harm any Americans economically, but that global trade harms many.
  4. How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi. That ‘not being racist’ doesn’t matter, anti-racist actions do.
  5. Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society, by Eric Posner and Glen Weyl. Not a fan of many of the specific proposals, but good at exposing that many of the ways society is structured could be otherwise. Also, that proposing radical, specific changes is a useful (if daring) exercise.
  6. A History of America in Ten Strikes, by Erik Loomis. Absolutely shocking the power labor unions once held on behalf of workers, and that diffusing power often eliminates it.
  7. Politics Is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change, by Eitan D. Hersh. “Staying informed” isn’t useful, acting with that knowledge is. Helped cement my desire to work full-time electing Democrats in the 2020 cycle.
  8. Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea, from Ancient Athens to Our World, by James Miller. Maybe? Tensions regarding who is a citizen and what democracy’s limits are is as old as the idea itself.
  9. One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger, by Matthew Yglesias. Simple idea (eventually the most populous country will be the most powerful) + strong opinion (that should be the US) + standard center-left policy recommendations (immigration & housing policy).
  10. Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, by Anand Giridharadas. What you do using moonlight as charity can’t compensate for what you do as your day job, so I better have a day job that advances my values.
  11. Rockonomics: What the Music Industry Can Teach Us About Economics (and Our Future), by Alan Krueger. Sobering tale of how celebrity winner takes all in music predicts the same in the broader economy. Also provides cogent explanations of other economic/business principles, like “loss leaders,” through the music industry.
  12. Silicon City: San Francisco in the Long Shadow of the Valley, by Cary McClelland. Collection of biographical tales from San Franciscans old and new taught me a history of the city I’ve lived near the last 5 years.

Business

  1. Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries, by Safi Bahcall. Organizational structure is everything, and it’s hard to both deliver efficiently today and prepare for tomorrow.
  2. Blitzscaling: The Lightning-Fast Path to Building Massively Valuable Companies, by Reid Hoffman and Chris Yeh. Accidentally reveals that tech’s tolerance of societal harms are calculated moves for personal profit. Full review here.
  3. The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, by Brad Stone. Too hagiographical for my taste.
  4. The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age, by James Crabtree.
  5. The New Tycoons: Inside the Trillion Dollar Private Equity Industry That Owns Everything, by Jason Kelly
  6. Rocket Billionaires: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the New Space Race, by Tim Fernholz.
  7. Measure What Matters: OKRs: The Simple Idea that Drives 10x Growth, by John Doerr.
  8. Secrets of Sand Hill Road: Venture Capital and How to Get It, by Scott Kupor. Seemingly useful handbook/how-to guide for those looking to to start a tech company.

Self-Help, Management, and Writing

  1. Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein. Writing tips from a prominent fiction editor and author. Full of practical tips, some of which are summarized here.
  2. Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. Book version of a class the authors teach at the Design School at Stanford. I’d have probably gotten more out of it if I did the exercises.
  3. Project Management for the Unofficial Project Manager, by James Wood, Kory Kogon, and Suzette Blakemore.
  4. The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, by Priya Parker.
  5. The Goal, by Eliyahu M. Goldratt. A classic business school operations/management book I read when I thought that there was a chance I’ll be a professor at one.
  6. Confessions of a Public Speaker, by Scott Berkun. Story-filled, how-to guide for public speaking and giving talks. Might recommend it to students learning how to give talks, but holding out for a better one.

Sports

  1. MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players, by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik. How analytics is used to not just make in-game decisions but also guide player training and improvement, and attributes Astros success to it. Naive, full review (pre-Astros scandal) here.
  2. The Only Rule Is It Has to Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team, by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller. Two analytics minded baseball journalists convince an independent league owner to let them run the team, saber-metrics style. Nice insights like: (a) every player is flawed, but some flaws you can live with, and (b) most things that analytics say is useful on average are quite noisy/small effect size in practice.
  3. Basketball (and Other Things): A Collection of Questions Asked, Answered, Illustrated, by Shea Serrano.

Fiction

  1. Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri. Wonderful collection of short stories on Indian-American lives by my favorite fiction writer. Focused on stories of my generation, of those who grew up in the US to immigrant parents.
  2. Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri. More short stories on Indian-American life. Focused on my parent’s generation.
  3. The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath. Unnerving.
  4. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. Read for a book club. Aight story of a post-pandemic world.
  5. Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumacher.
  6. The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, by Ken Liu.
  7. Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe.
  8. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. Not sure I understand why it’s a classic; felt quite obvious that the author spent less than 10 days writing it.
  9. The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders. Another book I wouldn’t have read if not for a book club.

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Nikhil Garg

I study CS/Econ and applications to socio-technical issues. Blog about books and technical issues. PhD Stanford, BS/BA UT Austin. gargnikhil.com