Books That Messed with My Head (2018 Update)

Note: I posed a question at the bottom of the original blog and in August 2016 added two book to the bottom of the list in response. In April 2018 I added two more books.

Books are fun, but very occasionally I have encountered books that have actually changed my understanding of humanity and the world.

Only a very small number of books actually unlocked pieces in my life’s puzzle, and helped me decode complex problems a little quicker and identify false truths.

This is the short list of those books. (In parentheses I added the approximate date I read them and how I found out about them):

“To Engineer is Human” by Henry Petroski (1985, book club)

Simply my first read that cautioned me about the uncertainties in engineering. Still a really good read even though there are now many other books that provide even more examples about the uncertainties in engineering.

“Surely You Are Joking Mr. Feynman” by Richard Feynman (1995, magazine article)

It is a bit pompous, but this is a book that teaches you how to crack safes (amongst many other useful devious thinking tips). Also a great book to give to any 12 year old, it will rock them, even though some of his attitudes are a little stone age.

“Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond (1999, book review)

Certain things in history are inevitable simply due to being in the right place at the right time. That is a bummer, but realizing it helps drive solutions too.

“The Evolution of Cooperation” by David Axelrod (2000, Michael Wheeler)

Cooperation, and therefore morality, occurs naturally. No artificial ingredients are required. Make sure you get the version with Richard Dawkins’ foreword.

“Sources of Power” by Gary Klein (2001, Michael Wheeler)

It proves that learning is a social activity and therefore beer is an important component in learning.

“The Skeptical Environmentalist” by Bjorn Lomborg (2002, internet article)

This book has been viciously vilified by hundreds, if not thousands, of “experts”, and, meanwhile, it is one of the world’s most accurate books and simply misunderstood because it rattles our preconceived notions.

“The Island at the Center of the World” by Russell Shorto (2004, NPR)

History depends on where you stand, and a lot of history, even the most studied and taught history, is, at best, incomplete and often simply wrong.

I estimate I have read about 5000 books in my life so far, and in many ways the oddest realization is that the truly useful percentage of books that I have read is so incredible small. For every exceptional book that I have read I also read hundreds of books that had no lasting effect. Many books I enjoyed, but enjoying a book is not the same as truly learning.

Oddly, it also has been 10 years since I read something that provided me with a truly novel outlook. Where is my next great read?

August 2016 update:

So I continued to read and I did run into two more reads that I think belong on this list. They may not be as shockingly cathartic as the “Evolution of Cooperation” or “Sources of Power”, but I do think they are a great match to the general arc of this list, which I consider to be sort of the Library of Decision Making. In other words: read the books in this list and the world will make a little more sense.

“Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air” by David JC MacKay. (2016, Google News)

I first heard about this book when Dr. MacKay’s death was announced in the news in April 2016. I immediately ordered his book (which is also downloadable) and read it right away. It is an energy use, and energy availability, compendium and provides a huge amount of information with regard to decision making on sustainable energy. Interestingly, I think that he is wrong in his conclusion that we will have a hard time generating enough sustainable energy. Mostly because he only considers individual energy consumers and their individual energy saving potentials, but never thinks in terms of system improvements where huge additional savings can be achieved. (see Maxi Taxi and containerization) But Dr. MacKay’s organization of energy issues is exactly what is needed if we want to make better energy decisions and is a proper follow on to “The Skeptical Environmentalist”.

“The Signal and the Noise” by Nate Silver (2016, Jake van Hemmen)

My son, Jake, loves two books as a set, The Information by James Gleick and this book. “The Information” he calls the modern Bible and “The Signal and the Noise” he calls the modern Book of Common Prayer. “The information” is quite good, but it never told me much that I considered to be original or useful. Actually Gleick’s “Chaos” almost made the original list and maybe should have, but no longer does, because Silver’s book covers the important bits of Chaos better. While not shockingly innovative or cathartic, Silver’s book is still one of those books that makes a landmark case, does in it in watertight fashion, reduces confusion and enhances decision making.

And if you do not want to learn by reading about decision making, check out the Hans Rosling Ted video lecture on this blog. It may not make you a decision making expert, but it is a nice shortcut to making much better decisions.

April 2018 Update:

I suspect that this list will continue to grow and maybe I will end up deleting some earlier books too (The Signal and the Noise, may be a little superfluous due to the latest additions). Regardless, in the interim, I have read two more books that I think belong on this list.

“The Better Angels of our Nature” by Steven Pinker (2011, The Atlantic)

I was well aware of this book, but was not sure it needed to be on the list. I did not actually read this book until 2017. It serves to have this tome at hand to understand that, while things may look bad, our overall arc of history is quite good. Interestingly, Pinker discusses a lot of things in this book that are also discussed in some of the other books listed above. As such, it may be a great starting point for those who are looking for reality rather than hyperbole.

“The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander (2018, Jake van Hemmen)

This 2010 book is unique by the fact that, after each chapter, I needed to put it down for a few days, because it upset me so much. This book describes a modern tragedy that is entirely driven by poor data and decision making. Almost certainly there were also some very bad actors in this play, but it describes a mess that was foisted onto the general population by legislative incompetence and ignorance. So far, the partial fixes do not begin to remove the problem. Read this book to prevent reoccurences and to realize that fairness at all levels should always be a driving factor in legislative efforts.