This year, I decided it was time to get serious. I read books on the toilet. I read in my sleep. I read while standing on my head.
And I knocked the bastard off! It took all my rat cunning to finally crack into triple figures territory, so I’ll write a separate article on that later.
Right now, I have a problem on my hands. This is normally my favourite post to write. But I’m faced with having to somehow pick out the highlights from 100+ contenders. Most of these books were curated and recommended by Deep Dish readers and other people of impeccable taste. I already knew they were going to deliver.
After much internal debate, I’ve managed to narrow it down to the top 10. These are the books that blew my mind, made me howl, or filled my notebook to overflowing. In no particular order:
Note: The public library will loan you these books for free. If you’d rather buy them, use the links below to send a few pennies to support this site, at no extra cost to you (read more here).
As part of researching my own book this year, I’ve read about a dozen papers on happiness, as well as the following popular books: Stumbling on Happiness, Happy Money, The Happiness Hypothesis, and The How of Happiness. As you might imagine, I’m now deliriously happy all the time. My face hurts from smiling. I’m floating six inches off the ground as I type this.
All of these books were written by prominent researchers, who obviously let their publishers choose the titles. In spite of that, they’re all really solid pop science reads. If you want a boring but practical overview of the whole field, go for The How of Happiness (Sonja Lyubomirsky). If you’d prefer something less ‘actionable’ but more interesting and funny, go for Stumbling on Happiness (Dan Gilbert). If you’re specifically interested in the spending side of things, Happy Money is both highly informative and witty (Elizabeth Dunn).
Haidt is my pick of the bunch because his writing is very beautiful, and weaves together ideas from all kinds of fields and thinkers. I don’t even know how to summarise it. I kept stopping to read juicy bits out to my friend, which is always a good sign.
Something weird happened while I was reading Spent. I made so many highlights that my Kindle banned me from saving any more, when I was only a third of the way through. This is testament to Miller’s fascinating ideas and his style: he’s another one of those rare scientists who also happens to be a great writer.
I was already well and truly sold on the ‘consumer capitalism is kinda dumb’ thesis. This book is much, much more than that. I pulled out some of my favourite gems in this tweetstorm, including: why triathlons replaced marathons, the ‘cost density’ of black-market kidneys, why IQ is one of the sexiest traits across every culture studied, why everyone on Tinder competes over who loves dogs more, a huge-if-true theory about parasites and xenophobia, an in-depth overview of the Big Five personality traits, and so much more.
It took me more than six months to slog through this 2393-page monstrosity. It’s not really a book, so much as a lightly edited collection of ‘sequences’ originally posted on the Less Wrong website. I found it incredibly insightful, but I’d already tentatively worked up to it by spending the last couple of years learning about cognitive biases and the bare basics of philosophy. Even then, the bits in the middle about quantum mechanics and consciousness were way too hard for me.
I suggest checking out the author’s Harry Potter fan-fiction before you attempt this (seriously). If you enjoy it, you’ll almost certainly get a lot out of his nonfiction.
Nothing looks quite the same after reading this book. Whether it’s art, education, politics, or charity, our motives are never quite what they seem. We’re always trying to look good for the benefit of our fellow social apes, if not deliberately, then subconsciously (which gives us plausible deniability if people question our motives).
I really like the structure of this book, with 10 short chapters outlining how the signaling model applies in each domain. If you don’t trust my recommendation, trust my mum: I loaned this book to her when I was home in New Zealand, and she stayed up all night reading it.
The premise: computer scientists use algorithms to figure out how to search, organise, cache, and schedule tasks in the most efficient way. All of these could also be applied to solve problems in meat-based computers, i.e. our brains.
How long should you search for an apartment, or a new employee? When should you ‘explore’ new options, and when should you ‘exploit’ existing ones? What’s the most efficient filing system? Is inbox zero worth striving for?
This book perfectly explained a bunch of things I’d been trying to figure out, and never would have occurred to me otherwise (I knew nothing about computer science beforehand). I doubt you could actually run any of these equations and have them spit out an accurate number, because the real world is so messy, but the mental models themselves are still super valuable.
This book makes the case that not only has it never been easier or more fruitful to become an entrepreneur, but taking a traditional career is arguably now the riskier pathway.
Where it really shines is in providing a fully-formed blueprint of how to start an online business, backed up with case studies and examples and strategies. It feels like the perfect companion to popular books like the 4 Hour Work-Week (see my review here), which are great at selling the dream but somewhat lacking in the specifics.
These lessons apply to anyone who wants to become a more entrepreneurial employee/contractor/freelancer in general, not just those who want to run actual businesses. For example, I’ve found the ’90 day sprint’ system that Pearson popularized really useful for my own goals, and took loads of other notes that I’ve applied to my own projects.
If I’d read this book when it first came out, the younger and more self-righteous version of me would have written it off as the ravings of a madwoman, filing it away in the same junk basket as crystal healing and creativity-enhancing jade Yoni eggs.
Now… well, I’m not so sure. In fact, I actually kind of suspect Marie Kondo might be a genius. Her advice is bizarre on the surface, but it kind of reminds me of a Zen koan or something, where there’s some deeply meaningful insight wrapped up in the banality.
As I concluded in my full-length review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is completely deranged…and I love it.
Disclaimer: I love productivity porn; your mileage may vary. GTD is basically the Bible for workflow geeks. It’s all about closing ‘open loops’ in the brain, which is a problem I’ve been struggling with lately. Without a triage system, I get overwhelmed, endlessly ruminate on the same things, and generally run around like a headless chicken. I was already using several systems to do the kind of mental streamlining Allen is advocating, but after reading GTD I’ve tidied them up a bit and integrated them together.
Some people would probably find this stifling, or too time-consuming to be worthwhile. Personally, I can’t get enough of it, so it works for me. My only other criticisms would be that this is a dreary read with not much in the way of flair, and a bit anachronistic (written decades ago, tokenly updated for the digital age).
Normally I hate this kind of stuff: You know, capitalizing random words to make them sound Cool and Mysterious,
quasi-mystical explanations, writers wanking on about how their ‘craft’ is as agonizing as swallowing broken glass or whatever. But this got me real good. I found it genuinely inspiring, in spite of how ridiculous it is. It seems like most people either love it or hate it. If you end up in the latter camp, at least it’s mercifully short.
This is a serial novel about religion, philosophy, and cetaceans. It takes a while to get into – it’s heavy on info-dumps and long rambling chains of Biblical references- but I’m really glad I persevered. God’s answer to Job was actually kind of a revelation, I got genuine shivers from the depiction of Hell, and had a whale of a time with all of the terrible puns.
As a fan of Scott Alexander’s nonfiction and related ideas, this was almost guaranteed to tickle me. Again, I’m not sure how much broader appeal it might have, but if you enjoy the likes of Ted Chiang, Neil Gaiman, or Terry Pratchett you should definitely consider giving it a shot. Best of all, and relative to our interests – it’s free!
These are either so obviously good that there’s no point in me reviewing them, or they couldn’t quite squeeze into the top 10.
Gödel, Escher, Bach – Douglas Hofstadter: Whimsical and fun, but a massive time-suck, and it feels odd to work so hard for no real ‘payoff’. I admire Hofstadter’s weird genius brain and total disregard for literary conventions.
Walden – Henry David Thoreau: I forgot how much of an asshole Thoreau is. So many good sneers! I agree with almost everything he says, which means this book is true and important.
Watchmen – Alan Moore: My eyes lit up when I saw this on a friend’s shelf. Clever parallel storytelling, exploration of utilitarian dilemmas, way better than classic superhero stories.
Worm – Wildbow: I actually hate this because it ruined my life for two weeks. It’s the equivalent of ~20 novels. The writing’s not always good. But it’s like crack. I couldn’t sleep. It’s even grimmer than Watchmen. Don’t read it.
Island – Aldous Huxley: The little-known utopian counterpoint to Brave New World. Pretty much what I imagine would happen if you teleported the residents of Berkeley to a remote island and left them alone for a couple of decades.
Thinking in Bets – Annie Duke: A pro poker player explains how to think in probabilities to make better decisions. Cleverly written. Would have easily been top 10 if I hadn’t heard these ideas before.
What was the best book you read this year? Leave a comment or send me an email, and don’t forget to add me as a friend on Goodreads so we can share recommendations and reviews!