Book Recommendations

Note: my rating scale is not quite what you may have encountered before; a 5-star book is truly exceptional (I wouldn't expect to have found more than 5-10 such books in my life), while a 1-star book makes me indifferent between reading it and not reading it. Any book worse than that simply doesn't appear on the list: I don't finish what's not worth finishing.

 

★★★★★

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Lolita

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind: A rare combination of great scientific rigor and truly remarkable insights woven together by a clear narrative and a great conceptual framework. Unlike the writing of Gladwell, who makes you feel you’ve stumbled on a deep a-ha, this book builds a strong case for several. One of the best "histories of everything that matters” I’ve read, and I’ve read many.

 

★★★★½

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

 

★★★★

The Road. A terrific (and terrifying) novel set in a plausible yet eerily nondescript post-apocalyptic world. Presents a chilling picture of the breakdown of humanity. It fortunately skimps on the explanations (which are always tempting yet invariably cheapen the work). It draws in through economical but powerful depiction of the relationship between a father and a son, their demons and their growth.

Don't Think of an Elephant!. Debate and persuasion is all about the framing and the choice of language. A powerful and insightful explanation of the common mistake we make (applied primarily to the liberal/conservative discourse) and actionable advice on how to avoid it.

Elon Musk. Offers a vivid and real glimpse into the mind of Elon Musk. The book does a fantastic job painting the nuanced picture that includes the strength of Elon's vision and his discipline of execution, but also his demons. (upgraded from ★★★)

The Girl with All the Gifts: I generally detest the genre, but this book is so well written, so engaging, and so different in many aspects, that it single-handedly redeems the genre for me. It's particularly engaging as an audiobook, with excellent narration.

Stories of Your Life and Others: A diverse collection bound together by an expression of a kind of longing. The early stories are particularly captivating, vivid, and original. I'm glad I read "Story of Your Life" before I saw the movie.

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: Captures the essence of what science is all about. Not afraid to be opinionated. A book about philosophy, but the most approachable kind. You gain appreciation of Feynman's sheer genius.

Butterfly Effect. A self-contained miniseries that deeply explores an original topic. The host and his casually inquisitive demeanor is a perfect match. The series offers truly surprising insights into a world few of us think about.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: In a world of autobiographies-turned-pats-on-the-back, this book is surprisingly insightful and authentic. Horowitz paints a great picture of what's actually hard about what he had to deal with (even if he should have attributed a little more of the failures to himself). Inspiring decisiveness and guts.

A Short History of Nearly Everything: We know so much. We know so little. Good theories struggle to get adopted. All that with a bit of dry humor.

Never Let Me Go: Delightfully dreamy, engaging and relatable (perhaps because I went to a British boarding school). The storytelling had a refreshing lightness to it. At times formulaic but did a good job convincing me to forgive that weakness.

In Cold Blood:  Draws you in from the very start, and doesn't let go until it's over. If only all nonfiction read that way.

A Clockwork Orange

Fountainhead

Neuromancer

Brad Feld’s Burning Entrepreneur

Big History: An investment of time, but if “big history” – a study of cause and effect that encompasses everything from humans up to the Universe – is something you’re drawn to, you’re in for a treat. Builds on a wealth of scientific information, with emphasis on connections between the different levels of complexity.

Contagious: Why Things Catch On: A clear framework for what makes ideas spread with great examples to make these abstract concepts more tangible. A great read for anyone considering designing work that is meant to become contagious.

Free: Refreshingly engaging in the era of cliché- and business-speak literature. An economist's view on business models that have taken over the world. A great survey of the tech industry, behavioral economics and marketing through the lens of gratis.

The Success Equation: Despite an off-putting biz-y title, a surprisingly solid treatment of luck. Good survey of scientific work, connections to other work in behavioral economics. Well-written, easy to follow. The occasional math seems a little out of place.

The Intention Economy: A vision I buy into. Searls paints a compelling picture of what an economy where consumers take charge should look like. A little repetitive in the second half, but I give kudos to the inspiration the book was able to give me.

The Language Instinct: Informative, engaging, and reflecting Pinker's extensive research. Loved his analogies and more than occasional tongue-in-cheek statements.

Atlas Shrugged

Thinking. Fast and Slow

A Prayer for Owen Meany

The Innovator’s Dilemma

A Tale of Two Cities

People’s History of the USA

Catch 22

Metamorphosis

The Last Question

The Raven

Labyrinths by Borges

All You Zombies

Christmas Carol

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Murakami

There Will Come Soft Rains

Moby Dick

Motion Mountain: The only physics textbook you’ll ever need, and you will need this one. It explains in a well-structured, highly conceptual yet approachable way everything we know about the Universe today. Puzzles that get you thinking

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Verne's Mysterious Island: The first “big” book I ever read. It awoke my imagination and kept me in suspense throughout the whole story. Wonderfully crafted, engaging

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Watchmen

Business Model Generation

Nine Stories by Salinger

Stranger in a Strange Land

To Kill a Mockingbird

The Foundation by Asimov

Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Lessons of History by Durant, W and A: The Durants were able to synthesize forty years of their research into one 100-page essay.

 

★★★

Brave New World. A brilliant vision of a future, which inspired a cultural following and inspired many others, not just in science fiction. But, having returned to the original after reading it earlier in my life, I found its style and the story to have aged.

The Righteous Mind. Too much: a history of psychology, philosophy and anthropology; a long-winded argument about a framework for moralities; and a set of application to politics and religion. I didn't need a full account of the revisions of his theory or a rigorous proof of his position (most of the evidence for which should be a bibliography). I would have enjoyed a much shorter treatment of the theory with more focus on the applications.

Our Mathematical Universe. I loved the focus in the beginning on fundamental questions that a child may ask. What followed was a lengthy but helpful overview of the fundamental theories in the science of large scale. The last third of the book was a convoluted argument based on questionably abstract reasoning.

The Startup Way. This book is great for a very specific niche: senior managers and executives who believe their (large-ish) companies are not innovative and who are willing to try things that are likely unorthodox for their organizations. The author's insights from his time consulting large companies (but mostly GE) are interesting, but it's unclear whether this book will be enough to break through corporate inertia (and corporate incentives – which the author acknowledges but doesn't address).

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. A solid framework that helps the reader hone in her persuasive skills. The book is a little too repetitive but, while the six components of persuasion are easy to intellectually grasp, they are difficult to internalize to the point where they effect behavior change.

The Undoing Project. Lewis' track record and my admiration of Kahneman and Tversky made me eager to read the book. It was a good biography, but not in the same tier of writing as Lewis' other books.

Everybody Lies. I really appreciated the author's brilliant insight to look at Google search statistics to find the true and surprising versions of lies we tell ourselves and others. But that's really the strongest aspect of the book – other than that, the book didn't quite pull its weight.

Algorithms to Live By. Starts strong, providing easy to grasp heuristics for what may otherwise seem like unsolvable problems. Then meanders into an intro CS class with relatively little practical value, capped with a few general pointers for the society at large.

The Bell Jar: I know that it is generally a highly regarded book, but I just couldn't get into it. Maybe it was the character of the heroine–reminded me of some of my intellectual misanthrope writer friends.

 

Well-Designed. I enjoyed the format (a case study interwoven with theory and interviews), but there was heavy emphasis on the "motions" of product design and management, perhaps lending itself too much to cargo cult design process.

French Kids Eat Everything: Made me realize I don't spend enough time seeking inspiration from how other nations do things better than we do. The author presents a very clear case for how to make small part parenting more commonsense, fun, healthier, and less stressful.

Quiet: A welcome treatment of the topic that isn't talked about. For the longest time I've certainly felt like being an introvert was a deficiency – something I was "unfortunately" born with. The author presents a convincing argument for why introversion is valuable. The book allowed me to build a stronger foundation of my personality, embracing rather than apologizing for my introversion, yet augmenting aspects of myself with elements of extroversion. On a personal side, I found the chapter on extroverted children or introverted parents particularly helpful.

Sprint: A good comprehensive guidebook to running a sprint. It's true; one cannot meaningfully cut corners and arrive at the same result. In places I wish they had stopped at the principle rather than expanded on the same idea to death. Wherever you work, there is probably one important project that would benefit from a Sprint.

The New York Trilogy: Writer detectives (or detective writers?) Falling apart. Lost and found. And what's in a name?

The Power of Habit: A believable thesis supported with solid evidence and good storytelling that kept me engaged. I liked the practical application at the very end, wished there was more of it and less of the discussion of organizational and community habits. I felt there was a lot of overlap between this book and Contagious.

The Story of Philosophy: As I’ve come to expect from the Durants, this piece is extremely well-written and provides a great synthesis of the basis of philosophy. I wish I could retain more of this information – by the virtue of what this book is, it probably lends itself well to being a starting point to a lot more literature, rather than being a standalone piece.

On the Road: Paints a vivid picture of a kind of freedom I’ve never had the courage to claim. Meanders…but maybe that’s the point. In any case, very likely deserves more kudos because of the culture it inspired, which I now take the granted (and evaluate this book against). 

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World: Has a bit of that Vonnegut quality to it. Describes beautifully that feeling you have as you start falling asleep while working late, late at night. Wish the Wonderland story was a little toned down, a little less like a video game.

Orbiting a Giant Hairball: A quick escape out of routine, process, rigidity, into common sense, creativity, and playfulness. Lots of playfulness. Some ideas really worth integrating into our day to day work.

High Output Management: An engineer’s (and a scientist’s) view on management – crisp, lean, sensible yet rarely practiced in the industry. I’ve found it to equip me with fewer insights and tools than I had expected prior to reading the book, but I wonder if a part of it is that I’m already familiar with many of the methodologies pioneered by this book.

Originals: Starts strong – challenges some myths about what it means to be original. The most powerful insight: “Idea generation is not the problem. It’s idea selection”. Gets a little distracted towards the end.

The Innovators: An impressive attempt to trace the lineage of the personal computer, but focus on attribution and shallow takeaways regarding collaboration and individual genius distracted from enjoying the chronicles.

Gone Girl: A solid plot (though the diary style got tiring at times). Does a good job of making you want to keep reading.

The Everything Store: (Read it about two weeks before the NYT article came out, great timing...) A good chronicle backed by impressive research, but I wish it didn't read so much like a business school case study. A little too much tell, not enough show. Separately, a great example of a kind of successful leader I do not aspire to become one bit.

Fooled by Randomness: Too scattered, a little too judgy (I didn't care for chips on Taleb's shoulders). I preferred The Black Swan.

Inside the Tornado: Quality work of a business academic. Effective metaphors and examples, but the second half of the book fails to inspire.

The Martian: I was craving a modern Robinson Cruzoe tale. The novel engages the engineer in me, but it's not particularly well written.

Ready Player One: For me, the novel withstood the test of time. What I initially saw as trite cliches right out of a journal of a nerdy teenager has acquired a certain mythos. The imagery of the book is still incredibly vivid in my mind. (upgraded from ★★)

Fist Stick Knife Gun: Memoir (and the promo of his organization) is fine, but it fades comparing with Geoff Canada's persona that one can infer between the lines of the book.

Great by Choice: Good case studies, valuable insights. Somewhat repetitive. Examples seem overfit to framework.

Cosmic Evolution

Traction: Good compendium of channels and a good repository of tricks. Worth running your startup idea through. 

Think Like a Freak: Kudos for being different than the other two books. Take-aways were good to internalize, but at times the supporting "evidence" was weak and the thesis seemed like a stretch

The Black Swan: Convincing thesis, engaging mix of story and analysis. Yet, part 3 was somewhat illegible, made way too obscure, chaotic. Some personal vendettas, especially at the end, were distracting. But I would love to meet the author

Founder’s Dilemmas

Escape from Spiderhead

Howl by Allen Ginsberg

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls

Tao Te Ching

The Wisdom of the Crowds

Crime and Punishment: At times brilliant (Porfiry's monologue), at times tedious and soap opera-y

The Cider House Rules

The Sirens of Titan

Superfreakonomics

The Great Gadsby

High Voltage

Cloud Atlas: A Novel

Abundance

Why Nations Fail

Snow Crash

Leaving Atocha Station

Steve Jobs biography

2 B R 0 2 B

Anthem

2008 Best American Short Stories

A Mathematician’s Apology

Sum

Diary of a Madman

The Government Inspector

Devil in the White City

The Day of the Triffids

Pride and Prejudice

The Things they Carried

Huckleberry Finn

Last of the Mohicans

I Am a Strange Loop

Lubiewo by Michal Witkowski

The Secret Garden

Heart of Darkness

The End of the Affair

Dracula

If on a Winter’s Night a traveler by Calvino

Cat’s Cradle

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

Grimm’s Fairy Tales

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Just My Type

Me Talk Pretty One Day

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Kazuo Ishiguro’s “A Village After Dark.”

The Art of War

Letters on Life by Rilke

The World According to Garp

King Lear

Fermata

Liar’s Poker

Jungle Book

20000 Leages Under the Seas

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt

On Intelligence

Will You Please By Quiet, Please by Carver

Cathedral by Carver

Phantom of the Opera

In Defense of Food

Tears of Autumn by Charles McCarry

Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano

Predictably Irrational

American Tabloid

Ender’s Game

Oracle Night by Paul Auster

 

★★

The Subtle Art of not giving a F*ck. Catchy premise which I quickly intuitively agreed with. But later on the book fell short of its promise and doubled down on shock value. How many f*cks does it take to numb the reader? Apparently less than a f*ckton.

Thirteen Reasons Why. I can imagine it as a solid young adult novel, but I haven't been able to suspend judgment of shallowness of characters and oh the drama.

Punch Escrow. I really, really wanted to like this book: teleportation, after all, is a treasure trove for fiction. But the author failed to explore anything remotely interesting about the subject – to the point of disbelief. The protagonist is that prototypical loser college roommate you've found so frustrating. His personality distracts me from enjoying the book. The novel's scenes feel to beg a cheap movie adaptation. The author, unable to visualize the complexities of a world 150 years from now, cops out by depicting a character in love with everything 1980s – the music, movies, "vintage" neighborhood bars. It's like reading a contemporary book whose protagonist lives a live of late Baroque.

The Blockchain Revolution: The book lists lots of examples of benefits, but it doesn't explain the blockchain technology. Also, most of the "innovations" presented in the book do not require the blockchain technology. Authors don't seem to understand what makes products viable.

Thank you for Being Late. Not one book, but a handful, loosely coupled, but better done separately. The title and blurb made me expect something different. The closing chapter, a semi-autobiographical plug, failed to inspire me.

The Four Disciplines of Execution: A frustratingly formulaic business book that should really be a pamphlet. The framework is actually helpful, although as the authors point out, it's all about building the habit (rather than the dead knowledge).

Life as we Knew It: I feel I would really enjoy it as a 17-year-old. A couple of decades too late, I didn't find the format (a teenager's diary) or the science behind the book that engaging.

Creative Confidence: Doesn't feel fresh; recycles a lot of concepts from other books on creativity, habits and behavioral science. At times feels like a heavy promo for IDEO. To its credit, it contains a good number of actionable techniques to foster creativity.

Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution: A little dated by now. Too focused on relating facts and quotes and telling, rather than showing what the original hacker culture is all about. I picked the book up longing for the genesis of the movement that I am a part of, but finished it oversaturated with characters, plot and details.

Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: one-sided, somewhat patronizing, and failing to account for approaches other than the traditional, Christian, right-wing values

Managing Humans: just a collection of random insights (of which I'm not sure many have really been tested by the author), the book is lacking any structure of framework that would make its takeaways salient

Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect

Making it All Work

The Way of Kings

Utopia by Thomas More

Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World, by Kotler and Diamandis: a disappointing hybrid of business and self-help book, with a sprinkle of behavioral economics and biographing. After a short time you find the authors are trying to shove their exponential-everything thesis down your throat. Read Abundance instead.

Siddartha

The Da Vinci Code

Life of Pi

Einstein’s Dreams

The Five People you Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom

Yiddish Policemen’s Union

This Crowded Earth

Ubik

Invisible Man

Age of Innocence

The Communist Manifesto

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

What the Dog Saw

The Art of Racing in the Rain

World War Z

The Boy who Harnessed the Wind

The Man in the High Castle

Good Products, Bad Products

 

Treason

Five Minds for the Future

The Man on Mao’s Right