Worthy Books: A Reading List

I have decided to pull together a reading list of some of the better books and book-length blogs that I have read over the course of my life. The list below intentionally excludes books and perspectives already covered by intro-level college courses and mainstream reading lists. Rather, the list includes the books that first broadened my own perspective beyond the mainstream zeitgeist. My selection criteria mandated that the books must be approachable by a generally educated person, must have high signal-to-noise from cover to cover, and must be engaging reads.

Some of these books are quite controversial. Inclusion in this list does not mean I agree 100% with the book, nor is at an endorsement of everything the author has written.

My list also excludes generally acknowledged classics since others have already created quality lists. If you are looking for a list of classics that are actually worth reading, the late Larry Auster posted an excellent, annotated reading list on in his own blog.

Without further ado, my own list of worthy reads:

Governance, Politics, and Group Conflict

Government’s End by Jon Rauch
The author was a Washington D.C. journalist with a close-up view of the failures of both the Clinton healthcare plan and the Gingrich revolution. He makes a compelling argument for why politics is actually broken: the small concentrated interest always wins over the general interest. Democracy is not really the rule by the majority – but rule by hundreds of small factions, each stealing from the public pie.

Hardball: How Politics Is Played Told By One Who Knows The Game
An entertaining overview of some of the inside stories and calculated politics that went on in Washington from the 1970s through the 90s. The lessons given are applicable far outside of politics. My favorite chapter: Don’t get mad, don’t get even, get ahead. Sage advice for the modern world.

What it Takes: The Way to the White House
An account of the political campaign of the 1988 election that reads like a novel.

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott
A chronicle of schemes by those who wielded power to organize, categorize, and rationalize the entire society. For instance, we own our own names to the needs of state tax collectors. Some such schemes worked, but others ended in disaster, as they wrecked the organic fabric that makes society function.

World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability
In ethnically diverse countries, certain ethnic groups have a tendency to rise to the top economically. If the wealthier ethnic group is a minority, the majority ethnic group often uses their demographic power to launch pogroms, confiscate assets, or worse. World on Fire chronicles a long history of this pattern of attack on market minorities.

The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals About the Future of Individual Freedom by Mark Weiner
Humans have generally lived in either state-based societies or clan-based societies. This is an overview of how clan based societies function.

Nick Szabo’s Essays
An enlightening set of essays, on topics such as the origin of money or the development of property rights.

Jim’s Liberty Library by James Donald
A collection of essays from various authors on the subject of liberty. Have you heard the term “natural law” but wondered what it means, and if it still has relevance in a secular world? This collection contains a great explanation.

America: History and Government

The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 by Bernard Bailyn
A history of North America during the 1600s. An incredible tale of violence and bloodshed. Turns out, your grade school history was highly sanitized.

Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America by David Hackett Fischer
Traces the unique origins and culture of the four different Anglo groups that settled North America – the Puritans, the Cavaliers, the Scots-Irish, and the Quakers. Shows how the cultural divisions that exist in modern America trace their roots back to the various regions of England. There are hundreds of fascinating details and anecdotes about the early history of these American peoples.

Outre Mer: Impressions of America by Paul Bourget
A French traveler’s account of the United States in the 1890s. This book is the closest thing possible to hopping in a time machine back to a century ago.

Master of the Senate/Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro
A masterful account of the rise of President Lyndon Johnson, covering his takeover of the Senate. The book reveals the machinations Lyndon used to obtain and manipulate the levers of power. It also provides a window to the politics and history of the time period.

The Power Broker : Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro
The central political myth of our time is that politicians are in charge. In fact, unelected bureaucrats wield massive amounts of power. This book is the biography of one such bureaucrat, Robert Moses, who used his position to transform the roads and infrastructure of New York City during the middle of the 20th century.

Out of Bondage by Elizabeth Bentley
The memoirs of an American communist agent, who was involved in conspiracies at the highest level. This is a riveting real-life spy tale. It tells a history that is often ignored – there was in fact a communist conspiracy, and it did touch the highest levels of American government.

Assorted Non-American History

The Europeans by Luigi Barzini
The memoirs of a cosmopolitan traveler and writer, during the years of Europe’s great upheaval. Filled with first-hand accounts of the changes in England, Germany and Italy, going from before World War II up and through the 1970s.

The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century by Robert Roberts
A detailed portrayal of the culture, public life, and home life of the working-class in early 1900s England.

Memoir’s of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge
A first-hand account of the rise of the communist movement in Russia and the course of the Bolshevik revolution.

Holy Madness by Adam Zamoyski
The fall of traditional religion during the enlightenment opened up a new world of radical idealists who wished to build utopias on Earth. This books tells the story of over a dozen revolutions that took place in the Western world from 1770 to 1870. The utter insanity of the time period shows the dark side of The Enlightenment and the Romantic Era.

Understanding Human History by Michael Hart
You have probably read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. At the very least you have been marinated in his ideas. Diamond uses pure geography to explain why some civilizations have beat out other civilizations. Michael Hart’s explanation is much more politically incorrect and thus you will never find his book in college book stores or your local library. You can read both Hart and Diamond, and come to your own decision about which scholar’s view seems more compelling.

Outline of History by H.G. Wells
A history of the world from the beginning of time until the end of World War I. If you have big gaps in your basic historical knowledge, reading the relevant chapters of this book is a quick way to fill them in. The prose and structure is a lot more engaging than a typical wikipedia article. It tells history as a story, rather than a set of facts.

Man, Women and Family

Models: Attract Women Through Honesty by Mark Manson
A guide for single men on how to attract women. While the book incorporates insights from the “game” community, it puts an emphasis on genuine self-improvement rather than telling readers to simply perform a shtick.

Married Man’s Sex Life Primer by Athol Kay
A guide for men in relationships on how to both establish harmony at home and keep the spark the alive.

Economics & Finance

Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell
This is a broad introduction to all economic concepts, from a very pro-free-market perspective (a perspective I find to be largely correct). If you know nothing about economics, or have never read a proud defense of capitalism and free markets, then this is a good place to start.

Reminiscences of a Stock Operator by Edwin Lefèvre
Fictionalized memoir of trader Jesse Livermore from the 1920s. This book is an entertaining read and it contains timeless lessons about the psychology of markets. But keep in mind that Lefèvre ultimately lost his fortune – so do not use him as a how-to guide.

Hedge Fund Market Wizards: How Winning Traders Win by Jack Schwager
A collection of interviews with investors and traders who made boatloads of money. Great, informative stories.

Liar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street by Michael Lewis
A time machine that takes you to the rise of the financial industry in the 1980s. An entertaining read.

The Great Depression: A Diary by Benjamin Roth
A time machine back to the years of the Great Depression.

A Random Walk Down Wall Street
Explains why trying to beat the market will most likely result in severe underperformance. Provides a simple investing strategy for the ordinary investor.

Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
A book of incredible breadth, covering everything from economics to lifestyle choices to urban planning to technology. His central framework of trying to identify situations with convex outcomes (for good or bad) is extremely useful. Note that this is far from a perfect book. His tone can be annoying and smug and his advice sometimes seems more on the side of being self-serving, convenient, or simplistic rather than being completely truthful. But many things he say are both novel and true, and so the book is very much worth reading.

Fiction

Dune by Frank Herbert
A grand tale of wars and power struggles in the desert planet of Arrakis. Fantastic and imaginative world building.

The Foundation Saga
The great psychohistorian Hari Seldon has predicted that the empire will fall. A small foundation must be established to preserve and rebuild civilization. The book has a great premise and a fun, engaging story. It is more of a young adult fiction book, as the characters are simple, and the worldview is quite naive (I feel much harm has been done by academics that try to do psychohistory in real life). But overall, it has lots of interesting ideas, and is a fun, fast read.

Wool and the rest of the Silo Series by Hugh Howey An original tale, an intriguing and mysterious world, fascinating ideas, realistic and complex characters, and strong pacing that keeps you turning the page – this series is everything you could want from a work of fiction.

Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
A Wall Street bond salesman in the go-go 1980s runs into trouble when he is involved in a hit-and-run with a black teenager. This fictional story explores the themes of many news stories of the last few years, ranging from the corruption in Wall Street finance to the eruptions over the shooting of Trayvon Martin. But this book gets all the more credit for being written decades before those events happened. Tom Wolfe is an author who does his homework. He sat alongside bond-traders as research for the novel. The result is a fictional story that provides a window into real world dynamics.

Song of Fire and Ice (A Game of Thrones)
Two things to love about these books: First, when somebody does something stupid that should get themselves killed, they actually die. Second, the perils and pitfalls of leadership are portrayed in full. Unlike in most fantasy, a king does not have power simply by the fact of holding the scepter and having the title king. Maintaining the allegiance of vassals, building alliances, not being deceived by the courtiers – all these are part of the precarious and unending task of leadership. The books are also a good yarn of wars, magic, and dragons. Unfortunately, the novels lose steam after book three, at which point I stopped reading.

Human Nature and Psychology

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
Explore the evolutionary and genetic logic that determines behavior in the animal kingdom. Animals face a wide array of choices: to fight, bluster, or run away; to cry to mom for food, or to stay silent so as to not alert predators; to fight with siblings or to share; to take care of a baby or to abandon it. All these behaviors can be understood better by understanding the logic of the selection of genes.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini
Robert Cialdini studied combined studies of modern marketing with lessons from history into a book on how people are influenced. The knowledge in this book can help you both advance your interests and avoid being manipulated.

JayMan’s Blog Archives
JayMan’s blog focuses on a taboo subject: the role genes play in determining the differences in human behavior. His posts review the latest statistics and research about how genes impact everything from IQ gaps, to obesity, to child development, to political leanings. In my opinion, he can go a bit far in explaining everything with genes. But the topic is so under explored by mainstream sources, that reading his blog is a worthwhile corrective.

The Bell Curve by Charles Murray
The modern world allows great wealth to be created by and captured by those who are experts at manipulating abstract concepts. But this ability is not distributed equally. Charles Murray surveys the research on how IQ is linked to both income and other life outcomes. He shows that disparities in cognitive traits are a central fact that underlie much social phenomena of our time. This book provoked a public outcry when it came out. You can read the most sophisticated counter-attacks via the book Scientists respond to the Bell Curve. You can read rejoinders to the rejoinders in this long article, The Bell Curve, 20 Years After. My own take is that critics of The Bell Curve mainly point out the statistical limits to our degree of certainty – limits which Murray mostly already acknowledged. The critiques do not prove the overall conclusions wrong, much less do they prove the opposite conclusions. Statistics are always imperfect, but I tend to agree with Murray’s conclusions since (a) the raw data so overwhelmingly supports his theses, and (b) his conclusions match what I have personally observed in life.

Sociological Eye Blog Archives by Randall Collins
An assortment of fascinating articles, including: a theory of shooting spree killers, a discussion of the charisma of Lawrence of Arabia, and an analysis of why the Mona Lisa is so intriguing.

Career Skills

How to win friends and influence people by Dale Carnegie
While the methods in the book can be overused, the general advice is sound. Every modern worker needs to know how to get points across without aggravating their boss, coworker, or client.

The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker
Just published recently, I found this to be a far more useful guide to writing than the more commonly recommended Elements of Style.

Lifestyle

Reddit Fitness Wiki, FAQ, and Community
If you want to lose weight, get into shape, and build a body you are proud of, the Reddit Fitness FAQ has you covered. Fitness is made much more complicated than it needs to be, because people are always looking for shortcuts. Reddit Fitness tells you how it is, with knowledge based off of hundreds of people posting their personal transformations. Join the community and get inspired and motivated.

365 Slow Cooker Suppers by Stephanie O’Dea
Slow cookers are an amazing life-upgrade. Prepare a week’s worth of delicious food with minimal effort and cost.

Startups, Business, and Management

Paul Graham’s Essays
After building and selling his own startup, Paul Graham founded a startup accelerator that has funded hundreds of startups. He is the world expert in the startup business, and his essays are all worth reading. Be warned though – much of what he writes has now become conventional wisdom, which means it is no longer enough to give you an edge.

Y Combinator Startup Library
A list of worthy readings from the premier startup accelerator.

Startup Class by Y Combinator president Sam Altman
The president of the investment firm Y Combinator taught a class at Stanford covering every aspect of running a startup. He invited in dozens of speakers, who in turn covered areas ranging from management, to marketing, to finding investors, to product development.

The Hard Things About Hard Things
A gritty account of being a startup CEO. Contains lots of nuts and bolts advice about problems that are not typically covered in the business literature, such as how to prevent politics in your company, or what to do when a star achiever stops working hard.

Zero to One by Peter Thiel
Based on a Stanford class that investor and former PayPal founder Peter Thiel taught about startups. Filled with insight and advice.

Traction: How Any Startup Can Achieve Explosive Customer Growth by Gabriel Weinberg
Compendium of dozens of techniques that startups have used to market themselves. Lays out a simple methodology for figuring out how to market your own product.

The Ultimate Sales Machine by Chet Holmes
Not only is this one of the better books on sales, but it also contains great tips on management, productivity, and self-motivation. Be aware though, that some of the sales tactics may be outdated and off-putting when targeting more modern or sophisticated customers.

Marc Andreessen’s Startup Blog Posts
Andreessen founded Netscape and Opsware, and now runs a premier venture capital firm. This archive contains his best advice about startups and business.

Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston
A collection of interviews with founders of famous technology companies about what happened in the very earliest days.

Autopsy - Lessons from Failed Startups
Links to dozens of startup post-mortems in which founders and employees recount why their startup failed.

Venture Deals: Be Smarter than your Lawyer and your Venture Capitalist by Brad Feld
Comprehensive guide to the nuts and bolts of putting together a venture capital deal.

Great Deeds

The Anabasis by Xenophon
10,000 Greek warriors were hired by a Persian prince to help him fight a civil war. When the prince dies in battle, the Greeks must fight their way back through Persia to return to their homeland. Their leader, Xenophon, tries to hold the men together as they encounter challenge after challenge.

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolf
Story of the astronauts who participated in the early space program.

Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years of Lockheed by Ben Rich
Inside look at the Lockheed-Martin division that built some of the finest planes ever, including the U2 spy plane and the SR-71 Blackbird (the first plane to go Mach 5). These planes have not been surpassed, even today.

In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives
Tales from the early days of Google.

Showstopper!: The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft
How Microsoft created a new operating system from scratch – Windows NT – which ultimately became Windows XP and the basis for their operating systems going forward.

“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character
The memoirs of the world renown physicists. Filled with tips on being smarter and insights about life.

Social Problems

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy
An L.A. Times journalist reports from the front-lines of crime-wracked Watts and Compton about interactions between the police and the neighborhood. The book contains a vivid portrayal of both the people committing the violence, and the police dealing with the aftermath.

American Millstone: An Examination of the Nation’s Permanent Underclass
A collection of articles from the Chicago Tribune in the 1980’s about the plight of the black underclass.

American Police Systems by Raymond Fosdick
Fosdick extensively studied both the European and American police systems during the 1910s. His findings about the problems of crime and bad law enforcement are still relevant today. His critique of the American crime problem could, unfortunately, be applied to today without needing much updating. Chapter 2 and Chapter 10 are especially topical and interesting.

Devil’s Night: And Other True Tales of Detroit by Ze’Ev Chafets
A writer born in Detroit returns to the city after being away for decades. A wrenching account of what the city once was, and what it has become.

Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980, by Charles Murray
An exposition of how the social policy of the 1950s and 60s broke up families and enabled the great rise in crime. A good statistical companion to read along with American Millstone. (I recommend American Millstone if you only have time to read just one).

Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh
A University of Chicago grad student walks into a dangerous housing project, starts following around a local gang leader, and writes about the experience.