Recommended Books

The following categories with representative books reflect my reading-for-pleasure diet, although there is some overlap with my professional interests.  The recommendations may be of interest to those with similar tastes.  Suggestions for future reading are welcome. Use contact email tab.   

Biography

The Invention of Nature:  Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf

            Why don’t we all know more about this remarkable naturalist and his inflluence?

Houdini: The Elusive American by Adam Begley

            He was an almost supernatural escape artist, but much more.

The Last Man Who Knew Everything:  The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, The Father of the Nuclear Age by David Schwartz.

            A genius, on par with Einstein, whose mathematical and scientific work changed the world.

Tough Without a Gun by Stefan Kanfer

Bio of Humphrey Bogart.  Read it and won't be long before you're watching Casablanca again on YouTube.

Frank Ramsey:  A Sheer Excess of Power by Cheryl Misak

Three major theorems named after him-- respectively in mathematics, philosophy, and economics. As an undergraduate at Cambridge, directly influenced J. M. Keynes, L. Wittgenstein, B. Russell, and Moore.  Tragically died at 28.

Unfollow:  A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper

Autobiography of personal insights about radical religious indoctrination, remarkably a mostly sympathetic one, despite the author's unmitigated repudiation of those beliefs. Westboro is the church well known for its public demonstrations "celebrating" dead soldiers and the death of homosexuals.    

History

Sapiens:  A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari

            Best seller.  Deserved popularity.  Alters your view of history and humans’ place in the world.

Imbeciles:  The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen

            A sad and disturbing story. Supreme court decisions have always been controversial.

Asberger’s Children: The origins of Autism In Nazi Vienna by Edith Sheffer

            Will unpleasantly surprise those who imagine Asberger to be autism’s “saint.”

The Swerve:  How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

            A single prescient Greek poet’s epic poem presaged the modern world.

Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?  A Story of Women and Economics by Katrine Marcal

            Debunks the common theory of “economic man” and the value of labor using women’s historically unpaid work as an example.

Brand Luther:  How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe--and Started the Protestant Reformation by Andrew Pettigree

            He wasn’t just a religious figure, but the world’s first best-selling author and consequently the darling of printers.

The Evolution of Everything by Matt Ridely

Everything has evolved historically.  Among other things addressed:  money, religion, education, morality, culture, government, . . .

How We Got to Now:  Six Innovations That Made the Modern World by Stephen Johnson

Ever think how the world became different with the invention of refrigeration?

 

Politics, Government, & American Culture

Politics is Power:  Moving Beyond Political Hobbyism to Take Action and Make Change by Eitan Hersh

Too many people approach politics as entertainment. Illustrates possibilities with real stories of people who get involve and how they made a difference.

A Thousand Small Sanities by Adam Gropnik

            What liberalism really means.

The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla

            Same as above.  Liberalism doesn't necessarily include identity politics.

Breach of Trust:  How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country by Andrew Bacevich

            A former army general takes American’s to task for paying only lip service to supporting their soldiers.

Raven Rock:  The Story of the US Government's Plan to Save Itself--While the Rest of Us Die by Garrett M. Graff

Not a conspiracy theory.  It's now all on the record.

The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear In the Cyber Age by David E. Sanger

Cyber warfare.  We're doing it.  They're doing it.  It's cheap and devastatingly effective.

Unjust: Social Justice and the Unmaking of America  by Noah Rothman

An acerbic (but not easily dismissed) argument that will displease so-called social justice warriors.

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen

Documents that Americans have a particularly unique history enabling a commitment as the author says "to believe any damn thing I want," which explains, among other things, why there are anti-vaxers and Donald Trump.

Tailspin:  The People and Forces Behind America's 50-year Fall--And Those Who Are Fighting to Reverse It by Steven Brill

“A compelling, surprising narrative about the unlikely people and forces responsible for the dashing of the American dream—and an uplifting look at those working to restore it.” —Jill Abramson, former executive editor, The New York Times 

Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism by Robert Kutner

An important question, well answered.

The Tyranny of Merit by Michael J. Sandel

A meritocracy sounds like a worthy societal ideal, but is it?  Probably if you are successful; less so if you are not.

The WIERDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by Joseph Henrich

Citizens of Western Industrialized Educated Rich Democratic societies think differently than other societies, now and historically.  Thus they are WEIRD.  How did they get that way?  Interesting analysis, but overkill. Skip the tedious data and the rewiring the brain nonsense. 

Education

Getting Schooled by Garret Keizer

            An insightful personal story about being a teacher at the same school before and after another career.

After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform by Andrea Gabor

            Most business people, especially billionaires, don’t know squat about how to better education.  Teachers do.

Lies my teacher told me by James Loewen

            The education version of Harold Zinn’s  classic A People’s History of the United States.The Dyslexia Debate (Cambridge The Dyslexia Debate (Studies in Cognitive and Perceptual Development) by Julian G. Elliott and Elena L. Grigorenko

The authors are highly qualified to debunk the many myths, misperceptions, and false claims about dyslexia, of which there are many.

The Geography of Thought:  How Asians and Westerners Think Differently by Richard Nisbitt

Your kid does great in math.  Western explanation:  She is a born math genius.  Eastern explanation: She has studied extremely long hours conscientiously doing math homework.  That driver that cut you off.  Western explanation:  He is an incompetent asshole.  Eastern explanation: He is probably having a bad day and maybe distracted by unfortunate troubles.  You get the picture, but its bigger than you might imagine.

Science, Research, and Cosmology

Why Time Flies:  A Mostly Scientific Explanation by Alan Burdick

            You’ll never think about time the same way again.

Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn: A Father a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing and the Beginning of Everything by Amanda Geftner

            Physicists as rock stars to a daughter and her father, and some remarkable ideas from physics.

Pandora’s Lab:  Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong by Paul Offit

            Pseudo-science and the difficulty some scientists have giving up their pet theories.

The Blind Spot:  Science and the Crisis of Uncertainty by William Byers

Science is less about certainty than coming to terms with uncertainty and ambiguity.

Ignorance:  How it Drives Science AND Failure: Why Science is So Successful both by Stuart Firestein

How ignorance and Failure drive science.  And, you'll learn how a dolphin trained its trainers.

The Hidden Reality:  Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos by Brian Greene

Are there multiple "yous" living many different lives.  Not as far fetched as it might sound.

Why Does the World Exist?  An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt

Why is there something/anything rather than nothing?

The Signal and the Noise:  Why Most Predictions Fail--But Some Don't  by Nate Silver

The author is a notably successful pollster, but successful is relative and difficult to achieve, as he argues here in all predictions.

The Theory That Would Not Die:  How Beyes' Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant From Two Centuries of Controversy by Sharon Bertsch McGrrayne

An obscure English cleric developed an entirely new approach to statistics that enable all the things in the title and much more.

The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) by Katie Mack

Possible ends (and beginnings) of the cosmos and bizarre ideas in physics.

Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth by Adam Frank

How likely are there other civilizations in the universe and what can we learn about our own world in light of that speculation?

Radical Uncertainty: Decision Making Beyond the Numbers by John Kay & Mervyn King

Probabilities can't be assigned to everything.  There are "wicked problems" and those that can't be predicted, when all we can do is ask "What is really going on here," take reasoned action, consider contingencies after identifying key variables (think pandemic, but published a month or two before that uncertain event.  Somewhat "anti-Bayesian" (see Nate Silver's book above for counter-argument).

Words and Language

Word by Word:  The secret life of dictionaries by Kory Stamper

            Dictionaries made interesting.

The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser

            Former US Poet Laureate.  Gets you into his poetic mind.  Good poems.  Good advice. 

Do I Make Myself Clear?  Why Writing Well Matters by Harold Evens

            I never stop learning how to write better.

Don’t Believe a Word:  The Surprising Truth About Language by David Shariatmadari

            Engaging, easy read that confronts several common myths about language.

Why Poetry? by Matthew Zapruder

            Answers the question thoroughly.

You Are What You Speak:  Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity by Robert Lane Greene

Title says it all.  If you like this book, see also John McWhorter's Language on the Move: Why English Won't--And Can't Sit Still (Like Literally).

Semicolon by Cecelia Watson

Punctuation, this one in particular, can make a difference and reveal interesting aspects of written lanuage.

Your Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf From Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia by Jack Lynch

A history of humankind's drive to consolidate knowledge in reference works.

The Electronic Word: Democracy Technology and the Arts by Richard Lanham

Not a page turner, but thoughtful and insightful analysis. The author is a rhetorician who highlights the differences between printed and digital texts in domains such as rhetorical stances (abstract vs. visual), organizational modes (hierarchical vs. associational), and expectations (serious vs. more playful.

Social Issues

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace:  A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs

            A tragic story of promise defeated by a culture of poverty.

Charged:  The New Movement to Transform Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration by Emily Bazlon

            The inherent inequality of a bail system that puts too many of the wrong people behind bars.

Tears We Cannot Stop:  A Sermon to White America by Michael Dyson

            Some sermons aren't ones you want to hear, but need to hear.  This is one.

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte

A counterpoint to the wildly popular Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Psychology, Social Psychology, Neurology

The Knowledge Illusion:  Why We Never Think Alone by Steven Sloman and Phillip Fernbach

            We don’t know as much as we think we do.

Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavis

            Cognitive dissonance.  We are all victims.  Everyday.           

The Honest Truth About Dishonesty:  How We Lie To Everyone—Mainly Ourselves by Dan Ariely

            Based on the author’s research.  We are all much less than truthful.

Into the Abyss: A Neuropsychiatrist's Notes on Troubled Minds by Anthony David

A collection of interesting, sadly difficult cases and the author's not-always-successful strategies for dealing with them.

The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar

How we make up our minds.  It isn't pretty.

Going to Extremes:  How Like Minds Unite and Divide by Cass R. Sunstein

Processes of making decisions and forming opinions in groups.  Homogenous groups tend to take more extreme views and make poorer decisions than do diverse groups.  Sound familiar?

The Book of Woe: The DSM  (Diagnostic Statistical Manual) and the Unmaking of Psychiatry by Gary Greenberg

The DSM is the "bible" of terms for and characteristics of diagnoses and labeling psychiatric conditions.  This book tells the story of its deep flaws and inconsistencies across now 5 editions.  If you think there is widespread agreement about psychiatric conditions and their diagnoses, think again. And, you guessed it, it's mostly about insurance claims.

Non-fiction that reads like fiction

Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

            Intrepid doctor in London discovers the cause of cholera , but 30 years before his theory to be accepted.

The Devil in the White City:  A Saga of Magic and Mystery at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

            A tale of serial killer woven into the intriguing story and many influences of Chicago’s World’s Fair

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Island by Patrick Radden Keefe

Story of the violent “time of troubles” and the IRA's fight for Northern Ireland’s independence. Individual participants’ stories that eventually converge.

Fallout:  The Hiroshima Coverup and the Reporter Who Revealed it to the World by Lesley M. M. Blume

The horrors of Hiroshima weren't known immediately, mostly because of a coverup by the US military and government (a prelude to the Pentagon Papers).  John Hersey's carefully crafted story of 6 survivors published in The New Yorker changed all that.

Sports (a cynical view, mostly)

Billion-dollar Ball: A Journey through the big-money culture of college football by Gilbert Gaul

            It’s all about money.

Against Football:  One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto by Steve Almond

           Should tweak the conscience of any fan.

Wooden:  A Coach's Life by Seth Davis

Bio and philosophy of the most successful b-ball coach of all time, and he had an intellectual life.