Book recommendation requests

post by ChristianKl · 2017-06-01T22:33:30.389Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 49 comments

Do you want to learn about a topic, you know little about? Books are great, but if you don't a know a topic it's hard to know which book to chose.

This thread exists to request recommendations about what to read on a given topic. 


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by username2 · 2017-06-01T23:12:57.035Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is there any book that had a bigger inpact on your life than the sequences ? What is it and why ?

Replies from: JenniferRM, Kaj_Sotala, Viliam
comment by JenniferRM · 2017-06-02T16:44:03.464Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The sequences for me were like "yeah, but everyone smart already knows this stuff" and then I was more interested in the community and commenters from the golden era who were often slightly "crazy smart". However, when I try to imagine the effect the sequences had on people who had read less, and seek similar things in my own life, the first things that stands out is GEB.

Part of the value was in dissolving a bunch of youthful philosophical confusions about the relationship between meaningful artifacts (like word or programs or whatever) and the formal or semi-formal contexts that interpret and reveal their meaning within limits imposed by the Incompleteness Theorem.

Another chunk of the value was that GEB pointed to and paired with related books like Metamagical Themas (also by Hofstadter), The Night Is Large (by Gardner, who Hofstadter replaced at Scientific American), and Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies (about Hofstadter's grad student's projects).

In the same general vein, but probably more fun to read, Diaspora, Permutation City, and Kiln People seem like touchstones of novelistically concrete philosophy of mind to me. My understanding is that Diaspora and to a lesser extent Permutation City were highly influential for Eliezer as well.

Also, James Gleick has had a remarkable run of non-fiction books, better than the normal pop science stuff, at least for me. If I see a book of his on a shelf that I haven't read yet I'll buy it just based on his name.

Another book that stands out for me as highly influential, but separate from the LW/extropian memeplex, is Milton Friedman's Law's Order. Admittedly it isn't that far from the memeplex around here, given that it was written by Patri's grandfather.

In the same vein, Nick Szabo's blog archives are dense reading, but worth it. He is not exactly local, but was friends with Hal Finney and was widely suspected of being Satoshi.

Replies from: darius, ignoranceprior
comment by darius · 2017-06-02T21:12:35.303Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Small correction: Law's Order is by David Friedman, the middle generation. It's an excellent book.

I had a similar reaction to the sequences. Some books that influenced me the most as a teen in the 80s: the Feynman Lectures and Drexler's Engines of Creation. Feynman modeled scientific rationality, thinking for yourself, clarity about what you don't know or aren't explaining, being willing to tackle problems, ... it resists a summary. Drexler had many of the same virtues, plus thinking carefully and boldly about future technology and what we might need to do in advance to steer to an acceptable outcome. (I guess it's worth adding that seemingly a lot of people misread it as gung-ho promotion of the wonders of Tomorrowland that we could all look forward to by now, more like Kurzweil. For one sad consequence, Drexler seems to have become a much more guarded writer.)

Hofstadter influenced me too, and Egan and Szabo.

Replies from: JenniferRM
comment by JenniferRM · 2017-06-03T05:22:18.049Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the correction! I'll leave the Milton/David error in, so your correction reads naturally :-)

comment by ignoranceprior · 2017-06-03T15:11:25.832Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also, James Gleick has had a remarkable run of non-fiction books, better than the normal pop science stuff, at least for me. If I see a book of his on a shelf that I haven't read yet I'll buy it just based on his name.

I can second this. I've been reading through his The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, and even though it does not go into too many technical details about the mathematics, I have enjoyed it and learned a lot about the history of computing and communication theory. Obviously, if you're looking to learn the math, you would do better with something like David McKay's book, or Thomas & Cover.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2017-06-02T10:50:55.990Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Quantifying the impact of a book on my life is hard, but I listed the books that have had the biggest impact on my life/thinking and said a bit about why, here.

comment by Viliam · 2017-06-02T13:08:13.642Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I read The Demolished Man as 12 years old, and it left a life-long desire to understand how human mind works.

comment by Elo · 2017-06-05T05:15:32.561Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would like a "books you should not read" list. And why. Particularly if it came recommended or had your hopes up and was contrary to your expectations.

Replies from: Viliam, ChristianKl
comment by Viliam · 2017-06-05T21:16:32.240Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is mentioned positively so often that I decided to download and read it. What a waste of time!

If I tell you "don't worry about stuff, just do your duty, that's what the gods want", well, I already told you 90% of the information in the book. Imagine writing the same sentence over and over again across dozens of pages, and it will not be too different from the real stuff.

Also, ad hominem -- because there is not enough real content to comment on -- the author of the book actually failed at one of his most important duties, with horrible outcome to most people around him. At given era, it was a custom for the current ruler to find and adopt his successor, because wise people realized that biological sons are sometimes unfit to govern. This is how Marcus himself got the throne. Well, he failed to do the same, and left the throne to his biological son.

The son was probably a bit crazy, because while the economy around him was failing, he was busy doing stuff like renaming all months in the year to correspond to his twelve names. (Uhm, why did he even have twelve names?) People tried to assassinate him, but he survived. Then he added a woman involved in the plot to his harem. What happened then will surprise you... not! One day she pissed him off with some triviality, so he decided to get her executed anyway, wrote that in his tomorrow's to-do list, and left it on the table. She found the list, of course. So she poisoned him. Afterwards, a "game of thrones" situation followed.

So thank you, Marcus, for being so cool and not worrying about stuff. And telling other people how important is to do their duty, while ignoring your own. Best case, you will write an international bestseller that will survive millenia. Worst case, you make the civilization collapse. The real case, you achieve both at the same time.

Replies from: Elo
comment by Elo · 2017-06-06T08:59:07.712Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yep. It's one that I started but put down.

comment by ChristianKl · 2017-06-05T11:38:55.785Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems to me like that information is hosted better at GoodReads.

comment by LessWrong (LessWrong1) · 2017-06-02T19:55:48.537Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Meta post:

How often does it happen that:

  1. You're reading a book, and it's not particularly interesting, or there's nothing new in it, and you put it down;

  2. You read a book, and after n amount of (days, months, years) you felt that it wasn't as good as you felt it was when reading it.

I've recently felt a "yeah, cool" feeling about books I'm reading and am curious if it happens to other people.

Replies from: Elo, Zubon, lukeprog
comment by Elo · 2017-06-05T05:14:41.407Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
  1. often, I even tried reading books to the end and have concluded that I probably don't need to do that if I get the hunch early.
  2. not really. I tend to have my conclusions at the end of the book. I tend to fit all my understandings together these days. with MAFM,WAFV my early conclusions were over zealous which got corrected when I learnt more things and made less sweeping statements

  3. I would like a "books you should not read" list. And why. (will make a separeate top comment)

comment by Zubon · 2017-06-05T02:00:09.368Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Frequently to both.

For fiction that I re-read and find it not as good the second time, I suspect the newness of it was the driving force in my initial assessment. Permutation City was life-changing for me, but going back after having more transhumanism in my diet, I don't know that it is even my favorite Greg Egan book.

There are other times where I have that feeling without even needing to re-read. "Upon reflection, I enjoyed that a lot at the time, but there is not a lot of there there."

comment by lukeprog · 2017-06-03T23:32:00.328Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
  1. Constantly.
  2. Frequently.
comment by LessWrong (LessWrong1) · 2017-06-02T19:48:09.005Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've tried GEB. Contrary to what a lot of people feel about it, I did not particularly enjoy the book. I didn't finish it, so perhaps I didn't see the grand finale. My assumptions are that GEB was the first time a lot of fans found out about the concepts described in the book, and therefore they like it because of that. From a reductionalist viewpoint, I still haven't found an adequate answer for "What does GEB have that I can't find anywhere else?". Or perhaps, "if we take n amount of people, one group aware of the concepts in GEB and another unaware of it, assuming neither of them read the book, how much would their final rating differ?".

Replies from: Zubon
comment by Zubon · 2017-06-05T02:02:39.048Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

And then I scroll down and find this, the perfect example of your question about books that can be initially amazing but not great upon re-read or reflection. If you are not familiar with the ideas in GEB, it can be an amazing introduction that opens new horizons. Or it can be too clever for its own good, getting in the way of delivering its own content.

comment by ChristianKl · 2017-06-01T22:36:05.999Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I want to learn more about the basics of pathopsychology. I have read about different mental illnesses at various times in different contexts but I never really studied the basics of the standard concepts of the different mental illnesses.

Which textbook or pop-science book gives a good overview?

Replies from: Gram_Stone, RomeoStevens, pcm
comment by Gram_Stone · 2017-06-01T23:02:50.521Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

psychopathology* (Genuinely trying to be helpful, not nitpicky; keywords are important.)

Related, broader keyword: abnormal psychology.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2017-06-02T09:16:16.214Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, while FreeDictonary does have an entry for pathopsychology, Google Ngram shows that psychopathology is the more frequent English word by orders of magnitude.

comment by RomeoStevens · 2017-06-04T22:32:32.178Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Non-DSM: Opening the Heart of Compassion. People with psychotherapy chops explain the buddhist model of pathology in an entertaining way.

comment by pcm · 2017-06-02T15:32:27.393Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I enjoyed Shadow Syndromes, which is moderately close to what you asked for.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2017-06-02T15:49:23.997Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm seeking for a book that lies out the orthodox mainstream view, is that the case for the book you recommend? (I generally don't have a problem with unorthodox views, but in this case I seek to develop clear knowledge of the orthodox view)

Replies from: pcm
comment by pcm · 2017-06-02T19:22:29.174Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It isn't designed to describe the orthodox view. I think the ideas it describes are moderately popular among mainstream experts, but probably some experts dispute them.

comment by LessWrong (LessWrong1) · 2017-06-09T18:43:09.574Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

CFAR also has a booklist. Eliezer has one too, but says it's deprecated. There's the 'rationality' tag on on Goodreads, and it's up to you to decide if the books listed live up to it.

comment by ignoranceprior · 2017-06-03T19:57:24.947Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What are good introductory books on chemistry and biology that do not require any background knowledge? I'm ashamed to say it, but I don't really even have a high-school level knowledge of either subject, and what little I knew is now forgotten. My background in basic (classical) physics is much better, but I have forgotten some of that too.

Replies from: Vexokinase_duplicate0.9502640699652118, brush, ChristianKl
comment by Vexokinase_duplicate0.9502640699652118 · 2017-06-10T19:37:17.855Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is a long post, so I'm going to pre-emptively tell you what's in it: first, textbook recommendations, followed by popular science book recommendations

I'm surprised no one has given a good answer to this as yet. Unfortunately, I only feel comfortable offering recommendations in biology. I have decent knowledge of chemistry, but that comes from working in chemistry labs and doing a lot of physical chemistry stuff. I wouldn't begin to know what's good reading in the chemical sciences (unless you're interested in statistical mechanics, which I'm guessing you're not).

For a good textbook on biology, Campbell is the most common one. It has everything you need in terms of introductory information - but again, it's a textbook. If you can make yourself read it from one end to the other, you'll come out significantly more knowledgeable, but that's not easy with a textbook. The 7th edition upward should be sufficiently updated.

If you want specifically molecular and cellular biology, Alberts is generally the standard. "Molecular Biology of the Cell" by Alberts and others is what I used. 5th edition upward should be okay, but even the 5th edition will have out of date information. If you just want basic knowledge of biology, this book isn't necessary.

For ecology, there's a million and one textbooks and I don't know which one is best. Find one that's free and mathy. If it doesn't have graphs and equations in it, I wouldn't consider it worthwhile to read - but that's just my opinion.

If you want biology books that are more pop-sci and less textbook, I know of a few that are decent:

A lot of people recommend any of Dawkins' books. I've never read any of them and don't have any particular intention of doing so, but I figured I'd mention it.

I've heard A LOT of good things about Siddhartha Mukherjee and his book "The Gene: An Intimate History" - this is one book I DO intend to read, but have not done so yet. ( ). He also has a book on cancer called "The Emperor of All Maladies" which has gotten an insane amount of praise. If it's as good as people say it is, it's definitely worth it - for learning biology, cancer is like the standard "example" of what happens when things go wrong in basically every major area of cell biology.

Evelyn Fox Keller gave a lecture in the biology department at my university a couple years back. Her lecture was excellent. I have not read her book "The Century of the Gene", but based on her reputation and on the content of her lecture, I'd be willing to bet money on it being an excellent book.

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson is considered required reading by a lot of people for very good reason. It's probably the first, or one of the first, major popular works of non-fiction that made the broader public aware of what humans were doing to the environment.

I'm a big fan of mathematical biology. There's some older texts I've read that are pretty neat, but possibly not very educational without some basic knowledge. Erwin Schroedinger (of "Schroedinger's Cat" fame) wrote a book, "What Is Life?", based off of a series of lectures he gave wherein he gave a prediction of the structure of the genetic material that, while wrong, was very interesting. This book and his lecture series inspired Watson, Crick, and Rosalind, who eventually outlined the true structure of the genetic material. Alfred Lotka wrote a book that I consider important for any biologist: "Elements of Mathematical Biology". You can likely find PDFs of either of these books online.

Replies from: ignoranceprior
comment by ignoranceprior · 2017-06-14T06:36:19.833Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you very much!

comment by brush · 2017-06-05T13:16:13.673Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I really liked "Basic Physics: A Self Teaching Guide".

It only requires some basic algebra knowledge.

comment by ChristianKl · 2017-06-03T20:42:39.836Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What do you want to learn about chemistry and biology?

Replies from: ignoranceprior
comment by ignoranceprior · 2017-06-04T05:12:04.285Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't know specifically. Where would be the best place to start?

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Replies from: Gram_Stone
comment by Gram_Stone · 2017-06-03T18:56:09.778Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by ChristianKl · 2017-06-03T09:13:20.935Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What's a good book for learning about human hormones and how the effect behavior?

Replies from: Elo
comment by Elo · 2017-06-05T05:25:05.439Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would suggest a medical textbook in endocrinology but that's more descriptive of diseases. won't tell you as much about what they should do, but maybe you can extrapolate from "when this bit goes wrong, this happens"

comment by RainbowSpacedancer · 2017-06-02T16:42:43.703Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Books on leadership. The psychology + social dynamics of leadership and the traits of successful leaders. There are so many books I don't know where to start.

Replies from: RomeoStevens
comment by RomeoStevens · 2017-06-04T22:34:37.480Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Olivia Cabane's books are where I'd start. Then Kegan's Immunity to Change.

comment by simbyotic · 2017-06-02T11:30:27.983Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is literally the most useful thread there could possibly be for me because there are times I think "I would really like to learn about X" but don't know what the names for X in an academic setting.

So, top of my mind:

  • Neuroscience of art & art appreciation
  • Evolutionary basis for storytelling
  • Something about disorders like Cotard's and what they mean for our understanding of consciousness

Is this a monthly thread btw? If not, it should!

Replies from: Gram_Stone, pcm, ChristianKl
comment by Gram_Stone · 2017-06-02T14:26:06.911Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Neuroscience of art & art appreciation

A slightly broader keyword would be 'neuroaesthetics.'

Evolutionary basis for storytelling

I haven't done an exhaustive literature search, but one book I'm going through right now is Brian Boyd's On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction.

Replies from: simbyotic
comment by simbyotic · 2017-06-02T15:19:18.435Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by pcm · 2017-06-02T15:30:02.927Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Henrich's The Secret of our Success isn't exactly about storytelling, but it provides a good enough understanding of human evolution that it would feel surprising to me if humans didn't tell stories.

Replies from: simbyotic
comment by simbyotic · 2017-06-02T15:35:09.602Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Already read it :) If you liked Henrich you will probably enjoy Kevin Laland's newest which gives a better picture of how humans evolved the capacities that Henrich talks about, and the extent to which some of those capacities are present in other animals as well.

comment by ChristianKl · 2017-06-02T11:34:45.136Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is this a monthly thread btw? If not, it should!

That isn't a decision that has to be made at this point in time. If the thread is well received it makes sense to renew it regularly.

comment by sone3d · 2017-06-02T07:14:50.383Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Books about human status.

Replies from: Qiaochu_Yuan
comment by Qiaochu_Yuan · 2017-06-03T01:00:47.875Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Impro has a nice chapter on status. The rest of it's great too.

comment by madhatter · 2017-06-02T01:07:59.348Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Anything not too technical about nanotechnology? (Current state, forecasts, etc.)

Replies from: darius, gilch
comment by darius · 2017-06-02T22:05:48.394Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Radical Abundance is worth reading. It says that current work is going on under other names like biomolecular engineering, the biggest holdup is a lack of systems engineering focused on achieving strategic capabilities (like better molecular machines for molecular manufacturing), and we ought to be preparing for those developments. It's in a much less exciting style than his first book.

comment by gilch · 2017-06-02T05:57:23.273Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Engines of Creation is the classic. It's much less technical than Nanosystems.