The Best Popular Books on Every Subject

post by iarwain1 · 2015-05-19T01:02:00.590Z · score: 17 (16 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 19 comments

I enjoy reading popular-level books on a wide variety of subjects, and I love getting new book recommendations. In the spirit of lukeprog's The Best Textbooks on Every Subject, can we put together a list of the best popular books on every subject?

Here's what I mean by popular-level books:

Textbooks are actually ok, as long as they meet all the above criteria.

I'm going to start off by also requiring the following, as per lukeprog. But if people prefer I might relax these:
  1. Post the title of your favorite book on a given subject.
  2. You must have read at least two other books on that same subject.
  3. You must briefly name the other books you've read on the subject and explain why you think your chosen book is superior to them.
ETA: If you really liked a book but didn't read alternatives, an easy way to fulfill these extra requirements is to look at reviews at Amazon, Goodreads, or similar. Usually you can find reviews that compare the book to one or more alternatives.

Finally, the purpose of this list is to try to be as comprehensive as possible. Copying books that have already been recommended on other lists is therefore to be encouraged, even if you yourself haven't read those books.

ETA 2: It seems everybody has their own ideas about what should be the criteria for this list. So how about everybody just add in books using whatever criteria they would prefer for a list of "The Best Popular Books on Every Subject".


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by SolveIt · 2015-05-19T23:18:47.008Z · score: 11 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Meta: Should we be encouraging people to read popular books? Popular books have their place, but there is a common failure mode where people read popularizations, get their daily fix of insight porn, and go away without having learned anything substantial.

Reading popular books on the same subject have sharply decreasing marginal utility, and I'm guessing that the kind of person who reads LW is the kind of person who has already read enough popularizations that reading another is probably a waste of time.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2015-05-24T21:17:09.723Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think a bigger problem with popular books is that they are often just wrong.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2015-05-21T13:08:04.147Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree with you about popular books. But I am wondering about the term "insight porn"--does it do anything besides put a negative connotation on the process of obtaining new insights? (If "insight porn" refers to useless insights, would it be appropriate to say something like "pure math is full of insight porn"? :P)

comment by SolveIt · 2015-05-22T09:37:56.979Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The way I've heard it used is to describe activities that give you the illusion of understanding a complex subject. Examples would be Malcolm Gladwell's books, or the high school student who thinks they understand quantum mechanics after reading The Elegant Universe. So that usage wouldn't fit pure maths, since we seem to generally agree that pure mathematicians have a true understanding of their fields, even if we don't agree on the value of said fields.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2015-05-22T13:23:23.617Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Makes sense. It might be useful to score models based on how much they improve your predictions, e.g. Newtonian physics is not completely accurate but improves my predictions substantially vs not knowing any physics.

comment by DanArmak · 2015-05-23T14:04:35.714Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Reading popular books on the same subject have sharply decreasing marginal utility

I think there are so many separate subjects (given that you're reading for fun, not for specific knowledge), that this really isn't a problem.

What you said seems true for for sciences with well-ordered master theories. These obviously include physics, and to a lesser degree perhaps biology, astronomy or comp-sci. Once you've read a few really good books about popular cellular biology or popular evolution, there may not be much more to be gained at the popular level.

But in some areas of study, there are very many subjects which must popularized separately. History is the most obvious one - I've read dozens of popular history books, and will gladly read dozens more, because they're dealing with different times and places, or with different themes such as economic history. Another example is zoology - the biology and ecology of particular organisms.

comment by Sarunas · 2015-05-19T17:46:10.350Z · score: 7 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Does not require the reader to write anything (e.g., practice problems) or do anything beyond just reading and thinking, except perhaps on very rare occasions.

You should drop this criterion, because it excludes recreational mathematics books, such as those by Martin Gardner (who is perhaps the most famous popularizer of mathematics). Most popular mathematics and popular science books seem to cover history of mathematics and science and biographies of mathematicians and scientists and pay much less attention to mathematics and science themselves. Thus recreational mathematics books are better example of what I think should be classified as popular mathematics. Besides recreational mathematics, an example of a popular author whose books are about science (rather than scientists) is Yakov Perelman, though his books are quite old.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2015-05-19T19:23:11.474Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Technical books about the intellectual history/evolution of ideas in a technical area make for nice general reading, and I think help give the intellectual big picture that most technical text books do not.

The Emergence of Probability: A Philosophical Study of Early Ideas about Probability, Induction and Statistical Inference (Cambridge Series on Statistical & Probabilistic Mathematics) Paperback – July 31, 2006 by Ian Hacking

The Lady Tasting Tea: How Statistics Revolutionized Science in the Twentieth Century Paperback – May 1, 2002 by David Salsburg

I find Jaynes very readable and useful in the big picture way.

comment by iarwain1 · 2015-05-20T00:58:36.334Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

So now that I've relaxed my own criteria, here's my list:

World History

  • Atlas of World History by John Haywood (unfortunately out of print): Really excellent for getting a detailed balanced understanding of world history. Also excellent at pointing out causes and effects. Good coverage of political, demographic, and economic history, but very poor for cultural and intellectual history.
  • Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (LW summary): Some controversial positions presented as accepted fact, but otherwise very good overview of the social science aspects of the history of humanity.


Physics: See here

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2015-05-24T21:22:33.965Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I guess that Haywood's Atlas is out of print because there is something like a second edition, although I could be wrong in that characterization.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2015-05-19T21:56:46.947Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

On parenting:

The Everyday Parenting Toolkit: The Kazdin Method for Easy, Step-by-Step, Lasting Change for You and Your Child

I already reviewed it here.

Better than numerous books on the issue that I and my wife have read over the years - among them

  • Jesper Juul's 'Your Competent Child: Toward A New Paradigm In Parenting And Education'

  • Tom Hodgkinson's 'The Idle Parent: Why Laid-Back Parents Raise Happier and Healthier Kid'

which are also good and have different focus but which didn't as significantly alter my behavior in response to reading them.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-05-19T07:21:23.741Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you relax the the rules, I'll bring up David Attenborough. (I haven't read any other books than his Life on Earth, The Living Planet about the same subject (showing a zoomed-out view of the plant and animal life on the whole planet) but they absolutely dominated this type of market in the 1980's, I don't think there were even many alternatives published. Later on my interests turned away from zoology and botany.)

comment by TylerJay · 2015-05-19T23:09:04.203Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'll second the recommendation to relax this rule. I think the ability to gauge the quality of a popular book is a lot more cross-domain than with textbooks. I've read good books and I've read bad books. I can tell pretty quickly if a book is bad, even if I'm relatively new to the subject area.

Also, I feel like a lot of people would tend to only read one or two pop books in a particular area. Any more knowledge beyond that often comes from the internet or a textbook or elsewhere. I mean, I can count on one hand the number of specific subjects about which I've read more than two actual published books, but I've spent hundreds of hours each reading about many more subjects than that.

And since pop books aren't typically comprehensive accounts of an entire field or subject, the most important things really are clarity, engagingness, and worth, and not necessarily completeness. If what is there is valuable, accurate, and it's presented well, then it's Good, even if it doesn't cover some things that are covered by other books.

comment by sixes_and_sevens · 2015-05-19T14:11:52.817Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

How are we operationalising "best" here? The purpose of textbooks is to efficiently impart material. Popular books have a wide variety of purposes (to inform, inspire, entertain, polemicise, etc.), so by what standard are we holding one popular book to be superior to another?

comment by nitrat665 · 2015-05-23T05:35:44.571Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can anyone recommend good books on teaching (preferrably not kids, but adults) ?

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2015-05-19T21:43:39.392Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Meta: You might want to suggest special voting conventions, e.g. to generally upvote any post that provides a book and meets the criteria above.

comment by calamondin · 2015-05-23T21:50:49.769Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by [deleted] · 2015-05-19T17:05:37.331Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Popular books? Go to Amazon/Ebay's top 10 sellers or something.

As for your criteria:

Written very well and clearly, preferably even entertaining.

That's pretty much what every good book would have.

Does not require the reader to write anything (e.g., practice problems) or do anything beyond just reading and thinking, except perhaps on very rare occasions.

I find this criteria to be of dubious merit. But perhaps it's because I'm not a native English speaker and I'm used to checking up words or phrases that aren't intuitively clear to me even after I tried to analyse a few sentence back and forwards.

Cannot be "heavy" reading that requires the reader to proceed slowly and carefully and/or do lots of heavy thinking.

Like GEB?

Can be understood by anyone with a decent high school education (not including calculus). However, sometimes this requirement can be circumvented, if the following additional criteria are met

You'd probably need a specialized book in order for that to apply.

We'll need to know what a "decent high school education" is, though. Humourously, of course.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2015-05-19T21:49:14.660Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Popular books? Go to Amazon/Ebay's top 10 sellers or something.

Sure, these are candidates. But are they "best" by LW standards? And to measure that the comparison to at least two others avoids at least blatant popularity traps.

Like GEB?

I'd say borderline. I read it fluently when I was 15 and didn't consider it arduous. But mileage may vary.