Some Books I Like

Here's a list of books I like. Use my link to Amazon and buy anything, and I get a little slice (5% of the price) - woo hoo! There's dozens of dollars to be made!

Amazon does not always have the best prices, but their listings are usually dependable (I've had too many experiences of ordering a book elsewhere, only to get an email a few days later saying, "gee, I guess we don't sell that book after all"). If you don't mind spending the time, here are some ways to check prices, and to find out-of-print and used books:

On a different note, if you like good games, I have a separate games recommendation page with links to worthwhile stores and sites.

Science and Math

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, by David Eagleman. A perfect bathroom book about what (little) we know about how the brain works. Fascinating and quick summaries of various studies and odd facts, along with some philosophical chew about free will and other subjects.

The Inventions of Daedalus and The Further Inventions of Daedalus, by David E.H. Jones. A great collection of brainstormed ideas written as jokes for a column in New Scientist, some possibly practical, some wonderfully absurd. For example, he independently invents stereolithography in one column; in another he tries to determine the mass of the soul.

The Flying Circus of Physics, by Jearl Walker. A perfect bathroom or bedtime book, consisting of many many in depth questions about physical phenomena, along with answers and references for further information. Copiously illustrated, it's great for posing questions (some of them still unsolved) to kids and adults.

Visual Intelligence: How We Create What We See, by Donald David Hoffman. A book about how much brain power goes into "seeing" - a lot more than capturing an image goes on inside our head. In fact, we can't help but interpret some images. The author, a researcher in the field, shows how our brains interpret images through showing us images. He will take an optical illusion and show how varying its construction leads us to different interpretations, and so shows us what our brains are interpreting. The book is approachable and readable, with a solid set of references behind each piece of research presented.

The Compleat Strategyst, by J.D. Williams. A pleasant introduction to game theory. It talks about game theory in a way that even a sixth grader can understand. Get the 1966 revised edition, as it includes the simplex method, and still has the charming table of random numbers in the back. You can find these for as cheap as $5 on abebooks or other used bookstores.

Aha! Gotcha and Aha! Insight, by Martin Gardner. Books of paradoxes, fallacies, puzzles, and just plain fascinating ideas. Gardner has written hundreds of great columns on mathematical ideas for Scientific American, as well as a huge number of excellent books on math, science, pseudoscience, magic, and much else. These two are great books for that clever kid you know, age nine and up. They're almost a "best of" collection of many of the topics he's written about before in his columns, distilled down to their essence.

The Chess Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes: Fifty Tantalizing Problems of Chess Detection, by Raymond Smullyan. Smullyan has fun books on philosophy and Zen, and a large number of logical puzzle books, but this one is my favorite. A simple, brilliant concept: here's a chess position, can you deduce some given fact about it? Look inside for a sample puzzle. I also have a sample puzzle (I made a computer graphic image of a chess set for it) on my web site at the very bottom of the page. If you like this one, then next get his The Chess Mysteries of the Arabian Knights.

One Jump Ahead: Challenging Human Supremacy in Checkers, by Jonathan Schaeffer. This book is hard to categorize, it covers so much: programming a computer to win at checkers, certainly, but also the history of a dying competitive game, the story of an undisputed human champion, the nature of what makes a game and an opponent exciting, and many other threads. A fantastic book (at least for me). Already read the book? You can also play his program (good luck!).

Investment

A Random Walk Down Wall Street, by Burton Malkiel. Think you can beat the market? Hope springs eternal. Malkiel's classic book discusses how it is extremely unlikely that you will in the long run, so that low cost indexed funds reflecting the entire stock market are your best bet. The author has experience in both the academic and corporate worlds, and presents a fascinating mix of theory and experience. My favorite passage is where a technical analyst sees a stock chart generated by one of Malkiel's students by flipping coins. He is upset that Malkiel didn't share knowledge of this stock with him, since the analyst sees the classic head and shoulders shape in the graph, meaning the stock is about to soar. The negative reviews at Amazon are a fun read, as some people absolutely hate the idea that the market is unpredictable in the long term, regardless of the statistical evidence. We like to form patterns from randomness and assume that logic prevails. Just because we like it don't make it so...

Art

Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud. A non-fiction comic book-style book about comics and how they work. Theories about representing time, space, story, art, and more, in an approachable and useful style. You owe it to yourself to read this one. There is a sequel, Reinventing Comics. This one starts out slow, the first part is all about the comic book market and did not grab me, but the latter half has some things to say about ideas and their distribution that was enjoyable and thought-provoking.

Andy Goldsworthy: A Collaboration with Nature. The only art books I've ever sought out and paid full price for are this one and Time, also by Goldsworthy. What an amazing guy! What clever things! See some images on the web, though the web does not do them justice by any stretch. The amount of craft and patience impress, the things formed astound.

Fiction

The Aubrey/Maturin Series, by Patrick O'Brian. The lives of a Napoleonic era English sea captain and his surgeon friend, wonderfully well-written, 20 volumes total. Some people tell me that something like A Sea of Words or some other guide to nautical terms are important to fully enjoy these books. Me, I just skip over the terms I don't understand and go with the flow. I'm up to The Ionian Mission and the debate is whether to read them all as soon as possible or space them out over my life.

Hyperion, by Dan Simmons. Easily one of the best science fiction books I've read. A number of tales woven together to form a fascinating and mysterious universe. Be forewarned: this is one of a two (or four) part series, so you will be left hanging. The others are good, but this first one is incredible.

Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. Cyberpunk laughs at itself; an inventive and humorous story set in the near-future. The middle dragged a bit for me, but in general a great, amusing read.

The Iron Dragon's Daughter, by Michael Swanwick. Imagine a world of elves and dwarves and magic in modern times, e.g. the mall is a place where time does not pass, like a fairy ring. Sounds oh-so-cute, but this book is not for the kids by any stretch. The tale veers among images of great beauty, horror, despair, and strange places in between. I found the whole experience fascinating, though quite dark. (That said, the ending made sense but was a bit annoying; you've been warned.) I've tried other Swanwick books because of this work, but they don't compare (so far).

Knowledge

How to Dad makes an excellent gift for any new parent. It's got all the important stuff in it, like how to skip a rock, stop a bloody nose, make a cootie catcher, and all sorts of other critical knowledge which dads (or moms) should pass on. You probably know half of this stuff, but the other half is where you can use this guide. Personally, I refer to this book about once a year when I need to remember how to tie a tie.

The New Roadside America is a guide to many classic American kitschy tourist attractions. Largest ball of twine? Gravitational mystery spots? The Liberace Museum? This book covers them and so much more. Yes, they have a web site, but the book's great to read in and of itself.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini. Great and unnerving at the same time, the book is filled with various studies in the field of social psychology. I cannot recommend this book too highly; an entertaining and informative read. If you've ever been snookered into buying a copy of the Bhagavad-Gita in a bus station or found yourself purchasing a timeshare condo against your better judgement (or the thousand other unneeded sales we've all been hit with at some time or another), this book is for you. It gives a structure to the various cultural instincts we have and how these can be subverted. On a more positive note, it is also useful for understanding how to best get your own message across (while avoiding being manipulative). For example, after reading it I now tell my children "clean your room, because...", as using "because" makes the request more effective (oddly enough, regardless of the reason given after the word "because", at least in theory. I haven't tried "because the moon is full" yet). I plan to give this book to my children when they graduate from high school (if not sooner).

The Winner's Curse, by Richard H. Thaler. A book all about paradoxes on how we think about possessions and money. We are not always the perfectly rational beings that classical economic theory depends on. For example, you win $500 in some contest, you probably splurge and spend some of it on something fun. You gain $500 on some stock you own, you don't think about selling the stock and having a party. In both cases $500 was gained, but you mentally classify the money differently. The book is sometimes slow going, as the author carefully presents the relevant research to date; I skimmed these parts (though appreciate that the citations are thorough). A worthwhile read, it brings up many ideas about how we all think.

The Undercover Economist, by Tim Harford. This one gets compared to Freakonomics, I guess because they're both readable books about economics. Whereas Freakonomics is a collection of separate articles, some with fireworks, some with filler (kids' names? Though I do love the names Lemonjello and Orangejello), this book is a lot more solid and unified, giving you a better grip on how (most) economists reason about the world. He deals with topics that go from how Starbucks maximizes its profits to the ethical problem of sweatshops in developing nations. If you like to think about the effect of systems on people's behavior, this is a good solid book. It's not at all true that "I couldn't put it down" - sometimes I'd read a chapter and put it down for a month or two, feeling I had my fill, but kept coming back. It builds nicely on itself, and I rushed through the last few chapters, soaking it up. At the end I felt a bit smarter, but also that I should read it again immediately and try to retain still more.

The Straight Dope, by Cecil Adams. Great trivia column compendium, and if you like this one there's lots more volumes. I have to admit that, after having read almost all of them, about all that sticks with me is why Rolling Rock has "33" on its label and why excrement is brown. There is, natch, a related web site.

Uncle John's Bathroom Readers. I was utterly skeptical of this long series of books for the bathroom, given the dorky titles and cover graphics. Finally someone gave us a set as a gift. Hey, it turns out they're pretty great! Most of the articles are amusing and interesting, sometimes even educational.

The Sorceror's Apprentice, by Tahir Shah. This book has one of the finest first chapters I've ever read: one day a man from India shows up at an English boy's house to protect him. Note that the book is non-fiction. The rest of the book is how the author (who was that boy) many years later decides to go to India to learn how to be a magician like the man who came to him. At times the author seems to purposely act too credulous and think odd thoughts, to the point where you feel he's being that way in order to make for a more mystical read. He's also a bit disingenuous, in that the book implies he gives up a staid life for adventure; judging from his other books, he has never been too bored or boring. It's nonetheless a fun read, as he goes through many peculiar experiences and learns all sorts of strange knowledge about magical tricks and India itself. A surprising and wonderful (though sometimes slow) book.

Just can't get enough of my fabulous writing style or wonderful brain? More reviews at Amazon.


Eric Haines / [email protected]

Last change: May 21, 2014