We have several book reviews on the forum so far, but I thought we could use a centralized list of books recommended by forum members. This will be particularly useful for books you read a long time ago, or anything you endorse but for which you cannot generate a full book review.

One book per comment; tell us what kind of book it is (history? economics? scifi?); please include a paragraph or two describing why you recommend the book!

11 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:27 AM
New Comment

A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy, by Joel Mokyr.

This book was pivotal in the launch of The Roots of Progress. It is about how the Enlightenment, between about 1500 and 1700, set the stage for the Industrial Revolution. Special attention is given to Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton.

I had to skim many chapters of this book, especially in the beginning. However, I found its key ideas absolutely fascinating. For a summary, see Mokyr’s article in The Atlantic, “Progress Isn’t Natural”.

Where Is My Flying Car? A Memoir of Future Past, by J. Storrs Hall.

A work combining historical analysis and bold futurism, looking for the causes of the Great Stagnation (including and especially our lack of flying cars) and painting a picture of what a technological future could look like.

I enjoyed this book a lot, and learned a lot from it. Hall’s vision of the future includes not only flying cars, but nanotechnology-powered manufacturing, nuclear-powered everything, and artificial intelligence. My biggest single takeaway from the book is the potential for nanotech to give us atomically precise manufacturing, and the mind-blowing possibilities for this. I also appreciated his analysis of the root causes of our current (relative) technological stagnation, including the centralization and bureaucratization of research funding, the growing burden of regulation, and the rise of an anti-technology, anti-industry counterculture. See my full review for more.

Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations by David Warsh is about the development of theories of economic growth, and in particular Paul Romer's endogenous growth theory. Part a good overview of economic growth theories, part a history of economic thought, and part the specific story of how Romer developed and championed his model. A good popular introduction to endogenous growth and some of its competitors.

American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870–1970, by Thomas P. Hughes.

A history of the creation of large technological systems of production and distribution, and the social response to those systems. It’s not only about the century of technological enthusiasm, but also about how that enthusiasm went wrong (in my opinion), and how it came to an end.

I reviewed it in two parts: 1) American invention from the “heroic age” to the system-building era, 2) From technocracy to the counterculture.

My book recommendation is Networks, Crowds, and Markets: Reasoning About a Highly Connected World by David Easley and Jon Kleinberg.

As the title implies, it's a book about understanding the world using graph theory, network theory, and game theory.

What makes it exceptionally good is it being in the sweet spot between "popular science books" that don't offer any interesting insights to someone who has any familiarity with these topics, and "advanced academic literature" where the insights are available only to those who have already studied the topic for many years.

Not only were the basic ideas fairly easy to understand, it also felt like each page had at least some insights that made me pause and think about their implications.

I also believe this to be of particular importance now, when networks are appearing as one of the leading candidates for the primary shape of society during this century. If networks were to become the primary shape, this book could help one better understand how to make the best out of it.

I first read this few years ago, but I am planning to read it again soon. After doing plenty of thinking and work on similar themes since then, I suspect I could gain even more out of it during the second read. So, even if you have read this before, you might also consider a second round with it.

You can read more about the book, including a highly informative table of contents, and even download for free (!) its pre-publication draft at https://www.cs.cornell.edu/home/kleinber/networks-book/.

In what way are networks the leading candidate for the shape of society in the 21st century in ways they aren't in other centuries? It seems to me that network dynamics have always been essential in shaping society. Why are they uniquely important in the 21st century?

The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm, by Lewis Dartnell.

A summary of the technologies that the modern industrial world depends on, the basic principles of their operation, and how one might re-establish them if the world were to suffer some global shock that led to the breakdown of civilization. A good survey of the key technologies of industrial civilization.

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, by Steven Pinker.

The message of this book is that reason, science and humanism—which Pinker identifies as the key themes of the Enlightenment—have, historically, led to massive progress in almost every area of life, and that they are our best means of continuing this progress into the future. But these ideals are not consistently upheld, and are often under attack. Therefore, we need to fortify and defend them.

My book review.

Louis Pasteur: Free Lance of Science, by René Dubos.

A biography of Louis Pasteur, covering his major achievements and placing them in the context of the origins of microbiology and the germ theory of disease.

I enjoyed this book very much. First, the career of Pasteur is an amazing one, well deserving of a biography. Pasteur demonstrated the role of microbes in fermentation processes, disproved contemporary claims of the spontaneous generation of life, played a major role (along with Robert Koch) in establishing the germ theory of disease, and invented the first vaccines after Edward Jenner, including the vaccine for rabies. Any of these accomplishments alone would probably have earned him a place in the history books; all of them together make him a rare hero in the history of progress.

Second, the book goes beyond biography, placing its subject in the full context of the scientific developments of the age. The first chapter paints a picture of the intellectual atmosphere of the 19th century; later chapters wax philosophical about the nature of scientific accomplishment and creative work.

I found enough great quotes to fill a long Twitter thread.

The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler, by Thomas Hager.

The story of the Haber-Bosch process for creating synthetic ammonia, which is crucial for producing the fertilizer needed to feed the seven billion or so people on Earth today. In Hager’s phrase, it turns air into bread. It’s also the story of the lives of the men who created it, and its consequences for world agriculture and for Germany during the World Wars.

This was a very well-told story, and I’d recommend it to any history buff. Unlike many books on the history of technology and industry, it does a good job of explaining the science and engineering behind the invention (but it doesn’t get too technical for a general audience).

My book review.

The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World, by David Deutsch. 

A work of philosophy, mostly epistemology, with a bit of quantum physics thrown in. The theme is that all problems are solvable—“anything not forbidden by the laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge”—but that there is no end of problems or solutions, just as there is no end to knowledge or to mistakes. In contrast to both skepticism and “inductionism”, Deutsch promotes “fallibilism”.

I found this book fascinating and agree with much of it, although I disagree with many formulations, especially around induction and the base of knowledge. That said, it was one of those books where, even though I felt that I knew many of the points before I read them, I have found that the formulations have stuck with me, such that I am continually referring to the book and suggesting it to others. I particularly liked his identification that solutions always create new problems, which we meet with new solutions. Often people complain that a given solution created new problems, as if that is an indictment of the solution; when I encounter that argument, I now point them to Deutsch and explain that that is the nature of solving problems.