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Recommended Reading

Article Table of Contents

I like to read, and I often recommend books to others. I used to have a very different list of recommended books, but they come and go with time. This list is sorta ‘older’, circa 2021. 1 A newer/different list is available here

These are a collection of books that come up in conversation more often than others.

I mention some books “pair well” with other books, just as certain wines pair well with a certain foods. The ideas contained within certain books may compliment (or contrast) the ideas listed in the “pairs with” book. I don’t do affiliate links.

Politics #

I’m a fan of the idea of shrinking the political sphere. Politics is where everyone has a rightful sense of ownership of the issue (we all pay taxes, after all) and where the outcomes can be determined by certain people being willing to yell.

It’s embarrassing to organize ourselves entirely with/around coercion, but for now, that’s what it is. I look forward to when our dominant political institutions go the way of the medieval church.

A theme through the next few book recommendations is unintended consequences and second order effects.

The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey #


This book (its technically a textbook written by a professor from Colorado University - Boulder) argues that “political” authority cannot be arrived at from first principles, and building institutions upon a foundation of one group legally exercising coercion against another might be legal (in the same way that slavery used to be “legal”) but it’s not moral.

The Problem of Political Authority is the best book I read since at least 2016.

The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia #


If you’ve hung out with me, and heard me was poetic about any modern phenomena visible in “the church” today, you may hear me talk about “slaveholder religion”. This book is exactly as advertised. It’ll be troubling to some of you, unsurprising to others. As long as churches cling unselfconsciously to slaveholder religion, they will continue to perpetuate cycles of injustice and oppression in the lives of their members, and the communities inside of which their members operate.

When some religious authority in the US makes a pronouncement of how laws should be written, in order to sustain a moral community, I will always think of this book. There was a time when many christian thinkers expended great energy to justify the existence of slavery. So, when {topic of the day} mixed with {“political” solution to said problem} involves steamrolling over some marginalized group… I’ll just think back to the sections in this book outlining the theological justifications religious leaders used for slavery.

From an Amazon review:

So here’s a book whose very title might alienate… most people. If you are not a Christian, why take the time… If you are…you don’t want to hear about it. I am still bothered by the term “Proslavery Christianity.” As a Christian and a Baptist and an American Southerner by background, it was difficult to not take some of the information presented in this book personally. I didn’t want it to be true. How can real Christians be “Proslavery?” Our American upbringing allows us to view Slavery as something separate and distinct from Religion. And our oversimplified understanding of history allows us to blame the sins of the past on long dead bad people not at all like us.

But what if the “bad” people were like us? What if they even thought they were right? What if they were… Christians.

Well, I don’t want to spoil the story, but it happened. People, Christians included, can mix right and wrong together for so long that we end up simultaneously doing both and call them both a just cause. And we still do this. We go along with others definition of evil and good in the world. And we still allow economic, political and cultural power holders to narrow our faith to non status quo threatening endeavors.

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed #


The craft of statehood is hard, and the state has been remarkably consistent at sustaining itself, despite myriad harms heaped upon its citizens.

I’m quoting at length from Slate Star Codex’s excellent review of the book:

[The author] starts with the story of “scientific forestry” in 18th century Prussia. Enlightenment rationalists noticed that peasants were just cutting down whatever trees happened to grow in the forests, like a chump. They came up with a better idea: clear all the forests and replace them by planting identical copies of Norway spruce (the highest-lumber-yield-per-unit-time tree) in an evenly-spaced rectangular grid. Then you could just walk in with an axe one day and chop down like a zillion trees an hour and have more timber than you could possibly ever want.

This went poorly. The impoverished ecosystem couldn’t support the game animals and medicinal herbs that sustained the surrounding peasant villages, and they suffered an economic collapse. The endless rows of identical trees were a perfect breeding ground for plant diseases and forest fires. And the complex ecological processes that sustained the soil stopped working, so after a generation the Norway spruces grew stunted and malnourished. Yet for some reason, everyone involved got promoted, and “scientific forestry” spread across Europe and the world.

And this pattern repeats with suspicious regularity across history, not just in biological systems but also in social ones.

This book is exceptional.

The Non-Violent Atonement #


I could speak at length about this, just know the title, read the reviews. IYKYK.

Many Christians have begun to question the tradition view of substitutionary atonement that is a the heart of traditional doctrine. Its message of an angry God whose wrath has to be satisfied by a sacrifice of blood, is becoming increasingly difficult to accept. But to question it smacks, almost, of heresy.

Weaver explains that in fact this is a relatively recent concept, probably dating from Anselm in about 1000 CE.

He explains that it was an idea unknown to those in New Testament times and is in effect a modern idea.

He opening premise is that it is unacceptable to build a faith centred on the frightening levels of violence that accompany the traditional view.

He looks at other ideas - is the death of Jesus just to be seen as a lesson for us in sacrificial love. He also takes us back to the meaning of Christus Victor - the defeating of the powers of evil. So the atonement is seen less as a business transaction involving a payment for the sins of the world, but a sacrificial act which liberated humanity.

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States #


Read it. He talks about state formation and dissolution, in the time of early Mesopotamian societies. Given how states then flourished and reproduced endlessly, it’s useful to learn how to see the world through the eyes of a state.

He argues that just as people domesticated animals, so too did states domesticate people.

He argues (compellingly) it isn’t that great to be domesticated, nor is it that bad when states dissolve.

The Slaughter of Cities: Urban Renewal as Ethnic Cleansing #

[FidelityPress (this book wasn’t available on Amazon!!!)]](

Lets look at the key phrases. From wikipedia:

Ethnic Cleansing:

Ethnic cleansing is the systematic forced removal of ethnic, racial, and religious groups from a given area, with the intent of making a region ethnically homogeneous.

Urban Renewal:

Urban renewal is a program of land redevelopment often used to address urban decay in cities. Urban renewal is the clearing out of blighted areas in inner cities to clear out slums and create opportunities for higher class housing, businesses, and more. A primary purpose of urban renewal is to restore economic viability to a given area by attracting external private and public investment and by encouraging business start-ups and survival.

Ok, ok, so what does it actually look like?

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Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City #

This is a brutal read. It’s not technically illegal to be poor in the USA, but from the perspective of many, it may as well be.

From GoodReads:

I didn’t realize until I read the afterward that the author of this book put himself right into the middle of the people he portrays lives. He gave them rides to look for houses, he even loaned them small amounts of money at times. He admits that he misses living in the trailer park among them.

This book. I hope more people get it and read it. I’ve been on a “smart book” kick lately and I’ve starred them all pretty highly but this one is just amazing. Desmond knocks it out of the ballpark. You can tell he puts his whole heart into telling these stories.

Now the stories..they are real people: You have to keep reminding yourself of that as you read this book because no one is perfect, they all mess up and the writing is so good that you feel like you are just reading a really good work of fiction.

The whole review is worth reading.

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America #


The modern US implementation of zoning is a by-product of the Supreme Court making redlining illegal. Since explicit racism was no longer legal, politically powerful racists implemented laws that were not explicitly racist, but everyone understood it to be laws to keep black (and and poor) people out of their neighborhoods, accomplishing the same goals.

I’ll state that again - your neighborhoods’ HOA, your single-family-home neighborhood, your mortgage interest tax-deduction - all this was put in place by racists, to further their vision of a segregated society.

All of this was put in place long ago. The people living in these neighborhoods mostly ended up there by accident.

Of course, these policies are harmful to minorities and poor people, but they are also harmful to everyone else, including those who ostensibly benefit from the policies. The US is collectively shooting itself in the foot, every day, by allowing these policies to stand.

What are the effects of this horrible regime?

  • Land value is 1/10th of what it could be
  • housing and commercial rental space is 5x what it should be
  • we all lose so much of our time to dealing with broken, congested mobility networks
  • we have to travel so much farther than we otherwise would for daily necessities
  • a large (and growing) fraction of our income goes to dealing with cars (one car, two car, gas, maintenance, traffic traffic traffic)
  • our social justice problems are almost exclusively a downstream effect of these racist, exclusionary policies.

From GoodReads:

[The Color of Law is the history] of the development of de jure segregation in the United States - that is, the deliberate result of federal laws and local policies.

[The author] demonstrates convincingly that the problem is entrenched within multiple organizations and legal standards.

For example, the Federal Housing Administration, part of the New Deal set of domestic programs, required segregation in order to qualify for low-interest financing. (emphasis added)

The government-sponsored HOLC required private real-estate agents to appraise neighborhoods and lower pricing values based on the racial composition of its inhabitants.

This of course extends beyond the federal level. State governments, city councils, neighborhoods’ associations, cooperation with non-profits or NGOs that promoted segregation, banks refusing to provide funding to black applicants, landlords charging higher fees, infrastructure projects demolishing black neighborhoods without compensation, black residents being denied access to mortgages (then forced to pay on installment plans where one missed payment meant eviction), tying public education to real estate taxes so poorer neighborhoods had worse-funded schools, and so on and so on.

The cumulative effects of discrimination over the first half of the 20th century are damning, and they have not at all been rectified.

Money, Bank Credit, and Economic Cycles #


This book is a dense read, and over 1000 pages. You could read the first 10% of the book, and be more educated than 99% of pundits blabbering away on TV.

The author lays out a few bold claims, and backs them up:

  • There was a time when the treatment of bank deposits and bank investments were very different.
  • A bank making use of its customers deposits, for its own interests, was once considered simple fraud, illegal, and a banker who engaged in such fraud and was unable to make its customers whole was beheaded. (Today we call this “fractional reserve banking”)
  • Fractional-reserve banking is a legal fiction, and is actually fraud.
  • Economic cycles (“booms” followed by “busts”, or “corrections”) are assumed to be the normal state of affairs right now, but they need not exist.
  • Most of the money churning around the global economy doesn’t really exist, and once a very small people lose confidence in it, much of it will evaporate.

It’s so good I’ve read it twice; I wish I could recommend a smaller book that gave adequate treatment to this topic, but I have not found it yet. Just read the first 10% of the book and call it a day.

If the topic piques your attention, but you’re not down for 1000 dense pages, this review on GoodReads is a comprehensive summary of the book.

Buildings and Urbanism #

To me, traditional architecture is irrelevant. Architects build buildings for other architects, not for people.

What is relevant is the buildings and environment in which we all live. We (humans) shape the environment in which we live, and we are shaped by the environment in which we live.

It stands to reason that an environment more conducive to use, at a lower price point, that encourages human flourishing is superior to one that is less conducive to use, costs more, and squelches human flourishing.

Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities #


Everyone involved with urban planning, city planning, or large-scale construction projects should read this book, make some modest improvements to their plans, and enjoy doubling all the good things their projects accomplish, for a fraction of the cost.

This is an incredible book.

How Buildings Learn #


This book has beautiful and fascinating photography throughout, often capturing buildings that have lasted for hundreds of years. Buildings, if allowed, change dramatically over time.

A theme throughout the book is that we should expect buildings to change, and plan for them to change.

I’m quoting a GoodReads reviewer:

You will love this book if, like me, you think that modern and postmodern architecture has gone terribly, terribly wrong. (Conversely, if you worship Frank Gehry, I. M. Pei, and their ilk, you will probably be offended.) Stewart Brand argues convincingly that the buildings that survive are those that can be flexible enough to adapt to the changing needs and tastes successive generations of inhabitants. He is particularly trenchant in his criticism of the overprogrammed, over-designed, sculptural architectural buildings (he calls them “magazine architecture”) that are often obsolete before they are completed, and he points out that, Frank Lloyd Wright’s opinion notwithstanding, it is not in fact a sign of architectural success if the roof leaks!

Also be sure to check out his very original comments on “low-road” buildings, those whose designs are so throwaway that successive inhabitants can and do feel utterly free to knock down walls, cut through floors, and otherwise jerry-rig them to adapt to current needs. It’s a brilliant exploration of an often neglected but probably ubiquitous subset of buildings.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities #


Jane Jacobs loves cities. She loves the unplanned, chaotic, messy way that cities evolve. She might well make you love the same thing.

She hits hard in this book, and her words are even more relevant today than they were in the 1950s.

Quoting from this excellent review on GoodReads:

Jacobs’s recipe for creating a healthy neighborhood has four ingredients:

  • (1) mixed uses, so that different kinds of people are drawn to the area at different times of day for different reasons;
  • (2) a mixture of old and new buildings, so that there is low-rent space available for small businesses and low-income residents;
  • (3) small blocks, so that streets are not isolated from one another; and
  • (4) sufficient density of residents, to create the necessary amount of economic and social activity.

The goal is to produce a neighborhood like her own Greenwich Village: with lots of street life, with successful residents who choose to stay long-term, with local stores and restaurants and cafes, and with a steady influx of immigrants.

This book discusses the tension between “chaos” and “order” in a way that pairs very well with Seeing like a State. It pairs well with Antifragile, as well, as Jacobs talks about small bets, organic growth, and the dangers of “cataclysmic money” and top-down growth and planning.

A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction #


Buildings and their properties solve problems for people, and the buildings can and should be as customized as the problems they solve. This book is a good start to learning conceptual framework for physical-space problem solving, while leading to an overall “harmonious” and “right” and “beautiful” and “coherent” finished product, however you define those terms.

Parenting #

I'm not a parent. I'm sure once I have kids I'll have a different set of books to recommend.

I am now a parent. I still recommend these books, and some extras.

Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive #

[on amazon]](

The point of having a kid is (more or less) to raise independent adults who are friends with you. Actuarial tables agree that if you’re reading these words, you might well live into your 80s.

We (millenials and beyond) are having kids later and later, unfortunately. The economy and housing and life situation is hard, so we defer kids until feeling a smidgen of stability in our lives, which is fleeting.

Anyway this book is good. You’ll heal from some of your own stuff, learn some new/improved patterns, and be better equipped to care well for your own kid(s).

Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think #


This book gets the notable distinction of being why my partner and I finally transitioned from not wanting to have kids, to wanting to have kids in the near term. It had a profound and measurable impact on our plans and thinking. Enough said.

The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It #


Physical play is deeply satisfying. I rough-housed with friends all the time when growing up. This book does make a case for the myriad benefits children, their friends, and parents can experience with roughhousing, but it’s mostly a manual for how to roughhouse.

It’s got a few dozen suggested (and illustrated) games that are appropriate for all ages, and all size differences.

The Art of Roughhousing shows how rough-and-tumble play can nurture close connections, solve behavior problems, boost confidence, and more. Drawing inspiration from gymnastics, martial arts, ballet, traditional sports, and even animal behavior, the authors present dozens of illustrated activities for children and parents to enjoy together-everything from the “Sumo Dead Lift” to the “Rogue Dumbo.” These delightful games are fun, free, and contain many surprising health benefits for parents.

A surprisingly practical and immediately relevant read for anyone who has kids. I plan on re-reading it once I have a child of my own.

How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success #


Self-explanatory. Worth reading.

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most #


Not a christian book, but extremely relevant. The “value” of productive-but-difficult conversations is 100x almost any other kind of conversation.

Difficult conversations are how you define relationships, work through challenges with your significant other, resolve work conflicts, and so much more.

The simple act of reading a book about difficult conversations changes the tone of the next hard conversation you have. Instead of wanting to run from it or avoid it, you will see it as an opportunity to apply your learning, and work for a good outcome for all parties.

Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: A Guide and Map for Recovering from Childhood Trauma #

Those of you out there raised in religious homes might benefit from this. Not all of you, but enough of you.

There’s so much I could say about this book, I don’t have time to say it here. Surprisingly good, surprisingly accessible, surprisingly effective.

Money #

note from a few years later: Meh, i’m less down than I once was with books that sorta strongly end up supporting capitalism as an american.

It’s a little icky when so much of success can be tied closely to subtle interactions with banking systems ‘going well’. example reference 1: “The 30-Year Mortgage is an Intrinsically Toxic Product” by Byrne Hobart, example reference 2: Government Policy, Housing, and the Origins of Securitization, 1780 - 1968 by Sarah Lehman Quinn tells the story of ‘regimes and attempted regimes of social control via housing<>financial policy`, which puts many of this century’s financial tooling developments in an interesting context

Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence #

feels to capitalistic and ‘play along’ in 2024, but still maybe a worthwhile read.


From a GoodReads review:

[Your Money or Your Life] was recommended to me by a friend, who gave up her stable teaching position to run a used bookstore after reading this book.

This was my first foray into the self-help genre. The prose is laughably hokey at the most inopportune times, but the message is worth slogging through the mantras and the affirmations.

Plus, the “nine-step program” actually works, if you’re willing to commit to it. I started out, skeptical, with a step I thought I could stick to—keeping track of my spending, and became curious about the rest of my financial health from there.

By the time, a year-and-a-half later, I faced the last maudlin step (calculating how much time you have left in your life), I found it so thoroughly shocking (in my case, less than half a million hours based on average life expectancy) that I realized staying in a job that made me miserable wasn’t worth it, so I quit.

I guess, in that sense, this book delivers on its hokey promise to change your life.

The Privatization of Roads and Highways #

That which we’ve grown up with, we (humans) tend to assume is not just ideal, but morally correct. We’ve grown up (as a nation) with government-built roads. It’s so impossible to imagine something else that as soon as someone suggests some crazy idea, a standard retort is “but who would build the roads?” followed by “if you like anarchy, move to Somalia!”.

This book addresses the first portion of that objection.

spoiler: for most of the time that humans have been building roads, they’ve been funded and built privately. Public road building has catastrophic implications for everyone.

Regrettably, the book is poorly written, and it’s just a collection of essays by the author, so the book covers much of the same territory multiple times. I have not found better treatment of this topic, so until then - this is the book I recommend.

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster #

We’re told that when society breaks down, we devolve into a state of anarchy and will kill each other, or be killed by each other. This happens to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It turns out that when disaster strikes, things tend to work out pretty well.

If we think bad things happen when disasters strike, bad things will happen.

If we think good things will happen when disasters strike, good things will happen. (This is related to the theory in international relations known as constructivism.

Since your expectations will shape your reality, if you think you might ever find yourself impacted by a disaster, this book would serve well as preparation.

A GoodReads review:

In A Paradise Built in Hell Solnit mounts a spirited argument that this pessimistic view of how people respond to catastrophe is fundamentally wrong. Instead, she argues, disasters are far more likely to bring out the best in people – there is a natural desire to help one another, which is actually easier to put into action, given the relaxation of social barriers that often prevails in the wake of a disaster. You might go for years just nodding at that neighbor across the street, but after the earthquake/fire/blackout the two of you may just end up having a real conversation.

Solnit grounds her argument in five specific case studies:

  • the San Francisco earthquake of 1906
  • the 1917 explosion of the munitions ship Mont Blanc in Halifax, Nova Scotia
  • Mexico City’s 1985 earthquake
  • the World Trade Center attacks of 2001
  • Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

Seeing like a State #

I cannot do justice to this book, so I’ll quote extensively from Slate Star Codex’s review. (You should really just read the review, then the book.)

Seeing Like A State is the book G.K. Chesterton would have written if he had gone into economic history instead of literature. Since he didn’t, James Scott had to write it a century later. The wait was worth it.

Scott starts with the story of “scientific forestry” in 18th century Prussia. Enlightenment rationalists noticed that peasants were just cutting down whatever trees happened to grow in the forests, like a chump. They came up with a better idea: clear all the forests and replace them by planting identical copies of Norway spruce (the highest-lumber-yield-per-unit-time tree) in an evenly-spaced rectangular grid. Then you could just walk in with an axe one day and chop down like a zillion trees an hour and have more timber than you could possibly ever want.

This went poorly. The impoverished ecosystem couldn’t support the game animals and medicinal herbs that sustained the surrounding peasant villages, and they suffered an economic collapse. The endless rows of identical trees were a perfect breeding ground for plant diseases and forest fires. And the complex ecological processes that sustained the soil stopped working, so after a generation the Norway spruces grew stunted and malnourished. Yet for some reason, everyone involved got promoted, and “scientific forestry” spread across Europe and the world.

And this pattern repeats with suspicious regularity across history, not just in biological systems but also in social ones.


Suppose you’re a premodern king, maybe one of the Louises who ruled France in the Middle Ages. You want to tax people to raise money for a Crusade or something. Practically everyone in your kingdom is a peasant, and all the peasants produce is grain, so you’ll tax them in grain. Shouldn’t be too hard, right? You’ll just measure how many pints of grain everyone produces, and…

The pint in eighteenth-century Paris was equivalent to 0.93 liters, whereas in Seine-en-Montane it was 1.99 liters and in Precy-sous-Thil, an astounding 3.33 liters. The aune, a measure of length used for cloth, varied depending on the material(the unit for silk, for instance, was smaller than that for linen) and across France there were at least seventeen different aunes.

Okay, this is stupid. Just give everybody evenly-sized baskets, and tell them that baskets are the new unit of measurement.

Virtually everywhere in early modern Europe were endless micropolitics about how baskets might be adjusted through wear, bulging, tricks of weaving, moisture, the thickness of the rim, and so on. In some areas the local standards for the bushel and other units of measurement were kept in metallic form and placed in the care of a trusted official or else literally carved into the stone of a church or the town hall. Nor did it end there. How the grain was to be poured (from shoulder height, which packed it somewhat, or from waist height?), how damp it could be, whether the container could be shaken down, and finally, if and how it was to be leveled off when full were subjects of long and bitter controversy.

Huh, this medieval king business is harder than you thought. Maybe you can just leave this problem to the feudal lords?

Thus far, this account of local measurement practices risks giving the impression that, although local conceptions of distance, area, volume, and so on were different from and more varied than the unitary abstract standards a state might favor, they were nevertheless aiming at objective accuracy. This impression would be false. […]

Just read the review

A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) #

The “Right brain vs left brain” model is wrong. If you want to learn a technical topic, you can. Just like how if you wanted to cut a piece of wood, you can. If you have the right tool. A butter knife will not cut a piece of wood very well, but a buzz saw might.

A Mind for Numbers gives you that buzz saw. With the right tactics and motives, anyone can read anything. I read this before jumping into software development full-time, and this book delivered great value in that endeavor.

From GoodReads:

The title of the book doesn’t do it justice. This is a book about how to get good at anything, not just math and science. It’s a light read because it’s full of simple advice. But the stuff it teaches is effective, and I wish it had been taught to me back in 1997 when I was starting graduate school.

If you find yourself checking your phone or screwing around on Facebook while you should be working, read this book. If you’re having trouble learning stuff you need for work at a higher rate than you’re forgetting it, read this book. Do so especially if you’re young, because the longer the time you have left to reap the benefits, the more reading this book is worth to you.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World #

Deep Work is profound. It was the best book I read in 2016, and is no small part of the reason I went to Turing and got into software development.

From the author:

Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep—spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.

Pursuing the skill of “deep work” will have a compounding effect on the rest of your life. A little investment now makes the rest of your efforts just a little more effective, and leaves you with more room to get better at deep work, which in turn makes your efforts more effective, and on and on.

  1. I’ve read a few thousand books over my ~33 years on this planet. Here’s the ones that have shaped me. I created this page in 2018, and the books on that list have gone mostly out of date. Here’s the git history for how this page has changed across time