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Ask HN: Books with a high signal to noise ratio?
260 points by thewarrior on Aug 8, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 200 comments
I like reading non fiction but a lot of it is like pop psychology with not a lot of informational content.

I've picked up two books recently and I've learnt a lot :

The Selfish Gene By Richard Dawkins

The 10 Day MBA By Steven Silbiger

There's very little fluff in these books and you learn something useful on almost every other page. I'd like to read more such books , especially on technical subjects.

There's another problem besides poor signal-to-noise, the information in pop-(history, psychology, economics, etc.) books often is simply wrong or deceptive. Even scholarly books can misinform you or give you a very biased perspective; with millions (tens of millions?) of PhD's in the world, you can find a book that will say almost anything you like.

Thankfully, the experts in each field effectively review the books for you. An there are more widely-respected, serious scholarly works of true genius than you can read in your lifetime. The signal-to-noise generally is very high, misinformation is low, and writing by the very best is often very engaging.

In other words, if all you read is the very best humanity has to offer, you still won't live long enough to read more than a fraction of it. So why waste your time on anything else?

The question then is: how do you find such books especially as a layman?

I've tried to solve that challenge a few times now. Here's what I've learned so far, from most efficient to least:

* Ask an expert; this is a simple question for them. A university library's reference desk has worked well for me. For example, looking for books on Egypt, I contacted a university library referece desk and was connected to the library's Arabic Studies reference librarian, who had a Ph.D. in the field from an elite university. What was a challenging question for me was probably offhand knowledge for him. (Of course, respect their time (be prepared and patient) and the fact that you are not entitled to their services, but he seemed excited that a member of the public was interested and serious.)

* Look for scholarly articles reviewing publications in the field. I use Google Scholar but I get the impression JSTOR is better if you have access (I've never used it and know little about it). In each case I've read several articles to triangulate what is widely accepted and what is particular to that author, and to fill gaps in each author's coverage. However, I find the review articles themselves fascinating, almost essential background on what I want to read, and tend to get lost in them. Lacking expertise myself, I still feel uncertain about the conclusions I draw - what don't I know? what context am I missing? - there is no substitute for expertise.

* Look at class syllabi at universities. This has been slow going: I have to find the classes and the syllabi (if available), and then hope it includes more than an unannotated list of books.

* Do not: Use general web resources. It seems like the general web and the scholarly world are two separate silos of knowledge. I find 100x more valuable information in the scholarly articles, and random people on the web are often badly misinformed (this includes Amazon reviewers, a great source of complete nonsense that sounds good until you know better).

Overall, it makes me appreciate the resources available to university students, who have free and easy access to experts in a huge variety of fields, all paid to help them.

Very astute, especially the library reference idea. In the same vein:

- Avoid news brought up by social networks - people like and share what's emotionally engaging, so the story writers have a very strong incentive to embellish. Majority of the "news" on social media is either bogus or empty.

- Major newspapers check credentials of their guest authors. Those guest articles aren't always correct, but signal/noise is way higher.

- Articles in peer-review journals are usually right, especially the bigger journals with more eyes on them.

- Approaching a librarian is not as hard as it may seem. Here's UW. for example: http://www.lib.washington.edu/about/contact

- Apparently there's a "24/7 Reference Cooperative", a nation-wide librarian Q&A service: http://wiki.questionpoint.org/w/page/13839418/24%207%20Coop%...

However, for the biomedical sciences, you should assume on the order of half of the scholarly, published in refereed journals papers are incorrect. See e.g. that essay by a Lancet editor, and the general history of this, which I've been watching since the late '70s.

Why? I think it's because this stuff is hard, so many variables, publish or perish, and the fact that while referees for any field can filter out a lot of guff, they have strict limits in their ability to determine correctness. That comes when the results of a paper are used as the basis of further research in other labs.

+1 for looking into peer reviewed publications, specifically review articles.

Not only are they concise, but they are highly referenced and well annotated. As long as you are willing to dig into the specific terms and concepts relevant to the subject yourself, you will find a very high S:N ratio in these papers.

The best part is that you can easily find yourself down 4-5 different rabbit holes by the time you are done because of the easy to follow references.

I think if you're really looking to get a sense of how the world works, the best stuff to read are journalistic accounts and histories. Just pick a subject your interested in, do a bit of googling on well regarded accounts of that subject, than go to town.

The reason I think these are more valuable than the pop psychology/business airport books is they don't operate under the pretense that the world's great truths can be boiled down to 240 pages. Rather, learning about people's experiences and stories on there own terms helps you develop a much more nuanced worldview.

For example, I'm reading The Battle Cry of Freedom, an overview of the Civil War, and it's astounding how much more insight a book about something 150 years ago offers into today's society than just about any of the Gladwell genre stuff.

I've also been reading The Battle Cry of Freedom and it's been amazing. The analysis and insights the author can pack into every single page is just incredible. And all those political, social, and historical insights have just as much applicability today. It really has been essential reading for understanding the major fault lines that have defined American life, and continue to do so in major ways.

I've been (slowly) working through the series (Oxford History of the United States) and want to put a mention in for "What Hath God Wrought", covering 1815-1848. Similar in scope and depth to Battle Cry, gave me similar feelings of "How can a book so long feel like it's barely abel to get all this information in."

Thats the period I was least interested in going in, but have ranked as the best History book I've read.

I also think histories and biographies can be great for high S/N nonfiction. Good examples that I really enjoyed include "Ignition" by John D. Clark and "Excuse me sir, would you like to buy a kilo of isopropyl bromide?" by Max Gergel.

I'll second these picks as having lots of information wrapped up inside engaging writing.

Ignition: http://web.gccaz.edu/~wkehowsk/ignition.pdf

"Excuse me, sir...": ftp://www.fourmilab.ch/pub/etexts/www/gergel/isopropyl_bromide.pdf

"Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined" by Steven Pinker

Bill Gates calls it one of the most important books he's read in his life. "People often ask me what is the best book I’ve read in the last year. Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined stands out as one of the most important books I’ve read – not just this year, but ever." http://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/The-Better-Angels-of-Our-Nat...

I encourage anyone who reads Pinker's book to also consider Nassim Taleb's critique http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/longpeace.pdf

... and then read Pinker's reply http://stevenpinker.com/files/pinker/files/comments_on_taleb... TLDR: The book’s structure was lost on Taleb, who blends the different chapters and then criticizes his own confusion.

I'm a bit of a Pinker fanboy, but his counter-criticism of Taleb is very well-written and hits on every point Taleb makes.

"Taleb shows no signs of having read Better Angels with the slightest attention to its content. Instead he has merged it in his mind with claims by various fools and knaves whom he believes he has bettered in the past. The confusion begins with his remarkable claim that the thesis in Better Angels is “identical” to Ben Bernanke’s theory of a moderation in the stock market. Identical! This alone should warn readers that for all of Taleb’s prescience about the financial crisis, accurate attribution and careful analysis of other people’s ideas are not his strong suits."

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R1Dm2ZYeA6U , "Statistics of Violence as Special Case of Fat Tails", there's been a ton of commentary on this back and forth, but not one of them thinks "Pinker is correct" if you've been paying attention. I need to start collecting resources related to this.

It seems like pinker has been conclusively refuted given recent events.


It is very long though so I'm not sure it's exactly the type of book being requested here. Not that the data is unimportant, but the inclusion of so many tables and tables and charts caused me to give up on trying to finish the book.

You can get much of the information in a quicker way by watching one of Pinker's talks eg https://youtu.be/feuq5x2ZL-s?t=3m28s

Agreed, but Pinker goes deeply into many various topics. For example:

* the Flynn Effect

* various points of human psychology (victim vs perpetrator bias)

* the crime spike in the 90's and its causes

* a critique of Freakonomics' hypothesis that abortion caused the decline of the 90's crime wave

* Sections on bullying, animal rights, gay rights, women's rights, etc.

* The various types of wars and their individual proximate causes for decline.

* An interesting section on self-control, how it works and how its lack contributes to crime. Even fascinating pragmatic information on how one's own self-control can be improved.

Also read what Pinker is reading (he basically squees over this book):


yes, I was impressed just thinking about how much work and information gathering must have gone into that book.

The best book I've read in the last 5 years is David Simon's, "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets"...if you've watched The Wire, half of its material is derived from this real life account of being embedded in Baltimore's homicide unit: https://books.google.com/books/about/Homicide.html?id=N8LS0b...

All of Atul Gawande's books, notably:

The Checklist Manifesto [1]: http://atulgawande.com/book/the-checklist-manifesto/

Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance: http://atulgawande.com/book/better/

[1] You can read the essay that this book is based on in the New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/12/10/the-checklist

'Checklist Manifesto' is great, but I don't think it's high in SVN. It repeats itself a lot to drive home the point that using checklists is good, even (or especially) for experts in their field.

yea tldr is like 5 lines.

It should also be pointed out that this book was the basis for the show Homicide: Life on the Street, which Simon consulted on and later produced. That's what got Simon into television and eventually writing The Wire. (That said, Simon felt the show did not closely enough reflect the book, which is probably what fed into the creation of The Wire. Still, for a network TV drama, Homicide was pretty outstanding.)

Homicide is one of those books I wish I could read again for the first time. I can think of no higher praise.

Reading that article is outrageous. Save thousands of lives a year in every single hospital? And what is the cost? About 2 to 3 million dollars? It would be an absolute bargain at 10 Billion dollars.

But we are not doing it. Why? Because we misallocate the founds.

I just did the calculations, if we ignore the money saved and assume the projects total expenses are going to be 4 million, then it only needs to save at least 1198 people to beat the top rated charity on GiveWell (Against Malaria foundation).

Looking at the data (http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1306801) there were 721,800 what they call health care associated infections in 2011 (I couldn't find newer data). If the rate goes down at what the article suggest, (75%) then we will save 541350 people a year using this method whereas it would cost more than 1.8 Billion dollars to save the same amount of lives using the Against Malaria foundation.

This is almost 500 times as effective!

How do we get this knowledge to people who have 2 million dollars to spare?

I came here to say "Checklist Manifesto!"

A few books at various levels with very high signal-to-noise ratio:

Feynman's little popular science book _QED: The Strange Theory of Light & Matter_ is a gem. It's very short and non-mathematical, but still manages to get remarkably close to the truth.

If you're more mathematically inclined (e.g., fluent in multivariate calculus) and know a little classical physics, the first 5 chapters of Wald's _General Relativity_ are an essentially complete introduction to the subject.

Another classic is Shannon's _A Mathematical Theory of Communication_, which introduces the subject of information theory, and then solves basically all the subject's main problems.

In economics, I think the record for signal to noise is probably held by Keynes _The Econonic Consequences of the Peace_, 118 pages, in which he basically forecasts the disastrous course of events from 1918 to 1939.

Some nice books on this list - Keynes’ book is certain packed with advice that was completely ignored at the time.

* Influence by Cialdini - great overview of the psychology of human motivation and influence. You'll get the inside dirt on a lot of sales and marketing tricks.

* Seeing like a State by James Scott - a good political history with lots of insight into many conventions in our modern society, such as even last names, were created to make society manageable by a central government.

* Europe and the Europeans by Barzini - the closest thing I have found to being a time traveler, skipping between different places and times in Europe from 1920 to the 1970's.

Quantum Computing Since Democritus, by Scott Aaronson. It covers an astounding amount of stuff -- including complexity theory, the nature of randomness and information, and quantum information theory -- into less than 400 pages.

Within computer science, I found "Introduction to the Theory of Computation" by Sipser to cover a lot of ground in a concise and comprehensible manner.

It's a great book (I'm more than halfway into it) but definitely not for laymen. I followed one quantum computing class as well as having had many QM classes and I find myself having to read a lot of background information to understand Aaronson. He writes well, but I lacked the proper computability knowledge to really enjoy the book in one go.

I generally avoid books written by Journalists, especially for technical fields. I've been told by some Professors that a journalist will contact various experts in a field for a given hot topic and write a book on their notes (I assume they get compensated). The information in the book is still useful and should be fairly well written. However if you're looking for the high signal stuff, you're better off reading a book by someone who is actually in the field vs an outsider. Preferably someone who is on the cutting edge of the field. That's important to me because I'd rather read about ideas who are active in their field vs. an outsider/generalist. (Note that I have nothing personal against journalists. I simply view what they write as second hand knowledge. i.e Do you think a journalist can capture the nuance and context of a particular subject such as Evolution? I would trust Richard Dawkins to achieve that and do a better job)

I've had pretty good success with this method. As a browse the book store, I check the author and put down books that are written by journalists. If the author is a researcher or a distinguished person in their field I take a closer look at the book and check the reviews.


On Writing Well by William Zinsser http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-30th-Anniversary-Edition/...

It's absolutely the best book for anybody who keeps a blog or writes any sort of non-fiction. I try and re-read it once a year.

Sapins[1] by Yuval Noah Harari. Currently 220 pages into it, I wholeheartedly recommend -- it's remarkably well written and is full of very interesting perspectives.

Credit where it's due: learnt about this book in an edge.org conversation[2] between Dr. Harari and the eminent psycologist Daniel Kahneman.

Speaking of professor Kahneman, I recently finished his "Thinking, Fast and Slow" (I did notice it's mentioned in the comments, but still), over a period of deliberate slow reading of 5 months. Much has been said and written (more than well deservedly!) about this book. Don't let the title invite you to dismiss it off as yet another over-simplifying popular psyocology book; it's anything but that. It is an account of about 30 years of collaboration with his late colleague Amos Tversky. Certainly not a breezy page-turner. It's well worth it to take your own time to assimilate the content.

  [1] http://www.ynharari.com/sapiens-the-book/short-overview/
  [2] http://edge.org/conversation/yuval_noah_harari-daniel_kahneman-death-is-optional

I read Sapiens after seeing the same edge.org conversation, and while it was mostly good, I think it started off strong and then became less so as it went on. Especially towards the end it became almost a hot list of current events the author had read about in the newspaper, like browsing through a lot of TED talks, without a lot of coherence to a larger picture. My other complaint would be that some portions seemed less scholarly and heavily influenced by the author's opinions and personal worldview. Not a bad book by any means but somewhat less than the "history of humankind" I had hoped for. The first quarter focusing on prehistory through agriculture was very informative, though leaves me questioning if I'm just suffering from Gell-Mann amnesia. Rated it 4/5 on Goodreads when I was finished.

I found Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond to be perhaps a better book of similar nature overall, and would add in The 10,000 Year Explosion by Cochran and Harpending as another good one for those who liked Sapiens.

One of the most important books in my life has been

The Way of Zen by Alan Watts

(I listened to it as an audiobook). It changed the way I think and feel (or at least how I react to feelings). Other interesting books about philosophy/spirituality are

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle

The last one is the least recommended, I'm not sure I got anything out of it, but I read it in in the same period of time as the ones above, so I might have learned something subconsciously.

+1 for Jonathan Livingston Seagull - Fantastic book, and a very very easy read to boot!

+ Jonathan Livingston Seagull and, if you like this, you'll really like 'Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah'

If you have not read it yet, I am quite sure you will like: Being nobody, Going Nowhere" by Ayya Khema

"Getting to Yes" is probably the shortest, most useful book I've ever read. If you have to negotiate anything, this book will help.

I read it 22 years ago and it pays off regularly.

I'd second this. The core message of the book is well stated and though I read it a few years ago now, I still regularly use the communication techniques in every day life.

Econtalk.org regularly interviews authors with recent books on a wide range of interesting topics from food to history to human nature to health care. Each hour-long interview serves as an overview of the book and helps me decide which would be worth a read.

Republic Lost by Lawrence Lessig had a high density of ideas.

Good idea. Too many these books these days read like a long-form magazine articles (or blog posts) that have been stuffed with fluff to get to a book-length.

God, yes. I still can't get over "the no asshole rule". The entire book makes literally two points: "Don't be an asshole and don't tolerate assholes". It's stuffed with so many factoids and fallacies to belabour those points that I'm still mad at the author for wasting 6 hours of my day.

So the author was... kind of an asshole?

No, not at all, just terribly verbose and opportunistic, I guess.

If history is of any interest, try Asimov's Chronology of the World, by Isaac Asimov (duh). It's ordered chronologically, and describes in concise and fact-rich passages what was happening during a given span of time in each region of the world.

Asimov was also a master at nonfiction writing for laypeople. Most of his books were nonfiction (they were easier for him to write).

Everything can be considered fluff if you're familiar with the topic already. For example, I respect Richard Dawkins and agree with his position, but if you read two or three of his books, everything else is just "fluff". Similarly, if you already know Calculus, every other book on Calculus will be just "fluff". So, this basically means that you need to be reading books on topics that you don't know. The main difference I would make here is not in terms of having fluff or not, but if the book is well written.

Fluff is not content that you already know. It's narrative that isn't directly relevant to the topic at hand.

This deserves more than an upvote.

"There's very little fluff in these books"

Very little fluff in a book that claims to be able to provide "40 percent of a two-year MBA program in ten days", at a fraction of the price?

If you want no-fluff writing on technical subjects, look for a good textbook on the subject of interest. I think people are averse to it, probably an artifact of formal education. But if you can find a well-written, introductory text, on any subject, I think you'll be amazed at how much you can learn from them, while actually enjoying the experience.

That claim is overblown but it has a lot of useful content. You'll get what I'm talking about if you read it. Don't think of it as a substitute MBA. Think of it as a fun way to get a good overview of what it takes to run a business.

It's that sweet spot where it's not as dry as a textbook but not full of fluff like some pop psychology book.

>It's that sweet spot where it's not as dry as a textbook but not full of fluff like some pop psychology book.

It does look interesting, and I think I may give it a spin. That said, some of the most valuable lessons in an MBA are technical (finance, marketing, operations).

Do you have a list of these introductory textbooks you refer to? I fish around at used bookstores for things, but it's really hard to tell a good textbook from a bad one until you've read it.

>Do you have a list of these introductory textbooks you refer to?

Not really. I just Google things like, "best textbook on <subject>", and you'll end up on some Amazon reviews or SO thread that will at least get you started.

This is where tablets shine, being able to put a literal ton equivalent of paper on a single, portable device.

"Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion" by Robert Cialdini

Pretty much a must-read for anyone interested in sales, marketing, or "persuasion". However, even if you're not in that line of work it will blow you away. Lots of good examples and not a lot of fluff (despite what you might think just based on the title).

The Making of Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, he stars with the science of the atom as it was figured out in the late 19th century and continues through the end of World War II

While that's a tremendous book, especially in the first 300 or so pages on the history of nuclear physics there's also a tremendous amount of fluff/noise, like paragraphs about the village where Lise Meitner and her nephew and fellow atomic physicist Otto Frisch were doing their Christmas vacation when she was the first to receive from her friend and former colleague Otto Hahn his stunning radiochemistry results proving the fission of uranium.

That was just the most outrageous example, but there are plenty more. But as far as I know it's the best book on the subject, and as "Luc" says in the other comment right now in this subthread, he doesn't oversimplify the science.

If you like that, for more of the same without a lot of fluff I'm finding The Magic Furnace by Marcus Chown to be wonderful, it's is a history of the elements. How we deduced the very existence of atoms thousands of years ago, then generally much more recently their nature, then how they came to come about (e.g. fusion in stars). Truly fantastic and rather tightly written, the fluff about the philosophers and scientists is generally only a sentence or three.

If you like both of those, as I recall, haven't read it since the '80s, George Gamow's 30 Years That Shook Physics ought to fill out the rest of the basic picture, focusing more on our friends the electrons, which is where almost all the action in chemistry happens, that's something these other two books don't cover in as much detail as the nucleus.

I think a lot of what you call fluff/noise was the author's attempt to show the humanity of scientists who some readers might misidentify as gods on earth. I absolutely agree it can sometimes be tedious but I don't think it was just padding to make the already 900+ page book longer.

I don't think he padded the book, but I otherwise have difficultly explaining why he included those vacation location paragraphs. They didn't humanize Meitner and Frisch, or otherwise add to the story; yeah, they were walking in the snow when they came to the big conclusions (and Meitner's encyclopedic knowledge of the relevant physics facts was truly amazing), but no more than one setting paragraph was needed, and a couple of sentences would done in this place.

It wasn't like e.g. the Cambridge labs where so many critical experiments were done with such simple apparatus ... which got if anything less coverage outside of describing the experiments.

I suppose he found the story he told about the village too neat not to include in the book, but he or his editor should have had a little more restraint, it's pure noise. I shudder at imagining the size of the original manuscript....

Concur. That book is something to chew on. The author doesn't oversimplify the science. I finished reading it 6 months ago and still often think about it.

  Feynman QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter; 
  Penrose The road to reality; 
  Greene The elegant universe; 
  Greene The fabric of cosmos; 
  Greene The hidden reality; 
  Hofstadter Gödel, Escher, Bach; 
  Asimov Understanding Physics; 
  Ivanov Easy as pi; 
  Boyer a history of Mathematics; 
  Robbins What is Mathematics?; 
  Russel principia mathematica;

From the few I have read, I certainly know this is a great list. Am adding others to my queue. Question: Which all amongst these are NOT high on signal-to-noise ratio, if any?

E.g., I did not find Courant/Robbins as high density, though it is a very good book still.

Even his noise is signal. He is Donald Knuth.

The Art of Computer Programming.

While (probably whimsically) not what the OP meant, I will attest to the accuracy of this recommendation - TAOCP has one of the highest SNRs I've ever seen in a book. For its thousands of pages, this says a lot.

The 50 years writing and editing has been about pairing the text down to what matters. It just turns out that a lot of things matter.

Notes on the Synthesis of Form by Christipher Alexander is the most meaning-dense book I've ever read. The number and quality of his footnotes serve as proof.


The best history book I've read is The Origins of Political Order. Disguised as an academic political science book it is a sweeping history of human civilization starting in China and going through Arab and European states. It is chock full of intersting facts and surprising theories and implications for today.

Definitely a must-read. Also: Why Nations Fail, and Violence and Social Orders. People in tech would be well-served by a deeper understanding of the systems we operate in and hope to change.

Interesting. I'll check it out.

You might also like Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari

I love "Predictably Irrational" by Dan Ariely and "Influence" by Robert Cialdini, both fascinating reads about how the mind works that yield useful insights for UI design and marketing.

Are these high signal-to-noise?

The Art of Eating, by MFK Fisher: http://www.amazon.com/The-Art-Eating-Anniversary-Edition/dp/...

I love food, and I love the anthropology of food. The writing here is engaging and entertaining, but the content is quite interesting if you are at all curious about mid-century French cuisine from the perspective of an American ex-pat chef.

I second this. I have read every page of MFK Fisher that I can find. I have never regretted a single page. Not just a food writer; she possesses a poet's eye for the human condition, and genius-level writing skills.

Simplicity - by Edward de Bono - http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0141033096/ref=as_li_tl?i...

It is literally one idea per page. Virtually noise free - but does demand some thinking on behalf of the reader.

A Short History of Nearly Everything - Bill Bryson

I absolutely loved this one. I'm a programmer, but I love the history of the physical sciences like chemistry, physics, geology, etc and associated things like math. Scientists did the funniest things to find out what we know now!

This is a good one, but it's full of tedious details, and long boring sections with names you've never heard of. It's a fun book altogether, and there's high signal in there, but also high level of noise.

I enjoyed this one, but the name is a misnomer. It's been awhile, but as I remember it, it was actually a history of history itself, or how mankind knows what it does about history

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

I started reading this book and am half way through and, although I'm not finished, I would have to disagree with you. This book is mostly pop-psychology with overstated implications and reliance on low-stake experiments that can not always be replicated. Also, the book glosses over actual results by saying "the participants were more likely to x than y". How much more likely?

A typical example of psychological discovery discussed in the book: 1. Ask someone to give 3 or 10 examples of when they were assertive 2. Ask someone to grade themselves on how assertive they are

And the study shows that people who were asked for 3 examples of how assertive they are were more likely to grade themselves as more assertive that those who were asked for 10 examples due to recollection bias.

I mean, I could see how this is sort of interesting but it's such low stakes. How would anyone be able to grade themselves from 1 - 10 on how assertive they are? What does that even mean? What implications does this have on anything?

I don't know. Psych experiments that are so glorified in the book seem to me to be too convenient and a form of story telling, which is fine except for the troubling implications that our cognitive biases and inefficiencies somehow trump our free will and freedom. But then again, I have my own biases.

It's supposed to be an accessible version of "Heuristics and Biases". Saying Kahneman is pop psych... Well if you think so, then we should consider anything in psychology to be "pop".

Another issue I take with the work is the certainty in talking about the analysis of his experiments. Phrases like "we now know..." are used often.

For instance, one experiment shows that frowning can have effects on your disposition. As an experiment, a subject is told to hold a pencil in their mouth in a certain way as to unknowingly produce a frown or smile and then do some task. The difference between behaviors is then attributed to smiling or frowning, as though the only thing going on with a pencil awkwardly in your mouth is the smiling or frowning.

Maybe I do view all psychology in a negative way but I imagine I find it distasteful the same way (I imagine) most people find the study of IQ differences among races distasteful. Is this a valid field of study? I don't know and I don't care to know because the racist overtones are so strong.

Unfortunately psychology, especially 'pop' psychology has been used to deny people their free will and restrict freedoms.

It goes along with an overall trend of the sciences to rely more and more on statistical methods which I find troubling.

Would you find What Intelligence Tests Miss - Psychology of Rational Thought by Keith Stanovich more convincing?

Oh give me a break, it's probably one of the most well corroborated pieces of research in that tradition.

I've finally started reading the book after reading about it on every corner. I'm halfway through and it's really good. A lot of information without unneeded fluff.

Most useful book I've ever read, period. Changed the way I think about decisions and influenced how I think about building products.

Along the same lines is Moral Tribes by Joshua Greene. I learned a huge amount about the human condition from that book.

You're probably already thinking a lot about technical systems. Donella H. Meadows' 'THINKING IN SYSTEMS' provides a profound introduction to system dynamics that might change your way of looking at systems in the world at large e.g. social, economic, and political systems and how they behave over time.

It's one of the few books I've read several times. Writing this makes me want to read it again.

Gödel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas Hofstadter.

If you consider extravagance as noise, this book will have a terrible SNR. (I think it's nonetheless worth reading. It's basically an introduction to the theory of computation with fables and plenty of illustrating examples by Escher and Bach (both of which have unknowingly used important concepts from computation in their works). It is definitely much easier to read after having attended to a theory of computation I lecture.)

We have access to so much great work on the topic of computation today thanks to the internet, and especially because of work in computer languages and research over the last 20 years, but GEB was published in 1979. At the time it was ground-breaking, making work that really only a handful of people knew about and were interested in accessible to many.

Completely disagree. GEB is the opposite of what OP was asking for. It takes pages to make points that can be done far more economically and concisely.

That was my experience as well. Another poster mentioned Quantum Computing Since Democritus by Aaronson. The latter seems more technically difficult but I enjoye it more than GED. I haven't been able to "get into" GED in the last 3 times I have started reading it. It's just long and rambling (to me). I don't "get it", but maybe I will one day, the book's still on my bookshelf...

Functional programming in Scala by Paul Chiusano and Rúnar Bjarnason. Programming Erlang: Software for a Concurrent World by Joe Armstrong. Even if you have no desire to learn Scala, Erlang, or functional programming, I still think most people would enjoy these books. Every page of these books contain a golden nugget.

Since you don't say specifically what topics you are interrested in I'll just name a few of my own favorite non-fiction books that have a great signal-to-noise ratio:

- Computer Organization and Design, Fourth Edition: The Hardware/Software Interface

- Advanced Programming in the UNIX Environment

- Effective Modern C++

- SFML Game Development

- Compilers: Principles, Techniques, and Tools

Haven't done any writing of C++ since college, and not too much reading either, but just flew through Effective Modern C++, and found it to be a great, information-dense, and eye-opening read. Highly recommended.

All of the C++ books by Scott Meyers are excellent -- very clear and insightful.

For writing fiction and simply how to use words effectively: The way to write by Joan Moat http://www.amazon.co.uk/Way-Write-Ted-Hughes/dp/0140272704/

For understanding computer networking, Computer networks by Andrew Tanenbaum: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Computer-Networks-Andrew-S-Tanenbaum...

For physics (though old now), Feynman's lectures: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Feynman-Lectures-Physics-boxed-set/d...

"The Way To Write" is actually John Moat. I tried to look Joan Moat up on Goodreads, and couldn't find it.

oops, sorry. For some reason it isn't giving me an edit option, so thanks for your correction.

Great question. Reminds me of what Samuel Johnson had to say about Paradise Lost ("great, but nobody ever wished it was longer")

My $0.02:

Andy Groves - High Output Management fits your bill

Most Seneca

Robert Frost poems (but maybe S/N is TOO high for comfortable consumption here)

1) Biology and Knowledge by Jean Piaget

2) Ontogeny and Phylogeny by S.J. Gould

3) The Logic of Life by Francois Jacob

These books have very little fluff and will challenge you to think in new ways about evolution, biology, and the development of human knowledge.

Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter?

Thinking Fast and Slow - each chapter summarize several others whole books on behavioral economics.

Seconded. This book has a very high signal-to-noise ratio.

    In Pursuit of the Traveling Salesman: Mathematics at the Limits of Computation
by William J. Cook.

Combinatorial optimization is very important for many practical problems and increase in computational power and improvement in algorithms has lead to an immense increase in the scale of problems which can be tackled. This book describes these developments through the lens of the travelling salesman problem

1) A2K Handbook, free online, http://a2knetwork.org/handbook

"Access to Knowledge (A2K) is the umbrella term for a movement that aims to create more equitable public access to the products of human culture and learning. The ultimate objective of the movement is to create a world in which educational and cultural works are accessible to all, and in which consumers and creators alike participate in a vibrant ecosystem of innovation and creativity."

2) Sci-Fi author L. Sprague de Camp's 1963 book, "The Ancient Engineers", covers the period from early Egyptian engineering up to Galileo. http://www.amazon.com/Ancient-Engineers-L-Sprague-Camp/dp/03...

“History, technology, culture, finance, and sociology intersect here. It’s not history from the top (kings and such, which some say is dry), nor history from the bottom (average people, which is necessarily endless and perhaps not very revealing). It’s history from the nuts-and-bolts middle – how structures were built, how materials were transported, how wars were fought. When you know this sort of foundational information, everything else becomes more real.”

3) Paul Calter, "Squaring the Circle: Geometry in Art & Architecture", http://www.amazon.com/Squaring-Circle-Geometry-Art-Architect...

"the combination of the subject knowledge of design, architecture, art, geometry, philospohy, music theory, and mathematics ... Calter includes the basic lessons and explanations of a regular Geometry course in his book, but then he interweaves an integrated classical curriculum (based on deductive reasoning)"

4) Georges Ifrah, "Universal History of Numbers", http://www.amazon.com/Universal-History-Numbers-Prehistory-I...

"the first complete account of the invention and evolution of numbers the world over ... Dubbed the "Indiana Jones of numbers," Georges Ifrah traveled all over the world for ten years to uncover the little-known details of this amazing story. From India to China, and from Egypt to Chile, Ifrah talked to mathematicians, historians, archaeologists, and philosophers."

Zero to One - Peter Thiel

The Lean Startup - Eric Ries

I found that The Lean Startup was three or four short essays struggling -- and mostly failing -- to escape a Praetorian guard composed of hundreds of pages of undergraduate padding.

When you learn that it's a book deal spun out of a blog, the frustrating reading experience makes much more sense.

If you're into technology startups—I assume you are—Zero to One is absolutely what you're looking for.

Ah, for startups in general, you should look at The E-Myth by Michael Gerber, no matter what you're doing it'll have some essential advice, and you should examine your business model in the light of his general thesis that you should make your business "franchiseble". At the very least, observe the principles of leverage, "no one ever got rich typing".

The Four Steps to the Epiphany - Steve Blank

Steve Jobs - Walter Isaacson

Artificial Life - Steven Levy

On Writing - Stephen King

Machine Learning for Hackers - Drew Conway and John Myles White

How Doctors Think - Jerome Goopman

Cholesterol Clarity: What The HDL Is Wrong With My Numbers? - Jimmy Moore & Eric C. Westman

Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco - Bryan Burrough & John Helyar

Mathematics books normally have an excellent signal to noise ratio. The difficulty is finding ones that are both important and not too difficult or specialized; textbooks are usually a good starting point.

I can recommend Feynman's lectures on physics and Bruno de Finetti's "Theory of Probability. A Critical Introductory Treatment".

Not a book but Charles Munger's talk, A Lesson on Elementary, Worldly Wisdom As It Relates To Investment Management & Business is good and I see a copy is hosted on this very domain http://old.ycombinator.com/munger.html

I really like what I'm reading now: http://www.amazon.com/The-Singularity-Is-Near-Transcend/dp/0...

...but it may not be what you want (some may consider it fiction)

I recently read "Economics in One Lesson" by Henry Hazlitt [1], and I highly recommend it for anyone who wants a foundational understanding of economics. "One Lesson" is meant as a claim that the book is pure "signal." And it is.

Even more terse and incisive is the 150 year old essay that inspired Hazlitt to write his book, Frédéric Bastiat's "What is Seen and What is Not Seen." [2] It's uncanny how well this essay holds up today.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economics_in_One_Lesson

[2] http://www.econlib.org/library/Bastiat/basEss1.html

I'm guessing you mean excluding textbooks

  The Extended Phenotype
  Your Inner Fish
  Thinking Fast and Slow
  The Information
  Statistics in Plain English
  Fortune's Formula
  Fooled by Randomness
  A Random Walk Down Wall St.
  How to Win Friends and Influence People

As a sidenote - oh, dear again a book discussion. As if my pile of unread books was not high enough. Already ordered a few titles from this thread - I'm anticipating with dread and excitement if any more apparent must reads pop up. HN literacy thread plus instant click to buy - lethal.

Now that it's finally been released, I recommend Rationality: From AI to Zombies: https://intelligence.org/rationality-ai-zombies/

Currently reading this and while it's pretty good, there's a considerable amount of fluff in the earlier chapters.

Shameless self-plug about my book that covers calculus and mechanics in 300pp flat.

No bullshit guide to math and physics: http://noBSgui.de/to/MATHandPHYSICS/

If you've included the non-standard analysis approach to calculus it could benefit a ton of people.

While I haven't examined it closely, there's a well thought of, concise, no-fluff book on it: http://www.amazon.com/Infinitesimal-Calculus-Dover-Books-Mat...

Open books like the Haskell wikibook [1] tend to be concise since there's no need to create filler content.

[1] https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Haskell

A good option is to look for winners of science book prizes.

The Royal Society Winton Prize is excellent: http://www.theguardian.com/books/royal-society-science-book-....

Some personal favourites:

The Incredible Unlikeliness Of Being by Alice Roberts is a wonderful book that describes how a human being develops from conception to adulthood in minute biological detail.

The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography by Simon Singh is fantastic, if a little out of date by now.

Cosmos: The Story of Cosmic Evolution, Science and Civilisation by Carl Sagan.

- Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders http://amzn.to/1KWptkR - Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul http://amzn.to/1Mcy70b - Diffusion of Innovations http://amzn.to/1Dy5ZmM - Failure Is Not an Option http://amzn.to/1W8U4BG

For me it was

  Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond.
It blew my mind on almost every section! I loved it I suppose coz it answered a lot of questions I'd growing up and a bit more. I've recommended it to everyone in my family.

One critique I received was that there is repetition of ideas but I think its because primarily humans carry past successes anf failures so most of the changes are evolutionary to what worked previously and second this book is akin to a thesis and every chapter is essential to building up the case.

By far the best non-fiction I've read.

While no doubt Guns, Germs, and Steel is a good work, I will be hesitant to subscribe to ideas it presents, carte blanche. Please see this reddit discussion[1]

[1] https://www.reddit.com/r/AskAnthropology/comments/1rzm07/wha...

The first link in that reddit comment points to [1] which is a critique of another Diamond's book. But if you let me give two comments on it:

(1) In the first sentences, the author (a PhD student in history) cannot really hide his irritation that someone with a background in animal physiology has written a popular book about history. I have seen this ad hominem several times about Jared Diamond. Somehow those historians cannot stand that someone with no degree in history has written such a popular book.

(2) "Guns, Germs, and Steel attacked the notion that racial superiority explained Western global pre-eminence, a view taken seriously by almost no one who’s taken seriously"

Actually, what Guns, Germs, and Steel did, was to provide a first comprehensive theory (that I have heard of, anyway) that explains why Europe, and not someone else, rose to dominance. This is the merit. The main merit is not that it, as a side product, discredited the racially based theories.

Failing to understand this difference does not speak highly of the writer of the review.

[1] http://www.columbia.edu/~saw2156/HunterBlatherer.pdf

I'm sure I find books to read in this "Ask HN" but your comment is exactly what's the issue with it.

So the OP asks for high signal to noise ratio. There comes a recommendation, and then I read some good discussion on Reddit on how the book is actually kind of wrong.

This begs the question: What's "high signal to noise" anyways? Someone who has read 10 books on a subject will find barely anything new. One who just starts out might find "gems" on every other page.

And also: If a recommendation here in this "Ask HN" is given and then debunked as mediocre, how sure can one be to actually find a book with high signal to noise without reading the book?

In that sense: Thanks for your comment. In-depth discussions like the one on Reddit is really necessary, because I, as a starter, have no clue how to evaluate a book. Every recommendation should probably come with a lengthy discussion about its accuracy by people who know the subject :)

I kind of agree with you "high signal to noise" take. It is highly subjective. Most of the times, going with populistic choice seems to be way forward. Unfortunately we have very short time. Personally very liberal estimation of my reading prowess, I don't think I will read more than another 500 books in my life time.

My emphasis with my comment is to read books, ideas with healthy dose of skepticism, rather than worshipping it as gospel.

Yes the repetition was noticeable, I would typically start reading a paragraph, realize that it was a point made previously and end up skipping a whole page.

I learned quite a lot reading "Understanding Physics" by Isaac Azimov. It covers just about every level of basic through college level physics, and unlike textbooks it is actually readable.

I do remember it being fairly good when I read some of it in high school, although something about it failed to capture me and prompt me to read it all the way through.

One factor of that may be because Asimov didn't really understand the material, turns out he hit a wall when going from differential to integral calculus (the 2nd part of introductory calculus, very basic stuff), so I now view it with suspicion.

How to Solve It, by Polya.

Lots of good picks added to my to-read list here.

If you can read French I recommend "Petit traité de manipulation à l'usage des honnêtes gens". To give you an idea, the translated title would be "Little treatise on manipulation for honest people". Unfortunately, it is only available in French.


I was lucky that during my research time I got to know Dawkin's work. And the journey started there:

1. "Cats' Paws and Catapults: Mechanical Worlds of Nature and People" by Steven Vogel. If you were fascinated by the wings of birds or little waves behind the plants in water read this. Fascinating book!

2. "The meme machine" by Susan Blackmore. Starting off where Dawkin's book ended.

3. "Three steps to yes" by Gene Bedell, beside Getting to Yes already mentioned here.

Blackmore's book is a very clear introduction to the meme, and general replicator, concept.

Reasons and Persons by Derek Parfit

I read this about the same time I read the Selfish Gene, had a similar effect. It's one of the few philosophy books that I still think about today.

The Art of Electronics and the accompanying student manual.

I recently read Intelligence: All That Matters, a short (160 pages) introduction to measuring intelligence. It covers a little history, how it's done, why it matters. Written by a working researcher so not very fluffy, and came out in June, not last century.

[1] http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00OGLKHDO

==For electronics:

The Art of Electronics 3rd Edition (interview with the one of the authors, if you're unconvinced: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCI3B5eT9NA )

==For finances:

The Millionaire Next Door (filled with a lot of interesting facts and habits from extensive research)

==For food/cooking:

Alton Brown's Gear for Your Kitchen

BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking

Daniel Kahneman, "Thinking, fast and slow"

Why nobody mentioned Paul Graham's ANSI Common Lisp book? It 's got almost zero "noise" and full of signals .)

Literary Theory: An Introduction, Terry Eagleton

Just to be clear, the simplest gloss on Eagleton's landmark essay (it's really too short to be a book) is that it's a takedown of belles lettres-style criticism.

Loosely speaking, Eagleton is best known for Marxist literary theory (dialectical materialism).

[Edit: removed html-style tags]

Lately I've been reading about the functional artist and writer because ultimately they do similar work to what we do. Our work is more concrete and has definite correctness but at least for me some of the admonishments towards Craftsmanship are good. I'm Reading Art and Fear at the moment. On Writing Well is also good.

Try Peter Drucker's Adventures of a Bystander, Jane Jacobs's Cities trilogy (non-fiction, written over many years, classic) and Robert Cialdini's Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion. Also I'll second the David Simon, Atul Gawande, Feynman, Shannon, and Keynes recommendations.

Just bought Jane Jacob's "The Death and Life...", glad to see it on here. I'm looking forward to it.

+1 for Jane Jacobs' books. Just finished Cities and the Wealth of Nations.

Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy by Joseph Schumpeteer and Small is Beautiful by Schumacher are two classic, heterodox economic works. People outside the field rarely read them, which is a shame. Both have very high S/N ratios, and will make any reader more thoughtful about the world.

1. Walter Lewin's For the Love of Physics: From the End of the Rainbow to the Edge Of Time - A Journey Through the Wonders of Physics

2. Subroto Bagchi’s MBA At 16: A Teenager’s Guide To Business

3. Jugaad Innovation: A frugal and flexible approach to innovation for the 21st century by Navi Radjou, Jaideep Prabhu, and Simone Ahuja

* Last Call The Rise and Fall of Prohibition * The Information, a theory, a flood * The Fruit Hunters * The Third Chimpanzee

Off the top of my head were pretty information dense in the sense that I remember walking away from them knowing a good deal more about something I didn't previously

"Technical subjects" is too broad to get started. But if you are serious about wanting a high signal to noise ratio, you want textbooks and monographs. Landau and Lifshitz' series on theoretical physics; Knuth's Art of Computer Programming; that kind of thing.

I enjoy certain classics, exactly for the reason that the signal to noise ratio is high. Granted, they do not tell much about business and more about human nature, but from Hemingway to Diderot... As an author still to be discovered I suggest JF Powers (morte d'Urban for example)

"The Master Switch" by Tim Wu. It really changed the way I look at the current tech landscape.

Here are 3 that I particularly liked in the last few years:

The Information, James Gleick

A Universe from Nothing, Lawrence Krauss

Abundance, Peter Diamandis

I was surprised to see a recommdation for The Information. Gleick seems the epitome of a rambling author who says almost nothing. I made it through Chaos, but could not get through Feynman or The Information. This kind of InfoJunk is what the OP is trying to avoid, I think.

Maybe you are right, it is not in the same category as The Selfish Gene. However, I thought the parts about the early history of computing were written very well, as someone who did not know much about it before.

I was also thinking that a non-fiction book with no fluff and no injection of personality/flair from the author is a textbook. There are many outstanding textbooks (like Molecular Biology of the Cell) which offer pure information, but I think commercial non-fiction books are aimed at a more general audience. The author needs to fluff a book up a bit to make the material approachable. I also wonder how some non-fiction books would read if untouched by editors.

I disagree. The Information has a broad scope, so there is a lot of content but none of which I found to be InfoJunk. I thought it was very interesting and just kept on reading.

For me it is certanly "The Beginning of Infinity" by physicist David Deutsch. Its every chapter answers to some deep questions I had about how the world works. Currently I re-reading it again in the 4-th time and still noticing something new and exciting.

Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means

Author: William T. Vollmann

It's a 7 volume set, but has a one volume abridged version which is one of the more fascinating and thought-provoking books I have ever read. I rate it very closely to GEB.

Highly recommended.


Presumably, "Goedel, Escher, Bach" by Douglas Hofstadter.

Which, incidentally, doesn't have a particularly high "signal-to-noise ratio" but it's one of the most interesting books I've ever read.

Without going into heavily technical books, I'd recommend The Code Book by Simon Singh. There's also Fermat's Last Theorem by the same author.

On the more technical side, it's somewhat cliche but, TAOCP really is excellent.

If you're interested in language, I really love "Metaphors We Live By." It's more profound than I previously thought a book about metaphors could ever be. It starts saying interesting things on page 1.

I don't think a mega-compilation of the Western Canon is what OP is looking for...

Eh, they certainly tend to avoid fluff, and by definition, until you get to Marx, James, Freud you're not going to find "pop psychology"! A lot of them are very much worth reading, I personally would recommend:

Homer and a few Greek plays

Sample a bit of the great story teller Herodotus, then read the birth of historiography in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, which by itself is also very interesting and important (wonder why the Founder of the US didn't like direct democracy? There are very important object lessons in it).

Surely Plato and Aristotle deserve some attention! The contents of the latter's Rhetoric is essential for when you can't reach people with dialectic.

Euclid's Elements is still about as good as you can get for what it teaches.

Plutarch is great, but I really like that period of history. To it I would add reading some of the earlier bits of Livy.

Read, or better yet listen to audio of a few of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, out loud you can follow their Middle English.

Machiavelli's The Prince is still damned good, and a landmark in talking about politics as it is, not as how people would like it to be.

Shakespeare surely needs some attention by English speakers. Swift's Gulliver's Travels were amusing when I read them in their original, and obviously very influential.

So, yeah, check out some of the classics.

Daniel Dennett "Consciousness Explained" - on how or mind words, and why many of our intuitions / common sense knowledge about our mind is wrong (which can be demonstrated experimentally).

- Managing the Professional Service Firm by David Maister

- Quantum Computing since Democritus by Scott Aaronson

- Cryptography Engineering by Bruce Schneier et al

- Time Management for System Administrators by Thomas Limoncelli

- Expert C Programming by Peter van der Linden

Notes on the synthesis of form by Christopher Alexander. Purports to be about architectural theory but has actually deep things to say about systems design and organizational learning in general.

Richard Dawkins is OK. Sam Harris and Steven Pinker are more relevant.

Early Retirement Extreme by Jacob Lund Fisker. It's an introduction to systems thinking, social organization and lifestyle design with a practical focus.

I think No starch press really holds up to their name. :-)

Mathematics: Form and Function by Saunders McLane

Blinkist provides pretty good summaries of hundreds of books. They are using a freemium model. (I am not involved with the company.)

3-days free trial isn't freemium.

_The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business_ (2014) by Charles Duhigg

The Idea Factory, by Pepper White

Both, "Consilience" by E.O. Wilson and...

"The signal and the noise" by Nate Silver

are worth look.

Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology by Alfred North Whitehead

The Information by James Gleick, a history of information

Deep Simplicity: Bringing Order to Chaos and Complexity

The Road To Reality by Roger Penrose.

All (literally all) signal

Not sure really what you consider signal versus noise, as it depends a lot of what your interest or experience with a particular subject is. But at any rate:

Naturalist, Edward O. Wilson

The Open Organization, by Jim Whitehurse

Reclaiming History by Vincent Bugliosi.

The Will to Believe, by William James

"The Elements of Style" by Strunk & White.

"The biological basis of teleological concepts" by Harry Binswanger.

The Selfish Gene is wonderfully tight, indeed very little noise and a whole lot of signal.

Here's two books if you want to learn about math you might want to learn about: The Facts on File Dictionary on Mathematics by Gibson, and Foundations and Fundamental Concepts of Mathematics by Howard Eves, which takes a historical approach, but is not a history per se. More like "this is what the Greeks did, in this period the use of calculus was pretty loose and look at this equation that Euler thought was right, these are the steps that brought rigor to it" etc.

Susan Wise Bauer has been writing a series of history books solely focused on "politics", i.e. no coverage of the arts besides occasional mentions; that can be a very useful framework to then hang study of things like the arts off of. Also no wild speculation like Guns, Germs and Steel is filled with, if it wasn't written down and passed down to us, it gets only brief mention. Here's the first one: http://www.susanwisebauer.com/books/history-of-the-ancient-w...

Samuel Eliot Morison wrote a series of book on the History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, they're focused on what happened in detail, with charts of the movement of the ships in various battles and so on. The TV series Victory at Sea was based on them, and they're a good framework to then hang more detailed study of the war off of: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_United_States_Naval...

As Wikipedians put it, This History of U.S. Naval Operations also intentionally avoided a certain amount of analysis, for instance deferring to other works for the causes of the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor. The intended audience for the work, to quote from the preface, was "the general reader rather than the professional sailor."

There are two very tight and short books on self-defense, Jeff Cooper Principles of Personal Defense and Massad Ayoob's In the Gravest Extreme, The Role of the Firearm in Personal Protection, "Just the facts, ma'am", firearm centric but wonderfully focused.

ADDED: Sun Tzu's The Art of War is itself very focused (the media on which it was written strongly encourages that!), although the commentary, traditional and what modern translators add, can wander into fluff. A lot of it is relevant to modern non-violent life, and don't forget that "You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you". I recommend Samuel B. Griffith's translation, he was a professional military officer.

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