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Ask HN: Great books you read in 2009?
125 points by ryanwaggoner on Jan 1, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 138 comments
I got a Kindle halfway through 2009 and I've been reading a lot more but I'm always on the lookout for great books. I'd love to hear about what books others in the HN community enjoyed during the last year and would recommend. I'm primarily looking for non-programming books, but if anything really blew you away, I'd love to hear about it.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Note: I'm not trying to start a flamewar, as I didn't agree with all the books below, just that I found them interesting and they inspired further research and exploration on my part.

The Family, by Jeff Sharlet - Fascinating overview of the intersection between American fundamentalist Christianity and conservative ideology and how they gave birth to the "Religious Right".

The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand - Philosophical novel that uses architecture as a metaphor to introduce the tenants of Objectivism.

His Majesty's Dragon, by Naomi Novik - Alternate-history fantasy set in the Napoleanic Wars. The entire series was very enjoyable, and I don't usually enjoy fantasy.

The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollen - Overview of our food, how it is grown, and the things we should know about it. I found it very persuasive without being preachy and it completely revolutionized the way I eat and view food in general.

I finally finished "Godel, Escher, Bach" in 2009, after starting and giving up on it a few times previously. A great book, but it does require a lot of time and some serious thinking with a pencil and pad to do some working out (or at least it did for me).

The best book I read in 2009 (and possibly ever!) was "Fooled By Randomness" - a fantastic book that I can't recommend enough. I also read the sequel, "Black Swans", that was interesting but not in the same league.

"Made to stick" was also a great book, with lots of great marketing advice that is simple to follow.

I agree that Fooled By Randomness was a good read, but since then Taleb has become too wrapped up in self-aggrandizement, and he now thinks way to highly of himself and his abilities.

He lost me when he started writing articles like Ten Principles for a Black Swan-Proof World (http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/tenprinciples.pdf). Isn't the point about Black Swans that they're impossible to protect against?

Isn't the point about Black Swans that they're impossible to protect against?

No, actually. The point about Black Swans is that they are impossible to predict. But one can plan to avoid the severe CONSEQUENCES of unpredictable events. The illustration that Taleb gave in a conference talk video once posted to HN was that a resident of Florida doesn't know when the next hurricane will come, but can build a house that is more resistant to hurricane damage than the typical house. Similarly, some investment strategies can be genuinely hedged against rare events that will happen at unknown times, while other investment strategies expose the investor to debts greater than the original investment.

Agreed. I thought "Fooled..." and "The Black Swan" were great and I have a lot of respect for Taleb. But lately, he has become too self-aggrandizing.

He seems to take too much credit for saying that an unpredictable event could happen, a few years before a relatively unpredictable (or at least, unforeseen) event did happen.

"Fooled By Randomness" is an interesting read and its central claim, namely that humans tend to see patterns where there aren't any, is correct and scientifically proved by psychology. However, the book seems to go way too far by occupying a strongly skeptic position and therefore refuting itself.

The Bet by Anton Chekhov

You can read it here: http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/Bet.shtml

It shouldn't take more than 10 minutes. It's so fantastically misanthropic, I cannot recommend it enough.

The prisoner's polemic against society at the end is just legendary.

Judea Pearl's Probabilistic Reasoning in Intelligent Systems: Networks of Plausible Inference. I'm not finished with it yet, though. (It might be superceded by his Causality which I'd also like to read.) It's provided some "aha", scales falling from eyes moments. I'd guess it's the most important book - for me - I've read in years, perhaps ever. Highly recommended (with the caveat about his other book perhaps being better).

Seconded hard.

If you have to read only one of these, read Probabilistic Reasoning in Intelligent Systems.

The best book I read in 2009 was The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. It's surprisingly accessible (I've never taken a biology class), and talks a lot about evolutionary game theory which I found fascinating.

Some other books I read last year:

How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker. It was a great book, Pinker's writing is accessible and entertaining. Much more so than On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins.

More with Less: Paul MacCready and the Dream of Efficient Flight by Paul Ciotti. I really enjoyed this one, it was the story of the first team to cross the English channel with human-powered flight.

What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell. I liked this one better than Gladwell's other books. There is less theorizing and arguing a point and more telling stories, which is what Gladwell excels at.

The Mind's I by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett. If you are patient with what is sometimes (in my humble opinion) pointlessly arguing semantics, some of the sections are interesting.

If you liked "The Selfish Gene" you might also consider reading Kevin Davies' Cracking the Genome. The book describes the race to sequencing the full human genome and the implications of that research. Fascinating.

Made me wish I had taken biology...

Thanks, I've added it to my list. I feel the same way about wishing I had taken biology. At least there's always books.

The Machinery of Freedom (David Friedman) -- Great book on a potential anarcho-capitalist society and how we could push the US government in that direction.

The Game (Neil Strauss) -- See nopassrecover's response; he explained it well.

Little Brother (Cory Doctorow) -- A fantastic novel about freedom and technology.

Makers (Cory Doctorow) -- A great novel about people who create, whether technology or business models. Perhaps the best book I read this year.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (Cory Doctorow) -- The story of a man working in Disney World, which is now part of the Bitchun Society (a post-scarcity, post-death society). A story of love, betrayal, and death; how can you go wrong? Worth it for the concept of Whuffie (you'll need to read it to really get it) alone.

Diamond Age (Neal Stephenson) -- The evolution of a society towards post-scarcity, written around the story of a young girl's growth into an adult. Best post-cyberpunk book written thus far, IMO.

I'm a huge Stephenson fan, but I felt let down by the Diamond Age's ending. It felt like it was missing 30 pages.

None of Stephenson's books really have much of an ending (or in some cases much of a coherent plot)... the closest I can think of (in the way of endings) is Snow Crash.

But he writes with wonderful detail and humor, and seems really great at writing believable near-term futures, which I imagine are much harder than writing about the distant future (where everything can be fantastical).

I loved David Friedman's The Machinery of Freedom. His blog is also filled with a lot of interesting thoughts: http://daviddfriedman.blogspot.com

A bunch of books by Kahlil Gibran. Read The Prophet twice.

One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Problem Of Pain by C S Lewis

Disgrace by J M Coetzee

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek

On Writing by Stephen King

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Dictionary Of The Khazars by Milorad Pavic

Candide by Voltaire

The Labyrinth Of Solitude | Life And Thought In Mexico by Ocavio Paz

I finished that last one today. Read this:

All men, at some moment in their lives, feel themselves to be alone. And they are. To live is to be separated from what we were in order to approach what we are going to be in the mysterious future. Solitude is the profoundest fact of the human condition. Man is the only being who knows he is alone, and the only one who seeks out another. His nature -- if that word can be used in reference to man, who has "invented" himself by saying "No" to nature -- consists in his longing to realize himself in another. Man is nostalgia and a search for communion. Therefore, when he is aware of himself he is aware of his lack of another, that is, of his solitude.

I recommend this old book.

I just finished reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. It's really long and a little digressive (1079 pages, took me 3 months to finish), but was one of the most entertaining and brilliant books I've ever read. I highly recommend it.

Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. He starts with a takedown of the dietary fat-heart disease hypothesis, moves on to the dietary fat-obesity link. Finally he makes a convincing argument that neither eating less nor exercising more are good ways to lose weight.

I read that 2 years ago, and I agree it is excellent. He goes well beyond the evidence against carbohydrates, but his claims for the politicization of diet recommendations is the best I have encountered.

As a side note, I tried an extremely low carb diet for a while after reading it, but noticed no real differences either pro or con. I similarly noticed no real differences many years ago, when I was vegetarian for a couple of years.

"... and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing."

Would it really matter? I mean, you could still detect the contrast between the two and walk safely across.

Liar's Poker - Michael Lewis http://www.amazon.com/Liars-Poker-Rising-Through-Wreckage/dp...

In Defense of Food - Michael Pollan http://www.amazon.com/Defense-Food-Eaters-Manifesto/dp/01431...

When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management - Roger Lowenstein http://www.amazon.com/When-Genius-Failed-Long-Term-Managemen...

I basically discovered Vernor Vinge.

A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge

A Deepness in the Sky, by Vernor Vinge

The Peace War, by Vernor Vinge

Marooned in Realtime, by Vernor Vinge

Hyperion, by Dan Simmons

Mrs. Perkins's Electric Quilt, a fun book about some math and physics problems

The Peace War and Marooned in Realtime are also in a one volume Across Realtime, which also includes his entertaining novella The Ungoverned which introduces some of the characters, including W W Brierson (sp?) of Marooned.

more scifi recommendations: http://twitter.com/akkartik/status/7210697378

Death of a Salesman. This is yet another book that you are forced to read prematurely in middle or high school. At the time, it was a frustrating exercise; upon rereading it at age 25, I thought it was fantastic.

I also enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. It was very creative.

Sadly, I had no books that yielded a personal intellectual epoch this year.

Some books that stood out this year (many not for their intended reasons)

The 4 Hour Work Week (Tim Ferriss) - In parts entertaining, interesting, self-promoting, educational, inspirational, attractive and undesirable. Definitely worth the read and a great call to action. Will make you consider what you want and how you can achieve it.

The Game (Neil Strauss) - Truly interesting story and an interesting view on human dynamics and hacking one of the more important systems (dating). A great view on what is most important - ends or means. Will make you consider how people work, what motivates them and whether success cures emptiness.

Losing my Virginity (Richard Branson) - The awesome and entertaining story of Virgin with lots of great advice and startup David vs Goliath inspiration. Will make you consider what determination and the little guy can achieve.

Business Stripped Bare (Richard Branson) - Branson's more focused take on business advice and patches on bits of the Virgin story since the first book. Will make you consider the power of being genuine and growing a company with people treated as smart humans.

On Writing (Stephen King) - Most inspirational and compelling book on writing I've read. Half writing advice half King biography all awesome. Will make you consider becoming a novelist.

Coders at Work (Peter Siebel) - Haven't finished yet but great interviews of leading coders. I didn't enjoy Founders at Work (personally found it a bit indirect/not deep enough) but in Coders at Work you really feel the connection between interviewer and interviewee while at the same time getting a lot of incidental startup advice as these coders have all had decent roles to play in Silicon Valley etc. history. Will make you consider if you're actually a better coder than you thought.

Think and Grow Rich (Napoleon Hill) - Reads a bit like a bad Internet ad at times but that's because they stole that technique from here. This book summarizes the techniques that lead to success based on numerous interviews of most of the greatest leaders of the early 20th century. Pretty good bits in here and again inspiration fuel. Will make you consider how you can take charge of your self and your life.

Letters From a Stoic (Seneca) - Decent musings on living life and mastering oneself. As relevant today as 2 thousand years ago. Will make you consider how you can master your self and what you will let affect you.

Here Comes Everybody (Clay Shirky) - The best book on online community I've read. Shirky makes you want to make a difference and communicates his enthusiasm for the power of the masses with ease. Will make you consider how to enable communities to achieve unthought of goals.

(The links here bring you to my notes from each book, and the ISBN number for each so you can find it easily at your favorite library/store/whatever.)

How We Decide - by Jonah Lehrer: Brilliant book with one clear message: our emotional brain is faster and usually smarter than our logical brain. Our emotions are trained by years of logic and experience, retaining it all for real wisdom. Many decisions are better made by going with the gut feeling. Gets a little too technical with deep brain/neuro/cortex talk, but brings it back to usable points. http://sivers.org/book/HowWeDecide

The Investor's Manifesto - by William J. Bernstein: Absolutely my favorite author and advisor on the subject of investing. Anyone with any money to invest (or already invested) please read this book. Such clear thinking, using only facts, and using numbers not guesses. Modern portfolio theory: use passive indexes of the entire market, no speculation, no stock picking, and avoid the entire fee-sucking financial industry. http://sivers.org/book/InvestorsManifesto

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives - by David Eagleman: Fiction. Awesomely creative think-piece of 40 different short stories of what happens when you die. To be clear: the author is not pretending this is fact! The framework is inspiring for anyone: coming up with 40 different answers to any one question. http://sivers.org/book/Sum

The Talent Code - by Daniel Coyle: A great book showing that deep practice - (struggling in certain targeted ways - operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes - experiences where you're forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them) - is what really makes you improve at anything. http://sivers.org/book/TalentCode

Influence - by Robert Cialdini: Classic book on the psychology of persuasion. I read it 15 years ago, thought about it ever since, and re-read it now. How to get a 700% improvement in volunteers. How to sell more by doubling your prices. How to make people feel they made a choice, when really you made it for them. http://sivers.org/book/Influence

The Time Paradox - by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd: See my in-depth article about this book at http://sivers.org/time http://sivers.org/book/TimeParadox

Atlas Shrugged - finally got around to reading it after dozens of recommendations from good friends. Shocking how relevant and prophetic it is, especially with respect to the events of 2009.

*eye roll

It's the reaction everybody has with Rand. To be completely fair to her, she introduces a lot of people to ideas they haven't grappled with before. I'm still glad I read her, even if, three years after, I disagree with all but a strand of her ideas.

I doubt it's worth having another HN debate about Rand, though. We've thoroughly exhausted that discussion.

I have major disagreements with a lot of Rand's ideas, but I agree more with her social descriptions/depictions/??(I can't think of a really good word) now, 23 years after first reading Atlas Shrugged, than I did three years after reading it.

I would be interested in reading up on those. Could you perhaps give a link? I tried googling, but I didn't get very interesting results. Maybe you can think of a few memorable discussions that?

Two memorable discussions here in which I played a seminal part:


The link died, but it was a comparison between Rand and Gladwell, and provoked a lot of interesting conversation/drama. That's pretty old; I was actually still arguing in favor of Rand.


This one has some of the most elegant denunciations: This was one of the few arguments that wasn't overridden by one side or another.

But if you want a really terrific online discussion, I'm going to abandon ship and give you a link to MetaFilter instead, which starts with a series of critical articles and leads on to one of the most lucid, multifaceted discussions of Rand's many flaws I've ever seen. This was the discussion that severed the last of my connections to Rand and her philosophy.


rdtsc's link is thorough, but dry reading. I found it harder to digest than the community conversations.

But if you want a really terrific online discussion, I'm going to abandon ship and give you a link to MetaFilter instead, which starts with a series of critical articles and leads on to one of the most lucid, multifaceted discussions of Rand's many flaws I've ever seen.

I'm not defending Rand, but is it really intellectually honest to judge her stated principles by her behavior, as most of her critics do? Many of the most influential philosophers in all schools of thought have proven to be either hypocritical or downright nuts.

It's easy to attack someone as flawed as Rand, and it's even easier to attack strawmen fashioned from bits and pieces of her work. Neither of these facts tell you anything about the quality or relevance of her overall message.

Actually, the linked discussion mentions that also. When discussing such an inherently flawed philosophy, it's important to really think about the origins of Rand's thoughts. Why did she think the way she did? Who inspired her? Objectivism is not a stand-alone philosophy.

In particular, the talk about her and the mass murderer horrified me. When her ideal of humanity cut a young girl to pieces, you have to wonder if the sadomasochism in her philosophy was more a personal kink than it was some step of logic.

If I hadn't read Rand, comments like this one would make me want to, just to see how she managed to piss so many hipsters off.

I don't mind Rand so much. Just people who claim that we're living "Atlas Shrugged" because they have to pay taxes or some nonsense.

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin.

- Captivating and well researched. This book not only captures the life of a genius, but also exposes the politics and propaganda of WWII, the Cold War and nuclear proliferation (which were conveniently omitted from my government-set high school curriculum), as well as raising issue of morality and the ethical responsibilities of scientists. Interested in start-ups? They don't come bigger than the Manhattan Project. Most of the guys in Los Alamos at the time were in their 20s.

Two books by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and For The Good of the Cause.

- Both are brilliant. Solzenitsyn's language is powerful and descriptive yet simple and concise. Since reading his books, I consciously look at the entropy of other writers.

Ambedkar and Buddhism by Sangarakshita

- An interesting account of the life of a great man, who's philosophy should be read by anyone who hails from the Indian sub-continent.

A Fraction of The Whole by Steve Toltz.

- A book lover's book, Toltz's novel made me laugh out loud at numerous times. A fun read, made better by the fact that he's Aussie.

I just finished a ton of great books, some that immediately come to mind:

The Four-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris - Really made me think about life and the work I do

Tribes by Seth Godin - Love this book.

The Dip by Seth Godin - read it before, reread it again this year

Personal Development for Smart People by Steve Pavlina - really had to struggle to get past the beginning, was fantastic once I did

Find Your Great Work by Michael Bungary Stanier - I liked this one a lot, motivational

The Power of Less by Leo Babauta - no surprises here, I enjoyed the book, it reads like you would expect it to. Some new insights that aren't on the blog

Superfreakonomics by Stephen Levitt and Dubner

Blink, The Tipping Point and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (I liked The Tipping Point the best out of those 3)

Free by...Chris Anderson (?) I forget. Very interesting.

Team Up by Pete Mockaitis - Great read about accountability groups, subset of a mastermind group IMO.

Collapse by Jared Diamond - Very interesting looks at patterns in civilizations. Some people I spoke to get bored after a few examples, it is a little repetitive but I enjoy the parallels

My old faves are of course Gettings Things Done, 7 Habits, Greatest Salesman in The World, and How to Win Friends and Influence People.

More details here: http://sidsavara.com/personal-development/best-personal-deve...

I regularly (and will be posting a bunch in the next couple weeks) post reviews of books I read here: http://sidsavara.com/product-reviews

Risk, the science of politics and fear by Dan Gardner (absolutely fantastic book, I already mentioned it on here earlier in the year).

The Game (again). I read this regularly to remind me of a few things - it's the book that originally got me fascinated in human interaction.

Nemesis (Richard Mullers theory) after a recommendation on HN.

A couple of Obama's books (seemed logical to read up on him)- dreams of my Father I especially liked.

Snowball (though still chugging through that).

In Search of Schrodinger's Cat - a book all about the evolution of quantum theory (and one that gives me my favourite quote of the year: In 1905 Einstein actually published 5 times. The fifth being his PHD dissertation; yes those three individually genius works, which shook the very foundations of physics, were published my a man called Mr Einstein. Despite the artistic license I still love it as a quote :))

My favorite read in early 2009 was What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought by Keith Stanovich


which is full of helpful information on developing the kind of cognition missed by IQ tests that constitutes rationality, very important information for parents, educators, and business leaders.

2009, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his book On the Origin of Species, has been a banner year for new books on evolutionary biology. Some of my favorites include

Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne


The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins



Evolution: The First Four Billion Years edited by Michael Ruse and Joseph Travis.


All are full of up to date information about biology, which, as Thedosius Dobzhansky said, only makes sense in the light of evolution.

SuperFreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner


is enjoyable and thought-provoking, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, for all the usual reasons applying to collaborations by those two authors.

Although actually released in late 2008, my favorite book for 2009 was Neal Stephenson's Anathem.

I like that you ask for "Great books you read in 2009," as opposed to great books published in 2009, as so many newspapers do. The question as you formulate it will probably lead to more of the same books popping up over and over again, but that's probably okay.

I actually wrote about the topic here: http://jseliger.com/2009/12/27/the-years-best-in-reading-not... . Of the books on the list, I'd say that Daniel Gilbert's _Stumbling on Happiness_ and Lev Grossman's _The Magicians_ were my favorite. Both might not qualify as "great," but they both moved me and made me think, which few books accomplish.

Hell yeah: Stumbling on Happiness is one of my favorite books I've ever read in my life. It profoundly changed the way I look at the world, and how I make decisions about what to do. I really like your essay about it! As you say: it "ought to be required reading for those who are alive"


introduce the tenants of Objectivism

How much rent do they pay? And what kind of landlady is Ms Rand.


Finally got around to reading 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' Blew me away. So much better than the film adaptation.

Despite Blade Runner being one of my favorite films (if not the favorite, given how I'm feeling pitting it against 2001), I still completely agree.

They're very different in a lot of ways, though--I might go as far as to say Blade Runner is just barely an adaptation and more a derivative. However, that'd just be me arguing semantics.

I think that the screensaver adaption is just right, though :)

"The other police station" -- that still freaks me out.

Revelation Space, by Alastair Reynolds - Quirky sci-fi novel with a xenoarchaeology angle

Hunters of Dune, by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson - I'm not recommending this one on the basis of the writing. I'd recommend it only to those who read all of Frank Herbert's original Dune series and have been hanging in suspense ever since because the cliffhanger ending of Chapterhouse Dune was never resolved due to Frank's untimely death. They based the book on Frank's outline, but it clearly would have been a better book if it had been written by Frank. Nonetheless, it is satisfying to resolve the unanswered questions: Who the heck are these Honored Matres and what were they running away from?

Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings, by Jorges Luis Borges - This is kind of a quirky collection of short stories that are all mindbenders of one variety or another. The best description I can give of Borges is that reading him is kind of like solving puzzles.

Across the Nightingale Floor: Tales of the Otori, by Lain Hearn - Historical fiction set in feudal Japan with lords and their retainers, assassins, etc.

The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown - If you liked The Da Vinci Code or Angels & Demons, you'll probably like this one as well. While Dan Brown will probably never write anything that matches the utter genius of Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, he is entertaining in his own way and worth a read.

The Lost Symbol sucked - I was entertained by Vinci Code and Illuminati, even though some of the riddles seemed chilidish. But Lost Symbol adds an unnecessary esoteric, New Age angle ("Twitter is god"), and the riddles have become too ridiculous. One of them is turning some letters on their head to make them readable. Another thing were "magic squares" - so I guess because they have "magic" in the name they have to be something deep and conspirational...

My favorite book of 2009 was The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki:


The book shows how groups can work together to do great things. It also shows why some groups fail miserably. Overall I found it very helpful and enlightening in that it helped my understanding of group dynamics and how to take advantage of the full power of groups.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. by Mark Haddon (http://www.amazon.com/Curious-Incident-Dog-Night-Time/dp/140...) - engaging story written from the point of view of an austistic teenager. One of my favorite characters in any book I've ever read.

Crashing Through by Robert Kurson (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0812973682/ref=ox_ya_oh_pro...) - inspiring story of sight restoration to a lifelong blind man. Fascinating exploration on vision, learning, and a lot of other stuff we take for granted.

The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0140067477/ref=ox_ya_oh_pro...) - Taoism and Winnie the Pooh. 'nuff said.

Life Entrepreneurs by Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0787988626/ref=ox_ya_oh_pro...) - applying and expanding the principles of entrepreneurship to your life as a whole, not just your business.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0307454622/ref=ox_ya_oh_pro...) - I thought the movie was great, and this book is great too, in a different way. The writing is clean and evocative, the dialogue is provoking and realistic. I'm a fan of Richard Yates after reading this book.

Charles Stross, 'Accelerando'

Stephenson, 'Anathem' (first 150 pages slow)

Re Anathem first 150 pages- if the story had stayed in the Concents then the level of detail may have been justified, but in the end I was annoyed that he spent so long creating the Concents just to throw them away. Editor fail.

Anathem started slow but ended up being one of his better efforts, I think. Like classic Stephenson, it's short on plot but long on details and interesting dialog between characters.


Coders at Work by Peter Siebel and Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston - I loved reading about the founder's stories and first-hand perspectives of notable programmers.

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton - really interesting perspective on "work" and various types of careers and people that find happiness in them/work itself.

Superfreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner - even if you don't agree with their arguments or think that the authors are all fluff, I think that their writing style is exceptionally clear and easy to understand.

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb - some really interesting ideas and analysis, although the book could have been 1/2 as short


Anathem by Neal Stephenson - starts out slow but after the first 200 pages it became a really great story that I couldn't put down.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel - loved the main story of the book, the controversial ending didn't bother me too much because I don't feel like it takes away from the story at all.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson - cheap fun and suspenseful

The Road by Cormac McCarthy - I don't think much needs to be said about this book

White Tiger by Aravind Adiga - extremely interesting and gripping novel about a side of the world most of us Westerners never see

Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams - finally read this classic. I read the "Ultimate Edition" which contains all 5 of Adams' novel, loved the first one but the story felt like it started to putter out by the third.

I have to second The Road. Any book that I finish in a single sitting has a special quality. I would say it is my favorite book of the past 5 years and in my top 10 of all time.

"Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values" - Robert M. Prisig

I wouldn't say I agree with all of it, but its a great read nonetheless.

Definitely a great read. By the way, if you find Pirsig on the sophists interesting, you might look up Lev Shestov, _Potestas Clavium_.

Recently I've been reading books about different facets of human nature. Some of my favorites:

- Spent, by Geoffrey Miller (evolutionary psychology, sex, consumerism)

- Gang Leader for a Day, by Sudhir Venkatesh

- Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely

Here's a short blog post about these books and a few others.


The War of Art (again) - I reread this book at least once a year. IMHO one of the best books ever written on the creative process, no matter what you're creating.

In Defense of Food - Best criticism of the problems with reductionist "nutrition-ism" I've read.

They Made America - Good, quick history of some of America's most revolutionary inventors, businessmen and women.

Sperm Wars - A fascinating evolutionary biology book focusing on sperm competition.

Caesar by Christian Meier - Got totally hooked on this, wonderful read.

Happy Hour is for Amateurs - Novel by web author Philalawyer. Drugs, Alcohol and the Lawyering profession, written in a gonzo-style.

War of Art

Some on this list are great, some just good:

_The Critique of Pure Reason_--got about halfway through 30 years ago, set it aside, picked it up again. Probably shorter than <i>The Fountainhead</i> but takes a long time to read.

_The Vindication of Tradition_, Jaroslav Pelikan, theology, very short quick read.

_Netherland_ by Joseph O'Neill, via the neighborhood book club. Interesting picture of New York, thin characterization.

_The Library at Night_, Alberto Manguel, actually a gift to my wife from a friend of hers. Good browsing book.

_Untimely Thoughts_ by Nietzche. Probably not a great place to start Nietzche, but at least the first essay is interesting.

_The Spectator Bird_, Wallace Stegner. Good novel, though maybe not my favorite Stegner.

_Germany 1866-1945_ by Gordon Craig. Long, very readable.

is fiction ok? i live in chile and stumbled across bolano's books (particularly the savage detectives and 2666) in spanish just as they became popular in english in the usa (2666 was released in translation).

savage detectives is a funny account of adolescent "poets" in mexico; 2666 is a much darker, somewhat rambling tome that addresses "evil". they're very different, but both great books.

for non-fiction the book i've used most this year is an old classic - harbison & steele's "c a reference manual". it's invaluable (if you're writing c). i don't know how people can prefer kernighan & ritchie...

I think that K&R works better as a tutorial, as an introduction to C programming. Once you're generally comfortable with C, Steele's book is a much better reference.

The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Green -- vulgarizes relativity and quantum theories and touches upon string theory, emphasizing the consequences of those theories on the properties of space and time.

Flat Earth News - Nick Davies: An interesting discussion about falsehood and PR in newspapers and the media generally.

Hackers & Painters - Paul Graham: Read it this year and enjoyed it a lot.

Shantaram - Gregory David Roberts: Awe inspiring "true" story about a convict who escaped to India. Really made me want to take a trip to India. Perhaps not the highest quality prose but a gripping story never-the-less.

A Simple Act of Violence - R J Ellory: I'm reading this right now and it's the first book in a while that has really grabbed me. Well written crime/thriller type book.

1. Shantaram (Gregory David Roberts): So good that mom stayed up until 3AM to finish it.

2. Mistborn trilogy (brandon sanderson): Gripping storytelling and by far one of the best fantasy books i've ever read.

3. Millennium trilogy (steig larsson): Hard to slot this book. On its face it is a thriller but the book is merely the medium through which the author lashes out against crimes toward women and corruption.In 2008, he was the second-best selling author in the world

4. American Shaolin (Matthew Polly): An exciting read but still do not know what is fact and what is fiction. .

I actually just written a post about it: http://bearwithclaws.com/the-best-books-ive-read-in-2009

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. A sad story about a guy named Zeitoun in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places by Paul Collier. Someone smart thinks about how to move failed states toward democracy in such a way that it sticks.

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama. A good memoir, but particularly interesting because he wrote it before he was famous.

Cliff Walk by Don Snyder. An English professor gets fired and becomes a carpenter. Great if academia irritates you.

Anyone read 'Crush It'? Gary Vee seems like a scamster to me, but it seems really popular in the wider tech community right now. I'd trust HN better than my Twitter contacts...

Yes and I thought it was great. It only takes a few hours to get through which is a big bonus. My co-worker was a big "anti-veynerchucker", thinking he was all talk with no real message. But he had a read of it on my Kindle and is now a complete convert. He ended up dragging me to a talk by Gary and starting his own video blog too.

I got a Kindle as a gift too and I love it as well. I highly recommend you play with it or at least borrow someone's (if they'll let you) if you doubt you'll like it.

"Inside Steve's Brain" - Great book on the history of Apple, and the inner workings of the company and the philosophy.

"Never Eat Alone" by Keith Ferrazzi on the importance of networking and building relationships.

"Trade-Off, Why Some Things Catch On, and Others Don't"

"The Pixar Touch" Great history of Pixar and how they came about.

"Call me Ted" - Ted Turner's autobiography

"How the Mighty Fall" Jim Collins

Thomas Hardy's Jude The Obscure, absolutely brilliant. Its littered with literary goto statements, referencing every imaginable literary text. Its really pretty cool, Its hard to follow along with, and harder to catch all of the references but the norton edition fills half of each page with footnotes. I really liked this book. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/039397278X?tag=safet-20

Four I had forgotten:

_Warrenpoint_ by Denis Donoghue. Memoirs of youth, beautifully written.

_The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography of Edmund Burke_ by Conor Cruise O'Brien.

_Autobiographies_ by W. B. Yeats. This was I think the first time reading it through, though 25 years ago I read a fair bit in a housemate's copy. There are sentences that you will want to reread to see how he does it. And in the art of payback, Yeats on George Moore makes Hemingway on Fitzgerald/Ford/Stein/etc look amateurish.

_The Italians_ by Luigi Barzini.

I'm a fan of reading biographies and Open, Andre Agassi's biography, was a very intriguing, enjoyable, and surprisingly well-written book.

The only other book I read this past year that stood out to me was GK Chesterton's The Man Who was Thursday. I thought this was a very well written allegorical spy novel that had some very quippy dialogue.

Next on my reading list I would like to read some Vladimir Nabokov since I've never read any of his work. Has anyone else here read any of his books?

Next on my reading list I would like to read some Vladimir Nabokov since I've never read any of his work. Has anyone else here read any of his books?

I read a lot of Nabokov beginning in high school and continuing into my university studies (when I was initially a Russian language major). Nabokov is very interesting to read. I like Speak, Memory


and his essays on literary criticism (which I'm not turning up just now as I do an Amazon search, but which you should be able to find in a library). I'm not such a big fan of his most famous novel, Lolita. I read it once and have never reread it.

The British computer scientist Martin Ward has a site dedicated to G.K. Chesterton, with a fair bit of his work on-line.

I lent a copy of Nabokov's _Verse and Versions_ to a friend, and the cheap binding finally gave out. Look for his poetry, also,

Yes. As a reader and speaker of the English language, you are absolutely required to read Lolita as soon as possible. It is one of the best novels ever.

Lolita is great. If you like puzzles, you might also consider Pale Fire, which is bizarre, but quite rewarding if you get into it.

Influence, Predictably Irrational, Fooled by Randomness, The Blank Slate, House of Cards, and Planar Microwave Engineering come to mind.


- Collapse by Jared Diamond, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collapse_%28book%29 about how we over-exploit our planet.

- The Lucifer Principle by Howard Bloom, psychological and cultural explanations of how humans react to "memes" amongst other gems of knowledge.

- The Eschaton series by Charles Stross (sci-fi).

"Maverick" by Ricardo Semler - This book is about the company Semco in Brazil and challenges everything you think you know about business. Semler advocates radical ideas like public self-set salaries and workplace democracy. I don't necessarily agree with everything in the book, but the ideas sure are interesting.

"Blood Meridian" by Cormac McCarthy "War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy "What to Listen For in Music" by Aaron Copland

Two of my favorite books that are freely available online, both in the genre of post-singularity utopian science fiction:



Capitalism and Freedom - Milton Friedman

For non technical easy reads you might try:

River of America Books (History of specific Rivers)------ American Trails Series (History of specific Trails)------ Great Game - Peter Hopkirk------ Black Lamb & Gray Falcon - Rebecca West - About Yugoslavia---- Lyndon Johnson - Robert Caro - (3 books)

Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin - a great blow by blow account of the financial crisis shortly after the fall of Bear Stearns. A really amazing look at how decisions are made under extraordinary pressure. It is fast paced and reads almost like a movie.

I second that - 2/3 through and have a hard time putting it down. It's written in a way that outsiders can understand the hour-by-hour details of the crisis. While some of his opinions are clear, it seems mostly objective.

Born to Run

A book which touches on how we evolved to be super distance runners and "persistence" hunters.

Maybe not as high brow as some of the other suggestions here but I really enjoyed Stephen King's Under The Dome. It's basically a story of small town political corruption and the human tendency to be easily exploited by dictatorial types in a crisis.

I made a google spreadsheet for those who didn't want to sort through the list:


Guns, Germs and Steel - still reading it but one of the best I 've read so far..

I may have to read that book again everyone seems to highly recommend it and the first pass was for a history class so my mind probably wasn't that into it.

The only thing that really sticks out to me about that book right now was the use of the wheel in childrens' toys where terrain and usability were not suitable.

I'm reading this right now. I was forced to read it back in high school, but it is so much better the second time!

After that you should read "Collapse", it's even better than Guns,Germs and steel imo.

no it's not. It's a good read, but not as seminal or breath taking as Guns, Germs and Steel, a true modern classic.

Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

Consider Phlebas, by Iain M. Banks

Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins

Business Stripped Bare, by Richard Branson

Programming Collective Intelligence, by Toby Segaran

Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig

+1 for Selfish Gene, read a few years ago.

Interesting/Recommended: The Snowball, Alice Schroeder

Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts

The Art of Happiness, HH Dalai Lama

Getting Things Done (I know I'm late to the party...)

Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford (I heard about that one here, thank-you HN)

On Writing, Stephen King

I got myself a Sony Reader mid-2009 and started reading about twice more than I had been before. 2009 was also the first year in which I wasn't too lazy to document which books I read (I'm really glad I wasn't). Here're some of the favourites this year:


Kafka's The Process and America - both stunning novels that deserve to be read as much as his most famous, The Castle.

Jan Potocki, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa - a trippy collection of tales organised in multiple nested frames.

Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina. Still as breathtaking as I'd remembered it from the previous reading five years ago.

Science Fiction:

Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun. Wolfe, whom I hadn't read before, turns out to be in a class of his own. It's literary SF, overwhelmingly masterful and beautiful in its prose and characters, yet it could give any hardcore SF novel a run in terms of its ideas. It demands and richly rewards a close reading. I'll be reading more Wolfe in 2010.

Ted Chiang, collected stories. Chiang writes only stories, and has written just a few of them, but nearly every one is a gem. Read Understand on the web (http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/stories/under.htm) to see if you like his style - I do.

Vernor Vinge, A Deepness in the Sky, The Peace War, Marooned in Realtime. All great novels, but start from A Fire Upon the Deep (I read that in 2008) if you haven't read Vinge before, it's the best introduction.

Greg Egan, Diaspora, Quarantine, Distress. Egan is the best hardcore SF author out there. _Diaspora_ is a fascinating take on shared simulated reality that's very different from the usual fare. Quarantine will appeal to your inner quantum mechanical geek.

Contemporary fiction:

Pynchon, V. Pynchon is the best novelist we've got. I recommend The Crying of the Lot 49 as the best Pynchon to start from; V is more difficult and much longer, but rewards the patience. I still can't get over the fact that Pynchon wrote and published this novel when he was 26.

Orhan Pamuk, The Black Book.

Annie Proulx, Fine Just The Way It Is. A new collection of stories from the best writer about rural America out there. Three are extraordinary, two so-so, the rest very good.


W. Sidney Allen, Vox Graeca and Vox Latina. If you want to know how ancient Greek and Latin sounded, these are the books to read.

Elizabeth Lloyd. The Case Of The Female Orgasm. An interesting study into how available evolutionary explanations of female orgasm fail in various ways. This is a book about evolutionary biology and its methodological soundness as much as it is about explaining female orgasm.


Peter Seibel, Coders at Work. A fantastic collection of interview with great programmers. The one 2009 book no hacker should be without.

Squeak by Example. Does a great job of explaining Smalltalk in general and Squeak in particular.

I agree on both Vinge & Egan recommendations. Permutation City by Egan is also quite good.

I'm amazed at the number of books you read in one year. Where do you get all the time ?

I read a lot in high school and college. After that, I continued to think of myself as reading a lot, but the reality slowly diverged from the self-image. A few years ago, I noticed the gap and decided to fix it. I realized that while I absolutely loved reading, and never needed to convince myself to read, the time I had to devote to it just kinda slipped through the cracks here and there.

What fixed it for me was promising myself I'd try to read at least 40 pages a day. The number itself isn't very important, but it roughly translates to one book a week. Books can be thicker and thinner of course; I don't consciously try to finish one every week, but I do consciously try to read 40 pages a day - and more than that is even better. It seemed like a tacky thing to do at first; if I love reading, would I really need to try and force myself to? But the point of the resolution is not to force yourself, it's to keep reading in the list of desired activities as you go through the day. It works to keep the thought closer to the foreground, as a kind of a mental hack. The other part of this "method", and it's absolutely essential, is not to "punish" yourself by assigning yourself the double dose if you fail to read at all one day. Keeping an account of "debts" this way is too forced and quickly leads to abandoning the whole idea. If I read just a little or not at all one day, for whatever reason, I just try to read 40 pages the next day.

Results: I read about 50 books in 2008 (didn't keep tabs). In 2009, I got a Sony Reader in May and switched to reading books mostly on the device. I read a bit over 80 books in 2009, and will probably read about a hundred this year. The time to do is mostly the time I would waste here and there on the net relatively meaninglessly (like checking my email, Google Reader, HN and reddit twice as often or something; with reading many books, I'm still able to do all that, and write a high-traffic blog, and work full-time). I also try to find little chunks of time here and there: I read in a cafe, in the lavatory, sometimes at lunch. I carry my ebook reader with me nearly all the time, and if someone's late to a meeting at work and everybody's waiting, I read for a few minutes; and so on.

TL;DR: Nah, just read it all :)

I am not trying to compete or brag but I read 22 books last year and just finished my first book this year (75% read before 1st Jan): http://dl.dropbox.com/u/578454/Screen%20shot%202010-01-01%20...

I am a slow reader and I do have quite a bit more free time than most people (I work from home). I read very slowly but I have patience to read over long period. This year I hope to read around 30 books, if things goes according to plan.

I used to be a serious reader, but last 10 years or so (before 2009) I was completely out of touch with books (besides academic reading). Thanks to this women (http://www.readallday.org/) I got inspired to read again.

I read ~40 books in 2009, so maybe I can answer this as well: my commute to the office is a 30 minute train ride - it certainly helps having an hour each day to sit down and read while getting to work (and beats the hell out of driving).

Интересно было бы прочесть Ваши отзывы на Каренину и Гетсби. Мне, например, очень любопытно, что Вам в этих романах кажется примечательным.

Translated from Russian: I would be interested in reading your reviews of Karenina and Gatsby. I am curious what do you find remarkable in these books.

I've plans to write about both as I review the books I read in 2009 on my blog, but nothing I can put into coherent form here and right now, sorry.

Finally got around to reading some Tolstoy -- Anna Karenina.

It was terrific. Great book!

Not a 2009 book but my first book of 2010: Drive by Daniel H. Pink. A book about the science of motivation that I found so engaging that I read it in one day.

Programming in Haskell by Graham Hutton

A.I. A Modern Approach (ch 13-16) by Russell and Norvig

A Tunnel In The Sky by Robert Heinlein

The Revelation Space series (3 of the 5 books) by Alistair Reynolds

Eon/Eternity (both by Greg Bear)

The Game (Neil Strauss), hands down. Not so much that I found it useful but rather that it was very interesting to watch a guy hack society and attraction.

Harmony Silk Factory - Tash Aw

Satanic Verses - Salman Rushdi

Old Man and the Sea - Hemingway

have you read midnight's children? if so, how does satanic verses compare to that? i thought children was wonderful, but everything i've read since by rushdie has been a disappointment (often flat our boring). i often wonder if i give him another chance and take on satanic verses....

Both Grimus and Midnight's Children are great. The Satanic Verses is worth a read but not before the first two IMO.

"Great Gatsby" by F.S.Fitzgerald. Really awesome book.

Vehicles by Valentino Braitenberg -- a study of theoretical robots whose behavior is interpreted as more and more biologically plausible.

The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris -- a zoological study of homo sapiens. A classic nicely supplemented by Our Inner Ape by Frans der Waal.

The Human Animal is another fantastic book by the same author. Morris really has a fascinating perspective on human behavior and its biological origins.

Haven't quite finished it yet, but Robin Buss' modern, unabridged translation of Alexander Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell - page turner

How to win friends and influence people.

The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin

Economics in One Lesson, by Henry Hazlitt.

The Baroque Cycle, by Neal Stephenson.

I second "Economics in One Lesson" recommendation. Economics explained in an understandable way for non-economists.

Started and finished Super Freakonomics on a flight just recently. I enjoyed it a lot.

The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons. I love basketball. And Bill Simmons.

Black Hole War

Fiction, mostly.

Declare, by Tim Powers. Cold war espionage with black magic. Entertainingly bleak, and probably did a lot more weirdness with real history than I knew how to appreciate.

Producing Open Source Software (http://producingoss.com/), by Karl Fogel. A very thorough look into all sorts of practical matters in running a large open source software project.

The Engines of Light trilogy by Ken MacLeod. Entertaining, though a bit erratic. Makes a bunch of Forteana fit in a hard SF framework. Also the second MacLeod book I've read that has a weird pixie dust immortality treatment that seems incongruous with the rest of the technology level.

Matter by Iain M. Banks. Culture again after Algebraist. Still good.

The Dark Side of the Sun by Terry Pratchett. Finally got around to reading this one. Was surprisingly fresh. It would have been interesting to see Pratchett write more science fiction after this and Strata around 30 years ago.

The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke. Another old SF book. This one wasn't very fresh, seemed like two or three different novels stapled together, with bits and pieces that might work pretty well if it weren't for the other bits and pieces.

Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis. Not a lot of surprises, if you know what Warren Ellis tends to write. Basically a road trip novel through various degeneracies in America. Fun, but tends to go for gross-out warrenellisisms in favor of overall coherence.

Neuropath by Scott Bakker. A technothriller about all sorts of fun things you can do by directly rewiring peoples' brains with near-future neurosurgery. Bakker's chilly philosophical outlook doesn't pack quite the same punch in an already mostly rationalistic setting as it did in the Prince of Nothing fantasy books. Sticks with a single not particularly unsympathetic viewpoint character and therefore avoids the problem in Prince of Nothing where you'd often end up in the head of someone you really don't want to be anywhere near.

The Tao is Silent by Raymond Smullyan. Smullyan writes various essays inspired by Taoism. Quality varies, but Smullyan is generally fun to read.

On SF by Thomas Disch. Beautifully acerbic essays by someone who takes science fiction literature seriously and doesn't let it off easy. And just plain likes to insult people. Representative, though noticeably dated sample: http://www.press.umich.edu/pdf/9780472068968-1.pdf

Denner's Wreck by Lawrence Watt-Evans. Watt-Evans has an specific style of writing from what follows from the setting and premises rather than going for the most dramatically obvious plot. The results are hit-and-miss with his fantasy novels I've read, but work a lot better here, where the legends of a bronze-age civilization end up emerging from a science fiction setting. Watt-Evans' narrative style supports the plot where the traditional stories end up not really being what they seem to be.

The Official Book of Ultima by Shay Addams. It tells how Richard Garriott's obsession with programming in high school lead to the Ultima game series, which were one of the most notable computer games in the 80s and became the flagship product of Garriott's Origin Systems company. Also documents how the games grew from Ultima I being programmed by Garriot alone learning as he went along into Ultima VI developed by a large team. There is much detail about Ultima VI, which was being developed as the book was written. Much of it also conflicts with the game that ended up being released, and I ended up wondering whether this was about the game changing during production or just Addams getting his facts wrong.

Redliners by David Drake. Burned out soldiers are sent to baby-sit a planetary colonization. Fortunately for the story it turns out to be a planet full of monsters. Baen Free Library.

Accelerando, Iron Sunrise, and Singularity Sky by Charles Stross. Singularity stories.

House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski. Supernatural meta-fiction with half the story in the footnotes. Reminiscent of the movie Donnie Darko.

Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis. Private eye gets retained by the White House to track down the other U.S. Constitution. To quote William Gibson, "Stop It. You're frightening me."

Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg. Story of his teenage daughter's descent into manic psychosis.

A Hat Full of Sky and Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett. Kids' stories, so they have wall-to-wall story, unlike some of his more situational adult books.

James H. Schmitz science fiction stories. Available from the Baen Free Library of digital books.

Gangleader for a Day - Sudhir Venkatesh's illuminating story about the housing projects, crack gangs and community dynamics of south side chicago in the '90s.

Predictably Irrational - Dan Ariely explains a lot of the idiosyncracies in everyday human behavior

Thoughts Without a Thinker - Mark Epstein's enjoyable tale about buddhism and psychotherapy


SuperFreakonomics - Superficial, poorly written, overly patriotic cocktail party factoids

Great books i read in 2009

-The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort - hilarious

-Inside Steve's Brain

-Paypal Wars - old book but still very informative and relevant

-Viral Loop by Adam L. Penenberg

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