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The Best Books I Read in 2015 (gatesnotes.com)
596 points by uptown on Dec 7, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 143 comments

The Goodreads top books list is just a popularity contest. People vote for the books they recognize.

And that is bad why? At least for me, it's a bigger chance that I would enjoy a book from that list than from a list made by some professional critic.

Speaking for music best-of lists, as compiled from votes of critics: I've found these lists are not very helpful in finding music I actually care about. It's frustrating, because there seems to be so much utility there.

I've explained it like this: To get on the list, something has to be considered at-least-good by a lot of people, and this tends to reward (1) herd mentality; (2) lowest-common-denominator. The list selects against anything in any niche, even when it's excellent.

As I look back through music that has meant a lot to me, there is just not much overlap with best-of lists.

Note: I'm talking about critics-vote, pooled, best-of lists. Single-critic best-of lists don't average out niche tastes and, for the right critic-listener match, can be very helpful indeed.

Moreso for music than books, but I personally find that most of my favorites tend to have at least as many people that hate it as love it.

Neutral Milk Hotel's "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea", for example, is an extremely polarizing album. Between Mangum's nasally vocals, beginner-to-intermediate technical talent, the inclusion of saws and theramin as instruments; it all adds up to a love/hate affair. I'm not a big fan of any of Mangum's other works, but AOtS has an allure that is just... indescribably gripping.

I don't go around recommending it, but when it comes up in my playlist, I find that I am simply compelled to stop what I'm doing and listen to the entire album, which is thankfully short, as far as albums go.

Thank you. Haven't thought about that album for many years, but now that you brought it back to my attention, I'll listen to it later today - which nicely supports the point you're trying to make.

I remember a counter-example to this (which may be a fluke) a few years ago when Burial got album of the year on metacritic for a spacey, ambient dubstep record. Maybe not super-niche but definitely not mainstream.

It's not necessarily bad, but "best" books should be judged on rating, not recognition. With this rating system a book with 1000 reviews rated at 3.5 stars would score higher than a book with 500 reviews rated at 4.5 stars.

I used to balk at anything on the "best-sellers' list," assuming the majority would be poorly-written beach read material, but I realized that there can be compelling reasons to read beyond the literary merit of a particular work. Pop literature can help us understand and analyze the culture we're living in, tap into the zeitgeist, participate proactively. It can lead to moments of cognitive dissonance, for sure, but that's healthy.

I'm constantly divided between two options.

1. "Tapping into the zeitgeist and participate proactively is great." As you put it so eloquently :)

2. The alternative is to follow your own curiosity and read whatever you really have a hunger for.

Time is so limited it can get hard to choose reading material sometimes.

there's a phycological effect (I don't remember if there's a name for it) where we tend to value or rank more favourably things that are popular or familiar. Tests have been done with groups classifying newly heard songs with and without knowing a fake ranking and the group exposed to the ranking tended to follow it.

I know, but I tried one time to vote for books that I didn't recognize and it felt weird.

Yeah it's like how there always seem to be a few too many films from the last 5 years in "top 10 best films of all time" lists when the public vote for them.

Goodreads rating system is useless anyway. It's 'out of five' which means most people will give a good book a 4 or a 5 star - it's not like IMDb's more nuanced 'out of ten' rating.

They also display a bespoke meaning for the stars (i.e. 3 doesn't mean average), so for those that follow that meaning, their ratings will be different.

There is an interesting read as for the ratings on Amazon vs Goodreads vs B&N:


I find it's still a fairly good indicator. Last time I was looking for a new author I went back and compared the author's average rating. Authors I like were 4+. Authors I think are OK scored about 3.5. Authors who I won't read again were generally 3 or so.

Perhaps 'useless' is a strong word. It's good for getting a general idea but too many books hover around the 4 mark. Whereas with IMDb anything 6 and above is worth the risk.

Not to mention that Amazon acquired Goodreads in 2013. The integration makes the Amazon "best of" more likely to be aligned with Goodreads.

Do you have any evidence of that, or are you just saying 'of course Amazon must have done something'? I use goodreads and haven't noticed any changes that would cause that.

I have - mainly for Audible - I've noticed some commenters noting how there's only interest in a given book (in this case, the Arawn Cycle) because Audible did a sale on the series.

Why did Amazon purchase Goodreads?

Most people aren't active readers. Goodreads users are active readers. Amazon bought Goodreads (and other sites like Shelfari) because that's where the readers are.

I read 74 books so far this year. Most of them were purchased from Amazon.

Also, Goodreads has an active review community, and good "by reader" data for recommendations (as opposed to Amazon's "by account" data. If Amazon were smart, they'd be working very hard on improving recommendations with their Goodreads data.

Quartz: What critics agree are the best books of 2015 http://qz.com/566945/what-critics-agree-are-the-best-books-o...

I've made a habit of making my own "best books" list each year--it's a fun way to remember and distill a year's reading.

Here's the 2015 version: http://bellm.org/blog/2015/11/27/the-best-books-i-read-in-20...

Don't forget brainpickings' best-of: https://www.brainpickings.org/tag/best-of/

I haven't read it, but interesting that "Fates and Furies: A Novel" a 3.5 star novel on Amazon makes the top 20 list. Is this purely a function of sales, not ratings?

Those are editors' picks - unrelated to customer sales or ratings. This is a pretty common phenomenon in the world of literary fiction where (a) some are clearly just disappointed that the book in question isn't an easily digestible genre work and (b) many people are inclined to be especially vociferous about their opinion of something they've sunk 8 - 20 hours into.

FWIW, I thoroughly enjoyed Fates and Furies in audiobook format, although it isn't without it's flaws. Critic James Wood gave it a tepid review in The New Yorker.

Cheatsheet, without the affiliate links (another commenter posted these with affiliate links then deleted it after being called out):

The Road to Character, David Brooks - http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/081299325X

Thing Explainer, Randall Munroe - http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0544668251

Being Nixon: A Man Divided, Evan Thomas - http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0812995368

Sustainable Materials With Both Eyes Open, Julian Allwood - http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/190686005X

Eradication: Ridding the World of Diseases Forever?, Nancy Leys Stepan - http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0801450586

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck - http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0345472322

Honorable Mention:

The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life, Nick Lane - http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0393088812

Nothing wrong with affiliate links if you're a regular user of this site: we're capitalists here. I make sure to include them if I link to a book, because I could use the money more than Jeff Bezos. Of course, I don't link to stuff just for the sake of linking to it, but only do so if I would have anyway. I think it's pretty clear whether someone is a spammer or not.

https://news.ycombinator.com/user?id=hullo seems to be the person who included some links. They have clearly been here a while, participates constructively, and doesn't seem to spew out a lot of affiliate links (any, actually, that I can see).

Perhaps, but taking a famous person's list of books and reposting it with affiliate links and no disclaimer is definitely crossing the line in my book.

Don't think I might have upvoted it, but it does represent a minor convenience.

Why? I'm genuinely interesting in your line of reasoning.

Profiteering in comment sections pollutes the incentives for commenters. Sure the links were useful, but they were much less useful than a person providing a really insightful comment about a typical article that shows up here. I don't want one person making monetary gain over another.

If only there was a system where we could somehow crowdsource deciding which comments are "really insightful" and which are not...

> I don't want one person making monetary gain over another.

Seems like that shipped sailed a long time ago: there are a lot of people who link to their companies, offer jobs, and that kind of thing here. Making money is not a bad thing - spamming is.

If anyone's interested, I hereby offer to spend the entirety of my ill-gotten affiliate gains on beers if anyone ever visits Bend, Oregon.

I suppose some think there is an opportunity for disingenuous posting if there is monetary gain to be had. That said, I agree with you, and knowing I have posted affiliate links without trying, I think any malice attributed to it is misplaced.

With affiliate links, I sometimes make upwards of 10 dollars every few months - enough for a free book once in a while. I'll let you guess how that compares to my salary...

I think it's pretty clear from people's posting/comment history whether they're adding them in good faith or not.

Affiliate links? Like, Bill Gates gets some money when you click through his blog? Please tel me I'm misunderstanding.

No, another commenter posted links but slapped affiliate tags on them.

There are actually no direct links to Amazon (or other similar sites) in his blog posts. Parent meant other commentators in this thread.

Just to mention - you can read 'Sustainable Materials with Both Eyes Open' on the authors' website (although I'm sure they wouldn't mind people buying it on Amazon as well). http://www.withbotheyesopen.com/read.php

I'm curious, why is it that people dislike affiliate-backed links if the link is relevant, useful, interesting and of equal quality to the normal link? Seems irrational.

Anyone who refers to David Brooks as "the insightful New York Times columnist" has lost me as a reader. I can't remember the last time he had an original, or even accurate, thought.


Here are two good books:

* The Korean War: A History - Little known fact: The US took the wrong side in the Korean War by putting the former officers of the Japanese imperial army in power in Seoul. It committed countless atrocities to achieve its stalemate, including fire-bombing half the country (Germany redux) and using napalm on whole villages, a foreshadowing of Vietnam.

* Old School - A novel by Tobias Wolff. If you're tired of tired prose, try Wolff. He cares about sentences.

I skimmed your article and I'm now convinced that Albert Burneko is a mean person. That was about 3479 words of ad hominem. I have to respect such persistence.

But I have no opinion on David Brooks.

I don't think it's entirely ad-hominem. This is actually a fairly accurate description of his output:

"...He has been a reliable producer of out-of-touch, tissue-thin pronouncements on the perils of our secularized, technologized 21st century lives, virtually all of which rightly can be interpreted as passive-aggressive nostalgia for what Family Circus comics told him “outdoors” might have been like when he was a kid. You could just about set your calendar by it: In a month of Brooks, you’d get the call to begin or continue a war with Iraq or Iran, the grasping attempt to paint some cretinous Senator or presidential hopeful as the intellectual heir to Edmund Burke, and then, at last, the decline-and-fall column. You’d see a headline like “The Slow Virtues” or “The Hollow Century” or “Why the Teens Are Despicable,” and you’d know ol’ Dave’s coffee shop was out of plain croissants a week ago and the barista had a nose-ring and he’d decided he’d witnessed the death of the Western moral tradition."

There are few things as satisfying to read as a witty denouncement. Sometimes the accuracy (which I have no knowledge of) can rightly take a backseat to the theater, as long as you remember to not take it too seriously.

This is a sentiment that makes no sense to me. Instead of remembering to not take it too seriously and enjoying the theater (regardless of accuracy), why not remember that the target of such articles is a real person and not an abstract object to be harmlessly ridiculed. Why celebrate meanness?

> Why celebrate meanness?

Because meanness stands at the basis of our Western civilization, of which this website is more or less a part of. Think of Cicero's "Catiline Orations", which was an ad-hominem attack through and through, Aristophanes's plays, Lucian of Samosata's works, almost everything written by Swift, Shakespeare's Marcus Antonius's speech, which is another much celebrated ad-hominem, and the list goes on and on. Adversity helps us move forward.

Is the target a person? I'm pretty sure it was a person't public product. In this case, their public words, opinions and critiques. If your job is to produce works for public consumption and you can't stand a critique of your work, you should find another career.

To clarify my earlier point, there are few things as satisfying to read as a witty evisceration of an argument or stance. For a public persona, I don't see much problem with applying it to their wider body of work as long as you think the criticism applies well overall. My earlier statement was fairly ambiguous in this respect.

This case was based on: "We should pity David Brooks, because he is not getting laid. And he is slowly losing his sanity."

The author is free to write that. But I'm not going to spread the link.

Ah, well I was commenting on the portion shown above. Taken in your expanded context, it's not something I would endorse. That said, I still stand by my (revised) point, regardless of whether it was brought about by a poor example, which is that a witty evisceration of an argument or point of view can be very satisfying.

The thread starter's point (which I tend to agree with) was specifically that this particular article was ad-hominem and mean.

But my comment wasn't meant to be a continuation of that discussion, but a digression. A poor choice for one though, as is obvious now.

Ah, I see. Fair enough! I agree that witty arguments are enjoyable to read, I just don't like take-downs so much.

Shall we create a safespace for beigeist conservative think pieces?

He also describes himself as a third wave feminist, and was an early advocate of the conservative argument for gay marriage.

Indeed. Here's a Radio Yerevan take on Brooks' writings, from Language Log:

> Question to Language Log: Is it correct that if you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing, while if you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swim?

> Answer: In principle, yes. But first of all, it wasn't a representative sample of Americans, it was undergraduates in a psychology course at the University of Michigan; and second, it wasn't Chinese, it was undergraduates in a psychology course at Kyoto University in Japan; and third, it wasn't a fish tank, it was 10 20-second animated vignettes of underwater scenes; and fourth, the Americans didn't mention the "focal fish" more often than the Japanese, they mentioned them less often.

From: Reality v. Brooks - http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=19531

That's a pretty lame critique. It seems they're purposefully reading the wrong study, since there is another study that focuses on Chinese students and backs up Brooks' article.


http://www.personal.psu.edu/faculty/n/x/nxy906/COMPS/CLT/cul... (full text)

The critique is of how Brooks handles reporting facts in general. The joke I quoted is based on a specific example Brooks gave, which is traced to its original source (Brooks mentioned one of the authors, Nisbett - see http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=478).

I linked to the other page because it contains links to about a dozen other posts looking into Brooks' writing.

There might be other evidence supporting his general point, but then he should be citing that evidence, not twisting the facts or making things up.

Read the column. He's very obviously talking about multiple studies. The Nisbett study was about farm animals, not fish.


> When the psychologist Richard Nisbett showed Americans individual pictures of a chicken, a cow and hay and asked the subjects to pick out the two that go together, the Americans would usually pick out the chicken and the cow.

That one also appears in the llog posts if you follow the links: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=478

As far as I can tell, their critique is correct in that the research Brooks cites isn't enough to support the claims that he wants to make.

I meant that Nisbett's name was mentioned in the column (regarding the farm animals, yes), and that this allowed the study with underwater scenes to be found, namely http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11708567.

Besides other responses, language log is not a reliable source. I stopped reading when I got bored of the intentional misreading and mockery they use to position themselves as smarter than everyone.

I wouldn't be so sure about "purposefully": they are reading the same book (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=478, the book is https://books.google.ca/books?id=525HX623L_cC), but it seems on page 90 instead of 116. Brooks doesn't link to the study itself, not mentioning authors' names, so I think they made a guess about which study he meant.

I agree that that "other study" looks at Chinese rather than Japanese students, and it's high school + grad students rather than undergrads; but, still, let's compare what Brooks says with the reality.

Brooks: "If you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing. If you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swim."

The study: (1) Not a real fish tank but short animated vignettes. (2) All the fish were the same size, so anything Brooks says about "the biggest fish" can't possibly apply. (3) The only "context within which the fish swim" was provided by the other fish. (4) The experimental subjects were not "asked to describe a fish tank". They were asked specific questions like "To what extent do the blue fish's movements seem influenced by the other fish?". (5) The differences were not about whether experimental subjects described one particular fish or the context in which the fish swim. (6) The differences found were far smaller than "Americans usually do X, Chinese people usually do Y".

Here's the biggest effect they found: they asked "To what extent do the blue fish's movements seem influenced by internal factors?" and took answers on a scale from 1 to 5: 1 = hardly at all, 2 = slightly, 3 = moderately, 4 = greatly, 5 = almost entirely. In one category of cartoons, which the experimenters term "compulsion", American high-schoolers gave an average answer of 3.17 and Chinese high-schoolers an average answer of 2.56. Second-biggest effect: same cartoons, but now asking "To what extent do the blue fish's movements seem influenced by the other fish?". American: 3.27. Chinese: 3.61.

These, I repeat, were much the largest effects found by the study among the several cases into which they subdivided their findings. For grad students looking at the same category of cartoons, the answers were 3.07 for the Americans and 3.00 for the Chinese (first question) and 3.77/3.82 (second question). Most of the differences they found were of this sort of size, and some of them were in the "wrong" direction.

If you think this study supports Brooks's statement about what happens when Chinese and American people look at fish tanks ... well, I really don't know what to say. It's not even addressing the right question to support (or refute) Brooks's statement, and in any case the results are far weaker than Brooks implies.

I don't know anything about this guy or what he advocates, but what was David Brooks message or point in his apparently mostly made-up comparison between American and Chinese students observation habits?

You can find his article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/12/opinion/12brooks.html

I'd summarize it something like this. "Americans are individualists and Chinese are collectivists. No one knows exactly why. Individualist nations have been more successful economically, but looking at China's recent success perhaps that will change. The idea of a harmonious collective might prove attractive, since our relationships are so central to our well-being."

... Except that he adds this snarky last line: "It's certainly a useful ideology for aspiring autocrats." Which seems like it ought to be accompanied by some sort of discussion of what he's afraid of, what might be done to stave off the danger, etc., etc., etc. -- but no, he just stops there.

I haven't read much of his writings, but recurring themes are "youth today" (e.g. people used to be more humble than they are today), or how western culture is doomed.

He seems to be very careless with how he handles the facts from studies he references.

Amen on David Brooks -- I feel like I am losing my mind when he pops up with his morality expertise in the media. I regularly re-read this 2004 line-by-line analysis of his 2000 book Bobos in Paradise[0]; his writing is littered with incorrect generalizations that makes me question everything he has to say on principle.

[0] http://www.phillymag.com/articles/david-brooks-booboos-in-pa...

His strength is in political philosophy/history. There was a point when he strayed into pop-science-type inquiries about human behavior, that relied a lot on generous leaps of logic. I think that was where he got the most of his bad reputation.

But, his writings on conservative political philosophy is insightful, if not original (not something I care about personally). His old-school Burkean conservatism gives him an internally consistent, rational framework from which to critique or support the current GOP, from the center-right. It doesn't always work, but worth the read nonetheless, imo.

And, like Gates, I like his extension of that political framework as a critique of our current ideals and values.

The following are three of his less partisan articles and their top-voted comment, plucked from Brooks' most recent articles [1]

Communities of Character

"Pop sociologist Professor Brooks is at it again...."

Tales of the Super Survivors

"It certainly does, Lord Brooks..."

The Evolution of Simplicity

"If only excessive materialism and manifold opportunities were the problem in this country. I think Mr. Brooks tends to project his own affluent angst on society at large..."

This is the force, imposed by readers, to homogenize ideologically. The deluge of criticism is to be expected when a high delta exists between a columnist's ideology and their platform's. In an ideological battleground, where vilification trumps truth, I think the burden of assessing quality lies on the reader.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/column/david-brooks

I don't think that having badly photoshopped image of an opponent really prepares the reader for constructive critique of anyone's character.


I ran the hub for a BBS network. We had the best offline mail readers back then. The best feature being "twit filters". God I miss twit filters.

If I ever figure out a way to add a twit filter feature to my web consumption, David Brooks will be the very first pundit added to the list.

Eli Pariser alerted us to the dangers of The Filter Bubble. I wish we lived in a world without trolls and useful idiots. Until then, I agreed with Clay Shirky: we need better filters.

Ah yes, David Brooks, who once complained about an extravagant around-the-world trip because he couldn't stop to stare at a painting for four hours like another famous person once did. He's the worst kind of middlebrow writer.

That article is brutal--thanks for the laugh and the book recommendations!

Germany redux? US dropped more bombs in Korea.

David Brooks is the 'intellectual' for conservative rich white new yorkers who want to feel cultured and insightful but lack any self-critical impulse. The New York Times version of "kids today..."

I'm always sad that lists like this from tech people never contain any fiction.

I have often seen the sentiment that everything you read should have some kind of educational value or it's just a waste of time.

Does Bill Gates not read fiction? Perhaps he understands that he would be looked down on if he were to include some in his list.

If you look through past years, you'll see that Gates does indeed read and even occasionally recommend works of fiction.

I think part of it too is feeling qualified to (publicly & prominently) judge fiction, which doesn't come as naturally to as many folks as judging "ideas" on a nonfiction list like this may – & particularly with the extended write-ups Gates is doing.

Right. book lists like this are in service of political goals. Far fewer fiction books promot promote a clear polical vision.

They surely contain fiction, just the authors' don't admit it :-)

-from a fellow fiction lover

Here is one example of fiction: http://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/The-Rosie-Project

You show follow John Carmack[0] or Elon Musk[1] on twitter. They keep making my sci fi queue grow (John more so than Elon though).

[0] https://twitter.com/ID_AA_Carmack

[1] https://twitter.com/elonmusk

Speaking of science fiction, I've just been rereading Ken MacLeod's Fall Revolution [0] series. Great stuff, and I totally agree with Kim Stanley Robinson's assessment: "He is writing revolutionary SF. A nova has appeared in our sky."

[0] The Star Fraction, The Stone Canal, The Cassini Division, and The Sky Road.

Thanks! I just bought The Star Fraction purely on your recommendation... I find gambling like that pays off big, sometimes.

To return the favor, I recommend you try Blindsight and its sequel Echopraxia, by Peter Watts. Those were two of my favorite books of 2015 (the books are older, but I only found them this year).

Unusual, but awesome, SF.

I just read both of those earlier this year, based partially on recommendations on HN.

Speaking of book recommendations, try almost any book reviewed in Jo Walton's collection of essays: *What Makes This Book So Great?. I read and bought about the first half-dozen or so that I hadn't already read, and there was only one that I didn't enjoy thoroughly, and more because it was too much of an emotional downdraft than because it was badly written, which it wasn't at all.

In eras when speech carries risk, facts can be spun into fiction and fiction can be a safe carrier of dangerous facts.

This isn't a list from a tech person but a list from a ghostwriter for a retired billionaire businessman. Its going to have to be bland and vaguely uncontroversial. So it can't be fiction or biography and comedy is iffy.

Here let me try. On my non-fiction pile is Clojure for the Brave and True. Look how I'm signalling. I'm bland and inoffensive because its nonfiction. I'm playing the signalling game so you can play along with me. I'm quirky and interesting because its a semi exotic language and paradigm. I'm leading the pack because its new, or at least recently was kinda new, both the book and the language. I'm altruistic and all around nice guy (true story!) because buying the book basically funds the free website. Its a great book to signal because its common and popular enough that if I have to explain the book or its topic or its funding model to you, you probably don't belong on the site (nothing personal, of course, I'm just saying I donno how you'd be here without the common background). Its also a pretty good book. I like the author's writing style and I can signal my good taste to you all.

Now lets try some pseudonymous public declaration of biography. Two days ago I finished "Battle on the Loomba" which is pretty obscure so I'll explain it. This kid (literally a kid) gets drafted into the south african army in the late 80s, and participates in the craziest, most one sided, most dramatic, largest armor battle in Africa in half a century, second only to Rommel's actions in sheer size and intensity. And thats about it. I was slightly disappointed, as a biography of a kid it missed all the strategic / tactical goodness I like. I like wargames and hex based maps with chits all over them. Then again, as a short biography and memoir it was OK and interesting to compare his experiences to my own army service in the USA a couple years later. Now look how horrific the signalling is for this biography. First of all every race now hates me, because race was totally F'ed up in that conflict, so the S.A. govt he was fighting for is hated by the blacks and white progs for obvious reasons, yet the specific fight was to defend a neighboring black country against the Cuban invasion which on the surface appears dumb but the S.A. govt didn't want a failed communist state or civil war state right on their border, well anyway it was complicated and basically every race on the planet can cherry pick a side to hate and transfer that abstract hate of a historical event to me because I voluntarily read the book, which ironically almost never discusses race directly. Also I'm a warmongering bloodthirsty killer because I sometimes read military related books, which is about as stupid as claiming I'm a professional french chef because I've read a few cookbooks in my day, of course hatred and signalling are invariably irrational and illogical. Also its frankly only a so so book, I'd give it an honest 5/10 which means half the worlds books are worse, and that signalling makes me look like an idiot, people are only supposed to signal stuff they are 100% behind as fanatic supporters, so I'm some wishy washy lunatic with bad taste (may even be true!). All reviews "MUST" be either 10/10 or 0/10 rants, wtf can I even claim to be part of modern internet culture without applying that basic rule? Anyway the signalling sucks for biography and fiction, never ever discuss it in public. Ever. Even if you read it, or even if your ghostwriter thinks it would be interesting or great progressive signalling.

Comedy is 50/50. XKCD from the link is safe, but if it was George Carlin or Bill Cosby the race baiters would be out in force. "Yeah Cosby was funny but you know what he, and now by extension, you, did to those young women?" etc etc.

I feel like I can get my fix of fiction via TV and movies which is probably close to one hundred hours per month, perhaps more. More fiction is not what I need right now. I suspect most people's media consumption follows mine. Books are great for learning while TV/movies are great for storytelling. Yes, I understand the benefits of the novel, but its value proposition for me from a time perspective is very poor, especially since the standard length of the novel is a lot of filler to meet commercial expectations (I'm not paying fifteen bucks for 120 pages!). Most fiction books I've read can easily be edited down to novella length and lose next to nothing of substance.

Conversely, My wife consumes nothing but fiction. I find that pretty sad honestly.

Movies are for short stories, but they remain superficial. I like reading fiction because it takes me on a journey through a world. It's always a bit sad when a great book ends, because it means saying goodbye to a world. Trying to read a good book faster is like trying to receive a backrub faster, it makes no sense. The whole point of a book is going slow.

I used to read a lot of non-fiction but mostly stopped when i realised a year down the line i retained very little, and i wasn't actually enjoying the read.

(Most) Books contain relatively little violence, sex, and especially sexualized violence in comparison to TV and movies. When study after study has shown that what you consume affects how you think, I find this a huge point in favor of books. The amount that people are (and the amount that i have been) desensitized to violence today is insane.

I would say they also leave more room for plot development and concise endings. Most shows today drag on for season after season and don't have satisfying culminations. I've also seen very few movies that can make me think like a work of fiction can. Seeing the world through another relatable person's eyes can be a very profound experience.

Ignoring fiction or non fiction is a tragedy in my opinion.

Every time is see a post like this I get the urge to pretentiously rant about the ongoing decline of appreciation for aesthetic values. Tech culture often seems completely tonedeaf on artistic issues. Talking about the "value proposition" of the novel is borderline comical. If the fiction books you've read could be edited down to novella length, you should read better fiction books.

I have no idea how we got to a place where the value of Tolstoy, Cervantes, Flaubert, etc. needs to be defended from Breaking Bad and cinema (not that there's anything wrong with Breaking Bad and cinema). But apparently most people currently seem to be at a point where if they read the first few pages of "Lectures on Literature" they'd just squint their eyes, cock their heads, and proceed to not understand one part of what it means to "remain a little aloof and take pleasure in this aloofness while at the same time we keenly enjoy—passionately enjoy, enjoy with tears and shivers—the inner weave of a given masterpiece"

At my age I've already read those authors and pretty much all the celebrated classics. I'm not sure why you think I haven't. Also, to be completely honest, many/some of those classics are fairly over-rated.

>Every time is see a post like this I get the urge to pretentiously rant about the ongoing decline of appreciation for aesthetic values.

Everytime I meet someone like you I poke into their true reading habits and its a lot of YA stuff, chick-lit, top 20 pop-culture junk, etc. Just because you read a classic once doesn't mean that the entire medium known as books gets free pass. Sturgeon's law applies to all art if we're being honest with ourselves.

The fact that fiction comes at the cost of reading non-fiction cannot be swept under the rug. Its a completely valid concern. Those in my peer group can tell me all about $popular_scifi and $popular_chicklit but not much else.

Its pretentious to think that fiction is magically superior to all other forms of communication. I think we'll look back at how incredibly overly-entertained we are today and wonder how we lived such shallow lives. That's a narrative no one talks about: how much fiction we're constantly consuming and the incredibly low quality of it all. Most people have the information consumption habits equal to eating junk food for every meal and yet they have the gumption to pretend they're mighty intellectuals on the mountain barking wisdom to us idiots below because they falsely assume consuming carefully crafted fiction designed to sell is some strange esoteric intellectual pursuit. No, its the kid reading some tech manual and building something original who's doing something intellectual and esoteric, not the girl downing Hunger Games, Twilight, and Divergent trilogies on the bus and giving snide looks to the "nerds" around her who don't get "literature." Then she goes from the bus to the boob/youtube and zones out for hours until bedtime then back to work/school. That's a sad life and if you're honest with yourself, you'd agree with me.

Gates has also reviewed all of these books in more detail on gatesnotes.com. Here's the link to the Thing Explainer review (which I ordered today) - http://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/Thing-Explainer

Others Below:

Eradiation: http://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/Eradication

Mindset: http://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/Mindset-The-New-Psychology-o...

The Road To Character: http://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/The-Road-to-Character

Being Nixon: http://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/Being-Nixon

Sustainable Materials: http://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/Sustainable-Materials-With-B...

Randall Monroe is currently doing a book tour so you can hear him speak and get a signed copy if you're in the right place at the right time.

He was at NASA in Houston today.....

Did anyone read the books he recommended last year? Were they worthwhile?

I went through his list last year and selected two books that got my attention.

The first is a book about the rise of the shipping container. Really informative and clearly describes the design process behind a technique we've always taken for granted. It's a historical account mainly, starting from the idea all the way to modern day shipping.


The second, which I read through the first few chapters of, describes the origins of the steam engine, but it was a bit bland for my tastes.


Both are interesting books to be frank so I'd recommend at least checking them out.

Yeah, The Box is a good read. A few years old now.

I dunno, but I've read some of the books from this year's list and I liked them. Especially Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, although I think it was a bit longer than it needed to be. It's a high value book, but I got most of the value from the first chapter.

In 2010, Bill Gates praised books by Vaclav Smil, a professor emeritus of environment and geography at the University of Manitoba.[1]

It's true that Smil's books are packed with facts and ideas about ecology issues.

But much before Smil, Buckminster Fuller had urged every engineer to ask the question 'How much does the structure weigh?' From that starting point, Fuller went on to design geodesic domes and other light weight structures of immense strength and no weight.[2]

Shortly after Bill Gates made Vaclav Smil famous as his go-to person on ecology, Wired got Smil’s take on the problems facing America and the world.[3]

From the Wired article,

> WIRED: Let’s talk about manufacturing. You say a country that stops doing mass manufacturing falls apart. Why?

> SMIL: In every society, manufacturing builds the lower middle class. If you give up manufacturing, you end up with haves and have-nots and you get social polarization. The whole lower middle class sinks.

The share of manufacturing in all jobs has been declining steadily in the US since 1950. The service sector has always had a larger share than manufacturing. The ability of poorly educated males in the US in the 1950s and 1960s was due to limited competition from other countries. Once other countries also built up their educated people, the US wage rates had to suffer, relatively speaking. It does not matter which sector these poorly educated people are employed in – the problem is that they are poorly educated but want high wages, and this is no longer competitive.

> WIRED: You also say that manufacturing is crucial to innovation.

> SMIL: Most innovation is not done by research institutes and national laboratories. It comes from manufacturing—from companies that want to extend their product reach, improve their costs, increase their returns. What’s very important is in-house research. Innovation usually arises from somebody taking a product already in production and making it better: better glass, better aluminum, a better chip. Innovation always starts with a product. Look at LCD screens. Most of the advances are coming from big industrial conglomerates in Korea like Samsung or LG. The only good thing in the US is Gorilla Glass, because it’s Corning, and Corning spends $700 million a year on research.

Under Smil's nose, Microsoft, Google and Apple and cellphones have changed the world – with hugely disruptive innovation almost equal to the invention of the printing press. But, if you are looking at the wrong place, you will not see innovation that has improved the lives of billions around the world.

> WIRED: Can IT jobs replace the lost manufacturing jobs?

> SMIL: No, of course not. These are totally fungible jobs. You could hire people in Russia or Malaysia—and that’s what companies are doing.

Not the IT innovation jobs. There’s no IT innovation coming from these countries.

> WIRED: Restoring manufacturing would mean training Americans again to build things.

> SMIL: Only two countries have done this well: Germany and Switzerland. They’ve both maintained strong manufacturing sectors and they share a key thing: Kids go into apprentice programs at age 14 or 15. You spend a few years, depending on the skill, and you can make BMWs. And because you started young and learned from the older people, your products can’t be matched in quality. This is where it all starts.

Again looking at the wrong place. The quality of Japanese cars beats almost any manufacturer in the price range. Toyotas are world-class – even beating VW.

> WIRED: You claim Apple could assemble the iPhone in the US and still make a huge profit.

> SMIL: It’s no secret! Apple has tremendous profit margins. They could easily do everything at home. The iPhone isn’t manufactured in China—it’s assembled in China from parts made in the US, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, and so on. The cost there isn’t labor. But laborers must be sufficiently dedicated and skilled to sit on their ass for eight hours and solder little pieces together so they fit perfectly.

Agreed – Apple could make huge profits even if the iPhone is assembled in the US. But, Apple would not pay them $30/hour, which is what you need to support a lower middle-class life.

> WIRED: But Apple is supposed to be a giant innovator.

> SMIL: Apple! Boy, what a story. No taxes paid, everything made abroad—yet everyone worships them. This new iPhone, there’s nothing new in it. Just a golden color. What the hell, right? When people start playing with color, you know they’re played out.

Agreed that iPhone 5 is no innovation. But, iPhone and iPad did not come from Germany or Switzerland!

> WIRED: Your other big subject is food. You’re a pretty grim thinker, but this is your most optimistic area. You actually think we can feed a planet of 10 billion people—if we eat less meat and waste less food.

> SMIL: We pour all this energy into growing corn and soybeans, and then we put all that into rearing animals while feeding them antibiotics. And then we throw away 40 percent of the food we produce. Meat eaters don’t like me because I call for moderation, and vegetarians don’t like me because I say there’s nothing wrong with eating meat. It’s part of our evolutionary heritage! Meat has helped to make us what we are. Meat helps to make our big brains. The problem is with eating 200 pounds of meat per capita per year. Eating hamburgers every day. And steak. You know, you take some chicken breast, cut it up into little cubes, and make a Chinese stew—three people can eat one chicken breast. When you cut meat into little pieces, as they do in India, China, and Malaysia, all you need to eat is maybe like 40 pounds a year.

Agreed, if this can be done. But, that’s not the world trend, Chinese per capita consumption of meat has gone up many times in recent years.

[1] http://www.gatesnotes.com/Energy/Important-Books-About-Energ...

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buckminster_fuller

[3] http://www.wired.com/2013/11/vaclav-smil-wired/

>But, Apple would not pay them $30/hour, which is what you need to support a lower middle-class life.

I'd say about half that, at least in the Midwest.

Perhaps I'm misunderstanding, but these quotes make Smil seem almost neo-luddite.

If anyone is interested in the book Sustainable Materials, it's free: http://www.withbotheyesopen.com/read.php

For me, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is hands down the best book of 2015: http://hpmor.com/

Thanks, looks interesting.

"Waking up: A guide to spirituality without religion" by neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris. Don't be so quick to dismiss it please, give it a try. It's not mysticism.

If you liked this book, or if it just sounds interesting, Sam Harris' podcast is a treasure - Waking Up with Sam Harris[1]

1. http://www.samharris.org/podcast

It's not mysticism

It's the opposite of mysticism. It's a great neuroscientist-based look at meditation. I'd highly recommend it if you're interested in meditation but put off by all the mumbo jumbo you get from many other sources of meditation info.

But my chakras..

Atheist material.

If you like fantasy, there are three series you need to read:

The Blade Itself (3 books)

The Kingkiller Chronicle (waiting on third and final book)

The Stormlight Archive (waiting on third and final book)

The Blade Itself (3 books)

There are 3 more books which read like sequels (same world, same heroes).

The Kingkiller Chronicle (waiting on third and final book)

We've been waiting for years and still no information if this book is even in the works

The Stormlight Archive (waiting on third and final book)

Ten books are planned in the series. See wikipedia for reference.

The 3rd book in The Stormlight Archive series will not be the last. It is planned to be a 10-book series

That's good news! Dunno why I thought it was three books.

I've read two of Nick Lane's books: he is a fantastic writer, and writes about hard-core biology that will set your brain on fire.


I have nothing against affiliate links, but you should try to add value rather than just copy Gates' list, and you really should declare their use explicitly rather than implicitly via a link shortener.

[Update: Rather than delete your post, you could have added your impressions of the books (or recommended better ones) and merely mentioned the use of affiliate links.]

Fair enough, an experiment.

Thing Explainer is fantastic. Some of the best presentations of complicated ideas I've ever seen. It's a spinoff from this classic: https://xkcd.com/1133/

Also check out a similar piece on general relativity: http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/the-space-doctors-big...

I've just bought this for my son in the hope that it will encourage him to actually read something rather than always look stuff up on YouTube.

If you like books on making things, you might like my book: http://brianknapp.me/creative-pursuit/ It's $0.99 on Amazon, but if you want a free copy, just email me hi@brianknapp.me and I'll send you one.

Re: "The Road To Character", an interview of the author on On Point in April:


I wonder how much that video must have cost him! It's such a great production. I really like the way the table and the props match the theme of the relevant book. I'm guessing $10K for the one minute video?

I'm sure he's got video people on staff, so probably very little marginal cost. Look back at some older posts, there are a lot of videos. Here's one from last week about his dad's 90th birthday:


I second the review of Mindset by Carol Dweck. This book is a result of her work studying these issues as a psychologist. Re-posting my summary:

Two mindsets:

Fixed mindset - talents, abilities and intelligence are fixed, endowed

Growth mindset - talents, abilities and intelligence are learned and can be developed

These mindsets are learned, and have fundamentally different reactions to challenges. The two-mindsets model is a simplification for the purposes of explanation.


The growth mindset embraces failure as a necessary part of learning. In fact failure is a indicator of an area for potential growth, if the opportunity is taken to overcome that failure. The fixed mindset avoids and fears failure; it is taken as evidence of a hard limit of your endowed talent.


The growth mindset sees effort as necessary to mastery. Almost any level of mastery may be attainable with the right regimen of practice. Obstacles are a normal part of mastery and must be overcome as a matter of course in order to grow. Criticism is not taken personally, but used to indicate areas for improvement and growth.

The fixed mindset sees effort as producing only small effects compared to their fixed ability. May be more prone to give up in the face of obstacles since it is thought that there is no new mastery to be gained. Criticism is more likely to be taken personally, as the individual identifies with the perceived limits of their ability and thinks that improvement is impossible beyond a certain point.

Perceiving others

The growth mindset is not threatened by others’ abilities. Others’ examples may serve to inspire. The fixed mindset is more likely to be jealous of others’ abilities since they are perceived to be highly desirable gifts and the result of luck and circumstance.

Teaching Children

Praise children by emphasizing their work and persistence. Do not use labels like “smart” or “gifted” that would reinforce a mindset of fixed abilities.


Growth oriented mindset is more likely to be understanding and ready to learn from experience. Fixed mindset sees problems as a result of unchangeable personal attributes and are pessimistic about change. More likely to have unrealistic expectations, like not having to work at a relationship that is “meant to be”.


Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth and Wilma Rudolph are given as examples of overcoming early setbacks with a growth mindset.

Last chapter is a “workshop” of situations and questions to help you develop a growth mindset.

Is "The Mindset" a new edition? If so, is it worth reading if you are familiar with the original one?

For people who haven't read it BTW, I highly recommend it, especially if you are a parent.

"Blood Meridian" by Cormac McCarthy

"Flash Boys: Not So Fast: An Insider's Perspective on High-Frequency Trading" by Peter Kovac

"Snow Crash" by Neal Stephenson

Anyone here like me who is happy to have read one (or very few) fiction books[0] during 2015?

[0]: Books you read primarily for someone kids not included ;-)

Is The Three-Body Problem worth reading?

It's terrible sci-fi but the sci-fi bit is only there to draw moralistic parallels between aliens and the Chinese. Some gruelling stories about China's culturual revolution that were pretty interesting but otherwise it's pretty bad. I'm sure the quality of the writing is lost in translation so I'm not complaining about that - just talking about the story.

Yes. It's excellent sci Fi with some fantasy elements. There's a completely different writing style that is a bit reminiscent of Asian movies, which I thought was pretty cool.

I thought it was quite fascinating, both the sci-fi and the storyline. Strong recommend

These are list of must read books next year- How i wish i was aware of this books before now, i would have digest all by now. Not late , will still read them

I can't read any of that because I'm distracted by the mental image of Bill telling someone the best books he read, with some conversation, and that person asking some questions while writing notes, then spending hours in front of his laptop, emailing a draft to someone else, who asks Bill a few more questions then returns a draft to someone else who finalizes it and publishes on "GatesNotes" written as if he sat down on his blogging backend and typed it out in a textfield.

I have no idea the process behind this website, but it seems unlikely enough that he'd sit down and write it himself that I can't take it seriously. From what little I read, it doesn't sound like something produced directly from him without first passing through others, at least for formatting and correction.

I think people read these notes for the "big ideas" presented, not for the majestic prose of Bill Gates. Given that, why do you care who assembles and copyedits the information for him?

It's kind of like if you turned on TV to watch the President's speech, and noticed it was a computer-generated 3D representation. It wouldn't be distracting? He's saying all these things, and I can't receive the message because all I see is a puppet pretending to be a man. I'm wondering about who actually wrote it, how many people it took to animate, whether it's even an authentic message or if it's part of some propagandic theatre.

I think if someone is going to use their personal name on a website, they should actually write it. Otherwise, it's deceptive. If it's going to be a team effort, then call it a different name, and don't show a big picture of your face at the top of the screen.

I was once berated for posting a blog article on how to build a multitude of data structures, in 3 different programming languages. The reason for this was because "This is hacker news, and this article is first year computing science stuff." - Yet Bill gates reads a book about Richard Nixon, and suddenly it is the top item on here, even though it is in no way related to anything technical. I'm out, this place is most definitely a circle jerk at this point.

It might be that people see this headline and are interested in returning later to skim the book list and all of the other lists linked here in the comments.

Upvoting Bill's book list might not mean they like his list, think it belongs at the top of HN, or that they even read the blog post. The top-of-front-page ranking could just be the result of a large number of readers upvoting in order to have the discussion show up in their "saved stories".

edit: A "save story" button that is independent of the voting/ranking mechanism might actually change the front page significantly.

Conversely, the list of most saved stories seems more useful than most upvoted.

You are paying too much attention to one internet rando's disapproval.

I wish that were the case, except there were over a hundred comments, about how it didn't belong on here because it isn't of a high enough standard for hacker news. I still write a well known advanced programming blog, but I don't share links here as a result - I have found better outlets for content which actually concerns people in tech circles, as opposed to things like : "Why I scrapped X and did Y", "X is broken, we are fixing it", "Bill Gates read a book, Click here to see what it is! - You will never believe number 3!"

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