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YC's 2015 Reading List (themacro.com)
238 points by 0x54MUR41 on Dec 20, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 71 comments

Great share!

I noticed something funny about myself after reading Ayn Rand - I found her writing influenced my mindset and made me (personally - not casting this on all Rand fans) more isolationist, individualist, and just a little bit more of an asshole.

Interested by that phenomenon, I've been on the lookout for books that might subtly influence my perspective in ways that would make me warmer, kinder, more sympathetic/empathetic.

Two of these recommendations look spot-on for that. Purchased:

The Road to Character

"Focuses on the deeper values that should inform our lives. Responding to what he calls the culture of the Big Me, which emphasizes external success, Brooks challenges us, and himself, to rebalance the scales between our “résumé virtues”—achieving wealth, fame, and status—and our “eulogy virtues,” those that exist at the core of our being: kindness, bravery, honesty, or faithfulness, focusing on what kind of relationships we have formed."

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar

"Cheryl Strayed was an advice columnist called Dear Sugar, and this collection of her essays is a guide to finding inner strength through tenderness. She masterfully links the problems of her readers to her own painful experiences, and the result will cling to you with its vulnerability, sweetness, and intimacy. I’ve been in love with this book all fall."

I've not yet read 'Atlas Shrugged' or 'The Fountainhead', and feel I shouldn't comment until I do. However, my anecdotal experience is that there is an association between people who have read Rand and people who are isolationist, individualist, and, uh, unpleasant. I have wondered about the mindset, about whether it's the book that develops the mindset, or the mindset that finds the book, and about whether books might help develop a different mindset. As a person who devoured the Lord of the Rings trilogy as a teenager, I always liked this quote:

"There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs." [1]

I am hopeful for any social discussion of character.

[1] https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/John_Rogers

One should read "Atlas Shrugged". That way, you can avoid seeing the appallingly bad 3-part low budget movie version. The book is preachy, and the movie is faithful to the book, which means long monologues.

"The Fountainhead" was made into a movie in 1949. It's a decent movie, and Amazon has the DVD. It's amusing today because the protagonist, who is an architect, designs buildings that he insists are insanely great, but are just slab-sided office blocks. (His hatred of decorative spires has something going for it. There used to be a thing for putting useless pointy spires on top of office buildings, the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building being the classic examples. That's mostly died out in the US, although it still has a following in Dubai and some Asian cities.)

Taking Ayn Rand seriously is not good for you.

I have read both and, at the time, it put me in a position of valuing great fantastical deeds done by the folks portrayed, the absolutist nature of objectivism to value the individual over all else really left a bad taste with me.

I don't think the mindset finds the book, although it would certainly help in finding the recommendation.

what are you talking about?

I understood Rand as if each of us truly focus on our individual needs then the world will be a better place.

The world is lot shittier because there are lots of people who seem to think they know what someone else wants.

I think there are a large number of people who have read both books and who keep quiet about it especially in more left-leaning company, due to the rapid reflex-like negative emotional reactions generated by Ayn Rand. This both for self-preservation and out of considerateness (one does not want to make one's friends unhappy), although it is a shame because it precludes any interesting discussion as might be had, for example, over Marx's or Piketty's output.

The Fountainhead's strength is the promotion of professional ("artistic") integrity and a warning about the lack of long term happiness one might find in "selling out" for short term advantages (such as social status) versus building long-lasting work. It's also one of the few works to make the case for very strong IP rights. Despite Ayn Rand's association with the modern right wing globally, I know many left-leaning professional artists who loved the work, it is less political than philosophical.

Atlas Shrugged is about individual rights, and should be read from the point of view of the time it was written, when millions of Soviets were stuck behind the Iron Curtain and told what to do with their lives. Ayn Rand herself left the Soviet Union and much of her output ("Anthem" is the most obvious) is coloured by the stark contrast between the misery of living there versus the prosperity of her new home - less so the physical aspects, more so the psychological.

The key idea of the work - the one that somehow, is rarely talked about - is the idea that the individual is more important than the state in which they are a citizen, that "raison d'Etat", the sacrifice of a few innocents for the "many", is not morally valid philosophically and ends in disaster for the "many" in practice. And it is a shame the work is so shunned in today's American political discussions (beyond being used by a few Tea Party politicians to promote small government) as it is very much relevant to many modern discussions such as, for example, the NSA scandals, drone use or the existence of the Guantanamo prison.

Regarding the title itself and a popular criticism of the work, there are many countries today where it is still the case that people with potential are unable to make any progress and should absolutely emigrate (e.g. [1]). I recommend following Atlas Shrugged by Vito Tanzi's excellent chronicle of the collapse of Argentina since the Peronists [2], it's short and an almost direct real world parallel.

Something I always wondered about is why Atlas Shrugged was only very recently translated into French. I read another book [3] by an anonymous but clearly French intelligence services officer who claims it was done deliberately as the work (much like Frederick the Great's Political Testament) is considered politically destabilising by the French authorities, who put pressure on editors accordingly. I suspect a more realistic explanation might be that the political environment in France is such that there would be little demand for the work, which would be derided as "typically American" even by the "liberals"; this makes me a little sad.

Ayn Rand's output has a subset of "interesting" fans, as with many other famous works (I'm sure someone, somewhere has made a wooden wand with a horsehair in it and shouts "Accio!" at their kettle or something). No work is perfect but there is much to be learnt from books that became famous and influential. For better or worse, Ayn Rand is the modern, famous writer who most extensively wrote about "extreme" individual rights enforced by the state, as well as advocating well for passion in one's work and pride in one's competence, and as such is worth reading.

[1] http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/humans-new-yorks-scienti...

[2] http://www.amazon.ca/Argentina-Economic-Chronicle-Richest-Co...

[3] http://www.amazon.fr/Missions-methodes-techniques-speciales-...

Thank you for the detailed response. In my circles that judge books, I'd actually expect more sympathy for Rand than Marx (or Piketty), so I think mileage varies.

To me, it seems that what you describe as the 'key idea' of Atlas Shrugged is actually two separate ideas; 'individual is more important than the state', and 'sacrifice of a few innocents for the many is not morally valid'. Leaving the individual aside for the moment, for the second idea, how do you reconcile the reasonable notion of not sacrificing innocents for the many with cases where the many will suffer unfairly (e.g. the Trolley Problem [1]) when it is in your power to act?

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

Quick Google gives me:

> Ayn Rand's key point: "man does not live in a lifeboat -- in a world in which he must kill innocent men to survive."

> She also observes: "Under a dictatorship -- under force -- there is no such thing as morality. Morality ends where a gun begins.... Moral rules cannot be prescribed for these situations [lifeboats or dictatorships], because only life is the basis on which to establish a moral code."


  In my circles that judge books
Do the others in your circles also judge books before reading them?

On the recommendation of another comment here, I just discovered something that seems like a direct answer to your question:


I especially liked this:

"[Orwell] realised that he didn’t know how everyday people lived, so his experiments in the late 1920s and 30s of tramping in London were a form of travel really, or experiential adventuring. He was trying to experience how other people lived, to get a taste of their lives. By doing so, he discovered that empathy isn’t something that makes you good but something that is good for you. So for me, Orwell is one of my great empathic heroes." (emphasis mine)

I admit that, in spite of all the education and opportunities to learn I had, this thought never even crossed my mind. I feel so stupid. For instance, if you look at Jesus not in religious but simply in moral or philosophical terms, isn't that the whole point of his teachings? The interviewee makes another great little point about the difference between empathy and sympathy, which in an instant crystallized Buddhist teachings for me. Pretty sure you will find something on this list...

Orwell's "The Road to Wigan Pier" is his study of working class life. A modern version is "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America", by Barbara Page. That predates the "sharing" economy, on which the definitive book has not yet been written. "What's Yours Is Mine", by Tom Slee, may be helpful.

This may seem like an odd recommendation, but I think The Autobiography of Malcolm X is one of the best books I've read. Easily the most gripping non-fiction.

Someone described it as illustrative of "the intellect of anger", and I think it fits. I also think, somewhat paradoxically, that such a precise and charismatic characterization of anger will make you more understanding of angry people.

Not odd at all - that was a great book about a great man. The most profound theme from the book, for me, was his quest for knowledge and self-education. And his commitment to live life as a reflection of his knowledge and beliefs, even when that meant complete and utter rejection of his previous life.

I'll second this recommendation - this book changed (and is still changing) how I think about some things, and it was hard to put down. In terms of developing empathy, I found the eloquent expression of anger over things I haven't experienced to be illuminating.

Plus, there are a lot of cheap copies floating around because it has been fairly popular since it came out.

I'm in the middle of The Road To Character, and it's a bit too much "people used to be better" for me so far - but still it has some good points here and there. Wodehouse (also listed in the OP) makes me happy to read, they're hilarious and glowingly warm books.

Here are some recommendations from me in a similar vein, (non-fiction) books that positively influenced my outlook:

- Lamott's Bird by Bird, it's reflections on how to be a writer, but the advice works on "living" and "working" in general

- Werner Herzog - A Guide for the Perplexed: an updated long interview with Herzog on his life and his craft, extremely passionate. There are so many minor stories and bits of wisdom that positively influenced my outlook on humanity and the work I do.

- Bakewell's How To Live: If you don't have time or leisure to read Montaigne's Essais (I'm still not finished with those), Bakewell's book is a bit of a primer/summary of Montaigne's lessons interwoven with Montaigne's life.

- Marsh's Do No Harm: it's the autobiography of a "famous" neuro-surgeon at the end of his career. If I'm 50% as honest and humble about the mistakes I've made at the end of my life (mistakes in his operations turned several patients into people who need constant care for the rest of their lives) then I can die contempt.

Highly recommend David Foster Wallace for this. After Infinite Jest I was definitely had much higher general empathy for months.

A good David Foster Wallace starting point is "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again".

I'd tentatively recommend against starting with Infinite Jest. Infinite Jest is a project of a read.

"Brief Interviews With Hideous Men" is also a great starting point if you want to get a sense of his darkly humorous fiction. Although, he embellishes and invents so many things in his non-fiction pieces that they straddle the line pretty nicely as well.

Are you referring to the essay, or the essay collection? Also, isn't he more well known for fiction (e.g. IJ) than non-fiction?

I'm also wondering where to start, having never read his books before but having heard a lot about them.

The essay collection.

He's probably marginally better known as an essayist than as a novelist, except that his one famous novel (IJ) is one of the giant novels of the last 30 years. After IJ, the most impactful works of fiction he's produced are short story collections, and while I like them, they aren't the most pleasant reads.

The right way to approach DFW is to read his essays for awhile, and, if you find that you enjoy them, you can look at IJ as a long series of essays from an alternate universe.

I think Infinite Jest is a giant novel only in the most literal sense. Otherwise it's just terrible (though I know you and some other people I respect disagree strongly).

The point is, don't feel sad and alone if you like Wallace's non-fiction and find yourself hating his novels.

I like Infinite Jest the way I like R.E.M.'s "Murmur", in the sense that I can understand how either might fall apart at close inspection, but both are so effective at generating a mood for me that I have no motivation to do that.

I like the way DFW writes, but I'll happily cop to liking his essays more than his nonfiction. And again the short stories are unpleasant; sort of like how Elliott Smith can only seem to write songs that are at bottom about heroin addiction, DFW can only seem to write stories that are about how unhappy he is with the kind of person he is.

Also, DFW has sort of become a nerd literary signifier, a way of saying "once upon a time I put down the Xbox controller and picked up a Great Book". He didn't do anything to solicit that response, so I'm a bit wary about nerds sniping at him, because, hipsterism.

Everyone should go read Master And Margarita first.

This is a really nice way to put it. I assume you meant to write "liking his essays more than his fiction"?

I heard the section about Erdedy preparing for a drug binge on a BBC Radio 4 arts review program and was fascinated - I've never used drugs and have no desire to start but there is something very powerful about the sections of IJ that cover addiction.

If you haven't read it yet, I would recommend Les Miserables. I chose to really take my time and read a full unabridged translation (don't speak French, unfortunately.) People probably typically view me as "isolationist, individualist, and just a little bit of an asshole" but reading that book definitely made me "warmer, kinder, more sympathetic/empathetic." Sorry to plagiarize but I couldn't explain it any better than you did.

Unless you're looking for a preachy and blind endorsement of "traditional" values (with a healthy dose of religion), steer clear of David Brooks.

If you're really looking to increase empathy, just read some good classical literature.

That's pretty interesting. Reading Rand (only read Atlas Shrugged, don't enjoy the writing style all that much) had the exact opposite effect on me. I started to appreciate the passions of other people more.

Resume virtues vs eulogy virtues is similar to personality ethic vs character ethic as described in 7 Habits. Recommend that book if you have not yet read. Make sure you actually read it, the best parts are in the meat- a cliff notes version of that book is an order of magnitude less valuable because the "key takeaways" are not the true takeaways.

make me warmer, kinder, more sympathetic/empathetic

"Nonzero" transmuted me from a cynical fatalist into an unrepentant optimist. The gist is that human culture advances when win/win strategies replace win/lose (zero sum) strategies.

Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright



I applaud your nod to empathy

Literature has been shown to increase empathy

There was no literature included in this list (am counting the two SciFi novels as fiction, but not literature)

To anyone looking for an edge, read more literature

>>Literature has been shown to increase empathy


I am a "Rand Fan" and have been for about a decade. I've done a fair amount of study of her thinking and what others that have written or lectured about her thinking. I can tell you some of my observations related to your statement: "I found her writing influenced my mindset and made me (personally - not casting this on all Rand fans) more isolationist, individualist, and just a little bit more of an asshole."

First the easy part: there is no doubt that she is trying to make you be more individualistic. Between spelling out foundational ideas which lead to an egoist ethics and then what it means to be an egoist. The individual is paramount to Rand. Life is a value and the most important life to you is your own. I have no argument or further observation on that point.

The isolationist and asshole parts... well, that analysis is a bit more involved. I'm not going to say that your observation is completely unfounded, though I think it's wrong to attribute those tendencies -in some people- to her writing. There are, no doubt, Rand supporters that are assholes and that they see her philosophy as giving them permission so to be. I would go so far as to say there are more than I would like. However, if your own life-long self interest, your own happiness, is really the highest goal in her thinking and the purpose of morality: how exactly does adopting a hermetic lifestyle and being an asshole advance you to that ultimate goal? I would suggest it doesn't. It's not in my self interest to isolate myself or to treat others poorly. The correct default stance when meeting someone new is to give them the benefit of the doubt. Many times I lose nothing being generous, and the goodwill I create when I am generous and benevolent often times pays dividends which an isolationist asshole will never realize. A healthy, modern life is a social life: it's hard to be a trader (in both material and spiritual values), someone that Rand held up as an ideal, without having others with which to trade.

And to be fair to the Objectivists, many of them get a bad rap when they're really just defending themselves. Look at a couple of the comments to your original comment. Anyone being constantly told that their worldview somehow puts them in the mindset of a fourteen year old is likely to inspire them to be aggressively defensive and maybe just a touch isolationist. Especially considering that they are in the minority, it's really easy for people that adopt conventional worldviews to get a pass when they're assholes, and especially when they're attacking a minority viewpoint. I also think there's a tendency to build stereotypes like this as well. I've been on a number Objectivist group outings and attended get-togethers and the vast majority of them are as friendly and generous as anyone else in society that don't hold their views; in fact, I would say they really don't differ from the general population in this regard.

Anyway, saw your comment and thought I'd pick up the other side.

My impression was always that most of the assholes in question here are the same as the assholes of any other philosophy: they think they have the inside track and everyone else is just a bunch of ignorant idiots. The key difference is that these ones have a bigger target on their backs so cutting them down is easier. Even more so since a triple-A game was created that crucified the philosophy.

>> It's not in my self interest to isolate myself or to treat others poorly.

This is how I see it too. It is in my self interest to be caring of others and do it some times at a loss for myself. While there are many times I haven't bothered if I stood to gain from an activity that caused loss to someone else. That was the game I was playing.

Another great source of reading material: FiveBooks[0] interviews "experts" and asks them to recommend five good books for understanding their field.

E.g., this[1] interview with David Brooks from 2009 is a lot of the source material/ inspiration for his book.

[0] http://fivebooks.com

[1] http://fivebooks.com/interview/david-brooks-on-neuroscience/

Vaguely reminds me of this list, where scholars were asked which book changed their mind the most: http://chronicle.com/article/What-Book-Changed-Your-Mind-/14...

Would love to find more lists of the sort

It's interesting now no book in the section about AI is an actually technical book (something like Russel and Norvig). They're all about philosophical conjectures about AI. Doesn't inspire confidence in other lists on that site tbh. :/

Oh my gosh, this is amazing. Thank you for sharing. How did you first come across this?

Nonviolent communication is a precise and liberating way of talking. You can be exposed by watching this talk too:


It's three hours FYI. But my sales pitch is: Marshall Rosenberg is funny when talks about miscommunication. I haven't laughed out loud at a three hour youtube video before reading this.

In case you cringe at the term "nonviolent communication": Marshall Rosenberg dislikes it too, and he coined it!

Why Information Grows is probably the best one I read this year.

It's fairly ambitious and sets out to link information theory, the emergence of life, evolution and economic growth all in one coherent story. It doesn't quite hit the mark as it becomes a bit too abstract towards the end, but the first 3 chapters are the best story of how information theory fits into thermodynamics and the emergence of life. It's also the best summary of Ilya Prigogine's work I've read (including, ironically, Prigogine's own books)


+1 for Sapiens. Good overview of the histroy of humanity, and I especially liked the theory of how shared beliefs enable cooperation among larger groups.

The example of "The Legend of Peugeot" was also great: does the company Peugeot actually exist, can you point to what it is. No, it only exists as a shared belief.

Also, Jeeves is great :-)

Note that this is different than the YC library:


The YC library keeps a good list of perennial favorites....

Before you go looking for "character" in David Brooks' book, remember that he was an enthusiastic backer of the Iraq War, and belittled and sneered at those protesting the war.

His comments after the House voted to restrict NSA phone data collection: "I'd say it's a moral victory for the wingnuts. And, you know, you look at the moment. What are we faced with? We're faced with a rising libertarianism, both on the left and the right."

I'd look for my "character" elsewhere.

'The Prize' is phenomenal. I took an econ class on the petroleum industry and the prof used it instead of a text book. PBS turn into into a really good multi-part documentary.

Best books I have read this year:

- Shareholder letters of Warren Buffett: http://amzn.to/1OgZVh9

- Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage: http://amzn.to/1Oh09oz

Bill gates anual reading list is also nice.

For 2015: http://www.gatesnotes.com/About-Bill-Gates/Best-Books-2015

I've worked halfway through "The Elements of Computing Systems" aka "Nand to Tetris" and it's fairly high on my already way too excessive todo list for 2016. Great recommendation :)

My recent favorite: The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World by Oliver Morton. Engagingly written -- I could hardly put it down! -- comprehensive, thorough, and optimistic without being credulous, this book contains a wealth of information about the "earthsystem" (as Morton likes to call it) and the effects we're already having on it as well as those we could potentially create intentionally. The book makes an excellent case for expanding research into geoengineering, and I hope it gets widely read.

I've seen Seveneves appearing across multiple lists of best books in 2015 (here, Amazon's top 20, Goodreads' list for 2015...).

I can't wait to grab my hands on it!

Does anyone know if The Supermen is available on audiobook?

Nice list. The one by Nisan/Schocken is on my to read list.

Does anyone know of any lists full of new math books?

Nice. I've read four of those. I have some book buying to do.

Only 1 female author :,(

Great point - but while you're breaking down the list to non-relevant characteristics of the authors, can we get a list of their:

- nationalities - skin color - sexual preference - left handed/ right handed

I can't make a politically motivated decision without these

As a PoC, I could also question how many of the authors are a PoC. But I won't because I care a lot more about the content itself.

If you don't mind clarifying, what is a PoC? Haven't heard the term.

Person of Color.

OT but I hate this kind of language. First, "white" is not a color? And much more importantly, so-called "white" people are not white at all. They call themselves white because some racist wingnut in the past designated the color traditionally associated with purity and light with his own race, thereby making it the benchmark and relegating all other people to off-colored aberrations. For example, I am of East Asian ancestry and thus naturally whiter than most Europeans, yet shall call myself "yellow" (or "PoC")!? If anything, it seems to me that blondes should be designated yellow. I could go on ranting but will stop here. Person "of color"... superficially PC bullshit that actually accepts the language of racial superiority and reinforces Eurocentrism. It couldn't be more wrong.

Really OT: From a political, civil rights, egalitarianism, etc. point of view I'd say I'm very much aligned with groups that push this kind of stuff. But I can't support it because this is what you push when you're more concerned with feelings than results. "Winning" is more important than anything else when it comes to equality and eradicating prejudice. I wish we were more focused on objectives than pushing terms like this or trying to crucify every film director on twitter.

Jer Thorp[1] is a creative artist/developer/researcher which made a point of only reading female authors this year. I'm excited for his list, which I hope he'll be publishing soon.

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

I think if you're going to raise that particular argument responsibly, you're obligated to cite some women authors you read this year that you think we should read.

You know, I generally agree with your sentiment, but the OP wrote the comment without casting aspersions and without blaming anyone.

It was a bit terse, I agree, but it is a legitimately noteworthy fact that so few female authors are on the list. Noteworthy if you think it's because YC is biased, noteworthy if you think it's because so few female authors wrote meaningful books this year, noteworthy if you think it's because female authors aren't publicized as much.

(It could also, of course, just be a random thing that happened this year, but I still think OP had a right to point this out).

It's definitely not that there are too few female authors. There are lots of female authors, and they're well publicized.

Rather, I think the issue is that with just a few exceptions, this is exactly the book list you'd expect from a cohort of 25-35 year old startup founders --- batteries, Elon Musk, data science, the energy industry, The Martian (really?), and business history. These are topics with, let's just say, a particular demographic concentration.

I physically winced when I saw the Wodehouse recommendation.

Some possible recommendations, if we're going to stick with "relevant to HN readers":

* Annie Jacobson's DARPA book, The Pentagon's Brain

* the Brene Brown book on mentally overcoming adversity, which might complement Nonviolent Communication (and might also be a more humane recommendation than David Brooks)

* Between You And Me (more writing books, please! Also maybe Mary Karr's book on memoirs, though I haven't read it and am not a Karr fan)

> There are lots of female authors, and they're well publicized [...] this is exactly the book list you'd expect from a cohort of 25-35 year old startup founders

If you look at any 'best books of the year' lists though, most of them are written by men, even though most people in the publishing industry are women.

I suspect it's partly because if you look at the gender gap in reading preferences, women tend to read and write more books in winner-take-all areas. E.g. if you want to learn something about foreign policy then you might need one specific book out of the thousands that get written each year, but if you want to read a novel about relationships then there's not much reason to go beyond the best couple dozen of the year.

Yeah, I was looking at the authors: Steve, Philip and Dan, David, John, Daniel, Elon, Marshall, Matt, John, P.G., ...

Wait a second, Cheryl, what's she doing here? Oh that was Jessica's choice.

And we now return you to your regularly-schedule programming: Neal, Andy, Charles, Yuval, Andrew ...

It's a shame you got so heavily downvoted. You make a reasonable point, and not in a flame-baiting way.

It's not really productive though unless you name some that you think should have been included on the list.

That said I've been enjoying this book a lot, and two of the three authors are female:


I'd say it's just one piece of a larger body of literature on these issues rather than the definitive work that stands on its own, but it's also the kind of thing where when you look at the list of authors and the subject matter then the burden of proof is on you to justify not reading it.


Wait what about Ashlee Vance? Wait never mind that's a man too

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