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Ask HN: Which non-technology book has influenced you the most and why?
375 points by fernandohur on March 27, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 332 comments
Rules: 1. Only one book. 2. Can't be a technical book e.g. 'Programming C' doesn't count.

The Gospel of John.

A palpable sense of mystery is maintained from start to finish, but it arguably does better than any other book in the Bible at giving a deep look into the person of Jesus as he was seen and believed in by the early church. Additionally, there is a subtle sense of humor as the gospel author clearly enjoyed language and word plays and describes multiple misunderstandings that occur because of the ambiguity of language.

Probably more than any other book, this book has shaped me on a personal level.

(If you're going to read it, I highly recommend a modern translation such as the ESV, NKJV, or HCSB.)

It's also notable for Jesus's consistent affirmation of his own divinity. Not that the synoptics don't, but John is much more explicit about it. For me, that does much to validate CS Lewis's liar, lunatic, or Lord argument.

Yep John 17: The high priestly prayer.

Two follow ups that would appeal to the HN crowd: Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About [1] and 3:16 Bible Texts Illuminated [2], both by Donald Knuth.

[1] https://cs.stanford.edu/~uno/things.html

[2] https://cs.stanford.edu/~uno/316.html

316 is a beautiful book.

Logos! "In the beginning was the word" can be understood information theoretically. It's almost as though John is telling us that information or knowledge is ontologically primary, rather than matter. And it is "the word", not "the DWORD" ;)

"The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins. It describes biology from the perspective of the gene as the unit of natural selection, rather than the organism or the species, and demonstrates the power of that perspective to explain much about the natural world. But then, the author generalizes the concept of a gene to that of the replicator, which is any kind of pattern that influences its environment to produce copies of the pattern. (As an example, the author invents the concept of a meme, being a unit of culture that uses brains to spread itself across a culture.) This (the replicator) is the mind-blowing concept that I'm still thinking about 35 years after I first read this marvelous little book. Organisms and people and species and cultures are ephemeral side-effects of mindlessly self-replicating patterns. You'll never look at the world the same way after reading this one!

But please continue by reading more rigorous work on evolution, or you run the risk of being badly misinformed. I suggest, at a minimum, a decent textbook. Here I'd recommend Douglas Futuyma's Evolution.

Follow this up with some key works in the field, such as Gould's early critique of naive adaptationism, The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme.

Also consider different perspectives such as the those described in following books, which take, respectively, drift- and mutation-first approaches to evolution:

The Origins of Genome Architecture, M Lynch; and Mutation-Driven Evolution, M Nei.

Above all, know that evolution is far more complex, subtle (and interesting) than The Selfish Gene would have you believe.

When I comply with a request to name a single book, please don't assume that I've read but a single book. Thanks!

The problem arises with those people who read The Selfish Gene and assume they now understand all there is to know about how evolution works.

I'm sure you're not one of them, but nevertheless they are quite common, well-educated and intelligent though they often are.

Obsolete stuff. I groaned as I examined this - Gould, really? This is old noise, that I resented raising mere dust in University decades ago. Thankfully a lot of these old distractrations have been swept aside, since. Do read up on the Gould controversies before citing him. If you knew of them already, it would have been kinder to others to note them.

What is misinformative in the selfish gene?

It greatly oversimplifies a complex process, ignoring modern developments in the field of evolutionary biology (including the entirety of population genetics), and makes many unfounded assumptions.

The Spandrels paper I referenced above explains in detail, and is a good starting point:


Here's a more modern critique, which I posted here a few weeks ago:


This is NOT modern - it's well out of date. And more of the discredited Gould.

Looks suspiciously marginal.

Never read Selfish Gene, but I loved Blind Watchmaker on publication in the 80s. Wonderfully clear explication of quite subtle concepts.

"Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" by Robert Pirsig. While it's also a tale of travel and self-exploration (the rediscovery of identity after a nervous breakdown and shock therapy), mostly the book is about thinking. I was a different person after identifying with the narrator who also lived in the mind, and asked questions about basic concepts like 'quality', or qualia of events, objects, roles, and the subjective/objective values they embody or we impart on them. A watershed book for me.

Interesting suggestion! I really cannot stand this book, but I appreciate all of the things you've gleaned from it and I'm glad it's had a positive impact on people.

I actually really like Pirsig's ideas about quality and balancing analytical and emotional worldviews, but the writing style drives me nuts and feels like I'm grading a weak Philosophy 101 essay.

I completely agree. There was a fair amount of arrogance in his arguments and I found him constructing straw arguments fairly often. The part where I lost complete interest in the book was when he was discussing whether the 0s and 1s in computers exist -- there was no attempt to see binary as a symbol of a certain state.

I thought the first third of the book was absolutely fantastic. But then it quickly decayed into philosophical drivel, IMO. Perhaps I'm not wise enough to understand the end of the book but I truly thought it was garbage and believe this is one of the most overrated books of all time. Anybody else feel this way?

Read it 20 years ago, and again this winter. Like you the first part of the book had me thinking, this is genius, but then the rest of the way it seemed to devolve into meaningless drivel.

Maybe in 20 years I'll give it another shot and finally see why the book is considered a classic.

I agree with you, I started the book and I thought, "Why do people hate this? This is a joy." But, then it decayed into drivel, as you said. A shame. I think they could cut 100 pages and it would be a bit better.

Yeah, I read the book years ago but wasn't mature enough to appreciate the its value. But as I've gained in years and as my children have grown older I've thought a lot about quality and its significance. I'll be revisiting the book in the near future.

I wonder if The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander would be similarly interesting. It's not trying to be a novel, but explores similar concepts.

I've never read that... I'll have to check it out.

Design Patterns (in software) are supposed to be derived or inspired (not the actual patterns, but the idea of patterns) by that book, BTW, or by Alexanders other thoughts or writings.

This book blew my mind when I first read it in highschool. I've had a few pivotal experiences in my life which have shaped who I am and how I think. Reading this book was one of them.

Do grab the CBC Ideas interview with Pirsig, as a podcast. Actually, this excerpts that original Ideas interview: http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/the-motorcycle-is-yourself-1.2...

Terrible philosophical reasoning, yet plenty of relevance, and an interesting person, no question.

Good call! I was literally thinking about rereading that book this morning on the way to work.

I've got a tie between two books:

1) Design of Everyday Things by Dan Norman

This book ruined my life. I highly recommend it. Every engineer, manager and designer should read this. Maybe every human. I think of this book every time I try to pull a push door, every time I reach the bottom floor of a stairwell and notice the design that might save my life one day, and every time I try to struggle to operate a television or a microwave.

2) Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini

This book helped me understand myself and everyone else. For example, I now understand why I double down on dumb ideas. I also catch a lot more marketing and sales tricks.

Edit: Sorry, just now realized that I broke the 1-book rule, but it's probably too late to correct this and it's really hard to choose between these two anyway.

Both are great books. Influence helps me a lot to deal with my 3 year old. Should be on the parenting section on bookstores.

I also like The Soul of a New Machine, The Prince, The Art of War and On Human Nature.

>I also like The Soul of a New Machine

Me too. Fascinating read. I still remember the part where one of them compares their work to the pinball game - where the reward for winning is that you get to play again.

> Influence helps me a lot to deal with my 3 year old.

I'd been teetering on the fence with this book for about a year, but I think you just sold me on it (haha!)

Any idea whether it's worth an extra ~$7 for the (I gather) textbookified version of Influence subtitled "Science and Practice", 5th edition, versus the Revised Edition of the more mass-market "The Psychology of Persuasion"?

I second Influence.

"Gödel, Escher, Bach" by Douglas Hofstadter, which I read when I was 17. I was just getting into serious programming (I would learn C later that year). I had only an inkling about things like recursion, had little appreciation for music outside of Pink Floyd, and lacked any kind of spiritual philosophy that didn't end in simple atheism or nonsense that I stole from science fiction paperbacks.

GEB got me wondering about a lot of things, and showed me how hard science and engineering and art can coexist. It's not a perfect book -- frankly, I find it rather dull reading now -- but it was an eye-opener when I was just starting out.

I tried to read it in my middle thirties and felt like I wasn't prepared enough to understand it. Should I just go through it without trying to get everything?

Yes. I think it was purposefully designed with multiple threads having their beginnings and ends hidden in the text. Even tells you where one thread ends (where it gets nonsensical). So the start of the book is pretty much just dumping you into the middle of the braid.

I think the greatest part about GEB is he'll talk about a topic (that sometimes went over my head) for a chapter and then revisit that same topic in a more approachable way using a dialog between Achilles and a tortoise. Some of those dialogs were some of my most entertaining reads ever.

I must be broken, because everybody seems to think these are the best parts of the book, and I couldn't stand them. I just wanted to get on with it!

I was quite young last I read it. Perhaps it's time to see if I still feel that way.

You are not alone. I've tried to read the book three times in the last twenty years and I always stop reading in one of those Achilles and tortoise sections. I find them utterly silly and boring and always feel like I'm missing the deeper message. I never had a problem understanding the non-story parts though. I don't dare skip the stories though because I'm afraid to miss out on some incredible insight.

The book is basically a Lisp tutorial using metaphors rather than code examples.

It's worth to work through all the "arithmoquinification" and "G's uncle" business to understand how a formula can be physically constructed that asserts its own unprovability. Hofstadter manages to make the material quite accessible.

First read this thirty years ago. It's a long read, but it's the gentlest explication of Godel that I've read, so well worth it. I only realised recently that the sub title "Eternal Golden Braid" is an acronym anagram of the main title "Godel, Escher, Bach". EGB, GEB...

I think GEB holds up almost 40 years later - it's very much steeped in GOFAI[1] optimism, but the substance of the book, the intersection between math and art, its silliness and approachability, its pure fun, is absolutely as important now as when published.

1 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symbolic_artificial_intelligen... i.e. AI that isn't machine learning

I heard good things about this. Just bought it and plan to read it on coming this week.

I'm a bit envious; I wish I could read it for the first time again. For me, it was one of only a handful of books that made me wonder: how did a mere human mind come up with this?! The build up and self-references are just magical.

I read this book every single day on my way to my shitty sales job while getting my CS degree. Enjoy the journey.

Meditations, originally written by Marcus Aurelius, but translated many times over. More as an introduction to stoicism; choosing the translation that works best for you is ideal. Hays and Hicks translations are most often recommended but if you can peek inside the book to see what language resonates the best with you.

Stoicism helped me build the ability to care about the things in my power to change, and not stress about things that aren't. Very useful in any job or personal situation that includes a lot of ambient stress.

This book has had a great impact on me. My favorite quote (Dover Thrift edition)

"To conclude, always observe how ephemeral and worthless human things are, and what was yesterday a speck of semen tomorrow will be a mummy or ashes. Pass then through this little space of time conformably to nature, and end your journey in content, just as an olive falls off when it is ripe, blessing nature who produced it and thanking the tree on which it grew."

It makes me appreciate everything so much more and I feel like a fool for worrying over little things.

It is also my favorite quote, very happy to see I am not the only one with which it resonates pretty well.

Here's my favorite quotes from Meditations:

"Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts." P59

"Awaken; return to yourself. Now, no longer asleep, knowing they were only dreams, clear-headed again, treat everything around as a dream." P76

"It's normal to feel pain in your hands and feet, if your using your feet as feet and your hands as hands. And for a human being to feel stress is normal - if he's living a normal human life. And if it's normal, how can it be bad?" P76

"You can hold your breath until you turn blue, but they'll still go on doing it." P102

"Leave other people's mistakes where they lie." P122

I keep this next to my toilet. I can pick it up, choose a random page, and often find something meaningful.

[Shameless plug]

If you like randomly leafing through Meditations, I've made a site that would be right up your alley


That sir, is a thing of beauty!


My new homepage!

The Four Agreements by Don Ruiz. It's a short and simple book about four rules of life which you can use anywhere.

1. Be impeccable with your word. You can read this as "don't swear", but it's not about that. It is about the constant and continuing things we say to ourselves that make us feel bad. We don't even know we do this. And it's not about big things, it's about the thousands of small reprimands we give ourselves that hold us back living our life.

2. Don't take anything personally. When someone else says something to you, good or bad, it shows how they feel. What they say is about them, what they think is important, what is relevant for them. It's not about you. This doesn't mean that you can ignore it, but it shines another light on things other people say about you, or about others to you. This applies to "good things" as well. If someone gives you a compliment, it tells something about them. And of course it works as well for the things you say or do - they tell something about you.

3. Don't make assumptions. Don't think you know what other people think, or that you know why they do the things they do.

4. Do your best. You can't always live your life following rules. Do your best, and if you break a rule, bad luck, next time better! That means that you can forgive yourself. And it means that you should not give up after a big fuck up. Or a small fuck up, or many fuck ups. You can start over again at any moment.

The book is much better at explaining. It's about 60 pages, worth the effort.

I've only read it in a hurry but it had some rather odd bits

For example, re 1. :

> Every human is a magician, and we can either put a spell on someone with our word or we can release someone from a spell. We cast spells all the time with our opinions. An example: I see a friend and give him an opinion that just popped into my mind. I say, "Hmmm! I see that kind of color in your face in people who are going to get cancer." If he listens to the word, and if he agrees, he will have cancer in less than one year. That is the power of the word.

The Four Agreements is one of my favorite books, so I was glad to see it already listed, but yeah it does have some nonsense mixed into it as you have pointed out. With that said, the fundamentals are very sound, and for some reason the way the book talks about it makes it all click nicely in my mind even though the fundamental advice is all "common sense".

Well, don't take it too literally I think. It's not magic which he talks about. The introduction about the Toltecs is similar.

The example he gives here is very simple and direct with cause and effect. It's too simple, but shows the principle. That's what this is about.

How to win friends and influence people.


I have to keep reminded myself to apply the rules, but very sound advice.

I occasionally revisit this book every few years as a refresher. Every time I do, I end up making close, life-long friends by applying the techniques in this book.

I'd say this is a must read for just about anyone.

The book actually tells you to read it 3 times ;)

The fact that I have read this book three times and don't remember this fact is a testament to the importance of this statement.

i know people that had the habit of intentionally reading it once a month while founding their startup

The Dale Carnegie Leadership course (based on this book) is worthwhile and available in many cities globally. Expensive but sometimes covered by corporate training allowance. You want the one that is extended over 8-12 weeks, one session per week. That allows time for weekly application of that week's lesson to your life, as homework assignment. The compressed (3-day version) does not give enough time to apply the principles and see real-world results. The material in the book is easy to read and very hard to apply.

I must admit, I've always found the title off-putting as it sounds very much like it is a manual written by Machiavelli.

OTOH, both my kids are on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum and there are several auties that recommend it as really useful in helping them with inter-personal interaction. So there you go.

Some of it - John D. Rockefeller throwing dimes to kids for the good PR, for example, is Machiavellian in the bad sense. But much of it is trying to persuade people that even if they were purely selfish, they'd still benefit from being less utterly self-absorbed, and demonstrating that.

Seconded. After reading this my poor B- social skills, immediately jumped to a B+. Not a pancea, but a great book to help you think about/observe how others think/feel and how that will in turn affect you.

There are many, but one is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I read it as a child, and it was the first time I thought about logical thinking.

Here is the section:

“Logic!" said the Professor half to himself. "Why don't they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn't tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth. ”

What I didn't realize at the time was that Lewis was pushing his theistic argument: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis%27s_trilemma

I don't think that detracts from it, however.

Lewis was instrumental in helping me understand that faith can be based on a foundation of logic and reason versus pure emotion and my guess is he helped many others struggling in that same area.

Lewis' argument isn't sound; if Jesus indeed claimed divinity, that sole conviction could be a delusion, without rendering all of his other statements delusional.

This kind of reasoning is typical of apologists in my experience; it sounds right, but it doesn't hold up to scrunity.

This looks kind of like logic if you squint, but is actually a logical fallacy.

This issues is of course there are of course more than 3 options. If she had been deceived intentionally than none of the given three examples apply. Further, it assumes you can verify that she was 'telling lies' or 'insane' as an abstract property of her which is another mistake.

That said, I can see why someone might find it a useful introduction to logic.

Eh? If she was deceived (intentional or not) she is in fact telling the truth, since to her it is real.

There aren't more than three option present, but you're more correct that you may not have enough information to deduct which option is a proper representation of the true fact.

There's no real issue with the logic, outside of arguing that making a conclusive decision here is perhaps premature. That's situational though.

If a kid says the magician cut their assistant in half they are not lying, insane, or telling the truth.

What someone observes, what someone thinks they observed, what they remember, what they say happened, and what actually happened are generally all different things.

Lewis and Tolkien both spend a lot of time exploring the internal moral and ethical struggles of their protagonists, the development of courage, and the importance of doing the right thing even when no one is looking or in the face of opposition. This was hugely important to me as a kid, and recently I've been going back to The Lord of the Rings to read up on courage in the face of looming evil.

Antifragile - Nassim Nicholas Taleb

He puts into words concepts of life so close to us yet so foreign sounding that makes us rethink everything in our lives.

When you ask people "What is the opposite of fragile", they usually answer robust, which Taleb proves to be incorrect by introducing a new concept, the Antifragilty. It entangles so many things in economic, academic, science, finances and other systems with several tales from the past revisited with a new lens.

Which Taleb's book should I read first?

Fooled by Randomness,first; and The Black Swan (2nd edition) second. These are books about statistics and decision theory. They might not meet some people's expectations about "non-technology" which usually means no equations and no mathematical reasoning. While not written by Taleb, How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff makes a good introduction for Taleb's books.

taleb says himself in antifragile the answer is antifragile

Thank you.

Fooled by Randomness, IMHO. Black Swan is an expansion of Fooled. Aphorisms is a vanity project. Haven't read Anti Frangile. Fooled by Randomness has lots of good analysis of survivorship bias, trend following and other mistaken pattern matching strategies that are hard wired into us, and blind us to the true nature of events.

Read Fooled by Randomness. The other books are expansions on these ideas, and IMHO, not as good, mostly as Taleb seems to have become angry at his critics.

Not the black swan, but anything else is a fine intro. Antifragile or Fooled by randomness but work


IMO start with antifragile.

Already bought it :)

According to taleb himself, it shouldn't matter.

Okay, thanks.

Happy to see this one here :)

The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America's Wealthy.

We know the "rich", people who spent $10M on a Yacht as a parking space for their 1M private jet which they use as a cellar for their $10k wines.

And we think millionaires are like that but on a smaller scale. ACTUALLY... most folks who have $1M liquid are hard working, cheap, frugal (still cutting coupons from ads). The reason why this book is so good is not only because it shatters the perception about how millionaires live, but if you take the description of their lifestyles as a lesson, it will make you manage your money better.

Most people in the US have tons of debt, don't have $500 to use for an unplanned spending. Probably this forum full of well-paid high-tech professionals less so, but still, the principles are all the same. In fact, there are parts of the book talking about how big earners also spend big (and fast), so it's a good reminder of how not spending money is as good as earning it, and also usually easier to do.

Yes! This book changed my life. Keep trying to convince friends and family that you get rich by saving money, not spending it.

Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl

The book was written by a psychologist who survived the Holocaust camps. The paragraph that always sticks with me goes something like "for sure, the best amongst us never left the camps - they (the guards) would need to pick (kill) a dozen people, and the best wouldn't let it be their friends or family, even if it meant their own death."

I also was influenced by this book, it opened my mind on existentialism and challenged my thinking about what is happiness / contentment and being able to find these things in difficult circumstances.

WOW..This was the book that helped me through a very tough period.

"When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves."

"Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way."

This is also the reason why "Shawshank redemption" is my favorite movie. Very similar concepts.

There aren't words to describe how good this book is. Must read!

I just finished this book last week. Highly recommended!

Sapiens - there's a section in there about how everything (well, most) in our world is essentially a figment of our collective imaginations that enough of us believe is true and as such it is reality. If enough people (like everybody) decided tomorrow that every company's articles of incorporation actually don't count then companies as we know them could simply cease to exist since the documents that make them exist only have meaning in our collective imaginations.

Once I accepted this everything became a lot more fun, arguments about politics/religion etc are enjoyable as you realise that no one is fundamentally right.

Also, the explanation of fractional reserve banking and how debt came to be a thing was like the matrix being revealed.

Good book, highly recommend it.

If you want a pretty dry, technical and exhaustive exploration of collective intention, I got a lot out of John Searle's "The Construction of Social Reality".

1984. I read this when I was around 13. It profoundly changed how I view the government and technology. It gave me a strong respect for what a government can do, and how our reality is not just our naked perception, but it is what others want us to perceive.

I was just watching a nice documentary on George Orwell, https://youtu.be/s6txpumkY5I.

"The Power Broker" by Robert Caro.

Nobody has ever captured the nature of power on an individual level to the depth and breadth that Caro did on this book. (except perhaps his epic treatment of Lyndon Johnson)

Over something like 1,100 pages you get to track the career of an aspiring reformer as he transitions to skilled and trusted government official, to someone who manages to grow to the point that he is more powerful than the Governor and Mayor of New York during NY's economic peak -- despite never having been elected to anything. Then you get to witness his decline and ultimate fall.

This is probably the best biography ever written. It may take you six months to read, but its time well spent.

I adore this book. It also took me 6 months to read. I think about it often while wandering around the city, imagining the areas before and after Moses' steel-and-concrete hand, imagining the old neighborhoods, trying to envision what could be next, what could have been, what could be.

Lately I've been reading Foucault and I find that many pieces of The Power Broker are incredible examples of Foucault's post-modern/post-structuralist theory of power: power relations as a sort-of amorphous "lines of force" that move between people through society, occasionally emergent as structural domination/power, rather than as some sort of antagonistic relationship between rulers and ruled. This conception of power makes sense when you consider Moses operating at an intersection between (and attempting to leverage) many different "fields" of powers: government politicians, wealthy private estates, union high-ups, the news media, etc.

Where would you suggest someone begin with Foucault?

I started with History of Sexuality because the topic interested me most. I think Discipline and Punish is the canonical starting point.

I just ordered this book from Amazon a few days ago after constantly reading recommendations to read it. I am looking forward to cracking it open.

Sapiens by Yuri Harari

The book is simple mind blowing. It seems as if the entire history of homo sapiens which we learned in school was wrong. There was no slow progression, homo Sapiens and Neanderthals existed in the same time as did many ither species like homo erectus, but the perished before Sapiens.

It seems that our ability to form fictional entities (like money, state, society, country, religion etc) made us superior to other species. It seems that the basic ability to gossip helped us beat other species!

Completely mind blowing.

Completely agree. The book is full of ideas and questions the fundamental assumptions we live with.

I just started reading it and am through the first 100 pages. Was reading it last night when I hit upon : US Declaration of Independence document is an imagined reality - a myth. It talks about equality of all men ( was hoping to read word human there but anyway ). And then he goes onto blow away the fact how all men are not equal - biologically - evolutionary and so on.

I do not necessarily agree with a lot of things he says but the book is a riveting read and does questions some of fundamental assumptions we have made.

I can't wait to discover what the book has to offer next. It is very thought provoking.

I always thought of it as irony that US declaration of Independence says all men are born equal (Except slaves and women).

Coming to a serious note: yes, the book opened my eyes, all this concept of nationality, money, everything is imaginary. Just a few days ago, I was writing something on HN and it was downvoted for some reason, I thought to myself, "so what if my imaginary internet points reduced by one".

The other day, I read this. Woha, money, countries, everything is imaginary!! The ability to gossip and form bonds on imaginary things saved up from other human species.

I am a big fan of it but do not take the book uncritically. Everything in the book is somewhere between simplified and incorrect. It is still very useful challenging of conventional wisdom for all of history. It ties everything together too neatly but neatness has some benefits. It makes your own think more solid and makes you question everything.

True, we should never take anything uncritically but the book is so well written and does make a few points.

We say our ancestors were technologically weak, so how are there edificies like machu pichu, pyramids of Egypt etc

You can buy Lord of the Rings as a single bound hardcover roughly 1200 pages. The paper is thin, its only about 2 inches thick. I'm thinking of the 50th anniversary edition. In terms of total amount of lifetime "wasted" playing DnD/Pathfinder and derivatives offline, plus infinite hours of computer fantasy RPGs plus perhaps the whole concept of RPGs in general, it probably has the largest impact in terms of hours spent thinking about the concept.

I can't provide a specific link but something only 70s/80s kids will understand is when I was about five and I finished reading every Tom Swift book ever written (as of that decade, anyway) I spent most of a week reading an entire single volume encyclopedia, trying to figure out how it all works together, or not. Before wikipedia, before "multimedia cdrom" encyclopedia, there were multi volume collections and large single volume collections. I'll push the limit and claim reading an encyclopedia entry about Kant or Impressionism or Bach or the american civil war isn't technical in the sense of "programming C" is technical. I admit there were technical articles in the book. It was weird reading a 60s liberal arts article about computers when I had an early TRS-80 home computer on my dad's desk.

Wow. I could have written this. We had a Commodore instead of a TRS-80...

I still have the Tom Swifts in my office.

I can't immediately find it right now, but if memory serves, the last time this came up, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and "Stranger in a Strange Land" seemed to be the strongest answers.

I have since read, enjoyed, and been influenced by both.

Neither are properly regarded as "non-technology," but I think from your point 2 it's clear that you are just looking to exclude training manual type texts.

Hitchhiker's in particular imparts a lot of great advice for creativity in technical fields, and software in particular, but does it using a fictionalized world with comedic logical oddities.

Another book I'll add, which has some of these properties, is "Jitterbug Perfume" by Tom Robbins (although take note that this book is highly erotic and explicit).

Not a single book but the Discworld series of books by Sir Terry Pratchett.

In particular the Watch sub-series.

I grew up reading them from the late 80's on-wards and I actually can't separate my worldview from them anymore, his outlook on life became my outlook on life.

Hope, Cynicism, politics, mortality (Death is a literal character), practicality and absurdity all feature in the series strongly.

Some of my favourite quotes

> Logic is a wonderful thing but doesn't always beat actual thought. (The Last Continent).

> Genius is always allowed some leeway, once the hammer has been pried from its hands and the blood has been cleaned up. (Thief of Time).

> I believe in freedom, Mr. Lipwig. Not many people do, although they will, of course, protest otherwise. And no practical definition of freedom would be complete without the freedom to take the consequences. Indeed, it is the freedom upon which all the others are based. (Lord Vetinari - Going Postal).

> What sort of man would put a known criminal in charge of a major branch of government? Apart from, say, the average voter.

> Technically, the city of Ankh-Morpork is a Tyranny, which is not always the same thing as a monarchy, and in fact even the post of Tyrant has been somewhat redefined by the incumbent, Lord Vetinari, as the only form of democracy that works. Everyone is entitled to vote, unless disqualified by reason of age or not being Lord Vetinari. And yet it does work. This has annoyed a number of people who feel, somehow, that it should not, and who want a monarch instead, thus replacing a man who has achieved his position by cunning, a deep understanding of the realities of the human psyche, breathtaking diplomacy, a certain prowess with the stiletto dagger, and, all agree, a mind like a perfectly balanced circular saw, with a man who has got there by being born… A third proposition, that the city be governed by a choice of respectable members of the community who would promise not to give themselves airs or betray the public trust at every turn, was instantly the subject of music-hall jokes all over the city.

The same here.

I so wish that Sir Terry could be here now, helping us to make sense of what is happening with some silly little stories.

I can see it now: Lort Vetinari (temporarily) ousted by Hairy Don Trumpet, former magnate of the Spinward Swamps who muscled in on the sausage-on-a-stick business and promised to "Make Ankh-Morpork Great Again". Having built his electoral platform (literally) atop basalt trolls, he spends his weekends golfing on the Unseen University grounds, to the marked dislike of the Librarian...

Meanwhile there is Berixit: Berilia decides to leave the other 3 elephants.


The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker.

It's a history of macro trends in violence - wars, homicide, rape, etc. The burden of violence in the modern world is much, much lower than it was historically, even fairly recently.

The book catches a lot of flak from people who reject the claim that the future will automatically be more peaceful than the past. I think this is poor criticism because that's not what the book says; it is explicitly a descriptive history and not predictive.

I love this book because it presents remarkable evidence from multiple fields that the world has gotten profoundly better (at least, regarding violence). The realization that the world can improve and has improved is...liberating? Surprisingly many people don't believe this, though I expect on HN belief in progress is not uncommon.

Having such evidence that the world has improved so much is powerful motivation to try to continue - you know it's possible. It's the antidote to incorrect zero-sum thinking, which is not just damaging but also wrong. And perhaps it's a moral call to action: our grandparents' and parents' generations left us a world which is much more peaceful than the one they were born into. Do we not owe future generations the same gift?

Not a book of anything, but a animatated story inspired by the subject matter of the book: http://www.fallen.io/ww2/

Just see and be humbled by the staggering, staggering losses of Soviet Russia in relation to other allies or Nazi Germany during ww2.

A top 5 for me too. Gave me a framework to simultaneously admire and despise human nature.

I've picked this book up in the bookshop several times but the page count puts me off.

Infinite Jest - it's just such an absurd book, and arguably way too long, but it's the funniest/saddest thing I've ever read. There are some passages that absolutely shook me.

This section is one of my favorites, about things he learned in a halfway home: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/966304-if-by-the-virtue-of-...

Infinite Jest destroyed me, in various places. It has picked up a stigma nowadays for being pretentious (well, sure, it is) and unfinishable, but it is if anything a work of genius, and if you give it a chance, it may destroy you as well. Have yet to find a piece of fiction to top it.

It's brilliant. My favorite.

Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss


As someone who never wanted to read negotiation books because I was worried I would try to "win" all the time, I can't tell you how much this book changed my way of thinking. It's affected how I deal with my kids, how I seek resolution in confrontations, and how I listen to people in general.

For anyone with empathy as a strong facet of your personality, I highly recommend reading this book. It's also a fun read, with each chapter's lesson following the events of a hostage negotiation that the author took part in as his role at the FBI.

Me thinking: please don't say the Bible, please don't say the Bible!

The Bible.

Because when I was young and I tried reading it I realized that even though millions and millions of perfectly functioning adults believe in something, it might be absolutely wrong or based on basically nothing.

I'll leave The Bible out of the discussion, but echo the point made.

As one human race, we can all come together, try very hard, regardless of class or race or creed or sex, in earnest support of one another, and can collectively make terrible decisions like Daylight Savings Time.

> As one human race, we can all come together, try very hard, regardless of class or race or creed or sex, in earnest support of one another, and can collectively make terrible decisions like Daylight Savings Time.

With proper attribution, I think this statement would be worthy of framing and public display. Keep that in mind in case you get famous :)

This is a high complement, you have made my Monday that much better. Thank you! =).

> when I was young and I tried reading it I realized that even though millions and millions of perfectly functioning adults believe in something, it might be absolutely wrong or based on basically nothing.

Even as a confident Christian, there are many people who profess to be Christians but who have a very different understanding of what that means than I.

To me, being a Christian is about having faith in Christ's divinity and the truthfulness of His message, and striving to live my life as is asked of me. I often fail, but I persist.

To others this seemingly cannot be the case, because they attribute words, actions, and attitudes to Christ and to God that serve only themselves and are at odds with scripture.

Hi LyndsySimon, I read your post in another topic where you said that you were loosing weight by eating a ketonic diet. Got curious, followed your profile and arrived here, just to tell you two things. One that I can see that you're thinking different, and I congratulate you for this, as it's not easy to do so. Second, that regarding religions you can perhaps take a step ahead, too. God is universal. Religions are man made and serve to divide. You may be interested in a six book volume set that really enlightened me: https://www.amazon.com/Life-Teaching-Masters-East-Volume/dp/.... Please read the comments. ;-)

Superman is also universal, as a concept. God may well be just a concept, not a reality.

Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein

There were many other books that influenced me, but the concept of a "Fair Witness" stuck with me - specifically, the idea that one should be aware of what is known versus what is inferred.

> Fair Witnesses are prohibited from drawing conclusions about what they observe. As a demonstration, Harshaw asks Anne to describe the color of a house in the distance. She responds, "It's white on this side". Harshaw explains that she would not assume knowledge of the color of the other sides of the house without being able to see them. Furthermore, after observing another side of the house would not then assume that any previously seen side was still the same color as last reported, even if only minutes before.

But why not go further with some radical solpsism:

1. Why assume it is a house at all and not a facade?

2. Why assume that your eyes are not defective as to color?

3. Why assume your memory of the word "color" and "white" are correct?

4. Why assume that you heard the question properly?

5. How do you know the meanings of words haven't changed since you learned them many years ago?

You know it's a work of fiction, and that Fair Witnesses don't exist, right? :)

In real life, this is neatly addressed by Ayn Rand:

"Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong."

Hume actually goes farther than this list, and Heinlein is riffing on David Hume, and an old sheep joke. As for 5 I'm old enough to know that's actually a problem.

Why assume Anne is a Fair Witness?

'Orthodoxy' by G.K. Chesterton, because it shocked me out of self-absorbed materialist nihilism.

“Fairy tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.”

The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge, a professor at MIT.

Some might call it a business book. It focuses primarily on teaching readers to use "systems thinking" to turn companies into learning organizations that respond and adapt to change. That's useful advice to those in management positions, but I have to be honest and confess that the chapter on personal mastery changed my life in a big way. It put into words something that I had been thinking and feeling for a long time: namely, that we have the power to change the systems that influence us.

This is a great and worthwhile read. His exposure of positive and negative cycles and methods of interrupting the negative was eye opening. I've used his words on many an occasion to "wake up" the audience and break a negatively reinforced conversation.

Think and Grow Rich.

It totally turned my life around, no I didn't get a ton of money but it completely shifted my mentality, changed the way I saw the world, opened my eyes.

The strongest lesson the book had on me was that it made me realize that a man if he is willing can change his life, change what he doesn't like about his life and make it right. I just finished high-school when a family friend gave the book to me.

I learned about goals, how to set goals, it gave me the audacity to dream big, I learned that the man can influence the mind which influences matter.

I just started learning to code at the time, fast-forward seven years later, a kid from a humble background living in the lower-middle-class Africa who couldn't afford a laptop had no access to stable electricity and could not even afford to pay for internet connection, is now a Software Engineer in a big Co. in Europe.

With all those challenges and even more faced by a poor African, I was able to scale through, motivation and drive that was ignited over 8 years ago still burning strong.

Definitely the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to The Galaxy.

I only read the rest of the series years later, but Douglas Adams' humour had a (very) lasting impression on me, and inspired me to write (and communicate, to this day) using a similar kind of humor and lateral thinking - because if you're not having _some_ fun, then you're not really accomplishing anything...

Many of the problems he describes keeps coming back with each iteration of technological evolution. Like the Ident-I-Eeze card[1] and the inherent issue with providing reliable identification.

[1] http://epeus.blogspot.se/2002/12/douglas-adams-on-digital-id...

The Foundation, by Isaac Asimov.

Great sci-fi, but also cast science and technology in a way that made me realize it could enable or destroy civilization.

Introduced me to the concept that we can approach modeling and predicting human behavior with mathematics.

Very instrumental in pushing me towards hard sciences and computer modeling.

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.

The restlessness and questioning (epitomized when he leaves Buddha) that results in a fascinating journey of self-discovery and openness to experiences has been inspirational.

Atlas Shrugged

A book I revisit every few years. It's taught me to be honest with myself even if the social norms aren't in alignment with I'm doing.

It's also gave me a deeper understanding of my fellow man and why some are fine with handouts from others.

It's also where I learned the $ symbol is made from the U and S from United States.

"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."

John Rogers

It showcases some interesting dynamics regarding businesses becoming involved with politics and power. It's a good walk through of how "we just want the government to make companies give their fair share" can easily turn into something darker.

I certainly wouldn't promote objectivist an-cap policy writ large, but there are truthful elements in both Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. I specifically like how Ayn Rand draws a link between collectivism and racism, which was truthful in the era she was writing in. A rare perspective.

> objectivist an-cap policy

Objectivism and Anarcho-Capitalism are distinctly different, though they share much.

Objectivism accepts that a government is necessary, and places in it the legitimate use of force.

Anarcho-Capitalism holds that government is not necessary, and that no individual or organization may legitimately initiate force against another.

It more likely comes from a handwritten 'ps', an abbreviation for 'peso' in old Spanish-American books.


You can also see http://www.shmoop.com/atlas-shrugged/dollar-signs-symbol.htm... which discuesses this.

"The dollar sign? [It stands] for a great deal. It stands on the vest of every fat, piglike figure in every cartoon, for the purpose of denoting a crook.... It stands – as the money of a free country – for achievement, for success, for ability, for man's creative power – and, precisely for these reasons, it is used as a brand of infamy....It stands for the United States."

IMO The Fountainhead is a much better novel, while still adequately conveying her worldview.

> It's taught me to be honest with myself even if the social norms aren't in alignment with I'm doing.

Especially this.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. https://www.amazon.com/War-Art-Through-Creative-Battles/dp/1...

I have re-read this book constantly since purchasing it well over 10 years ago. The chapters on facing resistance and how to deal with it constantly resonate with me when working on my own projects.

"Guns, Germs, and Steel" by Jared Diamond. When I read it in the late 90s, I had already read complete accounts of world history and thought myself well-informed on the topic, yet virtually every chapter blew my mind.

The book is about the patterns that drive human history, both the written history that we know and the vast period of prehistory which we have a pretty good idea about these days due to genetics and linguistics. A recurring pattern has been people moving around, displacing less fortunate people. Further, Diamond looks for root causes to explain why some tribes or nations would gain an edge over their neigbours, and a lot of the explanation is ultimately found in technology and animal farming.

Before I read "Guns, Germs, and Steel", I had been under the impression that the world was a fairly static and ecologically stable place until the European age of discovery started uprooting everything. In reality it was nothing like that. Almost every strip of land is inhabited be people whose ancestors fought off other people, and cultures expanding beyond ecological sustainability and suddenly collapsing is a common event.

Runner-up: anything by Hunter S Thompson

Yes, that book completely changed my world view. I still think about it consistently almost 6 years later. He took a very empirical approach to a problem that is often discussed using less than thorough methods.

American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis. I learnt everything I know about fashion and business cards from this important book.

Amazing book that seems more relevant as time passes. It's absurdly hilarious and profound. The movie captures the former, but not the latter.

I like the film a lot too. I'm not certain whether the impossible-to-film gore of the book would've changed the message of the film had they somehow been able to include it (for those who haven't read it, the book has passages which are far nastier I think than any film that's ever been made), but I think the film still has a strong message, and is undeniably beautifully shot and well-acted.

Anyway, I have to return some videotapes.

The book is entirely first person. The more I read from Patrick Bateman's point of view the more I related to him in a deep and horrifying way. I've heard the unthinkable gore in the book described as 'language as violence', which puts it in a new perspective. It represents the pain and hatred within him more than it's literal content. I agree with that. To me, the book is about a man lost in a world he doesn't understand. As a young person, I related to that deeply.


My 60 Memorable Games by Robert James Fischer.

I worked through the whole book, tore it to shreds. Bought another copy recently (English notation, please). I was in a bookstore the other night (Moe's) and saw Botvinnik's Gruenfeld book and I just had to look up his notes on the Botvinnik v Fischer game. It was exactly as Fischer quoted it in his side by side commentary; I remembered it from memory. Botvinnik mentions a student of his, Kasparov, finding a new analysis.

Fischer went nuts, completely racist conspiratorial Alex Jones nuts. But MSMG has a clarity of thought that will always be his hallmark. The brutal objectivity. If only he'd applied it to himself.

I suppose this book gave me an appreciation of really low level thinking and how far you can go. Yes, the computer era hasn't been completely kind to Fischer. But that's like comparing Haswell to the 6600. I use Haswell but I still learned things from the 6600.

Well, that and 1984.

Animal Liberation by Peter Singer.

I read it over 20 years ago. I've been a vegetarian/vegan ever since. There were probably other things I read or saw that contributed to the decision, but that was, I think, the primary catalyst.

I don't know if I ever started reading the book, or if I never gave it a chance, because I was so put off by Singer's utilitarianism.

I turned vegetarian in the mid-nineties because my first girlfriend was vegetarian. It coincided with media focusing on unnecessarily long animal transports in the EU, and I quickly realized I didn't want to take any part in factory farming. My wife turned vegetarian after meeting me, and we're both vegan since 2007. I joke that vegetarianism and veganism is transferred from partner to partner. Both our kids have been vegan their whole lives.

I came in contact with Singer's ideas in articles, and was both put off by the utilitarian ideas as I couldn't see them coexist with ideas of inviolable human and animal rights, and also that he used mentally disabled children as an example of the absurdity of using mental capacity as a measure of whether you can be used to make food and clothes. I agree, of course, that you shouldn't use human children or animals, it was just that the examples and arguments didn't speak to me at all.

Do you remember what it was by Singer that spoke to you?

Well, the utilitarianism has also stuck with me, and I lean that way on a lot of philosophical/ethical questions. I didn't really realize it until a few years ago while dating someone relatively well-known in utilitarian/rationality circles and had some eye-opening conversations with her and her friends about rights and the like (lots of things I'd never really thought through to their logical conclusions led to a softening of my stance on some stuff).

I spent a lot of years being a natural rights libertarian, but when it comes down to it, I can't figure out where "rights" derive from. What's the first principle that says anyone has a "right" to anything? That's not to say I don't believe in civil rights as a just cause, or that human rights should be upheld, I just think they are a construct of sentient beings...not endowed by a creator or by nature. Utilitarianism has some reasonable answers on the question of rights, among other things.

I understand the discomfort people feel in comparing humans to animals, but I found it challenging in a good way. I've always had serious doubts about the arguments people make about humans being unique; I haven't believed in a soul since I was a child. So, Singer's arguments, even the uncomfortable ones, weren't such a huge leap.

Check out A Theory of Justice by John Rawls. Best challenge to Utilitarian thinking I know of. (E.g. slavery is wrong not because bad outweighs good, but rather because it is inherently wrong when seen from the perspective of the original position)

It's not uninteresting but it's a fast "argument" that really just dresses up George Moore's Intuitionism IMHO, which itself remains in disrespect. Google it, don't buy the book. It has many followers not because it's a great argument (assuming it qualifies as that) but because there simply aren't better arguments for Moore's side of the debate.

I am biased though, I've met the man and we really didn't like one another, our values were far too opposed when we met. From my brief exposure, in life he seemed to be a mandarin who played the academic system expertly for his own benefit, with a public persona crafted to help with that. His private and public opinions could diverge to a staggering degree, but at least he did sometimes share some of his private opinions with youngsters, even if he wouldn't own them in any other context. A conscious hypocrite, I give him that.

"The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson"

I found this book (or a very similar collection of Emerson's works) bound in a small red hardcover the fall of my freshman year at a catholic high school. The essays "Self-Reliance" and the "Divinity School Address" were both important. "Self-Reliance" provided fuel to sit in a room of antique x86 parts to follow the blueprint that ESR's "Hacker Howto" laid out (install and learn FreeBSD; learn Python, Perl, C, Lisp; write software). "Divinity School Address" started me away from Catholicism.

The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander.

He's an architect/philosopher who coined the term "design patterns". Beautiful book, got me thinking very hard about how to create artifacts and environments that make the people who interact with them happy.

This book gets my vote as required reading for everyday life. Don't buy a house before first reading this.

Or actively avoid it because you will be spoiled for standard architectural elements.

The gap between the house I want and what I will find is not based on fine materials and craftsmanship - but a simple, non-standard layout that is specific to my lifestyle.

"Prometheus Rising" by Robert Anton Wilson.

This is the book that tied together lot of things that I was wondering about previously and it opened up few doors into new mazes of research that I'm still trying to traverse.

Also, started reading books that he suggested:


Edit: Added Wilson's suggested reading list

I was thinking of mentioning Wilson and Shea's Illuminatus!. It touches on a lot of the same themes in Prometheus Rising but via fiction; it's full of not-so-subtly-disguised lectures and parables on How Brains (Fail To) Work. And a bunch of cheerful sexism but what're you gonna do, it's from the sixties.

And then there are the appendices, which eventually pointed me towards... yeah. "New mazes of research" is a good way to put it for the HN audience.

I want to reread this sometime. Everything after the 5th circuit was just too crazy or abstract to make sense of for me the first time around.

I'm quite to keen to try The Illuminatus Trillogy as well. His writing style is funny to me, in a similar way that Douglas Adams' is.

Lord of the Rings. I read a lot, so it is hard to pick any single book as most influential. LotR is not the first nor the best book I ever read (though I do love it). It has limited real life applicability. LotR is influential for me because I read it when I was 11 and it was the one that got me hooked on reading, which has been a huge part of my life ever since.

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

The main character Siddhartha experiences many different lives in search of true enlightenment. The book is so well written and way certain things are described are incredible.

The Disposessed, by Ursula K. Leguin.

Before I read it, I thought capitalism was the only way to organize people and resources on a broad scale. I couldn't imagine anything else working particularly well, and I thought anarchists were people who want to break things and cause chaos.

The Disposessed showed me how anarcho-syndicalism actually works, and gave me a framework for understanding its benefits and challenges and why it hasn't taken off broadly yet. My whole life is more or less oriented around those ideas now.

"The Demon-Haunted World"


Sagan at his most passionate awesome best.

Impossible to pick just one because they are all intertwined.

But consider Primo Levi's Periodic Table even if only for the flash of insight regarding onions.

Ever after reading it I see onions everywhere but most people seem unable to see them even after I point them out.

There is an HN comment on the subject: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9746723

The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck. There are probably better novels that I liked more, although this one is good and I liked it and it's kind of silly to pair off great works of literature Highlander-style, but I think this one has the most to say about a person's own approach to American capitalism and morality, and therefore has had more of an impact on me day-to-day.

Neuromancer was the first book to get me really excited about the future and how computers would change our lives.

Very surprised given this crowd that it isn't mentioned more.

Understanding Power by Noam Chomsky. I knew the United States was complicit in some nefarious things, both domestic and abroad, but wow, that book really blew my hair back.

That is the same feeling I got from A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn. I was a bit less proud of being an American after that read.

Which Chomsky book do you all recommend to read first?

BTW, I'm talking about the politic ones. I've studied him in computer science and physicology, but just saw interviews and read articles about politics.

Understanding Power is a great place to start. Its a collection of past talks given by him and I found it to be a great primer for more focused Chomsky books.

Catch 22. I use Yossarian's behaviour to justify my own.

I read Catch 22 when I was about 14 or so - it was literally the first "grown up" novel that I read that wasn't dry science fiction and it completely enthralled me.

What did I learn from it? Possibly this:

"The enemy is anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he's on"

A favourite of mine as well. I read it when I was about 20 and it blew my mind. I later read other books by Joseph Heller but I really shouldn't have bothered. Catch 22 was really his main opus.

I could never get past the first chapter, The Soldier in White. Somehow I took it too personally, or realistically, or something, and I didn't want to continue this journey.

My choice as well- it was the first book to show me that societies are systems with all the baggage that entails.

The Little Prince

Always have had a profound impact on how I view and understand things.

Read it with an open mind like a child and see the wonders.

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus

Back in college I had that spinning around in my head along with a computer science foundations course (automata, computability, complexity, Turing completeness) and a bunch of AI/AL light reading that was already rather dated. Kitzmiller v. Dover was being covered all over Slashdot and here I was looking at all these examples from the 80s of complex emergent behaviour evolving from simple rules applied to randomness and then simulated over time in computers.

Something clicked in my head and everything made as much sense as it needed to. Life, the Universe, everything. I started to think of the sciences as being just a continuum of studies that describe behaviour at increasingly higher levels of abstraction: math -> physics -> chemistry -> biology -> psychology -> sociology.

Computers made life without specific reason or meaning demonstrable. Camus made life without specific reason or meaning acceptable.

The Inner Game of Tennis.

My tennis coach gave me his copy, from the mid 80s, which was tattered and had clearly been read many, many times.

It taught me so much about life, and how to be successful.

My tennis coach was also my life coach when I reflect back on those days. He grew up in south central LA, rode his bike to the closest tennis courts and sometimes as far as Beverly Hills. He'd wait outside the courts until someone came along and ask if he could play.

He turned that into a full ride scholarship for tennis, became a senior level member of a huge telecom and then left to coach tennis to give back to the sport that gave him so much. He credited this book for teaching him how to focus on the important elements in life and most of all, the grit required to succeed.

Anyways, it's a great read. I haven't read the revised edition but I'm sure it's just as compelling.

Vintage 60 Minutes TV coverage of TIGoT (12 min): https://youtu.be/ieb1lmm9xHk

Reading this as we speak and there are wonderful lessons inside-- it sounds like it could be written in 2017.

I'm surprised it isn't mentioned more in "must-read" lists.

Halfway through this and it definitely is a much slower and richer read than I thought.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

It's a deep dive in understanding and empathizing with another human being, and reflecting and finding the things one is grateful for in their own life.

Years ago I was going on a cross country road trip (solo), and needed something to listen to. I decided to download all of his speeches, sort them in chronological order, and listen to all of them.

His continual evolution was nothing short of amazing. While the book is awesome, I appreciated him more when I listened to him directly.

This is also a great book: https://www.amazon.com/Malcolm-X-Reinvention-Manning-Marable...

It essentially makes him more human, exposing his flaws which you rarely hear about.

Bhagavad Gītā [0]

Miami's airport, Autumn 1983, a shave head Krishna pushes a copy into my hand on the concourse. Says he wants me to have it. Then asks for money. Here's a five. Most people give twenty. Still have the book. Still cheap.

Began my intellectual interest in religion. I've come to think of religion as just another way of explaining the world alongside storytelling and science.

[0] : as it is (abridged edition)

Think Like a Freak by Steven Levitt, Stephen Dubner (authors of Freakonomics) was a recent read that I liked a lot. It distills much of their economic thinking into a collection of meaningful practices. You could read it in a day.

1- The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli. Specially the edition commented by Napoleon Buonaparte.

2-Diffusion of Innovations by Everett M. Rogers. This book makes "Crossing the chasm" a simplistic introduction for laggards

3-The Art of War by Sun Tzu

4-If Nature Is the Answer, What Was the Question? By Jorge Wagensberg

5-Sacred hoops by Phil Jackson

6-Fear from freedom by Erich Fromm

7-Michelangelo biography of a genious

8-Blindness by Jose Saramago

9-On writing by Stephen King

The Manifesto of the Communist Party. It's not that it's greatly-written, or that everything in it is right. It just manages to achieve the feeling that, truly, "another world is possible."

I think the "His Dark Materials" series by Philip Pullman had the greatest impact on me as a youngster. That series opened my mind to some really interesting ideas, and lead on to reading Milton, then taking up a general interest in philosophy.

I don't think I'd be who I am now without having read those books.

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. Blew my mind out the back of my head in high school. Changed the way I looked at the world. Made evolution make some sense, and to some degree, paired with the extended phenotype, helped society make more sense. So much of altruism, racism, and tribalism have roots in game theory of you accept the hypothesis of the gene as the unit of natural selection.

But, perhaps more importantly it taught me by example how to make a good argument that can be rooted in multiple deep disciplines but accessible to the masses.

You might want to check out: Y: The Descent of Men by Steve Jones

It's a humourous and insightful look at evolution and the stupidity that us men sometimes exhibit.

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

This just may be my imagined takeaway. But..

There's a theme around creativity existing on, let's call it a plane, and this plane is accessible to anyone. I've yet to think much on if this plane (or, perhaps way of thinking) is the same for everyone or actually shared in some way.

This idea massively shaped my understanding, or feelings towards, the brain, and the immense ability for our own brains to limit or enhance our potential.

This was a very literary way for me to form the advice that could be boiled down to: "think positively"

Haruki Murakami is the only living author who, if he writes a book, I will read it. The only other author for me in this category is C.S. Lewis (except that he's not still living in this world).

Also, I would have answered the question with "Hardboiled Wonderland and The End of the World", except that, by the time I read it, I was already so much on the same page in my thinking, that it didn't have a huge impact on me... but if I hadn't already been thinking as I do, I'm sure it would have been immensely impactful.

The 48 laws of power by Robert Greene and How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World by Harry Browne. The two sides of the same coin: how the game of power is played and how to get immune to it.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.

It might not actually be my first choice, but this one of the few on my short list that no one else has mentioned.

I read it in my mid teens (not too long after we stopped playing Rambo in the back yard) and it profoundly affected the way I view war, violence, and suffering. I've only read it the once (almost 25 years ago), and I hardly remember the story at all, but I vividly remember the feeling that it gave me.

The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins)

tldr; our bodies are just a side effect of the gene's greater plan

I think your tldr is overstating the case a little.

More like the gene's fight for survival.

This has turned out to be an amazing thread. While the first 50 books were something I was expecting, Selfish Gene, Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy et all, the suggestions went interesting as I kept scrolling.

In the spirit of all things books, I've compiled the answers into a list (You were expecting someone to do this, weren't you?)

Since, I've done this manually, this is what I've included.

1. Have only included the first level comments and the books mentioned in them.

This means the comments that said, if you liked this, you'll also like this aren't included.

2. Have included books from comments that have provided good answers to the 'why'.

Haven't included just book mentions without explanations of why that has been the most influential book.

Which book is mentioned most?

Haven't counted, but I think it is Selfish Gene and the Bhagwat Gita!

And here is the list --> You guys can go ahead and add these to your reading list.


The Rock Warrior's Way:


Nominally about rock climbing, but really a study of the ego, why we invest so much effort in protecting it, and how little we get for that investment.

"The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger" by Marc Levinson

This book is an amazing breakdown of the shipping container and the impact that seemingly insignificant details can have on the world. But more importantly for me were the examples of non-automated labor required to move cargo in the past. It demonstrated the sheer amount of human effort that is poured into profitable tasks. It made me consider some of the tasks/projects I decided never to bother with out of laziness and think about what it would take in terms of tools and resources/manpower to actually get those tasks done. Instead of thinking about whether I wanted to do some task, I began thinking about whether the outcome was desirable regardless of the work required, and if it was, I thought about what it would take to get it done. If I had to list a second book it woul be "The Age of Intelligent Machines" by Kurzweil

You're in good company with liking this one - "The Box" was on the 2017 Navy reading list (http://navyreading.dodlive.mil/).

Thinking fast and slow -

This book deals with lot of experiments on human decisioning and explains how impulsive and irrational our decisions can be

Stumbling on Happiness. The best insight here is - people are very good at rationalizing / being happy about bad results, when they result from a decision to do something (e.g. change job / move ...) - less so when they decide not to do something (stay in the current job etc.) Using this as a tie-breaker rule has been a great help.

Nineteen Eighty Four by Orwell. I read it in high-school and it helped seed (or at least exacerbate) a strong sense of distrust for government and its agents.

A close second might be The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. That might actually have been first on my list, had I read it when I was younger. But I only first read it about 8 years ago.

Is sci-fi "technology"?

I've taken much from Dune (see the name) but also Clark's books. Comics and the bible have also helped me understand much of US pop culture in a way that i wouldn't without. Realizing the religious overtones in the marvel movies, or the STD metaphor in HarryPotter, is great fun.

The Bhagavad Gita continues to challenge my notion of truth, self, and the path to happiness.

A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn

Epistle to the Romans.

Helped me wrestle and come to rest with many conflicting thoughts and ideas that were ultimately attributed to my lack of knowledge in those. I highly recommend reading in a modern translation like ESV.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. Documents a year of her and her family living in Appalachia, totally self-sustaining. Changed the way I think about consumerism and industrialization.

"Foucault's Pendulum" by Umberto Eco.

There is some hacking, and a strange battle against people wanting to believe their own truth (does that ring a bell?). Extremely contemporaneous, alas...

Loved Foucault's Pendulum, but I think Name of the Rose is a better novel. The characters are more convincing, the narrative momentum more propulsive, and the intellectual pyrotechnics just as satisfying. The film, with Sean Connery, is pretty good too...

Bhagavad Gita - translated by Eknath Easwaran https://www.amazon.com/Bhagavad-Easwarans-Classics-Indian-Sp...

Eknath has a deep understanding of Indian spirituality, in first 75 or so pages he explains it beautifully. He also explains how Bhagwad Gita is a map of how to live a life. These teaching can be applied even today to live a good life without too much stress.

IMHO the best 20th century novel in the English language: Brideshead Revisited. A cursory reading, or viewing of the TV series or recent film, can leave the misleading impression that it's a eulogy to aristocratic privilege. But that's because it wears its more profound themes so lightly. Those themes are life, love, the quest for happiness & acceptance, the nature of art, and the Catholic faith. As a work of apologetics it's extremely reticent; only Catholics will notice its Catholicity. All should read at a gentle pace to savour its wisdom. Some quotes...

“But I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.”

“To understand all is to forgive all.”

“... To know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom.”

“Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint. In her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman's day; her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days - such as that day - when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth. It was this cloistral hush which gave our laughter its resonance, and carried it still, joyously, over the intervening clamour.”

And finally: "beware charm!"

Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence

The takeaway that's quickest to explain is that the best things in life are priceless. You might be surprised how few $ you can happily live on.

Tao Te Ching (Daodejing) by Lao-tse (Laozi). This is my favorite translation:


The text gives advice on both how to behave on a personal level and how to lead (and therefore what to expect from a good leader). It promotes the idea that ambition leads to strife and conflict and that the path to happiness is to be content with what you have. It also promotes the abandonment of pride and ego: Do your work and walk away, do not concern yourself with getting credit for what's been achieved. Be like water and flow around problems instead of butting your head against them. Be malleable, do your thing, and don't worry about what others are doing around you.

When it comes to how to lead, it says you should micro manage, and that the best leader is invisible. They make the group members think that they achieved it all themselves.

A lot of the things go against the current climate of ambition, greed, and always being visible in social media. How can you increase your salary without taking credit for all the good things you do? How can you be productive, and show others how productive you are, if you abandon ambition and are content? I still find that it calms me to think about the ideas, and that it feels like someone has my back when I don't want to become the center of attention. I just want to do my work and my hobbies, being happy with what I have, and not trying to maximize my salary or social standing.

The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing who you are, by Alan Watts.

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

Somehow Rick & Morty really reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut. Similarly dark sense of humour about our meaninglessness in a vast, chaotic universe.

1) Jonathan Livingston Seagull. 2) Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. 3) Illusions.

The Once and Future King by T H White is likely my favorite fictional book. A modern (1940s) retelling of Arthurian legend, it really struck me in how it was able to captivate my imagination and my emotions. In that story I found White was masterfully able to discern when to be serious and when to be playful - by which he reanimated, for me, the legend of Arthur - parts of which I started to find stale, or outright did not enjoy.

I would add that he also does a wonderful job capturing and describing human nature. He is writing right after WWII, and the Arthurian legend is just a vehicle for his observations about humanity (and the war).

Wonderful book - I just finished reading the first section (the Sword in the Stone) out loud to my daughter, and I hope as she gets older, she will read the rest on her own.

Although somewhat obscure, Filip Filander[1] by Jörg Hagemann left me with quite an impression at the time I read it (I must have been about 14). Hagemann tells a story that reminds very much of Michael Ende (who wrote the Unending Story and many other excellent books) and tries to highlight the contrast between knowledge and wisdom (Wissen und Weisheit in German) and the importance of having a good amount of both (as opposed to fanatically only searching for one). That idea resonated quite well with me - and I'm still reminded of the book whenever I'm witness to an overly technical argument that leaves out other aspects (people, practicality, etc.).

[1]: https://www.amazon.de/Filip-Filander-das-geraubte-Wissen/dp/...

Little Prince. Read it a few times in my life. As a child, teen, adult and always got different but beautiful things from it.

"The Malazan Book of The Fallen" by Steve Erikson

It's supposedly fantasy, but it contains some of the best (fun and insightful) examinations of political systems, economics, religion, the environment, military culture and more. If it sounds like everything, it's because it is :)

My favorite work of art in any medium.

PS. It's a series (and a long one at that).

Mister God, this is Anna By Fynn[0]

Physics, Religion, Philosophy, Life, all rolled up into seeing the world through a child's eyes.

[0]: https://www.amazon.com/Mister-God-This-is-Anna/dp/B004MO511I...

"The Road Less Traveled" by M Scott Peck.

By far the best self-improvement book I've read. About discipline, love, growth and religion, and grace. I don't consider myself to be religious, but it's made me apply traditional values and spiritual growth from religion to help me become a better person.

Came here to write about it. Also "Abounding Grace". I'm going to read all his books.

Moneyball. Will affect the way you (strive to) make decisions. Worthwhile even if you've seen the movie and/or don't like baseball.

The End of Faith. Definitely don't agree with all of this, but if you're at all on the fence about religion this book has the potential to be very influential.

re Moneyball - the big takeaway (clearer in the movie) being that most people who experience tremendous success don't actually realize it, particularly, at the time.

Atlas Shrugged. For its dogged adherence to finding out and practicing a morality. Rand's fault is that she ignores this cannon in creating entirely, unbelievably optimistic characters, but remembers it well in their decisions and formation of plot. This book challenged, nearly destroyed, and then strengthened my faith and hope in Christ because of its' logical progression toward the necessity and worth of truth and fairness, and then being unable to act out those principles without the use of God-like character(s). I was left, after studying Islam in the Koran and separately, mindfulness and others, unable to turn to anything else, except the Gospel of John and Romans. A Reason for God, by Tim Keller was also a necessary step in the tempering of my morality.

Does "The Evolution of Cooperation" count as technical? It's kind of CS-ish, but the real points are about how cooperation and "good behavior" can (a) occur without explicit communication and (b) be predictably self-beneficial in the long term even though exact paths to those benefits are unknown. True enlightened self-interest has to account for ecosystem effects and something akin to karma.

If that's disqualified, I'd go with something like Lewis and Allison's "The Cheating of America" or just about anything by David Cay Johnston. Knowing who really pays and who really profits from government, and how, can really shine an interesting light on what might otherwise by inexplicable behavior from our so-called leaders.

"Nonviolent Communication" (NVC) by Marshall Rosenberg

I was emotionally disconnected from people and myself from ~10~33 years old via information addiction (compulsively doing everything up to the "doing" parts of creation).

My disconnect kept me from learning how to communicate my empathy to others, as well as kept me from fully considering/respecting their needs. Around a year ago, I broke through denial over sexual trauma I experienced as a child and was able to largely come to peace with it in 12 hours thanks to the principles and practices of NVC. That was huge and only the start of the book's impact on me.

Essentially, this book has been teaching me how to human for the past year. I've read it 5 times and may read it again this week. I'm willing to send a used copy from Amazon to anyone who can't afford a copy and thinks they could benefit from it. My contact info is in my profile for those who wish to take me up on the offer. Here are more ways the book has changed my life.

- It taught me how to emphatically connect. The communication framework it teaches is simple, yet highly structured. It was perfect for my systematic way of thinking.

- I gained a new understanding of fundamental human needs and how they relate to emotions we experience.

- I began practicing it with a friend, who I fell in love with through our mutual ability to connect and was briefly engaged to them last year.

-I've introduced the book to my family and the entire dynamic has changed dramatically. Passive aggressive and/or codependent behaviors are slowly starting to shift.

- The book inspired me to practice abandoning my judgments. All of them. After a few weeks of this, I realized I was enjoying foods I used to hate. And then I started enjoying music I used to hate. And then children became adorable instead of obnoxious.

- I've always known something was wrong with the US justice system, but had no idea how to fix it. I learned about restorative justice through the book and my entire worldview has shifted as a result. I'm now slowly developing ideas for how to shift systems in that direction.

- I developed a model for how humans work I use to program my brain in very intentional ways. NVC principles serve as optimization techniques in it.

- An example of one such optimization was so profound it's worth noting by itself. I realized I can view every moment as meeting some needs of mine. The shittiest of moments can specifically meet a combination of 4 needs: learning to better meet my needs, learning to better empathize with others, gratitude for both of those things, and gratitude for the opportunity to learn. I began processing the world this way on New Year's Eve and it's changed practically everything I do. My reality is not at all what it once was and I love it.

- I have a concern about creating a programming language for human brains and giving it to the world. Specifically, I'm worried about people using it to exploit others. If I don't abandon my worry, I'll first encode NVC practices in it and release it as a sort of mental antivirus.

- In preparing to test an hypothesis my model generated about gender identity, I accidentally spawned a seemingly conscious second voice in my head. NVC is incredibly helpful when it comes to us communicating with each other.

I second this.

I think NVC is on of the most important books that exists and should be taught in all schools, at all levels. Most of what we do is communication, and this is how to do it in a way that connects with people.

I listen to the 8 hour lecture on youtube a couple of times a year and have read the book easily a dozen times.

I've listened to the lecture a few times, too. Great stuff! Here's the link for anyone interested:


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