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Ask HN: Summer Reading Recommendations?
61 points by neilc on Aug 2, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 94 comments
I'm about to take a few weeks off, and I'd love to hear recommendations from HNers on books they've read recently and enjoyed. I'm open to anything, fiction or non-fiction -- and I'd be particularly interested in subjects other than programming or entrepreneurship.

Palace Walk, by Naguib Mahfouz

A family drama set in Cairo during and after World War I. It's a long book, but the going is easy. The variety of characters of different ages and temperaments, each with their own preoccupations in a turbulent time, provide a fascinating glimpse of what to me was an entirely unknown society and culture. It's the first book in a trilogy, so if you like it, there are more books waiting.

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Very sad. It ripped me up the first time I read it. Anybody who grew up feeling different and somehow deficient should read it.

Talking to Strange Men, by Ruth Rendell

An easy and fast-paced kind-of-mystery by a well-known mystery writer. There are two stories related in a crucial but indirect way. Each story has mysteries and twists that could stand on their own for suspense, but they play second fiddle to the development of several interesting characters.

Persepolis and Persepolis 2, by Marjane Satrapi

Graphic memoirs about growing up in Iran and Europe.

On a "what makes us tick" non-fiction bent:

1. Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (http://tinyurl.com/33kv6te) - fascinating look at the author's theory of Flow, the state of total absorption that accompanies total concentration - so called "optimal experience". Anyone who programs knows this feeling. Really excellent book.

2. Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert (http://tinyurl.com/38lvdzc) - not the self-help book it sounds like, but an interesting look at why we're so bad at working out what will make us happy.

3. The Tiger that isn't by Andrew Dilnot (http://tinyurl.com/38hntqx) - interesting guide to our instinctive interpretation of statistics and how the media manipulates it.

4. Bad Science by Ben Goldacre (http://tinyurl.com/3yk8woz) - at once amusing and horrifying look at various aspects of pseudoscience, especially as applied to healthcare.


1. Anything by Iain Banks, especially the sci-fi.

2. If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor (http://tinyurl.com/3496d34) - worth reading just for the language he uses.

3. American Gods by Neil Gaiman (http://tinyurl.com/3xyr65w) - great fantasy with a darkly humorous side.

Here are some nonfiction books that I've enjoyed.

How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life - Gilovich - a good book on the inability of the human mind to accept things as random.

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High - Patterson, et all - fluffy but nice short and solid book for better skills at listening and responding in conversation

Full Throttle: The Life & Fast Times of Racing Legend Curtis Turner - Edlestein - Curtis Turner was an influential figure in the development of what became NASCAR. I enjoyed the book for his character and as insight into a pass time that I had not really understood.

Peter Reinhart's Artisan Breads Every Day - Reinhart - His latest book on quality home baking. This is definitely a do along with the book kind of read, but I found it to be easy to follow, appealing to detail, and satisfying in producing delicious bread.

Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails: From the Alamagoozlum to the Zombie 100 Rediscovered Recipes and the Stories Behind Them - Haigh - If you're of age, this is an interesting background in cocktails and their evolution in America.

I forget whether it was on HN or not, but I've been enjoying this list of great magazine articles http://www.kk.org/cooltools/the-best-magazi.php .

I'm reading The Joy of Clojure right now. I've never been able to get myself into lisp, but this book is doing a pretty damn good job.

I think technical books are best combined with fiction, because it's pleasant to keep switching between the two as you get bored. I just finished and highly recommend Fluke by Christopher Moore. Its synopsis does not do it justice: once you start reading it, it's impossible to put down.

I think "Lamb" is my favorite Christopher Moore book.

I really like the Sherlock Holmes stories.

They are a bit dated, but still good reads.


Surely you are joking, Mr. Feynman.

D. MacKay: Sustainable energy - without the hot air.

N. Taleb: Fooled by randomness.

M. Karinthy: A journey round my skull.

Not a fan of Taleb, who is in love with the sound of his own voice, and who is articulating concepts that may be shocking to pit traders but not so much to anyone who has spent quality time on Usenet.

Yeah, he gets repetitive for sure. But I still think the core of his message is sound and (somewhat) counterintuitive (to me at least): you can lose most bets if you win the rare large ones, people underestimate the probability of outlier events, people tend to find patterns in sheer randomness, etc.

I'm reading "Surely you are joking, Mr. Feynman". I'm about 100 pages into it, and it's a pretty cool read. Smart as he is but the way he wrote it doesn't make me feel intimidated at all. I was really impressed about the part when he talked about this his first presentation to Einstein and Pauli and other biggest minds of the 20th century. He made it so casual and I could pictured me in his shoes perfectly. It reminds me of my Chemistry classes in college.

I think the Feynman book is great! He is a great storyteller and humble to boot.

It's older, but I really enjoyed Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson.

I think Haruki Murakami (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haruki_murakami) is one of the most interesting and weird contemporary novelists alive today. On a similar Japanese tip, also check out anything by Kobo Abe, particularly The Woman in the Dunes and The Box Man.

If you're into sci-fi, as inevitably a lot of hackers are, Jeff Noon's Vurt and Pollen are both brilliant.

I enjoyed The Woman in the Dunes as well. Very well written, though it left me feeling a bit disturbed.

Another great novel (also Japanese) is Kokoro by Natsume Soseki. It's not sci-fi and the plot isn't especially thick, however just like a lot of Japanese novels, the focus is on the character development, and it is done very very well.

Things you can easily read on the beach:

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.

Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain (but read Kitchen Confidential first if you haven't already).

Also recommend FiveBooks.com, which does interviews with various academics and "thinkers" each recommending 5 books on a particular subject. It's a bit slanted towards politics but has a fair bit of hard science as well.

The Master and Margarita is very good, but you have to take care with which translation you pick up.


If you like SciFi, I really recommend Ian M. Banks and his Culture Series.

Here is a link to the "first" in the series: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consider_Phlebas

Basically to give you a flavour, imagine a utopian society where energy is basically free and run by super intelligent benevolent AIs. So basically the citizens have nothing to do but live a completely hedonistic life.

Whenever they encounter "primitive" societies, they try to make them more human and civilized. Basically the opposite of the "prime directive". The organization responsible for that is called Contact. Unfortunately, in order to make these societies more humane they sometimes have to resort to some dirty tricks (like assassinating evil dictators, instigating civil wars, etc etc). The organization responsible for that is called "Special Circumstances".

Another author I find great is Sheri Tepper. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheri_S._Tepper

SciFi with a feminist bent. Examples are Grass / and the Margarets.

If you want something more acid, anything by Victor Pelevin. Buddha's little finger is brilliant.

Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman

Also, as a good counterpoint (sort of)...

Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher

I personally don't think the whole book is that great, but the chapter, "Buddhist Economics", is really good and reprinted here: http://www.smallisbeautiful.org/buddhist_economics/english.h...

If you haven't, read Ender's Game. It's phenomenally well written science fiction.

If you have read it a long time ago, re-read it!

Also, if you love the book, it might pay to avoid reading anything about Orson Scott Card, particularly any recent interviews.

I've let what he stands for as an individual colour my enjoyment of his novels, which is a pity as they're some of my favourite in the genre.

I'm a huge fan of Orson Scott Card, so take the following with a grain of salt.

Despite "recent interviews" which most people really disagree with, I still think almost all his fiction works are great. So if you liked Ender's Game, be sure to pick up other fiction books by him. I especially recommend "Songmaster" and "The Worthing Saga".

I remember reading something about him personally and tried to not let it taint my recent reading and then next year rereading of Ender's Game. I've forgotten what I was so upset about, thankfully, so I can still enjoy that and Speaker for the Dead for what they are.

I don't often get really emotional when I read books anymore (I'm newly in my 30's), but Ender's game just hit me so hard. I'm glad for the experience.

Recently finished The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition - An extraordinary true story and possibly the best book I've ever read.

A Game of Thrones by George R R Martin. Fiction. Fantasy, but not _too_ fantasy; it's almost the same as the world we live in. But Martin is a genius. His world is deep and it seems like he's lived there for years. His characters are fascinating and unique, to a level I've never seen before. His writing style is subtly distinct, enough that you don't notice it initially but you gradually pick up on small changes that he made and appreciate it more. Last, his plot writing is truly masterful. If you're familiar with it, this is sort of "The Wire" of fantasy books.

+1 for A Game of Thrones.

As a side note HBO picked up the rights to AGOT and is currently filming the series which should be airing sometime in 2011.


Martin is an incredible writer and the books have lots of depth. His characters are amazing. I've read them a couple times and continue to find them fantastic.

Martin chooses each detail that he writes about with intent, while not always apparent on your first reading, he has an artful way of layering plot points or connecting characters with subtle details.

While I agree that Martin is excellent, be aware that this is a book in a series that has not been (may not be) finished yet.

My favourite books read lately are Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky and Perrotta's Metaprogramming Ruby. If you haven't read Free by Chris Anderson, it's also highly recommended. It's just an article, but Anarconomy by the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies was a very interesting read (http://www.cifs.dk/doc/medlemsrapporter/MR0309UK.pdf).

If you are willing to check out an audiobook, World War Z is truly an amazing book. Absolutely the best audiobook I have heard so far.

Enjoy your weeks off!

The print version of World War Z is very good as well.

I just finished Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

It's a 1000-page kind of experimental fiction about entertainment/addiction.

It took me a while to read, but is something I'd recommend, anyway.

So, what's the jest of it? Someone told me that if you finish it, the joke is on you ;)

While witty enough as a throwaway comment, I disagree and recommend IJ to anyone who likes nested (recursive!), variable scope humor. The experimental portions of it do not thrill me except insofar as they are amusing.

The novel is a sort of intersection of so funny it hurts and it hurts so much it's funny.

The eponym of the title is apt for one of the viewpoint characters, who is unable to communicate by the end of the story (beginning of the book), and much more so his father, who is a very type of Yorick: mute by being dead, of excellent fancy, etc.

Two of my favourite summer books:

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture by Douglas Coupland

Any friend of Gatsby is a friend of mine.

> The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I read Gatsby and came away with two thoughts:

1. How incredibly well constructed. Almost every paragraph weaves a story together that starts off slow and then accelerates incredibly rapidly.

2. I think it's so popular because it paints a picture of rich people as actually unsuccessful at what really matters to them, depraved, inconsiderate, immoral, and miserable and hollow on the inside. Note how frequently the book is recommended by English professors with no money who generally hate wealthy people - it's like, "see, they're like us, just even worse!"

Worth reading, though, at the very least to see what the fuss is about. It is incredibly well-constructed from a writing standpoint.

I think it's more a fact of describing the life of upper class people. The poor characters are not so well painted too. But they live (or want to live) in the upper class world, in the book. We have only flash of the world of the "poor".

The narrator, also, is from a bourgeois family (Nick graduated from Yale).

So maybe it was just a novel describing a world. A World fading away.


- Someone already mentioned Neil Gaiman's "American Gods", but it's so good, I'll mention it again :) Very well constructed and has its specific atmosphere...

- Anything by Iain Banks - "Walking on glass", "Wasp factory", "A song of stone" are definitely not light reading, but worth spending some time on them. His science-fiction is much simpler, but... didn't get me as excited as "Walking on glass".


- "Leading Lean Software Development - Results are not the point" (http://www.amazon.com/Leading-Lean-Software-Development-Resu...) is the best team / organisation / project leading book I've seen. I hate most of books like that with passion, but this one is different. I can't wait for the next story they introduce in every chapter. It touches many topics useful for anyone working with even one other person and you can read it like a good adventure book - it's got clear examples, interesting quotes and in-depth but not boring analysis.

There's Iain Banks (The Wasp Factory), and there's Iain M. Banks (other books). Same guy--the latter is science fiction, and always worthwhile; the former is his "experimental" fiction, some of which I can't figure out the point of. The Wasp Factory isn't SF but is good: the story of an average British boy, his odd circumstances, and the odder resolution of his problems.

I've been into Klosterman lately

Downtown Owl (novel) Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs (essays on pop culture) Eating the Dinosaur (more essays)

Other Novels:

Lolita - Nabokov White Noise - Delillo

I recently went on a Ernest Hemingway bender after not having read much fiction in a while (sort of a gray area for these novels since a lot of it is based on Hemingway's experiences during the wars); I would highly recommend:

For whom the bell tolls & A farewell to arms

Out of those two, I liked For Whom The Bell Tolls a little bit better.

"Into Thin Air" (Krakauer) Journalist/Mountaineer account of an Everest expedition gone wrong. Read it, ponder, but know that there is some controversy. Very interesting look into expedition dynamics.

"Mountains Beyond Mountains" (Kidder) An account of Paul Farmer's work in Haiti, and later in other parts of the world. If you are interested in public health it is a great read, and may provide a fresh angle on recent Haiti <-> world politics.

"Three Cups of Tea" (Oliver, I think) Greg Mortensen starts building schools in Pakistan / Afghanistan. Adventure ensues. There's some definite political bias here but it's worth a read.

Fun summer read: "World War Z".

Unrelated, I use Shelfari [http://www.shelfari.com/] to organize my books-to-read, if you need an organization tool.

For anyone interested in the human side of Nigerian "419" spam email, I recommend the funny novel "I Do Not Come to You by Chance" by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani.


Here's my partial book list, if you look under "Favorites" you can use those as my suggestion :)


Some recents:

Surely You're Joking Mr Feynmann is a good read.

As is Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle

As is Hugh Laurie's The Gun Seller

And I'm just getting into Orwell's Keep The Aspidistra Flying which is quite good too.

I just started "The Ultimate Sales Machine" - looks really, really promising. Author gives good general advice you might've already heard before (sell to current clients, have a good training program, consistency and processes), but he actually takes the time to write about how much "pigheaded discipline and determination" a given policy is going to take to implement. It's been a good read so far, very synergistic with E-Myth for those who like E-Myth.

* Go to http://www.thinkingforaliving.org/topics/shelf, close your eyes, move your pointer around at random , buy the book the pointer rests on, scroll down; repeat five times. You can't go wrong.

* Points of View - A Tribute to Alan Kay -- the second hardcover edition just came out, and it's downloadable as PDF at http://vpri.org/pov/.

I really enjoyed "Grumby" by Andy Kessler. It's about a fictional (very fictional) Silicon Valley startup. Light read and people here would probably enjoy it.

How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand.

It's about how the foundation you build something on top of determines its adaptability to change/new usage patterns

A People's History of the United States (Zinn) [http://www.amazon.com/Peoples-History-United-States-Present/...]

There's so much history that isn't taught in school (politically covered up) and Zinn presents many of these little-known history gems. Be warned, there is a light liberal swing.

Zinn is an ideologue who picks his facts based on the social goal he is trying to achieve (imposition of a Marxist system in the US):


“Objectivity is impossible,” Zinn once remarked, “and it is also undesirable. That is, if it were possible it would be undesirable, because if you have any kind of a social aim, if you think history should serve society in some way; should serve the progress of the human race; should serve justice in some way, then it requires that you make your selection on the basis of what you think will advance causes of humanity.”

troll much? Nothing, in any of his writing, and certainly not that quote, give any indication of a desire to "impose a marxist system". Sounds kind of like your the ideologue here. I fail to understand how relating the experiences of those who built the country you probably think you value would be such a threat to its survival.

I like the way Zinn details that America was founded upon genocide. This is very glossed over in history classes even here in Europe.

Also I agree that you can't be objective in history, all sources have their bias.

Light liberal? Zinn is hard left, and writes history accordingly.

I guess it's a bit late, but I was joking. If it were truly light, I wouldn't have mentioned (noticed) it.

I'll put smileys next to jokes next time, OK?

I've been following the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan (RIP) which is one of the most famous fantasy series of the past 50 years, and all of Peter F. Hamilton's novels, which can only be described as epic space operas. Both authors are worth reading, but be forewarned that getting through the (currently) 12 books in WoT will take quite a bit of your time.

Some of the customer reviews on amazon for Robert Jordan's later books are hilarious:

"Those who can appreciate great setup will really love this book. Personally, I thought the setup in books 8 and 9 were good ... but this was absolutely stupendous. Fans of total plot inertia will be in heaven."

"Some other notable developments:

The quality of tea has really taken a nosedive since the early books in the series, and it's starting to negatively impact the morale of our heroes"


"East of Eden" or anything Steinbeck. The art of storytelling is vastly underestimated in the startup world. If you know how to tell a good story, writing blog posts, doing marketing copywriting etc ... suddenly becomes much easier. Reading world-class fiction teaches you this skill. For a slightly geekier read: "The Glass Bead Game" by Hermann Hesse.

Just finished reading "Small Pieces Loosely Joined" (http://www.smallpieces.com/) which is a wonderful read on why we care about the Web.

The author's previous work called "The Cluetrain Manifesto" (http://www.cluetrain.com/ ) is also a nice read

Not in any particular order, but I'd highly recommend these interesting books:

How to run a Thriving Business - Ralph Warner (the founder of Nolo book)

The Death of Ivan Ilyich - Leo Tolstoy (I read this based on a recommendation by a fellow HNer)

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions - Dan Ariely.

The Winner-Take-All Society - Robert H. Frank, et all.

Gun, Germs, and Steel - Jared Diamond.

To get things started, this HN thread from a few months ago has some good suggestions: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1226736

As does Derek Sivers' book list: http://sivers.org/book

logicomix - a graphical novel about bertrand russell, logic and the history of computation.

diary of a very bad year: interviews with an anonymous hedge fund manager/the big short: inside the doomsday machine - two books about the financial crisis.

If you like Logicomix and other math fiction, I highly recommend his previous book, "Uncle Petros and Golbach's conjecture".

I just read and enjoyed The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton.

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better

It charts a connection between the income gap and everything from crime to illness and under-education. Got it two weeks ago. Blew me away. Easy to read too.

When Genius failed, a story related to (and mentioned in) Fooled by Randomness.


Atlas Shrugged

I would be surprised if most here hadn't read it, whether they agree with it or not, simply because it is so famous in tech circles.

I'm going to shock you lot and tell you I haven't read it although I've heard mentions of it from hackers that seem to live by it and quote it. What's so good about it?

EDIT: Just recalled that it's a book by Ayn Rand which to me came across as a total looney at the time.

She was kind of looney (if you take what she writes at face value) but she does have some interesting ideas, which can changes your outlook on your life.

But no you don't shock me by not having read it - I specifically said that most people would have read it, which means that it may not make as good a suggestion as, something that is less well known.

The idea that natural intelligence will succeed on its own merit in a capitalistic society

In USSR where I grew up Rand was completely unknown, unlike many other American authors

I've discovered her recently on Quora and was really surprised. It was like discovering antimatter, composed of antiparticles each of which annihilates some familiar idea

The strange thing is it came so late

Complementary reading from the late Erik Naggum: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1041751

* Bouvard & Pécuchet - Flaubert

* The hero with thousands faces - Joseph Campbell

I'll see your Flaubert and raise you an "Eugénie Grandet" by Balzac. Classical storytelling genius.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer.

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn--a novel about the most basic of assumptions civilization makes about humanity's manifest destiny. Eye-opening.

I had to write a book analysis on Ishmael for my Composition 110 class. I was a freshman, and it was my first year in the US. I had the worst time reading and understanding it (though I think the professor cut me some slacks and I managed to get an A in the class). I haven't re-read it ever since, bad first impression.

That's too bad--some of the most interesting parts of the book are analysis of Western religions and their common conclusions about the role humanity plays in the universe. Pretty eye-opening stuff

Charlie Stross's Laundry novels are a lot of fun. Sort of Lovecraft meets James Bond meets Dilbert...

I'm a huge fan of Charles Stross's "Accelerando".

I also love (most) of what William Gibson has written, including his non-science-fiction stuff like "Pattern Recognition" and "Spook Country".

Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis

Recent favorites of mine:

Anathem - Neal Stephenson

A People's Tragedy: Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 - Orlando Figes

The Big Short - Michael Lewis

I highly recommend Kurt Vonnegut's books. You should try A Man Without A Country.

I read Breakfast of Champions a while ago and really enjoyed it. I'll have to check that one out.

I haven't read Breakfast of Champions yet, but it's on my list. The Sirens of Titan is also a good one.

1. The Black Swan

2. Fooled by Randomness

3. The unbearable lighness of being

4. Ahead of the Curve (Its about a student's experience at HBS)

Such practical and classic recommendations!

I'm just trying to make it through A Clash of Kings and Dune.

Daemon and Freedom TM by Daniel Suarez. It will rock your world trust me.

Coma, by Alex Garland. Choose a day when you can read it in one sitting.

Just finished The Restoration Game by Ken McLeod, I recommend it.

Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh (Zappos CEO)

I'm reading this right now. I have to say, I saw Tony on an episode of the Apprentice and was left with the (apparently wrong) impression that he didn't have much personality.

However, in his writing, he comes across as humble, hard-working and brilliant. He also strikes me as someone who is a little crazy and probably a blast to hang out with.

The book is a great read and inspirational for anyone contemplating the tough road for a startup founder. It gives you a fascinating window into the mind of an entrepreneur who has built and sold quickly (LinkExchange) and then went on to build an "overnight success" 10 years in the making.

Good to great - Jim Collins

Some books I've read this summer, which I can recommend:

- The Facebook Effect -- well-written insider's account of the history of Facebook and its ambitions. http://www.amazon.com/Facebook-Effect-Inside-Company-Connect...

- The Quantum Enigma -- an accessible digest of quantum mechanics and its philosophical consequences. http://www.amazon.com/Quantum-Enigma-Physics-Encounters-Cons...

- Flesh & Machines -- a lightweight history of robotics and some wacky speculations by MIT's Rodney Brooks. http://www.amazon.com/Flesh-Machines-Robots-Will-Change/dp/0...

- The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution of Personalized Medecine -- a well-backed account of what is or will be possible in medicine thanks to a better understanding of the genome and increase use of DNA sequencing for prevention, diagnostic, and treatment. http://www.amazon.com/Language-Life-Revolution-Personalized-...

- ... by David Sedaris -- Funny short stories. Perhaps The Santaland Diaries for something light but really amusing, and When You Are Engulfed in Flames for something darker and more well-known. Also, if you like short stories, I heartily recommend Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules, a varied collection of short stories selected by Sedaris. http://www.amazon.com/David-Sedaris/e/B000AQ3YUW/ http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0349119759 http://www.amazon.com/When-You-Are-Engulfed-Flames/dp/031615... http://www.amazon.com/Children-Playing-Before-Statue-Hercule...

- Dreams of My Father -- Barack Obama writes candidly and beautifully about his childhood and early adulthood; it's not a political book, and it's worth reading for the writing alone. http://www.amazon.com/Dreams-My-Father-Story-Inheritance/dp/...

- Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty: a chatty history of mathematics, and its perception. http://www.amazon.com/Mathematics-Loss-Certainty-Galaxy-Book...

Regarding Sedaris, I highly, highly recommend consuming him in audiobook format.

David Foster Wallace's "Consider The Lobster" is also an excellent audiobook; he figured out a way to do the footnotes via audio.

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