Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Ask HN: Favorite Nonfiction Books of 2019?
156 points by koevet on Dec 14, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 71 comments
What are your favorite nonfiction books of 2019 (Read in 2019)

Not a recent book, but Ian Horrocks’ “Constructing the User Interface with Statecharts” (1999) is one of those technical books which presents an idea so clearly but also so different from my usual work that I’m just itching to try it.

The essential thesis of the book is that statecharts (a kind of finite state-machine) is not just a valuable tool for specifying user interface interaction, it is excellent for design and implementation.

What intrigues me about this is how solid the argumentation in the book is and how utterly singular this argument is. There is barely anything else written on this subject. Recently it has gotten popular to talk about state machines again; but this book was released 20 years ago!

All in all the book is an easy read and with a laser focus. Definitely recommended just for the sake of expand horizons.


If anyone’s interested in statecharts, have a look at these two resources:


https://github.com/davidkpiano/xstate (This is probably the most complete implementation of statecharts so far)

I really recommend checking out https://sketch.systems/ . It's a tool that really goes for this concept.

That book sounds interesting—where did you get a copy? Amazon lists it starting at over $200.

I borrowed it from the library here in Denmark.

I'm currently ploughing through "A brief history of the Anglo Saxons". It's quite embarrassing realising just how little I know about the start of the English ... project, for want of a better word. The interplay between the Saxons of England and the "old Saxons" is fascinating. For example: St Boniface who is the patron saint of Germany was from Crediton, near Exeter in Devon (which is just down the road from here.)

I knew a fair amount about the old Britons (Pretanike etc), the Romans and Roman Britain and then a vague 700 odd years (something, something, King Alfred, venerable Bede, Vikings and stuff) and then 1066 and all that to now. That period between the Romans and 1066 is hugely important and yet seems to be glossed over in our education here in the UK or at least it was for me.

Very much appreciate the recommendation.

I'm reading (well, listening to) Simon Winder's Germania - the first of a trilogy covering the history of most of western Europe. It sounds like it may interleave nicely with this work.

Simon's style, augmented / exacerbated by the narrator, is delightfully droll -- I thoroughly enjoy it.

I've read Germania and it is an absolute belter. I'm a British Army brat and lived for around 10 years in what was West Germany. The old Saxons are a decent lot in my opinion. That book - Germania opened my eyes to just how complicated the history of the European continent is. "Anglo Saxons" reminds us of just how much these islands are intertwined with the continent.

"Germania" showed me how much I didn't know about my own sodding history. I knew a Roman geezer was nicknamed Germanicus but nothing about say Mercian kings or Kentish kings or the subtle interplay in the north with the Picts and the Scotii, the Welsh and the west welsh (Cornwall) and other Britons. What we call today Ireland - North Ireland and Eire - and the interplay with what we now call Scotland is another very complicated set of circumstances. We are all aware here in England of King Alfred the Great - Wessex - and might know of King Cnut (Danish) and may be dimly aware of other Kings from the time post Roman (~400AD) until 1066. It's a bit involved.

Could I also tender "1000 years of annoying the French" by Stephen Clarke. I've just searched him and it turns out he has quite an oevre. I just picked up that particular book because of the title and a quick read of a few pages. It's a great romp through European history from the perspective of a historian who happens to be British and living in France - his love of both France and Britain is quite apparent and his sense of humour is British. The main focus is France and England but the scope is European.

I've also bought "The King in the North" by Max Adams which is about Oswald "Whiteblade" in Northumbria (the region north of the river Humber) in the mid fifth century.

Goodness yes. The introduction to Lotharingia (haven't started that one yet, of course) is insanely compelling:

"In AD 843, the three surviving grandsons of the great Emperor Charlemagne met at Verdun. After years of bitter squabbles over who would inherit the family land, they finally decided to divide the territory and go their separate ways. In a moment of staggering significance, one grandson inherited what became France, another Germany and the third Lotharingia, the chunk that initially divided the other two chunks: ‘the lands of Lothar’. The dynamic between these three great zones has dictated much of our subsequent fate."

I'm Australian, though lived in the UK for a while, so I appreciate that most of the (rest of the) world has a complex, varied, mostly ugly and impenetrably complicated history that can, if you have a lifetime to consider things, explain why any particular thing is the way that it is ... but similar to your position, it's breathtaking trying to comprehend all the moving pieces over the past couple of thousand years.

Stephen Clarke is now on my e-stack of books to read, thank you.

Seconded -- read this earlier this year, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It also rather radically altered my perception of the "usual" German historical narrative about Prussian militarism etc. Winder's a very humane writer, in addition to a hilarious one.

His two follow-ups, Danubia and Lotharingia (the latter of which just got a write-up in the New York Review of Books) are on my to-read list for the new year.

Books like this really make me want to undertake a challenge similar to the "A year of reading the world", but instead reading histories of each country, over a period of many years, most likely.

I'm really enjoying 'Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed' currently.

I found it really interesting that their stealth aircraft model was so good, they had to redesign the poles it sat on.

Also it talks about a Russian paper they used based on maxwells equations, that allowed them to calculate the reflected RF from 2D surfaces, which I'm curious about finding.

That's Ben Rich's book, right? I have read it twice, and it's pretty incredible. And the amount of details he's had to leave out (such as creating a hybrid turbojet/ramjet engine nacelle or a top speed of around Mach 4) is also interesting. As an aside, I got to see (and surreptitiously touch!) an A12 in Seattle at the Museum of Flight recently, and it was just incredible.

I think my favorite story is how they transported the A-12 prototype to Nevada for testing. They sent a team a few weeks in advance to find all the road signs their wide trailer would hit, cut them into two and bolt them back together. On the day of the move, they sent trucks ahead to disassemble the signs so the trailer could pass. They also had to negotiate a large cash bribe when a bus driver clipped a truck in their convoy to prevent any insurance report from being filed.

Not from 2019, but "Bad Blood" by John Carreyrou, detailing the Theranos scandal. A truly spellbinding work of investigative journalism.

This. I read this book January this year and it was terrific. It reads like a hollywood movie. Some people in that book are just insane.

These are a few of the ones I read this year and that the average HN reader would also probably enjoy (links are to my blog):

* Why We Sleep: https://j11g.com/2019/05/31/why-we-sleep-matthew-walker/

* The Effective Executive: https://j11g.com/2019/03/18/the-effective-executive-peter-dr...

* High Output Management: https://j11g.com/2019/01/29/high-output-management-andrew-s-...

* Bad Blood: https://j11g.com/2019/01/21/bad-blood-john-carreyrou/

* The 7 Habits (I reread this after a long time and it still holds up!) https://j11g.com/2019/09/30/the-7-habits-of-highly-effective...

* A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again – David Foster Wallace (This is just an amazing book and became one of my all time favorites) https://j11g.com/2019/08/08/a-supposedly-fun-thing-ill-never...

A Supposedly fun thing is great. DFW is so insightful and hilarious that I think some of his skepticism seeped into my own thinking. If only I could have his wit...

• The Revolt of the Public: No book has done a better job of describing the current moment in history

• Masters of Doom: Reminded me what it means to care about work and have fun doing it

• Team of Rivals: A remarkable work of history and portrait of a man

• The Undercover Economist

• Fooled by Randomness

• The Prize

I met John Romero once through a woman I was dating. I didn’t really know who he was or his history. When my girlfriend told me he created Doom and Battle.net, I was like, “oh, ok.” We had lunch with him and his Romanian girlfriend/wife (don’t remember their relationship). He seemed like a normal person. I’ll definitely check out the Masters of Doom book now.

Oh man- thanks for the Masters of Doom pointer! I picked it up right before my most recent flight and devoured it in almost one go. Nostalgia to the max.

I ploughed through Francis Fukuyama's Political Order series this year. I wouldn't say it's my favourite, but it was in some sense uplifting. He writes as though rule of law is a evolutionary certainty. As much as that's largely BS in my view, it's still nice to read.

After 4 years I also finally finished Capital in the 21st Century. My opinion: worth reading by jumping around, not worth reading in linear fashion.

Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu is worth a read too. It's well researched, but the author does occasionally blur the line between opinion and facts. I attribute it to writing styles. Similar in nature to another book I quite liked in the past - Wisdom Sits in Places, but less focused.

Narrative Economics by Robert Shiller would be unfocused to people who are in the tech industry. Nonetheless, the book serves to give context to people who are textmining. Hopefully some changes to economics arise from this. His understanding of genetic algorithms and selection could do with some work.

A delightful book I've been savouring over several months: Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts[1].

Let's hear from the abstract:

"[...] The idea for the book, which is entirely new, is to invite the reader into intimate conversations with twelve of the most famous manuscripts in existence and to explore with the author what they tell us about nearly a thousand years of medieval history - and sometimes about the modern world too. Christopher de Hamel introduces us to kings, queens, saints, scribes, artists, librarians, thieves, dealers, collectors and the international community of manuscript scholars, showing us how he and his fellows piece together evidence to reach unexpected conclusions. He traces the elaborate journeys which these exceptionally precious artefacts have made through time and space, shows us how they have been copied, who has owned them or lusted after them (and how we can tell), how they have been embroiled in politics and scholarly disputes, how they have been regarded as objects of supreme beauty and luxury and as symbols of national identity. The book touches on religion, art, literature, music, science and the history of taste.

"Part travel book, part detective story, part conversation with the reader, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts conveys the fascination and excitement of encountering some of the greatest works of art in our culture which, in the originals, are to most people completely inaccessible. At the end, we have a slightly different perspective on history and how we come by knowledge. It is a most unusual book."

        - - -
Don't let the page count (~550, modulo references) discourage you. The hardcover edition absolutely enhances the reading experience—it's beautifully bound, has plenty of pictures of medieval manuscripts, calligraphic exemplars and more. (I've mentioned it previously here[2].)

[1] https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/213/213069/meetings-with-rem...

[2] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20332914

I read this book too, and it was such a great book. The paper it was printed on, the whole binding of it, everything. It's definitely one you have to read hardback.

Not a new book; I’m reading The Checklist Manifesto [0]

I’m very impressed by how much is has clarified the importance of identifying repeatable steps for my team and ensuring they are accurately and successfully completed!

I’m looking forward to reading The Infinite Game [1]

[0] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6667514-the-checklist-ma... [1] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/38390751-the-infinite-ga...

These 2 look good, will check them out.

I thought Educated by Tara Westover was a fascinating look at how people grow to have radical views when they're surrounded by people who hold those views (In Westover's family's case, survivalism, extreme Mormonism, and anti-governmentism).

Edward Snowden's "Permanent Record".

I second that. Also watched the related documentary right after finishing the book.

Pretty old but I read them for the first time in 2019: Microcosmos by Lynn Margulis and Full House by Stephen Jay Gould. Both of them really blew me away and changed my worldview.

I also started on The Vital Question by Nick Lane but haven't finished it yet. But I would recommend anyways based on what I've read so far.

Microcosmos is also an amazing nature film where a crew follows around insects in a pasture for a while, free of narration. One of the most remarkable films I've ever seen.

• The Madness of Crowds by Douglas Murray

• Consciousness by Annaka Harris

• More From Less by Andrew McAffee

• The School of Life: An Emotional Education

• Perfect Sound Whatever by James Acaster

• Humble Pi by Matt Parker

• The Last Pirate of New York by Rich Cohen

Corporate Cancer. It's a book all about how to keep a group of malicious individuals from infiltrating and taking over your company.


William Manchester's American Caesar, a biography of Douglas MacArthur. Probably a bit too sympathetic to him, but fantastic writing.

Earnestly and seriously:

Ed Mastery: The Standard Unix Text Editor (IT Mastery) (Volume 13) by Michael W Lucas


The ones I rated highest out of those I read this year (which is what I think the question means).

* Exactly: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World by Simon Winchester

* Atomic Adventures: Secret Islands, Forgotten N-Rays, and Isotopic Murder-A Journey into the Wild World of Nuclear Science by James Magaffey

* Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

* Vulcan 607 by Rowland White

* Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

* Best. Movie. Year. Ever: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen by Brian Raftery

* A Fabulous Creation: How the LP Saved Our Lives by David Hepworth

* 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink by Taylor Downing

* The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why by Amanda Ripley

* In Your Defence: Stories of Life and Law by Sarah Langford

* Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets, and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for The Simpsons by Mike Reiss

* Working Actor: Breaking in, Making a Living, and Making a Life in the Fabulous Trenches of Show Business by David Dean Bottrell

* Becoming by Michelle Obama

* Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker

* Rush Hour by Iain Gatel

* Tamed: Ten Species that Changed our World by Alice Roberts

* The Next American City: The Big Promise of Our Midsize Metros by Mick Cornett

I've really enjoyed listening to the audio book by David Goggins on Audible.

It goes through his life story and shares some insight along the way. I'd only recommend it to those who've viewed some youtube clips with him (he's been on Joe Rogan twice) and found it intriguing. I normally don't like audio books at all but this one is very well read and there are short discussions at the end of every chapter that I find to be an excellent addition to vary the rhythm so it doesn't feel like a single person reading for hours on end.

All of these are by Bill Bryson but none are about travel:

Shakespeare: the World as Stage

One Summer: America, 1927

The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way

Made in America: an Informal History of the English Language in the US

At Home: A Short History of Private Life

* "the dream machine" is an fascinating, joyful account of jr licklider's work in interactive computing

* "hard landing" makes the airline industry seem tumultuous and exciting

* "a man for all markets" is the autobiography of ed thorpe, father of card counting and quant hedge funds

* "unix: a history and a memoir" is a mischievous first hand account from brian kernighan (of unix / c / awk fame)

I second The Dream Machine. Not only is it an entertaining and informative read, but it's also super impressive. I can't imagine all the work that went into putting that book together.

Annie Duke's "Thinking in bets" was pretty good as was Rory Sutherland's "Alchemy".

"Thinking in bets" got me thinking about playing more imperfect information games. The obvious choice would be poker, but I've been wondering which modern video games are fun to play and are imperfect information games? Or at least have elements of those. Hearthstone?

Hearthstone and the similar magic the gathering: arena are the two that come to mind.

Slay the Spire? There's lots of games that could work.

"Feynman" [1]. It's a biography, but it's illustrated (like a graphic novel). It was just perfect for my short attention span, I'd never have sat down to read a normal biography.

[1] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9844623-feynman

Nonfiction I’ve read this year and enjoyed greatly: - How to change your mind by Michael Pollan - The Lean Startup - Company of One

"Lords of the desert" by James Barr. It's an eye-opening 20th century history of the Middle East.


(technically published in 2018, but I only read it this year)

The Loudest Voice in the room. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Loudest_Voice_in_the_Room

Not to agree or disagree with a political approach ... but to understand how and why Fox News works.

American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century by Maureen Callahan


Non-fiction I read this year:

Michael Benson - Space Odyssey - The detailed story of the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey. If you're a fan of the movie, or of Stanley Kubrick and/or Arthur C. Clarke in general, you should read this.

Atul Gawande - Complications - Fascinating look at life in the medical profession.

Christina Thompson - Sea People - Detailed, well-researched history of Polynesian-Western contact and relations. As a New Zealander I was interested in this, although American or European readers with no personal connection may be less so.

Peter Singer - Marx: A Very Short Introduction - What it says on the tin.

Robert C Allen - Global Economic History: A Very Short Introduction - Also good, but inaccurately titled; it should have said "Global Economic History Since the Industrial Revolution".

Fraser A Sherman - Now and Then We Time Travel - A thorough if somewhat superficial survey of time travel in the movies.

Alec Nevala-Lee - Astounding - A history of the magazine Astounding Stories, and the four men most closely associated with it: John Campbell, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Ron Hubbard. Very thoroughly researched and annotated; it reveals a lot of new information and debunks a lot of old myths. (Whichever version of the "FBI visits Campbell to complain about A-bomb stories" you've heard, I can pretty much guarantee it wasn't the real one.)

Elizabeth Sandifer - Tardis Eruditorum 1: William Hartnell - The first volume of a thorough study of Doctor Who, with a combined fannish and scholarly point of view that I enjoyed.

Randall Munroe - How To - It's by Randall Munroe, what else do you need to know?

Growth, by Vaclav Smil. It's not easy reading but it is rewarding.

IBM: The Fall and Reinvention of a Global Icon by James W. Cortada

I read a bunch of nonfiction in 2019, but the only nonfiction book I read that was published in 2019 and that I really liked was Rakim's _Sweat The Technique_.

This was so so good...

Rationality: From AI to Zombies


Catch and kill and She said were compelling reads on the scourge of sexual harassment in Hollywood and industry in general.

Why we sleep - Deep-dive in why we sleep and what to do to sleep better

Born a crime - Follow Trevor Noah in his early life in South Africa.

Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory by Joanna Macy

Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha by Daniel Ingram.

Lenin by Victor Sebestyen.

Why We Sleep

> "Why we sleep" is, according to independent research, almost complete bullshit:

> https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21546850

> https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families....

> https://guzey.com/books/why-we-sleep/

Complete? I wouldn't say so - as others have noted, there's a few issues that the author of that blog post has with some small assertions made by Matthew Walker.

Whether that throws everything in the book into question is an interesting question, but if the whole book was 'complete bullshit' then I'd expect a more comprehensive debunking than that blog post.

As to the links you've cited there -- 1 and 3 are the same link (well, HN comments in (1) point to the actual story at (3).

The second link seems to agree with -- and be full of exactly the same myth debunking & recommendations that -- Matthew Walker makes. As it happens I'm about 80% the way through the book now.

>there's a few issues that the author of that blog post has with some small assertions made by Matthew Walker.

This is not true. I point out that within the first 10 pages of the book, Walker misrepresents serious facts (the longevity and the cancer thing), makes stuff up (the WHO sleep epidemic thing), shows lack of understanding of basic sleep facts (the FFI thing), etc.

"almost complete bullshit" is a bit strong. i've read both the book and the Guzey piece and i think the most substantial insight in his rebuttal is that oversleeping can increase mortality risk, otherwise it seems like a lot of “he cited this wrong” or <nasally-voice>well technically…</nasally-voice>. most of the broader themes in walkers book still stand.

>i've read both the book and the Guzey piece and i think the most substantial insight in his rebuttal is that oversleeping can increase mortality risk

You're misreading my piece. It never claimed that oversleeping can increase mortality risk.

However, I do show that Walker repeatedly misrepresents important evidence, makes stuff up, lacks basic understanding of biology etc. etc.

Is it, though? The first link is just the HN thread on the third link, which contains some debate about whether the criticisms from the third are accurate, and the Independent _cites_ "Why We Sleep" throughout - not debunks it.

Wow this is the first time I've ever seen a contrarian opinion on this book. I've never read Why We Sleep but I see it pop up in threads really often.

If you have good sleep habits you don't need to read the book. If you think of sleep as an annoyance or not worthwhile then I highly recommend it

It's still an interesting read even if you do sleep well. If nothing else it will help you have some empathy for people who struggle or just have a different pattern to yourself.

"Fighting the Plague in Seventeenth Century Italy" by Carlo Cipolla

Here is my list (from https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/912138-alex-givant?rea...):


- Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Bourdain, Anthony, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/33313.Kitchen_Confidenti....

- Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive by Land, Stephanie, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/39218350-maid

- Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook by Bourdain, Anthony, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/40409969-medium-raw

- Confessions of a Tax Collector: One Man's Tour of Duty Inside the IRS by Yancey, Rick, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/196519.Confessions_of_a_....

- The Perfect Predator: A Scientist's Race to Save Her Husband from a Deadly Superbug: A Memoir by Steffanie Strathdee, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/36589701-the-perfect-pre...


- Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Desmond, Matthew, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25852784-evicted

- Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Leovy, Jill, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13153693-ghettoside

- American Prison: A Reporter's Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment by Bauer, Shane, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/38561954-american-prison

- Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom by Eban, Katherine, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/42448266-bottle-of-lies

- A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America by Miller, T. Christian, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35805861-a-false-report

- The New Silk Roads by Frankopan, Peter, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/40921633-the-new-silk-ro....


- Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 by Applebaum, Anne, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13531848-iron-curtain

- The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Montefiore, Simon Sebag, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/26109020-the-romanovs

- The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Johnson, Steven, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/36086.The_Ghost_Map

- Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations by Bergman, Ronen, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/33598223-rise-and-kill-f....

- Madame Fourcade's Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler by Olson, Lynne, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/41739312-madame-fourcade....

- Argo: How the CIA & Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History by Méndez, Antonio J., https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13588425-argo


- Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History by Selby, Scott Andrew, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7071759-flawless

- American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road by Bilton, Nick, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/31920777-american-kingpi....

- Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by Carreyrou, John, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/37976541-bad-blood

- Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World by Wright, Tom, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/38743564-billion-dollar-....

- The Mastermind: Drugs. Empire. Murder. Betrayal. by Ratliff, Evan, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/41181600-the-mastermind


- Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World's First Digital Weapon by Zetter, Kim, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18465875-countdown-to-ze....

- Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World by Thompson, Clive, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/40406806-coders

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact