Get lit! (with these non-fiction books)

Sonnie Bailey

17 January 2020

When kids say something is "lit", it means something gives them satisfaction in the same way good literature gives them satisfaction. Right?!? Right???!!

Anyway. At the request of several readers and friends, in this article I'm going to share some books that I adore. 

This is a small sample of books that I've read and enjoyed in recent years. One of the big filters I've applied is that I've chosen books that many people may not be aware of. 

I hope there are some gems for you!

Snoop: What your stuff says about you by Sam Gosling

This book is fascinating. Gosling, a psychology professor, talks about what our environments can reveal about us, and others. I read this many moons ago, but it still influences the way I see the world. 

For example, environments reveal things about us via different mechanisms, such as "behavioural residue", "feeling regulators", and "identity claims".

Algorithms to Live By: the compuer science of human decisions by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths

The most important message I got from this book was that optimising for some scenarios which seem easy are often actually impossible. It gave me a new respect for certain kinds of heuristics and rules of thumb.

Ethics (for the real world) by Ron A Howard and Clint Don D Korver

This book is about ethics. But it's interesting. It's also practical. I talked about some of the valuable distinctions the book makes in this article.

(In short: distinguish between positive and negative ethics, and distinguish between ethical, prudential, and legal dimensions of a course of action.)

Everything is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer): How common sense fails by Duncan J Watts

Read the first few pages of this book. It starts with a great story that encapsulates the message of this book.

The Art of Gathering: How we meet and why it matters by Priya Parker

I was surprised how much I liked this book. One of the key points Parker emphasises is that when you organise a gathering, it's really important to pay attention to the purpose of the gathering, and making decisions that focus on that purpose.

Range: How generalists triumph in a specialised world by David Epstein

This is the most recently published book on this list. It's criminal that it hasn't found a larger audience. I'm in the process of writing an article inspired by this book, with the working title "How to succeed in a wicked world".

This book will have a profound influence on the conversations I have with my children as they work out what they want to do in life.

Chaos Monkeys: Mayhem and mania inside the Silicon Valley money machine by Antonio Garcia Martinez

This is a great insiders' perspective into Silicon Valley. Martinez, writing with verve and gusto, provides a firsthand account of going through Y Combinator, starting a business that is purchased by a much larger organisation (Twitter), as well as the internal machinations associated with working in a senior role within Facebook.

Extend Your Mind by Tiago Forte

I wouldn't characterise this as a coherent book so much as a collection of articles from Tiago Forte's subscription-based publication, Praxis. I have gone through Forte's "Building a Second Brain" online course and found it very worthwhile exercise. This book provides a good insight into Tiago's view of the world.

Be Slightly Evil: A playbook for sociopaths by Venkatesh Rao

Look beyond the title!

This is another collection of articles rather than a coherent book.

The articles were originally published on Rao's blog, Ribbon Farm. Even though Rao's following is primarily via his blog, I found reading him in book form was a lot easier. 

One of the articles on negotiation inspired my own article, "Negotiating doesn't look like you think it does"

Power: Why some people have it - and others don't by Jeffrey Pfeffer

This is a fascinating book. It's not your usual "rah rah" business book, but it's based on solid research collated by Pfeffer, a Professor at Stanford. 

Funnily enough, this book made me feel at peace with not wanting to become especially powerful, especially within an organisation that doesn't align fully with my personal values. (It's partly why I'm self-employed with no employees.) I wouldn't be a good candidate, anyway: he points out a number of characteristics powerful people often have, including an ambition for power, focus on achieving this ambition, and tolerance for conflict. That's not me, and I'm okay with that.

The Antidote: Happiness for people who can't stand positive thinking by Oliver Burkeman

The subtitle says it all. I like Oliver Burkeman, and anything he writes is self-recommending. You may also be interested in his column for The Guardian, "This column will change your life". 

Risk: The science and politics of fear and Future Babble: How to stop worrying and love the unpredictable by Dan Gardner

Dan Gardner is a Canadian journalist and I like his writing a lot. He was also co-author of Superforecasters with Philip Tetlock. Gardner's writing has influenced my own a lot; most notably my own article riffing on Future Babble.

Food Rules: An eater's manual by Michael Pollan and How Not to Die by Michael Greger

Michael Pollan introduced the world to the concept that you should "Eat food. Mostly plans. Not too much."

Pollan's path to writing Food Rules is fascinating: He wrote The Omnivore's Dilemma, which he followed up with In Defensive of Food, when he followed up with Food Rules. Each book charts similar territory, but from my ​perspective Food Rules is the culmination of this journey, with the main concepts boiled down into succinct and practical ideas.

How Not to Die can be boiled down to: eat a plant-based diet if you want to prevent and reverse many modern diseases of affluence. It hammers this message home again and again, from lots of different, well-researched angles.

Some books on relationships and sex

There are some terrible books in this area, so I think it's worth celebrating the good ones. Some of my favourites include:

  • Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel
  • The New "I Do" by Susan Pease Gadoua and Vicki Larson
  • Come as You Are by Emily Nagoski
  • Sexual Intelligence by Marty Klein
  • Tell Me What You Want by Justin Lehmiller

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