Brief book review 2020
This is a brief review of the majority of books I have read for the first time this year (not including rereads). First I am giving my strong reading recommendations, and all other books are sorted by topic. Posted as personal blog post instead of shortform due to length. Partially written as a writing habit building exercise!
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
Sci-fi novel with a fascinating plot, which takes place in a world in which people researching maths and philosophy live in cloisters, with heavily restricted contact to the outside world and without being allowed to use any technology. Warning: intense. I read most of the book in a day while not getting anything else done.
The Amish by Donald Kraybill
Comprehensive review of Amish life by one of the leading researchers on the topic. Originally read it because the Amish, contrary to common misconceptions, are often happy to incorporate new technologies into their lifestyle, but are very picky about whether this is actually improving their life and furthering their values. I have heard it called ‘a different take on modernity’. But what actually fascinated me the most is how they have kept their values and lifestyle distinct from mainstream society for centuries. Unsurprisingly, this is very difficult, but it was good to learn about what it actually takes to achieve this. They have an unusually high retention rate for religious splinter groups as well. Book also clears up a lot of common misconceptions around the Amish. I think this book might be of particular interest to longtermist EAs.
Statistics Done Wrong by Alex Reinhart
How do scientists and others misuse statistics? Good introduction to the topic, I learnt a lot.
How to live a good life edited by Pigluicci
Essays for different approaches on how to live a good life (e.g. Christianity, Confucianism) by different authors. Originally read it because it included a chapter on EA. Rest of the book is mixed in quality.
Technology and the Virtues by Shannon Vallor
Explains different schools of virtue ethics (Aristotelean, Confucianism, Buddhism) and discusses how virtue ethics can guide our use of different technologies. Really liked it.
21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Hariri
Apparently I learnt so little that I cannot remember any content of this book.
The Precipice by Toby Ord
Good introduction to existential risk. Did not have that much new stuff, but good to have it all in one book. I particularly liked the section on non-utilitarian motivations to care about existential risks.
Science Fictions: Exposing Fraud, Bias, Negligence and Hype in Science by Stuart Ritchie
Title says it all. Was good to learn about other issues in science than bias.
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
Story of how the author grew up in the Appalachian belt, a deprived area in the US. Talks about how this affected his life and how lucky he was to be able to go Stanford regardless. I found it interesting, and have been baffled by the reception from both the left and the right.
The Art of Frugal Hedonism by Adam Grubb and Annie Rowland
Not actually a memoir but tips how to enjoy simplicity and frugality by the authors with anecdotes from their life. Nice.
Desert Flower by Waris Dirie
Author grew up as a Somali nomad, ran away and later became an international supermodel. Rough content.
Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Heavily fictionalised memoir, aimed at children. I really enjoyed this series. To adult readers, the juxtaposition of a nice simple life with the clear hardship they are experiencing is interesting. You should only read up to these Happy Golden Years, the other last book is unedited and very different in style (not happy and fictionalised).
A thousand splendid suns by Khaled Hosseini
Describes two women’s intertwining lives in Afghanistan by an Afghan author. Captivating, but only read it because I missed it was fiction.
The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
Another sci-fi novel with a captivating plot (same author as Anathem) which meanders a bit towards the end. Read it because I wanted to learn about the world depicted: technologically advanced society is segregated into different tribes which try to live up to their respective agendas/values, e.g it has a modern Victorians tribe.
Disc World by Terry Pratchett
Fantasy series. Read the first few books when I wanted light-hearted entertainment. Good for that.
Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Montgomery
Fiction books about a highly imaginative adopted orphan child. Very sweet lighthearted entertainment.
Paradise Now: The History of American Utopianism by Chris Jennings
Details different attempted utopian communities in 19th century US. Interesting.
Fifty things that made the modern economy (plus its similarly named sequel) by Tim Harford
History of various objects and inventions. Good to gain insight into what the world used to look like, which I always find hard to build intuitions for.
The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage
About the invention of the telegraph and how it changed society. Was great to learn more about how sudden disruptive technology changed the world.
How we got to now by Steven Johnson
History of six objects and inventions. As good as Tim Harford books.
Automate this: how Algorithms Took Over Our Markets, Our Jobs, and the World by Christopher Steiner
History of automation over the past few decades. Was interesting.
Prosperity without Growth by Tim Jackson
Read the second edition of 2019, first read in 2011. My economic knowledge has improved a lot and I was curious how it held up. Mostly it stood out to me how uncontroversial everything the author is advocating for seems to be.
Good economics for hard times by Duflo and Banerjee
Main thing I remember was more detail on how well free market theories empirically hold up for the labour market. Do people actually move as they ‘should’? Apparently not. Also had lots of other stuff.
Parenting and relationships
Feeling good together by David Burns
Same author who wrote Feeling Good, the famous CBT book. This was fairly simple, but I found it surprisingly helpful.
Expecting better by Emily Oster
Discusses evidence for common pregnancy recommendations and what kind of tradeoffs you might want to make. Good for first-time parents. Did not have that much new stuff for me, but still useful.
Cribsheet by Emily Oster
Same as above, but for the baby and toddler years where the evidence is weaker.
Peak: secrets from the new science of expertise by Anders Ericsson
Written by the author of the study which always gets garbled as that everybody only needs 10,000 to become a world expert in something. Found it surprisingly insightful for something that is almost a self-help book.
Books I made significant progress on but then did not finish.
Reconnected by Leigh and Terrell
The case for stronger communities and how to achieve them. Abandoned because I was more interested in the data, and got less interested in various anecdotes on how to achieve them.
How the world thinks by Julian Baggini
Different perspectives on philosophy over the world. Seems like the book I should be keen on, don’t know why I didn’t captivate me. Might try again in future.
Space and Society in Central Brazil: A Panara Ethnography by Elizabeth Ewart
Ethnography of rainforest tribe. Was interesting, but I got all the information I was looking for within the first half of the book. Was most curious about how they related to the ‘modern world’.
Capitalism Alone by Branko Milanovic
Discusses how capitalism is often viewed as intertwined with liberalism, but it does not have to be. Categorizes liberal capitalism (think the West) and illiberal? capitalism (think China). Was not interesting enough to capture my interest beyond the main thesis.