A ranked list of all EA-relevant (audio)books I’ve read

Or: “50+ EA-relevant books your doctor doesn’t want you to know about”

This post lists all the EA-relevant books I’ve read since learning about EA,[1] in roughly descending order of how useful I perceive/​remember them being to me. (In reality, I mostly listened to these as audiobooks, but I’ll say “books I’ve read” for simplicity.) I also include links to where you can get each book, as well as remarks and links to reviews/​summaries/​notes on some books.

This is not quite a post of book recommendations, because:

  1. These rankings are of course only weak evidence of how useful you’ll find these books[2]

  2. I list all EA-relevant books I’ve read, including those that I didn’t find very useful

Let me know if you want more info on why I found something useful or not so useful.

I’d welcome comments which point to reviews/​summaries/​notes of these books, provide commenters’ own thoughts on these books, or share other book recommendations/​anti-recommendations. I’d also welcome people making their own posts along the lines of this one. (Edit: I think that recommendations that aren’t commonly mentioned in EA are particularly valuable, holding general usefulness and EA-relevance constant. Same goes for recommendations of books by non-male, non-white, and/​or non-WEIRD authors. See this comment thread.)

I’ll continue to update this post as I finish more EA-relevant books.

My thanks to Aaron Gertler for sort-of prompting me to make this list, and then later suggesting I change it from a shortform to a top-level post.

The list

Or: “Michael admits to finding a Harry Potter fan fiction more useful than ~15 books that were written by professors, are considered classics, or both”

  1. The Precipice, by Ord, 2020

    • See here for a list of things I’ve written that summarise, comment on, or take inspiration from parts of The Precipice.

    • I recommend reading the ebook or physical book rather than audiobook, because the footnotes contain a lot of good content and aren’t included in the audiobook

    • The book Superintelligence may have influenced me more, but that’s just due to the fact that I read it very soon after getting into EA, whereas I read The Precipice after already learning a lot. I’d now recommend The Precipice first.

    • See here for some thoughts on this and other nuclear-risk-related books, and here for some thoughts on this and other authoritarianism-related books.

  2. Superforecasting, by Tetlock & Gardner, 2015

  3. How to Measure Anything, by Hubbard, 2011

  4. Rationality: From AI to Zombies, by Yudkowsky, 2006-2009

    • I.e., “the sequences”

  5. Superintelligence, by Bostrom, 2014

    • Maybe this would’ve been a little further down the list if I’d already read The Precipice

  6. Expert Political Judgement, by Tetlock, 2005

    • I read this after having already read Superforecasting, yet still found it very useful

  7. Normative Uncertainty, by MacAskill, 2014

  8. Secret of Our Success, by Henrich, 2015

  9. The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous, by Henrich, 2020

  10. The Strategy of Conflict, by Schelling, 1960

    • See here for my notes on this book, and here for some more thoughts on this and other nuclear-risk-related books.

    • This and other nuclear-war-related books are more useful for me than they would be for most people, since I’m currently doing research related to nuclear war

    • This is available as an audiobook, but a few Audible reviewers suggest using the physical book due to the book’s use of equations and graphs. So I downloaded this free PDF into my iPad’s Kindle app.

  11. Human-Compatible, by Russell, 2019

  12. The Book of Why, by Pearl, 2018

    • I found an online PDF rather than listening to the audiobook version, as the book makes substantial use of diagrams

  13. Blueprint, by Plomin, 2018

    • This is useful primarily in relation to some specific research I was doing, rather than more generically.

  14. Moral Tribes, by Greene, 2013

  15. Algorithms to Live By, by Christian & Griffiths, 2016

  16. The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Pinker, 2011

    • See here for some thoughts on this and other nuclear-risk-related books.

  17. Command and Control, by Schlosser, 2013

    • See here for some thoughts on this and other nuclear-risk-related books.

  18. The Doomsday Machine, by Ellsberg, 2017

    • See here for some thoughts on this and other nuclear-risk-related books.

  19. The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War, by Kaplan, 2020

    • See here for my notes on this book, and here for some more thoughts on this and other nuclear-risk-related books.

  20. The Alignment Problem, by Christian, 2020

    • This might be better than Superintelligence and Human-Compatible as an introduction to the topic of AI risk. It also seemed to me to be a surprisingly good introduction to the history of AI, how AI works, etc.

    • But I’m not sure this’ll be very useful for people who’ve already read/​listened to a decent amount (e.g., the equivalent of 4 books) about those topics.

      • That’s why it’s ranked as low as it is for me.

      • But maybe I’m underestimating how useful it’d be to many other people in a similar position.

        • Evidence for that is that someone told me that an AI safety researcher friend of theirs found the book helpful.

  21. Getting Things Done, by Allen, 2001/​2016

  22. The Sense of Style, by Pinker, 2019

    • One thing to note is that I think a lot of chapter 6 (which accounts for roughly a third of the book) can be summed up as “Don’t worry too much about a bunch of alleged ‘rules’ about grammar, word choice, etc. that prescriptivist purists sometimes criticise people for breaking.”

      • And I already wasn’t worried most of those alleged rules, and hadn’t even heard of some of them.

      • And I think one could get the basic point without seeing all the examples and discussion.

      • So a busy reader might want to skip or skim most of that chapter.

        • Though I think many people would benefit from the part on commas.

    • I read an ebook rather than listening to the audiobook, because I thought that might be a better way to absorb the lessons about writing style

  23. The Dead Hand, by Hoffman, 2009

    • See here for some thoughts on this and other nuclear-risk-related books, and here for some thoughts on this and other Russia-related books.

  24. Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Kahneman, 2011

    • This might be the most useful of all these books for people who have little prior familiarity with the ideas, but I happened to already know a decent portion of what was covered.

  25. Bioterror and Biowarfare: A Beginner’s Guide, by Dando, 2006

    • See here for my notes on the book.

  26. Against the Grain, by Scott, 2017

  27. Sapiens, by Harari, 2015

  28. Destined for War, by Allison, 2017

    • See here for some thoughts on this and other nuclear-risk-related books, and here for some thoughts on this and other China-related books.

  29. The Great CEO Within, by Mochary, 2019

    1. See here for my notes on the book

    2. See here for an earlier, free, ebook version of book

  30. The Dictator’s Handbook, by de Mesquita & Smith, 2012

    • See here for some thoughts on this and other authoritarianism-related books.

  31. Age of Ambition, by Osnos, 2014

    • See here for some thoughts on this and other China-related books.

  32. Moral Mazes, by Jackall, 1989

  33. The Myth of the Rational Voter, by Caplan, 2007

  34. The Hungry Brain, by Guyenet, 2017

    • If I recall correctly, I found this surprisingly useful for purposes unrelated to the topics of weight, hunger, etc.

      • E.g., it gave me a better understanding of the liking-wanting distinction

    • See also this Slate Star Codex review (which I can’t remember whether I read)

  35. The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, by Yergin, 2011

  36. Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, by Yudkowsky, 2010-2015

    • Fiction

    • I found this both surprisingly useful and very surprisingly enjoyable

      • To be honest, I was somewhat amused and embarrassed to find what is ultimately Harry Potter fan fiction as enjoyable and thought-provoking as I found this

    • This overlaps in many ways with Rationality: AI to Zombies, so it would be more valuable to someone who hadn’t already read those sequences

      • But I’d recommend such a person read those sequences before reading this; I think they’re more useful (though less enjoyable)

    • Within the 2 hours before I go to sleep, I try not to stimulate my brain too much—e.g., I try to avoid listening to most nonfiction audiobooks during that time. But I found that I could listen to this during that time without it keeping my brain too active. This is a perk, as that period of my day is less crowded with other things to do.

      • Same goes for the books Steve Jobs, Power Broker, Animal Farm, and Consider the Lobster.

  37. Steve Jobs, by Isaacson, 2011

    • Surprisingly useful, considering the facts that I don’t plan to at all emulate Jobs’ life and that I don’t work in a relevant industry

  38. Enlightenment Now, by Pinker, 2018

  39. The Undercover Economist Strikes Back, by Harford, 2014

  40. Against Empathy, by Bloom, 2016

  41. Inadequate Equilibria, by Yudkowksy, 2017

  42. Radical Markets, by Posner & Weyl, 2018

  43. How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century, by Dikötter, 2019

    • See here for some thoughts on this and other authoritarianism-related books.

  44. A Promised Land, by Obama, 2020

    • I found this very engaging and am looking forward to the next volume of his memoirs

    • But it didn’t contain many specific facts I felt it was important for me to remember, or cause major updates to important beliefs/​understandings I had

  45. Scout Mindset, by Galef, 2021

    • I think this is a great and enjoyable book, but I was already quite familiar with most of what it covered, so it wasn’t very useful to me specifically

    • See here for my notes on the book

  46. On Tyranny: 20 Lessons for the 20th Century, by Snyder, 2017

    • It seemed to me that most of what Snyder said was either stuff I already knew, stuff that seemed kind-of obvious or platitude-like, or stuff I was skeptical of

      • This might be partly due to the book being under 2 hours, and thus giving just a quick overview of the “basics” of certain things

      • So I do think it might be fairly useful per minute for someone who knew quite little about things like Hitler and the Soviet Union

    • See here for some thoughts on this and other authoritarianism-related books.

  47. Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World, by Broome, 2012

  48. The Power Broker, by Caro, 1975

    • Very interesting and engaging, but also very long and probably not super useful.

  49. Science in the Twentieth Century: A Social-Intellectual Survey, by Goldman, 2004

    • This is actually a series of audio recordings of lectures, rather than a book

  50. Animal Farm, by Orwell, 1945

    • Fiction

    • See here for some thoughts on this and other authoritarianism-related books.

  51. Brave New World, by Huxley, 1932

    • Fiction

    • See here for some thoughts on this and other authoritarianism-related books.

  52. Consider the Lobster, by Wallace, 2005

    • To be honest, I’m not sure why Wiblin recommended this. But I benefitted from many of Wiblin’s other recommendations. And I did find this book somewhat interesting.

Honorable mention

  1. 1984, by Orwell, 1949

    • I haven’t included that in the above list because I read it before I learned about EA.

    • But I think that this book, despite being a novel, is actually the most detailed exploration I’ve seen of how a stable, global totalitarian system could arise and sustain itself.

      • I think this is a sign that there needs to be more actual research on that topic—a novel published more than 70 years ago shouldn’t be one of the best sources on an important topic!

    • See here for some thoughts on this and other authoritarianism-related books.

Other collections you may find useful

Or: “Hey Michael, I’ve now read all 53 of those books—even for some reason Consider the Lobster—but my pesky brain is still hungry. What do I do with the rest of my life?”

Suggestion: Make Anki cards, share them as posts, and share key updates

This year, I started making Anki cards as I read things. See here for the article that inspired me to actually start using Anki properly. (Hat tip to Michelle Hutchinson for linking to that article and thus prompting me to read it.)

I then realised that this meant I could easily post my cards about a book to the Forum once I’d finished it, as something like a very low-effort book summary. See here for an example and for discussion of whether this is worthwhile.

I then realised that it would probably be worthwhile—both for my own later reference and for other people—if I also made brief notes of “key updates” as I read books, and included those updates as part of my Anki card posts. See here for an explanation and example.

I now plan to do these things indefinitely, and to link to all of those notes posts from this post.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t been doing that until this year. So for most of the books in this list, I provide no summary and no explanation of why I ranked the book as I did.

I’d currently guess that many EAs would gain from making Anki cards as they read books, and that, if they’re doing so anyway, they may as well post the cards from those books to the EA Forum and/​or LessWrong. (I might write a short post making the case for and against this soon.) And if they’re doing that anyway, perhaps they may as well collect their recommendations together in a post that’s sort-of like this one? In any case, I definitely suggest using the EA Books tag for all posts about EA-relevant books!

See also Suggestion: EAs should post more summaries and collections.

Footnotes

[1] Some info on what I’m including in “EA-relevant books I’ve read since learning about EA”:

  • By “EA-relevant”, I mean that a substantial part of why I read this book was that I thought it might somehow improve my efforts to improve the world.

    • This applies to all non-fiction books I’ve read since I learned about EA (in late 2018), and some but not all fiction books I’ve read.

      • I think I may have actually never read a non-fiction book before learning about EA. So this list could also be seen as covering “All non-fiction books I’ve read, plus some dystopian novels and a Harry Potter fanfiction.”

  • Some of these “books” started as sequences of posts, and one of the “books” is actually a PhD thesis, but I’m counting them as books anyway.

[2] Three key reasons why you shouldn’t you take the ranking too seriously:

  • I had already read most of the books before the point at which I decided to make a ranked list, so I didn’t have those books very fresh in my mind when ranking them

  • Even if my memory was perfect, my knowledge of which things in my life caused which good outcomes wouldn’t be, and my predictions of which things in my life will cause future good outcomes will be even more imperfect

  • Some of factors making these books more/​less useful to me won’t generalise to most other people

    • E.g., a book may be useful mostly in relation to a specific research project I’m doing

    • E.g., if I read a good book on a topic before reading a better book on the same topic, the first book may be more useful to me, since the better book will be retreading some ground for me