10 books that influenced me most

Jules Feiffer and Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth – This was my favorite book growing up. I spent a lot of childhood trying to be creative and play with words in the same way they do in the book, efforts which weren’t entirely appreciated or understood by most of the people I hung around with, and wishing I could go through the tollbooth too. Maybe this book taught me to see things differently than everyone else.

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics – If marijuana is a gateway drug, then Freakonomics is a gateway book. This was the first “adult” book I ever read, and I think I zoomed through it in about four hours one afternoon. Since then I’ve hardly read any fiction books. I credit Freaknomics with getting me excited about taking economics classes, which has prompted a rapid shift in my worldview since high school. I also credit the book for teaching me to think about ordinary events in terms of economics, and about the importance of separating correlation from causation. I also started reading RSS feeds, and blogging, shortly after reading Freakonomics.

Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – This is a great story about an autistic kid navigating London from his mother’s house to his father’s. More importantly, for the first time I was able to relate parts of my personality to someone else; I could understand why the book’s narrator thought the way he did, why he felt the way he did around friends and family, and remember times when I’d had similar thoughts and acted out in similar ways. Obviously not to the same degree as the narrator, who once for example sat in the subway with his head in his hands for six hours, but in a small and important way.

Donald Norman, The Design of Everyday Things (more generally, the Signal vs. Noise and Alertbox blogs) – This book got me thinking about how things are designed, how form and function go together, and how you should be able to figure out how to use items just by looking at them. Like most people I hate products that aren’t usable and I hope to create usable products in the future. For the first time I started to understand the principles behind usability.

Tim Ferriss, The Four Hour Workweek – This is cliche but it’s more a book about how to live, and a way of looking at tasks, than it is about work. Ferriss’s whole goal is to teach people to separate inputs from outputs (40 hours of labor, a salary) and focus on getting the highest output from the lowest input (working 4 hours a week, sipping mai tais in Thailand). The most useful bits for me were the parts about how to get really good at something really quickly, and that the status quo bias is powerful; most people don’t want to increase their skill sets, or self-experiment. This book also got me interested in trying to travel as much as possible.

Neil Postman, Teaching as a Subversive Activity – In high school I had a few awful teachers, and other classes where I felt I was just spinning my wheels. This book was an eye-opener and gave me a new perspective on what it means to be a good teacher; your goal should be to question students, and force them to question their assumptions. Later I started to recognize the importance of teaching skills too; at some point you might have to teach calculus, or whatever.  I think I printed out copies of one of the chapters and put them in every faculty member’s mailbox. I need to reread this soon.

Strunk & White, The Elements of Style – Avoid using five words when two will do! This book is as a lifestyle guide as much as it is a book about editing. When in doubt, simplify. I struggle to cut long pieces down to short ones, and remove clutter from my life, but they are both admirable goals.

Bryan Caplan, The Myth of the Rational Voter – Suggesting that we can do better than democracy is pretty close to apostasy in modern American politics. However Bryan Caplan makes a convincing case that voters are not rational, and their mistakes don’t cancel out, mainly because they are uneducated about the logic behind things like productivity and immigration. This book started me thinking about the importance of making sure people understand economic principles, and generally that people are irrational, and our current setup might not be the best one we have.

Michael Lewis, Moneyball – I loved this book because I’m an A’s fan and also because I love the idea of crushing other people because you found a better way to do things. People say that Billy Beane was a fluke because now the A’s are bad. That’s stupid, because learning the A’s are bad is evidence that higher budget teams have caught on, and are starting to value players properly. I know Jeremy Brown was a bust but this is still a great teaching tool.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan – This book was pretty important in developing how I think about the financial markets. Taleb’s argument is that every few years an event comes along that models simply can’t predict, so most models are useless. Distributions of financial data are simply not normal. Let’s say 50 people are placed in a room; their heights should be distributed normally, but if one person is Bill Gates then the income distribution will be completely skewed. Also Taleb talks about scalable professions; even the best lawyer in the world is limited by how many hours he can bill, but the world’s best author can sell an infinite number of books, or the world’s best financier can make billions through smart trading.

Fictional books I’ve enjoyed reading: Harry Potter, Dune, the Redwall series, the Bible, Catcher in the Rye anything by Neal Stephenson. There are also a fair number of bloggers whose posts have been an influence, but we’re on the subject of books.

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