In late December, I usually publish a list of books and articles I enjoyed during the year. (Here are the lists for 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2013.) However, I’m sharing a bit earlier this year since the list of books might spark gift-giving ideas. (Perhaps next year, I’ll post the list before Black Friday, even if it means missing a month’s worth of material.)
Note these aren’t just books published in 2021 — this is just when I got around to reading them. Also, I’m sharing them in no particular order. And as always, Amazon links on this page are affiliate links. I get a small commission if you make a purchase after following these links.
I’ll share my list of favorite posts of the year later in the month.
How to Read a Book
by Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren
A meta-book on how to read books better. It argues we shouldn’t just aim to read faster but to better understand what we read. After reading this, I’ve been reading books more carefully. As a result, I’m reading more slowly. Ergo, I’m reading fewer books — but I’m better at understanding and retaining the ones I read. Highly recommended.
The Revolt of the Public
By Martin Gurri
Argues that the internet ushered a “fifth wave” in how we relate to information and each other. (The fourth wave was broadcast media, a product of the industrial era.) Societies washed over by this fifth wave show symptoms of “uncertainty and impermanence.” These symptoms, in turn, manifest a breakdown in information hierarchies. (I.e., how authorities have traditionally kept the public informed.) Gurri’s framing helps explain much of what we see in the news.
The Scout Mindset
By Julia Galef
A refreshing (and much needed) call to lead more rational lives. We’ve been sold self-deception as a way to get ahead. (E.g., by projecting unwarranted confidence.) The Scout Mindset makes a compelling case for making clear and realistic assessments instead. It’s a practical guide on how to stop deceiving yourself — “to see things as they are, not as you wish they were.” The goal: to know the truth in service of better decisions, leading to more skillful actions.
The Alignment Problem
By Brian Christian
Covers one of the central technology issues we face today: building smart systems that reflect and respect our values. It’s central because we’re currently putting important parts of the world “on autopilot.” As such, we ought to ensure that our smart systems don’t inadvertently cause harm. These important technologies are worth developing, but missteps can have serious consequences. If you’re involved in the design or development of AI/ML tech, you owe it to all of us to read this book.
The Inner Game of Tennis
By W. Timothy Galwey
Although ostensibly about coaching tennis players, The Inner Game of Tennis is really about something deeper and more broadly applicable. You come to a point on the path to mastery where craft is no longer your primary challenge. Instead, progress calls for getting out of your way — out of your head — and becoming one with the object of your practice. The Inner Game of Tennis offers practical suggestions on how to do so. If you take tennis as a metaphor — and see past the book’s anachronisms — it might help you achieve better performance in whatever area you want to excel in.
By Donald Sull and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt
You can’t fight complexity with complexity. Instead, defining (and abiding by) simple rules can help us act skillfully in complex, fast-moving situations. The authors define simple rules as “shortcut strategies that save time and effort by focusing our attention and simplifying the way we process information.” Such shortcuts allow us to act skillfully in a bottom-up manner when dealing with dynamic situations where we lack information. (I.e., always.) Much writing about strategy comes across as somewhat abstract. Simple Rules bridges the gap between strategic thinking and day-to-day execution.
All Things Shining
By Hubert L. Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly
We’re beset with wicked problems. Ecological degradation. Political extremism. Social injustice. Wealth inequality. On top of all those, a pandemic. It’s easy to despair, given so many complex challenges. Our response depends on how we frame our understanding of reality. All Things Shining is a book of philosophy in the practical sense: not a dry, academic tome about esoteric distinctions but a guide for leading a better life. At its core is one of the critical questions of modern living: how do we keep nihilism at bay?
The Extended Mind
By Annie Murphy Paul
In a 1998 paper titled The Extended Mind, Andy Clark and David Chalmers proposed an alternative philosophy of mind. Their extended mind thesis (EMT) posits that the body and the physical world also play an essential role in cognition. It’s an important theory that has many practical implications. Annie Murphy Paul’s book, also titled The Extended Mind, clearly explains the research and draws out those implications. The book aims “to operationalize the extended mind, to turn this philosophical sally into something practically useful.” It succeeds in this goal. Again, required reading if you’re designing tech.
The Ministry for the Future
By Kim Stanley Robinson
Brings to life the climate emergency and how we might deal with it. I found the book overly ideological, but it has powerful, memorable imagery that will make you want to take action.
By James Clavell
Brings to life feudal Japan during the seventeenth century. I first read this in my teens and found it very compelling. I was less charmed by it now, but it remains an entertaining way to learn about a fascinating society.
The Sheltering Sky
By Paul Bowles
Detestable characters who do stupid things for inscrutable reasons. Still, I can’t get some of the images out of my mind. Again, a novel I revisited after having read it earlier in my life. I liked it better this time around.
What about you? What did you enjoy reading in 2021? Please let me know via Twitter.
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