Over the last decade, I have belatedly realized that programmers can’t understand what they ought to build without reading other things as well. The books below have helped me understand just how intellectually impoverished Silicon Valley’s worldview is; if you find them useful, I’d appreciate suggestions for additions.
Note: this list is a partial, incomplete, and inadequate replacement for what I hoped the “Stuff That Actually Matters” project would produce. What I really want–and what I think tech desperately needs–is an approachable one-volume distillation of all this along the lines of Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, Muller’s Physics for Future Presidents, or Conery’s Imposter’s Handbook. Producing it would cost less than the launch party for a new brand of phone; the fact that it ain’t gonna happen is just one more sign of how desperately we need it.
Karen Armstrong: The Great Transformation. Chronicles the critical centuries in which Confucianism and Daoism arose in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in the Middle East, and rationalism in Greece.
Jean Baker: Sisters: The Lives of America’s Suffragists. Explains history through biography, and does well at both.
Stewart Brand: How Buildings Learn. One of the most practical thinkers of the 20th Century draws on his experience as an architect to explain how many other things in our society come to be as they are.
Stephen Brookfield and Stephen Preskill: The Discussion Book. Describes fifty different ways that groups can discuss things and reach decisions, most of which I had never seen before.
Alex Butterworth: The World That Never Was. Explores the early days of the anarchist movement, and in doing so shows how governments create the villains they need.
Tressie McMillan Cottom: Lower Ed. Its subtitle is “the troubling rise of for-profit colleges in the new economy”, and there’s a lot in here that people pushing online education should think about.
Matthew Crawford: Shop Class as Soulcraft. There are truths about ourselves we can only learn by interacting with things that cannot be swayed or bargained with.
Edzard Ernst and Simon Singh: Trick or Treatment. A sceptical (but not hostile) look at alternative medicine that is incidentally a great primer on standards of evidence and how to interpret scientific findings.
Peter Frase: Four Futures. Explores four scenarios in which our reactions to increasing automation and worsening climate change play out.
Elizabeth Green: Building a Better Teacher. Shows that educational reforms over the last fifty years have failed because they’ve been tackling the wrong problems.
Adam Hochschild: Bury the Chains. “Slavery was to the nineteenth century what oil is today: morally repugnant but economically indispensible.”
Jennifer Hecht: Doubt: A History. Traces the evolution of one of the great traditions in Western thought (one which even today makes many people uncomfortable).
Tracy Kidder: The Soul of a New Machine. The best book ever written about computing’s Silver Age.
Andro Linklater: Owning the Land. The idea that individuals can own land is a lot younger than most people realize, and its emergence holds a lot of lessons for today’s debates over intellectual property.
Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher: Unlocking the Clubhouse. A slim, essential, evidence-based look at why the gender imbalance in computing is so skewed and what can be done about it.
Samuel Moyn: The Last Utopia. Argues that human rights became the defining issue for post-war progressives only because others failed.
George Orwell: Essays. The best writing from the best political writer (in English) of the 20th Century.
Pankaj Mishra: From the Ruins of Empire. Three intellectual biographies showing how the peoples of Asia have responded to the West.
Charles Petzold: The Annotated Turing. A line-by-line exegesis of Turing’s most famous paper, full of illuminating insights into the Golden Age of computing.
Jim Stanford: Economics for Everyone. A useful antidote to the abstract, unquestioning way that neoliberal economics is usually presented.
Zeynep Tufekci: Twitter and Tear Gas. A nuanced look at how social media is and isn’t changing politics and protest.
Ellen Ullman: Life in Code. The second volume in the author’s personal history of computing’s Bronze Age.
Jonathan Weiner: Time, Love, Memory. A great description of how science is actually done, and of what it’s like to have a life in science.
Susan Whitfield: Life Along the Silk Road. A history of Central Asia told in twelve biographies.
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett: The Spirit Level. An evidence-based exploration of how and why greater equality is better for everyone.
And since we’re here: I’ve written several wishlists of technical books that don’t exist. My “wanna haves” for this page are:
A history of the idea of intellectual property similar to Owning the Land.
Another book of this kind on the history of privacy.
Something that presents the ideas in James Scott’s Seeing Like a State in less academic form.
If you know of anything, I’d be grateful for pointers.