Reading List


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.

Combined books covers

  1. 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.

  2. Jean Baker: Sisters: The Lives of America’s Suffragists. Explains history through biography, and does well at both.

  3. David Bollier: Think Like a Commoner. Explains what a commons is and why most of them aren’t actually tragedies.

  4. 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.

  5. Michael Jacoby Brown: Building Powerful Community Organizations. The best practical guide I know to creating and sustaining grassroots groups with a purpose.

  6. 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.

  7. Tressie McMillan Cottom: Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy. Describes how a large part of the educational sector in the US exists to translate government grants into personal debt for the poor and private profit for the rich.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. Peter Frase: Four Futures. Explores four scenarios in which our reactions to increasing automation and worsening climate change play out.

  11. Elizabeth Green: Building a Better Teacher. Why educational reforms in the United States and elsewhere have foundered, and what other countries have done instead that’s worked.

  12. 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).

  13. Adam Hochschild: Bury the Chains. “Slavery was to the nineteenth century what oil is today: morally repugnant but economically indispensible.” And the fight against it was one of the first great triumphs of democratic activism.

  14. Sarah Kendzior: The View From Flyover Country. Essential reading about the rise of authoritarian kleptocracy in the United States.

  15. Andro Linklater: Owning the Earth. 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.

  16. Pankaj Mishra: From the Ruins of Empire. Three intellectual biographies showing how the peoples of Asia have responded to the West.

  17. Samuel Moyn: The Last Utopia. Argues that human rights became the defining issue for post-war progressives only because others failed.

  18. George Orwell: Essays. The best writing from the best political writer (in English) of the 20th Century.

  19. Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski: The People’s Republic of Walmart. Most of the world’s economic activity occurs within large companies like Walmart and Amazon. They all use central planning: why doesn’t the economy as a whole, and can we make the efficiencies of planning democratically accountable?

  20. John Restakis: Humanizing the Economy. A history of the co-operative movement and a blueprint for its future.

  21. James C. Scott: Seeing Like a State. Explains why large organizations always prefer uniformity over productivity, and the price people pay for this.

  22. Jim Stanford: Economics for Everyone. A useful antidote to the abstract, unquestioning way that neoliberal economics is usually presented.

  23. Zeynep Tufekci: Twitter and Tear Gas. A nuanced look at how social media is and isn’t changing politics and protest.

  24. Susan Whitfield: Life Along the Silk Road. A history of Central Asia told in twelve biographies.

  25. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett: The Spirit Level. An evidence-based exploration of how and why greater equality is better for everyone.

A Few Others

Not everything has to be serious…

  1. Hope Jahren: Lab Girl. An unflinching and beautifully-written account of a life in science.

  2. David George Haskell: The Forest Unseen. A peaceful, inspiring meditation on one square meter of old growth forest through the course of a year.

  3. Siddhartha Mukherjee: The Emperor of All Maladies. A history of cancer and its (mis)treatment, and of the people it has touched.

  4. 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.

  5. Ellen Ullman: Life in Code. The second volume in the author’s personal history of computing’s Bronze Age.

  6. James Ward: Adventures in Stationery. A wonderful quirky book about everyday things—probably the most British entry in this list.

  7. 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.