Below are my thoughts on some of the books that I have read (and found time to add!).
I have tried to give a personal rating of each of the books, on a scale of 1 - 5:
5: A classic. Anybody with interests similar to mine should read this book.
4: A fascinating book that I was glad to have read.
3: Interesting, although didn't leave that much of an impression.
2: Could have probably found a better book on the subject, but not horrible.
1: Waste of time (although in this case I might not finish the book).
You can also click on the titles in blue to read the New York Times book review. It is fun to visit the webpage for the Pulitzer prize and for the National Book Award.
Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of our Ancestors (by Nicholas Wade), 4 out of 5
A wonderful introduction to how modern genomics can help inform our understanding of early human history. For example, want to know when we started wearing clothing?
The Best American Science Writing (edited by Timothy Ferris), 4 out of 5
I buy these books every year. The basic thesis of Horgan's book is that there is a finite number of revolutionary, paradigm shifting ideas in science (see The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn). Given this, the reality of diminishing returns imply that more and more work must be invested between each major discovery, and most of science becomes filling in details. The book was panned by many scientific critics because it suggests that the grand scientific enterprise will inevitably slow. You don't have to agree with Horgan's premise in order to appreciate his thumb-nail sketch of the many famous scientists he interviewed to bolster his argument. Genome (by Matt Ridley), 3.5 out of 5. Ridley uses a tour of the 23 human chromosomes to explain and discuss many of the important discoveries that have recently been made by biological researchers. Although much of what he wrote is available in other books, I found his discussion of eugenics and mad cow disease (BSE) to be particularly insightful. This is a great book to choose if you are looking for a nice general review of recent biological advances.
Immortality (by Ben Nova), 1.5 out of 5:
This is one of those books that lists the author as Dr. Ben Nova, because without the honorary title the reader might begin to wonder how much the author actually knows about the subject. I was hoping to learn about the current state of knowledge in life-extending technologies, but I finished wondering if I could trust everything that I had read. If anyone knows a good book on the subject, please let me know. Life (by Richard Fortey), 3 out of 5. A little too detailed for my taste.
Living with our genes (by Hamer & Copeland), 3.5 out of 5.
Hamer and Copeland start with the bold thesis that there is an important genetic component in nearly every aspect of a person's characteristics. Next they marshal a surprisingly large amount of evidence that not only intelligence, but also various aspects of a personality have a genetic component. They do not attempt to argue that genetics is purely deterministic, for that position is only put forward as a straw man by opponents of so called 'genetic determinism.' The book is both thought provoking and reasonable, so I encourage the reading of this book as a way of thinking about some of these important issues. Gould is at times too vehement for my taste, and I sometimes wonder whether he is ideologically blinded in the way that he accuses his opponents of being blinded. Nevertheless, he is a talented writer and many of his books on natural history are quite fascinating. Consistent with these expectations, this book is written in an engaging style and provides a broad sweep of the eugenics field. Unfortunately, I couldn't help but feel that he has let his justified hatred for eugenics cloud some of his personal and scientific judgements. The Moral Animal is one of the most interesting books on evolutionary psychology that has been written for the general public. Evolutionary psychology takes as its basic starting point the idea that not only physical forms, but also behavior, should be explainable by evolutionary theory. Nonzero (by Robert Wright), 4 out of 5.
The Perfect Baby: Parenthood in the New World of Cloning and Genetics (by Glenn McGee), 3.5 out of 5
One of my favorite books on the brain.
Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Future (by Gregory Stock), 4 out of 5
The Selfish Gene (by Richard Dawkins), 5 out of 5
One of the most important scientific books ever written for laymen. Similar to what Schroedinger accomplished in his notable foray into biology with the book What is Life, Dawkins has changed the way a whole generation views evolution, and hence all of life. Dawkins convincingly argues that the basic unit of evolution is not the species, or even the individual, but rather each individual gene. This simple hypothesis has far-reaching implications and is able to explain a wide variety of otherwise disparate facts. Anybody with the slightest interest in science should read this book, which is why I often give it as a gift.
(Note: Many years after writing this paragraph I have ended up using microbes to study evolutionary dynamics, and this book may have influenced this research path)
Sex in the Future: The Reproductive Revolution and How It Will Change Us (by Robin Baker), 3 out of 5
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (by Thomas Kuhn), 5 out of 5
What Remains to Be Discovered? (by John Maddox), 3 out of 5
John Maddox was the editor of the prestigious science journal Nature for many years, and because of this I hoped that he would have some deep insight into the future directions of science. Unfortunately, his book is almost entirely concerned with explaining the current state of scientific knowledge rather than likely future discoveries. The first 50 pages or so covers physics, but the only field that he seems to believe is worth discussing is astrophysics, such as the dark matter problem. Unhappily for him (and for readers), half of what he writes may have become obsolete a year after publication with the discovery that supernova appear to be accelerating away from us (indicating that the vacuum may have a non-zero energy density). The most interesting section of the book is a discussion of how life, in the sense of a non-trivial self-replicator, may have first arisen. He even includes a simple model of how it might have happened, not as a serious suggestion but rather as a framework for thinking about the problem. Woman (by Natalie Angier), 4.5 out of 5
A Beautiful Mind (by Sylvia Nassar), 4 out of 5
A wonderful biography of John Nash, one of the most brilliant minds in mathematics.
The Double Helix (by James Watson), 4.5 out of 5
A surprisingly enjoyable account of the sequence of events that led to James Watson and Francis Crick's famous 1953 discovery of the structure of DNA. The importance of this work is hard to overstate, and their paper is often viewed as the beginning of the modern age of biology. Watson is often criticized for saying things he shouldn't say; this tendency has at least led to an enjoyable book!
Founding Brothers (by Joseph Ellis), 5 out of 5
Joseph Ellis, who also write The American Sphinx, has the knack for being able to truly bring his characters alive. He covers eight different incidents in eights chapters, and by the end I felt like I had a much better understanding of the personalities and beliefs of the revolutionary figures.
Growth Recurring: Economic Change in World History (by E.L. Jones), 4 out of 5
A brilliant discussion of why Europe (and it's subsidiaries like the U.S.) came to the dominant position of power in the world. Diamond argues that the differences in geographical endowments can explain why Europe was the first to develop advanced technology and thus gain colonial power over the rest of the planet. This book is incredibly well-researched and organized, so that after reading the book one obtains a very clear idea of what Diamond believes and why he believes it. The four most important factors listed by Diamond are 1) Distribution of domesticatable animals and plants, 2) Size of the continents, 3) Dominant axis of the continent, 4) Prevelance and severity of disease causing pathogens. I highly recommend Guns, Germs, and Steel for anybody curious about why the human world is shaped the way it is.
A History of Warfare (by John Keegan), 3.5 out of 5
Liar's Poker (by Michael Lewis), 4 out of 5
The primary subject of this book is the Supreme Court case Sullivan vs. New York Times Co., a landmark case in the constitutional law of libel. At the height of the civil rights movement The Times published an advertisement condemning the actions of police in Montgomery, Alabama. Although not mentioned by name, Sullivan, the police commisioner, argued that the advertisement had damaged his reputation. In discussing this case, Lewis also takes the opportunity to present a fascinating history of the first amendment.
The New New Thing (by Michael Lewis), 3 out of 5
A Random Walk Down Wall Street (by Malkiel), 4 out of 5
The State of the Nation (by Derek Bok), 4 out of 5
David Landes is trying to answer a similar question to that posed by Jared Diamond: Why are some countries so rich and other countries so poor? Landes comes to a much more complex answer than Diamond, and because of that I find his explanations somewhat more plausible. Landes concludes that prosperity is the result of a complicated interplay between culture, policital instituitions, and geography. Even if you disagree with any of his final explanations, I can promise that you will learn a great deal by reading this fascinating book.
The World in 2020 (by Hamish McRae), 3 out of 5
The Wordly Philosophers (by Robert Heilbroner), 5 out of 5
The Accidental Asian (by Eric Liu), 4 out of 5
The Affluent Society (by John Kenneth Galbraith), 4.5 out of 5
All Too Human (by George Stephanopoulos), 4 out of 5
A remarkably honest and personal look into the Clinton White House, where the young Stephanopoulos was the press secretary.
The Learning Gap (Stevenson & Stigler), 4 out of 5
Robert Reich was the Secretary of Labor during President Clinton's first term, and was also probably the most liberal member of Clinton's staff. This introduction sets the stage for much of what happens in this light-hearted and surprisingly funny political memoir. I was most impressed with his bravery in defending positions that are both unpopular and almost certainly incorrect. For example, he seems to take great pleasure in criticizing Alan Greenspan. He also repeatedly argues that Clinton worked too hard balancing the budget. Despite his apparent disregard for mainstream economics, Reich's book was a true pleasure to read.
Our Underachieving Colleges (by Derek Bok), 4.5 out of 5
Derek Bok is one of the most thoughtful observers (and participants) in higher education today. As president of Harvard for 20 years (1971 - 1991) he had many opportunities to see first hand how an elite university works--or doesn't. Many years ago I read his book "The State of the Nation", which I found to be a reasonable analysis of many of the difficult issues facing the country. In "Our Underacheiving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More", Bok is able to focus on issues that he has a unique perspetive on. The begins with the basic question: "What is the purpose of higher education?" His response is given in a series of wonderfully insightful chapters focusing on critical thinking, diversity, and character. Unlike many commentators, he takes a measured response towards such divisive topics as preprofessionalism and the degree of faculty commitment to undergraduate education. Bok presents a powerful argument that the modern university has largely abdicated its responsibility to teach a strong core curriculum, as compared to a random hodgepodge of courses that students and faculty can agree will be "fun". This book deserves to be a classic treatise on higher education, alongside books such as Clark Kerr's "The Uses of the University".
Presidential Power (by Richard Neustadt), 3.5 out of 5
The Price of Admission (by Daniel Golden), 3 out of 5
In a series of articles for the Wall Street Journal, Golden brought attention to controversial aspects of college admissions that act to hinder economic diversity at elite campuses. The most striking allegation is that many universities mantain active communication between the admissions and development offices. For example, the development office at Duke applied pressure to accept applicants from wealthy families even if there had been no sign of interest in donations. Golden illustrates the unsavory nature of this connection through a series of comparisons between the wealthy (undeserving) applicant who was granted admission and a poor (deserving) applicant who was denied admissions. This style of writing is a nice appeal to emotion, but it works much better in the comparatively short format of a newspaper. After reading a dozen such comparisons between various students I would have preferred some real analysis. One piece of analysis that I have recently come across is a study by the New America Foundation which found that among the 140 most selective colleges, only 3% of students come from the bottom quartile.
Untruth (by Robert J. Samuelson), 4 out of 5
Although only a collection of his columns written for either the Washington Post or Newsweek, this book is replete with novel insights and little known facts. Unlike most daring subtitles, I think that this one mostly lives up to it's claim: why the conventional wisdom is (almost) always wrong. I have always liked Samuelson, but have not had the opportunity to read very much of his writing since I do not subscribe to either of the above publications. After reading this book, however, I have come to appreciate the way he views the world. As a fiscal conservative and social liberal, I have found that many of his essays resonate strongly with my beliefs. What can one say about a book written by Rush? I suppose that the most obvious thing to say is that there were no big surprises. I have watched his show on TV (once), and his personality seems to shine through crystal clear regardless of the medium.
Writings on an Ethical Life (by Peter Singer), 5 out of 5
Cherry (by Mary Karr), 3.5 out of 5.
Liar's Club (by Mary Karr), 4 out of 5.
Animal Farm (by George Orwell), 4 out of 5:
Atlas Shrugged (by Ayn Rand), 5 out of 5:
Regardless of what you think about Ayn Rand's philosophy, this is a powerful book.
Brave New World (by Aldous Huxley), 4 out of 5:
Ender's Game (by Orson Scott Card), 4.5 out of 5:
Ender's Shadow (by Orson Scott Card), 4.5 out of 5:
I may have enjoyed this book even more than Ender's Game, so I highly recommend this book to everybody, especially if you have read and enjoyed Ender's Game. Ender's Shadow is essentially Ender's Game through the eyes of Bean, one of Ender's friends. The result is a better understanding of the original story and a peak into another character's world. It is a treat to peer into Bean's mind as he attempts to solve each problem that he encounters.
The Eyes of the Dragon (by Stephen King), 3 out of 5.
Fountainhead (by Ayn Rand), 3 out of 5:
Ivanhoe (by Sir Walter Scott), 3 out of 5:
Magician: Apprentice (by Raymond E. Feist), 5 out of 5:
I just had to put this book first because it is my favorite fantasy novel of all time. I don't know if it was just because of the particular age that I first read it, but I have a deeper emotional bond with this book than any other I have ever read. It definitely struck a cord with me, so if you are at all a fan of fantasy novels I highly recommend this one.
Uncle Tom's Cabin (by Harriet Beacher Stowe), 4 out of 5:
My high school English education was lacking in many ways, one of which was the fact that I read almost none of the classic literature that everybody else was forced to read (the other area of defficiency was that I never learned how to write). In any case, this is one of those books that I felt like I should have read but never had, so I recently picked up a copy. I am quite glad that I did, because the story was surprisingly touching, and even made me cry at one point (if you read it you will know where). I think that it is the only book that has made me cry, so at least judging by emotional impact this book is a clear winner.
1984 (by George Orwell), 4 out of 5:
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