I've read about 150 books over the past five or so years, after a decade-long dry spell where 95% of the reading I did was for school. These are the ~20% of those books that have really made an impact on me, that I've continued to think about even long after finishing them. I'm not going to give you summaries because (a) you can find those elsewhere, and (b) for a lot of them, I don't even really remember the contents. What I do remember is why I liked them and what I took away from them, so that's what's here. Books in each section are roughly ordered by how important they've been for me.
Every single essay on Nate Soares's blog was earth-shattering for me when I read them in college, and most of all 'Half-assing it with everything you've got'. Unfortunately by the time I found the Replacing Guilt sequence it was too late for me to not waste my years in school, but I still carry his lessons with me always.
Bonds That Make Us Free
This book is about how to treat other people. It's got some strong Christian undertones which turned off my mom (who was raised Catholic) but didn't bother me that much (I was raised atheist). This book has helped me more than any therapist; specifically, it helped me move on from something I'd been having nightmares about for ten years, by reframing and really seeing things from the other person's perspective. That's damn magic is what that is.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
Marie Kondo is the person I aspire to be, in roughly half the aspects of myself that I care about. She's so kind and at peace and knows exactly what she likes. I tidy all day and feel awful about it; she tidies people's lives and feels deeply fulfilled. She also has some hella cute children. I KonMaried my stuff at the end of 2019 and have continued to live by her philosophy and be inspired by her aesthetic. I also helped my mom and two of my housemates KonMari! There's also a Marie Kondo Netflix show which is my happy place.
A recent book and therefore one I haven't had much time to reflect on yet, but it presents a really solid framework for habit creation that I adopted upon reading. Also has some really riveting personal anecdotes that are maybe only tangentially related to the book, but dope nonetheless.
The 4-Hour Workweek
I didn't develop a passive income or become a digital nomad or start my own business or any of that stuff. But I did realize, upon reading this, that I hated something fundamental about my job, and I immediately quit and got a way better job. Hard not to recommend a book that helps you do that.
The Courage to Be Disliked & A Guide to the Good Life
These are together because they're both re-explanations of Stoicism (the former through the lens of Adlerian psychology) for a modern audience. I think Stoicism has a lot of lessons I need to hear, but I find the original writings quite inaccessible; these books manage to make it accessible without dumbing it down. The Courage to Be Disliked is presented in a dialog format and was written by a master-apprentice duo, and both of these things intrigue me.
Arsenals of Folly
I have read probably 10 books on the Manhattan Project, one way or another, and jesus christ am I sick to death of it (I majored in physics so that's part of it). So Arsenals of Folly was a real breath of fresh air. Also, it's horrifying. Everyone interested in AI risk should know about the Cold War – like, really know about it, not just know that it happened – and this book is a great way to learn it.
The Dictator's Handbook
I don't really remember any of the object-level content of this book, but it did give me that feeling of, "oh, the world makes more sense now." If you pay lip service to "there are no evil people, only bad incentives" but don't really believe or understand it deep down, read this book.
The Idea Factory
This book made me want to go out and create things. Specifically offices with movable walls, but apparently we can't have those anymore because of fire codes </3
A Short History of Nearly Everything
I read this in high school and so I don't remember any details, but I'm recommending it even despite that, and that's got to count for something, right?
I was raised in a 99% liberal area and taught that Ayn Rand was basically the devil, so I didn't have high hopes for this book, and boy was I pleasantly surprised. Sure objectivists (and probably Ayn Rand herself) are kind of crazy, sure the antagonists are flimsy strawmen, and sure I could not for the life of me make it through the six-hour speech, but for the most part I love this book. For one thing I'm a straight woman with a lifelong fascination with factories and industry (my #1 favorite class in college was one where we drove all over the state visiting different types of power plants; it was AMAZING (also one of my classmates was named Dagny....)), and this book is full of love interests who are hypercompetent male industry leaders, so like, wow, yes please.
More seriously, as someone who was often made to feel bad about being smarter or more competent than others when growing up, this book was such an enticing piece of escapism. It's one of those fantasy worlds I wish I could live in, but it also feels somehow connected to the real world in a way that most fantasy doesn't. Perhaps that's just an illusion, though.
The Metamorphosis & The Picture of Dorian Gray
I listened to both of these this year (thanks to them being free at Audible Stories!), during a time when I was having trouble living with other humans. I have genuinely never related to a character as strongly as I did to the transformed protagonist of The Metamorphosis (look, it's been a tough year), and I think about it all the time. I had a similar – though not as strong – feeling about Dorian Gray, a man who outwardly fools people into thinking he's virtuous while in truth having nothing good inside him at all. (Also it was very gay.)
Remembrance of Earth's Past (aka the Three Body trilogy)
Rationalists give Liu Cixin shit, but I don't care about their criticism. Argue about the sociology or the sexism all you want; none of that will change the fact that this trilogy is a magnificent piece of writing (and translation!). The language is gorgeous, the imagery is immersive, and the world is so imaginative. But above all else, nothing else has ever given me so visceral a sense of the vast scope of the universe. Thus, I recommend it to people who are system-2-convinced of arguments for longtermism but have trouble getting their feelings on board.
Ender's Game & Friendship is Optimal & Three Worlds Collide
Stories I just can't stop thinking about, because they present you with situations where you don't know what the morally correct thing to do is, and then you start wondering what morality is and why you even think it exists and....? Ender's Game especially is just, hot damn.
A Fire Upon the Deep
This book gives some of the same sense as Three Body of the vast uncaringness of the universe and the smallness and powerlessness of humans – though somehow it feels a lot more fictional. But mostly I liked it for its really creative and immersive world-building, and the skillful storytelling that drew me in so much that I canceled a prior engagement so that I could finish reading.
This is a lighter recommendation than the others, philosophy-wise, but it's just so engaging and well-executed I had to include it. I've read every book in Brandon Sanderson's Cosmere at least three times (which is truly insane, that's over 3 million words times three), but the original Mistborn trilogy remains my favorite – or at least, the one that I'm the most excited to recommend to new Cosmere readers. Most of the Cosmere books leave a whole lot of loose ends even when the story is finished, but I never felt that way about Mistborn. It's a skillfully, tightly written trilogy with Sanderson's trademark amazing fantasy worldbuilding.
Side note for book listeners: Michael Kramer narrates the audiobooks and does an absolutely incredible job. Who knew one person could do so many voices, jesus.
The Body Keeps the Score
The hardest book to read, at least on this list (not of all time, because I've tried reading Kant and that is harder). Expect to cry, and not necessarily in a good way. Basically reading this book is like going to therapy.
If I hadn't already read SlateStarCodex, this book would have filled in a crucial gap in my model of the world. As it was, it was still a worthwhile read.
Taste (aka Taste What You're Missing)
This book is not like other books. I have never thought so deeply about my sensory apparatus. It never even occurred to me that the job the author has – working in a lab that develops and tests flavors for commercial food vendors – would exist. It's just such a weird and fresh perspective on everyday experience, and it has some fun exercises too. I maybe particularly recommend it to people interested in mindfulness.
I technically earned an undergrad degree in physics, but during that time I focused pretty much exclusively on manipulating symbols on a page to avoid a failing grade, and not at all on understanding what was going on. I have made it less than halfway through this book (it can take me and my boyfriend hours or even days to decide on our answer to a single (multiple-choice!) problem), but it's already helped me understand physics better than my entire four-year degree. If you want to build the skill of truly understanding things about the world, work through this book.
This book makes me want to knock down the fences in my backyard and play in the street so that cars can't pass and generally create a human-focused, car-free utopia.
It took me approximately two years and five tries before I got through Superintelligence, so I know that that is a uniquely terrible book to recommend if you want the uninitiated to understand AI risk. Human Compatible is 1000x better for this. I prescribe it to people who are knee-jerk skeptical about AI risk but have not actually ever given it any thought.
I read this book at the beginning of this year and feel vaguely positive emotions about it, but maybe that's just because I myself am not a specialist and want to be comforted that that's okay. I'm pretty sure it was good though. I like the cover design too.
I never understood why people put this book on their recommendation lists amongst all these other ones that had really easy-to-understand justifications. But here I am, recommending it too. It was just... such a compelling story, and it was about a life being lived parallel to mine, almost. Not a far-off land, but the Midwest, where I grew up. It really makes you think about all the different worlds that are interwoven with your own but are somehow invisible to you. There but for the grace of god go I.
Feeling angsty about something? It's the end of the year, so of course you are! Might I recommend The Mountain Goats' Jordan Lake Sessions? Start with the opening track The Plague, and if you don't like it after that, you can stop because you probably won't like The Mountain Goats. If you do, well you're in for a treat, because they have 50 more albums! My favorites are Beat The Champ, The Sunset Tree, Transcendental Youth, and All Eternals Deck.
Taylor Swift also released two surprise albums during lockdown, which was pretty great. I think they're both worth a listen all the way through if you're into her style, but in terms of songs about 2020 I recommend epiphany off of folklore. and the titular track off of evermore.
I must also recommend Angel Island by The Brother Brothers, because it is the most beautiful song possibly ever (confirmed by literally everyone I've ever played it for).
Ten great albums
I tried to make a list of my favorite albums but it was really a lot too long and I figured everyone would stop reading. So here are ten albums I like; title links are to my favorite track so that you can figure out quickly whether you like it or not.
- M A N I A (Fall Out Boy)
- With every new Fall Out Boy album I am surprised and delighted by how their music has changed while still somehow retaining all of their unique character. This album was no exception. And it makes me want to dance!
- The Hamilton Mixtape (various)
- You should listen to Hamilton before listening to this, but at this point I just assume everyone already has. The tracks include wholesale covers of songs from the musical, original raps that sample from the musical and take themes from it, remixes, and demo content that didn't make it into the Broadway show.
- BADLANDS (Halsey)
- Halsey sings about that same type of feeling that Kafka wrote about in Metamorphosis – i.e. it's hard to be a person and interact with other people. She has a great voice, and her music is evocative and kind of creepy while still being pop-radio-worthy. Her second album, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, is also great (favorite track: Sorry).
- Carrie & Lowell (Sufjan Stevens)
- Have you lost someone close to you and you have complicated feelings and aren't sure how to mourn? Play this on repeat. That's what I did when my grandma died. It was written in the wake of the death of Sufjan's distant, mentally ill mother, and it's also just some really beautiful music.
- All This Bad Blood (Bastille)
- You may remember this album because a bunch of its tracks – most of all Pompeii – were really popular when it was released in 2013. But it has a lot more tracks and they are all good.
- Rainbow (Kesha)
- Ever been hurt by a dickhead? And/or are you a woman? This album's for you. I would die for Kesha. This album is best listened to in order, because the tracks are really different from one another and together they make such an interesting and textured story.
- The Human Condition (Jon Bellion)
- I don't really know how to describe Jon Bellion. He fits so much meaning into each of his songs, without even rapping! And his music is really quite weird, but without losing mass appeal? My boyfriend and I have listened to this album more than probably anything else.
- Cricket Blue EP (Cricket Blue)
- Two guitars, two voices doing intricate harmonies, cryptically poetic lyrics, what could be better? What could be better is that Taylor (the guy) is a rationalist and has been in Secular Solstice for the past two years. He wrote the expanding moral circle song (and is also just a really lovely person). Also Cricket Blue has been doing some really cute Over The Garden Wall covers while in quarantine.
- Blueprint (The Ransom Notes)
- College a cappella is nothing like it is in Pitch Perfect, because the music in that movie is ridiculously overproduced and loses all spirit, and also in real college a cappella people are mostly nice to each other. You may be able to spot me high-key sobbing in the audience in some of the Ransom Notes' Youtube videos. I really really like them.
- The Blessed Unrest (Sara Bareilles)
- This album has a lot of iconic songs (Brave, Islands, I Choose You), but my favorite track is Chasing the Sun, which is written from the perspective of someone walking through a cemetery outside New York, reflecting on death and life.
I've definitely watched too much TV this year, but mostly I just watch the same shows over and over again. I have legitimately seen Parks & Rec all the way through at least 20 times, and probably more like 40. But I'm not going to tell you what else I watched this year, because this is how I feel about TV:
And I don't listen to podcasts or watch movies, so I guess that's it. Happy new year :)