Michael Lewis is one of the best non-fiction writers around today, and all of these books show why. Lewis makes it a blast to read about complex topics, by turning it into an engaging story about the actors involved. ‘The Blind Side’ and ‘The Big Short’ are some of the best books I’ve ever read. The former is about a young boy who grew in the streets, and eventually becomes a pro-football player with the help of a loving family who take him into their home. The Big Short tells the story of the housing market bubble of the 2000s, and of the few people who saw it coming and bet on the crash. Lewis does a good job of explaining the technical financial topics on a basic level. However, the downside of the book is that it engages in hero-worship: the main characters are portrayed as geniuses who earned a fortune through their expert analysis and contrarian outlook. In reality, though, none of the characters have repeated their great accomplishments since.
‘Moneyball’ tells the story of a baseball team that managed to punch above their weight, thanks to the efforts of the General Manager, who discarded traditional scouting methods and focused on the data instead. A fun book if you’re familiar with baseball, less so for myself. I was more interested in Lewis’ latest ‘The Undoing Project’, which is about the two Israeli scientists (Daniel Kahneman and Amon Tversky) that came up with the theories of cognitive biases and lapses in rationality that the main characters from Moneyball profited from. It’s not only about their theories, but also about their curious personalities, their relationship, and the history of Israel. Very much recommended.
While Michael Lewis’ books introduce the concept of improved decision-making very well, these four books expand on it to a great extend. ‘The Signal and the Noise’ is written by Nate Silver, the founder of FiveThirtyEight, where he and his team attempt to quantify and put to use all sorts of data relevant to everyday topics. They do everything from predicting the results of elections, sports matches, and the Oscar results, while also explaining and visualizing other data relevant to the world. In the book, Nate Silver explains his methods on a basic level, using several case examples to make his points (from poker, to the weather, and climate change). He not only focuses on the potential, but also the pitfalls of quantification. Very relevant to anyone interested in the field, and to what the increase of the use of data will mean to our lives.
Nassim Taleb’s ‘Fooled By Randomness’ focuses on the limits of quantification, and other forms of pattern recognition in our lives. He draws from the work of Kahneman and Tversky (mentioned earlier) and several philosophers of science to hammer the point home that us humans often mistake the world for being more predictable than it actually is. Taleb meanders a lot, explaining important topics of probability, variance, and philosophy of science, while taking examples from his experience in financial markets. As a result of this book, I increasingly try to see the world in terms of probabilities, instead of a more deterministic view.
‘Poor Charlie’s Almanack’ is a book written by Charlie Munger, investor, billionaire and right-hand man of the well-known Warren Buffet. The Almanack highlights moments in his life, his relationships, and his inspirations, but the most interesting and practical parts of the book are where he explains his use of ‘mental-models’. These are basic concepts, drawn from the most reliable science, that he uses to analyse his investments and other decisions on a first-principles basis. Probably the book on this list that I would recommend most, because of its immediate practical usefulness.
Peter Bevelin also read Munger’s book, and followed up with ‘Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger’, which is a handy summary of mental models that Bevelin uses, many drawn from Poor Charlie’s Almanack. Handy, but much dryer than Munger’s own book.
Generally, I find biographies of top performers overrated, as they tend to engage in hero-worship, and spend a lot of time focusing on peculiarities that are either not generalizable or not very relevant. These two books, however, are okay. ‘Tools of Titans’ is a selection of interviews that Tim Ferris conducted with top performers in several different fields (tech, investing, sports, entertainment, health), which makes it interesting to look for common patterns across a large list of top-performers, and also includes some very practical advice. The downside is that most of the interviewees are derived from Ferris’ personal bay-area network, which tend to inevitably think alike.
‘Shoe Dog’ is the autobiography of Phil Knight, the founder of Nike. What makes this book different to many other biographies is that the main takeaway from the book is how lucky the author has been to survive many of his near-bankruptcies. It’s also not a cliché rags-to-riches story. Knight is honest about his privileged background, which highlights the fact of how important a good support network is. A refreshingly realistic take on success.
All of these books are written by academics, which means they follow an often followed pattern of academic books: they want to make a point that can be made in ten pages, and fill the other 140 pages with examples and experiment results. I think you can get most of the value by just reading a summary. Having said that, the theories of these books are interesting and important.
Carol Dweck’s ‘Mindset’ explains how success in learning and other efforts are influenced by the person’s mindset towards learning itself. People who think that success is largely determined by effort, and are okay with making mistakes (thus, people who have a ‘growth mindset’) tend to outperform people who see success as determined by factors that are set in stone (they have a ‘fixed mindset’).
‘The Geography of Thought’ by Richard Nisbett also points out how two groups think differently about the world and about problems. These different groups are ‘East’ and ‘West’, their viewpoints are ‘holism’ and ‘atomism’ (respectively), and the point of view one has is largely determined by culture. The holistic viewpoint tends to look at the world as an interrelated whole, seeing everything as inherently part of a larger context. The atomistic viewpoint tends to categorize things, and sees the world as a collection of many individual objects, that can be separated, and to which set rules can apply.
‘How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life’, by Russ Roberts discusses a book by Adam Smith: “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”. Roberts explains that ‘the founder of modern economics’ had a much less rationalistic view of economics than mainstream economics has today. He developed a very realistic view of human nature in this book, which Roberts discusses using excerpts from the book.
- The Lessons of History
- The Fall of Rome And the End of Civilization
- The History of the Catholic Church
- In the Shadow of the Sword
- The Embarrassment of Riches
- The Pursuit of Italy
‘The Geography of Thought’ is one of many books that highlights how culture influences our thinking, our outcomes, and daily life in general. In order to get a better understanding of the many cultures in the world (including my own), I like to read up on a lot of history and get a better grasp of how the world we inhabit today came to be.
All of the books listed here are recommended if one is interested in the era it discusses. I primarily focused on the (early) history of two major religions (Catholicism and Islam), ancient Rome, the Dutch republic (the country I’m from), and Italy (a country I planned on visiting). Note that Tom Holland’s ‘In the Shadow of the Sword’ is a quite controversial take on early Islam, but Holland’s books are probably the most engaging reads, narrative-wise. ‘The Embarrassment of Riches’ and ‘The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization’ are the most academic of these books, focusing a lot on archaeological evidence and sources.
Lastly, ‘The Lessons of History’ is a short book by Will and Ariel Durant, who try to summarize their multi-volume works on the history on the world in this one book. It highlights some recurring themes of the historical eras they’ve studied.
The history books already included some religious history, and as you can see I’ve also read a fair amount of books related to religion as well. I think people like me, who grew up in a mostly western, secular environment have a blind spot towards everything related to religion and faith. In a world where religion has always played a large role in both world events and personal lives, and will continue to, I believe in order to understand the world better, one needs to understand religion better. So far, I’ve focused mostly on the religion of my background, which is Catholicism.
‘Mythology’ is a quite enjoyable, and general overview of mostly Greek myths (and an introduction to Nordic myths). This is followed up nicely by ‘The Everlasting Man’, in which G.K. Chesterton argues that the central story of the world culminates in the existence of man, and that in turn the central story of man culminates in Christianity, a religion in which all important parts of man’s art, philosophy, moral codes, and truth is culminated into one coherent whole. Very well written, but probably won’t convince anyone who doesn’t have at least some prior belief in the existence of the supernatural in place.
‘Catholicism’ is a nice primer on the Catholic faith, written by Bishop Robert Barron. ‘The Catholic Church and Conversion’ is another Chesterton book, in which he explains why he chose Catholicism over Protestantism. I would not recommend this last book as much, as it’s very specific, and not entirely what I expected to read.
Michel Houellebecq’s controversial ‘Soumission’ is the first fiction book on my list, of which I read the Dutch translation. The book is a meditation of Europe’s lost faith in Christianity and nationalism, and how this interacts with the increasing presence of the Islamic faith in Europe. The premise of the book is that an Islamic party unexpectedly wins the presidential elections in France. The central character is a hedonistic secular professor, who tries to comes to grips with the situation. While the book is generally thought of as anti-Islamic, the book actually does the opposite: it steelmans the argument in favour of islamization, and is much harder on the decadent western culture that lost its faith in itself. The story itself might initially not be the most interesting, but, to me, the most value derived from this book was thinking about the relevance of the themes in our own world. This last point is what makes it one of the best books on this list.
History of Science
If the past few years are any indication, we now live in a world in which facts, science, and academia are increasingly part of the political arena. That makes these three books probably more relevant than ever. If you need a comprehensive and neutral overview on the history of the most important scientific endeavors, ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ by Bill Bryson is the way to go.
‘The Gene’ by Siddhartha Mukhertjee covers a more specific topic: the history of genetic science, which also has increased importance with the mapping of the human genome and the introduction of CRISPR technology. It’s probably a good idea to get your knowledge up-to-date on this field.
‘The Blank Slate’ by Steven Pinker covers many different fields of science. In it, he debunks many scientific myths that academia has spread about the human nature, based on three common dogmas: the blank slate, the nobel savage, and the ghost in the machine. To me, the arguments against the first two dogmas seemed more convincing than the arguments against the latter one. My main takeaway from Pinker’s book (and also from ‘The Gene’) is how dangerous it is if academia and science are allowed to be captured by ideology instead of truth-seeking. Unfortunately, I don’t think we are going in the right direction on this matter at the moment.
- Millennial Money
- What Works on Wall Street
- The Little Book That Still Beats the Market
- Global Asset Allocation
- Global Value
- Invest With The House
- You Can Be a Stock Market Genius
My readings on investment have become more technical and specific, which means that I generally would not recommend them to the average person. The first three books on the list are about factor investing. Of these books ‘The Little Book That Still Beats The Market’ by Joel Greenblatt is probably the most accessible and implementable. The other two are not very good.
The next three books on the list are written by Meb Faber. They are short books, in which a few very basic investment strategies are explained, and of which the results are tested. They’re very straightforward books, so give them a try if you’re interested in any of the strategies in question.
‘You Can Be a Stock Market Genius’ is another book by hedge-funds manager Joel Greenblatt. He explains the tools of the trade of special situations investing (including mergers, spin-offs, distress stocks, etc.). Probably the most straightforward book on this type of strategy, so it’s recommended if you’re interested in it.
- The Great Escape
- The Road to Wigan Pier
- Lee Kuan Yew
- In Praise of Commercial Culture
- The Strange Death of Europe
- Revolutionair verval en de conservatieve vooruitgang in de achttiende en negentiende eeuw
The first book ‘The Great Escape’ is an important work by nobel-prize winning economist Angus Deaton, in which he used straightforward econometric data to show how much the world has improved in the past few hundred years, in terms of health and living standards (but he also pays attention to downsides like rising inequality). It’s one of those books that convincingly lays out some very important and clear truths about the world (just like ‘The Blank Slate’ and ‘The Gene’ do). The only downside of the book is that Deaton sometimes leaves the politics aside, but on other topics argues passionately in favour of one side, which is sometimes inconsistent and makes the argument made seem partisan.
‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ by George Orwell lays out the political views of its author, and also shows the life of the class of people he champions. ‘Arguably’ is an essay bundle of Christopher Hitchens, which is the most comprehensive work of Hitchens’ views I have read so far.
In general, this list of books includes very wide-ranging arguments, not all of which were convincing to me, but all of them did provide some insight into people’s worldview. Note that ‘Revolutionair Verval’ is a Dutch book, and is an essay bundle written by multiple different authors. The only one I would advice against reading is ‘The Strange Death of Europe’ by Douglas Murray, as it did not seem like he had some basic facts in order, and also did not include a single citation. This would be something that seems necessary to me for a book that handles such controversial material, and makes a lot of arguments based on specific events.
- Gulliver's Travels
- Notes from Underground
- The Invention of Morel
- My Brilliant Friend (L'amica geniale, #1)
- The Story of a New Name (The Neapolitan Novels #2)
‘Gulliver’s Travels’ is a book that most people already know, and I do not have much to add on it.
‘Notes From Underground’ is the first Dostoyevsky book I’ve read, and I will definitely be reading more of his books in the future. It’s a short meditation of a person’s worst potential and instincts, including your own.
I wrestled through ‘La Invención de Morel’ in my quest to study Spanish. Although I enjoyed it, other people probably have a much better grasp of what the book means and how good it is than I do.
Lastly, I started reading Elena Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan Novels, which is some of the best contemporary writing I have read so far. It is an epic story of two Neapolitan girls, and tells the story of their lives, their friendship, and Italy throughout the ages. If you plan on reading some contemporary literature, but aren’t sure where to start, it would probably be worth it giving these books a chance.