Favorite Books
“You can learn a lot about somebody by the books they've read.  And I've always thought that if you read all the same books I read, you'll come to think like me, too.”
 — Joel Spolsky

Non-Fiction:

The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins

Evolutionary biology as told from a gene's-eye point of view.  It is not an exaggeration to say that this book explains the meaning of life (assuming “life” is defined broadly).  Dawkins's theories have profound philosophical implications, and he writes with a rare combination of passion and clarity.

Authentic Happiness, by Martin E. P. Seligman

Martin Seligman is a psychologist based at the University of Pennsylvania.  He is largely responsible for developing the theory of learned helplessness.  In recent years, however, he has turned his attention to the new field of positive psychologyAuthentic Happiness is an outstanding book, filled with first-rate science, as well as practical advice.  Don't let the title fool you into thinking that this book is in the same genre as those maudlin Chicken Soup books, or the anti-intellectual Everything I Needed to Know franchise.  Seligman takes his subject very seriously and explains in some detail the science behind happiness.

Blaming the Brain, by Elliot Valenstein, Ph.D.

A respected neuroscientist takes a skeptical look at so-called “chemical imbalance” theories of mental illness.  Is depression caused by a lack of serotonin in the brain?  Is schizophrenia related to problems with dopamine regulation?  Maybe, but the data is much more complex and contradictory than the medical establishment (and especially drug companies) would lead us to believe.  Valenstein acknowledges, of course, that all our thoughts, feelings, memories, etc. can, in principle, be reduced to physico-chemical properties of the brain, but this fact does not necessarily imply that mental illnesses are adequately explained by currently-fashionable but simplistic “imbalance” theories.

The Undiscovered Mind, by John Horgan

Science journalists love to write “gee-whiz” stories about brain research.  In reality, though, our understanding of the brain is not nearly as deep as popularly believed.  John Horgan, who used to write for Scientific American magazine, exposes the wide gaps in current theories of brain function (and dysfunction).  The author argues that progress in neuroscience is actually a kind of “anti-progress”.  Horgan writes, “Instead of finding a great unifying insight, [scientists] just keep uncovering more and more complexity.”  Indeed, he adds, as they “learn more about the brain, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine how all the disparate data can be organized into a cohesive, coherent whole.”  Horgan stops well short of advocating mind-brain dualism, but he's not optimistic about the near-term prospects for a comprehensive explanation of brain function.

I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, by Wendy Kaminer

Have you ever felt that the self-help movement may be getting a bit out of control?  Do we really need a 12-step group for every imaginable human weakness?  As a Newsday reviewer put it, “If a Nobel Prize were awarded for clarity and sanity in a world gone mad, Wendy Kaminer would be on her way to Stockholm.”  My biggest criticism is that Kaminer chokes in the clutch.  Unexpectedly, toward the end of the book, she pulls her punches when describing the grand-daddy of the self-help movement: Alcoholics Anonymous, a group whose reputation far exceeds its actual effectiveness.

Mad in America, by Robert Whitaker

Investigative reporter Robert Whitaker has written a devastating, meticulously-documented exposé of corruption, pseudoscience, and cruelty in the mental-health industry.  Most of the book is devoted to now-discredited treatments and theories (e.g., insulin shock, tooth removal, week-long forced baths), but the last few chapters argue that irrational and abusive practices continue into the present day.  For example, Whitaker presents evidence that pharmaceutical companies purposely “stack the deck” when conducting clinical trials of antipsychotic drugs.  He also cites studies demonstrating that these drugs may do more harm than good.  While Thorazine, Risperdal, etc. might provide short-term benefits, the down-side is that medicated patients become less likely to make a full recovery from their schizophrenia.  Also, long-term use of antipsychotics can cause brain damage, resulting in a debilitating syndrome called “tardive dyskinesia”.  Mad in America is a must-read for anyone who thinks that psychiatry is based on sound science and that society does an adequate job of caring for the mentally ill.  (Incidentally, Whitaker has also written an interesting commentary on the film, A Beautiful Mind.)

Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, by David Burns, M.D.

A Stanford psychiatrist explains how illogical thinking can cause mental illness.  Sounds radical, right?  This is not your average self-help book.  Burns argues that distorted thoughts can lead to negative emotions, and he shows how to change your thinking by applying the principles of cognitive therapy.  Although the book is aimed at people who suffer from depression, just about anyone can benefit from the simple but powerful techniques to combat self-defeating thoughts.

A Random Walk Down Wall Street, by Burton Gordon Malkiel, Ph.D.

If only stock analysts weren't corrupt, then we could trust their recommendations, right?  Wrong, argues Malkiel – it's virtually impossible for anyone to predict stock prices.  This was by far the best book I read in business school.  Joel Spolsky writes:  “[Investing] seems so complicated, you say.  How can you ever outsmart the wily foxes on Wall Street who are out to rip off the common folk?  It seems like doing even reasonably well at investing should take constant research, studying, working, reading, learning.  All those annual reports.  And you'll have to subscribe to all kinds of dense boring newspapers with columns and columns of tiny print.  What if I told you that you could read one book and know everything you are going to need to know about managing your investments?  And I mean, everything.  Well, it's true.  And this is the book.”

How We Know What Isn't So, by Thomas Gilovich, Ph.D.

The subtitle of this book says it all:  “The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life”.  The author argues that common sense can often lead us astray, unless we're very careful to know the limitations of our intuition.  Gilovich, a professor at Cornell University, describes fascinating examples from a wide variety of fields – alternative medicine, misbehavior in children, even professional basketball.  How We Know What Isn't So should be on every skeptic's bookshelf.

Diseasing of America, by Stanton Peele, Ph.D.

Alcoholics Anonymous has been around since 1935.  The Betty Ford Center was established in 1982.  These days, it's almost a cliché to say that alcoholics and addicts are sick, and they simply need treatment followed by life-long attendance at AA or NA.  But, if rehab centers are so effective, and if 12-step groups are such a godsend, then why is society still plagued by alcoholism and drug abuse?  You'd think we would have wiped-out addiction the same way that smallpox was eradicated off the face of the earth.  Psychologist Stanton Peele argues that the addiction-treatment industry is rife with myths and does more harm than good.  Peele turns a hard, objective eye on what is surely the most pseudoscientific sub-field in all of medicine.  Diseasing of America is a scholarly work that uses arguments based on logic and academic studies, instead of fuzzy appeals to emotion, like you might encounter in other, less-skeptical books about the recovery movement.  (See also Stanton Peele's website for more information).

Travels with Lizbeth, by Lars Eighner

Philip Greenspun writes, “If you aren't a gay homeless dog owner in Austin, Texas, then you are unlikely to ever live the experiences that Eighner so vividly describes.  After you read this book, you will not feel the same about homelessness, our social welfare system, or materialism.  I can't exactly guarantee that you will come to feel one particular way or another.  But you will learn something.”

Philip and Alex's Guide to Web Publishing, by Philip Greenspun, Ph.D.

Engaging, opinionated writing and beautiful, full-color photographs make this the first coffee-table computer book.  Certainly, this is the most unusual, and the most entertaining technical volume I've ever read.  Not too long after this book was published, the NASDAQ market crashed, and Greenspun's own company suffered an even-more spectacular meltdown, so we should probably take his pontifications with a grain of salt.  Still, Philip and Alex's Guide contains much wisdom on creating effective, useful websites.  Greenspun makes the full text available, free, on his personal site.

Fiction:

The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger

Sure, Holden Caulfield is the main character, but let's not overlook Edgar Marsalla's contribution.

Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney

Don't let the (horrible) movie stop you from reading the book.  Cocaine addiction, fact-checking at a thinly-disguised New Yorker, and late-night ferret-maulings make for a rockin' good time.

Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck

You've seen the Bugs Bunny spoofs;  now read the original.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey

“Y'see buddies, what happened was I got in a couple hassles down at the County Work Farm and the Court ruled that I'm a psychopath.  And do you think I'm gonna argue with the court?  Shoot, you can bet your bottom dollar I don't.  Not me.  Not Ol' R.P. McMurphy.  I'll be whatever their little heart desires, be it psychopath or mad dog or werewolf, because I don't care if I never see another weedin' hoe to my dyin' day...  Now boys let's get somethin' settled right now.  Which one of you's the bull goose looney?  I'm asking who's the bull goose looney?”

Worth reading even if you've seen the movie.

A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess

“What's it going to be then, eh?”

Gonzo:

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (illustrated by Ralph Steadman)

The Great Shark Hunt, by Dr. Hunter S. Thompson


Honorable mention:

The Moral Animal:  Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life, by Robert Wright

Conventional psychology tends to describe behavior without really explaining it in any sort of fundamental way.  Psychologists have long known, for example, that men usually prefer younger women as mates, whereas women seem to be attracted to older, more-wealthy men.  But why is this so?  Evolutionary psychology can explain this behavior in terms of Darwinian fitness.  Younger women tend to be better able to bear children, and older, more-established men tend to be better providers.  A caveat:  This book first came out in 1994, and though it's still an excellent introduction to the topic of evolutionary psychology, I suspect that it may be a bit dated by now.

Commonsense Rebellion: Debunking Psychiatry, Confronting Society, by Bruce E. Levine, Ph.D.

A clinical psychologist exposes pseudoscientific, harmful aspects of the mental-health industry.  The book is badly in need of a competent editor, though.  Had Commonsense Rebellion been more polished and professional, it would have been more convincing.  Still definitely worth reading, though.

Woe is I, by Patricia O'Conner

Makes grammar fun and interesting.  Well, almost.

Heavy Drinking: The Myth of Alcoholism as a Disease, by Herbert Fingarette

A concise and well-reasoned attack against many of the myths and misconceptions that surround acloholism and drug addiction.  Fingarette's reasoning is convincing and supported by references to legitimate research studies.  Still, even if you don't buy his arguments against the disease-theory of addiction, the book makes a number of less-controversial criticisms of “conventional wisdom” (read: pseudoscientific beliefs) on substance abuse.

Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman, Ph.D.

Most people think that IQ is the most important factor that influences one's success in life.  It's not that simple, argues Goleman.  While conventional intelligence certainly has an influence on a person's career and overall life, emotional intelligence is more important.  Though the subject might seem a little “touchy-feely”, Goleman's book is packed with references to scientific studies.  As the Amazon description says, “[Goleman] defines emotional intelligence in terms of self-awareness, altruism, personal motivation, empathy, and the ability to love and be loved by friends, partners, and family members.  People who possess high emotional intelligence are the people who truly succeed in work as well as play, building flourishing careers and lasting, meaningful relationships.”.

Principles of Neural Science, by Eric Kandel et al.

The best text for people with a serious interest in learning about the brain.  (Back in 1987, when I was taking a neurobiology class with Professor Timothy Goldsmith, he liked to say that neurobiology is the interface between the humanities and the sciences.)

Don't Make Me Think, by Steve Krug

Excellent usability guide to creating an effective, easy-to-use website.

Marketing Without Advertising, by Michael Phillips and Salli Rasberry

Explains why we should be very skeptical of the alleged power of advertising.  The book describes marketing strategies that are less expensive than conventional ad campaigns – and more effective.  This is the kind of stuff they don't teach in business school, but probably should.

The Blind Watchmaker, by Richard Dawkins

As the book's subtitle says, “why the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design”.  Covers some of the same material as The Selfish Gene, but does so in a more-accessible manner.  Probably a better book for people who don't have any background in biology.

Unweaving the Rainbow, by Richard Dawkins

An evolutionary biologist discusses science and poetry – and the link between the two.

Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials, by Wendy Kaminer

A skeptic discusses various types of irrational thinking that are present in American culture.

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, by Richard Feynman, as told to Ralph Leighton

A Nobel Prize-winning physicist discusses life, the universe, and everything.  The chapter on picking-up women is alone worth the price of admission.