Monday, November 10, 2014

Some nonfiction books I really like

My last post was a mainly negative review of David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years, and a while before that I posted a decidedly mixed review of Kartik Athreya's Big Ideas in Macroeconomics. So commenters are justified in pestering me to list my favorite books (other than sci-fi). Here's a short list. If your favorite book isn't on here, it's either because (in order of decreasing likeliness): A) I haven't read it, B) I read it a while back, C) I didn't happen to think of it off the top of my head, or D) I didn't like it that much.

Big Theory-of-History Books

1. Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond
An obvious choice. The most original and compelling "big arc of history" thesis I've ever read. And contains pages and pages of details about domesticable plants, which I love reading about, because hey - domesticable plants.

2. The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker
This reads like the anti-Graeber. So on point, so forceful, so focused. Such clarity and readability. There is the occasional howler, as in Graeber, but far fewer, and sources are cited. Pinker successfully makes the case that we live in a much more peaceful world than ever before.

3. Why the West Rules - For Now, by Ian Morris
This one didn't really have as clear a thesis about the big arc of history, but the important thing here is the data - the first hard data I've ever seen on which civilizations were the most developed at which point in time.

Economics and Finance

1. The Myth of the Rational Market, by Justin Fox
The single best pop econ book ever written - a complete history of financial economics. It made me want to join the field.

2. The Undercover Economist, by Tim Harford
This is a managerial econ course in a book - no equations, but read it and you will understand all the concepts. Professors, you could assign this to your class instead of a textbook.

3. When Genius Failed, by Roger Lowenstein
The best history book about the financial industry that I've ever read.

4. The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki
Lots of cool facts about finance, economic theory, complex systems, and behavioral econ. Impossible to summarize, but that's fine. Probably the best pop book about complex systems.

5. The Big Short, by Michael Lewis
This book is great at conveying what the modern finance industry is really like. Of course, everything by Michael Lewis is worth reading. Liar's Poker is the most fun, of course.

6. The Occupy Handbook by various authors, edited by Janet Byrne
A wonderful collection of essays about the financial crisis, the recession, and problems in our economy today. I even loved David Graeber's chapter!

7. The Second Machine Age, by Erik Brynjolfsson ad Andrew McAfee
The single best book on the "rise of the robots" question. Doesn't have a strong conclusion about what to do about automation and the economy, but that's because humanity just doesn't quite know what to do yet! Jam-packed with information.

8. Time to Start Thinking, by Edward Luce
The case for economic nationalism and institutional renewal.

9. A Random Walk Down Wall Street, by Burton Malkiel
The best personal finance book. Just reading this book will save the average person thousands of dollars.

10. Zombie Economics, by John Quiggin
Someone had to write this one. Quiggin did it exceptionally well, IMHO.

11. 13 Bankers, by Simon Johnson and James Kwak
Great expose of regulatory capture in the pre-2008 finance industry.

12. My Life as a Quant, by Emanuel Derman
An excellent memoir by a very smart and cool dude.


1. Nightwork, by Anne Allison
Why Japanese companies are killing Japanese families. Actually, that should have been the subtitle.

2. Can Japan Compete?, by Michael Porter and Hirotaka Takeuchi
A bit dated, but a great look at some of the micro reasons why Japan's economy petered out in the early 1990s. Not intended as a defense of neoliberalism at all, but this is the book that first made me think that neoliberalism might be good for Japan (and might have been good for us, back in the day).

3. Democracy Without Competition in Japan, by Ethan Scheiner
Read this to understand Japanese politics, at least through the early 2000s.

4. The Making of Modern Japan, by Marius Jansen
The best history of Japan, period.

5. The Rising Sun, by John Toland
A great history of WW2 from the Japanese perspective. It will permanently shatter any stereotype of Japanese people as conformist, obedient, etc.

Assorted Other Nonfiction

1. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, by Richard Feynman
Everything by Feynman is good; this is the best.

2. The Trouble With Physics, by Lee Smolin
Captures both the beauty and fun of doing fundamental physics theory, and the frustration of seeing a field of science hobbled by bad sociology. I wonder what other fields are hobbled by bad sociology? Hmm...

3. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, by Stephen Platt
An eye-opening account of the Taiping Rebellion, the Chinese version of Armageddon.

4. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, by Jack Weatherford
The story of a boy who came from nowhere to conquer the world, who tried to singlehandedly yank the middle ages toward liberalism, and who of course failed.

5. A World Undone, by G.J. Meyer
An eye-opening account of World War I, the European version of Armageddon.

6. Destiny Disrupted, by Tamim Ansary
An informal history of the world from a Muslim perspective.

7. Lost Enlightenment, by S. Frederick Starr
The amazing history of Central Asian science and technology before horse nomads and religious fanatics wrecked the region forever.

8. Empires of the Sea, by Roger Crowley
A gripping account of the desperate dirty battles between Spain and Turkey in the 16th Century.

9. Delivering Happiness, by Tony Hsieh
I don't read many autobiographies, but this one is great. It made me a Hsieh groupie, and I've never even met the man.

10. Mindset, by Carol Dweck
The only self-help book you'll ever need.

11. The Clockwork Universe, by Edward Dolnick
The history of how Descartes, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Boyle, Hooke, and Newton destroyed the old world of magic and superstition and made it safe for science and rationality - the most important thing that has ever happened to humankind.

12. How the Scots Invented the Modern World, by Arthur Herman
Just one reason Scotland is awesome. Well, many reasons, actually.

13. Coming Apart, by Charles Murray
The sad but apparently true story of America's growing class divide.

(Reminder: Most books not on this list are simply books I haven't read, or read so long ago that I can't remember them clearly. My list of books to read is very long indeed...)


  1. Anonymous9:52 PM

    Nice list. I should read guns germs and steel.

  2. A nice list, perhaps. Which of these books help the huge number of Americans who are struggling with their own personal economic dystopia? University professors and elite economists might benefit, but where is the benefit to minimum wage workers, carpenters, folks with a GED, single parents or children living in poverty? Where are the books that explain how to buy bread, eggs and gas with too little money? I am trying really hard not to use the word egalitarian...their I go, just another one of the 47%...thanks, Mitt.

    1. Good question. I don't know a single book that helps with that. There should be one, though.

    2. Bill Ellis7:23 PM

      So no book that you know of address all that. But do you think one points in the right direction more than others ?

      Even though it is not really on my list of "favorite" books, ( if you read all his blog posts it was kinda redundant. ) I think Krugman's "End This Depression Now!" would be a big step in the right direction if we could follow its prescriptions.

  3. geniecoefficient11:37 PM

    How fast do you read? It's a serious question.

    1. A lot of these I listen to on audiobook while commuting or exercising. I usually use 2x.

    2. Anonymous11:27 AM

      Is it a common practice in the US, because it seems to quite unusual!

  4. I just got a copy of A World Undone. Glad to see you validate it. I tried Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy, but as a relative WWI n00b it was too heavy for me.

  5. Anonymous12:33 AM

    Steven Pinker's thesis is undercut by selective blindness. Sure, the book works pretty well in the service of the "rich Westerners cause violence on suffering on whoever they want as long as it means they get to keep extracting their resources" status quo, but it's BS.

    > Charles Murray


    1. Steven Pinker's thesis is undercut by selective blindness. Sure, the book works pretty well in the service of the "rich Westerners cause violence on suffering on whoever they want as long as it means they get to keep extracting their resources" status quo, but it's BS.

      Hmm, great rebuttal. I'm convinced!

    2. Anonymous12:43 PM

      Well, I provided the link. You could even skim it to see their major points.

      I've been reading this blog for a fairly long while and you seem to be getting worse and worse in shutting off non-orthodox opinion with short, troll-y statements. OK, yeah, the Austrians probably don't deserve much more when they talk about praxeology, but Edward Herman knows what he's talking about and deserves a hearing.

      I guess you are the Economics Professor Archetype in that regard. "Vaguely left of centre/liberal" as a self-descriptor although preaching ideas that would generally do little to help the working or middle classes in the long run, convinced that while the field has a few problems, it's basically sound and on the right track, and similarly convinced that detractors on the (actual) left just don't know anything. After all, can they talk convincingly about norms on Hilbert spaces? I didn't think so! Now how can you get deep insight about what happens when you make billions of dollars of fraudulent home loans without that?

      I must say, it will be a deep pleasure when we have some sort of actual knowledge infiltrates (or re-infiltrates, Lord Keynes at least knew the limits of the field) into the economics milieu.

    3. So Anon, basically what you're telling me is that you have a mood affiliation (i.e. a political-ideological affiliation), and you're basically going to judge me based on how closely what I say adheres to what you already think. That's fine, I think that's how most readers read most things.

      To be honest, I don't know what would help the working and middle classes. I'd like to help them. But what will work? What will actually succeed in helping them? That's what I care about. Not about running with a crowd that makes the loudest noises about wanting to help them.

      If Steve Pinker is right - and he's convinced me, though I could always be un-convinced if I saw new arguments and new data - then our society has done a damn good job of helping the working and middle classes escape from violence. If Edward Herman is right, then Pinker is barking up the wrong tree.

      Who is right? Pinker's case is much more persuasive to me than Herman's, but Pinker had many more pages and much more time in which to make his argument. Both seem like fairly serious thinkers, about as ideologically motivated as the average prof, so there is no reason for me to think either one is a more honest interlocutor. Herman's tone is more irritating and aggressive, but that's not important.

      So I still side with Pinker, though I'm always open to being convinced otherwise. If you want, I'll write a post on Herman's critique.

      As for economics, I frankly just don't *know* most of what is going on in most branches of econ. I only know about a couple - finance, macro, and a bit of public finance. About the other branches, I only know some random papers, pop writings, blog posts, and stuff I've heard from other economists. And it's like that for almost any economist.

      So I have no idea if most of econ is sound and/or on the right track. I think that macro is not on the right track, though there are some small signs of movement in a good direction. I think finance is a little lost and doesn't know what to do, and is looking around for what to do, which is good.

      Hopefully this clears things up.

    4. Anonymous1:06 AM

      "basically what you're telling me is that you have a mood affiliation (i.e. a political-ideological affiliation), and you're basically going to judge me based on how closely what I say adheres to what you already think"

      No, I mean, everyone has an ideology and philosophy. The criticism is that you seem to be increasingly quick to disengage with other ideologies and philosophies, especially ones that aren't a priori crankish. Now you were happy to honestly debate academic racists and neoreactionaries (not attacking you for it, it was interesting), so maybe this is just an attitude toward people on the left? E.g, your Graeber review was approximately half composed of insults to Graeber and people who like Graeber, that wasn't really necessary and suggests that you were less interested in honestly engaging with a set of ideas (that, even if you might disagree, still seem to have passed the "not a priori crankish" test judging from the number of economists who do appreciate the book) than mocking them. It wasn't even in good humor like the troll bestiary posts.

      But the reply you just made to me was significantly nicer and written in good faith, so obviously you aren't a habitual dick or anything. So I don't know, maybe your commentariat will be kinder if you aren't really quick to abuse other viewpoints that don't deserve that sort of immediate shutdown. As I said, this seems to be a pretty common behavior in academic economics these days, especially when targeting the left. Look at all the trouble even James K Galbraith has being taken seriously, let alone someone like Richard Wolff. Meanwhile people on the right can say that Great Vacations cause recessions and they're given Nobels.

      "But what will work? What will actually succeed in helping them? That's what I care about."

      That's true for basically every honest economist. The problem though is that whatever the currently prevailing ideas are, they haven't been working for about 40 years. This doesn't mean a return to 1960 ideas would be better, but it does mean there needs to be a serious, concerted push to shed the status quo and move on to something else. That just isn't happening (even if it is difficult - and while there are always cool experiments growing in every branch of the economics tree, as you say, the core of the tree is very sick), and we're getting into crisis territory.

    5. your Graeber review was approximately half composed of insults to Graeber and people who like Graeber, that wasn't really necessary and suggests that you were less interested in honestly engaging with a set of ideas (that, even if you might disagree, still seem to have passed the "not a priori crankish" test judging from the number of economists who do appreciate the book) than mocking them. It wasn't even in good humor like the troll bestiary posts.

      Well, after trying to have a civil and thoughtful dialogue with Graeber during our prior interactions, I was first A) insulted by him rather startlingly, B) blocked by him on Twitter, and then C) attacked by a legion of his fans. Hence, when delivering a negative review of Graeber's book, I know what to expect, and came prepared this time. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. ;-)

      But the reply you just made to me was significantly nicer and written in good faith, so obviously you aren't a habitual dick or anything.

      I really don't like being a dick, I'm just naturally talented at it, and it's difficult not to apply one's natural talents...

      Meanwhile people on the right can say that Great Vacations cause recessions and they're given Nobels.

      Well, to be fair, I have spent the vast majority of my dickish energies on attacking that particular piece of shite...

      The problem though is that whatever the currently prevailing ideas are, they haven't been working for about 40 years. This doesn't mean a return to 1960 ideas would be better, but it does mean there needs to be a serious, concerted push to shed the status quo and move on to something else.

      I agree. I just don't know what it is. Is it some kind of socialism, anarchism, Marxism, or other such "leftist" type of thing? I just don't think we're anywhere near there yet. I mean, OK, median incomes are down - back down to where they were in the late 90s. That's not the best outcome. But I was alive in the late 90s, and it was pretty damn good! We're still a really rich country...even our "poor people" are rich compared to billions of truly poor people all over the globe!

      Meanwhile, unemployment is high but still not that high - most people who want jobs have some kind of job, and those jobs are not very dangerous or onerous for the most part, even if more of them pay shitty wages than in the 1990s.

      Plus, like Pinker says - and like everyone knows - violence has been on the decline in America since the early 90s. Only crazy neoreactionaries deny the truth of this. You can walk around in New York at night now and not be afraid at all. How friggin' awesome is that??

      Am I going to trade the awesomeness of modern rich-country life for some kind of radical leftist reorganization of society, just because things are a little bit worse in some ways than when I was a teenager? No way! I think that would be an extraordinarily, monumentally, staggeringly bad idea. We're not really getting into crisis territory.

      That's my two cents, anyway.

      As for engaging with leftists and rightists, I'm perfectly happy to engage with either if they are civil and friendly. Mike Anissimov may be a lunatic, but he was civil and friendly. Graeber and the Graeberians were not. They were aggressive, dismissive, vulgar, falsely accusatory, and rude in the extreme. So I am hardly wracked with guilt over writing what seems to me to be the obvious truth about those guys...

    6. Anonymous8:11 AM

      Well, thanks for engaging me, Prof. Smith. I guess I should apologize for being rude myself. I didn't know your past history with Graeber; that makes it rather more understandable.

      "We're still a really rich country...even our "poor people" are rich compared to billions of truly poor people all over the globe!"

      This is true, and from a global (and historical) perspective Westerners have it made, yes. But there are two important caveats to that: first, something qualitatively changes when most people are consciously aware of the fact that their children will probably have it worse than they did. That tends to empower people garbed in faux-populist rhetoric like Ted Cruz who are interested in little more than their own power as often as it empowers real reformers. Secondly, when the "underclass", those who are living without fundamental security (whether it's healthcare, food, housing, whatever) grows to a size that is unmanageable, mass unrest becomes a real possibility. America has mass incarceration to deal with historically exploited minorities (in an update to Jim Crow), but the underclass has gained quite a lot of poor whites these last few years. The last time that happened, FDR had to defuse the situation with the New Deal and the modern concept of the welfare state. I'm not so sure we should spin the roulette wheel on that again and hope it works out for the best a second time.

      Have you seen this graph?

      This is what I'm talking about. Sure, we're safer in the last 20 years and most of us can still put food on the table, but economic growth is literally irrelevant to most people in the bottom 90% now. Why would they care what GDP does if they only see stagnation at best from it? What incentive do they have to promote good economic policy? That and the above has to lead to a crisis, probably sooner rather than later. So I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on this one. Also on Pinker, because he just seems to be repackaging things people want to hear into edgy fake-outsider rhetoric, like a lot of the things you hear with TED talks.

    7. This is true, and from a global (and historical) perspective Westerners have it made, yes.

      Not just that, but non-Westerners are doing better and better! There has been a big surge in living standards in almost every poor non-Western country in the past 25 years. Most Chinese people have now escaped desperate poverty, and India and Africa are looking encouraging as well. Yes, many countries are stalled out in the "middle income trap" at around $10-$20k per year of per capita GDP. But that's a LOT better than $1 a day!

      Socialists used to talk about the whole world as a united entity - of caring about people in Mozambique or Laos just as much as we care about people next door. Well, I think the world itself is doing very well. Global inequality is way down. WAY down! That is a huge accomplishment too.

      Why would they care what GDP does if they only see stagnation at best from it? What incentive do they have to promote good economic policy? That and the above has to lead to a crisis, probably sooner rather than later.

      It might, but that just means rich-country people have been spoiled to expect perpetual rises in living standards. Which might be true, and you might be right, but like I said, I don't think we're there yet.

      And the growth in both incomes and equality across the globe makes me think that this system of ours has not failed yet. If global living standards stagnate and global inequality starts increasing, I might be willing to join/start a rebellion...

    8. Anonymous12:49 AM

      (I'm a different anonymous from the above commenter)

      It might, but that just means rich-country people have been spoiled to expect perpetual rises in living standards.

      I'm sorry, but why shouldn't we expect rising living standards? Under capitalism, not only do people work hard, their work is inherently precarious. Whole industries can be made obsolete, causing capital and labor to shift elsewhere, with no concern for the people performing that labor. They may have become accustomed to their jobs, may have bought houses and started families near their workplaces, etc. In order to find work again, they may have to learn entirely new skills, etc. The working class has enabled perpetual economic growth for the past 250 years via both toil and and flexibility. Nonetheless, I still think capitalism can be a good deal all around if economic growth is broadly shared. But, as a millenial, I have no confidence whatsoever that the invisible hand can ensure that broad distribution on its own.

      And the growth in both incomes and equality across the globe makes me think that this system of ours has not failed yet. If global living standards stagnate and global inequality starts increasing, I might be willing to join/start a rebellion...

      This is a silly false dichotomy, well beneath your usual standards Noah (if I may take the liberty of addressing you by name while staying anonymous myself). What's to prevent developing economies' living standards from stagnating just as we are, once they catch up to us? In fact, what's to prevent them from stagnating way sooner? They'll never get the chance to have a mid-20th century economy where someone can have a ticket to the middle class with a high school-level education--we already created the technology to automate many of those jobs (secretary, travel agent, etc.) and made it insanely cheap.

      I didn't follow the Brazil protests too closely, but they might be an example of where developing countries are headed. I'm completely biased, but I have to say from a distance the protests looked a lot like Occupy to me: a lot of disenfranchised students who believe they have no future.

      Anyway, it's a false dichotomy that we in developed countries shouldn't do anything because things are (for now!) getting better somewhere else. It's more plausible to me that by solving this problem within our borders, we can set an example for other countries to follow when their living standards start to stagnate.

    9. Anonymous4:50 AM

      (original Anon here)

      "Not just that, but non-Westerners are doing better and better!"

      Most of it is coming from China and other countries that don't exactly cherish Anglo-style capitalism or the economic ideology I'm specifically critiquing here, but yeah, sure, the world is doing reasonably well. BUT this doesn't mean we at home can't do far better than we are, and keep in mind that there is one big caveat to all of this: the environment is currently facing a gigantic (possibly existential, for us anyway) crisis that everyone in the world shares, even the people who haven't gotten rich or even reached middle income yet. This crisis is pretty directly tied to capitalism historically. You don't have to be huge on Naomi Klein to see that status quo economic ideology and political difficulties in restraining carbon emissions go hand in hand either.

      So all of this growth might turn out to have been completely unsustainable in the end. There was that study that showed that we've literally killed half the animals on the planet in the last 40 years. Will that be our legacy? "Things weren't so bad, a lot of poor people around the world did ok historically speaking and we only destroyed the environment to get there" isn't what I want as humanity's epitaph.

      "It might, but that just means rich-country people have been spoiled to expect perpetual rises in living standards."

      I don't necessarily expect that, and I don't think that's where the anger today is coming from either (honestly, it smacks of elitist condescension - "the foolish proles are spoiled!"). Eventually humanity would have to get used to some steady-state economic situation, after all, unless we go the science fiction route and start harvesting galaxies. My problem is that the top 0.1% has about as much wealth as the bottom 90% and they're only capturing more. In other words it's a question of fundamental fairness, of shared prosperity (or shared stagnation, whatever the case may be). The rich have rigged the system in every way imaginable (are you following the AIG bailout trial Noah? Some great facts coming out of that one that weren't written anywhere by Andrew Ross Sorkin, like the fact that AIG seems to have been used as a money laundering vehicle to prop up Goldman Sachs et al.) and are looting society. The fact that most of the remainder of the population might currently, CURRENTLY be stagnating as opposed to actively losing out in absolute terms does not make me feel better about that.

      Bill Gross got $300M in bonuses in 2013 for making an idiotic and catastrophic bet on interest rates rising. The average pensioner would be lucky to have $300k to last them 15 or 20 years of retirement. Something is horribly, horribly wrong, and while it's great that Chinese labourers are seeing their wages rise, that doesn't imply that the constellation of economic ideas at home should be left alone. Why would it?

      The tl;dr is that I'm not fundamentally a believer in capitalism on philosophical grounds but if it can be made to be environmentally sustainable and reasonably equitable (think something like a "Green New Deal") than I won't protest too much. The problem is that it's nowhere the former and increasingly less of the latter in much of the West, and that's a recipe for disaster no matter how much "global inequality" improves.

  6. 2. Here's an interesting critique on Quora from someone with a background in medieval history.

    3. Agreed on this one. You can probably skip much of Morris' muddled theory about geography, but the long sections about the contrasting Chinese and European civilizations in terms of technological rise and development is superb for a lay reader. It will also change how you think of industrialization.

  7. As a random recommendation, try something by Victor Suvorov either Icebreaker or Inside the Soviet Army; those books will change the way you view the communist east during the 20th century. (its all about total war)

    Also they are a joy to read, since the author has the rare gift to write polemically while constantly siting sources.

    1. Actually, most historians don't take Suvorov seriously. Wiki article cites some of his weak points:
      And in general Suvorov has a reputation of untrustworthy amateur revisionist.

    2. @ Igor:

      Why I am not convinced by the detractors:

      1.) "Most historians" is essentially an argument from authority. Huge red flag (I made a pun here).

      2.) Having read both Suvorov and his critics I find that his critics rarely read his works - they just reiterate the most common (Soviet) views of WWII. (Like including yet another citation from Vospominaniya i razmyshleniya). "Everyone knows...". Western historians are often worse in this because they seem to trust official sources a lot more.

      3.) His critics often rely on declassified snippets from soviet archives, which show up conveniently when he releases a new book. Suvorov instead mostly relies on open-source information, whose veracity can be verified by anyone.

      I think in the end everyone should make up their own mind, rather than following authority blindly. Even if you don't end up convinced by the other side, you will learn a lot from the whole debate.

      This controversy has the same kind of significance as the Civil war interpretation; it is fiercely defended by some because is perceived as attacking ones identity. Just like its hard for Southerners to accept that the war was waged for the institution of slavery its hard to accept for Russians that the initial catastrophe of WWII was a partially a result of the USSRs own plans of conquest and aggression.

  8. I also liked Weatherford's Genghis Khan.
    It explained much that is missing from revisionist western history.
    -jonny bakho

  9. Anonymous11:58 AM

    I agree that Guns, Germs, and Steel is very good. What surprises me about it are the low quality of the critiques. They were generally variations of arguments that the book pushed geographic determinism, with little-to-no attempt to respond to Diamond's arguments. I also read it in tandem with Wealth of Nations, which I found wholly unconvincing.

    I tried reading Better Angels of Our Nature on the recommendation of a friend, but found the reasoning highly motivated and couldn't finish it. Some of the problems I remember: the death estimate he uses for the An Lushan rebellion is blatantly dishonest on his part; early in the book he cites US military deaths in Vietnam as evidence that wars are becoming less violent (without mentioning Vietnamese deaths in any way); the most peaceful period in history starts immediately after WWI and WWII. If he had looked at each century, the 20th was quite violent overall, and he selectively slices the time periods to bolster his thesis.

    I appreciate the list. If you haven't read it, you might enjoy Genius by James Gleick. It's a biography of Feynman, and one of the best biographies I've read.

    1. The An Lushan death toll is probably overstated by a factor of 2 or 3, but that doesn't really substantively change anything!

      I think any one of Pinker's points, if used as the total and complete justification for his thesis, would be unpersuasive, but the bulk, taken together, is incredibly persuasive. There are just so many *different* pieces of data that all point in the same direction.

    2. There are detailed critiques of Diamond out there. I sense one problem is that he's so cavalier about areas outside of his own expertise that the relevant experts are just left shrugging and saying "Just... no."

  10. Anonymous12:14 PM

    I've seen some really good critiques that point out major errors in his analysis of the conquest of the Americas. they essentially point out that the conquistadors almost always had large allied forces of locals that handled the bulk of the combat and that the conquistadors would only be the equivalent an elite unit or two. To draw an analogy, it is like saying that the 442 won the western from of WWII because they were a amazing unit that participated in key engagements.

    1. Of course, but a force of Incas would hardly have been able to conquer Spain using allied forces of locals. Maintaining control - which the Spaniards did for centuries - was a more impressive feat than winning a couple battles or sacking a couple cities.

      Also, smallpox did most of the killing of Native Americans - the germs were stronger than the guns and steel. And the calories (which didn't fit in the catchy title) were stronger than all of the above!

  11. Phil Koop3:09 PM

    Here is something that is not like the others (on your list): The Evolution of Language, by Tecumseh Fitch (

    Although the prose is lucid and jargon-free, the book is both dense and long (the length is partly on account of potted intellectual histories of evolution, linguistics, etc.) It's the bomb though - I'd suggest checking the reader reviews before dismissing it as just another genre book.

  12. Have you read Eric R. Wolf's _Europe and the People Without History_? I find it to be a pretty compelling "Big Theory of History" type book that reads well alongside someone like Jared Diamond for a bit of a different perspective.

  13. Sorry, Noah. Your reading list is C+ at the best. Except, Feynman, most books are forgettable. You should read Longitude by Sorbel & Harrison.

    1. Sorry, KV. Your comment is D- at best. Except for your recommendation of Longitude (which I read long ago), your criticisms are forgettable. You should dress in red spandex, style your hair like the makeup lady from The Hunger Games, and hurl rotten fruit at passing cars while screaming "Final Fantasy 8 was the most underappreciated Final Fantasy, motherfuckers!!!"

    2. Anonymous7:30 AM

      Don't be such a nub.

      The correct answer is FF12, and Charles Murray is a bad place to go if you want an intellectually honest collector of factiness to support a sweeping narrative.

    3. Noah, A bit touchy? I can understand after your discourse with those Anons.

      Only If you had really read and comprehended the impact of knowing the longitude in traversing the oceans.

      Honestly, you are trying to do too many things and fucking yourself. Time to focus on what you really want to be and write a book on a subject.

      Finally, with the language and pure flair of hate you expressed I would rate you as Z----- to infinity.

    4. Noah,

      Do you recall that article at your blog on depression you wrote? I think you are going back there; you are scattered beyond your comprehension. Just get of the horse for a while and simply focus on the important stuff; stuff that really counts, like teaching and mentoring students and writing something original. While I am at it, also get off the Japanese kick; they have evolved from the same genetic stock the rest of the world has, and they are capable of doing all that you think they are not.

      You should have also read Darwin and Dawkins - everything they wrote.

    5. Anonymous4:47 AM

      KV, are you on drugs?

    6. You are. Otherwise, you would use your name or initials. Also, when I make general comment, it is not addressed; all my comments are addressed to Noah. You should refrain from butting in with bs alias. Noah is grown up and if he wants to respond, he is more than capable. Or butt out.

    7. Anonymous7:10 AM

      That's not a denial, KV.

    8. So you agree that you are. And, that is why you do not want to use your name and butt yourself into others dialog.

      Pop your pills and butt out.

  14. Anonymous9:46 AM

    I'll add a few of my own :)

    The Institutional Revolution: Measurement and the Economic Emergence of the Modern World

    The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700-1850

    The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society

    Henry Maudslay and the Pioneers of the Machine Age

    Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe

    Taking the Stars: Celestial Navigation from Argonauts to Astronauts

    higher speculations: grand theories and failed revolutions in physics and cosmology

    The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820--1900

    The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914

    Evolution: A View from the 21st Century

    Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World

  15. Anonymous11:18 AM

    If you like Feynman, I recommend you check out Ray Monk's recently released biography. Monk's biographies of Wittgenstein and Russell are top-shelf.

    1. Anonymous2:39 PM

      Do you mean Monk's recent biography of Robert Oppenheimer? I don't think he's written one on Feynman.

    2. Anonymous2:40 PM

      Doh! Yes. Reading is hard...

  16. The belligerent Nassim Taleb (correctly) exposing the flaws in Pinker's "Long Peace":

    The main problem with Pinker is that his analysis works best if we pretend we are helpless but to ignore all counterfactuals. Consider really-existing nuclear armaments designed to eliminate millions of people. If we replay the Cold War over and over again as simulations, allowing variances in all we cannot count on blessed human nature to absolutely control, not every "run" is as peaceful as the singular historical, nor we would expect it to be. My personal success at reaching middle age does not guarantee if I was one of a triplet that my counterfactual two brothers would reach middle age, no matter how impressed I am with my historical robustness.

    If we win $5000 on $1 on a slot machine, we use counterfactuals in the analysis that we should not immediately call our boss to quit our job. To do otherwise would be to pull a Pinker.

    1. Well, that's the thing about the assertion that special-cause tail risks are just waiting to destroy can never prove it wrong.

  17. Dang. My future-reading list just expanded so much and so quickly that I wonder when I'll have time to enjoy life :)

    I really enjoyed "Guns, Germs, and Steel", so ... now you are foring me to read more. OK, I'll give up watching "Big Bang Theory" to clear some time (was about there anyway). Sigh.

  18. Anonymous7:13 PM

    A random walk down wall street... save the avg person thousands...

    Don't you mean "avg" in the sense, average of the upper quintile ?
    I mean, most americans don't have a whole lot in the stock market, except for 401ks where almost everyone is screwed by fees for target date portfolio plans ?

    Murray on the coming apart...I could have sworn that I saw one or two smackdowns about this book on the web

    1. I mean, the median household. Rich people would save a LOT more than that.

      David Frum has a great smackdown of Murray's book, and yet the book is very important and eye-opening, and Frum doesn't dispute that - just Murray's prescriptions.

  19. malcolm9:44 PM

    If you liked Justin Fox then you should try Peter Bernstein's Capital Ideas which is, I think, an even smarter book.

  20. Anonymous10:21 AM

    I 'd suggest "Economics of Good and Evil". Extremely original, a little confused as well though, but expected for such an ambitious book. There is a review by Sammuel Brittan in the FT which sums it up well.

  21. Wait, Graeber is bad because sloppy and ideologically motivated. But Pinker/Murray is good because ...?
    I thought Graeber's book was unwieldy and a bit of a slog. But I also found it interesting and a useful counter-narrative to what I had previously been exposed to. I really wanted to be able to give you the benefit of the doubt, but your entire engagement with it just came across as in bad faith. You attacked him without reading it and then, seemingly, read it to attack him. When I want my neoliberal punch left mood affiliation I read delong, not you.

    1. I'm amazed at the people who take Charles 'Bell Curve' Murray as trustworthy.

    2. candid_observer11:54 AM

      I'm amazed at the people who think the term "Charles 'Bell Curve' Murray" actually serves as some kind of argument.

  22. This is a nice, easy reading list. I've only read a few of the books mentioned, but this list covers a lot of ground. You don't have to agree with everything you read, but it's nice when a book makes one think a bit.

    Some of these I'm rather unlikely to read. The book on Genghis Khan, for example. In the 1980s I read a marvelous translation of The Secret History of the Mongols. It's an epic poem and an intensely political document, but having read it, I feel as if I know the guy. He didn't exactly come out of nowhere. There have been periodic invasions from the Central Asian steppes since at least forever, as Diamond noted in his book. Still, he did create one of the great empires, and empires are quite different from kingdoms.

    I'll add two of my favorite make-me-think books to the list:

    The Great Wave - Hackett-Fisher's introduction to pricing and economic theory. It's a discussion of inflation and societal stability in Europe since the middle ages, and backed up by masses of data. There seems to be a 200 year cycle. Apparently, the Europeans have been studying this for decades, so this is his intro for Americans.

    The Modern Corporation and Private Property started as a report to Congress in the 1930s and led to major - since gutted - financial reforms. The main premise is that a share of a government chartered corporation is not a traditional form of private property in that ownership, control and benefit are all disassociated. Like a lot of good books, it takes something familiar and reveals it as something quite exotic.

  23. Thank you for the list Prof. Smith & the thoughtful replies. It was interesting to read about your (mostly understandable) level of satisfaction with the way things are - kind of like Louis CK's "Everything's amazing and nobody's happy". However, while it is refreshing to read someone on the webs who doesn't think that we're all doomed by lunch, it seemed unfortunate that your analysis doesn't take into account the environmental damage that our system is currently perpetuating. Any thoughts?

  24. " Coming Apart, by Charles Murray
    The sad but apparently true story of America's growing class divide."

    David Frum ripped that apart a while back. A summary might be - what Charles 'Bell Curve' Murray describes could be described as the destruction of the US prosperous lower-middle and working classes over the past forty years.

  25. Jared Diamond leading this list is pretty troubling. Among academics he's got a pretty poor reputation; not so much in his own limited field but in terms of the general sloppiness of his popular works. Here is good summary paragraph written by a friend of mine that sort of provide a survey of what's wrong with his approach:

    "Diamond is the "neutral tone/liberal friendly" rendition of the once-fashionable Whig history "Why The West Keeps Winning" school of thought. Well, fashionable among conservatives. In any case, that is why the Hanson reviewer I cited above thinks VD and Diamond are so compatible: they each provide one another with patches for the gaping holes in their version of the relative inevitability of what they view as white, Western dominance (it is, after all, the framing for his "why do the whites have the cargo" opening story). This dominance is so powerful that it must necessarily work the same way backwards through history, nevermind China or whatever."

    The main problem is that he's got only a superficial understanding of scholarship outside his field but he doesn't let that stop him from making sweeping assertions. And because he's only got a limited understanding and he's quick on the gun his assertions end up being nonsense. There's no shortage of good writing picking apart Diamonds' books in detail.

    Here is a good example of someone writing about the problems in Diamond's work:

    Another detailed look at what's wrong with Diamond's approach:

    A journal article that provides a decent survey (link is on a personal website):

    In general if you're hungry for the kind of analysis Jared Diamond does but you want someone who's going to be more careful about integrating various disciplines and is also generally aware of the limitations of his understanding, you could do a lot worse than Mann's 1491.

    1. Also note: I think in general it is good to be very suspicious of "big think" history. For various reasons I think such endeavors are nigh impossible (owing to the amount of specialized information you'd need to synthesize) and at best they just end up being about the priors of whoever's writing them. See Victor David Hanson for a particularly nefarious version thereof, where his big take on history is little more than "white supremacy."

    2. ""

      Wow. So a shallow analysis with no references is a "good example of someone writing about the problems in Diamond's work"?

      The 2nd reference is mildly interesting, and at least has references. The 3rd reference is again shallow and unsupported.

    3. TK Texas11:36 AM

      I think this critique and that in the Guardian misses and talks past the points Diamond was trying to make. This quote from the Guardian article reverses or at least misstates Diamond’s premises and goal in GGS.
      “The very premise of Guns, Germs and Steel is that a hierarchy of progress exists in the realm of culture, with measures of success that are exclusively material and technological; the fascinating intellectual challenge is to determine just why the west ended up on top.”
      It has been years since I read GGS, but I think it is pretty clearly a work of history and geography, and not a work of social anthropology. I think I am paraphrasing Diamond’s explicit statement of his goal by saying that he was trying to identify and trace at the broadest geographical level and over the longest time frames the MATERIAL factors that explain in an historical sense what made the differences that allowed the “winners” to win and the “losers” to lose. My recollection is that GGS seeks strenuously to avoid the types of invidious comparisons between cultures that Spencer and others championed, and this was precisely a key factor that made GGS a pathbreaking work of general and popular history.
      Beyond this, this comment and the Guardian article suffer from the familiar tension and jealousy that arises among specialists when someone writes a best seller that draws on the research of the field. The Guardian review pooh-pooh’s Diamond as follows:
      “Advanced civilisations arose where the environment allowed for plant domestication, leading to the generation of surplus and population growth, which in turn led to political centralisation and social stratification. No surprises there.”
      Well, I as a general reader who had not been previously exposed to the plant domestication research found this very surprising and interesting. I recall also Diamond’s argument that Cortez and Pizzaro’s victories over the native American cultures, at the broadest material level, drew on the accidental factor that material progress was easier in the Old World because communication occurred on an east west rather than north south axis. This meant that the transmission of agricultural innovation in the Old World was easier because the innovations could spread in broadly similar temperature zones, whereas transmission north and south in different climate zones. A trivial point perhaps, but illustrative of what Diamond was trying to do.

    4. Cultural anthropologists hate Diamond because smart people like Noah read Diamond and almost nobody reads cultural anthropologists anymore (which is sad, but they brought it on themselves).

    5. candid_observer12:06 PM

      If one labors under the nearly psychotic delusion that all population groups are genetically exactly alike on all socially important traits -- which is really only credible if one disbelieves in evolution -- then the world view of GGS is about the only one that might make sense.

      That GGS is nonetheless laughable is the reductio of the religious dogma it assumes.

    6. candid_observer12:30 PM

      It's always amusing to ask people why they believe that all population groups are genetically identical on all socially important traits, when those groups so obviously differ on so many others.

      In the end, it's obvious that it is a matter of religion, and nothing else.

      Do they really think they won't look ridiculous in the future, when genomic studies show beyond a shadow of a doubt what anyone but a fool would have realized earlier?

  26. I have two recommendations:

    On the upside, I.F. Stone's 'The Trial of Socrates,' is a rather sublime account of the origins of democratic government. For me it opened up the jewels of ancient Greek culture as well as exposing Plato & Socrates as anti-democratic snobs.

    On the downside, I think every American should read Gaeton Fonzi's, 'The Last Investigation.' A rosetta stone, in my view, for the political malaise American culture finds itself in.

  27. Anonymous6:46 PM

    Adam Tooze - "The Wages of Destruction." How to really mess up an economy and destroy your own country and several others, all at once.

  28. Online Watch Movies Free

  29. TK Texas2:23 PM

    I just lost a long comment by failure to understand WordPress, but want to thank you for calling attention to Suvarov. I read the Chief Culprit and must say it presents a very convincing account and argument relative to Hitler barely beating Stalin to the punch in launching a surprise attack. It offers a very significant change in perspective for me on the origins of WWII. Thanks for the lead

  30. I take it you've read The Enigma of Japanese Power? Dan Lazare in his very
    interesting book about the role of constitutions references TEOJP. Though
    mainly he recounts a very illuminating comparison on the origins of
    the German and Japanese constitutions after WWII (a very different
    path in the two countries) and the consequences. Overall, I highly
    recommend FR.

  31. Shame on you, Noah Smith, for trying to sic mommy media on Robin Hanson.