Thought-provoking books and media


This section is mostly finished.

Here I propose a list of some books which might inspire thinking beyond their specific subject matter.

This “thinking beyond…” can be due to (a) an approach to the subject matter that brings several disparate fields together, or (b) a way of finding angles of analysis of a topic that expand our way of thinking about any subject.

Some words about the choice of books:

The list is clearly arbitrary: I have put down books I am familiar with and which I found thought-provoking. The most obvious “selection effect” is my personal preference in reading.

I don’t agree with everything that is said in all of them, and sometimes I don’t even agree with the book’s overall thesis, or the way the author has chosen to argue it, or even the tone. Still, they can be though-provoking, and reading them can be a part of your own dialectic in how you think about a subject.

For example, “The Dawn of Everything” seems to use what I sometimes characterize as a “I have a big chip on my shoulder” approach: the authors are proposing a different view of prehistoric civilizations from a mainstream narrative, and they feel the need to frequently point out how wrong the proponents of other narratives are. When I read these passages I found them awkward: they impeede the flow, and leave me less convinced than I might be otherwise. It is also “clannish”: it limits the efficacy of that discussion to those who have read the books they are criticizing. Still, I think it is important to be aware of their point of view, and I would recommend reading the book if you want to do a full tomography of early civilization.

Sometimes the book shows how the author has put careful thought into how to present the material. In the introduction to “The Story of Art”, for example, Gombrich writes:

“[…] I have tried, in writing this book, to follow a number of more specific self-imposed rules, all of which have made my own life as its author more difficult, but may make that of the reader a little easier.”

Other times I have found that a book is “intellectually not lazy”. For example, although one might argue with some specifics, Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse” is a tour-de-force that does not skimp on explaining methodology and sources.

Books: non-fiction


Tamin Ansary

The Invention of Yesterday: A 50,000-Year History of Human Culture, Conflict, and Connection

Barbara Tuchman

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

The march of folly: from Troy to Vietnam

David Fromkin

The Way of the World: From the Dawn of Civilizations to the Eve of the Twenty-first Century

Margaret MacMillan

War: How Conflict Shaped Us

Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History

Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Mary Beard

S.P.Q.R. A History of Ancient Rome

Jared Diamond


David Graeber and David Wengrow

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

Steven Pinker

The Better Angels of Our Nature

Leonard Mlodinow

The Upright Thinker

Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer


Ibram X. Kendi

How to Be an Antiracist

Francis Fukuyama

The Origins of Political Order: From prehuman times to the French Revolution

Michael Lewis

The Fifth Risk

Jae Gutterman

Her Neighbor’s Wife

Kurt Kohlstedt and Roman Mars

The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design

John Green

The Anthropocene Revisited: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet


E. H. Gombrich
The Story of Art
(There is an edition of this book for younger readers.)

Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation


Hanif Abdurraqib

They can’t kill us until they kill us: essays

Garry Kasparov

How Life Imitates Chess

Computer science, AI, math

Melanie Mitchell

Artificial Intelligence for Thinking Humans

Complexity: A Guided Tour

Douglas Hofstadter:

Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid - A metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll

Julia Galef

The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t

Steven Pinker

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters

Leonard Mlodinow

The Drunkard’s Walk

Richard Hamming

The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn

Nate Silver

The Signal and the Noise

Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions


Michael Lewis

The Undoing Project

Jim Davies

Riveted: The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One With the Universe

Being The Person Your Dog Thinks You Are: The Science of a Better You

Charles Duhigg

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

David McRaney

You are Not so Smart

Marcel Mauss

The Gift

Writing and literary criticism

Harold Bloom

The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages ( )

How to Read and Why

Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar

The madwoman in the attic : the woman writer and the nineteenth-century literary imagination

Steven Pinker

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


Anthony Gottlieb

The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance

The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy

Bertrand Russell

A history of Western Philosophy

Alasdair MacIntyre

After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory

Jonathan Glover

Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century

Carlo Rovelli

Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity

Brian Christian

The Most Human Human: What Artificial Intelligence Teaches Us About Being Alive

The Alignment Problem: Machine Learning and Human Values

Thomas Moore


Medicine and epidemiology

Laurie Garrett

The Coming Plague

Richard Preston

The Demon in the Freezer

Richard Rhodes

Deadly Feasts

Jeremy N. Smith

Epic Measures: One Doctor. Seven Billion Patients.

Tracy Kidder

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure The World

Mountains Beyond Mountains (Adapted for Young People)

Articles, article collections, blogs

Paul N. Edwards

How to Read a Book (version 5.0 on 2022-05-29) - archived at:

Articles related to the New York Times “1619 Project”
Collection of articles on world history

The Manhattan Project: an interactive history

Voices of the Manhattan Project

Sridhar Mahadevan

Quora response on art and AI -

Taylor Branch

The Shame of College Sports -

Blas Moros’s The Rabbit Hole

blog and more -

You are Not so Smart

blog -

Brian Doyle

How Did You Become a Writer? -


This section is necessarily less permanent. The links I give here might not work: some material might have disappeared from the web, or might have been moved to a different location. Still, it should be possible to find almost all this material with some effort.


Richard Feynman

Los Alamos From Below -

Richard Rhodes

Twilight of the Bombs -

Stuart Firestein

The Pursuite of Ignorance - TED talk -

Ignorance, Failure, Uncertainty, and the Optimism of Science - Santa Fe Institute public lecture -

Melanie Mitchell

Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans -

The Future of Artificial Intelligence -

Brian Arthur

Complexity Economics -

Paul Bloom

How Pleasure Works -

Can prejudice ever be a good thing? -

Amanda Palmer

The Art of Asking -

Brian Christian

The Most Human Human: What Artificial Intelligence Teaches Us About Being Alive -

Quentin Skinner

Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction - Talks at Google -

Richard Hamming

You and Your Research -

Hans Rosling

Global population growth, box by box -

DON’T PANIC - Hans Rosling showing the facts about population -

200 years in 4 minutes -

David Foster Wallace

This is Water - transcript and audio -


Michael Lewis

“In conversation” on the art of writing -


History of Literature


Alex and Books

Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History

Hari Kunzru’s Into the Zone

The BBC’s Start the Week

Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time

Roman Mars

Roman Mars Can Learn About Con Law -

99% invisible -

Strong Songs

… And what about fiction?

Fiction might have greater influence on us than non-fiction: reading fiction alters our mood more, which can predispose us to assimilate new ways of experiencing subject matter. This can lead to provoking new thoughts that then stay with us. Fiction, as well as art and music, can also make us realize that the words and art media are pliable and can be formed into remarkable new works. That frame of mind would be a precious one for a researcher.

But is there a reason to put a list here? I thought about it at length: it is tempting to mention the books that have had great effect on me, or that I know have had the effect on others. But it would not put you along a path to get the same out of it.

I do not know how to work in with the indirectness with which fiction affects us, which … in the end I came up with science fiction books, but they seemed appropriate from a different point of view. The extreme “world building” in science fiction gives it a sliver of non-fiction-ness.

So I am looking for suggestions on how to think about a section on fiction, or on reasons to remove this stub altogether. Meanwhile I have two suggestions:

  • Follow reading lists from books of literary criticism, or the light-weight version which are blogs and podcasts about books. Now your reading of fiction will be accompanied by an analysis of the books, and you will have a greater self-awareness of the effect it has had on you.

  • Read treatises that discuss a genre of fiction on a large-scale, such as Aristotle’s “Poetics”, Auerbach’s “Mimesis”, Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy”, …

notes on future additions

Zora Neale Hurston - maybe “Fannie Hurst”

Richard Dawkins (books and TED talk)

Steven Jay Gould