Subtly Illuminating Recommendations

Looking for some wisdom to read? Below are a few recommendations from Subtle Illumination. Dabble as appropriate!

The Better Angels of our Nature – Steven Pinker

Most of Pinker’s books are on evolutionary psychology. This one takes a different tack; it challenges the popular conception that we live in a world of increasing violence. Through rigourous data analysis and compelling argument, Pinker systematically destroys this idea, showing that humanity has become if anything increasingly peaceful over the centuries: the 20th century, far from being the most violent, actually still saw a lower level of violence than that observed in many early cultures.

River Notes – Wade Davis

Very different from the other books on this list. River Notes is an emotional voyage down the length of the Colorado River, from rushing torrent to meager drip as it is drained of water and life. Perhaps particularly powerful for Americans, but worth reading for anyone. Wade Davis is also one of National Geographic’s seven permanent explorers-in-residence, which as to be one of the coolest job titles available (short of L’Académie française’s Immortals…)

Why Nations Fail – Acemoglu and Robinson

The argument for why institutions, both political and economic, matter for how countries develop. Anyone who’s crossed the American border with Mexico can’t deny that it is the institutions, not the fifty feet of distance, which matters, and with that and many other examples, Acemoglu and Robinson examine the issue. Perhaps a bit one-sided and in some ways short on content (you already understand the idea), but given the importance of the subject well worth the read.

Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Michael Pollan

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. So reads Pollan’s dietary advice, and his book is a thought-provoking examination of the food industry and what we eat. Well worth reading, whether you’ve thought deeply about these issues already or want someone to challenge you on them.

How Children Succeed – Paul Tough

How Children Succeed studies the value of character and grit in children in determining adult outcomes. It’s a relatively lighter read than a lot on this list, and is also fairly short, but Tough cites some fascinating studies on stress, learning, willpower, and schooling in general.

Antifragile (Part 1) (Part 2) – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Taleb is an author of strong, often controversial opinions. In antifragile, he expounds why in the modern age just resisting volatility and shocks is not enough: we should be trying to get better, growing two heads when one is cut off instead of just one. It’s a simple yet profound idea with implications for banking, healthcare, economies, and how we organize our lives and our societies.

Essays (Part 1) (Part 2)– Michel de Montaigne

Montaigne both popularized the essay as a style and influenced authors like Descartes, Asimov, Shakespeare, and Nietzsche. His wide-ranging essays combine knowledge of the classical world with personal insights into things like honour, friendship, education, and death, and remain as relevant  today as they were when they were written.

The Righteous Mind (Part 1) (Part 2) – Jonathan Haidt

Haidt is interested in morality; where it comes from, how we decide what is moral, and how it prevents the right and left in politics from agreeing. The book is well written and absolutely fascinating, with a really profound look at why some things are taboo and others not, and how that affects our interaction with others, both those who agree and those who disagree with us. Highly recommended.

The World Until Yesterday – Jared Diamond

Diamond is perhaps best known for Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse. In both of those he has a single broad thesis, drawing on anthropology to support it. In Yesterday, in contrast, his only point is that there are many ways to organize a society, and that other cultures provide natural experiments from which we can learn. His breadth of knowledge and command of the discipline makes the whole thing fascinating, particularly in light of how fast some of these cultures are disappearing.

The Economic Consequences of the Peace – John Maynard Keynes

A study in understanding the implications of economic and political events. Requires some knowledge of the world war history, but well worth the price of admission for its insight and wisdom on a wide range of economic issues.

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