Books That Have Changed My Life

The books in this list have profoundly influenced how I think, how I interpret new information, and how I understand the world. If you have any interest in understanding how people, minds, large systems, and institutions work, then consider reading some or all of these books. Click any cover image or book title for more information, including excerpts, reviews, a complete description, and sample pages.

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Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World by Kevin Kelly

What It’s About: This book explains how the properties of self-organizing systems and complexity affect everything from computer science to sociology. Kevin explains how natural systems emerge and evolve, and how this understanding can help us develop better systems ourselves.

Why I Like It: This book is extremely fun to read, eye-opening, and mind-blowing. It introduced me to concepts such as evolutionary programming and genetic algorithms, both of which provide methods of creating computer systems “automatically” and with higher quality than those designed by human beings. Kevin explains concepts such as “coevolution,” which gave me a new way to look at and understand virtually everything in the world. The book talks about networks, economies, and how biological systems emerge and change. I believe this is one of the most important books of the past twenty years, and I recommend it to all my friends.

Chapters 14 and 15, “In the Library of Form” and “Artificial Evolution,” completely awed and amazed me. I remember flipping the pages as fast as possible, and having that “mind-blowing” feeling where one realizes one has stumbled across a new, useful, and incredible idea.

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Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
by Jared Diamond

What It’s About: This book explains how geographical and environmental factors affect the development of human societies, with a particular emphasis on explaining why peoples in Africa and the Americas appear to have developed more “slowly” than societies in Europe. This book won the Pulitzer Prize.

Why I Like It: Jared Diamond made me think about things I had never considered before, and along the way, changed my beliefs and understanding about how societies develop. I particularly liked his pointing out that environmental factors, such as a readily available population of domesticable draft animals and domesticable grains, have a HUGE effect on how quickly a complex society can develop in a particular region of the world. Reading this book helped broaden my view of mankind and helped me understand how we have ended up with the particular societies and populations that we have.

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The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain
by Terrence W. Deacon

What It’s About: The Symbolic Species begins with an interesting question posed by a 7-year-old: Why can’t animals speak? Deacon reformulates the question a bit, asking: If animals have simpler brains, why don’t they have a simple language? Deacon goes on to explain a wealth of information about the nature and importance of symbolic thinking. As the subtitle indicates, he also describes how human brains and human language co-evolved — that is, how developments and characteristics in one affected the other.

Why I Like It: As with many books in this list, I found that The Symbolic Species presented explanations of ideas I didn’t even know existed, and that it provided thorough, well-argued, and satisfying answers to questions that have bothered me for a long time.

This book contains over 500 pages, and requires a commitment of time and concentration to complete. Nevertheless, the commitment pays off by delivering a comprehensive understanding of how brains evolved, how they are wired together, and how human brains process symbolic information. If you want to understand more about how your own mind works, and how we ended up with complex language when other animals did not, you should read this book.

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At Home in the Universe: The Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity
by Stuart Kauffman

What It’s About: In At Home in the Universe, Stuart Kauffman explains how order emerges from complex systems. He explores several types of complex systems, shows how hidden order occurs in each, and attempts to generalize a set of rules or principles of self-organizing systems.

Why I Like It: I learned a lot from this book about how complex systems adapt and change, and how order can emerge from chaos. I really liked how the book presents a unified set of explanations for how complex systems behave. Kauffman explains in clear, concise language several concepts from the science and study of complex adaptive systems and artificial evolution. The topics that interested me most, and which have stayed with me long after reading the book, include: fitness landscapes, adaptive walks, autocatalytic sets, Boolean networks, equilibrium, genetic drift, and phase transitions.

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The Discoverers
by Daniel J. Boorstin

What It’s About: This is one of the greatest history books ever written, by one of our greatest historians. The Discoverers is an ambitious work, covering a wide range in an attempt to explain how humans came to know their world and themselves. Daniel Boorstin begins by explaining how humans discovered and measured time, then moves on to topics such as the invention of mapping, the discovery of Asia (by Europeans), the discovery of America, the discovery of the “invisible” world of microorganisms, the discovery of anatomy and medicine, the discovery of “cataloguing” and “categorization”, the discovery of history, and the discovery of sociology.

Why I Like It: This is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read. Boorstin presents the history of things I never considered in need of “discovery,” such as the concept of time. I also enjoyed how Boorstin sprinkles the story of humankinds greatest discoveries with interesting trivia, tidbits, and human interest stories. Far from being a dry history book, The Discoverers breathes life into the story of mankind’s search for understanding by showing readers the human drama and difficulty associated with each step forward. If you read only one history book in your life, make it this one.

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Letters from the Earth: Uncensored Writings
by Mark Twain

What It’s About: This collection, published many years after Twain’s death, includes a wide variety of controversial and politically incorrect pieces about history, religion, etiquette, human beings, and more. Mark Twain uses his keen intellect and razor-sharp wit to attack all manner of sacred cows. The book includes selections from the imaginary diaries of both Adam and Eve, as well as a blistering essay on the prose style of James Fenimore Cooper. Other chapters include a hilarious Burlesque of Books on Etiquette, Simplified Spelling, and “The Intelligence of God.”

Why I Like It: I knew already of Twain’s capacity for witty humor and subversion when I read Roughing It, Mark Twain’s hilarious travelogue about his first big trip out West. I had no idea, however, of the depth and breadth of Twain’s range until I read this book. I truly believe Mark Twain was about 100 years ahead of his time. The ideas and satire present in this book would likely offend a great number of people today. I can only imagine what might have happened had these selections appeared in print during Twain’s lifetime. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys humor and satire, or who think of Mark Twain only as the author of Tom Sawyer.

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Irrational Man : A Study in Existential Philosophy
by William Barrett

What It’s About: Irrational Man provides the finest introduction and overview of Existential philosophy ever written. Barrett examines and explains the thinking of Existentialist philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Sartre, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and others. He explains how Existential thinking evolved and how it has affected art, literature, and modern thinking.

Why I Like It: I loved this book because it made the great Existential philosophers accessible to me for the first time. Barrett’s writing is both captivating and lively. I enjoyed some of the quotations and excerpts contained in Irrational Man so much that I transcribed many of them onto paper and stuck them to my desk. This book also showed me how relevant Existential thinking is today and made me want to seek out additional works by these great thinkers (which I did.) Because of the information Barrett presented and the way he presented, I went on from Irrational Man to read works by Tolstoy, Sartre, and Kierkegaard. This is a great book for the layperson with interest in modern thinking and with a desire to understand the world.

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Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
by Douglas R. Hofstadter

What It’s About: Gödel, Escher, Bach provides an entertaining and mind-stretching meditation on the nature of thought, mind, perception, and intelligence. It also describes the surprising similarities between the music of Bach, the artwork of Escher, and the mathematics of Gödel. Topics covered also include paradoxes, recursive structures, self-reference, abstraction, and models of the mind.

Why I Like It: I read this book when I was about 21 years old, and it completely awed and amazed me. Like other books in this list, it presented ideas and topics of study I didn’t even know existed. Hofstadter writes in a clear and entertaining style. This book presents large ideas in understandable ways. After reading each chapter, I found that I had to put the book down and ponder the ideas just presented until I could “wrap my head around them.” I particularly enjoyed the parts of the book dealing with self-reference, paradoxes, and frames of reference. If you have any interest in how the mind works, how to improve your thinking, or how you might design software to imitate thought, you should read this book.

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The Social Contract
by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

What It’s About: The Social Contract, written in 1762, provides a coherent, logical treatise on the principles that underly democratic government. The Social Contract is divided into four books. The first treats the formation of societies and the social contract. Social order is a sacred right which is at the foundation of all other rights. It does not come from nature. All legitimate authority among men is based on an agreement. The second book deals with sovereignty and its rights. The third book addresses government and its exercise. In the fourth book, Rousseau speaks of certain social institutions.

The influence of this book was immense. Rousseau, by the prominence given to the ideas of popular sovereignty, of liberty and equality, and especially by his highly coloured style, his short and concise formula, put within the reach of common people principles and concepts which had hitherto appeared only in scientific exposition. The book gave expression to ideas and feelings which, at a time of political and social unrest, were growing in the popular mind. It is quite understandable that The Social Contract has come to be considered by some as the gospel of freedom and democracy.

Why I Like It: This is yet another book in which a talented author presents complex, abstract ideas in simple, concrete ways. This book changed my thinking about the proper role of government and the proper role of citizens of a state. I find myself quoting it frequently and re-reading it every year or so. This books provides a coherent framework for understanding how people should govern themselves, and how they should not. I highly recommend it to anyone seeking to understand why and how democratic societies should function.