11 July 2011

Some good nonfiction

Hello -

From time to time, friends ask me to recommend good nonfiction. No problem! Here are a few books that have survived the "still glad I read 'em" test a few years later. The focus here is on science and art. (The foci?)

You are not a gadget: a manifesto (J. Lanier). Staying human in a world of Web 2.0-accelerated info-surfing and ambient friend-hood. And octopi.

Consilience: the unity of knowledge (E. O. Wilson). Scientists and humanitarians, unite! Learned lots about the history of science, and I loved the book despite the core message's inability to really hit home.

This is Modern Art (M. Collings) If you even just-sort-of like contemporary art, this book is an awesome, friendly introduction to its many flavors and personalities. Don't know why it averages only 3 stars.

The visual display of quantitative information (E. Tufte) The standard book of good and bad information depiction.

Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion (R. Cialdini) How to know when you're being manipulated, or, a handbook on how to manipulate others.

Learn to Play Go (J. Kim) 'nuff said.

Optics (E. Hecht) "Hey Gregg, what's a good book on optics for someone who's taken calculus?" This one!

Godel, Escher, Bach (D. Hofstader) You seriously haven't read this yet? Go learn some links between patterns, music, DNA, and predicate calculus (or whatever it's called). I only made it 50% through, but when I walked into a cafe with it under my arm, I met a nice woman, and we got married! So, there's that.

Prometheus Rising (R. A. Wilson) Forgive its trippy LSD tone. A book about the various stages of mind, which helps you understand everything from why we swear, to how brainwashing and military indoctrination works, to various forms of enlightenment.

Sync: how order emerges from chaos... (S. H. Strogatz) Complex systems and synchrony, from fireflies to lasers. (See also his textbook on nonlinear dynamic systems.)

Games People Play (E Berne) Try to get your hands on this 1965 paperback that diagrams typical conversational patterns and the child/parent levels from which they originate. Neat stuff!

The Discoveries (A Lightman) Get this! The stories of a handful of awesome 20th century discoveries - and - for real - the journal articles in which they were announced. So cool!

A course in mathematics for students of physics (Bamberg) A Harvard textbook from linear algebra and calculus to differential forms and some really minimal-looking expression of Maxwell's equations. I kid you not, I got this in 1995 and am still reading it.

Dark hero of the information age: in search of Norbert Wiener the father of cybernetics (F Conway) Kids these days. They just don't know that uncle Norbert invented essentially everything.

A People's History of the United States (H Zinn). I am the only person around here who hasn't read this book. Well, I read one chapter. Now I know that the people who came and took North America were really quite mean.

Benton's SPIE milestone series on selected fundamental papers in three-dimensional display (SPIE Press) is just incredible. If you like 3-D display technology. And if you are into that sort of thing, Barry Blundell has a great collection of books which dive deep into the history of display technologies. And I'm not just saying that because I wrote the Forward to one of them.

Two books I read recently and enjoyed were:

Finally, I am in the middle of What Technology Wants, which suggests that our technologies have been evolving in ways similar to organisms. An enjoyable read (for its various historical and trendline anecdotes) so far.

What are some of your favorites?



Antonio said...

I have three that come to mind:

The Great Game, by Peter Hopkirk. A suprisingly exciting read about the the political and military intrigues in 19th century Central Asia as the British and Russian Empires jockeyed for power in the region.

In the Land of Israel, by Amos Oz. Reports on a series of long interviews with various people in Israel during the 80s(?), and gives a pretty good cross section of the Israeli political spectrum at the time. Unfortunately, it also gives a pretty good picture of contemporary Israeli politics, too.

The Nature and Growth of Modern Mathematics, by Edna Kramer. A very good, and very accessible, overview of the main ideas in 20th century mathematics.

G-Fav said...

Hey Antonio -

What a coincidence. This week I was reminiscing about the Kramer book - I remember flipping through that weighty hardcover when I was a kid, but couldn't remember the author or title. Thanks!


Allison Corbett said...

My favorite recent one is Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigle--possibly more interesting for gamers than others, but it definitely inspired me to look for ways to apply "game thinking" to everyday life.

Influence is one of my favorite books of all time (and possibly my most-recommended book ever).

I got through maybe 25% of Godel, Escher, Bach--I thought it was brilliant but didn't have the discipline to finish it. It's still sitting on my shelf waiting for me to get back to it. Maybe if I had gotten a spouse out of the deal...

Oh, Guns, Germs and Steel, also. Full disclosure: I also haven't finished this one, but it's fascinating.

And finally: The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman. This is the book that inspired me to get into user experience design. I brought it on vacation one year and my whole family stole it and read it. Gregg, if you like The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, you'll like this. I promise you'll never look at an office door or a stovetop range the same way again.

DudeShoes said...

I like "The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of a City," by Robert Sullivan (Paperback, 1999) and W"ind to Shake the World: The Story of the 1938 Hurricane," by Everett S. Allen (Paperback, 1976)

G-Fav said...

Allison -

Looks like we share a lot of book-interests. The Design of Everyday Things was great, wasn't it? (It was required reading in an EE course in college.) That book caused me to stop blaming myself when I push on a pull door, and start blaming the designers...

Did you really like the McGonigle book? Ask 10 people, get 10 different opinions about that work.


ps DudeShoes, I'll need to take a look at that Meadowlands book. I grew up in NJ, and there is some sort of distant family connection to that property.

Zachary Drake said...

OMG, "Godel, Escher, Bach" got you a wife? That's the best nerd story I've ever heard.

I had a fun interaction with Douglas Hofstadter on the question of whether artists covering Bo Diddley's "Bo Diddley" should change the lyrics to their own name or not.

Here's my post:

in which can be found a link to Hofstadter's reply.

sheryl k said...

Hi Gregg - I know you know where my blog is: sherylsbooklist.blogspot.com. Here are some of my favorites:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot - Black woman's cancer cells taken without her family's consent are the basis for much of current medical research
The Big Switch - Nicholas Carr - Prescient thoughts about the cloud
As They See 'Em - Bruce Weber - The training and life of a major league umpire
Factory Girls - Leslie T. Chang - Women in China who come from farms to work in factories
Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All - Christina Thompson - American woman falls in love with a Maori man
The Genius: How Bill Walsh Reinvented Football - David Harris - (needs no summary)
Zeiton - Dave Eggers - Family copes during Katrina
In the Land of Invented Languages - Arika Okrent - Intentional languages from Esperanza to Klingon
The Monty Hall Problem - Jason Rosenhouse - Detailed and fun examination of the famous math problem

...those are my faves since the fall of 2009. I am a little sad leaving off some good ones from before then.

Also don't miss
In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan - changed how I eat forever
Appetites by Caroline Knapp - best book about women I've read

G-Fav said...

Thank you thank you thank you, Sheryl! And I'm glad you go through the trouble of distilling your favorites into annual best-ofs.

BTW, I'm really enjoying Doctorow's Makers, thanks for suggesting that.


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