Reading books is a big part of my life. I fully agree with Emily Dickinson that no frigate can take you to lands far like a book. When a good book awaits me at home I am full of energy and drive; I can’t wait for the day’s end, when I will reunite with my friend. When no good book awaits me I am depressed and agitated. Thus I try to read good books all the time. I read mostly non-fiction, in English.
A note to non-native English speakers: don’t be discouraged by reading English! You don’t have to understand every word in the text. Just pick up the spirit and music of each paragraph, and go with the flow. Reading books in your non-native language is the best education that you can get, and it’s free.
A note to other readers: If you think that your taste in books is similar to mine, please email me some book recommendations. I have about a thousand books to read in my remaining lifetime, and I don’t want to waste my time on anything but outstanding books.
Here are some of my favorite non-fiction books, in no particular order:
The Man who Loved Numbers, Hoffman. Juicy gossip about celebrated number theorists like Hardy, Ramanujan, Goedel, and Wiles, and the life of the eccentric mathematician Paul Erdos (pronounced Air-Dish). Also: good coverage of major results in number theory, the purest and mysterious foundation of all mathematics.
The Language Instinct, Pinker. A reader-friendly and authoritative description of modern research on evolutionary language formation, and a primer on computational linguistics. Recommended to anyone who loves words.
The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins. The first and best book I’ve read about evolution. Dawkins is a passionate writer and a brilliant inventor of analogies.
Endurance, Lansing. Ernest Shackelton was not the greatest explorer of modern times but he was probably the best skilled and most admired expedition leader. A gripping adventure story.
Into Thin Air, Krakauer. In 1987, six climbers died in an attempt to ascent Mount Everest. Krakauer, a world-class climber and a skilled writer, made the summit and came back to tell this story of heroism in the face of disaster.
Journey Through Genius, Dunham. A collection of essays about twelve great theorems in mathematics. Each essay explains the theorem’s origin, evolution, and corollaries, as well as the historical backdrop and drama that led to its discovery. If you plan to read one book about math, this is it.
The Double Helix, Watson. Watson was 23 years old when he and Francis Crick discovered the structure of the DNA molecule. A personal, dark, and hilarious account of a young scientist determined to win the greatest prize in his field.
What a Mad Pursuit, Crick. The other fellow in the couple. Eccentric, charming, and generous, Crick was a late bloomer who was written off by his colleagues as an aging hippy who will accomplish nothing important in his career. He went on to make the two greatest discoveries in life science: the DNA structure and, ten years later, the genetic code.
Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, Feynman. Richard Feynman was the most loved and admired physicist in the second half of the 20th century. He was also a gifted illustrator, a skilled drummer, and a wonderful writer. Every one of his books is a feast to the mind and a joy to the heart. Although he wrote several personal books I will mention only this one, since after reading it you will go on to read all the others.
The Life and Death of a Druid Prince, Ross & Robins. The discovery of “Lindow Man” in an English marshland – a disintegrating corpse of a man ceremonially executed 2,500 years ago – was an archeological finding of great importance. It led to new insights into the Celt and Druid cultures, and to new evidence about life in England under the Roman reign.
The Gifts of the Jews, Cahill. The voyage of Abraham from Ur Kasdim (in modern day Iraq) to Israel is one way to mark the end of the pagan world and the beginning of modern civilization. Cahill’s book is a passionate and compact account of this transformation.
How the Irish Saved Civilization, Cahill. Another masterpiece in Cahill’s “Hinges of History” series, about the western world after the fall of the Roman empire.
Sailing the Wind Dark See, Cahill. Yet another engaging volume in Cahill’s “Hinges of History” series, this one about the Greek era, from Homer to Alexander Mucdon.
Undaunted Courage, Ambrose. A rhapsodic epic of the greatest natural adventure in north American history – the cross-country journey of captains Lewis and Clark from the east coast to the Pacific ocean, and the opening of the American West. The book also includes fascinating descriptions of day-to-day life in the young and fragile United States in the early 1800’s (population 5 million), and interesting psychological insights into the personas of Thomas Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis.
Killer Angels, Shaara. There is no way to understand the complexity of the American spirit without reading about the civil war that torn America in the 1860’s. A spectacular but compact military book.
Founding Brothers, Ellis. The first seven presidents of the United States were greater than life, and they knew it. A must reading for understanding how the U.S.A. came to be.
New York, E.B. White. Although it was written in the early 1950’s, this short essay about the Big Apple is surprisingly current and up-to-date. Should be read by anyone who loves New York and the English language.
The Elements of Style, Strunk and White. The best little book about how to write.
Down and Out in London and Paris, Orwell. A personal memoire about the misery of being hungry and poor in a large metropolitan city. Plus some hilarious stories about working in remarkably filthy kitchens of grand hotels and posh restaurants. An Orwell gem.
Freakonomics, Levitt & Dubner. A thrilling series of insights and a triumph of common sense, coming from a super bright University of Chicago economist.
The Blue Nile, Moorehead. The area stretching around the Nile river from Ethiopia through Sudan to Egypt was the stage of some of the most incredible battles and explorations in the 19th century. And Moorehead was a genius writer that puts you right there.
Sea of Glory, Philbrick. A gripping account of an infamous journey around the world, undertaken by the US Exploration Expedition between 1838 and 1842. They discovered that Antarctica was a continent and amassed a huge collection of specimen that pushed America into the modern age of science. Most of these accomplishments are little known today since the expedition’s leader, Captain Wilkes, was at once a brilliant explorer but a lousy leader of men.
Mountains Beyond Mountains, Kidder. The author follows the intensive and saint-like life of Paul Farmer, a physician and Harvard medical professor who devotes his life to helping the poor. Spending most of his time in places like Haiti, Peru, and Siberia, Farmer has almost single-handedly saved the lives of thousands from the perils of AIDS and tuberculosis. A wonderful example about how one person can make a huge difference.
One Man’s Meat, E.B. White. White was a genius writer of short essays. Every essay in this book is a masterpiece, every paragraph a gem.
The Last Place on Earth, Huntford. A nerve wrecking narration of the epic race of Scott and Amundsen to the South Pole. During the week that I swallowed it my life basically stopped – I could not put the book down – even read it on red lights while driving.
Galapagos, Vonnegut. A dazzling fictional account of how human civilization ended and then reborn in a very different way. Absolutely hilarious and perhaps the funniest way to learn how evolution works.
Charles Darwin: Voyaging, Browne. There are many biographies of the Great Man but this is probably your best choice. It is also an excellent account of the development of modern natural science.
Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, Wills. A remarkable and concise masterpiece about the most celebrated short speech in history and the magical power of words.
The following books are harder to read, but worth the effort:
The First Salute, Touchman. About the American Revolution and George Washington. Everyone must read at least one book by Touchman, and this is my favorite.
Alan Turing: the Enigma, Hodges. Alan Turing was the first modern computer scientist and a master cryptographer. He succeeded to break the famous Nazi code Enigma, an accomplishment that led some historians to describe him as the man who saved the world as we know it. His career came to a tragic halt when, in 1954, he was accused for some homosexual act. After being found “guilty,” he committed suicide at the age of 42. This biography by Hodges is a fitting monument to Turing, written with the love and admiration that he deserves.
Conquest, Thomas. If you won’t be intimidated by the sheer volume of this book (about 800 pages of small print), you’re in for a treat. It starts slowly and scholarly, but after a while it is hard to put down. A detailed historical account of Cortes’s Mexican campaign and the catastrophe he wrought on Montezuma and the Aztec people. Also: an engaging account of life in the 16th century in western Europe and in south America. Did you know that in 1520, the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan was the most advanced modern city in the world?
QED, Feynman. Quantum Electrodynamics integrates the electromagnetic rules with quantum mechanics. The resulting model – perhaps the most successful theory in the 20th century – explains all ordinary phenomena except for gravitation and nuclear processes. This little book is a gem written for the layman by the celebrated physicist who won the Nobel for QED.
The Emperor’s New Mind, Penrose. An attempt to integrate artificial intelligence, quantum mechanics, and neural science into a unified theory of the human brain. The attempt fails but the writing is brilliant, giving a first-principles coverage of all the areas involved. Penrose is a great mathematician and a “high end” writer.
American Sphinx, Ellis. Thomas Jefferson was a US president and a scientist, an ideologist and a pragmatist, a loner and a charmer, a slave owner and an emancipator, and a man of supreme intellect and eloquence. A wonderful biography by a controversial historian that somehow manages to crank one masterpiece after another.
The Top 500 Poems, Harmon. I am not a fan of “The Top n Anything”, but I like a good collection of poems when I see one. A rich and carefully selected anthology for people who want to own just one book of English poetry.
Benjamin Franklin: an American Life, Isacson. An excellent biography of the most interesting American figure, and about the crucial role that he played in shaping the American nation and spirit and the free world as we know it. A bit tedious here and there but worth the trouble.
The Enchanted Isles, Melville. A collection of short stories about the Galapagos Islands, visited by the author as a sailor on a whaling ship. Poetic, enchanting, and spell-binding. An unknown masterpiece by the well-known author of Moby-Dick.
The Patron: A Life of Salman Schocken, Anthony. An excellent biography of the quintessential German Jew, and a wonderful account of Jewish life in pre-war Germany. Born to a poor and uneducated family of six children, Schocken was forced out of school at age 14 and worked since then. He went on to become a self-made genius businessman, the first publisher of Kafka, Agnon, Buber, and Scholem, and co-founder and first CEO of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He was also my grandfather.