Favorite Books 2020: Non-Fiction

5-stars:

Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World– inspiring stories of people succeeding after a late start or in fields outside their speciality, with theories of why this happens. Many examples from sports and science, argues that good generalists will become more important in science as there are more siloed specialties that could benefit from connections. The irony of economics: economists emphasize the value of specialization but economics itself is, according to the author, one of the best forms of “generalist” training.

Reality Ahead of Schedule: How Science Fiction Inspires Science Fact– shows the power of imagination and inspiration, and the ability of some generalists to forecast scientific developments

The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution– perhaps this should be 4 stars, because it was written in 2009 and historic genomics has moved very quickly since then (see Who We Are and How We Got Here for an excellent and more up-to-date book on the subject). But there are so many cool facts I hadn’t heard, and powerful general theories that are used to explain these facts and to make speculative predictions- some of which, like Homo Sapiens interbreeding with Neanderthals, have since been proven correct.

Murder-Bears, Moonshine, and Mayhem: Strange Stories from the Bible to Leave You Amused, Bemused, and (Hopefully) Informed– Crazy stories you might have missed, and digging in to stories you have heard of to show key details you might have missed. For instance, people have generally taken the story of Onan to mean one thing, but if you read the actual verse they are referring to it means something else, then if you read the story in context it means something different still. Funny but not just funny.

The Man Who Solved the Market: How Jim Simons Launched the Quant Revolution– Math professor gives up tenure, becomes a codebreaker, then starts one of the most profitable hedge funds of all time. Book is excellent on both the personal stories of Simons and the people around him, and on explaining as much as possible of how Simons did what he did when he goes to great lengths to keep it secret. Makes it clear just how far you have to go to consistently beat the market, getting data that no one else had and analyzing it with supercomputers and quant PhDs at the top of their fields.

The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life– I finally started really cooking this year, and I credit this book more than the lockdowns

4-Stars-

The Millionaire Next Door; I Will Teach You to Be Rich; and Rich Dad Poor Dad– See my full review of these 3 personal finance books here

10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites A Little More and the Masses a Little Less– Its an academic book, more convincing but less interesting/provocative than you’d think from the title

Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back-Row America– Physicist-turned-finance-quant Chris Arnade turns into a photojournalist who talks to people in ‘the bad part of town’ and in out-of-the-way towns that many have left. 5-star book for anyone who hasn’t heard of the author; I give it 4 stars because I’ve followed him on Twitter for years and had seen much of the material.

The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium– Martin Gurri wrote this in 2014 and it has been incredibly prescient about politics around the world. As I said in a tweet liked by all 3 authors, if 10% Less Democracy is a thesis (trust elites) and Dignity is its antithesis (trust the public), Revolt of the Public is the synthesis of the two- describing from a neutral point of view how the relationship between elites & the public is being changed by the internet (Gurri doesn’t think either group is handling this well). Why just 4 stars when the book successfully predicted so much? Gurri lays out his theory early on but for whatever reason I kept losing interest before finishing the book.

The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream– Another book from a few years ago (2017) that looks especially prescient in 2020

How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems

Science: Abridged Beyond the Point of Usefulness

Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Abridged Beyond the Point of Usefulness

SCIENCE: Ruining Everything Since 1543

RELIGION: Ruining Everything Since 4004 BC

Zillow Talk: The New Rules of Real Estate

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers

As you can see, one thing I tried to do this you was to read books in clusters- personal finance, elites vs the public, and books by the best webcomic writers were the big clusters this year. This worked well for getting a better sense of a subject and I’ll likely continue this with new subjects, though I see now that all the 5-star books were 1-offs. Overall I’d say Range was my favorite book of the year while The 4-Hour Chef is the one that most obviously made my life better.

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