What I’m Reading

This year (2018), for the first time in my life, I started and succeeding in somewhat following a reading list. It began because I noticed an 80/20 pattern (more like a 98/2 pattern) where I found most books pretty obvious, pointless and fluffy, and a small fraction of books stimulating, mind-expanding, and incredibly valuable. And this fraction was mostly dependent on what part of my belief system needed to be challenged at that particular moment, or what small intuition needed to be bolstered. I added to the list, made a vague attempt at ordering it, and read as many books as I wanted to simultaneously from the list. It’s halfway through the year so I thought I’d check in.

I like to think in terms of creating search heuristics for reading; rather than finding the perfect book, or maximising the number of books I read, I think about how to create heuristics for deciding what to read that will end up creating the most growth and interest. So, my current heuristics are:

  • Stop reading as soon as it doesn’t seem amazingly insightful. Read the reviews. Read the free sample.
  • Surround yourself with people who are thinking more interesting thoughts than you, and see what books they -consistently- recommend. One recommendation could be a fluke, but five recommendations from different thinkers you respect means it’s probably worth reading.
  • Find the superconnectors! Like social superconnectors, these people are portals into new reading universes. In this list, you will notice the same few people (David Chapman, Venkat from Ribbonfarm, and Scott from Slatestarcodex) come up consistently.
  • Always be reading! Different kinds of books, so you can pick up the thing that matches your mood.

Books from the list that I at least started reading:
(Read) Jaynes – The Origins of Consciousness in the Bicameral Mind 
  • Source: I think Scott at SSC did a review of it? The book’s thesis was mostly contained in the review, like some of Scott’s other reviews (Seeing like a State).
  • Unlikely idea, kinda repetitive, has changed my conception of consciousness to be exposed to it. Didn’t finish it – read maybe 40%. Has helped me understand explanations of animist spirits and the idea of ascribing agency to the physical world as a property of the relationship between minds and the world. Made me realize how much the structure of my thinking is the result of a socio-evolutionary process that could have turned out rather differently (which is probably what different cultures are).
(Read) Thomas Kuhn – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
  • Source: Cropped up in basically every major blog I was reading about 9-12 months ago. Probably Chapman, Ribbonfarm, SSC, and a handful of others. 
  • I feel like I almost knew the content of this book already before reading it, because it has influenced David Chapman, Malcolm Ocean, Scott Alexander, and a few others. As a result, it put some good handles on a concept (revolutionary paradigm shifts) that I was investigating, but it got repetitive quickly and I didn’t finish it. Went back and read the final chapter at Malcolm’s recommendation. I get the sense this book was at the forefront of thinking about theorising and belief systems when it was published, but has since become the keystone of a lot of metasystematic thinking, so it didn’t feel new to me.
(Reading) Hubert Dreyfus’s ‘Being in the World’, a commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time
  • Source: David Chapman’s Meaningness bibliography.
  • This book is hard. And hilariously, it’s probably the clearest, simplest commentary on an even harder book – Heidegger’s Being and Time. Whoever originally translated that from German, I salute you. I have entered this book in small bursts – the most success I had was reading out loud with a housemate and stopping every five seconds to work out what everything meant. I’ve taken a break from it for a while (will probably get back to it after GEB); having read some much woo-ier sounding Buddhist stuff since then, it feels like it’s maybe saying a similar thing but with more nuance. It has already changed my thinking, but it’s hard to put into words exactly how.
(Read) Seeing Like a State by James Scott
  • Source: A thorough SSC review, probably a Venkat Ribbonfarm post (about Legibility?) and a Samzdat blog post.
  • Interesting idea. I didn’t finish this. I recommend to people to read the SSC post and not bother with the whole book unless they’re really intrigued; it feels like one theoretical claim with a bunch of very similar stories to back up that claim. It was around the time I was losing faith in formal organised systems, so it felt very much like having my intellectual ego stroked about having arrived at the right answer, so it didn’t feel too useful to finish.
(Read) Tantra Illuminated by Christopher Wallis
  • Source: A friend lent me the physical book knowing I was interested in Tantric Buddhism, and another friend mentioned that his teacher was the author. Both friends I respect as sources of knowledge on meditation and spiritual practices. 
  • Incredible book, intense in a spiritual way, the philosophy parts have stretched my spiritual practice, meditation etc. Took me maybe 4 months to read (most of which was the philosophy section – the history and practice sections I blazed through at the end). The experience of reading the philosophy section felt like the meditative contemplation a Christian might have with the Bible. Opened my eyes to the historical philosophy of India and non-duality. Practice section was difficult to get my head around – philosophy and practice sections are both worth rereading.
(Reading) Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter
  • Source: Basically everyone. David Chapman’s Meaningness bibliography. It comes up on so many bookshelves in the Bay Area it’s basically a trope at this point. 
  • I’m still in the early stages of reading this; now that I’ve finished Tantra Illuminated I’ve freed up my ‘complex, deep book that requires a lot of focus’ slot, so I’ll probably get settled into this next.
(Read) The Elephant in the Brain by Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler
  • Source: I love Kevin Simler’s blog, and it seemed right up my behavioural economics alley.
  • Biggest takeaway – for big social problems that seem to have existed for a long time, there are likely intensely practical human needs being met by the way things are now. You can’t just start over with social systems without losing a lot. Have compassion for monkey motivations – signaling, being cared for, selfishness. They have kept us alive. I later went to a talk by Robin on the book in SF. One thing that struck me was how simple it was, particularly compared to other stuff I was reading about social systems. It is the kind of book that would probably have been moderately mind-blowing when I was 19, and is now just things that are obvious, but restated in a nice coherent narrative that is easy to explain to others. Also very easy to read; I finished it in basically one sitting.
(Read) Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse
  • Source: Ribbonfarm references it a lot.
  • I -hated- Carse’s writing style – it felt very evangelical and didactic. Having read a lot of writing influenced by it, and hating the writing style, I only got a few chapters in. It feels like Seeing Like a State where if you’ve heard intelligent people discuss its ideas a lot then you’ve understood 80% of its content. I probably won’t finish it.

Books I put on the list but haven’t read yet, or no longer want to read:
James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed
  • Source: Mentioned (by SSC or Ribbonfarm?) in discussions of Scott’s work. I’m only semi-interested now because I suspect the ideology will be the same as Seeing Like a State. Probably won’t read.
Wittgenstein’s Philosophical investigations
  • Source: I think this was recommended as dealing with similar ideas as Being and Time? Probably won’t read it unless it show up in recommendations by people whose thinking I like a few more times.
Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition
  • Source: I think recommended in Chapman’s Meaningness bibliography as a readable introduction to postmodern thought. It’s pretty low priority right now as I did study pomo a -lot- in high school.
David Graeber’s Debt: the First 5000 Years 
  • Source: Recommended by one friend. Seems interesting, but not life-changing, so I’ll get around to it whenever, maybe never.
Why Information Grows: From Atoms to Economies
  • Source: Can’t remember. I’m glad I put this down because I’ve had a recent interest in relating ecology to economics to think about new economic models, so this will probably be useful. 
Foundations Series by Isaac Asimov
  • Source: Ribbonfarm essay about psychohistory. Currently low down the list.
Thinking in Systems by Donella Matthews
  • Source: I loved Matthews’ ‘Places to Intervene in a System’. I come back to it regularly. Been on a systems-thinking kick recently, so this is exciting.
The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt
  • Source: Ribbonfarm essay. Pretty low priority at the moment.
Improv: Improvisation and the Theater by Keith Johnstone
  • Source: Like basically everyone. A lot of people and blogs have been recommending this (and specifically to me!) recently. A friend with a physical copy just moved in to my house, so I expect I’ll have a go at it soon. 
Plato’s Gorgias 
  • Source: Can’t remember where this came from, or why I wanted to read it. So I probably won’t unless it comes up again.
Kant (in general)
  • Source: Can’t remember the source or why I wanted to read it, other than it seemed foundational for a lot of other stuff I was reading. 
The World as Will and Representation by Schopenhauer 
  • Source: This I think was the source text for a great trio of essays in the Archdruid’s Report. I suspect it will slide in the ‘dense philosophy’ queue behind the Dreyfus Heidegger commentary.
Hierarchy in the Forest
  • Source: Can’t remember. Must be low priority.
The Reflective Practitioner by Donald Schön
  • Source: I think this is a Chapman-adjacent recommendation from Twitter. It’ll probably slide into the ‘similar books about metarationality’ queue. 
Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free by Cory Doctorow 
  • Source: Recommended by a coworker. It was relevant to a problem we were solving at the time and I don’t think it’s as relevant now. Plus I find Doctorow to be overly ideological. 
Stealing Fire
  • Source: Off the top of my head, I can’t even remember what this is. About navy seals maybe? Apparently my housemate has a copy, looks like light reading.
Civilization & Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Vol. I: The Structures of Everyday Life
  • Source: SSC subreddit. Seems like interesting sociology, but I probably won’t go out of my way to read it.
Opening the Heart of Compassion 
  • Source: Recommended by two trusted friends as a good practical text on meditation. I’ve been focused more on Tantric stuff at the moment. 

Having just moved to the US from Australia I’ve been struck by the sheer amount of subtle but important cultural difference between the two places. This was unexpected, and humbling when I thought about how much less I know about, say, Chinese and Indian culture, compared to American culture, and how much influence they’ve had on the world I live in. I’ve also struggled to understand some Tibetan and Indian philosophy because of not being able to place it within a historical and cultural context. So some of my other reading queue has emerged as an attempt to use fiction and rich history to get under the skin of cultures I’m not as fluent in.

Books that weren’t on the list but I read anyway:
(Reading) A Traveller’s History of China
  • Source: I wanted to read more history of China and this was free at a flea market. 
  • I’m about halfway through; it’s exactly what I’ve needed. Explaining the origins of Confucianism, Daoism, how Buddhism relates to homegrown religions, what religion even means in China, and giving a solid integration with geography and how the geography of China has shaped its history.
(Reading) Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s Dance on the Volcano
  • Source: Found in an excellent independent bookstore in Austin. I was excited by the publisher’s mission – to bring great non-Western authors to American and global audiences with new translations from the original languages.
  • I really wanted to like this. A story about a mestizo girl in Haiti around the time of the revolution in the 1800s, it’s historical and political and sociological all at once. But the translation is really bad. Knowing some French (badly) I can sometimes ‘see through’ the translation to what the French words would have been and am starting to think I’d prefer to try and read the French version. May or may not finish it.
(Read) Biography of Benjamin Franklin
  • Source: free at a flea market. I’ve come across Benjamin Franklin’s deliberate approach to personal development a lot so I wanted to learn more about him. 
  • I read this in one sitting. Kind of interesting to see Franklin’s perspective – he reminds me of a lot of single-minded driven male engineer friends I know. He would probably be a startup founder nowadays. Made me think a lot about how to go about putting yourself in the ‘right place at the right time’, and what institutions we are building now would have a lasting influence on the next 250+ years.
(Reading) Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth
  • Source: Same amazing Austin bookstore; written by an American-born Chinese woman about pre-revolutionary China, won a lot of awards in the 1930s. 
  • This is exactly what I wanted with the cross-cultural fiction thing. You get into the soul of a Chinese peasant with a simple farming life right as life is shifting drastically in 1920s China, and care deeply about everything he cares about. I look forward to finishing it.
(Reading) Terra Australis – Matthew Flinders’ Great Adventures in the Cicumnavigation of Australia
  • Source: Maybe my mom’s bookshelf? I can’t remember why I started reading it.
  • Personal accounts of early European explorers of Australia. Incredible to think how much day to day life has changed in the last 200 or so years – they all had to hunt to survive on their long journeys. Accounts of interactions with indigenous tribes are super interesting – I learned that there were regular fishing boats from what is now Malaysia in the Northern Territory before Europeans, and the interactions between the Muslim-influenced Malaysian seamen and the indigenous Yolgnu tribes created loanwords in Yolgnu influenced by Islam before Europeans arrived (like rupiah = money). I’d love to learn more indigenous to indigenous history, not just stuff that has been filtered through colonial lenses.
(Reading) Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game 
  • Source: I met a new, insanely magical metarational-like friend at the Ribbonfarm refactor camp in Austin. He recommended it as one of his top three books ever. 
  • I’m about halfway through. It’s somewhat metarational fiction, although in a bit of a silly way. It has brought up a bunch of new and generative concepts about how to relate abstract ideas to each other. The foreword assures that it’s meant to be funny but it hasn’t been funny thus far, so maybe the translation is bad or I’m missing something.

Current reading list for the next half of the year:
(Aside from the books I’m continuing or haven’t yet gotten to from the first half of the year above).
The Three-Body Problem 
  • Source: A bunch of Twitter recommendations, including one about ‘theory fiction’, which is exciting. Chinese Sci-Fi.
Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus
  • Source: Has come up in a bunch of accelerationist Twitter I’ve been eavesdropping on. Looks wordy though.
The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership
  • Source: An intentional community I’m adjacent to is led by a guy who runs his company (and the community) by getting everyone to read this book. Plus it has been recommended by a wise friend to myself and a housemate for resolving conflicts.
Words of my Perfect Teacher
  • Source: The Nyingma Vajrayana Buddhist institute I’ve been attending a lot uses this as the basis of their Ngondro program, a program of preparatory exercises for awakening practices. 
Flight of the Garuda
  •  Source: I went to teachings by a Dzogchen Buddhist lama I like a lot who used this as the basis of her teachings. Probably in the ‘requires intense contemplation’ camp.
Christopher Wallis’s translation of The Recognition Sutras
  • Source: I have come to really respect Wallis’s scholarship and obsession with accurate translation of spiritual texts, and this only came out recently. I’m developing a new heuristic which is ‘read the book that was somebody’s life’s work’ and this, having taken years, seems to fall into that category. Probably also demands intense contemplation. 
Forrest Landry’s An Immanent Metaphysics
  • Source: I went away for the weekend with a group of ecology-minded, systems-minded hippie folks. Of the ones who had read Forrest Landry’s work, all of them raved about it, and they mentioned that the Neurohacker Collective people (whose work I find exciting) are also obsessed with it. I’m intrigued.
Daniel Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of The Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book
  • Source: Recommendation on Twitter, where the author jumped in to answer my clarifying question about what it’s about. I’m currently interested in practical awakening/enlightenment practices, and this seems like it might be helpful.
Congo Inc and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart
  • Source: Both fiction books based in sub-saharan Africa written by local authors picked up on my ‘cross-cultural fiction’ Austin expedition. 
Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground and The Gambler
  • Source: Picked this up at a book swap party. Not sure I’m in the mood, Dostoyevsky’s kinda grumpy. We’ll see. 
The Hidden Life of Trees
  • Source: had a bunch of cool conversations about the way trees communicate a little while ago. This book kept coming up.

I also watched:

Stephen Fry’s America

  • Great for getting an overview of the history, ideology and culture of the different nooks and crannies of the US as someone who didn’t grow up here.

Juana Ines

  • Netflix series in Spanish about an intellectual prodigy in colonial Mexico who becomes a nun so she can focus on her studies. Pushed the right language-learning, cultural and historical buttons without being too brain-heavy to relax to.

The Crown

  • Through watching this I’ve discovered I have historical OCD. I get so much more out of a historical narrative when the lighting, makeup, accents, architecture, and etiquette are historically accurate. It made me realise how influenced Australia is by British culture as opposed to American culture; so many little things!

And for something even more meta, here are some reading and author lists I’ve found interesting and want to pick through:

Gregory Marks’ Theory Fiction reading list

Authors whose entire body of work is worth reading from Marginal Revolution

CEO of Stripe asks Twitter what books have been most personally influential

Women who write about metasystematicity

Bret Victor’s list of influences

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