While working on my 2010 list of favorite non-technical books recently, I noticed another interesting grouping of non-technical books to assemble and share. This list occurred to me because I have a nephew who is too much like me for his own good. Seriously, he looks, sounds and even seems to think like I did at his age. Anyway, I noticed several books on my shelves that I read in my 20s or 30s, but that might be good for a “teenage version of me” to read. I decided that seven of these books fit this criteria, and as I browsed them I realized that even the current version of me wants to re-read them this year.
What’s also interesting about these books is that they’ve stayed with me through moves from home to home during my adult life. Most books haven’t. I’ve spent twelve years of my life as a full-time university student, plus three additional years of teaching at a university. That adds up to a lot of books acquired over the years. I also moved around quite a bit in my 20s and 30s. With each move I culled out books to leave behind because I liked to travel light. Don’t worry, I didn’t throw them in the trash! Since human knowledge belongs to the world I gave them away, which doesn’t take long when you live near a university.
So let’s get to the seven books. They aren’t large books, so reading them doesn’t have to be a big time commitment. They should be generally accessible, e.g. there’s no heavy math knowledge required. For the most part, I liked these books because they motivated me to delve deeper into something, or take a different path in my interests, or otherwise provoked thought. The books are listed below in no particular order.
- The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli – Let’s just say that you can view this as either a how-to book or a book that explains why some people you encounter in life behave the way they do.
- The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek – First published in 1944, this is a political book. However, it’s probably appropriate for those of any political persuasion to read this book and study the consequences of having others provide everything for you.
- Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk – Disclaimer that there’s “adult” material in this book that doesn’t appear in the other books listed here (but you know that if you’ve seen the movie adaptation of this novel).
- At Home in the Universe by Stuart Kauffman – Attractors, Boolean networks, catalysts, and more as complexity and order are explored.
- Hidden Order by John Holland – Complexity theory, adaptive systems, genetic algorithms and other fun concepts to consider.
- Against the Gods by Peter L. Bernstein – A history of probability theory that should be an interesting read for any math geek even though it focuses mostly on finance and risk management.
- Gateway To The Great Books Volume 9 Mathematics – Here’s the oddball item in the list. It’s a treasure that a lot of people probably don’t realize they have because it’s in a box in the attic or basement. This book was part of a ten-volume series that Encyclopedia Britannica would throw in as a bonus to get you to order encyclopedias, and since it’s a “gateway” book, they also hoped that reading it would motivate you to later purchase their Great Books of the Western World set. Anyway, I once owned a set of encyclopedias in the days before a CompuServe subscription became accessible enough to make them irrelevant. During one of my moves in the 1990s, I gave away my encyclopedias, and started to give away the associated ten-volume set of Gateway to the Great Books. It had never been opened, so I unwrapped the books to see what they were. What a surprise to find this collection of short works by a huge number of great authors! I kept the ten volumes for that move, but over the years all of them fell by the wayside except for Volume 9 on Mathematics.
Quite a few books could have been on this list, but I decided to drop them. Some chaos/complexity theory books included computer programs, and I wanted to avoid anything technical or computer-related. I didn’t include The Art of War by Sun Tzu because referring to it after its mention in the movie Wall Street seems trite. I also left out books by Hunter S. Thompson. His work seemed to belong in this list. I certainly benefited from being able to read some of his magazine articles during my teenage years. However, I’m not sure a young person today would appreciate his books without doing a fair amount of cross-reference work to discover, for example, not only who John Mitchell was but how he fit into the context of Hunter’s writing.