What To Read?

Lately I feel like my reading material has gotten stuck in a rut. The feel is that everything I'm reading is a rehash of something I've read before. Okay, maybe it is just that the rain has returned to Seattle :) Since I'm a subscriber to the belief that books that show you something outside of your current view of the world are the most important, a challenge to all two of remaining readers of this blog: what should I be reading that is most likely to be of such high information content? Recommendations? (For comparison, I think my library is available on librarything. Fiction, non-fiction, whatever, though you should be warned that I was a literature major, so I've done most of the snotty literature.)

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Recent pleasures: Stewart Brand's "Whole Earth Manifesto"; Thomas Homer-Dixon's "The Ingenuity Gap"; Jane Jacobs' "The Death and Life of Great American Cities"; THomas Schelling's "Micromotives and Macrobehaviour" (more fun than it sounds!).

The worst of these was excellent, and the best (Jacobs) was awesome.

A couple of good mind-benders from the shelf beside me: Doerner's "The Logic of Failure", Stewart Brand's "How Buildings Learn" (also deserves "awesome"), and Bert Hoelldobler and E. O. Wilson's "The Superorganism".

If you want fiction I recommend Lord of the Barnyard by Tristan Egolf

1491: New revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann, Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace, and since it's not on your list, Jaws by Peter Benchley.

By astephens (not verified) on 16 Dec 2009 #permalink

Personally, I'll be reading Faust in Copenhagen this winter, among other things, but that would probably fall into your first category. However, I would recommend that that you read House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. It serves in general as a satire on academic writing/formatting but it touches on far more than just that. For the physicist/mathematician, it serves as a very curious "horror" story and indirectly poses some very interesting and deep questions. It experiments with literary style by including all sorts of codes and other fun tricks in the actual writing, but definitely lives on past those "gimmicks", if that's what you take them to be, with a deep and perplexing plot. It's the sort of book that has developed a cult following and people have read over and over again and still find new things in.

I enjoyed it a lot as did many notable critics. However, there are numerous critics who think its a mess of indie experimental crap literature. You know how the world works though. At the very least, its worth reading to say you've read it. If you do read it, let me know what you think. I have yet to hear from another science mind on it.

By Justin Dove (not verified) on 16 Dec 2009 #permalink

My first thought was "Wow 1,110 books on LibraryThing. Impressive!"

My second thought was ""Wow, you must have REALLY been trying to procastinate to find the time to enter 1110 books into LibraryThing!" :-) :-) :-)

My third thought was "Based on your ratings you must REALLY REALLY like Neal Stephenson, Thomas Pynchon and Philip K. Dick!" :-)

OK here are some books I liked that I didn't find on your LibraryThing


(1) "Changing Places" by David Lodge - A comedy of errors about academia. This might be good to read on a plane. (Disclaimer: I just got this a few hours ago so I can't really say if it is good, but it seems good so far.)

(2) "The Dispossessed" by Ursual K. Le Guin - Utopian anarchist socialism with even a tiny bit of physics. This is one of my favorites, but maybe only because I kind of like the idea of utopian anarchist socialism. In any case very good attempt at a "thought experiment" IMHO.

(3) "Half of a Yellow Sun" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I call this one Gone with the Wind but much better written and set in Eastern Nigeria. I think this solidly fulfills the "something different" criteria at the very least ;-) But seriously, it is actually pretty good if you like this sort of thing.

(4) "Interpreter of Maladies" by Jhumpa Lahiri - Exquisitely well written stories about Bengali American immigrants and their children. Same as previous, very good in its genre.

(5) "The White Tiger" by Aravind Adiga - A very funny novel about a rather amoral and downtrodden Indian. It ruthlessly skewers the liberal Indian middle classes and their associated corrupt political classes. This is also good to read on a plane. Very easy read and quite accessible.


As far as nonfiction, I think you're doing pretty good as far as science stuff. You're way ahead of me on that count.

But here is one I didn't see on your list:

(6) "The Mathematical Mechanic" by Mark Levi. This just came out I believe. The idea is to show how to solve "pure math" problems by encoding them using some appropriate physics. E.g. how to prove Pythagoras' Theorem by translating it into a problem in hydrostatics. Or to prove the arithmetic-geometric mean inequality by divising an appropriate resistor circuit. The claim is that this is often easier than the standard approach ... but I claim that "easier" is in the eye of the beholder! (Disclaimer: I am still reading this, a lot of it is going way over my head, I only had 2 semesters of physics about 10 years ago ... but it might be more up your alley).

The Discoveries edited by Alan Lightman. The original published papers related to all of the imporant scientific findings of the 20th century up to some date or another (like, 1960) heavy on the physics. It is fun to read the original papers in order (with some intro/annotation) as we went from the idea that there are atoms to making a bomb to blow the suckers up.

or for something lighter...

one or more of Kelly McCulllough's books (mythOS, etc.) if you are into sci fi with a techie meets ancient greek mythology twist.

I recently read all of Doyle's Holmes (in order) which was an interesting experience which I could only follow by reading Doyle's History of the Boer War, which I am not recommending unless you have some academic reason to read it.

And if you want to read a good war book that will take you places you may not otherwise go, consider Marge Piercy's Gone to Soldiers.

For fiction, I've been digging the hell out of 19th century short genre fiction. It won't be a rehash of what you've read, because everything you've read is a rehash of it. It's about getting back to the roots of modern science fiction, fantasy, and horror. When I read 19th century short fiction, there's always a rush a recognition when I realize that all my favorite contemporary authors have plundered shamelessly from some story or other.

Read Poe, especially the minor works you've never read (especially especially his comic and proto-SF stuff). Read Ambrose Bierce's Can Such Things Be? and his other non-Civil War fantastic fiction. (Some of Bierce's horror stories would give even today's censors a fit. Can Such Things Be? was banned on US military bases until the '80s. The nineteen eighties.) Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a lot of great stuff you won't find in textbook anthologies -- and even then, if you've never read Rapaccini's Daughter, well . . . .

Read Dickens's short stories. Read Wilkie Collins. Read the Edwardians -- MR James ("Casting the Runes" is terrific), Algernon Blackwood (I read "The Wendigo" online, while searching Canada's national image archives for vintage photos of moose hunts -- what fun!). Oliver Onions -- The Beckoning Fair One.

Heck, if you get adventurous, read some Bulwer-Lytton -- the Dan Brown of the 19th century. His novels are awful, but the short stories are a nice little window into what our snooty ancestors disapproved of, and our profligate ancestors ate up like hotcakes. Try Bulwer-Lytton's "The Haunters and the Haunted" for a real penny-dreadful good time.

Speaking of Penny Dreadfuls, I made it a good way into Varney the Vampire before I got distracted. It was published as a serial, so it tends to drag in the middle, but it's kind of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the tricorn-and-knee-breeches set. I still intend to finish it someday.

Whenever I feel my reading is getting into a rut, I dig back into the past and get grounded again. Heck, read some gothic novels -- Walpole's Castle of Otranto is cracking good fun, and no one ever reads it anymore outside of elective humanities classes.

I'm not talking about "the classics," I'm talking about largely forgotten stories that didn't make it into the standard anthologies. And the nice thing is, it's all in the public domain, so if you can't find a cheap collection in a used bookstore, most of it's been digitized and is available online. Print it out, or convert into a device-readable format, and you're good to go.

Hi Dave,

Thanks to the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, where I'm currently at, I've had the great pleasure to meet two writers: Kiran Nagarkar and Gyorgy Konrad, and be exposed directly to the works of a third, namely, Imre Kertesz (all of whom are/were fellows here too). I can certainly recommend any of these authors in the strongest possible terms: if you're interested you might try "Ravan and Eddie", by Kiran, and "Fatelessness" by Kertesz. Alas the book that Gyorgy recommended to us, "Glueck", is only in German. But you could try "The Case Worker".

On the quantum front, you need to read this: http://arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/0609184 which is now available as a book from Cambridge University Press. It is about as far from being a rehash of what you have already read as possible because, despite being about Solvay 1927, there is very little mention of the Bohr-Einstein debates.

Great post Dave!

My highest reading recommendation goes to IAS professor Jonathan Israel's two-volume series on the Enlightenment: Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750 and Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670-1752. Prof. Israel has a third volume in preparation, which presumably (hopefully) will carry the reader through the American and French revolution.

IMHO, it is pretty much impossible to understand the personal motivations, and the cultural context, of the founders of modern mathematics and science without reading Prof. Israel's amazingly thorough history of the early Enlightenment.

At the far other end of the 'brain-book' spectrum, my wife and I are reading through Robert Heinlein's juvenile novels and stories (Space Cadet, We Also Walk Dogs, Let There Be Light). Why focus on Heinlein's *juvenile* novels? Well ... it's partly `cuz (let's face it) Heinlein's adult novels suck.

But it's also because my wife and I are interested in the *narrative* aspects of modern math, science, and engineering. Broadly speaking, we can think of the role of mathematicians as laying foundations in logic, the role of scientists as monitoring nature's reality checks, and the role of engineers as designing social narratives (and this is why the social narrative of quantum informatics is partly the topic of next quarter's 'Golden Spike' series of QSE lectures).

This leads to the final recommendation: Neil Sheehan's A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: General Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon.

Don't be fooled by the title: the *real* star of Sheehan's book is John von Neumann (as Sheehan describes quite vividly in chs. 29--36). Von Neumann was (arguably) the 20th century's greatest universalist ... showing outstanding mastery in mathematics, in science, and (beginning in the late 1930s) in the engineering of narratives.

To my mind, the single most interesting question regarding quantum mechanics is not "What devices can we construct?" but rather "What narratives can we construct?"

And this is why von Neumann turned his attention to engineering during the latter third of his career ... it's because (if you think about) constructing narratives is in many respects *more challenging* than constructing theorems and devices.

Here's what Sheehan has to say: ""While von Neumann still kept his hand in at pure mathematics by doing an occasional proof, he had long since become bored with the abstract realm of mathematical research. He was instead dedicating his nonpareil mind to the practical applications of mathematics and mathematical physics to the service of the American State, first during the Second World War and now in its contest with the Soviet enemy. With the exception of the Coast Guard, no American military or intelligence organization existed that John von Neumann did not advise."

But I think Sheehan has it backwards. Von Neumann did not serve the goals of the American State; rather von Neumann created compelling narratives (founded on solid mathematics and science, of course!) which ensured that the American State served von Neumann's goals.

There is (IMHO) not much reason to think that the 21st century will be any different. What narratives will the QIT/QIP/QSE community create?

Oh yeah ... I want to thank not only Dave for this great topic ... but also Michael Nielsen for his wonderful recent blog post Pessimism as hubris.

So far, Mike's post has attracted *zero* responses ... I didn't post because I had not good ideas (to my shame ... and to everyone's). That's what led me to the reading list of above post.

Neil Sheehan's description of a 'New Era' of economic vitality that von Neumann, Heinlein, Ramo, Wooldridge, and Gordon Moore created (along with many more mathematicians, scientists, engineers ... and writers!), contrasts strikingly with today's economic pessimism (and the passivity and lassitude of many mathematicians and scientists).

An important question is, why?

Oh boy! Inspired by Dave's post, I checked Princeton University Press' recent listings, and I see that Prof. Israel has just released A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy.

This is *not* the third volume in Prof. Israel's history of the Enlightenment, but rather (IMHO) a short outline of that third volume. Since the first chapter is available in PDF, folks can judge for themselves.

Also, the above link to Mike Nielsen's outstanding blog post "Pessimism as hubris" is broken (for which my apologies); here is (I hope) a working link to it ... perhaps some Quantum Pontiff reader will be optimistic enough to respond to it! :)


Jose Saramago, Blindness (Hopefully you haven't watched the movie--if you have try instead 'The yr of death of Ricardo Reis' or 'Gospel according to Jesus')

J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace

A lighter option:

P. Carey, Fat man in history (which somehow reminded me of Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics which you already have)

And from popular science, anything from Simon Singh, especially the Code book (though you probably already know all that stuff)

Been reading the "DC Noir" collections. They're good. Also been rereading all my Culture novels (Banks). Mostly good, sometimes great. Also rereading a very weird history/science/cultural studies book called "Science Incarnate" about the weird relationship between scientists and their bodies. Worth checking out. Also, of course, the latest issue of the Believer.

Well, I think your attention span is longer than mine. So the suggestion of short story collections may fall on deaf ears. But...

The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse
Collected short stories of Aldus Huxley
America's Best Short Stories (pretty much any volume from the last 20 years)
Palm of the Hand Stories by Kawabata
Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
Modern Egyptian Short Stories by Naguib Mahfouz
Paul Auster also comes to mind.

Also, I second Interpreter of Maladies.

I would also recommend revisiting the shortest works of Kafka in his Complete Stories (which I saw in your librarything list).

Wow thanks everyone for the recommendations. Now I've got a lot of stuff to check out. Doldrums broken!