key books

There was a Hacker News post awhile back asking: “What books have changed the way you think about almost everything?” This page is my ongoing exploration of that question.

Let’s start with eliminating a few categories. The books I’m going to mention here are not works of scripture, literature, science, or philosophy. Reading The Bible, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Darwin’s Origin of the Species, or Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding are going to change the way you think about almost everything. These texts are foundational, and they provide a framework for understanding the world and our cultural and historical moment. They’re canonical. There are already many good guides to canon literature and ideas. Wikipedia’s Great Books is a useful overview, and guides like The New Lifetime Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman can help with more details in a specific domain.

If we assume a canonical perspective, one that accepts ideas like evolution, the scientific method, and so forth, a more interesting question emerges:

“What books have changed my mind about almost everything, that goes against some of the foundational beliefs of the canonical perspective?”

Don’t Shoot the Dog! by Karen Pryor

Ostensibly, this is book about using behavioral conditioning. In fact, it’s a guide about improving our social interactions. Concepts like giving “no response” in the face of behaviors we don’t like have broad application, and it’s not just relevant to animals. For example, “no response” is equivalent to the conventional wisdom of “don’t feed the [online] trolls,” but it also provides a framework that recognizes that this strategy doesn’t always work. Of course, the techniques described in this book can also be used to manipulate and control others, which is why people don’t like to make this connection between dog training and human social relations. However, if one’s heart is in the right place, it can be a valuable tool. It can also be helpful to recognize when these techniques are being used on you, both positively and negatively. As with much of life, context matters.

Being Nobody Going Nowhere by Ayya Khema

There are many books that summarize the teachings of Buddhism. This one does an excellent job of framing those ideas into practice. For example, one idea is that the “no response” of behavioral conditioning is also the point of meditation.

Every moment of every day we have thoughts, feelings, pains and other sensations. We spend much of our lives reacting to this experiences. In meditation, we train our mind to give “no response” and not react. Without a response, these things in our mind tend to fade away, and eventually, we will develop an ability to respond only to thought we wish to and we will have control over ourselves.

There are many ideas in this short book, but the idea that meditation is key to gaining control over our minds really changed the way I thought about it and about Buddhism as a spiritual path more generally.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini

In essence, this book is about how people are manipulated by marketing. People tend to reciprocate when given gifts. Being given a free sample makes people much more likely to buy. Filling out a survey that asks leading questions makes people more likely to believe the answers they give. If every other kid has an iPhone, your kid is guaranteed to ask for one too. After reading it, you’ll be much more aware of how society manipulates people, and while that may not always help stop these kinds of influences, awareness can aid in prevention.

Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott

Focused on the problem of “high modernism,” James C. Scott talks about the simplification that comes with top-down bureaucratic and technocratic planning. These simplifications inadequately represent the systems they are changing and tend to result in disastrous consequences. While a technical and difficult book, it casts new light on activities that we engage in daily, such as the use of surnames, and how the state drives these kinds of changes to accomplish its goals. It is a useful reminder that despite our ideas of progress, democracy and so forth, the state has different interests than those of its citizenry, and frequently, the interests of the state result in catastrophic consequences.

Drawing and the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards

While this book uses a left and right brain model for talking about how drawing is different from analytical thinking, it is probably best to think of it as practical application of the theory of multiple intelligences and helps to develop a preliminary visual-spatial vocabulary. Drawing is every bit as important a skill as speaking, writing and calculating, but most of us have not developed this skill to any extent. This book is a first step in remedying that problem.

Change of Heart by Chagdud Tulku

Another Buddhist book, this time it is focused on loving-kindness. I like the GoodReads description enough that I’m just going to quote it here:

“This book is for those who want to change – their hearts, their minds, the world. It is a guide, a manual of simple, accessible, and quietly revolutionary steps that individuals can take to transform their lives and the lives of others. On whatever level the teachings presented here are applied – from the intimate sphere of personal experience, to the complex dynamics of family, community, national and even international relations – they will lead infallibly toward [fulfilment, sic.] and peace.”

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