Kristian Glass - Do I Smell Burning?

Mostly technical things

Four Books I Think Everyone Should Read

A slight divergence from the usual topics, but this has kept coming up recently in conversation.

I read a reasonable amount. Not as much as I’d like to, but still. A fair few of the books I’ve read are ones I’d recommend to a lot of people. However these four are the ones I’d recommend to pretty much everyone, and I can’t recommend them enough. They also have the benefit of generally being fairly short – no excuses! I highly suspect that anyone reading this will probably have read most, if not all, of them, but feel the list worth compilation nonetheless.

In short, I can’t recommend these books enough. If you haven’t read them, do so. If you don’t own them, buy them. If you can’t buy them, rent them. I truly believe they are absolutely excellent.

In no particular order:

Dale Carnegie - How to Win Friends and Influence People

I nearly never read this due to the title – I felt it sounded so very “magic fix-your-life self-help”; I suspect this is a slight artefact of its age (first published 1936), though that does little to detract from the quality of the content. Granted, at times I started to get the occasional feeling that “For Your Own Gain” could quite readily be appended to the title, however this can’t have been more than once or twice; the primary tone seems to be much more one of facilitating a better and more productive environment for all.

To give the titles of some sections as an example, “Be a Leader: How to Change People Without Giving Offense or Arousing Resentment” and “Twelve Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking” – in summary, some excellent advice on the subject of people handling. The anecdotes definitely give the age of the book away somewhat, but purely in a very charming manner, while still remaining relevant.

We’ve all been guilty of mishandling people for whatever reason; this is a most excellent guide to not doing so again.

Francis Cornford - Microcosmographia Academica

The ‘tagline’ (better word suggestions sought!) for this book – “Being a guide for the young academic politician” sums it up, but doesn’t do it justice.

It claims to be about academic politics. It claims to be for those aged 25 to 30. Do not discount it if any of these does not apply. For anyone dealing with any kind of institutionalised decision-making, this will help you.

Picking suitable quotations is hard, because there’s so much to choose from. In describing a class of person:

The Non-placet differs in not being open to conviction; he is a man of principle. A principle is a rule of inaction, which states a valid general reason for not doing in any particular case what, to unprincipled instinct, would appear to be right. The Non-placet believes that it is always well to be on the Safe Side […] The Young Man in a Hurry is a narrow-minded and ridiculously youthful prig, who is inexperienced enough to imagine that something might be done before very long, and even to suggest definite things.

These just cut to the quick for me; I’ve most definitely been both at various times. It is a piece of writing so beautifully cynical, witty and cutting, yet incredibly insightful and still resonant today (despite being first published in 1908). It’s hard to resist quoting more, be it regarding that bugbear that is Change:

The reports are referred by the Council to the Non-placets, and by the Non-placets to the wastepaper basket. This is called ‘reforming the University from within.’

or methods by which people will hamstring an argument:

The third accepted means of obstruction is the Alternative Proposal. This is a form of Red Herring. As soon three or more alternatives are in the field, there is pretty sure to be a majority against any one of them, and nothing will be done.

If you have ever attended, or risk attending, anything resembling A Meeting, read this. If you ever feel implored to try to Get Something Done, read this.

Bonus: It’s available online for free at http://www.cs.kent.ac.uk/people/staff/iau/cornford/cornford.html

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner - Freakonomics

An economist applying his subject in interesting ways. This book is basically about incentives, and the consequences, from the surprising to the counter-intuitive, that result.

It’s written to sell; the topics covered are most definitely picked for their “shock” value – see “Which is more dangerous: a gun or a swimming pool?” and “Do police actually lower crime rates?” – but that doesn’t detract from the quality. It’s a fabulous challenge to commonly accepted thoughts, beliefs and opinions, and a great encouragement and guide to exploratory and critical thinking.

Ben Goldacre - Bad Science

Far too many otherwise-sensible people I know are readers of the Daily Mail. For anyone reading this not of the English persuasion, the DM is a “newspaper” of what could perhaps be described as “questionable” writing. For a shockingly realistic insight, see the “Daily Mail-o-matic” headline generator or the “Kill or cure?” project, which to use its own words, will “help to make sense of the Daily Mail’s ongoing effort to classify every inanimate object into those that cause cancer and those that prevent it”. That last one in particular is why I like to give this book to people.

In summary, the general quality of science coverage by the media is awful. So much of the population is being regularly mislead, through some combination of ignorance and malice. People are bad at noticing this, and asking the right questions, and spotting the crucial omissions. This book covers these, highlighting common misconceptions and misrepresentations, and dispelling a whole slew of untruths, from myths to outright lies.

It is an excellent introduction to critical thinking, covering topics that are so very close to home for so many. For anyone who’s ever taken in or repeated any bit of scientific or medical “information” from the mainstream media, read this.