Five books: Non-fiction

A few months ago, the New York Times had an article on the greatest non-fiction books. They asked 33 people to list their top 5.  (To my dismay, Kapuscinski's "The Emperor", one of the worst books of all time in my opinion, came out tied for the best of the best. That book is so bad that, when I tried reading it, I couldn't help but physically throw it away in disgust. My hatred for that book deserves a whole blog post of it's own. But this is not that post.)  Inspired by that article, I thought I'd try to remember my some of my favorite non-fiction books of all time. It wouldn't be fair to call it a "top 5", since I am not being that thorough.  If I sat down to do this ten times, I'd probably end up with ten slightly different lists.

Rather here are 5 non-fiction books I really enjoyed, that had a deep influence on my world view, and that just happen to bubble to the surface at the moment:

  • Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter. Absolutely brilliant exploration of logic.  Recursion is just so... fundamental. The human mind must be an instrument of God. Made me love J.S. Bach (and "Alice in Wonderland").  And a proof of Gödel's incompleteness theorem. 
  • Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond. Very ambitious, basically the history of civilization organized around a few very compelling ideas. Geography is very very important. Innovation diffuses latitudinally.
  • Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T. E. Lawrence. Supremely elegant writing. Story of the middle east during the first world war. Essential reading if you want to understand a lot of international politics today.
  • Life is long if you know how to use it, by Seneca. Beautifully concise stoic philosophy. Don't sweat status. 
  • An Autobiography, or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, by M. K. Gandhi. The great man's early life and journey to satyagraha, truth through non-violence.
Hmm, clearly 5 is not enough. Here are a few more that would be included in different iterations of the "top 5".
  • The Discoverers, by Daniel Boorstin. A masterful, sweeping history of science. Extremely educational.
  • An anthropologist on Mars, by Oliver Sacks. The human brain is really really interesting.  It's easy to not realize how amazing our vision, memory, etc. are ....  until something goes wrong.
  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley, by Malcolm X and Alex Haley. Powerful life story. I learned a lot about the USA in this one.
Oh what the hell, let's make it an even 10:
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig.  Not the best writer of the bunch, but this book had a profound influence on me. Key word: Quality. What is good? What is not good? Also, I'm not sure if I learned it in this book, but I believe that you should never get upset by something that was predictable.
  • Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, by Ron Chernow. Very thorough biography of a fascinating man in a fascinating time. Very relevant today. If you are thinking of pursuing an MBA, don't. Instead, read books like this one.