Nathan's Reading List


My bandwidth to read periodicals has greatly reduced since starting as faculty, so I've cut my periodicals down to two: The Economist for weekly analysis and international news, and The Atlantic for a different perspective on issues from a greater distance. If I had the time, I would still read The New York Review of Books. The other publications I used to subscribe to (National Geographic, National Affairs, and especially Jacobin) I would probably avoid in preference to reading a book at this point.


Currently reading

The Republic for Which It Stands by Richard White. This is a long (900+ pg) history of Reconstruction and The Gilded Age (1865-1900) in the United States. It is very well written and I am learning a huge amount about a period that my high school history had glossed over. It's also quite timely, given the present political and economic situation. I highly recommend it if the length isn't a deal breaker.


The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Mathematics and Logic. I got this as an inspiration while reading about the philosophy of science. One of my favorite books of all time is Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty, which touches on many philophical issues, and I thought that philosphical writings themselves may be more to the point.

This Time is Different by Reinhart and Rogoff. Yes, yes -- I know they were wrong about the sovereign debt cliff at 90% GDP, but this book still marks a huge step forward just from their datasets. I started to read it, but it was dense.

Wealth of Nations by Smith. Started this and abandoned it quickly. It was not too bad to read and still relevant, but it is long.


I like to read fantasy/sci-fi and non-fiction. I prefer non-fiction in areas that I don't know much about.

My favorite fictional series are A Song of Fire and Ice by George R. R. Martin and The Wheel of Time by the (late) Robert Jordan.

The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss is my favorite new fanstasy. It is very different in style from the previous two, being a rollicking adventure instead of a heroic epic.

I've read tons of other fantasy, but I've been generally dissatisfied with its lack of depth or length. That being said, I think Robin Hobb and Lois McMaster Bujold are amazing writers. Bujold's Miles series is probably my favorite scifi. I like Lord of the Rings and respect it for establishing the fantasy genre, but think the plot is full of holes and later stories are much better. Same goes for Dune.

Augustus by John Williams is a great piece of historical fiction of the Roman empire, specifically of Octavian/Augustus. It is written as an epistolary novel, i.e., as letters between the main characters. I had never read a book in this format before, and I greatly enjoyed it. I highly recommend this book. For what its worth, the Washington Post reviewed this book upon its release as the "greatest piece of American historical fiction".


History of Science: Antiquity to 1700 by Prof. Lawrence Principe. This course was excellent. The changes in science over the period covered are profound, and I had many misconceptions (particularly of medieval Europe) dispelled. It was enlightening to put science---natural philosphy---in the appropriate cultural context for the time, and to understand the questions that were important to different historical societies. The only real complaint I have against the course is not its content, but the narrator's diction. He tries too hard to give the correct pronounciation to non-English words, and result is awkward and distracting.

History of the Ancient World: A Global Perspective by Prof. Gregory Aldrete. These 48 lectures cover the history of world, although it's fair to say that it is heavily focused on the history of the Mediterranean. In many ways this felt like a review of everything I had forgotten from high school history (to be fair, it's probably closer to an entry-level college course), but it made for fairly easy listening and was very interesting. I had mixed up the order of all sorts of events--Alexander was after Socrates!--and it was good to put it all back into proper perspective.

Philosophy of Science by Prof. Jeffrey Kasser (The Great Courses). This is a full college-level course on the philosophy of science consisting of 36 lectures. It discusses questions like: what is science? why has science been so successful in obtaining knowledge? does science describe the world, or just help us make predictions about it? Dee and I both found it fascinating and I highly recommend it. The lecturer covers very difficult material in an approachable way, and it has helped me think about what I'm doing and methodology as an academic. I thought I knew something about philosophy of science before starting the course, having studied Popper at UCLA, but the first lecture covered everything I knew and the second blew major holes in it. The rest of the course explored different approaches that have been taken to define science, and although none succeeded, I left the course with much greater clarity about science and more nuanced understanding of how it works. (As an added bonus, I can now rant against peer review much more convincingly.)

Marxism by Thomas Sowell. This is the first audiobook Dee and I listened to. The presenter had strange diction which was kind of annoying, but let's ignore that. The book itself is a great in-depth review of what Karl Marx actually argued for. Sowell began his career as a Marxist and then converted to a free-market view. He is obviously very familiar with Marx's writings, and as always his writing is entertaining. The majority of the book is a presentation of Marx's views without much commentary on them. The last part of the book basically destroys both theoretically and empirically. Sowell makes much of Marxist's lack of references to Marx, but its not clear to me that this is a valid criticism. Marx's views may have been heavily revised later to account for his failings, and wouldn't it be appropriate then for later scholars to refer to the updated scholarship than to the original? I suppose Sowell would respond that you can't build a house on bad foundations.

Non-Fiction Reviews

Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues. Following The Great Courses on Philosophy of Science, I wanted to dig into it a bit more. This is an anthology of important articles in Philosophy of Science. It is a great collection, but some of the articles are very poorly written. They are technical for the sake of being technical, as though following the language pattern of science or mathematics will convey by association validity to their arguments conclusions. In fact, most of these articles operate at the levels of language, intuition, and abstraction, and bringing into symbolic language is a detriment. That doesn't seem to stop the philosophers from trying, however. (This is apparently a problem throughout philosophy, I've been told.) This unfortunate fact makes the collection hit-or-miss. Fortunately, the book contains commentaries on the articles at the end of each chapter. (Articles are grouped by topic.) These commentaries are clear and use symbols only when they are helpful for discussion---in fact, large sections of included articles are often ignored, which clearly indicates to my mind that the editors realize their irrelevance. The editors have also clearly selected many articles from introductions to (rather than main chapters of) books, I presume to avoid the issue further. Anyway, the book starts out great with easy-to-read and provocative articles. There is no need to skip anything in the beginning. But in later chapters, as the topics become more arcane, the articles deteriorate in quality, and I recommend skipping many of them and starting with the commentaries.

The Industrious Revolution by Jan de Vries. This is a book about the history of consumption in early modern Europe, and how changing household decision making in the decades preceding the Industrial Revolution led to economic growth and other such changes. It attempts to bring demand into the picture as a driving force in European growth, rather than the supply-focused story of technological change favored by conventional accounts, as well as emphasizing the role of the European family structure in allowing the flexibility within households for all this to happen. This is one of those books that has insights every few pages and is well worth reading entirely. A review cannot do it justice. But that also means it is quite dense.

Capital in the Twenty-first Century by Thomas Piketty. This book is intentionally setting itself in the tradition of 18th century economists that focused on large-scale macroeconomic issues, particularly on the distribution of income and wealth. It has been reviewed well and deemed to be an important contribution to economics, so I gave it a fairly in-depth reading. Here's the major points in the book as I encountered them, and my thoughts.

The Son Also Rises by Gregory Clark (NOT Hemingway). This book looks at surnames throughout history in different societies to see how much social mobility there really is. The basic methodology is to find some surname that is associated with a particularly elite or destitute community, and then track that surname over time in historical records of, say, medical associations, probate courts, parliaments, etc. The thesis of the book is that mobility is much lower than most studies account for, and moreover that mobility is indistinguishable from a genetically inherited trait. The model sections of the book are quite interesting and the data seems to back up his model. Essentially, he argues that we all have an underlying "social fitness", and our outwardly visible social status is a combination of this underlying trait and a non-trivial random factor. Previous studies have focused on outwardly visible traits, which due to the random factor tend to overstate mobility. This also explains why looking at grandparents or relatives will show correlation to outcomes: doing so dampens the effect of the random factors and reveals the underlying social fitness. In contrast, Clark claims that relatives have no effect and underlying social fitness is entirely determined by your parents. This model makes several predictions that appear to be born out by data. The main one is that social status will tend to regress to the mean over time, so the elite will become less elite and the poor will become richer until each are average. The book is unfortunately quite tedious, essentially repeating the same kind of study over and over for different societies and time periods. You quickly get the point and wish that he would just summarize. His assertion that social status is genetic is given less evidential support. From all this data, Clark concludes that different social organizations have minimal impact on social mobility and we should therefore not focus on mobility policies as such. Rather we should focus on policies to give direct assistance to the most disadvantaged, and rely on slow regression to the mean to equalize society.

Take Your Eye Off the Ball by Kirwal. A book about how to see more while you watch football. It's a good book if you like the NFL but don't know much. I read it because it was highly recommended on reddit, but I guess I knew more than I realized because most (although certainly not all) of the information wasn't new to me.

The Great Debate by Levin. A historical perspective on the origins of the left/right divide in politics following the American and French Revolutions. It draws from the writings of Paine and Burke to illustrate the left and right repectively, and focuses on their radically different core beliefs about how knowledge is obtained to develop the progressive and conservative worldviews. I found this book highly informative and convincing, but the writing was dry in some places so I sometimes felt like I was forcing myself to read it to get to the next insight.

Power and the Presidency by Wilson. This is a very short book consisting of a number of biographical sketches of 20th century presidents. It was a quick read (under an hour) and covered a lot of territory. At the same time, I was expecting a full book, so I'm not really sure where to come down on this ultimately.

The Selfish Gene by Dawkins. I have had this on the back burner since re-reading The Ancestor's Tale, since it's obviously Dawkins' most famous book. I found the book a frustrating combination of slow sections and very interesting sections. I was familiar to begin with the main idea of the book, which made some parts superfluous. Still, reading about the details was very interesting and ignited an interest in evolutionary game theory in me. This made me think in more depth about the analogy between Darwinian evolution and competitive markets, and the problems markets face in dealing with coordination problems, etc.

Basic Economics by Sowell. I gained a lot of respect for Sowell by watching Free To Choose, and this book seems to have a good reputation as a common sense explanation of the breadth of economic fundamentals. I enjoyed it quite a bit. Sowell doesn't hide his bias in favor of free markets, but he discusses the reasons why calmly and tries to explain how markets are in the public interest and government (really, politicians) can't be relied on for long-term public interest. I'm generally sympathetic to this view, but Sowell has a gift for laying issues out plainly and I enjoyed his description of the issues. There are numerous statistics and examples that draw on simple principles in surprising directions and demonstrate the problem with relying on intuition or "common sense" instead of economic principles.

The Road to Reality by Penrose. This book explains development of physics using actual mathematical notation, and starts with a broad history of mathematics itself and the relationship between math and the physical world. It's an amazingly ambitious vision. To start, it covered math that I'm familiar with from other reading (hyperbolic geometry, Dedekind cuts, etc.). As the math evolved towards more esoteric topics, it became indigestible. Penrose is trying to cover too many topics in too few pages at an awkward half-precise/half-folksy level. As most of the Amazon reviews say, its impossible to read without external references to fill in the gaps, and ultimately that's not worth it to me. Apparently the physics sections of the book are impenetrable without having understood the math, so I gave it up. It did inspire me to take another look at The Princeton Companion to Mathematics again, though.

The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns-Goodwin. Longwinded, but interesting and highly relevant to our current political climate. It covers another time of social upheaval and inequality following a major shift of labor organization (industrialization in that case). In those times, laissez faire was the governing consensus, and national political parties had a strong grip on the federal government because the Senate was still selected by state legislatures. The Progressive movement, championed by Teddy Roosevelt, joined forces with a new wave of activist, investigative journalism to galvanize public opinion and change the role of government within society. (If only journalism was equal to the challenge of our current times, instead of exacerbating the problems! Although there are hints in this book that journalism in the Progressive era was polarized on both sides as well, it certainly was not limited to 140 characters or sound bites, to our current detriment!) For much of his career including his Presidency, Teddy Roosevelt was opposed to blind populism, socialism, and other threats to the basic market organization of society. I agree with him on this. But I had no idea what an egotistical maniac Teddy Roosevelt was at the end of his career. He was a war monger that thought war good for the country and casualties weren't a big deal -- he advocated strongly against a treaty that allow for arbitration of international disputes, preferring war. He advocated for popular referenda to overturn judicial rulings (ie mob rule). He encouraged mobs among his supporters and made ridiculous, incendiary personal attacks when running against Taft (his personal friend and former right-hand man). And this was while running for a third term, breaking Washington's precedent of two terms. Basically, a lunatic. It seems entirely plausible that if he had won in 1912, the USA could have become a democratic dictatorship. I need to read more history.

Capitalism and Freedom by Friedman. After debating libertarian friends, getting a grounding in basic economics, and enjoying The Non-Libertarian FAQ, I decided to take a serious look at the intellectual movement. Where better to start than the most influential libertarian in the last half century? The first comment to make is how well these arguments hold up sixty years later, and how many have been vindicated. The second is that although I'm convinced the government can do less (I didn't need much convincing), I'm not convinced that the private sector should be left unrestrained. That is, I still believe regulated privatization is usually the answer, not a complete removal of government.

The Origins of the Modern World by Marks. This is an excellent, concise history of the last several centuries of world history, taking a "world system" view of history and focusing on the major conceptual developments. I strongly recommend it to anyone, and I need to re-read it myself.

Shogun by Clavell. I re-read this after reading it in high school. An all-time classic and part of my literary upbrining. When...that terrible thing happened that I won't mention because of was literally pychologically damaging to me for several days. This was the first book that caused that kind of reaction to me.

Civil Disobedience by Thoreau. I was put onto this essay by a friend who leans libertarian. After reading it, my initial feeling was that it wasn't terribly impressive. It seemed to harmonize well with a lot of libertarian thought and not add terribly much, and I have many of the same objections to the thesis of the essay as I do to libertarian proposals. It was only once I had put the essay in its historical context, seeing how it had inspired Gandhi and MLK and introduced the idea of civil disobedience in an original, compelling way, that I could appreciate its value.

Spellwright by Charlton. This is a fairly original fantasy fiction book, but I was somehow not drawn in. Maybe there wasn't enough world building, or the characters were too thin. I don't know if I can read any new fantasy series after Kingkiller and A Song of Ice and Fire.

Beyond Fundamentalism by Aslan. This is a good introduction to the issues facing the West and Islam, with a sympathetic portrayal of the Islamic perspective and the relevant history. I think it's valuable to be aware of this given the foreign policy challenges we face.

This Explains Everything compiled by Brockman. A compilation of short essays from Edge magazine contributors about their favorite deep and beautiful explanations. It's rather hit-or-miss, but because of the format, the misses never last long enough to detract from the hits. All told, I'd give this a mild recommendation, but it shouldn't be first on your reading list.

1493 by Charles C. Mann. An excellent companion to 1491, but inevitably less original than the first. Still worth reading and very revealing as to how the modern world came to be.

Why Nations Fail by Acemoglu. This book does a convincing job of defending the thesis that institutions are predictive of economic growth, rather than the other way around. In the process it delves into history as well as modern examples in the third world. The historical examples are the most convincing, since I am familiar with the broad strokes of European history being discussed. The third world examples are convincing as well, but since I'm no expert on international development, its hard for me to say if they are acturately portraying the subject.

1491 by Charles C. Mann. I never had much interest in Native American culture, but I was curious why it was so backwards relative to European civilization. This book really blew the subject wide open for me (spoiler: it wasn't so backward after all). The book thoroughly supports its thesis that indigenous societies were much more advanced and interesting than the American education system gives them credit for.

Antifragile by Nassim Taleb. Taleb is the most bombastic, pompous, self-congratulatory author I have ever had the displeasure of reading. He has some mildly interesting insights, but nothing to justify his attitude. Besides, his examples are often overwrought if not outright false. (Ie, he rails against government funded research, and cites the internet as an example of how research should be done. Apparently he doesn't know the history of the internet.) All you need to know is: only systems that have modular components and an evolutionary approach that encourages and learns from failure will survive. Spare yourself the pain and skip this book.

The Benefit and the Burden by Bruce Bartlett. An approachable but highly informative introduction to tax policy. I've read it twice it was so good. If you care about fiscal issues, you really owe it to yourself to read this one.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. It's about Steve Jobs. Not much else to say here.

The Evolution of God by Robert Wright. This book goes over the history of Abrahamic religion and essentially debunks the each religion's narrative about its own history. The book definitely has an agenda, but even taken with a grain of salt it is provocative and compelling.

The Speech by Bernie Sanders. This is a transcription of a filibuster given by Senator Sanders about income inequality and need for the rich to bear a larger burden of the fiscal responsibility. I was interested in a book about income inequality in America, but this was much too politicized and partisan for my taste (completely obvious in retrospect).

The Net Delusion by Evgeny Morosov. This book counters the thesis that the internet and technology will lead to freedom and democracy. It gives numerous examples about how technology impedes real action being taken ("slacktivism") and can be used maliciously by authority. It also shows how historic cases of "internet revolutions" weren't caused by the internet at all. I read about two-thirds of this book, the writing seemed unnecessary complex and I felt I had gotten the point.

The Coming Population Crash by Fred Pearce. An excellent, optimistic book about changing demographics, modernization, population, and sustainability of human life. I highly recommend.

The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. A book about how too much choice can lead to indecisiveness and unhappiness. The thesis of the book is that people shouldn't try for perfection in a world with abundant choice, rather you should aim for satisfactory choices and be happy with it. Unfortunately, I felt the book dragged on much longer than needed after having made its point.

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. A public-friendly introduction to behavioral economics. I think this is something everyone should read to understand the foibles of the human brain, and how dumb things can happen despite the best economic incentives.

Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty by Morris Kline. This is one of my favorite non-fiction books, period. It covers the history of mathematics with an eye to the foundational challenges that have arisen, and the meaning of mathematics itself. It is simply fantastic.

The Fellowship by John Gribbin. Covers the founding of the Royal Society, from the "first scientist" (Gilbert) through Halley. Biographies of the main characters were very interesting. I particularly enjoyed the depiction of Newton and Hooke -- I always thought that Newton was deified and given too much credit. This seems to be the case.

Supreme Conflict by Jan Crawford Greenburg. Highly readable biography of the modern Court. Good read.

Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney: Slavery, Secession, and the President's War Powers by James F. Simon. I've always been fascinated by the Supreme Court, and I wanted a more sophisticated perspective on the Civil War. This book delivered. I think it was especially good considering the judicial issues surrounding the "War on Terror".

Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. I picked up this book to learn something of modern Chinese history. The book is extremely interesting, but it reads as something of a character assassination or caricature of Mao. The book has essentially nothing to say that is favorable of him. Nevertheless, if half of what the book says is true, it forms a strong case for Mao as one of the worst rulers in the history of the world. I recommend people take a look, although I would personally like to read a biography with a more moderate perspective.

1776 by David McCullough. An interesting biography of the American Revolution. I was surprised to learn how little I knew of it, but I wished it had covered more than a single year.

Cosmos by Carl Sagan. I really enjoyed the perspective Sagan brings to the subject. There are no limits for him.

Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins. Well written and clear, I learned a lot. My biology background has always been weak, this was an informative and entertaining read.

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. Interesting book that I mostly agree with. I think the "scientific" approach to history has a lot of strength.

The Princeton Companion to Mathematics. I don't claim to have read the whole thing, or even close, but this book is amazing. The treatment of subjects can be difficult to follow if you don't have the background (like I don't for most of it), but it is still fascinating.

God Created the Integers and On the Shoulders of Giants by Stephen Hawking. I read the introductions to each text, but for the most part the original texts themselves were too cryptic for me to struggle through. I thought the histories in God Created the Integers were extremely interesting.