Recommended Readings

Books, podcasts, and more

Share

Prologue

When I finished writing “Some things I’ve learned in college,” I thought it was one of my least interesting posts to date. Surprisingly, it was one of my most viewed and has generated the most discussion of all (as measured by Reddit comments, here).

As has been noted by many a wise sage, page views and comments are not a perfect measure of a piece of writing’s quality, or overall value. However, the value of writing to someone who never sees it is zero, so the two do have something to do with each other.

In hindsight, this shouldn’t have been so surprising. Of course I already know what I’ve learned in college, so I’m not going to find it particularly interesting to write down. On the other hand, I often learn quite a bit by writing blog posts, both through object-level research and simply by spending time thinking about a topic.

But, of course, no one else knows I learned in college. So, I am currently trying to consider which aspects of my own life, despite being “obvious” to me, others might find interesting. The lowest hanging fruit is media recommendations. Tons of blogs have lists of favorite books, articles, or other blogs, and, as I’ve noted before, I spend a little too much time listening to audiobooks and podcasts.

So, here are some things I recommend you read or listen to. But first, how to listen to them:

Programs

Pay especially close attention if, like me, you prefer listening to reading.

Libby

  • A gem of the internet: tens of thousands of free books and audiobooks, and not just boring old ones in the public domain.

  • You need a library card, but it took me about five minutes to get for someone else when helping him set up the app.

  • Digital copies are limited for most books, so the popular ones can take a while. But there are always quite a few good nonfiction audiobooks available,and some have unlimited copies so there is never a wait.

  • Also, it lets you adjust the reading speed in 5% increments (1x, 1.05x, 1.1x, …), which is surprisingly useful. Any app that still limits you to 1.25x or 1.5x speed needs to learn this lesson.

  • Most of the books below I listened to on Libby, so I won’t bother finding the link to them. Search for “Libby” in the App Store, and then search for the book there.

  • I have no idea why more people don’t know about this. Spread the word!

LibraryThing

  • Super clunky 90s-looking website that makes up for aesthetics with utility.

  • Input a list of books you like, and get an instant list of recommendations.

Pocket

  • There are a million programs for saving links that you want to (i.e. will probably never) read later.

  • But its secondary function is awesome: the iPhone iOS app automatically generates an audio recording of any article you save. Not ideal for pages with lots of graphics or important formatting, but super convenient for walls of text.

  • For some reason, the mac version of the app doesn’t have this feature. Damn.

  • This is my go-to text-to-voice program for miscellaneous articles I don’t need to focus on super well.

Speechify

  • Nice, free text-to-voice software.

  • The Good: super fine-grained speed adjustment up to incomprehensibly fast, pretty good automated reading voice, highlights words as it reads them.

  • The bad: kinda glitchy, for me anyway. Just stops reading once in a while and sometimes hard to edit copy-and-pasted text.

  • I use this one for longer texts (long articles, entire books) that don’t have important graphics. Will often read and listen at the same time if it is important.

NaturalReader Chrome extension

  • My go-to text-to-speech for reading shorter webpages or those with important graphics.

  • The good: reads directly from a webpage so you don’t have to switch into another program; much better for pages with important graphics. Highlights sentences as they are read.

  • The bad: the fastest reading speed isn’t that fast. It’s ok, but I could see someone with a better-oiled brain than my own unsatisfied. Also kinda glitchy - sometimes takes me back to the top of the article after I pause for more than a few seconds.

Books

Cream of the crop: my strongest recommendations

The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Ian McGilchrist.
  • Perhaps my strongest recommendation on the list. Completely worldview-shifting, with implications for every facet of human life, psychology, culture, and society, not to mention philosophy and artificial intelligence. Deserves a careful read by virtually everyone.

  • Central claim: our two brain hemispheres process information in fundamentally different ways, which correspond to competing worldview, conscious experiences, ontologies and epistemologies.

  • Fair warning: a very dense book. I did not listen to this one, and doubt that I could have. Listening < reading << careful reading with notes.

The Precipice by Toby Ord
  • A last-minute addition to the list, I started reading after beginning to write this post and am now nearly finished.

  • Basic claim: humanity could have an awesome future, but there’s a substantial chance (around one in six, according to Ord) we’ll suffer an “existential catastrophe” — basically extinction or something similar — within the next century.

  • Ord is meticulous and rigorous, considering natural risks like supervolcano explosions, existing anthropogenic risks like nuclear war, and risks from future technologies like artificial intelligence. He considers weird anthropic principle observational biases, what conclusions we can draw from our past survival, the implications of risks being correlated or anti-correlated, and more.

  • It’s worth a read if only as an exemplar of what a really earnest (and IMO successful) effort to answer one particular question (namely, determining the probability of humanity losing its potential in the next century) looks like.

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
  • Written pre-internet and around the peak of television’s cultural dominance, the book is an unapologetic diatribe against TV as a source of information.

  • Main claim: whereas the written word is a medium optimized for transmission of a particular set of ideas, or “rational argumentation,” TV encourages information—including news and ‘educational’ programming—to be packaged as entertainment. The result is a culture with lower quality discourse and shorter attention spans.

  • Although TV has ceded its hegemony to the internet, the larger point remains as valid as ever: a medium of communication (writing, speaking, TV, Twitter) has not only first-order consequences on the information being transmitted, but far-reaching second-order consequences on society at large.

  • The most memorable part of the book is Postman’s description of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Not that the politicians debated for 3 hours using complex sentence structures and forms of argumentation, but that completely normal people voluntarily and enthusiastically watched the whole thing! Not scholars or elites - just regular old farmers and blacksmiths or whatever. Not going to lie, this made me jealous. Like many of us in the internet age, I wish my attention was stronger and more robust. Despite being more educated than most of the debate audience, random 1860s farmers apparently had much stronger attention spans than my own.

The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace Wells
  • I don’t usually read books that are preaching to the choir (i.e. just convincing me of what I already believe), but even us follow-the-science liberals or progressives probably tend to underrate the importance of climate change. However bad you think it is going to be, it will probably be worse.

  • Also, Wallace-Wells’ writing itself is off-the-charts eloquent and poetic. Even if you think climate change is a Chinese hoax, this book is valuable if only as an exemplar of poetic prose.

A Secular Age by Charles Taylor
  • The central claim is that the West’s secularization is highly path-dependent on religious history, and not a mere “subtraction story” in which current culture = past culture - religion.

  • Also a tour de force cultural and ideological history, detailing the ways in which people across history understood the universe and their place in it.

  • This is the only book on the list assigned to me in a class (see my description of “Religion and Secularism” in my last post). Admittedly, we only read about two thirds of the book, and I haven’t gone back to finish it.

  • Fair warning: it’s really dense. Not casual reading. One of the few on the list I did not consume as an audiobook, and for good reason. No way I would have absorbed anything meaningful from it if I wasn’t taking notes while reading.

Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein
  • The first draft of this post read “No, I haven’t read this book. Yes, I’m listing it as a top recommendation. It’s my blog, I can do what I want. Yes, this recommendation applies to myself. I should read it too.”

  • I took my own advice and listened to the audiobook. Thanks for the advice, Aaron!

  • Klein is the person I trust most to help me understand American politics. For those of you not willing to spend the equivalent of multiple days listening to Klein talk on his podcast, I strongly suspect this book is the best and most efficient way to get a good taste of his ideas.

  • Short summary: some contingent historical circumstances somehow allowed the American political system to function through most of the 20th century. Also, the parties didn’t used to be so ideologically different, and our identities didn’t tend to align so well - knowing someone’s party didn’t tell you a ton about them.

  • Now, the system is working “normally,” with politicians behaving predictably according to incentives instead of abiding by a set of unstable norms. Also, party identity is now a good predictor of just about every demographic, psychological, and ideological dimension.

  • End the filibuster! It’s a fake “tradition,” and prohibits virtually any law from ever passing, ever1.

  • You can read Scott Alexander’s review here, which is very good, but I do think it is slightly uncharitable to a few of Klein’s arguments, particularly about D.C. statehood (for more: see my “direct effects matter” post).

The Party by Richard McGregor.
  • The worst part of this book is its subtitle, “The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers.” That makes it sound like an exposé detailing leaders’ personal lives. It isn’t.

  • Instead, it’s an investigation into how the Chinese Communist Party interacts with virtually every facet of Chinese society.

  • Strongly recommended for those like myself who don’t know much about Chinese government and society.

The Decadent Society by Ross Douthat
  • Straddles the line between “creme of the crop” and “very honorable mentions.”

  • A pessimistic view of contemporary Western society: amidst prosperity, we have stagnation, stalemate, and sloth in economic and technological progress, cultural development, teleological meta-narratives, and more.

  • You (if you share my politics) get intellectual diversity points for reading something by a bona fide conservative.

Very honorable mentions

Podcasts

Effective Altruism/Rationalism Cluster

80,000 Hours

  • Highest recommendation on the list. Centered around effective altruism, but plenty of episodes on broader interesting topics related to philosophy, economics, government, and more.

  • Best part: the episodes are often 3+ hours long. This means half of the show isn’t wasted just getting a few basic ideas on the table.

  • They’ve put together a list of their ten best or most fundamental episodes here.

Rationally Speaking
  • Ever get frustrated that two people are talking around an issue or slightly past each other? Then this is the podcast for you!

  • The host, Julia Galef, doesn’t let that happen. Her goal in life is to zero-in on the precise “crux of disagreement” and try to figure out what evidence would resolve it.

Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg
  • Kinda like Rationally Speaking and 80k, but a bit more conceptual and abstract than either. One on one discussions about everything from sex work to social science

Astral Codex Ten
  • Verbatim readings of Astral Codex Ten/Slate Star Codex posts

  • From the podcast’s Patreon: “There are some people who will never in a million years read a 5000 word post, but have no problem listening to a 30 minute podcast. I'm hoping that by creating an audio version of this great content, it will reach some of those people who would otherwise never encounter it.” That’s me! Thank you for doing this!

  • I hope other folks might get inspired to do the same thing for other blogs or articles - either one’s own or those by another author (with his or her permission).

We Are Not Saved
  • Verbatim readings of the smaller blog We Are Not Saved by Jeremiah, who began the Astral Codex Ten podcast (corrected from a previous version of the post).

  • A cultural conservative’s take on the threats facing our society. Many similarities with Douthat’s book The Decadent Society.

  • If you’re just starting to read or listen, start at the older posts/episodes. Some of the recent ones have been a little dry. Sorry Jeremiah. Don’t worry, there’s always regression to the mean.

Everything Else

The Ezra Klein Show

  • All the older episodes are at the old feed here. Everything before 2021 is Ezra.

  • It was better—more varied, interesting guests— before Klein was at NYT. Still good, though.

  • I’ve already said enough in the books section.

The Portal

  • The world needs low false-positive thinkers (like Ezra Klein) and low false-negative thinkers.

  • Host Eric Weinstein falls in the latter category. He sees real patterns where others do not, but at the cost of seeing patterns where none exist. Don’t accept him as a guru, but don’t write off everything he says either.

  • How to even describe this one? Something like an intentional effort to break every Overton window out there, shattered glass be damned.

  • Weinstein is the guy who coined the term “intellectual dark web,” so there’s plenty of “cancel culture/wokism bad.” Fair warning.

The Wright Show

  • Hosted by Robert Wright, scholar of religion, member of the foreign policy anti-establishment, and author of Nonzero, The Evolution of God (which could be an honorable mention to my list of honorable mentions), and Why Buddhism is True.

  • Interview with interesting people on a wide range of topics, often concentrated around politics, religion, and foreign policy.

  • Also, once a week, Wright shoots the shit with Mickey Kaus about the week’s events and the latest controversies and hot topics in the D.C. Discourse. I find Kaus’s politics kind of infuriating, but his friendship with Wright across the ideological aisle is quite endearing. Recommended if and only if you’d enjoy having a beer with two old men gossiping around a campfire.

Conversations With Tyler

  • Yet another show featuring a smart person (Tyler Cowen) interviewing other smart people. Not much more to say.

EconTalk

  • The OG econ podcast: Like the four podcasts above, good, long interviews on a range of topics, often but not always related to economics.

  • Roberts is solidly pro free market. Good perspective if you have progressive tendencies, but don’t take his as the word of God.

Economics Detective Radio

  • Highly underrated podcast - only 52 reviews!

  • Interviews generally focus on economics, but also relate to a huge range of topics.

  • Unfortunately, the host is a very busy PhD student, so doesn’t post new episodes very often

The Weeds

  • Even though he left Vox a few months ago, Matt Yglesias continues to host this biweekly hour-long dive into some policy topic.

  • Sometimes about something arbitrary, sometimes relating to something salient in the news.

  • Sometimes a conversation with a few other Vox reporters, sometimes just Matt interviewing an outside expert.

  • Insofar as you want to consume information about American news and politics, this is one of my favorite combinations of information value/quality analysis and entertainment value.

Worldly

  • Another one from Vox: basically the slightly less interesting international affairs/news companion to the U.S.-centric The Weeds.

  • Similar schtick: does a good job of presenting (what seems to be) quality analysis in an entertaining format.

Embrace the Void

  • Another small, underrated show: intellectual conversations about philosophy, culture (and the culture war), and politics.

  • The host is solidly a member of the anti-anti-woke left, but, perhaps to the surprise of some, is extraordinarily intellectually honest and charitable even to his conservative guests.

  • IMO required listening for those enmeshed in an IDW or anti-woke milieu.

Making Sense with Sam Harris

  • The last culture-warry entry on my list, Harris joins Eric Weinstein as one of the better and more constructive members of the IDW.

  • Like The Portal, there’s plenty of the expected “cancel culture bad” stuff but also lots of interesting conversations about philosophy, neuroscience and psychology, politics, and more.

  • Many former guests are authors of the books in the previous section, including Ian McGilchrist of The Master and His Emissary and Toby Ord of The Precipice.

The Neoliberal Podcast

  • In case you were unaware, the pejorative “neoliberal” has been revived into a positive, coherent pragmatic center-left ideology. For more, check out this article.

  • Similar to The Weeds but with more of an explicit ideological basis, interviews about nuanced policy issues, from the social safety net to the opioid epidemic to foreign policy vis-à-vis China.

Two Psychologists, Four Beers

  • Discussions between two academic psychologists (over beer, of course), sometimes with a guest.

  • Topics are both object-level issues in psychology (ego depletion, addiction) and issues about psychology or academia like the replication crisis.

The Black Goat

  • Not sure why I listen to this one, but it’s good

  • A more “sober” (haha) version of Two Psychologists. More of a focus on meta-level discussion about academia and academic life, from a university’s place in society to the incentives created by tenure seeking

Conclusion

Hope you find some of these interesting, useful, or entertaining. Also, feel free to share your own recommendations in the comments!

Leave a comment

1

Except for budget reconciliation, which lets us pass like one law a year, sometimes.