Like most people overconfident in their tastes in books, I love giving book recommendations. As soon as I hear somebody say: “I’m looking for books to read,” I feel the urge to come flying at them with a pitchfork in one hand and, in the other, a long list of books that I swear will change their life forever, the way they changed mine.

But I restrain myself. Reading is personal. What we enjoy reading depends on our experience, our personality, where we’re in life and where we’re headed. I’ve read somewhere that the worst kind of books are those given to you by other people.

This list isn’t meant to be a recommendation, but a self exposition. These books shaped my last decade, and since it was my coming-of-age, these books shaped who I am. It was compiled in response to the conversations I’ve had with some of my close friends – Paul Warren, Paul Marum, and Lucio Dery. They promised to show me their lists if I show them mine.

What makes a book good

In the last 10 years, I read about 400 books. The average rating I gave these books is 3.95 star, which is within the average range of 3.8 to 4.0 star for books on Goodreads. I enjoyed 78% of the books I read (4 and 5 star). For every three books I chose to read, I loved one of them (5 star).

Ratings
Distribution of my ratings of books on Goodreads (some missing)

I consider a book good if it has at least one of the four things:

  1. It gives me one idea that changes the way I see the world and my place in it.
  2. It takes me on an adventure.
  3. It lets me get inside someone’s head.
  4. It’s a masterpiece of prose.

My general principles when choosing and reading a book:

  1. The popularity of a book correlates poorly with how much I like it.
  2. I avoid reading more than one book on the same topic by the same author. Subsequent books tend to repeat the first.
  3. I avoid authors who fall for what I call the Malcolm Gladwell fallacy: they sacrifice the truth for the sake of crafting a narrative.
  4. I avoid books whose marketing strategies rely on the authors’ names instead of the books’ actual content, e.g. memoirs of celebrities.
  5. I avoid books on fashionable topics. What is timely is the least likely to stand the test of time.
  6. I love it when someone spends their entire life on one topic and then writes a book about it.
  7. Some books follow the 80/20 rule: you can get 80% out of a book by reading 20% of it. The first 20% of The Power Broker is a masterpiece. The rest is just dragging on.
  8. It’s ok to appreciate someone’s intellect despite their personality.

Based on this list, if you think there are some books I’d enjoy, feel free to make recommendations. I’d love to read the list of books that shaped your decade too.

The books that changed the way I see the world and my place in it

1. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

This book corrected my misunderstanding of natural selection and validated my existential crisis. There’s no free will.

We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.

2. Black Swan and Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

There are two types of randomness. The first type is predictable randomness such as when you roll a die. You don’t know for sure if a number will come up but you won’t be surprised if it does. The second type is unpredictable randomness such as the 9/11 attack. If we expected something like that to happen, we would have prevented it. Those events are known as black swans. Their existence invalidates what we consider normal, similar to how the existence of one single black swan invalidates the belief that all swans are white.

We can’t predict black swan events, but we make ourselves resistant to them by making ourselves antifragile. Antifragile is different from robust. Robust is not become weaker in the face of adversity. Antifragile is become stronger in the face of adversity. Curiosity and love are naturally antifragile. The more we try to stop them, the stronger they become.

3. From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000 by Lee Kuan Yew

We faced tremendous odds with an improbable chance of survival. Singapore was not a natural country but man-made, a trading post the British had developed into a nodal point in their worldwide maritime empire. We inherited the island without its hinterland, a heart without a body.

In one generation, Lee Kuan Yew turned Singapore into the country of the future. This book discusses his views and decisions on internal public policies as well as external diplomatic relations.

4. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

Haidt argued that the divergence between left and right ideologies can be explained by his Moral Foundations Theory. According to this theory, there are six foundations to morality:

  • Care/harm
  • Fairness/cheating
  • Liberty/oppression
  • Loyalty/betrayal
  • Authority/subversion
  • Sanctity/degradation

His research shows that liberals base their moral judgments on only the first three foundations, while conservatives use all six. Many on the left even see these last three as the foundations of xenophobia, authoritarianism, and puritanism.

5. Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos

“One-sixth of the world’s population speaks Chinese. Why are we studying English?” he asked. He turned and gestured to a row of foreign teachers seated glumly behind him. “Because we pity them for not being able to speak Chinese!” The crowd roared.

6. How to change your mind by Michael Pollan

Psychedelic diminishes our sense of self and allows us to merge into something bigger.

Honorable mentions

7. Dataclysm: Who We Are by Christian Rudder

8. A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn

9. Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics by Richard H. Thaler

10. On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins

The books that take me on an adventure

1. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.

2. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.

3. Tippi: My Book of Africa by Tippi Degré

Ratings

4. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

“You know,” said Arthur, “it’s at times like this, when I’m trapped in a Vogon airlock with a man from Betelgeuse, and about to die of asphyxiation in deep space that I really wish I’d listened to what my mother told me when I was young.”
“Why, what did she tell you?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t listen.”

5. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost

6. On the Road by Jack Kerouac

… the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

7. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

The secret of a good old age is simply an honorable pact with solitude.

The books that let me get inside someone's head

1. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

Never before did I realize that mental illness could have the aspect of power, power. Think of it: perhaps the more insane a man is, the more powerful he could become.

2. Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

3. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Iqbal, that great poet, was so right. The moment you recognize what is beautiful in this world, you stop being a slave. To hell with the Naxals and their guns shipped from China. If you taught every poor boy how to paint, that would be the end of the rich in India.

4. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

The Olinka girls do not believe girls should be educated. When I asked a mother why she thought this, she said: “A girl is nothing to herself; only to her husband can she become something.”
“What can she become?” I asked.
“Why, she said, the mother of his children.”
“But I am not the mother of anybody’s children,” I said, “and I am something.”

5. We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Look at the children of the land leaving in droves, leaving their own land with bleeding wounds on their bodies and shock on their faces and blood in their hearts and hunger in their stomachs and grief in their footsteps. Leaving their mothers and fathers and children behind, leaving their umbilical cords underneath the soil, leaving the bones of their ancestors in the earth, leaving everything that makes them who and what they are, leaving because it is no longer possible to stay. They will never be the same again because you cannot be the same once you leave behind who and what you are, you just cannot be the same.

6. The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

But in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world.

7. Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell

And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib.

8. "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!": Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard P. Feynman

I began to read the paper. It kept talking about extensors and flexors, the gastrocnemius muscle, and so on. This and that muscle were named, but I hadn’t the foggiest idea of where they were located in relation to the nerves or to the cat. So I went to the librarian in the biology section and asked her if she could find me a map of the cat.

“A map of the cat, sir?” she asked, horrified. “You mean a zoological chart!” From then on there were rumors about some dumb biology graduate student who was looking for a “map of the cat.”

When it came time for me to give my talk on the subject, I started off by drawing an outline of the cat and began to name the various muscles.

The other students in the class interrupt me: “We know all that!”

“Oh,” I say, “you do? Then no wonder I can catch up with you so fast after you’ve had four years of biology.” They had wasted all their time memorizing stuff like that, when it could be looked up in fifteen minutes.

The books that are masterpieces of prose

1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.

2. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back. The brain has shut down. The flesh begins to soften. Nothing much new happens, and nothing is expected of you.

3. Calypso by David Sedaris

…for we were middle-class and I’d been raised to believe that our social status inoculated us against severe misfortune. A person might be broke from time to time—who wasn’t?—but you could never be poor the way that actual poor people were: poor with lice and missing teeth … At what point had I realized that class couldn’t save you, that addiction or mental illness didn’t care whether you’d taken piano lessons or spent a summer in Europe?

4. The Liars' Club by Mary Karr

So over the years, Daddy and I grew abstract to each other. We knew each other in theory and loved in theory. But if placed in proximity - when I came home, say - any room we sat in would eventually fall into a soul-sucking quiet I could hardly stand.

5. Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

He says, you have to study and learn so that you can make up your own mind about history and everything else but you can’t make up an empty mind. Stock your mind, stock your mind. You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace.