Ten books

All the cool kids are doing it….

In no particular order:

  • Heinlein, Robert A.: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  Not only is it a cracking good story, but it’s a thoroughly accessible exposition of human rights and obligations (and the relationship between the two); force, authority, and state-dependence; and the workings of what might be a stable, sustainable anarchism.  Of particular note is how little the Loonies lives’ changed over the course of the book, and that could be its most inspiring and uplifting message: we don’t have to smash the state, we just have to make it irrelevant.
  • Cooper, Jeff: Principles of Personal Defense. Made me stop obsessing over technique and start paying more attention to mindset.  The deeper message — that self-defence is both a right and an obligation (as all rights are obligations) — cannot be overemphasized.
  • Kernighan, Brian and Ritchie, Dennis: The C Programming Language, Second Edition.  Yes, really.  This book encapsulates everything I love about programming and does a damn fine job of elucidating C itself — not just enumerating features but teaching idiom as well.  The best part of the book — and the language — may be the fact that K&R is so rarely needed as a reference, even though it serves well in that role.
  • Levitt, Steven and Dubner, Stephen: Freakonomics.  Presented, and got me interested in, economics as a useful discipline rather than an esoteric and usually-wrong form of prognostication limited to central bankers.  Also (somewhat) rehabilitated the social sciences to me after a few years of marinating in faculty-of-science (“if you need a qualifier, you’re not doing science”) contempt therefor.
  • Diamond, Jared: Guns, Germs, and Steel. See Freakonomics, above, but replace “economics” with “history”.
  • Caplan, Bryan: The Myth of the Rational Voter. Once I’d gotten interested in economics by way of the popularized stuff, this book showed me that I could read serious econ scholarship and get something out of it.  More generally, this (and a few other things) convinced me that there’s very little I can’t do, just an awful lot of stuff I haven’t made myself capable of doing… yet. (And while I’m slathering on the praise: Caplan’s ideologically even-handed explanation of “how an economist thinks” helped me break out of a doctrinaire Rothbardian rut.  I’m still ultimately a Rothbardian, just less stridently so.)
  • Watt, Alan and Watt, Mark: Advanced Animation and Rendering Techniques. Amazingly concise, and seems to contain the fundamentals of all of computer graphics.  This book was the source of all dreams, aspirations, and magic when I bought it in high school, and I’m amazed that I kept plugging away at it, trying to understand Fourier sampling theory and differential geometry before having taken a real calculus class.  It’s still my first point of contact when I run into a piece of the discipline I haven’t touched, or haven’t touched lately.  Only the code samples have aged.
  • Hunt, Andrew and Thomas, David: The Pragmatic Programmer. Five years ago, I might’ve said that this book made me a better programmer.  Now, I’ll more accurately say that this book prompted me to make myself a better programmer.  I used to read it every year; I’ve just picked it up again.
  • Feynman, Richard: Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! Utterly sold me on academics, science, and iconoclasm.  The “science lab” segments at the beginning also convinced me that I really want to build a railgun; fortunately, I took stock of my EE skills before buying a soldering iron and haven’t started work on it yet.  Maybe I’ll design and build a formula car first.
  • Wolfe, Claire: The Freedom Outlaw’s Handbook. I began this list with an essay on practical liberty, so I might as well end it with another one.  Wolfe’s Handbook provides a lot of ways for independently-minded folk to maintain and expand their freedoms, and in general incites an attitude of active obstreperousness that would make Prof. Bernardo de la Paz burst with pride and admiration.  Passive acquiescence is for grass-eaters.

The inevitable nature of these lists is that I’ll leave out many books which deserve a place of honour, whether through absent-mindedness or changes of heart.  I can live with that.  These aren’t my top ten books, but they’re fairly representative.

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