We highlight here works that have in some unexpected way shaped our way of looking at the world. Some are written with unusual clarity or beauty; others examine unconventional paradigms. Note that there is no particular order to the topics and no pretense of covering any one topic in a systematic or scholarly manner.
Most of the titles below may readily be found in your public library, which we encourage you to patronize. You can also find them at used and new booksellers, either offline or online, including amazon.com, to which the titles are linked.
Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in the Markets and in Life (Nassim Taleb) may be the most unusual book on investment behavior available. It will sharpen your view of markets, and make you wonder about so-called successful traders, yet does not actually contradict classical wisdom as expounded in better known books. (See next paragraph.) The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Malcolm Gladwell), while not really about markets, extrapolates so easily to the theme that it also deserves mention here; it explains credibly how the behavior of an entire population can swing from one mode to another.
In Comparison: A Random Walk Down Wall Street (Burton Malkiel) teaches the basic, essential dose of humility investors require but almost never have and The Four Pillars of Investing: Lessons for Building a Winning Portfolio (William J. Bernstein) makes a similar, effective case for our basic state of helplessness. For sheer diverting charm it is hard to beat Reminiscences of a Stock Operator (Edwin Lefevre), a 1923 first person account of Jesse Livermore, a trader who repeatedly made and lost fortunes. Many years after this book appeared, broke once again, Livermore shot himself in the head.
Der Vorleser (Bernhard Schlink). A novel whose purely narrative first part leaves some ostensibly minor plot questions open but betrays nothing of the large matters of conscience or guilt or moral obligation to follow in the second part, matters that often emerge in startling and breathtaking ways. The chief danger is to read this book after having heard too much about it—foreknowledge will detract from your surprise and delight. Also available in English translation as The Reader.
A Pattern Language (Christopher Alexander et. al.). Two hundred and fifty-three specific recommendations for improving the livability of communities, buildings, and rooms, assembled in an ambitious hierarchical framework. Regardless of whether or not one finds the overall framework coherent or indispensable, the individual recommendations remind us of the human elements in our environment that give it its heart. The book itself has a feel of antiquity, which is after all where so many of our lasting ideas have come down from.
In Comparison: The most down-to-earth of the author’s nine or so books to date. For example The Timeless Way of Building attempts to pinpoint the elusive "Quality Without a Name," but ultimately frustrates by the absence of something concrete to chew on. The Oregon Experiment and The Mary Rose Museum describe specific projects but shed much less light on what moves the human spirit. A Foreshadowing of 21st Century Art, like The Timeless Way of Building, lacks the concreteness that gives A Pattern Language its charm.
A River Runs Through It (Norman Maclean). Ostensibly built around reflections on fly-fishing in Montana, but essentially a tale of personal relationships told in bold, evocative prose.
In Comparison: More powerful and less pretentious than other stories by the same author, such as "USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky".
The Education of Little Tree (Forrest Carter). The cycles of the seasons and of life and death, seen through the eyes of a boy raised by Cherokee grandparents. This trio stays a course close to nature in the face of the best and worst of civilization. This is the author's last, apparently autobiographical, book.
In Comparison: His earlier The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales, while expressing many of the same values, oozes with gratuitous bestiality. Both it and the even earlier Gone to Texas, first published as The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales, showcase the protagonist’s savvy and gunslinging prowess, but neither touches human depths as directly as does The Education of Little Tree.
The Way to Cook (Julia Child) is full of the author’s contagious enthusiasm for cooking. Her basic recipes are followed by flexible and wide-ranging variations that encourage experimentation and liberate the reader from the shackles of fussily prescriptive written recipes. True to herself, Ms. Child makes only token efforts to temper her rich recommendations with lower-fat alternatives.
In comparison: Not as encyclopedic as The Joy of Cooking (Irma S. Rombauer et al.), not as healthy or trendy as Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (Deborah Madison), not as hyped as The Moosewood Cookbook (Mollie Katzen), and not as mercilessly exacting as the author’s earlier Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck), but more alive than all of them. It should be emphasized that unlike many cookbooks with recipes that look interesting on paper, these come out tasting good as well, which is a tribute to the author’s taste.
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Edward Tufte) contains exemplars of effective presentations of data, the most poignant of which is the 1861 depiction of Napoleon’s advance into Russia and the subsequent decimation of his withdrawing troops. This landmark book will reduce your patience for the superfluous embellishments and hard-to-understand charts you see in magazines and presentations. It does for visual presentation what the admonishments “Be clear” and “Omit needless words” from The Elements of Style do for the written word.
In comparison: The author’s subsequent works, Envisioning Information and Visual Explanations, while also commendable, are less groundbreaking.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (Oliver Sacks). Case studies of patients with neurological anomalies, portrayed with eloquence and heart.
In Comparison: Superior to Awakenings, a drier and longer clinical account of Sacks's experiences with patients suffering from Parkinson-like disease, as well as A Leg to Stand On and Uncle Tungsten, both of which are autobiographical and therefore do not reveal Sacks’s extraordinary empathy for people who are “different.”
The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (Andrew Solomon) is ambitious, overwhelming in scope, and powerfully exact. The portrayal of major depression here is simply harrowing. If you don’t have the time for this book, consider the author’s article “Anatomy of Melancholy,” which appeared in the January 12, 1998 issue of The New Yorker and is, insofar as is possible in abbreviated form, nearly as effective as the whole book.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Robert Pirsig). About the indefinability of the notion of quality, which is ultimately the same theme as Alexander’s Timeless above, but expressed here at an utterly personal level, in the context of one man’s life and quest and tragedy.
In Comparison: Superior to any number of business management books that invent arcane metrics for measuring quality, which after all is inherently not measurable. Also superior to the author's subsequent book Lila.
The Elements of Style (William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White). The archetype of little books that dispense advice on how to write better. The original edition by Strunk appeared in 1918; subsequent updates by E.B. White began to appear in 1959. Despite its age, its down-to-earthness and relevance endure.
In comparison: There are countless mediocre competitors on the market and a few excellent ones too, such as On Writing Well (William Zinsser). The Elements of Style remains an essential companion to them all.