For the last few years, I’ve tried to loosely rank the books I read from most to least favorite. But, as you’ll see, I’m pretty enthusiastic about most of the books, since I usually just quit reading stuff I don’t like.

I read 50/53 books this year, depending on whether you count the Murderbot novellas as 1 or 4 books. Last year I started grouping books by “conceptual non-fiction” and “narrative fiction and non-fiction,” since Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books present as non-fiction, but narrate the events of his own life, so it felt weird to compare him to other non-fiction books. This year, things got even trickier, since my favorite book was probably Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquhar, which is a mix of narrative and conceptual non-fiction. I ended up filing it under a third category. Without further ado…

Conceptual Non-Fiction

  1. Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright: A wonderful marriage of modern cognitive science and (non-supernatural) Buddhism. Nearly convinced me to go Buddhist!
  2. Good Reasons for Bad Feelings by Randolph M. Nesse: Evolution provides a wonderful organizing schema for thinking about the origin of “bad” emotions, mental disorders, and more.
  3. A Culture of Growth by Joel Mokyr: I hope to write a lot more about this book someday, but in short, I think it’s the most right theory of why the Industrial Revolution happened when and where it did.
  4. The Years That Matter Most by Paul Tough: An expansive portrait of how American higher education is and is not a good engine of social mobility that argues we can do better, even if there is no silver bullet
  5. How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan: A great companion to my #1 and #2 choices that is every bit as good as people say
  6. Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch: We’re getting better at communicating and interacting with each other over this new internet thing
  7. Open Borders by Bryan Caplan and Zach Wienersmith: Somehow this year I ended up reading 3 Bryan Caplan books — he has a knack for finding thought-provoking positions on important issues. Efficiently delivered in a compelling and creative way, this one’s my favorite.
  8. The Myth of the Rational Voter by Bryan Caplan: The trouble with Democracy is the voters are people, and people are the worst.
  9. Building the Intentional University by Stephen M. Kosslyn, Ben Nelson, and Bob Kerrey: A top-to-bottom rethinking of higher education based on evidence (such as it is).
  10. The Case Against Education by Bryan Caplan: High school and college are not nearly as efficient at building human capital as we think they are.
  11. Reinventing Discovery by Michael Nielsen: An optimistic take on how the internet can be used to rethink the infrastructure of scientific enterprise.
  12. The Mind Illuminated by Culadasa: An interesting complement to my #1, from the perspective of someone whose done it — but my feelings are complicated after it emerged Culadasa was cheating on his wife without her consent.
  13. Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark: A nice overview of contemporary physics, a physics career, and Tegmark’s ideas about why there is something rather than nothing.
  14. Lost in Math by Sabine Hossenfelder: In the absence of new data, foundational theoretical physics has gravitated towards aesthetically based criteria for evaluating theories. This may not be the best strategy for finding truth if reality feels no need to be pretty.
  15. Creative Selection by Ken Kocienda: A set of great first person case studies on how innovation happens in the context of Apple, with thoughtful analysis.
  16. The New Geography of Jobs by Enrico Moretti: A classic popular summary of the new urban economics literature which emphasizes the importance of agglomeration effects.
  17. The Fate of Rome by Kyle Harper: A great example of fruitful interdisciplinary work — Rome’s decline was hastened by climatic changes and disease outbreaks.
  18. The Box by Marc Levinson: The history of the shipping container illustrates tons of cool ideas about the economics of innovation. Should be right up my alley, but I found it a bit dry at times.
  19. Jump-Starting America by Jonathan Gruber and Simon Johnson: Good overview of important research on economics of innovation, and naturally I like that one of the places they think could be a new research hub is the Des Moines-Ames corridor.
  20. Make it Stick by Peter C. Brown: A good summary of the literature on learning, though I worry a lot of the lit won’t survive the replication crisis.
  21. The Rise of Universities by Charles Homer Hoskins: A very short history about… the rise of universities (in the middle ages).
  22. Life Finds a Way by Andreas Wagner: What can evolution teach us about innovation and creativity in general. Wagner is really good on evolution, but a lot of the other stuff was a bit surface level.
  23. Greek and Roman Education by R. Barrow: The deep roots of formal education in Europe.
  24. TED Talks by Chris J. Andrews: My takeaways — be comfortable, use throughlines, and only your speech from memory if you can do it really, really, well.
  25. More from Less by Andrew McAfee: The central idea that US consumption of natural resources is falling, is actually a pretty small part of the book and I already kind of knew the rest.


  1. Middlemarch by George Eliot: A whole world of psychologically realized people (and features the ultimate nightmare of an academic; wasting your life on a project that ends up wrong and unpublished).
  2. The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich: The human experience of World War II, from the perspective of Soviet women, who served throughout the ranks. It’s real war, which means it’s sad, not fun.
  3. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton: The second time I’ve read the story of Lily Bart’s long and sad decline. Will read again.
  4. Summer by Karl Ove Knausgaard: Much like the Buddhists described in my #1 non-fiction, Knausgaard has shed the assumptions that color and organize our perception of the world, so that he renders mundane life new and vivid.
  5. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte: Incredible characters; St. John could be someone straight out of my #2. The audiobook is read incredibly well by Thandie Newton.
  6. The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkein: Sad and hypnotic work with powerful and iconic passages.
  7. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin: A book that jolted me out of my routine (also features one of my favorite genres — arctic journey!).
  8. Silas Marner by George Eliot: What if a Hallmark movie was written by one of the greatest writers in the English language?
  9. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman: A lovely modern fairy tale.
  10. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco: Sherlock Holmes and Watson reimagined as monks just before the renaissance.
  11. A Confederacy of Dunces: A portrait of the kind of guy who today would haunt reddit and be a big fan of Mencius Moldbug.
  12. Kindred by Octavia E. Butler: Excellent. Uses the sci-fi time travel premise to unpack the psychology of American slavery in a way that would be very difficult to achieve otherwise.
  13. The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin: A mix of amazing sci-fi and cringingly bad stuff, but ultimately you’ll remember the high points more than the low.
  14. The Last Viking by Stephen R. Bown: An excellent companion to “The Worst Journey in the World,” (which I read last year) as it shows what might have been and makes the mistakes of the Scott expedition clear.
  15. Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore: I was not loving this book until it opened up after the first third and kept getting wilder and wilder.
  16. The Murderbot Diaries (#1-#4) by Martha Wells: Actually 4 novellas, but they tell the fun thriller-ey story of murderbot’s self-actualization.
  17. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer: Kind of cosmic horror that’s afraid of biology instead of physics.
  18. Daytripper by Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon: The images do a good job of evoking day-to-day life.
  19. Under Red Skies by Karoline Kan: Interesting memoir of a country undergoing enormous change (China) — how representative are these views though? Who knows?
  20. Blacksad (#1-#3) by Juan Diaz Canales: Zootopia for adults.
  21. The Private Eye by Brian K. Vaughan: I don’t believe the main theme about the baleful power of the internet, but it’s great to look at.
  22. The Department of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith: Not bad, but not for me.
  23. Fall, or Dodge in Hell: Amazing first 200 pages, but I was pretty unhappy with it after that.
  24. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss: Would have quit if this wasn’t a book we were reading for book club.

A bit of both

  1. Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquhar: What happens if you take seriously the notion that if you can save a life without losing your own, you have a duty to do that? One of my favorite books of the decade.

Originally published at on January 6, 2020.

Economist of innovation;