Terse book reviews

Mike Solomon

These are short book reviews. If you skim the list and tend to agree, then my taste might be similar enough to yours to be helpful!

All books are rated using this scale:

  • 🔥 Great: You should read this book

  • 👍 Good: If you read this book, you won't be wasting your time

  • 😐 Ok: It's not bad, but there are better books

🔥 Great books

🔥 The Vital Question

Extremely interesting, both in material and approach. Helps if you remember something from high school biology and how evolution works, but accessible anyway. Discusses origin of life, and how energy and other physical constraints have a big effect on evolutionary trajectory. Tries to determine most plausible way life came about here and on other planets.

🔥 Hyperion

Very creative and engaging sci-fi that explores cool worlds and settings and effortlessly paints a cohesive and compelling universe. The stakes are high but personal and relatable.

🔥 The Righteous Mind

Insightful and changed the way I think about how people approach the world. Tackles religion and politics in an engaging and fair way. Helps put yourself in others’ shoes.

🔥 Catch 22

One of the most hilarious books I’ve read, but suddenly gets very serious.

🔥 Economics: The User’s Guide

Covers the different schools of economics and how they see the world. Very realistic about the limitations of different approaches and weaknesses within, which is notably missing from e.g. Economics in One Lesson or The Undercover Economist.

🔥 Infinite Jest

Best-written book fiction I’ve ever read. Very dense style, have a dictionary ready. Lots to think about here. Best peek into depression I’ve seen, but it’s also a funny book.

🔥 A Fire Upon the Deep

Top-notch sci-fi premises and world-building revealed through great storytelling. I don’t want to spoil it, but it has more than one cool idea that’s nicely explored. Everything that’s good about the Three Body Problem without the dull characters and story. See also A Deepness in the Sky.

🔥 A Deepness in the Sky

Totally different from A Fire Upon the Deep, though technically in the same universe. Multiple cool ideas are explored, the story is tied together cohesively, the stakes are big but relatable. See also A Fire Upon the Deep. I have it on multiple authorities that the third book in the trilogy should be skipped at all costs.

🔥 Anathem

I read this not knowing anything about it, and it’s the sort of book that uses made-up words you figure out from context. It goes in some unexpected directions and has a unique style throughout, but you’ll know if it’s your thing within the first chapter or two. Loved it.

🔥 Shogun

A really fun and engaging adventure story that glamorizes feudal Japan.

🔥 Never Split the Difference

An interesting and practical approach to negotiation. Very interesting if you’ve never read anything in this area, as I had not. Good in audiobook form.

🔥 Gödel Escher Bach

Best constructed work of art I’ve read. It’s an exploration of structure in any form, and though it gets slow in the middle, it’s worth getting through. Makes you appreciate the beauty of structures of all kinds.

🔥 How to Make Friends and Influence People

It’s somewhat repetitive, but I found the Internet archive audiobook to be like a good podcast. Despite the insufferable clickbait title, it’s basically how to get along with people as opposed to manipulation.

🔥 Snow Crash

A well-written story in a really fun world. One of my favorites.

🔥 Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance

A long think on quality, technology, and art; and a whole way of looking at the world. While I often disagree with the details, it has lots of things worth thinking about.

🔥 Thinking in Systems

Presents several interesting ways of looking at the world, made concrete with helpful examples and carefully distilled patterns to look for.

👍 Good books

👍 Sapiens

This gives a good brief overview of the history of people. Gives you things to think about, and has some nice ways of understanding certain phenomena (e.g. how did we start using money? what makes an idea spread? etc.) I have a problem with its “just so” style that blends opinion with fact, but on the other hand makes it easier to read. Take with a grain of salt.

👍 Storm Front [Dresden Files book 1]

Fun easy-to-read pulpl magical realism romp. A film noir detective adventure set in urban fantasy. It’s not good, it’s fun! I haven’t read more of the series yet.

👍 The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Lots of context on people involved, timeline, engineering deals, many near misses, how momentous decisions get made.

👍 The Psychopath Code

The writing style can be a bit overwrought, but the basic ideas ring true, and it has an interesting categorization of the human emotions.

👍 The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

Exactly what it says on the tin. Worth reading to see how large numbers of people can accept doing terrible things to each other people, and how easy it is for people to latch on to a charismatic leader. The book remains interesting throughout despite its length.

👍 Brave New World

Captures the essence of a plausible dystopia humans may descend into. The exact mechanisms feel dated, and the story isn’t terribly compelling, but the exploration of how optimizing for happiness leads to a world we are uncomfortable with is very interesting.

👍 The Undercover Economist

An extremely approachable introduction to thinking in basic economic terms about various systems without being dry. It gives simple explanations about why complex things turn out the way they do. Very useful for learning a few new models to understand the world with. Unfortunately, it presents neoliberal economic ideas as fact instead of one economic lens. Read “Economics: The User’s Guide” first or instead.

👍 Tell the Wolves I’m Home

Feels honest, evokes emotion, captures the nature of certain interpersonal relationships. Often sad, but worth it.

👍 A History of Western Philosophy

Gives overviews and critiques of western philosophies up through 1945 (e.g. no Sarte) and places them in their historical context. The medieval section drags somewhat and probably could have been condensed, and it’s less interesting than earlier and later sections.

👍 I Am a Strange Loop

A good overview of what it means to be conscious, and how, based on science and reasoning. Having read Gödel Escher Bach and thought about this sort of thing a lot, I didn’t find a ton of new insight, but if you are interested in this and haven’t spent a few years mulling this over (or would like a non-theological viewpoint) then this is a great pick. I found the style within to be somewhat repetitious, often unnecessarily.

👍 Cryptonomicon

A fun, interesting, and well-written narrative. Has accurate and very well written explanations of some technical topics, e.g. in cryptography.

👍 Thinking in Bets

Teaches you how to think about decisions, especially how actual results aren’t enough to tell you if a decision was well made. Has some good techniques for e.g. keeping yourself honest instead of giving in to hindsight bias. Good as audiobook.

👍 The Three Body Problem [trilogy]

Excellent sci-fi premises, but mediocre storytelling and weak characters drag it down somewhat, especially in the second book.

👍 Super Thinking

Pretty great to see lots of different ways of thinking about different situations. There’s a blog post by Gabriel Weinberg that covers much of the same material, and I was much more impressed when I first read that (if you haven’t read that though, maybe the book is even better!).

👍 Reality is Not What it Seems

I skipped the first half which covers the history of science since I felt it wasn’t new to me. The second half is about quantum gravity, which is discussed in an intuitive and understandable sort of way, and it seems pretty plausible.

👍 Fall of Hyperion

Wraps up the stories begun in Hyperion. The writing is solid, the worlds are stories are fun. Worth your time, but somehow not quite as good as Hyperion.

👍 What If?

Very fun. Lighthearted, and inspiring to see someone tackle wild hypotheticals with enough rigor to see some interesting results.

👍 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Great writing style that puts you in the moments experienced by the characters. Layers on complex motivations and actions that make it hard to know how you feel about the characters, which makes the characters feel authentic.

👍 Mistborn: The Final Empire

Fun pulpy fantasy with a solid magic system and good characters. Stays engaging throughout, and is just well put together to make it a fun ride.

👍 Oryx and Crake

Well-written post apocalyptic with a silly/grim tone. It rings true and is plausible in a lot of uncomfortable ways. Haven’t read the sequels, may eventually.

😐 Ok books

😐 Seeing Like a State

Looks at how large entities like states and corporations change the world around them to match the way they look at it (optimizes for legibility in their domain). Gives interesting examples and compelling models of how entities like this behave and become stable. By the last of the several case studies, there wasn’t enough new information to keep my interest, so skipping past it to the conclusions was a good choice.

😐 Seveneves

Space sci-fi with several cool ideas, but I feel it could be more engaging throughout.

😐 Ubik

If you like sci-fi, you may enjoy it. It’s fun to try to puzzle through some of the exact events, and there are many quirky ideas within. I liked it while I read it.

😐 Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland

It’s super short, but has a unique approach to storytelling. Worth reading once. Obviously hugely influential.

😐 Writing the Other

Teaches you how to write about people from different backgrounds and life experiences. It really wants you to do the writing exercises, but I wasn’t somewhere I could.

😐 Ancillary Justice [and Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy]

Fun sci-fi from a unique point of view. Fun overall. Ancillary Sword isn’t so good. It would be okay to stop after the first, which is the best one.

😐 So You Want to Talk About Race

Helpful treatment of the concepts and realities of race issues, especially in the US. Some weaker cases (cultural appropriation) were presented with the same intensity as well-supported arguments, and this undermined some positions.

👎 Books to skip

👎 The Decision Book

Just a list of models with little context. Not very valuable, often wouldn’t help you make any decisions. Read Super Thinking instead.

👎 Economics in One Lesson

I found this book highly pretentious. It’s full of obvious straw man and fallacious arguments. Read Economics: The User’s Guide instead.

👎 Gunslinger series

I only read the first 4 (The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass). It’s not bad, but I didn’t find it quite engaging enough to stick with. The audiobooks are unbearable.

👎 Getting to Yes

There’s a good summary that lines up the basic approach. Getting to a fair deal using outside measures is the basic idea. Never Split the Difference is a better use of your time.

👎 Mythology [Edith Hamilton]

It gives you many Greek/Roman myths, but in highly condensed and dry form, making it a bit of a slog. Seems to miss the excitement of myth.

👎 Mindset

It is an incredibly useful way to see the world, but is so easily summarized in an article that I would read one of those instead.

👎 The Willpower Instinct

Skip, but useful if you’re having a specific willpower-based problem. Read a summary first (or instead). Interesting highlights: meditation, don’t try to not think about something.

👎 Gates of Fire

Gives some interesting perspective on Sparta, but overall isn’t worth your time.

👎 The Conquest of Happiness

Mixes some insight with a lot that doesn’t ring true to me. The 1920’s perspective is somewhat interesting.