These are books that have had a tangible and substantial influence on my thinking. I share them here that others might find them and benefit similarly. As became evident to myself while beginning to construct this list, I gravitate towards books that are ambitious in their scope, challenge commonly held assumptions and presuppositions, and say something meaningful about how we continuously co-create our world.
This list will continuously be added to in the form of additional books and annotations.
Incerto – Nassim Nicholas Taleb (first recommended by Dr. Michael Norman, my brother)
Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s triplet of Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, and Antifragile, collectively Incerto, is a wonderful exploration and explication of the strange world of the random. As someone with a background in systems thinking, I find Taleb’s vantage point endlessly refreshing. Many of his insights for me are like recognizing a familiar friend from an angle never before seen — something intimately familiar and at the same time alien. To gain its lessons demands humility of the reader. The severe limitations of one’s ability to use positive knowledge to make predictions are at the fore of this work. Perhaps my favorite aspect of his writing is the transparency of the enterprise. Nothing is hidden, nothing contrived, no arbitrary boundaries between ‘disciplines’ or ‘domains’ is respected. All is fresh, and all is fair game. Truly a pleasure.
The Timeless Way of Building – Christopher Alexander (first recommended by Doug Norman, my father)
The first word that comes to mind when I think of this book: Beautiful. In unparalleled form, Alexander takes us through the process by which humans have constructed their living spaces since time immemorial — backgrounding the profession of the ‘architect’ as an artifact of modern career-making. Alexander aligns architectural activity with the activity of life itself: to achieve the quality with no name. We all know this quality somewhere inside ourselves, it is the overwhelming bittersweetness manifest in tears of joy. Alexander reminds us that in this world we find ourselves, patterns of interactions are what are primarily ‘real’, and the material is the mere medium of these patterns. Further, the book reminds us that we make our world, and understanding the way we make worlds that are alive is essential for human flourishing.
Gut Feelings – Gerd Gigerenzer
Gigerenzer’s Gut Feelings was my first rigorous encounter with the power of heuristics in human behavior. He challenges naive definitions of human rationality that posit its congruence with cold, disinterested logic. Throughout the book, G demonstrates that quite often ‘rules of thumb’ outperform methods that attempt to model reality, form predictions from the model, and act based on those predictions. Such approaches are fragile to model error, require costly computations, and typically are not able to adapt robustly to noise.
Life Itself – Robert Rosen
Notes on the Synthesis of Form – Christopher Alexander
Reinventing the Sacred – Stuart Kauffman
The Embodied Mind – Francisco Varela, Eleanor Rosch, Evan Thompson (first recommended by Matt Segall, my longtime friend)
The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception – J.J. Gibson
Making Things Work – Yaneer Bar-Yam