This is a list of books, essays, and other writing that I’ve personally read and found to be worth my time, and that I can wholeheartedly recommend to you. It is a continuous work in progress that I update from time to time as I read new things, or add old things from my bookshelves.
I have several bookshelves full of books at home, and two book stacks of unread books (one physical, one electronic) and I don’t recommend everything I read, only the stuff that I think is worth bothering with, or will serve as a good jumping off point for further reading if you should get interested in that area.
There are plenty of books in my library that I keep around for reference or re-reading, but that I haven’t put here. If you read something on this list that really resonates with you, feel free to get in touch with me for recommendations for followup books.
I’ve tried to provide some structure to the list, as well as a brief description of each book.
I highly recommend this thread at Ask Metafilter for recommendations of books from experts in fields as disparate as creative writing, molecular biology, public radio, and blacksmithing.
Disclaimer: These links are Amazon affiliate links, so if enough of you buy books after clicking these links, Amazon might eventually send me 40 cents. I’m breathless with anticipation.
Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting While aimed at people writing movies/screenplays, it covers the essence of how to craft a compelling story, which will work for almost any kind of writing.
The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present A collection of essays that shows you what great personal essay writing looks like.
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Take Hold and Others Come Unstuck a short book with a simple method to make your ideas more compelling to other people.
The Human Mind
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, which explains why humans make bad decisions a lot of the time, and how to make better ones.
Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, which explains some more stuff about how humans actually decide what to do, and why we aren’t as rational as we think we are.
Influence, by Cialdini. This is a classic in how people’s minds work in practice and how you can manipulate them, should you want to. Worth knowing so you can have a good defense, even if you don’t want to use it offensively.
Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and how to take advantage of it) by William Poundstone, which explains how the prices on everything are totally made up and your reaction to prices isn’t rational. This is probably the book I recommend to people the most often.
Marketing Management by Kotler, Keller, and Burton. I have the 13th edition, and this is a textbook so it gets updated fairly regularly. It has contemporary examples and updates some parts when the world changes, such as online advertising and search i.e. Google and Facebook. More a reference than a page turner.
Strategic Brand Management, by Keller. Another reference style textbook. It covers the dull mechanics of what real brand management is. If you think managing a brand is all about fancy ads with celebrities, you’re going to destroy your client or employer’s brand, so please work for a competitor.
The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement by Eliyahu M. Goldratt, which describes the Theory of Constraints method for managing a manufacturing operation, but which is more generally applicable, as you’ll discover in the next book.
The Phoenix Project: A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, George Spafford is an homage to The Goal by Goldratt and applies the Theory of Constraints to IT. The themes of this book are what I’ve been telling consulting clients about since early 2001.
Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh. A rollicking tale of how one of mathematics’ most mysterious puzzles went unsolved for 350 years.
The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver. An excellent overview of how statistics works in practice, and how it’s used and abused.
The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography by Simon Singh, this is a wonderful introduction to cryptography and the history of the art.
Applied Cryptography: Protocols, Algorithms, and Source Code in C by Bruce Schneier. This is the reference text on modern computer based cryptography and security.
Computer Programming and Computer Science
Code Complete: A Practical Handbook of Software Construction, Second Edition If you are at all involved in commercial software production, or work in IT, read this book.
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte. Learn how to make charts and graphs that don’t suck.
The Non-Designer’s Design Book a lovely book to teach graphic design to the novice in a hurry. It’s also worth checking out The Non-Designer’s Type Book by the same author to learn why type is important for conveying information to people.
Management is a broad topic, and most of the books about it are shit. The books on management you can buy at the airport are bodice-ripper romance novels for tedious, self-important executives. Spend your money on these instead.
If you want to learn about leadership, read fiction.
Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams. Go read it now. Such a great book. It has a software programmer focus, but its lessons are applicable more generally.
The Essential Drucker. An anthology of writings by Peter Drucker about management. This is a jumping off point. Do read his other works, such as:
The Practice of Management by Peter Drucker. A little dated now in areas, but the core is excellent.
Making Things Happen: Mastering Project Management (Theory in Practice). This is the best book I’ve read on the practicalities of managing a project. PRINCE2 teaches you how to fill out forms. This book tells you how to get people doing things.
The Great Crash 1929, by John Kenneth Galbraith. Want to understand how the Global Financial Crisis aka the Time of Shedding and Cold Rocks happened? Read this book.
The Ascent of Money, by Niall Ferguson. A good read on the history of money. Ferguson is a historian, not an economist, so ignore anything he says that isn’t about history. Which is most stuff these days.
Business and Corporate Strategy in the MBA sense. This was one of my majors (or areas of focus. We didn’t declare majors in the American sense. I did a lot of strategy subjects) at business school.
Lords of Strategy: The Secret Intellectual History of the New Corporate World Explains how strategy as a discipline came to exist and why.
Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors by Porter is a staple of MBA strategy for good reason. Porter’s 5 forces is an important tool, but not the only one.
Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t by Jim Collins. Results of actual research written in an engaging style. Some flaws, but overall excellent.
I will never be able to read all the fiction books I want to. I’ll only recommend books I’ve actually read.
Mostly I’ll recommend authors, because they usually write several books in a similar style, and if you like one you’ll likely enjoy others by the same author.
I’m not sure how to best classify these books and/or authors, so I’ll put them here for now.
I’m not really sure what to call these. Grownup fiction, I guess. It’s fiction, but it deals with the hear and now, rather than purely made up words of Fantasy or SciFi, or the potential near future of SciFi.
All of David Foster Wallace’s essays. Particular favourites of mine include Consider The Lobster [HTML] and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again [PDF]. If you enjoy these then you might wish to attempt to read his novel Infinite Jest but be warned it’s a hard book to read. It’s worth the effort, particularly for the amazing game of Eschaton.
Roald Dahl, particularly Matilda, The Witches, and Harry and the Chocolate Factory.
Everything by Terry Pratchett. He was a genius, and I miss him.
Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. A nice bridge across to Neil Gaiman’s writing.
The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. The first book is the best, and they get gradually less disciplined and turgid as the series goes on. Rowling also struggles to write convincing teenagers, but this is a pop culture staple, so you should probably read them. Also, Hermione is better and less one-dimensional in the books compared to the movies.
The Foundation series, by Isaac Asimov. Explores the three laws of robotics and their implications, which is far more subtle than people’s glib understanding of the laws they’ve received third hand from someone who’s never even read the books. Reading primary sources is illuminating.