Summer Nonfiction Recommendations

The reading list.

June 20, 2013

I'd like to share my nonfiction recommendations with our community for 3 reasons:

1. I'm curious about what you are reading, and if you and I read the same books I'd like to discuss them with you.   

2. Reading any given book carries an almost unbearable opportunity cost, as any book that I choose means that another book cannot be read. Your recommendation for what to read next carries an enormous weight.

3. The best way to get a book into my long-term memory, to incorporate a book into my mental map of the world, is to write about it. I hope that you might consider using this space to also write about your books.

The recommendations below are books that I downloaded from Audible and listened to on my iPod. 

Listening to nonfiction audiobooks ranks amongst my greatest pleasures.   It's not that I read that much, it's more that I listen to books all the time.  I miss out on music, podcasts, and news - and probably lots of conversations and experiences - as you will often catch me walking, driving, exercising, cleaning or mowing with an audiobook playing in my ears.

I look forward to hearing about not only what you are reading (or plan to read), but also about how you will read all of your books.

The list of books below is in alphabetical order - the order that they show up on my iPod. Now that I've shared these books with you I plan to delete them all (they will stay backed up on my computer and Audible.com), to make way for your recommendations.

Borderless Economics: Chinese Sea Turtles, Indian Fridges and the New Fruits of Global Capitalism by Robert Guest.  

A must read for any reader of The Economist. Guest is the business editor for The Economist, and Borderless Economics is like reading the world's best Economist Survey.  One of those books that clarifies how quickly the economies and societies of the emerging world are changing, and the degree to which the circulation of people and ideas is a critical aspect in global economic development.   

Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger

Berger is a professor of marketing at Wharton, an academic rock star. Contagious synthesizes the current research (mostly his own work) on why some ideas go viral, while others land with a thud.  A good fun read, with some clear applicability of any of us involved in change management and communications. I'm a sucker for "pop-academic" books ... and I appreciate that Berger worked so hard in Contagious to ensure that his research findings are accessible and interesting to a wider audience.

Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work by Chip Heath and Dan Heath by Chip and Dan Heath.

The Heath brothers are the masters of the popular academic book, and the model for what Berger tries to do with Contagious (he was Chip Heath's grad student at Stanford). Decisive is probably the Heath brothers best book, which says a good deal as I loved both Made to Stick and Switch. We have read a ton in the past years about how bad we are at making decisions, predicting our actions, and understanding our motivations.   In Decisive, the Heaths take this research to the next step, sharing findings on strategies that can help us overcome our biases and blind spots.   

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

Mary Roach is a national treasure. We would have way more biology and chemistry majors if Roach's books were on the list of required reading. Gulp takes us from ingestion to excretion, diving into what really goes on as we chew, swallow, digest, and defecate. From farts to burps, Roach gives our bodily functions the dignity and attention that they deserve.

Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data by Charles Wheelan

Naked Statistics is the book that I wish I had in 1991, the year that I took stats during my first semester at grad school. Let's just say that I came to my sociology PhD program unprepared for the rigors of quantitative analysis (hey - I was a history major!).  Over time I grew to love data analysis and the power of statistics to illuminate social life, but those first few weeks of stats class I was overwhelmed.  If Naked Statistics had been available back then I think that I would have gained fluency in probabilistic thinking at a much faster clip.  Wheelan is a master of explaining the core concepts and methods of statistics in a way that is both accessible and relevant. He is clearly a master teacher, and his gifts are in abundant display in Naked Statistics.

On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz

One of my favorite days ever spent on campus was a walking tour of campus buildings with a professor that teaches architecture and design at my campus. This professor had also been involved in campus planning and project development, and he had been involved in the design and construction of many of the buildings that we visited.   This was truly a walk around campus with expert eyes.   That is the premise of Horowitz's delightful book, a journey around a series of (mostly urban) spaces with experts from a wide range of disciplines.

Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism by Elizabeth Becker

Tourism is perhaps the world's largest industry. Perhaps not by revenue (it is hard to compete with energy), but almost certainly by employment, tourism is a mega industry that drives economic activity and social life throughout much of the world. Becker seeks to understand this massive industry by examining its origins and consequences from a number of angles.  We learn about how the economics of the cruise ship industry really work (not a pretty picture), how tourism is destroying civic life in places as diverse as Venice and Cambodia, and how tourism can be done to benefit local people and habitats in places like Costa Rica.   In the next few years China ascend to the top spot in sending travelers around the world, part of a leading edge of new tourists from emerging economies that are transforming both the industry and the destinations to which they flock.   Becker is a terrific reporter, a tireless traveler, and an erudite guide to the tourism industry. A must read before your next trip.

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss

This is the book that I'm telling everyone that they need to read. Everyone who loved Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma will be deeply impacted (and greatly troubled) by Salt Sugar Fat.   The power of the industrial food processing industry to hook us on food that is bad for our health is completely freighting.  Forget the NSA, we should be worried about Pepsico, Nestle, Kraft, General Mills, and Coca-Cola. Moss takes us inside these companies to expose how they market to kids and adults alike, creating both ads and mixes of ingredients that make it very difficult resist the products they have on offer.   Probably the best book I've read in 2013.

Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow

Professor Mlodinow's follow-up to his brilliant Drunkard's Walk synthesizes a vast body of research on decision making, perception, and social judgement. The news is not good.   Illuminating the cognitive basis for our predictably irrational behaviors, Mlodinow effortlessly crosses disciplines and theories to provide a coherent picture to the limits of human decision making.  

Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools by Roger Schank

Teaching Minds has been on my "to read" list for a few years ... but until it came out on audio this year I had never gotten to it. Schank is a hero to many folks that I meet in edtech and education innovation circles. He is the rare insider (having spent many years at Yale, Stanford, and Northwestern) who is willing and able to offer a devastating critique of how we organize our universities and teach our students. What we learn from Teaching Minds is that what we should be stressing is cognitive processes, as opposed to what we actually design our educational system around content. Our system of courses, departments and majors benefits mostly the producers of education, at the expense of our learners. I'm sure that Schank is controversial, as he clearly has little doubt about his conclusions and ideas for reform.  I found him, and Teaching Minds, to be brilliant and persuasive.

What nonfiction have you recently finished or plan to read this summer? 

How have your reading habits changed over the past few years?


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