Category: Books

The 2015 Farnam Street Members Book List

Today’s book list is based on recommendations by Farnam Street Members on Slack over the last few months. If you’re not familiar with it, our community on Slack is a discussion area for members, and one of our ongoing discussions is book recommendations.

We’ve compiled and organized eleven of their favorite choices, especially ones we haven’t seen recommended elsewhere. Enjoy!

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

“The book was initially intended to be a serious travel guide, with accounts of local history along the route, but the humorous elements took over to the point where the serious and somewhat sentimental passages seem a distraction to the comic novel. One of the most praised things about Three Men in a Boat is how undated it appears to modern readers – the jokes seem fresh and witty even today.”

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt

“Haidt sifts Eastern and Western religious and philosophical traditions for other nuggets of wisdom to substantiate—and sometimes critique—with the findings of neurology and cognitive psychology.”

Black Box Thinking: Why Most People Never Learn from Their Mistakes, But Some Do by Matthew Syed

“Syed draws on a wide range of sources—from anthropology and psychology to history and complexity theory—to explore the subtle but predictable patterns of human error and our defensive responses to error. He also shares fascinating stories of individuals and organizations that have successfully embraced a black box approach to improvement, such as David Beckham, the Mercedes F1 team, and Dropbox.” (Pair with Mistakes were Made (But not by Me) by Carol Tavris to see how we rationalize our own mistakes.)

Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious by Gerd Gigerenzer

“Gigerenzer’s theories about the usefulness of mental shortcuts were a small but crucial element of Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Blink, and that attention has provided the psychologist, who is the director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, the opportunity to recast his academic research for a general audience. The key concept—rules of thumb serve us as effectively as complex analytic processes, if not more so—is simple to grasp.” (Pair with Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman for a different approach.)

The Means of Ascent by Robert Caro

The second book in the Lyndon Johnson series, written by Robert Caro. This one tackles his service in WWII, building his fortune, and his 1948 election to the Senate, which Caro concludes that Johnson stole. Charlie Munger once commented that LBJ was important to study, simply because he never told the truth when a lie would do better. (Pair with the other books in the series.)

The Effective Engineer: How to Leverage Your Efforts In Software Engineering to Make a Disproportionate and Meaningful Impact by Edmond Lau

“The most effective engineers — the ones who have risen to become distinguished engineers and leaders at their companies — can produce 10 times the impact of other engineers, but they’re not working 10 times the hours.” Learn how a great engineer thinks, even if you’re not one yourself.

The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World by Jenny Uglow

“In the 1760s a group of amateur experimenters met and made friends in the English Midlands. Most came from humble families, all lived far from the center of things, but they were young and their optimism was boundless: together they would change the world. Among them were the ambitious toymaker Matthew Boulton and his partner James Watt, of steam-engine fame; the potter Josiah Wedgwood; the larger-than-life Erasmus Darwin, physician, poet, inventor, and theorist of evolution (a forerunner of his grandson Charles). Later came Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen and fighting radical.”

Fermat’s Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World’s Greatest Mathematical Problem by Simon Sing

xn + yn = zn, where n represents 3, 4, 5, …no solution “I have discovered a truly marvelous demonstration of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain.” With these words, the seventeenth-century French mathematician Pierre de Fermat threw down the gauntlet to future generations.”  (Pair with Number: The Language of Science by Tobais Dantzig, about the development of mathematics over time by human culture.)

Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World by René Girard

“An astonishing work of cultural criticism, this book is widely recognized as a brilliant and devastating challenge to conventional views of literature, anthropology, religion, and psychoanalysis.”

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales 

“Survivors, whether they’re jet pilots landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier or boatbuilders adrift on a raft in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, share certain traits: training, experience, stoicism and a capacity for their logical neocortex (the brain’s thinking part) to override the primitive amygdala portion of their brains. Although there’s no surefire way to become a survivor, Gonzales does share some rules for adventure gleaned from the survivors themselves: stay calm, be decisive and don’t give up.”

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman

Written in the 1950s, an interesting look at how we present ourselves to others in social settings, using analogies from dramatic theatre. Reminds us of Shakespeare: “All the world’s a stage.”

How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell Our Greatest Ideas

Analogies are a means of drawing a parallel between two different things which we often use to convey complex ideas and to communicate effectively. We often use analogies to aid our reasoning. In this post, we explore how analogies work and how you can best utilize them.

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John Pollack is a former Presidential Speechwriter. If anyone knows the power of words to move people to action, shape arguments, and persuade, it is he.

In Shortcut: How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell Our Greatest Ideas, he explores the powerful role of analogy in persuasion and creativity.

One of the key tools he uses for this is analogy.

While they often operate unnoticed, analogies aren’t accidents, they’re arguments—arguments that, like icebergs, conceal most of their mass and power beneath the surface. In arguments, whoever has the best argument wins.

But analogies do more than just persuade others — they also play a role in innovation and decision making.

From the bloody Chicago slaughterhouse that inspired Henry Ford’s first moving assembly line, to the “domino theory” that led America into the Vietnam War, to the “bicycle for the mind” that Steve Jobs envisioned as a Macintosh computer, analogies have played a dynamic role in shaping the world around us.

Despite their importance, many people have only a vague sense of the definition.

What is an Analogy?

In broad terms, an analogy is simply a comparison that asserts a parallel—explicit or implicit—between two distinct things, based on the perception of a share property or relation. In everyday use, analogies actually appear in many forms. Some of these include metaphors, similes, political slogans, legal arguments, marketing taglines, mathematical formulas, biblical parables, logos, TV ads, euphemisms, proverbs, fables and sports clichés.

Because they are so disguised they play a bigger role than we consciously realize. Not only do analogies effectively make arguments, but they trigger emotions. And emotions make it hard to make rational decisions.

While we take analogies for granted, the ideas they convey are notably complex.

All day every day, in fact, we make or evaluate one analogy after the other, because some comparisons are the only practical way to sort a flood of incoming data, place it within the content of our experience, and make decisions accordingly.

Remember the powerful metaphor — that arguments are war. This shapes a wide variety of expressions like “your claims are indefensible,” “attacking the weakpoints,” and “You disagree, OK shoot.”

Or consider the Map and the Territory — Analogies give people the map but explain nothing of the territory.

Warren Buffett is one of the best at using analogies to communicate effectively. One of my favorite analogies is when he noted “You never know who’s swimming naked until the tide goes out.” In other words, when times are good everyone looks amazing. When times suck, hidden weaknesses are exposed. The same could be said for analogies:

We never know what assumptions, deceptions, or brilliant insights they might be hiding until we look beneath the surface.

Most people underestimate the importance of a good analogy. As with many things in life, this lack of awareness comes at a cost. Ignorance is expensive.

Evidence suggests that people who tend to overlook or underestimate analogy’s influence often find themselves struggling to make their arguments or achieve their goals. The converse is also true. Those who construct the clearest, most resonant and apt analogies are usually the most successful in reaching the outcomes they seek.

The key to all of this is figuring out why analogies function so effectively and how they work. Once we know that, we should be able to craft better ones.

Don’t Think of an Elephant

Effective, persuasive analogies frame situations and arguments, often so subtly that we don’t even realize there is a frame, let alone one that might not work in our favor. Such conceptual frames, like picture frames, include some ideas, images, and emotions and exclude others. By setting a frame, a person or organization can, for better or worse, exert remarkable influence on the direction of their own thinking and that of others.

He who holds the pen frames the story. The first person to frame the story controls the narrative and it takes a massive amount of energy to change the direction of the story. Sometimes even the way that people come across information, shapes it — stories that would be a non-event if disclosed proactively became front page stories because someone found out.

In Don’t Think of an Elephant, George Lakoff explores the issue of framing. The book famously begins with the instruction “Don’t think of an elephant.”

What’s the first thing we all do? Think of an elephant, of course. It’s almost impossible not to think of an elephant. When we stop consciously thinking about it, it floats away and we move on to other topics — like the new email that just arrived. But then again it will pop back into consciousness and bring some friends — associated ideas, other exotic animals, or even thoughts of the GOP.

“Every word, like elephant, evokes a frame, which can be an image of other kinds of knowledge,” Lakoff writes. This is why we want to control the frame rather than be controlled by it.

In Shortcut Pollack tells of Lakoff talking about an analogy that President George W. Bush made in the 2004 State of the Union address, in which he argued the Iraq war was necessary despite the international criticism. Before we go on, take Bush’s side here and think about how you would argue this point – how would you defend this?

In the speech, Bush proclaimed that “America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our people.”

As Lakoff notes, Bush could have said, “We won’t ask permission.” But he didn’t. Instead he intentionally used the analogy of permission slip and in so doing framed the issue in terms that would “trigger strong, more negative emotional associations that endured in people’s memories of childhood rules and restrictions.”

Commenting on this, Pollack writes:

Through structure mapping, we correlate the role of the United States to that of a young student who must appeal to their teacher for permission to do anything outside the classroom, even going down the hall to use the toilet.

But is seeking diplomatic consensus to avoid or end a war actually analogous to a child asking their teacher for permission to use the toilet? Not at all. Yet once this analogy has been stated (Farnam Street editorial: and tweeted), the debate has been framed. Those who would reject a unilateral, my-way-or-the-highway approach to foreign policy suddenly find themselves battling not just political opposition but people’s deeply ingrained resentment of childhood’s seemingly petty regulations and restrictions. On an even subtler level, the idea of not asking for a permission slip also frames the issue in terms of sidestepping bureaucratic paperwork, and who likes bureaucracy or paperwork.

Deconstructing Analogies

Deconstructing analogies, we find out how they function so effectively. Pollack argues they meet five essential criteria.

  1. Use the highly familiar to explain something less familiar.
  2. Highlight similarities and obscure differences.
  3. Identify useful abstractions.
  4. Tell a coherent story.
  5. Resonate emotionally.

Let’s explore how these work in greater detail. Let’s use the example of master-thief, Bruce Reynolds, who described the Great Train Robbery as his Sistine Chapel.

The Great Train Robbery

In the dark early hours of August 8, 1963, an intrepid gang of robbers hot-wired a six-volt battery to a railroad signal not far from the town of Leighton Buzzard, some forty miles north of London. Shortly, the engineer of an approaching mail train, spotting the red light ahead, slowed his train to a halt and sent one of his crew down the track, on foot, to investigate. Within minutes, the gang overpowered the train’s crew and, in less than twenty minutes, made off with the equivalent of more than $60 million in cash.

Years later, Bruce Reynolds, the mastermind of what quickly became known as the Great Train Robbery, described the spectacular heist as “my Sistine Chapel.”

Use the familiar to explain something less familiar

Reynolds exploits the public’s basic familiarity with the famous chapel in the Vatican City, which after Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is perhaps the best-known work of Renaissance art in the world. Millions of people, even those who aren’t art connoisseurs, would likely share the cultural opinion that the paintings in the chapel represent “great art” (as compared to a smaller subset of people who might feel the same way about Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, or Marcel Duchamp’s upturned urinal).

Highlight similarities and obscure differences

Reynold’s analogy highlights, through implication, similarities between the heist and the chapel—both took meticulous planning and masterful execution. After all, stopping a train and stealing the equivalent of $60m—and doing it without guns—does require a certain artistry. At the same time, the analogy obscures important differences. By invoking the image of a holy sanctuary, Reynolds triggers a host of associations in the audience’s mind—God, faith, morality, and forgiveness, among others—that camouflage the fact that he’s describing an action few would consider morally commendable, even if the artistry involved in robbing that train was admirable.

Identify useful abstractions

The analogy offers a subtle but useful abstraction: Genius is genius and art is art, no matter what the medium. The logic? If we believe that genius and artistry can transcend genre, we must concede that Reynolds, whose artful, ingenious theft netted millions, is an artist.

Tell a coherent story

The analogy offers a coherent narrative. Calling the Great Train Robbery his Sistine Chapel offers the audience a simple story that, at least on the surface makes sense: Just as Michelangelo was called by God, the pope, and history to create his greatest work, so too was Bruce Reynolds called by destiny to pull off the greatest robbery in history. And if the Sistine Chapel endures as an expression of genius, so too must the Great Train Robbery. Yes, robbing the train was wrong. But the public perceived it as largely a victimless crime, committed by renegades who were nothing if not audacious. And who but the most audacious in history ever create great art? Ergo, according to this narrative, Reynolds is an audacious genius, master of his chosen endeavor, and an artist to be admired in public.

There is an important point here. The narrative need not be accurate. It is the feelings and ideas the analogy evokes that make it powerful. Within the structure of the analogy, the argument rings true. The framing is enough to establish it succulently and subtly. That’s what makes it so powerful.

Resonate emotionally

The analogy resonates emotionally. To many people, mere mention of the Sistine Chapel brings an image to mind, perhaps the finger of Adam reaching out toward the finger of God, or perhaps just that of a lesser chapel with which they are personally familiar. Generally speaking, chapels are considered beautiful, and beauty is an idea that tends to evoke positive emotions. Such positive emotions, in turn, reinforce the argument that Reynolds is making—that there’s little difference between his work and that of a great artist.

Jumping to Conclusions

Daniel Kahneman explains the two thinking structures that govern the way we think: System one and system two . In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, he writes “Jumping to conclusions is efficient if the conclusions are likely to be correct and the costs of an occasional mistake are acceptable, and if the jump saves much time and effort.”

“A good analogy serves as an intellectual springboard that helps us jump to conclusions,” Pollack writes. He continues:

And once we’re in midair, flying through assumptions that reinforce our preconceptions and preferences, we’re well on our way to a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. When we encounter a statement and seek to understand it, we evaluate it by first assuming it is true and exploring the implications that result. We don’t even consider dismissing the statement as untrue unless enough of its implications don’t add up. And consider is the operative word. Studies suggest that most people seek out only information that confirms the beliefs they currently hold and often dismiss any contradictory evidence they encounter.

The ongoing battle between fact and fiction commonly takes place in our subconscious systems. In The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, Drew Westen, an Emory University psychologist, writes: “Our brains have a remarkable capacity to find their way toward convenient truths—even if they are not all true.”

This also helps explain why getting promoted has almost nothing to do with your performance.

Remember Apollo Robbins? He’s a professional pickpocket. While he has unique skills, he succeeds largely through the choreography of people’s attention. “Attention,” he says “is like water. It flows. It’s liquid. You create channels to divert it, and you hope that it flows the right way.”

“Pickpocketing and analogies are in a sense the same,” Pollack concludes, “as the misleading analogy picks a listener’s mental pocket.”

And this is true whether someone else diverts our attention through a resonant but misleading analogy—“Judges are like umpires”—or we simply choose the wrong analogy all by ourselves.

Reasoning by Analogy

We rarely stop to see how much of our reasoning is done by analogy. In a 2005 study published in the Harvard Business Review, Giovanni Gavettie and Jan Rivkin wrote: “Leaders tend to be so immersed in the specifics of strategy that they rarely stop to think how much of their reasoning is done by analogy.” As a result they miss things. They make connections that don’t exist. They don’t check assumptions. They miss useful insights. By contrast “Managers who pay attention to their own analogical thinking will make better strategic decisions and fewer mistakes.”

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Shortcut goes on to explore when to use analogies and how to craft them to maximize persuasion.

Reads for the Curious Mind

Out of the 44 books I read from January to June, here are the 7 that resonated with me the most. (For the curious see the 2012, 2013, I can’t find the 2014 edition.)

  1. Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices make All the Difference — This book is an invitation to be curious, build character, and make better choices. Very much in line with the Farnam Street ethos — so much so that I’m mentioned in the acknowledgments. It belongs on your shelf next to Seeking Wisdom.
  2. Sit Like a Buddha: A Pocket Guide to Meditation — If I could encourage you to look into one thing to think and focus better, this would be it. This is an enormously powerful little book that will help you focus your mind, open your heart, and think with more insight. It’s short enough to consume over a glass of wine (or two) on the patio and simple enough that you’ll want to put it into practice.
  3. The Lessons of History — A concise book of lessons drawn from the survey of history. The book comes highly recommended by someone I met at the Berkshire Hathaway meeting. I can’t believe I haven’t read this before. I’ll be re-reading this a few times and I’ve started listening to the audio version in the car as well.
  4. The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship — A beautiful and thought-provoking book that argues we should stop thinking in terms of work-life balance. “Work-life balance is a concept that has us simply lashing ourselves on the back and working too hard in each of the three commitments. In the ensuing exhaustion we ultimately give up on one or more of them to gain an easier life.”
  5. How to Get Lucky: 13 Techniques for Discovering and Taking Advantage of Life’s Good Breaks — Some people are luckier than others and it’s not always by chance. Lucky people tend to position themselves in the path of luck. They take risks but not stupid ones. They know when to give up on love, stocks, and even opinions. A great read.
  6. Obvious Adams: The Story of a Successful Businessman — a short, yet important, book that I wish more people would read and think about. (You can find a pdf here.) In a nutshell, the book represents the mindset that “avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance.” It’s amazing what we see when we focus on the obvious insights that we’re missing because we’re trying too hard to grasp the esoteric.
  7. The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere — An excellent counterbalance to our endless diet of movement and stimulation.

Books Everyone Should Read on Psychology and Behavioral Economics

Earlier this year, a prominent friend of mine was tasked with coming up with a list of behavioral economics book recommendations for the military leaders of a G7 country and I was on the limited email list asking for input.

Yikes.

While I read a lot and I’ve offered up books to sports teams and fortune 100 management teams, I’ve never contributed to something as broad as educating a nation’s military leaders. While I have a huge behavorial economics reading list, this wasn’t where I started.

Not only did I want to contribute, but I wanted to choose books that these military leaders wouldn’t normally have come across in everyday life. Books they were unlikely to have read. Books that offered perspective.

Given that I couldn’t talk to them outright, I was really trying to answer the question ‘what would I like to communicate to military leaders through non-fiction books?’ There were no easy answers.

I needed to offer something timeless. Not so outside the box that they wouldn’t approach it, and not so hard to find that those purchasing the books would give up and move on to the next one on the list. And it can’t be so big they get intimidated by the commitment to read. On top of that, you need a book that starts strong because, in my experience of dealing with C-level executives, they stop paying attention after about 20 pages if it’s not relevant or challenging them in the right way.

In short there is no one-size-fits-all but to make the biggest impact you have to consider all of these factors.

While the justifications for why people chose the books below are confidential, I can tell you what books were on the final email that I saw. I left one book off the list, which I thought was a little too controversial to post.

These books have nothing to do with military per se, rather they deal with enduring concepts like ecology, intuition, game theory, strategy, biology, second order thinking, and behavioral psychology. In short these books would benefit most people who want to improve their ability to think, which is why I’m sharing them with you.

If you’re so inclined you can try to guess which ones I recommended in the comments. Read wisely.

In no order and with no attribution:

  1. Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions by Gerd Gigerenzer
  2. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
  3. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande
  4. The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good by Robert H. Frank
  5. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell
  6. Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely
  7. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  8. The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life by Robert Trivers
  9. The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust by John Coates
  10. Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure by Tim Harford
  11. The Lessons of History by Will & Ariel Durant
  12. Poor Charlie’s Almanack
  13. Passions Within Reason: The Strategic Role of the Emotions by Robert H. Frank
  14. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail–but Some Don’t by Nate Silver
  15. Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan & Cacilda Jetha
  16. The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature by Matt Ridley
  17. Introducing Evolutionary Psychology by Dylan Evans & Oscar Zarate
  18. Filters Against Folly: How To Survive Despite Economists, Ecologists, and the Merely Eloquent by Garrett Hardin
  19. Games of Strategy (Fourth Edition) by Avinash Dixit, Susan Skeath & David H. Reiley, Jr.
  20. The Theory of Political Coalitions by William H. Riker
  21. The Evolution of War and its Cognitive Foundations (PDF) by John Tooby & Leda Cosmides.
  22. Fight the Power: Lanchester’s Laws of Combat in Human Evolution by Dominic D.P. Johnson & Niall J. MacKay.

Rory Sutherland Offers 4 Interesting Reads

I asked Rory Sutherland (Vice Chairman: Ogilvy & Mather) what books stood out for him last year. I’ve had the privilege of chatting with Rory a few times now and I think you’ll agree, like most farnamstreeters not only is he exceptionally smart but he’s an awesome person.

I think you’ll enjoy his reply:

Gerd Gigerenzer’s Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions is a wonderful book; the concept of defensive decision-making which he describes within it is alone worth the cover price. As an additional bonus, you get a very valuable lesson in the interpretation of statistics, a field of mathematics which – I think it is now almost universally agreed – is given too little time and attention in schools.

Pathological Altruism, edited by Barbara Oakley et al, is a wonderfully broad book – but built around a single insight. That, just as apparently self-interested acts can have benign consequences, the reverse is also true. We tend to think that altruism is something to be maximised – but in fact it needs to be calibrated. A very important book.

Peter Thiel’s Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future is an excellent book from someone who seems to understand what Fitzgerald called “the whole equation” of a business: in this case it isn’t movies but technology. A very enjoyable book of just the right length.

Finally I immensely enjoyed the manuscript of Richard Thaler’s upcoming book Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics. I have not laughed so much in ages as when reading his chapter describing how the Economics Faculty of the University of Chicago tried to agree on the allocation of offices in their new building. No, it did not go well.

The Seven Books Bill Gates Thinks You Should Read This Summer

Bill Gates is out with his annual summer reading list and, while longer than last year’s, it’s a great place to kick off your summer reading.

“Each of these books,” Gates writes, “made me think or laugh or, in some cases, do both. I hope you find something to your liking here.”

Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh.

The book, based on Brosh’s wildly popular website, consists of brief vignettes and comic drawings about her young life. The adventures she recounts are mostly inside her head, where we hear and see the kind of inner thoughts most of us are too timid to let out in public. You will rip through it in three hours, tops. But you’ll wish it went on longer, because it’s funny and smart as hell. I must have interrupted Melinda a dozen times to read to her passages that made me laugh out loud.

The Magic of Reality, by Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford, has a gift for making science enjoyable. This book is as accessible as the TV series Cosmos is for younger audiences—and as relevant for older audiences. It’s an engaging, well-illustrated science textbook offering compelling answers to big questions, like “how did the universe form?” and “what causes earthquakes?” It’s also a plea for readers of all ages to approach mysteries with rigor and curiosity. Dawkins’s antagonistic (and, to me, overzealous) view of religion has earned him a lot of angry critics, but I consider him to be one of the great scientific writer/explainers of all time.

What If?, by Randall Munroe.

The subtitle of the book is “Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions,” and that’s exactly what it is. People write Munroe with questions that range over all fields of science: physics, chemistry, biology. Questions like, “From what height would you need to drop a steak for it to be cooked when it hit the ground?” (The answer, it turns out, is “high enough that it would disintegrate before it hit the ground.”) Munroe’s explanations are funny, but the science underpinning his answers is very accurate. It’s an entertaining read, and you’ll also learn a bit about things like ballistics, DNA, the oceans, the atmosphere, and lightning along the way.

XKCD, by Randall Munroe.

A collection of posts from Munroe’s blog XKCD, which is made up of cartoons he draws making fun of things—mostly scientists and computers, but lots of other things too. There’s one about scientists holding a press conference to reveal their discovery that life is arsenic-based. They research press conferences and find out that sometimes it’s good to serve food that’s related to the subject of the conference. The last panel is all the reporters dead on the floor because they ate arsenic. It’s that kind of humor, which not everybody loves, but I do.

On Immunity, by Eula Biss.

When I stumbled across this book on the Internet, I thought it might be a worthwhile read. I had no idea what a pleasure reading it would be. Biss, an essayist and university lecturer, examines what lies behind people’s fears of vaccinating their children. Like many of us, she concludes that vaccines are safe, effective, and almost miraculous tools for protecting children against needless suffering. But she is not out to demonize anyone who holds opposing views. This is a thoughtful and beautifully written book about a very important topic.

How to Lie With Statistics, by Darrell Huff.

I picked up this short, easy-to-read book after seeing it on a Wall Street Journal list of good books for investors. I enjoyed it so much that it was one of a handful of books I recommended to everyone at TED this year. It was first published in 1954, but aside from a few anachronistic examples (it has been a long time since bread cost 5 cents a loaf in the United States), it doesn’t feel dated. One chapter shows you how visuals can be used to exaggerate trends and give distorted comparisons—a timely reminder, given how often infographics show up in your Facebook and Twitter feeds these days. A useful introduction to the use of statistics, and a helpful refresher for anyone who is already well versed in it.

Should We Eat Meat?, by Vaclav Smil.

The richer the world gets, the more meat it eats. And the more meat it eats, the bigger the threat to the planet. How do we square this circle? Vaclav Smil takes his usual clear-eyed view of the whole landscape, from meat’s role in human evolution to hard questions about animal cruelty. While it would be great if people wanted to eat less meat, I don’t think we can expect large numbers of people to make drastic reductions. I’m betting on innovation, including higher agricultural productivity and the development of meat substitutes, to help the world meet its need for meat. A timely book, though probably the least beach-friendly one on this list.

Here is the video gates showed explaining the reads: