Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Books I find myself repeatedly recommending

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I’ve reworked this, with most recent update being 10 September 2017, when I added two titles.

Links are generally to available secondhand copies of the book. In any event, do check for secondhand copies at good prices. Do note “Book Condition” in the description; less than “Good” can be bad, and “Acceptable” usually is not.

Be careful, too, about buying an earlier edition when a revised edition is available (e.g., as for Pennebaker’s Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions—well worth reading, but the current edition has a title change: Opening Up by Writing It Down, Third Edition: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain. I highly recommend the book, BTW, and in our culture particularly recommend it to men—men in the armed forces for example, who might also find Jonathan Shay’s two books invaluable: Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (and it might be good to read the Iliad first, and the Carolyn Alexander translation is the one to get, though there are other good translations (and some awful ones)) and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. Both of Shay’s books have quite a bit of impact, since he has worked with vets a lot on the issues about which he writes.


The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic, by Stephen Covey. This one should be read by everyone. The weekly planning it requires, with the overall goal always in mind, is particularly valuable. Covey’s writing is sometimes labored and disorganized, so you may find this outline (PDF) useful to read along with the book. However, the outline is quite incomplete and by no means covers the material in the book. It’s just the basics of the book. For the essential weekly planner, you have many options: The Simple Elephant (book, start anytime since you enter the dates), the Bloom Weekly Planner (a pad of blank weekly plans), or look for on-line templates for a DIY approach—for example, a page with links to a PDF template and an Excel template (currently with notations reverse: the one labeled Exel is PDF and vice versa).

The Case Against Competition: Why we lose in our race to win, by Alfie Kohn. It turns out that competition (instead of cooperation) is a losing proposition in almost every arena.

Decision Traps: Ten Barriers to Brilliant Decision-Making and How to Overcome Them, by Edward Russo and Paul Schoemaker. When you make a big (life-changing) decision, you normally don’t want to do it based on a hunch or what you had for breakfast: you want to do it carefully, based on research and thought. But still we fall into common traps. This book analyzes decision-making as a four-step process and describes the two most common errors committed at each step, as well as the most prevalent error in setting up the decision and in follow-through after the decision is made. Fascinating and invaluable for people who want to make good decisions. See also this post.

Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, by Roger Fisher and William Ury. A product of the Harvard Project on Negotiation, this is the essential book on successful negotiation. If you are going to apply the method, I highly recommend Getting Ready to Negotiate, which takes you through all the prep work.

Managing Management Time, by Bill Oncken, offers excellent advice on making the transition from individual contributor to manager, including pointing out the most common mistakes and how to avoid them.  The book provides many insights and techniques and is also enjoyable to read. Highly recommended if you’re a manager or contemplating that step. His overall goal is to enable you to control the timing and content of your work, and he tells how to get there.

Principles of Software Engineering Management, by Tom Gilb. Principles are the guidance that does not change. Well worth reading, IMO. The primary principle: “Early!” One valuable observation: in setting acceptance criteria, be sure to find out what criteria current best practices meet. If your acceptance criteria are more stringent than current best practice, you end up doing research rather than engineering.

Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, by Alfie Kohn — Another surprise: incentive programs and rewards negatively impact achievement and creativity. Read the book and realign your thinking.

Where Do I Go from Here in My Life?, by John Crystal. The author served in WWII behind enemy lines, parachuting into enemy territory for intelligence purposes. When he was de-mobbed after the war, he had trouble finding a job. (Lots of men were looking for jobs right after WWII ended.) But, he thought, he’d been trained to work and live behind enemy lines. So why couldn’t he use that training in a friendly country (his native land, for example). Wouldn’t be even easier? And so it was. Good book. And a good example of how a change of frame alters how one approaches a problem, and even perhaps what the problem is.

Winning Decisions: Getting It Right the First Time, by Edward Russo and Paul Schoemaker. This book is the successor to Decision Traps, listed above. It covers much the same ground, but differently enough to be worth reading. See also this post.


Which Side Are You On?: Trying to Be for Labor When It’s Flat on Its Back, by Thomas Geoghegan. This book is oddly charming and a fun read, and includes the origin story: how Geoghegan got into working for unions in the first place. It involves a woman, as I recall.

Strike!, by Jeremy Brecher. Excellent explanation of the role unions have played, and why, and nature of the anti-union forces.


The Authoritarians — interesting and informative free book in PDF format on a mindset increasingly common on the Right.

Beyond Machiavelli: Tools for Coping With Conflict, by Roger Fisher, Elizabeth Kopelman, and Andrea Kupfer Schneider — This is the Harvard Project on Negotiation applied to international conflict and negotiation. Worth reading.

The Kings Depart: The Tragedy of Germany – Versailles and the German Revolution, by Richard M. Watt. When the powers left Versailles after completing and signing the Treaty, they one and all said that the Treaty was a failure and that there would be war again. Since they themselves made the Treaty, why did they make such a bad one? The book explains.

The Path to Power, by Robert Caro. This is the first volume of Caro’s biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, and it paints a detailed and engrossing picture of not only the politics but the daily life in Texas hill country at the time, a life that for many was much the same as in the Middle Ages.

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, by Robert Caro. A study in applied power and politics and how Robert Moses shaped New York.


A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present, by Howard Zinn — The revised edition is the one to get. This has all the parts of history that the schools don’t teach.

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, by Barbara Tuchman. The past may not repeat, but it rhymes.

The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the World’s Deadliest Plague, by John M. Barry. The influenza epidemic of 1917-18 killed millions, perhaps as many as 50-100 million worldwide. Barry writes a compelling narrative of its first appearance and the increasingly desperate fight against it.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared M. Diamond. A survey of how various natural conditions and encounters shaped our history.

The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, by David Anthony. As enthralling as a great detective novel, and in the course of the history you witness the invention of the wheel (long after cave men, for reasons the author describes: too much specialized knowledge that requires extended experience, so had to wait for agriculture and then cities before such specialization could be supported. Fascinating book.

Plagues and Peoples, by William H. McNeill. A great recounting by a fine historian of how disease has shaped human history.

The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society Since 1000 A.D., by William H. MacNeill. This could just as well go under “Memes and Their Evolution,” since the history is largely a history of meme evolution, with some interesting meme discoveries. For example, having troops exercise and march in unison—imitating each other’s memes—results in the creation of a larger meme-entity: the squad, or the company. The individual is ready to sacrifice his life to protect the greater meme. (The book, admittedly, does not use meme terminology, but the phenomenon described is most easily explained with memes—what Harari in his book Sapiens, listed below, calls “fictions.”)

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt. You may want to read this (and perhaps De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), by Lucretius as well) before reading The Evolution of Everything, described below.

The True Believer, by Eric Hoffer. Newly relevant.

Personal Development

A Life of One’s Own, by Joanna Field — A wonderful memoir of an introspective exploration that begin with a journal: she thought that she’d just record what happened and how happy she was, and would in time discover the things that made her most happy. It turned out to be more than that.

The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, by Julia Cameron. A 12-week program that includes writing 3 pages a day, by hand, in a journal. (You later review some of the earlier writing, so a book is better than loose pages.) There’s a weekly “artist’s date” where, basically, you get out of the house and talk a walk and enjoy receiving input instead of always producing output. Those artist’s dates are important. Blank and lined books are easy to find nowadays, but the old standby, drugstore composition book with the black and white marbled cover works just fine.

Changing for Good: The Revolutionary Program That Explains the Six Stages of Change and Teaches You How to Free Yourself from Bad Habits, by James O. Prochaska, John C. Norcross, and Carlo C. Diclemente. A research-based structured program that is effective in making permanent changes.

Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, by Anthony Damasio. Fascinating book of findings, including that Dr. Spock, feeling no emotions, would be unable to make any decisions (as shown by people with a brain injury the prevents the feeling of emotion).

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi — This book puts happiness into a scientific context, and the result is fascinating and useful. After reading that, you might read Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, also by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.

Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman — Seligman is the guy who discovered and defined learned helplessness, and in this book he focuses on how some people seem immune and figures out how they do it. Many fascinating descriptions of how they discovered various things.

Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl, explains the choices you can make to gain control of your life. I originally read this because the book was mentioned and praised in every self-help book on planning that I read.

Mindset, by Carol Dweck. A Stanford psychologist discusses her research findings on why some people find learning new things easy and others struggle. Especially useful for parents, I would say, but everyone can benefit. I have several blog posts on this.

Operational Philosophy: Integrating Knowledge and Action, by Anatol Rapoport — This blew me away in high school, and I still think it’s pretty good. This is the guy who won the competitions described in Evolution of Cooperation.

Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, by Anne Lamott — My standard gift to a woman expecting her first child.

The Other Diabetes: Living and Eating Well With Type 2 Diabetes, by Elizabeth Hiser — excellent book for new type 2 diabetics: everything you need to know to live effectively with the disease. One thing she does not mention: the importance of severe restriction on eating carbohydrates (there are no “essential carbohydrates,” so you run no risk of a deficiency disease by cutting back on carbs) and in particular eat no sugar. See this introduction and this one as well.

Polyglot: How I Learn Languages, by Kató Lomb — how a woman learned 16 languages (and become completely fluent in 5) as an adult (after graduating from college in chemistry)

Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, by Timothy Wilson. It’s pretty clear that the adaptive unconscious runs the show, but it’s difficult to study (because it’s unconscious). Wilson describes the various trick and techniques to let us study something so hidden, and it’s an eye-opener.

Strong Women Stay Young (Revised Edition), by Miriam Nelson, PhD — excellent guide to fitness with minimal time investment—and the studies that show it makes a great difference no matter when in your life you begin.

Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception, by Dan Goleman — Fascinating book about a basic technique for avoiding pain. Goleman traces the technique almost from the cellular level, to the individual, to families, and to societies.

Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence: Revised and Updated for the 21st Century, by Joe Dominguez, Vicki Robin, and Monique Tilford — Excellent guidebook for finding out where your money’s going and how to make changes to live frugally in comfort and with pleasure. (See also this free Excel workbook.)


1984, by George Orwell. Read it now like never before.

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. Ditto.

Among the Dangs, by George P. Elliott. Ten remarkable short stories.

A New Life, by Bernard Malamud. A fine novel and worth rereading—at least skim back over it. Some parts make sense only in retrospect.

The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade — terrific summer reading for junior high kids. The Heritage Edition is especially nice. You would probably enjoy it, too.

Deadly Intentions, by William Randolph Stevens. This is a true crime report, but it reads like a novel and is amazing, especially toward the end when you realize what motivated Stevens to write it.

Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes. The first modern novel and stay in the vanguard. An amazing book, particularly if you think about what you are reading. I like the Edith Grossman translation, but the Burton Raffel translation is also excellent. There are bad translations and even abridged editions, so be careful.

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens. Probably his best novel. Note: the book has two endings. Read both. Avoid abridged editions. (For pure enjoyment, though Oliver Twist is wonderful.)

The Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin series of British Naval novels by Patrick O’Brian. Read at least the first three, which constitute a trilogy. All in the series are easy to find on

  1. Master and Commander (1969)
  2. Post Captain (1972)
  3. HMS Surprise (1973)

Iliad, and I recommend the Carolyn Alexander translation.

Madame Bovary, by Gustav Flaubert. Read this only if you are over 40.

Morte d’Urban, by J.F. Powers. A National Book Award winner and a great novel, comic in tone, that seems to change from reading to reading as you learn more in life.

The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy. Another National Book Award winner and a very interesting novel.

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen: A struggle for survival in a time when women lacked rights, but also a comic social novel. See this essay.

Scaramouche, by Rafael Sabatini — Totally wonderful historical adventure novel. I read this originally around my sophomore year of high school, and I had to go to the dictionary two or three times a page. But a totally gripping story. Avoid at all costs Scaramouche the Kingmaker, which turned out pretty bad. But if you like Sabatini, you certainly will want to read Captain Blood and Captain Blood Returns, the story of Peter Blood, an English surgeon who became a pirate. (These books may well be in your library: they were tremendously popular in their day.)

The Sot-Weed Factor, by John Barth. Cf. also Tristram Shandy, by Lawrence Sterne. Another good one by Barth: The End of the Road. And The Floating Opera.

War and Peace, by Count Leo Tolstoy. I like the Maude translation, but the more recent Pevear and Volokhnosky gets very high praise. I suggest you open a little text document, and as each character is introduced, enter the character’s name and a brief description of what you are told. As you see the character in later scenes, you will want to add to what you know about the character. If you do this, the characters achieve a memorable solidity that makes the novel more alive, and of course by the time you finish you know the characters and can discard the workbook. It does make a big difference, at least for me. For one thing, it made me pronounce and remember the names instead of just seeing them as a bunch of letters that were hard to remember. And when you know the characters, the novel becomes three-dimensional. Also, watch this:

Science and math

Climbing Mount Improbable, by Richard Dawkins. A highly readable and very informative stroll over the evolutionary plain.

The Evolution of Cooperation: Revised Edition, by Robert Axelrod. A fascinating short book about a contest to find the best strategy for winning a competition based on the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The results of the competition were published so that everyone knew of Anatol Rapoport’s winning strategy, tit-for-tat. Then Axelrod held a second competition…  – But note this article.

The Scars of Evolution, by Elaine Morgan. A fascinating theory about humanity’s having gone through a semiaquatic phase in our evolution, something that left in our bodies evidence: the scars. Probably untrue, but great reading and a fascinating theory, well substantiated.

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes. I don’t really know where to put this. I think it is a crackpot theory, but it is a fascinating crackpot theory.


The Big Fat Surprise, by Nina Teicholz. A highly readable and very well-researched book on the latest findings on how our bodies deal with fat and how our fear of fat is due to Ancel Keyes, an inadequate but well-connected researcher who was also a bully and had decided to fight fat.

Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease, by Gary Taubes. Judging foods by calorie content is like judging books by word count. Taubes clearly explains how the calories from some foods act very differently from calories from other foods, and what that means for your body. Well-researched and very readable—and often surprising.

Why We Get Fat and What To Do About It, by Gary Taubes. A summary of the findings from Good Calories, Bad Calories.

Based on what I learned from the above books, I switched to a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet. You can learn more about such diets here and here. The idea is that you cut back severely on carbs, eating around 20-30g/day of net carbs (net carbs = carbs – dietary fiber). Since there are no “essential carbohydrates,” you run no risk of a deficiency disease. Keeping carbs this low requires avoiding foods made with refined flour and refined sugar, including breads, desserts, soda pop, pasta, rice, potatoes, and the like. Sugar is particularly bad. Note this video:

A low-carb, high-fat diet is particularly helpful for those who, like me, have type 2 diabetes—and for such people, I also highly recommend Hiser’s helpful book listed above, The Other Diabetes: Living and Eating Well with Type 2 Diabetes.

Memes and their evolution

The Emergence of Everything: How the World Became Complex, by Harold Morowitz. We live among emergent phenomena and in fact are such a thing ourselves. This book explains and explores emergence and what it has produced.

The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge, by Matt Ridley. The book discusses the evolution of lifeforms and of memes.

The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright. A fascinating and occasionally humorous history of the changing human conception of the divine, as revealed through a study of the rough chronology of our religious beliefs. Wonderful book.

The Meme Machine, by Susan Blackmore. She carefully works her way through the topic of memes: what they are, how they arise and evolve, and what we owe to them.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. A great read, especially if you read it as the story of meme evolution. For example, in Part 1: The Cognitive Revolution, the second chapter, The Tree of Knowledge, describes in detail the power of memes (although Harari avoids the term “meme,” using “fictions” instead).

I’m not sure it goes here, but writing consists of using memes to create memes, so let me strongly recommend to would-be writers that they work through the exercises whose links are in this post on The Reader Over Your Shoulder, by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge. Doing that will optimize meme selection.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 June 2010 at 6:22 am

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