Reading is a superpower that we too often take for granted. It is telepathy. It is a time machine. It is a magic door into countless new worlds, hearts, and minds.
Every month, I send an email sharing books I love that you might too. Reading is an integral part of my creative process and I often find gems in unlikely places. The goal of the newsletter is to recommend books, fiction and nonfiction, that crackle and fizz with big ideas, entertain with wild abandon, challenge assumptions, and find meaning in a changing world. I also share writing updates and field notes from my journey as a novelist.
In an age of digital abundance, quality is the new scarcity. The right book at the right time can change your life.
Browse my recommendations—a list that documents my journey as a reader:
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler is the most profoundly optimistic apocalyptic novel I’ve ever read. Poetic, moving, wise—a masterpiece that seems impossible until you experience it. Butler wrangles utopia from dystopia.
Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis follows the author as he joins a leading investment bank in the midst of the financial engineering excesses of the 1980s. A memoir that reads like a thriller, this story sneaks you into the opaque world of high finance and shows you how decisions made by Wall Street traders ripple across the global economy.
How to Write One Song by Jeff Tweedy uses the lens of songwriting to offer a unique, compelling perspective on creativity. A beautiful and empowering little book for anyone making anything—fuel for your creative endeavors.
Perhaps the Stars by Ada Palmer is the final installment in her four-part science-fiction masterpiece, Terra Ignota. Supremely entertaining, thought-provoking in the extreme, deeply moving, and packed with insight on political, social, cultural, and technological aspects of historical change, this is a novel that will echo in your mind and heart long after you turn the final page. I am constantly recommending this series to friends.
The Square and the Tower by Niall Ferguson is a history of human networks that illuminates how the structure of the relationships between people exert at least as much influence on events as people themselves. Ferguson crosses centuries and continents in pursuit of compelling examples that illustrate how networks shape our world and ourselves.
Stardust by Neil Gaiman is a perfect fairytale for adults. It follows a boy who sets out on a quest into the faerie forest bordering his ordinary village, and evolves into a grand adventure brimming with magic, adversity, courage, imagination, and self-discovery. Sure to spark your sense of wonder.
The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón is a twisted psychological thriller about a writer in early 20th century Barcelona whose unwavering ambition leads him into a gothic shadow-world from which there is no escape. Profound, unpredictable, and supremely entertaining, this is a novel that will keep you reading late into the night, and that you won’t soon forget.
Where Good ideas Come From by Steven Johnson is a fascinating intellectual history of progress that will ignite your curiosity and stoke your sense of wonder—a multitool for thought. Johnson is so interesting because he is so interested, mining famous and obscure examples of innovation, constantly zooming in and out, and bringing diverse lenses to bear on how humans invent the future.
The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel is by far the best book I’ve ever read about personal finance. Housel uses compelling anecdotes, rigorous analysis, and cutting humor to illuminate how you should manage your money to get the most out of it, and out of life. I gift this book often to friends and family.
The Salvage Crew by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne follows a ragtag crew of outcasts dispatched to salvage whatever they profitably can from the remains of a colony ship that mysteriously crashed on a remote planet. Narrated by their poetry-composing AI overseer, this story riffs memorably on sci-fi standards, piling on subversive twists and big ideas.
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard offers a profound and arresting glimpse inside the mind and heart of a master of the craft. Dillard wields language with a precision that reveals the beauty lurking always and everywhere in the world, just waiting for us to notice. She brings the same generous attention to writing about writing.
The Princess Bride by William Goldman weaves the adventures depicted in the beloved movie, the narrator’s tale-within-a-tale, how the film was made, and how the book itself was published into a singular nesting-doll narrative that seamlessly blends fact with fiction and will challenge you to reimagine how different forms of media can come together to bring a story to life.
The Actual Star by Monica Byrne is an epic tale of self-discovery that spans millennia and questions the very meaning of civilization. Born of extensive research into Mayan history and culture, this wildly ambitious speculative adventure will challenge you to reframe the past, present, and future. Complement with my conversation with Monica about writing The Actual Star.
Keep Going by Austin Kleon is a guide to overcoming creative obstacles that is as entertaining as it is useful. Dense with fascinating examples and quotable passages, Kleon’s writing about creativity will kindle your creativity, inspiring you to make things you’re proud of for people you care about. I found it so helpful that I’m going to include it as a resource in my advice for authors.
The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson is a compelling history of the birth of the field of epidemiology that will change how you think about discovery and innovation. Johnson tells the story of how the famous 1854 cholera outbreak in London sparked a revolution in scientific understanding of disease that revealed the crucial role of urban infrastructure in public health.
Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson is a thought-provoking technothriller that follows the queen of the Netherlands, a Sikh martial artist, a Comanche feral-swine exterminator, and a Texan billionaire on a whirlwind quest to establish a geoengineering program in a near-future beset by cascading climate disasters. The story is weird and unlikely enough to feel like how things actually happen, rather than fiction that’s striving to be plausible.
The Minimalist Entrepreneur by Sahil Lavingia is a practical, principled guide to building a business yourself from scratch. Through stories that educate, inspire, and entertain, Sahil shares what he’s learned building Gumroad and befriending many fellow founders. I found this book so useful that I include it as a resource in my advice for authors.
The End of Everything by Katie Mack is a hilarious, mind-expanding tour through the myriad ways in which cosmologists think the universe will die. By cataloging and explaining these existential catastrophes, Katie will lead you to a deeper understanding of what scientists have discovered about how the universe works.
A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor by Hank Green is a tremendously compelling adventure packed with at least as many big ideas as plot twists. Hank somehow manages to weave everything from the promise and perils of internet fame to embattled democratic institutions and aliens reinventing life as we know it into a fun, surprising, voicey thriller that feels like a more-real-than-reality snapshot of the zeitgeist.
How to Live by Derek Sivers subverts the self-help trope of providing “the formula” for success by offering 27 bold, compelling, contradictory formulae. In doing so, Sivers challenges you to recognize life’s inherent complexity without using it as an excuse for inaction. This book is a wisdom multitool.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard is a memoir of a year spent exploring a remote valley in rural Virginia. By bringing exceptionally keen attention to bear, Annie’s luminous prose does more than bring the newts, butterflies, thunderstorms, and poplars she encounters to vivid, violent life, it offers you new lenses through which to see your own world and all the wild wonder it barely manages to contain.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke is a beautiful, haunting tale about how we strive to understand the worlds in which we find ourselves, and what it means to slip between them. The story is perfectly balanced, masterfully told, and brimming with melancholy and wonder—I adored it.
Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli takes you on a wide-ranging journey through the frontiers of theoretical physics, weaving mind-bending insights into the nature of reality into stories that bring these counterintuitive ideas to life, rendering them surprisingly accessible and compelling. Rovelli will stoke your curiosity and challenge you to ask ever deeper questions.
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles follows a young woman building a life for herself in New York City in 1938. Towles is an extraordinarily sensitive observer of the human condition, which his prose illuminates with uncommon clarity. Vicariously experiencing the joy and confusion and pain of the protagonist’s growth will give you a new perspective on your own.
A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers stars a monk on a journey of self-discovery through a distant world where civilization has been lovingly retrofitted to be more humane, sustainable, and beautiful. Brimming with hope, empathy, and humor, this wonderful little book is the narrative equivalent of a cup of herbal tea—many of which are gratefully sipped by its cast.
Sum by David Eagleman is a mind-bending short story collection where each gem of a tale is a thought experiment in what the afterlife might be like. While Eagleman’s visions of what might come after death are as creative as they are diverse, the best part is how each challenges you to look at life from a new angle.
The Premonition by Michael Lewis follows a handful of brilliant but unlikely misfits who saw COVID-19 coming before other people started paying attention. The thing I love most about Lewis’s books isn’t that they grapple with big ideas, though they do, or that they interrogate how the world is changing, though they do that too, but that they weave both into human stories so compelling that they read like nonfiction novels.
The Price You Pay by Aidan Truhen takes you on a breakneck ride through a criminal underworld populated by assassins, drug runners, money launderers, and other denizens of the dark net. Smart. Exciting. Subversive. Hilarious. Philosophical. Every sentence demands you read the next one. I haven’t had so much fun reading a thriller in a long time.
Working in Public by Nadia Eghbal is an illuminating field guide to open-source software: why it matters, who builds and maintains it, how it’s changing, and what underlying forces are shaping its future. In addition to sharing the story of a tight-knit community of developers on which so much of our digital infrastructure depends, Eghbal distills insights that apply to writers, artists, podcasters, streamers, and anyone else making things on the internet.
The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons is a science-fiction epic of astounding scope and surprising depth that follows the collapse of a galactic civilization through the interlocking stories of a diverse cast whose choices will determine what comes next. Brimming with ideas about humanity’s evolving relationship with machines and itself, Simmons’ prose channels a tremendous amount of energy at any scale, from the concrete to the abstract.
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir follows an unlikely astronaut on a desperate mission to save the solar system from a spacefaring bacteria that eats sunlight. This is an immensely entertaining adventure that will teach you more real science than you learned in high school. Never has a book so deserved the moniker science fiction.
Draft No. 4 by John McPhee is a book about writing written by a master of the craft. Not only is McPhee one of the most rightly celebrated nonfiction storytellers of his generation, he is also a famously effective writing teacher. These field notes collate his most important lessons learned.
Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse probes the differences between games we play to win and games we play to keep playing. This surprisingly profound dichotomy sheds fresh light on geopolitics, sex, business, screenwriting, and so many other fields of human imagination and endeavor. Carse doesn’t just offer insight, but inspires you to seek out new insights of your own.
What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly has the highest idea/page ratio of any book I’ve read. Kelly offers keen, sweeping observations about why the world is the way it is and how it’s changing, effortlessly zipping from the concrete to the cosmological, from theory to praxis. This book will simultaneously ignite and satisfy your curiosity.
Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin is a concise guide to storytelling from one of the 20th Century’s greatest writers. Le Guin is as eloquent on craft as she is in any of her prose, and cuts straight to the heart of what makes narrative tick—field notes from a master.
Network Effect by Martha Wells is a tremendously fun space adventure starring Murderbot, a sarcastic killing machine that just wants to binge its favorite serials and would rather die than admit how much it cares about its friends. Compelling characters. Exhilarating action. Subversive twists. Genuine emotion (and humor!). Go read it already.
Summer Frost by Blake Crouch is a technothriller in miniature. Only 74 pages long, it conjures a complete, compelling narrative arc through a near-future where a non-player character in a computer game evolves into an autonomous AI. Complement with my conversation with Blake about writing Summer Frost.
Working by Robert A. Caro invites you inside the creative process of this generation’s most celebrated biographer. Caro’s exquisite attention to detail and dedication to getting the important things right will inspire you to invest even more care into your own creative work.
If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino is a novel structured like a Matryoshka doll, stories nested one inside the other in a masterpiece of recursive narrative that you won’t be able to tear yourself away from or soon forget. When the dots finally connect, the payoff cascades through every successive layer of abstraction.
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin is a profound, humane coming-of-age adventure through an archipelago where knowing a thing’s true name gives one power over it, though “danger must surround power as shadow does light.” This is a story of magic and wonder that doesn’t flinch from pain, a story that itself wields a special kind of magic: it will lodge in your heart.
The Quest for El Cid by Richard Fletcher is a rigorously researched history of the eleventh-century warrior-knight Rodrigo Diaz popularly known as El Cid. With extraordinary precision and concision, Fletcher illuminates the complex cultural, economic, technological, and political dynamics at work in Diaz’s homeland and peels back layer after layer of legend to reveal the man beneath.
Hell Yeah or No by Derek Sivers is a generous, wise, and hilarious collection of true stories from the author’s life that will inspire you to get out of your own way and do the creative work you’re forever putting off. Sivers will remind you of truths you already know, but conveniently forget: that you have something to offer, that art is anything made with care, and that it’s better to seek to contribute than to succeed. I found this book so useful that I include it as a resource in my advice for authors.
Attack Surface by Cory Doctorow is set in a near-future riven by insurrection, corruption, misinformation, and inequality. The story follows a self-taught hacker from San Francisco who helps build the American digital surveillance apparatus out of a genuine sense of patriotism, only to discover that she’s propping up exactly the kind of unjust, predatory system she’d set out to defeat. Computers play a role as important as any other member of the diverse cast, and computing is treated with a rare technical rigor that reveals the extent to which our tools shape our lives and world. Complement with my conversation with Cory about writing Attack Surface.
Caste by Isabel Wilkerson deconstructs the invisible systems that operate just beneath the surface of American life and, as the subtitle promises, reveals “the origins of our discontents.” Reading this book reframed my fundamental understanding of the country I call home, and gave me a new lens through which to make sense of why things are the way they are, and what it means to change them. Even more extraordinary, the story is as compelling as it is revelatory—this is a work of profound and rigorous analysis that reads like a page-turner.
The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker is a novel about a man going up an escalator. Yes, you read that correctly: this is a novel about a man going up an escalator. It is also a masterpiece. Baker unfurls that subversively arbitrary narrative architecture into a hilarious and endlessly fascinating exploration of human psychology, growth, and the beauty hidden in what we take for granted. Ultimately, this is a story about how investing care and attention imbues life with meaning.
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green is an absolutely remarkable book—a singular science-fiction adventure that has so much to say about fame, art, friendship, and how the internet is shaping our culture. This is a story as fun as it is wise, related in prose bursting with life and personality. So. Darn. Good.
The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd is a masterpiece of nature writing about the author’s inner and outer journey through a lifetime of exploring the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland. This is the perfect book to help you step back from the surging feed and find a new vantage. Remember: in an age of acceleration, contemplation is power.
The Practice by Seth Godin is a brilliant, generous codex of stories and ideas to fuel your creative process. Each of the 222 short chapters is a key that will unlock a door standing between you and making things you’re proud of for people you care about. I will be rereading it often, and include it as a resource in my advice for authors.
Tigerman by Nick Harkaway is an adventure of surprising depth that explores the burgeoning friendship between a retired sergeant and an irrepressible young boy stuck on a tropical island acting as a nexus for all sorts of geopolitical transgression. Harkaway conjures a fully realized pocket universe that is a joy to lose yourself in.
Consolations by David Whyte is a beautiful collection of essays that manage to consistently surface profound emotional truths. Whyte’s skill as a poet shines through in the clarity and subtlety of his prose, and you’ll quickly find yourself nodding along as you recognize the ebb and flow your own life’s particular nuances captured and elevated.
Your People and Music by Derek Sivers is a compelling, pragmatic guide for musicians, writers, podcasters, programmers, artists, and creators of all stripes seeking to build an audience and make an impact. In a world overflowing with tactical advice that encourages short-term growth hacking, Sivers’s considerate, generous commitment to process and principles is exactly the kind of actionable balm you need to make change happen by making good art. I found this book so useful that I include it as a resource in my advice for authors.
Dune by Frank Herbert is a richly imagined science-fiction epic that follows the coming-of-age of a young aristocrat whose life is torn apart by political turmoil when his family arrives on the new planet they’ve been assigned to govern. This is adventure on a grand scale, brimming with intrigue, philosophy, and twists of fate.
Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper is lovely tale about three children who go on a family holiday to the Cornish coast and discover that there is a secret world thick with danger and magic hidden beneath the thin veneer of normal life—sure to sate your appetite for “once upon a time…”
Six Memos for the Next Millennium by Italo Calvino collects a series of thought-provoking lectures about writing, literature, and craft that mine mythology and the human psyche for creative insight. Calvino has a special gift for illuminating subtle ideas in prose, and shares the most important lessons he gleaned from a lifetime of storytelling.
The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson follows scientists, diplomats, and activists working across decades and continents to forge a future you might actually want to live in from the shattered remains of a civilization on the brink. I love so many things about this novel—its sprawling future history, its rigorous picture of institutional change, its structure of feeling, its cascading collisions of big ideas—but what resonates most deeply is that this is a book about and for practical, determined people working to make a messy, complicated world better. Like Veil, the story kicks off with a deadly global heat wave that begets a controversial geoengineering scheme—a parallel that inspired a wonderful conversation about inventing plausible utopias.
The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason is a novel that extends Homer’s Odyssey through a delightful conceit: a new cache of archaeological evidence has been found, and each chapter translates a tale contained in these lost texts. Endlessly inventive, these fragmentary stories remixing the epic poem’s formulae coalesce into a subversive literary mosaic sure to spark your imagination.
The End of October by Lawrence Wright is an exceedingly compelling, deeply researched technothriller that extrapolates the cascading consequences of a deadly global pandemic. Published in April 2020, it feels like each and every one of us is now an extra in this page-turner, with chilling implications. You won’t be able to put it down, and you’ll learn a lot about epidemiology along the way.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is a novel as exquisitely balanced as the temperament of the Russian aristocrat it follows through his decades of house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel. Hilarious, heartbreaking, and humane, this story is a prism through which profound truths shine with uncommon clarity.
Consider This by Chuck Palahniuk is a captivating, pragmatic guide to writing fiction illuminated via gut-wrenching real-life stories that simultaneously communicate and exemplify the lessons Palahniuk learned writing Fight Club, Choke, Invisible Monsters, etc. A toolkit and a treasure chest. I found this book so useful that I include it as a resource in my advice for authors.
Little, Big by John Crowley is a kaleidoscopic epic that redefines what imaginative literature can do. My aunt gave me this tattered paperback last year and I had no idea what to expect and you shouldn’t either before you read it—just know that it’s weird, wonderful, so very worth your time, and boggles the mind and heart simultaneously.
Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell is a sprawling, psychedelic novel that chronicles a ’60s British pop band’s journey from obscurity to stardom, with Mitchell’s signature fantastical elements woven throughout. The structure of the novel mirrors the songs and albums of the fictional band, and in his prose descriptions of their music-making, you can occasionally stumble upon gems of insight from Mitchell’s unique approach to writing fiction.
So You Want to Publish a Book? by Anne Trubek is a practical, accessible, and concise guide to book publishing that should be a must-read for aspiring and experienced authors, as well as anyone else curious about the complex and too-often opaque business of literature. I found this book so useful that I include it as a resource in my advice for authors.
The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer brings at least as much creative ambition to the social, political, and cultural aspects of its imagined future as to the technological elements that often dominate in works of science fiction. This is a story so full of nuance and complexity that having read it, you will find yourself examining your own life through ever-more-subtle lenses.
Life in Code by Ellen Ullman is a vivid, thoughtful memoir of the legendary programmer’s journey into and through the world of computers as their successive revolutions rippled out through the culture. Ullman’s prose has the beautiful precision of the code she loves to craft—distilling the human experience of grappling with machines into insights dense and clear as diamond.
Essays in Idleness and Hojoki by Yoshida Kenkō and Kamo no Chōmei (translated by Meredith McKinney) collects the works of two Buddhist monks who lived in 12th and 13th century Japan. Sometimes sprawling and goofy, sometimes pithy and insightful, their stories and the timeless life lessons they draw from them are a shining example of how neither oceans nor centuries can truly separate us from each other, for better and for worse.
The Spark by Lyn Heward and John U. Bacon is a lovely parable of rediscovering the creative spark that burns inside all of us, revealed through one man’s journey behind the scenes of Cirque du Soleil. Populated by a diverse cast of artists, acrobats, clowns, riggers, and choreographers—each with something universal to offer—this story will give you the gentle push you need to take a leap of faith into fulfilling your unrealized dreams. I found this book so useful that I include it as a resource in my advice for authors.
Austral by Paul McAuley is a gorgeous, haunting novel—brimming with fractal stories-within-stories—about a fugitive on the run through the backcountry of the new nation established on a greening Antarctica. McAuley’s unskimmably precise prose conjure the bleak beauty of the internal and external landscapes the protagonist navigates as she tries to find her way in a world where humanity has become the primary agent of change—the biosphere increasingly subject to the vicissitudes of human nature. Complement with my conversation with McAuley about writing Austral.
The Making of Prince of Persia by Jordan Mechner is a collection of the diaries Mechner kept as he was developing the computer game that would go on to become a mega-hit. Wonderfully candid, occasionally cringe-worthy, and packed with creative insight, his journals are so fun and illuminating in no small part because they are not a memoir written after the fact, but contemporaneous, fractional glimpses into the mess of a life spent making great things. I found this book so useful that I include it as a resource in my advice for authors.
The Truth by Terry Pratchett is a witty, freewheeling adventure that follows the launch of a newspaper in Pratchett’s richly imagined fantasy metropolis, Ankh-Morpork. A brilliant work of satire, this novel does a better job distilling the social, political, psychological, and technological forces shaping media and extrapolating their consequences than any explicit analysis I’ve ever read.
Burn-In by P.W. Singer and August Cole will transport you into a near-future so compelling, so rigorously imagined, that returning to your life after reading it feels like stepping back into our present through a time machine. Singer and Cole explicitly blend science fiction and technology trend analysis—nearly every fictional gadget, theme, and scene in the story is footnoted with IRL prototypes and research.
Impro by Keith Johnstone is a concise masterclass in improv from one of the 20th century’s great acting teachers. Johnstone’s ideas and practical exercises for developing creativity, storytelling, and imagination can be applied far beyond the stage. I found this book so useful that I include it as a resource in my advice for authors.
Chess Story by Stefan Zweig is an intricately constructed short novel in which two chess masters vie for supremacy in an informal series of matches onboard a ship bound for Brazil. Their distinct styles of play reveal much about the hopes, fears, dreams, and doubts that drive them, and as the match proceeds toward its conclusion, the story draws you ever deeper inside their lives—lives that contain lessons for us all.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow is a no holds barred adventure full of heart and imagination in which a young girl discovers magic doors that lead to other worlds and must learn to harness her power to write changes into reality itself in order to untangle the secret history of her own origins. This is Indiana Jones meets Narnia, but smarter, subtler, and more culturally informed. Complement with my conversation with Harrow about writing The Ten Thousand Doors of January.
Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl is a concise, powerful memoir detailing the life lessons the author learned from surviving the Nazi concentration camps. Even in his darkest moments, Frankl manages to distill profound truths of the human mind, heart, and spirit that will lend you courage in these strange times.
The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas illuminates what biological science is revealing about the world with prose as beautiful, precise, and suggestive as the wonders it describes. By weaving together insights gleaned from termite mounds, human language, cell microbiology, ecology, medicine, natural history, epidemiology, and evolution, this slim volume kindles awe at the strange and miraculous universe in which we find ourselves.
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine is a lush, textured novel, somehow both taught and sprawling, about an ambassador from a remote space station who gets sucked into a political maelstrom in the capital of a galactic empire. The story grapples with imperialism, cultural exchange, high-stakes diplomacy, the politics of poetry, and the psychology of exile.
Permanent Record by Edward Snowden is an arresting memoir that takes you behind the scenes of the author’s NSA whistleblowing, and will challenge you to reframe your understanding of internet politics. Snowden tells his story with striking power and clarity—a testament to the integrity and courage that issuing his warning demanded.
Ghostwritten by David Mitchell is a beautiful, strange novel with a diverse cast whose stories intersect in countless surprising ways to create a multifaceted whole that is far more than the sum of its parts. This is a book to lose yourself in as you relish ideas falling thick and colorful as autumn leaves until characters’ hearts are laid bear with clear-eyed tenderness.
Galápagos by Kurt Vonnegut is a madcap speculative adventure about an apocalyptic scenario playing out in 1986 where the lone survivors crash-land a cruise ship in the Galápagos Islands—all narrated by a million year old ghost composing an anthropological history of the event that contains countless gems of satirical insight. If that sounds wild, just wait til you start reading. This is the only book I’ve read that is absurd enough to compete with reality.
Caffeine by Michael Pollan is a thought-provoking Audible Original narrated by the author that explores the natural and social history of the world’s most popular drug. The impact of tea and coffee on human affairs is hard to overstate, but easy to overlook because of their ubiquity. Pollan weaves together politics, biology, neurochemistry, and memoir into a fascinating two-hour listen.
Atomic Habits by James Clear makes a compelling case for the compounding impact of what appear to be tiny changes in behavior. Like many of the best self-help books that purport to offer advice, Atomic Habits actually provides something far more valuable: motivation to do what you already know is right. I found this book so useful that I include it as a resource in my advice for authors.
Agency by William Gibson is a kinetic thrill-ride through an unevenly distributed future that reflects how aggressively weird life has become as we embark on the century’s third decade. Populated by app-whisperers, spooks, and hackers, Agency grapples with literally revisionist histories, the branching, unpredictable nature of all the possible futures that splay out from the fulcrum of our present, and just how difficult it is to achieve “agency” in a culture spiraling out of control. Complement with my conversation with Gibson about writing Agency.
1491 by Charles C. Mann uses current and emerging historical, anthropological, and archaeological evidence to paint a sweeping picture of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus. Mann was inspired to write this book when he realized that the “history” taught in American schools was more than fifty years out of date, and desperately inaccurate. 1491 corrects countless misconceptions and will challenge you to reframe everything you thought you knew about the history and future of the continent.
Get Together by Bailey Richardson, Kevin Huynh, and Kai Elmer Sotto is an actionable manifesto for how to go about building a community from the ground up. Whether you’re an activist, an artist, an entrepreneur, or simply someone who wants to find new ways to be there for your friends and loved ones, you’ll find many useful insights in this lovely, concise, accessible book. I found this book so useful that I include it as a resource in my advice for authors.
The Overstory by Richard Powers is a story about people who love trees, trees who might just love people, and humanity’s complex, troubled, and occasionally transcendent relationship with nature. Powers reveals the inner world of his diverse cast of characters with candor and compassion, and his gorgeous prose is studded with gems of insight into this strange and beautiful journey we call life.
Zero History by William Gibson follows a recovering addict, an ex-rockstar, a media mogul, and a host of enigmatic, compelling characters through an adventure that runs the gamut from fashion labels whose secrecy is the source of their popularity to shadowy powerbrokers who meddle with history as a form of public art. Gibson nails the zeitgeist by bringing a science fictional lens to bear on the contemporary world, yielding a novel so densely packed with ideas that it will refract your thinking. Complement with my conversation with Gibson about writing his new novel, Agency.
Art Matters by Neil Gaiman is an inspiring manifesto on creativity from of my very favorite writers. Gorgeously illustrated by Chris Ridell, this little book will replenish your creative energy, set off an avalanche of new ideas, and show you how imagination can change the world. I found this book so useful that I include it as a resource in my advice for authors.
How To Be Loved by Eva Hagberg is a raw, moving memoir about the transcendent power of friendship. Hagberg Fisher documents her journey through addiction, illness, grief, and brain surgery with keen emotional insight. In sharing what it took for her to learn how to be loved, she throws back the curtains to let more love into our own lives. Complement with my conversation with Hagberg about writing How To Be Loved.
The Moon by Oliver Morton is a masterpiece of science journalism that has forever changed the way I see its eponymous subject. Morton mines fields as diverse as aerospace, history, astrobiology, mythology, geology, and science fiction in pursuit of lessons the moon can teach us about space exploration, the universe, and ourselves. The idea-to-page ratio is stunning and the story synthesizes decades of rigorous and enthusiastic research and reporting. The Moon is more than a book, it is a mirror that reflects life in the Anthropocene.
The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi is a Tarantino-worthy thrill ride through a near-future American Southwest ravaged by drought and climate change. It follows a journalist with a death wish, a desperate Texan refugee, and a professional assassin water-rights-hunter as they fight to survive and uncover the dark political machinations shaping their world. Bacigalupi won the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2008 and he comes back swinging in this disturbing tour-de-force.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman is an epic, sprawling adventure traversing the lonely interstates and dingy motels of a modern America in which ancient gods still hold sway—to the extent that they can convince people to keep believing in them. Clear-eyed to the best and worst of what the United States stands for, Gaiman weaves a comprehensive new mythology for a young nation.
New Rules for the New Economy by Kevin Kelly examines how the logic of decentralized networks will change the rules for business, government, media, education, and society. Originally published in 1998, the principles it enumerates hold up astonishingly well. Containing enough big ideas to inspire dozens of TED talks, Kelly will set your mind on fire. Complement with my conversation with Kelly about writing The Inevitable—another of his excellent books that explores the technology trends shaping our future.
Educated by Tara Westover is an intense, haunting memoir about growing up in a fundamentalist Mormon family, and discovering the world that exists beyond it. Westover distills the story of her extraordinary life into moments so dense with meaning and rich with emotional acuity that you will find yourself gasping for breath as you are borne along in the inexorable current of her prose.
The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis illustrates the myriad crucial ways in which the US Federal Government protects Americans from extraordinarily dangerous but little known risks. By chronicling the inspiring stories of hyper competent civil servants working on everything from nuclear waste to school lunches, Lewis throws the willful incompetence of the Trump administration into sharp relief. This is journalism at its best.
On Writing by Stephen King is an insightful memoir on craft from one of the greatest storytellers of our time. Funny, personal, and thought-provoking, King delves deep into his creative process—unearthing many gems for aspiring and experienced writers alike. I found this book so useful that I include it as a resource in my advice for authors.
A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay is a character-driven tale of romance and intrigue set among the warring city-states of a fictional land inspired by Renaissance Italy. The cast is compelling and well-drawn, the plot twists in ways that would make Machiavelli grin devilishly, and Kay’s gift with language transmutes prose into poetry. This is great story, beautifully told.
The Forest by Riccardo Bozzi is a gorgeously illustrated book about the grand adventure that is each of our voyages from cradle to grave. This extraordinary feat of visual storytelling that took me on a journey of imagination that challenged me to update my assumptions about what a book can be. I will be gifting it often.
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir is a wildly imaginative, masterfully executed adventure following a gang of necromancers and their warrior attendants as they compete to earn the favor of an immortal emperor in a crumbling palace built atop of the ruins of a far-flung planet. This book is dangerously high dose of pure story, and I tore through it with unabashed relish.
Everything Belongs to the Future by Laurie Penny is a tale of resistance and rebellion set in a future where medicine has extended human lifespans to a few centuries for the privileged few who can afford it. Penny illustrates how such a miraculous innovation could prove socially disastrous by locking in incumbent power structures. The story is packed with thought-provoking speculation, like how long-lived oligarchs would immediately stop greenhouse gas emissions at any cost.
Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne follows the odyssey of a British gentleman and his French valet who circumnavigate the globe on a bet. When the book was published in 1873, such a feat was barely believable speculative fiction. The duo travels by steamer, train, sailboat, sled, and elephant as they race against time to win their wager. Reading their story reenforces how dramatically technology has remade the world in the past century and a half.
The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander shares the paradigm-shifting life lessons of a veteran therapist and celebrated conductor. Reading it challenged me to question deeply held assumptions and reframe my worldview. This book is a gift to the world—and makes a great gift for absolutely anyone. (With both authors narrating and integrated clips of referenced classical music, the audiobook is in a league of its own.) I found it so useful that I include it as a resource in my advice for authors.
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone is a mind-expanding, heart-wrenching tale of dastardly intrigue and burgeoning romance that follows two supremely competent secret agents traveling through time to bend the arc of history toward their respective masters’ incompatible political ends. Their story is a shining example of Amal’s lovely definition of literature in the acknowledgements: “Books are letters in bottles, cast into the waves of time, from one person trying to save the world to another.” Complement with my conversation with the authors.
Mrs. Fox by Sarah Hall is a haunting, bizarre story about a man whose wife transforms into a fox—challenging him to reframe his relationship with nature even as he begins to lose his grip on reality. Hall’s evocative prose will lure you into a quasi-dreamstate where metamorphosis feels all too possible.
The Art of Noticing by Rob Walker is a practical guide for honing your attention in a world that is all too eager to hijack it. Full of thought-provoking anecdotes and fun exercises, Walker shows how the secret to being interesting is to be interested, and that art is anything made with care.
Artificial Condition by Martha Wells is a nonstop action adventure following a self-deprecating killer robot with severe social anxiety who uncovers a dark secret while on a mission to a remote mining colony. This second entry in the Murderbot Diaries series is exciting, sarcastic, and a hell of a lot of fun.
The Book Business by Mike Shatzkin and Robert Paris Riger is a concise, comprehensive guide to the publishing industry based on many decades of insider experience. An absolute must-read for aspiring or experienced authors, editors, publishers, analysts, reviewers, or bookworms curious about the story behind their favorite stories. I found this book so useful that I include it as a resource in my advice for authors.
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman is a wildly imaginative adventure about a demon and an angel who become unlikely friends and defy their respective bosses in heaven and hell by teaming up to avert the apocalypse. Hilarious, poignant, and ultimately hopeful, this is satire of the very best kind—lampooning bureaucracy, religion, and close-mindedness without falling into cynicism.
Alien III by William Gibson is an original audio drama adapting Gibson’s never-filmed screenplay that earned a cult following after being leaked online. A few years ago I was chatting with the showrunners of The Expanse series and they explained that sound is at least 50% of any movie or television experience. This audio drama proves their point—it’s immersive, cinematic, and scary-as-hell.
The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse is a dense, philosophical novel about a man who rises to prominence in a secular monastic community of intellectuals only to realize the limitations of a life of the mind. The unusual structure of the book—part fictional biography written by a future historian, part collection of the protagonist’s own writings—makes it a challenging read, but the payoff is worth it: deep insights into the meaning of personal growth in a changing world.
Fox 8 by George Saunders is a profound, whimsical story about a curious young fox who manages to learn human speech. His journey reveals humanity’s best and worst qualities, illuminating our relationship with our fellow travelers in this little biosphere we call home. We can learn at least as much from Fox 8 as he learns from us.
Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs is a gorgeous, revelatory memoir about a girl coming of age whose father just happens to be Steve Jobs. Brennan-Jobs has a keen eye for the pain, joy, and strange beauty of life and renders it in prose at once delicate and powerful. There is so much truth packed into each page.
Anathem by Neal Stephenson is a long, dense, speculative novel following a group of contemplatives in an intellectual monastic subculture on a world similar to our own. What starts out as a coming of age tale morphs into a story of first-contact with outside civilizations that subvert expectations.
Anything You Want by Derek Sivers is an insightful and inspiring account of the author’s journey from circus performer to founder and CEO of CD Baby—the largest online distributor for independent music that made $70 million for musicians before Derek sold the company and donated the proceeds to support music education. This powerful memoir distills his lessons learned into a concise, compelling philosophy for living a creative life. I found this book so useful that I include it as a resource in my advice for authors.
Light by M. John Harrison is a tour de force of mind-expanding science fiction that follows three strange characters through present day London and far flung galaxies centuries hence. Harrison reads like a theoretical physicist trying his hand at space opera. Complex, recursive, and profoundly weird, this novel reaches beyond the frayed edge of reason to grasp at the ineffable.
Barbarian Days by William Finnegan is a memoir that follows the dangerous, sublime thread that surfing wove through the author’s deeply examined life. It is a story of dark and redemptive obsession rendered in luminous prose that capture the seductive power of waves whose terrible beauty is ephemeral, but—as this extraordinary book proves—no longer ineffable.
Come Rain or Come Shine by Kazuo Ishiguro is a poignant portrait of two old friends reconnecting, and discovering more than they expect (or want to) about each other. Haunting and intimate, it documents the odd choreography of fate, the ludicrous but inevitable traps in which we snare ourselves, and the strange ways in which we grow, or don’t.
Hackers & Painters by Paul Graham is an essay collection so dense with big ideas that it might set off a Geiger counter. Paul will challenge your assumptions on everything from software architecture and Renaissance history to business strategy and the craft of writing. More than anything, these essays capture and illuminate a comprehensive philosophy of Silicon Valley, providing a rare glimpse inside the worldview of hackers and founders seeking to build the future. I found this book so useful that I include it as a resource in my advice for authors.
Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is a wildly imaginative novel that blends psychological thriller elements with quantum physics to create a non-stop rollercoaster that you’ll never want to get off of. The story sucked me in after the first paragraph and only gained momentum along the way. In addition to being a compelling tale with great characters, it’s a thought-experiment in paths not taken.
Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges contains every short story ever written by the Argentinian master. Reading this collection was humbling, challenging, and inspiring all at once. Each tale contains enough story to be a novel, but distills it to just a few pages. Countless grand and subtle ideas are woven seamlessly into imaginative adventures filled with knife fights, mysterious labyrinths, deadly secrets, uncanny dreams, and mind-bending philosophy. Some of the metaphors that Borges employs contain more raw insight into how the internet is changing our lives than anything I’ve ever read, and he wrote them in the 1930s. I don’t often re-read books, but this one will be a shining exception.
How Music Works by David Byrne is fascinating guide to every aspect of how we make and experience music. Byrne explores the creative impulses behind songwriting, the industry dynamics that shape the business of music, the impact of technology and cultural context on music’s evolution, how music can help us access deep beauty and meaning, and much, much more. This book is stuffed to the gills with insights, wisdom, and fun facts that illuminate human creativity and ingenuity. I will never listen to music the same way again.
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami is a dark, weird, and profoundly moving literary fantasy about two characters wrestling with loneliness and the search for connection in a world where reality is fraying around the edges. The protagonists are so deeply human that they feel like close friends instead of fictional figments. Murakami has a unique ability to let the reader slip inside someone else’s skin, illuminate the wonder and contradictions of human experience, and weave it all into a tale of conspiracy, magic, and redemption that is impossible to put down.
The Red Web by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan is a compelling and comprehensive history of the internet in Russia. Soldatov and Borogan are veteran investigative journalists who map out the ongoing struggle between oligarchs, dissidents, entrepreneurs, hackers, and spooks for Russian digital domination. This book unveils the complex interplay of technology and geopolitics, raising critical questions about civil rights, governance, and surveillance in a networked world.
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is a tortured maze of plot twists through a bleak future Bangkok where Monsanto-esque agribusinesses rule a world of scarcity. Packed with political intrigue and grit, this book will make you question where we’re all headed.
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid is a funny, incisive, and moving novel that tells a coming-of-age story even as it parodies a self-help book. Revealing difficult truths about social upheaval even as it illuminates the inner turmoil of its protagonist, this is writing of the highest caliber. Mohsin weaves a thrilling tale that sucked me in on page one and left me short of breath and pondering life’s inherent contradictions.
Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott was originally published in 1884 and is proof that great stories survive the test of time. It’s a mind-bending adventure starring a protagonist that lives in a two-dimensional world. The story is filled with humor, romance, and satire. Flatland is a captivating and delightful invitation to free our thinking from the artificial constraints we constantly impose on it.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is an extraordinary novel that follows six different characters through an intricate web of interconnected stories spanning three centuries. This book is a feat of pure M.C. Escher-esque imagination, featuring a structure as creative and compelling as its content. Mitchell takes the reader on a journey ranging from the 19th century South Pacific to a far-future Korean corpocracy and challenges us to rethink the very idea of civilization along the way. This book reminded me why I love to read (and write).
AI Superpowers by Kai-Fu Lee is a thought-provoking overview of the burgeoning feedback loop between machine learning and geopolitics. As AI becomes more and more powerful, it becomes an instrument of power, and this book outlines what that means for China, the US, and the hidden forces shaping this new century. Lee himself is a machine learning pioneer, former President of Google China, and currently a leading venture capital investor in Beijing. The future he extrapolates sheds fresh light on the present.
This Is Marketing by Seth Godin is a principled, actionable field guide for anyone looking to share their creative work. Godin strips away all the self-serving bullshit that taints so much marketing advice and cuts to the heart of what it means to do work you’re proud of for people you care about. As a novelist, reading this book challenged me to examine what about my own work resonates most deeply with readers, and how I can better serve them. I found it so useful that I included it as a resource in my advice for authors.
Infomocracy by Malka Older is a strikingly cool speculative novel about the future of digital democracy. The cyberpunk-ish world it describes is cast in shades of gray without slipping into dystopia and the plot races across continents with a veteran backpacker’s facility. This blazingly smart adventure is a policy-wonk/science-fiction-nerd’s pipe dream. Complement with my conversation with Older about writing Infomocracy.
The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant packs more insight into 100 pages than most books manage in 600. The Durants are Pulitzer Prize-winning historians and this slim volume distills two lifetimes of research into human nature, the fate of nations, and the meaning of progress. This is a book that everyone should read, and re-read. It will challenge your assumptions, put the present in context, and empower you to see the future through fresh eyes.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante is a taut, compelling novel about two girls coming of age amid the poverty and casual violence of post-World War II Naples. The amount of visceral tension packed into every scene is extraordinary, resulting in a story that is far, far more gripping than any crime thriller I’ve ever read. To me, this novel proves that what makes a story truly irresistible is not scale (i.e. superheroes saving the universe) but stakes (i.e. the people/things characters personally care about). I couldn’t tear myself away.
Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson is an epic science fiction novel that extrapolates the crisis of representation—that growing suspicion that our leaders are failing to represent us. The story follows the rebellious daughter of a Chinese powerbroker, a neuroatypical quantum engineer, an aging documentarian, an AI designer, and a frustrated Secret Service agent who all get drawn into a maelstrom of geopolitical intrigue that escalates toward all-out war. As they race between Earth and newly established bases on the moon, the protagonists debate political philosophy while they conduct espionage, foment revolution, flee conspirators, and grapple with a collapsing financial system. Red Moon is champagne for the imagination—a sparkling speculative adventure that will suck you in and make you think. Complement with my conversation with Robinson about writing Red Moon.
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield is packed with invaluable pieces of wisdom for anyone making anything. Whether you’re an artist, entrepreneur, writer, or dreamer, Pressfield will immediately sway you with his all-too-true observations about the creative process, thoughtful perspective, and actionable advice for getting to the heart of what you do best. I found myself marking page after page to come back to later and found it so useful that I included it as a resource in my advice for authors.
Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett is a thought-provoking epic fantasy starring a scrappy thief-cum-spy set in a world where items can be “scrived” to think for themselves and bend natural laws. Packed with intrigue and adventure, one thing in particular really resonated with me: The role scriving plays in this alternate reality is an elegant analogy to how software defines so many aspects of our own lives, and the four merchant houses that dominate this fictional society map closely to the tech monopolies that are accruing more and more power every day. Complement with my conversation with Jackson Bennett about writing Foundryside.
The Control of Nature by John McPhee is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction that brings to life people battling the Mississippi, Icelandic volcanoes, and the San Gabriel Mountains in order to protect and expand their cities and settlements. Filled with fascinating natural history, well-drawn characters, and heartbreakingly precise metaphors, McPhee reveals the creativity and hubris that lie at the heart of our ceaseless grappling with Mother Nature.
Off to Be the Wizard by Scott Meyer is a goofy, sarcastic adventure about a bored/disgruntled computer geek who stumbles on a hidden file that can edit reality itself. Let’s just say that things don’t go as planned. This lighthearted and ironic tale is peppered with fun thought experiments and totally ridiculous scenarios that succeed precisely because they’re so over-the-top.
The Cartel by Don Winslow is a gritty epic set in the midst of the Mexican drug war. Traffickers, DEA agents, corrupt politicians, and everyday people are caught up in a deadly game with no true winners. Although the book is fiction, Winslow spent more than a decade researching the conflict and many of the scenes in the book are based on real-life events. It’s a disturbing, ambitious, violent political thriller that’s worth your time.
State Tectonics by Malka Older is a fast-paced, deeply-researched science fiction thriller that extrapolates the future of democracy and wraps up Older’s exceptional Centenal Cycle. It brings critical questions of accountability, legitimacy, fairness, and governance to life and weaves them into an adventure that I couldn’t tear myself away from. As a science fiction and policy nerd, this series hits my sweet spot. Complement with my conversation with Older about writing State Tectonics.
The Planet Remade by Oliver Morton is a masterpiece of science nonfiction. Rigorously researched, richly imagined, and compellingly told, it weaves the science, philosophy, and politics of geoengineering into a thought-provoking narrative that shows how this little-known field may take the world stage in the not-too-far future. I found it utterly fascinating and thought-provoking in the extreme. No matter what you think about geoengineering or climate change, this book will deepen and complicate your perspective.
Coraline by Neil Gaiman is a dark, whimsical, and moving fairytale for all ages that follows a bored young girl who discovers a parallel dimension and must push herself to the limit to overcome its dangers and recover her loved ones. Gaiman is a masterful storyteller and this little book will transport, entrance, and surprise you with its insights into what it means to be human. I will miss Coraline, and I won’t forget her.
All Systems Red by Martha Wells is an incredibly compelling science fiction story told from the perspective of a reluctant, snarky robot designed to be a killing machine. Somehow Wells manages to make it action-packed and full of insight at the same time. The adventure sucked me in immediately and spat me out gasping. I’m still thinking about how much I love the protagonist.
How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan is a detailed guide to the science, history, and experience of psychedelics. Pollan peels away the layers of myth that have built up around these powerful substances to reveal the often counterintuitive truth about their neurochemistry, political economy, clinical applications, and potential to expand the boundaries of human thinking.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller is a moving, lyrical novel about the ancient Greek hero and his close friend and lover, Patroclus. The beautiful prose, emotional depth, and masterful storytelling honor and echo Homer’s Iliad. If you’ve ever wondered what it might have felt like to live in antiquity, this is the book for you.
Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer is a vibrant, sparkling science fiction story that’s so damn smart it almost hurts. Palmer conjures a rich, multilayered vision of the future that feels all too plausible, inspires wonder and dread simultaneously, and wrestles with timeless philosophical questions. This is a world to get lost in, and one you won’t forget. Complement with my conversation with Palmer, Malka Older, and Kevin Bankston.
Void Star by Zachary Mason is a mind-bending literary science fiction novel that tells the most subtle story I’ve ever read about the future of AI. Mason is a computer scientist and weaves deep, challenging ideas about digital cognition into a globe-trotting adventure packed with intrigue, parkour, and high-fashion. A philosophical thriller of the highest caliber, it left me wrestling with paradoxes I’d never considered.
The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles C. Mann tells the incredible true stories of two little-known but highly influential scientists whose work and ideas shaped the 20th century. Norman Borlaug’s high-yield crops saved millions (maybe billions) from starvation and William Vogt more or less founded the environmental movement. Their diametrically opposed views about humanity’s relationship with nature and the kind of future we should strive to build have defined the debate over agriculture, water, energy, and climate change for generations. Rigorously researched and compellingly told, this story embraces complexity in a way that illuminates deeper truths and challenges us to ask hard questions instead of settling for easy answers.
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman is a novelistic adaptation of its namesake by one of the greatest living storytellers. Gaiman does a fabulous job bringing Thor, Loki, Odin, Freya, and the rest of the pantheon to life and following their misadventures as they barrel toward Ragnarok. Entertaining and thought-provoking, these tales show how the denizens of Valhalla were at once brave and greedy, wise and petty, and forever creating more problems than they solved.
Magic and Loss by Virginia Heffernan deconstructs the entire internet as humanity’s most ambitious piece of art. Heffernan’s analysis reframes the cultural conversation about every incarnation of digital media from design to entertainment. Thought-provoking and jam-packed with ideas, this book goes beyond facts to access the deeper layers of meaning hidden within the internet revolution.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is a profoundly moving novel that imagines a future shaped by accelerating human migration. The story follows two refugees whose intertwined lives reveal many of the forces already at work in the world today. Hamid illuminates the hearts and minds of the protagonists with clear-eyed empathy and his prose is sprinkled with insights that stuck with me long after reaching the end. Engaging, philosophical, and full of pain and wonder, this is speculative fiction at its best.
Levels of the Game by John McPhee is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction. The book narrates a 1968 tennis semifinal point-by-point, while simultaneously profiling the two players, Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, and exploring America’s politics, history, racism, class structure, and psychology with surgical precision. In following the course of a single tennis match, McPhee illustrates an entire nation.
The Travelers by Chris Pavone is a rollicking international espionage thriller where nothing is what it seems and you can’t trust anyone. The hero is a travel magazine writer who gets sucked into an intricate web of geopolitical intrigue and traverses half the globe unravelling scheme after scheme after scheme. It’s a high-octane ride full of lies, sex, betrayal, disaster, and dirty little secrets.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a lyrical, moving tale that follows a Shakespearean troupe traversing post apocalyptic Canada. The character-driven drama will tease at the edges of your dreams. The richly-imagined, disease-ravaged future will haunt you with the perfect dose of surreality.
Sourdough by Robin Sloan is moving, whimsical adventure that I consumed with the ravenous enthusiasm its eponym inspires. It captures the emotional magic of stepping through the looking glass to explore a new world, while remaining rooted firmly in the San Francisco Bay Area. The story is deeply hopeful without being naive, and a refreshing reminder that human nature is so much kinder than the headlines contend.
When by Daniel Pink is a fascinating and accessible guide to the science of timing. It explores how time’s rhythms shape our lives in counterintuitive ways and provides straightforward advice for using this deeper understanding of the impact of timing to improve everything from health to decision making. From test scores to judicial sentences to Fortune 500 stock performance, this book shows that when can sometimes be an even more critical question than what, why, or how.
American War by Omar El Akkad imagines a bleak future, painting a raw and haunting picture of the compounding nature of violence and the dark places into which the road of divisiveness leads. El Akkad spent a decade as a journalist covering the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter, and the U.S. War in Afghanistan and he synthesizes insights gleaned from war zones, detention camps, and mass protests into this debut novel. The story is at once a warning and a demonstration of how critical empathy is to building a future we actually want to live in. Complement with my conversation with El Akkad about writing American War.
Magellan by Stefan Zweig is a compelling biography of the famous explorer who first circumnavigated the world. While some biographies get caught up in the details and drag on for far too long, this slim volume gets straight to the point and does a phenomenal job not just telling Magellan’s story, but framing why that story is such an important one to tell. The book is packed with exciting anecdotes, surprising historical tidbits, and insights into the price of ambition.
Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer is a lush, riveting science fiction thrill ride through a complex and nuanced future. This is book two of Palmer’s Terra Ignota series and the story is packed with intrigue, philosophy, and an enormously compelling cast. One of my favorite things about Palmer’s work is that while many science fiction novels extrapolate technological evolution, she brings the same level of thoughtfulness and creativity to social, cultural, and political evolution. Complement with my conversation with Palmer, Malka Older, and Kevin Bankston.
WTF? by Tim O’Reilly takes in the sweeping changes wrought by the advent of computing and the internet and puts the future in perspective. O’Reilly’s ideas have major implications for everything from deciding on your career path and what skills to develop, to making sense of the headlines and choosing who to vote for. The mental models outlined in this book are maps that will help you search the present for clues to the future.
Gnomon by Nick Harkaway is a mind-bending labyrinth of a science fiction novel that splices the allure and danger of an algorithmically optimized society into a fiendish Borgesian puzzle box. Detectives, artists, financiers, alchemists, and conspirators vie for position in a dance that nobody completely understands, but that will shape the future of a nation. Harkaway’s prose is a literary disco ball that glitters with big ideas, satisfying twists, and resonant characters. He’s one of those writers who I will follow almost anywhere and I recommended his debut novel in a previous edition of the newsletter. Complement with my conversation with Harkaway about writing Gnomon.
Deep Work by Cal Newport is an inspiring, practical guide to doubling down on concentration in an age of distraction. With overflowing inboxes, packed schedules, and social media only a click away, it’s amazing we get anything done at all. Newport taps research in fields as diverse as neuroscience and economics to show the results focus can yield and dispenses no-nonsense advice for protecting and investing time and attention. This book provided great motivation as I finished up the manuscript of my next novel and I found it so useful that I included it as a resource in my advice for authors.
Overview by Benjamin Grant is a breathtaking photography collection of stunning satellite images of Earth’s surface. Named for the overview effect, the cognitive shift astronauts report when viewing Earth from space, this book is filled with dazzling eye-candy that will change your perspective on the world we live in. Industrial landscapes, tropical rainforests, urban infrastructure, eroded mountain ranges, and pristine coastlines pop off the page and spark a sense of wonder at the beauty and diversity of our pale blue dot.
Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews is a fast-paced espionage thriller written by a veteran spook who spent over thirty years running covert-action operations for the CIA. The novel illustrates the lives and work of spies with exceptional rigor, providing countless insights into the clandestine tradecraft, politics, and inner turmoil that define real-life intelligence officers. Read this book for a rare glimpse into the shadow world that circles beneath frantic New York Times headlines.
H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald is a deeply-moving memoir about grieving the loss of a parent by training a bird of prey. Macdonald’s prose is transcendent, and there are lines so beautiful I reread them over and over again. But more powerful than the lyrical grace of the writing is the profound emotional force contained in the pages of this book. Macdonald excises her heart and soul with surgical precision, and I constantly found myself contemplating my own life and loved ones and reflecting on our shared relationship with the world we live in.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell is an intricate, moving historical novel set in 1799 at the far flung Dutch trading outpost of Dejima in Japan’s Nagasaki Harbor. Like all David’s books (Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks, etc.), it’s populated by compelling, flawed, and fundamentally human characters that I can’t help but identify with. The story dragged me along with inexorable momentum that kept the pages turning at blurring speed. Another masterpiece from one of the greatest living writers.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin is an epic tale of adventure and resistance set in a world where certain people are born with the power to manipulate the geological forces that cause and quell earthquakes, raise mountains, and shift tectonic plates. But unlike other fantasy stories where the magical live blessed secret lives parallel to the rest of us, Jemisin’s gifted few are persecuted and enslaved by a society that fears and coopts their talents. This turns what is already a masterfully-told and compulsively-entertaining story into a study of the nature of power and the institutional dynamics and broken systems that shape, and sometimes break, our lives.
Why Dinosaurs Matter by Kenneth Lacovara is a concise, pithy, and compulsively readable manifesto about the coolest creatures ever to walk the Earth and what they teach us about life, the universe, and everything. Lacovara is a renowned paleontologist who’s unearthed some of the largest dinosaurs ever discovered and his enthusiasm for his subjects is as contagious as it is awe-inspiring. This book is candy for your curiosity and will ignite your sense of wonder.
The Man with the Golden Typewriter by Fergus Fleming is a fascinating collection of personal letters written by Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. Fleming’s correspondence with his friends, editors, partners, and publisher provides a unique window into the driven, conflicted life and creative process of a man who was a (rather mediocre) spy himself before inventing 007. I found this book so useful that I included it as a resource in my advice for authors.
The Wanderers by Meg Howrey is a deep and moving novel that follows a trio of astronauts preparing for the first manned mission to Mars. As her protagonists struggle through a brutal seventeen month training exercise that simulates every aspect of the impending journey, Howrey reveals the inner lives of these extraordinary people with clarity and precision. In doing so, she shows that our dreams of exploring the final frontier reveal as much about human nature as they do about the cosmos. Complement with my conversation with Howrey about writing The Wanderers.
Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday dissects the process of making and marketing classics. Drawing on examples ranging from To Kill a Mockingbird to Craigslist and Iron Maiden, Holiday distills the timeless principles shared by Winston Churchill, Lady Gaga, and Stefan Zweig. I expect Perennial Seller to make good on its title and I found it so useful that I included it as a resource in my advice for authors.
Autonomous by Annalee Newitz is a zany science fiction adventure that maps out the future of biotech, AI, and robotics. The story is fun, fast-paced, and jam-packed with sharp speculation on everything from patent law to human trafficking. I loved getting to know the diverse, quirky cast and following them through countless unexpected plot twists. This is an entertaining brainteaser of a novel and I hope Newitz is working on a new one. Complement with my conversation with Newitz about writing Autonomous.
Flash Boys by Michael Lewis is a riveting nonfiction thriller that exposes the dirty world of high-frequency trading on Wall Street. Lewis is an award-winning journalist whose investigative reporting reads like a first-rate page-turner. Finishing Flash Boys left me in awe of his mastery of the craft and with a much deeper understanding of the dark side of high finance.
The Aeneid by Virgil is a central piece of the Western canon. This epic poem follows the conflicted hero, Aeneas, along a journey around the Mediterranean where he has to overcome monsters, betrayal, the wrath of the gods, and his own all-too-human faults. As Homer was to Ancient Greece, Virgil was to Ancient Rome. I actually translated the poem from the original Latin in high school. Some classics are classics for a reason.
Null States by Malka Older is a riveting science fiction thriller that maps out the future of democracy. Older conjures divisive geopolitical crises as deftly as the aroma of Darfuri street food, which makes for fast, fun, and thought-provoking reading. The story puts our institutions under the microscope, and reveals a fractal network of spreading cracks. Masterfully channeling tech geekery and policy wonkery, Null States is the second entry in Older’s Centenal Cycle, continuing the story Older started with her critically acclaimed debut, Infomocracy. Complement with my review of Null States for the Chicago Review of Books and my conversation with Older about writing the Centenal Cycle.
Change Agent by Daniel Suarez is a near future thriller that illustrates how CRISPR will shape every aspect of our lives over the coming decades. The novel contains a veritable cornucopia of speculative insights into the second and third order effects of advances in synthetic biology. Each detail shines with the warm glow of rigorous polishing. This is science fiction for scientists. Suarez did an enormous amount of research to inform the future he presents, reading countless books and scientific papers, interviewing experts, visiting cutting edge research facilities, and vetting his creations with leaders in the field. The result is a pulse-pounding thriller in the vein of Michael Crichton. Complement with my conversation with Suarez about writing Change Agent.
Woolly by Ben Mezrich tells the incredible true story of the race currently underway among leading scientists around the world to revive the woolly mammoth. To track this de-extinction movement, Mezrich takes us on a fast-paced, highly readable tour through South Korean cloning facilities, bustling Harvard genetics labs, and desolate Siberian tundra. Mezrich’s distinctive style of narrative nonfiction brings the characters to life, from legendary biologist George Church to iconoclastic thinker Stewart Brand. It’s a fascinating peek into the sausage factory of cutting edge scientific research and the personalities that drive it forward.
Walkaway by Cory Doctorow is a rollicking adventure through a future of technological abundance and economic inequality where eccentric billionaires invest in radical life extension and hackers advance toward uploading human minds. People struggling to survive on the fringes of a broken system set out to construct a new society from scratch and struggle with the social implications of technological change every step of the way. Doctorow navigates a truly zany number of big, important, challenging ideas with apparent ease. Complement with my conversation with Doctorow about writing Walkaway.
A Perfect Spy by John le Carré is a sophisticated, literary espionage thriller about a British spy wrestling with conflicting loyalties during the height of the Cold War. This was my first experience with le Carré’s novels and although it started slower than I expected, the story accelerated in a masterful series of twists that revealed as much about human nature as clandestine operations. Le Carré has a compassionate but clear-eyed perspective on how we become who we are and what makes us tick.
Behave by Robert Sapolsky has an ambitious mandate: using biology to explain the best and worst of human behavior. Pulling from a startlingly wide array of scientific disciplines, Sapolsky delves into genetics, neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, molecular and evolutionary biology and many other fields in order to explain why we do what we do. This is a challenging book with extensive acronyms and citations, but the rigor of Sapolsky’s analysis yields worthy, deep, and surprising insights into everything from criminal justice to compassion, inequality, adultery, war, redemption, and our most intimate inner lives.
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri is a short story collection that brought me to the brink of tears over and over again. Lahiri has a special knack for capturing the precise texture, heft, and tone of the hidden moments in our most intimate inner lives. Within a few sentences, I felt like the characters were longtime friends with whom I was having a deeply felt heart-to-heart. Each story culminates in powerful catharses that forced me to remember the sweet and painful brevity of our time on this planet.
New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson is an inventive, moving portrait of a future Manhattan drowned by sea level rise. Robinson has been one of my favorite authors since I discovered his Three California’s trilogy as a teenager. His visionary science fiction is driven by an extraordinary sensitivity to and empathy for the human experience. New York 2140 will make you think deeply about the implications of climate change and the tradeoffs baked into our political and economic systems. Complement with my conversation with Robinson about writing New York 2140.
Hit Makers by Derek Thompson is a titillating deconstruction of the science of popularity. If you’ve ever wondered what really happens behind-the-scenes when a song, movie, book, or idea “goes viral,” this is the book for you. In a series of brain-teasing anecdotes, Thompson weaves together Impressionist painters, Hollywood hits, and social media phenomenons into a compelling analysis of what makes blockbusters tick. I found this book so useful that I included it as a resource in my advice for authors.
Underground Airlines by Ben Winters is a brutal thriller that takes place in a modern day America in which the Civil War never happened and slavery is still legal. The story is as darkly mesmerizing as a nightmare that stays with you for days after waking you in a cold sweat. I fully expect Quentin Tarantino to adapt this story into a movie one day. Read it. Devour it, even. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari is a razor sharp piece of big picture thinking about the forces shaping our world. Harari’s ideas aren’t always original, but they’re woven into a tapestry that is strikingly insightful and comprehensive. I found myself dog-earing countless pages to come back to for further reflection.
Central Station by Lavie Tidhar creates an experience for the reader not unlike falling into someone else’s dream. Using a far future Tel Aviv as his canvas, Tidhar weaves an emotionally driven tale that interrogates the human impact of digital technology. The story is complicated, touching, and multifaceted. It left me with a not unpleasant sense of melancholy, as if I were leaving behind close friends who I wouldn’t be seeing for a long time. Fans of science fiction and fantasy will relish the many hidden references to genre tropes and classics. Complement with my conversation with Tidhar about writing Central Station.
Killing Floor by Lee Child is a thriller that follows Jack Reacher, an ex military police officer, who discovers a dark secret hidden in a small town in rural Georgia. Reacher is a ridiculously fun protagonist because he’s hyper-competent at martial arts and tactics while simultaneously hopeless at simple things like laundry. The action and pacing are perfectly executed with loads of twists and unexpected surprises.
The Iron King by Maurice Druon brings the court intrigue of medieval Europe to life in a story that is accessible, entertaining, and compulsively readable. This is the book that inspired George RR Martin to write Game of Thrones and it’s an absolute blast. The richly drawn characters love, fight, and betray one another in an accelerating cycle of ambition played out against a fully realized historical backdrop.
The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu is an accessible and provocative history of the attention industry from yellow journalism, to World War I propaganda, to MTV, to Facebook. These dynamics are especially important not just because they shape public discourse, but also because they form the business model underlying so much of the internet. Between powerful theses and data-driven conclusions, Wu weaves in factoids and anecdotes sure to ignite your curiosity. I found this book so useful that I included it as a resource in my advice for authors.
Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang (translated by Ken Liu) is a poignant novelette that imagines a future Beijing in which the ultra wealthy and the struggling masses are segregated sociologically and architecturally. Hao’s day job is macroeconomic research and her story deserves its Hugo Award.
Children of the New World by Alexander Weinstein is a mind-bending short story collection that uses science fiction to illustrate what tomorrow might look like. Akin to a literary Black Mirror, each story powerfully illustrates how technology impacts our lives and forces us to confront what it means to be human. In dissecting the future, Weinstein reveals hidden truths about the present. Complement with my conversation with Weinstein about writing Children of the New World.
The Master Algorithm by Pedro Domingos is a fascinating and accessible deep dive into artificial intelligence written by a giant in the field. It explains the history, functionality, limitations, promise, and implications of a technology that is reshaping nearly every industry. The first and last chapter are particularly important as they provide the conceptual framework for making sense of the machine learning universe. If you want to understand where computing is headed, this is required reading.
Oranges by John McPhee combines the unabashed geekiness of Wait But Why with polished New Yorker prose to yield a unique and compelling meditation on, of all things, citrus. If you’ve ever wondered why the Dutch royal family is referred to as the House of Orange, or what Floridian fruit barons do in their spare time, or when lemonade was invented, or how concentrate is manufactured, or even what the “golden apples” of Greek mythology really were, then read this delightful little book. You’ll never drink OJ the same way again.
The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway is a kaleidoscopic ride through a future in which reality is tearing apart at the seams. Packed with kung-fu secrets, Mad Max-esque chases, relentless action, and unforgettable characters, this novel is a funhouse designed with breathtaking creativity and evil genius. But the most striking parts of the story are its heart-wrenchingly human moments and the hidden kernels of insight into the tragic/comic currents that shape our societies and individual lives. Complement with my conversation with Harkaway about writing Gnomon—another tremendous novel of his.
Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson is the most thought-provoking collection of essays I’ve ever read. Gibson, one of my all-time favorite novelists, shows that his pen has equal power when dissecting our world in nonfiction. So many pages are dog-eared in my paperback copy that I may as well simply reread it immediately. The essays weave together history, narrative, razor-sharp intelligence, and Gibson’s unique perspective to yield many moments of clarity, compassion, and catharsis.
Normal by Warren Ellis is a technothriller starring a motley crew of professional futurists who wind up at a special recovery center for those driven insane by the bleak inevitability of the future they’re paid to predict. The condition, termed “abyss gaze,” is a something we all experience in these turbulent times. Darkly funny and compulsively readable, the story wrestles with surveillance, privacy, and how technology is radically reshaping our most fundamental assumptions.
Livia Lone by Barry Eisler is a disturbing thriller about the shadowy and all-too-real world of human trafficking and modern slavery. Eisler did an enormous amount of investigative research to inform the novel and it shows. You won’t be able to tear yourself away from the story as it accelerates to its Tarantino-worthy climax and when you’re left gasping in its wake of gut-wrenching vigilante justice, you’ll belatedly realize you learned a lot about a social travesty that gets far too little attention. Complement with my conversation with Eisler about writing Livia Lone.