Recommendations of books for “Prime Day”

Since many of you will be taking advantage of “Prime Day” sales, I thought I might as well put some recommendations of books you might be interested in as well, and if you buy other stuff after the initial click I’ll get a cut!

First, thematically here are three books on ancient Rome that you probably should read: The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire, Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe.

For stuff on religion and culture, I think Atran’s In Gods We Trust is still the best treatment. It’s dated, and probably doesn’t take cultural evolution into account enough. Therefore, read Henrich’s The Secret of our Success.

For population genetics, Gillespie’s introductory book and Hartl and Clark’s more thorough one suffice. Also, Falconer’s Introduction to Quantitative Genetics is an excellent resource.

David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here is a must-read. In part, because the author’s lab might publish stuff soon requiring major revisions. This is a fast-changing field, and Reich gives you a good window upon that.

Haier’s The Neuroscience of Intelligence and Ritchie’s short book are both useful.

The Age of Confucian Rule: The Song Transformation of China, is an excellent book.

Soft spot for Cameron Rondo’s A Concise Economic History of the World: From Paleolithic Times to the Present by Cameron Rondo.

And of course, Beckwith’s eccentric Empires of the Silk Road.


Books you look at but don’t buy

A little while ago I was curious about the books people looked at through my links which they nevertheless did not buy. More precisely I was looking at a 90 day interval. The top book people clicked but did not buy was Introduction to Quantitative Genetics. I know this is an expensive book, but if you can afford it you should buy and it read it. The reasoning is that quantitative genetics is no longer an abstruse topic, as I’m seeing economists conflate correlation of traits between relatives and narrow sense heritability. People have opinions on this topic. Loads.

If you talk about regression to the mean, but barely understand how it works, perhaps you should read Introduction to Quantitative Genetics.

Here the remaining of the top 15 (in order from most clicked to least):

The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey
The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible
Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate. This is a good book. I’ve read it three times.
The History and Geography of Human Genes
George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones 5-Book Boxed Set
Principles of Population Genetics. Really readers? This is why more of you are not HWE aware….
Adaptation and Natural Selection
The Nurture Assumption
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
In Gods We Trust
Sewall Wright and Evolutionary Biology

Also, I can go back to 2014. Looking over 90 days from 2014, 2015 and 2016, here are the top 15:

Principles of Population GeneticsFreedom at MidnightThe Great Ordeal
In Gods We TrustPower and PlentySex Segregation in Sports
The Bible with Sources RevealedWhy Sex MattersThe Dialectical Imagination
Why Sex MattersThe Origins of Theoretical Population GeneticsThe History and Geography of Human Genes
The Transparent SocietyThe Mating MindPython for Data Analysis
The First Man in RomeMutantsPlagues and Peoples
The Barbarian ConversionIn Gods We TrustGrooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language
Nature’s God1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
Introduction to Quantitative GeneticsA History of the Byzantine State and SocietyWhy Sex Matters
The Rise of Western ChristendomPrinciples of Population GeneticsTaboo
The Great Arab ConquestsThe Journey of Man: A Genetic OdysseyDesign Patterns
Religion ExplainedA Concise Economic History of the WorldA Beautiful Math 
The Nurture AssumptionThe Man Who Would Be King and Other StoriesThe Great Human Diasporas
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before ColumbusThe Genetics of Human PopulationsThe Seven Daughters of Eve
The Invisible GorillaA Beautiful Math  Calculus Made Easy

Why Sex Matters has always been a book that gets a lot of clicks. I think it is the title. But it’s rather old now, and on an old fashioned topic: sex differences. Totally milquetoast in the 2000s, but probably very problematic today….


The survivorship bias in book ratings

Just finished The Fortunes of Africa: A 5000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor by Martin Meredith, and gave it 4 out of 5 stars on GoodReads. At nearly 700 pages of narrative text The Fortunes of Africa is not a small book, but it’s pretty dense with fact and a “quick read”. The author is good at balancing narrative flow with packing a lot of information into any given page.

But as I rated the book I realized that the vast majority of my ratings are 4 out of 5. I reserve 5’s for really good books. But why so few ratings less than 4? Obviously, this is due to survivorship bias: in general, I’m not going to finish a book that I don’t like, and I won’t rate books that I don’t finish.

Additionally, the longer a book is, the better it probably has to be for me to finish it. If it is a short book (less than 200 pages) I may just push all the way through, but in general anything longer and I won’t read “cover-to-cover.” When I was younger I would sample chapters and such, but for whatever reason as I’ve gotten older I generally adhere to the sequential structure as envisioned by the author.

Of course there are exceptions. Stephen Jay Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory is very long. In general I did not really enjoy reading it (though it has its moments, in particular when it comes to history of science), but finish it I did. I read The Structure of Evolutionary Theory in full because it was Gould’s magnum opus, and the best place to get a sense of his thought without ploughing through his whole oeuvre. Though I did not think much of Gould’s ideas personally (few people with an evolutionary genetics orientation do), he was objectively an intellectual of some standing and influence, so it is useful to understand his thought. He mattered, for better or worse.

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory was Stephen Jay Gould’s last book (he died two months after it was published). He had become such an enormous public intellectual that he was clearly beyond the power of any editors to control his prose flourishes. It’s a prolix repetitious work (I read Wonderful Life more recently, and it benefited from being more tightly written).

In contrast when I read The Twilight of Atheism Alister McGrath I thought it was a decently well written book, but totally unpersuasive on the merits of the substance. But after ten years I think descriptively McGrath was right in some deep ways. So I’d probably change my rating of this book between then and now.

So categories of books I read all the way through:

  • Books I enjoy. I’ve read The Fall of Rome three times. I’ve only read The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection front to back a few times, but some chapters (especially the earlier ones) I’ve read many times.
  • Books which are important. I’ve read probably two dozen translations of Genesis in my life (it’s a short book when standalone, so not a big achievement). A lot of the religious stuff I read is because religion is so important to people, even if it isn’t important to me. Honestly, the same with a lot of philosophy.
  • Books which challenge my viewpoints in a substantive sense. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory and The Twilight of Atheism fall into these categories. I was a much more doctrinaire libertarian when I read Michael Parenti’s Blackshirts and Reds, which engaged some apologia for Marxist-Leninism.

The Warlord Chronicles

The Winter is Coming website has a post up, What books should you read as you wait for The Winds of Winter? (The Winds of Winter is the next Song of Ice and Fire book).

I don’t have much time for fiction at this point, but the first entry that they suggested was Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles. This is a very dark, gritty, and realistic, retelling of the Arthurian legend, written in a fashion more reminiscent of historical fiction than fantasy. I read this series perhaps a year after first reading Game of Thrones, and was struck by similarities of tone.

As it happened this was before George R. R. Martin was quite as famous, and I emailed him at some point in 2000 about various issues relating to his works and inspirations, and asked him about Cornwell’s series. Martin admitted that he was a huge fan, and appreciated that there were similarities of style and tone.

In any case, I second this recommendation. Warlord Chronicles is not the most easy read…but worth it.


The year shall belong to those who finish

Seeing as how I have three children, I don’t think I’m admitting my virginity when I admit that I am mildly excited that Brandon Sanderson’s third volume of his ten volume The Way of Kings, Oathbringer, is coming out in the fall.

Sanderson writes at a fast clip and finishes lots of books. Yes, his prose doesn’t stay with you like that of some other fantasists. But after all the years waiting for the next volume of Song of Ice and Fire, there’s something to be said for actually delivering something to the public.

Not that I myself get through many works of fiction per year anymore. I’ve had The Wise Man’s Fear on my Kindle for seven years now. I keep waiting for the final entry so I can just finish the last two in one sitting. And yes, there’s Seveneves. All in good time….