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Short book recommendations

I seek out short books to read. Short books might lack the snob-value that War and Peace or the Count of Montecristo has but these short books have incredible returns on time spent.


Why I like short books

Clear and concise writing is a pleasure to read. It packs a punch and gets to the point. This also means that you avoid:

  1. The endless lists of people the author has worked with or owes a mention to.

  2. Repetition and numerous examples some of which are tenuous.

  3. Ideas slightly less relevant that they want to plant for the next book.

I hope this list encourages you to pick up a book for the first time in a while, or to mix up between longer books.

  1. Fiction: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

This book was written in 1958 but is as relevant today. Scientists have made a breakthrough with intelligence enhancing therapy on a mouse called Algernon that it tried to replicate on a human, Charlie with an IQ of 68. The human emerged with features that we now more associate with AI and became more intelligent than the researchers. The book does not have a happy ending and I will not ruin for you, but it touches upon some themes that are current including what intelligence really is, what it is like to have people of vastly different intellect interact with each other and the ethics of new technologies and therapies. (Shout out to Palmar for buying me this book)

2. Self-talk: What to Say When You Talk to Yourself by Dr. Shad Helmstetter


Once you get past the corny tone, there is some gold here. The book is about self-talk – the conversation in your head. The gist of the book is that the author believes that more positive self-talk is, the more likely we are to achieve our goals. This idea is culturally encapsulated in the adage 'whether you think you can or you can't - you are right'. This book is part psychology, part self-help but short and practical and in my opinion guaranteed to make you think differently. I think we naturally underestimate what is possible, so will give it the benefit of the doubt and class it as optimistic rather than toxic positivity. (Shout out to Rob for the recommendation)


3.       Why we have morals: The Origins of Virtue by Matt Ridley


Why do we have morals? Whilst many people talk about morals in terms of religious and cultural values, the author convincingly explains that morals are just sensible rules of thumb to use to get good outcomes for you and those around you. For example, trust. In a low trust society where people start out not trusting each other, you must spend a lot of time putting together legal documents and you will not have credit extended to you. This is different than in a high trust society where much friction can be eliminated through an expectation of people doing the right thing. So if people behave sensibly and honestly they will achieve better personal and society wide values and there needs to be credible punishment for people who do not. I enjoyed it, as it helped me think about the coordination problem that societies face to get good outcomes. (mentioned by Naval Ravikant)


4.       Putting your decisions to the test: Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke


Annie Dukes was a former professional poker player and relates many life situations to poker. Poker is a game of skill, luck and working in incomplete information. She asks her readers to get uncomfortable by thinking about how much and what odds they would bet something is true. This is different from the right/wrong reasoning we normally see. Thinking this way makes people assess their views more critically and be less influenced by what people want to happen. (Bought it after listening to Annie on the decision-making podcast)


5.       Become indispensable: Linchpin by Seth Godin


A linchpin prevents a wheel from sliding off its axle and is therefore crucial to its functioning. Some people are simply irreplaceable because they add so much value to their communities, families or work - they are linchpins (in the American spelling anyway!). The basis of the book is that having a uniquely good attitude and set of skills will mean you get opportunities to do a huge range of things. This attitude yields returns to the individual by giving them much more satisfaction and purpose in what they do. (Tim Ferris loves this book) 

6.       Virtuous circles: Turning the Flywheel by Jim Collins


It feels like every management team these days talks about their flywheel. I am not sure whether this book invented the phrase or was early, but it describes self-sustaining momentum in a virtuous circle. Organizations can achieve long-term success by pursuing a simple, underlying principle or strategy that compounds over time. An example is the Amazon flywheel below. (Thanks to Aaron for this recommendation)


7.       The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant (the absolute best short book I know)


This is the summary of a historian couple’s life work. It hits you with recurring themes from history with each page. It is the book I recommend most for budding non-fiction readers. “The present is the past rolled up for action, and the past is the present unrolled for understanding“ is an example of the hard hitting messages in each book. Rather than focusing on a time and place, it focuses on rules of thumb that seem to apply anytime and place. It covers economics, politics, religion, war and much else. (Another Tim Ferris one)

8.       Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

Reader discretion advised. This is not a light subject. A holocaust survivor described his time in a concentration camp and how people’s ability to survive those conditions was dependent on how they framed what they were going through in the camp. Beyond the harrowing backdrop, there is a very raw and life-affirming message - having a clear purpose motivates us and even through extreme trials our most deeply held passions and stories survive. I will never forget the passage where he described how those who had given up stopped saving up cigarettes as currency and started smoking them. (Yup, Tim Ferris again)


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