10 most influential books, my list

Here’s my list, not ten but as short as I could make it. It’s roughly in the order I read them. Ten books gets me through high school but doesn’t include all the books that had a big influence on me.

My list:
A kid’s biography of Thomas Edison. Sparked my interest in invention.

Commodore 64: Programmer’s Reference Guide. I taught myself programming on a VIC-20 and then a Commodore 64, then picked it back up again in graduate school to analyze mouse genomic DNA.

The Boy Scout Handbook. Learned lots of useful things!

Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. I became a space nut by reading science fiction. Heinlein was an early favorite.

The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam. First big book on government I read.

A stack of old Scientific American magazines. I was given a few feet of Scientific American magazines and devoured the science review articles. This is where I found out biology was much more interesting than what was covered in high school. This is also where I discovered Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Games column and from that fractals and many more wonderful things.

Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed, The Glass Teat, and short story collections by Harlan Ellison. I started reading Ellison’s short stories, then found his movie reviews in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, then found his essays. He’s a master essayist.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Eye opening.

Broca’s Brain, The Dragons of Eden, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan. Taught me all sorts of science and started my love of general science books.

G̦del, Escher, Bach РAn Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. A stunning book about math, music, recursion, and cognition.

The Fractal Geometry of Nature by Benoit B. Mandelbrot. Spent a summer reading this book. I wasn’t quite up to the math, but still it was fascinating.

Chaos by James Gleick. Fractals, chaos, deterministic but unpredictable systems, like weather. Good ideas, lots of interesting examples.

Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus by Martin Gardner. Pseudoscience and skepticism.

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles MacKay (1841). Read this early on in college. The tulip madness, the South Sea Bubble, and other incredible episodes in the history of human folly.


Other books, ones that didn’t make the top 10 or that I read later.

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain. (interestingly, the technology an everyman Connecticut Yankee knows was all new to me).

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart. (the first book of her Arthurian legend series. Loved me some Arthur)

Neuromancer by Wiliam Gibson (sf, cyberspace!)

Knotted Doughnuts and Other Mathematical Entertainments, The Ambidextrous Universe: Mirror Asymmetry and Time-Reversed Worlds, Mathematical Circus by Martin Gardner. (recreational mathematics, puzzles, and oddities, mainly from his Mathematical Games column in Scientific American).

The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov. (sf, sociology as a super-science)

Animal Farm by George Orwell. (this rather than 1984, hearing so much about 1984 before I read it weakened the impact of 1984).

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. (sf, funny, absurdist British sf)

Dune by Frank Herbert. (sf, a great tale integrating great sweeping ideas).

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

Far Frontiers edited by Jerry Pournelle and Jim Baen. (I’ll let this stand as a representative of the non-fiction I read about prospects and plans for space development in books and in Analog. Read G. Harry Stine, Pournelle, Bova, Brin, Clark. “The Earth is the cradle of the mind, but we cannot live forever in a cradle”. –Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky, Kaluga, 1911).

Shakespeare’s plays. (I thought in iambic pentameter for a few weeks in high school. A fun way to rewire your brain!).

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. (sf)

Bruce Sterling, The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier. (the history of computer hacking and the government’s alternately clueless and thugish reactions to it).

The Best of the Nebulas (sf, the best of the best).

Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman! by Richard Feynman

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. (an eye opener for me).

Bully for Brontosaurus by Stephen Jay Gould. (Gould’s rich essays on biology and natural history are amazing. I think this is the collection I started with).

Churchill’s Complex Variables and Applications (complex numbers are strange and wonderful).

The News That Didn’t Make the News and Why: the Project Censored Yearbook by Carl Jensen & Project Censored. (strangely enough, not all the news is fit for print).

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (with Edward Herman), Deterring Democracy by Noam Chomsky. (a different view of American government policy and actions, densely written and exhaustively sourced).

The Aquatic Ape by Elaine Morgan (read this in grad school, the thesis is that humans evolved through a semi-aquatic intermediate hominid. This turns out not to be true, but I found the idea of using biological features as evidence for human evolution very interesting. I grew up during the ‘man the upright walker’ period in human paleoanthropology).

The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould (scientific racism, history and arguments against, read this instead of the Bell Curve).

Douglas North and Roger Miller, Abortion, Baseball and Weed. (counterintuitive economics)

Anne Rice, Interview With the Vampire. (started me reading fantasy again)

The Mythical Man-Month by Fred Brooks. (software engineering and personnel management on large software projects)

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. (a sweeping explanation of the large-scale pattern of human history. Not proven, but a great approach to the question).

The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin. (incredible travelogue of his around the world voyage)

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