Rockstar Books — Exceptional Non-Fiction

With millions of books published every year, how do you decide what to read next?

In software development there’s a concept called the rockstar programmer. This is the kind of person who operates on a completely different level to most others, and can produce 10x the output of the average programmer. Hiring one of these people can be worth more than hiring ten average people.

I think the same is sometimes true in books. You can read endless good books, or you can seek out the exceptional ones and dedicate your time to those.

This doesn’t apply to all books, but I think it applies to most non-fiction books. While fiction is highly subjective and doesn’t necessarily have one purpose, the main point of non-fiction is usually learning.

I found this out through trial and error. For example, I like reading about psychology and behavioural economics. I really enjoyed the Freakonomics books, and some of Malcolm Gladwell’s writing. They’re easy reads and I came away from those books feeling like I’d learnt something. Though if you were to ask me now, I couldn’t formulate anything I learnt in a way that would be useful to me. (beyond maybe “incentives are important” and “little things can make a big difference”).

And then I read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It’s much more dense, and takes more time to get into. It requires more focus to read, and the chapters are longer. But it’s completely worth it. Reading this felt like other pop economics/psychology books (like the ones I mentioned above) took one idea from Kahneman’s book and turned it into a chapter, or took a chapter from his book and stretched it into four hundred pages.

Kahneman has spent decades leading research in his field, and so can talk about it in a level of depth that many others can’t. He takes the reader on a journey from hypothesis to experiment design, results, and interpretation. He’s constantly analysing his own way of thinking and shares a wealth of psychological biases that the reader can try to be more conscious of.

The same is true in other fields. Interested in evolution? Try reading Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Or go right to the source, and read Darwin’s Origin of Species. You might be surprised by how relevant most of the content still is, and the clarity with which the ideas are presented. Physics? Try the Feynman lectures.

Some people are primarily writers, and their job is to sell as many books as they can. They find interesting ideas, and write them up in a way that makes people want to buy their books. There’s nothing wrong with this, but I think they rarely compare to the people whose writing is secondary to their real work.

This is where the 10x books come from — people who have invested huge amounts of time mastering a field, and who also happen to have a talent for explaining things.

These people don’t write about things because they’re new or fashionable. They probably don’t have enough material to bring out a new book every few years. But their material is far more valuable, and more timeless.

Timelessness is key. An easy way for an author to increase book sales is to cater excessively to the readers of the time, compensating for quality of content through ephemeral relevance. An extreme example of this is the news — while reading today’s news feels somehow educational, reading a newspaper from more than a few days ago is extremely dull.

You can use this as a heuristic to evaluate non-fiction books. If you’re looking for a book on a specific subject, see if there are any which are more than a few decades old and are still considered relevant. When judging a recent book, consider how useful you would expect it to be in a few decades. Hopefully this can help you find those exceptional 10x books, and avoid the ten others.

Thanks for reading! For some more book recommendations (fiction and non-fiction), check out this post 🙂

16 Books That Make for Perfect Gifts

All of your holiday shopping, done in 32 clicks?

If you’re like me, you’re a bit conflicted when it comes to Christmas gifts. While it’s fun to buy people things they like, it’s not always easy to know what those things are. A lot of gifts end up getting thrown out, are never used, or are worn begrudgingly.

Wow, thanks nan! Those are exactly the kind of thick grey woolly socks all the cool kids at school are wearing…

If so, you might be interested in something I’m trying this Christmas: when you find yourself struggling to come up with a meaningful gift idea, consider giving a carefully chosen book. If possible, a used book. Because words don’t go off once they’ve been read, and books don’t run out of batteries.

If the book is good enough, the recipient will be so hooked after one chapter that they might even forget to feel bad about that novelty mug they got you.

Used is the new new.

Which book? Easy. I take it you’ve probably got a friend who spends most of their free time in the gym? Maybe another friend you rarely see because they’re always working? A friend who watches repeats of cooking shows, but is ‘too busy’ to actually cook? A crazy friend with an endless stream of mad ideas?

For each of these friends, I’ve picked out a book they’ll love. Some of the books are bestsellers, others are more niche. Most of these I’ve given as gifts or will be giving this year.

The Fitness Freak

Born to Run — Christopher McDougall

Did you know that primitive humans used to hunt prey not by outsmarting them, but by outrunning them? The only reason they’ll want to stop reading this book is to put their trainers on (or not!) and go running.

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The Anarchist

The Dice Man — Luke Rhinehart

Psychologist Luke Rhinehart decides to let randomness rule his life, and hands over control to the dice. This book will test the limits of even the strangest minds.

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The Romantic

The Rosie Project — Graeme Simsion

A look into the mind of adorable autistic academic Don Tillman as he employs questionnaires in his search for a girlfriend. If it’s good enough for Bill Gates’ friends, it should be good enough for yours.

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The Traveller

Vagabonding — Rolf Potts

The ultimate guide to long-term travel. If they’ve been thinking about taking some time out to explore, this will help them do it.

“Vagabonding involves taking an extended time-out from your normal life — six weeks, four months, two years — to travel the world on your own terms.”

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The Psychologist

Thinking, Fast and Slow

Save them the effort of reading Freakonomics, Malcolm Gladwell, and countless other pop psychology/economics books.

The author of this book spent fifty years doing research in behavioural psychology and every chapter of this book has spawned multiple other books.

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The Scientist

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks — Rebecca Skloot

The fascinating true story of the first human immortal cell line that revolutionised medical research.

“Henrietta’s [cells] were different: they reproduced an entire generation every twenty-four hours, and they never stopped. They became the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory.”

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The Eco Warrior

How Bad Are Bananas?

Set their facts straight and show them which things actually make a difference, and which are just a waste of time.

“On average, if you used public toilets six times per day, your hand drying would produce around 15 kg per year; equivalent to 1 kg of beef. “

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The Outdoors Fan

High Infatuation: A Climber’s Guide to Love and Gravity

Let top climber Steph Davis inspire them as she shares some of her best stories and her outlook on life. On running into a polar bear she writes:

“I am deeply impressed and instantly stop speculating about how to survive a polar bear attack. One look has shown me that if a polar bear wants to eat me, it will, and there’s no point worrying about it.”

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The Philosopher

On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are — Alan Watts

An exploration of the self in Eastern philosophy, from a Western point of view.

“There is a growing apprehension that existence is a rat-race in a trap: living organisms, including people, are merely tubes which put things in at one end and let them out at the other, which both keeps them doing it and in the long run wears them out. “

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The Big Thinker

A Short History of Nearly Everything — Bill Bryson

Bring them up to speed with this engaging history of science.

“In France, a chemist named Pilatre de Rozier tested the flammability of hydrogen by gulping a mouthful and blowing across an open flame, proving at a stroke that hydrogen is indeed explosively combustible and that eyebrows are not necessarily a permanent feature of one’s face.”

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The Business(wo)man

The Little Prince

This book is so short they’ll have no excuse not to read it, and it might even get them to enjoy things and take themselves less seriously.

“Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them”

More great quotes on Buzzfeed.

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The Atheist

The Selfish Gene — Richard Dawkins

Show them the fundamental driving forces behind the evolutionary process that has shaped the natural world.

This book puts together the missing pieces in Darwin’s theory to make it so complete and beautiful that it almost seems obvious.

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The Analytical Thinker

Godel, Escher, Bach — Douglas Hofstadter

Take them on a journey weaving together threads of maths, music, and art into a deep understanding of the nature of truth, and the meaning of Artificial Intelligence.

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The Food Channel Addict

The Four Hour Chef — Tim Ferriss

Get them cooking with this low-friction zero-to-hero guide that focuses on quick, easy to cook dishes using standard ingredients and tools.

Includes useful (optional) chapters on how to learn any new skill quickly.

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The Career-Conflicted Idealist

So Good They Can’t Ignore You — Cal Newport

Show them the path to a job they will love. The author shares his own journey and other interesting case studies.

“Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it. ”

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The Tinkerer

Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman!

Give them a new role model in the form of Richard Feynman — Nobel prize-winning physicist, independent thinker, eternal prankster, and master of the bongos.

“You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing.”

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Thanks for reading! I hope you’ve found a great gift here. Sharing/recommending much appreciated 🙂

For more reading tips, check out this article.