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Good books I read in 2021

The covers of recommended books.

Late last year and early this year, I went deeper into exploring critical thinking and decision-making. I was a reasonably proficient practitioner until then. Nevertheless, I wanted to improve my vocabulary further and see how other people structured those topics because I was preparing an internal company course on the subject. The first three books in the list are related to that effort.

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant

The author focuses on mental fitness as the ability to rethink and unlearn. Too often, we tie beliefs to our identities. The bond prevents us from changing our minds later because it feels like we’re not true to ourselves. Nobody enjoys questioning or even dropping their identity. The second part of the book focuses on talking to other people who have wildly different or wrong beliefs and how to depolarize divided discussions.

The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t by Julia Galef

The scout mindset is seeing things how they are, not how you want them to be. The author:

  • explains how self-delusion and motivated reasoning bring us to comfort but not necessarily the truth
  • provides excellent questions and thought experiments that one can use to develop self-awareness
  • references other great work, so this might be an interesting read if you’re starting and want the lay of the land before going deeper

Penguin Random House (publisher)

Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment by Cass Sunstein, Daniel Kahneman, and Olivier Sibony

The hard copy is eerily similar in size and color to Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, but that’s where the similarities end. Thinking, Fast and Slow covers a broad collection of human heuristics and biases (consistent offsets from optimum targets in judgments). Noise goes deep into one topic–random variation in judgments. In short, whenever there is judgment, there is noise, and more of it than you think. The authors cover definitions and methods, how noise happens, ways to improve judgments, and when it might not be prudent to reduce noise.

Dune series by Frank Herbert

I had Dune on my to-read list for several years, but I never managed to prioritize it. Then, during the summer, I learned that a new movie will be released in autumn, so I scrambled to read the book as soon as possible. I liked the first book so much that I continued with Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, and God Emperor of Dune. It’s a complex sci-fi story interweaving ecology, governance, religion, and intergalactic conflict. I saved many quotes of which one is closely related to the topic from the start of the list:

“For what do you hunger, Lord?” Moneo ventured.
“For a humankind which can make truly long-term decisions. Do you know the key to that ability, Moneo?”
“You have said it many times, Lord. It is the ability to change your mind.”

Penguin Random House (publisher)

Pizza, Pincushions, and Playing It Straight by Rayne Constantine

This book about the adventures of a sex worker employed in a regulated brothel in Australia was an unexpected gem. The book goes through the importance of customer service (as in any job), funny stories and mishaps, overconfident young men and adventurous middle-aged couples, mental health, loneliness of many customers, and the needs of marginalized groups when it comes to sex (like people with disabilities who are frequent customers of sex workers).

The Circadian Code: Lose Weight, Supercharge Your Energy and Sleep Well Every Night by Dr. Satchidananda Panda

Satchin Panda presents the scientific evidence for why aligning your daily schedule with the natural rhythm of the sun can yield many benefits. The book covers three main areas: sleep, nutrition, and exercise–the three pillars of a healthy life. So if you’ve ever wondered what an early morning walk or that late-night snack during a movie is doing to your body, this book will give you answers.

Penguin Random House (publisher)

What Management Is by Joan Magretta

I was delighted by the clarity and low signal-to-noise ratio of Joan Magretta’s earlier book on business strategy, so I had high expectations of this introduction to general management. The author delivered again. If you ever wondered what company founders or executives (should) know and do day-to-day, this is an excellent and succinct overview.

Simon & Schuster (publisher)

The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? by Michael J. Sandel

A snippet from the book:

Meritocratic hubris reflects the tendency of winners to inhale too deeply of their success, to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way. It is the smug conviction of those who land on top that they deserve their fate, and that those on the bottom deserve theirs, too. This attitude is the moral companion of technocratic politics.

This book is not the first nor the last critique of meritocracy. Michael Sandel explains how we often delude ourselves by believing that meritocracy is fair, either in personal or market success, and how those relate to moral values and social recognition.

Penguin Random House (publisher)

How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett

The author presents her scientific work as an alternative to the classical view of emotions based on a universal physical and facial expression for each emotion. Instead, the theory of constructed emotions states that the creation of emotions is influenced by our social environment, upbringing, and physiology. We create emotions on the fly (they’re not built-in) through a complex interplay of systems. The fascinating book goes deep into how our brain and body work when emotions are in play.

How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine…for Now by Stanislas Dehaene

The second part of the book’s title might give an impression that the focus is on comparing our brains and machines (algorithms), but it’s not. It’s really about the four pillars of learning–attention, active engagement, error feedback, consolidation–and how our internal brain structures and chemistry enable and support learning.

Penguin Random House (publisher)
My book notes

Shtum by Jem Lester

Shtum is a story about a young couple that struggles to find a satisfactory life arrangement for their heavily autistic son. Early in the story, the father and son move in with the paternal grandfather. Unresolved relationships, unspoken words, and hidden feelings make the triangle likely to break apart, but love and the need for each other keep them together. It’s an immensely emotional story, more so because the author is the father of an autistic child too.

Orion Books (publisher)

Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes

The mentally disabled protagonist goes through a second discovery of the world and people when he agrees to undergo a medical procedure, after which his intelligence starts to soar. The story is profoundly moving and insightful because it explores the benefits and limits of high intelligence, especially when paired with the lack of emotional development.


Explore other book recommendations or read my book notes.

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