1st Disclaimer - these short reviews contain some spoilers.
2nd Disclaimer - this list is non-exhaustive and comprises of only books I have personally read.
1 - The Emperor's New Mind, Sir Roger Penrose
The mystery of consciousness has fascinated many throughout the ages. Why does consciousness occur? Is it an emergent or a higher order phenomenon? Can non-biological entities be conscious?
Penrose rejects the idea that a computational emulation of a brain, with a suitable resolution, could have a truly conscious mind. He initially lays out some though experiments such as Turing Test and the Chinese Room which he uses to demonstrate the difference between algorithmic understanding and human understanding.
Yet this book is not all armchair philosophy - there's some serious maths in here. Penrose starts with Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem to lend credence to idea that human understanding is not purely algorithmic and that we have the ability to 'see' proofs that a computation could not.
The reader is then taken on a whistle-stop tour of classical & quantum mechanics, special relativity and cosmological principles. Much of the latter half is dedicated to showing that while we may have a deterministic universe, quantum theories show us that it may be so in a non-computational way.
Penrose finishes with a few chapters focussing on the brain and speculating on candidate areas for the consciousness centre. In its sequel - Shadows of The Mind - Penrose revisits this subject in more detail and highlights microtubules as candidates for structures that could 'house' quantum states and thus give rise to consciousness.
This book is a must read for anyone interested in the field of AI and could be considered the older cousin to Nick Bostrom's Superintelligence.
2 - Natives, Akala
In Natives, Akala chronicles his grandparents' experience of The Windrush Generation and the rosy vision of Britain sold to them, only for them to be greeted with outright animosity. Today, although living in a markedly more tolerant time, Akala takes aim at the tabloid press, policing and public attitudes towards race and shows us how black achievements are treated as phenomena.
Most notably, he tells of a short documentary aired by the BBC before the men's 100m final at the 2021 Olympics. The film sought to explain why so many black athletes succeed in athletics by way of a Darwinian model traced back to enslaved Africans. It conjectures that because only the fittest survived the perilous Atlantic crossings this essentially filtered for muscular-skeletal advantages.
While gracefully tempered in his criticism of the self-image of Britain and modern attitudes to race and colonialism, Akala challenges a white audience with his insights and provides the reader with ample ground for reflection on what it means to live in Britain today.
This book provides a great insight into unseen human suffering and how social change can reduce it.
3 - Foundation, Issac Asimov
Although Foundation predates the idea of longtermism, it hits all the right notes and qualifies Asimov as an a priori longtermist. Taking place around 50,000 years in the future, humanity has colonised the galaxy at an unimaginably vast scale. Beginning on the galactic capital Trantor, we learn of a new branch of mathematics & social science known as Psycochistory, a discipline that can accurately propagate & predict outcomes of social dynamics to a high degree of accuracy (a quick reminder that this book was written in 1942!).
Our protagonist learns from the inventor of Psychohistory that the Galactic Empire is on course for collapse and will not be recover for another 30,000 years. However, if a colony of scientists and engineers exile to a distant planet to establish the 'Foundation' this dark era can be reduced to just 1,000 years. To deter effects of self-awareness all knowledge of the purpose of the Foundation must be kept secret.
The first entry in the Foundation series chronicles key events comprising the first few hundred years. There is an ensemble cast and a variety of adventures. While world building and lore take a back seat, Asimov's light touch lends more space to the politics and sociology of the Foundation.
We discover that much history has been lost in the course of the Galactic Empire, even that of the origin of the species, and in one chapter, a character discloses a theory that speculates that all human life once started from a single planet (that presumably being Earth).
For its time, Foundation was cutting edge sci-fi and still holds up by today's standards.
4 - The Pig That Want's To Be Eaten, Julian Baggini
If you thought you liked thought experiments, think again. Julian Baggini collates 100 thought experiments and analyses their implications.
Their domains range from political philosophy to epistemology to metaphysics. To the seasoned philosopher this book does not break new ground, this is more an introduction to the most common domains of philosophy.
The only criticism I have of this book is that many of the thoughts experiments are somewhat similar and could have been trimmed at the expense of more in depth analysis.
To the layman, this book serves as a great Philosophy 101 refresher course.
5 - The Discourses, Epictetus
"I must die, but must I die bawling?". So said Epictetus, a former slave who after his release established the first school of Stoic philosophy. Since its foundation nearly 2,000 years ago, Stoicism is alive and well today being utilised in business and sports psychology. To the Stoics, external events are beyond our control and must be accepted. They teach also that we must hold ourselves wholly responsible for our actions.
The stoic philosophy is easy to learn and devilishly difficult to apply, as the many circumstances in The Discourses reveal. The dialogues in the book were transcribed by Epictetus' student Arrian and frequently we are presented with moral & spiritual contradictions in the application of Stoic philosophy. For example, in the case of the death of a child we are compelled by Stoicism to shed no tears and accept this event. This is hard to imagine but certainly worth contemplation. It is not that the Stoics wished bad things to happen, it is that they were agnostic to 'bad' things (and 'good' things for that matter).
This is not to say that the face of our moral compass has suddenly turned grey. In fact, Epictetus insisted that our actions were the only thing we have some degree of control over and encouraged his students to do good in the world.
With a strong emphasis on the value of reason, Stoicism provides a means keeping ones emotions in check and seeks to employ reason to deter suffering.
For the Effective Altruist, this indifference to suffering may seem to go against her mission to reduce suffering in the world. However, on closer examination she will observe that if one can position the mind to not suffer in the face of adversity, one is best positioned to reduce further suffering.
6 - Why We Can't Wait, Martin Luther King Jr.
The dialogue in Why We Can't Wait is truly a masterclass in political activism. Set mostly during the events of 1963, King details the Civil Rights Movement's activities, reasoning, internal conflicts, strategy and decision making process.
The central tenet in King's stratagem, "non-violent direct action", is a strategy which is primarily used to garner better public opinion for the movement. With violence being so easily written off by the media, by using peaceful but direct means of activism the Civil Rights Movement starts to accrue respect among the public in Birmingham.
Extensive portions of the book are also dedicated to detailing the reasoning of key decisions and gives the reader an excellent insight into the crucial timing and precise pressure points King selected. We also hear of the selection process & extensive training for volunteer protesters and how many young men were in fact rejected on grounds of their immaturity.
In the latter half of the book, King publishes a revised version of Letter From a Birmingham Jail. Originally written in the margins of a newspaper smuggled into jail, it is calls for unity and direct action on the streets as opposed to pursuing litigation behind closed courtroom doors.
King also at times criticises his white supporters for being too passive in their vocal support. The criticism takes aim mainly at the indifferent mindset of whites in Alabama that agree with King in principle but feel that it is not their place nor in their ability to exact institutional change.
At only 180 pages this book contains innumerable lessons for aspiring political activists and is one of the crowning examples of the type of thinking and means of action that should be employed in the pursuit of institutional change.
7 - On Writing, Steven King
From one King to another. In his "Memoir of the Craft", Steven King blends personal experience with prescriptive advice on writing fiction. King first details what writing is and isn't, his philosophical approach to writing and a forewarning that "you must not come lightly to the blank page".
King firstly lays out a few of his ground rules such as:
- The avoidance of adverbs (e.g. She closed the door firmly vs. She SLAMMED the door)
- To use the first word that comes to mind
- Ensuring neatly sized paragraphs.
The next section provides a more holistic overview of the writing process. King reckons that a 10 page / 2,000 word per day quota should be enough to finish a book in 3 months. With regards content, this is open ended as long as your own life experiences and personal truths are contained within the text. Relationships, sex and work are cited as three good starting points; "Especially work. People love to read about work. God knows why, but they do."
Late in the book, King retells the story of a near-fatal car crash that left him with nine broken bones in his leg, his subsequent recovery and the personal effects this had on him. King later purchased the van that crashed into him for $1,500, fearing that fans would track it down and make a souvenir out of it.
This book is a charming read on the life and personal experiences of one of the most prolific authors of his generation. In the modern era of clickbait journalism and for want of a better word, shitposting, King's advice draws attention to the real power of the written word.
8 - Down and Out In Paris and London, George Orwell
Better known for Animal Farm and 1984, Orwell also had a catalogue of non-fiction works. In this entry, Orwell recounts his experiences as a destitute in Paris and London. The majority of the dialogue follows the various run down living spaces and unforgiving working conditions he experienced over the course of many months.
Acutely demanding and with few dividends, we can see how Orwell's experiences inspired much of the oppression seen in 1984 and how his aversion for hyper-capitalism and affinity for socialism came to be. He describes an ailment known as varicose veins, a condition that Winston Smith (the protagonist in 1984) also suffers with.
Much of the book is dedicated to describing in detail the monotony of life at the bottom of society and the ugly nature of the work available. In one chapter Orwell is working at "Hotel X" as a dishwasher and details how there is in effect a caste system present within the staff cohort, labourers like him at the bottom and waiters & cooks at the top. The demands are so great that at the end of an 11 hour shift Orwell will not have even sat down. In another excerpt, a roast chicken is dropped down a service shaft and becomes covered in dirt. With the time pressures on the staff they simply wiped it clean with a cloth and send it out.
Orwell's last job in Paris has him working 18 hours per day. He considers how people end up in lives like this and concludes that the work keeps one so preoccupied that one cannot even begin to consider a better life. This appears to be a turning point where Orwell realises how hyper-capitalism makes slaves of the poorest.
On returning to London Orwell's fortunes decline further, now falling into homelessness. His time is mostly spent walking the streets of London trying to keep warm. The only sustenance available is tea and two slices of toast with margarine.
Orwell eventually ends up in a Casual Ward, a homeless hostel that serves as a de facto prison. Unable to find work still he leaves London on foot with a friend which is where the book winds down and the reader is presented with some concluding thoughts.
In summary, this early work from Orwell provides some of the bet insight available into the life of one of the 20th century's most important thinkers.
9 - Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson
When humanity colonises Mars what provisions will be needed beyond core life-support systems? What form of energy generation will work best as the colonies begin to scale? What forms of government will be established? How will the Martians' relationship with Earth evolve? Kim Stanley Robinson uses his incessant fascination with the red planet and years of research to construct one of the most well regarded works of fiction on inter-planetary colonisation.
The first in a 3 part saga, we begin our journey on the ship Ares which carries the first 100 colonisers to Mars. Upon arrival numerous engineering projects commence with the aid of autonomous robots which allow the rapid deployment of infrastructure. The book explores the ideological clashes which result from the colonisers' differing views on the ethics of terraforming the red planet.
The 'Greens', as they com to be known, believe that humans have the responsibility to spread life as far as is permitted and thus support full terraforming. The 'Reds' on the other hand opt for a non-interference standpoint and believe that humanity has no right to change the environment to its will.
As separate factions grow and more people arrive on Mars an ambitious project commences to build a space elevator. Taking years to construct and stretching hundreds of kilometres into space, it allows far more efficient means of transporting goods and people to and from Mars however it ends up becoming a political bottleneck.
Age defying medical treatment allows the 50 year timeline to be told through a single generation of characters. Relations with Earth begin to deteriorate and an ever increasing influx of people soon takes its toll. Towns become overcrowded and abuses of power become more common.
In the last portion of the book a revolution commences and devastating levels of destruction are seen. This serves as a soft reset that leads into the next book (Green Mars) and sees a new generation of martians control of society on Mars.
Red Mars is a superb exploration of the potentialities of life on Mars. The author attempts to accurately identify the most pressing problems that the first generation of humans on Mars will encounter. This book is essential reading for any EAs looking to sign up for a trip to Mars.
10 - The Gulag Archipelago (abridged), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
The Gulag Archipelago is the most immersive and comprehensive works on the Gulaag prison system that detained an estimated 60 million and led to the deaths of 1.2 - 1.7 million over a 40 year period. Mostly unknown to the western powers at the time, the book proved a watershed moment on its publication in 1973 and led to Solzhenitsyn's arrest and exile from the Soviet Union.
Having served in the Red Army in WWII, Solzhenitsyn was detained and imprisoned for 8 years in the Gulag. Drawing on his own experiences and a plethora of anecdotes from others, the work describes appalling conditions and unthinkable methods of cruelty through the book's prose.
Over and over we hear of all the varieties in which human suffering is inflicted onto people and the complete indifference the system had toward human life (no less than 32 methods of torture are described in once chapter). The expansion of the Archipelago is attributed to Josef Stalin's demand for super-industrialisation that demanded cheap labour.
Solzhenitsyn also dissects the perpetrators in exquisite detail, humanising them almost to a point of forgiveness. In one of the most famous passages he summarises how ordinary people actively participated in mass-repression and mass-murder:
"If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the best of every human being. And who will destroy a piece of his own heart."
Staggeringly, much of the book was memorised through codifying the experiences of others onto rosary beads made from small pieces of bread. It is hard to provide a summary of this book that succinctly convey the scale of extremes the Gulag system produced.
This book speaks of the worst potential of humanity and the impact a single book can make.