[ Question ]

What book(s) would you want a gifted teenager to come across?

by alexrjl 2mo5th Aug 201949 comments


As part of my role as a teacher in a sixth-form college for gifted students, I have the option of requesting books be bought for the library. I do some EA outreach as part of my job (more details here, I'm "Alex"), but am primarily interested here in books that people feel might provide a nudge in an EA direction to students who haven't otherwise engaged with effective altruism. As well as obtaining recommended books for my own school's library, I am exploring the possibility of donating highly recommended books to the libraries of other very high performing sixth forms, several of which I already have connections with, and several others I could easily make.

The school already has copies of the 80,000 hours career guide, The Life You Can Save, and Superintelligence, though I am still interested in comments (positive or not) on these. The more details you can add about why you've recommended (or not) a book, the better.

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24 Answers

Cool project. I went to maybe-similar type of school and I think if I had encountered certain books earlier, it would have had a really good effect on me. The book categories I think I would most have benefitted from when I was that age:

  • Books about how the world very broadly works. A lot of history felt very detail-oriented and archival, but did less to give me a broad sense of how things had changed over time, what kinds of changes are possible, and what drives them. Top rec in that category: Global Economic History: A Very Short Introduction. Other recs: The Better Angels of Our Nature, Sapiens, Moral Mazes (I've never actually read the whole thing, just quotes),
  • Books about rationality, especially how it can cause important things to go awry, how that has happened historically and might be happening now. Reading these was especially relief-inducing because I already had concerns along those lines that I didn't see people articulate, and finally reading them was a hugely comforting experience. Top recs: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, Rationality: From AI to Zombies (probably these were the most positively transformative books I've read, but Eliezer books are polarizing and some might have parts that people think are inappropriate for minors, and I can't remember which), Thinking Fast and Slow. Other recs: Inadequate Equilibria,
  • Some other misc recs I'm not going to explain: Permutation City, Animal Liberation, Command and Control, Seeing like a State, Deep Work, Nonviolent Communication

Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman by Richard Feynman

Reasons and Persons by Derek Parfit

My level of moral ambition was seriously raised by reading these two books at a time when I was just getting exposed to EA:

Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquhar

Famine, Affluence and Morality by Peter Singer

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card really spoke to me as a kid, though hopefully your students are better socialized! :P

I think I would have benefitted from Hanson's 'Elephant in the Brain', since I was intensely frustrated by (what I saw as) pervasive, inexplicable, wilfully bad choices, and this frustration affected my politics and ethics.

But it's high-risk, since it's easy to misread as justifying adolescent superiority (having 'seen through' society).

Autobiography by John Stuart Mill

I think gifted teenagers should be aware of the subjectivity and complexity of history and narratives. So my choices are geared around challenging existing narratives. I've also made an effort to choose some female authors.

1. Howard Zinn - A People’s History of the United States

An absolute blast of revisionist history, critiquing the American Dream from a range of angles. It is contentious, but that's the point - to provoke a debate.

What struck me as I began to study history was how nationalist fervor--inculcated from childhood on by pledges of allegiance, national anthems, flags waving and rhetoric blowing--permeated the educational systems of all countries, including our own. I wonder now how the foreign policies of the United States would look if we wiped out the national boundaries of the world, at least in our minds, and thought of all children everywhere as our own. Then we could never drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or napalm on Vietnam, or wage war anywhere, because wars, especially in our time, are always wars against children, indeed our children. Howard Zinn, A People's History

2. The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing

I've heard several people in EA dismissing fiction. This is ridiculous. Fiction has a lot to teach us about our own thought processes, the lives of others, and the cultures we live in. TGN is feminist and anti-war, and especially considering Lessing's non-standard educational background, the prose is utterly brilliant.

Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: 'You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself — educating your own judgements. Those that stay must remember, always, and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society. Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook

3. To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

Hopefully this is on every school reading list on Earth, but just in case not, then I'll back it here. I cry every time I read Atticus' speeches.

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Permutation city by Greg Egan

I'd recommend The End of Animal Farming for anyone interested in animal advocacy. Here's my short review. httpss://butcantheysuffer.wordpress.com/2018/12/13/book-review-jacy-reese-2018-the-end-of-animal-farming-beacon-press-boston-ma/

Personally I found Animal Liberation by Peter Singer very inspiring as a teenager (changed me from a passive vegetarian to someone determined to make a change for animals through some form of advocacy) but I haven't looked back at it in years.

Freakonomics, Steven Dubner and Steven Levitt - Very fun, cool little stories about economics, not super educational but drives an interest

Naked Economics, Charles Wheelan - The best intro I've read to standard economic ideas, fun and easy to read

Poor Economics, Banerjee and Duflo - A deep dive on how some anti-poverty interventions are radically more effective than others, and how details matter a lot. Pretty dry and you'll forget most of the content, but the best case for evidence-based altruism I've read

Justice, Michael Sandel - Great intro to moral philosophy, covers all the major schools of thoughts with tons of fun anecdotes and thought experiments

Factfulness by Hans Rosling is currently my go-to recommendation for the most important single book I could hand to a generic person.

Why do I hold it in such high regard? I think that it does a good job of teaching us both about the world and about ourselves at the same time. It helps the reader achieve better knowledge and better ability to think clearly (and come to accurate beliefs about the world). It's also very hopeful despite its tendency to tackle head-on some of the darker aspects of our world.

The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver (of 538 fame) is the best and most readable introduction to Bayesian statistics and Bayesian reasoning that I'm aware of.

  • Mistakes were Made (but not by Me), Tavris and Anderson. Definitely the most easy-to-read book on self-deception and cognitive biases I've ever read. So probably a good first book for people.
  • The Righteous Mind, Haidt. Part I gives a good intro to cognitive biases, and the moral foundations are a good framework
  • Superforecasters, Tetlock.

Not as high brow as other suggestions: How to make friends and influence people. It's useful for the most obvious reasons and also, in my opinion, an accessible nudge towards empathy thanks to the numerous examples.

Stories of Your Life: and Others by Ted Chiang

Hi there!

Thank you for the work you are doing. <https://docs.google.com/document/d/14exkkaeJWOyAKX6o-tf-mfV8SJAwEhG-QFDbUrVnOH8/edit#heading=h.49c95vu7wotf> This is an Educator Reading List, David from SHIC shared with me a while ago. We (Giving Games) are currently doing some fun programs with schools, "Charity Elections." There's an explanation info-graphic I made here <https://www.facebook.com/TheGivingGamesProject/photos/a.2267613603500146/2312199802374859/?type=3&theater>. Thanks, Kathryn

I recommend the book Hunger and Public Action. It has one of the best explanations on how nations change and improve the quality of life of their citizens. It discusses famine, and deaths in the statistical sense (not graphical), so please read it before giving it to kids. It also discusses how countries have done better or worse and hence has lessons on what policies are good or bad. One of the most important books to read for EA (if not kids).

I'm surprised no one has recommended 'Doing Good Better' by MacAskill. I would say that and 'Strangers Downing' as mentioned in a previous comment were most responsible for my engagement with EA. 'Strangers Drowning' I think somewhat primed me to be EA - it made the ideas of EA seem less foreign and odd when I actually came across them. 'Doing Good Better' helped me understand the EA argument quite a bit better and was probably the thing that tipped me from being interested in EA to identifying more or less as an EA.

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

The Dhammapada (especially if they're feeling overwhelmed / burned out)

How To Do Nothing (if they spend a lot of time online / on social media)

Terry Pratchett, particularly The Amazing Maurice... DFW, Infinite Jest; J. S. Foer, On eating animals; Jonathan Franzen, Freedom; Cixin Liu, Remembrance of earth's past.

My point is that by "gifted teenager" you probably mean someone intelectually gifted, but not necessarily morally aligned; moreover, teenagers (everyone, actually, but teens more than anyone else) may rebel and resist if it's too obvious that you're trying to lead them to a specific mindset. So, if that might be the case, perhaps you should consider what kind of literature would nudge this teenager into EA-thinking first, and then what kind of books could shape their thought.

From Bacteria to Bach and Back by Daniel Dennett

Dairy of a Madman by Lu Xun was helpful for me in cultivating a strong sense of dissatisfaction with the way things are and the implicit or explicit rules that govern social reality.

I don't know if there are any good translations though.

(upcoming) Human Compatible by Stuart Russell