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Or: "50+ EA-relevant books your doctor doesn't want you to know about"

This post lists all the EA-relevant books I've read since learning about EA,[1] in roughly descending order of how useful I perceive/remember them being to me. (In reality, I mostly listened to these as audiobooks, but I'll say "books I've read" for simplicity.) I also include links to where you can get each book, as well as remarks and links to reviews/summaries/notes on some books. 

This is not quite a post of book recommendations, because:

  1. These rankings are of course only weak evidence of how useful you'll find these books[2]
  2. I list all EA-relevant books I've read, including those that I didn't find very useful

Let me know if you want more info on why I found something useful or not so useful. 

I'd welcome comments which point to reviews/summaries/notes of these books, provide commenters' own thoughts on these books, or share other book recommendations/anti-recommendations. I'd also welcome people making their own posts along the lines of this one. (Edit: I think that recommendations that aren't commonly mentioned in EA are particularly valuable, holding general usefulness and EA-relevance constant. Same goes for recommendations of books by non-male, non-white, and/or non-WEIRD authors. See this comment thread.) 

I'll continue to update this post as I finish more EA-relevant books.

My thanks to Aaron Gertler for sort-of prompting me to make this list, and then later suggesting  I change it from a shortform to a top-level post.

The list

Or: "Michael admits to finding a Harry Potter fan fiction more useful than ~15 books that were written by professors, are considered classics, or both"

  1. The Precipice, by Ord, 2020
    • See here for a list of things I've written that summarise, comment on, or take inspiration from parts of The Precipice.
    • I recommend reading the ebook or physical book rather than audiobook, because the footnotes contain a lot of good content and aren't included in the audiobook
    • The book Superintelligence may have influenced me more, but that’s just due to the fact that I read it very soon after getting into EA, whereas I read The Precipice after already learning a lot. I’d now recommend The Precipice first.
    • See here for some thoughts on this and other nuclear-risk-related books, and here for some thoughts on this and other authoritarianism-related books.
  2. Superforecasting, by Tetlock & Gardner, 2015
  3. How to Measure Anything, by Hubbard, 2011
  4. Rationality: From AI to Zombies, by Yudkowsky, 2006-2009
    • I.e., “the sequences”
  5. Superintelligence, by Bostrom, 2014
    • Maybe this would've been a little further down the list if I’d already read The Precipice
    • I read this around late 2018 shortly after learning about EA, then re-read it in late 2021 now that I was focusing professional on AI governance, and found it quite useful even on a second read then
  6. Expert Political Judgement, by Tetlock, 2005
    • I read this after having already read Superforecasting, yet still found it very useful
  7. Normative Uncertainty, by MacAskill, 2014
  8. The Strategy of Conflict, by Schelling, 1960
    • See here for my notes on this book, and here for some more thoughts on this and other nuclear-risk-related books.
    • This and other nuclear-war-related books are more useful for me than they would be for most people, since I'm currently doing research related to nuclear war
    • This is available as an audiobook, but a few Audible reviewers suggest using the physical book due to the book's use of equations and graphs. So I downloaded this free PDF into my iPad's Kindle app.
  9. Secret of Our Success, by Henrich, 2015
  10. The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous, by Henrich, 2020
  11. Human-Compatible, by Russell, 2019
  12. The Book of Why, by Pearl, 2018
    • I found an online PDF rather than listening to the audiobook version, as the book makes substantial use of diagrams
  13. Noise, Kahneman, Sibony, & Sunstein, 2021
  14. Algorithms to Live By, by Christian & Griffiths, 2016
  15. Moral Tribes, by Greene, 2013
  16. The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Pinker, 2011
    • See here for some thoughts on this and other nuclear-risk-related books.
  17. Chip War, by Miller, 2022
  18. Law 101, by Feinman (2013)
  19. Command and Control, by Schlosser, 2013
    • See here for some thoughts on this and other nuclear-risk-related books.
  20. The Doomsday Machine, by Ellsberg, 2017
    • See here for some thoughts on this and other nuclear-risk-related books.
  21. The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War, by Kaplan, 2020
    • See here for my notes on this book, and here for some more thoughts on this and other nuclear-risk-related books.
  22. The Alignment Problem, by Christian, 2020
    • This might be better than Superintelligence and Human-Compatible as an introduction to the topic of AI risk. It also seemed to me to be a surprisingly good introduction to the history of AI, how AI works, etc.
    • But I'm not sure this'll be very useful for people who've already read/listened to a decent amount (e.g., the equivalent of 4 books) about those topics.
      • That's why it's ranked as low as it is for me.
      • But maybe I'm underestimating how useful it'd be to many other people in a similar position.
        • Evidence for that is that someone told me that an AI safety researcher friend of theirs found the book helpful.
  23. Getting Things Done, by Allen, 2001/2016
  24. Act of Congress, by Kaiser (2014)
  25. Elon Musk, by Isaacson (2023)
  26. Radical Candor, by Scott, 2019
  27. Army of None, Scharre, 2018
  28. The Hacker and the State, by Buchanan, 2020
  29. What We Owe the Future, MacAskill, 2022
  30. The Sense of Style, by Pinker, 2019
    • One thing to note is that I think a lot of chapter 6 (which accounts for roughly a third of the book) can be summed up as "Don't worry too much about a bunch of alleged 'rules' about grammar, word choice, etc. that prescriptivist purists sometimes criticise people for breaking."
      • And I already wasn't worried most of those alleged rules, and hadn't even heard of some of them.
      • And I think one could get the basic point without seeing all the examples and discussion.
      • So a busy reader might want to skip or skim most of that chapter.
        • Though I think many people would benefit from the part on commas.
    • I read an ebook rather than listening to the audiobook, because I thought that might be a better way to absorb the lessons about writing style
  31. Blueprint, by Plomin, 2018
    • This is useful primarily in relation to some specific research I was doing, rather than more generically.
  32. The Dead Hand, by Hoffman, 2009
    • See here for some thoughts on this and other nuclear-risk-related books, and here for some thoughts on this and other Russia-related books.
  33. Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Kahneman, 2011
    • This might be the most useful of all these books for people who have little prior familiarity with the ideas, but I happened to already know a decent portion of what was covered.
  34. Climbing the Hill, by Harrison & Snead (2018) 
  35. Bioterror and Biowarfare: A Beginner’s Guide, by Dando, 2006
    • See here for my notes on the book.
  36. Click Here to Kill Everybody, by Schneier, 2018 
  37. Navigating the Labyrinth, by Rishikof & George (2017)
  38. Against the Grain, by Scott, 2017
  39. Sapiens, by Harari, 2015
  40. Destined for War, by Allison, 2017
    • See here for some thoughts on this and other nuclear-risk-related books, and here for some thoughts on this and other China-related books.
  41. The Great CEO Within, by Mochary, 2019
    1. See here for my notes on the book
    2. See here for an earlier, free, ebook version of book
  42. Deep Work, by Newport, 2016
  43. Thinking about Cybersecurity: From Cyber Crime to Cyber Warfare, by Rosenzweig, 2013
  44. A World Without Email, Newport, 2021
  45. The Dictator’s Handbook, by de Mesquita & Smith, 2012
    • See here for some thoughts on this and other authoritarianism-related books.
  46. Understanding the US Government, by Victor, 2020
    • See here for my notes on the book
  47. Age of Ambition, by Osnos, 2014
    • See here for some thoughts on this and other China-related books.
  48. Moral Mazes, by Jackall, 1989
  49. The Myth of the Rational Voter, by Caplan, 2007
  50. The Hungry Brain, by Guyenet, 2017
    • If I recall correctly, I found this surprisingly useful for purposes unrelated to the topics of weight, hunger, etc.
      • E.g., it gave me a better understanding of the liking-wanting distinction
    • See also this Slate Star Codex review (which I can't remember whether I read)
  51. The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, by Yergin, 2011
  52. Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, by Yudkowsky, 2010-2015
    • Fiction
    • I found this both surprisingly useful and very surprisingly enjoyable
      • To be honest, I was somewhat amused and embarrassed to find what is ultimately Harry Potter fan fiction as enjoyable and thought-provoking as I found this
    • This overlaps in many ways with Rationality: AI to Zombies, so it would be more valuable to someone who hadn't already read those sequences
      • But I'd recommend such a person read those sequences before reading this; I think they're more useful (though less enjoyable)
    • Within the 2 hours before I go to sleep, I try not to stimulate my brain too much - e.g., I try to avoid listening to most nonfiction audiobooks during that time. But I found that I could listen to this during that time without it keeping my brain too active. This is a perk, as that period of my day is less crowded with other things to do.
      • Same goes for the books Steve Jobs, Power Broker, Animal Farm, and Consider the Lobster.
  53. Inadequate Equilibria, by Yudkowksy, 2017
  54. Law School for Everyone: Legislation and Regulation, by Smith, 2019
  55. Life 3.0, by Tegmark, 2018
    1. I very likely would've found this more useful if I hadn't already read Superintelligence, Human-Compatible, and The Alignment Problem. But I do think I'd recommend all of those over this.
    2. I was (unpleasantly) surprised how much of the book was, in my view, tangential to the most important points about AI risk, AI governance, and AI safety.
      1. E.g., there was a decent amount of discussion of cosmology and how settling space could work.
    3. But there were still useful parts
  56. Steve Jobs, by Isaacson, 2011
    • Surprisingly useful, considering the facts that I don’t plan to at all emulate Jobs’ life and that I don’t work in a relevant industry
  57. Enlightenment Now, by Pinker, 2018
  58. The Undercover Economist Strikes Back, by Harford, 2014
  59. Against Empathy, by Bloom, 2016
  60. Radical Markets, by Posner & Weyl, 2018
  61. How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century, by Dikötter, 2019
    • See here for some thoughts on this and other authoritarianism-related books.
  62. The Agency: A History of the CIA, by Wilford, 2019
  63. A Promised Land, by Obama, 2020
    • I found this very engaging and am looking forward to the next volume of his memoirs
    • But it didn't contain many specific facts I felt it was important for me to remember, or cause major updates to important beliefs/understandings I had
  64. Scout Mindset, by Galef, 2021
    • I think this is a great and enjoyable book, but I was already quite familiar with most of what it covered, so it wasn't very useful to me specifically
    • See here for my notes on the book
  65. Strangers Drowning, by MacFarquhar, 2015
  66. The Coaching Habit, by Bungay Stanier, 2016
  67. On Tyranny: 20 Lessons for the 20th Century, by Snyder, 2017
    • It seemed to me that most of what Snyder said was either stuff I already knew, stuff that seemed kind-of obvious or platitude-like, or stuff I was skeptical of
      • This might be partly due to the book being under 2 hours, and thus giving just a quick overview of the "basics" of certain things
      • So I do think it might be fairly useful per minute for someone who knew quite little about things like Hitler and the Soviet Union
    • See here for some thoughts on this and other authoritarianism-related books.
  68. Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World, by Broome, 2012
  69. The Power Broker, by Caro, 1975
    • Very interesting and engaging, but also very long and probably not super useful.
  70. Science in the Twentieth Century: A Social-Intellectual Survey, by Goldman, 2004
    • This is actually a series of audio recordings of lectures, rather than a book
  71. Animal Farm, by Orwell, 1945
    • Fiction
    • See here for some thoughts on this and other authoritarianism-related books.
  72. Brave New World, by Huxley, 1932
    • Fiction
    • See here for some thoughts on this and other authoritarianism-related books.
  73. Consider the Lobster, by Wallace, 2005
    • To be honest, I'm not sure why Wiblin recommended this. But I benefitted from many of Wiblin's other recommendations. And I did find this book somewhat interesting.

Honorable mention

  1. 1984, by Orwell, 1949
    • I haven't included that in the above list because I read it before I learned about EA.
    • But I think that this book, despite being a novel, is actually the most detailed exploration I've seen of how a stable, global totalitarian system could arise and sustain itself.
      • I think this is a sign that there needs to be more actual research on that topic - a novel published more than 70 years ago shouldn't be one of the best sources on an important topic!
    • See here for some thoughts on this and other authoritarianism-related books.

Other collections you may find useful

Or: "Hey Michael, I've now read all 53 of those books - even for some reason Consider the Lobster - but my pesky brain is still hungry. What do I do with the rest of my life?"

Suggestion: Make Anki cards, share them as posts, and share key updates

This year, I started making Anki cards as I read things. See here for the article that inspired me to actually start using Anki properly. (Hat tip to Michelle Hutchinson for linking to that article and thus prompting me to read it.)

I then realised that this meant I could easily post my cards about a book to the Forum once I'd finished it, as something like a very low-effort book summary. See here for an example and for discussion of whether this is worthwhile.

I then realised that it would probably be worthwhile - both for my own later reference and for other people - if I also made brief notes of "key updates" as I read books, and included those updates as part of my Anki card posts. See here for an explanation and example.

I now plan to do these things indefinitely, and to link to all of those notes posts from this post. 

Unfortunately, I hadn't been doing that until this year. So for most of the books in this list, I provide no summary and no explanation of why I ranked the book as I did.

I'd currently guess that many EAs would gain from making Anki cards as they read books, and that, if they're doing so anyway, they may as well post the cards from those books to the EA Forum and/or LessWrong. (I might write a short post making the case for and against this soon.) And if they're doing that anyway, perhaps they may as well collect their recommendations together in a post that's sort-of like this one? In any case, I definitely suggest using the EA Books tag for all posts about EA-relevant books!

See also Suggestion: EAs should post more summaries and collections.


[1] Some info on what I'm including in "EA-relevant books I've read since learning about EA":

  • By "EA-relevant", I mean that a substantial part of why I read this book was that I thought it might somehow improve my efforts to improve the world.
    • This applies to all non-fiction books I've read since I learned about EA (in late 2018), and some but not all fiction books I've read.
      • I think I may have actually never read a non-fiction book before learning about EA. So this list could also be seen as covering "All non-fiction books I've read, plus some dystopian novels and a Harry Potter fanfiction."
  • Some of these "books" started as sequences of posts, and one of the "books" is actually a PhD thesis, but I'm counting them as books anyway.

[2] Three key reasons why you shouldn't you take the ranking too seriously:

  • I had already read most of the books before the point at which I decided to make a ranked list, so I didn't have those books very fresh in my mind when ranking them
  • Even if my memory was perfect, my knowledge of which things in my life caused which good outcomes wouldn't be, and my predictions of which things in my life will cause future good outcomes will be even more imperfect
  • Some of factors making these books more/less useful to me won't generalise to most other people
    • E.g., a book may be useful mostly in relation to a specific research project I'm doing
    • E.g., if I read a good book on a topic before reading a better book on the same topic, the first book may be more useful to me, since the better book will be retreading some ground for me
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There's also an EA classic available as an audiobook: The Live You Can Save (the fully updated 10th anniversary edition) is  freely available (in audiobook or ebook format) making it a book to share with people you think might find it interesting.

Currently, excluding my automatic upvote, this post has 3 votes and -4 karma, if you exclude my automatic vote. I'm quite surprised by that (partly because the post doesn't really make claims or tell people to do things, so it seems harder for it to be controversial), and I'd be very interested to hear why people/a person who downvoted it did so. 

(I mean this sincerely, rather than just as a complaint or to start an argument or something.)

One hypothesis is just that I've posted several low-effort posts about books lately - asking for and collecting recommendations, sharing notes, and then this post - and maybe someone just doesn't find them useful and is sick of seeing them? By default, I'd guess that someone who simply isn't interested in a certain type of post would just ignore it. But maybe the fact I've posted several posts of this general type lately meant someone wanted to actively discourage me writing more posts of this type?

I think I was among the first three votes and upvoted, so there seems to have been one big downvote, or maybe a bug, because when I upvoted it didn't have negative karma and now again it also doesn't (with 4 votes). 

Yeah, when my own automatic strong upvote is included, this has 4 votes and 3 net karma. But if I remove my strong upvote, it's on 3 votes and -4 karma. (All posts automatically start with a strong upvote from the poster.)

I was an early voter and gave a weak upvote, so I think there is probably a single individual who strongly downvoted. I wouldn't worry about it or take too much from it. It's dangerous to extrapolate too much from a single individual and I think you'll find people will quite like this post overall if you give it a bit more time.

I liked this post because I think it probably has helped me decide a few things where I was previously unsure:

  • I've been thinking about reading Rationality: From AI to Zombies but wasn't too sure if it was worth it, but now I think I will just do it.
  • I've also been quite unsure about Human Compatible vs The Alignment Problem but I think I may go for the latter. I am somewhat familiar with the AI arguments but certainly not "4 books familiar".
  • I have The Precipice and have read some of it which I found useful, but I may now delve in again to ensure I've got everything of use. Also I want to have a look at what you've written about it (given that it has been so useful to you).

It's dangerous to extrapolate too much from a single individual and I think you'll find people will quite like this post overall if you give it a bit more time.

I agree with both of those points. But the reason I asked wasn't because the strong downvote hurt my ego or something (it probably would've earlier in my Forum journey, but now I've posted a lot and gotten research jobs I'm happy with so I'm more protected from that). Rather, it was that I was just really confused as to why there was a strong downvote, so it suggested that there was something I was failing to understand, which might be important somehow. 

(It'd be different if I made a post that I knew might be controversial for a particular reason, but hoped would be overall liked. Then if a downvote came in, it'd still contain new info, but I'd know what the info meant.)

(And it now turns out that the reason for the downvote was something I wouldn't have easily guessed, and the info it turns out to have contained is interesting.)

Anyway, thanks for giving that info on ways in which this post was helpful for you - that's good (and useful) to know! 

I would add Unkown Killer Robots from Netflix.

I found it a compelling and eye-opening exploration of the potential dangers posed by autonomous weapons systems. The film investigates the rapid development of AI-powered drones, missiles, and other unmanned military technologies, and raises serious concerns about their lack of human oversight, potential for accidents and misuse, and the broader implications for global stability and the future of warfare.

What I found most compelling was the film's in-depth look at the technical capabilities of these systems and the concerning trends towards increased autonomy and lethality. The experts interviewed make a convincing case that without strong international regulation, we could be headed towards an arms race in AI-powered weapons that could spiral out of control.

Thanks for sharing this list Michael, I added some of these to my queue.

I read Command and Control on your recommendation and it inspired my most popular EA TikTok to date. (150,000 views).

Glad to hear that!

In particular, I'm glad my work has finally achieved real, measurable impact, and that I can now retire to that farm I've had my eye on.

I'm glad I could help. Feel free to quote me in the annual Rethink Priorities impact analysis.

Thanks, I appreciate the effort, but downvoted because this reading list and those you link to are not diverse enough (edit to clarify: e.g. they skew heavily towards male authors) and also, relatedly, these titles should not become even more canonical in the EA community than they already are (I fear this might lead to an echo chamber). This is something my reading list tends to be guilty of as well, so I'd love for people to post reading lists with more diversity.

Some recommendations:

Hi Hauke, thanks for commenting to explain the downvote; I don't think I would've guessed that as a reason, so the comment makes the feedback more useful.

And also thanks for adding your own recommendations. As I say in the post, I welcome people doing that. 

Personally, I think the thing I'm most likely to read due to your recommendation is Barack Obama's memoir - in retrospect it seems obvious that I should've read a biography/autobiography/memoir of a modern leader of a liberal democratic country. (Also, btw, I previously wrote a commentary on the Beyond Near- and Long-Term paper.)

Where I think I agree with you:

  • This book definitely does include many books from the reading lists of three prominent EAs (Wiblin, Beckstead, and Muehlhauser), and relatedly many books that are often recommended in EAs.
    • And this applies especially to my top 7 books
  • EAs do share similar information sources and worldviews to a notable extent (though still with a lot of variety), and this can be limiting, and there can be great value in seeking out a wider set of ideas and views.
  • The above two points make the post less useful, relative to a post that contained similarly useful-in-an-abstract-sense books that are less often read by EAs.
    • Though is offset to some extent by the point Max Dalton makes above common knowledge facilitating discussion and communicating. [Edit: I originally wrote "Max Daniel" as I'd misread who the commenter was - apologies if this had confused any readers!]
    • I say "similarly useful-in-an-abstract-sense" because the very fact that the books are less often read by EAs makes them more useful in practice, at least at a community level (or at least that's what I'm claiming here).
  • It would be good for the Forum to include a wider range of book recommendations.
    • (I don't mean "It's bad for the Forum to include this post's list of books"; I think it's both good for it to include this list and for it to include a wider range of book recommendations.)

Long-winded thoughts on where I think I partially disagree with you  (or perhaps just some points that your comment doesn't emphasise, rather than things we actually disagree on):

  • This post is what it says on the tin: A list of all EA-relevant books I've read, ranked by how useful I remember/perceive them being to me.
    • E.g., I really just did find those top 7 books very useful.
    • And I do say "These rankings are of course only weak evidence of how useful you'll find these books,[2] but hopefully the list still provides a useful starting point."
    • (But of course, the key claims I have to defend are that these rankings do provide weak evidence - rather than no or negative evidence - of how useful others will find the books, and also that the post is net positive on a community rather than individual level. I do believe those things, and my following points will address why.)
  • I do think that there are many people for whom it would be net positive to be given even a list of solely the "canonical EA books".
    • Unfortunately, I think this applies mostly to "EA types" who haven't yet engaged with EA at all. But I think it will also apply to some Forum users. I do encounter EAs who haven't heard of even some of the particularly EA-canonical books from this list, who I think would gain from these concepts, and who don't know of other recommendation lists like this one.
    • To a significant extent, I think many of the canonical books are canonical for good reason.
      • Though it can still be partially bad for them to be so canonical, as this means the community as a whole is exposed to less variety in information sources and worldviews, as noted above.
      • I also think many EAs actively seek out a wide range of quite different ideas and views, such that going with common recommendations in EA reducing diversity of viewpoints less than one might at first think (though it still has that effect in some ways). I think some of these books present very different pictures of the world to others of them.
    • One thing that seems worth noting is that some topics I (and many EAs) care about aren't super widely discussed outside EA. This both increases the value of getting book recommendations on those topics (since we can't rely on people already coming into EA knowing the nuances or even basics on the topic), and decreases the number of great books available to be recommended on those topics.
      • For example, thinking of your book recommendations (not the 2 papers) and my top 10 books, I came into EA with much more pre-existing knowledge about the Obamas, the US government, GDP, economics, and writing than I had about existential risks, extreme AI risks, and moral uncertainty. And I'd guess that think that there are many high-quality books on the latter 3 topics that aren't already often recommended by EAs.
        • (I also had very little knowledge about forecasting, but your book recommendations do include a book on that.)
  • This list is not just recommendations but rather a complete ranking of all EA-relevant books I've read. So it could also help people get a sense of which commonly-recommended-in-EA books I found less useful than the average book I've read.
    • This includes Enlightenment Now, Inadequate Equilibria, Radical Markets, Climate Matters, and the Power Broker.
  • This list excludes some relatively canonical EA books.
    • E.g., I haven't read Doing Good Better, The Life You Can Save, or Life 3.0. And I started reading Age of Em but am finding it a hard slog so far.
  • This list includes some books that I expect relatively few EAs will have heard of (or maybe heard of outside of EA, but not heard recommended within EA), and some of them are ranked relatively highly.
    • E.g., The Strategy of Conflict, Blueprint, The Bomb, The Sense of Style, and The Dead Hand.
    • This is partly a result of me recently starting to actively solicit recommendations on particular topics (e.g., here), get recommendations from random people who are not established thought leaders in EA, and screen them myself by reading some reviews and maybe watching a lecture or listening to a podcast from the author.
      • I started this a little bit last year, and am now doing it regularly, so hopefully over time this list will come to inject more of a range of uncommon book recommendations into the EA space.
      • Though I acknowledge that I'm still mostly soliciting recommendations from EAs, at least to date.
  • This post says "I'd welcome comments which point to reviews/summaries/notes of these books, provide commenters' own thoughts on these books, or share other book recommendations. I'd also welcome people making their own posts along the lines of this one." I think that people doing that (as you've done) will help make the overall set of recommendations on the Forum more representative, so I'd encourage more of that.
    • I think another way to help move towards this goal is for more people to do things roughly like how I've recently started making posts to solicit recommendations on a particular topic (same example as above), then later making posts with my key updates, Anki cards, and overall thoughts on the books I end up reading (see the "Suggestion: Make Anki cards, share them as posts, and share key updates" section of this post).
      • I say "do things roughly like" that; I'm not saying that my precise formula is the best one.
    • I also like meerpirat's suggestions.

Another thought that came to mind: As the canonical echo chamber reading list of EA books currently seems to consist of maybe on the order of 50 books, I might be less worried about this because 50 popsci books are not that many books? This should especially hold for people who read a lot, and who relatively quickly will have to explore outside of the canon. E.g. this seems to be true for Michael already, and after roughly 6 years EA I also have covered a considerable fraction of the canon and read a bunch outside of it. This is also my impression from following roughly twenty EAs on Goodreads. And for people that don‘t read so much it could be fine to just read what the busy readers recommend?

This roughly seems right to me. 

I think it might often be good for new EAs to sample in some way from a set of "very EA books" (e.g. The Precipice, Doing Good Better) + books that are very widely recommended in EA, alongside reading things that are recommended somewhat less often and are more focused on particular areas of interest, and to over time shift towards doing more of the latter and less of the former. 

In my own "initial sampling", I skipped some books from that set (e.g., Doing Good Better, Life 3.0, The Elephant and the Brain). And after about 1-1.5 years of mostly sampling from that set, I shifted into ~half my reading still being sampling from that set, while the other ~half is seeking out books on particular topics of interest, informed by the recommendation of ~1 EA I know (a different one in each case) who knew about that topic.

I agree there are some costs to having some canonical books, but I think there are also some real benefits: for instance it helps to create common knowledge, which can facilitate good discussion and coordination. Also maybe some books are sufficiently important and high-quality that ~all EAs should read them before reading a broader variety of books (e.g. maybe all EAs should read The Precipice and a few other books, but then they should branch out and read a variety of things). 

I don't think that everything on Michael's list should be canonical, but I think probably some of his top recommendations should be.  I agree that some of the things on the list are probably over-canonized too.

I agree with these points.

I'd also be interested to hear which of the books I listed you think are probably over-canonised, or more generally which commonly recommended books (whether mentioned here or not) you think are overrated. (I'd also be interested to see your top book recommendations, or top recommendations for particular sets of topics.)

I haven't read everything on your list, but I broadly agree with your rankings for the things I have read (with some tweaks - e.g. I'd probably put Inadequate Equilibria higher and Thinking Fast and Slow lower). 

I feel a bit confused still about how many/which things should be canonical. Maybe I want canonical ideas rather than canonical books? E.g. I think some of the ideas in the sequences are  important, and should be more widely known/used even in EA. But I also think it contains some less important stuff, and some people find the presentation offputting (while others love it). So I guess I'd ideally like there to be a few different presentations of the same ideas, and people can read the presentation that works best for them (bold academic book, super-well-evidenced academic papers, spicey blog posts, fanfic etc.). Maybe we now have this in some domains - e.g. you listed several presentations of AI safety?

I won't do a full  list of things I like right now, but some quick thoughts: 

  • I think The Great Courses can sometimes be great: I remember particularly liking one on biology. My understanding of biology overall is still quite imprecise, but the course gave me images of how a bunch of cellular biology works mechanistically which I think would be good scaffolding for a better understanding. I also really liked one on Chinese history (I think this one, which is a bit broader but still quite China-focused). I think the quality varies a bit between courses though.
  • I also love the In Our Time podcast . Especially the science ones - they have a version of the podcast that's only science. I like that they have several academics, which means you can get a variety of perspectives, and which makes me less worried that I'm only hearing one side of a debate.

P.s. I agree with a lot of your points in the other comment too, and I'm glad you posted this list!

So I guess I'd ideally like there to be a few different presentations of the same ideas, and people can read the presentation that works best for them (bold academic book, super-well-evidenced academic papers, spicey blog posts, fanfic etc.). Maybe we now have this in some domains - e.g. you listed several presentations of AI safety?

This seems like a good point. And yeah, I think we've now got that for AI safety (especially as there are other presentations that I've heard recommended but didn't include, in particular Life 3.0), which seems like a good thing.

And thanks for those recommendations; I'll probably try those out.

I think the quality varies a bit between courses though.

Yeah, FWIW, Science in the Twentieth Century: A Social-Intellectual Survey is from The Great Courses, and I didn't find it very engaging or useful per minute (hence its low ranking on my list). (That said, Beckstead labelled it "Outstanding", so perhaps other people would find it more useful than I did.)

The worry about EAs reading too much of the same ideas is a good point. I wonder if there are strategies that could help us as a community to explore more literature. For example somebody could scrape the reading lists from members of the EA goodreads group and create an exploration reading list with the books that many people have on their reading list but haven't actually read. Or maybe a reading list with non-fiction books that are suspiciously lacking from EA reading lists.

Both of those ideas seem good to me.

As I note in my reply to Hauke, I think another thing we can do is have more people to do things roughly like how I've recently started making posts to solicit recommendations on a particular topic (e.g.), then later making posts with my key updates, Anki cards, and overall thoughts on the books I end up reading (see the "Suggestion: Make Anki cards, share them as posts, and share key updates" section of this post).

And another option (perhaps the most obvious one) is to take the same approach but without soliciting recommendations from EAs at the first step - instead soliciting recommendations from non-EA friends or other communities one is part of, or just googling for books on a given topic. I'd guess that that will tend to result in less useful reading for the individual and/or involve a more time-consuming screening process, but that cost might be made up for by the benefits on a community level. This could be seen as providing a public good.

This is a fair point, Hauke -- sounds like you used the downvote as a way to signal "I think this should be somewhat less accepted/get less attention from the community", which makes sense given your concerns. 

While I share your concerns, I still thought this post was a really good initiative and upvoted it; I think it's likely to expose people to useful suggestions, and I think it's extremely unlikely to accidentally enshrine a "canon" (instead, if it inspires more people to write about other books that they liked, it hopefully has the opposite effect).

Here are some more diverse sources that I've found useful for learning about the world and/or personal development in a work context:

  • Strangers Drowning (probably my favorite book about the "EA mindset")
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers (good portrayal of life in extreme poverty, though it isn't at all focused on solutions)
    • How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is another immersive portrayal -- the section on poverty is only a small portion of the book, but the full story still gave me a strong sense of what it would be like to grow up in a place very different from the West
  • Nothing to Envy (on life in totalitarian conditions -- a book I often think about when the totalitarian variety of X-risk comes up in discussion)
  • The Charisma Myth (I'm still stunned that a book on a topic like "developing charisma" turned out to be this good; I should revisit more often)
  • Maverick (very interesting book on leadership/org management, though hard to tell how much of the story is painted more rosily than the reality)

Unrelatedly, On Writing Well is much better than The Sense of Style if you just want writing advice.

This is a nice idea,  but I agree with Hauke that this risks increasing the extent to which EA is an echo chamber.  Perhaps you're not aware of the (over)hype around some of these books in EA.  

 I think  Rationally Speaking is particularly good at engaging with a range of people and perspectives.  

Aaron Gertler
Moderator Comment4

Sorry for the late response — meant to publish this just after I read the comment. It's not especially bad or anything, I'm just catching up on moderation.

First: Yes, Rationally Speaking is great!

Second: As a moderator, I read "perhaps you're not aware" as a bit condescending, and I don't think it follows from the post. 

I don't see why "creating a list of brief book reviews/ratings" implies that someone isn't aware of what is or isn't overhyped:

  • If I read a book and like it, that might lead me to believe the hype is deserved (some "hyped" things are in fact great, and more people should do them).
  • If I instead thought the book was bad and say so, that actively fights against the hype — a positive outcome!

I wish the comment had read more like "I think some of these books are overhyped, and this list might exacerbate that effect because..." instead of implying that the author was missing some important fact.

Thanks Aaron. Sure - "perhaps you're not aware" was not intended to be condescending at all. And yes, the later sentence you wrote was the tone I was hoping for. 

FWIW, I think -7 karma is an inappropriately low karma level for Hauke's comment. I don't totally agree with Hauke's views in this thread, and I'm inclined to think it would've been slightly better if he commented his points without also downvoting my post. But I think it's good that he made his comments, because I think they:

  • express reasonable views
  • do so in a civil manner
  • have made me think more about things worth thinking about
  • prompted me to edit this post in a way that has made the post better

Relatedly, I think that downvoting his comment to negative karma is probably a bit bad for the community.

So I've now relinquished my Swiss neutrality to strong upvote his comment and bring it back to 0. (Alas, that is the limit of my karmic powers - I assume this is what Nate Soares meant by saying we are not yet gods?)

On a meta note, I wonder if it's a bad idea to think in terms of „How much total karma should this comment have?“, instead of treating it like a vote where each person only reacts in terms of how valuable he or she personally found the comment. With the former approach other people might be inclined to use their strong up- or downvotes to counteract this strategy again because they think the vote should represent what „the people“ individually think versus what a single high karma user thinks should be the correct number of points.

Yeah, I'm unsure, and think it's a good question. I'm also guessing it's been discussed on the Forum before, though I can't recall such discussions off the top of my head. How to use the Forum seems to not mention this issue - which is understandable, as it's not one of the most important things about how to use the Forum.

I think I usually just vote based on my own views, without taking into account the current karma level of the post/comment. 

I think the exception is when a post/comment is at negative karma. (Though, off the top of my head, I can't remember the last time I upvoted to "correct" a post having negative karma - perhaps it actually hasn't happened before.) The difference between -7 and 1 (for example) feels much larger the difference between 1 and 9; hitting the negatives seem to send a strong signal that the community really doesn't like this, which is sometimes warranted, but I feel like there should be a relatively high bar for that. I think this is partly but not only because negative karma means a comment isn't visible by default (without actively expanding the box). 

I guess there are probably also cases where I think a comment is bad enough to warrant a downvote, but not so bad that it warrants being pushed into the negative. Then I'd probably downvote if the current karma is above 1, but not if the current karma is 1 or below. (I can't remember specific instances of this, but I'm guessing it happens.)

One thing that seems worth noting is that I suspect that it's already the case that people aren't simply judging comments and posts on their merit. Instead, I suspect there can be positive or negative momentum, either from the fact that things with more karma appear higher up or from the same things that drive information cascades and fads. And I think negative karma is a somewhat stable equilibrium, partly because the comment isn't visible by default. If these things are true, then pushing karma back up from negatives or down from quite high positives might in a sense make it so that other people assess the comment in a more "independent" way. 

(Though I'm not sure I'd ever be inclined to push karma down from quite high positives solely for this reason; I think I'd only do it to push things up from negative.)

(Also, I acknowledge that this comment is just a long discussion of the dynamics of somewhat meaningless internet points!)

This has been discussed on lw here: www.lesswrong.com/posts/xBAeSSwLFBs2NCTND/do-you-vote-based-on-what-you-think-total-karma-should-be

Strong opinions on both sides, with a majority of people currently thinking about current karma levels occasionally but not always.

The EA forum is Serious Business!! Yeah, your thinking here seems pretty reasonable, I also can relate to the felt asymmetry between positive and negative karma. I think I previously noticed current karma points somehow feeding into my upvote decisions and it kinda felt like I don’t approve of it because I thought the ideal would be an independent vote of usefulness or something like that. But I also think that this is not a big factor and it doesn’t have a large impact here.

Btw, I've now edited the post to say:

(Edit: Recommendations that aren't commonly mentioned in EA are particularly valuable, holding general usefulness and EA-relevance constant. See this comment thread.)

I was looking for books on rationality. My top 4 shortlist was:

  • Rationality: From AI to Zombies by Eliezer Yudkowsky
  • Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely
  • Decisive by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (This covers a lot of concepts EAs are familiar with such as confirmation bias and overconfidence, so I didn't feel it would add much to my knowledge base)
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (More focussed on cognitive biases rather than rationality in general.)

I ended up going with Rationality: From AI to Zombies.

Also, I think someone should make a list like this, but for EA-relevant documentaries, TV shows, and movies. I've consumed quite a few, so maybe I'll make one. But I'd like to see others make them too, so I can get more suggestions. (Feel free to upvote this if you think I should make that list!)

I'd guess that this is worth making.

Or perhaps it could be folded into my post Where to find EA-related videos? (I.e., you could make the suggestions as a comment and I edit the post.)

But that post currently collects mostly things like presentations, rather than documentaries, TV shows, and movies. So the scope does seem different enough that I'd probably lean towards you making a new post for that. (If so, there could just be cross-links between the two posts.)

Ah I had forgotten about that post of yours, but yeah that one is a list of YouTube channels. Anyway, I've spent 3 hours making the post and posted it here. Maybe you or others would find it useful!

Thanks for this list and linking to all the Audible books Michael! 

I'm from the Philippines and some of these Audible links said these titles weren't available in my region, but I found a way to bypass this through the instructions in this link. (I hope it's okay for me to share that information here and do this bypassing).

Anyway, are you planning on listing the reasons for why you find these books valuable? I think that would help make this list more useful for other people. 1-3 sentences per book should be enough.

I'm particularly interested about why the books How to Measure Anything, Steve Jobs, Destined for War, The Dictator's Handbook, Expert Political Judgment, and Algorithms to Live By  were useful to you. 

I'm 50% done listening to the How to Measure Anything audiobook, and it's been helpful, but I'm lacking some motivation to finish the audiobook. It's also quite dense to listen to as an audiobook, so I'm not sure if I should be consuming it that way. Did you listen to that as an audiobook?

The Steve Jobs book is one that seems most not EA-related in the list, so I'm also curious to hear why you found that useful. (I get that he was the driving force behind the most valuable company in the world, so maybe understanding him is relevant to EA too?)

I'm from the Philippines and some of these Audible links said these titles weren't available in my region, but I found a way to bypass this through the instructions in this link

Yeah, a friend of mine who looks and sounds a lot like me and also read these 48 audiobooks (definitely not me, though) is based in Australia, and just has both an Australian and an American audible account (I think using that method you linked to), and gets the books available in Australia on the Australian account and the others on the American account.

lol good for your friend!

Anyway, are you planning on listing the reasons for why you find these books valuable? I think that would help make this list more useful for other people. 1-3 sentences per book should be enough.

Yeah, I agree that that'd make this post more useful, and that 1-3 sentences should be enough. Unfortunately, until recently, I took no notes and made no Anki cards, so I don't actually remember off the top of my head why I found these books useful! (As I mention in the post, I now suggest making Anki cards, making notes of key updates [probably something like 3-15 dot points per book - nothing too extensive], and sharing them to the Forum, but I only started this recently.)

With some thought, I could remember some good guesses for what use I got out of these books, but it'd take a little time and not necessarily be accurate. But now that I've changed this from shortform to a top-level post and the post got somewhat more attention than expected, I guess it's probably worthwhile for me to do that, so I'll probably do it this week. (I'll then reply to you again so you get a notification.)

Did you listen to [How to Measure Anything] that as an audiobook?

Yeah, I did, while also looking at the accompanying PDF here and there.

I also found many of the books listed here somewhat dense or not that motivating to get through. (The worst offenders have been Age of Em and After Tamerlane, which is why they haven't made it from my list of downloaded books to my list of completed books yet...) I often have to jump back because I lost focus. But I also listen on ~1.8 speed, which both reduces boredom and gets me through the book faster despite frequently skipping back.

Thanks for this list Michael. I just wanted to mention that most of these seem to be available as audiobooks on the “all you can eat” service Scribd. May end up being less expensive than Audible for many.

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