Strong opinions, weakly held

How to read popular non-fiction

In an answer to a reader question on how to choose popular non-fiction books to read, Tyler Cowen says:

The first open up a whole new world to you where previously none had existed. Many people felt this way when they read Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene for the first time. For obvious reasons, books like this are increasingly hard to find as you continue your reading career.

It would be fun to make a list of such books. The interesting thing is that in many cases books in this category can provide you with an important new way of seeing things even if you wind up rejecting a lot of what’s in them. Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent fell into this category for me. I’m going to think about making a longer list.


  1. We want to know, though:

    What was the “a lot” in Manufacturing Consent that you rejected?

    Yeah, we are curious about that.

  2. Good question. I’d have to go back and look at the book, actually.

    The thing that sticks with me from Manufacturing Consent is the propaganda model that he describes at the beginning, which explained that the media dispenses propaganda not because it’s in league with the government but for more pedestrian reasons. It changed the way I looked at the media completely and was, I think, an introduction to behavioral economics before anybody was calling it that.

  3. I should add that I agree with everything on the Wikipedia page for Manufacturing Consent:


  4. the book I’ve most recently read like that was 1491, by Charles Mann. You can get a taste of it here:


  5. Please do make such a list. I’ve got minor thoughts about it of my own, but the Selfish Gene is indeed very important to me. I’d like to see what was similarly important to someone else.

  6. The first book I remember reading in a college-level history class was Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power; it’s a cultural history (although I wasn’t familiar with the term then) of sugar. Mintz is an anthropologist, so there’s a lot about changing European dietary habits, but it was also a very materialist history, looking at the ways in which sugar’s status as a cash crop was implicated in European colonialism. I also found it very readable, although it’s not really a popular history. This was a couple of years before Mark Kurlansky broke big, and it kind of blew my mind that you could right such a far-reaching book studying something so seemingly mundane.

  7. “Lies my teacher told me” had a profound effect on me, despite being relatively poorly written. I knew that Helen Keller grew up to be a disability advocate, but I had no idea that she became a socialist. Her reasoning — that non-congenital disabilities are unevenly distributed across social classes, mostly due to poor working conditions and industrial accidents — was one of the reasons I became disillusioned with working in accessibility full-time. (There were other reasons too, like being a cultural misfit in IBM, but never mind that.) We spend so much time and effort trying to make the world accessible to everyone — a noble goal, to be sure — but I had never considered that some disabilities are preventable.

  8. Hmm, my very subjective start at a list of the most influential pop-sci books I’ve read, mind you I’m here at work and can’t look at my bookshelves to think of any more…:

    History: A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn; Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond; 1491, by some dude or other; The Twentieth Century, Clive Ponting

    Physics: The Life of the Cosmos, Lee Smolin; The Road to Reality, Roger Penrose; The Fabric of Reality, David Deutsch

    Biology: Climbing Mount Improbable, Richard Dawkins; The Ancestor’s Tale, Richard Dawkins

    History (/economics/human development), physics (/maths), biology-especially-genetics, and computing seem to me to be the essential components of a good understanding of how the world works. Of course I’m sure other people look at things differently. But I tend to start in one of those four corners and work out.

  9. Polya, “How to Solve It”

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