Which five books would you recommend to an 18 year old?

During EA Global San Francisco 2017, there was a panel discussion called "Celebrating Failed Projects." At one point, Nathan Labenz, the moderator, asks, "What are some projects that you guys are harboring in the backs of your respective minds that you'd love to see people undertake even if, and maybe especially where, the chance of ultimate success might be pretty low?" In response, Anna Salamon says, "There's a set of books that pretty often change people's lives, especially 18 year old type people's lives, hopefully in good directions. I think it would be lovely to make a list of five of those books and make a list of all the smart kids and mail the books to the smart kids. This has been on the list of obvious things to do for the last ten years but somehow nobody has ever done it. I didn't do it. I don't know. I really wish someone would do it. I think it would be really high impact."

If I had to choose five books related to effective altruism, I would probably choose:

1. Doing Good Better by William MacAskill

2. 80,000 Hours by Benjamin Todd and the 80,000 Hours Team

3. The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer

4. Animal Liberation by Peter Singer

5. Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom

However, I doubt that Salamon meant to limit the selection to books related to effective altruism. If you could choose five books on any topic, which five would you choose? 

Comments (29)

Comment author: Benito 05 September 2017 09:19:44PM 6 points [-]

I don't think the idea Anna suggests is to pick books you think young people should read, but to actually ask the best people what books they read that influenced them a lot.

Things that come to my mind include GEB, HPMOR, The Phantom Tolbooth, Feynman. Also, which surprises me but is empirically true for many people, Sam Harris's "The Moral Landscape" seems to have been the first book a number of top people I know read on their journey to doing useful things.

But either way I'd want more empirical data.

Comment author: AABoyles  (EA Profile) 06 September 2017 05:25:33PM 0 points [-]

Totally agree about data collection. Seems like a good candidate for an approval vote. After a five-minute search, I couldn't find a good approval-voting platform, when I realized that basically all polls on DEAM work this way (i.e. Facebook supports this). Maybe this is something we could post in the EA Facebook group? @Peter_Hurford?

Comment author: itaibn 08 September 2017 12:38:24AM 0 points [-]

What do you mean by Feynman? I endorse his Lectures in Physics as something that had a big effect on my own intellectual development, but I worry many people won't be able to get that much out of it. While his more accessible works are good, I don't rate them as highly.

Comment author: Benito 08 September 2017 09:24:04PM 0 points [-]

"Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman" still shows genuine curiosity, which is rare and valuable. But as I say, it's less about whether I can argue for it, and more about whether the top intellectual contributors in our community found it transformative in their youth. I think many may have read Feynman when young (e.g. it had a big impact on Eliezer).

Comment author: itaibn 09 September 2017 10:16:28AM 0 points [-]

While I couldn't quickly find the source for this, I'm pretty sure Eliezer read the Lectures on Physics as well. Again, I think Surely You're Joking is good, I just think the Lectures on Physics is better. Both are reasonable candidates for the list.

Comment author: RyanCarey 05 September 2017 11:12:21PM *  2 points [-]

For me personally, and sticking just to originals, and not compilations, it would be:

  1. Rationality from A to Z by Eliezer Yudkowsky
  2. Practical Ethics by Peter Singer
  3. Surely You Must be Joking Mr Feynmann by Richard Feynman
  4. Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins
  5. Elbow Room by Daniel Dennett
Comment author: RyanCarey 05 September 2017 11:14:20PM *  2 points [-]

But honorable mentions for Superintelligence, the Oxford Handbook of Science Writing, all of Dennett's other books, edge.org, thesciencenetwork.org, Oliver Sacks, lesswrong.com, HPMOR, Wolfram Mathworld, Wikipedia, ...........................................

Comment author: JamesDrain 06 September 2017 03:17:44AM 2 points [-]

I could really have benefited from a list like this three or four years ago! I wasted a lot of time reading prestigious fiction (Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest, In Search of Lost Time, Ulysses) and academic philosophy – none of which I liked or understood – as well as a lot of sketchy pop psych.

If Doing Good Better, 80,000 Hours, The Life You Can Save, Animal Liberation, and Superintelligence are already taken, then I’d say the five most influential works I’ve read are: All of Steven Pinker’s books The Art and Craft of Problem Solving Here Be Dragons: Science, Technology and the Future of Humanity Nick Bostrom’s Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?, Infinite Ethics, and Astronomical Waste, (I would add Anthropic Bias if I could understand it) The Tell-Tale Brain

Runner-ups include: To Be a Machine, Freakonomics, 1984, Information Theory, Inference and Learning Algorithms, The One World Schoolhouse, Computability Theory, Human Accomplishment, Linear Algebra and Its Applications, Spivak’s Calculus, The Willpower Instinct, Thinking Fast and Slow, The Nurture Assumption, Introduction to Algorithms, Practical Programming (this is about weightlifting – not CS), Surely You’re Joking, Innumeracy and also Beyond Numeracy, An Anthropologist on Mars, The God Delusion, The Righteous Mind, Poor Economics, Mathematics 1001, A Short History of Nearly Everything, The Selfish Gene, and Reasons and Persons. It’s not a book, but I feel like SlateStarCodex also belongs on this list.

Another good vegan book is Eating Animals.

I imagine I would also have been enthralled by a book like Soonish about emerging technologies (it hasn’t come out yet.)

Comment author: astupple 06 September 2017 04:51:18PM 2 points [-]

1- The Singularity is Near changed everything for me, made me quit my job and go to med school. I've since purchased it for many people, but I no longer do. Instead, I have been sending people copies of Home Deus by Yuval Noah Harari. Broader scope, more sociology, psychology and ethics. 2- The Selfish Gene (I think this moored me to reality closer than Steven Pinker's work) 3- The Black Swan (Thinking Fast and Slow, Freakonomics, Predictably Irrational etc are probably better explications of irrationality, while Taleb is a pretty clear victim of his own criticisms, but Taleb's style really shook me and I think it is the best for changing minds.) 4- Waking Up (A careful reading of Ken Wilber has been most influential for me, but I don't recommend it because it needs a very skeptical eye. I've been lucky. Waking Up does most of the same work, but doesn't get lost in the rabbit hole.) 5- Doing Good Better (not a shocker, but it really is an accessible slam dunk)

Comment author: rhys_lindmark 06 September 2017 06:31:11PM *  1 point [-]

Love this exercise (I read a non-fiction book a week, so I think about this a lot!). I'd definitely put an EA book in the top 5, but I think we get more differentiated advantage by adding non-EA books too. My list:

  1. On Direction and Measuring Your Impact—Doing Good Better
  2. On Past-Facing Pattern Matching from History—Sapiens
  3. On Future-Facing Tech Trends—Machine, Platform, Crowd
  4. On Prioritization and Process—Running Lean
  5. On Communication—An Everyone Culture

Honorable Mentions:

  1. Influence/Hooked/Thinking Fast and Slow (on behavioral psychology)
  2. World After Capital/Homo Deus/The Inevitable (more macro trends)
  3. Designing Your Life (process)
  4. Nonviolent Communication (communication)
Comment author: zdgroff 06 September 2017 06:56:26PM 1 point [-]

That's a damn good list. Would anything from the poverty world make sense? There's More Than Good Intentions and Poor Economics. The latter probably gets too into nitty gritty and the former may be too repetitive, but something from that area that does not come pre-digested by a philosopher might make sense.

Comment author: Khorton 06 September 2017 07:46:15PM 1 point [-]

Seven Habits of Highly Effective People - Read it in high school and found it's influenced my thinking since, especially the part about keeping promises to yourself. Persepolis - Read it when I was 18 and found it a useful fictional introduction to a culture very different from my own. Many other books could do a similar job. Getting to Yes - Changed how I think about negotiation. The Gospel of John - Changed how I think about everything. Deep Work - I read this recently, and while I don't agree with everything (I think the author overreaches occasionally), I do think it would have been useful at 18.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 07 September 2017 01:24:41AM *  0 points [-]

Lots of books about which direction you might want to self modify in. Are there good books about the outside view on self modification? What are metrics that people have tried? (And importantly what are popular ones we know don't work?) What effect sizes are reasonable given heritability and how can you measure them?

Even just a collection of which things with have evidence of high vs low malleability would be great.

What other considerations are relevant? This seems like 80ks wheelhouse.

Comment author: Larks 07 September 2017 02:08:17AM 1 point [-]

Thinking of books that had a big impact on me, and that I think I would endorse:

  • Godel Escher Bach, Douglas Hofstadter
  • The Sequences, Eliezer Yudkowsky
  • Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
  • The Extended Phenotype, Richard Dawkins
  • Diaspora, Greg Egan

I also think the Culture novels, and the 80,000 Hours book, could be good.

Comment author: concerned_ 12 September 2017 04:39:51PM 2 points [-]

Isn't Ayn Rand the antithesis of EA?

Comment author: Geuss 13 September 2017 10:00:22AM 0 points [-]

Libertarian capitalism dovetails with EA insofar as it respects side-constraints on property rights - one has a right to that which one receives through 'free' contract - and conceives of person-to-person help as voluntaristic. Of course, Rand didn't think much of helping others either.

That's also why, correctly in my view, socialists don't think much of EA.

Comment author: Halstead 14 September 2017 05:07:34PM 0 points [-]

One thing I find odd about this socialist criticism is that it is stated as though it is the most obvious thing in the world that we ought to abolish the institution of private property. Even if you think this is right, it isn't obvious. It is, after all, rejected by almost the entire community of experts on economics.

The differences between Rand and EAs are clearly greater than the similarities. Firstly, e.g. most EAs are in favour of strong resdistributive taxation, which would be rejected by right libertarians. Secondly, as you note, EAs are in favour of a strong ethic of impartial benevolence, which is obviously incompatible with one of the key tenets of the Randian worldview.

Comment author: Geuss 14 September 2017 07:10:26PM *  0 points [-]

I meant socialist in broad terms. One can be a socialist and not think much of a project for change based on the 'voluntaristic' exchange of money without demolishing capitalist social relations. It pushes back to your philosophy of society, and whether you think capitalism operates as a systemic whole to generate those things which you think need to be changed.

I'm not sure that you're not building a strawman, either. The defining problem of anti-capitalist thought since the failure of the Bolshevik Revolution to spread to Germany has been why it isn't obvious. And it's worth saying that no one wants to abolish private property altogether, just the historically specific property relations that emerged in the early modern period and made it such that peasants could not earn a living except by selling themselves to those who owned the means of production. Even more ambitious forms of social anarchism allow for usufruct.

Comment author: Halstead 15 September 2017 08:17:28AM 0 points [-]

Sorry I should've been clearer. I meant the socialist argument as used in criticisms of EAs by Leiter and Srinivasan etc. They talk as though EAs are missing something painfully obvious by not advocating for the destruction of extensive private property ownership. This shows a lack of epistemic awareness.

Comment author: Geuss 15 September 2017 09:21:49AM *  0 points [-]

Leiter is an ideologue and a bully, so that wouldn't surprise me. I think Srinivasan is a careful thinker, though. In fact she believes that because all of our beliefs are caused by antecedent factors outside of our control, that we cannot fully and sincerely commit to any belief. She has a view that is not unlike Rorty's ironism. So she's definitely 'epistemically aware'.

And the same is true, in my opinion, in the opposite direction: the EA community is extremely homogeneous. Its members generally share the same utilitarian, rationalist, technocratic, neoclassical worldview.

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 07 September 2017 02:11:56AM *  1 point [-]

I'll give a shout out to A Farewell to Alms (2007) by the economist Gregory Clark.

It's something of a precursor to the more often read The Better Angels of Our Nature, Sapiens and Capital in the 21st Century, and in important respects better than all of them. It really changed my view of the world and history when I was young.

The later sections are speculative at best, but the first two thirds on a long term history of how humanity has gradually escaped poverty are top shelf.

If you want to dig deeper into this topic and especially the under-rated endogenous growth theory I can strongly recommend reading Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work by Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz.

I should also give a shout out to the book that got me into EA when I was 13: Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer.

Comment author: lukeprog 07 September 2017 04:00:23AM 3 points [-]

We got close to doing this when I was at MIRI but just didn't have the outreach capacity to do it. The closest we got was to print a bunch of paperback copies of (the first 17 chapters of) just one book, HPMoR, and we shipped copies of that to contacts at various universities etc. I think we distributed 1000-2000 copies, not sure if more happened after I left.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 07 September 2017 08:10:51AM 2 points [-]

This is a bit tangential, but do you know if anyone has done an assessment of the impact of HPMoR? Cousin_it (Vladimir Slepnev) recently wrote:

The question then becomes, how do we set up a status economy that will encourage research? Peer review is one way, because publications and citations are a status badge desired by many people. Participating in a forum like LW when it's "hot" and frequented by high status folks is another way, but unfortunately we don't have that anymore. From that perspective it's easy to see why the massively popular HPMOR didn't attract many new researchers to AI risk, but attracted people to HPMOR speculation and rational fic writing. People do follow their interests sometimes, but mostly they try to find venues to show off.

Taking this one step further, it seems to me that HPMoR may have done harm by directing people's attentions (including Eliezer's own) away from doing the hard work of making philosophical and practical progress in AI alignment and rationality, towards discussion/speculation of the book and rational fic writing, thereby contributing to the decline of LW. Of course it also helped bring new people into the rationalist/EA communities. What would be a fair assessment of its net impact?

Comment author: lukeprog 09 September 2017 10:14:14PM 2 points [-]

Back in ~2014, I remember doing a survey of top-contributing MIRI donors over the previous 3 years and a substantial fraction (1/4th?) had first encountered MIRI or EA or whatever through HPMoR. Malo might have the actual stats. It might even be in a MIRI blog post footnote somewhere.

But w.r.t. to research impact, someone could make a list of the 25 most useful EA researchers, or the 15 most useful "AI safety" researchers, or whatever kind of research you most care about, and find out what fraction of them were introduced to x-risk/EA/rationality/whatever through HPMoR.

I don't have a good sense for the what the net impact is.

Comment author: riceissa  (EA Profile) 13 September 2017 05:39:32PM 1 point [-]

Re top MIRI donors, there is a 2013 in review post that talks about a survey of "(nearly) every donor who gave more than $3,000 in 2013" with four out of approximately 35 coming into contact via HPMoR. (Not to imply that this is the survey mentioned above, as several details differ.)

Comment author: gworley3  (EA Profile) 07 September 2017 10:15:03PM 2 points [-]

I think the challenge with a project like this is that it is not 'neutral' in the way most EA causes are.

Most EA causes I can think of are focused on some version of saving lives or reducing suffering. Although there may be disagreement about how to best save lives or reduce suffering (and what things suffer), there is almost no disagreement that we should save lives and reduce suffering. Although this is not a philosophically neutral position, it's 'neutral' in that you will find a vanishingly small number of people who disagree with the goal of saving lives and reducing suffering.

To put it another way, it's 'neutral' because everyone values saving lives and reducing suffering so everyone feels like EA promotes their values.

Specific books, unless they are complete milk-toast, are not neutral in this way and implicitly promote particular ideas. Much of introductory EA literature, if nothing else, assumes positive act utilitarianism (although within the community there are many notable voices opposed to this position). And if we move away from EA books to other books we think are valuable, they are also going to drift further from 'neutral' values everyone can get behind.

This is not necessarily bad, but it is a project that doesn't seem to fit well to me with much of the EA brand because whatever impact it has will have to be measured in terms of values not everyone agrees with.

For example, lots of people in the comments list HPMOR, The Sequences, or GEB. I like all of these a lot and would like to see more people read them, but that's because I value the ideas and behaviors they encourage. You don't have to look very far in EA though to find people who don't agree with the rationalist project and wouldn't like to see money spent on sending people copies of these books.

In a position like that, how do you rate the effectiveness of such a project? The impact will be measured in terms of value transmission around values that not everyone agrees on spreading. Unless you limit yourself to books that just promote the idea that we can save lives, reduce suffering, and be a little smarter about how we go about that, I think you'll necessarily attract a lot of controversy in terms of evaluation.

I'm not saying I'm not in favor of people taking on projects like this. I just want to make sure we're aware it's not a normal EA project because the immediate outcome seems to be idea transmission and it's going to be hard to evaluate what ideas are even worth spreading.

Comment author: DCM 10 September 2017 07:24:57PM *  0 points [-]

I'd also appreciate additional guidance on "books for getting literate in the stuff you need in order to understand the recommended books." Sometimes the stuff that follows "lemme just do a little back-of-the-envelope math here" kinda runs away from me. (e.g. https://rationalaltruist.com/2013/05/10/what-is-the-return-on-giving/)

I do quite like Robert Ornstein's The Evolution of Consciousness.

Comment author: itaibn 13 September 2017 01:58:00PM 0 points [-]

Before you get too excited about this idea, I want you to recall your days at school and how well it turned out when the last generation of thinkers tried this.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 16 September 2017 06:27:15AM 0 points [-]