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©1999 by Eliezer S. Yudkowsky.  All rights reserved.


Books that changed my life:

1:  Gödel, Escher, Bach:  An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter

This is simply the best and most beautiful book ever written by the human species.  This was the book that launched me on my career in artificial intelligence and cognitive science.  I don't mean to imply that those are the only topics covered; Gödel, Escher, Bach also deals with mathematics, music, art, programming, Zen, philosophy, self-reference, and everything in the world that is bright and beautiful.  This is the most intelligent, the deepest, the most beautiful book in the world.  Period.  End of story.

I'm not alone in this opinion, by the way.  For one thing, Gödel, Escher, Bach won a Pulitzer Prize.  Or just pick a random scientist and ask ver what vis favorite book is, and 1 out of 5 will say:  "Gödel, Escher, Bach".  No other book even comes close.

It is saddening to contemplate that every day, 150,000 humans die without reading what is indisputably one of the greatest achievements of our species.  Don't let it happen to you.

Sure, if you're just an average person, you might not understand everything in this book - but when you're done reading, you won't be an average person any more.

2:  Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition by Ed Regis

When I was but a little lad, in the days of my wild and reckless youth, I thought I would grow up to be a physicist, like my father before me (who was at that time a physicist).  I'd read QED by age nine, and I even understood most of it.  I was contentedly headed for a life on the frontiers of the fourteenth decimal point.

Then along came a book called "Great Mambo Chicken".  As I recall, it was taken out as a library book and given to me, for the duration of the loan, by a grand-uncle.  Undoubtedly attracted by the title, of course.  And inside this book was...

Cryonics!  The colonization of space!  Fun with high explosives!  Humanity's conquest of the Universe!  Artificial intelligence!  Genetic engineering!  Nanotechnology!  The Omega Point!  Ultratechnologies by the dozen!

I knew, in that moment, that I'd be doing one of those things for my career.  (I thought it'd be nanotechnology, actually; I didn't get converted over to AI and cognitive science and computer programming until I read Gödel, Escher, Bach.)  I read this book, and I realized it was possible to solve all the problems of the world, that nothing was beyond the reach of intelligence, that my generation and maybe even my grandparents' generation was going to be immortal, and I decided that I was going to help make it happen, and that's what my life would be.

3:  Man:  The Moral Animal by Robert Wright (online excerpts)

Self-awareness is a wonderful thing.  At its height, self-awareness alters every aspect of intelligence and personality.  And self-awareness isn't just knowing how to think, it's knowing how to feel.  If I understand my own emotions today, it's because I read this book.

The Moral Animal:  Why We Are the Way We Are:  The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology is about, you guessed it, evolutionary psychology - the origin of our-modern day emotions as the frozen strategies of survival and reproduction from the days of the hunter-gatherers.

Knowing what's in your mind, knowing exactly where it comes from and why, is the first step towards self-alteration.  This book gives the lie to the late twentieth-century American stereotype that to be logical is to lose the ability to understand your own emotions.  Armed by the high quest of science, it's possible to attain a greater understanding of emotion than pop psychoanalysts or folk psychologists ever will.

4:  True Names and Other Dangers by Vernor Vinge

"Here I had tried a straightforward extrapolation of technology, and found myself precipitated over an abyss.  It's a problem we face every time we consider the creation of intelligences greater than our own.  When this happens, human history will have reached a kind of singularity - a place where extrapolation breaks down and new models must be applied - and the world will pass beyond our understanding."
            -- Vernor Vinge, True Names and Other Dangers, p. 47.
One book, picked up on a whim in a public library.  Sixty-five words.  Five seconds.

My feeling at that moment is hard to describe; not wild enthusiasm, just a vast calm feeling of "Yep.  He's right.  Well, now I know how I'll be spending the rest of my life."

I've been a Singularitarian ever since.

Five years later, I've never looked back.

Books of knowledge:

1:  Gödel, Escher, Bach:  An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter

Artificial intelligence.  Cognitive science.  Mathematics.  Music.  Art.  Language.  Computer programming.  Zen.  Philosophy.  Self-reference.  Genetics.  Paradox.  Logic.  Everything.

All explained in an utterly clear, utterly readable, utterly accessible style, completely open to the average reader in every way, assuming no prior knowledge.  It provides the best introduction I've ever seen to any of the above subjects, not because the author is writing a textbook, but because the author wants you to see how much fun they are.

Gödel, Escher, Bach:  Read it!  Read it!  Read it!

2:  Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition by Ed Regis

If Gödel, Escher, Bach is an introduction to all the most beautiful knowledges in the world, then Great Mambo Chicken shows us all the coolest technologies.  Bask for a moment in the table of contents:  "Truax", about an independent rocket scientist out to beat NASA; "Home on Lagrange", about the L5 society and the colonization of the solar system; "Heads will roll", about cryonics, and freezing the heads of the deceased, saving all that information in the brain before it rots; "Omnipotence, Plenitude & Co.", about attaining complete control over the structure of matter on the molecular level through the agency of quintillions of molecular-level self-reproducing robots; "Postbiological Man", about the possibility of augmenting ourselves and transcending the limitations of (organic) flesh; "The Artificial Life 4-H Show"; "Hints for the Better Operation of the Universe", or how to keep the Sun (or for that matter, the Universe) from getting all dark and icky; and there's "Death of the Impossible", which is about how to do everything else.

3:  Man:  The Moral Animal by Robert Wright (online excerpts)

Want to know thyself?  Here's where you learn.  Why do we eat sugar and salt and fat in an age when these things are no longer good for us?  Because in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, they were scarce resources.  Whence comes the stereotype that men care about sex and women care about love?  Why does the male eye stray more easily than the female?  Why are men the wooers and women the choosers?  Because the male invests a night of effort to produce a baby, while a woman invests nine months; the optimum evolutionary strategy for the male is to sleep with everything in sight, while the optimum evolutionary strategy for the female is to be very choosy.

I suppose some people would think it depressing to see the puppet strings on which we all dangle, think that bad old science made the magic go away.  But in my experience, like I said, seeing the puppet strings is the first step towards cutting them and getting on with your life.

4:  Engines of Creation by K. Eric Drexler (free online version)

Before Great Mambo Chicken, there was Engines of Creation, the book in which Eric Drexler deliberately and calculatedly set out to create the multi-million-dollar nanotechnology research efforts we know today, and the zillion-dollar nanotechnology industry of tomorrow.  His was the stroke of genius.  He invented the phrase.  He did the homework.  He projected the results.  He wrote the book.  He created the industry.  Every time you hear the word "nanotechnology" used today, every time you read about it in Time Magazine or Business Week, it's because Eric Drexler decided to make it happen.

And this is the book that started it all.

(If you want the technical stuff, see Dr. Drexler's Nanosystems, published years later.  Engines is the futurist's version, from before there was the technical stuff.)

5:  The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences, edited by Wilson and Keil

I've been reading cognitive science books for five years, and it's a good thing MIT published this Encyclopedia in 1999, or I'd be really ticked-off at the fact that I needn't have bothered.  Virtually everything I'd learned was in this book, and more.  It's like a magic spellbook; you read it, and it turns you into a cognitive scientist.  It's a complete college education and then some.  Just amazing.

The price Amazon currently quotes is $150, but they were selling copies for $90 at our local Microcenter Warehouse computer store.  Is it worth it?  Oh yeah.

6:  The Adapted Mind, edited by Barkow, Cosmides, and Tooby

After The Moral Animal comes The Adapted Mind, brought to you courtesy of Jerome Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby, and brought to me courtesy of Paul Hughes (he sent me a copy as a birthday present).  If you're already familiar with evolutionary psychology, this book won't rock your world to its foundations - but it'll be fun to read.  (At least, if you're familiar enough with cognitive science to understand it.  This is not an introductory-level book.  It took me a month to read it, and my ordinary speed is around a book a day.)

The book is a collection of chapters by specialists in various fields of evolutionarily grounded cognitive science; the authors listed are simply the editors.

The most wonderful chapter was definitely The Psychological Foundations of Culture, by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby.  To describe the forces that generate a culture, you need to describe the evolution of the psychology that composes the culture, the environment and cultural environment that created the selection forces that drove the evolution, not to mention the evolution of the cultural memes themselves.  So they did.  It's all in here.  All the interactions.  All the causality.  Laid out in neat little paragraphs.

There's also an amazing little gem about the human visual system.  Why is the sky blue?  Yes, because the air scatters blue light - but why does the sky look blue?  Why do we see blue as a pure, beautiful color?  Would any sky look the same to the creatures that evolved underneath it?  Why are there three types of cones (color receptors) in the retina, and not four or two?  Why those three cones?  And why is purple the strangest of all colors?

Why are flowers pretty?
What makes a landscape interesting?

To find out, you'll just have to read the book.

7:  Metamagical Themas by Douglas R. Hofstadter

Douglas Hofstadter returns with this compendium of articles published in his column at Scientific American.  Self-referential sentences, logical games, the power of language over the mind, the wellsprings of creativity, typefaces, Rubik's Cubes, Lisp, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, Alan Turing, analogies, the amazing Copycat AI, stumbling-blocks in the field of artificial intelligence, the genetic code, psychological games.  Plus "The Prisoner's Dilemma Computer Tournaments and the Evolution of Cooperation" and "Irrationality is the Square Root of All Evil", both of which should be required reading for anyone who wants to live on a planet with other people.

8:  QED:  The Strange Theory of Light and Matter by Richard Feynman

So what's up with all those whizzing atoms?  What's really going on down there?  And is it humanly possible to explain it so well that a nine-year-old child can understand it?  Yes, it is, but only if you're Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize-winning physicist and probably the single greatest explainer in human history.  Without oversimplifying, Richard Feynman clears away all the technical terminology and provides simple methods for visualizing the laws of physics.

9:  The Emperor's New Mind and Shadows of the Mind by Sir Roger Penrose

After QED comes Shadows of the Mind, by Sir Roger Penrose, going deeper into the mathematics of quantum and relativistic paradox.  Penrose isn't trying to explain quantum physics; he's trying to persuade you that the human mind isn't Turing-computable.  (Penrose is right about this, although purely by coincidence.)

Penrose's philosophical arguments are flawed, and his sections on Gödel's Theorem are eminently skippable - but physics!  There's where Penrose shines.  The book is well worth reading, simply for the exposition on quantum physics and relativity.  Even Daniel Dennett (philosophical archnemesis of Penrose's crowd) recommends the book on those grounds.

It's remarkable how clear explanations can become when an expert's trying to persuade you of something, instead of just explaining it.

Books of future shock:

1:  Permutation City by Greg Egan

This is simply the best science-fiction book ever written, the Grand Bull Moose Award Winner for really really good fiction.  It is, in short, my all-time favorite.

Can you imagine a book where the premise is that human beings have been scanned into computers as virtual Copies?  "Darn it," you cry, "now you've spoiled it for me!"  Oh, no, I haven't.  Can you imagine a book where this concept is introduced on the first page?

That bit about Copies?  That's not the plot.  That's just the starting assumption.  The surprises this book delivers are unbelievable.  It shocked the living daylights out of me.

But I wouldn't want to spoil it for you.  So if you want to know more, read the book.

2:  Quarantine by Greg Egan

Another patented Greg Egan surprise-a-thon.  On the first page of this book, we find out that the stars vanished from the sky on the night the Solar System was enclosed in an impenetrable bubble.  But that doesn't even begin to convey what awaits you in this book.

There's always one moment in a Greg Egan novel when you understand, and there's just nothing that compares to that feeling - except, of course, for the thrill of scientific discovery.  We can't all win a Nobel Prize, but we can all read Greg Egan, and we probably should.

3:  A Fire Upon the Deep/True Names/Marooned in Realtime by Vernor Vinge

Three books, in three completely different Universes, that present in three ways the Vingean Singularity.  Will the rise of greater-than-human intelligence be like this?  No.  Of course not.  It'll be completely different.  We can't see beyond that horizon... but Vinge takes us right up to it, and makes us see the wall stretching ahead.  Short of experiencing our actual Singularity, the Vinge novels come as close to drawing a picture of What Lies Beyond, as we will ever see...

A Fire Upon the Deep is probably the best of these; it comes right out and shows you the Transcendents, awesome, moving on a galactic scale.  And oh, yes, it won a Hugo.

4:  Aristoi by Walter John Williams

The novel of nanotechnology, and a really, really well-written book besides.  Imagine a society that is the product of Greek culture, Chinese culture, nanotechnology, and technologically augmented mental disciplines.  Imagine you're such an amazingly good science-fiction author that you can write about it seamlessly, that the culture shown is perfectly integrated and perfectly executed and entirely plausible.  That's the Logarchy, and in my entire reading experience, it is the most beautiful and compelling culture ever.  If I had to choose one example of supreme professional craftsmanship in the art of creating futuristic societies, it would be the Logarchy.

Walter John Williams has written many excellent books, but this is indisputably the best.  It deserves a Hugo, a Nebula, and possibly a Pulitzer.

5:  Neverness by David Zindell

Mallory Ringess is a pilot of the lightships of Neverness, member of the Order of Mystic Mathematicians and Other Seekers of the Ineffable Flame, governed by the Lord Horologe and Master Timekeeper.  The black, diamond-hulled ships are piloted through the manifold through the mappings and theorems of set theory.  On Neverness the akashics and cetics and remembrancers and warrior-poets practice their professions.  And it just keeps getting better.

For poetry on the galactic scale, you can't beat Neverness.  (The next three books don't meet the amazingly high standards of Neverness, however.  Be warned.)

6:  Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

"So what the heck is this 'Culture' everyone is talking about?", you ask.  Well, the Culture is as close as science fiction has ever gotten to describing a real utopia.  It's the society SL3 transhumanists would build, given full rein.  It's More Fun In the Culture... even if you're exposed to danger while bringing the blessings of civilization to less fortunate societies as part of the do-gooder Contact section... even if you're part of Special Circumstances.

If I had to choose one poster child for the dictum that the technology creates the society, this would be it.

Consider Phlebas is also pretty good.

Books of fun:

1:  Gödel, Escher, Bach:  An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter

2:  Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman

3:  Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition by Ed Regis

4:  The Tao is Silent by Raymond Smullyan

5:  The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

6:  The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
    (Sourcery, Mort, many many others)

Books of my youth:

(Ordered by reader age, youngest first.)

1:  Space Cadet by Robert Heinlein

2:  Interstellar Pig by William Sleator

3:  Support Your Local Wizard by Diane Duane
    (So You Want to be a Wizard, Deep Wizardry, High Wizardry)

4:  The Harper Hall Trilogy by Anne McCaffrey
    (Dragonsong, Dragonsinger, Dragondrums)

5:  The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper
    (The Dark is Rising, Greenwitch, The Grey King, Silver on the Tree)

6:  Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
    (Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Dragons of Winter Night, Dragons of Spring Dawning)

7:  Dragonlance Legends by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
    (The Time of the Twins, The War of the Twins, The Test of the Twins)