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Core reading recommendations

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KEEP IN MIND: Over 2 million books are published per year. Out of these, it's very unlikely that the books that you're assigned in school are the ones that cover the most important material, or are best to learn from. Doing the reading assigned in school won't necessarily make you well educated. You can educate yourself by reading select books on your own.

Our recommendations below, categorized by subject, satisfy all these criteria:

  • They are intellectually engaging and enriching.
  • They are accessible to intellectually curious high school students, and to highly precocious middle school students, who have interest in the subject.
  • They can be read without too much real-time intellectual effort. You do not need to use paper and pencil while reading these books. Of course, putting in intellectual effort can help you derive more value from the books.
  • They systematically cover important ideas related to the subject. We have refrained from listing books that cover ideas that are interesting but relatively unimportant in the subject.

In particular, you won't find any books here that we're recommending purely because they're fun. You also won't find any books here that we're recommending purely because they are difficult to read.

For reading recommendations of other types, see:

Statistics and applications to data analysis

Book Author ISBN and purchase links Why we're recommending it
The Lady Tasting Tea: How Statistics Revolutionized Science in the Twentieth Century David Salsburg ISBN 978-0805071344 Amazon link Provides a historical overview of the important developments in statistics and the statistical way of thinking.
Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data Charles Wheelan ISBN 978-0393347777 (paperback), Amazon link Explores statistics concepts through a number of simple real-world examples.
The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don't Nate Silver ISBN 978-0141975658 (paperback), Amazon link Explores ideas from statistics and data analysis with the specific goal of understanding the art and science of predicting the future.

Economics

These books use real-world examples and a minimum of mathematical formalism to explain key economic concepts.

Book Author ISBN and purchase links Notable reviews
Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science Charles Wheelan ISBN 978-0393337648, Amazon paperback
The Undercover Economist Timothy Harford ISBN 978-0345494016, Amazon paperback
Hidden Order: The Economics of Everyday Life David Friedman ISBN 978-0887308857, Amazon paperback
The Armchair Economist: Economics and Everyday Life Steven Landsburg ISBN 978-1451651737, Amazon paperback
The Cartoon Introduction to Economics: Volume 1 (Microeconomics) Yoran Bauman, Grady Klein ISBN 978-0809094813, Amazon paperback Bryan Caplan on EconLog


While Freakonomics and its sequel Superfreakonomics are much better known than the above books, we would not recommend Freakonomics or Superfreakonomics if your goal is to obtain an understanding of the economic way of thinking, because they do not systematically cover the core economic concepts.

History

Book Author ISBN and purchase links Why we're recommending it
Master Of The Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson Robert A. Caro 978-0394720951 Amazon link This is the third part of a five part biography of President Lyndon Johnson. It describes how Johnson passed Civil Rights legislation as a Senator in the 1950's.
The Miracle: The Epic Story of Asia's Quest for Wealth Michael Schuman 978-0394720951 Amazon link This book describes the spectacular economic growth that occurred in Asia from the 1950's on.
India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy Ramachandra Guha 978-0060958589 Amazon link India's population represents 15% of the world's population. This book describes India's recent history.

Biology

Book Author ISBN and purchase links Why we're recommending it
Microbe Hunters Paul de Kruif 0156027771 Amazon link This is an inspirational history of early discoveries in microbiology.

Theoretical computer science

Book Author ISBN and purchase links Why we're recommending it
The Golden Ticket: P, NP, and the Search for the Impossible Lance Fortnow ISBN 0691156492 Amazon link This is a nontechnical introduction to P vs. NP, which is one of the central questions of theoretical computer science. The book places the problem in the context of society.
Quantum Computing since Democritus Scott Aaronson ISBN 0521199565 Amazon link This book discusses the math and physics of computation, including quantum computation.

Physics

Book Author ISBN and purchase links Why we're recommending it
General Relativity from A to B Robert Geroch 978-0226288642 Amazon link This book is an introduction to Einstein's theories of special relativity and general relativity, requiring no more mathematical background than first year high school algebra. It differs from most non-technical books about modern physics in that it's unusually precise and accurate. Its discussion of general relativity is vague, but openly so, and still conveys some understanding of the theory.
The Structure and Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics R.I.G. Hughes ISBN 978-0674843929 Amazon link This book introduces quantum mechanics, requiring no more math than precalculus. It's precise and rigorous, giving the reader an authentic understanding of the basics of the subject. It also discusses the philosophical question of interpretations of quantum mechanics. In contrast with the other books on this list, we recommend using paper and pencil when reading the mathematical sections.