Books

Relatively Interesting Books

 

Each of the books listed below have been read (or listened to as audiobooks) and carefully selected for you, the readers of Relatively Interesting.  Subjects range from evolution, religion, sociology, psychology, economics, physics, skepticism, philosophy and science in general.  This list is by no means exhaustive and will be updated on a regular basis.  If you have any suggestions, please send them to us.

Please note that the links to these books go to Amazon and if you choose to purchase one of them through these links, you’ll be supporting Relatively Interesting through our affiliate program.

TitleAuthorKeywordsDescription (from Amazon.com)
Carl Saganskepticism, science, critical thinkingCarl Sagan muses on the current state of scientific thought, which offers him marvelous opportunities to entertain us with his own childhood experiences, the newspaper morgues, UFO stories, and the assorted flotsam and jetsam of pseudoscience. Along the way he debunks alien abduction, faith-healing, and channeling; refutes the arguments that science destroys spirituality, and provides a "baloney detection kit" for thinking through political, social, religious, and other issues.

Richard Dawkinsreligion, God, morality, philosophyA preeminent scientist - and the world's most prominent atheist - asserts the irrationality of belief in God and the grievous harm religion has inflicted on society, from the Crusades to Sept. 11. Dawkins examines God in all his forms, from the sex-obsessed tyrant of the Old Testament to the more benign (but still illogical) Celestial Watchmaker favored by some Enlightenment thinkers. He eviscerates the major arguments for religion and demonstrates the supreme improbability of a supreme being. He shows how religion fuels war, foments bigotry, and abuses children, buttressing his points with historical and contemporary evidence. The God Delusion makes a compelling case that belief in God is not just wrong but potentially deadly. It also offers exhilarating insight into the advantages of atheism to the individual and society, not the least of which is a clearer, truer appreciation of the universe's wonders than any faith could ever muster.

Bill Brysonscience, historyTaking as territory everything from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization, Bryson seeks to understand how we got from there being nothing at all to there being us. To that end, he has attached himself to a host of the world’s most advanced (and often obsessed) archaeologists, anthropologists, and mathematicians, travelling to their offices, laboratories, and field camps. He has read (or tried to read) their books, pestered them with questions, apprenticed himself to their powerful minds. A Short History of Nearly Everything is the record of this quest, and it is a sometimes profound, sometimes funny, and always supremely clear and entertaining adventure in the realms of human knowledge, as only Bill Bryson can render it. Science has never been more involving or entertaining.

Steven Pinkermind, philosophy, science, cognitive psychologyBestselling author Steven Pinker possesses that rare combination of scientific aptitude and verbal eloquence that enables him to provide lucid explanations of deep and powerful ideas. His previous books have catapulted him into the limelight as one of today's most important popular science writers. In The Stuff of Thought, Pinker presents a fascinating look at how our words explain our nature. Considering scientific questions with examples from everyday life, The Stuff of Thought is a brilliantly crafted and highly readable work that will appeal to fans of everything from The Selfish Gene and Blink to Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

Christopher Hitchensreligion, philosophy, morality, GodIn the tradition of Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian and Sam Harris's recent bestseller, The End of Faith, Christopher Hitchens makes the ultimate case against religion. With a close and erudite reading of the major religious texts, he documents the ways in which religion is a man-made wish, a cause of dangerous sexual repression, and a distortion of our origins in the cosmos. With eloquent clarity, Hitchens frames the argument for a more secular life based on science and reason, in which hell is replaced by the Hubble Telescope's awesome view of the universe, and Moses and the burning bush give way to the beauty and symmetry of the double helix.

James Randiskepticism, critical thinking, debunking, scienceJames Randi is internationally known as a magician and escape artist. But for the past thirty-five years of his professional life, he has also been active as an investigator of the paranormal, occult, and supernatural claims that have impressed the thinking of the public for a generation: ESP, psychokinesis, psychic detectives, levitation, psychic surgery, UFOs, dowsing, astrology, and many others. Those of us unable to discriminate between genuine scientific research and the pseudoscientific nonsense that has resulted in fantastic theories and fancies have long needed James Randi and Flim-Flam!

Ian Rowlandcold reading, psychics, psychology'Cold reading' can loosely be described as 'how to talk to a complete stranger as if you have known them all your life'. This definitive yet easy-to-read guide explains every aspect of cold reading in detail. Although the book focuses on how cold reading is used within the psychic industry, many cold reading principles have applications in other fields such as selling, negotiation, management and therapy. This is a 'must read' book for anyone interested in the psychology of persuasion.


Jared Diamondhistory, geography, Jared Diamond convincingly argues that geographical and environmental factors shaped the modern world. Societies that had had a head start in food production advanced beyond the hunter-gatherer stage, and then developed religion --as well as nasty germs and potent weapons of war --and adventured on sea and land to conquer and decimate preliterate cultures. A major advance in our understanding of human societies, Guns, Germs, and Steel chronicles the way that the modern world came to be and stunningly dismantles racially based theories of human history.

Sam Harrisreligion, christianity, atheismLetter to a Christian Nation is a book written in response to feedback he received following the publication of his first book, The End of Faith. The book is written in the form of an open letter to a Christian in the United States. Harris states that his aim is "to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms."

Dan Lewisfacts, did you knowDid you know that there are actually 27 letters in the alphabet, or that the U.S. had a plan to invade Canada? And what actually happened to the flags left on the moon? From uncovering what happens to lost luggage to New York City's plan to crack down on crime by banning pinball, this book will challenge your knowledge of the fascinating stories behind the world's greatest facts.

Richard P. Feynmanscience, physicsThe Pleasure of Finding Things Out is a magnificent treasury of the best short works of Richard P. Feynman—from interviews and speeches to lectures and printed articles. A sweeping, wide-ranging collection, it presents an intimate and fascinating view of a life in science-a life like no other. From his ruminations on science in our culture to his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, this book will fascinate anyone interested in the world of ideas.

Dan Arielypsychology, critical thinking, behavioral psychologyWhy do our headaches persist after we take a one-cent aspirin but disappear when we take a fifty-cent aspirin? Why do we splurge on a lavish meal but cut coupons to save twenty-five cents on a can of soup? When it comes to making decisions in our lives, we think we're making smart, rational choices. But are we? Dan Ariely refutes the common assumption that we behave in fundamentally rational ways. From drinking coffee to losing weight, from buying a car to choosing a romantic partner, we consistently overpay, underestimate, and procrastinate. Yet these misguided behaviors are neither random nor senseless. They're systematic and predictable—making us predictably irrational.

Michael Shermerskepticism, psychology, scienceSynthesizing thirty years of research, psychologist and science historian Michael Shermer upends the traditional thinking about how humans form beliefs about the world. Simply put, beliefs come first and explanations for beliefs follow. The brain, Shermer argues, is a belief engine. Using sensory data that flow in through the senses, the brain naturally begins to look for and find patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning, forming beliefs. Once beliefs are formed the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, accelerating the process of reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes in a positive-feedback loop. Shermer provides countless real-world examples of how this process operates, from politics, economics, and religion to conspiracy theories, the supernatural, and the paranormal. And ultimately, he demonstrates why science is the best tool ever devised to determine whether or not our beliefs match reality.

Malcolm Gladwellinteresting facts, What is the difference between choking and panicking? Why are there dozens of varieties of mustard-but only one variety of ketchup? What do football players teach us about how to hire teachers? What does hair dye tell us about the history of the 20th century? Now, in What the Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell brings together the best of his writing from The New Yorker.

Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubnereconomics, behavioral economicsFreakonomics is a groundbreaking collaboration between Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, an award-winning author and journalist. They usually begin with a mountain of data and a simple question. Some of these questions concern life-and-death issues; others have an admittedly freakish quality. Thus the new field of study contained in this book: freakonomics. Through forceful storytelling and wry insight, Levitt and Dubner show that economics is, at root, the study of incentives—how people get what they want, or need, especially when other people want or need the same thing. In Freakonomics, they explore the hidden side of . . . well, everything. The inner workings of a crack gang. The truth about real-estate agents. The myths of campaign finance. The telltale marks of a cheating schoolteacher. The secrets of the Klu Klux Klan.

Daniel C. Dennettreligion, atheismFor all the thousands of books that have been written about religion, few until this one have attempted to examine it scientifically: to ask why—and how—it has shaped so many lives so strongly. Is religion a product of blind evolutionary instinct or rational choice? Is it truly the best way to live a moral life? Ranging through biology, history, and psychology, Daniel C. Dennett charts religion’s evolution from “wild” folk belief to “domesticated” dogma. Not an anti religious creed but an unblinking look beneath the veil of orthodoxy, Breaking the Spell will be read and debated by believers and skeptics alike.

Stephen Pinkerpsychology, cognitive science, mindOne of the world's leading cognitive scientists tackles the workings of the human mind. What makes us rational—and why are we so often irrational? How do we see in three dimensions? What makes us happy, afraid, angry, disgusted, or sexually aroused? Why do we fall in love? And how do we grapple with the imponderables of morality, religion, and consciousness? How the Mind Works synthesizes the most satisfying explanations of our mental life from cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and other fields to explain what the mind is, how it evolved, and how it allows us to see, think, feel, laugh, interact, enjoy the arts, and contemplate the mysteries of life.

Richard Dawkinsevolution, biology, religion"Intelligent Design" is being taught in our schools; educators are being asked to "teach the controversy" behind evolutionary theory. There is no controversy. Dawkins sifts through rich layers of scientific evidence—from living examples of natural selection to clues in the fossil record; from natural clocks that mark the vast epochs wherein evolution ran its course to the intricacies of developing embryos; from plate tectonics to molecular genetics—to make the airtight case that "we find ourselves perched on one tiny twig in the midst of a blossoming and flourishing tree of life and it is no accident, but the direct consequence of evolution by non-random selection." His unjaded passion for the natural world turns what might have been a negative argument, exposing the absurdities of the creationist position, into a positive offering to the reader: nothing less than a master’s vision of life, in all its splendor.

Walter IsaacsonThis is the definitive biography of Albert Einstein. How did his mind work? What made him a genius? Isaacson’s biography shows how his scientific imagination sprang from the rebellious nature of his personality. His fascinating story is a testament to the connection between creativity and freedom. Based on newly released personal letters of Einstein, this book explores how an imaginative, impertinent patent clerk—a struggling father in a difficult marriage who couldn't get a teaching job or a doctorate—became the mind reader of the creator of the cosmos, the locksmith of the mysteries of the atom, and the universe. His success came from questioning conventional wisdom and marveling at mysteries that struck others as mundane. This led him to embrace a morality and politics based on respect for free minds, free spirits, and free individuals. These traits are just as vital for this new century of globalization, in which our success will depend on our creativity, as they were for the beginning of the last century, when Einstein helped usher in the modern age.

Carl Sagancosmology, space, astronomyIn Pale Blue Dot, Sagan traces the spellbinding history of our launch into the cosmos and assesses the future that looms before us as we move out into our own solar system and on to distant galaxies beyond. The exploration and eventual settlement of other worlds is neither a fantasy nor luxury, insists Sagan, but rather a necessary condition for the survival of the human race.

Stephen Hawkingphysics, astronomy, cosmologyA landmark volume in science writing by one of the great minds of our time, Stephen Hawking’s book explores such profound questions as: How did the universe begin—and what made its start possible? Does time always flow forward? Is the universe unending—or are there boundaries? Are there other dimensions in space? What will happen when it all ends? Told in language we all can understand, A Brief History of Time plunges into the exotic realms of black holes and quarks, of antimatter and “arrows of time,” of the big bang and a bigger God—where the possibilities are wondrous and unexpected. With exciting images and profound imagination, Stephen Hawking brings us closer to the ultimate secrets at the very heart of creation.

Malcolm Gladwellsociology, interestingThe tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a small but precisely targeted push cause a fashion trend, the popularity of a new product, or a drop in the crime rate. Malcolm Gladwell explores and brilliantly illuminates the tipping point phenomenon, which is already changing the way people throughout the world think about selling products and disseminating ideas.

David Berlinskimathematics, calculus, physicsWere it not for the calculus, mathematicians would have no way to describe the acceleration of a motorcycle or the effect of gravity on thrown balls and distant planets, or to prove that a man could cross a room and eventually touch the opposite wall. Just how calculus makes these things possible and in doing so finds a correspondence between real numbers and the real world is the subject of this dazzling book by a writer of extraordinary clarity and stylistic brio. Even as he initiates us into the mysteries of real numbers, functions, and limits, Berlinski explores the furthest implications of his subject, revealing how the calculus reconciles the precision of numbers with the fluidity of the changing universe.

Carl Sagancosmos, cosmology, space, astronomyCosmos is one of the bestselling science books of all time. In clear-eyed prose, Sagan reveals a jewel-like blue world inhabited by a life form that is just beginning to discover its own identity and to venture into the vast ocean of space. Cosmos retraces the fourteen billion years of cosmic evolution that have transformed matter into consciousness, exploring such topics as the origin of life, the human brain, Egyptian hieroglyphics, spacecraft missions, the death of the Sun, the evolution of galaxies, and the forces and individuals who helped to shape modern science.

Michael ShermerskepticismIn this age of supposed scientific enlightenment, many people still believe in mind reading, past-life regression theory, New Age hokum, and alien abduction. A no-holds-barred assault on popular superstitions and prejudices, Why People Believe Weird Things debunks these nonsensical claims and explores the very human reasons people find otherworldly phenomena, conspiracy theories, and cults so appealing. Shermer also reveals the more dangerous side of such illogical thinking, including Holocaust denial, the recovered-memory movement, the satanic ritual abuse scare, and other modern crazes. Why People Believe Strange Things is an eye-opening resource for the most gullible among us and those who want to protect them.

Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubnereconomics, behavioral economicsFreakonomics lived on the New York Times bestseller list for an astonishing two years. Now authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner return with more iconoclastic insights and observations in SuperFreakonomics—the long awaited follow-up to their New York Times Notable blockbuster. Based on revolutionary research and original studies SuperFreakonomics promises to once again challenge our view of the way the world really works.

Jared Diamondhistory, geographyEnvironmental damage, climate change, globalization, rapid population growth, and unwise political choices were all factors in the demise of societies around the world, but some found solutions and persisted. As in Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond traces the fundamental pattern of catastrophe, and weaves an all-encompassing global thesis through a series of fascinating historical-cultural narratives. Collapse moves from the Polynesian cultures on Easter Island to the flourishing American civilizations of the Anasazi and the Maya and finally to the doomed Viking colony on Greenland. Similar problems face us today and have already brought disaster to Rwanda and Haiti, even as China and Australia are trying to cope in innovative ways. Despite our own society’s apparently inexhaustible wealth and unrivaled political power, ominous warning signs have begun to emerge even in ecologically robust areas like Montana. How can our world best avoid committing ecological suicide?

Sam Harrisreligion, atheismSam Harris delivers a startling analysis of the clash between reason and religion in the modern world. He offers a vivid, historical tour of our willingness to suspend reason in favor of religious beliefs—even when these beliefs inspire the worst human atrocities. While warning against the encroachment of organized religion into world politics, Harris draws on insights from neuroscience, philosophy, and Eastern mysticism to deliver a call for a truly modern foundation for ethics and spirituality that is both secular and humanistic.

Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubnereconomics, behavioral economicsLevitt and Dubner offer a blueprint for an entirely new way to solve problems, whether your interest lies in minor lifehacks or major global reforms. As always, no topic is off-limits. They range from business to philanthropy to sports to politics, all with the goal of retraining your brain. Along the way, you’ll learn the secrets of a Japanese hot-dog-eating champion, the reason an Australian doctor swallowed a batch of dangerous bacteria, and why Nigerian e-mail scammers make a point of saying they’re from Nigeria.