Top 40: Aaron Swartz

Top 40: Aaron Swartz


The recently deceased Internet prodigy and activist was a voracious reader, plowing through 100 or more books a year and reviewing many on his blog. Here, in his own words, 40 of his favorites.


Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers
Robert Jackall
“My favorite book of all-time…Tells the story of a company, chosen essentially at random, and through careful investigation from top to bottom explains precisely how it operates, with the end result of explaining how so many well-intentioned people can end up committing so much evil.”


The Trial
Franz Kafka
“A deep and magnificent work. I’d not really read much Kafka before and had grown up led to believe that it was a paranoid and hyperbolic work, dystopian fiction in the style of George Orwell. Yet I read it and found it was precisely accurate. A vivid illustration that bureaucracies, once they get started, continue doing whatever mindless thing they’ve been set up to do, regardless of whether the people in them particularly want to do it or whether it’s even a good idea. At the same time, individual people have an incredibly hard time executing long-term or large-scale tasks on their own, even when they’re quite motivated.”


The New-York Historical Society: Lessons from…
Kevin M. Guthrie
“A compellingly-written and fascinatingly-told story of how the New York Historical Society, a grand old museum housing countless invaluable treasures, was so consistently financially mismanaged that despite its greatness it found itself constantly on the verge of financial ruin. Clearly written as a cautionary tale for those who would run a non-profit.”


Jason Shiga
“Words won’t do it justice: an action-movie-thriller of a book, a hilarious adrenaline-fueled ride that’s impossible to put down. I’ve never had this much fun with a piece of entertainment. Just sheer delight.”


Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon…
Daniel Ellsberg
“A fantastic book. Ellsberg turns out to be an incredible writer and he tells not only his own incredible story of the fight to release the Pentagon Papers (did you know the New York Times actually stole them from his house?), but, even more interestingly, recounts a great deal of fascinating personal experience about what it was like working with McNamara and Kissinger and trying to maintain your sanity in the highest levels of government.”


House of Holes
Nicholson Baker 272 pages | 2011
“I’m not normally one for filthy books, but Baker’s writing is so good that he somehow manages to make this one just utterly compelling despite the smut. I started reading and I couldn’t stop, he just draws you into his world of pure insanity.”


What It Takes
Richard Ben Cramer
“Were this just the story of how George H. W. Bush got elected, it’d be one of the few biographies that belonged in the same league as Robert Caro. But it’s so much more than that: Richard Ben Cramer gives the same treatment to dozens of candidates in the 1988 presidential election: Gary Hart, Bob Dole, Joe Biden, Dick Gephardt, and on and on. Even if you didn’t care about politics, this book would be worth reading simply because the writing is so good. But if you do, there’s never been a better exposition of what drives these men who wish to be our leaders and what they have to go through to get there.”


I’m Feeling Lucky
Douglas Edwards
“There were many times in this book that I couldn’t help but wonder: How did he get away with writing this? Google apparently approved of the project and had chaperones in all his interviews, but nonetheless the book is just full of revelations and shockers that it’s hard to imagine Google would ever want to see the light of day. Edwards is uniquely suited to the task: his talents as a writer allow him to craft a compelling read, his insider’s view of the very early days give him a detailed knowledge from which to tell his story, but his total lack of cultural chemistry with the rest of the Googlers allows him to find mysterious all the crazy things which they all take for granted. A fantastic read.”


Eating the Dinosaur
Chuck Klosterman
“Absolutely fantastic. Could hardly put it down. Chuck Klosterman is definitely in the running for greatest living essayist. The book is a collection of essays, but not, as far as I can tell, essays that were ever published anywhere else. They’re each just magical gems that fit together just perfectly. I even liked the stuff about football (and I’ve never seen a game of football).”


William Poundstone
“Poundstone is one of the great science writers of all time. Here he takes on behavioral economics at the very top of his game. Full of fascinating ideas.”


Becoming Attached First Relationships and How…
Robert Karen
“One of my favorite books of all time. Probably the best work of science writing I’ve ever read.”


The Bonfire of the Vanities
Tom Wolfe
“Absolutely fantastic. A rare must-read novel—packed full of information about society, journalism, activism, race, etc. I can’t convey just how good it really is. It’s like The Power Broker of fiction.”


How To Win Friends and Influence People
Dale Carnegie
“There’s a reason this is a classic. It articulates a way of dealing with people, founded on concern and empathy, and convincingly argues that this kind style is actually the more productive one for getting things done. Instead of yelling at people to do things, you make them want to help you. And the book itself is a genius exemplar of this practice. Instead of berating you for being a jerk, like most people would, it persuades you to want to change.”


When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish
Martin Gardner
“In memoriam. In the same way that the spirit of Lenny Bruce passed through Bill Hicks and now Louis CK, the ghost of Richard Feynman passed to Martin Gardner. His wit and curiosity, combined with a gift for explanation, did more than almost anyone to promote a genuine appreciation for math and science. This essay collection was his last book. Although I’m sure many, many more will come posthumously.”


The Possessed
Elif Batumen
“Hilarious, brilliant, fantastic. There’s no justification for this book being as good as it is. Even I wasn’t interested in reading a book about Russian literary scholars, but it’s just incredibly good and I’m glad I did.”


This Is Your Country on Drugs
Ryan Grim
“I would not have thought the world needed another book on drugs, but this one turns out to be basically perfect. Comprehensive, erudite, funny, and realistic—Grim definitely inhales.”


The Corrections
Jonathan Franzen
“After the popular reviews and the Oprah’s Book Club selection, I had just about learned to ignore Franzen’s big novel. But when a friend told me she was loving it, I decided to check it out. That was no mistake. This is a thoughtful, readable piece of fiction, with big geeky topics and a hearty emotional core.”


The Lifecycle of Software Objects
Ted Chiang
“Read it! Even people who know much more about sci-fi than me agree this is one of the greatest science fiction books of all time. It’s a novel about the ethical issues with AI.”


The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of…
Robert Caro
“I cannot possibly say enough good things about this book. Go read it. Right now. Yes, I know it’s long, but trust me, you’ll wish it was longer. I think it may be simply the best nonfiction book.”


Political Fictions
Joan Didion
“Damn, this book is good. Nobody knows how to take a book and skewer it like Didion. The New York Review of Books pieces reprinted in here are simply some of the best eviscerations of any genre. It’s hard to imagine how people can walk after a review like that.”


American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making
Nancy Denton & Douglas S. Massey
“This book is criminally under-publicized. Everyone has their own crazy theories about why it is that blacks are disadvantaged in our society. Massey and Denton show it’s much more obvious than any of that: they’re victims of extreme segregation, with all the negative effects that entails. An absolutely brilliant book.”


The Exile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New
Matt Taibbi & Mark Ames
“Matt Taibbi is my favorite political journalist. He writes with a raw honesty that manages to be both politically biting and hilarious. This book tells the story of how, after playing professional basketball in Inner Mongolia, [he] met up with [eXile] co-founder Mark Ames and started an independent newspaper that danced in the flames of Russia’s dying society. The result is a strange and incredible book: stories of seedy dive bars full of drugged-up loose women, intermixed with incredible feats of investigative journalism into the oligarchs dragging Russia down—without any change in tone. It’s wonderful.”


The Liberal Defence of Murder
Richard Seymour
“This book is like a little miracle. I’m not even sure how to describe it, except to say that it turns one’s understanding of history completely upside-down.”


The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man
David W. Maurer
“Luc Sante’s intro alone is worth the price of the book, but the rest of the book is fantastic as well. Everyone should know about con men.”


Peddling Prosperity
Paul Krugman
“Probably Krugman’s best book, it provides a throughly enjoyable and enlightening intellectual overview of the economics of the 1980s and 1990s. The delicious takedown of supply-siders is worth the book alone, but the rest is great too.”


Making Comics
Scott McCloud
“Any Scott McCloud book is a treasure, but this one is especially probing. Essentially, McCloud asks what it is a writer does and what it takes to be a good one. His medium is comics, but a lot of the rules are applicable to other formats, and it’s hard to imagine a book this curious or this well-written about them.”


Indefensible: One Lawyer’s Journey into the…
David Feige
“Being a public defender is a fairly interesting job, but David Feige manages to make it downright fascinating in this in-depth description of his career. Feige describes his life in luscious detail, from the urine on his doorstep to the gritty details of the courtroom, and doesn’t hesitate to name names or dig into unpleasant subjects. If only there was a book this good on every career.”


Sammy’s Hill
Kristen Gore
“Yes, I have a weakness for chick lit.”


Down and Out in Paris and London
George Orwell
“The original Nickel and Dimed, Orwell lives as a plonguer and a tramp in Paris and London respectively. The descriptions of such poor conditions are typically riveting and a great deal of fascinating reflection is included throughout.”


Which Side Are You on?: Trying to Be for Labor
Thomas Geoghegan
“One would think a book on labor history would be dreadfully dull and, more to the point, depressing. And yet, in the first chapter of this book, I found something that made me laugh or smile widely on practically every page. My friend Rick Perlstein got me to read this book by telling me it was ‘the best political book of the last 15 years[—]the best book of the last 15 years.’ (He’s since taken me to meet Geoghegan several times.) It’s hard to imagine a book more important and touching.”


Small World
David Lodge
“A strong, fun novel, packed with interesting ideas and characters and gimmicks, telling the story of people I love to read about: jet setting academics. I’m normally not one for novels, but I have to admit it: Lodge makes it work. My only caveat is that this is part of a trilogy and one should probably read the first book, Changing Places, first, since later books refer back.”


Adrian Tomine
“Short, meaningful, and elegant. More than you could reasonably expect from such a book.”


Starting Out in the Evening
Brian Morton
“I read this entire novel in one sitting and it touched me in a profound way. It asks what it means to dedicate your life to writing, by looking at four people who come together, each of which has taken a different position in the New York intellectual scene. It’s also recently out at a film, which is a very bizarre experience to watch, because the book takes place almost entirely in the characters’ heads while the film will have none of that and only shows the brute actions. I’m not sure other people will have the same experience I did, but as a writer I found this book very powerful.”


In Persuasion Nation
George Saunders
“I have to be honest with you. I’m not really one for science fiction. Indeed, I’m not a big fan of fiction in general. But George Saunders is different: I’ll read just about anything by him. Saunders’ stories manage to combine a whimsically-imagined future, biting critique of our present era, along with a use of language so delightfully varied that one wonders how one man can have such control over his authorial voice.”


The Prince of the Marshes
Rory Stewart
“I occasionally have this fantasy, while reading the news, that whatever person I’m reading about has been fired and, through some miraculous fluke, I have been given their job. Would I make a hash of it? Or, would by naive mind and outsider’s expertise allow me to do it in a fascinating new way? In this book, Rory Stewart describes what happened when he was made a colonial governor of a province in Iraq. Brilliant fellow that he is, he does a remarkably good job all things considered, but also writes a questioning, soul-searching, fascinating book about the experience that highlights what an impossible task it really is.”


False Profits
Dean Baker
“A short, clear book on why the economy failed, who did it, and how to set it right by someone who was absolutely right about it all along. If you only want to read one book about the economic crisis, this would be an excellent choice.”


Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself
David Lipsky
“DFW is delightful and witty and it’s fascinating to see how much of his linguistic creativity and charm wasn’t the result of any special effort but simply his natural form of speech. He must have been such a delight to spend time with.”


The Industrial Worker, 1840-1860
Norman Ware
“A fascinating history about how mill girls and shoemakers invented socialism and fought for it in the early days of the republic, before Jefferson’s dream of independent men was crushed by the onslaught of industrialization.”


Five Thousand B.C. and Other Philosophical
Raymond Smullyvan
“In this bizarrely delightful little book, Smullyan, the famed recreational logician, addresses topics from the annoyances on long car rides to the most difficult problems in philosophy, often at once, using stories that are so delightfully amusing that it seems hard to believe they could have any educational value.”


Consider the Lobster
David Foster Wallace
“DFW’s suicide hit me very hard. I ended up coping by reading every piece of nonfiction he’d ever published. He was a brilliant, tortured man and I see so much of myself in him. His nonfiction was fantastic and I will consider my life a success if I can do half of what he did.”

This article originally appeared on Zola Books.







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