Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

September 20, 2017

Books you look at but don’t buy

Filed under: Books — Razib Khan @ 11:14 pm

A little while ago I was curious about the books people looked at through my links which they nevertheless did not buy. More precisely I was looking at a 90 day interval. The top book people clicked but did not buy was Introduction to Quantitative Genetics. I know this is an expensive book, but if you can afford it you should buy and it read it. The reasoning is that quantitative genetics is no longer an abstruse topic, as I’m seeing economists conflate correlation of traits between relatives and narrow sense heritability. People have opinions on this topic. Loads.

If you talk about regression to the mean, but barely understand how it works, perhaps you should read Introduction to Quantitative Genetics.

Here the remaining of the top 15 (in order from most clicked to least):

The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey
The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible
Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate. This is a good book. I’ve read it three times.
The History and Geography of Human Genes
George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones 5-Book Boxed Set
Principles of Population Genetics. Really readers? This is why more of you are not HWE aware….
Adaptation and Natural Selection
The Nurture Assumption
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
In Gods We Trust
Sewall Wright and Evolutionary Biology

Also, I can go back to 2014. Looking over 90 days from 2014, 2015 and 2016, here are the top 15:

2014 2015 2016
Principles of Population Genetics Freedom at Midnight The Great Ordeal
In Gods We Trust Power and Plenty Sex Segregation in Sports
The Bible with Sources Revealed Why Sex Matters The Dialectical Imagination
Why Sex Matters The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics The History and Geography of Human Genes
The Transparent Society The Mating Mind Python for Data Analysis
The First Man in Rome Mutants Plagues and Peoples
The Barbarian Conversion In Gods We Trust Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language
Nature’s God 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
Introduction to Quantitative Genetics A History of the Byzantine State and Society Why Sex Matters
The Rise of Western Christendom Principles of Population Genetics Taboo
The Great Arab Conquests The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey Design Patterns
Religion Explained A Concise Economic History of the World A Beautiful Math 
The Nurture Assumption The Man Who Would Be King and Other Stories The Great Human Diasporas
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus The Genetics of Human Populations The Seven Daughters of Eve
The Invisible Gorilla A Beautiful Math   Calculus Made Easy

Why Sex Matters has always been a book that gets a lot of clicks. I think it is the title. But it’s rather old now, and on an old fashioned topic: sex differences. Totally milquetoast in the 2000s, but probably very problematic today….

September 16, 2017

The survivorship bias in book ratings

Filed under: Books — Razib Khan @ 5:46 pm

Just finished The Fortunes of Africa: A 5000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor by Martin Meredith, and gave it 4 out of 5 stars on GoodReads. At nearly 700 pages of narrative text The Fortunes of Africa is not a small book, but it’s pretty dense with fact and a “quick read”. The author is good at balancing narrative flow with packing a lot of information into any given page.

But as I rated the book I realized that the vast majority of my ratings are 4 out of 5. I reserve 5’s for really good books. But why so few ratings less than 4? Obviously, this is due to survivorship bias: in general, I’m not going to finish a book that I don’t like, and I won’t rate books that I don’t finish.

Additionally, the longer a book is, the better it probably has to be for me to finish it. If it is a short book (less than 200 pages) I may just push all the way through, but in general anything longer and I won’t read “cover-to-cover.” When I was younger I would sample chapters and such, but for whatever reason as I’ve gotten older I generally adhere to the sequential structure as envisioned by the author.

Of course there are exceptions. Stephen Jay Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory is very long. In general I did not really enjoy reading it (though it has its moments, in particular when it comes to history of science), but finish it I did. I read The Structure of Evolutionary Theory in full because it was Gould’s magnum opus, and the best place to get a sense of his thought without ploughing through his whole oeuvre. Though I did not think much of Gould’s ideas personally (few people with an evolutionary genetics orientation do), he was objectively an intellectual of some standing and influence, so it is useful to understand his thought. He mattered, for better or worse.

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory was Stephen Jay Gould’s last book (he died two months after it was published). He had become such an enormous public intellectual that he was clearly beyond the power of any editors to control his prose flourishes. It’s a prolix repetitious work (I read Wonderful Life more recently, and it benefited from being more tightly written).

In contrast when I read The Twilight of Atheism Alister McGrath I thought it was a decently well written book, but totally unpersuasive on the merits of the substance. But after ten years I think descriptively McGrath was right in some deep ways. So I’d probably change my rating of this book between then and now.

So categories of books I read all the way through:

  • Books I enjoy. I’ve read The Fall of Rome three times. I’ve only read The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection front to back a few times, but some chapters (especially the earlier ones) I’ve read many times.
  • Books which are important. I’ve read probably two dozen translations of Genesis in my life (it’s a short book when standalone, so not a big achievement). A lot of the religious stuff I read is because religion is so important to people, even if it isn’t important to me. Honestly, the same with a lot of philosophy.
  • Books which challenge my viewpoints in a substantive sense. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory and The Twilight of Atheism fall into these categories. I was a much more doctrinaire libertarian when I read Michael Parenti’s Blackshirts and Reds, which engaged some apologia for Marxist-Leninism.

April 16, 2017

The Warlord Chronicles

Filed under: Books — Razib Khan @ 11:42 pm

The Winter is Coming website has a post up, What books should you read as you wait for The Winds of Winter? (The Winds of Winter is the next Song of Ice and Fire book).

I don’t have much time for fiction at this point, but the first entry that they suggested was Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles. This is a very dark, gritty, and realistic, retelling of the Arthurian legend, written in a fashion more reminiscent of historical fiction than fantasy. I read this series perhaps a year after first reading Game of Thrones, and was struck by similarities of tone.

As it happened this was before George R. R. Martin was quite as famous, and I emailed him at some point in 2000 about various issues relating to his works and inspirations, and asked him about Cornwell’s series. Martin admitted that he was a huge fan, and appreciated that there were similarities of style and tone.

In any case, I second this recommendation. Warlord Chronicles is not the most easy read…but worth it.

April 3, 2017

The year shall belong to those who finish

Filed under: Books,Fantasy — Razib Khan @ 11:53 pm

Seeing as how I have three children, I don’t think I’m admitting my virginity when I admit that I am mildly excited that Brandon Sanderson’s third volume of his ten volume The Way of Kings, Oathbringer, is coming out in the fall.

Sanderson writes at a fast clip and finishes lots of books. Yes, his prose doesn’t stay with you like that of some other fantasists. But after all the years waiting for the next volume of Song of Ice and Fire, there’s something to be said for actually delivering something to the public.

Not that I myself get through many works of fiction per year anymore. I’ve had The Wise Man’s Fear on my Kindle for seven years now. I keep waiting for the final entry so I can just finish the last two in one sitting. And yes, there’s Seveneves. All in good time….

November 27, 2016

Top Books Purchased Through This Site

Filed under: Books,Miscellaneous — Razib Khan @ 6:13 pm
So I have an Amazon referrer account. I've had one since 2003. Pretty much I use it to get money when people buy books (or other items) through links here. It's a non-trivial, though not princely, sum of money. Especially since it's passive. These are books I've read and want to talk about anyhow (usually...

Top books purchased through this site

Filed under: Books,Miscellaneous — Razib Khan @ 4:54 pm

51OftfuYlSL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_So I have an Amazon referrer account. I’ve had one since 2003. Pretty much I use it to get money when people buy books (or other items) through links here. It’s a non-trivial, though not princely, sum of money. Especially since it’s passive. These are books I’ve read and want to talk about anyhow (usually around Christmas someone follows a book link, and ends up purchasing a computer or two, which is a way of “supporting my work” that I can get behind).

But one of the more interesting side effects is that I can see what my readers are buying (or if they are). For example, it heartens me when I see someone purchase Principles of Population Genetics. That means “I’m making a difference,” as I doubt that these are advanced undergraduates or graduate students. An interesting aspect is that I can see what interests people in terms of “clickbait”, before clickbait was a thing. Bobbi S. Low’s Why Sex Matters routinely gets a lot of clicks because of the title, despite the fact that I don’t flog it. In contrast, In Gods We Trust gets a lot of clicks because I tell people to read it to understand my thinking on religious phenomena.

51gYdVvOoQL._SX379_BO1,204,203,200_As the year ends I like to tally books people have ordered. It turns out that the most purchased book through this website for the year leading into December is The Monkey’s Voyage: How Improbable Journeys Shaped the History of Life. For Kindle, it’s Congo: The Epic History of a People.

Another category is conversion rate. In relation to number of clicks what proportion purchase. Tops for the books in that category is Bioinformatics Data Skills: Reproducible and Robust Research with Open Source Tools. My personal experience is that for technical books many people still prefer print for physicality and rendering of figures and graphs. For Kindle the highest conversion was Intelligence: All That Matters and Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. I think there was a “daily deal” or something at one point, and that prompted many purchases of the latter.

1846077Finally, there are books I see which I didn’t recommend, and didn’t know about. An intriguing one off this list is Barry Cunliffe’s By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia. The main issue I’ve had with Cunliffe’s work of late is that he doesn’t seem to be reading enough of the Reich/Willerslev duopoly’s papers. Not that everyone has time to engage in such primary literature diving, but at this point you’re remiss if you write about archaeology and don’t include genetics. Unfortunately a search inside doesn’t indicate that By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean is DNA-heavy, but sometimes you take history and archaeology on its own terms and integrate them into your overall model of the world, rather than having someone else do that for you….

Top books purchased through this site

Filed under: Books,Miscellaneous — Razib Khan @ 4:54 pm

51OftfuYlSL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_So I have an Amazon referrer account. I’ve had one since 2003. Pretty much I use it to get money when people buy books (or other items) through links here. It’s a non-trivial, though not princely, sum of money. Especially since it’s passive. These are books I’ve read and want to talk about anyhow (usually around Christmas someone follows a book link, and ends up purchasing a computer or two, which is a way of “supporting my work” that I can get behind).

But one of the more interesting side effects is that I can see what my readers are buying (or if they are). For example, it heartens me when I see someone purchase Principles of Population Genetics. That means “I’m making a difference,” as I doubt that these are advanced undergraduates or graduate students. An interesting aspect is that I can see what interests people in terms of “clickbait”, before clickbait was a thing. Bobbi S. Low’s Why Sex Matters routinely gets a lot of clicks because of the title, despite the fact that I don’t flog it. In contrast, In Gods We Trust gets a lot of clicks because I tell people to read it to understand my thinking on religious phenomena.

51gYdVvOoQL._SX379_BO1,204,203,200_As the year ends I like to tally books people have ordered. It turns out that the most purchased book through this website for the year leading into December is The Monkey’s Voyage: How Improbable Journeys Shaped the History of Life. For Kindle, it’s Congo: The Epic History of a People.

Another category is conversion rate. In relation to number of clicks what proportion purchase. Tops for the books in that category is Bioinformatics Data Skills: Reproducible and Robust Research with Open Source Tools. My personal experience is that for technical books many people still prefer print for physicality and rendering of figures and graphs. For Kindle the highest conversion was Intelligence: All That Matters and Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. I think there was a “daily deal” or something at one point, and that prompted many purchases of the latter.

1846077Finally, there are books I see which I didn’t recommend, and didn’t know about. An intriguing one off this list is Barry Cunliffe’s By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia. The main issue I’ve had with Cunliffe’s work of late is that he doesn’t seem to be reading enough of the Reich/Willerslev duopoly’s papers. Not that everyone has time to engage in such primary literature diving, but at this point you’re remiss if you write about archaeology and don’t include genetics. Unfortunately a search inside doesn’t indicate that By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean is DNA-heavy, but sometimes you take history and archaeology on its own terms and integrate them into your overall model of the world, rather than having someone else do that for you….

Top books purchased through this site

Filed under: Books,Miscellaneous — Razib Khan @ 4:54 pm

51OftfuYlSL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_So I have an Amazon referrer account. I’ve had one since 2003. Pretty much I use it to get money when people buy books (or other items) through links here. It’s a non-trivial, though not princely, sum of money. Especially since it’s passive. These are books I’ve read and want to talk about anyhow (usually around Christmas someone follows a book link, and ends up purchasing a computer or two, which is a way of “supporting my work” that I can get behind).

But one of the more interesting side effects is that I can see what my readers are buying (or if they are). For example, it heartens me when I see someone purchase Principles of Population Genetics. That means “I’m making a difference,” as I doubt that these are advanced undergraduates or graduate students. An interesting aspect is that I can see what interests people in terms of “clickbait”, before clickbait was a thing. Bobbi S. Low’s Why Sex Matters routinely gets a lot of clicks because of the title, despite the fact that I don’t flog it. In contrast, In Gods We Trust gets a lot of clicks because I tell people to read it to understand my thinking on religious phenomena.

51gYdVvOoQL._SX379_BO1,204,203,200_As the year ends I like to tally books people have ordered. It turns out that the most purchased book through this website for the year leading into December is The Monkey’s Voyage: How Improbable Journeys Shaped the History of Life. For Kindle, it’s Congo: The Epic History of a People.

Another category is conversion rate. In relation to number of clicks what proportion purchase. Tops for the books in that category is Bioinformatics Data Skills: Reproducible and Robust Research with Open Source Tools. My personal experience is that for technical books many people still prefer print for physicality and rendering of figures and graphs. For Kindle the highest conversion was Intelligence: All That Matters and Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. I think there was a “daily deal” or something at one point, and that prompted many purchases of the latter.

1846077Finally, there are books I see which I didn’t recommend, and didn’t know about. An intriguing one off this list is Barry Cunliffe’s By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia. The main issue I’ve had with Cunliffe’s work of late is that he doesn’t seem to be reading enough of the Reich/Willerslev duopoly’s papers. Not that everyone has time to engage in such primary literature diving, but at this point you’re remiss if you write about archaeology and don’t include genetics. Unfortunately a search inside doesn’t indicate that By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean is DNA-heavy, but sometimes you take history and archaeology on its own terms and integrate them into your overall model of the world, rather than having someone else do that for you….

Top books purchased through this site

Filed under: Books,Miscellaneous — Razib Khan @ 4:54 pm

51OftfuYlSL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_So I have an Amazon referrer account. I’ve had one since 2003. Pretty much I use it to get money when people buy books (or other items) through links here. It’s a non-trivial, though not princely, sum of money. Especially since it’s passive. These are books I’ve read and want to talk about anyhow (usually around Christmas someone follows a book link, and ends up purchasing a computer or two, which is a way of “supporting my work” that I can get behind).

But one of the more interesting side effects is that I can see what my readers are buying (or if they are). For example, it heartens me when I see someone purchase Principles of Population Genetics. That means “I’m making a difference,” as I doubt that these are advanced undergraduates or graduate students. An interesting aspect is that I can see what interests people in terms of “clickbait”, before clickbait was a thing. Bobbi S. Low’s Why Sex Matters routinely gets a lot of clicks because of the title, despite the fact that I don’t flog it. In contrast, In Gods We Trust gets a lot of clicks because I tell people to read it to understand my thinking on religious phenomena.

51gYdVvOoQL._SX379_BO1,204,203,200_As the year ends I like to tally books people have ordered. It turns out that the most purchased book through this website for the year leading into December is The Monkey’s Voyage: How Improbable Journeys Shaped the History of Life. For Kindle, it’s Congo: The Epic History of a People.

Another category is conversion rate. In relation to number of clicks what proportion purchase. Tops for the books in that category is Bioinformatics Data Skills: Reproducible and Robust Research with Open Source Tools. My personal experience is that for technical books many people still prefer print for physicality and rendering of figures and graphs. For Kindle the highest conversion was Intelligence: All That Matters and Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. I think there was a “daily deal” or something at one point, and that prompted many purchases of the latter.

1846077Finally, there are books I see which I didn’t recommend, and didn’t know about. An intriguing one off this list is Barry Cunliffe’s By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia. The main issue I’ve had with Cunliffe’s work of late is that he doesn’t seem to be reading enough of the Reich/Willerslev duopoly’s papers. Not that everyone has time to engage in such primary literature diving, but at this point you’re remiss if you write about archaeology and don’t include genetics. Unfortunately a search inside doesn’t indicate that By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean is DNA-heavy, but sometimes you take history and archaeology on its own terms and integrate them into your overall model of the world, rather than having someone else do that for you….

January 5, 2013

The future is e-books!

Filed under: Books,Culture,e-books — Razib Khan @ 4:12 pm

Nicholas G. Carr, purveyor of high-brow neo-ludditism and archeo-utopianism, has a piece out in The Wall Street Journal, Don’t Burn Your Books—Print Is Here to Stay. The subtitle is “The e-book had its moment, but sales are slowing. Readers still want to turn those crisp, bound pages.” Here are some of his rancid chestnuts of un-wisdom:

… Hardcover books are displaying surprising resiliency. The growth in e-book sales is slowing markedly. And purchases of e-readers are actually shrinking, as consumers opt instead for multipurpose tablets. It may be that e-books, rather than replacing printed books, will ultimately serve a role more like that of audio books—a complement to traditional reading, not a substitute.

What’s more, the Association of American Publishers reported that the annual growth rate for e-book sales fell abruptly during 2012, to about 34%. That’s still a healthy clip, but it is a sharp decline from the triple-digit growth rates of the preceding four years.

The initial e-book explosion is starting to look like an aberration… 2012 survey by Bowker Market Research revealed that just 16% of Americans have actually purchased an e-book and that a whopping 59% say they have “no interest” in buying one.

From the start, e-book purchases have skewed disproportionately toward fiction, with novels representing close to two-thirds of sales…Screen reading seems particularly well-suited to the kind of light entertainments that have traditionally been sold in supermarkets and airports as mass-market paperbacks.

Readers of weightier fare, including literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, have been less inclined to go digital. They seem to prefer the heft and durability, the tactile pleasures, of what we still call “real books”—the kind you can set on a shelf.

…In fact, according to Pew, nearly 90% of e-book readers continue to read physical volumes. The two forms seem to serve different purposes.

Having survived 500 years of technological upheaval, Gutenberg’s invention may withstand the digital onslaught as well. There’s something about a crisply printed, tightly bound book that we don’t seem eager to let go of.

An immediate issue with this op-ed is that it engages in shell games with quantities. Starting from a baseline of zero a new technology will undergo incredible rates of initial growth in adoption. But this will level off rather quickly. A 34% rate is still indeed healthy, and a sign I think that the explosive phase is giving way to robust and expansionary growth as the market slouches toward maturation. Other data in the piece seem to me to be irrelevant red-herrings. People who read e-books tend to be readers, so naturally one would expect that they read physical books. Most people with e-books have extensive personal libraries, and many works which they already own are not in e-book formats, or, are expensive in e-book formats (e.g., I have textbooks which I purchased for more than $100, which are discounted 50% for e-books, so they still come in at $60!). Additionally, asking all Americans about reading is rather misleading. A small proportion of the public are intense readers, with most being casual at best, if they read at all.
To the left is a figure I generated from an AP/IPSOS survey on American book reading habits in 2006. As it is a self-report this probably overestimates the reading habits of the general public, as well as the nature of what they read. 25% of Americans admitted reading no books in a year, while the median number of books read was 6.5. This I think gets at the heart of why e-books aren’t as popular as you might expect: books are’t that popular! The typical entry-level e-reader runs in the $50 to $100 range. This initial fixed cost is heavily subsidized because the makers of these devices want you to purchase content from them. But consider that the average American reads on the order of 5 books a year.  And Daniel McCarthy brings up the important issue that you need to analyze the trends across age cohorts; most readers are older, but most future readers are not going to be from the older cohorts. Some of these books that people read are likely to be relatively cheap mass market paperbacks or library books, but assuming on average $20 per book, the expenditure of Americans on new books per year is going to be about the same as an e-reader. These devices are not without hassle or risk, they break or malfunction, and, there are the notorious issues with digital rights.

So why e-books? Interestingly Carr asserts those who read more “serious” books prefer the physical medium. I’d like to see more analysis of this. Certainly I am of the opposite opinion. Though I don’t read mass market science fiction or fantasy paperbacks anymore, these $8 purchases are the sort which I would run through once, never to revisit. I don’t need to have something in my digital library if I never revisit it. This is in contrast to meatier references and classics. But for someone who reads a lot one of the biggest hassles of physical books is storage and retrieval. I’m an avid user of libraries, and am assiduous about making a trip to the used book store every few years, but even I nevertheless have a relatively cumbersome collection of texts which I have to transport on every occasion that I move. In addition, any travel plans would often result in my deciding how many books I could stow before it became more of a nuisance than a boon.

Because I do much of my reading on a Kindle I’ve accrued a massive portable library of classics, most of which I purchased for a few dollars at most. I’d wager that the number of people who would actually read War and Peace all the way through (as opposed to being seen reading it, or mentioning offhand that they’re reading it) would be facilitated by its packaging in a less cumbersome format. Contrary to the waxing of someone like Nicholas Carr about the tactile physical experience of a book I’ve never enjoyed the fact that works of more than 500 pages tend to be unwieldy. This is not an abstract concern for me, I’m an intellectual generalist who has a taste for very expansive surveys on a variety of academic topics. Both A History of the Byzantine State and Society and The Structure of Evolutionary Theory would benefit from not being in a physical format (the latter is heavier than my laptop in hardcover!). Not only is the reading experience made difficult by the mass of the book, but the long term physical integrity of the work is often endangered by the reality that the number of pages tends to exceed the capacity of the binding of the spines.

What of the musty pleasures of the scroll?

Finally, there’s the issue of what e-books are in relation to various other forms of books, printed or audio. I think the analogy to audio books is totally ridiculous; e-books and printed books are fundamentally the same thing, only in somewhat different physical formats. Additionally, the printing press was a quantitative, not qualitative, change. It took the codex format, which attained popularity in late antiquity, and elevated it to the level of mass industrial production. The big change in qualitative formatting was the move from the scroll to the book over 1,000 years earlier. Prior to this there was the shift from the antique Near Eastern forms of writing, such as cuneiform or hieroglyph on heavy non-portable medium, to alphabetic script on papyrus. The alphabets packaged in a light scroll allowed for literacy to be more broadly accessible to the higher orders of society, rather than just the specialized vocation of a scribal class. Reading has always been subject to periodic revolution. I am dismayed by the fixation of some on the physical medium of the book, as opposed to the information content of the book. If the smell of paper and the tactile experience of a hardcover jacket is so critical, then I think consumers of text are missing the point somewhat. Frankly, it makes me think that the term “book slut” is more than metaphorical. Many of the lovers of the physical porn linger longingly upon vivid descriptions of smell and texture of the page in a manner which is reminiscent of what “food porn” factories such as the Food Network indulge in.

All that being said there are genuine concerns with the transition to e-books, in particular the scope of intellectual property, and the possibility of monopolistic domination of the sector by a firm such as Amazon. The struggles of the Nook should worry those who appreciate the spur and pressure which competition forces upon companies, though one must remember that e-book consumption occurs across a variety of platforms (e.g., I can read my Kindle books on the phone, computer, and Kindle, as well as tablets). A more substantive concern is the control which we cede to Amazon when we purchase e-books in their specific format. These are real difficulties which we need to address over the next decade, but I think they’re surmountable, and will be resolved. Information is too important to simply abdicate all control of the means of production to a few firms.

If Nicholas Carr truly believes what he’s saying, I’m curious if he’d be willing to make a bet on the market penetration of e-books in 2017. I suspect the reality is that op-eds such as this are expressions of his sentiment and preference, not a genuine prediction rooted in an understanding of how the world is, as opposed to how an individual might want the world to be.

Addendum: Unlike CDs I believe that physical printed books will persist for the indefinite future. There are some works which are important references where I think many people will want to have in physical format not tied into technology and stored in a cloud. But, the number of these works will be small, and most people will not have any physical books aside from the Bible or a religious text, which has sacred value. Interestingly this will result in a physical reversion to the state of affairs of a few hundred years ago, when for most households the only book might have been of a religious nature.

December 21, 2012

Holiday reading

Filed under: Books — Razib Khan @ 11:49 am

Christmas is a time when I accelerate my reading, and catch-up for lost time. Here’s my three books I plan to get through:

The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. I’ve read this twice already. This short book has been one of the most influential works in my own personal thinking. Even if you don’t agree with the thrust of Bryan Ward-Perkins’ thesis, it will clarify your own position.

Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. The author, Peter Brown, is the modern day eminence on ‘Late Antiquity’. I’ve read many of his earlier works, and always found his exposition enjoyable. But I’m re-reading The Fall of Rome in part to have a good counterpoint in my head to Brown’s arguments, which are subtle and difficult to box in (for what it’s worth, I think Brown makes a bit too much of Late Antiquity, but to some extent this is a normative judgement).

The Founders of Evolutionary Genetics: A Centenary Reappraisal. This is an exciting time to be interested in evolution and genetics (see Haldane’s Sieve and prepare to be overwhelmed!). But I also think it is useful to have some historical perspective. Science is a human enterprise, and it is critical to step outside of the flowing river, and observe the parameters which shaped its past course and trajectory, and therefore where it may be going.

With that, an “open thread” for what you are reading, and why.

Note: The comments systems should be improved in the near future. Or so I’m told.

July 31, 2012

Gore Vidal

Filed under: Books,Gore Vidal — Razib Khan @ 8:36 pm

Gore Vidal has died. As a younger man I found his heterodox views bracing, but I would commend to readers two books Vidal wrote which I feel often get forgotten in the shadow of his American historical novels, Creation and Julian. As a polemicist one must always view Vidal’s claims of fact with some suspicion (granted, I suspect I’m in more sympathy with some of his interpretations of history than most), but his historical fiction can rise above such a critique.

June 25, 2012

Brown books

Filed under: Books — Razib Khan @ 10:32 pm

Since I have some time to read again, I thought I’d ask for brown related books which might be of interest. Here are some I’ve enjoyed in the past….

India: A History

In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India

The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity

The Hindus: An Alternative History

The Mughal Throne: The Saga of India’s Great Emperors

The Rig Veda

Self-Knowledge: Sankara’s “Atmabodha”

Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300

The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760

Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India

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December 17, 2011

Christmas reading

Filed under: Books — Razib Khan @ 9:53 pm

With some leisure, I plan to read a bit. Here is my tentative “stack”:

- The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

- Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East, 1750-1850

- Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding

- Mirroring the Past: The Writing And Use of History in Imperial China

- Meditations

- Consolation of Philosophy

I also plan on browsing more of Brian and Deborah Charlesworth’s magisterial Elements of Evolutionary Genetics , and my friend Joel Grus’ Thinking Spreadsheet. I’m skeptical that I would prioritize fiction, but if I manage to read some, I’ll try and finish The Sacred Band, the last in David Anthony Durham’s Acacia trilogy.

What are you reading for the holidays? (and if you aren’t reading for the holidays, why are you spending your marginal time reading this blog!)

November 13, 2011

What are you reading?

Filed under: Blog,Books,Kindle — Razib Khan @ 10:12 pm

I haven’t had time to read a book front to back in 2 months. Probably the longest period I’ve gone like this since I was 13. I plan to “binge” as much as I can over the Holidays. Is there anything interesting you’re reading? And yes, I already have The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined on my Kindle.

October 16, 2011

The history of the world!

Filed under: Books,History — Razib Khan @ 1:22 am

My post from last week, Relative angels and absolute demons, got a lot of circulation. Interestingly I received several emails from self-described lurkers who asked me for recommendations on world history, with a particular thought to rectify deficiencies in non-European history. These were people who were not looking for exceedingly abstruse monographs. Below are some suggestions….


China: A History. The author is a journalist, so this should be a starting off point, as there are major shortcomings in the narrative. But if you don’t have much background I’d recommend this.

India: A History. Same author as above, same strengths and weaknesses.

China: A New History, Enlarged Edition. A classic survey. Nothing to shout home about, but useful (if sometimes thin and dated).

Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300. The author is hated by many Hindu nationalists, but the period is old enough that much of the controversy is not relevant to this work.

When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World. A narrative history of the dynasty which crystallized much of Islam as we understand it.

Empires of the Silk Road. This is more a magnum opus, but it’s not a dry one. It can help “connect” the histories of the peripheral zones of the Eurasian ecumene.

A History of Iran. Iran is a small country, but its location is such that an understanding of it’s history can illuminate a great deal.

Power and Plenty. An economic history of the past 1,000 years.

After Tamerlane. The past 600 years. Becomes progressively more Eurocentric, as it should.

The Early Chinese Empires. This is not a long book, and it gives you a sense of what China was like before foreign influences (e.g., Buddhism).

The Classical World. Most people know very little of Western antiquity.

God’s War. This history of the Crusades ranges from the Baltic to Egypt. It has a wide enough spatial and temporal coverage to be a world history.

The Peacock Throne. To some extent this treatment of Mughal India almost seems out of Bollywood in terms of its dramatic nature. But then again the Timurids provide great raw material.

Africa. The title is short, but the yield is long.

1491. Many people know everything in this book, but too few still.

A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000 – 323 BC. This is an understudied subject. You need this to see long term patterns which began only with the Classical Greeks.

The Rise of Western Christendom. You can’t understand the core of antiquity and the roots of the Middle Ages without this book.

The Human Web. A world history co-authored by one of the masters, William H. McNeill.

That’s all for now. I haven’t updated it in a while, but you might want to check out Razib on books.

June 29, 2011

No bookstores in Nashville?

Filed under: Books — Razib Khan @ 3:19 pm

That’s what Ann Patchett is claiming. More specifically, there are no bricks & mortar institutions which specialize in selling new books. There are places you can get used books in the city of Nashville. To remedy the situation Patchett is opening up a bookstore herself. She asserts that “…we’ve got to get back to a 3000-square-foot store and not 30,000. Amazon is always going to have everything – you can’t compete with that. But there is, I believe, still a place for a store where people read books.”

I recall going to a Barnes & Noble when I was in Nashville in the summer of 2004. Here’s some demographic data: “As of the 2010 census, the balance population was 601,222. The 2000 population was 545,524.” The details here are a bit muddy because parts of Davidson county are included with the Nashville total, but you get a general sense of how substantial the population of this city is. As a point of comparison Eugene, OR, has a population of 156,185, and 29 Yelp hits for bookstores. Nashville has 46 results.

Back to Patchett’s claim, I think there is something there. I don’t know how it’s ...

June 13, 2011

Harriet Klausner, a one woman content-mill!

Filed under: Book reviews,Books,Harriet Klausner — Razib Khan @ 1:14 pm

On occasion I browse through books on Amazon with an eye for really good negative reviews. The other day I stumbled upon a really strange positive review of the awful fantasist David Bilsborough. It was confusing to me to see 4 out of 5 stars for this author, but the “review” was even more perplexing:

In the tunnels under the mountains of Eotunlandt, Nibulus leads the Questor survivors of the battles as they struggle to reach the surface where they expect their enemies the Thieves will attack them en masse. Instead when they finally reach the outside, no one eerily awaits to ambush them.

This is a direct sequel to The Wanderer’s Tale that takes time to get started as the various key players and their allies are established for new readers. Once the action accelerates there is no slowing down as this military fantasy goes into hyperspeed with confrontations seemingly everywhere. With all the various armies at war and new leaders and heroes emerging, A FIRE IN THE NORTH still pares down to the destined Wanderer. He remains the only one who can save an apathetic prosperous world from the malevolent Drauglir and the wicked necromancer Scathur as The ...

May 26, 2011

The revolution swallowing Powell’s Books?

Filed under: Books,Culture,Powell's Books — Razib Khan @ 11:14 pm

A friend asked me today if I thought that Powell’s would be around a year from now. I had no idea what he was referring to. By that, I don’t mean that I didn’t know he was referring to Powell’s Books of Portland. I mean that I had no idea that Powell’s was in any trouble. I thought of Powell’s as an institution which could weather any shocks, its huge selection and special experience giving it an edge over other independent booksellers (and even over Barnes & Noble and Borders). The main Powell’s store covers a full city block, 1.6 acres. The total inventory of the company is at 4 million books (new, used, etc.). The downtown Portland location can be overwhelming and all consuming. And I have many fond memories of the Powell’s in the Hawthorne District from when I lived in Portland in 2002. In fact, between 2000-2005 I purchased quite a few books at the main location, as well as at Powell’s Technical. Despite not living in Portland for most of that period, I regularly visited, and always made a point to get lost at ...

May 20, 2011

Brown books

Filed under: Books — Razib Khan @ 10:55 pm

Currently reading William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. Whenever I read about Indian religious practice and belief in its elaborated detail I feel like I’m perusing the appendix to The Lord of the Rings. I’m also going to buy the Kindle version of A Convergence of Civilizations: The Transformation of Muslim Societies Around the World next week when it comes out. Looks to be mostly non-brown, but who knows? Whenever I read about the religion of Islam as practiced by its more “puritanical” partisans (think Salafis) I’m more put in the mode of the world of a dystopian science fiction novel.

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