The best books about how the world really works

Seth Dickinson Author Of The Traitor Baru Cormorant
By Seth Dickinson

Who am I?

As a writer, I’m much more interested in characters who want to change the world than those who want to defend the status quo. In popular storytelling, villains are usually the ones who want to radically remake everything. But as we hurtle towards a climate catastrophe that threatens to undo so much of our growth as a species, it’s clear that we need heroes in favor of radical change now. And you can’t make good change without understanding what you’re changing. Despite all the books I’ve recommended here about the failures of our own cognition – I think our only chance to make a better world is to figure out how the world operates and where we’re going wrong.

I wrote...

The Traitor Baru Cormorant

By Seth Dickinson,

Book cover of The Traitor Baru Cormorant

What is my book about?

Game of Thrones meets Guns, Germs, and Steel. When the Empire of Masks arrives to colonize her island home, young Baru Cormorant fights back the only way she can. She joins the Imperial civil service and devotes herself to destroying them from within.

As a final test of her loyalty, Baru is dispatched to infiltrate and destroy the rebels in the seditious province of Aurdwynn – using only the art of high finance. But the rebel duchess Tain Hu is dangerously intriguing. And even as she manipulates Aurdwynn into civil war, Baru finds herself trapped between her own ruthless ambition and her yearning for a woman she can never have.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter

Why did I love this book?

You probably think humans evolved because we’re so darn smart. I know I did. I was very wrong. We are far, far weirder than that. We are actually a sort of very slow hive mind. Henrich’s book challenges all the lies we tell ourselves – that innovation is good and following tradition is bad, that invention springs from a few brilliant minds, and that humans are individually smarter than animals.

If you’ve ever wondered why people seem so stubborn, so reluctant to adapt to new information, so mired in old ways and so sensitive to groupthink — it’s not because we’re stupid. It’s just because those were the tools that evolved us. This book is important to me, as a scientist and an anti-colonial writer, because it undoes the arrogant idea of 'progress' as the simple replacement of bad indigenous knowledge with good colonial science. It shows how ingeniously human beings adapt to their environments, and how much of human knowledge is stored in the cultures that modernity was eager to sterilize and destroy.

By Joseph Henrich,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Secret of Our Success as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Humans are a puzzling species. On the one hand, we struggle to survive on our own in the wild, often failing to overcome even basic challenges, like obtaining food, building shelters, or avoiding predators. On the other hand, human groups have produced ingenious technologies, sophisticated languages, and complex institutions that have permitted us to successfully expand into a vast range of diverse environments. What has enabled us to dominate the globe, more than any other species, while remaining virtually helpless as lone individuals? This book shows that the secret of our success lies not in our innate intelligence, but in…

Book cover of Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

Why did I love this book?

Have you ever wondered why we can’t just make the world better? Sure, we’ve made enormous strides in agriculture and medicine over the past few centuries. We can generate electricity and move around the world in a day. We can feed and heal people. But why haven’t we just sat down and figured out the right way to live? Planned it all out on a clean sheet, like an architect.

Seeing Like a State is a book about why it’s impossible for ambitious programs of top-down control to succeed, and why they so often end up with millions of people dead. The world is always more complicated than the maps you make of it, and in a lot of situations, it turns out that complexity matters. You can’t design and build the perfect city. You have to grow it.  

This book matters to me as an artist because it rebels against the current doctrine of fantasy writing – “your world needs to have rules that you completely understand.” No living world should be completely understood by its inhabitants. To seek perfect control over your own story is to kill it. A true fantasy world should constantly remind you that there is something numinous and wonderful in our inability to predict how everything works.

By James C. Scott, James C. Scott,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Seeing Like a State as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"One of the most profound and illuminating studies of this century to have been published in recent decades."-John Gray, New York Times Book Review

"A powerful, and in many insightful, explanation as to why grandiose programs of social reform, not to mention revolution, so often end in tragedy. . . . An important critique of visionary state planning."-Robert Heilbroner, Lingua Franca

Hailed as "a magisterial critique of top-down social planning" by the New York Times, this essential work analyzes disasters from Russia to Tanzania to uncover why states so often fail-sometimes catastrophically-in grand efforts to engineer their society or their…


By Peter Watts,

Book cover of Blindsight

Why did I love this book?

It is very, very rare to read a book that not only challenges your assumptions about how the universe works, but challenges assumptions you didn’t even know you had. Blindsight is a science fiction novel which asks a really simple question. Is it necessary to be conscious? Is it good to be conscious? Are human minds the only way an intelligent mind could operate, or are we a peculiar sort of mistake?

As we turn over more and more of our own decision-making to machine systems that don’t even pretend to be conscious, I think we need to figure out whether consciousness is actually coupled with intelligence, or whether it’s sort of an interesting but unhelpful accident that may be unique to us. Sagan said that ‘we are a way for the universe to know itself,’ which is a cheerful thought. But maybe most of the universe doesn’t know itself. Maybe we’re consciousness chauvinists in a cosmos full of intelligence without awareness.  

By Peter Watts,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Blindsight as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Two months have past since a myriad of alien objects clenched about the Earth, screaming as they burned. The heavens have been silent since until a derelict space probe hears whispers from a distant comet. Something talks out there: but not to us.Who should we send to meet the alien, when the alien doesn't want to meet?Send a linguist with multiple - personality disorder and a biologist so spliced with machinery that he can't feel his own flesh. Send a pacifist warrior and a vampire recalled from the grave by the voodoo of paleogenetics. Send a man with half his…

Book cover of Debt: The First 5,000 Years

Why did I love this book?

I was taught the classical story of money. In the beginning, we all used the barter system. After a while, we invented money as a middle ground to store value, so we could trade without actually having physical goods on hand to exchange. Then we figured out systems of finance like debt and credit to help our money do more. This is all a lie! 

Nowhere in the world did things ever happen this way; no society has ever practiced the stereotypical ‘barter system’ where the only way for me to buy your goat is to give you a pair of new shoes. Debt digs into the actual origin of money: as a way of tracking what we owe each other. People, it turns out, live in communities, and when people live together they like to do each other favors. I plow your field; you teach me how to prepare corn so I don’t give my children pellagra. Long before we had physical coins, we had the concept of ‘I owe you one.’

So if debt came before money, what does that tell us about humanity? Something profound, actually. One of the very basic questions in the study of evolution is ‘where did altruism come from?’ How can altruism evolve, if doing good things for other people comes at a cost to ourselves? Won’t altruists be taken advantage of? Well, debt is one of the answers we humans have discovered to this problem. Money may be the root of all evils, but debt have may have started out as a way to keep track of who’d done the most good – and who, therefore, deserved to receive good in turn.

By David Graeber,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Debt as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The groundbreaking international best-seller that turns everything you think about money, debt, and society on its head—from the “brilliant, deeply original political thinker” David Graeber (Rebecca Solnit, author of Men Explain Things to Me)
Before there was money, there was debt. For more than 5,000 years, since the beginnings of the first agrarian empires, humans have used elaborate credit systems to buy and sell goods—that is, long before the invention of coins or cash. It is in this era that we also first encounter a society divided into debtors and creditors—which lives on in full force to this day.


Book cover of The End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking)

Why did I love this book?

If you are interested in how the world works, you are probably interested in where it’s going. None of the end-of-the-universe scenarios described in this novel are guaranteed to happen, but they are all real possibilities — even if they’re so remote from our own lives as to be, essentially, future mythology.

This book is important to me on a surprisingly emotional level. Knowing that existence will one day end is a tremendous comfort to me. If that sounds pessimistic, remember that immortality and eternity both allow for the possibility of limitless suffering! In an infinite universe, there are many more ways to be unhappy than to be content – after all, the range of conditions in which we thrive is pretty narrow. Knowing that there’s a guarantee that we will end is, to me, a kind of grace. 

I don’t believe that death gives life meaning, or that there’s anything wrong with wanting to experience more of this immense universe than we’re allowed in one human lifespan. But it’s good to have an absolute promise that no bad thing will last forever.

By Katie Mack,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The End of Everything as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


'Weird science, explained beautifully' - John Scalzi

'A rollicking tour of the wildest physics. . . Like an animated discussion with your favourite quirky and brilliant professor' Leah Crane, New Scientist

From one of the most dynamic rising stars in astrophysics, an eye-opening look at five ways the universe could end, and the mind-blowing lessons each scenario reveals about the most important ideas in cosmology

We know the universe had a beginning. But what happens at the end of the story?…

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