The best non-fiction books that turn their topics upside down

Why am I passionate about this?

Software developers love to question the assumptions that underpin their practice. Some of the most exciting phases of my career have come about as a result of such questions. Often they are revolutionary in the literal sense that they ask you to turn your thinking upside down – to design systems from the bottom up rather than the top down, for example, or to write your tests before your components. I may not adopt every practice, but each challenge enriches the conceptual world in which I work. Over the years, I have come to look for similar shifts and inversions across other subject areas. Here are some recommendations from my reading.


I wrote...

PHP 8 Objects, Patterns, and Practice: Mastering OO Enhancements, Design Patterns, and Essential Development Tools

By Matt Zandstra,

Book cover of PHP 8 Objects, Patterns, and Practice: Mastering OO Enhancements, Design Patterns, and Essential Development Tools

What is my book about?

PHP 8 Objects, Patterns, and Practice begins by covering PHP's object-oriented features. It introduces key topics including class declarations, inheritance, and reflection. The next section is devoted to design patterns. It explains the principles that make patterns powerful. You’ll cover many of the classic design patterns including enterprise and database patterns. The last segment of the book covers the tools and practices that can help turn great code into a successful project. The section shows how to manage multiple developers and releases with git, and how to manage builds and dependencies with Composer. It also explores strategies for automated testing and continuous integration.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Atlas of AI: Power, Politics, and the Planetary Costs of Artificial Intelligence

Matt Zandstra Why did I love this book?

As a coder and a lifelong SF reader, I am fascinated by AI. I've even written a LLM chat client named Shelley. Fascination, though, is not the same as uncritical fanboyism.

It is tempting to treat AI as a natural or magical apparition. Crawford's book turns this illusion on its head and explores AI literally from the ground up, beginning with its vast hunger for natural resources. She describes a similar hunger for training data as well as the implicit (or disguised) biases underlying the systems of classification that drive an AI's "understanding" of the world. 

This is not a book about the future of AI so much as a particular map of the state of the project – a look into the wizard's booth. It offers an essential first step in considering what is to come and how we might negotiate it.

By Kate Crawford,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Atlas of AI as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The hidden costs of artificial intelligence-from natural resources and labor to privacy, equality, and freedom

"This study argues that [artificial intelligence] is neither artificial nor particularly intelligent. . . . A fascinating history of the data on which machine-learning systems are trained."-New Yorker

"A valuable corrective to much of the hype surrounding AI and a useful instruction manual for the future."-John Thornhill, Financial Times

"It's a masterpiece, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it."-Karen Hao, senior editor, MIT Tech Review

What happens when artificial intelligence saturates political life and depletes the planet? How is AI shaping our…


Book cover of Into The Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them

Matt Zandstra Why did I love this book?

I must have read a hundred books about story structure over the years. Somehow, perhaps because of some story-related blind spot on my part, none of them ever seemed to stick.

My problem was always the middle. Middles can sag. It seems that a story's interior becomes little more than the wasteland a protagonist must traverse to get from the mystery of a beginning to the ultimate challenge of an ending.

Yorke's Into The Woods celebrates the middle. He reminds us that the essential crux of a story lies in its midpoint. Right at the heart of an effective story, he argues, lies a fundamental transformation, a change so great that the protagonist emerges with new powers into a new world.

Furthermore, by analysing stories in five acts rather than three, he allows for an elegant symmetry in which the first and fifth, second, and fourth acts mirror one another.

It is not so much that Yorke invents anything new here, but his analysis is so clean, the shapes he distills so compelling, it is hard, after reading this book, to approach any story without some reference to its ideas.

By John Yorke,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Into The Woods as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'The best book on the subject I've read. Quite brilliant' Tony Jordan, creator/writer, Life on Mars, Hustle

We all love stories. But why do we tell them? And why do all stories function in an eerily similar way? John Yorke, creator of the BBC Writers' Academy, has brought a vast array of drama to British screens. Here he takes us on a journey to the heart of storytelling, revealing that there truly is a unifying shape to narrative forms - one that echoes the fairytale journey into the woods and, like any great art, comes from deep within. From ancient…


Book cover of Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

Matt Zandstra Why did I love this book?

I have always tended to see power as something that is imposed upon us. It is done to us. And, of course, you only need to glance at the Internet or a TV screen to see the truth of that.

But that can't be the extent of it. Power requires consent, which means it must also be at play even when it is not actively exercised.

Discipline and Punish is a work of history and philosophy which charts the evolution of punishment from a spectacle of cruelty in the middle ages, to the impersonal bureaucratic systems of the modern era.

Most interestingly, Foucault examines the ultimate privatisation of control – the way it outsources its management to us as individuals – so that we judge ourselves and watch ourselves, even punish ourselves on behalf of a set of quasi-scientific rules and standards.

By Michel Foucault,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Discipline and Punish as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A brilliant work from the most influential philosopher since Sartre.

In this indispensable work, a brilliant thinker suggests that such vaunted reforms as the abolition of torture and the emergence of the modern penitentiary have merely shifted the focus of punishment from the prisoner's body to his soul.


Book cover of Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy

Matt Zandstra Why did I love this book?

In between other projects, I have been conducting research for a non-fiction book about the particular kinds of parallel universe that every story world creates. And that's how I came across Reality+.

The question as to whether we are living in a simulation is beloved of moviegoers, stoners, and undergraduates (quite a large intersection in that Venn diagram). It's also worthy of serious philosophical and scientific inquiry. David J Chalmers is a philosopher, and his book treats the question with entertaining rigour.

The book goes beyond the simulation hypothesis, though, to examine the philosophical implications of our inevitable colonisation of the virtual realm. At the heart of Chalmers' argument is a rejection of the opposition between the real and the simulated.

Lived experience, Chalmers claims, is real experience, as freighted with value and possibility in the virtual world as it is out here in the probably real, possibly simulated universe.

By David J. Chalmers,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Reality+ as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Virtual reality is genuine reality; that's the central thesis of Reality+. In a highly original work of "technophilosophy," David J. Chalmers gives a compelling analysis of our technological future. He argues that virtual worlds are not second-class worlds, and that we can live a meaningful life in virtual reality. We may even be in a virtual world already.

Along the way, Chalmers conducts a grand tour of big ideas in philosophy and science. He uses virtual reality technology to offer a new perspective on long-established philosophical questions. How do we know that there's an external world? Is there a god?…


Book cover of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

Matt Zandstra Why did I love this book?

As a serial freelancer with an uneasy relationship to authority, one of my small obsessions is freedom (and how I can achieve it whilst still earning money). Because freedom is a theme in my life it's also a theme I seek out in the stories we tell ourselves.

Here's a story. Once upon, a time we subsisted in small roving bands and all lived in a kind of anarchy. Either that was a good thing (Rousseau) or a very unpleasant one (Hobbes). And then, with an agricultural revolution, came a change. More settled people and, later, more people still in cities, meant governments, laws, and money. Hierarchies were sadly (Rousseau) or blessedly (Hobbes) inevitable. 

The right and the left tend to fall into one or other of these camps. If they disagree about the desirability of the outcome, though, they usually just accept the progression as an iron law.

In The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow challenge this consensus at its root. They suggest that there is nothing inevitable or even historically accurate about this fall from equality and that only a selective view of history provides evidence for it as a fixed process.

And if that's true, and where we find ourselves is not inevitable, then that's a new kind of freedom. Perhaps we'll get to choose where we go next.

By David Graeber, David Wengrow,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

A dramatically new understanding of human history, challenging our most fundamental assumptions about social evolution—from the development of agriculture and cities to the origins of the state, democracy, and inequality—and revealing new possibilities for human emancipation.

For generations, our remote ancestors have been cast as primitive and childlike—either free and equal innocents, or thuggish and warlike. Civilization, we are told, could be achieved only by sacrificing those original freedoms or, alternatively, by taming our baser instincts. David Graeber and David Wengrow show how such theories first emerged in the eighteenth century as a conservative reaction…


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Wealth Odyssey: The Essential Road Map for Your Financial Journey Where Is It You Are Really Trying to Go with Money?

By Larry R. Frank Sr., Maxwell Limanowski (editor), Peter Sander (editor)

Book cover of Wealth Odyssey: The Essential Road Map for Your Financial Journey Where Is It You Are Really Trying to Go with Money?

Larry R. Frank Sr. Author Of Wealth Odyssey: The Essential Road Map for Your Financial Journey Where Is It You Are Really Trying to Go with Money?

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Father Grandfather Business founder Planner and thinker Income and longevity researcher

Larry's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

What are you trying to do with your money?

Few of us take the time to analyze our financial needs and goals to answer that pressing question. In Wealth Odyssey, author Larry R. Frank Sr. uses his extensive financial background to provide a universal road map that will help you determine the wealth you need to support your chosen lifestyle.

Frank discusses such topics as the wealth rule, the earning-spending-saving formula, using debt wisely, and 
risk management. 

Wealth Odyssey is authored to be timeless; it does not matter what the market has done, or will do. This is a practical, no-nonsense guide that will help you develop a personal definition of wealth and create an effective strategy for long-term financial success.

Wealth Odyssey: The Essential Road Map for Your Financial Journey Where Is It You Are Really Trying to Go with Money?

By Larry R. Frank Sr., Maxwell Limanowski (editor), Peter Sander (editor)

What is this book about?

"Frank, a Certified Financial Planner in California, offers a concise, precise guide to "prudent thinking" about personal finances, along with simple tools to estimate how much is required for a comfortable retirement." "A sound guide designed to help people make sensible plans for a successful retirement" - Kirkus book review "First let me tell you Larry Frank knows his stuff. He has a procedure that many will find worth taking the time to implement.” " The book is full of good advice." - Armchair interviews "Larry Frank Sr, gives you a guidebook or "road map" for your financial goals or…


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