The best books for people who can’t read five books on the same topic

Mike X Cohen Author Of Linear Algebra: Theory, Intuition, Code
By Mike X Cohen

Who am I?

I am an associate professor of neuroscience at the Donders Institute in the Netherlands. My research lab focuses on discovering how the brain uses electrical signaling to compute information, and transfer information across different regions of the brain. I also have a few decades of experience teaching scientific coding, data analysis, statistics, and related topics, and have authored several online courses and textbooks. I have a suspiciously dry sense of humor and insufficient patience to read five books on the same topic.

I wrote...

Linear Algebra: Theory, Intuition, Code

By Mike X Cohen,

Book cover of Linear Algebra: Theory, Intuition, Code

What is my book about?

Linear algebra is the study of matrices (like a spreadsheet of numbers) and operations acting on them. Linear algebra used to be an advanced topic that was only of interest to advanced mathematics students. But modern computing has brought linear algebra to the forefront of human civilization: Nearly everything that computers do — from video graphics to financial modeling to machine learning to artificial intelligence — is implemented using linear algebra. I have tried to present linear algebra in a way that is rigorous yet lucid, explaining proofs and concepts while also using diagrams and code to show how linear algebra is applied and used in practice. This textbook can be used for self-study or as part of a university-level course.

The books I picked & why

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The Elements of Style

By William Strunk, E.B. White,

Book cover of The Elements of Style

Why this book?

Yes, the famous Strunk & White style manual that every English teacher either loves or loves to hate. But before you gloss over and skip to the next recommendation, hear me out: Read this book again, not as a manual on writing style and grammar, but as a guide to living a fulfilling, minimalistic, and positive life. I won’t spoil the fun by divulging my interpretations, but I will whet your appetite with the most famous of all Elements: omit needless words.


By Ted Chiang,

Book cover of Exhalation

Why this book?

Any minute spent reading Ted Chiang is a minute well spent. Exhalation is a story of mechanical beings that are powered by compressed gas that is mined from underground. A seemingly innocuous observation (clocks are speeding up) leads a mechanical scientist to begin to explore the true nature of consciousness. The story itself is beautiful and fascinating, but as a neuroscientist, I was deeply impressed by Chiang’s description of the mechanism of cognition. If scientists ever figure out how the brain produces cognition, they might find that Chiang’s description is the closest to the truth.

Astrobiology: The Search for Life Elsewhere in the Universe

By Andrew May,

Book cover of Astrobiology: The Search for Life Elsewhere in the Universe

Why this book?

“Are we alone?” An age-old question that we may never answer. Andrew May walks us through the scientific study of whether there might be life elsewhere in the universe, and how we might identify it. And by “scientific study,” I mean actual scientific investigations, not wishy-washy sci-fi fluff. The book is both inspiring and terrifying, because the immense distances in space and time make you realize that intelligent life is both incredibly insignificant and incredibly precious.

Sand: The Never-Ending Story

By Michael Welland,

Book cover of Sand: The Never-Ending Story

Why this book?

Sand (yes, that grainy stuff at the beach that never fully gets out of your shoes) is a ubiquitous feature of dream-vacations, and yet is a really obscure topic to study. Michael Welland managed to present a fascinating and thought-provoking story of where sand comes from and where it goes. But this book isn’t only about sand; it is about the unimaginable timescales of geology and how a countless number of tiny grains can fill nearly 400,000 miles of beaches, not to mention deserts, ocean floors, and volcanos. Welland’s writing style is poetic and flowing, and overall a joy to read.

Themes and Conclusions

By Igor Stravinsky,

Book cover of Themes and Conclusions

Why this book?

Igor Stravinsky was one of the most influential and innovative music composers of the 20th century. He was also remarkably intelligent, humorous, and insightful. This book is a collection of interviews, letters, and notes made by and about Stravinsky. Some of these writings would interest only classical music enthusiasts, but much of the book comprises witty observations of human nature, art, and what it really means to praise or critique someone.

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