All the books Aaron Swartz loved, hated, wrote and blogged about

Aaron read anywhere from 70-120 books a year and blogged about every book in an year end post. This list is a treasure trove of great reads on sociology, science, economics and great literature. Covering 2006-11.
Fight Club: A Novel
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Fight Club: A Novel

by Chuck Palahniuk

About the book:  The first rule about fight club is you don't talk about fight club.In his debut novel, Chuck Palahniuk showed himself to be his generation's most visionary satirist. Fight Club's estranged narrator leaves his lackluster job when he comes under the thrall of Tyler Durden, an enigmatic young man who holds secret boxing matches in the basement of bars. There two men fight "as long as they have to." A gloriously original work that exposes what is at the core of our modern world.

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V for Vendetta
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V for Vendetta

by Alan MooreDavid Lloyd

About the book:  A new trade paperback edition of the graphic novel that inspired the hit movie!A powerful story about loss of freedom and individuality, V FOR VENDETTA takes place in a totalitarian England following a devastating war that changed the face of the planet. In a world without political freedom, personal freedom and precious little faith in anything comes a mysterious man in a white porcelain mask who fights political oppressors through terrorism and seemingly absurd acts. It's a gripping tale of the blurred lines between ideological good and evil.This new trade paperbackedition features the improved production values and coloring from the 2005 hardcover.


Notes:  Moore’s whole story about how the movie softened the fascism and anarchism seems completely bogus. That said, the movie did change some fantastic parts, including V’s televised speech and the brilliantly convoluted Hamlet-esque ending. Also, the movie’s whole virus attack subplot was stupid. On the other hand, the movie added some great stuff too. So see both, I guess.

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Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science
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Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science

by Atul Gawande

About the book:  In gripping accounts of true cases, surgeon Atul Gawande explores the power and the limits of medicine, offering an unflinching view from the scalpel's edge. Complications lays bare a science not in its idealized form but as it actually is―uncertain, perplexing, and profoundly human.Complications is a 2002 National Book Award Finalist for Nonfiction.


Notes:  Since I read this book, Gawande has become something of a rock star, but here he is the mild-mannered surgeon who’s writing on Slate got him picked up by the New Yorker. The columns in this book are collected from his pieces for that magazine and address with reflection and investigation the various difficulties of modern medicine.

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The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule
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The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule

by Thomas Frank

About the book:  From the author of the landmark bestseller What’s the Matter with Kansas?, a jaw-dropping investigation of the decades of deliberate—and lucrative—conservative misruleIn his previous book, Thomas Frank explained why working America votes for politicians who reserve their favors for the rich. Now, in The Wrecking Crew, Frank examines the blundering and corrupt Washington those politicians have given us. Casting back to the early days of the conservative revolution, Frank describes the rise of a ruling coalition dedicated to dismantling government. But rather than cutting down the big government they claim to hate, conservatives have simply sold it off, deregulating some industries, defunding others, but always turning public policy into a private-sector bidding war. Washington itself has been remade into a golden landscape of super-wealthy suburbs and gleaming lobbyist headquarters—the wages of government-by-entrepreneurship practiced so outrageously by figures such as Jack Abramoff.It is no coincidence, Frank argues, that the same politicians who guffaw at the idea of effective government have installed a regime in which incompetence is the rule. Nor will the country easily shake off the consequences of deliberate misgovernment through the usual election remedies. Obsessed with achieving a lasting victory, conservatives have taken pains to enshrine the free market as the permanent creed of state.Stamped with Thomas Frank’s audacity, analytic brilliance, and wit, The Wrecking Crew is his most revelatory work yet—and his most important.


Notes:  Lots of good dirt, but not exactly the most rigorous theoretical argument.

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Psmith in the City
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Psmith in the City

by P.G. Wodehouse

About the book:  Among P.G. Wodehouse's most beloved recurring characters is the dandy, wit, cricketer, and sometimes banker Rupert Psmith (the 'P' is silent). Psmith in the City follows the lead character's misfortunes as a banker, part-time cricket enthusiast, and fast friend to another recurring Wodehouse character, Mike Jackson.


Notes:  Hilarious. Psmith is a delight. I want to hear him acted but the recent BBC version is dreadful.

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Shortcomings
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Shortcomings

by Adrian Tomine

About the book:  Ben Tanaka, a confused, obsessive, twenty-something Japanese American, embarks on a cross-country search for contentment--or the perfect girl--in a graphic novel that tackles modern culture, sexual mores, and racial politics with honesty and humor.


Notes:  Short, meaningful, and elegant. More than you could reasonably expect from such a book.

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Changing Places
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Changing Places

by David Lodge

About the book:  When Philip Swallow and Professor Morris Zapp participate in their universities' Anglo-American exchange scheme, the Fates play a hand, and each academic finds himself enmeshed in the life of his counterpart on the opposite side of the Atlantic. Nobody is immune to the exchange: students, colleagues, even wives are swapped as events spiral out of control. And soon both sundrenched Euphoric State university and rain-kissed university of Rummidge are a hotbed of intrigue, lawlessness and broken vows...


Notes:  Typical campus novel fun, but with some great People’s Park stories.

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Founders at Work
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Founders at Work

by Jessica Livingston

About the book:  Now available in paperback—with a new preface and interview with Jessica Livingston about Y Combinator! Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days is a collection of interviews with founders of famous technology companies about what happened in the very earliest days. These people are celebrities now. What was it like when they were just a couple friends with an idea? Founders like Steve Wozniak (Apple), Caterina Fake (Flickr), Mitch Kapor (Lotus), Max Levchin (PayPal), and Sabeer Bhatia (Hotmail) tell you in their own words about their surprising and often very funny discoveries as they learned how to build a company. Where did they get the ideas that made them rich? How did they convince investors to back them? What went wrong, and how did they recover? Nearly all technical people have thought of one day starting or working for a startup. For them, this book is the closest you can come to being a fly on the wall at a successful startup, to learn how it's done. But ultimately these interviews are required reading for anyone who wants to understand business, because startups are business reduced to its essence. The reason their founders become rich is that startups do what businesses do—create value—more intensively than almost any other part of the economy. How? What are the secrets that make successful startups so insanely productive? Read this book, and let the founders themselves tell you.

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Built to Last
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Built to Last

by Jim Collins,Jerry I. Porras

About the book:  "This is not a book about charismatic visionary leaders. It is not about visionary product concepts or visionary products or visionary market insights. Nor is it about just having a corporate vision. This is a book about something far more important, enduring, and substantial. This is a book about visionary companies." So write Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in this groundbreaking book that shatters myths, provides new insights, and gives practical guidance to those who would like to build landmark companies that stand the test of time. Drawing upon a six-year research project at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, Collins and Porras took eighteen truly exceptional and long-lasting companies -- they have an average age of nearly one hundred years and have outperformed the general stock market by a factor of fifteen since 1926 -- and studied each company in direct comparison to one of its top competitors. They examined the companies from their very beginnings to the present day -- as start-ups, as midsize companies, and as large corporations. Throughout, the authors asked: "What makes the truly exceptional companies different from other companies?" What separates General Electric, 3M, Merck, Wal-Mart, Hewlett-Packard, Walt Disney, and Philip Morris from their rivals? How, for example, did Procter & Gamble, which began life substantially behind rival Colgate, eventually prevail as the premier institution in its industry? How was Motorola able to move from a humble battery repair business into integrated circuits and cellular communications, while Zenith never became dominant in anything other than TVs? How did Boeing unseat McDonnell Douglas as the world's best commercial aircraft company -- what did Boeing have that McDonnell Douglas lacked? By answering such questions, Collins and Porras go beyond the incessant barrage of management buzzwords and fads of the day to discover timeless qualities that have consistently distinguished out-standing companies. They also provide inspiration to all executives and entrepreneurs by destroying the false but widely accepted idea that only charismatic visionary leaders can build visionary companies. Filled with hundreds of specific examples and organized into a coherent framework of practical concepts that can be applied by managers and entrepreneurs at all levels, Built to Last provides a master blueprint for building organizations that will prosper long into the twenty-first century and beyond.


Notes:  This book is very similar to Good to Great except it uses even worse science and even worse names. (Clock building? Really? Can’t we just call it institution building?) Just read Good to Great — the important stuff from this book is presented in its last chapter anyway.

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Good to Great
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Good to Great

by Jim Collins

About the book:  The Challenge Built to Last, the defining management study of the nineties, showed how great companies triumph over time and how long-term sustained performance can be engineered into the DNA of an enterprise from the verybeginning. But what about the company that is not born with great DNA? How can good companies, mediocre companies, even bad companies achieve enduring greatness? The Study For years, this question preyed on the mind of Jim Collins. Are there companies that defy gravity and convert long-term mediocrity or worse into long-term superiority? And if so, what are the universal distinguishing characteristics that cause a company to go from good to great? The Standards Using tough benchmarks, Collins and his research team identified a set of elite companies that made the leap to great results and sustained those results for at least fifteen years. How great? After the leap, the good-to-great companies generated cumulative stock returns that beat the general stock market by an average of seven times in fifteen years, better than twice the results delivered by a composite index of the world's greatest companies, including Coca-Cola, Intel, General Electric, and Merck. The Comparisons The research team contrasted the good-to-great companies with a carefully selected set of comparison companies that failed to make the leap from good to great. What was different? Why did one set of companies become truly great performers while the other set remained only good? Over five years, the team analyzed the histories of all twenty-eight companies in the study. After sifting through mountains of data and thousands of pages of interviews, Collins and his crew discovered the key determinants of greatness -- why some companies make the leap and others don't. The Findings The findings of the Good to Great study will surprise many readers and shed light on virtually every area of management strategy and practice. The findings include: Level 5 Leaders: The research team was shocked to discover the type of leadership required to achieve greatness. The Hedgehog Concept (Simplicity within the Three Circles): To go from good to great requires transcending the curse of competence. A Culture of Discipline: When you combine a culture of discipline with an ethic of entrepreneurship, you get the magical alchemy of great results. Technology Accelerators: Good-to-great companies think differently about the role of technology. The Flywheel and the Doom Loop: Those who launch radical change programs and wrenching restructurings will almost certainly fail to make the leap. “Some of the key concepts discerned in the study,” comments Jim Collins, "fly in the face of our modern business culture and will, quite frankly, upset some people.” Perhaps, but who can afford to ignore these findings?


Notes:  Most business books consist of a bunch of wacky ideas dressed up with even wackier names and presented as the Next Big Thing. Jim Collins greatly improves the genre, by replacing the wacky ideas with actual science. (Unfortunately, he continues the tradition of wacky names.)

Collins and his team picked out all Fortune 500 companies that sustained 4x market returns for more than 15 years (the great companies) and went back to find the transition point where they went from earning normal-market returns to their 4x returns. Then they found the most similar company at that transition point and used it as a control. They examined what differed between the great companies and the controls and describe it here. Of course, you have to trust Collins to pick out the right lessons, but the ones he chooses seem like very good ones.

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