Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning

By Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D. and Patrice M. Bain, Ed.S.

Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning by Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D. and Patrice M. Bain, Ed.S. If we had to select a single book to recommend to instructors of any kind, it would be this masterpiece—the best book on teaching that we’ve ever read.  

In Powerful Teaching, Agarwal and Bain provide a tour de force of practical ideas and explanations involving retrieval practice, explaining how this vital topic is related to concepts such as interleaving, deliberate practice, formative assessments. 

Retrieval practice is so much deeper than simple memorization: As Powerful Teaching notes: “we typically focus on getting information into students’ heads. On the contrary, one of the most robust findings from cognitive science research is the importance of getting information out of students’ heads. Based on a century of research, in order to transform learning, we must focus on getting information out – a strategy called retrieval practice.”  

If you are a K-12 teacher or university instructor, or a parent, don’t miss this teaching book for the ages. Think retrieval practice is only for plebeian facts? Think again—as Agarwal and Bain note: “When it comes to retrieval practice, how far up the pyramid can we move student learning? If we want students to think on a higher-order level, then we should make sure our retrieval questions are basic and higher-order. It’s shortsighted to think, ‘Gee, well, if I have students retrieve a vocabulary word, they should be able to apply this in a higher-order example or a higher-order type of material.’ Based on research, provide a mix of fact-based retrieval and higher-order retrieval if that’s the type of learning you want to see in your students.” 

Part of what we love about this book is the simplicity of its explanations—not only is it well-researched, it’s elegantly written. Looking for a Christmas present for a parent or teacher friend, or for yourself? This is it.


Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster

By Adam Higginbotham

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, by Adam Higginbotham. This extraordinary book tells of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster—but it is also a powerful testament to how governmental propaganda and secrecy can cause these types of global-scale disasters to unfold. 

The surprisingly positive upshot of the disaster is that far safer nuclear power is being developed.  As Higginbotham notes: “Less than a month before the explosion of [Chernobyl] Reactor Number Four in 1986, a team of nuclear engineers at Argonne National Laboratory–West in Idaho had quietly succeeded in demonstrating that … the integral fast reactor … was safe even under the circumstances that destroyed Three Mile Island 2 and would prove disastrous at Chernobyl and Fukushima. The liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR), an even more advanced concept developed at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is fueled by thorium. More plentiful and far harder to process into bomb-making material than uranium, thorium also burns more efficiently in a reactor and could produce less hazardous radioactive waste with half-lives of hundreds, not tens of thousands, of years. Running at atmospheric pressure, and without ever reaching a criticality, the LFTR doesn’t require a massive containment building to guard against loss-of-coolant accidents or explosions and can be constructed on such a compact scale that every steel mill or small town could have its own microreactor tucked away underground. In 2015 Microsoft founder Bill Gates had begun funding research projects similar to these fourth-generation reactors in a quest to create a carbon-neutral power source for the future. By then, the Chinese government had already set seven hundred scientists on a crash program to build the world’s first industrial thorium reactor as part of a war on pollution. ‘The problem of coal has become clear,’ the engineering director of the project said. ‘Nuclear power provides the only solution.’” [Hat tip: Mary O’Dea] 

We read Midnight in Chernobyl in conjunction with watching the HBO documentary Chernobyl.  Television doesn’t get better than this.


The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die

By Niall Ferguson

The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, by Niall Ferguson.  One experience that struck Barb when she worked as a translator on Soviet trawlers was just how easy it was to convince people to go along with certain ideas, no matter how bizarre they might be. Once you get enough people thinking in the same way, that’s enough to get them to blithely hurdle themselves, lemming-like, off a societal cliff.  

Ferguson’s book is a prescient reminder of how countries get themselves into terrible trouble when society turns a blind eye to profligate overspending. In 2010, Ralph Cicerone, President of the National Academy of Sciences, and Jennifer Dorn, President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Academy of Public Administration, jointly wrote: “Much is at stake. If we as a nation do not grapple promptly and wisely with the changes needed to put the federal budget on a sustainable course, all of us will find that the public goals we most value are at risk.” (See also Pathological Altruism and “Concepts and implications of altruism bias and pathological altruism.”)

Ferguson’s book gives an overview of a future that could still be changed through the will of a well-educated populace.


Marie Antoinette: The Journey

By Antonia Fraser

Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser. We’re used to reading history books about compelling, intelligent men and women like Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Queen Isabella of Spain. We’re not-so-used-to reading books about apparent intellectual lightweights. And indeed, Marie Antoinette started her life as a coddled royal who successfully eluded attempts to, for example, teach her how to read. But despite her love of frivolity, Marie Antoinette had a great and good heart—you’d be hard put to find a woman who could face the worst and remain brave until the end.  Her ultimate, raw intelligence in front of the jury, with its pre-ordained verdict of guilt, is heartrending. This is the story of how dangerous “fake news” mobs—as easy to lead then as they are now—put Marie Antoinette under the guillotine. A spell-binding read.


Mission Transition: Navigating the Opportunities and Obstacles to Your Post-Military Career

By Matthew J. Louis

Mission Transition: Navigating the Opportunities and Obstacles to Your Post-Military Career, by Matthew J. Louis. This book is a special treat for those in the military, and military veterans. Nearly a quarter-million leave the service each year, but transitioning to civilian life can be a challenge—as Barb knows, having shifted out of the Army to begin her engineering studies as a civilian. As the book cover notes: “Mission Transition is a practical guide to career change for service members considering leaving active duty. It attempts to address this primary question: How can transitioning veterans realize their full potential by avoiding false starts and suboptimal career choices following active duty? The book has been endorsed by Generals, Astronauts, Super Bowl winners, members of Congress, and best-selling authors.” We’re all in accord that this is an extraordinarily useful book!


How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less

By Cal Newport

How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less, Cal Newport.  Oliver from Switzerland (see his inspiring email below) recommended Cal Newport’s book on studying—this book launched Cal’s authorial career.  We’ve actually read Cal’s book twice over the years. It’s a sound, common-sensical guide not only on how to study, but how to avoid some of the common pitfalls of study advice from well-intentioned “experts” who don’t think things through, such as giving a detailed 12-step process for reading a chapter (including coming up with 20 questions) and studying till 10pm every night, including on the biggest party nights of them all: Friday. In fact, one of the points we most appreciated about Cal’s book is his advice to set a strict quitting time each day. We’ve tried to keep to the approach each day, although we suppose it also depends on what’s meant by “quitting.” For us, that usually means diving into a book!  Also, don’t miss Cal’s Deep Work and Digital Minimalism.


The Grapes of Math

By Greg Tang

The Grapes of Math, by Greg Tang. We’ve recently become aware of Greg’s work as a math educator. He came about his calling through a circuitous path—first earning a B.A. and M.A. degrees in Economics from Harvard, and later an M.A. degree in Math Education from New York University. Greg is certified as a middle and high school math teacher. His books, including the Grapes of MathMath-terpieces, the Best of Times, and many more, are cleverly designed to allow young people to learn and become excited about math, and to learn how to problem-solve in creative ways.  Enjoy!


The Wrong Kind of Muslim

By Qazim Rashid

The Wrong Kind of Muslim: An Untold Story of Persecution & Perseverance, by Qazim Rashid. This is a soul-searching book about one man’s attempt to discover why people would want to die for their faith. Not in the sense of being suicide bombers, but exactly the opposite: How can one be willing to stand fast for one’s beliefs even when faced with torture or death?  Qazim is a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, which is deeply persecuted as heretical within Pakistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Qazim notes the Prophet Muhammad’s words that “Faith is a restraint against all violence, let no believer commit violence.” He also notes that “Islam champions universal freedom of conscience for all people of all faiths, and for all people of no faith.”  Unfortunately, as Qazim relates, pointing out these kinds of ideas nowadays, in certain places, does indeed make him The Wrong Kind of Muslim

This book describes little known facts such as how the first Pakistani and first Muslim to be awarded the Nobel Prize in the sciences, Abdus Salam, was disavowed by his own country for being an Ahmadi Muslim. A real eye-opener about what can happen when discrimination becomes law.


Misty of Chincoteague

By Marguerite Henry

Over the past few weeks, as she works on her upcoming books, Barb & her Hero Hubby Phil have been traveling the Northeast in their little trailer. (Adventurous friends from Spain are living in the Oakley house this fall to give their children a semester’s experience in US schools.)  Among the sights Barb & Phil have visited? The Morgan Horse Farm in Vermont, and Chincoteague Island in Virginia, where she sits writing the “Cheery Friday” email right now. 🙂 These wonderful places brought to mind some of Barb’s favorite books as a child: Justin Morgan Had a Horse, and Misty of Chincoteague, by Marguerite Henry and illustrated by Wesley Dennis. If you are looking for beautiful books to read with children you love, these fantastic books are just the ticket.  If you’re looking for more adult-oriented equine material to sink your teeth into, try the fantastic Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand. Hillenbrand’s use of metaphor is virtually unparalleled.  Want something even meatier? Try The Color of Horses: A Scientific and Authoritative Identification of the Color of the Horse, which Barb used in to help guide the creation of the best-selling horse board game (the first board game about horses): Herd Your Horses.


The Knowledge Gap: The hidden cause of America’s broken education system—and how to fix it

By Natalie Wexler

The Knowledge Gap: The hidden cause of America’s broken education systemand how to fix it, by Natalie Wexler. If you are a teacher, parent, or in any way involved in the US school system, this book should move to the very top of your list to be read today. We can’t help but quote Amazon reviewer Emily, whose review nails the subject: “Essentially, the majority of US elementary schools use language arts curriculum that attempts to teach vague ‘skills’ like ‘finding a main idea,’ ‘finding supporting evidence’ or ‘drawing conclusions’ from texts. Wexler summarizes the substantial evidence showing that reading comprehension depends on a person’s background knowledge on the subject. Students from advantaged backgrounds will pick up some background knowledge at home, topics related to history, geography, science. But these subjects have been pushed out of elementary schools to make more time for reading instruction (for testing purposes). Children from disadvantaged homes suffer disproportionately with this system. It is truly a matter of social justice.”

We were struck by examples of children confusing “civil rights” and “Civil War,” or “conservation” and “condensation” because they may have been able to read the terms, but they had no knowledge of what lay behind them.  This highly readable book was often hard to put down. What’s especially encouraging is that, as Wexler describes, there are solutions—great knowledge-based curricula have been developed and are being used in more and more schools.  If your school isn’t using Core Knowledge or Wit and Wisdom, it’s time to explore the possibility of change!


Nursery Rhymes for Modern Times Vol I: The Great Americans

By Philo F. Willetts, Jr.

Nursery Rhymes for Modern Times Vol I: The Great Americans, by Philo F. Willetts, Jr. This wonderful slim volume uses some of the best of what we know about learning to help kids remember key ideas and concepts—just as Wexler recommends in The Knowledge Gap. Our brains are ‘wired’ to remember rhymes, and kids are inspired by the qualities and achievements of great people. This book is packed with great stories and information, including excerpts from Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration, Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream!” Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and many more, including Barb’s personal favorite historical figure, Sequoyah. Here’s a witty excerpt on Dolly Madison:

She made enemies like one another,
By inviting those who hated each other
To eat at the Madison’s table
And be as nice as they were able.

She planned her table’s seatings,
So all had friendly meetings.
Her dinners weren’t just for fun.
She got important agreements done.

Barb has been commanded by her daughter to spend Christmas time teaching some English to her son-in-law’s Spanish-speaking-only (at present) little brother. She’ll be using this book to help with the task!


The Graduate Student as Writer: Encouragement for the Budding Scholar

By Shuyi Chua

This week’s recommendation is rather an unusual one. “Anonymous friend” writes: “I’m one of 1M ‘silent’ students of LHTL who also enjoys your Friday Greetings emails since 2015. A friend of mine [Shuyi Chua] recently self-published The Graduate Student as Writer: Encouragement for the Budding Scholar, a tiny book (1.5hr read time) to encourage and help fellow young scientists to develop writing skills. It would be great if could take a quick look at it… Why? I trained as a physicist and did fMRI from 1996 to 2010, and then quit science altogether because I couldn’t figure out how to deal with ‘publish or perish’ BS. Had I come across something like Shuyi’s book, things might have been different. If it ‘worked’ for me with 15 years of age difference, it might be even more effective for people with a smaller age delta.”
And yes—we agree, it’s a very good book! And it’s free on Kindle Unlimited.


Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations

By Ronen Bergman

Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations, by Ronen Bergman. This fascinating book has been named one of the best books of the year by The Economist, The New York Times Book Review, BBC History Magazine, and Kirkus Reviews. It is a tour de force explanation of how a people who have suffered through the Holocaust and myriad other horrors through the centuries have developed a “kill first” approach as an integral part of their approach to organized terrorism. As Bergman describes, this policy has been adopted by others in the West, for example, Barack Obama. When successful, targeted killings are very effective at saving lives. When unsuccessful—well, read the book to find out. As spy-master extraordinaire John le Carré writes: “A remarkable feat of fearless and responsible reporting . . . important, timely, and informative.” [Hat tip Ali Ali Binazir MD MPhil] Of course, other countries have related programs—perhaps not as tightly monitored, benevolently intentioned, or ultimately as accountable to the public.


Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World

By Maryanne Wolf

Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, by Maryanne Wolf. 

This lovely book uses metaphors to convey the extraordinary complexity of what happens when we read—and to describe how important it is to pause and read deeply.  As Wolf notes: “whenever we name even a single letter, we are activating entire networks of specific neuronal groups in the visual cortex, which correspond to entire networks of equally specific language-based cell groups, which correspond to networks of specific articulatory-motor cell groups—all with millisecond precision. 

“It takes years for deep-reading processes to be formed, and as a society we need to be sure that we are vigilant about their development in our young from a very early age. It takes daily vigilance by us, the expert readers of our society, to choose to expend the extra milliseconds needed to maintain deep reading over time.”

This is a book well worth reading, if only to remind us of the value of reading slowly and deeply.


Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster

By Jon Krakauer

Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer,  “ranks among the great adventure books of all time,” notes the Wall Street Journal, and we couldn’t agree more. This book has resonated with us over the years—whenever we’ve found ourselves in a tough situation, we remember to, either literally or metaphorically, keep taking just one more step forward.  The Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters is rarely given for a book that’s an on-the-edge-of-your-seat thriller. This new edition addresses some of the controversies that arose after the book’s initial publication. A must read, and great as well for audio.  (Two free audiobooks may be possible through this link.)


Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom

By Katherine Eban

Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom, by Katherine Eban. We picked this book up after noticing that a minor prescription drug we were switched to—a generic—just didn’t seem to work right. What an unexpectedly eye-popping thriller!  You’ll learn about the hands-off ineffectiveness and incompetence of the FDA, the infectious nature of corrupt corporate cultures committing global fraud, and of the sometimes completely ineffective nature of life-saving drugs.  If you or anyone you know takes, or will take, generic drugs, you should read this book.


The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience

By Kent Kiehl

The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience, by Kent Kiehl.  Like many people, we’ve long been fascinated by people who could even think of deliberately and unfairly harming others. (Barb’s book Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend, acclaimed by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker among others, was her attempt to understand why seemingly above-board people likesay, your bosscan still sometimes act like psychopaths.) 

The story of how Kiehl got his start in interviewing psychopaths is fascinating and, at times, edge-of-your-seat scary. Kiehl’s work in imaging hundreds of psychopaths in the New Mexico area has resulted in important new theoretical breakthroughs, which Kiehl describes in easy-to-understand fashion.  Kiehl has probably studied more psychopath brains than any other living humanhe’s been able to do this in part because he’s witty and plucky, enough to spend enormous amounts of time in prisons. The Psychopath Whisperer is a surprisingly positive bookas Kiehl notes, there are now glimmers of hope for treatment. 

Barb was lucky enough to have attended one of Kiehl’s hands-on, immersive 3-day fMRI analysis workshops with Vince Calhoun and Tor Wager. It doesn’t get more intensely usefulor funnythan what that trio of seriously clownish instructors provides.


The Artist’s Quest for Inspiration

By Peggy Hadden

The Artist’s Quest for Inspiration, by Peggy Hadden. We were turned on to this book by Barb’s artist daughter Rachel, who has found it to be deeply inspirational for her work.

What we love about this book is its insights into how to look at life around you in a fresh way, and why these fresh perspectives are important. For example, Hadden talks about how seemingly silly questions can be valuable, giving the example of Dr. Edwin Land, the inventor of the Polaroid camera: “One day, Dr. Land and his young daughter were walking on a beach when he stopped to take a photograph of her. “Can I see it now?” she asked. When told she’d have to wait until the film went to the lab, she wanted to know why. Although the question seemed dumb at the time, because all film had to be processed in a lab, it prompted Dr. Land to consider the need for faster-processing film.” Hadden gives example after example of practical exercises to help you redevelop the fresh eye you had as a child and overcome creative blocks. You don’t need to be an artist to gain creative insight from this book!


Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career

By Scott Young

Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career, by Scott Young.  We’re big fans of super learner Scott Young—hence our interview with him in Learning How to Learn. As Barb’s blurb on the book’s cover notes: “Ultralearning is the best book on learning I’ve ever read. It’s a beautifully written, brilliantly researched, and immediately useful masterpiece. If you are looking for the magic match to help light your learning, Ultralearning is it. If you want to learn anything, do yourself a favor and read this book. Now.”


Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1874-1914

By David McCullough

Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1874-1914, by David McCullough. This is a fantastic book (a National Book Award winner) about the successes and disasters of both great and awful—and great-but-awful—leaders.  After the charismatic Ferdinand de Lesseps—the Steve Jobs of his day— spearheaded the successful construction of the Suez Canal, the French grew to adore de Lesseps’ ideas almost as much as de Lesseps himself did. (As Bill Gates has said “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they cannot lose.”) De Lesseps’ desire to create another sea level Suez Canal in Panama ultimately doomed the project, killed thousands, and ruined tens of thousands more.  When the Americans subsequently took over, their initial leadership was worse than that of de Lesseps. That is, until John Frank Stevens (he of “Stevens Pass” in Washington State), took over. Between Stevens—who ultimately appeared to crack under the strain—and his successor, the very different, but equally effective George Goethals, the canal took shape. You’ll learn of Dr. William Gargas’s David against Goliath story competing against malaria, yellow fever, and perhaps worst of all, pig-headed bureaucrats. And you’ll get a sense of how the front line laborers, primarily from the West Indies, did the hardest work under appalling conditions.

Construction of the Panama Canal was the biggest construction project in history—of inestimable value in uniting the globe.  Its clever use of the fearsome Chagres River to provide the energy to run the locks is a lesson in elegant engineering. During our tour of the Canal last week, we were surprised to learned that the Panama Canal competes with the Suez Canal in bringing goods from the far East to the Americas.  McCullough’s book gives a wonderful understanding of the main players and issues behind this extraordinary human feat of engineering.


Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

By Benjamin Dreyer

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, by Benjamin Dreyer, vice president, executive managing editor and copy chief of Random House.  Dreyer is one of the most delightfully droll writers of non-fiction we know of, full of wonderful little quips like “The only thing worse than the ungodly ‘incentivize’ is its satanic little sibling, ‘incent’.” You’ll learn of common writing mistakes, confusable words, trimmables, commonly misspelled names, and why it’s important to verify quotes. (If nothing else, Dreyer’s English taught us to try to be even more careful to look things up.)  Barb always wondered why her American editors corrected her use of “towards” to “toward”—Dreyer explains why. Dreyer’s only flaw was that he tended to go off on irrelevant political tirades that will quickly date the book—a bit like holding a treasured glass of Château d’Yquem knowing you will have to fish gnats out to drink it.



By Anatol Lieven

Pakistan: A Hard Country, by Anatol Lieven. Barb read this book preparation for her upcoming trip to Pakistan—but now that she’s read it, she’s realized what a comprehensive, thought-provoking, beautifully written book it is: truly a masterpiece of on-the-ground research over several decades. You may be surprised to discover ideas such as why sharia law is preferable for many Pakistanis to western (and often deeply corrupt) legal processes, and to learn just how deeply diverse Pakistan’s religious base is. Pakistan came together in a way almost guaranteed to make it a challenging country to govern—it can be difficult for outsiders to appreciate the dramatically diverse demands of the population.

Here’s a snippet of Lieven’s writing involving his journey through the little town of Shapqadar to do more interviews. “Bypass roads are unknown in small towns in Pakistan and we had made the mistake of travelling on a market day. Traffic jam doesn’t begin to describe the results – more like a double reef knot. The crossroads in the centre of town was a maelstrom of dust and exhaust fumes, apparently sucking into it cars, buses, trucks, scooter rickshaws, horse-carts, donkey-carts, men pushing carts, men on horseback and one understandably depressed-looking camel, all mixed up with a simply incredible number of people on foot for such a small town, as if the heavens had opened on a Sunday morning and rained humanity on Shapqadar. Out of the dust-shrouded mêlée the brightly painted lorries with their great carved wooden hoods loomed like war elephants in an ancient battle.”

Background research (and writing) doesn’t get any better than that. Lieven does his homework in knitting a comprehensive perspective of an extraordinary country. If you want to learn about the history, religions, government, and social mores of a critically important country on the global stage, you couldn’t do better than to read Lieven’s critically-acclaimed book.


Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science

By Atul Gawande

Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science, by Atul Gawande. We’ve often wondered about exactly who gets to be the guinea pig when surgeons first begin to branch out independently in their practice, or when they begin to use new procedures. After reading Gawande’s book, we realize we should have wondered about much more. How do experts make decisions in that amorphous period when someone’s dying, but there are a thousand and more reasons why—and different experts will have different opinions? Virtually every chapter of Gawande’s beautifully written book starts like a thriller. This is one of those books you can’t put down. A National Book Award finalist. [Recommended by Tom Hiebert, who points to Gawande’s quote: “Surgeons don’t believe in talent. They believe in practice.”]


The Checklist Manifesto

By Atul Gawande

The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande. Gawande is actually perhaps best known for The Checklist Manifesto, so, having read Complications and been converted into lifelong Gawande fans, we couldn’t resist picking up this important book. The biggest breakthroughs in life are often due to surprisingly simple ideas, and the Checklist Manifesto reveals how simple checklists make an extraordinary difference in industry after industry, including, as it turns out, surgery.  (Is it possible that checklists of the sort Gawande describes could help teachers as they lift students off for learning?) Great, thought-provoking book.


In A Sunburned Country

By Bill Bryson

In A Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson. In years past, Barb has occasionally looked with concern at her husband as he would suddenly double over with a paroxysm of—well, she wasn’t sure what, but it didn’t seem healthy.  Gradually she came to learn that these paroxysms came about whenever her husband was reading a Bill Bryson book. The laughter came so hard and heavy that he sometimes couldn’t breathe!  Bryson is a master of doubling or tripling up on his humor. A story is funny at first. But then Bryson circles around later to hit it again from an unexpected angle. And then again.  The result is comedic depth that will swallow you whole.

Who could have ever guessed that a book about both the history and travel related to a country could be so funny? If there were a Nobel Prize for comedic travel-writing, Bryson would take the honor.  If you want to find a way to look in an upbeat way at the weird and wacky things that can happen during travel—or in life itself—you can do no better than to read Bill Bryson. This has just become our favorite travel and outlook-on-life book. Barb can assure you (despite the fact that she’s in Australia now), that you don’t actually need to be travelling to Australia to enjoy this great comedic, travel, and life classic.


I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran & Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa

By Charles Brandt

I Heard You Paint Houses, by Charles Brandt. Living in the Detroit area, we’ve heard stories over the years about corrupt union activities. So we read this book when not long after it first came out in 2004. It was a riveting read then, and apparently, it’s even more riveting in the most recent edition. As one of the book’s endorsements notes: “Sheeran’s confession that he killed Hoffa in the manner described in the book is supported by the forensic evidence, is entirely credible and solves the Hoffa mystery.”- Michael Baden, M.D., former Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York. Highly recommended if you want to get a feel for the seedy underside of union life.


The Education of Eva Moskowitz: A Memoir

By Eva Moskowitz

The Education of Eva Moskowitz: A Memoir, by Eva Moskowitz. What a wonderful and eye-opening book about the educational system! Eva Moskowitz is a take-no-prisoners, never-blink pioneer in the K-12 sector. A lifelong Democrat, Moskowitz understands politics through her participation at a variety of levels. She came to the conclusion that education was the place where her natural talents could have the biggest impact, because it was most in need of reform. If you want to truly understand the pernicious effects that American education-related unions have had on students’ access to quality education, read this book. Moskowitz names names of the cabal of successfully sinister leaders who have succeeded in harming children and wasting hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars through subterfuge and intimidation, all under the guise of helping children.

Unions can do important and valuable work, but if you think unions and their leaders are always good, you might read  I Heard You Paint Houses, about the Teamsters and their notoriously “disappeared” leader Jimmy Hoffa. Incidentally, in Barb’s experience, teachers unions in other countries can be far more common-sense supportive of students themselves, instead of just teachers.

Moskowitz’s book also shows how one should take newspaper reporting on education by ideologically, rather than factually, motivated journalists with a boatload of salt. With people like Moskowitz involved, there’s hope for the disadvantaged students most in need of a sound education. [Hat tip, Roman Hardgrave.]


The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles

By Steven Pressfield

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, by Steven Pressfield. This short book reframes your creative work, whatever that might be, as war. The battle goes to the most cunning! Pressman has the street cred to write a book of this sort—it took him 17 years of writing to get his first paycheck, but his debut novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance, became the film directed by Robert Redford and starring Matt Damon, Will Smith and Charlize Theron. Pressfield graduated from Duke, and has been a U.S. Marine, an advertising copywriter, schoolteacher, tractor-trailer driver, bartender, oilfield roustabout, attendant in a mental hospital and screenwriter. He’s our kind of guy, in other words. This is also a good book for audio. (Two free audiobooks may be possible through this link.)


Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine

By Barry Strauss

We greatly enjoyed the book Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine by Barry Strauss. We’ve long been interested in the Roman Empire, and it was a lot of fun romping through Strauss’s explanation of the Game-of-Thrones-like atmosphere that permeated the shenanigans of the various regimes.  By focusing on ten of Rome’s most important rulers, Strauss cuts through the dizzying array of lesser figures who were perpetually offing one another, to instead give us a feel for the men and behind-the-scenes women who shaped history. Augustus, Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Constantine—you may have heard the names, but Ten Caesars will help flesh them out and connect the dots between, so you can better understand an ancient world that, in surprising ways, held similarities to our own.


Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War

By Thomas de Waal

Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War, by Thomas de Waal. What a revelation to find a book that can even-handedly parse one of the most gut-wrenching wars of the late 20th century. De Waal doesn’t take the easy way out in his conclusions about the cause of this disastrous, still-unresolved conflict, which could set the spark for future world war. This book about an important, but often neglected, area of the world is well-worth reading.


Dakota: The Story of the Northern Plains

By Norman K. Risjord

Dakota: The Story of the Northern Plains, by Norman K. Risjord. We’re guessing that, unless you live in North or South Dakota, that you haven’t necessarily had a yen to discover the history of that area.  But you’re missing a treat with this book’s perspective on a little-known, sparsely populated area of the US. Risjord’s “big picture” perspective starts with the geology of the Dakotas, which leads to the earliest traces and growing presence of Native Americans in the area. Onwards the narrative goes to the French and American expeditions, revealing the area’s connection with Canada. As with elsewhere in the US, governmental intervention was devastating for the Native American tribes of the Dakotas—Risjord lays out the blatant scheming and corruption, which carried through to the Swedish and other immigrants.  An insightful look at the history of one of the most beautiful, but less-often-visited, areas in the US.


Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World

By Cal Newport

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, by Cal Newport. We have to start out with an admission of bias—we have always loved anything Cal Newport has ever written. (Cal’s most recent book before Digital Minimalism, Deep Work, is one of the best books on improving productivity we’ve ever read.) In Digital Minimalism, you will find that Newport has become today’s Thoreau, whose cogent observations give us much insight into how to live happier lives.  Plus, Cal’s a wonderful writer—witness this gem: “Earlier, I cited extensive research that supports the claim that the human brain has evolved to process the flood of information generated by face-to-face interactions.  To replace this rich flow with a single bit [the “Like” button] is the ultimate insult to our social processing machinery. To say it’s like driving a Ferrari under the speed limit is an understatement; the better simile is towing a Ferrari behind a mule.”  Highly recommended. (An excellent book for audio. Two free audiobooks may be possible through this link.)


The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers in “Healthy” Foods That Cause Disease and Weight Gain

By Steven Gundry MD

The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers in “Healthy” Foods That Cause Disease and Weight Gain, by Dr. Steven R Gundry M.D. We stumbled across this book several weeks ago, when we were reading some of the other books on neuro-nutrition. That this is a “most read” book on Amazon, with over 2,000 mostly 5-star reviews, gave us the idea that there might be something interesting going on.  And was there ever! As it turns out, there are highly toxic, plant-based proteins called lectins that are found (as the book description notes) “not only in grains like wheat but also in the ‘gluten-free’ foods most of us commonly regard as healthy, including many fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and conventional dairy products. These proteins, which are found in the seeds, grains, skins, rinds, and leaves of plants, are designed by nature to protect them from predators (including humans). Once ingested, they incite a kind of chemical warfare in our bodies, causing inflammatory reactions that can lead to weight gain and serious health conditions.” The Plant Paradox is well worth reading, not least because it also explains why genetically modified foods are not necessarily as innocuous as they might seem.  (The Europeans may be quite right to look at American food products with a jaundiced eye.) We were also surprised to learn why Spanish and Italian milk and cheese don’t seem to provoke the same allergic reaction as their American equivalents—something Barb has frequently observed in her visits to Europe.  Truly a provocative thesis and book.

[Appended by Barb–if you are a vegetarian, you will find this book offers good options for vegetarians. In fact, on Gundry’s diet, you will find yourself eating far more vegetables than the usual American. If you have read take-downs of Gundry’s work by critics who have much to gain themselves by framing themselves as would-be experts, make sure you fact-check those critics by reading Gundry’s book and then looking carefully to see how honest the critics actually are.

I really do also recommend the book The Keystone Approach, which has much the same thesis as Gundry’s book, and is very well-researched. I mean, I’m no nutritionist myself, but I remember back in the day when sugar was a-okay, and fat was the devil—and according to the self-righteous pundits of the day, anyone who said anything different was a complete quack. Pretty much anyone who puts forward a new thesis is going to be criticized by those who see benefit for themselves in being perceived as the expert critics. But there’s some pretty good research evidence that lectins can cause problems in those with the right (or wrong) genetics. (See Cordain, L., Toohey, L., Smith, M., & Hickey, M. (2000). Modulation of immune function by dietary lectins in rheumatoid arthritis. British Journal of Nutrition, 83(3), 207-217. doi:10.1017/S0007114500000271.) Again, take a look at the Keystone Approach.

I have severe rheumatoid arthritis, and the insights in The Keystone Approach and Gundry’s book have been very helpful for me.]


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.  Skloot spent ten years unearthing the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor—and consequently poorly educated—black woman who had pieces of her cervical cancer tumor taken without her consent.  Those cells lived on, and on, and on, spawning a multi-billion dollar industry. The cells’ insidious ability to contaminate wreaked havoc on thousands of seemingly impeccable studies, even as they also helped spur fantastic new scientific insights. The real story involves Henrietta Lacks herself—how she lived, how she died, and what effect the seemingly immortal life of her cells has had on her family. The value of a good education—and what happens when such an education is not available, is an underlying theme of Skloot’s magnificent book. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a #1 New York Times best-seller, has an amazing near 15,000 5-star reviews on Amazon. It has become one of our all-time favorite books of science.


A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy

By Sue Klebold

A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy. by Sue Klebold, the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the two Columbine High School mass murderers.  We weren’t sure what to expect when we picked this book up, but we sure weren’t expecting this sensitively-written, insightful book the ways that even the best of parenting can unintentionally go deeply astray, if only in missing subtle warning signs. An eye-opener was Sue’s admission that if she could go back and do it over, she’d not hesitate to have intruded and read her son’s diaries.  Sue understandably doesn’t want to place blame on anyone or anything else, but clearly, a poisonous atmosphere that tolerated and even encouraged bullying was an important factor in the horrific events that took place. All author profits from the book are donated to research and to charitable organizations focusing on mental health issues.


No Easy Answers: The Truth Behind Death at Columbine High School

By Brooks Brown and Rob Merritt

No Easy Answers: The Truth Behind Death at Columbine High School, by Brooks Brown and Rob Merritt. Brooks Brown was one of Dylan Klebold’s closest friends since elementary school, and he was alternately a friend and enemy of Eric Harris, the other Columbine High School killer. Like Klebold and Harris, Brown was an alienated teen who saw the dark side of the bullying and factionalism at Columbine. Brown’s efforts to alert police prior to the massacre resulted in the local police to do everything they could to smear Brown’s reputation, the better to hide their own malfeasance. A shocking look at how administrators at Columbine, through their one-sided “justice,” encouraged Columbine’s poisonous atmosphere. A quick read and an eye-opening book about how laissez-faire policies underpin sadly simmering rage.


Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty

By Robert Massie

Last week’s mention of Queen Victoria’s status as a carrier for the gene for hemophilia brought to mind what we believe to be one of the greatest biographies ever: Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, by Robert Massie.  Massie first became interested in the Russian imperial family because Massie’s own son son was born with hemophilia. This gives Massie’s book an extraordinarily sensitive understanding of the tsarevitch’s hidden illness,  which ultimately led to the family’s murder. The story of Rasputin’s influence on the royal family—along with the bizarre circumstances of Rasputin’s death—are some of the creepiest stories ever told. This is a book that’s nearly impossible to put down. One of Massie’s other books, Peter the Great: His Life and World, is our very favorite biography—it also won the Pulitzer Prize. If you’re looking for good, long audio books to take you through many driving hours, these are great choices. (Two free audiobooks may be possible through this link.)


Victoria’s Daughters

By Jerrold Packard

Victoria’s Daughters, by Jerrold Packard.  Historians and writers understandably like to focus on Queen Victoria, whose lengthy reign had such an impact on the Great Britain and Europe. (Long ago, we read and enjoyed Stanley Weintraub’s Victoria—many a biography has come out since.) But Packard instead focuses on Victoria’s daughters who, largely through their inheritance of the gene for hemophilia, passed like battering rams through the royal houses of Europe, among other effects, squarely taking out the Romanov dynasty and setting in motion the communist revolution. Victoria’s ill-fated grandson Kaiser Wilhelm suffered injuries during birth which appear to have affected his cognition—what would the world have been like without this key figure in the launch of WWI? Victoria and Albert’s great intentions to do good, through the vicissitudes of fate, spun off into sometimes shocking disarray. A memorable book.


Genius Foods: Become Smarter, Happier, and More Productive While Protecting Your Brain for Life

By Max Lugavere and Paul Grewal M.D.

Genius Foods: Become Smarter, Happier, and More Productive While Protecting Your Brain for Life, by Max Lugavere and Paul Grewal M.D. This is a well-researched book that covers some of the same ground as other books we’ve reviewed regarding sleep, the microbiome, and fat. But it puts everything together in one “life healthy” package that also includes food. Well-produced extra virgin olive oil, incidentally, is considered of standout importance. (But hey, we knew also that from reading the outstanding Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.) Genius Foods is a “most sold” book of the week on Amazon.


Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power

By Lisa Mosconi

Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power, by Lisa Mosconi.  Dr. Mosconi is the Director of the Women’s Brain Initiative and Associate Director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College, where she also serves as an Associate Professor of Neuroscience in Neurology and Radiology. Mosconi’s book couldn’t be more different from Genius Foods—for one thing, grains are big for Mosconi, where avoiding grains is fundamental to Genius Foods.  We got the sense that Brain Food was based on information cherry-picked to coincide with the way Mosconi was raised in her eating habits, rather than an impartial review of recent research literature. And sometimes her recommendations are based on rocky research ground: for example, she refers glowingly to the herb ashitaba without regard for the fact that in vivo research results have not been conducted, and royal jelly is touted notwithstanding the lack of research evidence. Mosconi’s frequent mentions of her website—a dozen repetitions of the URL throughout the book—became tiresome.


The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars

By Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning

The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars, by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning. It can be dizzying to understand the new “victimhood” culture that is arising in opposition to the more traditional US culture of dignity.  “Victimhood culture,” as Campbell and Manning define it “is marked by a low tolerance for slight. It produces a correspondingly low tolerance for all sorts of discomfort and difficulty, even if these are not considered offenses as such. Victimhood culture is also distinguished by a tendency to ask third parties for support in conflicts, and to do so in ways that advertise or exaggerate one’s victimization.”  This excellent book puts a helpful framework on a seemingly helpful movement that, given our past work with the Soviets, we know can lead to problematic outcomes for individuals as well as society. (We can’t help but also recommend Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror: A Reassessment and The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Li Zhi-Sui, Mao’s personal doctor.Campbell and Manning’s wrap up gives as good an overview of sociology as we’ve seen—between their fearless assessment of societal trends and their mastery of their field, those two authors carry the ground-breaking tradition of the great early sociologist Ibn Khaldun. (Read about Ibn Khaldun’s breakthroughs and adventures in Peter Turchin’s not-to-be-missed War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires. (Okay, so Turchin does go on a bit about the Cossacks…)


The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure

By Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. Where Campbell and Manning’s Rise of Victimhood Culture views the microaggression, safe space, and trigger warning trends from a larger perspective, as sociologists, Lukianoff and Haidt’s book also goes into more depth at a personal level about how these kinds of trends can be harmful. But this is actually an uplifting book overall, with plenty of insights from cognitive behavioral therapy to help you get, and keep, your own life in order.


The Bottleneck Rules: How To Get More Done at Work, Without Working Harder

By Clarke Ching

This week, we read the simple The Bottleneck Rules: How To Get More Done at Work, Without Working Harder, by Clarke Ching. This is a short, quick read that gives plenty of examples of bottlenecks (we’ll never look at lines in a coffee shop—or elsewhere—in the same way). Bottleneck Rules gets to some of the key ideas of the theory of constraints much more quickly than the famous The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement; at the same time, Clarke’s breezy style makes the book altogether fun. [Hat tip: José António Basto]


The Brave Learner: Finding Everyday Magic in Homeschool, Learning, and Life

By Julie Bogart

We received a pre-publication of Julie Bogart’s magnificent The Brave Learner: Finding Everyday Magic in Homeschool, Learning, and Life.  Barb’s cover blurb says it all: “A masterpiece. This is the deepest, most meaningful book on parenting I have ever read. If you want to raise your child to be a happy learner, whether via homeschooling or conventional schooling, read this book.” If you are a parent or parent-to-be, get this book!


The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity

By Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott

The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott. We had never really thought about the consequences of lifespans in today’s world, where people have a good chance of living to 100.  Living so long means many societal changes–for one thing, it’s just not as possible to afford to retire at 65 and live comfortably over the next 35 years without having thought, and planned, wisely. In fact, retiring at 65 may not be the best option at all.  This book gives an insightful overview of how to effectively plan your own life, and reinvent yourself as necessary to live long and prosper.


The Secret Life of Fat: The Science Behind the Body’s Least Understood Organ and What It Means for You

By Sylvia Tara

This week’s fascinating book is The Secret Life of Fat: The Science Behind the Body’s Least Understood Organ and What It Means for You, by Sylvia Tara PhD. What we love about this book is not only that it brings fat to life as the fascinating substance it is, but Tara is also a great story-teller, able to wrap us into the lives of various genetic syndromes that manifest as humans becoming too fat or too thin. We picked this book up, oddly enough, because of the title’s resonance with the book The Hidden Life of Trees, a favorite book of ours. Whatever, we’re glad we found it!


Isabella: The Warrior Queen

By Kirstin Downey

One of our tricks for finding good books, especially biographies, is to look through the books at historical tourist sites that we happen to visit.  In this way, we happened to come across (at the Royal Alcázar of Seville), the extraordinary book Isabella: The Warrior Queen, by Kirstin Downey. What a book! This great biography of Isabella of Castile, “the controversial Queen of Spain who sponsored Christopher Columbus’s journey to the New World, established the Spanish Inquisition, and became one of the most influential female rulers in history” goes into the psyche of this extraordinary woman—an increasingly black-and-white thinker whose efforts to do good sometimes rebounded for ill through many centuries. (Shades of pathological altruism.) Great biographies often take side tangents into other fascinating areas: Downey doesn’t disappoint with her descriptions of how Columbus blew one of the greatest discoveries of modern European history, the back and forth of the Ottoman and the European empires, Isabella’s focus on her children’s education, the origins of syphilis, and much more.  Amongst the best biographies we’ve ever read—we had trouble putting this book down. It’s also nice for audio.


Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction

By Chris Bailey

Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction, by Chris Bailey. This book gets right to the heart of how to tame distractions and get your attention keenly focused on the task at hand.  But Bailey does more—he also discusses intelligent use of the diffuse mode (“scatterfocus”) to help with creative problem-solving and incubation of new and different ideas in both learning and work.  We very much appreciated Bailey’s simple, yet effective illustrations. But even so, this is also a fine book for audio. Another popular book by Bailey, (which we haven’t read yet), is The Productivity Project.


The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan

By Robert Kanigel

The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan, by Robert Kanigel.  We first read this book not long after it originally came out in 1991.  The best biographies are often older ones, and this is definitely one of the best. We’ve been surprised over the years to find ourselves recalling all sorts of fascinating tidbits from this book, including mathematician G. H. Hardy’s horror of his own image—he hated looking in mirrors—and Ramanujan’s struggles in the damp, cold British clime. (Which reminds us to bring long underwear—Barb will be speaking at FutureLearn’s headquarters in London on January 31st.) We recently reread The Man Who Knew Infinity, and it’s even better than we remembered. If you’re looking to tuck in to a good winter’s read, this is one you’ll enjoy.


Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones

By James Clear

Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, by James Clear. Sometimes it’s valuable to go back over your life and habits to get a sense of how productive you are—and how much more productive you could be so as to leave room for family, friends, and fun.  James’ book starts with a bang (literally—he was banged in the face with a baseball bat), and takes off from there to step through how to make tiny, doable changes that add up to big results. If you’re looking to make changes in the New Year, this book will be invaluable.  A useful book on reforming your habits, whether or not you’ve read Charles’ Duhigg’s The Power of Habit (which we also really liked). Atomic Habits is also good for audio. (Two free audiobooks may be possible through this link.)


Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds

By David Goggins

This week’s astonishing book is Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds, by David Goggins. David grew up in an unbelievably tough environment with a deeply abusive father. He experienced prejudice and poverty, and suffered learning difficulties that left him graduating from high school barely able to read or do math. He became a depressed, overweight young man with an attitude.  But shockingly, he turned himself into one of the world’s greatest endurance athletes, and became the only man in history to complete training as a Navy SEAL, Army Ranger, and Air Force Tactical Air Controller.

To find a self-published book as #2 on Amazon, with a five-star rating and over 400 reviews, speaks volumes about how good it is.  If you’re trying to do more in your life, or change your life, you’ll find Goggin’s book to be a terrific inspiration.


Behavioral Neuroscience of Learning and Memory

By Robert Clark and Stephen Martin

Our second recommended book this week is Behavioral Neuroscience of Learning and Memory, edited by Robert Clark and Stephen Martin. (Yes, despite the price, we bought the hard copy so we could mark it up—the color pictures are a treat.) Clark is a Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at UCSD’s School of Medicine, while and Martin is a neuroscientist and Discovery Fellow at the University of Dundee.  This book provides an excellent overview of what’s known at a foundational level about memory and how we learn. There’s a fantastic discussion of the long-term memory medial temporal lobe memory system (see the great diagram on page 25); we only wish that research was more advanced so that the chapter on working memory could have been similarly as informative.  (See this fascinating article on changing concepts in working memory in Nature Neuroscience.)


When Can You Trust the Experts: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education

By Daniel Willingham

This week we read When Can You Trust the Experts: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education, by Daniel Willingham. This is a good, much-needed book—what we particularly like is that Dan takes a step back to look at the big picture of what educators (and parents) want to get from education. You’ll learn about Enlightenment to Romantic approaches to education, how to charlatans can use their looks to help them unfairly pass tests of legitimacy (Dan’s bald pate is perhaps a signal of his trustworthiness), and much, much more. Incidentally, another great book by Willingham is his Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom.


Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War

By Robert Coram

Our very favorite, most highly recommended book this year is Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War.  This book ranks amongst our favorite biographies ever. Boyd was a genius level iconoclast (with a measured IQ of 90), and a rebel of the first order, who changed the military’s approach to war and saved countless lives while he was at it. Boyd took on idiocy where ever he found it, whether with bombastic Pentagon generals who were happy to fake important tests, or those who thought they could out gun him in the air. Boyd was so witty, engaging, and fearless in tackling new approaches, and the research behind this extraordinary biography is so artfully done, that it’s a “can’t miss” book for anyone who loves rebels and reading.  OODA away!


Palomino Blackwing Pencils

We love Palomino Blackwing Pencils for our note-taking. These pencils have the most extraordinary feel of any pencil we’ve ever used. Once past the initial sharpening with a standard pencil sharpener, we use a cheap plastic Staedtler manual pencil sharpener, which we set right beside us whenever we are writing. As for the actual note taking, we tend to use either quadrille pads or Moleskine squared notebooks.


The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning

By Richard E. Mayer

The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning, 2nd edn, edited by Richard E. Mayer. If you want to go even deeper into the principles of how human beings learn effectively, you can’t do better than this marvelous 900 page, nearly five-pound behemoth of a book. It goes heavily into the research that helps guide our understanding of how human beings learn. The basic premise is that humans learn better when they can both see and hear what they’re learning–Mayer and his contributors give great insight into why this is true. Hardcover (not e-book) copy is recommended.


e-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning

By Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard E. Mayer

e-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning, (4th edition) by Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard E. Mayer. It’s easy to think that this is a book only for creating online materials.  Nothing could be further from the truth—this is a very deep and useful book for any serious educator. Early on, the book describes how to find and evaluate good research. It’s hard to find books on teaching that build their guidance from knowledge of how the brain works, but Clark and Mayer’s book does just that, and beautifully.  Sure, some of the guidance seems straightforward, but when put all together, this book provides a great set of principles that will help instructors from any discipline better understand, and reach, their students.  Hardcover (not e-book) copy is recommended.


The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined

By Salman Khan

We’re often asked by people who want to try to get back into math (or just into math, if they haven’t been successful at it before). We unfailingly recommend Khan Academy, not only for math, but for pretty much anything. Salman Khan is one of the world’s greatest teachers, and his upbeat, fun, but always spot on videos are one of the best ways around to get yourself started.  (Of course, there’s plenty of practice opportunities available, too!) You may not be aware that Sal has written a fantastic book about his experiences in starting Khan Academy and his vision for education: The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined.

This “big picture” book helps you see where education could–and should—be heading. What’s great about this book is that it isn’t a theoretical tome—it’s a practically useful guide to the future by someone who has already done so much to help us get there.  

We can’t help but ask. Which do you prefer—Sal Khan’s videos with no instructor face shown? Or our LHTL videos that show the instructors?  Feel free to comment in the discussion forum here.

Incidentally, Barb is visiting Khan Academy today to have a “fireside chat” with Sal Khan—she’s so excited!


Seven Myths About Education

By Daisy Christodoulou

As you can tell, we’ve been heavy into education books recently (don’t worry–we’ll be back soon to other topics!) Our most recent book, Seven Myths About Education, by Daisy Christodoulou, is one of the best on education that we’ve ever read. Daisy’s broad experience in teaching, coupled with her critical thinking skills, provide counter-intuitive insight into how we can be fooled into thinking some ways of teaching are better, when they’re actually worse. Her observations involve seven widely held beliefs that are harming students:

  • Facts prevent understanding  
  • Teacher-led instruction is passive   
  • The 21st century fundamentally changes everything   
  • You can always just look it up   
  • We should teach transferable skills   
  • Projects and activities are the best way to learn   
  • Teaching knowledge is indoctrination.

Although this book was written for UK audiences, its findings are perfectly translatable to what is going on in the US. This powerful book is a “must read” for any parent, or K-12 teacher, professor, or administrator.


Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

By Peter Brown, Henry Roediger III, Mark McDaniel

We recently had the opportunity to have breakfast with Peter Brown, the first author of the redoubtable Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, which we believe to be one of the very best books on learning currently in existence. So we took the opportunity to reread the book before our meeting.  Yes, Make It Stick holds up and is even better than we remembered—it’s a wonderful romp through the various techniques that are valuable in making your learning stick.  What has impressed us is not only the scientific rigor of the work (thanks, Henry Roediger III and Mark McDaniel!), but also Peter’s in-depth explanations and wide-ranging examples—this is not a fluff job of a book. Peter’s a heckuva guy—stay tuned for a joining of forces in LHTL’s future projects.

A Spanish version is also available: Apréndetelo: La ciencia del aprendizaje exitoso.  


The Deep Learning Revolution

By Terrence Sejnowski

The Deep Learning Revolution, by Terrence Sejnowski.  Barb had the chance to read this superlative book pre-press, and she has a beautiful hard copy beside her as she writes this. If you are interested in how we got to driverless cars, automated translations, eerily human-like conversations with automatons, and uncannily adept opponents in chess and Go, you can’t miss this fantastic book by our very own Terry Sejnowski. Terry’s many decades of experiences at the pinnacle of discovery in neural processing and artificial intelligence give him an irreplaceably broad perspective. Learn how the obstruction of a few key players delayed the advent of artificial intelligence by decades  and the future direction of deep learning networks in everything from gaming. The deep learning revolution has brought us driverless cars, the greatly improved Google Translate, fluent conversations with Siri and Alexa, and enormous profits from automated trading on the New York Stock Exchange. Deep learning networks can play poker better than professional poker players and defeat a world champion at Go. In this book, Terry Sejnowski explains how deep learning went from being an arcane academic field to a disruptive technology in the information economy.


The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher

By Harry and Rosemary Wong

The world’s most popular book about teaching, it seems, is Harry and Rosemary Wong’s The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher. This self-published book has sold over four million copies in the decades it has been in print, perhaps making it one of the most successful self-published books ever. What’s nice about this book is its disarmingly folky advice about common sense topics such as why you shouldn’t be your students’ friend, and why and how to set your classroom up for successful management practice.  We found the practice of placing entire bibliographic references into the middle of sentences, instead of just referring to them in an endnote, to be pretty clumsy—it was clear this is a self-published book.  But even so, there was a lot of great advice. If you’re a K-12 teacher, this book’s a must-read.


The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out

By Clayton Christensen and Henry J. Eyring

The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, by Clayton Christensen and Henry J. Eyring. We’re attracted to books that explore the potential of online learning in reducing costs and improving education.  Christensen and Eyring’s book does this, but only towards the end—the bulk of the book is an interesting comparison of the historical development of Harvard and BYU-Idaho (initially Ricks College). Cost-cutting is simply not in Harvard’s DNA. Yet, as Christensen and Eyring show, deliberate and judicious choices to not emulate Harvard can result in tremendous cost-savings for students. Key graf: “…most universities’ fundamental problems are of their own making. They are engaged in genetically driven, destructive rivalry with their own kind—other institutions trying to be the world’s best according [to] a single, narrow definition of excellence.”


The Great Gatsby

By F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Normally, as you might have discerned, we’re not novel readers. But seeing as how The Great Gatsby has long been considered to be THE great American novel, we decided to give it a read. The Great Gatsby is a short book, just as Gatsby’s life was itself truncated. Nick, the narrator, is an honest guide to how love led his friend Jay Gatsby to the boundless, tragic pursuit of money. This book is a beautifully written reflection on life, idealism, and ambition, all framed in the excesses of the Roaring Twenties. It’s strange to realize that Fitzgerald died in 1940 with the belief that his writing was a failure—even as Fitzgerald’s  limning of an ultimately forgotten Gatsby created his own literary immortality.


The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

By Benjamin Franklin

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, by Benjamin Franklin.  Although we read Walter Isaacson’s outstanding biography, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, we couldn’t resist digging deeper to see what Franklin himself wrote about his life.  Once we grew accustomed to Franklin’s style, we found the book to be a deeply insightful read. We were taken with Franklin’s quote of Pope:

“Men should be taught as if you taught them not,

And things unknown propos’d as things forgot.”

Many of you have already realized that is the approach we took with the creation of Learning How to Learn.  This is an inspiring book about how to improve both yourself and the lives of others.  Plus, who knew that Franklin almost made a living as a swimming instructor?


The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

By James Weldon Johnson

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, by James Weldon Johnson, a polymath author, educator, lawyer, diplomat, songwriter, civil rights activist, and key figure in the history of the NAACP. Johnson’s book is actually a fictional account of a man of biracial heritage of the late 1800s and early 1900s who describes his experiences as the son of an African-American woman and a wealthy white aristocrat.  The astonishing musical gifts of the “Ex-Colored Man” (Johnson never supplies a name) are subverted by his horrifying experience in witnessing a lynching. This is a moving roman à clef that will haunt you.


Quirky: The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World

By Melissa Schilling

We have a habit of reading books about rebellious, contrarian sorts of people. Quirky: The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World, by Melissa Schilling, is among the better of these books. Schilling’s discussion of the independent, sometimes lonely perspectives of remarkable innovators is alone worth the price of the book—she makes a clear case that too much group work and “creative collaboration” can unintentionally kill creativity.  Well worth the price if you’re interested in creativity.


The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age

By James Crabtree

This week, we read and enjoyed James Crabtree’s The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age. We’re always fascinated by India, but sometimes the unfamiliar names (to our US-based sensibilities) can make it hard to keep track of what’s going on. Crabtree solves the name-challenge by following outsized personalities with riveting stories, all in the context of what’s unfolding politically and financially in today’s India. This is an Amazon Best Book of July 2018—as the review notes, “Crabtree uses interviews and riveting reporting to give us a fascinating look into the sudden, sometimes shocking, and seemingly insurmountable rise of the Indian super-elite, as they surf the wave of globalism.”


Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement

By John Hattie

This week’s recommendation is John Hattie’s Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. This book is a master compendium of what works and what doesn’t in order to help students achieve–Hattie is rightly considered one of the best researchers in education, no matter what quibbles you might have with his approach.  By comparing effect sizes of various interventions such as reduction of class size, holding students back if they aren’t performing well, whole language versus phonics, and so forth, a meaningful idea of what works and what doesn’t can be found. A pioneering work in education.


Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation

By Saundra McGuire

This week’s book recommendation is Saundra McGuire’s Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation. We thought we knew a lot about how to help students succeed, but Saundra’s inspiring book reframed the topic even more positively for us, and gave us a lot of great new strategies.  (Barb was lucky enough to speak with Saundra about her book a few days ago—Saundra herself is a force to be reckoned with in helping reshape attitudes towards student learning.)


We Die Alone: A WWII Epic of Escape and Endurance

By David Howarth

We’ve long thought that Shackleton’s amazing voyage, as described in the riveting book Endurance, was one of the greatest stories of courage and, yes, endurance, ever told.  But we’ve now read an even more amazing story—We Die Alone: A WWII Epic of Escape and Endurance, by David Howarth.  This is the epic tale of how Jan Baalsrud, a Norwegian commando, overcame virtually every hardship that could be thrown at a human being as he fought, skied, limped, dragged, was carried, was entombed, and yet still carried on.  This book will inspire you to carry on with aplomb—it is unforgettable!


Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture

By David Kushner

We’re very interested in how games attract people’s attention. So as we are beginning to explore the world of gaming, we couldn’t resist reading David Kushner’s awesome Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, about John Romero and John Carmack, and how the pair of geniuses helped revolutionize the gaming industry. A riveting read!


Designing the New American University

By Michael Crow and William Dabars

Designing the New American University, by Michael Crow and William Dabars.  Michael Crow is one of the world’s most visionary university presidents—U.S. News and World Report has called Arizona State University, which Crow helms, the #1 university for innovation in the country. (We admit, we’re Michael Crow fans.) So this is a worthwhile book to read if only to get a handle on Crow’s admirable vision of innovation and access. Sadly, the main points of the book are buried beneath clunky prose. We think it’s time for a updated, revised, and streamlined edition.


The University We Need: Reforming American Higher Education

By Warren Treadgold

The University We Need: Reforming American Higher Education, by Warren Treadgold. This book has drawn attention from the Wall Street Journal, the National Review, and Inside Higher Education.  Frankly, although it was sometimes interesting to learn of Treadgold’s perspectives, which are very different from that of typical humanities professors, we struggled with his book. Treadgold’s background is in Byzantine studies, which often meant that his sweeping statements about how universities can and should operate were often completely unworkable for the STEM disciplines—we’re surprised Treadgold didn’t have at least one beta reader friend from the STEM disciplines to clue him in on this.  Suggestions such as the creation of a national National Academic Honesty Board overlook the fact that state boards designed to ferret out cheating in state schools never actually seem to do so. (See the discussion in the far better book Freakonomics for why this occurs.)  And Treadgold’s cherry-picking to point out poor consequences of online learning overlooked excellent results. We’re puzzled about the hullabaloo surrounding this book.


Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve

By Lenore Chu

Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve, by Lenore Chu. It’s very easy to fall into a pattern of thinking that making your child happy is—and should be—the theme of all education.  Chu’s remarkable book explores an educational system that is in many ways the exact opposite of that espoused by Westerners. As it turns out, when “happiness” is not necessarily a factor, sometimes kids, and parents, seem to end up happier.  It’s fascinating to read about the obviously negative (from a Western perspective) effects of the Chinese education system on Chu’s son, but how Chu’s open-minded understanding allows her to persevere and see the benefits of this very different system. We also deeply appreciated Chu’s visits to the Chinese countryside, to obtain a fuller account of what is going on “on the ground” in the Chinese educational system. This is one of the best and most thoughtful books we’ve read on education in a long time—highly recommended.


Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children

By Sara Zaske

Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children, by Sara Zaske. Zaske’s book is more focused on early child care systems than educational systems, which somehow makes the book a lighter read, but no less interesting, read from Lenore Chu’s Little Soldiers. What we found particularly compelling in this book were the discussions of the problems with “attachment style parenting.” As Zaske points out, efforts to be a close parent who maintains a strong bond with a toddler may have the inadvertent effect of creating a type of dependency—not to mention making for many sleepless nights. Fascinating insights into the differences between US and German parenting cultures.


The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind: My Tale of Madness and Recovery

By Barbara K. Lipska and Elaine McArdle

This week’s read was The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind: My Tale of Madness and Recovery, by Barbara K. Lipska (the neuroscientist of the title) and Elaine McArdle. This is a wondrously eye-opening account of what it feels like to go mad, or to be like one of those mean, nasty, self-centered, semi-crazy types who you sometimes run into if you work in customer service. This upbeat, pretty durn happy-ending book is one of the most beautifully-written that we’ve read all year. Good insight into the brain even as we readers receive wonderful insight into the frailty and wonder of human consciousness.


The Magic of Impromptu Speaking: Create a Speech That Will Be Remembered for Years in Under 30 Seconds

By Andrii Sedniev

This week we read The Magic of Impromptu Speaking: Create a Speech That Will Be Remembered for Years in Under 30 Seconds, by Andrii Sedniev.  Andrii is someone to be reckoned with—as the book description  notes: “At the age of 19, Andrii obtained his CCIE (Certified Cisco Internetwork Expert) certification, the most respected certification in the IT world, and became the youngest person in Europe to hold it. At the age of 23, he joined an MBA program at one of the top 10 MBA schools in the USA as the youngest student in the program, and at the age of 25 he joined Cisco Systems’ Head Office as a Product Manager responsible for managing a router which brought in $1 billion in revenue every year.”  So we picked up Andrii’s book, and we’re glad we did. Along with useful insights, Andrii provides wonderful stories about speaking, including his own growth from shy youth to outgoing public speaker. A useful primer to help you gain more comfort in speaking publicly, and an easy, nice read.


On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks

By Simon Garfield

There’s something about a map that brings extraordinary meaning to what, where, and even who you are in life.  (The long and the short of it is, we’re among the map-obsessed minority known as “mapheads.”) So we couldn’t resist reading On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks, by New York Times bestselling author Simon Garfield. Simon takes readers through an insightful history of how maps and map-making unfolded over the millenia If your sense of place isn’t complete without a map, and you’re a bit of a history buff, you will enjoy this book. (An earlier book we also enjoyed several years ago was Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks, by Ken Jennings.)


How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence

By Michael Pollan

This week’s read was How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, by Michael Pollan. We’ve had this book suggested to us by a number of Learning How to Learners, so we wanted to see why all the interest.  First off, Pollan is a great science writer—he’s able to pull the reader into the world of psychedelics and what science is discovering about them, whether or not psychedelics are “your thing.” Pollan makes a great case for why the recent movement to begin studying psychedelics again is beneficial—even as he also gives an even-handed description of the “wow factor” and the dangers of these unusual drugs. A thought-provoking and interesting read.


Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

By John Carreyrou

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, by John Carreyrou. This was such a riveting book that we finished it all in one evening. There’s something so alluring about Silicon Valley would-be geniuses who claim world-changing technology.  The upshot is this whopping cautionary tale featuring world-class frauds and utterly ruthless, no-bounds-of-human-decency litigators. John Carreyrou and the Wall Street Journal deserve kudos for this edge-of-the-seat investigative reporting. See also Nick Gillespie’s interview with John Carreyrou.  Also a great book for audio.


Macular Degeneration: A guide to help someone you love

By Paul Wallis

Macular Degeneration: A guide to help someone you love, by Paul Wallis. It’s easy to get all excited about a great new biography, or entertaining, insightful books on subjects like octopuses or trees. But who would have ever thought that a book on macular degeneration could be both entertaining and enlightening? Entertaining, that is, even if you know no one with macular degeneration, and even if (perhaps especially if) you’ve never known anything before about macular degeneration?  Yes, Macular Degeneration: A guide to help someone you love is a delightful, informative, and upbeat book about a condition that most know little about.  Chapters 1 through 9 in particular give a nice overview of the topic. Paul Wallis is a good writer, whose use of analogies and examples makes the whole book sing—this book is the culmination of his career’s work. Dr. Wallis’s book is well worth reading if you’re generally interested in unusual subjects, if you’d like to learn a little about a subject that might save your own eyesight someday, and if you enjoy taking a literary walk with a good writer who has valuable insights on life.


Remember It! The Names of People You Meet, All of Your Passwords, Where You Left Your Keys, and Everything Else You Tend to Forget

By Nelson Dellis

We were very lucky to receive a pre-publication copy of 4-time US memory champion Nelson Dellis’s new book Remember It! The Names of People You Meet, All of Your Passwords, Where You Left Your Keys, and Everything Else You Tend to Forget. Nelson’s book will be coming out next week—it’s the best book on how to develop your memory we’ve ever read. What’s terrific about Nelson’s book is that doesn’t just give the usual information about how to remember lists or sequences of numbers. Dellis provides all sorts of side bits of important everyday tips—like how to remember something important that occurs to you when you wake up in the middle of the night, how to remember where you’re parked, and how not to forget objects, like a purse (forgetting her purse is the bane of Barb’s existence). We can’t recommend this book more strongly!


China’s Crony Capitalism

By Minxin Pei

China’s Crony Capitalism, by Minxin Pei. If you want a more up-to-date perspective on modern-day social structures in China, this book will give you a broad perspective. Just when you think you’ve heard it all, there couldn’t possibly be another facet of corrupt cronyism, off Pei goes to explore a new area, from business, to environmental protection, to the judicial system, to education, to the police themselves— and far more. If you’re doing business with China, this book, along with Poorly Made in China, is a must-read.


Wu: The Chinese Empress who schemed, seduced and murdered her way to become a living God

By Jonathan Clements

While in China we were also recommended another related biography—Wu: The Chinese Empress who schemed, seduced and murdered her way to become a living God, (a living God is, after all, a nice gig if you can get it). Where Cixi comes across as brilliant but sometimes necessarily hard-edged, Wu comes across more along the lines of the successfully sinister described in Barb’s classic, tongue-in-cheek titled but critically-acclaimed book Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend. (As Harvard’s Steven Pinker noted apropos Evil Genes: “A fascinating scientific and personal exploration of the roots of evil, filled with human insight and telling detail.”)


Empress Dowager Cixi

By Jung Chang

We often find that when we visit a country (and even when we’re simply interested in that country), it’s a great idea to read a book related to that country’s history. Barb’s recent trip to China led her to read Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, by Jung Chang. This revisionist biography lends a sympathetic eye to Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908), who is considered by many to be the most important woman in Chinese history. If you want to catch a sense of the conditions that led to modern China, this intriguing book will keep you captivated—great biographies are one of the easiest ways to learn about history. Incidentally, Empress Dowager Cixi is a nice book for audio. Jung Chang is also the author of the spectacular international best-seller Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, with over ten million copies sold worldwide. Yes, Jung Chang can write!


The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from a Secret World

By Peter Wohlleben

This week’s book is a little different from usual.  It is The Hidden Life of TREES: What They Feel, How They Communicate, by Peter Wohlleben (Audio book here).  We LOVE this best-selling book, which has been optioned for translation into 19 different languages!  The New York Times review of the article summed up some of the book’s intriguing insights about how forest trees are social beings: “They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the ‘Wood Wide Web’; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.”

Wohlleben’s use of analogy and metaphor to convey fascinating science is masterful. This is of the best books we’ve read on nature in the last few decades.


The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness

By Sy Montgomery

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, by Sy Montgomery.  (She also read the Audible version of her book.) This National Book Award Finalist caught our attention because we had no idea that octopuses are so smart and so filled with personality.  Montgomery is an infectiously enthusiastic writer who could get you excited about anything.  The book also gives great insight into the behind-the-scenes work needed to run a world-class aquarium, and the magic of diving on coral reefs in search of wild octopuses. Have you always wondered how an utterly alien intelligence might think? Read on!


Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

By Peter Brown, Henry Roediger III, and Mark McDaniel

If you’re trying to keep up your reading about learning, one of the best books about learning is Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger III, and Mark McDaniel.  This insightful book was co-authored by some of the most influential researchers around. The book jacket says it best: “Many common study habits and practice routines turn out to be counterproductive. Underlining and highlighting, rereading, cramming, and single-minded repetition of new skills create the illusion of mastery, but gains fade quickly. More complex and durable learning come from self-testing, introducing certain difficulties in practice, waiting to re-study new material until a little forgetting has set in, and interleaving the practice of one skill or topic with another. Speaking most urgently to students, teachers, trainers, and athletes, Make It Stick will appeal to all those interested in the challenge of lifelong learning and self-improvement.”


Friend of a Friend: Understanding the Hidden Networks That Can Transform Your Life and Your Career

By David Burkus

This week’s selection is Friend of a Friend: Understanding the Hidden Networks That Can Transform Your Life and Your Career, by business school professor David Burkus. He offers great insight into how and why you can broaden your network, and how important it is to open your mind to those who are different from you, in background, training, outlook, or ideology. We particularly like the stories of both well-known people such as Tim Ferriss, and lesser-known but intriguing characters who’ve made their career breakthroughs by tapping into networks in unusual ways. We couldn’t agree more with the book’s central premise: “making choices about who your friends are and being aware of who is a friend of a friend—can directly influence the person you become, for better or for worse.”

A nice book also for audio listening.


Juggling for the Complete Klutz

By John Cassidy and B. C. Rimbeaux,

About forty years ago, Barb picked up the now-classic book Juggling for the Complete Klutz, by John Cassidy and B. C. Rimbeaux, which comes complete with three bean bags for juggling. Following the book’s instructions, she gradually learned to juggle. (We’re not talking circus level here—just juggling three items was Barb’s triumph!).  Juggling is a bit odd in that you must focus on the item you’re catching while also being more broadly aware of several other items at the same time. We’ve heard the suggestion that juggling can be a great way to relax into the diffuse mode. So recently, Barb picked up another copy of Juggling for the Complete Klutz and its accompanying bean bags and began to renew her juggling skills.  We’re not sure of the underlying neuro-mechanisms, but juggling does seem to be a great way of shifting mental gears.  If you want to learn a fun way to disconnect from whatever you’re doing, try learning to juggle!


Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

By Walter Isaacson

Sometimes we enjoy stepping back into the past (it can be surprising how many of today’s challenges are just repeats from the past!) This week, we dove into biographer extraordinaire Walter Isaacson’s first historical biography: Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.  What’s not to like about a prototypical science nerd who had a smooth way about his life and (often lusty) loves? Franklin was something of a North American Leonardo da Vinci (another of Isaacson’s great biographies). If your background about US history is a little sketchy, Franklin’s life will also catch you up on all the major events that swirled around the country’s founding. Fantastic book!


The Courage to Grow: How Acton Academy Turns Learning Upside Down

By Laura Sandefer

The Courage to Grow: How Acton Academy Turns Learning Upside Down, by Laura Sandefer.  The Acton Academies are private schools that were created to solve precisely the types of problems discussed in Levine’s Price of Privilege.  Laura Sandefer tells a personal story of her own children, and how and why she and her husband Jeff chose to develop a new system of schooling that focuses on the hero’s journey—and vaults students well above their standard grade level. (Incidentally, Jeff Sandefer, with his MBA from Harvard, was named by BusinessWeek as one of the top Entrepreneurship professors in the United States and by The Economist magazine as one of the top Business School professors in the world.) Acton Academies are spreading quickly worldwide, and it’s little wonder, because the schools embrace personal accountability even as they provide powerful learning opportunities for children. An honest, forthright, deeply thought-provoking book about what an education could and should be. (Audio version read by Laura Sandefer herself.)


The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids

By Madeline Levine, Ph.D.

The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids, by Madeline Levine, Ph.D. Our tendency is to focus on obviously disadvantaged kids coming from poor families. That can be a mistake, says author and practicing psychologist Madeline Levine, who works in affluent Marin County, California. Consumerism and focus on achievement can produce depressed, anxious, angry and bored teenagers who suffer from high rates of drug use, eating disorders, and suicide. Sometimes, in fact, the seeming poor can have far wealthier internal lives. Levine offers great suggestions for the advantaged to help them avoid common parenting pitfalls involving intrusiveness and autonomy.


On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft

By Stephen King

This week, we read Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft—if you have any interest in writing at all, this is a great book, especially when paired with William Zinsser’s On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, which is geared towards non-fiction.  What we particularly like about King’s book is that he doesn’t just talk about the nuts and bolts of writing (although what he does provide along those lines is great).  The memoir portions of the book are utterly engrossing—you’ll learn what it’s like to grow up and become an international best-seller, and the bizarre things that best-seller-dom can do to your psyche. King has sailed through it all—including his near lethal run-in with an out-of-control car. By our count, this is an “all-time top five” book on writing!  


This Is the Year I Put My Financial Life in Order

By John Schwartz

This week, we read This Is the Year I Put My Financial Life in Order, by New York Times reporter John Schwartz.  This is an important book—before she passed away, Barb’s aunt Renie could have told you why.

Renie was a smart, independent career woman.  When she retired, to her surprise, found herself unable to afford to live independently.  The reason? Although Renie had learned many things in her life, she’d never bothered to learn about personal finances.  As it turns out, putting away a little each month beginning relatively early in your career can make enormous improvements in your life, and the lives of your family members, as you grow older.

John Schwartz tells you how to get your financial life in order, no matter what your age.  This is the Year is not some dry accounting discussion—instead, the book builds from a candid and entertaining description of Schwartz’s own occasional financial successes and many failures, including his brush with bankruptcy and disastrous housing “investment.”  Schwartz describes the what type of account to set up for retirement, how much to put away (it’s not much, especially if you start early), and how to think about your income, taxes, debt, investments, insurance, and home purchasing. If you want to do the best you can long term for yourself and those you love, you owe it to yourself to read this excellent book. (Also nice on audio.)


Principles: Life and Work

By Ray Dalio

Ray Dalio’s Principles: Life and Work is a masterpiece of insight, not only on how to achieve your goals, (whatever those goals might be), but on how you can build an organization that is structured for success.  Dalio knows what he’s talking about—he founded his investment firm, Bridgewater Associates, out of a two-bedroom apartment. Now, forty years later, Bridgewater has made more money for its clients than any other hedge fund in history, and grown into the fifth most important private company in the United States.

Dalio attributes some of Bridgewater’s success to his principle of radical open-mindedness. This means, at least in part, being aware of your internal signals of annoyance, anger, or irritability—which are all signs of close-mindedness.  You can use those internal signals to trigger quality reflections. Radical open-mindedness doesn’t mean accepting all information—it means seeking out quality information that you may not want to hear.

We have often used radical open-mindedness even in our research—for example, we send advance versions of our research papers to people we know will dislike our work. When we get past our own petty feelings of “ouch—that’s not true!” in the responses, we’re not infrequently surprised to find how the criticism, even “bad” criticism, helps improve what we’re working on.

Dalio’s Principles will, we feel, go down in the annals of best books of the decade. It is a deep book of productivity that gets at the essentials of your life. (This is also a good book for audio.)


From Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future

By Peter Thiel and Blake Masters

From Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters. This insightful book helps readers understand the importance of creative entrepreneurial thinkers to the world’s future. Even if you have no interest in business, the book is worthwhile for its insights into contrarianism and creativity.  We like New York Times best-selling author Neal Stephenson’s characterization: “The first and last business book anyone needs to read; a one in a world of zeroes.” (The audiobook is read by Blake Masters—you may be able to get two free audiobooks through this link.)


Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue

By Ryan Holiday

Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue, by Ryan Holiday.  Holiday’s book tells the story of Peter Thiel’s behind-the-scenes destruction of online media company Gawker. We have to admit, Conspiracy is a page turner, and Holiday’s access to both of the principals in this case, Peter Thiel and Nick Denton, gave the kind of insider details that really kept us hooked.  It was amusing to watch how journalists’ seemingly objective view of the verdict flipped once they discovered Thiel’s involvement. Ryan Holiday’s entire career has arisen from his ability to make journalists happy (he wrote the best-selling Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, which we admit we really liked). So it’s no surprise that he ends the book to go almost comically over-the-top in siding with journalists.



How Things Work: The Physics of Everyday Life

By Louis Bloomfield

We want to bring up one of our favorite books: How Things Work: The Physics of Everyday Life, by Louis Bloomfield.  Barb has used this book for years to teach basic ideas of engineering to ordinary non-engineering types.  After all, “technological literacy” doesn’t just mean that you know a smattering about how your computer works–it should also mean you know the basics of how your car works, how your refrigerator keeps things cool, and how your house is kept warm in the winter. How Things Work will allow you to much more easily understand how these great technological advances work. Bloomfield uses wonderful, simple metaphors and great imagery that allow you to easily “chunk” the key ideas, even as you find yourself wading easily into the underlying physics.  There’s also a less textbooky version of the book How Everything Works: Making Physics Out of the OrdinaryIncidentally, if you are an engineering professor, you’ll find some great ideas here to more rapidly onboard your students using Lou’s great metaphors.

Although Dr. Bloomfield would have no memory of it now, about a decade ago, Barb was able to visit and tour his fantastic physics demonstrations at the University of Virginia.  He’s a wonderful man!


Sony Noise Cancelling Headphones

These are expensive, but they’re nice in that you can not only listen to your laptop (or whatever) on a plane, but you also look sophisticated rather than dorky. (For dorky but cheap, see here  Somewhat less dorky but still cheap, try here.)


3M Peltor X-Series Over-the-Head Earmuffs, NRR 31 dB

These puppies are amongst the most effective sound protectors available.  They also make you look like you’re about to get inside an armored vehicle about to fire heavy artillery.  But if you don’t care how you look, these are really fantastic!


Off the Charts: The Hidden Lives and Lessons of American Child Prodigies

By Ann Hulbert

This week, we read Ann Hulbert’s Off the Charts: The Hidden Lives and Lessons of American Child Prodigies.  A great strength of this book was its broad coverage of prodigies of all sorts—from computer programming savants like Bill Gates to dance and acting prodigy Shirley Temple.  (A concomitant weakness is that sometimes we wanted to learn more!) We particularly appreciated Hulbert’s highlighting of the difference between intelligence and wisdom. Some parents with extraordinary IQs, for example, have pushed their children in bizarre ways—with often disastrous results. Other parents have wholeheartedly devoted their lives to the children they wished to make into prodigies, only to find little solace in the long run. Somehow through all this, the book provides healthy encouragement for ordinary, non-savant types.

There was a disconcerting tendency through the book to switch between prodigies even mid-paragraph, but otherwise, highly recommended!


A Book for Magnificent Leadership: Transform Uncertainty, Transcend Circumstance, Claim the Future

By Sarah Levitt

Sarah Levitt has written a book to help leaders better understand how other leaders wend their way through the difficult, sometimes lonely path of great leadership: A Book for Magnificent Leadership: Transform Uncertainty, Transcend Circumstance, Claim the Future.  Through interviewing successful leaders, Sarah has laid out guidelines that others can find useful. “The audience for this book includes CEOs, business leaders, those professionals contemplating a career change and those beginning a career as consultants.”


How the Brain Learns

By David A. Sousa

This past week, we read How the Brain Learns, by David A. Sousa, (now in its fifth edition), which was recommended to us as a top neuroscience-based book on learning.  If you’re looking for a good general overview of what we know from neuroscience about how to educate children better, this book has been put together with care.  A good aspect of the book is its comprehensive nature—there’s a nice overview of the brain and how it develops; how the brain processes information; memory; brain organization; and a particularly important section on the importance of music and art.  It’s not easy to make sense of all the disparate strands of neuroscience-related research and get it down in a logical, understandable form, and Sousa has done a yeoman’s job with it.

The book’s fault lies in its occasional acceptance of dated, sometimes junk science.  This latest edition doesn’t mention or do justice to well-deserved criticism of topics such as learning styles, stereotype threat, multiple intelligences, or concept mapping. We’re hopeful that the book’s next edition will resolve these issues.

There are so many books to help teachers understand how younger students learn. But you may be surprised to learn that there are virtually no books for those students themselves, or for their parents.  

If you want to help youngsters from ages ten to seventeen to learn how to learn, based on practical insights from neuroscience, we can’t help but suggest our own upcoming book Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying; A Guide for Kids and Teens.  The funny but deeply informative pictures alone are worth the price of the book. (And yes, there are zombies…) In some ways, this seemingly simple book goes deeper into how we learn than even our MOOC Learning How to Learn. You’ll find that this is also a great book to read together as a family. And you’ll see that even if your children are in the toddler stage, you’ll get some powerful insights on learning that will help you guide them in their learning as they mature.


The Glass Castle: A Memoir

By Jeannette Walls

We make it a practice to ask people about their all-time favorite book. Along these lines, we’ve had a number of recommendations for The Glass Castle: A Memoir, by Jeannette Walls. So we finally broke down and read it. This book, incidentally, has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 411 weeks, and has over 7,000 Amazon reviews with a 4.6 rating.   Walls experienced, along with her brother and sisters, a deeply dysfunctional upbringing. Yet her upbeat, spunky child’s voice carries us through the hard times to Walls’ ultimate triumph as an adult. Walls writes in a way that we can draw our own conclusions about her parents’ shortcomings and odd blessings, even as we learn of the seamy, hardscrabble world experienced by many around the world.  (The audiobook is read by Walls herself—you may be able to get two free audiobooks through this link.)

Incidentally, years ago, we enjoyed Jeannette Walls’ Gossip: The Inside Story On The World Of Gossip Became the News and How the News Became Just Another Show, an eye-opening history of celebrity news reporting.


What Every BODY is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People

By Joe Navarro and‎ Marvin Karlins

This week’s recommendation is the wonderful, quick read What Every BODY is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People, by Joe Navarro and‎ Marvin Karlins. We love the pictures in the book, which give an excellent sense of the small “tells” that signal characteristics such as sincerity or untrustworthiness.  This culturally aware book could help keep you out of trouble during your travels, and also give you a leg up in your ordinary interactions both at work and at home.  And veryone—especially teachers—could benefit from knowing how they may inadvertently be sending negative signals they don’t really want to be sending.  Highly recommended!


The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money

By Bryan Caplan

The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, by Bryan Caplan. If you are in any way involved in education, or you think education is important (as we do!), this book will make you uncomfortable. But unlike The New Education, The Case Against Education is rigorously argued, and it will force you to examine the premises of your support for learning. Ultimately, we found that this book caused us to respect real learning even more.  Strongly recommended.


Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling

By John Taylor Gatto

Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, by John Taylor Gatto.  Gatto’s book consists of an easy-to-read, yet thought-provoking set of essays critical of the educational system.  His background in writing this book is unusual—Gatto was named New York City Teacher of the Year in 1989, 1990, and 1991, and New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991. The eloquence and intelligence with which Gatto vivisects the modern K-12 world makes the book a very worthwhile read for anyone interested in education; it is particularly worthwhile for parents.  Highly recommended.


The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World In Flux

By Cathy Davidson

The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World In Flux, by Cathy Davidson. We went into this book with high hopes—Davidson characterizes herself as a contrarian instigator with provocative new ideas about how to revolutionize higher education.  What we found was a series of cherry-picked stories that supported Davidson’s unswerving worldview that MOOCs are bad and virtually impossible to learn from,  and that the only way to learn well is through a teacher who is willing to go to extremes to provide the personal touch. Her ultimate underlying recommendation for improving universities? Throw more money at them. (She writes off criticism of academic misspending or bloat with a few quick Manichean sentences.) No wonder academicians love her despite her self-proclaimed contrarian stance.

How readers would have benefited by seeing a profile a student like Tulio Baars, who has taken over 160 MOOCs to self-educate and used that knowledge to found an innovative new data analysis company! Tulio demonstrates the potential of today’s students to take advantage of the economy of scale that MOOCs provide to bootstrap themselves at low cost to an extraordinary education. Davidson constantly interweaves poorly founded opinion with facts—unless you know which are which, it can be hard for typical readers to understand when she’s going off the rails.  This is one of the few books we are reviewing without recommending.


Education and the State

By E. G. West

Education and the State, by E.G. West This important book seems to have somehow fallen off educator’s reading lists, which is a shame. If you want a solid reference about how education has developed over the past centuries in the UK and US, (admittedly with a bit of heavy reading involved), you couldn’t do better than to read West’s book. West doesn’t shy away from detailing the self-serving nature of many educational institutions.


King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

By Adam Hochschild

King Leopold’s Ghost is an extraordinary book exposes a vitally important, yet almost covered-up and forgotten story of how King Leopold of Belgium spearheaded the murder of some ten million people in the Congo. It would seem that such a book would be a depressing read, but somehow, Hochschild writes in such a riveting way, placing the story in context with greater world history, that the book is a not-to-be-missed masterpiece.

We believe this is one of the most important books written in the last twenty years. Don’t miss it. (Audio book here.)


12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos

By Jordan B. Peterson

Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, has been floating at the top of the Amazon best-sellers listing for several weeks, so we had to see what all the hullabaloo was about. Peterson’s book is an intriguing mixture of deeply researched psychology, philosophy, religious studies, and history, with a connective tissue of biology, neuroscience and real-life experiences. (Given our own not-so-hot experiences with communism, we were gratified to see that Peterson, unlike many modern academicians, didn’t brush right over one of the most horrific movements of the twentieth century.)  Peterson’s book forms a worthwhile effort to find an inspiring, rather than nihilistic, worldview of life and of learning—read it yourself to see what all the hype is about. Peterson, with his wonderfully listenable accent from rural Canada, reads the audio version of his book. (You may be able to get two free audiobooks through this link.)


The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

By Stephen Covey

This month’s top book recommendation is the great classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, by Stephen Covey.  (Dr. Covey actually read the Audible version of his book. Don’t forget that you may be able to get two free audiobooks through this link.) There is a reason this book has been translated into 32 languages and has sold over 5 million copies. It is one of our personal, life-changing favorites—a synthesis of timeless principles for personal effectiveness that focus on character, rather than technique.  The stories he uses to convey key ideas help the ideas resonate unforgettably. We only wish that Dr. Covey were still alive to do a MOOC!


Confessions of a Public Speaker

By Scott Berkun

This week’s book recommendation is Scott Berkun’s Confessions of a Public Speaker.  We’ve read a fair number of books about various aspects of public speaking, and Scott’s book ranks among the best. He goes into the nitty-gritty of travel, preparation, and what it feels like to be on stage, plus tips on calming down about verbal flubs and the like. Teachers will find much useful insight–plus, Berkun is a really funny writer. Highly recommended!


Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone

By Satya Nadella with Greg Shaw and Jill Tracie Nichols

We happened to pick up Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone, by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. To be honest, we weren’t expecting much (we read a lot of books that never make the cut for our Cheery Friday newsletter). We were astonished to find a CEO who is the real deal as far as caring both for his customers and the employees of his company.  Satya’s empathy for others, growing in part from his children’s physical and learning challenges, have given him a sui generis approach to running a company. Satya’s book is a wonderfully inspiring read about the difference a great company, with great leadership, can make in people’s lives. Also includes interesting perspectives on quantum computing and artificial intelligence. Highly recommended!


Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

By Mason Currey

This week, we opted for some light reading with Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey. This is basically a compendium of workaholic work habits of a number of famous writers and artists. Since we’re sort of workaholics ourselves, it was an intriguing glimpse into the psyches of kindred spirits. In one way, the book was a little unsatisfying, because most of the descriptions of people work habits were very short. On the other hand, the brevity of the entries is part of what made it such an intriguing book—Currey breezed through the lives of dozens of creative people in a way that allowed us to quickly glean key ideas from a lot of different people. It was gratifying to learn that many writers are bothered by noise, just as we are.  We’ve seen reference to Daily Rituals in so many books that we figured it was time to read the book ourselves, and we’re glad we did.

Audible version available here. (This is a nice book for listening. Two free audiobooks may be possible through this link.)


The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

By Nassim Nicholas Taleb

We’re embarrassed to admit that, despite all of the hullabaloo over the past decade, we had never previously gotten around to reading The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbablea no-holds-barred vivisection of so-called experts. Taleb doesn’t shy away from naming names—including Nobel Prize winners and the head of the Fed, and describing exactly how their financial guidance is, in some ways, more harmful than that of a cab driver.  

This is one of those books that we love because it confirms our own previous experiences with regards experts, particularly academic experts. As Taleb puts it, “Black Swan events are largely caused by people using measures way over their heads, instilling false confidence based on bogus results.”  Once you’re indoctrinated with a certain methodology, as for example, the value of the Gaussian curve, it’s hard to see when that curve gives dangerously misleading information.


Pathological Altruism

By Barbara Oakley,‎ Ariel Knafo,‎ Guruprasad Madhavan,‎ David Sloan Wilson

This book explores, in broad-ranging fashion, how helping can hurt.  See what some of today’s top thinkers have said about the book:

“A scholarly yet surprisingly sprightly volume…The book is the first comprehensive treatment of the idea that when ostensibly generous ‘how can I help you?’ behavior is taken to extremes, misapplied or stridently rhapsodized, it can become unhelpful, unproductive and even destructive.”
—Natalie Angier, The New York Times

“What a wonderful book! This is one of the few books in evolutionary biology I’ve read in the past ten years that taught me something completely new.”
—Edward O. Wilson, Pulitzer Prize Winner and Pellegrino University Research Professor Emeritus, Harvard University

“The coverage of topics is breathtaking…. The reader will emerge with a much deeper and nuanced understanding of altruism in reading this book, the best on altruism in the last 15 years.”
—Dacher Keltner, Professor of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley; author of Born To Be Good: The Science of A Meaningful Life


Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By

By Timothy Wilson

Redirect is a great and thoughtful book.  It’s ostensibly about changing your interior dialogue—the story you tell yourself—in order to help you live a happier, more fulfilling life.  And there’s plenty of great information along those lines, told with riveting stories.  But Redirect is more than that—it’s also a book that helps you understand how well-meaning, but untested programs can harm the very people those programs are meant to help.

This book has resonated with us for years—it’s a “don’t miss” if you want to help yourself—and truly help others.

The audio version  of Redirect was narrated by Grover Gardner, who also narrated our own A Mind for Numbers.


The Fast Track to Your Technician Class Ham Radio License

By Michael Burnette

This highly rated book is being used by Barb’s daughter to study for her Technician Class Ham Radio License.  The book has terrific explanations–no wonder it is so highly rated!

Don’t miss the audiobook, which is surprisingly useful.


Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life

By Steve Martin

Laughing out loud: Barb’s aunt was the mail woman who used to deliver comedian Steve Martin’s mail for him at his home in Hollywood. So that’s how we’ve come to know that in real life, Steve Martin is truly the nice guy he appears to be in his beautifully written, best-selling autobiography Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life.  (Yes, Steve did the Audible narrative, too.) Working as a professional stand up comedian is hard. If you are a teacher or do any kind of public speaking, you’ll find valuable nuggets of information as you learn of Martin’s extraordinary life.


When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing

By Dan Pink

We’ve long been major fans of Dan Pink. His latest book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing lives up to Dan’s fantastic writing record. Right from the start, we were riveted to read of a ship sunk on a sunny afternoon within sight of shore—with over a thousand lives lost. How did it happen?  You’ll have to read When to see, but the book’s title gives an important clue. We love Dan Pink’s work because he’s one of the best writers around at combining practically useful insights from science with compelling stories that are hard to put down. (And as a result of Dan’s book, Barb plans to take tango lessons with her husband!)

Dan himself reads the Audible version, here.


How to Traumatize Your Children: 7 Proven Methods to Help You Screw Up Your Kids Deliberately and with Skill

By Knock Knock

We received this delightful book for Christmas.  By making fun, (in hilarious fashion) of common parental foibles, it also helps us keep in mind what good parenting really entails.  Barb regifted this to her pediatrician daughter–the book is now an even bigger hit, making the rounds with her fellow pediatrician-residents.nts.


The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters

By Benjamin Ginsberg

This important book gives a great overview of why administrative bloat at universities is a major societal problem.  “Deanlets,” that is, administrators and staffers often without serious academic backgrounds or experience, are setting the educational agenda. This book is highly recommended if you want to understand the important problem of sky-high student tuitions in higher education, or if you’d like to understand some of the strange recent academic decisions that are counter to the intellectual freedom that universities have long espoused.


Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil

By Tom Mueller

We very much enjoyed Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, an eye-opening book on the world of olive oil.  We had a sense that olive oils were often scandalously mislabeled, but this book really opened our eyes about how “extra virgin first cold-pressed olive oil” is often anything but—and regulatory bodies worldwide often avoid doing anything about it.  Author Tom Mueller covers far more in his enlightening book—the health benefits of real, fresh olive oil; the growing international marketplace, the history of the oil in athletics, religion, and perfumes; and not to mention the sheer beauty of the trees.

You’ve probably been aware of the importance of both exercise and a healthy diet.  But you may not know that exercise coupled with a healthy diet has a bigger impact on our health, and our ability to learn, than either exercise or a healthy diet alone. But which diet is best?As Extra Virginity describes, the Mediterranean diet, with olive oil as a key component, is an excellent choice for healthy eating. Interestingly, there has long been a “food desert” hypothesis that poor individuals do not have access to reasonably priced healthy food, which is why their diets are so unhealthy.  This hypothesis has been essentially disproven in a recent massive analysis (described here) of 35,000 supermarkets covering 40% of the US.  Unhealthy eating, sad to say, is often a choice. So read this book to help you do your part in making healthier (and tastier!) choices!


The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure

By Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

Barb is a big fan of Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. This book will be a very important part of the public conversation when it’s published on July 17, 2018.  Pre-order to be first in line for a copy!


Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life

By Amy E. Herman

If you’re interested in how art improves our ability perceive and understand, we highly recommend Amy Herman’s Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life.  (We prefer the hard copy over the e-reader copy, because the images are easier to see on the hard copy.)  This book will definitely improve your powers of observationeven while some of the stories are so compelling that the book’s tough to put down. And yet another excellent, but hard-to-get book on art is Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing, by Margaret Livingstone.


The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

By Stephen Covey

This month’s top book recommendation is the great classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, by Stephen Covey.  (Dr. Covey actually read the Audible version of his book. Don’t forget that you may be able to get two free audiobooks through this link.) There is a reason this book has been translated into translated into 32 languages and has sold over 5 million copies. It is one of our personal, life-changing favorites—a synthesis of timeless principles for personal effectiveness that focus on character, rather than technique.  The stories he uses to convey key ideas help the ideas resonate unforgettably. We only wish that Dr. Covey were still alive to do a MOOC!


Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

By Robert Cialdini

We also love to listen to books—we’re now listening to Robert B. Cialdini’s masterful volume Influence, which has influenced a generation’s understanding of the art of persuasion.  Influence will help you to see more clearly the subtle influences that others are exerting on you—and allow you to more easily bring people to agreement with your own ideas. (If you want to try Audible, you can get two free audiobooks through this link.)


The Ego Is the Enemy

By Ryan Holiday

Lately, we’ve found ourselves caught up in Ryan Holiday’s thought-provoking books.  We found a lot to like in his The Ego Is the Enemy, (Audible version here) which provides a refreshing break from today’s relentless onslaught of books about successful egotists. Ryan’s reflections on his own ego-related failures, as well as well as those of intriguing people through history, can give you good strategies for avoiding these problems yourself. Ryan’s excellent related book which has understandably developed a cult following is The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph (Audible here).


A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra)

By Barbara Oakley

This stealth world-wide best-seller has been translated into over a dozen languages worldwide.  Whether you are a student struggling to fulfill a math or science requirement, or you are embarking on a career change that requires a new skill set, A Mind for Numbers offers the tools you need to get a better grasp of that intimidating material.

Unlike most books on learning, A Mind for Numbers delves into the neuroscience–walking you through research insights that are immediately and practically useful.  This is the book that the MOOC Learning How to Learn is based on–it helps reinforce and deepen your understanding of the fundamental concepts involved in learning!


My First Book About the Brain

By Patricia J. Wynne and Donald M. Silver

If you think your or a relative’s child might be curious about neuroscience, we recommend My First Book About the Brain (Dover Children’s Science Books), by Patricia J. Wynne and Donald M. Silver, 2013. This 32 page long, award-winning coloring book is actually used in some regular classes, and could be a particular boon for the wide-ranging interests of home-schooled kids. Suitable for ages 8–12, but grownups also seem to enjoy the relaxing process of coloring while they learn.


The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results

By Gary Keller and Jay Papasan

Our book recommendation this week is The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. (The Audible version seems to be on sale now. Two free audiobooks may be possible through this link.)  The ONE Thing has  been a monster best-seller, with  more than 350 appearances on national bestseller lists, including #1 Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and USA Today. We read this book when it first came out in 2013, and then reread it again recently. What’s surprised us is how much of its message we’ve internalized into our approach to our work. This has clearly been beneficial!  Highly recommended if you’re trying to improve your productivity in your work—and your happiness in family life.


Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life

By Bill Burnett and Dave Evans

We’re now reading Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, which has become a #1 New York Times bestseller. We can see why the book is so extraordinarily popular—Designing Your Life is a book “built” for people of all ages to consider what their life is about, and to help them create a life that makes them happy to wake up to each day.  Even if you’re not looking to change, this book will help you get the most out of the life you do live.


TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking

By Chris Anderson

We happened to pick up the book TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, by Chris Anderson, the curator of TED. We’ll admit, we didn’t have great expectations—after all, the title sounds a bit like a how-to manual.  But instead, as we like to say in English, it knocked our socks off!  This riveting book should be read by anyone who needs to communicate with others (which means everyone), and especially by teachers.   Even as Anderson regales us with the intriguing and sometimes hilarious stories that lie behind the great TED talks, he gives all sorts of useful nuggets about how we grow to trust and learn from others.  Highly recommended, also in the Audible version, which is actually read by Chris Anderson.   And if you are looking for a more specific how-to manual on public speaking, we also recommend Nancy Duarte’s HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations.


Peter the Great: His Life and World

By Robert K. Massie

Peter the Great: His Life and World, by Robert Massie, is in our opinion, truly one of the greatest biographies ever written—fully deserving of its Pulitzer Prize.  Not only does the book provide great insight into Peter the Great—it also takes us down some of the stranger rabbit holes of history.  Who knew that Sweden’s Charles XII squirreled himself away in Turkey, driving his hosts crazy and refusing to leave?  Barb babbled so much about this book at home that she was temporarily banned from discussing it.


Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

By Jack Weatherford

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World is one of Barb’s all-time favorite biographies.  Author Jack Weatherford has spent years traveling, exploring, and researching in Mongolia. As a consequence of Weatherford’s writing, we can enter into the world of one of civilization’s most storied leaders.  The juxtaposition of Genghis Khan’s utter ruthlessness with his enlightened policy-making, all mixed with great discussions of Mongolian culture and the great Khan’s impact on the world, makes for riveting reading.   This is a not-t0-be-missed biography!  (Jack Weatherford himself narrated the audio version.)

A great companion book is The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire.  Genghis Khan’s incredible achievements shine even more brightly once they’re contrasted with the decay that followed his death.  The stories of the great Khan’s daughters are riveting, and his descendants’ role in the birth of what is today modern Mongolia makes for a fascinating read.  Who would have thought that a little physically handicapped boy in manly Mongolia, and his more-than-a-decade older mentor (and, eventually, wife), could grow a nation?


Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams 

By Matthew Walker, PhD

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams is one of the most important books we have ever read.  If you read one book to help you with your learning (and life) this year, we think it should be Why We Sleep.

It seems that every question we’ve ever wondered about related to sleep is covered by author Matthew Walker’s masterful discussion of sleep. Walker is the Director of UC Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab, so he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to snoozing.  Yet Walker is also a masterful writer, full of witty, insightful metaphors that give an in-depth understanding of how and why we need to sleep.  We’d always known that sleep was a vital part of learning–Walker’s book tells why sleep is so important.  Walker shares sleep-related insights by the dozen along the way, such as why sleeping pills are much less innocuous than you think, tips and tricks to falling asleep more quickly, and why a tiny percentage of the population needs only 4 hours or so of sleep a night–(and why you’re probably not one of those people).  Do not miss this book. (Audio version here.) [Hat tip, super-MOOCer Ronny De Winter.]


Leonardo da Vinci

By Walter Isaacson

Everyone’s been talking about Walter Isaacson’s latest biography, Leonardo da Vinci, so we had to join the crowd and see what all the hullabaloo was about. (We’ll admit, we’ve previously tackled da Vinci biographies that ended up putting us to sleep, so we were excited to see what master biographer Isaacson would do with Leonardo’s story.)  Isaacson’s book is a stellar exposition of what we know of Leonardo’s life—Isaacson bases much of his writing on what we know of Leonardo from his encompassing set of notebooks.

Da Vinci will always remain something of an enigma, because the inner turmoil he communicated so poignantly in his paintings is not something he described in his otherwise comprehensive notebooks.  So as a biography, Leonardo da Vinci is slightly paler than some of our favorite other Isaacson biographies, including the fantastic  Einstein: His Life and UniverseSteve Jobs, and Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. But our lack of understanding of da Vinci’s inner life is more than made up for by learning of da Vinci’s unparalleled life of curiosity and brilliance. Da Vinci tackled virtually every field of science and turned it into art.  As Isaacson observes, we ourselves can learn to observe life more fully by seeing how the magnificent Leonardo did it.


The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance

By Josh Waitzkin

We’ve just finished a fantastic book: The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance, by Josh Waitzkin.Waitzkin’s book provides a fantastic juxtaposition of the commonalities of learning, whether in mental or physical endeavours. (Not only was Waitzkin an eight-time National Chess Champion–he is also a world champion in martial arts.) Josh is a wonderful writer with a wealth of telling stories–his book is hard to put down. Good writing seems to run in the family: Josh’s father wrote Searching for Bobby Fischer: The Father of a Prodigy Observes the World of Chess, which we enjoyed when it first came out.  Josh’s experiences reinforce the importance of chunking. This is precisely what is emphasized by “expert on expertise” Anders Ericsson–see his excellent book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, which was another recent top pick, along with Mike Merzenich’s terrific Soft-Wired.)


Still Alice

By Lisa Genova

Still Alice is a book that has resonated amazingly with the public–it has over 5,000 reviews on Amazon, with an overall 4.7 out of 5.0 star rating.  Barb’s father passed from Alzheimer’s–this book gives a rare, “from the inside” perspective of what it’s like to live with this disease.


The Like Switch: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Influencing, Attracting, and Winning People Over

By Jack Schafer and Marvin Karlins

We love The Like Switch!  It has made us much more aware of the tiny “tells” that signal whether or not you’ve captured a person’s attention and interest.  Most people naturally give off “friend” or “foe” signals without even being aware of it. With the information in this book, you can find yourself making friends quite literally with the flick of an eyebrow.  You’ll see others–and yourself–with a new perspective. We only wish we’d read this book decades ago!

Audiobook version narrated by George Newbern, who’s voice we really enjoy–he did a fantastic job on Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. (Two free audiobooks may be possible through this link.)


Cajal’s Neuronal Forest: Science and Art

By Javier DeFelipe

Cajal’s Neuronal Forest: Science and Art, by Javier DeFelipe, is a sister volume to neuroscientist Javier DeFelipe’s earlier beautiful Cajal’s Butterflies of the Soul.

We were in Madrid looking at Cajal’s illustrations with Javier DeFelipeseveral months before Neuronal Forest launched.  The level of effort to produce this fantastic volume, and the extraordinary nature of the illustrations themselves, have to be seen to be appreciated!

Other books for Cajal fans include The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal, and Cajal’s own Recollections of My Life.


The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

By Marie Kondo

We’re just finishing Marie Kondo’s intriguing The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, (Audible book here). Before reading this book, we hadn’t made the connection between tidying and, for example, doing well on examinations. Some of Marie’s observations seem spot on for both improving productivity and improving ability to learn well under stress.  Marie’s book has sold over two million copies worldwide, and has over 12,000 reviews on Amazon with a 4.5 star average rating.  We can all clearly learn something of value from Marie’s lifelong compulsion to tidy. At first, her recommendations may simply seem impossible. But just keep reading—you’ll see that Marie has great insight not only about tidying, but about life.

We have to laugh at our recommendation of Tidying Up, given that we recently also recommended Tim Harford’s Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. As Ralph Waldo Emerson has observed, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”


Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential

By Barbara Oakley

Dan Pink says it best! “Mindshift is essential reading for anyone seeking a reboot, reset, or reinvention. As Oakley trots around the globe and across disciplines, she explains the power of taking a ‘pi’ approach to your career, why worriers often get ahead, why negative traits can house hidden advantages, and why it’s smarter to broaden your passion than follow it. Jammed with inspiring stories and practical tips, Mindshift is a book that can change your life.”
                                               — Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive and A Whole New Mind

If you’re into audiobooks, don’t miss Barb’s reading!


Don’t Pay for Your MBA

By Laurie Pickard

When some of the most prestigious business schools in the world began providing free versions of their courses online, Laurie Pickard (whose great ideas Barb featured in her latest book, Mindshift) saw an opportunity to get the business education she had long desired, at a fraction of the typical MBA price tag.  Laurie launched a blog site to document her MOOC MBA journey. quickly attracted attention from prospective business students and the media alike. Laurie’s terrific new book Don’t Pay For Your MBAteaches readers how to put together a career-launching business education using massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other free and low-cost resources. Don’t miss this one! Even if you are interested in something other than an MBA, Laurie’s book will give you great ideas for putting together a program that’s right for you.


Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice

By Bill Browder

Book of the Month

It can sometimes be important to step back and look at society’s impact on how we learn and grow.  Bill Browder’s magnificent best-seller Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice tells the story of the impact of highest level corruption on ordinary people’s lives.  (This book has an amazing 5-star rating with over 2600 reviews on Amazon.) Browder was the co-founder of Hermitage Capital Management, which specialized in Russian investments.  In the course of his work, Browder became a victim of a kleptocratic part of Russia’s economy, where the rule of law can be rewritten on a whim.  The book’s cover notes “A financial caper, a crime thriller, and a political crusade, Red Notice is the story of one man taking on overpowering odds to change the world, and also the story of how, without intending to, he found meaning in his life.” We agree—we couldn’t put the book down.

On a side note, we often think that relentless focus is the best way to learn and be successful. Along those lines, we often tout Cal Newport’s Deep Work.  But as Browder notes, Edmond Safra, one of the world’s greatest investment bankers, could evince an almost gnat-like attention-span.  If you have trouble keeping your focus on just one thing, it may sometimes be an advantage.

That’s part of why we read great books—we often also gain insight in unexpected areas.


On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

By William Zinsser

This is the best book we’ve ever read on how to write well. Period. Barb would not have become a successful writer (or MOOC-maker!) if it hadn’t been for this book.

Anyone who writes will benefit from reading this book.  If you are in the “publish or perish” phase of academic life, you really need this book.


Peltor High Performance Ear Muffs

When you are trying to focus on something difficult, whether reading a book or anything else, one of the best things you can do to help you keep that focus is to block out sounds.  Earphones like these are used by professional memory champions to help them keep their focus–whether in competition or just learning something new.  Barb has found over the years that when she puts on her earmuffs, it signals her brain that it’s “focus time!”  It’s much easier for her to concentrate with earmuffs on, because the earmuffs not only block sound, they also indicate that it’s time to focus! Earmuffs are one of the most important tools in Barb’s learning repertoire.


Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

By Cal Newport

Cal’s Newport’s Deep Work is the best book on productivity we’ve ever read, bar none.  (Go for the Audible version if you don’t have time for the written.) Highly recommended!



By Robert Hughes

Goya, by Robert Hughes. Barb’s recent visit to Madrid allowed her to linger in person to examine at some of Goya’s most famous paintings, including the remarkable The Third of May 1808, as well as many of Goya’s more obscure, but equally riveting works.  An artist is able to focus on reality in a way that helps us “mere mortals” to also see that deeper reality. We decided to dig deeper into Goya’s life to discover what set him apart and made him one of Spain’s –and the world’s–greatest painters.  As Hughes’ biography reveals, Goya’s journey to greatness was spurred in part by an illness that made him deaf.  This, perhaps, set Goya unwillingly apart from the world–allowing him to be the last of the Old Masters as well as the first of the Moderns.

If you read the Kindle version, be prepared to look up many of Goya’s paintings on your cell phone beside you.  Hughes biography isn’t just a biography–it’s an insightful view of Spain of the late 1700s and early 1800s.  As you’ll discover, today’s seemingly modern societal trends are often simply repetitions of trends from centuries past.

Robert Hughes’  The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding became an international best-seller.  His The Shock of the New: The Hundred-Year History of Modern Art–Its Rise, Its Dazzling Achievement, Its Fall, is also on our “must read” list.

Incidentally, here’s Barb at the Cajal Institute in Madrid, with Santiago Ramon y Cajal’s death mask peering over her shoulder.


The Keystone Approach: Healing Arthritis and Psoriasis by Restoring the Microbiome

By Rebecca Fett

If you suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, or other autoimmune-related disorders, we highly recommend The Keystone Approach: Healing Arthritis and Psoriasis by Restoring the Microbiome, by Rebecca Fett. (Rebecca read the Audible version of her book.) Rebecca Fett is a science author with a degree in molecular biotechnology and biochemistry. Before becoming a full-time author, Rebecca spent ten years as a biotechnology patent litigation attorney in New York, where she specialized in analyzing the scientific and clinical evidence for biotechnology companies. This book has enabled Barb to largely get off of medications for rheumatoid arthritis—remarkable, given her 30 years on a cornucopia of drugs.


World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech

By Franklin Foer

The central idea of this book is that Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple have become pernicious monopolies. One result, according to Foer, is that the writing world has changed dramatically, and not for the better. Foer has personally experienced this upheaval. The magazine he edited, the New Republic, ran roughshod over his career. Franklin makes some important points, even as it’s amusing to see him show the same “we know best” bias he’s accusing others of. Franklin, incidentally, is the brother of Learning How to Learn author fave Joshua Foer, who described how he became an unlikely memory champion in Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.


Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins

By Garry Kasparov

What a contrast with Foer’s book! Although Kasparov acknowledges the same seductive, monopolistic problems that Foer alludes to, Kasparov’s overall assessment is upbeat. This is a surprise, given that Kasparov will go down in history as the first world chess champion to be felled by artificial intelligence. Lots of readable insights about how AI experts went about tackling strategy in the games of chess and go. The gripping description of the final battle with Deep Blue will keep you up at night. We love Kasparov’s quote of Coursera’s co-founder, Andrew Ng, who has said that “worrying about super-intelligent and evil AI today is like worrying about ‘the problem of overcrowding on Mars.’”


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