Discover my recent book recommendations below, or explore the full searchable recommendations archive.

Engaging Learners through Zoom: Strategies for Virtual Teaching Across Disciplines

By Jonathan Brennan

Recommended on: 16th September 2020

We’ve been intrigued by books on Zoom, and we wanted to share about a new one, out soon, that takes a different approach: Engaging Learners through Zoom: Strategies for Virtual Teaching Across Disciplines, by Jonathan Brennan. As Barb wrote in her blurb for the book: “Engaging Learners through Zoom is like a banquet of ideas for polls, chats, breakout rooms, using the main session as a central hub, and far more.  What’s terrific about this book is that it gives concrete, innovative examples for practically every discipline—any instructor can benefit! I never knew I needed this book, but now, I couldn’t do without it!” 



Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain

By David Eagleman

Recommended on: 10th September 2020

Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain, by David Eagleman. There’s no getting around it—we loved this book! It’s enlightening, upbeat, beautifully written, and deeply thought-provoking. Ever thought about what it’s like to have a new sense? Eagleman has, and he writes provocatively of those who have begun to explore this strange new neural territory:

“Todd Huffman is a biohacker. His hair is often dyed some primary color or another; his appearance is otherwise indistinguishable from a lumberjack. Some years ago, Todd ordered a small neodymium magnet in the mail. He sterilized the magnet, sterilized a surgical knife, sterilized his hand, and implanted the magnet in his fingers. Now Todd feels magnetic fields. The magnet tugs when exposed to electromagnetic fields, and his nerves register this. Information normally invisible to humans is now streamed to his brain via the sensory pathways of his fingers. His perceptual world expanded the first time he reached for a pan on his electric stove. The stove casts off a large magnetic field (because of the electricity running in a coil). He hadn’t been aware of that tidbit of knowledge, but now he can feel it. Reaching out, he can detect the electromagnetic bubble that comes off of a power cord transformer (like the one to your laptop). It’s like touching an invisible bubble, one with a shape that he can assess by moving his hand around. The strength of the electromagnetic field is gauged by how powerfully the magnet moves inside his finger. Because different frequencies of magnetic fields affect how the magnet vibrates, he ascribes different qualities to different transformers—in words like ‘texture’ or ‘color.’

But Eagleman goes far deeper than just bio-hacking (interesting as it is) in this book—his enlightening metaphors provide insight into neural processes of all sorts, especially about the competing processes of sensory neurons. Who knew that our ability to see and feel could be equated to a form of neural colony building by our hands and eyes?  We particularly liked the section on why young brains are so much more plastic than older brains—perhaps surprisingly, it’s not all bad news for the mature amongst us. As Eagleman notes: “There’s a trade-off between adaptability and efficiency: as your brain gets good at certain jobs, it becomes less able to tackle others… To get good at one thing is to close the door on others. Because you possess only a single life, what you devote yourself to sends you down particular roads, while the other paths will forever remain untrodden by you. Thus, I began this book with one of my favorite quotations from the philosopher Martin Heidegger: ‘Every man is born as many men and dies as a single one.’”

If you want to freshen your mind with the latest thinking of human potential, settle down and enjoy Eagleman’s brilliant book. (This is also a great book for audio.)



The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

By Nathaniel Philbrick

Recommended on: 31st August 2020

The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, by Nathaniel Philbrick. Barb and her Hero Hubby Phil were driving through Montana last week and happened to spot signs for the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Next thing you know, the intrepid duo had parked their little trailer and were off to spend a blistering hot day exploring the battlefield.  In some sense, the Little Big Horn Monument is like an action-packed cemetery, with clusters of gravestones marking the spot of bodies as the battle swept through the gullies and hillsides. But just roaming the hillsides wasn’t enough—they had to learn more.

Enter Nathaniel Philbrick’s extraordinary The Last Stand.  From the very first pages, this exquisitely written book pulls you into the world of bad guys (if Custer’s premeditated attacks on a peaceful Native American villages don’t qualify him as a bad guy, nothing would), good guys like the extraordinary leader Sitting Bull, and everyone in between. The Last Stand gives a tremendous sense of the injustice and inequities experienced by Native Americans around the time of the first US Centennial in 1876. But it also gives a broad sense of place and time thanks to Philbrick’s extraordinary way with words. (Philbrick has won the National Book Award and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.)  This is a rare, hard-to-put-down masterpiece. Enjoy!



Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World

By Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West

Recommended on: 26th August 2020

Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World, by Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West. This very readable book describes how easy it is for journalists, politicians, companies, and yes, even researchers themselves to bullshit people.  As Bergstrom and West note: “Perhaps the most important principle in bullshit studies is Brandolini’s principle. Coined by Italian software engineer Alberto Brandolini in 2014, it states: ‘The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than [that needed] to produce it.’ Producing bullshit is a lot less work than cleaning it up. It is also a lot simpler and cheaper to do. A few years before Brandolini formulated his principle, Italian blogger Uriel Fanelli had already noted that, loosely translated, ‘an idiot can create more bullshit than you could ever hope to refute.’

We also like this book because it provides fresh perspectives on the black box of artificial intelligence algorithms; how to understand conditional probability in simple, visual ways; how p-hacking leads to a misleading research landscape; and why even superb scientists can publish irreproducible results. Not that Bergstrom and West aren’t above a bit of occasional bullshit themselves, but this is an important book that we feel is destined to become a classic. Also good for audio listening.



Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It

By Ian Leslie

Recommended on: 20th August 2020

Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, by Ian Leslie. Barb has an upcoming talk for Novartis on curiosity for their Curiosity Week, (it will start with the story of the worst professor Barb ever had, and this professor’s inadvertent role in inspiring the corny video editing behind Learning How to Learn). So meanwhile, Barb couldn’t help but become more curious about curiosity.  Ian Leslie’s book is a scorcher on the topic—highly readable and beautifully researched.  Here’s a sample: “Sir Ken Robinson’s 2008 [TED] talk on educational reform—entitled “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”—has now been viewed more than 4 million times. In it Robinson cites the fact that children’s scores on standard tests of creativity decline as they grow older and advance through the educational system. He concludes that children start out as curious, creative individuals but are made duller by factory-style schools that spend too much time teaching children academic facts and not enough helping them express themselves. Sir Ken clearly cares greatly about the well-being of children, and he is a superb storyteller, but his arguments about creativity, though beguilingly made, are almost entirely baseless.”

This is also a great book for audio.  Enjoy!



Memory Superpowers! An Adventurous Guide to Remembering What You Don’t Want to Forget

By Nelson Dellis

Recommended on: 8th August 2020

Memory Superpowers! An Adventurous Guide to Remembering What You Don’t Want to Forget, by Nelson Dellis. It’s probably clear from our many past postings that we’re HUGE Nelson Dellis fans. That’s because four-time US memory champ Nelson isn’t just a memory experthe’s also one of the best memory teachers in the world.  Nelson’s latest fantastic book is geared toward helping teens achieve remarkable memorization skills. If your child is a struggling underachiever, read a little section of this book together each evening so you both can learn how to outwit the Memory Thief. If your child is an overachiever, encourage them read this book on their own so they can achieve still more, all while enjoying adventures in the Forest of Forgettable Names and the Great Word Pyramids, maneuvering around the Pirates of the Periodic Table and journeying through the Himalayan Memory Palace. Nelson notes: “10-14 is the age range (but not limited to that. I mean, lot’s of adults could read it and get a lot out of it. Some advanced readers under 10 could read it too.” Truly a fun and highly practical guide to helping kids achieve remarkable memorization skills.



Online Teaching with Zoom

By Aaron Johnson

Recommended on: 31st July 2020

Online Teaching with Zoom: A Guide for Teaching and Learning with Videoconference Platforms, by Aaron Johnson. We had previously read and liked Aaron’s first book on online teaching, Excellent Online Teaching. Aaron’s new book provides a solid overview of how to use Zoom for teachinghis insights are also more broadly applicable to any sort of online teaching.  And the price is rightboth books are free on Kindle Unlimited!



The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad

By Emily Thomas

Recommended on: 29th July 2020

The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad, by Emily Thomas. Thomas’s book helps explain why travel is so useful and important, and such a valuable tool for creativity. (Although it doesn’t quite get to why travel can, for some, be such an addiction.) Although the book can be a bit uneven, Thomas gets into unusual, often-overlooked aspects of travel. For example, the European “Grand Tours” that served as a sort of finishing school for the wealthy were apparently just as often an exercise in debauchery. We particularly appreciated the descriptions of how travel has changed over the years—mountains and empty spaces, for example, weren’t always seen as beautiful. Thomas’s description of the meaning of sublime is alone worth the price of the book, and echo Barb’s experiences at the South Pole Station in Antarctica. If you’re pining for travel, this book will help serve as a temporary touchstone to assuage your longing.



Urban Myths about Learning and Education

By Pedro De Bruyckere, Paul A. Kirschner, and Casper D. Hulshof

Recommended on: 22nd July 2020

Urban Myths about Learning and Education, by Pedro De Bruyckere, Paul A. Kirschner, and Casper D. Hulshof. This book, originally published in 2015 (and followed by a 2019 sequel), is as topical as ever. Killing commonly repeated educational myths is, it seems, its own cottage industry, although it probably isn’t nearly as lucrative as the sales of learning styles assessments. What we particularly like about Bruyckere et al’s book is the personal nature of the writing. Sometimes it feels as if a good friend is writing to you, making mildly snarky side-comments about the strange things they’re discovering when trying to detect the source of some of education’s most popular—and utterly bogus—imagery and ideas. Sometimes seemingly solid research citations lead nowhere! Anyone involved in education would find gold in this easy-to-read but thought-provoking book.



The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean

By Susan Casey

Recommended on: 14th July 2020

The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean, by Susan Casey. Recent research on the dead water phenomenon (see below), reminded us of Casey’s book—a New York Times best-seller and one of our favorite about waves. Casey herself is something of a phenomenon. She was the long-time editor of O, The Oprah Magazine, and she had unprecedented access to surfer Laird Hamilton, joining him and other surfers to begin experiencing waves as surfers experience them. But she explores the bigger picture as well, looking at things like rogue waves, disappearing ships, and Lloyd’s of London insurance practices. Interesting look at the fascinating phenomena of waves, which Barb has been interested in ever since her own years at sea.( Her old, well-thumbed copy of Waves and Beaches: The Dynamics of the Ocean Surface has been reread many a time—when, that is, she wasn’t sea-sick with the dynamics of said ocean surface!)



The Bilingual Brain

By Albert Costa

Recommended on: 6th July 2020

The Bilingual Brain, by Albert Costa.   We’re suckers for books on bilingualism, and this recent book, by multilingual Albert Costa, (who is in real life a leading researcher on bilingualism), really delivers the goods on what we know from neuroscience.  Unlike many authors who are in love with their discipline, Costa is an honest broker—he thoughtfully describes areas where research may be reflecting a bit of wishful thinking about the benefits of bilingualism. But he also has intriguing perspectives on how, for example, making decisions while speaking a foreign language can result in a more rational decision. As Costa notes: “I realized that we had discovered something interesting when I was explaining these results to my mother and son over lunch and they both said at the same time: ‘No way!’ If people who were more than fifty years apart in age were surprised by the same phenomenon, it was because they could not believe that their moral judgements, what most identified them as individuals, could be affected by such an insignificant thing as the language in which a moral dilemma is presented. And believe me, my stories almost always bore them.” If you’re trying to learn a new language, this book will give you fascinating insights into how your brain will change. Count us now as Costa fans! Also good for audio.



The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love—Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits

By Judson Brewer

Recommended on: 30th June 2020

The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love—Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits, by Judson Brewer. For years, we’ve been looking for a good book that gives insight on the science of meditation. This book is a great one that goes far beyond simple addiction and gets to the heart of issues such as why our minds get “stuck” on people who annoy us, and squirrel-like thoughts that can keep us from focusing as we’d like. 

Amongst many quotable gems, we liked how Judson described what the “RAIN” process of what to do when getting caught up in obsessive thinking: “RECOGNIZE/RELAX into what is arising (for example, your craving) ACCEPT/ALLOW it to be there INVESTIGATE bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts (for example, ask, ‘What is happening in my body or mind right now?’). NOTE what is happening from moment to moment The N is a slight modification of … ‘nonidentification.’ The idea is that we identify with or get caught up in the object that we are aware of.” Also nice for audio. [Hat tip: Mako Haruta]



The Breakdown of Higher Education

By John M. Ellis

Recommended on: 22nd June 2020

The Breakdown of Higher Education: How It Happened, the Damage It Does, and What Can Be Done, by John M. Ellis. This provocative book provides a sobering analysis of what is unfolding on college campuses today—a phenomenon similar to that which Barb experienced in her past work with the Soviet communists. (All of which ultimately led to Chernobyl, because censorship under communism reigned supreme.)  Key graf: “Censorship on college campuses concerning questions where the opinions of thoughtful people differ is contrary to what we have always thought about higher education. Until recently, universities dealt in precise argument using evidence that is systematically gathered and carefully analyzed—not in ruthlessly enforced uniformity of opinion based on arbitrary political dogma. That is exactly the kind of anti-intellectual behavior that we expect universities to remedy—it’s what we have them for. If those institutions now routinely resort to this irrational thuggery, what is the point of them? We already see enough of that in the wider world. Academics who behave in this way are really telling us not only that they don’t do university-level thinking, researching, or analyzing of issues, but that they won’t allow anyone else on campus to do it either.”  The Breakdown of Higher Education explores, in great detail, the consequences in higher education of Pathological Altruism.



The Idea of the Brain: The Past and Future of Neuroscience

By Matthew Cobb

Recommended on: 17th June 2020

The Idea of the Brain: The Past and Future of Neuroscience, by Matthew Cobb. This broad-ranging book starts back in the dawn of written history, where we learn that even back in ancient Rome, active learning was a “thing.”  “To demonstrate his discoveries Galen used ‘lecture-commentaries’ in which he simultaneously described his new knowledge and showed it in an animal… this was part of Galen’s emphasis on the importance of experience in understanding.” As Cobb wends his way into modern times, matters get even more interesting. We learn, for example, of the different main theories of consciousness, how they differ, and why each theoretical approach still has problems.  

The study of the brain is endlessly fascinating, and Cobb’s delightfully wry sense of humor provides the perfect foil as we get an overview of the field’s history.



Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

By Trevor Noah

Recommended on: 12th June 2020

We watched Trevor Noah’s thoughtful video take on George Floyd, the Minneapolis Protests, Ahmaud Arbery, and Amy Cooper, and were inspired to read Noah’s autobiography, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. Wow! This riveting book describes how, due to miscegenation laws in South Africa, Noah really was born a criminal—blacks and whites were not supposed to be mixing under apartheid in South Africa. Lucky for us, Trevor’s miraculous mother deliberately chose to break the law. We won’t tell you how or why because we’d be spoiling the story.

The long and the short of it is that Noah is, quite simply, one of the most masterful story-tellers around.  He describes the great value of language—a gifted linguist, Noah could use his ability to understand the essence of how people spoke to in turn speak with them. “I became a chameleon. My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.” Noah truly understands and conveys the horrors of domestic violence, and perhaps most importantly, from our perspective, he describes the often appalling lack of educational opportunities for children born into poverty.  This is truly a great book by an extraordinary writer—also a terrific book for audio listening. (Noah’s subtle South African accent is almost magnetically listenable.)



The Chiffon Trenches

By André Leon Talley

Recommended on: 4th June 2020

The Chiffon Trenches, by André Leon Talley. Barb’s own sense of fashion tends toward frumpy. So she was fascinated to read André’s descriptions of life at the highest levels of fashionhe was friends or colleagues with practically every major figure in high fashion over the past fifty years, including Karl Lagerfeld, Halston, Yves Saint Laurent, Oscar de la Renta, Halston, Yves Saint Laurent, and Oscar de la Renta. As a black, gay fashion maven inspired by both his Southern roots and his faith, André opened new doors of diversity in an industry struggling with a history of racism, prejudice, and bias. A very elegant and readable book, as “bespoke” as André’s extraordinary sense of fashion.



COVID Conversations: Helping Children Understand What’s Happening,

By Gail Brown

Recommended on: 3rd June 2020

COVID Conversations: Helping Children Understand What’s Happening, by Gail Brown. This simple book provides an explanation that young children can understand about some of the sudden changes in life’s rhythms with the COVID pandemic. Often, just talking with children can help—this simple dialog between a grandmother and granddaughter is a great conversation starter that also provides activity suggestions. (Here also is a more formal sheet of guidance on talking to youngsters about COVID.)



The Great Mental Models (two volume series)

By Shane Parrish and Rhiannon Beaubien

Recommended on: 28th May 2020

The Great Mental Models Volume 1: General Thinking Concepts and Volume 2: Physics, Chemistry and Biology by Shane Parrish and Rhiannon Beaubien. There is intriguing evidence from neuroscience that our brains “reuse” patterns based on models to help us think creatively about ideas we are grappling with. Shane Parrish and Rhiannon Beaubien’s delightfully interesting books provide many examples of how models can be used to help us think in fresh ways. For example, we know that different systems, like a small pot of hot water nestled inside a larger pot of cold water will tend towards reaching a thermal equilibrium.  As Mental Models Volume 2 notes: “What if we consider the equilibrium of two systems not between two containers of different temperature water, but two societies with different values?” What a neat way of thinking about societal differences!

As Parris and Beaubien note: “You’ve got to have models… You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.” Mental Models describes some of the best of these models. These are also good books for audio listening (Volume 1, Volume 2). (Two free audio books may be possible through this link.)

We’re also fans of Parrish’s Farnam Street Blog, Podcast, and Learning Community. Check them out!



Napoleon: A Life

By Andrew Roberts

Recommended on: 13th May 2020

Napoleon: A Life, by Andrew Roberts.  Having read Robert’s wonderful Napoleon, we now realize that we’d had an enormous gap in our understanding of European history—a gap related to Napoleon and the Napoleonic wars. If you’re a biography buff, Napoleon himself was one of the most fascinating characters of his, or any, age.  As Roberts points out: “Napoleon Bonaparte was the founder of modern France and one of the great conquerors of history. He came to power through a military coup only six years after entering the country as a penniless political refugee. As First Consul and later Emperor, he almost won hegemony in Europe, but for a series of coalitions specifically designed to bring him down. Although his conquests ended in defeat and ignominious imprisonment, over the course of his short but eventful life he fought sixty battles and lost only seven. For any general, of any age, this was an extraordinary record. … 

“Even if Napoleon hadn’t been one of the great military geniuses of history, he would still be a giant of the modern era. The leadership skills he employed to inspire his men have been adopted by other leaders over the centuries, yet never equaled except perhaps by his great devotee Winston Churchill… The fact that his army was willing to follow him even after the retreat from Moscow, the battle of Leipzig and the fall of Paris testifies to his capacity to make ordinary people feel that they were capable of doing extraordinary, history-making deeds… Napoleon is often accused of being a quintessential warmonger, yet war was declared on him far more often than he declared it on others.” 

If you are a fan of either history or biographies, don’t miss this book! But be prepared for battlefield detail—right down to the McDonalds’ parking lot currently located at a once key hillside now called Napoleonshöhe outside Abensberg. Also good for (33-hours-long!) audio listening.



In Hoffa’s Shadow: A Stepfather, a Disappearance in Detroit, and My Search for the Truth

By Jack L. Goldsmith

Recommended on: 25th April 2020

In Hoffa’s Shadow: A Stepfather, a Disappearance in Detroit, and My Search for the Truth, by Jack L. Goldsmith.  Since Barb lives in the Detroit area (she has lunched at the old Machus Red Fox, where the notorious Hoffa was last seen), she can’t help but take an interest in the fascinating life and strange vanishing act of long-time Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa.  This book provides an unusual take on Hoffa’s legacy. Hoffa’s foster son, Chuckie O’Brien, was probably the most dedicated of all of his followers—yet Chuckie has been accused by almost everyone of having facilitated Hoffa’s disappearance.  This book, by Chuckie’s own foster son, upstanding Ivy League lawyer Jack Goldsmith, burrows deep into the mindset and zeitgeist of unions, the mob, and much, much more. A thought-provoking take on loyalty and love.



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