Recommendations

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

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

By Sam Harris

Recommended on: 8th August 2022

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, by Sam Harris.  This book is meant to be a common sense guide to finding spirituality without necessarily springboarding from a religious tradition. 

In Harris’s hands, we gain a clearer understanding of mindfulness. “It is simply a state of clear, nonjudgmental, and undistracted attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant.” (But for those LHTLers amongst us who are interested in such matters, it seems cultivating mindfulness translates to continuously maintaining focus and concomittently diminishing both anxiety and creativity, perhaps a mixed blessing.) 

As Harris notes: “The crucial point is that you can glimpse something about the nature of consciousness that will liberate you from suffering in the present. Even just recognizing the impermanence of your mental states—deeply, not merely as an idea—can transform your life.”

Harris has knocked around the world of meditation for many yearslong enough to have a good feel for both the best and the worst of meditation experts and spiritual gurus.  You’ll find yourself thinking about Harris’s ideas  long after you finish the book.

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The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor—the Truth and the Turmoil

By Tina Brown

Recommended on: 19th July 2022

The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor—the Truth and the Turmoil, by Tina Brown.  We have to admit, we enjoy gossip about the British monarchy. And few are as “in the know” gossip-wise as Tina Brown, former top editor of some of the world’s leading magazines, including Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.  Brown covers all today’s leading charactersCamilla, Duchess of Cornwall; Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge; Meghan, Duchess of Sussex; William and Harry; and of course the Queen herself.  What’s particularly interesting about this book is how Brown doesn’t take sides.  Even when there’s an easy layup to dump on someone, Brown digs deeper and shows matters from multiple perspectives. Everyone comes out spattered with a bit of both mud and gold.  

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Flicker: Your Brain on Movies

By Jeffrey Zacks

Recommended on: 20th June 2022

Flicker: Your Brain on Movies, by Jeffrey Zacks.  We have no idea how this magnificent book slipped under our radar when it was first published in 2014, but it’s a doozy!  Zacks is a renowned neuroscientist, but he also loves movies. The result let’s us peer into Zack’s life’s work, including an in-depth look inside movies to see what makes them work, and what makes us love them. 

Most followers of Learning How to Learn, as well as virtually all cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists are aware of working memory.  But few are aware of the importance of “event models”–the contents of working memory.  We believe the concept of event models, which Dr. Zacks helped pioneer, will become an important one in education, and particularly online education.  More about that to come in our upcoming MOOC 3 of Uncommon Sense Teaching!

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The San Francisco Fallacy: The Ten Fallacies That Make Founders Fail

By Jonathan Siegel

Recommended on: 20th June 2022

The San Francisco Fallacy: The Ten Fallacies That Make Founders Fail, Jonathan Siegel. Many books on entrepreneurship tell you what to look for, and what to look out for.  But they don’t focus on the failures–and how those failures can eventually lead to success.  Siegel’s book is jaw-droppingly good. He knows how to write and how to tell a story—this means that it’s hard to put his book down as he makes point after point from his sometimes disastrous, but ultimately phenomenally successful career as an entrepreneur and angel investor. ( Incidentally, the “San Francisco Fallacy” refers to herd mentality in thinking that the enormously expensive Silicon Valley area is necessarily the place to go for tech startups.) 

VERY highly recommended!

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The 2-Hour Cocktail Party: How to Build Big Relationships with Small Gatherings

By Nick Gray

Recommended on: 16th June 2022

The 2-Hour Cocktail Party: How to Build Big Relationships with Small Gatherings, by Nick Gray. The more Barb has researched the neuroscience underlying how we learn, the more she (as a shy person simulating an extrovert) has discovered the importance of personal relationships, not only in learning, but in life.  Interacting with people with whom you have become familiar, as it turns out, activates the brain’s reward mechanisms.  It’s little wonder that we teachers like to use techniques such as “Think-Pair-Share,” and collaborative learning sessions sprinkled amongst the more difficult sessions of explicit instruction.

Which leads us right to Nick Gray’s delightful The 2-Hour Cocktail Party! (Nick himself, it should be pointed out, doesn’t drink, so alcohol isn’t at all necessary for Nick’s approach to work.)  The trick to activating those happy feelings of reward, remember, is not just interacting with people—it’s interacting with people with whom you are familiar.  How do you become familiar with people?  Invite them to a short cocktail party!  And that’s part of the trick—the party should be short.  Nick (in real life, one of the world’s nicest people) shows you how to comfortably set up the part, from sending out the first invitations, inviting your great guests (people you’ve wanted to meet!), pre-party prep, navigating the first twenty minutes, icebreakers, how to end on a high note, and what to do the day after.  

This is a wonderful book—Barb is planning her first party for after the launch of MOOC 3 of the Uncommon Sense Teaching specialization (Teaching Online) in two months! 

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The Distributed Classroom

By David Joyner and Charles Isbell

Recommended on: 31st May 2022

The Distributed Classroom, by David Joyner and Charles Isbell. Online teaching has a sometimes confusing welter of terminology. Common buzz words include synchronous, asynchronous, remote, flipped, hybrid (blended), and hyflex. (This article provides a quick overview of what these terms mean.)  Where Joyner and Isbell’s book comes in is to provide an encompassing perspective on how the many different forms of online learning can be used by universities, high schools, and other educational institutions to meet the needs of diverse populations.  Both authors have been deeply involved in the development of Georgia Tech’s outstanding Online Master of Science in Computer Science (or OMSCS) degree, which has captured 10% of the market for US computer science masters degrees and has become one of (if not the) largest masters program in the world due to its quality, accessibility, and low price. If you are interested in creating better online programs, this book is worth your time.

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Who Killed Jane Stanford?: A Gilded Age Tale of Murder, Deceit, Spirits and the Birth of a University

By Richard White

Recommended on: 31st May 2022

Who Killed Jane Stanford has all the ingredients of a thriller—a murder by strychnine of the primary founder of one of the world’s leading universities. In able hands, this book would have been a real page-turner—the deceit, acrimony, corruption and malevolence by academicians that underlie the true origins of Stanford University are mindblowing.  Sadly, the bulk of the writing centers on petty details, while skimming over important big-picture issues such as the corrupt means by which Leland Stanford apparently gained his wealth.  A great book if you like petty details.

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Troubled Water: A Journey Around the Black Sea

By Jens Mühling

Recommended on: 24th May 2022

Barb glanced at the title of this book and thought, “The last thing I need is to be diving into, (amidst the hundreds of samples already downloaded onto the Kindle), is a book about the Black Sea.” Out of curiosity, she took a look at the first couple pages, and suddenly she was one hundred pages in, hooked by Mühling’s combination of scintillating prose (which comes across even in the translation by  Simon Pare from the original German) and remarkable ability to bring out fascinating bits of local lore and culture.  Troubled Water, as it turns out, is a compendium not only of adventure travel (fortunately, Mühling has a remarkable talent for holding his alcohol), but also of semi-forgotten and little-known groups. We learn, for example, of the Karaites, a Jewish religious movement that recognizes the written Torah alone as its supreme authority in Jewish religious law and theology (this subtle difference in beliefs protected the Crimean Kariates from the Nazis in World War II). And we learn how successful Russian efforts to foment divisiveness in Abkhazia has kept that gorgeous region from helping its people progress. Mühling has no more than to hear about an outlying cultural group, whether it’s Turks in Romania, Bulgarians in Turkey, Greeks in Russia, or simply a hermit, and off he goes on the hunt to meet them. Mühling’s serviceable Russian is extremely helpful in these parts of the world, but it’s a lucky thing that Mühling is Germanit allows him to gain insights and confidences that many writers in English miss.  And we learn of all sorts of other aspects of the biology of the Black Seafor example, the fact that its unusual top layer of fresh water and bottom layer of salt makes a poisonous mixture that leaves three-thousand-year old sunken vessels as fresh as if they had sunk yesterday. 

If you want a “you are there” reading experience that gives you a good feel for a vitally important region, you couldn’t do better than to read Jens Mühling’s fantastic Troubled Water. Highly recommended!

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99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos: A Guide for Online Teachers and Flipped Classes

By Karen Costa

Recommended on: 24th May 2022

99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos: A Guide for Online Teachers and Flipped Classes, by Karen Costa. This simple, upbeat, encouraging book gives a nice boost for creating simple online videos for your classes that can be used over and over again (hence the “sustainable”) part of the title.  As Costa notes: “I’m here to shout from the rooftops that videos will make your life easier! Let me explain. How many e-mails or phone calls from students do you respond to each term asking you the same questions over and over? Tons, right? I teach first-year students, often in their very first online course. They have a lot of questions, and they need almost constant support. Being a great teacher is time-consuming. What if we could support our students and save ourselves time in the process?… This time is given back to me tenfold in the time that I save from answering countless and repetitive questions term after term. I have taught with and without these videos, and I can attest to the fact that in the terms in which I use videos, I receive far fewer frequently asked question-type queries from my students, and the quality of my students’ work is much better. That means I also spend less time working with students on revisions or resubmissions, because they are more likely to get it right the first time. While creating a video might cost you 15 minutes, it will pay you back in saved time.” 

If you’re looking for a quick-to-read motivator to get you going with simple videos, this is a good book to get you started.

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I Love You All the Time – and – You Have Feelings All the Time

By Deborah Farmer Kris

Recommended on: 3rd May 2022

I Love You All the Time and You Have Feelings All the Time by child development expert Deborah Farmer Kris, illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin. These wonderful books are meant to reassure children about your enduring love for your child, whether they are mad, glad, or sad, and also to help your child to recognize and manage their feelings.  Start by skipping past the delightful illustrations to read the letter to caregivers at the back of the bookyou’ll get a sense from these brief instructions of how to best use and teach the ideas in the books as you go through the book with your toddler or pre-schooler.  Then enjoy paging through the book together reading aloud with your little one.  Highly recommended and engaging for youngsters!

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After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris from the Belle Époque Through Revolution and War

By Helen Rappaport

Recommended on: 29th April 2022

After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris from the Belle Époque Through Revolution and War by Helen Rappaport. As Barb was learning Russian back in the 1970s, the exiled “White” Russians (that is, those who opposed the communist “Reds”), had left their mark on the Russian-speaking diaspora worldwide. So it was fascinating to read this book and learn more about this community of millions who fled Russia as a result of the Soviet take-over in 1917.  What makes this book particularly intriguing is the many personal stories. Talented writers and poets in exile, for example, who found themselves lost in melancholia, unpublishable under Soviet censorship; and the mind-bogglingly wealthy who were lucky enough to escape largely penniless to the West, re-emerging as seamstresses and taxi-drivers, or worse, as drunks and suicides.

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The Brain in Search of Itself: Santiago Ramón y Cajal and the Story of the Neuron

By Benjamin Ehrlich

Recommended on: 10th April 2022

The Brain in Search of Itself: Santiago Ramón y Cajal and the Story of the Neuron, by Benjamin Ehrlich.  What a magnificent book!  Longtime fans of Learning How to Learn know that we’re in turn longtime fans of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience.  As a youngster, Santiago struggled markedly with his learning, and as this remarkably researched book describes.  We can’t help but wonder whether Santiago might have had dyslexia coupled with dyslexia’s frequent comorbid companion: ADHD. Hints and clues abound through the text:

  •  “…though he struggled to remember the spelling of words or their order within a sentence, Santiagüé never forgot an image… his talent allowed him to reproduce even the most intricate maps to perfection.
  •  “… his academic reputation was far from stellar. Cajal ‘was the typical student who was inattentive, lazy, disobedient, and annoying, a nightmare for his parents, teachers, and patrons,’ one teacher at Huesca recalled. He ‘will only stop in jail,’ predicted another, ‘if they do not hang him first.’
  • “[Santiago] passed his examinations at the end of the year in Latin I , Castilian I , Principles and Exercises in Arithmetic, and Christian History and Doctrine , earning the lowest possible grades—no doubt aided by the fact that [his father] had performed a life-saving surgery on the wife of one of the examination judges.
  • “Careful not to slacken ‘the creative tension of the mind,’ he avoided gossiping and reading newspapers , ceased writing short stories , abandoned the study of hypnotism , and even quit playing chess . He exercised his will not because he was uninterested in the world around him but precisely because he knew himself to be so distractible.  [Those with ADHD can have hyperfocus in what they are interested in—but also be easily distractable.]
  • “All who had known the Nobel Prize winner as a young delinquent responded with the same expression: utter shock.”

Cajal was a fabulously gifted and prescient researcher who pushed back against the stodgy “academic reactionists“ who, then as now, clung to outmoded ideas.  (One of Cajal’s colleagues disparaged the new truths of microscopy as “pure fantasy.”) This is a brilliant, beautifully-written book for all who wish to have a sense of how neuroscience was moved to a solid, modern foundation. A great biography of a great man.

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Journey of the Mind: How Thinking Emerged from Chaos

By Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam

Recommended on: 19th March 2022

Journey of the Mind: How Thinking Emerged from Chaos, by Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam. This engrossing book provides a step-by-step understanding of how consciousness, language, self-awareness, and civilization itself arose. What’s unique about this book is its gradual exploration, with vivid illustrations, of how consciousness advanced as it progressed from amoeba to worms, frogs, birds, monkeys and humans.  In the context of all this, we learn of the extraordinary work of Stephen Grossberg, a Newton of neuroscience whose groundbreaking discoveries have quietly underpinned many neuroscientific advances. Highly recommended!

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The Molecule of More

By Daniel Z. Lieberman and Michael E. Long

Recommended on: 10th March 2022

The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity–and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race, by Daniel Z. Lieberman and Michael E. Long.  This book starts out with a bang, differentiating future-oriented, anticipatory dopamine from “here and now” oriented molecules like serotonin: “Dopamine is one of the instigators of love, the source of the spark that sets off all that follows. But for love to continue beyond that stage, the nature of the love relationship has to change because the chemical symphony behind it changes. Dopamine isn’t the pleasure molecule, after all. It’s the anticipation molecule. To enjoy the things we have, as opposed to the things that are only possible, our brains must transition from future-oriented dopamine to present-oriented chemicals, a collection of neurotransmitters we call the Here and Now molecules… [t]hey include serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins (your brain’s version of morphine), and a class of chemicals called endocannabinoids (your brain’s version of marijuana). As opposed to the pleasure of anticipation via dopamine, these chemicals give us pleasure from sensation and emotion.”  And off the authors go on a journey to describe dopamine and its influence on motivation and drive. The end of the book became a bit too speculative for our tastes, but the beginning of the journey made the trip worthwhile.

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Super Gut: A Four-Week Plan to Reprogram Your Microbiome, Restore Health, and Lose Weight

By William Davis

Recommended on: 25th February 2022

Super Gut: A Four-Week Plan to Reprogram Your Microbiome, Restore Health, and Lose Weight, by William Davis, MD.

It is shocking how many syndromes are being connected to the gut biome—including not only autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis but even heart disease such as atherosclerosis as well as Alzheimer’s disease.  This informative book lays out interesting approaches to getting your gut biome “in gear.”  What’s encouraging is that the book isn’t recommending the author’s own products as a cure-all, but instead makes detailed recommendations for how to inexpensively grow your own biome replenishment yogurts using anything from cows’ milk to nut milks to even salsa or hummus.  You might be surprised to learn that just purchasing probiotic species such as Lactobacillus reuteri is not enough—different strains (for example, Lactobacillus reuteri DSM 17938) can have profoundly different effects.  Purchasing a bacteria without knowing the strain, in other words, can be akin to getting a dog without knowing whether it’s a Chihuahua or a Great Dane. This is a fascinating book!

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The Bridge at Andau: The Compelling True Story of a Brave, Embattled People

By James A. Michener

Recommended on: 25th February 2022

The Bridge at Andau: The Compelling True Story of a Brave, Embattled People, by James A. Michener. In an eerie coincidence, we have just finished reading Mitchener’s riveting book on the doomed Hungarian revolution of 1956.  (Barb’s platoon sergeant in West Germany during the 1970s was an escapee from Hungary.) The Bridge at Andau provides insight into today’s equally appalling invasion by Russia of Ukraine as it tells the story of the brave Hungarian resistance to the ravages of communism and predations of the Russians.

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The Girl Who Ran

By Kristina Yee and Frances Poletti, and illustrated by Susanna Chapman

Recommended on: 6th February 2022

Bobbi Gibb was the first woman to—despite staunch opposition—run the Boston Marathon.  Here’s an inspiring children’s book about the story: The Girl Who Ran: Bobbi Gibb, the First Woman to Run the Boston Marathon, by Kristina Yee and Frances Poletti, and illustrated by Susanna Chapman. (We still remember the newscasters’ shock at what she’d done.) And here’s a wonderful video of children reading along with the story!

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The Molecule of More

By Daniel Z. Lieberman and Michael E. Long

Recommended on: 6th February 2022

The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity–and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race, by Daniel Z. Lieberman and Michael E. Long.  This book starts out with a bang, differentiating future-oriented, anticipatory dopamine from “here and now” oriented molecules like serotonin: “Dopamine is one of the instigators of love, the source of the spark that sets off all that follows. But for love to continue beyond that stage, the nature of the love relationship has to change because the chemical symphony behind it changes. Dopamine isn’t the pleasure molecule, after all. It’s the anticipation molecule. To enjoy the things we have, as opposed to the things that are only possible, our brains must transition from future-oriented dopamine to present-oriented chemicals, a collection of neurotransmitters we call the Here and Now molecules… [t]hey include serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins (your brain’s version of morphine), and a class of chemicals called endocannabinoids (your brain’s version of marijuana). As opposed to the pleasure of anticipation via dopamine, these chemicals give us pleasure from sensation and emotion.”  And off the authors go on a journey to describe dopamine and its influence on motivation and drive. The end of the book became a bit too speculative for our tastes, but the beginning of the journey made the trip worthwhile.

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The Viking Heart

By Arthur Herman

Recommended on: 19th January 2022

The Viking Heart: How Scandinavians Conquered the World, by Arthur Herman.  Seeing as how 23&Me revealed that Barb is roughly 70% Scandinavian, with intriguing dollops of Egyptian and Eastern European mixed into the gene-pool, she figured it was time to learn a bit more about her ancestry. (And who, she has long wondered, was her “Black Norwegian” grandfather?)  

This fascinating book answers all these questions, and many more!  Whether of Scandinavian descent or not, after all, one can’t help but wonder how a small group of Scandinavians perched on the outer edge of Europe could have had such an outsized influence on how European history unfolded.  

It all started, it seems, with naval technology: 

“The big change came when Scandinavian sailors introduced the square sail, which, when combined with oars for propulsion, turned the Viking ship into an unsurpassed maritime instrument. It made for swift and sure navigation across large bodies of water: comparisons with the flight of birds, made by poets and others, were inevitable… Viking ships were built to last. They were broad in the beam, as buoyant as giant water lilies, and equipped with a new nautical technology: the single oaken plank running along the bottom of the ship, from stem to stern, known as the keel (in Old Norse, kjǫlr), which the Vikings invented in the seventh century. It was the keel that gave the Viking ship its stability in any kind of sea and any kind of weather. A single sixty-foot pine mast (from the Norse word mastr, meaning ‘tree’) raised in the dead center of the vessel, with a three-hundred-square-foot sail attached, gave the vessel the wind power it needed to travel anywhere…. When a Viking vessel had to make its way up a river such as the Seine or the Thames or the Volga, its mast could be struck and laid aside and the oars lowered, so that the crew’s muscle power could take over. Viking ships, with a draft of eighteen inches fully loaded, were well designed for these waterways.”

This book will help knit together your understanding of a small group of people whose influence was broad through history. Now, thankfully, that Scandinavian influence is felt in peaceful realms!

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The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy

By Peter W Huber, Mark P. Mills

Recommended on: 6th January 2022

The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy, by Peter W Huber, Mark P. Mills. This book is considered a classic in energy studies, lauded by everyone from Bill Gates to, well, the best economist we know in energy studies, Gabriel Calzada.  And we can see why.  Huber and Mills put it best:

“Energy thus consumes itself at every stage of its own production and conversion, from the grassland on the Serengeti to the gazelle to the black-maned lion of Ngorongoro crater, from strip mine and derrick to the power plant and car engine, and from the direct current (DC) power supply to the central processing unit (CPU). Not just a bit of energy, here and there, but most of it. Over two-thirds of all the fuel we consume gets run through thermal engines—and well over half of it never emerges as shaft power at the other end. Just over half of all the shaft power we produce is used to generate electricity—but another 10 percent of that power doesn’t make it out the far end of the generator. A rapidly growing share of our electricity is now used to transform ordinary grid electricity into computer-grade power—with another 10 to 20 percent overhead in this stage of conversion.

“Some small but growing fraction of high-grade electric power is used to produce laser light—and another 60 to 90 percent, or more, of the electric power dispatched to the laser never makes it into the blinding beam of light. These losses compound from end to end: overall, only 1 to 5 percent (at best) of the thermal energy locked up in the fossil fuel or the enriched uranium ever emerges at the other end of the pipeline, as a laser beam, or a stream of cool air from an air conditioner, or as 200 pounds of 40 mph mom-and-kids; all the rest goes into purifying, conditioning, and tailoring the power.”

This book will change your thinking about energy, which is, no matter how you slice it, crucial for survival and economic growth.

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