Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Real Good Books

So I was sitting there, reading Natalie Angier’s The Canon and complaining to my roommate. “God, this book is so overwritten,” I whined. “This is the worst science book since Lauren Slater published Opening Skinner’s Box.” I read her a random sentence: “Am I sounding a self-pitying, sour-grapes-turned-defensive whine? Of course: a good offense begins with a nasal defensiveness.” I was about to read more when she stopped me. “If that book is so bad,” she asked, “why do you keep reading it?”

And so, we decided on a plan: for the month of June, I would only read good books. Unfortunately, this plan didn’t go as well as I had hoped — good books are harder to find that it might seem at first. I realized what I really wanted was books that were compulsively readable, the kind that once you slurped down like wet noodles, where once you started in on them you just couldn’t stop.

I’ve read a couple books like that, but not many. For example, David Boies’ autobiography isn’t the kind of thing I would normally pick up. Self-aggrandizing autobiographies aren’t exactly my thing and Boies, while interesting, isn’t exactly a topic of fascination for me. But when I found myself holding it with a couple minutes to kill, I started reading it and before I noticed it I was most of the way through the 500 page book.

Or take James Wolcott’s Attack Poodles. Now I love a good media-bashing as much as the next guy, but this one I just couldn’t put down. I had to sneak away from dinner to finish reading it. And when it was done, I found myself wanting more.

What both books have in common, aside from being fun reads, is a small red rectangle on in the upper left of their covers. The rectangle is part of the “Miramax Books” logo which stretches from the back cover around the spine to the front of every book they publish. As far as I know, Miramax is the only publisher audacious enough to put their logo on the cover of their books, and while I initially took it as a sign of Hollywood arrogance, I now see it as something else: a mark of quality. Perhaps, I figured, Miramax works so hard to make their books readable that they want to capitalize on that brand by making it really clear which ones were theirs. I even dreamed of having my books published by Miramax.

So when my plan for June fizzled out, I tried to think of how I could fix things for July. And I hit upon the idea of spending it only reading Miramax books. Unfortunately for me, when the Weinstein Brothers (who ran Miramax) left Disney, Miramax Books got the axe. The Weinstein Brothers have restarted their book division at their new company (cleverly named The Weinstein Company, apparently because Fellowship Adventure Group was “too gay”) but their first real book doesn’t come out until September.

So here’s a plea to you readers: where does one find compulsively readable books? Who do you trust?

You should follow me on twitter here.

July 4, 2007


I don’t read much (not for lack of curiosity) but these books sustained my interest.

  • The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst
  • More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon
  • Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
  • Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott

posted by Leif on July 4, 2007 #

With matters of this importance the only people I can really trust are my mother and my friends. The former being the primary source of recommendations.

posted by Tommi on July 4, 2007 #

I have no idea where to find such books, but I’ll tell you some I have found (although it is mostly fiction):

At the moment I am devouring David Brin and Salmon Rushdie.

Richard Dawkins is one of those people who is so eloquent that it’s all too easy not to think about what he’s saying. I recommend /The Ancestor’s Tale/ for a tour of coolities in zoology.

Neal Stephenson’s /Baroque Cycle/ took me a couple of months to get through, and I didn’t want it to end.

/A History of Mathematics/ by Victor Katz has been good so far. /e: the Story of a Number/ was delightful when I read it, though it might be boring if you already know calculus.

Richard Feynman, obviously.

/This Boy’s Life/ by Tobias Wolff, which is a memoir, which, from what I gather, means an autobiography that reads like a novel.

/What Mad Pursuit/ by Francis Crick was alright.

posted by David McCabe on July 4, 2007 #

Autobiographies, when good, are always compulsively readable. Try John Stuart Mill’s, Bertrand Russell’s, and Paul Feyerabend’s.

posted by Pablo Stafforini on July 4, 2007 #

Anything by Rachel Carson. Silent Spring is something everyone should read just because of its historical importance, although it’s somewhat dated as a piece of science writing. But her other three major books, especially the Sea Around Us, are amazing and hold up very well. I’d say Carson was the best writer I’ve read.

As for autobiographies, E. O. Wilson’s Naturalist and Watson’s The Double Helix are must-reads.

posted by Sage Ross on July 4, 2007 #

There are so many good books, so you have to choose efficiently. Here is a method: decide based on the first page. If you can’t decide, that’s a no. You can read a lot of first pages very quickly, right there in the library. You don’t have to be too selective, because what ultimately grabs you may be a surprise.

posted by Carl Tashian on July 4, 2007 #

It may or may not be your style, but the last most entertaining book I read was “11 Minutes” by Paulo Coelho.

posted by Andrey Fedorov on July 5, 2007 #

I think lots of other publishers put their logos on the covers of their books, at least in fiction. Penguin and Vintage definitely do. Do you read much fiction?

If so, T.C. Boyle writes books that I can’t put down, as does Nadine Gordimer. I also thought The Russian Debutante’s Handbook was pretty funny.

I’m not much of a nonfiction reader, sorry.

posted by PS on July 9, 2007 #

Hey Swartz,

Have you ever read anything by Charles Bukowski?  Give "Ham on Rye" a try.  It's sorta like the antithesis of "The Catcher in the Rye," though, just as good, if not better.  Might not be down your alley, but have a read by a guy who didn't have much formal education and was pretty much self-taught.


posted by P. on July 15, 2007 #

How could you find yourself in page 500 of David Boies’ Biography if the book only has 384 pages? (according to your link).

In a trial your testimony would be disqualified.


posted by Javier Garcia on August 2, 2007 #

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