The Infinite Loops Canon
30 books that have shaped the podcast
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The Sacred Texts
1. The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World; by David Deutsch
“People in 1900 did not consider the internet or nuclear power unlikely: they did not conceive of them at all. No good explanation can predict the outcome, or the probability of an outcome, of a phenomenon whose course is going to be significantly affected by the creation of new knowledge. This is a fundamental limitation on the reach of scientific prediction, and, when planning for the future, it is vital to come to terms with it.”
The rational optimists’ manifesto. Described by Jim as “probably the most profound and important book I’ve ever read.”
Need we say any more?
The Fabric of Reality; by David Deutsch
The Blank Slate; by Stephen Pinker
Jim’s Twitter Thread on the book
2. The Tao Te Ching; by Lao Tzu
“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.”
A treatise on balance, harmony and humility. One of the foundational texts of Jim’s worldview, and an eternal reference point for the podcast.
The Bhagavad Gita; by Vyasa
Jim’s Twitter Thread on the Tao and the Dow
3. Hero with a Thousand Faces; by Joseph Campbell
“Everywhere, no matter what the sphere of interest (whether religious, political, or personal), the really creative acts are represented as those deriving from some sort of dying to the world; and what happens in the interval of the hero's nonentity, so that he comes back as one reborn, made great and filled with creative power, mankind is also unanimous in declaring. We shall have only to follow, therefore, a multitude of heroic figures through the classic stages of the universal adventure in order to see again what has always been revealed. …the singleness of the human spirit in its aspirations, powers, vicissitudes, and wisdom.”
Are you a fan of Star Wars? Rick & Morty? Moby Dick? Lord of the Rings? The Odyssey? The Wizard of Oz? Plato’s Allegory of the Cave? All are different versions of Campbell’s generalisable, eternal ‘monomyth’, a process of stasis, tension and re-emergence into a higher form of order which serves as a manual for how we achieve societal and individual growth.
Further Reading / Watching:
Philosophy and Spirituality
4. Meditations; by Marcus Aurelius
“You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
Don’t waste your energy on things you can’t control. Focus on things you can control. Like reading this book.
Letters from a Stoic: All Three Volumes; by Seneca
Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy; by Viktor Frankl
5. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values; by Robert M. Pirsig
"The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha— which is to demean oneself."
A feel-good, light travelogue which can be zipped through in a couple of hours.
If you believed that then you really haven’t been paying attention.
Lila: An Inquiry into Morals; by Robert M. Pirsig
Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality; by Anthony De Mello
6. Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing; by Jed McKenna
“The fundamental conflict in the spiritual quest is that ego desires spiritual enlightenment, but ego can never achieve spiritual enlightenment. Self cannot achieve no-self. That’s why anyone who wants to sell enlightenment must first reduce it to more manageable proportions; to something ego can achieve. Enlightenment Lite: Less demanding, feels great. Enlitenment.”
We’ll let our friend Dan Jeffries lead on this one:
“It’s not a fun book to read and I don’t recommend you read it unless you really can’t stop yourself from doing the stupidest thing possible and poking around the limits of your reality cage. Do you like swimming with giant electric eels? Good. It’s just like that.”
Rick and Morty and the Meaning of Life; by Dan Jeffries
Rick and Morty and the Meaning of Life Part II; by Dan Jeffries
Jim’s Twitter Thread
7. The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size; by Tor Nørretranders
“Consciousness is not about information but about its opposite: order. …. Because consciousness is a state that does not process much information - consciously. Consciousness consists of information no more than a person who consumes large amounts of food can be said to consist of food. Consciousness is nourished by information the same way the body is nourished by food. But human beings do not consist of hot dogs; they consist of hot dogs that have been eaten.”
You are currently absorbing roughly 11 million bits of information per second.
Unfortunately, of that 11 million bits per second, your conscious mind can only process a maximum of roughly 50 bits (OK - since you’re an Infinite Loops listener we’ll assume that you are particularly perceptive, so we’ll give you 60).
This book is about the remaining 10,999,940 bits.
8. The Status Game: On Human Life and How to Play It; by Will Storr
“Life is a game. There’s no way to understand the human world without first understanding this. Everyone alive is playing a game whose hidden rules are built into us and that silently directs our thoughts, beliefs and actions. This game is inside us. It is us. We can’t help but play.”
Want to gain a better understanding of humanOS? Read this book.
Further Reading / Listening:
Our episode with Will
Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desires in Everyday Life; by Luke Burgis
9. The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous; by Joseph Henrich
“Our species’ learning abilities give rise to a process called cumulative cultural evolution. Operating over generations, cumulative cultural evolution can generate increasingly sophisticated technologies, complex languages, psychologically-potent rituals, effective institutions and intricate protocols for making tools, houses, weapons, and watercraft. This can, and often does, happen without anyone understanding how or why these practices, beliefs, and protocols work, or even that these cultural elements “do” anything.”
‘Human nature’ may be very different to what we Western weirdos think it is. This book explains why.
Jim’s Twitter thread on the book (1)
Jim’s Twitter thread on the book (2)
Jim’s Twitter thread on smartphone use and human brain structure
10. Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense; by Rory Sutherland
“Value resides not in the thing itself, but in the minds of those who value it.”
Packed with wisdom:
“In maths, 10 x 1 is always the same as 1 x 10, but in real life, it rarely is. You can trick ten people once, but it’s much harder to trick one person ten times.”
"Our very perception of the world is affected by context, which is why the rational attempt to contrive universal, context-free laws for human behaviour may be largely doomed."
Further Reading / Listening:
Our episode with Rory (1)
Our episode with Rory (2)
Our episode with Rory (3)
The Psychology of Money: Timeless lessons on wealth, greed, and happiness; by Morgan Housel
11. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds; by Charles Mackay
“Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”
Mackay’s seminal 1841 book argues that humanity will often descend into mass group mania, driven by greed, fear, excitement, and imitation.
If only we could think of a recent news example to illustrate his point.
The First Crash: Lessons from the South Sea Bubble; by Richard Dale
Markets & Investing
12. Reminiscences of a Stock Operator; by Edwin Lefèvre
“The sucker has always tried to get something for nothing, and the appeal in all booms is always frankly to the gambling instinct aroused by cupidity and spurred by a pervasive prosperity. People who look for easy money invariably pay for the privilege of proving conclusively that it cannot be found on this sordid earth.”
Jim: “Old, but classic that all investors should read. You’ll swear he’s writing about markets of today.”
It Was a Very Good Year: Extraordinary Moments in Stock Market History; by Martin S. Fridson
Contrarian Investment Strategies: The Psychological Edge; by David Dreman
The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine; by Michael Lewis
13. What Works on Wall Street; by Jim O’Shaughnessy
“Investors can do much better than the market if they consistently use time-tested strategies that are based on sensible, rational methods for selecting stocks.”
How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life; by Thomas Gilovich
The Little Book of Valuation: How to Value a Company, Pick a Stock and Profit; by Aswath Damodaran
History & Economics
14. The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism; by Howard Bloom
“But here’s a basic fact about the Western way of life, hard as we may find it to conceive: Capitalism offers more things to believe in than any system that has ever come before. Nearly every faith, from Christianity and Buddhism to Islam and Marxism, promises to raise the poor and the oppressed. But only capitalism delivers what these ideologies and religions profess. Capitalism lifts the poor and helps them live their dreams.”
Jim: “Bloom’s book points us in the right direction. Instead of thinking of markets as some exogenous, abstract entities that suddenly appeared as if by creatio ex nihilo, we need to start understanding them as human creations designed to provide said humans with things they desire.”
Jim’s Twitter thread on the book
15. The Lessons of History; by Will and Ariel Durant
“History is, above all else, the creation and recording of that heritage; progress is its increasing abundance, preservation, transmission, and use. To those of us who study history not merely as a warning reminder of man’s follies and crimes, but also as an encouraging remembrance of generative souls, the past ceases to be a depressing chamber of horrors; it becomes a celestial city, a spacious country of the mind, wherein a thousand saints, statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, lovers, and philosophers still live and speak, teach and carve and sing. The historian will not mourn because he can see no meaning in human existence except that which man puts into it; let it be our pride that we ourselves may put meaning into our lives, and sometimes a significance that transcends death. If a man is fortunate he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children. And to his final breath he will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother and our lasting life.”
Just a casual attempt to distil 5,000 years of history and 10 volumes of books (over 12,000 pages) into 13 chapters (128 pages).
An articulation of a recurring Infinite Loops theme - circumstances may change, but human nature doesn’t.
The Story of Civilization (11 volumes); by Ariel and Will Durant
16. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; by Thomas S. Kuhn
“Observation and experience can and must drastically restrict the range of admissible scientific belief, else there would be no science. But they cannot alone determine a particular body of such belief. An apparently arbitrary element, compounded of personal and historical accident, is always a formative ingredient of the beliefs espoused by a given scientific community at a given time”
A foundational text for those seeking to understand the process by which we discover new paradigms.
The Logic of Scientific Discovery; by Karl Popper
Against Method; by Paul Karl Feyerabend
17. AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future; by Kai-Fu Lee and Chen Qiufan
“An AI teacher will notice what makes a student’s pupils dilate or eyelids droop. It will deduce a way to teach geometry to make one student learn faster, even though that method may fail on a thousand other students. AI will give each student different exercises, based on his or her pace, ensuring a given student achieves a full mastery of a topic before moving to the next. With ever-more data, AI will make learning much more effective, engaging, and fun. In this AI-infused learning, teachers will be human mentors and connectors for the students. Human teachers will be the driving force behind stimulating the students’ critical thinking, creativity, empathy and teamwork. And the teacher will be a clarifier when a student is confused, a confronter when the student is complacent, and a comforter when the student is frustrated”
Novelist Chen Qiufan and computer scientist (and former president of Google China) Kai-Fu Lee join forces to author a book which is part science fiction, part science forecasting.
The central thesis? AI will transform our lives, but we remain masters of our own fate.
The Exponential Age: How Accelerating Technology is Transforming Business, Politics and Society; by Azeem Azhar
18. Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character); by Richard Feynman
“Of course, you only live one life, and you make all your mistakes, and learn what not to do, and that's the end of you.”
We are stretching the game's rules somewhat by including this in the ‘science’ section. An autobiographical paean to curiosity, independence, problem-solving, fun and honesty from one of the most brilliant scientists of the 20th century.
The Man from the Future: The Visionary Life of John von Neumann; by Ananyo Bhattacharya
A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age;
by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman
19. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; by Douglas Adams
“This planet has - or rather had - a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.”
A philosophy book disguised as a humourous sci-fi story.
Including this book in our list may or may not have been one of Jeremiah Lowin’s redlines before signing up to the OSV advisory council.
Good Omens; by Neil Gaiman
Anything by Terry Pratchett
20. The Lathe of Heaven; by Ursula K Le Guin
“Things don't have purposes, as if the universe were a machine, where every part has a useful function. What's the function of a galaxy? I don't know if our life has a purpose and I don't see that it matters. What does matter is that we're a part. Like a thread in a cloth or a grass-blade in a field. It is and we are. What we do is like wind blowing on the grass.”
To be honest, we could have included basically any book written by Ursula Le Guin here.
What would you do if your dreams had the power to reshape reality?
A Wizard of Earthsea; by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Dispossessed; by Ursula K. Le Guin
21. Cloud Atlas; by David Mitchell
“Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”
One of the best books of the 21st century.
The Bone Clocks; by David Mitchell
The Three-Body Problem; by Liu Cixin
22. Dune; by Frank Herbert
“A leader, you see, is one of the things that distinguishes a mob from a people. He maintains the level of individuals. Too few individuals, and a people reverts to a mob.”
One of the most influential science fiction series of all time. Obviously it’s going to be on the list!
Foundation series; by Isaac Asimov
23. To Kill a Mockingbird; by Harper Lee
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”
What more do we need to say?
Mrs Dalloway; by Virgina Woolf
The Catcher in the Rye; by J.D. Salinger
24. Interpreter of Maladies; by Jhumpa Lahiri
“While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination."
A beautifully written series of stories about communication, belonging, romanticism and family.
The Namesake; by Jhumpa Lahiri
25. Zorba the Greek; by Nikos Kazantzakis
“This is true happiness: to have no ambition and to work like a horse as if you had every ambition. To live far from men, not to need them and yet to love them. To have the stars above, the land to your left and the sea to your right and to realize of a sudden that in your heart, life has accomplished its final miracle: it has become a fairy tale.”
An exploration of existentialism, nihilism, modernity and, of course, the Tao. One of Jim’s favourite novels.
Rules for Old Men Waiting; by Peter Pouncey
26. Siddharta; by Hermann Hesse
“Even in him, even in your great teacher, I prefer the thing to the words, his actions and his life are more important than his speech, the gestures of his hand more important than his opinions.”
You can get your life lessons straight from the Buddha, but that won’t turn you into the Buddha. Bookish knowledge is nowhere near enough to replace real-world experiences. As Hermann Hesse put it:
"Knowledge can be conveyed, but not wisdom. It can be found, it can be lived, it is possible to be carried by it, miracles can be performed with it, but it cannot be expressed in words and taught."
The Alchemist; by Paulo Coelho
Sloww summary of the book through the lens of the Hero’s Journey
27. Bring Up the Bodies; by Hilary Mantel
“What is the nature of the border between truth and lies? It is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumour, confabulation, misunderstandings and twisted tales. Truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the street; unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.”
The second and best of Mantel’s trilogy chronicling the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell. If you haven’t already read it, where have you been for the last 10 years?
Wolf Hall; by Hilary Mantel
The Mirror & the Light; by Hilary Mantel
Masters of Rome Series; by Colleen McCullough
28. Prometheus Rising; by Robert Anton Wilson
“The easiest way to get brainwashed is to be born. All of the above principles then immediately go into action, a process which social psychologists euphemistically call socialization.”
“If you think you know what the hell is going on, you’re probably full of shit.”
— Robert Anton Wilson
Jim’s Twitter thread on the Thinker and the Prover
29. Unflattening; by Nick Sousanis
“We don't know who you are until you arrive, we don't know who you'll become until you've explored the possibilities.”
Impossible to summarise. Psychology, philosophy, illusion, abstraction, critical theory and mythology combine in this graphic novel to create a mind-bending, perception-expanding experience.
Further Reading / Listening:
30. Slouching Towards Bethlehem; by Joan Didion
“We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”
“Everybody wants to have a peaceful world and not get shut in the head or something, but you cannot change minds by handing a flower to some bozo who wants to shoot ya.”
— Moe Tucker (Velvet Underground drummer)
A collection of essays on 60s San Francisco. Referred to in the New York Times as “some of the best written prose today in this country” on publication in 1968. Renowned for its scathing account of hippie counterculture.
The Year of Magical Thinking; by Joan Didion
The Photograph; by Penelope Lively
What do you think of the list? Are there any books that you think should or shouldn’t be included? Let us know in the comments!