The Principles of Scientific Management. Fredrick Winslow Taylor’s classic book summarizing scientific management. Available for free on Kindle, it’s well worth reading. Taylor was a lot more progressive and modern than he gets credit for today.
Zero to One. Peter Thiel’s best-selling guidebook to building startups, co-authored with Blake Masters. Derived from a series of class notes (captured by Masters), this book outlines key requirements for successful startups and discusses the nature of innovation and the future of the global economy.
Two classic guides to the night sky with text and artwork by H.A. Rey. Find the Constellations is a great place to start learning about the night sky, whatever your age. It’s a timeless book; no telescope or binoculars required. The Stars has additional information about the solar system and planetary bodies, but was last updated in 2008.
The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli. A fast, fun read, with plenty of humorous anecdotes (and lots of endnotes) — summarizing many cognitive biases humans humans fall prey to. (Update: Apparently the author played very fast and loose gathering other people’s material, so you might want to check it out of a library, rather than buy it. Flawed though it is, I haven’t seen a similarly comprehensive list.)
Excel Dashboards and Reports by Michael Alexander. A great collection of tips and templates for creating easy to read, information dense business intelligence dashboards and analytical reports. A useful reference as well. I’ve already gone back several times to look up details on specific charting techniques.
Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World by Michael Lewis. A humorous look at the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Lewis describes what countries “did alone in the dark with a big pile of money”, and how that reflects their national character.
The Mythical Man-Month by Frederick Brooks. Timeless advice for engineers and managers. One of the classic observations: Projects typically progress at a rate independent of the level of staffing (above a certain level), because sequential problems need to be solved. Throwing more bodies at the project won’t help. Another famous insight: Adding more staff to a late project only makes it later.
Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation. A thought-provoking book, though I’m not sure I buy into all the futurist predictions, especially about the ultimate triumph of cities over suburban living.
The Innovator’s Dilemma. Clayton Christensen’s classic book that introduced the concept of disruptive innovation. One of the key takeaways is how products mature and eventually create products that have been incrementally improved (through “sustaining” innovations) so much that they become too expensive and/or complex. Meanwhile, a new product comes along which on many dimensions is demonstrably inferior. However, in some other dimension(s) it has the growth potential to overtake the capabilities and quality of existing products (a “disruptive” innovation). Clay uses the evolution of different computer hard drive technologies as one example, but a more modern illustration is the mp3 music file. An mp3 is clearly inferior to a compact disk (CD) recording, but other features such as portability and ease of sharing, along with the rapid growth of delivery systems quickly outcompeted CDs. A key lesson is that a new product or solution can be clearly inferior in some ways, but eventually dramatically superior in other ways. It’s also important to note that established firms have a very hard time pursuing disruptive innovations because they threaten existing products or offer too small a return in the near term, relative to current lines of business.
Cathedral, Castle, and City. Three of David Macaulay’s delightfully illustrated books describing the design and construction of historic structures. Great for kids, but also a fun read for adults as well. A new color edition of Cathedral is scheduled to be published on 11/5/2013, but I think there’s something really cool about the 1970’s pen and ink style that Macaulay used in the original.
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.
An amazing life.