How Can I Get Smarter This Year? Read a Book From This List

Brain training probably won't cut it. Instead, try reading one of these books.

Posted Jan 03, 2019

The idea that you can improve your general cognitive ability or reasoning by “training your brain” is an appealing one. However, that is an idea that is unsupported by evidence. Michael R. Dougherty and Alison Robey note in a recent Current Directions in Psychological Science paper that it is questionable whether brain training really can lead to impactful educational interventions. And a recent synthesis by Giovanni Sala and Fernand Gobet published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences concludes based on several meta-analytic reviews that cognitive training does not enhance general cognition: “The cognitive-training program of research has showed no appreciable benefits, and other more plausible practices to enhance cognitive performance should be pursued.”

Though to date it is not clear what exactly will make you smarter in the sense of improving general cognitive ability, there are many ways you can learn new things and become “smarter” in the sense of maybe learning to think about things from different perspectives and in new ways.

Dominic Cummings, in an article titled Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities, drew from Murray Gell Mann’s idea that there is a scientific and political need for “an ‘Odyssean’ philosophy that can synthesize a) math and the natural sciences, b) the social sciences, and c) the humanities and arts, into necessarily crude, trans-disciplinary, integrative thinking about complex systems.” He argued that “An Odyssean curriculum would give students and politicians some mathematical foundations and a map to navigate such subjects without requiring a deep specialist understanding of each element,” and that “we need an ‘Odyssean’ education so that a substantial fraction of teenagers, students and adults might understand something of our biggest and practical problems, and be trained to take effective action.”

In an appendix of that paper, Cummings provides many recommendations of what an Odyssean curriculum might entail. Included below are just the books and papers he recommends as of 2013. The full document is worth reading as it gives recommendations for content areas to master and shows that this is his list, which is a reflection of his mind and interests. This means that of course there are many works that are not included that could be, especially if they have been published in the last five years. If you think this list is incomplete, please leave your recommendation in the comments so all can benefit and maybe get just a little bit “smarter,” or at least learn something new.


The Method of Coordinates, Gelfand, Glagoleva, Kirillov.

Functions and Graphs, Gelfand and Glagoleva.

Lines and Curves, Vassiliev and Gutenmacher.

Mathematics for the Nonmathematician, Morris Kline.

Mathematics and the Physical World, Morris Kline.

Innumeracy, John Allen Paulos.

Reckoning With Risk, Gigerenzer.

Mathematics: A short introduction, Gowers.

The Story of Mathematics, Marcus du Sautoy.

Symmetry, Marcus du Sautoy.

Number, Dantzig.

The Joy of X, Strogatz.

Scott Page’s Model Thinking on Coursera.

How to Solve It, Polya.

Solving Mathematical Problems, Terence Tao.

Causality, Judea Pearl.

What is mathematics?, Courant.

Gödel’s Theorem: An Incomplete Guide to its Use and Abuse, Franzen.

Mathematics: Its content, methods and meaning, Kolmogorov et al.

Mathematical Thought from Ancient to Modern Times, Morris Kline.

Calculus, Spivak.

Hardy’s A mathematician’s apology.

Mathematical Education, Bill Thurston.

Tim Gowers’ blog.

Terence Tao’s blogTao on sets and logic.

Computer Science

Artificial Intelligence, Russell & Norvig.

Sebastian Thrun (Udacity) and Andrew Ng (Coursera) on machine intelligence.

Scott Aaronson course.

Wired for War, Peter Singer

Gleick on a history of information theory and computation.

Dyson on the story of Turing, von Neumann and the computer.

Introduction to the Theory of Computation, Sipser.


Six Easy Pieces, Feynman.

Tips on Physics: a problem-solving supplement, Feynman.

Here is a wonderful interview with Feynman.

Physics for Future Presidents, Richard Muller.

Theoretical Minimum, Leonard Susskind.

Fab: From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication, Gershenfeld.

The Great Equations, Crease.

A Cavendish Quantum Mechanics Primer, Mark Warner.

The Second Creation, Crease & Mann.

The Infinity Puzzle, Frank Close.

A great biography of Einstein by Isaacson.

A great biography of Dirac, The Strangest Man, Farmelo.

The Dance of the Photons, Zeilinger.

The Limits of Quantum Computers, Scott Aaronson.

Quantum Computing Since Democritus, Scott Aaronson.

Michael Nielsen: Why the world needs quantum mechanicsQuantum Computing for Everyone, and Quantum Computing for the Determined.

Woit’s blog.

Dorigo’s blog.

Genetics, The Brain, Mind, And Artificial Intelligence

Natural selection 150 years on, Pagel.

Pinker’s The Blank Slate.

Plomin’s Behavioral Genetics.

What is Thought?, Baum.

Consciousness, Koch.

Thinking, fast and slow, Kahneman.

Expert Political Judgment, Tetlock.

Sources of Power, Klein.

Drexler describes how he educates himself.

Hamming on how to do research.

Carlson’s Biology is Technology.

The Language of Life by Francis Collins.


A Farewell To Alms, Gregory Clark.

Beinhocker’s Complexity Economics.

Mandelbrot’s The Misbehaviour of Financial Markets.

Vernon Smith’s Rationality.

Mackenzie’s An Engine, Not a Camera and an essay.

This paper by Lo.

This memoir by Charles Ferguson.

Complex Systems And The Math of Prediction

This talk by Fields Medalist Terry Tao.

Gell Mann’s The Quark and the Jaguar.

E.O. Wilson’s Consilience.

Barabasi’s Linked.

Mitchell’s Complexity.

The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver.

War And International Relations

Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War.

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

Clausewitz’s On War.

van Creveld’s The Transformation of War.

Colin Gray’s Introduction to Strategic History.

John Robb’s Brave New War.

This paper on nuclear strategy.

Pontecorvo’s movie The Battle of Algiers.

Bismarck: Pflanze’s Biography.

Hoskyns’ Just in Time.

Plouffe’s Audacity to Win.

The Victory Lab, Issenberg.

Cialdini’s Influence.

James Frayne’s Meet the People.

Good Strategy, Bad Strategy by Rumelt.

Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto.

Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and Beautiful Evidence.


Dougherty, M. R., & Robey, A. (2018). Neuroscience and education: A bridge astray? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27, 401-406.

Sala, G., & Gobet, F. (2019). Cognitive training does not enhance general cognition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 23, 9-20.

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