This is the promised list of great works. Send me a note when you think of something that belongs on the list.
You cannot lead if you cannot communicate. A corollary is that you should hone your writing skills for the rest of your life.
The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E. B. White
Just after I distributed a draft of my first textbook, a student lobbed the dreaded question at me. Have you read Strunk and White? she said. I was betrayed because I had not deployed active verbs.
BUGS in Writing: A Guide to Debugging Your Prose, Lyn Dupre
Once Strunk and White is in your blood, read Dupre. She is a developmental editor; that is, she not only performs the lessor, comma-correcting function of a copy editor, she also comments on clarity and structure. After I wrote a few books, I thought I had learned what ordinary copy editors have to teach, so I asked my publisher to find an editor who could make me cry. The found Dupre. She did.
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Edward R. Tufte
Because we think with our eyes as well as our mouth, illustrations should properly stimulate your reader's visual problem solving apparatus. In this domain, Tufte's book reigns supreme. Look at the illustrations and discover what he has to say about them. Note, however, that you are likely to be disappointed by the writing style at the sentence and paragraph level.
We mimic what we read, so before you write, read something you admire.
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, James M. McPherson
If I don't feel like Shakespeare, I read McPherson, who does Strunk and White great honor in the way he uses verbs. The Battle Cry of Freedom is the best one-volume treatment of the American Civil War and takes you beyond high-school simplifications toward an understanding of the complex economic and political roots of a horrible war.
Molecular Biology of the Gene, James D. Watson
Before you write a textbook or documentation, study Watson's first edition if you can find it (the Seventh is now available, but multiply authored, so I expect it is less well done). Do not study the biology, study the way Watson explains the biology.
The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, Lee Smolin
In the final chapters of The Trouble with Physics, Smolin explains that tenure decisions focus on maximizing short term reputation of the tenuring university. Accordingly, paradigm shifting geniuses often end up as false negatives because they do not necessarily develop the expected portfolio of papers in refereed journals while they are thinking their deep thoughts. My experiences in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science run amazingly parallel.
The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, James D. Watson
If Watson were to tire of molecular biology, he could become a great mystery writer, on the level of Arthur Conan Doyle. His account of the discovery of the structure of DNA exposes a level of competition, politics, deception, and sexism, and mystery that you would expect to find in a board room, not in a scientific community.
Out of the Crisis, W. Edwards Deming
McArthur brought Deming to Japan after World War Two. He transformed Japan from a maker a junk into the industrial envy of the world. The Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers have awarded The Deming prize annually for the past 60 years or so in his honor. In his book, he emphasizes that a good leader makes it clear to each person in his/her organization that that person is valued, that his/her work is valued, and his/her work makes a difference. Annual reviews are not for grading, they are for identifying what is done well and where improvement would have the most impact.
Adaptive Markets: Financial Evolution at the Speed of Thought, Andrew Lo
Lo tells stories about how stories push financial markets around.
A Message to Garcia, Elbert Hubbard
Lieutenant Rowan got the message to Garcia. You should too.
Lord Chesterfield's Letters, Lord Chesterfield
Chesterfield wrote his letters in the first half of the eighteenth century, but much of his advice remains valuable. My grandfather gave me a copy in 1963, with particular parts underlined for my benefit.
Maters of the Planet, Ian Tattersall
We didn't amount to much before 70,000 years ago. Tattersall explains that we became symbolic.
Why only us, Robert Berwick and Noam Chomsky
Berwick and Chomsky refine Tattersall by explaining that we got an operation, merge, evidently missing in other species. Merge matters, in my view, because it enables story composition.
You cannot actually put these on a bookshelf, but they are useful nevertheless.
How to Speak, Patrick Henry Winston
Go to my How to Speak talk in IAP. Some attend multiple times. The record so far is said to be greater than 10.
Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death, Patrick Henry
If you are thinking of starting a revolution, read Henry's speech and adapt it to your purpose.