A Hacktivist Reading List: Aaron Swartz's recommended reading


Aaron Swartz (1986–2013) was an American computer programmer, a writer, a political organizer, and an Internet hacktivist, devoted to a free and open internet. He was involved in the development of RSS, Creative Commons, web.py, and Reddit. When he tried to 'liberate' data from an academic website, US authorities responded fiercely. He faced a fine of up to $1m and 35 years in jail. In 2013, he tragically took his own life. 

The Boy Who Could Change the World is a newly-published collection of his writings; the life’s work of one of the most original minds of our time. In tribute to Swartz, this book is available to download for FREE—for one day only! We’ve also included other ebooks such as Inventing the Future, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, and The Wikileaks Files.

Aaron Swartz read widely, posting annual lists of the books he enjoyed (and didn’t). Taken from The Boy Who Could Change the World, we bring you a hacktivist reading list – books that Swartz posted about from 2006-2011, presented here in his own words. 

A Mathematician's Apology (PDF), G. H. Hardy
Godfrey Hardy was a great mathematician. But, looking back on his life, he wondered what it was he had actually contributed to society. In this, his classic defense of his pragmatically worthless profession, he examines what it means to have spent your life wisely. (Previous thoughts: my apology, Legacy.) Raymond Smullyan, 5000 BC (And Other Philosophical Fantasies) In this bizarrely delightful little book, Smullyan, the famed recreational logician, addresses topics from the annoyances on long car rides to the most dif cult problems in philosophy, often at once, using stories that are so delightfully amusing that it seems hard to believe they could have any educational value.

5000 BC (And Other Philosophical Fantasies), Raymond Smullyan
In this bizarrely delightful little book, Smullyan, the famed recreational logician, addresses topics from the annoyances on long car rides to the most difficult problems in philosophy, often at once, using stories that are so delightfully amusing that it seems hard to believe they could have any educational value.

In Persuasion Nation: Stories, George Saunders
I have to be honest with you. I'm not really one for science fiction. Indeed, I'm not a big fan of fiction in general. But George Saunders is different: I'll read just about anything by him. Saunders' stories man- age to combine a whimsically imagined future, biting critique of our present era, along with a use of language so delightfully varied that one wonders how one man can have such control over his authorial voice.

Which Side Are You On?: Trying to Be for Labor When It's Flat on Its Back, Thomas Geoghegan
One would think a book on labor history would be dreadfully dull and, more to the point, depressing. And yet, in the rst chapter of this book, I found something that made me laugh or smile widely on practically every page. My friend Rick Perlstein got me to read this book by telling me it was "the best political book of the last 15 years[—]the best book of the last 15 years." (He's since taken me to meet Geoghegan several times.) It's hard to imagine a book more important and touching.

Becoming Attached: Unfolding the Mystery of the Infant- Mother Bond and Its Impact on Later Life, Robert Karen
At the beginning of the last century, doctors thought parental love was unimportant: parents weren't allowed to even visit their kids in the hospital, psychology experts encouraged moms not to hug or kiss their children, the U.S. government handed out pamphlets on how to be firm with your children. This tour de force book tells the amazing story of how all that was overturned by a group of dedicated scientists whose research into the subject of parental love brought some of the most stunningly strong results in the entire eld of psychology. Thrillingly good story, textbook on the science, and self- help guide all in one—I can't recommend this book enough. 

Indefensible: One Lawyer's Journey into the Inferno of American Justice, David Feige
Being a public defender is a fairly interesting job, but David Feige manages to make it downright fascinating in this in-depth description of his career. Feige describes his life in luscious detail, from the urine on his doorstep to the gritty details of the courtroom, and doesn't hesitate to name names or dig into unpleasant subjects. If only there was a book this good on every career.

Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels, Scott McCloud
Any Scott McCloud book is a treasure, but this one is especially probing. Essentially, McCloud asks what it is a writer does and what it takes to be a good one. His medium is comics, but a lot of the rules are applicable to other formats and it's hard to imagine a book this curious or this well written about them.

The eXile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia, Matt Taibbi and Mark Ames 
Matt Taibbi is my favorite political journalist. He writes with a raw honesty that manages to be both politically biting and hilarious. This book tells the story of how, after playing professional basketball in Inner Mongolia, he met up with co-founder Mark Ames and started an independent newspaper that danced in the flames of Russia's dying society. The result is a strange and incredible book: stories of seedy dive bars full of drugged-up loose women, intermixed with incredible feats of investigative journalism into the oligarchs dragging Russia down—without any change in tone. It's wonderful.

Political Fictions, Joan Didion
Damn, this book is good. Nobody knows how to take a book and skewer it like Didion. The New York Review of Books pieces reprinted in here are simply some of the best eviscerations of any genre. It's hard to imagine how people can walk after a review like that.

Nixonland, Rick Perlstein
Perlstein's last book, Before the Storm, managed to turn the story of a largely dismissed political figure, Barry Goldwater, into a lesson on how the left can take over the country. Now, in Nixonland, he examines the turmoil of the 1960s with fresh eyes and the perfidy of the Nixon administration with new depth. I read the book as he was writing it and sent comments—apparently I was the first outside his home to finish it—and the final version hasn't been published. But do be sure to pick it up as soon as it is.

Changing Places, Lodge
Typical campus novel fun, but with some great People's Park stories.

Fortune's Formula, Poundstone 
Fantastic fun. Math, mafiosi, movies.

False Prophets, Hoopes 
A wonderful series of profiles of the most prominent management theorists going back to slavery and Taylor. The book's editorial line is a bit marred by the inability of the author (a B-School prof and manager) to reconcile his belief that management power is unjust and that it is necessary. But solid history and good takedowns of some important figures.

To The Finland Station, Wilson
Really, really good. Edmund Wilson was the incredible writer you'd expect and this is his masterpiece.

The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man, Maurer
Luc Sante's intro alone is worth the price of the book, but the rest of the book is fantastic as well. Everyone should know about con men. (The BBC's Hustle is obviously a television adaptation of the book.)

Consider the Lobster, DFW
DFW's suicide hit me very hard. I ended up coping by reading every piece of nonfiction he'd ever published. He was a brilliant, tortured man and I see so much of myself in him. His nonfiction was fantastic and I will consider my life a success if I can do half of what he did. . . .

Love at Goon Park by Deborah Blum
The first section is a (confessed!) retread of Becoming Attached, one of my very favorite books. But after that it gets much better and the interplay of animal and human stories is a lot of fun. I've been reading it to the five-year-old, who loves animal stories of all sorts, and she just laps it up. (I skip the incredibly dark parts, of course.)

The Power Broker by Robert Caro
I cannot possibly say enough good things about this book. Go read it. Right now. Yes, I know it's long, but trust me, you'll wish it was longer. I think it may be simply the best nonfiction book.

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces by William H. Whyte
If Feynman was a sociologist, this is probably the book he'd write. A delightful little thing.

American Apartheid by Douglass Massey and Nancy Denton
This book is criminally under-publicized. Everyone has their own crazy theories about why it is that blacks are disadvantaged in our society. Massey and Denton show it's much more obvious than any of that: they're victims of extreme segregation, with all the negative effects that entails. An absolutely brilliant book.

The Liberal Defence of Murder by Richard Seymour
This book is like a little miracle. I'm not even sure how to describe it, except to say that it turns one's understanding of history completely upside down.

The Hedgehog and the Fox by Isaiah Berlin 
Absolutely delightful.

Bat Boy: The Musical
If you ever get a chance, go see it. It's the greatest musical ever.

Bad Samaritans by Ha-joon Chang
The best introduction to the real issues of globalization and international development.

If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? by G. A. Cohen
I really enjoyed this book. It starts with a simple thought experiment: imagine you had a long-lost identical twin who grew up in a conservative home and became a conservative. You, by contrast, grew up in a liberal home and became a liberal. Wouldn't meeting him make you question your beliefs? And thus, shouldn't the possibility that you could meet him make you question your beliefs? (I'm not totally convinced by this; my beliefs are much more shaken by converts—people who were strong believers in X but converted to believing in Y.)
From this, Cohen heads to a reminiscence of his own upbringing, which I found especially touching, perhaps because he has the identity I wish I had: a Canadian communist in an antireligious Yiddish- speaking home...

Secrets by Daniel Ellsberg
A fantastic book. Ellsberg turns out to be an incredible writer and he tells not only his own incredible story of the ght to release the Pentagon Papers (did you know the New York Times actually stole them from his house?), but, even more interestingly, recounts a great deal of fascinating personal experience about what it was like work- ing with McNamara and Kissinger and trying to maintain your sanity in the highest levels of government...

Prince of the Marshes by Rory Stewart
I occasionally have this fantasy, while reading the news, that whatever person I'm reading about has been red and, through some miraculous uke, I have been given their job. Would I make a hash of it? Or, would my naive mind and outsider's expertise allow me to do it in a fascinating new way?
In this book, Rory Stewart describes what happened when he was made a colonial governor of a province in Iraq. Brilliant fellow that he is, he does a remarkably good job all things considered, but also writes a questioning, soul-searching, fascinating book about the experience that highlights what an impossible task it really is.

False Profits: Recovering from the Bubble Economy by Dean Baker
A short, clear book on why the economy failed, who did it, and how to set it right by someone who was absolutely right about it all along. If you only want to read one book about the economic crisis, this would be an excellent choice.

The Accidental Theorist by Paul Krugman
A collection of Krugman's columns for Slate. It was before he really came off his neoliberal high, but after he learned to write, so while they're not always right, they're almost always delightful (and Slate gave him a lot more freedom to be playful than the Times does). A very fun book about a wide range of issues in economics...

Eating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman
Absolutely fantastic. Could hardly put it down. Chuck Klosterman is definitely in the running for greatest living essayist. The book is a collection of essays, but not, as far as I can tell, essays that were ever published anywhere else. They're each just magical gems that fit together just perfectly. I even liked the stuff about football (and I've never seen a game of football). I liked this so much I went on to read all his other books in reverse chronological order.

Why Not Socialism? by G. A. Cohen
A great little book from the late philosopher Jerry Cohen. Not quite as great as his comments about the shmoos, but a wonderful (and, sadly, all too rare) attempt to get people thinking about what socialism really means and whether it would be practical.

The Persistence of Poverty by Charles Karelis
I feel like I've written so much about this book, but none of it ap- pears to have made it to this blog. A great little book, just enough to explain one big idea and how it overturns what you think about classical economics and poverty and much else besides.

Acme Novelty Library, #19 by Chris Ware
Chris Ware is magic. This book consists mostly of a chapter from the work-in-progress Rusty Brown, which I was initially skeptical about, but turns out to be just amazingly great. And Building Stories is incredible too.
Ware's method is to publish a page each week or so in a weekly paper (the Sunday New York Times, the Chicago Reader), then redraw the entire chapter and send it out as an edition of the Novelty Library, then redraw it a third time when the entire book is published. So this is a way of getting intermediate results, but you could just wait for the final books themselves (if they are ever finished).

Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
Absolutely fantastic. A rare must-read novel—packed full of information about society, journalism, activism, race, etc. I can't convey just how good it really is It's like The Power Broker of fiction.

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
There's a reason this is a classic. It articulates a way of dealing with people, founded on concern and empathy, and convincingly argues that this kind style is actually the more productive one for getting things done. Instead of yelling at people to do things, you make them want to help you. And the book itself is a genius exemplar of this practice. Instead of berating you for being a jerk, like most people would, it persuades you to want to change.

Managing to Change the World by Allison Green and Jerry Hauser
The best book on the practicalities of management I've ever read. Whereas most books focus on vague and meaningless advice, this book is clear about the nuts and bolts.

Workers in a Labyrinth by Robert Jackall
Not as great as my favorite book of all time, Jackall's Moral Mazes, but a fascinating look at how normal people make sense of their daily work lives.

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman
Hilarious, brilliant, fantastic. There's no justification for this book being as good as it is. Even I wasn't interested in reading a book about Russian literary scholars, but it's just incredibly good and I'm glad I did.

This Is Your Country on Drugs by Ryan Grim
I would not have thought the world needed another book on drugs, but this one turns out to be basically perfect. Comprehensive, erudite, funny, and realistic—Grim definitely inhales.

Microeconomics by Samuel Bowles
A textbook that totally upends the field of classical economics. Sadly, it can be a bit hard to follow, but I wrote summaries of it here.

All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays by George Orwell (with Introduction by Keith Gessen)
Orwell is magic.

Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich
Ehrenreich makes a convincing case for the ecstatic tradition in American life. My only regret is that it lacks a chapter on raves. The Lifecycle of Software Objects [online] by Ted Chiang Read it! Even people who know much more about sci-fi than me agree this is one of the great science fiction books of all time. It's a novel about the ethical issues with AI.

Short: Walking Tall When You're Not Tall At All by John Schwartz
Surely you've heard about the studies showing short people don't make as much as tall people. John Schwartz set out to write a book to cheer kids up about this fact, but looking into them he found it wasn't a fact at all. The result is a model of self-help through science and media criticism. Schwartz playfully teaches you enough math and science to be able to debunk the studies and enough personal advice to make a life on your own terms.

The Halo Effect by Phil Rosenzweig
Last year, I recommended Good to Great, calling it "actual science." Dave Bridgeland quickly corrected me and recommended this book, which is vastly better. Not only does it systematically debunk the pretensions to science in Good to Great and the other management bestsellers in an absolutely delightful manner, it provides a short but very thought-provoking discussion of strategy in its own right. You can mock the banality of its recommendations, but there's no question: this book is well worth it just for the way it encourages habits of genuine scienti c thought. I knew I never should have fallen so low as to trust a business book!

The Trial by Franz Kafka (translated by Breon Mitchell)
A deep and magnificent work. I'd not really read much Kafka before and had grown up led to believe that it was a paranoid and hyperbolic work, dystopian fiction in the style of George Orwell. Yet I read it and found it was precisely accurate—every single detail perfectly mirrored my own experience. This isn't fiction, but documentary.

Spoilers follow...
The bulk of the book is about K trying to nd someone to fight his case for him, and failing miserably. As an individual in a world of bureaucracies, he concludes there's no substitute but to do the work himself.  This is set against the backdrop of his "day job" at the bank—about as characteristic a bureaucracy as you can imagine. The bank, by contrast, has no dif culty finding people to do its work for it. Even when K slacks off or gets distracted, the bank continues chugging along just fine—as seen in the vice president who leaps to take K's work from him. (Compare: The independent lawyer is under no such pressure to actually get K's work done.) A vivid illustration that bureaucracies, once they get started, continue doing whatever mindless thing they've been set up to do, regardless of whether the people in them particularly want to do it or whether it's even a good idea. At the same time, individual people have an incredibly hard time executing long-term or large-scale tasks on their own, even when they're quite motivated.  But what of the priest? The priest tells K a story about how as an individual in a bureaucracy, it's a losing game to try to ask permission. You have to persuade your boss, your boss's boss, and your boss's boss's boss (so terribly powerful that your boss can't even bear to look at him). If you wait for your request to be approved by the chain of command, it won't happen at all. K argues with the priest about how horribly unfair this is: isn't your boss (the individual) doing the wrong thing somehow? The priest maintains there are many different theories about this ques- tion of individual responsibility. But K is missing the larger point: this is just how bureaucracy works. K takes the lesson to heart and decides to stop ghting the system and just live his life without asking for permission. It goes well... for a while. But it still seems a better option than the alternatives. K argues with the priest about how horribly unfair this is: isn't your boss (the individual) doing the wrong thing somehow? The priest maintains there are many different theories about this question of individual responsibility. But K is missing the larger point: this is just how bureaucracy works.  K takes the lesson to heart and decides to stop fighting the system and just live his life without asking for permission. It goes well... for a while. But it still seems a better option than the alternatives.

Poor Economics by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo
God, what a book! Poor Economics is a series of tales of foreigners trying to save the far-flung poor, while failing to realize not only that their developed-country ideas are terrible disasters in practice, but also that everything they've learned to think of as solid—even something as simple as measuring distance—is far more fraught, and complex, and political than they ever could have imagined. It's a stunning feeling to have the basic building blocks of your world questioned and crumbled before you—and a powerful lesson in the value of self-skepticism for everyone who's trying to do something.

The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey
This book touched me deeply and made me rethink the entire way I approached life; it's about vastly more than just tennis. I can't really describe it, but I can recommend this video with Alan Kay and the author that will blow your mind.

Rick Perry and his Eggheads by Sasha Issenberg
Sasha Issenberg is a miracle worker. This book (really an excerpt from his forthcoming book) is so very, very good that it just blows me away. Issenberg tells the tale of everything I've been trying to say to everyone in politics, but he does it in a real-life three-act morality play that's so good it could be a model on how to tell a story.

The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
Ries presents a translation of the Toyota Production System to start-ups—and it's so clearly the right way to run a start-up that it's hard to imagine how we got along before it. Unfortunately, the book has become so trendy that I nd many people claiming to swear allegiance to it who clearly missed the point entirely. Read it with an open mind and let it challenge you, so you can start to understand how transformative it really is.

CODE: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software by Charles Petzold
A magnificent achievement. Charles Petzold starts with the story of two kids across the street who wish to communicate with each other and, from this simple beginning, builds up an entire computer without ever making it seem like something that should be over your head. I never really felt I understood the computer until I read this book.

What It Takes: The Way to the White House by Richard Ben Cramer
Were this just the story of how George H. W. Bush got elected, it'd be one of the few biographies that belonged in the same league as Robert Caro. But it's so much more than that: Richard Ben Cramer gives the same treatment to dozens of candidates in the 1988 presidential election: Gary Hart, Bob Dole, Joe Biden, Dick Gephardt, and on and on. Even if you didn't care about politics, this book would be worth reading simply because the writing is so good. But if you do, there's never been a better exposition of what drives these men who wish to be our leaders and what they have to go through to get there.

- download The Boy Who Could Change the World for free, TODAY! You can also buy the print version here.