I like short books

(and I cannot lie)

I made a comment on Twitter the other day that short books, especially textbooks, tend to be atypically good – it requires skill and focus to condense an idea down into a compact text, and you often end up with a much better work as a result of it. As a bonus, you can often read through them over the course of an afternoon which lowers the cost of rereading significantly.

People asked me for some recommendations based on this observation, so I had a rummage through my shelves…

…and ended up actually much less convinced of my thesis than I started out. A lot of the shorter books seem to be ones I never finished or only half remember the contents of.

Another thing I realised is that my impression of what counts as “short” is very much influenced by printing – some books have thinner paper than others, some have larger pages, etc. and the result is that books that are within 50% of each other in terms of page count can look be radically different in size.

Despite those caveats, some of the books I dug up are still pretty good, so here’s a sampling of short books from my shelves that I’d recommend.

Best Kept Secrets of Peer Code Review

This was the book I was reading that prompted the observation. I reviewed it the other day. Nice, short book about some of the research on code review effectiveness.

Totals 164 pages, of which you’ll probably want to skip about 35 due to them being outdated.

Probability with Martingales

Martingales are essentially a mathematical model of gambling (and other gambling like things like literally all of finance). It seems to be named over the classic betting model of doubling your bet every time you lose, and is the theory you need if you want to understand why that’s more or less the only way to beat the house and if you have a finite amount of wealth then you can’t.

The book starts with a good introduction to probability and measure theory, then moves on to the theory of martingales. It’s reasonably comprehensive for the narrow area it covers, but takes quite a direct path through it. It’s generally well organised and well written, with just enough of the author’s voice coming through that it’s much less dry than many textbooks.

I really like this book. I don’t really know what level you need to read it – I had already covered about 30-40% of its contents in my degree before I read it – but it does require some level of mathematical sophistication.

Totals 251 pages, of which the main content comes to 191, of which the first 92 are mostly about probability and measure theory.

Finite Markov Chains and Algorithmic Applications

Confession: Despite this being one of the shorter books on the list, I’ve only actually read about half of it. I really enjoyed that half though.

I got this book because I wanted to learn more about Markov Chain Monte Carlo methods. I succeeded at that, and found its explanation of them to be fairly lucid and easy to follow. It also has some good sections on statistical counting

Unfortunately I then never used that knowledge so it dropped out of cache and I no longer really understand how they work. But if I need to I would definitely pick this book up again, only this time I’d do it while writing code to implement the algorithms in question.

Totals 114 pages, but they’re quite dense pages so it’s not fast reading.

How to Improve Your Foreign Language IMMEDIATELY

Finding this book reminded me that I should reread this book, despite the fact that I’m not currently actively working on any foreign languages.

As far as titles go, this is probably even worse than “Best Kept Secrets of Peer Code Review”. I guess you can’t judge a book by it’s cover? I wonder why nobody ever told me that.

This is basically a book about how to talk to people when talking to people is hard and you lack confidence. This is particularly valuable when you’re trying to talk to people in a language you don’t speak very well, but it’s also a more broadly applicable skill,

Totals 111 pages.

Combinatorics: Set Systems, Hypergraphs, Families of Vectors, and Combinatorial Probability

I really like this book but unfortunately turned out to really not care about most of its subject matter. If I needed to care about something it covered I would definitely read that chapter and do the exercises.

It did introduce me to Hall’s theorem, for which I am very grateful.

Totals 177 pages.

Foundations of Rational Choice Under Risk

This is basically a series of essays poking at the boundaries of subjective expected utility and seeing where it breaks.

I think I’ve read this book three times now, and enjoyed it every time, but I still can’t remember exactly which information I got from here and which information I got from elsewhere. Still, it was essential in fuelling some of my weirder opinions about decision theory.

Totals 161 pages.

Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment

I actually don’t own a physical copy of this book, only a kindle edition, but the previous book reminded me of this one and I realised that I should really fix that, so I’ve now ordered a used copy.

I am barely trolling at all when I say that this epistemology textbook should be considered required reading for people who conduct interviews.

It’s all a bit epistemology inside baseball, but it contains a lot of good information from the heuristics and biases program as seen through the eyes of epistemologists, which is a useful thing for almost everyone who regularly has to make decisions (PS. That’s everyone).

I think this totals 204 pages, but I got that information from Google books.

Essays on The Theory of Numbers

A reprint of a number of papers by Richard Dedekind about the construction of the real numbers. This is (within epsilon of) my favourite construction of the reals, but you almost never see it in an undergrad course (cauchy sequences are more popular for some ungodly reason), and this is a nice, clear presentation of them.

Totals 115 pages.

A Short Course on Banach Space Theory

This is a really good book by a really good author which I sadly bought after my interest in the subject had waned somewhat. As a result I probably haven’t read more than a third of it, but I think I’d like to. I may revisit it as a result of writing this post.

I suspect it might make good companion reading to “Probability with Martingales” because it covers a lot more of the more general functional analysis and geometry that you get with \(L^p\)  spaces, much of which comes from and is touched on things that are covered in the former book.

Totals 184 pages.

Mathematical Methods in the Theory of Queuing

This is a really good introduction to queuing theory that I have read cover to cover and completely forgotten the contents of because I don’t really use queuing theory on any sort of regular basis. I should reread it and see if I can figure out how to make the contents stick, because this seems like a thing I’d actually like to keep in my head.

This was one of the books I had in mind when I made the claim that short books were really good.

Totals 120 pages.

Large-Scale Inference

This is a good book about empirical Bayesian methods, false positive control, etc.

Unfortunately I’ve only read about a third of it. I started reading it when I was in my “I should learn more statistics” that resulted in my getting distracted and writing Hypothesis instead. I found the bits that I did read to be very helpful explanations of things that I still don’t entirely understand.

I guess I should reread this one too.

Totals 263 pages, so it’s heading into the territory of being a bit too large for this list.

Counterexamples in Topology

AKA “A gallery of stupid shit you can do when constructing topological spaces” or “Murphy’s guide to topological spaces”

I really enjoy topology, but this book is a nice guide to why topological spaces are not quite as intuitive as you might expect them to be if you mostly use topology to provide nicer proofs while working primarily in metric spaces. It’s got lots of weird and wonderful examples of connections you’d expect to be true but aren’t.

Unlike most of the rest of the books on this list, this one is really not for reading cover to cover and is more of a reference book, because each example only takes a page or two.

Also in the category of subjects in which my interest has waned, but if you like this subject I can recommend this book.

Totals 244 pages.

To Mock A Mockingbird

A collection of neat logic puzzles wrapped in slightly contrived stories. I enjoyed it, but other people seem to enjoy it much more than I do. I’ve always liked logic puzzles slightly less than I would expect to and much less than other people would expect me to.

Still, it’s undeniably a good book which many people really enjoy.

Totals 243 pages.


It turns out that I have far fewer really short books than I thought, but I still feel like I believe the thesis that (non-fiction) books whose size is in the region of 100 pages are often very good. It seems like as you approach or exceed the region of 200 pages (which is where most of these books lie) this property weakens significantly and you have enough space that they just become slightly shorter “normal length” books.

These still have the potential to be very good (and I’ve picked up a bunch of the ones listed to reread. Argh/yay), but that doesn’t feel like it’s true for any particularly interesting reasons other than that I’ve bought good books because they were good.

So I guess I’m seeking recommendations. Can you suggest good non-fiction books that total somewhere in the region of less than 150 pages?

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