Books that made me – Normal deviance

Regular columnist Hugh Miller reflects on the books that he’s found most useful in his career so far.

If you’re anything like me then you’ve got a long list of books that you’d like to read, but not found the time to do so. For this reason, it’s incredibly rare to read a book multiple times. Here are three books that fit into that category; ones that I’ve found helpful enough that I’ve returned to them multiple times.

The Elements of Statistical Learning. Hastie, Tibshirani and Friedman.

I read this book for the first time when preparing to start a PhD and it has defined how I’ve thought about predictive modelling ever since. Written by three genuine experts in the field, and with good charts and figures (a surprising rarity in statistics textbooks), this is a great way to learn a broad range of approaches for those comfortable with maths notation and statistical concepts.

It gets particularly good around chapter seven, where it gives useful general advice on overall model validation and assessment. In this way the book gives a sense of both general and specific principles for statistical learning.

In covering a broad range of techniques, the authors also draw links between various approaches. This is useful in gaining a better understanding of their differences and similarities, and a better feel for when some techniques will perform better than others.

And best of all, it’s free.


On Writing Well, William Zinsser.

This book, now over 40 years old, is timeless in encouraging better thought and technique in nonfiction writing. Zinsser himself writes with warmth and clarity. He encourages care in all stages of the writing process and pulls apart the key elements of writing in useful detail. While somewhat daunting, he makes the point that the only way to improve is to give yourself the time to review and edit multiple times.

It’s also a good tonic for those uninspired with the vagaries of modern corporate writing; Zinsser has little time for corporate euphemisms or obfustication. Instead he encourages simple and clear prose built with care.


The Non-Designer’s Design Book, Robin Williams

Another longstanding classic, this book is well described by its subtitle – design and typographic principles for the visual novice. People with a flair for design may not learn much, but it is written at a perfect level for people like me; those who don’t know much about visual design but don’t want to have to hire a designer every time they try a new font.


Much of the advice is simple and clear; design with strong lines, don’t place anything without thought and don’t be a wuss when it comes to font selection.

By knowing the basic principles of design, you can quickly apply them to your own work. You can be more discerning in figuring out why you like some designs and not others, which is the first step in being able to improve on it.

As an interesting sidenote, the book is good proof of how ‘good design’ is very much a societal construct; the visual look of the cover and included examples have changed significantly over the different editions of the book, reflecting that design does not stand still.

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