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The best books I’ve read since June

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Back in June I posted on the books I had found most interesting and enjoyable during the first half of the year. They were: Factfulness by Hans Rosling, Enlightenment Now by Stephen Pinker, Skin in the Game by Nassim Taleb, How to Fly a Horse, by Kevin Ashton, Thinking Reading by James and Diane Murphy, Educated by Tara Westover, The Evolution of Everything by Matt Ridley, Why Nations Fail: by James Robinson and Daron Acemoglu, We Were Eight Years in Power by TaNehisi Coates, Carthage Must be Destroyed by Richard Miles, Fatherland, Robert Harris, Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities, Bettany Hughes and A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The stories in our genes, Adam Rutherford

Here follows those titles I’ve got most out of since.

The Tyranny of Metrics, Jerry Z Muller

Alongside Rosling’s Factfulness, this is probably the most useful book I’ve read this year. Muller looks at how metrics have exerted a malign influence on a whole range of areas and makes particular reference to schools, higher education, business, medicine and the military. I wrote a blog summarising some of my thoughts on its applications to education here.

Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Fergusson

Fergusson can always be relied on for a trenchant take on whatever topic he turns his hand to and in Civilization he takes us through the case for why Western civilization is so great. It’s not a fashionable point of view but it’s thoroughly research, very well written and contains some wonderful nuggets of information on topics as diverse as literacy, fashion, religion and alchemy.

Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are, by Robert Plomin

In what might arguably be called the most controversial book of the year, Plomen makes the case that the nature vs nurture debate is over and that nature is the unambiguous winner. He makes the case the DNA is the single best predictor of who we will become and how we will develop and that no other measure comes anywhere close to being as accurate. Not only is Plomen one of the world’s foremost experts on behaviour genetics, he conducted many of the seminal studies and this book takes us through the ups and downs of his research. A lot of his proclamations are rather upsetting: we’re told that although both parenting and schooling matter, they don’t account for differences between individuals: we are who we are because of our genes. This is going to make a lot of people quite cross and the tendency will be to try to argue away or ignore the book’s key ideas, but I strongly believe that everybody involved in policy making needs to be familiar with the findings presented. Even if Plomen goes beyond the evidence on occasions, decades of consistent findings cannot simply be waved away.

The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible 1611-2011 by Melvyn Bragg

The King James Bible, based in large part on William Tyndale’s translation, is the best selling book ever written. Here, Bragg tells the story of the origins of the Bible in English and its subsequent influence on the English-speaking world. One measure of its influence is that although Shakespeare originated more individual words, the combination of new words and idiom provided by the KJV is even greater. Sayings such as ‘a law unto themselves,’ ‘a thief in the night,’ ‘bottomless pit,’ ‘eat, drink and be merry,’ ‘fell flat on his face,’ ‘give up the ghost,’ ‘money is the root of all evil,’ ‘out of the mouths of babes,’ ‘take root,’ ‘the powers that be,’ ‘two-edged sword,’ ‘woe is me’ and thousands more phrases in daily use all have their first outing in the King James. The language of the Bible has shaped who we are and how we think and, whatever your views on religion, this is an exciting and fascinating read.

The Book of Humans: The Story of How We Became Us, by Adam Rutherford

This is an excellent antidote to anyone for whom Blueprint is too strong a taste. Rutherford tells his tale in a much more palatable way but with just as secure a scientific footing. It’s not so much that he disagrees with Plomen – he certainly fully appreciates the four ‘laws of behaviour genetics – it’s more that he wants to inform than persuade. He tells the tale of humans as the first among equals: subject to the same constraints as any other animal but, because of our incredible capacity for culture, special and different to any other creature.

The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning by Jeremy Lent

This is a fascinating if frustrating read. Lent’s thesis is that the human instinct for seeing patterns is the root of our cultural development and this is explored through a bewildering array of different fields> in the early chapters I found myself either nodding along or furiously scribbling as I encountered new ideas and fresh takes on a wide variety of topics. One of my favourite sections discussed the development of language. As Lent has it Chomsky was both right and wrong: we do have an innate capacity for learning language but this has nothing to do with an evolved grammar module, instead it is a function of our instinct for noticing and making sense of patterns of sound. However, in the later sections of the book, Lent gets increasingly seduced by the pessimistic everything-is-awful-and-the-wolrd-is-getting-worse narrative so prevalent in the media. He ends up delivering the message that the West is to blame for the parlous state of affairs and that we all need to get over our infatuation with technology and be a bit more Confucian.

Viking Britain: A History by Tom Williams

I thought I knew a fair bit about medieval British history, but this book provides such a vivid, detailed portrait of life in Viking Britain that I found myself riveted right up until the last page. Williams, a curator at the British Museum, weaves together stories from his personal history, primary sources, scholarship, poetry and mythology so deftly that reading is an effortless pleasure.

Language at the Speed of Sight by Mark Seidenberg

If you’re going to read one book about reading, make it this one. Seidenberg is on a mission. Not only does his expert knowledge permeate his explanations of how we learn to read and why some struggle to learn, his anger at the parlous state of reading education in the US (and, perhaps to a lesser extent, over here) is a thing to behold.

Tamed: Ten Species that Changed our World, by Alice Roberts

This story of the flora and fauna that coevolved with us to shape not just our culture but also our biology, is both beautifully written and forensically detailed. Roberts begins each of the ten chapters with an imagined snapshot of how our past became so intrinsically bound together with dogs, wheat, cows, corn and the rest, and then goes on to tell the surprisingly thrilling stories behind the science of how we came to know so much about the species that have shaped who we are.

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney

I’ve read Heaney’s wonderful translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf several times over the years but in putting together a text book on the poem I found myself living and breathing Heaney’s words. Epic poetry is daunting. Few people are happy to sit down to plough though a 3182 line poem, but if you can get past the unease, Beowulf is a magnificent romp. It rattles along at an incredible pace and balances character development with action with extraordinary skill. I’m no scholar of Old English – anything but – but it doesn’t matter. Heaney manages to capture something old and alien whilst someone making it simultaneously modern, earthy and intensely satisfying.

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