I normally round up my favourite reads at the end of the year but I’ve read so many really excellent books so far this year that I decided to put them out there now. Who knows? Maybe you’ll consider picking one of them up to peruse over the summer.
In no particular order…
Sadly, Hans Rosling died last year. If you’ve never heard of him before have a look at some of his videos. The Swedish statistician and epidemiologist was an expert communicator and, although he spoke to audiences of the great and the good, his message of optimism about the word has been largely ignored. This last gambit from beyond the grave condenses his thought into a single, very readable volume and in it he systematically demolishes the prejudices and biases with which we see the world. Literally, everything you think you know about global geopolitics is wrong! If you only read one book from the list, let it be this. The book is so awesome that billionaire Bill Gates is giving away free copies!
Pinker is fighting pretty much the same battle as Rosling. This book is an attempt to consolidate the gains he made in Better Angels, and like Rosling he paints a picture of growing prosperity, declining violence and the debt to which we all owe Enlightenment values. Unlike Rosling, Pinker worries these gains could be under threat from the forces of irrationality, the postmodernists’ attempts to erode primacy of science. It’s great stuff, written in Pinker’s authoritative, stately style, but he does get surprisingly hot under his collar about Nietzsche.
Skin in the Game: Hidden asymmetries in daily life,Nicholas Nassim Taleb
I always enjoy a new offering from Taleb, if for no other reason than he seems to hate people like Pinker whilst actually agreeing with most of the things they say. If anything, Skin in the Game is even more muscularly robust than previous outings and the spats with Picketty and Pinker are great fun. His beef with Pinker seems to stem from a technical dispute to do with the way Pinker assembled statistics about the ‘long peace’ in the 20th century. This Vox article makes useful background reading. Essentially though, this book covers similar ground to The End of Average but does so with much more panache and intellectual coherence.
Anyone wanting to make sense of the modern obsession with creativity needs to read this book. Ashton, inventor of the Internet of Things, makes the case that there is no such thing. He claims that almost everything we’re told about creativity is myth-making, and very counter-productive at that. Instead he argue that we should reconceptualise that we think of creativity – a process – with creation – a product. It’s written in fine style and tells the story of the history of creation in a scholarly but very accessible way.
Thinking Reading: What every secondary teacher needs to know about reading, James and Dianne Murphy
This is the only education book on my little list. That should tell you something. It’s short, punchy and absolutely unapologetic in its insistence that if schools leave secondary school unable to read they have been comprehensively failed. Thankfully, it’s much more than a trenchant polemic. It’s packed with advice and clear, practical strategies for making sure kids can read. It’s empowering stuff, but the one downside is that after you’ve read it, there really is no excuse! (Plus it has a foreword by me.)
Educated, Tara Westover
Despite the title, this isn’t really a book about education. Tara Westover grew up in a Mormon community in rural Idaho. Her father was passionately opposed to state education and medicine, believe such things to be the tool of the Illuminati. Her childhood was spent roaming the mountain where they lived, messing about in her father’s scrapyard and generally doing whatever she pleased. One of her brothers taught her to read as a bet, but that was about the only education she received. Then, miraculously, she managed to get into Brigham Young University at the age of 16. For the first time in her life she went to classes and was taught about the world outside of her corner of Idaho. She found out the hard way what the holocaust was and struggled to reconcile the competing world-views of her family and the outside world. Eventually, she ends up at Cambridge and gets a PhD. I saw her speak at the Hay Festival and asked if she could account for her remarkable academic success. She claims to have been lucky. Fascinatingly, of her seven siblings, three have doctorates while four don’t have the equivalent of a high school diploma. Clearly, survivorship bias would warn us to be cautious of making any generalisations about any of this, but it’s a beautifully written, lyrical memoir packed full of incident and well worth a read.
Everyone knows how Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection has changed how we see the world and our place in it. What I didn’t know is that Darwin owes at least some of the credit to the ancient Roman poet Lucretius, whose remarkable thoughts on ‘bottom up’ explanations for how the world works lay dormant and undiscovered for centuries. Lucretius influenced Adam Smith’s thought on the ‘evolution’ of morality as well as the invisible hand that controls market forces. Ridley writes with great wit and erudition of money, environmentalism, science and a whole range of other areas which he claims are subject to evolution. In fact the only chapter he seems to get badly wrong is the one on education in which he’s gulled by the edu-charlatan, Sugata Mitra.
Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, James Robinson and Daron Acemoglu
Having read Guns Germs and Steel last year, this book completes the picture and answers some of the questions Diamond left unanswered. Robinson and Acemoglu argue that it is political and economic institutions that govern whether a country is prosperous. They divide both of these into two groups: extractive or inclusive. Extractive institutions preserve power with an elite and put in place perverse incentives that prevent the population from pursuing policies that would lead to prosperity. In their paradigm, England was the first country to industrialise because its political institutions were the least extractive and its economic institution the most inclusive in the world. Everywhere where there is prosperity, there are inclusive institutions. Obviously China is a tough one to square. They explain that it’s extractive political institutions are moderated by recent inclusive economic practices but predict that either their growth will run out of steam as Shumpeter’s theory of creative destruction is elbowed out, or that politics in China will become more inclusive. We shall have to wait and see.
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, TaNehisi Coates
Last year I read Why I’m No Longer to Talking to White People About Race and found it both well argued and convincing. Coate’s series of Atlantic articles covering the eight years of the Obama administration are both much better written and much more convincing. I only came across Coates because I was arguing with a fried about the best journalistic writers. I was talking about how great I thought James Baldwin was and they suggested I read this. He is at least as good as Baldwin. I found his argument on the case for reparations particularly powerful. The idea that black American should be recompensed for the horrors and indignities of slavery always struck me as naively impractical but now I’m not so sure. The moral case is clear and Coates argues powerfully that it is also practical achievable. If you’ve only read one book on race, let it be this one.
I saw this on the bookshelf in the foyer of Pimlico Academy and was so struck by the title that I went away and bought it. I’ve always loved ancient history and while I was familiar with many of the details of the Punic wars, I knew nothing about Carthage’s founding and development. It might feel a little inaccessible for those who are unversed in Rome’s great rivalry with their African competitor, but it’s packed full of fascinating detail and, even though we know exactly what’s coming, builds to a dramatic conclusion.
Fatherland, Robert Harris
After reading and enjoying Harris’s trilogy on the life of Cicero, I though I’d give this a go. I’m not usually keen on stories set in Nazi Germany, but I do like well written counter-factual history. This, like Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America and Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, imagines what it would be like if the second world war turned out differently. It’s a noirish detective story told from the perspective of Xavier March, a detective in the Kriminalpolizei, investigating the death of a Nazi official. It reminded me most of 1984, but was never derivative. A crackingly good read with a great ending.
Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities, Bettany Hughes
I’ve never visited Istanbul but I’ve always wanted to. Bettany Hughes has made staying away even more difficult. This tells the story of the city from its earliest settlement which became Byzantium, to it’s refounding as Constantinople, the seat of imperial Roman power, and its eventual conquest by the Ottomans. Much is made of Istanbul being Europe’s gateway to the east and as one of the foremost centres of both Christianity and Islam, but it’s the people who live there who give it life. Hughes combines broad historical sweeps, archeological minutiae and a genuine love of the city to tell a compelling tale.
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The stories in our genes, Adam Rutherford
I’ve spent quite a lot of time this last year reading up on genetics to try a get a better handle on the subject after getting myself into something of a Twitter storm last summer. It’s been time well spent and I think I have a much better understanding of a subject that confuses and trips up many. This book is probably the one I enjoyed most. Rutherford is a wonderfully gossipy writer and I really enjoyed his footnotes and perambulations into off topic but fascinating cul-de-sacs. I particularly enjoyed the improbable story of Richard III exhumation and identification. This is not the most scholarly work, but it is absolutely rooted in a solid understanding of the science, and it’s terrific fun.