The Five Best Nonfiction Books
Okay fine, not the best. (Click bait!) But for me, the most important — the five books that, more than any others, taught me how to think about the world.
A friend in my “classics” book group asked me for nonfiction book recommendations. Here’s what I wrote:
The NF books that wow me, get me all excited, have me thinking for years or decades, are ones that are comprehensible to mortals but that transform their fields, become the essential touchstones and springboards for whole disciplines and realms of thought. Writing for two such disparate audiences is insanely hard, and the fact that these books succeed is a big part of what makes them brilliant.
Also books that cut to the core of what we (humans) are, how we know. (So, there’s much science tilt here, but far bigger than arid “science.”)
“I don’t know how I thought about the world before I read this.”
“Yes! That’s exactly what I’ve been kinda sorta thinking, in a vague and muddled way. THANK YOU for figuring out what I think.”
These books let you sit in on, even “participate,” in discussions at the cutting edge of human understanding. They make you (or me, at least) feel incredibly smart.
And they’re fun to read — at least for those with a certain…bent…
Probably have to start with Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. When it came out in ’76 it crystallized how everybody thought about evolution, hence life and humanity. The amazing Dawkins, amazingly to me, has become kind of hidebound and reactionary in response to new developments since then (group/multilevel selection, inheritance of acquired characteristics), but the new information and new thinking that make parts of this book wrong, couldn’t exist without the thinking so beautifully condensed in this book. Might not need to read the whole thing, but it’s pretty short and you might not be able to resist. Very engaging writer and full of fascinating facts about different species and humans. Also the place where the word “memes” was coined.
Steven Pinker. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. The most important book I’ve read in decades. Philosophy meets science meets sociology, anthropology, psychology, politics, law… Pinker’s core expertise is in language acquisition, how two-year-olds accomplish the spectacularly complex task of learning language (see: The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language.). He has a love-affair with verbs, in particular. Just loves those fuzzy little things. But his knowledge is encyclopedic and his mind is vast. And he’s laugh-out-loud funny on every other page. Also incredibly warm and human. I have such a bro-crush on this guy. (Also: everything else he’s ever written, including at least some chunks of his latest, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.)
Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast, and Slow. Kahneman and his lifelong cohort Amos Tversky (sadly deceased) are psychologists who won the 2002 Nobel Prize — in Economics! — for their 1979 work on “Prospect Theory.” (Fucking economists have been largely ignoring their work ever since, but that’s another subject…) About “Type 1” and “Type 2” thinking: the first is instantaneous, evolved heuristics that let us, e.g., read a person’s expression in a microsecond from a block away. The second is what we think of as “thinking” — slow, tiring, and…crucial to what makes us human. Interestingly, in interviews Kahneman says that he almost didn’t write this book, thought it would fail, for the very reason that it’s so great: it addresses both mortals and the field’s cutting-edge practitioners, brilliantly. The book’s discussions of his lifelong friendship and collaboration with Tversky are incredibly touching.
E. O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth. Q: How did we end up at the top of — utterly dominating — the world food chain? A: “Eusociality”: roughly, non-kin altruism. Wilson knows more about the other hugely successful social species — insects and especially ants — than any other human. He basically founded the field of evolutionary psychology with his ’76 book, Sociobiology. As with the others, this is deep, profound, wide-ranging, and incredibly warm and human in its insights into what humanity is, what humans are. Those things that are wrong in The Selfish Gene? Here’s where you’ll find them.
Michael Sandel, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? Philosophy. It draws on some scientific findings, but mainly this is very careful step-by-step thinking through a subject, a construct, that is not uniquely human, but close. (Elephants, apes, etc. do seem to care about justice, sort of.) I find it especially engaging and important because it addresses and untangles the central political arguments of recent times — is it “just” to make everyone better off by taking from the rich and giving to the poor? Should individual “liberty” trump individual rights? What rights? Etc. This book did much to help me comb out my muddled thinking on this stuff.
Morton Davis, Game Theory, a Nontechnical Introduction. Stands out on this list cause it’s not one of those “big” books. Available in a shitty little $10 Dover edition. But it’s an incredibly engaging walk through the subject, full of surprising anecdotes and insights. And he does all the algebra for you! The stuff in here makes all the other books above, better, cause they’re all using some aspects of this thinking. Here’s an Aha! example I wrote up: Humans are Pathologically Nuts: Proof Positive.
Okay, you noticed there are six books here. Did I mention click bait?
Cross-posted at Asymptosis.
Sandel’s work is very thoughtful, his earlier Democracy’s Discontent is a wonderful exploration of what it means to be a citizen and how that view has changed over the years.
Kahneman’s work is well worth reading.
I’d put Jared Diamond on my list, both Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse.
@Mark: “I’d put Jared Diamond on my list, both Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse.”
Like Gould, I find Diamond’s wide-ranging knowledge fascinating, engaging, and fun to read. But also like Gould, I think his evidence-based reasoning sucks, and his conclusions are profoundly unconvincing to me.
I have nothing against “materialist” explanations of social/cultural/economic development (clearly, having seaport access makes countries more prosperous), and I’m with Diamond on not buying the “cultural superiority” explanations for England/Western Europe’s industrial-revolution breakout. But still, when he “demonstrates” that the new world didn’t have domesticatable animals because bison meat has never done well in modern markets, or that the 5,000-mile Eurasian east-west span compared to the 3,000-mile North-American span is what allowed for the spread of agriculture, I call bullshit.
I wouldn’t define “eusociality” as “non-kin altruism” – organisms practicing eusociality generally live in colonies of individuals that are related, so the altruism is directed toward kin. It is true that one of the characteristics of eusociality is communal rearing of young, so that some individuals raise offspring that are not their own. But they are almost always related to them, so they are kin. By the way, Wilson is an expert on ants, but I don’t think he’s an expert on human behavior.
Thanks for that. I thought I might have it somewhat wrong. Must revisit.
I’d say: Wilson is more of an expert on the biological/evolutionary roots of human behavior that most humans in this world…
Maybe I should have just said that I don’t agree with some of Wilson’s ideas about human behavior (and Dawkins’s and probably Pinker’s). I agree more with the Gould/Lewontin/Chomsky school myself.
I remember asking Lewontin a question at a lecture once mentioning The Extended Phenotype (which Dawkins, at least, thinks is his best book). He said he’d never read anything by Dawkins. Speaks volumes.
The biologists I read (Larry Moran, Jerry Coyne, etc.) think Wilson was a god on ants but close to a crackpot currently on group selection (as opposed to kin selection). That is they say, there is no good empirical evidence of group selection (that is not kin selection). They also say much of the stuff some people are touting as new (gene regulation by environmental factors) was in papers 50 years ago. Scientists tend to be grouchy in their disagreements, or maybe I just remember the rants.
I prefer biographical stuff in non-fiction rather than advocatory stuff (because anything is plausible if the facts are massaged in the telling, and who knows?): James Gleick on Feynman (“Genius”) and Newton, and Simon Singh (“Fermat’s Enigma” and “Big Bang”), for example.
@Jimv: I have yet to see anyone respond to Wilson and Nowak’s technical appendix on its own level. Just lots of “word models” by biologists who seem very defensive.
Might have happened since last time I looked, but I dunno. Been probably a year.
A agree on bio stuff (*loved* Genius), but I want a big dose of the science itself in there too.
After reading these comments I might have to read some of these books. I did come her for a few recs so I guess it worked out. Been reading a few good non-fics so far this summer, just completed Philip Cameron’s They Call Me Dad. A very interesting look into how orphans are treated in other countries, I really had no idea. His site for his org is http://www.stellasvoice.org/they-call-me-dad/, I really have a connection to the story he tells after seeing some of this stuff myself. I love reads that really get into you, definitely “Cuts to the core” as you said!
AB does not allow downloads of software. I m going to place your comment in trash. If you wish to comment on various posts, you are welcome to do so.