For no particular reason other than that it’s almost the years’ end and making lists always seems appropriate as December draws to a close, and in no particular order, here are ten of the most interesting books I read over the course of 2015.
Intelligence by Stuart Richie
For anyone new to the study of intelligence, Richie’s eminently readable little book is the perfect primer. In it he details exactly what intelligence is and isn’t, why it matters and experts defuses some of the most abiding myths surrounding this most controversial of human characteristics.
The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson
In planning a scheme of work around The Odyssey, I stumbled upon this gem of a book. Nicolson takes us into the dark heart of bronze age warrior culture by way of the Salons of Enlightenment Paris and the fascinating marginalia of generations of scholars scribbling away deep with the library of Alexandria. In his exploration of the characters of Odysseus and Achilles, discusses the history of smelting metal, the ominous presence of the “unharvestable sea” and what it is to have a knife held to one’s throat. Captivating.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
Brief it may be, but this mesmerising book takes in the entire sweep of human history from the rise of the first hominids to the spread of science and capitalism. There are some fascinating details like the account of the cataclysmic colonisation of Australia some 40,000 years ago, to the domestication of modern man by our evil overlord, wheat. Harari writes with great wit, erudition and clarity; the freshness and gossipy insights into every corner of history make this book an utter delight.
Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success by Matthew Syed
I got bullied into reading this after writing this post which various people accused me of having plagiarised Syed. I’m really happy I took the trouble. Although Syed’s style can be annoyingly journalistic, he synthesises so much interesting research as he weaves his narrative that I couldn’t fail to be impressed. While the brief section of the book explicitly on education misses the mark, there is so much here on the importance of research, scientific method and proper ways of thinking about progress that make this is a truly useful book.
There are an awful lot of style manuals out there – some of them useful, others less so – but this one by psycholinguist, Steven Pinker is by far the most interesting and broadest in its scope. Some of it will be familiar to readers of The Language Instinct, but much is new and surprising. It begins my holding up a series of exemplar non-fiction writing and exploring what gives each its distinctive sense of style before offering marvellously clear guidance on how to write decent prose.
Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett
Written almost 25 years ago by the prophet-bearded philosopher and cognitive scientist, I read this on the recommendation of Nick Rose and found it compelling and confusing in equal measure. Dennett takes us on a journey from Plato and Aristotle to Descartes to Von Neumann and Turing in his quest to explain what consciousness is and how it works. I learned a lot more than I ever thought I’d want to about virtual machines, artificial intelligence, homunculi and zombies. It also made me reread chapter 25 of The Selfish Gene which if you never have, you definitely should.
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Religion and Politics by Jonathan Haidt
This one came highly recommended from a multiplicity of sources and exceeded my very high expectations. It’s a book about morality and expertly explores why we disagree about almost everything that matters and the light Haidt sheds on politics and religion is truly fascinating. From the perspectives of moral and evolutionary psychology, he offers a surprisingly excellent explanation of the morality of conservatism and takes on the likes of Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens in his nod-along defence of group selection and the human need for religious experience.
The Uses of Pessimism & the Danger of False Hope by Roger Scruton
Philosopher and fox-hunting enthusiast, Roger Scruton argues against unbridled or, as he puts it, ‘unscrupulous optimism’, piling many – or most – of the world’s ills at its door. If we always look on the bright side of life then we fall into ‘the best case fallacy’. This leads inexorably to “a kind of addiction to unreality that informs the most destructive forms of optimism: a desire to cross out reality, as the premise from which practical reason begins, and to replace it with a system of compliant illusions.” Those who wax lyrical on the boundless possibilities offered by an exciting future and urge change, progress and the uncritical veneration of the new ignore both the lessons of the past, the realities of the present and the full range of possibilities offered by the future.
Ignorance: How it Drives Science by Stuart Firestein
Firestein has made a virtue out of ignorance pointing that it’s what we don’t know, not what we do know that makes life so interesting. In particular, science is about exploring the shoreline of the island of ignorance to ask interesting questions about what we don’t yet know. The book offers various case studies about how cutting edge discoveries are being made precisely because science allows us to glimpse a little of what we know we don’t know. My most abiding takeaway was the understanding that we make decisions based on the little we know and ignore the vast swathes of information we’re individually and collectively ignorant of. Becoming aware of and excited by our own ignorance may be our salvation.
The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction by Nate Silver
You might not think a book about statistics will float your boat, but this one is a treat. Well-written, packed with fascinating anecdote and grounded in a deep understanding of probability, Silver’s book helps us understand why we get our predictions so routinely wrong and what we can do to avoid getting quite so much egg on our faces. One of the most discomforting messages is that expert intuition is very little help in knowing what’s likely to happen in the future. The book explores how to avoid many of most common heuristics and biases to makes decisions grounded in statistical probabilities.
And, as a cheeky aside, I was delighted to see that Dan Willingham mentioned my book as one his top three recommendations for teachers (even though my name is both mispronounced and misspelt.)
So, those were my favourite reads of 2015, what were yours?