The most interesting books I read this year

//The most interesting books I read this year

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.

The Sense of Style: A Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker

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?

2015-12-21T08:56:39+00:00December 20th, 2015|reading|

11 Comments

  1. Dawn Hewitson December 21, 2015 at 7:46 am - Reply

    Some of these are going on my Christmas list. I always appreciate being guided towards a good read, I hate it when I invest time in a book that is terrible. I have so many half read books in my house.

  2. bobread2 December 21, 2015 at 8:55 am - Reply

    I totally agree with Dawn’s comment. Thanks for sharing your recommendations and insightful comments about each title, David!

    • David Didau December 21, 2015 at 8:57 am - Reply

      You’re very welcome. What would you recommend I read?

  3. nastyoldmrpike December 21, 2015 at 4:06 pm - Reply

    I know it isn’t education but The Sports Gene is close enough and incredible!

  4. chemistrypoet December 21, 2015 at 4:27 pm - Reply

    -Smashing Physics, Jon Butterworth….hunt for the Higgs boson (and how it arises), but so much more.
    -Search for a moral compass, Kenan Malik….humdinger
    -Diaries of Chips Channing……1935-1950, London/UK through the eyes of a socialite semi-aristocratic MP….a classic political diary and a page-turner
    -Origins of Political Order, and, Political Order and Political Decay by Francis Fukuyama….eye-opening and vast in scope
    -The Second World War, by Winston Churchill

  5. David December 23, 2015 at 12:10 am - Reply

    Thanks for the list but I was wondering if you ever find time to read any fiction? Is there any fiction or poetry you think would be potentially good for teachers? I’d like to set up a CPD reading group in my school and would like some fiction as well as all the education and psychology books.

    This year I also enjoyed the Jonathan Haidt’s book on the Righteous Mind plus Jon Ronson’s book on Internet Shaming, Curious by Iain Leslie, How to Speak Money by Jon Lanchester, Year Zero by Ian Buruma. I’m currently reading a fascinating book on the history of North East China called In Manchuria by Michael Meyer.

    And my my favourite essay I’ve read this year is Learning to Speak Lingerie by Peter Hessler: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/10/learning-to-speak-lingerie

    • Marni December 23, 2015 at 8:33 am - Reply

      Hi David,

      I was influenced by what Dan Willingham said about your book – I’m a huge fan of his, therefore, I’m edging closer to reading your book, but at $40 on Kindle, I’m (at the moment) sticking to reading a free version from my university library. However, if the price comes down, then I may seriously buy the book because it is something that I would refer to many times.

      As an expat mature student studying my postgraduate in teaching (in Australia), I’ve loosely followed you for the last 18 months. The rubbish that is thrown at us from the teaching colleges is depressing. For my next assessment, they want: Bono’s thinking hats, MIs, EQ, Inquiry learning, learning styles. It is so depressing. The UK blogs have been a life send and keep me focussed on my goal of being an effective educator not wasting children’s precious time. Whenever I speak out, the lynch mob rears its ugly head. The teachers at my children’s schools are no better.

      This purpose of this side-tracked ramble is to tell you that I am very impressed by your book. It has far exceeded my expectations. Sometimes your manner in the research talks comes across as slightly arrogant, and that has put me off in the past from buying your book. Admittedly, I was very wrong.

      Excellent job, David, well done.

    • Elaine Sharpling December 27, 2015 at 12:39 pm - Reply

      Some personal fiction favourites ( with a teacher feel):
      Wonder by R.J. Palacio – I hope that I would handle this situation in the right way, not only in the classroom but in any walk of life.
      Love that Dog by Sharon Creech – this sensitive story says so much about teaching without giving the teacher a voice in the narrative. The reader learns, slowly but surely, how teacher’s decisions make a difference to a child.
      The Magician’s Nephew by Kate Di Camillo – no actual teacher but is written with a deep sense of imaginative spirit. So many perspectives are presented that if you are stuck into one way of thinking this might be a liberation!

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