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Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2013

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2013. Click the title for links to full reviews, where applicable. You can see my top 5 fiction titles for the year here.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (ISBN 978-0-14-312201-2)

Cover image for The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven PinkerThis was the first book I started in 2013, and it proved to be the most difficult and rewarding read I tackled the entire year. It is not uncommon for people to believe that we are living in the most violent period in human history. The record size of our current population means that the absolute number of violent deaths recorded today are larger than the numbers of historical violent deaths. Our global media structure also means that knowledge of these events is more widespread. But as a percentage of the population, Steven Pinker shows that the number of violent deaths in the modern world is lower than it has ever been in recorded history; you are less likely to die of violent causes today than at any other time in human history. Pinker expects readers to doubt his hypothesis, and the first part of the book is spent marshaling evidence for his claim, while the second part focuses on identifying the factors that may have contributed to this decline. Although the numerous examples of historical and modern violence make for heavy emotional reading, Pinker’s optimism that we can do better, and his insights into how, are incredibly important.

Categories: Science, History, Psychology, Sociology

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (eISBN 978-0-307-95295-0)

Cover image for The Black Count by Tom ReissLiterary history records two men called Alexandre Dumas, a father, who wrote well-known novels such as The Three Musketeers, and his somewhat less famous son, the playwright. But the novelist’s father, also Alexandre Dumas, the first of that name, is formidable character in his own right, and it his life that is chronicled here by Tom Reiss. Born the illegitimate son of an itinerant French noble on the island of Saint-Domingue (Haiti), Dumas became a free man upon his arrival in France. Dumas achieved power and success in the French Revolutionary Army, before the colour of his skin brought his fortunes crashing back to earth when Napoleon assumed power. His son eventually drew inspiration from his life story for many of his novels, but the real story is perhaps even more interesting. The Black Count is as much a history of revolutionary and Napoleonic France as a biography, but Reiss writes about history with an immediacy that makes his overviews extremely readable.

Categories: Biography, History 

I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies  (ISBN 978-0-307-26916-4)

Cover image for I Do and I Don't by Jeanine BasingerI Do and I Don’t articulates the important differences between romantic comedies and the genre  Jeanine Basinger defines as the marriage movie. The work is descriptive rather than analytic, assembling evidence for the existence of this new genre, and laying out the types of plots and problems most commonly dealt with in movies that are about marriages rather than courtships. Basinger’s encyclopedic knowledge of American cinema, sense of humour, and willingness to go against popular opinion make her the perfect guide. Existing in a space somewhere between academic writing and popular nonfiction, I wouldn’t recommend this book to just any reader, but if you have an interest in film studies, or cultural portrayals of marriage, I Do and I Don’t delivers.

Categories: Criticism, Film, History

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (ISBN 978-0-393-08157-2)

Cover image for Gulp by Mary RoachTake a sharp sense of humour, ruthless inquisitiveness, and the willingness to ask awkward questions, and you have the popular science oeuvre of Mary Roach, who is able to hit the mark time and time again with her humourous investigations into the grossest and most obscure areas of scientific research. Her sense of humour can carry even a squeamish reader through these topics, and her explanations and anecdotes are accessible even to those with little to no science background. In Gulp, Roach takes on the science of the digestive system, from saliva to flatulence and everything in between.

Categories: Science 

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (ISBN 978-1-4000-6980-4)

Cover image for Salt Sugar Fat by Michael MossWell known for his investigative reporting on food issues, Michael Moss takes on the processed food industry, examining the roles that salt, sugar, and fat play in making these food products edible and craveable. Flavour and taste have been extensively researched, and food companies use this knowledge to design products with precisely honed “bliss points” that make them almost irresistible. However, this book is interesting not because it retreads the well known harms associated with processed food products, but because Moss delves into the difficulties these companies face in improving the health profiles of their products in the face of killer competition, and minimal government regulation. In fact, American government food subsidies for meat and cheese may even play a role in the high fat content of the American diet.

Categories: Business, Science 


Looking for more recommended reads? Check out my top five non-fiction reads from 2012. 

Criticism, Film, History, Non-Fiction

I Do And I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies

Cover image for I Do and I Don't by Jeanine Basingerby Jeanine Basinger

ISBN 978-0-307-26916-4

Only rarely would the marriage film try to tell the audience directly, with no subtext, something married couples already know but not everyone wanted articulated: marriage and romantic love are not the same thing.

As a work of non-fiction, I Do And I Don’t occupies a peculiar space between academic and popular writing. Wesleyan University film professor Jeanine Basinger sets out “an overview of how commercial movies told the story of marriage” with the purpose of defining the “marriage movie” as a distinct genre, and particularly as a genre separate from romantic comedy. Basinger watched over three hundred films, and reviews more than a century of cinematic history, beginning in the silent era (with a strong focus on the work of Cecil B. DeMille), placing a heavy emphasis on the studio system in the middle of the book, and concluding in the modern era with an aside into television. As Basinger herself acknowledges, although there are moments of critical analysis, the work is largely descriptive in nature, and lacking in sufficient in-text citation (though it has an extensive bibliography) to be considered scholarly. Arguably, however, this focus on description is permissible because Basinger is seeking to define a genre, which she does by providing clear qualifications and numerous examples. The significance of defining marriage movies as a separate genre is largely implied rather than discussed, but simply creating a clear definition of the genre provides a strong basis from which future film critics can develop the idea.

Although not perfectly scholarly, I Do And I Don’t is not your average work of popular non-fiction either. Those without a strong interest in either film history or cultural representations of marriage will be likely to find the long lists of examples extremely tedious. Film buffs on the other hand, will come away with a long list of movies worth watching. Basinger isn’t afraid to highlight her lesser-known favourites, or criticize titles or performances she believes are overrated, showcasing her incredible knowledge of American cinematic history (don’t skip the footnotes in this one).  The less scholarly tone also frees Basinger to unleash her sense of humour, and marriage movies provide plenty of low-hanging fruit, even leaving romantic comedy aside.

The key question asked by the marriage movies, and defining Basinger’s genre is “what happened to us?” Basinger provides seven answers, which are the key the marriage movie plot. Ranging from most to least realistic, they are money, infidelity, family, incompatibility, class, addiction and murder. They also solve the problem of how to portray marriage in the movies, which has an inherent challenge in that “marriage had no story arc. It just went on, day after day, month after month, year after year.” Without these issues to impose a problem-structure story arc, marriage simply wasn’t interesting. Even with these issues, the idea of a “marriage movie” was not deemed appealing. Hollywood has a long history of conflating marriage and romance, using the “love story” to sell movies that were hardly romantic, as Basinger demonstrates by reviewing movie posters and film advertisements that assiduously avoid using the word “marriage.” Overall, Basinger paints a clear and detailed picture of a film industry that simultaneously provides contradictory images of marriage, “selling love” on one hand, and “knocking marriage” on the other.