Autobiography, Business, Criticism, History, Non-Fiction, Philosophy, Psychology, Science, Top Picks

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2012

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read (not necessarily published) in 2012. Click the title for links to full reviews, where applicable. You can see my top 5 fiction titles for the year here.

Quiet (978-0307352149)

Cover image for Quiet by Susan CainThis title is at the top of a number of booklists for 2012 with good reason. Bookish folks, myself included, related powerfully to Susan Cain’s passionate message about the undervaluation of introversion in Western culture. The book cuts a broad swath, from outlining the rise of the extrovert ideal, to the psychological roots of introversion, to the perception of introversion in other cultures, to tips on how introverts and extroverts can work better together. Cain strips away the cultural stigma attached to introversion and examines the unique and underutilized skills of the quiet folks. This title was incredibly well written and researched, and Cain’s voice is passionate and compelling. You can watch Cain’s TED Talk on the power of introverts here.

Categories: Psychology

Joseph Anton (978-0812992786)

Cover Image for Joseph Anton by Salman RushdieSalman Rushdie thinks of himself first and foremost as a writer, but for over a decade, his life was dominated by disparate public perceptions stemming from the aftermath of the fatwa in which Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death sentence for the blasphemous contents of his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. Rushdie gives a compelling account of his struggles to hold on to his identity as a writer, and to continue to produce fiction under the incredibly trying circumstances of a protection. He filled many roles during this time, planning safe houses, engaging in free speech advocacy, lobbying the British government to intercede on his behalf, and struggling to secure a paperback edition of the book. I picked this book up because I admire Rushdie’s commitment to intellectual freedom, but I came away with much more respect for his integrity and determination as a writer, even as I felt I had seen the darkest and least flattering parts of the man.

Categories: Autobiography

The Portable Atheist (978-0306816086)

Cover Image for the Portable Atheist by Christopher HitchensStretching from Greek philosophy to contemporary humour and science writing, The Portable Atheist contains a broad selection of essays chronicling the evolution of atheist, agnostic and humanist thought in Western culture. The essays are selected and introduced by “New Atheist” writer Christopher Hitchens, but the pieces demonstrate that some of our currents ideas about atheism have very old roots indeed. This volume was slow, hefty reading, but extremely rewarding.

Categories: History, Philosophy

Elizabeth the Queen (978-0812979794)

Cover image for Elizabeth the Queen by  Sally Bedell SmithWhether you are a royalist, and abolitionist, or simply indifferent to the British royal family, Elizabeth Windsor has had a long and interesting life and reign, presiding over six decades of rapid change. Queen Elizabeth II is simultaneously one of the most public figures in the world, and yet intensely private, so it is fascinating to catch in glimpse into her world, particularly in a way that so humanizing. Sally Bedell Smith profiles the Queen with the same attention to detail she is known for in her previous works on the Kennedys and the Clintons. This title focuses on Elizabeth’s time as queen with little attention to her childhood, and the author is certainly friendly to her subject, but overall this was a well-written and informative read.

Categories: Biography

The Storytelling Animal (978-0547391403)

Cover Image for The Storytelling AnimalThe storytelling phenomenon appears across time and cultures, raising the questions of what purpose, if any, it serves in human evolution. Gottschall examines contexts in which our desire to impose narrative order on the world is useful (recognizing patterns) and detrimental (eyewitness testimony is unreliable due to the plasticity of memory). Dreams and daydreams, the pretend play of children, and the relationship between empathy and fiction are all examined in this brief and tantalizing introduction to the neuroscience behind our narrative impulses.

Categories: Literary Criticism, Science


Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Joseph Anton

Cover Image for Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdieby Salman Rushdie

ISBN: 978-0812992786

“Art was strong, artists less so. Art could, perhaps, take care of itself. Artists needed defenders. He had been defended by his fellow artists when he needed it. He would try to do the same for others in need from  now on, others who pushed boundaries, transgressed, and, yes, blasphemed; all those artists who did not allow men of power or the cloth to draw lines in the sand and order them not to cross.”

“When life was a series of crises and emergency solutions, it was normality that felt like a luxury—infinitely desirable, yet unobtainable.”

On Valentine’s Day 1989, British Indian author Salman Rushdie received not a valentine or a love letter, but a death sentence in the form of a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini because his novel, The Satanic Verse (1988), had been deemed blasphemous by the Iranian theocracy. What followed was a decade under the protection of British special police, moving from house to house in armoured cars in constant fear of his life. The author Salman Rushdie disappeared into the persona of Joseph Anton, the alias he was forced to assume even in his own home. A combination of the names of Anton Chekov and Joseph Conrad seems appropriate, as Rusdhie takes us into his own personal heart of darkness. In the outside world, Salman Rushdie the author also disappeared, as the press constructed alternate images of a blasphemous infidel and cultural traitor or a brave hero struggling against censorship. Joseph Anton chronicles Rushdie’s struggle to hold on to his identity as a writer, even while his daily life was being consumed by the details of living under protection, fighting with the British government for assistance in having the fatwa lifted, and coping with his crumbling personal life.

The fatwa threatened to steal Rushdie’s voice, both as a writer and as his own defender. As a novelist, he struggled to continue writing when his hours were absorbed with the search for his next safe house, or struggling to arrange his next visit with his young son. Both he and his book were banned from his native India, the source of much of his inspiration. He feared that writing about India when he could not travel there would cause the setting to ring false. In terms of his self-defence, Rushdie was advised by many to keep silent, since his “unrepentant” attitude towards his novel was perceived as aggravating the situation. However, as chronicled in the pages of Joseph Anton, Rushdie came almost uniformly to regret those decisions which erred on the side of silence or compromise. Joseph Anton is unabashedly honest, even in the places where it reveals Rushdie’s darkest moments from blackest rage to morbid humour. If Rushdie is sure that he was right, he is equally certain that he was not always good during these years. After so many years of silence and repressing his opinions, they flood out here in full force. Some are vitriolic and uncharitable, but perhaps needed to be said.

As discussed in The Storytelling Animal, humans have a strong tendency to impose narrative order on our lives through storytelling. Rushdie performs this act quite deftly, demonstrating the split between Salman Rushdie and Joseph Anton by writing his memoir in the third person, in effect novelizing his life. Joseph Anton is a vast document, chronicling Rushdie’s early life in India, his British education, and his rise as a novelist, in addition to the years living under the fatwa. In size and scope, it is similar to many of his novels, broad and brimming with detail. The fatwa dragged on for many years, and it weighs, not inappropriately, on the narrative momentum as the days and years slip into one another. Real lives are messy and do not easily fit into the forms we prescribe for fiction. From a remove of twenty-plus years, Rushdie is also able to contextualize the events that followed the fatwa into the larger political and cultural conflicts that followed, noting that “the wars of ideology and culture were moving to the center of the stage. And his novel, unfortunately for him, would become a battlefield.”

What Joseph Anton decidedly is not is story of espionage. Although the security precautions and risk assessments—in the early years of the fatwa Rushdie fell only one level below the queen herself—necessarily play a part in the story, they are not as central as those outside the protection might expect. Rushdie notes that while the memories of his friends during that time were all of police officers and safety measures, the moments he clung to were the few bits of normalcy he was able to glean. Joseph Anton is a darkly affecting chronicle of a man who chose to be a father and writer, but who was also cast into the roles of villain, heretic and free speech advocate.

History, Non-Fiction, Philosophy, Secularism

The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever

Cover Image for the Portable Atheist by Christopher HitchensSelected and with introductions by Christopher Hitchens

ISBN 978-0-306-81608-6

If you read about atheism, you are probably familiar with the work of the late Christopher Hitchens, and his most famous contemporaries, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Dan Dennett. In The Portable Atheist, Hitchens offers readers the opportunity to expand their horizons with an anthology containing 47 essays and excerpts on unbelief. Dawkins, Harris and Dennett are all represented, but Hitchens’ selections range from Greek philosophy (Lucretius) to English poetry (Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin) to modern scientific treatises (Victor Stenger). This collection offers dozens of arguments against the existence of a deity, but it is also a book about the evolution of unbelief in Western culture. By arranging the readings in chronological order rather than by theme, Hitchens creates a history of non-theism which contextualizes the current state of affairs. While the language and style of some of the older readings may be challenging for the modern reader, their contents can also be startling in their continued relevance. Although there are some leavening humourous pieces (Michael Shermer), the book leans towards a scholarly tone.

The book weighs in at a hefty (and somewhat less than portable) 499 pages and yet undoubtedly could have included many more selections. Notably absent are Nietzsche, Voltaire and Bakunin to name only a few. Hitchens briefly introduces each reading in his customary style, but is sometimes sparse on biographical details, perhaps due to space constraints. The index is likewise somewhat cursory for such a lengthy text. As noted by Hitchens himself, the selections are heavy on white men, and Oxonians. Excellent writers from the Jewish and Muslim traditions, including Steven Weinberg, Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, are included, but the collection predominantly assumes a Christian background. However, the volume does reflect the wide variety of non-belief from atheism to agnosticism to humanism that has arisen from within these confines.