Biography, Business, Criticism, Film, History, Psychology, Science, Sociology, Top Picks

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. 

Canadian, History, Non-Fiction, Psychology, Science, Sociology

The Better Angels of Our Nature

Cover image for The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinkerby Steven Pinker

ISBN 978-0-14-312201-2

“If the past is a foreign country, it is a shockingly violent one. It is easy to forget how dangerous life used to be, how deeply brutality was once woven into the fabric of daily existence.”

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker offers up a thesis which, for some, may seem wildly unbelievable. Pinker contends that we are currently living in the least violent period ever known in human history. Using the number of violent deaths relative to the population of the time, Pinker examines trends in murder, war, terrorism and violent crime, and charts a consistent decline in their prevalence in cultures around the world. Having established this decline, Pinker sets out to find the psychological and sociological factors which contribute to the trend.

The structure of the book is predicated on the idea that people will find the thesis difficult to swallow, as Pinker explains in the introduction. He spends six exhaustive chapters—well over half of this 800 page tome—in extensive statistical demonstrations of the decline. While the trends themselves are interesting, the constant barrage of statistics will likely wear thin for the reader who doesn’t find the thesis as difficult to believe as the author assumes. Overall, these statistics are well-explained for the average reader, and clearly illustrated in numerous charts and graphs. However, an understanding of statistics would undoubtedly be beneficial to any critical analysis of Pinker’s findings.

Once he has established the statistical decline of violence, Pinker spends the second part of the book examining the sociological and psychological factors that encourage and inhibit violence, as well as identifying a number of popular culprits which are not actually borne out by the numbers. For example, he found that weaponry, affluence, resources and religion, while sometimes significant, were not consistent factors. The explanations rely heavily on neurobiology and the history of governance, necessitating numerous detours into the basics of these disciplines, and their relevant principles. Pinker finds extremely strong correlations between government and commerce, and the decline of violence.

Not unexpectedly, The Better Angels of Our Nature makes for heavy emotional, as well as intellectual, reading. A discussion of the nature and history of violence necessitates the inclusion of a variety of stomach-churning examples, such as the burning of cats for public entertainment in medieval Europe. However, these examples prove instrumental for demonstrating the extent to which we exaggerate contemporary violence and discount historical violence. Pinker has a deft hand for defamiliarization, a technique he uses to draw historical violence in perspective with its modern counterpart. For example, although we accept the cross, a historical instrument of violence, as the symbol for Christianity, Pinker points out that our modern sensibilities would likely be offended if a group of Holocaust survivors adopted a showerhead as their symbol, or if survivors of the Rwandan genocide rallied around a machete logo. This unusual comparison forces the reader to examine the familiar, even ubiquitous, symbol of the cross with fresh eyes. These numerous violent examples are not trotted out gratuitously, or ad nauseam, but always to illustrate a particular point about how we perceive violence, or why we commit it.

Despite the difficulty of getting through this book—it took me over six weeks to read—I  would rate it highly, and strongly recommend it for those interested in the subject. I agree with Bill Gate’s assertion that it is “one of the most important books I’ve read—not just this year, but ever.” We need both the optimism and the insight which Pinker’s work provides since, as he points out, the decline of violence is not ineluctable—it could be reversed at any time. That being the case, it’s probably a good idea to understand what we’re doing right, and how we can do better.