The most interesting books I read last year
I put together a round up of my favourite reads of 2015 and some people seemed to like it. So, in typically opportunistic manner, I though I’d repeat the exercise. Here are some of the books I found most interesting in 2016:
Homo Deus – Yuval Noah Harari
Sapiens was one of the books I most enjoyed last year so I was trilled to see Harari had a new one out. Homo Deus is subtitled ‘a brief history of tomorrow’ and, while acknowledging that predictions about the future are most noticeable for how wrong they tend to be, suggests a variety of things which will present challenges and might, just might, turn out to be not too far off the mark. The basic thesis is that human history has been dominated by our responses to war, pestilence and famine. As these horsemen have, in large part, been conquered and Harari speculates as to what might be humanity’s future projects might be. He reckons we’ll shoot for divinity and argues entertainingly and with reference to a breathtaking range of sources just what sorts of things we might get up to. It really doesn’t matter whether he’s right about any of his ‘predictions’, but it is worth thinking about them and seeing if they represent a future we actually want.
Empire of Things – Frank Trentmann
Trade and geo-politics are ever more tightly interwoven and this history of consumerism makes a for fascinating reading. Trentmann has a remarkable eye for detail as well as an appreciation for the broad sweep of history. One moment he’ll recount the ins and outs of 15th century Milanese linen cupboards and in the next detailing the rise of the department store. I’m inveterate shopper and this book really made me think about why we buy stuff and how else we could think about the things with which we surround ourselves.
The Invention of Nature – Andrea Wulf
Like me, you may well never have heard of Alexander von Humbolt, but apparently Darwin reckoned him the greatest scientific traveller who ever lived which is quite the accolade. Wulf’s biography recounts not just von Humbolt’s extraordinary life and adventures but also lays out how he defined the way we think about the nature to this day.
In The Shadow Of The Sword, Tom Holland
Previously I’ve lapped up Holland’s Roman histories but this overview of late antiquity is probably my favourite. It’s as just a as gossipy, erudite and exciting as you hope a history book will be. If you want to understand the rise of monotheism and in particular the development of Islam you’d do well to read this.
Herding Hemingway’s Cats, Kat Arney
I’m a big fan of Hemingway and I have a keen layman’s interest in genetics so what’s not to like about this book? It turns out Hemingway doesn’t feature at all, but the six-toed cats that still roam his Florida estate shed some interesting light on the way our genes work. What I particularly enjoyed about this book was Arney’s breathless enthusiasm as she meets and interviews her heroes and the architects of the science of genetics.
Peak, Anders Ericsson
Ericsson is probably best known for the so-called 10,000 rule popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. It turns out that Gladwell mangled and misunderstood the research and Ericsson’s irritation is palpable as he tersely dismisses such a crass approach to developing genuine expertise. I’ve read quite a few of Ericsson’s papers so I wasn’t expecting many surprises in the book but the clear style helps cast new light on a subject I thought I understood. I found his discussion of mental representations and the distinction between purposeful and deliberate practice especially illuminating.
A History of the World, Andrew Marr
This is narrative history at its glorious best. While Marr take on world history can be disappointingly Euro-centric it still an impressive work of scholarship and a wonderfully entertaining read. There are all sorts of nuggets I’d never come across before as well as a skilful weaving together of many better known episodes. Lots of fun.
The Silk Roads, Peter Frankopan
What Marr’s history lacks, Frankopan’s provides in spades. This is the history we’re seldom told; that of Russia, the Middle East – the backbone of the world. I always find ancient history the most interesting and I loved reading about Samarkand, Persepolis and Kabul, so when we began to move to the modern era I was expecting my interest to wane. Not a bit of it. Frankopan’s discussion of the first invasion of Iraq is particularly spellbinding and should be required reading for everyone wanting to understand why that part of the world is in such a mess.
Seeing What Others Don’t – Gary Klein
Klein is best known for his work on naturalistic decision making and his view that laboratory studies tell psychologists little about how people actually behave in the world. This book is an interesting departure. It combines original research into the phenomenon of insight with a well-chosen collection of great stories about various people who’ve made astonishing and unexpected intuitive leaps. It can get tediously repetitive at times but if you can set that to one side I can think of no better read to gain an insight into insights.
I hope some of these prove as interesting and enjoyable for you as they did for me and. as always, I’d be grateful for any recommendations you can offer of what I should be reading in 2017.