Here are some of my favorite non-fiction books from this year (meaning, of course, that I read them this year—some have been around for a while). None of them transformed my world a la the 1982 Baseball Abstract, but all were good for some solid dinner-table conversation, which is what non-fiction is all about, right?
Lone Survivors: How we came to be the only humans on Earth, Chris Stringer.
Stringer started his career as a paleoanthropologist driving his junker around Europe (and sometimes sleeping in it), visiting museums with a suitcase full of calipers and rulers for measuring skulls. This research led him to become an early advocate of the Recent African Origin hypothesis, which states that our ancestors were almost all still in Africa 100,000 years ago, so that differences among the various groups of modern humans are relatively recent and superficial. Stringer has kept up with the times and shows how genetics has transformed our understanding of human evolution.
The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman.
Rather old-timey now, of course, but lots of fun. For example, contains a discussion of the bizarre costume-party outfits in which the young men of 1914 were sent off to die. When it was pointed out to a French general that bright blue jackets and red pants made French soldiers ideal for German target practice, he replied huffily, “Le pantalon rouge, c’est la France.”
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon.
Even more old-timey, but very snappy and entertaining. Those crazy Romans!
How Rome Fell: Death of a superpower, Adrian Goldsworthy.
Goldsworthy feels that the barbarians have gotten a a raw deal If the Roman legions hadn’t spent most of their time after 180 or so fighting one another in an endless series of coups, counter-coups and free-for-alls, they wouldn’t have had so much trouble with the Goths and Huns.
A bit unbalanced in its focus on the military at the expense of social and economic history, but still interesting.
William Cooper’s Town Power and persuasion on the frontier of the early American Republic, Alan Taylorr
Was it Emerson who said “No history, only biography”? This is both, a fascinating bio of James Fenimore Cooper’s dad embedded in a convincing and minutely researched picture of his world. Taylor’s learning and humanity make him the exact opposite of Simon Winchester, a hack who appears to think that a tony Oxbridge accent substitutes for mediocre style, undergraduate erudition and facile ethics.
A History of the World in SSix Glasses, Tom Standage
Full of fun factoids about Mesopotamian beer, Greco-Roman wine, 17th-century coffee houses, etc.
The Lost Gospel of Judas A New look at betrayer and betrayed, Bart Ehrman
Describes the recent discovery of an early Gnostic manuscript telling the whole story from Judas’ perspective. You see, he was the only disciple who really got Jesus and knew the esoteric secret of his nature. His ‘betrayal allowed Jesus to escape the prison of this world and return to a higher one. Ehrman is a serious , if not very flashy, scholar, and he also tells the story of the manuscript’s vicissitudes as it passed through the hands of various greedy and stupid people (one put it in his freezer).
The Signal in the Noise by Nate Silver.
A discussion of the many kinds of predictions that affect us, from the irritating dishonesty of political pundits to the catastrophic self-interested myopia of financial analysts that led to our recent mini-Depression. Silver illustrates techniques, more habits of mind than recipes, for making predictions that are reasonably sound and for knowing when such predictions are not feasible with the evidence at hand. A book that is least likely to be read by the people who need it most, I suppose, but it will help anyone who wants to make sense of what s/he reads and hears in the media.