My Must Read Non Fic

If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll know I didn’t use to be a massive non fiction reader. When I was younger I struggled to read any non fiction book from cover to cover. Then I started including non fiction in my yearly goals to make sure I got my fill. But now- this year- for some reason I can’t explain, I’ve been devouring the non fiction. Maybe it’s cos I got into memoirs last year, maybe it’s cos I can’t seem to click with a lot of my usual favourites this year. Either way, I thought it might be good to recommend a few of the very best non fic books I’ve read over the years. Books that are *vital*, that will shake you to the core, that will mean a lot to any reader. Now, while this won’t be a favourites list, I will say that my interests in non fiction are pretty niche, so be prepared for an unusual selection. But I hope you get as much out of these as I did:

Big Magic– I want to begin on a positive and empowering note- so what better place to start than with something that will spark your creativity? Insightful and inspiring, this was such an uplifting read for me. And it might just give you a kick up the backside if you need it 😉

The Art of War– one of the most spectacular books I’ve ever read. This is full of ancient wisdom that still feels very relevant. And while the title might suggest it’ll only be of use to military generals, I’d strongly recommend this to anyone writing a book or just needs to understand people a bit better. The advice is surprisingly universal.

Man’s Search for Meaning– I’ve gone on about this book so often, I almost feel bad… but it’s such a good book!! It made a massive difference to my own outlook on life. Frankl may have been through hell, however, he used it to empower others to find meaning in suffering.

Twelve Years a Slave– a heartrending, true account, sometimes I just think it’s important to understand history and look evil in the eye. Speaking of which…

Evil– this is in part to understand how and why other people do evil things, but also to understand our own nature as humans. In my view, that is the only way to truly prevent evil in all its forms. When I first started looking into moral psychology, this book was recommended everywhere and for good reason. Not only is it a thorough exploration in its own right, it’s also got a very good bibliography that you can use as a springboard for further research.

Ordinary Men– this is a book I found because of Evil (and other recommendations). Even though I knew it would be tough, I also understood that I had to read it if I wanted to truly understand how ordinary men can do evil things. As important as it is to remember victims, I’d argue it’s more important to understand how the human heart can be twisted to do the unthinkable. Lest we are doomed to repeat it.

Wild Swans– I’m not just recommending this because it’s emotional and moving and interesting- though it is all those things. It goes beyond personal stories to be an account of a historical era that, while recent, seems to have been quickly forgotten. We ought to know more about it.

In Order to Live– I was blown away by this memoir. It was both an incredible and universal tale of human endurance, giving us just a peek behind the fences of North Korea. Hearing of how Park not only persevered and survived, but also thrived was such an inspiration to me. It was impressive beyond belief. Human endurance.

Gulag Archipelago– even if you just read volume 1, I think it is tremendously important to understand the full scope and tragedy of communism. This is the definitive explanation as to why it did not work and why it could never work. It also demonstrates how the same tragedy repeated itself across borders and how the experiment fails the same way every time. I also personally found the parallels with 1984 astounding- which, interestingly enough, the previous two recommendations also explicitly referred to.

Communist Manifesto– because of my last two recommendations, this may be a surprise. However, unsurprisingly, this is not an endorsement of communism. Far from it. I believe that an honest evaluation of this creed is necessary. I trust people to check it out for themselves (and come to your own conclusions about whether it’s a good idea to denigrate human endeavour, family and freedom).

On Liberty– whether you agree with this or not, I feel like it’s important to understand the founding principles of a lot of Western political systems. I think this is a great place to start.

Righteous Minds– given the gulf that exists between political classes right now, I’d say there’s never been a more important time to read this. Explaining why different people react differently to the same information and why people might have different political inclinations, I think this could be really useful for people looking to reach an understanding. In my view, this book can help people move towards productive conversations and see each other’s perspectives. I reckon we could all do with this in our lives.

Woke– and since we’re ending on a political note, then I must once again talk about THE MOST IMPORTANT BOOK OF OUR TIME! This book will CHANGE YOUR WHOLE WAY OF THINKING! You will see what A GODDESS TITANIA MCGRATH IS! (okay, for the record, this is satire, don’t make the same mistake as that bookshop that took it too seriously 😉 but I do think it’s a must-read, because there’s no greater cure for all the *bonkers* in the world than a little bit of laughter!)

So, have you read any of these? Do you agree with me? Disagree? Have any MUST-READ books to recommend? Let me know in the comments!

The Righteous Mind: A Worthy Read

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“My goal in this book is to draw some of the heat, anger and divisiveness out of these topics and replace them with awe, wonder, and curiosity.”

I knew this would be good. Having watched some of Haidt’s interviews and lectures, I already had a pretty clear view of his intellectual rigour. Yet what I didn’t know before going into this was how powerful and necessary this book would be. Especially in today’s incendiary political climate, Righteous Mind successfully bridges the growing gap between partisan views.

“Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say”

Exploring the differences in liberal/conservative thinking through moral psychology, this book gives a fascinating view into partisanship, polarisation and the moral blindness (on both sides) that can stand in the way of productive debates.

“We humans have an extraordinary ability to care about things beyond ourselves, to circle around those things with other people, and in the process to bind ourselves to teams they can pursue larger projects.”

This is a rich area for discussion and exploration, so don’t expect to walk away from this book with a complete picture. Nonetheless, it will certainly provide an interested individual with plenty of puzzle pieces to get started.

“Team membership blinds people to the motives and morals of their opponents- and to the wisdom that is to be found scattered among diverse political ideologies.”

What’s especially interesting about Righteous Mind is that it tracks a personal journey. If you’re familiar with the author, you might know that he’s had an intriguing political awakening over the last few years, leading Haidt to co-founding the Heterodox Academy (a membership organisation that supports viewpoint diversity in universities). Needless to say, this book serves a purpose in that greater desire to create civil dialogues.

“It felt good to be released from partisan anger. And once I was no longer angry, I was no longer committed to reaching the conclusion that righteous anger demands: we are right, they are wrong.”

While there is some “suspicion of moral monists” prevalent in the book, the fundamental message is empathetic and understanding. It ends on a beautiful idea: we can work it out. Above all, this book encourages people to sit down and find common ground.

Interesting titbits from the book:

  • Liberals have a harder time predicting/understanding conservatives (probably more to do with the political climate than anything innate)
  • Conservatives lower in agreeableness (Dr Peterson currently has a doctorate student exploring how the big five personality can be used to predict political views, so essentially true, but there’s more complexity here)
  • To understand another group, follow the sacredness
  • There’s more to morality than harm and fairness.
  • Like rats that cannot stop pressing a button, partisans may be simply unable to stop believing weird things.
  • We found that libertarians look more like liberals than like conservatives on most measures of personality

Rating: 5/5 bananas

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Have you read this? Do you plan to? Let me know in the comments!

Orwell Round Up: Taking the Road to Wigan Pier and Beyond

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Alrighty then- three days ago we all established on here that it was a-okay to write non-fiction reviews, which is what I’m gonna do today! I got this book that had the non-fiction works of Orwell, so rather than review each work in individual posts, I decided to do them all in one (yay timesaving!!)

Since these are, for the most part, political works, there will be no way to avoid the subject- you have been warned!

Down and Out in Paris and London

Now this one is really hard to sum up, but actually pretty easy to read. Essentially in this book Orwell went on a jaunt as a poor person. An interesting social experiment, no doubt, but my more cynical side kind of overtook me at points. I will be blunt- I found a lot of it made me think of the song “Common People” (“if you called your dad you could stop it all”). This is definitely one of those books where I can see why other people love it, even if I didn’t.

Rating: 3/5 bananas

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Some excellent quotes:

“Fear of the mob is a superstitious fear”

“What do the majority of educated people know about poverty?”

“an educated man can put up with enforced idleness, which is one of the worst evils of poverty”

“The man who really merits pity is the man who has been down from the start, and faces poverty with a blank resourceless mind”

The Road to Wigan Pier

I did massively prefer this, even if the very partisan arguments at times felt like a manifesto to encourage a certain type of activism. I had my issues with Orwell’s argument:

  • “Socialism is such an elementary common sense that I am amazed that it has not established itself already”- this is an optimistic view, but if you’re not a socialist, it’s not a very sensible assertion. In fact there is often a view in left wing circles that everyone secretly wants to be a socialist and anyone that’s not feels guilty about it- a foolish stance to take because not only is it a touch arrogant, but it is fundamentally naïve and if you view the world in this binary manner you will never be able to accept other points of view exist (let alone acknowledge their validity).
  • “the worst advertisements for Socialism is its adherents”- ah the “no true Scotsman” fallacy rears its head again. I feel like every ideologue says this- but maybe, just maybe, it’s the ideologies that are flawed…
  • “Socialism means justice and common decency”- again how often do ideologues argue that their ideology “just means x”? As charming as this statement is, it’s not even true on a dictionary definition level.
  • “The only possible course is to examine the Fascist case, grasp that there is something to be said for it, and then make it clear to the world that whatever good Fascism contains is also implicit in Socialism”- if you reverse this argument it undoes his point- whatever is negative about an ideology (particularly authoritarian ones) is also present in all other ideologies.

Nonetheless, the book was insightful at times, with notions about simple compassion and most powerfully when Orwell talks about the universal principles of liberty and justice. And made some excellent points:

  • Orwell highlights the hypocrisy of bourgeois left winger: “All his opinions change into their opposite at the first brush of reality”.
  • “writers of genuine talent are usually indifferent to Socialism”- this to my mind is because writers have to exist beyond the ideological in the universal world of stories
  • “Marxists as a rule are not very good at reading the minds of their adversaries”- this reiterates my point about left wing views of what conservatives are thinking
  • “if you give me to understand that in some way I am an inferior person because I have never worked with my hands, you will only succeed in antagonising me.”- this is such an important point because so many people think it is a good idea to accuse people of something they cannot help- and the end result is only to lose support.

Despite my criticisms of Orwell’s arguments, I did get a lot out of this book.

Rating: 4/5 bananas

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Homage to Catalonia

I had trouble finding some of his recollections interesting, but I did find this picked up in his essay Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War.

The book directly contradicts the idea that history is written by the winners. It explains how the concept to believe that everything is all relative came into existence- in a case of delicious irony (given the sorts that currently hold this position) Orwell explains how the notion of moral relativism was founded on fascist principles: “Nazi theory specifically denies that such a thing as “the truth” exists”.

Unfortunately the consequences now are that objectivity has gone out the window and the pretence of truth seeking has gone. I could not help but find how true this rings: “Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves his own side”.

Ultimately I found this the most interesting and the one which rang most true:

Rating: 4½/5 bananas

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Some brilliant quotes:

“People forget that a soldier anywhere near the front line is usually too hungry, or frightened, or cold, or, above all, too tired to bother about the political origins of the war”

“War is evil, and it is often the lesser evil”

Okay everyone that read all of that deserves a banana for sure!! And while we’re at it, I probably owe you all bananas for being so absent this week!

Have you read Orwell’s non-fiction? Are you interested in reading it? Let me know in the comments!

Is it worth analysing and reviewing non-fiction?

You know how sometimes real life and the blogosphere collide? Well recently someone told me that they didn’t think I should review non-fiction books. Now my first reaction was something like this…

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But then when I cooled down a bit, I actually came up with an argument as to why it’s just as important to review non-fiction as fiction…

To answer the question I posed- the short answer is YES! I mean, I started my blog to tell the truth- to be honest about my feelings regarding books in a way I often couldn’t be in real life. Part of that might be to recommend books and part of that is to discuss the way a book touched me- and for so many books what can really strike me is the ideas it holds inside. So what would be the point if we could not talk about the ideas in non-fiction? Why limit myself?

Well, for a lot of people, it is the fear of being called arrogant if we happen to disagree with greater thinkers than ourselves. BUT- and I shouldn’t really have to point this out- just because someone disagrees with another person doesn’t mean they think they’re better than them- just that, in the words of John Mill, “mankind are not infallible”. Moreover- how limiting would it be to the progress of human thought if you could never disagree? Disagreement is the very essence of finding truth and having a healthy debate (Also “how dare you disagree with my favourite philosopher you arrogant prick” is not an argument or a refutation, just sayin’ 😉 ).

Non-fiction creates a discussion and encourages the spread of ideas. So much of it is crying out to be shared, discussed and argued with. A lot of these thinkers did not want people blindly listening to them or obeying them like lemmings running off a cliff…

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Of course, there are different ways of looking at and writing about non-fiction. I’ve personally found the more philosophical a book, the more room for thought there is in my post about it. And that is so exciting to me! It keeps me on my toes and makes for more diverse types of reviews.

For me, and for many of you, book blogging is a part of our journey as readers. We evolve with the things we read with the things we read and if we can’t or don’t feel comfortable arguing back or discussing ideas then we may as well pack the whole thing in.

Quite simply, when I talk about ideas I learn about them. As fun as it is to be a passive reader, it is very rewarding to actually have to think while I read from time to time. And knowing that I have to write about it afterwards really helps me stay focused. I learn so much when I decide to read and review something non-fiction. I won’t be stopping any time soon.

So what do *you* think? Should we discuss and review non-fiction just as much as fiction? Let me know in the comments!