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Best non-fiction books for the South African summer

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Every year I try my best to keep the number of books I order for the December holidays as close as possible to what I can reasonably expect to read. Every year I fail miserably. (But who buys books to read them, anyway?) Sometimes I am lucky, like my recommendation last year for The Black Count, which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Biography, a story about the father of Alexandre Dumas who fought alongside Napoleon. But most of my selections are just because I found the books interesting, or simply happened to pick them up at the airport book store.

So here’s what will be my 2013 failings, and more:

History:

Robert TwiggerAs always, there are several titles that contend for the best book in the History category. There is John Darwin’s Unfinished Empire, which I wrote about here. There is Robert Twigger’s Red Nile, a fascinating history of the world’s greatest river. There is Russel Shorto’s Amsterdam: a History of the World’s Most Liberal City. Shorto is one of my favourite authors, and after his The Island at the Centre of the World (a history of seventeenth-century New York), this should be a fascinating read, especially for those who travel to Holland frequently. And watch out for a biography of DF Malan, due early next year. Written by Lindie Koorts, a former PhD student at Stellenbosch, this will be the first full biography of a man that had a remarkable influence on South African society.

Another event that influenced South African history is the topic of Geoffrey Treasure’s new The Huguenots. This was a book I was looking forward to; for long I’ve wanted to know more about this episode of history, also because the South African (and my own) story is influenced by these events. Yet when I opened the book on the page that deals with the arrival of French Huguenots in South Africa, he writes that “by 1691, 13000 [Huguenots] were settled there, planting their vines, reinforcing the Calvinist ethos, and the sense of being a chosen people that would affect their relationship to the natives” (p. 371). Uhm, 13000? No. More like 160. I’ll pass.

Craig VenterInstead, I’ve invested in a two-thousand year history of paper. On Paper, by Nicholas Basbanes, is beautiful (it’s worth buying simply for the cover) and a must-have for any bibliophile. Finally, while more to do with the future than with the past, J. Craig Venter’s Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life, seems pretty good. If you want an insider’s understanding of what our future might be like, Venter’s book highlights how the science of synthetic genomics will “enable us to actually write the genetic code for designing new species to help us adapt and evolve for long-term survival”. (I’d like a gene that allows me to read faster, please.)

Yet my favourite book this year is not a new release. It is Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, published in 2011. I purchased my version in Lund and it’s been travelling with me for the last three months. It is a fat, monumental book. And it is gripping. Pinker not only provides convincing evidence that violence – in all its formations, from nation-state wars, to terrorism, to murder, to domestic violence and even playground bullying – has declined over the last few centuries, but also explains why it did. (Warning: for those with a weak appetite for violence, or for an over-creative imagination, the opening chapters should probably be skipped.) His answers include the evolutionary, the economic, the biological and the moral. Although he primarily discusses the decline of violence in the West, his analysis is applicable to developing countries and certainly to South Africa. (Perhaps that is a topic for another post someday.)

Steven PinkerThe book is long and I suspect a good editor would have cut some of his graphs and lengthy explanations. And I don’t think all of his statistics are entirely accurate: on page 237, he refers to Shaka as “a Zulu Hitler who killed between 1 and 2 million people during his conquest of southern Africa between 1816 and 1827”. I’m not sure the entire Mfecane can be attributed to one man, and even these numbers, as Wikipedia authoritatively informs, are dubious. (Also, given that Shaka came first, is it not more appropriate to call Hiter the German Shaka?) But the few generalisations are a low price to pay for what is, at the minimum, a thought-provoking book. The book really deserves a better review than what I have space for here. But here and here are good reviews. Of course, not everyone agrees.

Sport:

I try to read at least one book on sport every year. Ever since the 2010 FIFA World Cup, my interest in English football has increased, and more specifically in Arsenal’s attempts at winning a trophy. (I’ve been well-prepared by the Stormers and the Proteas.) So it must come as little surprise that one of the sport books to read this summer is Alex Ferguson’s My Autobiography. As The Economist noted, Ferguson will not only be remembered for what he did, but also the way he did it; his management style is already taught in business schools around the world. If you are an Arsenal fan, you might also be interested in Dutch-legend Dennis Bergkamp’s Stillness and Speed.

Ricky PontingBeing cricket season, the best book-for-the-beach is probably Mark Boucher’s Bouch: Through my Eyes. (I’m not sure whether the ‘through my eyes’ refers to the way he was forced to retire from test cricket.) Then there is also Drew Forrest’s The Pacemen: 100 Years of South African Fast Bowlers. And then Ricky Ponting’s At the Close of Play (due next week) is probably one of the most anticipated cricket autobiographies of this decade (well, until Sachin writes one).

My pick, though, goes to Ed Smith. Ed who? Ed Smith, journalist (who often writes for cricinfo) and former England international cricketer, is the author of Luck: What it Means and Why it Matters. As one reviewer noted: As a former professional cricketer and a lifetime fanatic of other sports, Ed cuts quickly to what makes a great athlete, noting the various forms of luck/chance/good fortune which have influenced the careers of the famous and infamous. He describes these using fun quotes and stories from his own career and from others around him. The discussion is not limited to sport, though, and he explores the role of luck in careers like Churchill’s and Thatcher’s as well as other great and small events in history, often colouring the narrative with personal interviews, like with a WW2 parachute jumper. Sport can teach us much about life; it’s great to have a sport book that does the same.

Economics:

Am I the only one to have struggled through Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 book, Thinking Fast and Slow? He aims to show how psychology and behavioural economics (for which Kahneman won a Nobel prize) influences our daily lives, and the book is certainly littered with experiments that prove humans’ irrational and quirky behaviour. But all that littering pollutes what could have been a more succinct narrative; for most of the book, I felt as if I was reading just ‘one damn experiment after another’.

Tyler CowenOne book that has managed to avoid repetitiveness is Tim Harford’s new The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: How to Run – or Ruin – an Economy. Harford, known for his use of economics to answer every-day questions, tackles macroeconomics in his latest book. Here is an excellent review, written in Harford’s conversational style. Perhaps this is what we should prescribe to second-year Macroeconomics students next year?

Another book that should be on any student of economics’ reading list is Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape: Health, Wealth and the Origins of Inequality, which is as concise a history of development as you will find. It explains the exceptional progress in living standards of a large proportion of the globe over the last 250 years, and also recommends policies to address the plight of those left behind. (There are some reviews here and here.)

Inequality is a hot topic, and that is why Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation will be probably be the pick of the summer. Cowen argues that technology will split society in two: those whose skills are complementary to the new machines will prosper while everyone else will struggle. This is not a new argument, but Cowen, famous for his blog Marginal Revolution, makes a compelling argument, supported by evidence, that this divide is real and that it will continue to diverge in the future. This, of course, has very important implications for already unequal countries like South Africa. One is social mobility. Here’s one reviewer’s prediction: “Divided by outcomes, winners and losers are likely to have few chances for meaningful engagement with one another. For one thing the two groups are likely to live in entirely separate communities, and this residential economic segregation will mean that they share few common institutions. For these and a variety of other reasons, it is easy to imagine a highly polarized world providing little opportunity for upward mobility.” Sounds familiar?

JP LandmanFor a more optimistic peak into South Africa’s future, there is no need to look beyond economist JP Landman’s The Long View: Getting Beyond the Drama of South Africa’s Headlines. His conclusion – that South Africa will continue to muddle along it’s current 2-3% growth path, with steady if unspectacular improvement in the long-term – is, I believe, the general consensus of most economists. Even if we only implement half of the National Development Plan, he argues, South Africans can expect a more peaceful, prosperous, healthier (but perhaps also more unequal) society.

Before that can happen, though, we have books to read this summer. Feel free to recommend any that I’ve missed.

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