It’s been a long and hard year for many of us. With most staying home for the holidays this year, what better way to celebrate the arrival of what will hopefully be a better-news year with a good book? Here are my twenty-one non-fiction books for the start of 2021 (in no particular order):
My top 21 non-fiction books for the start of 2021
- Time’s Monster, by Priya Satia:
For generations, British thinkers told the history of an empire whose story was still very much in the making. While they wrote of conquest, imperial rule in India, the Middle East, Africa, and the Caribbean was consolidated. While they described the development of imperial governance, rebellions were brutally crushed. As they reimagined empire during the two world wars, decolonization was compromised. Priya Satia shows how these historians not only interpreted the major political events of their time but also shaped the future that followed.
- Metropolis, by Ben Wilson:
In the two hundred millennia of our existence, nothing has shaped us more profoundly than the city. Historian Ben Wilson, author of bestselling and award-winning books on British history, now tells the grand, glorious story of how city living has allowed human culture to flourish. Beginning with Uruk, the world’s first city, dating to 5000 BC and memorably portrayed in the Epic of Gilgamesh, he shows us that cities were never a necessity but that once they existed their density created such a blossoming of human endeavor–producing new professions, forms of art, worship, and trade–that they kick-started nothing less than civilization.
- Livewired – The inside story of the ever-changing brain, by David Eagleman:
What does drug withdrawal have in common with a broken heart? Why is the enemy of memory not time, but other memories? How can a blind person learn to see with her tongue or a deaf person learn to hear with his skin? Why did many people in the 1980s mistakenly perceive book pages to be slightly red in colour? Why is the world’s best archer armless? Might we someday control a robot with our thoughts, just as we do our fingers and toes? Why do we dream at night, and what does that have to do with the rotation of the planet? The answer to these questions is right behind our eyes. The greatest technology we have ever discovered on this planet is the three-pound organ carried around in the vault of the skull.
- A Promised Land, by Barack Obama:
In the stirring, highly anticipated first volume of his presidential memoirs, Barack Obama tells the story of his improbable odyssey from young man searching for his identity to leader of the free world, describing in strikingly personal detail both his political education and the landmark moments of the first term of his historic presidency – a time of dramatic transformation and turmoil. Obama takes readers on a compelling journey from his earliest political aspirations to the pivotal Iowa caucus victory that demonstrated the power of grassroots activism to the watershed night of November 4, 2008, when he was elected 44th president of the United States, becoming the first African American to hold the nation’s highest office. Reflecting on the presidency, he offers a unique and thoughtful exploration of both the awesome reach and the limits of presidential power, as well as singular insights into the dynamics of U.S. partisan politics and international diplomacy.
- The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World, by Virginia Postrel
The story of humanity is the story of textiles — as old as civilization itself. Since the first thread was spun, the need for textiles has driven technology, business, politics, and culture. In The Fabric of Civilization, Virginia Postrel synthesizes groundbreaking research from archaeology, economics, and science to reveal a surprising history. From Minoans exporting wool colored with precious purple dye to Egypt, to Romans arrayed in costly Chinese silk, the cloth trade paved the crossroads of the ancient world. Textiles funded the Renaissance and the Mughal Empire; they gave us banks and bookkeeping, Michelangelo’s David and the Taj Mahal. The cloth business spread the alphabet and arithmetic, propelled chemical research, and taught people to think in binary code. Assiduously researched and deftly narrated, The Fabric of Civilization tells the story of the world’s most influential commodity.
- Freedom: An Unruly History, by Annelien de Dijn
The invention of modern freedom—the equating of liberty with restraints on state power—was not the natural outcome of such secular Western trends as the growth of religious tolerance or the creation of market societies. Rather, it was propelled by an antidemocratic backlash following the Atlantic Revolutions.
- Humankind: A Hopeful History, by Rutger Bergman
It’s a belief that unites the left and right, psychologists and philosophers, writers and historians. It drives the headlines that surround us and the laws that touch our lives. From Machiavelli to Hobbes, Freud to Dawkins, the roots of this belief have sunk deep into Western thought. Human beings, we’re taught, are by nature selfish and governed by self-interest. Humankind makes a new argument: that it is realistic, as well as revolutionary, to assume that people are good. The instinct to cooperate rather than compete, trust rather than distrust, has an evolutionary basis going right back to the beginning of Homo sapiens. By thinking the worst of others, we bring out the worst in our politics and economics too.
- Trust, by Pete Buttigieg
Trust is essential to the foundation of America’s democracy, asserts Pete Buttigieg, the former presidential candidate and South Bend mayor. Yet, in a century warped by terrorism, financial collapse, Trumpist populism, systemic racism, and now a global pandemic, trust has been squandered, sacrificed, abused, stolen, or never properly built in the first place. And now, more so than ever before, Americans must work side by side to reckon with the monumental challenges posed by our present moment. Interweaving history, political philosophy, and affecting passages of memoir, Buttigieg explores the strong relationship between measures of prosperity and levels of social trust. He provides an impassioned account of a threefold crisis of trust: in our institutions, in each other, and in the American project itself.
- Seven Votes, by Richard Steyn
If a mere seven more MPs had voted with Prime Minister JBM Hertzog in favour of neutrality, South Africa’s history would have been quite different. Parliament’s narrow decision to go to war in 1939 led to a seismic upheaval throughout the 1940s: black people streamed in their thousands from rural areas to the cities in search of jobs; volunteers of all races answered the call to go ‘up north’ to fight; and opponents of the Smuts government actively hindered the war effort by attacking soldiers and committing acts of sabotage. World War Two upended South Africa’s politics, ruining attempts to forge white unity and galvanising opposition to segregation among African, Indian and coloured communities. It also sparked debates among nationalists, socialists, liberals and communists such as the country had never previously experienced.
- Open, by Johan Norberg
Humanity’s embrace of openness is the key to our success. The freedom to explore and exchange – whether it’s goods, ideas or people – has led to stunning achievements in science, technology and culture. As a result, we live at a time of unprecedented wealth and opportunity. So why are we so intent on ruining it? From Stone Age hunter-gatherers to contemporary Chinese-American relations, Open explores how across time and cultures, we have struggled with a constant tension between our yearning for co-operation and our profound need for belonging. Providing a bold new framework for understanding human history, bestselling author and thinker Johan Norberg examines why we’re often uncomfortable with openness – but also why it is essential for progress. Part sweeping history and part polemic, this urgent book makes a compelling case for why an open world with an open economy is worth fighting for more than ever.
- Radical Uncertainty, by John Kay and Mervyn King
This major, critically acclaimed work asks a vitally important question for today: when uncertainty is all around us, and the facts are not clear, how can we make good decisions? We do not know what the future will hold, particularly in the midst of a crisis, but we must make decisions anyway. We regularly crave certainties which cannot exist and invent knowledge we cannot have, forgetting that humans are successful because we have adapted to an environment that we understand only imperfectly. Throughout history we have developed a variety of ways of coping with the radical uncertainty that defines our lives.
- The Decline and Rise of Democracy, by David Stasavage
Historical accounts of democracy’s rise tend to focus on ancient Greece and pre-Renaissance Europe. The Decline and Rise of Democracy draws from global evidence to show that the story is much richer—democratic practices were present in many places, at many other times, from the Americas before European conquest, to ancient Mesopotamia, to precolonial Africa. Delving into the prevalence of early democracy throughout the world, David Stasavage makes the case that understanding how and where these democracies flourished—and when and why they declined—can provide crucial information not just about the history of governance, but also about the ways modern democracies work and where they could manifest in the future.
- Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich, by Deirdre McCloskey and Art Carden
For readers looking for a distillation of McCloskey’s magisterial work, Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich is what you’ve been waiting for. In this lively volume, McCloskey and the economist and journalist Carden bring together the trilogy’s key ideas and its most provocative arguments. The rise of the west, and now the rest, is the story of the rise of ordinary people to a dignity and liberty inspiring them to have a go. The outcome was an explosion of innovation after 1800, and a rise of real income by an astounding 3,000 percent. The Great Enrichment, well beyond the conventional Industrial Revolution, did not, McCloskey and Carden show, come from the usual suspects, capital accumulation or class struggle. It came from the idea of economic liberty in Holland and the Anglosphere, then Sweden and Japan, then Italy and Israel and China and India, an idea that bids fair in the next few generations to raise up the wretched of the earth. The original shift to liberalism arose from 1517 to 1789 from theological and political revolutions in northwest Europe, upending ancient hierarchies. McCloskey and Carden contend further that liberalism and “innovism” made us better humans as well as richer ones. Not matter but ideas. Not corruption but improvement.
- Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time, by James Suzman
The work we do brings us meaning, moulds our values, determines our social status and dictates how we spend most of our time. But this wasn’t always the case: for 95% of our species’ history, work held a radically different importance. How, then, did work become the central organisational principle of our societies? How did it transform our bodies, our environments, our views on equality and our sense of time? And why, in a time of material abundance, are we working more than ever before?
- Outside the Box, by Marc Levinson
Globalization has profoundly shaped the world we live in, yet its rise was neither inevitable nor planned. It is also one of the most contentious issues of our time. While it may have made goods less expensive, it has also sent massive flows of money across borders and shaken the global balance of power. Outside the Box offers a fresh and lively history of globalization, showing how it has evolved over two centuries in response to changes in demography, technology, and consumer tastes.
- The Ages of Globalization, by Jeffrey Sachs
Today’s most urgent problems are fundamentally global. They require nothing less than concerted, planetwide action if we are to secure a long-term future. But humanity’s story has always been on a global scale. In this book, Jeffrey D. Sachs, renowned economist and expert on sustainable development, turns to world history to shed light on how we can meet the challenges and opportunities of the twenty-first century.
- Amber Waves: The Extraordinary Biography of Wheat, from Wild Grass to World Megacrop, by Catherine Zabinski
At breakfast tables and bakeries, we take for granted a grain that has made human civilization possible, a cereal whose humble origins belie its world-shaping power: wheat. Amber Waves tells the story of a group of grass species that first grew in scattered stands in the foothills of the Middle East until our ancestors discovered their value as a source of food. Over thousands of years, we moved their seeds to all but the polar regions of Earth, slowly cultivating what we now know as wheat, and in the process creating a world of cuisines that uses wheat seeds as a staple food. Wheat spread across the globe, but as ecologist Catherine Zabinski shows us, a biography of wheat is not only the story of how plants ensure their own success: from the earliest breads to the most mouthwatering pastas, it is also a story of human ingenuity in producing enough food for ourselves and our communities.
- Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, by Rebecca Wrag Sykes
Kindred is the definitive guide to the Neanderthals. Since their discovery more than 160 years ago, Neanderthals have metamorphosed from the losers of the human family tree to A-list hominins.Rebecca Wragg Sykes uses her experience at the cutting-edge of Palaeolithic research to share our new understanding of Neanderthals, shoving aside clichés of rag-clad brutes in an icy wasteland. She reveals them to be curious, clever connoisseurs of their world, technologically inventive and ecologically adaptable. Above all, they were successful survivors for more than 300,000 years, during times of massive climatic upheaval. Much of what defines us was also in Neanderthals, and their DNA is still inside us. Planning, co-operation, altruism, craftsmanship, aesthetic sense, imagination, perhaps even a desire for transcendence beyond mortality. Kindred does for Neanderthals what Sapiens did for us, revealing a deeper, more nuanced story where humanity itself is our ancient, shared inheritance.
- The Journeys of Trees: A Story about Forests, People, and the Future, by Zach St. George
A deft blend of science reporting and travel writing, The Journeys of Trees explores the evolving movements of forests by focusing on five trees: giant sequoia, ash, black spruce, Florida torreya, and Monterey pine. Journalist Zach St. George visits these trees in forests across continents, finding sequoias losing their needles in California, fossil records showing the paths of ancient forests in Alaska, domesticated pines in New Zealand, and tender new sprouts of blight-resistant American chestnuts in New Hampshire. Everywhere he goes, St. George meets lively people on conservation’s front lines, from an ecologist studying droughts to an evolutionary evangelist with plans to save a dying species. He treks through the woods with activists, biologists, and foresters, each with their own role to play in the fight for the uncertain future of our environment.
- Analogia: The Emergence of Technology Beyond Programmable Control, by George Dyson
In 1716, the philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz spent eight days taking the cure with Peter the Great at Bad Pyrmont in Saxony, seeking to initiate a digitally-computed takeover of the world. In his classic books, Darwin Among the Machines and Turing’s Cathedral, Dyson chronicled the realization of Leibniz’s dream at the hands of a series of iconoclasts who brought his ideas to life. Now, in his pathbreaking new book, Analogia, he offers a chronicle of people who fought for the other side—the Native American leader Geronimo and physicist Leo Szilard, among them—a series of stories that will change our view not only of the past but also of the future. The convergence of a startling historical archaeology with Dyson’s unusual personal story—set alternately in the rarified world of cutting-edge physics and computer science, in Princeton, and in the rainforest of the Northwest Coast—leads to a prophetic vision of an analog revolution already under way. We are, Dyson reveals, on the cusp of a new moment in human history, driven by a generation of machines whose powers are beyond programmable control.
- God’s Shadow: The Ottoman Sultan Who Shaped the Modern World, by Alan Mikhail
The Ottoman Empire was a hub of flourishing intellectual fervor, geopolitical power, and enlightened pluralistic rule. At the helm of its ascent was the omnipotent Sultan Selim I (1470-1520), who, with the aid of his extraordinarily gifted mother, Gülbahar, hugely expanded the empire, propelling it onto the world stage. Aware of centuries of European suppression of Islamic history, Alan Mikhail centers Selim’s Ottoman Empire and Islam as the very pivots of global history, redefining such world-changing events as Christopher Columbus’s voyages – which originated, in fact, as a Catholic jihad that would come to view Native Americans as somehow “Moorish” – the Protestant Reformation, the transatlantic slave trade, and the dramatic Ottoman seizure of the Middle East and North Africa. Drawing on previously unexamined sources and written in gripping detail, Mikhail’s groundbreaking account vividly recaptures Selim’s life and world. An historical masterwork, God’s Shadow radically reshapes our understanding of a world we thought we knew.
I’ve reviewed several great non-fiction books over the last few months. They are:
- Matt Ridley’s How Innovation Works: And Why it Flourishes in Freedom (review here, in Afrikaans)
- Bruce Whitfield’s The Upside of Down (review here, in Afrikaans)
- William Quinn and John Turner’s Boom and bust: A Global History of Financial Bubbles (review here)
- Maria Konnikova’s The Biggest Bluff (review here, in Afrikaans)
- Andrew Whitby’s The Sum of the People (review here)
I’ve also contributed to a book – Should We Go? To Emigrate or Not – compiled by Alet Law.
The emigration debate is as old as our democracy itself. When the “new South Africa” dawned in 1994, many people left the country out of fear for what majority rule would hold. More still left in the years that followed to seek a better life elsewhere, and communities of expats can be found all over the world in places such as Canada, England and Australia. Today, 25 years after the dawn of democracy, as optimism about the country’s future ebbs and flows, new impetus has been given to the emigration debate. This time around, it is not only being discussed in reactionary circles, but around dinner tables of all creeds as many people leave for better education, job opportunities and safety. With the reality of nine wasted years tugging at our wallets and future prospects, and the allure of a global economy pulling strong, more and more people are asking, “Should I go?” In Should we go? more than 20 of South Africa’s foremost thought leaders such as Jonathan Jansen, Mandy Wiener, Phumzile van Damme and Ferial Haffajee grapple with this question. It is an attempt to find some answers that will give insight to and challenge every person who is thinking of leaving, has already left, or has decided to stay so that they may thrive as South Africans wherever they are.
Bonus section: Fiction books
- Stalingrad, by Vasily Grossman
In April 1942, Hitler and Mussolini plan the huge offensive on the Eastern Front that will culminate in the greatest battle in human history. Hundreds of miles away, Pyotr Vavilov receives his call-up papers and spends a final night with his wife and children in the hut that is his home. As war approaches, the Shaposhnikov family gathers for a meal: despite her age, Alexandra will soon become a refugee; Tolya will enlist in the reserves; Vera, a nurse, will fall in love with a wounded pilot; and Viktor Shtrum will receive a letter from his doomed mother which will haunt him forever. The war will consume the lives of a huge cast of characters – lives which express Grossman’s grand themes of the nation and the individual, nature’s beauty and war’s cruelty, love and separation. For months, Soviet forces are driven back inexorably by the German advance eastward and eventually Stalingrad is all that remains between the invaders and victory. The city stands on a cliff top by the Volga River. The battle for Stalingrad – a maelstrom of violence and firepower – will reduce it to ruins. But it will also be the cradle of a new sense of hope. Stalingrad is a magnificent novel not only of war but of all human life: its subjects are mothers and daughters, husbands and brothers, generals, nurses, political officers, steelworkers, tractor girls. It is tender, epic, and a testament to the power of the human spirit.
- To Calais, in Ordinary Times, by James Meek:
Three journeys. One road. England, 1348. A gentlewoman flees an odious arranged marriage, a proctor sets out for a monastery in Avignon and a young ploughman in search of freedom is on his way to volunteer with a company of archers. All come together on the road to Calais. In the other direction comes the Black Death, the plague that will wipe out half of the population of Northern Europe. To Calais, In Ordinary Time is an exploration of love, death and power, against the backdrop of catastrophe.
- The Overstory, by Richard Powers:
An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies, and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light. A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. An Air Force crewmember in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan. This is the story of these and five other strangers, each summoned in different ways by the natural world, who are brought together in a last stand to save it from catastrophe.
- Transcendent Kingdom, by Yaa Gyasi:
As a child Gifty would ask her parents to tell the story of their journey from Ghana to Alabama, seeking escape in myths of heroism and romance. When her father and brother succumb to the hard reality of immigrant life in the American South, their family of four becomes two – and the life Gifty dreamed of slips away. Years later, desperate to understand the opioid addiction that destroyed her brother’s life, she turns to science for answers. But when her mother comes to stay, Gifty soon learns that the roots of their tangled traumas reach farther than she ever thought. Tracing her family’s story through continents and generations will take her deep into the dark heart of modern America. Transcendent Kingdom is a searing story story of love, loss and redemption, and the myriad ways we try to rebuild our lives from the rubble of our collective pasts.
- Donkerdrif, by Deon Meyer
’n Koelbloedige moord by die Kaapse Waterfront. Wat dalk verband hou met geheimsinnige briewe wat geskorste luitenante Bennie Griessel en Vaughn Cupido ontvang het. Maar eers moet Bennie-hulle op Stellenbosch soek na ’n verdwene student, en die spoor vat van die eiendomsagent wat die kooptransaksie van Donkerdrif, korporatiewe swendelaar Jasper Boonstra se peperduur wynplaas, behartig het. Stadigaan besef die speurders al hul ondersoeke het ’n gemene deler: die donkerste drif, gierigheid.
- The Evening and the Morning, Ken Follett
It is 997 CE, the end of the Dark Ages, and England faces attacks from the Welsh in the west and the Vikings in the east. Life is hard, and those with power wield it harshly, bending justice according to their will – often in conflict with the king. With his grip on the country fragile and with no clear rule of law, chaos and bloodshed reign. Into this uncertain world three people come to the fore: a young boatbuilder, who dreams of a better future when a devastating Viking raid shatters the life that he and the woman he loves hoped for; a Norman noblewoman, who follows her beloved husband across the sea to a new land only to find her life there shockingly different; and a capable monk at Shiring Abbey, who dreams of transforming his humble abbey into a centre of learning admired throughout Europe. Now, with England at the dawn of the Middle Ages, these three people will each come into dangerous conflict with a ruthless bishop, who will do anything to increase his wealth and power, in an epic tale of ambition and rivalry, death and birth, and love and hate.
Happy reading and happy holidays!