My Book of Books

"Wisdom is not the product of schooling, but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it"



“The Better Angels of our Nature” Steven Pinker

This one’s for you if you don’t believe that violence has decreased, or if you wonder why it has.

Above all else, this is a book of optimism. A book that shows the staggering progress that humankind can make, in one generation, in a decade, in a century and over hundreds of years. The news headlines of today make us feel that we live in terribly dangerous times, and with only our lifetime’s experience to judge against, we do. But reading this deep exploration of the history of violence teaches you to appreciate the relative peace we enjoy, and the relative abundance of human rights that exist today. That is not to say there is no need to progress further. In fact it reminds me of one of my favourite quotes: “Be proud of your progress but never satisfied.”

The fact that we can wonder through life so ignorant of our luck, so oblivious to the progress that has been made, leaves you questioning the way we report and receive the news. Since the dawn of Facebook, Twitter, FaceTime and other means of modern communication, there has been a thirst for instant updates. So how are we to discover and appreciate news of the past, or of research examining stretches of time we can barely imagine? And then there are a whole lot of biases of the news that we DO get- the tendency to emphasises deaths due to terrorism over other causes, with serious consequences for government and military action. And whether or not you agree Paul Slovic’s research into psychological biases confirmed Stalin’s observation that “one death is a tragedy but a million deaths is a statistic. People cannot wrap their minds around large (or even small) numbers of people in peril, but will readily mobilize to save the life of a single person with a name and a face.” (p685) All of this emphasises the appreciation that science is “a paradigm for how we ought to gain knowledge- not the particular methods or institutions of science but it’s value system, namely to seek to explain the world, to evaluate candidate explanations objectively, and to be cognizant of the tentativeness and uncertainty of our understanding at any time.” p218

Steven Pinker takes you on a journey through human history, describing life and its accompanying violence from biblical times to the present day. It is truly a fascinating journey. Then begins his quest to analyse why violence has decreased? Without rereading 840 pages, and without dismissing the complexity of the answer, three important factors appear to be governance, education and trade. It is incredible to think that as early as 1795 Kant mentioned democracy and openness to global trade in his essay Perpetual Peace. The invention of the printing press coincided with a period of reduced violence, and Pinker discusses at length how reading about other cultures and countries increases sympathy and understanding. Interestingly research by Hakemulder found that novels increase sympathy more than reading non fiction P712.

The quote at the top of this blog encapsulates my love of learning. Pinker’s book teaches you a lot about a lot, covering topics as wide ranging as psychology, the philosophy of Hobbes, Locke, Descartes and Kant to name a few, ethics, criminology, neuroscience, psychology, evolutionary biology. Plus he uses some incredible words that I had never come across before- tendenciously, eschatological, synechdote, ecumenical to name a few.

I don’t have space to tell you everything that interested me about this book but here are a couple of bullet points I thought were worth mentioning:
The Flynn effect- intelligence scores substantially increase with time. The difference between successive generations is incredible.
Violence does not increase following economic downturn- criminologist David Kennedy.
Fearon and Laitin 1945-1999 found that income inequality did not correlate with increased civil wars.
Baumeister and colleagues found that self control is like a muscle- after practising self control for weeks, students did better on a test of their self control, but had reduced smoking, drinking and junk food consumption without thinking about it.

“we enjoy the peace find today because people in past generations were appalled by the violence in their time and worked to reduce it, and so we should work to reduce the violence that remains in our time.” xxv

Time of the Old Testament “The possibility that a woman had a legitimate interest in not being raped or acquired as sexual property did not seem to register in anyone’s mind…Human life held no value in comparison with unthinking obedience to custom and authority.” p14

Hobbes in Leviathan 1651, on the reasons for violence: “So that in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory. The first maketh man invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation.” p39 Interesting accidental gender bias which links to evolutionary biology- men act to maximise offspring, thus fighting over limited resource of mates while women invests in each child to maximise survival.

America “The North is an extension of Europe and continued the court and commerce-driven Civilizing Process that had been gathering momentum since the Middle Ages. The South and West preserved the culture of honor that sprang up in the anarchic parts of the growing country, balanced by their own civilizing forces of churches, families and temperance.” p127

“This common knowledge, as economists and logicians call it, gave rise to a horizontal web of solidarity that cut across the vertical ties to parents and authorities that had formerly isolated young people from one another and forced them to kowtow to their elders.” p130

James Madison “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external not internal controls on government would be necessary.” p193

“The point is not that killing ten civilians is O.K, but rather that in any previous war, even a few years ago, this kind of civilian death would barely have caused a ripple of attention.” p321

Violent practices pass “from unexceptionable to controversial to immoral to unthinkable to not-thought-about during the Humanitarian Revolution.” p351

In light of bankers in the modern day “Merchants and other middlemen, who skim off a profit as they pass goods along without causing new stuff to come into being, are seen as parasites, despite the value they create by enabling transactions between producers and consumers who are unacquainted or separated by distance. Moneylenders, who loan out a sum and then demand additional money in return, are held in even greater contempt, despite the service they render by providing people with money at times in their lives when it can be put to the best use.” p397

Blackwell and Sugiyama “found that when a terrorist blows himself up, the financial payoff can buy enough brides for his brothers to make his sacrifice reproductively worthwhile.” p430 based on analysis in Gaza/West Bank of families ability to pay for brides, number of children in an average family, number of women available.

Cosmopolitanism playing part in humanitarian revolution. Contrast “The Ottoman heirs to classical Islamic civilisation resisted the adoption of mechanical clocks, standardised weights and measures, experimental science, modern philosophy, translations of poetry and fiction, the financial instruments of capitalism, and perhaps most importantly, the printing press.” p440

“Insofar as violence is immoral, the Rights Revolutions show that a moral way of life often requires a decisive rejection of instinct, culture, religion, and standard practice. In their place is an ethics that is inspired by empathy and reason and stated in the language of rights.” p572/3

“Testosterone rises in adolescence and young adulthood, and declines in middle age. It also declines when men get married, have children, and spend time with their children.” p625 It follows that “to the extent that violence is a problem of young, unmarried, lawless men competing for dominance…then violence really is a problem of there being too much testosterone in the world.” p626

Why democracy/governance works to reduce violence “the government’s monopoly on force prevents the loser doing anything about it, and gives him less reason to WANT to do something about it, because he is not conceding weakness to his adversary and has less incentive to carry on the fight to restore his honor.” p649

“The psychology of forgiveness, recall, works best when perpetrator and victim are already bound by kinship, friendship, alliance, or mutual dependence.” p657

How little some things change!! George Orwell 1946 Politics and the English Language “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible…This political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” p683 speaking of atomic bomb, British rule in India, Russian purges.

“Children’s IQ at the age of ten predicted their endorsement of antiracist, socially liberal, and pro-working women attitudes at the age of thirty, holding constant their education, their social class, and their parents’ social class.” p801 Along with a study which found “Education and intellectual abilities in the past indeed predicted democracy and rule of law (together with prosperity) in the recent present, holding all else constant”, wealth did not have the same effect p804.

“Though gentle commerce does not eliminate the disaster of being defeated in an attack, it eliminates the adversary’s incentive to attack (since he benefits from peaceful exchange too) and so takes that way off the table.” p825

“All the Light we Cannot See” Anthony Doer

This one’s for you if you’re ready for a long and quite complicated novel.

“All the light we Cannot See” follows a blind girl from Paris who lives in Saint Malo during WWII, and an orphan called Werner who has great skill with radios and is recruited by the German military. I have never read a book over 500 pages long with so many chapters of 5 pages or less. At times I found this infuriating- no sooner had you remembered what was happening to one character/in one strand of the story before it switched again. Admittedly, my frustration is probably more a reflection of my lack of patience than any fault with the book which truly is a masterpiece in storytelling. After the first couple of hundred pages of setting the scene, you get that lovely feeling where a novel grips your hands to the page, forcing you to read on, past the point when you normally go to bed, and past the point when your eyelids become heavy as lead. I often fall into the trap of reading non fiction “to learn” and fiction “to relax”. But to do this is to under appreciate how much we can learn from reading such beautiful language, describing the very feelings and emotions that make us human. Language that someone like me can only marvel at.

To answer the question how does it feel to be blind? “It doesn’t hurt, she explains, and there is no darkness, not the kind they imagine. Everything is composed of webs and lattices and upheavals of sound and texture.” p44

“And yet everything radiates tension, as if the city has been built upon the skin of a balloon and someone is inflating it toward the breaking point.” p70 1934 in Paris.

“in a moment of disorientation, he feels that he’s looking not up but down, as though a spotlight has been shined into a wedge of bloodshot water, and the sky has become the sea, and airplanes are hungry fish, harrying prey in the dark.” p91

At a military training school for young Germans “You will become like a waterfall, a volley of bullets- you will all surge in the same direction at the same pace toward the same cause. You will forgo comforts; you will live by duty alone. You will eat country and breathe nation.” p137

Marie Laure describing sand “It’s like cold silk. Cold, sumptuous silk onto which the sea has laid offerings: pebbles, shells, barnacles.” p232

“Don’t you ever get tired of believing, Madame? Don’t you ever want proof?” p292. There are so many different situations in life that I think this feeling relates to- moments of doubt and weakness.

“Marie-Laure paces the staircase, up and down, up and down, as though working her way up and down the spire of an enormous seashell.” p298

During a time when Marie-Laure is stuck in the attic while a soldier searches the house beneath: “Out in the world waits a multitude of sanctuaries- gardens full of bright green wind; kingdoms of hedges; deep pools of forest shade through which butterflies float thinking only of nectar. She can get to none of them.” p305

I have never read a better description of an adrenaline rush “The heart scrambling to deliver oxygenated blood, the mind scrambling to unravel the situation.” p312

Still stuck in the attic “Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and it’s string might sail out of your hands, forever.” p376

“For these past days- how many?- it has felt as though the hunger were a hand inside of him, thrusting around in the cavity of his chest, reaching up to his shoulder blades, then down into his pelvis. Scraping at his bones.” p449

“To men like that, time was a surfeit, a barrel they watched slowly drain. When really, he thinks, it’s a glowing puddle you carry in your hands; you should spend all your energy protecting it. Fighting for it. Working so hard not to spill one single drop.” p476

My favourite quote of all is on p529:”Torrents of text conversations, tides of cell conversations, of television programmes, of e-mail, vast networks of fiber and wire interlaced above and beneath the city, passing through buildings, arcing between transmitters in Metro tunnels, between antennas atop buildings, from lampposts with cellular transmitters in them, commercials for Carrefour and Evian and prebaked toaster pastries flashing into space and back to Earth again, I’m going to be late and Maybe we should get reservations? and Pick up avocados and What did he say? and ten thousand I miss yous, fifty thousand I love yous, hate mail and appointment reminders and market updates, jewellery ads, coffee ads, furniture ads flying invisibly over the warrens of Paris, over the battlefields and tombs, over the Ardennes, over the Rhine, over Belgium and Denmark, over the scarred and ever-shifting landscapes we call nations. And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel these paths?”

“The meaning of Hitler” Sebastian Haffner

This one’s for you if you want to learn more about Hitler.

Almost all of the time, I choose a book from my evergrowing list of books to read, which consists of those I’ve read about or been told about or are the go to book on a topic I want to explore. But very occasionally a book just jumps at me in a shop and I take a crazy spontaneous, lacking in recommendations risk. (As you can tell I like to live on the edge). This was one such book. It wasn’t until I got home that I realised it was published in 1973. It’s quite cool to read a book about something relatively recent, that is missing events of the last 40 years! Although I hate criticising books, I have to say I found the middle section of this book a bit dull but I think that’s because of when it wa published and the fact that I feel like it was a bit of a repeat of what you learn in school history. However it was very interesting on Hitler’s non existent life outside of politics, his aims from his time in office, and how he went about things. As ever, I can’t really do it justice in prose so here are my best/most interesting/thought provoking quotes from it.

“the entire edifice of his ideas was based on a fallacy- the fallacy that the 1918 revolution had been the cause of defeat. In fact it had been its consequence.” p13

“He refused to think beyond, or to make provision beyond, his own life-span…With that decision, however, he placed himself under a time pressure that was bound to lead to precipitate and inappropriate political decisions.” p18

“He took the decision, against what was then still the overwhelming majority of the military experts, to create integrated, independently operating armoured divisions and tank armies.” p31

“But it would possibly be more correct, and certainly more important, to see not capitalism but individualism as the opposite of socialism.” p38

“Achievements belong to one person. Successes always involve two- and the success of the one is the failure of the other.” p52

“They [politicians] do not know the entire play in which they have the short scene, they cannot and do not even wish to know it; they merely act as the moment seems to bid them.” p75 Here the author is comparing the majority of ‘successful’ politicians who he thinks act pragmatically with historically less successful left wing politicians who act ideologically, thinking of their role in the long term. Note this is not particular to Hitler, but a general point.

“until the misconceptions in these ideas are clearly separated from what was more or less correct about them, the correct elements are in danger of being made taboo simply because Hitler also thought so.” p77

The author summarises Hitler’s whole ideology “The actors of history…are the nations, history itself consists of their wars, their rivalry for living space and world domination, and so for that struggle they must be perpetually rearmed; not only militarily and ideologically but also biologically, i.e by raising their racial quality” p81

“Hitler has at least one thing in common with Marxism- the claim to be able to explain the whole of world history from one point of view.” p85

“states do not exist principally for the purpose of waging wars, but, on the contrary, for the preservation and safeguarding of the external and domestic peace of their inhabitants, no matter whether these are nationally homogeneous or not.” p87 contrast with p81.

Hitler ignored the fact that “Since the industrial revolution prosperity and power have no longer depended on the size of one’s territory but on the state of one’s technology” p88

“To Hitler the political thinker war was the norm and peace the exception. He realised that peace could serve the preparation of a war. What he did not realise was that war must always serve the conclusion of peace.” p112/3

“Hitler in 1945 did give orders for anything that was still standing in Germany to be blown up and for the German nation to be deprived of any chance of survival, in other words to be punished by annihilation for having proved incapable of conquering the world.” p120

“Hitler had always had two goals- Germany’s domination over Europe and the extermination of the Jews. He had failed in the former. Now he concentrated on the latter.” p121

“To Hitler, during the last three and a half years of war, the war had become a kind of race which he was still hoping to win. Who would reach his goal sooner, Hitler with his extermination of the Jews or the Allies with their military overthrow of Germany?” p145

“During those weeks the Germans were like a woman whose lover suddenly reveals himself as her would be murderer and who runs screaming to her neighbours for help.” p161 Hitler’s cruelty towards the end of the war made the German people look forward to the arrival of the Allies.



“If this is a Man/The Truce” Primo Levi

This one’s for you if you’re interested in a beautifully written autobiographical book about an Italian Jew before, during and after the Second World War. His detailed account of his time at Auschwitz is harrowing, inspiring and incredibly moving in equal measure.

The sign outside Auschwitz had it’s motto written on it- “Arbeicht macht freit” which means work gives one freedom. p28

“He who loses all often easily loses himself” p30

Talking of ‘life’ within Auschwitz- “the only things alive are machines and slaves- the former are more alive than the latter” p78

“the more civilised the more the wisdom and efficiency of its laws hinder a weak from being too weak or a powerful one too powerful” p94. I thought this was a very interesting measure of society.

“When one waits time moves smoothly without need to intervene…when one works, every minute moves painfully and has to be laboriously driven away.” p110

Talking of the constant proximity of death in the camp “until one day there will be no more sense in saying tomorrow” p139

And reflecting on the subject again at the end of the War- “there are no longer any strong men among us”, “they will only find us, the slaves, the worn-out, worthy of the unarmed death which awaits us”, “to destroy a man is difficult but you Germans have succeeded.” All p156

“I had completely forgotten the hunger and the cold…so true is it that the need for human contact is to be numbered among the primordial needs” p223

One’s moral universe “represents an abridged form of his biography” p224

Describing the passing of time at Auschwitz: “empty days, without encounters, without events to anchor the memory” p299

“there is no rationality in the Nazi hatred: it is a hatred that is not in us, it is outside man…but we can and must understand from where it springs” p396

On why he thinks he managed to survive: “determination…to always recognise in my companions and myself, men, not things and then to avoid that total humiliation and demoralisation which led so many to spiritual shipwreck.” p398

Just to explain the two titles for this- you can buy the two books in combination which is what I did, effectively reading them both as one.

“Wild Swans” Jung Chang

This one’s for you if you’re interested in a very easy to read account of Chinese history.

Wild Swans is written as a personal history of 3 generations of women in the author’s family. According to an interview in 2013 in The Telegraph, it became the best selling non fiction paperback ever. I found her comment about the progression of the West particularly interesting in light of recent discussions of free speech.

“Dr Xia was not keen on taking medicine, insisting that the way to good health was a sound body…treatment…cured one part of the body while doing damage to another.” p52

“the barbarity of the age old customs, cloaked in ‘tradition’ and even ‘morality’ enraged her” p97

“The need to obtain authorisation for an unspecified ‘anything’ was to become a fundamental element of Chinese Communist rule. It also meant that people learnt not to take any action on their own initiative.” p158

“The party’s all round intrusion into people’s lives was the very point of the process known as thought reform. Mao wanted not only external discipline but the total subjection of all thoughts, large or small.” p193

“Spending a Saturday” came to mean making love because that was the day that married couples were allowed to be together. p228

“Mao feared that any independent thinking might lead to less than total obedience to him.” p233

There were 3 interesting quotes about work ethic in a communist society. “How much work was done did not matter because the produce now belonged to the state, and was completely unrelated to the peasants’ lives.” p273. “we frequently spent 10 hours in the fields doing a job which could have been done in five” p527. “The virtual absence of any chance of a better future and near total immobility for anyone born a peasant took the incentive out of the pursuit of knowledge” p532

“Many thought…that the famine was caused by natural disasters” p287

“I was incapable of rational thinking. We were so cowed and contorted by fear and indoctrination that to deviate from the path laid down by Mao would have been inconceivable.” p378

Mme Mao “We would rather have socialist weeds than capitalist crops”, “We want illiterate working people not educated spiritual aristocrats” p592

“it was the very tolerance of opposition, of protests, that kept the West progressing.” p602

Mao “ruled by getting people to hate each other…Mao had managed to turn people into the ultimate weapon of dictatorship. That was why under him there was no real equivalent of the KGB in China.” p633

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