The Five Best Nonfiction Books

June 2nd, 2014

Okay fine, not the best. (Click bait!) But for me, the most important — the five books that, more than any others, taught me how to think about the world.

A friend in my “classics” book group asked me for nonfiction book recommendations. Here’s what I wrote:

The NF books that wow me, get me all excited, have me thinking for years or decades, are ones that are comprehensible to mortals but that transform their fields, become the essential touchstones and springboards for whole disciplines and realms of thought. Writing for two such disparate audiences is insanely hard, and the fact that these books succeed is a big part of what makes them brilliant.

Also books that cut to the core of what we (humans) are, how we know. (So, there’s much science tilt here, but far bigger than arid “science.”)

“I don’t know how I thought about the world before I read this.”


“Yes! That’s exactly what I’ve been kinda sorta thinking, in a vague and muddled way. THANK YOU for figuring out what I think.”

These books let you sit in on, even “participate,” in discussions at the cutting edge of human understanding. They make you (or me, at least) feel incredibly smart.

And they’re fun to read — at least for those with a certain…bent…

Probably have to start with Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. When it came out in ’76 it crystallized how everybody thought about evolution, hence life and humanity. The amazing Dawkins, amazingly to me, has become kind of hidebound and reactionary in response to new developments since then (group/multilevel selection, inheritance of acquired characteristics), but the new information and new thinking that make parts of this book wrong, couldn’t exist without the thinking so beautifully condensed in this book. Might not need to read the whole thing, but it’s pretty short and you might not be able to resist. Very engaging writer and full of fascinating facts about different species and humans. Also the place where the word “memes” was coined.

Steven Pinker. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. The most important book I’ve read in decades. Philosophy meets science meets sociology, anthropology, psychology, politics, law… Pinker’s core expertise is in language acquisition, how two-year-olds accomplish the spectacularly complex task of learning language (see: The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language.). He has a love-affair with verbs, in particular. Just loves those fuzzy little things. But his knowledge is encyclopedic and his mind is vast. And he’s laugh-out-loud funny on every other page. Also incredibly warm and human. I have such a bro-crush on this guy. (Also: everything else he’s ever written, including at least some chunks of his latest, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.)

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast, and Slow. Kahneman and his lifelong cohort Amos Tversky (sadly deceased) are psychologists who won the 2002 Nobel Prize — in Economics! — for their 1979 work on “Prospect Theory.” (Fucking economists have been largely ignoring their work ever since, but that’s another subject…) About “Type 1” and “Type 2” thinking: the first is instantaneous, evolved heuristics that let us, e.g., read a person’s expression in a microsecond from a block away. The second is what we think of as “thinking” — slow, tiring, and…crucial to what makes us human. Interestingly, in interviews Kahneman says that he almost didn’t write this book, thought it would fail, for the very reason that it’s so great: it addresses both mortals and the field’s cutting-edge practitioners, brilliantly. The book’s discussions of his lifelong friendship and collaboration with Tversky are incredibly touching.

E. O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth. Q: How did we end up at the top of — utterly dominating — the world food chain? A: “Eusociality”: roughly, non-kin altruism. Wilson knows more about the other hugely successful social species — insects and especially ants — than any other human. He basically founded the field of evolutionary psychology with his ’76 book, Sociobiology. As with the others, this is deep, profound, wide-ranging, and incredibly warm and human in its insights into what humanity is, what humans are. Those things that are wrong in The Selfish Gene? Here’s where you’ll find them.

Michael Sandel, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? Philosophy. It draws on some scientific findings, but mainly this is very careful step-by-step thinking through a subject, a construct, that is not uniquely human, but close. (Elephants, apes, etc. do seem to care about justice, sort of.) I find it especially engaging and important because it addresses and untangles the central political arguments of recent times — is it “just” to make everyone better off by taking from the rich and giving to the poor? Should individual “liberty” trump individual rights? What rights? Etc. This book did much to help me comb out my muddled thinking on this stuff.

Morton Davis, Game Theory, a Nontechnical Introduction. Stands out on this list cause it’s not one of those “big” books. Available in a shitty little $10 Dover edition. But it’s an incredibly engaging walk through the subject, full of surprising anecdotes and insights. And he does all the algebra for you! The stuff in here makes all the other books above, better, cause they’re all using some aspects of this thinking. Here’s an Aha! example I wrote up: Humans are Pathologically Nuts: Proof Positive.

Okay, you noticed there are six books here. Did I mention click bait?

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

  1. Olav Martin Kvern
    June 3rd, 2014 at 15:50 | #1

    Hi Steve,

    I think it’s interesting that none of these titles are in the field of history. Then again, it’s hard to think of any *one* history book that would qualify as “world-changing”–even for me. Certainly my view of history has been changed many times by individual books, and knowledge of history plays a huge part in my interpretation of the world. But something like “The Selfish Gene” is in another category entirely.



  2. June 3rd, 2014 at 19:13 | #2

    @Olav Martin Kvern

    Yeah. You know how much I like history and biography. But science is different.

    History portrays the patterns, but science explains the rules?

  3. Olav Martin Kvern
    June 3rd, 2014 at 23:42 | #3

    Hi Steve,

    I think it’s that history is specific–compared to physics, say, or evolution. John Keegan, to name a pretty popular example, changed my thinking about the American Revolution, U.S. Grant, and the relationship of alcohol to warfare (to name just a few things he’s influenced my thinking about). While I might think of those things on a daily basis, I’m not, for the most part, using them to explain other topics to myself. Or something like that?

    I’m not sold on the patterns/rules model–“pattern” seems to imply an inevitability or repetition that I just don’t see in history. “Theory and practice” would be more like it…but I don’t like that, either.

    Anyway, you said “nonfiction,” so I had to say, “what about history?” I guess the answer is, “history is different.”:-)



  4. Foppe
    June 4th, 2014 at 04:05 | #4

    I have to say that I really can’t look past the conceited liberalism that underlies/informs Pinker’s argument about how violence — as he defines it — is declining, given that the main reason for the decline is that he’s defining it away.. See for what struck me as one of the better critical reviews of the book.

  5. June 4th, 2014 at 06:32 | #5


    Thanks for this. I think this, for instance, is a VERY good point:

    “the increasing structural violence of a global class war that has resulted in growing inequality within and between countries, systematic dispossession of vast numbers, a widespread seizure of the commons, major migrations, growing cities of slums, increased ethnic tensions and anti-Islamic fervor”

    This plays out via local authorities’ police powers, operating ultimately at the behest of far greater powers. But putting people in jail (and far worse) doesn’t get counted as violence.

    I’d really like to see this thinking expanded, and especially quantified. 1. This kind of stuff has been going on forever, but 2. globalization etc. enables it to grow massively.

    I also need to go back to Pinker and see if, to what extent, he addresses these issues. I’d be surprised if he ignores them entirely.

    My problem: I just don’t know how to hold up my thumb and squint and say, “In balance, including measures of these types of real violence along with Pinker’s measures, things have gotten better/worse.”

    This is not the usual conservative thing of throwing up my hands and saying, “No way to know, just be happy.” I’ll definitely be thinking about this argument a lot. For whatever that’s worth…

  6. foppe
    June 5th, 2014 at 15:17 | #6

    He undoubtedly mentions it somewhere, but considering that (in Better Angels) he redefines pretty much all post-wwii wars out of existence by rebranding them in the way described, coupled with the fact that his goal is precisely to “show” that liberal democracy is the best thing since sliced bread, I suspect that he will offer some sort of argument as to why that stuff doesn’t matter/count. I however agree quite strongly with Corey Robin (see esp. Fear: the History of a Political Idea) that much more attention should be paid to non-state (and especially workplace) violence (as an aside, Mark Ames’s Going Postal nicely complements Robin’s arguments).

    I (of course) also have no idea what more inquiry into this topic would yield, and depending on how it’s done I don’t doubt I could find it worth checking out, but what bothers me about Pinker’s overall argument are the following interrelated (methodological) points: a. his tendency to treat especially ‘the liberal state’ as an acorn growing into an oak tree (painting over a lot of haphazard/historical development, and drawing attention away from the fact that the liberal state is still a pretty conservative institutional amalgam), and b. because I really dislike the Hobbesian (fear of) ‘violent death’ as the end-all, be-all measure of civilizational advance (because the focus on that ‘civilizing drive’ strikes me as playing too conveniently into reactionary hands). So I’m also not throwing up my (very unconservative) hands and saying ‘no way to know’, but my worry is mostly that Pinker’s question is a distraction. As for your last remark: I’m sure you’ll come up with something interesting to say. 🙂

  7. June 12th, 2014 at 05:06 | #7

    Wait, you don’t actually think The Selfish Gene is about a gene that makes humans selfish, right? How are people still getting this wrong? Dawkins’s point is that genes themselves seek their own proliferation. He might as well have called it “Genes Are Selfish”.

    • June 12th, 2014 at 12:15 | #8

      And you’ve actually got it wrong: genes don’t “seek” anything. That’s just a metaphorical way of speaking that’s convenient shorthand for humans that think in cause-and-effect terms.

      Genes that happen to deliver phenotypical traits that contribute to their carriers’ survival and reproduction success, proliferate. The phenotypical traits that those genes code for, or course, proliferate as well.

      He could have called it “Genes Give Every Appearance of Being Selfish, But They’re Not.” Or half a dozen other similar titles.

  8. June 12th, 2014 at 07:56 | #9

    @Brian Dominick

    You asking me that? Of course not. Or not in any simplistic kind of way.

  9. June 12th, 2014 at 12:23 | #10


    I’m differentiating between the common misconstruing that you seemed to be reproducing, vs. a yes very unscientific representation of Dawkins’s actual thesis.

    So you’re saying The Social Conquest of Earth includes a critique of Dawkins’s ideas on phenotypical trait proliferation? I was assuming you meant it challenges the notion that we’re genetically predisposed to be competitive. You gotta admit your description makes it sound like that’s what Wilson is challenging in the book, not a deep dive into phenotype theory.

    • June 13th, 2014 at 06:39 | #11

      Somewhat simplified, Wilson and Nowak argue that individual-level genes/phenotypical traits that benefit the (in-)group can proliferate even if they don’t improve the individuals’ relative fitness within the group. David Sloan Wilson argues similar with his modified “haystack” model. “Group” or “multilevel” selection. This is anathema to Dawkins and many other evolutionary theorists.

      The only way to go at resolving the issue is for more of those theorists to go at the models themselves, notably Wilson and Nowak’s as presented in their technical appendix, but also Sloan Wilson’s and others. And Hamilton’s ur-disproof of group selection from the 50s, which Dawkins quite clings to. Both Wilsons challenge that model directly. I haven’t seen that work being done (would love to), but I don’t follow the field carefully, only sporadically and amateurishly.

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