Following last year’s post on books I read, here’s a selection of the books I read in 2012. They cover more general topics than last year’s focus on (South)(ern) Africa, as the main material on Africa I read last year was on current affairs (rather than background information), with daily newspapers and the hardcopies monthly magazines, such as The Africa Report, New African, and The Thinker.
I’ll highlight three books that I think would be worth your time reading, for various reasons.
Delusions of gender—the real science behind sex differences by Cordelia Fine (2010) is a well-researched, solid, attack on neurosexism. She systematically debunks spurious claims about hard-wired biological differences in the brain that are increasingly being used to ‘substantiate’ why female humans supposedly would be cognitively less capable than male humans. For instance, the claims based on ‘blobology’ with of MRI scans, where both the blobs (indicating an increase on brain activity) are flaky and there are statistically insignificant sample sizes to draw any meaningful conclusions that can be extrapolated to the world population (e.g., typically n is between 7 and 15). With the gendered neuroscience data these days, so argues Fine, we’re at the equivalent of the 19thcentury’s pseudoscience about IQ as ‘inferred’ from measured cranium circumfence.
The tipping point by Malcolm Gladwell (2000). It is an easily readable book about what the components are that make some seemingly insignificant aspect results in a relatively large effect, be they ideas, trends, or social behaviour, which is explained through many examples. There are the ‘rules of epidemics’, key figures in a social network (called connectors, mavens, and salesmen), and there has to be a stickyness factor that makes it stay. Maybe some would categorise it as just an interesting hypothesis because it hasn’t been tested well scientifically and there are only a bunch of references for each chapter, but it is fun to read and it does make one contemplate fads and trends and how they have or have not caught on. I read it over the (brief) holidays, and I found out that it is surely also a great conversation starter.
Affluenza (from influenza + affluence) by Oliver James (2007). I’d categorise it in the same just-an-interesting-hypothesis category as The tipping point. Although it is better researched, there are still many gaps that need to be filled before coming up with a solid theory on the emotional damages of materialism and greed and consumerism, how they come about, what is feeding the emotional distress (exhibited by, among others, depression and anxiety) the bad coping strategies (like addictions), and how to prevent it. Gurr identified the difference between absolute and relative deprivation decades ago and this book is squarely within the relative deprivation, but then implicitly making a further distinction within the relative deprivation between what I’d consider real relative deprivation (e.g., you rent an apartment but feel you should be able to buy a house [to make sure you won’t have to live on the street upon retirement], and buying department store clothes vs. branded clothes that your colleague does) and being psychologically disturbed whilst affluent (e.g., erroneously thinking you really need to buy a bigger second holiday home, have to work harder to earn more money so you can go Christmas shopping in Paris to buy your 100th pair of shoes, buying expensive stuff you really do not need but only because your friend has it). The book is more about the latter version. As typical examples for places with high levels of such materialism & greed and being ‘infected with the affluenza virus’, the USA, UK, and Australia are given, and for examples in the other direction, where there is somehow an absence or only a very limited version of the virus, among others, Denmark and parts of Russia. Even after the 500 pages, I still don’t know for sure what it is why some people do have the virus and some people don’t, other than a bunch of possible candidates. The topic and claims are worth investigating further, however, and James’ message—to ensure mental health, one must pursue one’s needs rather than one’s wants—is well-timed in these years of recession.
Eclipse by Richard North Patterson (2009). A fictional story set in Nigeria about the murky business of oil and politics and injustice, inspired by the life of Ken Saro-Wiwa. Not happy readings, but gripping and I hope for the Nigerians that life isn’t as bad as the book portrays it.
Mieses karma by David Safier (2007). A German novel about a careerist women who, upon dying, returns first as an ant (with her human-life memory), and has to work her way up through the animal kingdom (mouse, cow, etc.) through selfless good deeds—or: building up good karma—to reincarnate as human being again and be happy with her husband and child. Overall, it has a serious implicit message, but it is told in a very entertaining, laugh-out-loud, way.
To anticipate second-guesses: 1) yes, I had some brain-candy with fantasy and paranormal stuff about aliens and the magic of Greek gods in a 21st century setting, and a few so-called airport novels, and 2) I have put Jared Diamond’s Collapse back onto the bookshelf after reading about half of it because it was too boring and annoying (unlike his Guns, Germs and Steel), and I can’t remember a thing about The secret life of the English language to write anything useful.