We live in a mad world and these are crazy times. And while I often feel like escaping this surrealness by burying myself in works of fiction, this month I felt the need to read some books that would help me understand various aspects of human nature better. They might seem a bit random, and perhaps they even are. But I did love the fact that I went through different topics throughout the month. From learning why we´re so bad at reading strangers, to understanding that the world is actually much better than we think it is, to realising that our behaviour as consumers is deeply rooted into human evolution and finally to discovering ways of dealing with family life when both partners are career driven, this month has been one of magical and fascinating discoveries.
1. Factfulness by Hans Rosling
This has got to be one of my favourite non-fiction books since Yuval Noah Harrari´s masterpieces. Hans Rosling was a Swedish doctor and researcher whom you might have heard a Ted talk of here. Hans is an optimist, and boy, do we all need a highly qualified optimist to give us some good news these days. His book is about understanding the world, and as such it starts off with a little survey. Questions like “In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has … a.) almost doubled; b.) remained more or less the same or c.) almost halved” make you take a step back and think about how the world has evolved or involved. Hint: it´s evolved. Like, a lot. The correct answer is c.) . Hans writes about how wrong we are about the world and how much better things are than we think, or than the media often makes us believe. There´s no conspiracy behind it, just some marketing and human nature. The world is doing so much better than you think and especially in these crazy pandemic times, this book is a good reminder of that.
2. Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell
Gladwell´s latest book, “Talking to Strangers” goes into a sensitive topic and namely, how bad characters of judgement we are when it comes to strangers. From political figures like Neville Chamberlain, who talked to Hitler on various occasions and was convinced he wanted peace, to Cuban spies and racist American police officers, Gladwell gives several encounters and misunderstandings from history, psychology and legal cases as examples to make his point and tries to understand why we have difficulties detecting lies reading faces or judging a stranger´s motives. As a personal side note, I remember being a bit more enamoured with Malcom Gladwell when I first read him, many years ago. While this book was interesting and I do recommend it, I felt it focused way more on the stories than on the findings so I didn´t enjoy it quite as much as his other works.
3. Spent by Geoffrey Miller
In Geoffrey Miller´s words: “you´ll probably feel uneasy for much of the time you´re reading it [this book]. The truth is, science sometimes hurts.” This book hurts. It´s an epiphany but like the blow to the head kind of epiphany. Miller is a skeptic as much as Rosling is an optimist. An evolutionary psychologist by trade, Miller is skeptical about all motives behind people´s intentions. The book is particularly focused on people´s instincts for shopping and spending, examining people´s choices for cars, electronics, clothes and others and what that reveals about them. Miller speaks about consumer behaviour and relates it throughout his book to the central six dimensions of variation that predict human behaviour and distinguish human minds (IQ, openess, conscientiousness, agreeableness, stability and extraversion). It´s a slightly difficult book to read not only because of the dense scientific weight of it but also because it will bluntly tell you why you drive the car that you drive and wear the brands that you wear. And it´s not always pretty.
4. Couples that Work by Jennifer Petriglieri
You´re probably thinking that there are surely bigger social issues that I could focus on rather than the ones posed in this book. However as I´m navigating the challenges of having my partner move away for work for a while, I thought it essential to seek out some help in how I take on and process this new challenge. Based on the premise that all couples tend to go through three transformational moments in their careers, this book tells us how to sail through them while maintaining a healthy relationship and following our dreams. Be it the moving away of one of the partners, the birth of a child, the leaving for college of a child, a mid life crisis, Jennifer Petriglieri manages to show us through various case studies of the 114 couples she interviewed, that there are common patterns in how our professional lives unfold and that while there´s no set recipe for how to reconcile them with our personal life, there´s a lot of guidelines one can follow to thrive in love and work.
What are your favourite books on social issues?