Best ideas books of 2023
Do you frequently engage in the “reasonable tango”? Sociologist Kirsty Sedgman refers to this as a polite argument in which both parties acknowledge each other’s points with a “Yes, but…” and continue without reaching a mutual agreement. In her thought-provoking book, On Being Unreasonable (Faber), she advocates for being a little less civilized and explores topics such as defining bad behavior in the theater, the meaning of “reasonable” in the legal system, and why it’s unproductive to debate with fascists. She argues that being meek does not lead to justice and suggests that performative “reasonableness” is often a facade for self-righteousness. According to Sedgman, those who try to control the tone of a conversation are actually being Unreasonably Reasonable, and she encourages pushing back against this by taking down statues and embracing a bit more Reasonably Unreasonable behavior.
In her book Toxic (Fleet), Sarah Ditum explores the prevalent misogyny in popular culture during the 2000s through case studies of well-known women. She delves into the public discourse surrounding figures like Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and Jennifer Aniston, using humor and fervor to dissect the impact of social media and paparazzi on the rise of online gossip sites. Ditum coins this era as the “upskirt decade”, characterized by a toxic mix of celebrity obsession and scandal. From Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” at the Superbowl to the controversy surrounding Robin Thicke’s song “Blurred Lines” and its association with rape culture, Ditum offers fresh insights on past scandals and their lasting effects on current discussions, particularly among those who are unreasonably unreasonable.
In Naomi Klein’s book Doppelganger (published by Allen Lane), the mistreatment of well-known women is a significant part of the narrative. Klein becomes fixated on Naomi Wolf, her namesake, and her unexpected shift from a trendy feminist to a believer in Covid conspiracy theories and “truthers” about contrails. This is further complicated by Klein’s frequent confusion with Wolf on social media platforms. As she continues to “cringe-follow” Wolf, her exploration of themes broadens and becomes darker, delving into a cultural history of doppelgangers and wicked twins, conspiracy theories in general, the emergence of the populist right represented by Steve Bannon, and an in-depth analysis of Philip Roth’s work. Klein effectively argues that Roth’s Operation Shylock holds the key to understanding many of these mythologies.
One section of Dasha Kiper’s profile on Travellers to Unimaginable Lands begins with a hint of Rothism: “When Peter Harwell’s mother, at the age of seventy-nine, physically assaulted a doctor…”, setting the tone for a deeply empathetic yet occasionally lighthearted exploration of the psychological aspects of caring for individuals with Alzheimer’s. The author, a psychologist, reveals how common human prejudices and flaws are mercilessly exploited by the disease, leading caregivers to feel overwhelming guilt for not being able to do more. Kiper expertly explains the known information about memory, consciousness, and the neurological mechanisms of self-control, emphasizing that nobody can be perfect in such circumstances – the caregivers themselves are also victims of the disease.
The topic of Seamus O’Mahony’s book, The Guru, the Bagman and the Sceptic (Apollo), is a type of therapy that may not be very effective. The book describes how the popularity of Sigmund Freud’s ideas grew in Britain and around the world, often attracting wealthy individuals who were aimless. This was largely due to the efforts of Ernest Jones, a doctor from Wales who was known for his promiscuity. Jones became the leader of the British Psychoanalytical Society and brought Freudianism to the Bloomsbury group. However, as Prince DS Mirsky critically noted, this group was more interested in their own inner experiences and saw them as a valuable source of entertainment. Fortunately, there was one individual named Wilfred Trotter, a surgeon, who was skeptical of Freud’s ideas and coined the term “herd instinct” in social psychology.
After the decade of focusing on the lower half of the female body, could it be time to truly give attention to it? In Cat Bohannon’s book, Eve (Hutchinson Heinemann), she critically examines numerous examples of the problematic ways in which medicine and technology have operated under the assumption of a “male norm”. She delves into the history of female anatomy, tracing it back to prehistoric mammals that roamed alongside dinosaurs. The book is highly engaging and offers unique insights. Bohannon notes, “Our bodies are essentially units of time. What we refer to as an individual ‘body’ is a means of defining a series of ongoing events that follow replicating patterns until eventually entropy takes over and enough goes wrong for the forces that hold us together to finally give in.”
The same can be said for celestial bodies, such as Earth, which originated as a molten ball of lava and will likely ultimately be consumed by a growing Sun. In the brief period in between, human civilization has remarkably emerged. In his book The Earth Transformed (Bloomsbury), Peter Frankopan connects the history of Homo sapiens to the history of climatic and ecological shifts, whether they occur abruptly in nature or gradually due to human actions. Could Genghis Khan’s success be attributed to unusually heavy rainfall? Did the Norse myths originate from the sun-blocking ash of a massive eruption? One concerning lesson is that, even now, we are not taking enough measures to increase our resilience against the potential awakening of major volcanoes.
The apocalyptic forest fire that ravaged parts of Fort McMurray, Canada in 2016 was just as destructive as a lava flow but even more terrifyingly mobile. John Vaillant’s gripping book, Fire Weather (Hodder), uses interviews with officials, firefighters, and residents to provide a minute-by-minute retelling of the disaster, while also highlighting the fact that Fort McMurray is an oil town focused on extracting and processing tar sands. The increasing frequency and intensity of “natural” disasters like this can be attributed to the effects of global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Additionally, modern homes filled with fossil fuel byproducts such as vinyl and plastics burn more quickly and completely than ever before. This book was a well-deserved winner of the Baillie Gifford nonfiction prize this year.
Plastic, while not flammable, still poses a threat to the environment through other means. Every second, 20,000 plastic water bottles are purchased and 4 trillion cigarette butts are discarded each year. Oliver Franklin-Wallis’s book, Wasteland (published by Simon & Schuster), explores the issue of waste and garbage. It takes readers on a journey to dumps, scrapyards, disposal and recycling facilities, and even showcases the use of large machines to shred electronic devices. The book also sheds light on the vast landfill sites in India, revealing the consequences of our excessive consumption and disposal habits.
Is it possible to have a scientific approach to studying history? In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, there is a suggestion of a group of “psychohistorians” who were able to predict future events. Similarly, in Peter Turchin’s End Times (published by Allen Lane), the concept of “cliodynamics” (named after the Greek muse Clio, who is associated with history) is introduced. While this field may not be able to make exact predictions, the author’s own forecast in 2010 accurately predicted a surge of political instability and violence in the US by the 2020s. In Turchin’s analysis of global history, he argues that when “popular immiseration” (such as stagnant wages) is combined with “elite overproduction” (an excess of individuals qualified for high social status), it can lead to turmoil and dissatisfaction among both groups. The constant flow of wealth from lower to higher levels of the social hierarchy ultimately results in “state collapse and social breakdown”.
Another potential cause of societal collapse and breakdown could be the development of artificial intelligence. This is especially concerning given recent events, such as the launch of GPT-4 by OpenAI and warnings from influential figures in the field, like Stuart Russell, about the potential for superintelligent AI to harm humanity. However, in their book “The Coming Wave” (published by Bodley Head), co-authors Mustafa Suleyman and Michael Bhaskar (with Suleyman being a co-founder of Google’s AI subsidiary DeepMind) focus on more immediate and realistic threats involving the use of AI by malicious actors in conjunction with synthetic biology or drone weaponry.
There are numerous inspiring accounts of progress in biotechnology. Contrary to Naomi Wolf’s belief that vaccinations are a tool for mind control by the deep state, they were actually pioneered by brave individuals who had to overcome obstacles from bureaucratic systems. This is exemplified in Simon Schama’s exceptional work on medical history, “Foreign Bodies: Vaccines and the Health of Nations” (published by Simon & Schuster). The main focus is on Waldemar Haffkine, a Jewish microbiologist from Ukraine who gained recognition for vaccinating millions of Indians against bubonic plague and cholera during the Raj. Sadly, he faced backlash from the British academic community for his efforts and became a victim of antisemitism, a disease for which there is still no cure.