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 Post subject: Non fiction
PostPosted: Sun May 03, 2015 6:32 pm 
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I wondered if it was possible to have a thread to talk about non fiction readingss that influence us, stay with us, impact us.

Some of the most important books in my last years were not fictional, but historical or psychological researches.

One was a historical analysis of the genocides in Eastern Europe: Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder. (I read it in English!)

Another one, I am reading right now in German, but the original is in English: Steven Pinker: The better angels of our nature.

I also was fascinated by a book about Russia: Revolutionary Russia by Orlando Figes. I have read a history of food fears and taboos. The classical: Lies my teacher told me about how history is aught in American schoolbooks. Several more non fiction books, about blended families, impact of WWII on the following generations and other subjects in German and French - maybe not all are translated.

Some of those books made me change my view of the world, think the impossible, understand the world... Sometimes, I'd like to share the ideas they gave me.

I know this is a forum about literature - but could it not be about books like those too?

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 Post subject: Re: Non fiction
PostPosted: Sun May 03, 2015 10:55 pm 
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I would enjoy this. :)


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 Post subject: Re: Non fiction
PostPosted: Wed May 06, 2015 9:30 am 
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I have always been a fan of biography, and particularly autobiography. I just finished Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, which I found excellent, and I also like the autobiographies of Robert Graves, Christopher Hitchens, Stephen Fry and Roald Dahl.

Overall, though, my two favourite non-fiction books are probably Into Thin Air, John Krakauer’s account of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel.


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 Post subject: Re: Non fiction
PostPosted: Thu May 07, 2015 2:48 pm 
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Guns, Germs and Steel has been on my to-read list for a while now. I haven't got to it yet.

The non fiction book I have been reading off & on is The Selfish Gene. Dawkins just tends to go on a bit without getting to the point, and I get distracted.




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 Post subject: Re: Non fiction
PostPosted: Thu May 07, 2015 4:16 pm 
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Into Thin Air was riveting but tragic, as was The Perfect Storm. I'm something of lightweight when it comes to nonfiction, it pains me to admit; I like a good riveting story, fiction or not.

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 Post subject: Re: Non fiction
PostPosted: Thu May 07, 2015 6:04 pm 
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I like Steven Pinker a lot. I haven't read Better Angels, but I do have The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. It's thought provoking, but holy cow you've got to concentrate hard to keep up.

Regarding Better Angels, another thought-provoking book, The 10,000 Year Explosion by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, makes something of the opposite argument. The premise of that book is that civilization, rather than ending human evolution (as is commonly argued), has actually accelerated it. One of the points they argue is that human societies have become less violent because spending a few millenia punishing violent crime with death has effectively selected for "domestic" traits. Of course, both things can happen at the same time.


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 Post subject: Re: Non fiction
PostPosted: Thu May 07, 2015 8:17 pm 
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I've heard Steven Pinker speak (at a college colloquium, so he was in full academic regalia including one of those soft velvet hats, and he looked born to it). His talk was fascinating. I should read his books, but first I have to renew my library card. . . .

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“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King


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 Post subject: Re: Non fiction
PostPosted: Mon Aug 03, 2015 5:55 pm 
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Finally: in the last years, I have started to read quite a few non fiction books which have in their way influenced me as much as my beloved fictional heroes or universes. I wonder where this new quest has come from, maybe intellectual thirst, now, that the boys are almost grown up and that my every day life and my brain are freed from the constant pressure of time which is often the case in education. Or, the desire to understand the world, rather than to live it, not only to feel but to be able to argue my views of the world and to back them up with more than my own moral compass.

However, one fo the books read in that quest has deeply impacted me in the last months. I have read it in German, but the original is in English. The author is a sociologist, Steven Punker and the title in English: The Better Angels of Our Nature

In his long book, Pinker exposes in the first chapter his fundamental idea: in modern societies, unlike what we often think, violence has decreased in the last centuries in a steady, but not continuous rhythm. He analyses several parameters for that, digging deep into statistics and historical facts. The murder rate has gone down, almost continually since it can be followed or concluded, and all in all the decline is a factor of more than 30 in comparison to the Middle Ages or other pre-enlightment societies. Interstate wars have become rare since WWII and democracies do not go to war against each other at all. The rights which we accord to people in general have increased in general and to marginal groups in particular. All in all, the world toady is a safer place to live in most parts of the world than it has ever been.

Pinker explains this evolution through several parameters, one being the concept that Kant had of a peaceful society and the characters it must fulfil, like democracy, fair trade, renouncing on national pride and even creation of an international government, which Kant judged a condition for perpetual peace. In general, the replacement of a culture of pride by a culture of dignity contributes to the decrease of violence.

Another parameter is in the economy; if you have trade or exchange with a partner you do not wish to see him dead… But one of the decisive parameters lies in fiction: by reading, you can acquire experiences without actually having to go through them and this encourages one of what he calls “better angels”: empathy.

After a theoretical, philosophical and historical analysis of the decrease of violence, Pinker tries to understand what are the psychological mechanism which encourage or marginalize violence.

This book has been an eye-opener for me: first, I always rather have an optimistic view of the world we live in and am quite opposed to nostalgia of the past. In this book, I found the statistic and theoretic points which confirm my view of the world and an intellectual voice against the current cultural pessimism which helped me to feel more “at home” in this world and to better understand what I had always thought. Moreover, this is a thorough analysis which goes far beyond easy arguments like medical progress which makes life better today. The explanations which he gives about Kant, a philosopher whom I admire, but find hard to read directly, helped me to grasp the idea and implication of perpetual peace as conceived centuries ago. And the analysis of Norbert Elias and his ideas of the process of civilisation confirm and enlargen those ideas.
A wonderful book for me. It make me take notes during reading again, like back when I was a student and I am sure it won’t be the last one.
It took me three months to be entirely through, too.

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 Post subject: Re: Non fiction
PostPosted: Mon Aug 03, 2015 9:08 pm 
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I am on my phone right now and my laptop is at work. As of now, I therefore cannot respond thoroughly to your last post, Nin. I have read Pinker's "The Better Angels of our Nature" too, and just as you I first did so in German. Suffice it to say for now, that from an academic perspective it is a horrible book. As a historian I found Pinker's writing and statements occassionly deeply disturbing and his use of data frankly laughable. Mind you, I do not reject his main thesis, that violence overall has gone down in the last decades. I have a hunch that this is not so far from the truth. But such a thing cannot be proven with the available data (nor can it be disproven) and Pinker's use of data, once again, is just dumbfounding in the eye of the historian. Most academic historians have dismissed Pinker's book; especially his chapters about the premodern world, from Precolumbian America to Medieval Europe reveal a "Geschichtsbild" that has not evolved above high school. Again, I do not completely reject his main thesis (and I agree with you that ignorant nostalgia for the past is wrong) but the way Pinker goes about to prove it is really, really bad scholarship.

For further reading, I would recommend this Quora answer by Tim O'Neill (who is not an apologetic Christian but a pretty funny atheist writer - with a masters degree in history): http://www.quora.com/Is-Steven-Pinker-r ... -over-time

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 Post subject: Re: Non fiction
PostPosted: Mon Aug 03, 2015 9:29 pm 
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Well, I studied history in the French speaking world, where the approach is very different still. But the chapters which really worked best for me were those about Kant and Elias. Pinker is not a historian and this is obvious.

Now, it is too late to read the article you linked to, but I will certainly do so. In-between, I started a two volume analysis of World War II in French which has been celebrated as the rewriting of the history of WWII in the french speaking world... which was badly needed.

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 Post subject: Re: Non fiction
PostPosted: Mon Aug 03, 2015 9:58 pm 
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I believe, compared to Pinker, the approach is very different in the Anglophone world or the German-speaking world too. Pinker is indeed not a historian but why then does he use every primary source that fits his thesis and does not put it into historical context? If a historian were to write a paper on a central field of evolutionary psychology wouldn't we deem him a little bit insincere? Certainly, one can sense a brooding conflict here, between natural scientists and scholars of humanities. Humanities scholars are quick to call "Not your field of scholarship!" and some natural scientist (incl. Pinker) like to dismiss the humanities. Personally, I welcome people from the hard sciences to take part in historical debates; the problem is that those who participate often have very simple black-and-white pictures of history in their heads and Pinker with his fervent belief in unstoppable human progress is one of them.
There is also a pretty decent Guardian article out there on the whole topic: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/m ... -declining

To carry the discussion somewhere else, I have been rereading Tony Judt's "Postwar" lately. It is a lengthy book about postwar Europe, from 1945 to 2005. It is extremely well written, and you will enjoy reading it no matter if you are a historian, a non - historian, a European, or an American. Judt also deals with the fate of France in WWII and the way said period was remembered after the war. Judt's magnum opus is not just a book about the free West but also extensively features passages about the eastern bloc. If one wants to understand "old Europe", and especially its peculiar form of democratic socialism "Postwar" is a must read.

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 Post subject: Re: Non fiction
PostPosted: Wed Nov 01, 2017 1:50 pm 
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I just finished Marc Morris' excellent biography of King John. To those of you who are depressed by Trump, bear in mind that things could be much, much worse.

Not sure if that makes you feel better or worse, or makes no difference at all...

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