From the origins of sex to the effects of social media, from the invention of the wheel to the race against climate change, Five Books editor Sophie Roell gives an overview of the new nonfiction books appearing in January, February and March of 2024.
In January, I tend to still be looking at the best-of-the-year lists for my reading but in the last couple of weeks, I have started looking ahead again. As usual, while I try to give a flavour for what’s out there, my selections are inevitably going to be personal, and apologies in advance for all the excellent books I’ve missed out.
New in Nonfiction Series
I’ve got a bit of a weakness for nonfiction series, where an academic or other expert tries to encapsulate their entire field or subject in 100 or so pages. Few fields are more misunderstood by the layperson than economics. It’s not easy to give a quick overview, as it’s a very varied subject and academic economists tend to write articles with equations rather than books. In the excellent Shortest History of…series, Australian economist and politician Andrew Leigh has taken it on. The Shortest History of Economics is a delightful, easy-to-read overview of economics and even has an endorsement from Claudia Goldin (winner of the 2023 Nobel economics prize) at the beginning: “If you read just one book about economics, make it Andrew Leigh’s clear, insightful, remarkable — and short — work.”
In the same series, David Baker, whose field is ‘big history’, takes on The Shortest History of Sex, starting with the Big Bang. This is really a fascinating science book, a tale of the entire history (and a bit of the future) of humanity told through the lens of sex. Like On The Origin of Species, each chapter begins with a little summary of the main topics covered. If you’re on the prudish side (I’m afraid I am) the jokes can be a little jarring but given the subject matter, I can understand the author’s decision to go for it.
In Princeton University Press’s Ancient Wisdom for Modern Life series (which includes text in the original Latin or Greek facing the translation), there’s How to Be Healthy: An Ancient Guide to Wellness, about the ancient Greek physician Galen (129-c216). Medical knowledge has advanced quite a bit since the 3rd century, so the book is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, with the author and translator, Katherine Van Schaik, admitting she had to omit many of his better-known works. But we can still see the advice on (say) “Avoiding Distress” from this “careful physician” who offers “some ancient wisdom that we today might consider modern, were it not so old.”
The early months of the year are grey and muddy in my corner of the world and it’s fun to dream of adventure in the year ahead. Maurice and Maralyn by Sophie Elmshirst is about an ordinary couple from Derby who set out to sail around the world in the early 1970s. The reason we know about them is that theirs turned into a survival story: their boat was sunk by a sperm whale and they were left adrift on a raft in the Pacific Ocean for 118 days. It’s an easy and engaging read: I started it one evening after dinner and stayed up to finish it just after midnight.
What’s particularly notable these few months is the number of biographies about historical figures and important thinkers. In We Are Free to Change the World Lyndsey Stonebridge takes on the political theorist Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). Stonebridge uses a technique I love, which is making Arendt’s own words part of the text. You feel you are hearing not only Stonebridge’s take on her, but also Arendt’s own voice. Our philosophy editor, Nigel Warburton, calls We Are Free to Change the World “an excellent, well-written book that shows why Arendt is still an important and sometimes controversial thinker today.” It certainly has encouraged me to have another go at The Origins of Totalitarianism.
One book I enjoyed that’s out later this month is a biography of Gulbadan (1523-1603) by historian Ruby Lal. Gulbadan was the daughter of Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire, and the aunt of Akbar, sometimes called ‘the Great.’ Gulbadan was born in Kabul, ended up in Akbar’s harem in Agra, and eventually went on a trip to Saudi Arabia, to visit the holy places of Islam. Lal manages to recreate all this beautifully. My husband called me for dinner while I was reading it, and I said, ‘Wait! I’m just watching Gulbadan arriving in Medina.’ I had to explain I wasn’t watching TV, just reading a very vivid book.
Also hailing from central Asia are the main protagonists of The Genius of Their Age: Ibn Sina, Biruni and the Lost Enlightenment by S. Frederick Starr. It’s a dual biography of Ibn Sina (aka Avicenna) and Biruni, key figures in the flowering of science and philosophy that took place in the Islamic world in the Middle Ages. Both men were born in the 10th century in modern-day Uzbekistan. This is an important period for anyone interested in the history of science, a missing gap in Western curricula (at least in my day).
New in Biographical Series
One very readable book from Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series is a biography of Alfred Dreyfus, the man at the centre of the Dreyfus Affair. It was a cause célèbre that rocked 19th-century France, but as historian Maurice Samuels points out in the introduction, not much attention has been paid to the life of the man most affected by it. If all you knew about Dreyfus was that he was a Jewish army officer who was wrongfully convicted of treason and imprisoned on Devil’s Island, this is a nice way to find out more (and if you’ve never heard of him at all, start with The Man on Devil’s Island or the historical thriller An Officer and a Spy). In the same series, Ian Buruma takes on the life of Baruch Spinoza.
Amongst the new history books out now or due out shortly, there are a number to choose from. If you like large-scale, broad history, there’s How the World Made the West: A 4,000-Year History by historian and archaeologist Josephine Quinn. The book opens in 2000 BCE in the town of Byblos, in modern-day Lebanon, bustling as a result of the advent of open sea sailing (though Quinn also discusses the invention of the wheel on the Eurasian Steppe) and goes up to the beginnings of the age of exploration. It’s a story of exchanges—of goods and cultures. The unifying theme of the book is a bridling against the term ‘civilization’ as a way of understanding this history, especially the idea of a Western civilization whose values and ideals come down to us from ancient Greece.
As we like lists of ‘the best’ at Five Books, I’ll also mention The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World,a new book by British historian Bettany Hughes. She traces where the idea of these ‘seven wonders’ came from, and then visits each of the sites. Hughes does a lot of TV documentaries, and that’s slightly the vibe of the book, you want to be there and see what she’s seeing.
World War II seems to be of perennial interest to readers, but events in Europe—whether it’s important battles or the Holocaust—seem to take precedence. Much less well covered is the war in Asia, including its aftermath. While many of us know about the Nuremberg trials, fewer know much about the prosecution of Japan’s leaders as war criminals after they lost the war. Gary Bass, a professor at Princeton and a great writer, takes this on in his new book, Judgment at Tokyo: World War II on Trial and the Making of Modern Asia. This is a very long, detailed book, for someone who really wants to understand the history of that period—which remains very much alive in East Asian politics today.
Much as I love history as escapism into the past, I do keep an eye out for books that shed light on some of the deeply worrying conflicts going on in the world today. One notable book for those trying to get a handle on the Middle East is a new book by Christopher Phillips, a professor of international relations at Queen Mary University of London. It’s called Battleground: 10 Conflicts that Explain the New Middle East. It’s an accessible introduction to conflicts across the region, written, according to the author, for readers wanting to understand the complex reality of the Middle East and looking for a place to start. He explains that by conflict he means not just outright wars, but also fraught politics and region-wide disputes. He covers Syria, Libya, Yemen, Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Kurdistan and The Gulf as well as The Horn of Africa.
One of the most popular interviews on our site is about critical thinking.Third Millennium Thinking: Creating Sense in a World of Nonsense by Saul Perlmutter (a Nobel-prize winning astrophysicist), Robert MacCoun, (a social psychologist) and John Campbell (a philosopher) is a notable new addition to that list. According to Nigel Warburton, it’s “a clear, accessible and enlightening guide to the tools of thinking that make science work. It’s a really enjoyable read and a great book for anyone who wants to think more clearly about evidence, argument, reason and the need for a degree of intellectual humility.”
For those concerned about what’s happening on Earth, data scientist Hannah Ritchie, head of research at Our World in Data, has a book out on climate change entitled Not the End of the World. Ritchie says she’s inspired by the late Swedish epidemiologist Hans Rosling (author of Factfulness) and the book is very much in the vein of ‘we’ve achieved a lot, let’s not despair.’ It’s a climate-change pep talk, I suppose, but based on facts and data.
I’ve already mentioned the 3rd-century Greek physician Galen, but these days few people (if any) believe that human health consists of keeping the ‘four humours’ in balance. For those seeking more up-to-date health advice, there are also a couple of books written by 21st-century scientists available soon. Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist Venki Ramakrishnan has a new book out on the science of ageing and our efforts to prolong our lives. It’s called Why We Die: The New Science of Ageing and the Quest for Immortality,and has got rave blurbs from Bill Bryson and Stephen Fry, amongst others.
Meanwhile, neuroscientist Charan Ranganath looks at the latest science of memory in Why We Remember—which will perhaps provide me with insight into why, now I’m in my 50s, I forget everything.
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