South Park Self

you would rather black the boots of death than enquire whose soul dangles from his watch-chain

One of the things that book club has taught me is to read non-fiction. Which sounds ridiculous, I'm an academic, I read non-fiction all the time. But, mark you, it's non-fiction about fiction. What I never read before joining the book club, despite being really rather a science and culture geek, was the cultural history and popular science stuff that several of our members are into. It's taken me a while to work up an appetite for it; I've toyed with things like Freakonomics and Jeremy Legget's Half Gone on the oil crisis, but in the last few exhausted months I've found non-fiction particularly easy to read where some kinds of fiction simply aren't.

A lot of the reason why I enjoy this kind of writing, is, I think, because it confirms in pitiless detail everything I ever believed about the blindness, self-destructiveness and addiction to bad stuff (advertising, capitalism, religion, oil, media spin, ignorance) of the human race, particularly the Western cultural bits of it. There would be no need for this sort of book if we were all orang-utans, but since we aren't, there's a grim satisfaction in cataloguing our manifest stupidities. Here's a brief round-up of recent discoveries.

  • Ben Goldacre, Bad Science. I adore Ben Goldacre. It's the calm, rational, urbane and slightly ironic way in which he socks the deserving savagely in the eye. He is ruthlessly rude about all sorts of things in this book - bad journalism, high-profile quacks, snake oil products, poor scientific method. As a crash course in evidence-based scientific enquiry it's highly illuminating. I shall love him forever, however, for his beautifully rational dissection of homeopathy and exactly why it's a load of bollocks, and for the trenchant, succint and damning account he gives of the culpable homicide perpetrated by Mattias Rath in South Africa in the name of curing AIDS with vitamins.

  • Malcom Gladwell, What the Dog Saw. This is more traditional journalism than Goldacre, in that Gladwell investigates odd topics in some depth, including a lot of interviews with interesting people. The collection of essays is only really loosely connected by the idea of digging beneath things we take for granted to explore how and why they work. I loved the chapters on kitchen gadget salesmen, the development of the birth control pill, and the Dog Whisperer guy; the later, more conceptual sections - data analysis in mammography and air crashes, the mechanics of panic, the value of interview techniques - are also interesting, although not quite as colourful. This is a thoughtful book, and far less polemical than Goldacre - quite often the upshot of the detailed exploration is a sort of equable shrug.

  • Steven Johnson, Everything Bad is Good For You: Why popular culture is making us smarter. This wasn't a book club book, Jo lent it to me. It offers the popular version of quite heavy media theory, people like Fiske and Henry Jenkins who espouse the cultural value and active appeal to intelligence of popular forms. Johnson is entertaining and persuasive on topics such as video games and why they don't cause violence, and modern television and why it requires a brain. It's an interesting read.

  • James Fergusson, The Vitamin Murders. Fascinating piece of investigation and cultural history: stumbling over the 1952 murder of Jack Drummond and his family in France leads the author off into an exploration of British nutrition during the world wars, the decline of healthy eating in contemporary Britain, and the presence of pesticides in food. Another of these books which demonstrates in pitiless detail just how badly and culpably our lives are affected by the marketing drives of big business.
Now I have to persuade myself to read Wuthering Heights by Monday for a tut, and five Steven Erikson fantasy tomes in the next few weeks so I can mark a Masters dissertation. Instead I shall read Phryne Fisher, a quartet of which arrive from Loot this afternoon. Frivolity rules! particularly decadent Australian 1920s detective frivolity. Memo to self: also blog about Lilian Jackson Braun.
  • Current Mood: apathetic still somewhat dead
ah, you can always rely on e.e. cummings for that! as always, however, the poem itself is at least tangentially related to the theme of the post.
If you enjoyed Bad Science, do follow @bengoldacre on twitter. His comments and links are great.
Thanks for the tips.

On a related note, Jonathan Lehrer's "The decisive moment" is an excellent and accessible book about "How the brain makes up its mind" (the book's subtitle). One of the best popular science books I've read.

Another book to look out for (though a somewhat more difficult read after Lehrer's excellent storytelling) is Drew Westin's "The political brain: The role of emotion in deciding the fate of the nation." (It gets a plug from Bill Clinton.)

Levitt & Dubner's "Freakonomics" is also a fun read.