2017 Holiday Reading to Blow Your Mind (and expand your perspective)

In November, I mentioned that Peter Drucker thought of management as a liberal art. Last year I already recommended some contemporary philosophy to broaden your horizons (see, Holiday Reading to Blow Your Mind).  In 2017, I picked up some history books that give grand sweeping views of how we ended up in this day and age. Again, as in 2016’s holiday reading list, I tried to put the books in some kind of broad structure (see the photo directly above). It might give you an indication of what you want to read next after finishing one of the central books in the photo.

The two central books of this year’s list (note: not written in 2017, just read by me this year) are Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order and Harari’s Sapiens.

The Origins of Political Order. Francis Fukuyama. One of the first things I learned from glancing through the chapter headings of this book was that political institutions as we know them do not start with democracy in Greece. Instead, Fukuyama shows us the Chinese already gradually built a successful bureaucracy to govern vast lands from the 8th to the 3rd century BCE. The premise of the book is deceitfully simple: countries, empires, republics, etc. that work, have a couple of things in common: successful state building, rule of law, and accountability of governments. Fukuyama takes us on a tour of world history to show us where each of these three concepts first originated. He also shows us many examples of states that do not function because one or more of the three components are missing. Another thing I got out of this book is that I’ll never again take my country’s institutions for granted. In a way, these institutions have been shaped by an evolutionary process on societal level, to hand us working bureaucracies, rule of law and accountable government. If you won’t take my word for it, here’s what The Spectator wrote about this book of big ideas:

The Origins of Political Order is a magisterial work by an influential scholar, drawing on massive research in the social sciences as well as history and evolutionary biology. It provides a powerful and provocative analysis of the origins of the modern state, of relevance not only to historians and political scientists, but to anyone wishing to understand the nature of democratisation in the modern world and how it is to be achieved.

Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari. Harari takes us both further back in time than Fukuyama does, and into the future. This is a book with as broad a scope as you can imagine. Harari tries to answer the question why homo sapiens came to rule (and possibly will destroy) the world. One of his key proposals is our capacity for thinking in concepts that exist outside immediate reality:

(…) the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled.

Concepts such as democracy, human rights, and religion are all put in a new light:

Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings. People easily understand that ‘primitives’ cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits, and gathering each full moon to dance together around the campfire. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis.

This is a thought provoking book. You might not like or agree with some of the things Harari has to say, but he surely makes you see the world in a new light.

Reading Sapiens, I couldn’t stop thinking about another great book a read some years back:

The Mating Mind. Geoffrey Miller. One of the questions that to me always seemed unresolved, is why homo sapiens evolve in such a peculiar way. Or, better put, why do our ideas, concepts and ideologies (think human rights, democracy and religion for instance) evolve faster than the snail’s pace of biological evolution? Miller thinks he has the answer. He compares the human brain with a peacock’s tail. For every species, a different trait evolved to be the mechanism of natural selection. For the peacock, it was the feathered tail. For humans, argues Miller, it was the mind. Thus: our capacity for concepts that sit outside direct reality (cf. Harari);  our capacity for creating and telling stories our capacity to come up with things like democracy and human rights. In Miller’s words:

Once sexual choice seized upon the brain as a possible fitness indicator, the brain was helpless to resist. Any individuals who did not reveal their fitness through their courtship behaviour were not chosen as sexual partners. (…) By opening up our brains as advertisements for our fitness, we discovered whole new classes of fitness indicators, like generosity and creativity. (…) The healthy brain theory proposes that our minds are clusters of fitness indicators: persuasive salesmen like art, music, and humor, that do their best work in courtship, where the most important deals are made.

This is one of those books whose central idea will stay with you. Like Fukuyama’s idea of state building, rule of law, and accountability. And like Harari’s view on concepts existing outside of direct reality.

The other book that I kept thinking about while reading Sapiens, was:

23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism. Ha-Joon Chang. This book is a bit of an outlier in this list. A lot of big ideas and concepts are discussed in Origins and Sapiens, and on some of these ideas have been written wonderful little volumes. One of these is 23 Things. It is not a history (therefore an outlier in this list), but it deals with a concept that features prominently in Sapiens: capitalism. In Sapiens, you are told things like:

Ask a capitalist how to bring justice and political freedom to a place like Zimbabwe or Afghanistan, and you are likely to get a lecture on how economic affluence and a thriving middle class are essential for stable democratic institutions, and about the need therefore to inculcate Afghan tribesmen in the value of free enterprise, thrift and self-reliance.

Where Sapiens looks at capitalism as an ideology and even a religion (you will feel a natural response to protest against this ‘sacrilege’), 23 Things will give you all the more arguments to see what Harari means. Ha-Joon Chang, formerly with the World Bank and now at Cambridge University, explains why we need to think differently about capitalism, and why some truisms repeated over-and-over by world leaders and big institutions alike, might actually not have any truths to them. An important book. Not in the last place because it shows us how we are lured into stories. For the record: I’m not saying we should abandon capitalism; I’m saying we should see it for what it really is. And 23 Things is indispensable in being able to do so.

So, Sapiens triggered me to think about books that were already familiar to me (The Mating Mind and 23 Things). In contrast, Fukuyama triggered me to pick up some new books from my ‘to-read-pile’. Fukuyama makes an impressive case for religion having meant more to societies than just religion. An even more thorough case is made in:

The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values. Nick Spencer. One of the few books I have ever (knowingly) read by a religious writer. Echoing Fukuyama, Nick Spencer argues that Christianity was instrumental in creating individualism in the Western world. Christianity, according to the writer, also shaped rule of law (cf. Fukuyama), humanism, human rights, capitalism, science, atheism, ethics, and democracy, to name just a few concepts covered in this beautifully written book. Warning: this is a rewarding read, but not an easy one. The Economist seems to agree:

It is not a popular thesis but, like a prophet crying in the post-modern wilderness, Mr Spencer provokes reflection that goes far beyond the shallow ding-dongs of the modern culture wars. He wants to make sure Westerners know where they came from as a way to illuminate where they are going.

Another book on the to-read-pile, that seems an obvious follow-up to Fukuyama, is:

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty. Daron Acemoglu & James A. Robinson. I did not read this one yet. But I’m curious if Fukuyama’s three concepts of state building, rule of law and accountable government also play a prominent role in this book. From the back cover:

Based on fifteen years of research, and answering the competing arguments of authors ranging from Jeffrey Sachs to Jared Diamond [more on him next], Why Nations Fail blends economics, politics and history to provide a powerful and persuasive way of understanding wealth and poverty.

Finally, Sapiens and The Origins of Political Order evoke strong images of:

Guns, Germs and Steel. Jared Diamond. In its scope and grand sweeps, and trying to answer big questions, this is certainly a classic of the genre of big history, big questions, and big answers. I’m sure most of you have already read this book a long time ago. If not, it is probably enough to say that Jared Diamond’s books are in the bibliography of Sapiens, The Origins of Political Order, The Mating Mind, and Why Nations Fail. Harari speaks about Diamond when he says ‘[he] taught me to see the big picture’.

Happy holidays, and happy reading!

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