Friday, April 15, 2011

Exciting new nonfiction for the popular science & psychology reader

My list of new nonfiction must-reads is as long as it has ever been! First (and at 400+ pages, the longest) is James Gleick’s The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. Gleick’s previous works (Chaos, Genius, and Isaac Newton) have been best sellers short-listed for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and it is easy to see why. Gleick, a former New York Times science reporter, presents complicated math and science (quantum teleportation, anyone?) in a way that, if not always completely understandable, is always interesting. The Information traces the evolution of information and its communication from African drums to our contemporary state of information overload, concentrating on the years and developments since 1948, when Bell Labs mathematician Claude Shannon first described a concept he called a “bit.” Gleick enlivens his subject with colorful stories about the people and places involved in the technological changes that have transformed our world. Even when it’s heavy going (entropy!), The Information carries you along.

Next up is Eduardo Porter’s The Price of Everything: Solving the Mystery of Why We Pay What We Do. Porter, another New York Times reporter, explodes the myth that rational decisions determine supply and demand, and that “value“ is an objective term. In chapters such as ”The Price of Faith,” “The Price of Women,” and “The Price of Culture,” we are provoked, entertained, and enlightened about economic questions and issues that affect us as individuals and as a society. If you enjoyed Daniel Ariel’s Predictably Irrational or Levitt’s and Dubner’s Freakonomics, you will want to read The Price of Everything.
I’m not likely to forget Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. This book’s memorable title is a mnemonic device used by its author, Joshua Foer (yes, Jonathan’s brother) in the 2006 U.S. Memory Championship, which he “trained for” and entered after covering it as a journalist. Foer reminds us that before the age of Google and iPhones, memory was an invaluable art, and that it was developed through the exercise of techniques dating back to the ancient Greeks. We may no longer need to remember facts that are now at our fingertips, but we would all like to better remember the faces, places, and events of our lives. This book assures us that with some practice we can get better at it.

In The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks creates the fictional characters Harold and Erica and follows them from birth through adulthood and death (all of which occurs “in the current moment”) to illustrate his theory that our behavior, decisions, and ultimately our success or failure are determined largely by unconscious forces beyond our control. Brooks presents a broad swath of the current research by cognitive scientists, behavioral economists, neuroscientists, and evolutionary biologists in fluent and accessible language which you are bound to appreciate whether you agree with his conclusions or not.

No comments: