Author Picks for Christmas - Tim Harford
If you've ever felt overwhelmed by the figures and statistics used so widely in the news these days, then Tim Harford is the man to provide some much needed clarity and context. In his new book How to Make the World Add Up he draws on his experience as both an economist and presenter of the BBC's radio show 'More or Less', and takes us deep into the world of disinformation and obfuscation, bad research and misplaced motivation, to find those priceless jewels of data and analysis that make communicating with numbers worthwhile. Especially for Foyles Tim shares five books that he would recommend as Christmas gifts, or just as a storming great read for yourself.
The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova
I’ve been a fan of Maria Konnikova’s writing for a while. She’s a Harvard-educated academic psychologist who switched to writing and turned out to be even better at that than psychology. Her earlier books are a terrific mix of psychological research and storytelling. And her latest, The Biggest Bluff, is destined to be a modern classic. Konnikova takes on the world of professional poker in the hope of learning something about psychology – and perhaps in the hope that her psychological training might give her an edge. It’s pure immersive journalism woven together with nerdy insights.
Konnikova has a compelling story to tell about her rollercoaster ride through the world of high-stakes poker, and she tells it well, effortlessly weaving in the academic insights in between her lessons from her mentor, Erik Seidel, and the dizzying highs and lows of the table. I loved it.
Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman
Rutger Bregman’s new book makes a simple argument: most people, most of the time, are decent. Whether this strikes you as absurd, or obvious, may depend on what side of bed you got out of. Bregman makes a strong case that we’ve been groomed to think the worst of each other by books such as The Lord of The Flies and The Selfish Gene, and a diet of grim stories in the daily news. The book is wide-ranging, and while it is most definitely a polemic – Bregman writes to persuade – it is also full of the most fabulous storytelling. I loved reading it.
Some of the material I knew – for example, the ever-growing question marks over Zimbardo’s prison simulation have become infamous, re-interprerations of Milgram’s shock machine were popularised on RadioLab, and if I recall correctly the urban myth that nobody came to help Kitty Genovese was debunked in Freakonomics. It’s all woven together rather wonderfully here, though.
Other tales, in particular the story of the real-life Lord of the Flies, were completely new to me. The book is spellbindingly well written and you should read it. You’ll learn a lot (I did) and you’ll have good reason to feel better about the human race.
The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin
I was prompted to pick up this old favourite by a lockdown movie: the Studio Ghibli Tales of Earthsea. The movie itself is so-so: it has its moments but is not up to the usual stratospheric Ghibli standards. (Le Guin agreed.)
It did, however, prompt me to turn to the trilogy once again. I read it as a teenager, and again on a long holiday in China in 2003, alongside the fourth book, Tehanu. I picked it up with hazy memories about certain plot points and was not disappointed by any part of it.
The writing is superbly poetic, the plots are fast-paced and unusual, and the world-building is deft and convincing. A Wizard of Earthsea was originally commissioned as a ‘young adult’ novel, and each of the three novels is told from the point of view of a teenage protagonist, but the themes are mature: ambition and envy, evil done in the name of religion, fear of aging and death, restraint in the use of power.
So many ideas here have been copied – a young boy going to a school for wizards; a wise and powerful order striving to keep the balance against the dark side – but the books still feel fresh and original fifty years on. Yes, there are wizards and dragons, princes destined to be kings and even a damsel needing to be rescued, but Le Guin transcends or subtly subverts each cliché.
Le Guin revisited Earthsea decades later. Tehanu is the fourth book and there are others I’ve not yet read. I found it unsettling to read Tehanu immediately after the original trilogy; not only is it extremely dark, Le Guin so sharply questions some of the implicit perspectives of the previous books that she implicitly criticises herself for having written them, and the reader for having enjoyed them.
Nothing wrong with that – but perhaps leave a breathing space between finishing book three, The Farthest Shore, and picking up the fourth book, Tehanu.
Humble Pi by Matt Parker
I’ve known Matt for years and he’s always been deft at walking the line between mathematical insight and nerdy entertainment. Humble Pi takes things to the next level. Matt tells tales of mathematical mistakes – which range from trivial stuff, like nonsensical corporate advertising, to grave errors that cause planes to crash, bridges to collapse, or test-and-trace systems to lose nearly 16,000 cases. (Humble Pi was written and published before that particular spreadshambles but there are plenty of other computer-related errors in the book.)
The stories are gripping and the technical details are both easy to understand and, at times, fascinatingly convoluted. Strongly recommended.
Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed
I hesitated to read Matthew Syed’s Rebel Ideas, not because I disapproved, but because I wondered whether it would feel too familiar to me. Syed argues that cognitive diversity leads to better decisions. Like attracts like, meaning that we fill our organisational toolkits with hammers and neglect to recruit the screwdrivers, hacksaws and wrenches. That’s a bad idea, no matter how good the hammers are.
Many of these ideas were discussed in my book Messy and in the books I read while researching it. Would I learn anything new? My hesitancy was a big mistake. Rebel Ideas is a wonderful book. I’ve learned plenty that is new – but I’ve also gained a deeper appreciation of what I thought I already knew. Syed’s synthesis is impressive. His storytelling is breathtaking – he opens with a discussion of the CIA’s failure to spot the 9/11 attacks, and flits across plane crashes, the invention of the wheeled suitcase, and the rise of Silicon Valley. His discussion of a disastrous Everest expedition is particularly hard to put down. This approach – story plus science – is of course standard in the genre, but I can assure you that it’s very hard to do well, and Syed does it very well indeed.
Syed covers collective blindness, constructive dissent, innovation, echo chambers and the evolution of culture itself. My usual book-reading habit of creasing the bottom corner of a page I want to come back to has somewhat backfired – there are dozens of creases because the book is packed with good stuff.
Tim Harford is a senior columnist for the Financial Times and the presenter of Radio 4's More or Less. He was the winner of the Bastiat Prize for economic journalism in 2006, and More or Less was commended for excellence in journalism by the Royal Statistical Society in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Harford lives in Oxford with his wife and three children, and is a visiting fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford. His other books include The Undercover Economist, The Logic of Life and Adapt.