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  • Arts & Culture
  • Issue 37

Essay:
Short Histories of Nearly Everything

The nonfiction charts were once dominated by celebrity memoirs and self-help books. Now, they look more like a college reading list; from the history of man in Sapiens to the history of economics in Capital, the bestsellers of the last decade have taken a turn for the intellectual. Debika Ray looks at how global uncertainty, social media overload and the TED Talks juggernaut all contributed to the rise of the “brainy book.”

In June 2018, publishing trade magazine The Bookseller reported a “dramatic shift” in the UK thirst for nonfiction, with the celebrity biographies that had previously dominated the market falling away in favor of “more intelligent” titles. Over the previous five years, books that tackled big questions in politics, economics, history and medicine had seen an unprecedented boom. The most notable of these is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, which has sold hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide since its 2014 English-language publication date. The Bookseller’s charts and data editor, Kiera O’Brien, told The Guardian that it was rare for such books to have this kind of longevity. “Non-fiction tends to be very much of its time,” she said. “Now it feels like we’ve broken that mould.”

Sapiens isn’t alone: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman; Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge; Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain; Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez; Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty—these brainy books have been as much a part of the recent conversation as many landmark works of fiction.

Of course, works of nonfiction have made a splash in the past: Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) captured the attention of the general public and, last century, books like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (1988) and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) made their authors into household names.

Nonetheless, until the past few decades, novels occupied center stage. “In the post–World War II era people turned to characters in fiction for narratives of independence and personal liberation that would give them permission to move forward in life,” says Wendy S. Walters, author of Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal, who has taught nonfiction at Columbia University and other major institutions. Nonfiction, she says, “was relegated to the job of historical material and biographies of heroic figures.” Now, the nonfiction book charts are populated with diverse titles intended for popular consumption.

“There’s definitely a bigger interest in the smart end of nonfiction,” says Jamie Joseph, editorial director at nonfiction publisher Ebury, which recently published The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather, the story of a Polish soldier who infiltrated Auschwitz and Letters from an Astrophysicist, a New York Times bestseller by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. “If you went back five or 10 years, you would see YouTube stars, celebrity biographies. It would look like quite a different list.” The most popular nonfiction titles today have a fresh angle and an authorly or journalistic approach. “People aren’t just looking for dispatches from the front line of the field—there are academic books out there for that,” Joseph says. “What they are looking for is a big human story and a compelling narrative.”1 He points to The Dance of Life: Symmetry, Cells and How We Become Human (2019), which integrates the emotive personal story of one of its authors, Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, who received news of an abnormal pregnancy before giving birth to a healthy baby.

Joseph says that the best person to write such a book isn’t always the primary expert in the field, but rather someone who can connect to an audience. “The ideal writer is saying something new or a bit controversial without being a crank. They need to be willing to stick their neck out, but have the authority to do it.”

What is it about the current moment that is drawing people to these books? The obvious answer is that the world has become increasingly complex and chaotic, and we are conscious of how little we know. Popular science and history books help make sense of abstract but important ideas that affect modern life. Joseph puts it bluntly: “As the world has gone to shit, people are turning to nonfiction to give them some guidance.”

Walters notes that consuming nonfiction may be a way of equipping ourselves with crucial information to defend against challenges. “Science has been historically touted as an authority, so when people read a science book, that’s an opportunity for them to garner their own authority, especially on issues that might be related to their own experience.” This perhaps explains why Sapiens has apparently been embraced by the tech crowd of Silicon Valley—an industry that has come to dominate the world.2

But most recently, Walters has seen a shift away from that and toward books about the environment: She points to The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert (2014) and the “shocking success” of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013), a book about botany from a Native American perspective. “There seems to be a move toward the human species being decentered and the natural world repositioned as the heroic character in the story.”

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that this surge is happening in a supposedly post-truth world—one in which, we’re told, expertise is denigrated and religion is experiencing a resurgence. Does the growing popularity of nonfiction speak to a revival of interest in more concrete certainties?

It’s worth remembering that these works of supposed fact are themselves subjective—the history and science we read (in popular as well as academic texts) are the writer’s interpretation and the information they have decided to present to support their thesis, as well the choice of publishers as to who to give a platform. Academia itself, Walters points out, is subject to the influence of private funders and lobbyists. “There can be an outsized influence of certain corporate or technological interests and it can be hard for scientists to get academic positions if their interests aren’t clearly aligned to those of funders.”

The brainy books that make it to market are also dictated by the demands of the audience, and people invariably want something easily digestible—a ready meal that sates our hunger for new information but also makes us feel good. It’s a formula that resembles that of the TED Talk, which epitomizes the way in which we consume serious information in the digital age.  Some of these books have been criticized for simplifying and glamorizing complex, often dull, subjects with sweeping, inspiring narratives and surprising statistics and assertions. “Sapiens feels like a study-guide summary of an immense, unwritten text—or, less congenially, like a ride on a tour bus that never stops for a poke around the ruins,” journalist Ian Parker wrote in a 2020 profile of Harari in The New Yorker.

“The ideal writer is saying something new or a bit
controversial without being a crank. They need to be willing to
stick their neck out, but have the authority to do it.”

Joseph sheds some light on how the kinds of books people are looking to read shape what is published: He receives many pitches about the increasingly important field of artificial intelligence, for example. “But it’s hard to make people care about it because it doesn’t feel very human—it’s abstract and scary. Important, not attractive. The books that work best are typically those with a bit of a positive angle and that are reassuring,” he says.

Walters speculates that the popularity of these nonfiction books is exposing the fault lines in society we repeatedly encounter across the world at the moment—the divide between adjacent communities with different values. “Some people are satisfied to rely on narratives that are unsubstantiated by data, while others feel the opposite way and are very much bolstered by evidence and facts and make their decisions accordingly,” she says. And of course, many of us hold competing desires within us: We are also torn between our simultaneous urges to run toward or run away from reality. “As well as this rise in interest in serious ideas, we’re also seeing a massive trend towards escapist fiction,” Joseph says. “People either want to really understand what’s going on or they want to run away from it—I think most of us have a bit of a both.”

NOTES

1. Rutger Bregman's new book follows this formula. In Humankind: A New History of Human Nature, the Dutch historian tells a story of humanity as fundamentally "friendly, peaceful and healthy." Reviewers generally praised the book for its optimism but faulted it for papering over the cracks in order to tell a good story. As Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan put it in the Financial Times, “Labelling his central thesis as a ‘mind-bending drug’ feels more than a little unnecessary.”

2. In a 2018 interview with The New York Times, Harari appeared confused and displeased by his own popularity in Silicon Valley given that he believes its ethos is undermining democracy. "[Maybe] my message is not threatening to them, and so they embrace it," he said.

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