Short Histories of Nearly Everything
The bestsellers of the last decade look like a college reading list. Debika Ray looks at 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...

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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