Two of the year’s best books help us understand how people act. A third one helps us understand a genius.By Cass R. Sunstein December 22, 2017, 12:04 PM EST Bloomberg View
In 2017, hundreds of thousands of books were published in the United States alone. Many of them were terrific, and some were sensational (OK, I haven’t read all of them, not by a long shot, but still). Here are the five best:
“The Essex Serpent” by Sarah Perry
Perry’s tale seems to focus on a search for a mysterious, otherworldly creature, but her novel is really about friendship, female independence and longing. At its core is a romance, free of cliches, involving misses and near-misses, cluelessness, secrets, understanding and soulmates.
In most years, you can’t find a contemporary novel to put in the same company with the works of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy. “The Essex Serpent” belongs right there.
“The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.” by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland
For many people, science fiction is literature’s pimply faced teenager: awkward, noisy, a bit of an embarrassment. But at its best, science fiction illuminates our world by looking at it sideways — presenting its most familiar features as puzzles, or demonstrating that with a little push here or a tug there, things could be radically different.
Stephenson and Galland start with a bold premise, to the effect that magic was once real but died out. More precisely, it died in 1850, when the rise of photography essentially murdered it. As one character puts it, “Photography breaks magic by embalming a specific moment — one version of reality — into a recorded image.”
That’s brilliant, and in a way, it’s even true. Stephenson and Galland breathe new life into old ideas about counterfactual history and time travel. That’s pretty magical.
“Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell” by David Yaffe
Joni Mitchell belongs at or near the top of any list of the greatest singer-songwriters from 1960 to the present. She was astonishingly inventive. It is true, but not nearly enough, to say that she drew on folk, pop and jazz. Her music is all her own. Have a look at this. Or this.
Yaffe demonstrates that Mitchell’s mercurial life has been as bold, creative and intriguing as her songs. He captures Mitchell’s love-hate relationship with what she called, in one of her early triumphs, an “urge for going” — and with a condition that she described, with both irony and defiance, as “busy being free.”
“The Undoing Project” by Michael Lewis
Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, Israeli psychologists, are more responsible than anyone else for the rise of behavioral science, which explores how human beings deviate from perfect rationality. Even so, the story of their collaboration would not appear to be a promising basis for a book. Who wants to read about two middle-aged men, patiently identifying behavioral biases and cataloging departures from expected utility theory? With equations?
But Lewis’s book is captivating, above all because he brings Tversky and Kahneman to life. Charismatic, quick and disciplined, Tversky was an optimist, not only because it suited his personality but also because, as he put it, “When you are a pessimist and the bad thing happens, you live it twice. Once when you worry about it, and the second time when it happens.” Introverted and self-critical, Kahneman was a pessimist and also a font of ideas, with extraordinary insight into where human intuition goes wrong.
The two had a kind of love affair. They produced extraordinary work independently, but their best work was done together. Lewis explains why.
“The Influential Mind” by Tali Sharot
If you want to influence people, what should you do? Sharot, a neuroscientist at University College London, demonstrates that many of our answers are wrong. If, for example, you try to frighten people, they might just tune you out. It’s better to try to get people to want to agree with you – which is why it is often more effective to promise a reward, creating a kind of “Go!” reaction in the brain.
One of Sharot’s most important discussions focuses on a topic to which social scientists have given far too little attention: the importance of maintaining a sense of control. John Locke, a character on the television show “Lost,” captured something universal when he proclaimed, time and again, “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!”
Sharot shows that once we understand the failure of so many of our efforts at influencing others, we can identify more promising strategies. For example, “Offering control, or even perceived control, is ultimately the best way to get people to act.”
Smart parents know that — and so do the best teachers, doctors, investment advisers and employers.