Thursday, October 13, 2011

Tens List with Robison Wells - Variant Blog Tour

I'm thrilled to welcome Robison Wells, author of Variant, to the blog today!

As this blog is called The Fiction Enthusiast, and since I write fiction, I thought it would be fun to go in the exact opposite direction and give you my ten favorite NON-fiction books. I've always had a love of non-fiction, probably because of my love of history. In fact, it was non-fiction that got me into writing in the first place: I was watching a documentary about the Battle of Stalingrad in World War Two, and it gave me a great idea for a fantasy novel. (It was the first book I ever wrote, and it was terrible, and you'll never see it.)

Anyway, in no particular order, here are ten of my favorite non-fiction books:

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

As the old rhyme says, Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. But what was America like before he got here? This book tears down almost every notion we have about what civilization was like before the arrival of Europeans. We all have the mental image of European explorers finding small groups of low-tech nomadic tribes, but the author compares that to American soldiers discovering holocaust survivors: what we saw was just the tiny remnant of what was left after a series of plagues and epidemics that made the Black Plague look like the flu. On a lighter note, he tears down other myths we’ve all believed since elementary school: remember how Squanto taught the colonists how to plant their corn with a fish in the ground for fertilizers? That was likely something he learned while touring Europe, as there’s no evidence of Native Americans doing that, but Europeans farmers had done it for generations. (And Squanto spent several years in Europe before coming back to America as a guide.)

Incognito: The Secret Life of the Brain

More than any other book on this list, this is the one that starts conversations. It's a neuroscience book, but written so the dumb layman like me, who didn't pay much attention in biology, can understand it. And it's absolutely fascinating. It's crammed with studies about how we perceive the world around us, how our unconscious mind controls so much of what we do that our consciousness is just the tip of an enormous iceberg. On almost every page I'd turn to my wife and say "This is crazy, you have to hear this." And, best of all: it's real science, not pseudoscience.

Predictably Irrational

This one is similar to Incognito, in that it talks about how our mind works, but instead of neuroscience, it’s behavioral economics. Each chapter is study after study, showing how we’re really terrible at making decisions—or, rather, we routinely and predictably make irrational decisions. Just a few examples: he talks about how thinking of a random number before purchasing a product will affect how much we’re willing to pay for that product; he shows how merely mentioning the existence of a moral code (that we may or may not agree with or understand) can make us make more ethical decisions. And on and on. The book is fantastic.

Lies My Teacher Told Me

This one is a little older, a classic in the realm of history books. Like 1491, it tears down much of what we know about history, and it shreds high school textbooks, pointing out error after error, and egregious omissions. He talks about everything from who really discovered America (going back even farther than Leif Ericson), about horrification of famous figures, and a host of other—sometimes intentional –inaccuracies. One tidbit I found most fascinating is his discussion of Helen Keller: how every school kid reads how Keller learned to communicate, but they never learn what she had to say (she was an ardent Marxist and activist). It’s fascinating stuff.

The Omnivore's Dilemma

This one might seem out of place, because I’m a terrible eater. I eat junk food all the time, and I live on a steady IV drip of Diet Coke. But the book is still interesting, talking about the way that our diet has changed over the millennia of human existence, and how what we view as food today would be absolutely foreign to our ancestors.

The Smartest Guys In the Room

This book is also a little different. Rather than being about a concept (like neuroscience or history or food), this is about a specific event: the rise and downfall of Enron. It’s 100% true and accurate, but it reads just as taut and exciting as a thriller, with as many astounding revelations as some of the other books I’ve mentioned. And with the current recession, reading The Smartest Guys in the Room (about terrible, preventable practices) really makes you wonder if Congress and the American people will ever learn from their mistakes.

Everything is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer)

This book is like Predictably Irrational, but with a more cynical bent. It’s about cognitive bias and logical fallacies, explaining how we constantly make irrational decisions, but—worse—we may be unable to ever identify them. The tagline for the book is “How Common Sense Has Failed Us”, and the author shows how, while common sense is good for making decisions in the here and now, it’s absolutely terrible for making long-term, complex decisions—such as in business or politics. It’s eye-opening and would be depressing if it wasn’t so fascinating.


This is written by the author, Jared Diamond, of the more well-known Guns, Germs, and Steel, but I prefer this one. Here, Diamond looks at a dozen famous, long-dead civilizations, and talks about how they destroyed themselves because of poor resource management—whether it be Easter Island, where they cut down every single tree to the point where the island is now, centuries later, barren; or the Anasazi who collapsed in part due to poor irrigation techniques that led to arroyo-cutting and dropping the water table. Given our current situation, this one is well worth a read—as a warning.

Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee

Finally, I recommend the classic Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, a heartbreaking account of the settlement (and conquering) of the American west. It’s refreshing in that it doesn’t take sides—it’s neither the tale of terrible white men slaughtering the peaceful natives, nor the tale of savages brutalizing settlers. In fact, it’s both. It’s interesting and sad, with no clear good guys or bad guys—just a great, honest history book.


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