Ahead of our evening with Steven Pinker on November 3rd Zool Verjee offers his thoughts on ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’:
From the point of a view of a bookseller and events manager, it is thrilling to have an event with Steven Pinker. I described him on our posters and leaflets as ‘one of the gargantuan intellectuals of our age’ and that was no idle publicity-seeking boast – he really is that highly regarded, ranking alongside the likes of Noam Chomsky, Umberto Eco, Richard Dawkins and Amartya Sen for sheer credibility and standing as a great and influential thinker.
But aside from my bookseller’s desire to, well, (drum roll, fanfare of trumpets), sell books . . . I am also a fervent reader and “The Better Angels of Our Nature” has been setting fire to my mind recently. You know this by now – but his book contends that – if you draw the camera right back so that it is looking at the history of humanity from the vantage point of millennia and centuries – humankind is getting less violent, rather than more violent.
Think about the Twentieth Century, with its two World Wars and catalogue of atrocities throughout its hundred-year span; or simply turn on the news today, and perhaps you would baulk at the very notion. So, Steven Pinker is an optimist, say many who hear that he’s written such a book. Although it does seem that many who are reaching lazily for the condemnation stick have not actually read the book, if that’s not a disgraceful suggestion on my part!
Steven Pinker manages to accomplish several terribly admirable things in the writing of this book. I’ll list them here:
1. First of all, I’d like to point out the sheer magnificent scope of this book. If Thomas Pynchon wrote non-fiction . . . seriously, these pages touch on history, science, philosophy, psychology, anthropology – there’s no doubt that here we have a coruscating mind at work.
2. Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, Steven Pinker manages both to propel his argument forward and to find time for anecdote and even humour. This book is very readable! Perhaps that is why Steven Pinker is sometimes referred to as a rock-star academic – it is true that there is an insouciance here which can only really be carried of by someone in complete command of their subject and argument: another tick in the box for Pinker.
3. This book is fascinating! One doesn’t make an argument like this without drawing on expansive wells of knowledge and research. From Homer to the Bible; from Slavery to Medieval Torture; from the civilising effect of table manners* to the emergence of tribal societies – there’s an enormous amount to learn from this book, and what’s more, it’s all strung together rather coherently in pursuance of persuading us, its readers, of its central premise!
*Norbert Elias, author of ‘The Civilising Process’ (Wiley, 2000), is referred to as ‘the most important thinker you have never heard of.’ It is to Elias that Pinker says he owes an epiphany regarding the use of a knife to assist in the eating of peas, something he had questioned since being a child.
4. Is Pinker correct? Each reader will decide for themselves, although I would suggest that this is a nutritious and fascinating book whether you agree with him or not. A number of people to whom I have mentioned this book have recoiled in disbelief bordering on horror at the seemingly rather callous suggestion that violence is on the decrease. Their look has seemed to say, ‘Have you not watched the news these last ten years?’ / ‘Are you idiotically unaware how aggressive the streets are these days?’ / Do you know nothing about the Twentieth Century?’ Honestly – I haven’t decided if I agree with all of Pinker’s conclusions – but he makes a fascinating case.
5. Finally, I’d like to hold aloft this book as one that clearly demonstrates the very greatest qualities of Non-Fiction – devilishly thought-provoking, accessible without being facile (you have to work a little bit for the nutritious intellectual vitamins and minerals contained herein), tremendously intriguing, it’s the kind of book that makes you want to immediately go and discuss it all with your friends (reading is both a solitary pursuit and one that leads to conversation and the sharing of ideas).
I’m going to end by saying, and there’s no hyperbole here, that this could be the greatest work of Non-Fiction I have ever read.
Zool Verjee, Events and Marketing Manager, Blackwell’s Oxford
Tickets cost £5 and can be obtained by telephoning or visiting the Customer Service Department, Second Floor, Blackwell Bookshop, Oxford. Telephone 01865 333623
The book is available for £23 (£7 off RRP) in the shop