The year in non-fiction – pot boilers galore

The Sunday Star Times yesterday published a list of the top ten best-selling non-fiction books of 2009 in New Zealand (see below).

It is a woeful list by any measure. Crockpots dominated. The only thing we have to be thankful for was that crackpots like Ian Wishart were absent from it. In previous years, decent works of local non-fiction, like the late Michael King’s superb Penguin History of New Zealand would have featured on the year’s best seller list, giving hope to local non-fiction writers. Not this year. It was cookbooks, self-help books and the obligatory All Black biography cleaning up.

Source: Sunday Star Times
Source: Sunday Star Times

I read a fair-bit of non-fiction in 2009. Here are some of the science and tech related titles I enjoyed the most:

outliersOutliers: The Story of Success – Malcolm Gladwell

What makes people successful? What’s the real key to those rags to riches tales we hear so much about? From “Through case studies ranging from Canadian junior hockey champions to the robber barons of the Gilded Age, from Asian math whizzes to software entrepreneurs to the rise of his own family in Jamaica, Gladwell tears down the myth of individual merit to explore how culture, circumstance, timing, birth and luck account for success–and how historical legacies can hold others back despite ample individual gifts.” Fascinating and inspirational and plenty of sociological research and science for good measure.

The key take-away for me was the concept of the 10,000 hour rule – the idea that to be really good at anything – playing the violin, performing brain surgery, programming computers, you really need to put in 10,000 hours of practice – literally a decade of work practicing a few hours every day. Gladwell outlines numerous examples of where this proves true. Except for the gifted few, there are no short cuts – being successful at anything is for most people,  hard work.

twooThe World Without Us – Alan Weisman

Intrigued earlier in the year by the latest film adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, I picked up this book at the airport on the way to Turkey and could barely put it down during the ensuing trip. It was eerie to be sitting in an Istanbul hotel room reading about how the shoddy post-war building techniques employed in Istanbul would likely reduce the city to rubble in a decent sized earthquake, leaving the place uninhabitable for decades.

From the New Yorker: “Teasing out the consequences of a simple thought experiment–what would happen if the human species were suddenly extinguished–Weisman has written a sort of pop-science ghost story, in which the whole earth is the haunted house. Among the highlights: with pumps not working, the New York City subways would fill with water within days, while weeds and then trees would retake the buckled streets and wild predators would ravage the domesticated dogs. Texas’s unattended petrochemical complexes might ignite, scattering hydrogen cyanide to the winds–a “mini chemical nuclear winter.” After thousands of years, the Chunnel, rubber tires, and more than a billion tons of plastic might remain, but eventually a polymer-eating microbe could evolve, and, with the spectacular return of fish and bird populations, the earth might revert to Eden.”

free-andersonFree – the future of a radical price – Chris Anderson

Wired magazine’s editor in chief got into a spot of bother with this book when it emerged he had plagiarized passages from Wikipedia, something he later admitted was “sloppy and inexcusable” and apologised for. Still, the book is though-provoking and attempts to tackle the apparent contradictions of the freemium model currently dominating the internet and provoking a backlash from the likes of Rupert Murdoch. From Publisher’s Weekly:  “In the digital marketplace, the most effective price is no price at all, argues Anderson (The Long Tail). He illustrates how savvy businesses are raking it in with indirect routes from product to revenue with such models as cross-subsidies (giving away a DVR to sell cable service) and freemiums (offering Flickr for free while selling the superior FlickrPro to serious users). New media models have allowed successes like Obama’s campaign billboards on Xbox Live, Webkinz dolls and Radiohead’s name-your-own-price experiment with its latest album. A generational and global shift is at play–those below 30 won’t pay for information, knowing it will be available somewhere for free, and in China, piracy accounts for about 95% of music consumption–to the delight of artists and labels, who profit off free publicity through concerts and merchandising.”

accidentalbillionairesThe Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal – Ben Mezrich

To call this non-fiction is a bit of a stretch – it’s basically a dramatised retelling of the founding of Facebook and doesn’t have a patch on Mezrich’s mastrepiece, Bringing Down the House, the story of how some MIT whiz kid card counters were able to take millions from Vegas casinos (the Kevin Spacey movie adaptation butchered the book). I’ve read lots of books about the founding of various Silicon Valley companies and some of the tales are indeed highly dramatic. The story of Facebook, which was started by Mark Zuckerberg in a Harvard dorm room in 2004 (just five years ago!) has less to it, but that doesn’t stop Mezrich from amping up the action. The book is largely told from the point of view of Eduardo Saverin, an early financial backer of Facebook and partner of Zuckerberg’s who, according to the book, was edged out of Facebook and deprived of the fame and forture that Zuckerberg went on to experience. The really interesting aspects of the book deal with how Zuckerberg built Facebook, which started out as Facemash – a controversial Harvard website that allowed pictures of female students to be compared and rated online. That one went down like a lead balloon with Harvard’s administration, but launched an idea that went on to make billions for Zuckerberg.

poles apartPoles Apart – Gareth Morgan and John McCrystal

As good a book on the big picture science of climate change as you’ll find. Morgan, a climate change sceptic, set out to examine the evidence of man-made climate change as well as the arguments of climate change sceptics who believe humanity does not have a significant impact on the climate. The result is a fairly matter of fact summary of the science with a conclusion that sees Morgan come down on the side of the climate change “alarmists” as he refers to them. It’s a book noteable as one of the few published in recent years in New Zealand that includes a large amount of science and a high-profile New Zealand writer. Its subject matter meant it was always only going to have niche appeal, but the book tour on the back of its release say Morgan and McCrystal present to crowded town hall meetings the length of the country.


  1. Gareth Renowden

    Don’t be too harsh on the crockpots… Hyndman Publishing is a great little one man (and a Holst) band, producing good books and keeping them in print. And he’s just down the road from me…

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