Nonfiction books to satisfy historical, political itches

Editor-in-Chief Kayleigh Thesenvitz weighs in with books for those curious about apartheid, political civility or self-fulfillment.

If you’re curious about Apartheid South Africa:
“Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood” by Trevor Noah
You don’t have to be a fan of “The Daily Show” or any of Noah’s Netflix stand-ups to appreciate this beautifully-written and humorous autobiography. Noah is half-black and half-white, which had severe consequences for his upbringing. Covering topics from childhood bullying to generational intertribal conflict and religion, Noah artfully paints racial injustice in South Africa in a humanizing light. When proponents of humanitarian intervention talk about South Africa, they use statistics. When historians talk about South Africa, they focus on Nelson Mandela. Instead, Noah’s book a illustrates the impact of racist policies on a micro level. The perspective shift to see the impact of institutionalized racism on a deeply personal level is especially useful today, as society creeps ever further apart from our understanding of fellow humans.

If you’re curious about political civility:
“The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” by Jonathan Haidt
While we’re on the topic of understanding, this book is a must-read. Despite its social-science-y nature, the book is an accessible read on the semi-universals of human morality across cultures and religions and offers a compelling theory of the origin of morality. Given the vastness of topics under the umbrella of moral psychology, it may be useful to summarize parts of the book so you know what you’re getting into.
The book starts by explaining social intuitionism, the idea that our moral intuitions come first, and we only bother to rationalize our moral positions when they are questioned. When it comes to moral questions, we all answer based on our emotions. All rationalization about our moral values is post-hoc. The second part of the book highlighted moral matrices which we almost universally share: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation and liberty/oppression. We share these matrices to varying degrees, the author says, and so we should be skeptical when we hear that there is one true morality for all people, times and places. Note that this is not an argument for moral relativism, but for moral pluralism. The final section is about the origin of morality. Haidt says human behavior is a mix of selfish and groupish traits, due to multi-level selection of human evolution. This duel evolution of humankind includes the claim religion played a crucial role in our evolutionary history.
If you’re looking for a dose of optimism while thinking about human morality, maybe this quote will convince you that this book is worth reading: “We may spend most of our waking hours advancing our own interests,” writes Haidt, “but we all have the capacity to transcend self-interest and become simply part of a whole.”

If you’re curious about being the best version of yourself:
“Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else” by Geoff Colvin
“Great performance is more valuable than ever, but where does it really come from?” This is the opening line of Colvin’s book. His answer: deliberate practice. Wait! Don’t leave yet. This isn’t just the 244-page equivalent of “Practice makes perfect.” Colvin demonstrates that deliberate practice includes particular steps. I’m going to provide an outline here, but it is really no substitute for reading the book for yourself. Deliberate practice is activity designed to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help. It can and must be repeated. Feedback is continually available. The action is intellectually demanding, and it isn’t much fun. The real point of the book is to demonstrate that these kinds of actions that make people the best of the best aren’t only possible in realms like sports, music and chess, where practice makes the most sense. Businesspeople, authors, scientists — greatness through deliberate practice is available to anyone in any field, as long as you know what you’re doing and never turn your back on a good mentor. The trudging path to being among the greats isn’t any fun, but heck it, neither is getting an undergraduate degree. Read this book, and then go off and make your fellow Hurricanes proud.

Post Author: Kayleigh Thesenvitz