But since my children turned secondary school age, and feeling the need to keep up with them in History, Science, etc, and no longer being able to rely on what I studied at O levels decades ago, I have started to pick up the odd book of “popular” non-fiction. Last year I read a book and a half on the Nazi’s rise to power, as well as “When Money Dies: The Nightmare of the Weimar Hyper-Inflation” by Adam Fergusson on – well you can probably guess. I had been having a long running debate with my eldest about the role of Hitler in the rise of the nazi party – I was trying to persuade him round from the seductive “Great Man” theory of history (for more see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Man_theory) and I needed some more ammunition.
The most recent non-fiction I have read, as recommended by my wife, is Jon Ronson’s “The Psychopath Test”, sub-titled “A Journey through the Madness Industry”. Ronson occupies a well defined niche in modern journalism, in which he explores quirky or unlikely events, people, or things, and includes the journey of discovery/investigation as a key part of the text, regularly supplemented with anecdotes and stories of the unlikely. I left this book feeling I had passed a pleasant few hours in the company of an interesting story teller, but what I had learned about psychopaths was very limited – they are nasty people, they can’t be treated, they are highly manipulative, but not all are criminals. Much of the text was a retelling of well known stories, such as the Rachel Nickell/Colin Stagg history, and while there was some original investigative journalism, not enough to merit a whole book (let alone the film rights that Men who stare at Goats led to). I shouldn’t complain though because as I explained earlier, my appetite for anything too heavy is very limited, so criticising Ronson for keeping things light – especially given the subject matter – would be a bit hypocritical (or should I say psychopathic?)
Ten years ago the number of non-fiction books I read in a year could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Biographies in particular were a subject of scorn or impatience – arrogantly I argued that no biography had ever appeared on the syllabus of a Literature degree course. I still read biogs very rarely – they seem to inhabit a space (in the worst instances) where writers throw them together using a few wikipedia searches and cut and paste. Genuine insight or original writing is often missing even from heavyweight biographies. I read Roy Jenkins’ Churchill last year, and despite wading through over 700 pages (I haven’t counted, it just felt that long) I ended up feeling that I did not know much more about the subject than I had before, and that the insight into his character and motivation was sadly missing. Nothing new had been discovered or revealed despite what was clearly a monumental research effort.