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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.



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?)

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