Posts Tagged ‘Steven Pinker’

‘The Sense of Style’ by Steven Pinker

February 16, 2015

This is a style manual by one of my favorite popular-science authors (the other is Richard Dawkins [just mentioning the name will presumably boost my readership, hooray!]). Pinker is an excellent stylist himself, if I am any judge, and the book is (as usual) both very enjoyable and written very lucidly. Of course, much depends on whether you want to (or have to) write yourself: if neither, parts of the book will be boring to you. Still, even then you may enjoy large parts of the book, just for learning about how language is processed and understood, and what that implies for how to write (you may understand a bit better just why certain authors annoy you so much). And there are cartoons in the book. And it is fun to read about how many oft-repeated precepts for good writing are really bullshit: idiosyncratic preferences of someone or some age which were later uncritically canonized.

(Regarding good and bad writing, it makes me wonder why David Foster Wallace, who’s presumably such a great writer, doesn’t seem to put any effort into streamlining his thinking in Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. Seems like his readers’ interests aren’t close to his heart at all. Or he didn’t have the time?)

So, if you are looking for a style manual, I recommend this one emphatically (although I must admit I haven’t read any other, unless Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style counts, which is exemplary of its subject matter too). If you are just looking for good popular science, then better read Pinker’s The Language Instinct or one of his many later books (or of course Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene or The Blind Watchmaker or …). Considered as popular science, The Sense of Style is satisfying too, but not at the top of the list, because that is not its main purpose.

‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ by Steven Pinker

June 13, 2013

Very good. Very long, but also very well written and readable (as usual with Pinker), entertaining, and again and again informing us about interesting and often surprising facts, ideas and theories. It took me about a year to read the whole book, a few pages every other evening, but I never considered abandoning the project.

Contrary to the widespread impression that we live in violent times, Pinker argues that on the whole, violence in all forms — whether in war or as parents ill-treating their children — has decreased tremendously over the course of human history. He bolsters this claim by adducing statistics (remarkably unboring) and illustrates it with vivid examples. He debunks the romantic notion that life was better in ‘the good old days’ when we lived closer to nature, with less technology and a simpler culture — and less inhibited by reason. And he describes the most promising hypotheses about what multifarious causes lie behind this trend. For example, one of the reasons people became less cruel to each other was, according to Pinker, the introduction and proliferation of novels, which made you see the world, and experience life, from the vantage point of another person, possibly quite foreign to you. Seems at least very plausible to me. You also get some insight into why the United States still has (I, for my part, would prefer treating ‘the United States’ as the plural it is — ‘the U.S. have‘ — but I acquiesce to my dictionary) no gun control worth mentioning. Also, this book is a defense of rationality, self-control and civilization. Those in need of such a defense will probably not be interested in reading the book, but it might make us others more content with civilization’s discontents.

If you’re interested in human nature, this book is a good choice (although Pinker’s The Blank Slate might be better still); if you’d like to understand some grand trends in history, ditto (another good tip would be Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel).