This Year's Juicy Books on Thinking, Persuasion and Language

Great reads from 2011

Posted Dec 30, 2011

I've done it again, and you probably have too. During the holidays, I've succumbed to the temptations of that extra bit of gravy and just one more of those delicious cookies. Now it's getting to be that time again of girding the resolve to cut back on food and drink (OK, maybe after New Year's Eve)—and I've found that there's no better distraction from food than keeping the mind well-feasted. Luckily, this past year has on offer a slew of smart new books that provide some deep and fascinating insights about what it means to be a thinking, speaking, influencing and influenceable human being. If you're looking to enhance your mind while you reduce your waistline, here are just a few of my favorites:

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

 Thinking, Fast and Slow

It's been almost seven years since Malcolm Gladwell published his bestselling book Blink in which he regaled readers with riveting stories of intuition gone very right (an antiquities expert has a "gut feeling" that a Greek sculpture is a fake, and turns out to be right thereby saving the Getty Museum $10 million) and intuition gone very wrong (the NYPD shooting of immigrant Amadou Diallo as the result of a tragically incorrect snap decision). But Kahneman's book finally does what Gladwell's failed to do back then: offer some solid way of discerning when we should respect our gut feelings, and when we should be deeply suspicious of them. Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002, has produced what will undoubtedly be the general reader's bible on the science of intuition versus deliberation. The book is not exactly written in the easy, breeze style of Gladwell, but the prose is crystal-clear if not decorative, and will be easily understandable to anyone willing to think a bit about thinking. It should be required reading for anyone charged with making important decisions, or anyone voting for those who do.

Split-Second Persuasion: The Ancient Art and New Science of Changing Minds by Kevin Dutton

 Split-Second Persuasion
We've all had, at one time or another, an encounter with a Super-Persuader, one of those people who seem to know exactly how to get someone to do what they want, as if tapping into some Jedi mind control knowledge. If we're lucky, the encounter wasn't with a psychopath, whose instinctive persuasive gifts are accompanied by an ethical deficit. In this rollicking book, Dutton serves up some compelling stories of masterful persuasion while grounding them in current scientific knowledge of the mental shortcuts we so often take, and describes how these shortcuts can be exploited without our awareness. This book makes a nice lighter companion volume to Kahneman's more thorough tome on fast versus slow thinking.

The Most Human Human: What Talking to Computers Teaches Us About What it Means to Be Alive by Brian Christian

 The Most Human Human
Researchers in Artificial Intelligence have yet to produce a computer that talks like an actual human being. But they're edging closer. At the annual Loebner Prize competition, judges interact with both humans and chatbots (computer programs that are designed to "converse" with human users) hidden away in a different room, and they try to guess whether which is which. The judges' scores are used to award the Most Human Computer prize (to the program that fools the greatest number of judges into thinking it is human) and the most Human Human prize (to the human that convinces the greatest number of judges that he/she is not a machine). In 2009, author and computer scientist Brian Christian signed up as a human confederate, with the ambition of winning the Most Human Human award. Christian uses his experience in the competition to frame an eclectic set of observations and meditations about our feeling that language is (or should be) a uniquely human activity, how human communication works, where computers succeed or fail at it, and why we sometimes communicate more like machines than like true human beings.

You are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws and the Politics of Identity by Robert Lane Greene

 You Are What You Speak
If you've ever received thirty lashes of the tongue by a grammar nazi for your allegedly sloppy use of language—and have suspected that perhaps the judgments of the self-proclaimed language expert were grounded more in bias than in logic—this is the book for you. Language is one of the most deeply misunderstood of human activities, and Greene, a writer for The Economist, explores why people often adhere so passionately to mistaken beliefs about the nature of human language, and how deeply illogical things can get when language takes a political turn. The book treats the reader to a satisfying takedown of Lynne Truss's grammar manual Eats, Shoots & Leaves; it provides a historical tour of how nineteenth-century European nationalism gave rise to the novel idea of national languages while trying to stamp out the languages that people really spoke; and it documents why proposing legislation to enshrine English as the official language of the United States is a little bit like feeling the need to pass a law decreeing that the sun will rise every day.

What Language Is (And What It Isn't and What It Could Be) by John McWhorter

 What Language Is
Another great book by a professional de-bunker of language myths. To linguists like McWhorter, hearing language mavens make pronouncements about the need to protect "correct English" from sliding into a chaotic disorder that is guaranteed to turn our minds into tangles of illogical thought is like hearing an amateur biologist wringing his hands over the prospect of spontaneous genetic mutations occurring in biological organisms. Language changes, says McWhorter. Get over it. And guess what? English is already chaotic and disorderly, always has been. And if you think our bastard English tongue with its many influences from other languages looks bad, you should try learning a "pure" language like Navaho, which has evolved into an impenetrable thicket of irregular grammatical forms and exceptions to rules. Along with dozens of specimens of linguistic exotica that look like alien life forms to the average monolingual speaker of English, McWhorter offers some fascinating ideas about why languages change, what causes some of them to be messier than others, and what this all means for our miraculous ability to learn what on the face of it, looks like an un-learnable system for communication.

Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man by Mark Changizi

Quick: Which two achievements are found in every human society ever discovered on the planet, while at the same time eluding every known animal species? To many, the universal and uniquely human activities of language and music must surely be inscribed in our DNA. Animals seem mostly incapable of making sense of the long and complicated streams of sounds that make up our speech and our songs, while we do it effortlessly and without thinking. In this intriguing book, Changizi suggests that these hallmarks of human intelligence may simply be grafted onto much more basic abilities that are common to all animals: the ability to discern the sounds that are produced by objects and people moving around in the physical universe. For example, Changizi argues that a speech sound like "p" mimics the sound of one object striking another, while "f" mimics the sound of an object being dragged over a surface—and that language has simply co-opted for its own purposes an auditory system that evolved to interpret our basic physical surroundings. Not all academics will agree with Changizi's conclusions, but the book is bound to arouse curiosity about the "missing links" that made language and music possible, and get readers to start listening much more closely to boht the sounds that come out of their mouths and the sounds that surround them.

I'm the lead author of Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You And What This Says About You, and you can follow me on Twitter.