The Wisdom of Psychopaths by Kevin Dutton
A few years ago I was diagnosed as a 'good psychopath' – an attribute I share with plenty of soldiers, surgeons, barristers and sportspeople. We aren't Hitchcock-style villains intent on murder, but what we do have is the ability to dial-up and down our emotions (such as fear, empathy and anger) to give us focus and improve our performance. The person who introduced me to this theory (and in fact diagnosed me!) is Oxford Professor Kevin Dutton. This, his first book, is absolutely fascinating and actually explained quite a lot about me (although my wife claimed she already knew!).
Our Inner Ape: The Best and Worst of Human Nature by Franz de Waal
I came across Franz de Waal through his TED lectures – I'm a big fan of them. He’s worked with chimpanzees for 20 years and this book explains what we can learn about human nature by studying them. It shows that it is not only violence and aggression that we 'inherited' from our animal ancestors, but actually just as much kindness and empathy. These primates exhibit the same power struggles, insecurities and conflicts as we do – it’s a really interesting read.
Agent Zigzag by Ben McIntyre
Double agent Eddie Chapman is one of World War II’s national heroes with a back story that would seem too far-fetched if this book was a work of fiction. East End gangster, lover of rich women, and international spy. He was a real-life James Bond, in a world of espionage usually reserved for graduates of Oxford and Cambridge. It’s a great book.
On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Dave Grossman
This one is a bit heavy, so probably not the ideal Christmas stocking filler. It explores a really important topic: the dilemma faced by military and law enforcement when faced with a ‘kill or be killed’ situation. As a species, we are instinctively programmed to preserve life, but regardless, we are pretty good at taking it. The book explains why we find it easy to do so but also looks at the after-effects someone feels after being in that situation.
127 Hours by Aron Ralston
I have often talked about Touching the Void by Joe Simpson and the impact that had on me as a writer; it taught me the importance of description and atmosphere and this book is another great example of this. Making non-fiction accounts compelling and gripping is not always easy but Ralston really makes you feel the fear, thirst, hunger and despondency of being trapped in a canyon, miles from anywhere for five days, facing the impossible decision of amputating a limb or staying there to die. It’s an incredible story of survival but also a very well-crafted account.
Andy McNab's latest book, Whatever It Takes, is out now.