Any non-fiction reader will know the feeling: you’ve read the full book, but there’s that one idea, expressed so eloquently, that it blows your mind – how had you never thought of things that way? How had you never heard that fact?
Maybe you took a photo of the passage and posted it to social media; maybe you told the fact to any stranger you met at a party for the next year; maybe it even changed your life in some small but tangible way?
So, we asked a host of Penguin authors: What is the best idea you’ve ever read in a non-fiction book? Here’s what they said.
Alison Goldsworthy: Finding the holes in the ‘meritocracy’
It was Jeff Pfeffer’s Power that finally helped me grasp why some people keep failing upwards. In Power he highlights that once people have invested part of themselves in someone – recommended an associate for a job role, say, or nominated someone for political office – their failure can quickly become our failure. So, action is rarely taken against them; if anything, people can end up with more influence through poor performance.
Once you start to spot these dynamics you see them everywhere, realising the glorious plot holes in many claims of meritocracy. It’s easy to become cynical as a result, but Pfeffer instead frames it as a great way to spot unhealthy dynamics and asshats. It a rare dose of realpolitik, and he doesn’t stop there. In our Changed My Mind podcast, he explains why the current mantra to ‘be authentic’ is terrible advice for most people. Pfeffer helped reshape my view of the world. Working hard and doing good isn’t enough to reach the top. You have to understand and master power dynamics to get there.
Alison Goldsworthy is the author of Poles Apart.
Mary Ann Sieghart: How horses changed human history
What was the most important factor in the development of human society? The domestication of the horse. That’s the big idea in Barry Cunliffe’s book By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean, and it blew my mind. “Of course!” I thought, as I read his explanation. Horses – particularly once they were trained to pull chariots and carts – allowed nomads to move whole communities, including the very young and the very old, to more fertile lands as climate and seasons changed.
Horses allowed trade between far-away places, not just nearby settlements. Horses allowed men to fight effectively in battle, particularly against static infantry. If it weren’t for the relationship between humans and horses, we might still be primitive hunter-gatherers today.
Mary Ann Sieghart is the author of The Authority Gap.
Dave Goulson: How little of England's land is owned by the people
The Book of Trespass by Nick Hayes changed the way I see our countryside. Like most of us, I did not used to question the fact that the vast majority of our country is owned by a handful of people. I was happy to accept being restricted to footpaths, unconcerned that 92% of England is off limits to ordinary folk. Since reading this book, I have become discontented.
Vast areas of shared, common land were stolen from our ancestors by those who had the power but not the right to do so. We are mostly unaware that we still live in something close to a feudal system, barely changed in a thousand years, except that inequality continues to grow. Do read this excellent book, but beware, for it may make you resentful for the land we have lost.
Dave Goulson is the author of Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse.
Azeem Azhar: The ultimate power of agency
The most powerful idea I've come across is from Victor Frankl in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl was imprisoned by the Nazis for three years, one of the few to survive the torture, cruelty and privations of those death camps.
The heart of Frankl’s message is that however constrained, contained or restricted an environment, we may still have options, ways of expressing our will. There are so many insightful quotes to take from but perhaps the essence is this: “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”
Frankl’s book is neither a light nor easy read, but it is enlightening and it affords a way of thinking that changed the way I deal with tough situations in my own life. Ultimately, to choose one's poise, one’s stance, one’s gait – or, to use Frankl’s words, “one’s attitude” – in the face of difficulties has become a useful way of transcending those challenges.
Azeem Azhar, author of Exponential: How Accelerating Technology Is Leaving Us Behind and What to Do About It.
Lea Ypi: How happiness can be found in responsibility
The best idea I ever read in a book comes from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason: something called “the categorical imperative”. When I was a child, I was always told to do my duty and I always wondered why. Was it because doing my duty would bring good outcomes? Was it because grown-ups told me to? Was it because it was going to make me happy?
The “categorical imperative” helped me understand what the essence of morality is. The basic idea is that we are not required to do our duty because we expect certain rewards but because doing our duty is an expressive of our freedom. Happiness, by this account, is not the satisfaction of one’s desires or the pursuit of pleasure, but a condition that one may become worthy of if one acts virtuously. It may sound austere, but I found it liberating. Thinking about happiness in that way helped me shift the perspective from expectations of others to my own responsibilities to change things. It is very empowering.
Lea Ypi is the author of Free: Coming of Age at the End of History.
Ciaran Thapar: A key to powerful storytelling
The best idea I've read in a book is the ‘Hero's Journey’, now an archetypal concept known worldwide but first mapped out by mythologist Joseph Campbell in his 1949 classic Hero With a Thousand Faces. To form the idea, Campbell brought together a lifetime of worldly travel (albeit with some gaps, such as sub-Saharan Africa) to create a universal structure for myth-making and storytelling.
He not only provides a blueprint for creating powerful narrative one that I have turned to in my own writing and teaching – but explains the philosophical reasons why this blueprint even exists: humans tell stories to cope with reality, as a means of survival and interconnectivity. This basic idea helped me realise how stories can bring seemingly disparate people and cultures together across time, language and space, towards a common purpose or healing.
There is a reason why Campbell is now so widely appreciated, and cited in so much popular culture – from Disney script editors to George Lucas. His idea has been transformative and endlessly applicable. Cut Short would not exist if I hadn't read Campbell's work.
Ciaran Thapar is the author of Cut Short: Youth Violence, Loss and Hope in the City.
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