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Monday, November 29, 2021

The best smart thinking and self-improvement books to buy for Christmas 2021

Once upon a time three brothers, working together at New York’s Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital, discovered that a histamine pill worked better for the mentally ill than electroshock therapy, and so played their part in revolutionising post-war psychiatric medicine. Given his book is called Empire of Pain (Picador, £20), one may rightly guess that Patrick Keefe is setting this family up for a fall. And what a fall: the Sacklers, in learning how to turn drugs into money, seem to have forgotten their humanity. The aggressive over-prescription of oxycontin, made by their company, contributed to an opioid crisis which in total led to the deaths of over half a million Americans. This is a ghastly story, told with rigour and aplomb. 

The corruption that attends vast wealth seems to have eluded Bill Gates: he might genuinely want to save the world. How to Avoid a ­Climate Disaster (Allen Lane, £20) finds him studying hard problems: marginal costs, global equity, steel, cement and (yes) IT. Like any techno-realist, Gates can be twitted over the detail. He underestimates how viral the vegan message has become in the West, and underplays the nuclear waste problem. Still, here is a man worth arguing with.

One thing’s for certain: climate change on its own will not bring down our civilisation. Catastrophes are why we have civilisations in the first place, and when societies collapse, it’s their own silly fault for having grown sclerotic, knotted and ungovernable. Niall Ferguson’s Doom (Allen Lane, £25) attempts to relate this epic picture of rise and fall to the responses of governments across the world to the Covid pandemic. It’s anecdotal, partisan and oddly touching in its exhortation to keep calm and carry on.

Jordan Peterson is the living exemplar of that advice. A practising Canadian psychologist, rendered dangerously frail by prescription medicine, he has become for some a demagogue, for others the imminent second coming of Christ. The advice in Beyond Order (Allen Lane, £25), a follow-up to his global bestseller 12 Rules for Life, reflects some new and painful awareness of mortality. But it was always Peterson’s intimate, self-revealing style that made his life advice so powerful, so energising, and so hard to reduce to politics (though God knows people tried).

Peterson’s war against the fogginess of convenient and avoidant thinking echoes throughout Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks (Bodley Head, £16.99), a plea to abandon middling priorities and embrace the difficult and the important in life. To do so means resigning oneself to what the Germans, in their genius, dub “Eigenzeit” – that is, the time it takes to do something properly.

Stephen Walker’s Beyond (William Collins, £20) celebrates the world’s first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, who had patience and fortitude in spades, not just to weather the Soviets’ early space programme, but his strange celebrity afterlife, too. In the US, celebrity dogged the Nasa astronauts even before their historic flights. Walker straddles public and private worlds to bring us intimate portraits of the Cold War’s most gentle warriors.

Tristan Gooley’s fortitude is nothing to sneeze at, either. Years ago, even as the rest of us were following our new-fangled in-car GPS systems into fields or over the edges of cliffs, the writer was flying and sailing, solo, across the Atlantic, guided by the stars. In The Secret World of Weather (Sceptre, £20) the author of bestsellers The Natural Navigator and How to Read Water entices us to read – and even predict – the weather, simply by paying attention to the things (trees, buildings, surfaces) all around us.

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