Matthew Taylor's top books of the year

The RSA's Matthew Taylor cherry-picks four must-reads of 2012.

by Matthew Taylor
Last Updated: 09 Jul 2013
1) The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion, by Jonathan Haidt

American academic and writer Jonathan Haidt changed my life. His book The Happiness Hypothesis not only made me think afresh about how to be contented but was also one reason I was so keen for the RSA to develop its work on understanding the foundations of human behaviour. So I was very much looking forward to his new book, The Righteous Mind. I wasn't disappointed.

In essence, the book makes two big arguments in ways that combine pacey writing, humour, scholarship and masses of evidence. First, Haidt demonstrates the truth of science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein's one liner 'man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalising animal'. Rather than reason driving our day-to-day reactions to moral dilemmas, it is more often a case of reason searching around for ways to justify our instinctive responses.

Second, the book explores the difference between political views of morality, concluding that the conservative right engages a wider range of our core 'moral taste receptors' than the liberal left. If progressives want to sway people who come from a different moral starting point, they will have to respect and engage with deep-seated instincts for loyalty, authority and the sacred.

2) Breakout Nations: In pursuit of the next economic miracles, by Ruchir Sharma

I am always on the lookout for accessible but authoritative primers on the way the world - and particularly the world economy - is changing. So, Breakout Nations by Ruchir Sharma, head of emerging markets at Morgan Stanley, is a godsend. As well as being pretty comprehensive, the book's great strength lies in telling the reader many things that challenge lazy dinner table assumptions. For example, we should probably stop using the phrase BRIC as these four countries (or five if you add an 'S' and include South Africa) have very different likelihoods of success.

Sharma's pessimism about Russia reflects what now seems to be an emerging - and welcome - consensus among economic development analysts, namely, the importance of civic culture and strong governance. Another of Sharma's typically incisive insights provides a very different take on the Moslem world: two of the short list of middle-income countries that he tips for fast and sustainable development are Turkey and Indonesia.

3) Twilight of the Elites: America after meritocracy, by Christopher Hayes

The wonders of international online shopping mean I can make my third choice without having to apologise for the book not having been published in the UK. It has long been a mystery to me that so many people are in thrall to the myth that the US - with its high and rising levels of social inequality - is the land of opportunity.

No one who reads Twilight of the Elites, by Christopher Hayes, would be able any longer to entertain that illusion. But Hayes does more than expose the limited and declining scope for relative social mobility in America. In clear and engaging prose he explains why this is the case.

What is more, and this for me is the really big idea, he shows how, by increasing and legitimising inequality, the ideology of meritocracy makes impossible precisely the society it claims to foster - one where people's success depends on their efforts, not an accident of birth.

4) Teach Us to Sit Still: A sceptic's search for health and healing, by Tim Parks

My final choice is two years old but I read it this year, and so should you. For ages I have excused my fearful unwillingness to act on the evidence that meditation is profoundly good for body and soul on the grounds that it is all a bit mystical and not for a practically minded guy like me. Well, novelist and essayist Tim Parks was just as sceptical when it was suggested to him that going on Buddhist retreats might help with years of debilitating pelvic pain. By the end of his enthralling and often very amusing book, Teach Us to Sit Still, Parks is still a man of the material world but he is also in a lot less pain and starting every day with an hour of meditation. I have already made one of my 2013 new year resolutions - I am going on retreat.

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Matthew Taylor is chief executive of the RSA. Podcasts and videos of Jonathan Haidt and Ruchir Sharma talking about their books can be found on www.thersa.org/events

 

MATTHEW TAYLOR'S TOP FOUR TITLES IN FULL

- The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion

Jonathan Haidt

Allen Lane

£20.00

 

- Breakout Nations: In pursuit of the next economic miracles

Ruchir Sharma

Allen Lane

£25.00

 

- Twilight of the Elites: America after meritocracy

Christopher Hayes

Crown Publishing Group (NY)

£16.24

 

- Teach Us to Sit Still: A sceptic's search for health and healing

Tim Parks

Vintage

£8.99

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