The List: Five civilising reads

In Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker argues that we are living in an era of unprecedented peace and civility. Here he considers books that have helped bring this about.

1. ‘Oliver Twist’ (1838)

Charles Dickens opened the minds of Victorian readers to the cruel treatment of children in orphanages and workhouses. But alongside its social value, Oliver Twist is especially powerful because of its literary merit. One aspect of this is Dickens’s dark wit, which is morally condemnatory without being sanctimonious. My favourite line must be the description of children sent to workhouses “without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing”.

2. ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ (1852)

In the 19th century, many people thought about slavery in abstract terms – one argument, for example, posited that it was a paternalistic form of protection. But in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, readers were put into the position of the slaves and it became impossible to maintain that pretence. The book played a major role in propelling the Abolitionist movement into widespread acceptance, and legend has it that when Abraham Lincoln was introduced to Stowe, he hailed her as “the little lady who started this big war”.

3. ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (1929)

Before the first world war, war wasn’t thought of as a calamitous accident or a grim necessity but as a positive force in human affairs. The British historian JA Cramb warned that peace would leave the world “sunk in bovine content”. But it’s easy to say those things if you’ve never encountered the horrors of war – and what Erich Maria Ramarque’s book did was highlight the waste and suffering of the soldiers’ experience. I read it while researching Better Angels and realised that it was a turning point. By the 1930s, people started to consider it asinine, even monstrous, to praise war as an institution.

4. ‘Night’ (1960)

Historically speaking, survivors of atrocities did not generally narrate their experiences. Having experienced genocide or a siege was considered a humiliation. Moreover, memories were often so painful that survivors wanted to repress them. One result of this was history being told by the victors, but that changed in the 20th century. In Night, Elie Wiesel re-lives his memories of the Holocaust in all their horror: one passage even describes a child being hanged.

5. ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ (1969)

It’s easy to point out the atrocities of your enemy but it’s far more painful to admit that your own side can commit great harm – even in the midst of a morally justified effort. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut made me (and many others) more aware of the Allied firebombing of Dresden, which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians. I think it’s far more civilising to look at your own practices than to demonise the enemy.

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