I've just finished Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, and my immediate reaction is one of...relief. 1056 pages in the paperback edition, of which 841 pages are straight text. 841 pages! No book, however good, should be that long. Well, we can perhaps excuse the odd novel - War and Peace, Proust - but no non-fiction book should be that long.
He always turns in big books, our Steven: The Blank Slate, 528 pages; How the Mind Works, 672 pages; his previous one, The Stuff of Thought, a relatively trim 512 pages. And they are, generally, worth reading. He's an exceptionally lucid writer. If I wanted some abstruse point of scientific enquiry explained to me, Pinker would be my number one choice. And this book, The Better Angels, is an important book, no doubt: about how, despite the pessimists and the prophets of doom who are always with us, things are, in fact getting better, and show every sign of continuing to get better, for a number of reasons which are explicated carefully - and at great length. But...
The psychology of reading an-800 pager is different from the usual 300 or 400 pager. You take a deep breath, as it were, and plunge in, knowing that determination is required above and beyond the normal book-reading call of duty. You start off at a run, storming through 50, 60 page sessions at a sitting. But always you're checking, looking at the page numbers. I'll make it to page 350 this time, you say. You check. It's still only page 337. You keep checking. The 50 and 60 page bursts give way to 20 or 30 pages at a time. You pick up the book with an increasingly heavy heart. Not half-way through yet! Some days you only manage 10 pages. Some days you don't pick it up at all.
So why continue? Why carry on? I'm past the age where I feel I have to finish a book once I've started it. But this is worthwhile. There are important points being made. And I'm by temperament very much inclined to accept what Pinker's saying. I hate all that cheap cynicism; all that John Gray style the-so-called-enlightenment-was-a-fraud stuff. So, yes, I ploughed on, despite some dark-night-of-the-soul type experiences round the 600 to 700 page mark. And I don't regret it. But doesn't the man have an editor?? Does it really need to be this long? Isn't it, even, counter-productive? At 300 pages in I was fully convinced; 300 pages later I was having serious doubts. Yes, there's a strong finish - a fast last lap, as it were. But even so...
I wouldn't want to be too specific about where the cuts should come. That's not my job. But some of the descriptions of social psychology experiments in the later stages of the book were way way too much. The man just can't bring himself to leave anything out, however slight the relevance. Is there anything more dispiriting than reading psychology experiments? Especially ones involving brain scans.
The weakness of Pinker's case are fairly clear. First, of course, the horrors of the early and mid 20th Century, very much within living memory...Stalin, Hitler, Mao. He struggles manfully with that....there's been a spectacular decline since then, he says, and anyway even including those mass slaughters the long-term trend is down. In fact his argument is more sophisticated than that but it seems such a long time ago that I read it - back in the early 100s - that I've forgotten it now. Then there's the blip in the Sixties and Seventies when crime in the West went up, against the general downward trend - a point which has had some recent publicity because of the lead in petrol connection. Pinker has provided a typically sensible response to that here (pdf).
In general, then, a fine book, but if you haven't read it I'd be tempted to wait till it comes out in a shorter children's version.