Steven Pinker recommends books to make you an optimist

There’s hope for the environment, human progress is dazzling – and the world, according to PG Wodehouse, is beautiful

The big prizes go to books on war, terror, cancer and extinction, feeding our morbid curiosity about the gruesome ways in which things can go wrong. But there is an underappreciated genre of books that recount the facts of progress. These improvements are not as photogenic as the bursting bombs and oil-soaked birds, and any author who presents the bright side, no matter how data-driven, is likely to be mocked as a Pollyanna or Pangloss. But rational optimism has inspired graceful, witty narratives, and passionate defences of the Enlightenment ideal that knowledge and sympathy can improve the human condition. For every plague, horseman and reaper, there are several sparkling books on how we are subduing them.

For every plague, horseman, and reaper, there are several sparkling books on how we are ...

‘Reason is non-negotiable’: Steven Pinker on the Enlightenment

In an extract from his new book Enlightenment Now, the Harvard psychologist extols the relevance of 18th-century thinking

• Read an interview with Steven Pinker on Enlightenment Now here

What is enlightenment? In a 1784 essay with that question as its title, Immanuel Kant answered that it consists of “humankind’s emergence from its self-incurred immaturity”, its “lazy and cowardly” submission to the “dogmas and formulas” of religious or political authority. Enlightenment’s motto, he proclaimed, is: “Dare to understand!” and its foundational demand is freedom of thought and speech.

What is the Enlightenment? There is no official answer, because the era named by Kant’s essay was never demarcated by opening and closing ceremonies like the Olympics, nor are its tenets stipulated in an oath or creed. The Enlightenment is conventionally placed in the last two thirds of the 18th century, though it flowed out of the Scientific Revolution and the ...

Steven Pinker: ‘Many of the alleged rules of writing are actually superstitions’

Bad English has always been with us, but clarity and style are far more important than observing dusty usage diktats

People often ask me why I followed my 2011 book on the history of violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature, with a writing style manual. I like to say that after having written 800 pages on torture, rape, world war, and genocide, it was time to take on some really controversial topics like fused participles, dangling modifiers, and the serial comma.

It’s not much of an exaggeration. After two decades of writing popular books and articles about language, I’ve learned that people have strong opinions on the quality of writing today, with almost everyone finding it deplorable. I’ve also come to realise that people are confused about what exactly they should deplore. Outrage at mispunctuation gets blended with complaints about bureaucratese and academese, which are conflated with disgust ...