The Language Instinct

18.10.2023 |

Episode #9 of the course 100 Nonfiction Books Everyone Should Read by John Robin


Welcome back to our course on 100 Nonfiction books everyone should read!

Last lesson, we explored the family, parenting, and education category. Put together with the previous seven categories, we have expanded a bit more on relationships, with a focus on family and upbringing.

We’re nearly done expanding the map! With two lessons to go, where do we go next? Welcome to lesson 9, where we’ll now explore another category which covers the rest of the academic bases. Get ready to add 10 more great books to our must-read shelf!


Music, Art, Literature, and Language

Top recommendation: The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker.

This next category rounds out world and academic knowledge, more along the lines of the humanities. There are many great books about art, literature, music, and language, making this category yet another gold mine of material that will acquaint you with the riches offered by the nonfiction field.

The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker is my top pick for this category. A cognitive scientist and linguist, Pinker’s 1994 book presents a unique view that has endured today as one of the leading theories on where human language comes from.

Pinker’s vivid illustrations, with many examples from his research, show how dependent our ability to think is on the specific grammars we pick up from those around us. I used to think of language as something one learns, with certain rules and correct or incorrect ways to speak it, but Pinker’s book showed me how much uncertainty there is in any language—indeed, The Language Instinct made me appreciate just how much a language is living and breathing, and like any living creature, continually in a state of growth and evolution.

Pinker draws a lot from adaptation biology and presents his book in such a way that changed my perspective on language and thinking in a way that inspired me to be more creative, spontaneous, and expressive, and I hope you’ll find it just as valuable!

Runners up:

Art: The Definitive Visual Guide by Andrew Graham Dixon is a close runner-up to The Language Instinct. If you’re someone who is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of art, art periods, art movements, and artists, and just want to be able to put all the pieces together and appreciate it as a whole—then this book is the perfect place to get your bearings and acquaint yourself. Spanning the last 30,000 years of art history, with more than 700 artists covered, and 2500 works featured, this book not only covers the periods and highlights of each movement, it also explains how to apply interpretation, as well as understanding many of the techniques that were used in the different styles. This book even provides some art history! I can’t recommend it enough!

How Music Works by David Byrne is another worthy contender for the best book in this category. There are many great books on music history, and the subject is very nuanced, but Byrne manages to touch on the subject in a much more profound way—a bit like Pinker in The Language Instinct. Byrne explores numerous cultures as well as historical periods to ask the question, “What is it that makes music the phenomenon it is?” I found that pairing this book with The Language Instinct invited me to think even deeper on the idea of language as an instinct to make sound—for Byrne also touches on the evolutionary depths of our desire to make sound, be it in the form of song or words.

A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland is another often-overlooked book that contains a wealth of information. Like with Dixon’s Art: The Definitive Visual Guide, this book will help explore the vast map of literature and help you see how it unfolded over time. Using numerous authors, works, and periods, Sutherland takes you on a tour of literature, from its origins to the present day. I found Sutherland’s approach to this topic fascinating. He managed to make the authors and key works of literature become like characters in a vast epic spanning thousands of years, and I appreciated how each came about, in the order they did, how various authors influenced one another. I’d always wanted to find a book called, “The history of books and authors told like a story,” and in this book, my quest was complete!

Languages of the World: An Introduction by Asya Pereltsvaig is a similar treatment as Dixon and Sutherland’s “complete tour” approach, and was my top pick when wanting a book that would explain to me the full picture of world languages, their history and interconnection, as well as telling me enough about them to have an overview. This book is an excellent way to appreciate the sheer diversity of the many languages spoken around the world, and as I read it, I felt like I was taking a tour of the globe!

Honorable mentions:

Here are five honorable mentions to round out our list of 10:

How to Speak Any Language Fluently by Alex Rawlings, a fun, easy-to-follow guide to the process of learning a new language, which applies to any language you might want to learn.

Language and Mind by Noam Chomsky, a more in-depth discussion on the neurology of language, great to pair with The Language Instinct as Pinker draws a lot of Chomsky’s pioneering theory.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss, a book on punctuation foibles that’s also a fascinating exploration of the subtleties of meaning we often take for granted in how we word ourselves.

The Story of Art by Ernst Gombrich, a great complement to Art: The Definitive Guide, with more in-depth treatment of the history side of art.

The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross, a fascinating tour of the last 100 years of music history, to help you understand our modern music world and how it came to be.

Stay tuned for tomorrow, when we’ll see what top 10 books await in our final category!


Recommended movie

Chevalier (2022), about French-Caribbean musician Joseph Bologne, a contemporary of Mozart


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