This book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. It’s available from November 10; RRP $32.99 for trade PB, $15.99 for ebook.
An important thing to know about me is that I am a very big Hans Rosling fan. I think the first thing I ever saw from him was his TED talk about the Magic Washing Machine – an example of how to think about poverty, and the spread of people in terms of income across the globe, and the difference that a washing machine makes to everyday life. And then there’s the greatest four minutes of stats you’ll ever see: 200 countries, 200 years, in 4 minutes (and 1948 was a great year). It highlights one of Rosling’s key points that he wants people to know: overall, the world has improved dramatically over the last two centuries. (With the caveat that he acknowledged profoundly in his first book, that many part of the world are better but still bad – like a premature baby in a NICU, who is still ill but better than previously.) And if you want to know just how much of a badass he was, watch this interview with a Danish journalist.
… so as you can imagine, when I learned that Rosling had written a memoir (with journalist Fanny Hargestam) in the year before he died (too young), I was very, very excited. His first book, Factfulness, co-written with his son and daughter-in-law (who worked with him at Gapminder) was mostly about the sorts of preconceived notions that impact on the way people view the world (like the Generalisation Instinct that makes us believe everyone in ‘that’ category – race, religion, gender – is exactly the same). Within it, though, were also all sorts of stories about Rosling’s own life – which was a fascinating one.
This is not a standard (auto)biography or even memoir. Rosling wasn’t writing it just to talk about himself, or even just to reflect on his own life, as far as I can tell. His purpose was to use his life and his experiences to teach readers about the world – hence the title. The man who started as a doctor, became a researcher and then a statistician was, in the end, a teacher. You can see that in his TED talks, and get a clear sense of it when he despairs about the lack of knowledge people have about the world. (Many people who take the Ignorance Survey over at Gapminder do worse, in Rosling’s words, than chimps – they at least would choose at random, whereas most people seem to have overwhelmingly negative views about the world.)
This book is amazing. Rosling’s life was amazing, and the writing is beautifully simple. He starts in Sweden, becoming a doctor; spends time in Mozambique as a doctor; investigates a debilitating illness there, and later a similar problem in Cuba; gets into research, and eventually into teaching, and develops the way of presenting stats that – with the bubble charts his son and daughter-in-law created – really made him famous. Which gets him to Davos, and speaking to people like Melinda Gates. (When Factfulness came out, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave a copy to every US college grad that year.) Rosling doesn’t shy away from personal details – some tragic, some wonderful. And he also doesn’t shy away from sharing the difficult, and sometimes bad, decisions that he made over his life. Everything he talks about is aimed at helping the reader to understand him for the sake of understanding how he made his decisions – and what that says about the world. One of the most difficult sections is when he talks about working in an under-resourced, under-staffed, hospital in Mozambique, post-independence. He has to make incredibly difficult decisions. And sometimes they have poor outcomes. Rosling doesn’t attempt to cover that up; it’s all in the context of understanding the world.
One of the great revelations of this book is Agneta Rosling, Hans’ wife. She seems an amazing woman – definitely a match for him. And let’s be honest, you’d have to be, because Hans comes across as one of those people it’s incredible to watch and listen to but would actually be difficult to live with. Agneta had her own career, and actively worked with Hans in some stages of their lives, and supported him – and was supported back.
I read this book very quickly, because it’s an easy read and I really wanted to know everything. There were moments, though, where I had to put it down: occasionally to stare at nothing and consider the world, occasionally to shed a tear, and sometimes to just breathe and let new knowledge settle. I don’t tend to read modern biographies; they usually bore me. This one, though, I will be praising to everyone for a long time. Highly, highly recommended.
It’s hard for me to adequately convey how amazing this book is, and the extent to which I think every privileged person in the “Western world” (a fraught term, I know, and one that’s even fraught-er after reading this) ought to read the book.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation offered a free copy to every US graduate at any level in 2018. So that’s one measure of how important a book it is.
“Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think” is the subtitle and an excellent summary of the entire book. If you think you know the world and don’t need your mindset readjusted, go here: http://forms.gapminder.org/s3/test-2018 . Then come back. I’ll wait.
Did you do really poorly? If you stayed on the site and looked around, you’ll know that so do the vast majority of people who take the test. In fact, humans tend to do worse than random, which is a most ridiculous idea regarding facts about the world.
Some of the most important things I got out of this book:
- The idea of data being therapy. Hans would have said he’s not an optimist – he’s not “looking on the bright side”. He looks at data. He’s not making assumptions about the world, he’s looking at what the world is actually like. And things are not as bad as we apparently think they are.
- Which leads me to “bad and better”. Of course things in the world are not perfect; he’s not suggesting they are, nor is he suggesting that things like war in Syria ought to be ignored. However, on a global scale, things are better today than they were in the past – and better than you think they are. His metaphor for this idea is the premature baby doing well in ICU: after a few days, are things better? Yes. Are things still dicey? Yes. Two things at the same time: bad and better. This, for me, is immensely reassuring as a phrase – I can be concerned about Syria, or Yemen, or whatever else, and still know that for most people around the world, things are better than they used to be.
- How to think about statistics. It’s all well and good to give me today’s stats… but how do they compare to last year, and last decade? This is a question I don’t ask often enough and ought to do more of.
- Populations statistics don’t necessarily move in straight lines.
- A comparison of where “developing” countries (a phrase that Hans loathes, for reasons outlined in the book) are today compared with “developed” countries (same caveat) in the past – how much faster, for instance, the fifty countries of sub-Saharan Africa have reduced their child mortality rates than Sweden ever did (p171; he often uses Sweden as an exemplar).
Of course, I am coming at this as a long-time Hans devotee (although some people in my circle are even bigger fans…). The Magic Washing Machine was a revolutionary way for me to think about wealth and time and work. In Qatar, he discussed the connection between religion and babies… and the fact that there isn’t one: it’s about girls’ education. And then there’s his brilliant 200 countries in 200 years, which makes even my data-dubious heart glow. And then there’s the fact that Hans died in 2017, while the book was nearing completion. I cried while I read the introduction, because in my head it was Hans’ lovely Swedish accent reading it and I knew he was gone and honestly that just felt heartbreaking.
Even if you don’t usually read non-fiction, I think you would do well to read this. If you are in business, or have some sort of connection to policy-making in government or an NGO or banking, you should read this. If you know someone in those areas, this would make a most ideal gift for any reason whatsoever. This book should become ubiquitous on shelves, and it should be ubiquitous when we talk about how to keep improving the world.