E-books/audiobooks review: non-fiction

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 May, 2013, 2:12pm

The Bonobo and the Atheist

by Frans de Waal

W.W. Norton


Animal lovers will not be surprised by primatologist Frans de Waal's conclusions in this book: morality is developed from the bottom up, not bequeathed from the heavens. That is to say one does not need religion (or laws) to tell humans (and other mammals) to do good. Empathy and altruism are developed in animals who understand the benefits of living within a group. The examples de Waal gives involve not only primates but also birds, elephants, dogs and dolphins. Grace, an African elephant, tries to lift another elephant that collapses. When the elephant eventually dies, Grace vocalises deep distress. An awareness of the importance of friendships and family, in primates at least, lead animals to reconcile after tiffs, de Waal adds, which see them trying to stay on good terms with those on whom they depend. Observation and research bolster de Waal's conclusion about the emotions of animals, which often defy scientific categorisations. This should be required reading for those tired of debates about atheism that centre on the (non)existence of God.

God's Hotel

by Victoria Sweet

Tantor Audio


You will wish that Victoria Sweet were your doctor after reading God's Hotel. She worked at San Francisco's Laguna Honda Hospital - a former almshouse that took in the sickest and poorest - for 20 years, during which time she also conducted PhD research into the work of 12th-century German nun Hildegard of Bingen, a mystic and composer who practised medieval medicine. Sweet explored the idea of doctors being "gardeners" tending plants, as opposed to mechanics fixing machines. Time was key to the healing process, something that seems to have been forgotten by modern medicine. Sweet, whose narration is compelling, offers case histories: for example, street sleeper Terry Becker, who, apart from everything else, developed a bedsore so enormous her spine was visible through a hole of decayed tissue. Sweet did what Hildegard would have done, and two and a half years later, Becker was discharged. "We were in no hurry, and neither was she," Sweet writes. But by 2010 the hospital had become a short-term centre, bringing an end to Sweet's dose of "slow medicine".