The comfy couch is at the top of this post, so that means I have another submission for the Non-fiction Reading Challenge hosted by The Introverted Reader. I stumbled across today’s book in an online bargain book sale and couldn’t resist adding it to my cart. The Norm Chronicles: Stories and Numbers about Danger by David Spiegelhalter and Michael Blastland is a foray into the myriad of risks and dangers that plague our everyday life. Have you ever wondered just how dangerous car travel is in comparison to air travel? Or whether having that extra sausage at breakfast will really increase your risk of cancer? Well this is the book for you! Rather than just present bland and confusing statistics, The Norm Chronicles delves into the consequences of risky behaviour and tries to balance the numbers against the personal stories.
Here’s the blurb from Profile Books:
Meet Norm. He’s 31, 5’9″, just over 13 stone, and works a 39 hour week. He likes a drink, doesn’t do enough exercise and occasionally treats himself to a bar of chocolate (milk). He’s a pretty average kind of guy. In fact, he is the average guy in this clever and unusual take on statistical risk, chance, and how these two factors affect our everyday choices. Watch as Norm (who, like all average specimens, feels himself to be uniquely special), and his friends careful Prudence and reckless Kelvin, turns to statistics to help him in life’s endless series of choices – should I fly or take the train? Have a baby? Another drink? Or another sausage? Do a charity skydive or get a lift on a motorbike? Because chance and risk aren’t just about numbers – it’s about what we believe, who we trust and how we feel about the world around us. From a world expert in risk and the bestselling author of The Tiger That Isn’t (and creator of BBC Radio 4’s More or Less), this is a commonsense (and wildly entertaining) guide to personal risk and decoding the statistics that represent it.
If you are a reader of the internet, you will be aware that anything from eating food that you haven’t hunted/grown/cultivated yourself, to letting your child play alone in the backyard to expressing an opinion at a friendly barbeque could all be considered HIGHLY DANGEROUS. It seems that every time one turns around these days there’s another behavior that seemed perfectly commonplace before that now has some kind of risk attached to it. What The Norm Chronicles does brilliantly (and with plenty of humour) is demystify the numbers and rhetoric and cut through to the likelihood of various unpleasant events happening to you, while deconstructing the fear that can run rampant through a populace.
Each chapter deals with a particular event or category of risk using Norm (the average guy), Prudence (the anxious, overprotective mother) and Kelvin (the danger-loving, risk-dismissing, wild man) as examples. The great thing about the format of the book is that while the assertions are based on statistics and measurable data, the authors never discount the potency of our almost unavoidable tendency to imagine worst-case scenarios as they apply to our own lives. The “what-ifs” that cripple our rational minds – “What if I let my child walk alone for 500 metres to school and they’re hit by a car? Kidnapped? Blinded by a swooping magpie? Slip on a discarded cigarette and break both their legs??!” – are neatly placed beside the statistical likelihood of these things actually happening.
Strangely enough, this almost made the “what-ifs” worse for me because, as the authors note in one chapter, it is impossible to “beat the odds” – even if the odds are 1 in 20 million that something tragic could occur to you, there is still a chance that you could be the one!
(But how likely is that? Not very. Miniscule likelihood actually. But still, it has to happen to someone. It could be you. It could be ME!)
On the plus side, it turns out that as long as you are older than one year old, you’ve passed the riskiest time of life. That’s a relief, isn’t it?
Overall, I found this to be a fascinating and funny read and one that would be a great conversation starter for a book club. Not that I’ve ever been part of a book club outside the shelf. Far too much risk involved. This is the kind of book that works just as well for dipping in and out as it does as a read-from-cover-to-cover. If you’ve ever wondered about the actual risks associated with train travel, using drugs or having a baby (or indeed, any combination of those three and more!) then this book is essential reading.
I’d have to say that Norm turned out to be better than average in this instance. As a side note, if you’d like to try before you buy (or borrow from the library), the book also has a connected website that has a few interactive fascinating facts to whet your appetite. You can find it here.
Progress toward Nonfiction Reading Challenge Goal: 8/10
Until next time,