How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence

Michael Pollan


Almost enough to make one want to try them, this is a fine description of the history, biochemistry, and cultural significance of psychedelics. It walks a fine line between the materialistic and the spiritual: what do psychedelic trips signify, are they "just" drug experiences or do they connect with something else?

It's a book that's worth reading for any of its component parts. The history sheds light both on the counterculture of the 60's and on the genesis and evolution of moral panics of the sort that resulted in LSD being proscribed. The biochemistry does its best to reflect the latest scientific thinking, but also shows how much of neuroscience is still tied up with speculative and metaphorical models of what's happening in the brain. And the personal history of the author's own trips – carefully supervised and with plenty of trepidation on his part – go some way to showing how influential and persistent the effects of the drugs can be.

The book could do with some better copy-editing: it's repetitive in places. But well worth a read.

Finished on Sun, 23 Feb 2020 11:46:15 -0800.   Rating 4*/5*.

The Atrocity Archives (Laundry Files, #1)

Charles Stross


What happens when it turns out the HP Lovecraft was right, and that the monsters from without can be summoned and (to some extent) controlled by a perfectly rational experimental science? That's the premise of this book, the first of the "Laundry files" series, that combines horror, science fiction, comedy, and an exploration of the social hierarchies and deep plotting that turn up in civil service institutions.

Finished on Wed, 12 Feb 2020 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 5*/5*.

Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli in his World

Erica Benner


A different interpretation of Machiavelli than the common one, viewing him as a republican rather than as a supporter and facilitator of tyrants. It's an attractive and quite compelling thesis, and surprisingly (to me, anyway) one that was common amongst early readers of The prince before his reputation changed in later centuries.

Finished on Mon, 10 Feb 2020 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 5*/5*.

The Children of Húrin

J.R.R. Tolkien


The long-form collected version of the tale from The Silmarion. It's worth a read for a dedicated Tolkien fan (of which I am one), but in fairness doesn't add a lot more in either detail or texture to the previous text.

Finished on Sat, 11 Jan 2020 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 2*/5*.

Airhead: The Imperfect Art of Making News

Emily Maitlis


A choice collection of anecdotes from one of the best-known faces on British TV, at times hilarious and at times somewhere between shocking and terrifying in terms of how some of the figures who make the news actually behave, and how shallow they often are when questioned by someone who knows their stuff.

Finished on Thu, 02 Jan 2020 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 4*/5*.

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure

Greg Lukianoff


It's hard to know whether to be terrified or simply shocked by this book: it depends on whether you believe that the currents at work on US campuses must inevitably make their way to Europe. Certainly we see many of the same issues: a reduction in the resilience of the student population, a narrower focus, more stress. But we haven't (yet) seen the corollaries to the same extent: no-platforming, triggering, the equation of words with violence that leads to all sorts of impossible situations for academic institutions. Maybe the best way to treat this book is as a warning about one possible direction of travel: I still hope that we can keep universities as places where anyone can hold any opinion for which they can generate a reasoned and evidenced argument – and one that they're willing to defend intellectually against those with contrary ideas.

Finished on Wed, 01 Jan 2020 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 4*/5*.

Jack of Shadows

Roger Zelazny


A characteristic Zelazny mix of sci-fi and fantasy. You can clearly hear the echoes of Amber in the general set-up of the story, even though in a far less well-developed form.

Finished on Sun, 22 Dec 2019 08:27:01 -0800.   Rating 3*/5*.


James Burke


The original (I think) work of trying to weave the threads of technological change through history – and possibly still the best. In terms of the broad sweep of history and the wedding of social and scientific factors, it's hard to beat.

I don;t know how many of Burke's connections are genuinely novel to him: did anyone before postulate that the Black Death led to the emergence of automation by making machines cheaper than manpower for the first time? Or did he get it from an earlier source? Whichever: for a lot of people (myself included) this book (which I first read over twenty years ago) was our first exposure to these ideas, and indeed to the idea that science and technology are in a two-way conversation with society.

Finished on Wed, 18 Dec 2019 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 4*/5*.

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville

John Mandeville


A book it's hard to know what to make of. It starts as a fairly standard mediaeval travelogue before morphing into something more akin to a bestiary or morality tale – all told in the same voice, as though both plausible and fantastical events were equally well-observed. It's been a source of controversy ever since.

I read The Travels after reading Riddle And The Knight, one of the recent attempts to make sense of it. I suspect that's the right way round: reading The Travels first might incline one to dismiss it as nonsense, whereas in facts there are (or may be) deeper things at work. One can't help but want to follow Mandeville to Sinai and St Catherine's monastery.

Finished on Tue, 17 Dec 2019 08:41:58 -0800.   Rating 3*/5*.