The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

Olivia Laing

2016


A study of loneliness through the medium of several different artists, and the author's discovery and reaction to them. Some of these artists are well-known, in name if not in the detail of their lives: Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper, Billie Holliday, and even to a lesser extent Valeri Solanas (who shot Warhol). Others were unknown to me: David Wojnarowicz and (especially) Henry Darger.

I'm not convinced that the studies of these artists – fascinating though they are – casts much light either on the author's travails or on loneliness more broadly. The first part of the book is stronger in this respect, with a quite penetrating analysis of the difference between loneliness and solitude, and the virtues (for some) of being alone. It's something every introvert can identify with. I was left with the feeling of a chapter missing, the need to draw all the strings of art and reflection together.

Finished on Sat, 24 Feb 2018 06:48:11 -0800.   Rating 4/5.

Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War

Paul Jankowski

2013


A history of the longest battle of the First World War – or is it? The events of the actual battle get remarkably little space or discussion. Instead the book deals with the social history of the soldiers on both sides (although primarily the French), and on the various traps of attrition, prestige, and inertia that the generals and their political masters fell into. This is fascinating stuff, but there's an unspoken assumption that the reader is primarily interested in these broader issues, and furthermore already knows all the important features of the battle itself in enough detail to not need even a chronology. Having read the book I still don't know how the battle ended. It's probably better therefore to think about this book as an exploration of the wider landscape, both official and personal, of the experience of a huge and extended battle, rather than having all that much to do with the battle as an event.

Finished on Sat, 24 Feb 2018 06:41:24 -0800.   Rating 3/5.

Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow

Yuval Noah Harari

2017


A determined effort to step back from the small-scale considerations – climate change, obesity, that sort of thing – and focus on the force that transcend these problems and are driving the changes in society and technology that we see all around us.

Harari sees three primal desires driving the twenty-first century: to defeat death, to engineer the human mind and emotions, and to achieve practical omnipotence in addressing real-world problems. And he explores all three of these desires with the perceptiveness of a historian while demonstrating an impressive scientific depth of understanding.

This is a book full of passages to make one think. Is religion just a technology for imbuing events with meaning? – and if so, are humanism and science just religions, advocating a different set of values? Is science really about the acquisition of power, rather than about the acquisition of knowledge or understanding? As a scientist myself I don't think I'm looking for power, but I have to say I'm less confident about that belief applied to science as a whole after reading Harari's analysis.

Harari rides his ideas to their logical conclusions, in the emerge of trans-humanism and Data-ism as alternative driving ideologies for the twenty-first century. The former looks to upgrade humans, and therefore to introduce real empirical inequalities between upgraded and "natural" humans; the latter regards everything through the lens of data processing, and so argues that humans need to step aside in favour of the unconscious but intelligent algorithms we've created. He then spins round and argues that both these trends are destructive of liberalism and the core of current humanist thinking, and so are essentially political as well as philosophical and technical questions. It's an impressive feat and, if we believe it, poses massive challenges – not least in finding a common language within which to discuss them and determine a way forward.

Finished on Sat, 24 Feb 2018 06:37:20 -0800.   Rating 5/5.

The Spider Network: The Wild Story of a Math Genius, a Gang of Backstabbing Bankers, and One of the Greatest Scams in Financial History

David Enrich

2017


Another exploration of the financial crisis, this time the manipulation of Libor by a group of bankers: one can't really call them a cartel or gang, I think, as that implies a conspiracy and direction that was absent. And that's what makes the story so interesting to me: that a group of individuals essentially self-organised by looking to their own interests into a collective defrauding of most of the Western world.

And they were so unaware! – not simply in the sense of defending themselves, but in their inability to see beyond the horizons of the "game" of finance, to the fact that they weren't living in a closed universe where their actions lacked wider implications. The protagonist is clearly clinically Aspergic, but one has to wonder to what extent all the players had somehow managed to shut off their peripheral vision.

I think the story also has implications for regulation that have been raised before: how do you deter people who don't believe their actions are criminal? It's not that they don't think they'll be caught: it's that they don't see they've anything to be caught for, and that strokes at the heart of a lot of regulation. The fact that society falls on them post facto might be somewhat satisfying, but it doesn't prevent recurrence, not least because none of the more senior players face meaningful sanction. There are still a lot of crises to come until ww come to terms with this.

Finished on Sat, 11 Nov 2017 04:25:34 -0800.   Rating 4/5.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

J.D. Vance

2016


What happens when a rural culture spills-out into a more urban environment? What happens when the ties between parts of families are broken by distance, and the habits that might have sustained them in their new surroundings turn out to be toxic in isolation? That's the world that Vance explores, and indeed from which he escaped. This is by turns social commentary and a deeply personal memoir, made stronger by the authors' insights into his own behaviour and evolution, his interactions with his girlfriend (and later wife) from outside the boundaries of his own hillbilly background.

I don't think the book is quite the searing explanation of recent American politics that it has been presented to be: that feels to me like an over-reading, and an unnecessary one given that it does explain well many features of American working class struggle. Many aspects feel uniquely American: despite a clear lineage in Scots-Irish immigration, I can't see many of the factors at work in the UK or Europe, and we should be glad for that, but I'm sure there's a similar story waiting to be told in these countries too.

Finished on Sat, 11 Nov 2017 04:18:34 -0800.   Rating 4/5.

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life

Ed Yong

2016


I must say I expected to enjoy this book much more than I did. The premise is powerful: the effects that bacteria have at a macro scale in terms of human health and even behaviour. There are some wonderful musings on the far-reaching effects of bacterial evolution, for example in the observation that all eukaryotic cells (those with mitochondria and a nucleus) come from a single common ancestor, strongly suggesting that this is an evolutionary event that happened only once – and so might not occur in other contexts, making life more scarce in the universe than we might otherwise think.

Despite these tours de force, there's something unsatisfactory about the presentation. It's too breathless, too focussed, too willing to ascribe almost any phenomenon to bacterial causes and influences. A more balanced, shorter, presentation might have served better for me.

Finished on Sat, 11 Nov 2017 04:11:13 -0800.   Rating 2/5.

The Collapsing Empire

John Scalzi

2017


A fabulous opening to a space opera that looks to combine political dynastic in-fighting with a complex physical universe. There are very visible shades of Florentine politics, as well as nods to other science fiction universes – neither of which in any way interfere with the novelty and pace of the narrative.

Finished on Sat, 11 Nov 2017 04:07:27 -0800.   Rating 5/5.

Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters

Kate Brown

2013


The all-but-unknown history of the US and Soviet nuclear weapons programmes contains some amazing parallels illuminated in this book. To get workers to agree to the claustrophobic and restrictive conditions in the plutonium plants, both sets of authorities created model cities that (in the US case) became models for a lot of later "gated" communities, but also gave residents a taste of an almost European social model they were reluctant to give up. The Soviet example is even more dramatic, almost creating (as Brown calls it) "Socialism in one city", a deft re-statement of Stalin's controversial claim to be creating Socialism in one country: perhaps the system works best at small scales. The environmental costs of both programmes have been devastating, in financial and human terms, and have left a legacy that will be felt for centuries to come, but perhaps they serve best as political statements of how weapons created unexpected mini-societies.

Finished on Sat, 11 Nov 2017 04:05:38 -0800.   Rating 5/5.