Airhead: The Imperfect Art of Making News

Emily Maitlis

2019


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

2018


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

1971


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.

Connections

James Burke

1978


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

1357


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.

The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War

Ben Macintyre

2018


Without doubt a true story that's stranger than fiction – to the point that many people involved in the intelligence world refused to believe it was possible, and to believe that the whole thing was a complicated disinformation exercise. It's the tale of Oleg Gordievsky and how he became a spy for MI6 – and how he was caught, released, and then ultimately escaped in an almost comical operation that no-one outside those immediately planning it thought had the slightest chance of success. But succeed it did, taking a man through the Iron Curtain in the boot of a car, and with him details of Soviet defence planning and intelligence operations covering decades.

Finished on Tue, 17 Dec 2019 08:36:59 -0800.   Rating 4/5.

Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy

Serhii Plokhy

2018


A surprising history of the Chernobyl accident. Surprising at a number of levels, not least the (small) number of direct deaths, which I always had the impression was higher. Plokhy links the events into the wider run of Soviet (and, later, Russian and Ukrainian) history, seeing the accident as a catalyst for the political changes that followed. While I'd've enjoyed more technical detail, the breadth and depth are welcome.

Finished on Tue, 17 Dec 2019 08:32:32 -0800.   Rating 4/5.

Democracy: A Very Short Introduction

Bernard Crick

2002


Should be required reading for everyone. An exploration of the complexity of what it means for something to be "democratic" – and contrasting this with what it means to be populist, majoritarian, and all the other pretenders for the crown.

Finished on Tue, 17 Dec 2019 08:29:48 -0800.   Rating 4/5.

The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future

David Wallace-Wells

2019


A view of the climate crisis that clearly aims to instill fear – and succeeds – but which clearly also aims to be a call for action, in which it's a lot less successful.

The author is precise about his goals and limitations, presenting the science and implications of global heating without himself being a scientist. He does an excellent job of doing so, in all the terrifying glory. But beyond that it's hard to see what the book is for. It tries to be motivational, but can't help ending up characterising all the efforts as doomed either on technical or political grounds. That may in fact be true. But by making all action seem futile, it risks either inducing a state of learned helplessness or invoking a spirit of "eat, drink, and be merry", neither of which is helpful especially if the specific claims or predictions of the science are wrong.

And that's a vitally important point. The science all points in the direction of human-caused climate heating with disastrous consequences. But the mechanisms, rates, feedback loops, and other factors are all filled with uncertainty. That's not an excuse for inaction: far from it, it's potentially a huge motivation, because – unlike the impression one might get from books like this – the endpoint isn't certain and it's still completely possible for action on a large enough scale to tilt the balance in positive directions, at least towards lesser or shorter-duration consequences.

Finished on Tue, 17 Dec 2019 08:28:29 -0800.   Rating 2/5.

The Song of Achilles

Madeline Miller

2011


Another example of a well-known tale told from an unusual perspective, this time Patroclus' view of his relationship with Achilles. It's an excellent accomplishment, very believable, and compare favourably with Circe, Miller's other work in the same theme.

It's frustrating for the reader that Patroclus just doesn't get it: even when he's referred to as "the best of the Acheans", he still feels he'll outlive Achilles. And there are some anachronisms that frustrate slightly too: the Greeks didn't have the same notion of homosexuality as we do, so many of the concerns and tensions that the book explores (and which are familiar to the modern reader) would have been less serious (and perhaps incomprehensible) at the time. But those are minor quibbles in what is by any measure a great achievement of re-centring a story.

Finished on Tue, 17 Dec 2019 08:20:38 -0800.   Rating 5/5.