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Posts about books (old posts, page 49)

Culloden: Scotland's Last Battle and the Forging of the British Empire

Culloden: Scotland's Last Battle and the Forging of the British Empire

Trevor Royle

2016


It's unusual when the history of an event deals with that event one-third of the way through, spends the rest of the book looking at the personal and global consequences of the event – and still feels completely balanced in its treatment.

Culloden was many things, both the last battle fought on UK soil and the source of a great homogenisation of culture across the country. For such a dramatic event, the actual battle was remarkably simple, being fought on the wrong ground by an exhausted Scottish army who clearly never stood a chance (but who might have won had they fought on another day in another place that would have favoured their tactics).

But it's the subsequent lives of the protagonists that really occupies Royle. The soldiers' careers range across what became the British empire, from the American Revolutionary War, through the winning of India, to the eviction of the French from Canada and the re-ordering of the European political landscape. All of these started at Culloden, not least because they involved Highland and other Scottish regiments who'd fought on both sides, integrating the defeated into the army and economic opportunities of the victors.

4/5. Finished 24 February 2018.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

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.

4/5. Finished 24 February 2018.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War

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.

3/5. Finished 24 February 2018.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow

Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow

Yuval Noah Harari

2015


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.

5/5. Finished 24 February 2018.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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

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.

4/5. Finished 11 November 2017.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)