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Posts about books (old posts, page 63)

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville

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.

3/5. Finished 17 December 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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

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.

4/5. Finished 17 December 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy

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.

4/5. Finished 17 December 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Democracy: A Very Short Introduction

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.

4/5. Finished 17 December 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future

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.

2/5. Finished 17 December 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)