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Non-fiction round up 2019

I have been a bit sporadic with posting to this blog for a while, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading. What I have now is a backlog. An evergrowing backlog that induces procrastination. Because I am lazy, I am doing a round up post of the non-fiction books I read this year that I enjoyed enough to want to talk about.

Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman: This book presents the case for imagining a better world for all the people who live in it and a way out of the trap of consumption. There are a few key ideas such as a universal basic income, paying well for jobs that contribute to wellbeing (like rubbish collection and caring jobs), and reducing the working week to two or three days. It was cogently argued, well-evidenced and easy reading. Just what you need to re-inspire you about the possibility of positive change.

London, the biography by Peter Ackroyd: Well, this was just lovely. Spanning from the origins of human settlement in the London area to the end of the 20th century it covers the development of London thematically. There are chapters on theatre, crime and punishment, rivers, food and drink, disease, and many other ways of seeing. It’s a big book and packed full of stories and connections. It perfectly captures the romance of London in all its corrupted beauty and compelling horror.

The Shortest History of Germany by James Hawes: When I visited Berlin earlier this year, I was keen to learn more of the history of Germany beyond the world wars. Must be more to Germany than that, right? This book spends some time on the early history of the peoples of the land that would eventually comprise modern Germany, and some time on the relationship between catholic Prussia in the East and the protestant cities and states in the West. Most of the book though, at least half, is actually about the world wars and the eventual rise of the Nazis. Maybe this is because Germany as a country hasn’t existed for that long. It was interesting to see a longer perspective on the forces at play. It’s a perspective that goes some way to illuminating the same currents in evidence today.

The Rise of the Green Left by Derek Wall: A fascinating book on the relationship between socialism and environmentalism and the history of eco-socialism. This was really educational and gave me a much better understanding of eco-socialist movements across the world. One small element that was particularly enlightening was the discussion of eco-fascism. It seemed self-evident to me that environmentalism and socialism are naturally compatible, but there has also been a tradition of environmentalism allied with right-wing ideology and so the link should not be taken for granted.

Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber: Bullshit jobs are jobs where no one actually benefits from what you do. So, jobs like being a carer, or a nurse, or teacher, or road sweeper, are not bullshit. We need to do those jobs and we’d all be a lot worse off if they weren’t getting done. Graeber identifies five types of bullshit job: flunkies, whose job it is to make someone else look or feel important; goons, whose jobs have an aggressive element, like lobbyists and corporate lawyers; duct tapers, whose job is to fix problems that shouldn’t really exist; box tickers, allowing a company to claim it’s doing something it isn’t; and taskmasters, assigning work to people and creating more bullshit jobs. It is full of anecdotes about the crappy jobs people have held and is a very entertaining read.

The Art of the Good Life by Ralf Dobelli: Sequel to The Art of Thinking Clearly, this is another collection of short essays on cognitive fallacies and the ways in which our thinking gets distorted. Always useful to have a reminder.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying by Marie Kondo: I love Marie Kondo. It’s not about decluttering or only having six books or whatever other nonsense has been said about the book and the tv series. Marie Kondo is about appreciating what you have and arranging your house so you get the most enjoyment from it. Her folding method is brilliant – I have found I can get lots more clothes in my drawers and still be able to see more clearly what I’ve got. Magic, indeed. I’m also a big fan of talking to my house, because I love my house. I think anything that encourages appreciation is a good thing.

The Inflamed Mind by Edward Bullmore: New science around the understanding of depression shows a link between physical inflammation and mental depression. This is a dense book, but really interesting and worth the effort. The research outlined in this book challenges conventional understanding of the links between physical and mental health, and challenges the categorisation of symptoms. I’ve long thought that depression is a catch-all term for very different experiences that don’t respond to the same treatment.

The Devil’s Doctor, Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science by Philip Ball: This is not the sort of thing I would normally buy. As it happens, I found it on a train. Paracelsus lived from 1493 to 1541, when magic and demons and gods were still very real in people’s lives, yet the scientific discoveries that would drive the Enlightenment were coming thick and fast. It is an insight into a period of great change, through the biography of a man that was both scientist and magician. Considered a key figure in the development of chemistry and medicine, he was also a charlatan and got run out of town several times. I’m glad I picked it up.

Who Rules the World? by Noam Chomsky: This is a must-read for anyone who consumes news. What happens and how it is reported is very important. This book highlights the disparity between the stories we tell about events depending on who the actor is and the values that actor wants us to believe they hold. If you’ve ever had the sense that how you’re being told to interpret world events is distorted and confusing, this book will explain why that is.

History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell: I’m not sure it’s true to say that I enjoyed this book. It’s certainly not true to say I understood very much of it, although I now have a much better understanding of what philosophy actually is. But I felt very clever and pleased with myself for having read it.

How to Speak Money

I forget how this book ended up in my library. Probably picked up while killing time at a train station or airport. That’s where I mostly seem to buy this kind of lightweight non-fiction. My brain is too tired for the imagination required of a novel or the attention required of more in-depth non-fiction.

How to Speak Money by John Lanchester is a dictionary of terms used about money in the media and by the financial services industry. It’s a handy think to have because many of those terms are difficult to grasp and the meaning of them quite technical. Reading this book will give you a better understanding of what people mean by such things as inflation, equities and hedge funds, or downsizing and rent. There’s some historical context given in the entries about Keynes, Friedman and Marx, and a long introduction that describes what’s happened in economics and finance in the last century or so.

What I found interesting was Lanchester’s focus on the amount of reversification used in the language used to talk about money. Reversification is a word coined by Lanchester for when a term is used to describe the opposite of their initial sense, often deliberately in order to obscure what’s really happening. An example is ‘credit’, which really means ‘debt’. We were brought up to believe debt was a bad thing and people don’t want more of it, but if you rename it credit it sounds like a good thing that you want more of.

It’s bit dry. Lanchester’s writing is quite witty and snarky but there’s only so much he can do with the material. But it is informative and enlightening and well worth reading if you want to understand money and economics a bit more.

The Rent Trap

rent-trap-coverThe Rent Trap by Rosie Walker and Samir Jeraj
Published by Pluto Books in 2016

The Rent Trap explores the world of private renting and how rising house prices make home ownership out of reach for many renters. It looks at the instability caused by short term contracts and the impact on families. The book covers the de-regulation of the housing market and what that means for tenants.

Most landlords aren’t property developers. Most are individuals who’ve bought a second house as an investment for their retirements, or owner-occupiers renting a room to help with the mortgage payments. But what this means is that the people paying for the house aren’t the ones who’ll eventually own it and this is creating wide inequality. It’s interesting to see how individual small decisions, made for good reasons, create a huge problem in the absence of regulation.

Worth a read.

The Establishment

Establishment  In The Establishment, Owen Jones argues that the establishment is not so much a group of wealthy people in cahoots to keep everyone else down, but rather a collection of people with shared beliefs who benefit from being able to influence each other.

The establishment hasn’t remained stable over the years and those that are considered to make up today’s establishment are not the same as those following WWII. To start with Jones charts the shift in the political consensus from the 1940s to now. Once upon a time, free market ideology was fringe thinking and considered a bit barmy. Jones shows the methods by which more and more influential people were convinced by it’s proponents. It shows how money can be used to change people’s thinking. There are lessons there for those who wish to shift the political consensus back towards the centre, but the lesson is that money speaks and money corrupts.

Jones looks at each of the groups whose members make up the establishment and shows how their interests align and complement those of the other groups. The chapter on tax avoiders was particularly illuminating. The involvement of corporations and huge consultancies in the process of writing legislation and regulation enables those corporations to manipulate the system in their favour. The revolving door between politics and business has serious implications for democracy. To be clear, Jones never claims this is a conspiracy. There’s no group of people sitting in a room somewhere cackling and stroking white cats. Much of this is the unintended and unexamined consequences of people pursuing their own interests.

I found the discussion about ownership of the media and their relationship with their readers interesting. Papers don’t report what they think their readers want. They report what their owners and advertisers want. He shows (and he’s not the first) how the pressure to maximize profit compromises investigative journalism.

The Establishment is a dense and lengthy read. I found it thought-provoking and stimulating and would recommend it to anyone interested in how politics works.

The Crisis of Global Capitalism

George Soros wrote The Crisis of Global Capitalism in 1998, in the last credit crunch. I thought it would be interesting to see if what he said was still true.

The central point of the book is that money markets aren’t based on natural laws that are always true no matter what, but are actually realities created by the beliefs held by the people participating in them. So, basically, the global financial system is a massive delusion that we all create together. I’m completely on board with that. Unfortunately, the book is written in incomprehensible gibberish. I couldn’t finish it.