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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.

Sapiens

sapiensSapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
Published 2011

Sapiens: A brief history of humankind is a very interesting book that challenges a lot of received wisdom about humans – what we are, why we do what we do, how we got to this point in history. Harari is a historian but this isn’t the history of a specific set of humans in a particular time and place. It takes the bigger picture view of anthropology and merges it with the storytelling of history. It’s a big, 500 page book covering some complex topics, yet it remains an easy read. I found it thought-provoking, amusing in places, and some of Harari’s theories are extremely plausible.

There was something horrifying and depressing about it though. As a species, homo sapiens sucks. We destroy everything we come into contact with and spend our time working out ways to do that even more efficiently. It didn’t leave me with much hope that homo sapiens can change.

Despite that, this is a fascinating book and I’d recommend it to everyone.

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 Point is to Change It

150px-The_point_is_to_change_itI have always bought more books than I read, which has resulted in a bookshelf of unread books that I call book mountain. It is currently the smallest it’s ever been. Still some of the books on there have been in my possession for some time. Such as The Point is to Change It which I must have bought fifteen years ago.

Compiled from essays and articles first published in Living Marxism, this book examines trends in political life in the aftermath of the death of history. With the Berlin Wall down and the Soviet Block collapsed, how does the left respond to capitalism? The book was published in 1996 and, twenty years on, the world it talks about is depressingly similar to the one we currently live in. I can’t help but agree that the world needs to change.

The tone of the book and some of the things that are conflated with social ills didn’t sit well with me. It’s presented as progressive and as suggesting solutions to the problems of capitalism. It doesn’t really do that. There’s a thick seam of nostalgia for some idyllic past when we didn’t waste our time with the women and blacks getting upset about trivial things, when we weren’t so soft, and valued self-confidence over victimhood. There’s a lot of privilege and entitlement in that kind of nostalgia. The values extolled are very much those attributed to white, straight men and denied to others. And there are no real solutions to speak of. There’s a manifesto at the back. It’s two pages out of two hundred and seventeen. It is mostly a rehash of the problems and lacks any call to action. Even if you did agree with the analysis (and there’s much in there that I do agree with once you detach it from the whining), you’d be hard pressed to know what to do about it.

The Spiritual Revolution: Why religion is giving way to spirituality

Spiritual revolutionThis book is the findings of a research project asking whether there has been a fundamental shift in Western cultures away from religion towards spirituality.

The Spiritual Revolution posits that the decline in attendance at formal church services and in those describing themselves as members of congregations is matched by a rise in people describing themselves as spiritual and participating in what might be described as new age activities. The study also considered whether that trend might be reversed by looking at the demographics of the population studied. The study was conducted in Cumbria and some comparisons to the UK as whole are made.

The most interesting part of the book to me was the discussion about how the decline of participation in traditional congregation mirrors the decline in all sorts of associational activities, such as trade unions, professional institutions and political parties. I’ve worked for organizations that rely on committees of volunteers for a while now and the factors described in this book are very much at play. It gave me a different perspective on what’s going on. I’m not sure what I’ll do with that yet, but I feel it’s important to know.

The Spiritual Revolution is the published findings of a study conducted by Paul Heelas, Professor of Religion and Modernity, and Linda Woodhead, Senior Lecturer in Christian Studies, from Lancaster University. If you’re interested in the subject and prepared to tackle some fairly dry text, then it’s worth a read.

Talking About the Elephant

talking elephantTalking about the Elephant by Lupa is an anthology of essays on neopagan perspectives on cultural appropriation. The essays cover various paths from Celtic Reconstructionism to Egyptian mysteries to eclectic paganism.

Cultural appropriation is where members of a dominant culture take sacred aspects of another culture and appropriate them for aesthetic purposes. A good, and recent, example is white people wearing traditional American Indian headdresses. Each feather in a warbonnet means the person wearing did something. It’s like wearing medals you didn’t earn. Members of the tribes of American Indians are very vocal about the appropriation of their sacred rites, such as dream quests and sweat lodges, and the people who use them without understanding the culture. They make the very valid point that religion is about community and you can’t separate the practice from the life.

Neopagans draw from any religions going – including the dominant Abrahamic religions – and they do it with the full range of motivations. Some neopagans are all about community and some are all about the individual connection with the divine. These essays are from people practicing various paths and talk about their experiences of cultural appropriation. In many cases, that means working through a rationalization for doing whatever you want and not feeling guilty about it. There is an interesting discussion about academic bias and lots of tidbits about various traditions and where symbols are derived from. While the essays are engaging and, I believe, genuinely try to tackle the issue, this anthology feels like it failed to get to grips with it.

I don’t know what the answer is here. I understand the desire not to give up the objects and activities that you’ve become attached to and have a connection with. I also feel that’s it’s not enough to say, well it’s ok to violate the living culture of a people who have been colonised and are still experiencing oppression so long as you do it respectfully. Maybe, the answer is to address the social issues that make cultural appropriation so harmful.

God is not Great

I don’t think I would have read God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens if it hadn’t been in the 99p kindle sale at Christmas. Maybe that was someone’s idea of irony.

The premise is that not only is there no god, or any other creative consciousness, but also that organized religion is mad, bad and dangerous to know. Using personal anecdotes, documented history and analysis of texts, Hitchens takes us through more than a dozen reasons why religion is bad for your health and probably makes you a less moral person.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I can’t say I had my point of view changed. I came to the book already primed to agree with Hitchens’ points. Partly because his arguments are based on a Marxist critique of religion and partly because I’ve read the Bible and came to many of the same conclusions myself. The one thing I did learn is that the Buddhists aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Not as peaceable as you might think.

If you believe there is a God, especially one of the Abrahamic persuasion, you are unlikely to have your faith shaken. Hitchens goes in for grandstanding much more than persuasion, and I would think his tone would inspire defensiveness and rebuttal. I’m sure it would get my back up. Unfortunately, the same is true if you’re undecided. This is not a book that will commend a god-free enlightenment to you (for that, I’d recommend Towards the Light by A.C. Grayling). If you are an atheist (and I am, for all my flirting with animism/paganism), then this is a rallying cry for the cause and really good fun. Recommended or not recommended depending on your starting position.

The Four Agreements

The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz is another re-read for me. I first read it several years ago and decided to read it again when I stumbled across a motivational poster with the Agreements on it.

Those agreements are:

1. Be impeccable with your word.
Don’t use your words against yourself or others. Don’t gossip. Speak with integrity. Use your words in the direction of truth and love.

2. Don’t take anything personally.
Nothing others do is because of you, it’s a result of their perception of reality. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

3. Don’t make assumptions.
Ask for clarification and speak up for your needs. Communicate clearly to avoid misunderstanding.

4. Always do your best.
Your best will vary day to day depending on your health, mood, levels of stress and other factors. Doing your best, whatever that may be, will free you from self-judgement, self-abuse and regret.

This is a gorgeous, uplifting little book. It is a bit goddy for my taste, but as it’s a short book that’s not too much of a problem. Making the four agreements has had a noticeable effect on my experience of life – especially the second one. I would highly recommend this book.

Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession

New for 2012! Book reviews for non-fiction titles! I read quite a bit of non-fiction and, as my reviews have slid away from being purely about what I’ve learned about writing through reading into more traditional book review territory, I thought it was time I started recording those as well. First book of the year is Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession by Craig Childs.

The book is an exploration of the ethics of archaeology and I was attracted to reading it because I have a love for the artifacts of the past. Archaeologist was one of my many answers to the question ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’. The book isn’t quite what I thought it was. I expected a more scholarly approach to the complex and ambiguous question of what we should do with old stuff.

Who should have it? Does it belong in museums where it can be studied? Lots of the stuff in museums has been obtained unethically, especially in the top institutions. Should it go back to the culture it came from? Are artifacts art or information? Should they be displayed for aesthetic enjoyment or catalogued for posterity? Should they be owned by private collectors or held by governments and public insitutions?

There are no easy answers to these questions and Childs presents a range of views in an objective and non-judgemental way. He tells his own stories of his experience of making archaeological finds and what he has done with them, as well as the stories of people involved at various levels of the antiquities trade.

In the end, Childs’ view is that artifacts should be left where they are found, in context. But this view is based on feeling and he struggles to articulate why that is the right thing to do, so the reader is left to make up their own mind if they can.

I enjoyed this, even though it wasn’t quite what I thought it would be, and if you’re interested in old stuff, museums or archaeology it’s worth a read.