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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.

Schrodinger’s Kittens

I read Schrödinger’s Cat by John Gribbins quite a long time ago now and enjoyed it so much I immediately bought the sequel, Schrödinger’s Kittens. It has spent much of the intervening time sitting on my bookshelf looking tricky.

Schrödinger’s Kittens brings the progress of quantum physics up to the mid-nineties. I was very conscious while reading it that it was twenty years old and the field has moved on considerably since it was written. Recommendations for recent books on the subject would be most welcome – preferably written for someone who barely passed GCSE physics.

The book takes the cat in a box thought experiment and pursues its implications through logical extension. It discusses what that means for what we know about our world. Which is basically not nearly as much as we’d like to think. I found that Schrödinger’s Kittens was not quite as accessible or engaging as Schrödinger’s Cat. It may be worth a read, depending on just how thorough your reading in the subject is, but there are probably more up-to-date books out there.

Why We Sleep

I was killing time in WH Smith in Kings Cross and in the mood to buy a book. As I was having a bad bout of insomnia at the time, a book about sleeping and how to do it better struck me as a good choice. I certainly wasn’t disappointed by Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep.

Matthew Walker is a neuroscientist who has studied sleep for his whole career. It starts with what sleep is and what happens in the body to make you go to sleep and wake up, and how we can disrupt our body’s natural rhythm, and how it changes over our lifetimes. It also looks at how different animals sleep which is very varied.

The section on the benefits of sleep was interesting but somewhat disturbing, given the very scary effects of not getting enough sleep. The most enlightening part was the section on dreaming. New research suggests that dreaming is the way we process and reduce the intensity of our daily emotional experience. It’s not so much about the crazy things that are happening in your dreams but the feelings you’re having while it’s going on. I don’t remember my dreams very often, but I assume it’s happening.

The last part of the book looks at the impact of modern life on sleeping patterns: our working lives, new technology, and especially electric light. Our bodies want to sleep when the sun goes down and get up when it rises. Apparently. Not sure my body got the memo. It ends with a page of tips on how to sleep better.

I loved this. I’ve been recommending it to anyone who mentions sleep and sleep problems to me. It’s pretty dense and loaded with scientific information but written so well you barely notice.

The Art of Thinking Clearly

The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli is a collection of very short essays exploring the many mistakes humans are prone to making when we think about things. There’s not much new in this book, but I find however often I read about confirmation bias and the sunk cost fallacy I find myself slipping back into that kind of thinking. It’s hard work because our brains aren’t actually wired for logic and rational thinking. This is an easy and accessible guide to some of the concepts that can be found in much denser books like Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

There are 99 thinking errors in this book which address things like how the availability of examples makes us forget about probability and how we regularly mistake correlation for causation.

If you want to understand why people sometimes say and do things that you think are ridiculous, then this book will help. Although it might also make you realise that the things you say and do are also ridiculous. so be warned.

Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not

Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not by Robert N. McCauley is an exploration of how cognitive processes predispose us to religious thought and feeling, and make science very difficult for us.

I picked up the book after visiting the excellent Living with Gods exhibition at the British Museum. I find the psychology of faith, superstition and religion fascinating. McCauley’s book is not for the faint-hearted. This is a difficult read. The first half, where McCauley lays out the theories of cognitive processes that underpin his argument, is especially hard going. I don’t have much knowledge of the work in this area and I think it is quite hard to make it accessible to a layperson. Once you get through the theories of cognition, the second half of the book is relatively more digestible. I still found myself having to re-read most of it, but there were whole pages I could absorb in one go.

The argument is that, although some form of religious belief appears to be present in every society for which we have archaeological or anthropological evidence, there’s no specific thought process for religion. Instead it is a by-product of processes we use for much more mundane things like dealing with other people, not getting eaten by predators, and avoiding contamination. Religion comes from possessing a theory of mind and a tendency to ascribe agency to everything. Science, on the other hand, has only appeared in a few societies and requires writing and substantial expensive infrastructure to survive. It requires us to learn how to think in a way that is continually challenged by our natural cognition.

McCauley draws a distinction between everyday religion (what people actually practice) and theology, and a distinction between popular understanding of science and the practice of it by people who dedicate their lives to it. He also draws a distinction between science and technology, and gives many examples of where humans develop technology they can use without understanding how it really works. The argument also explains why we’re so fond of conspiracy theories, prone to ascribing intention to others without evidence, and why we make both science and atheism into a form of religion. Science requires us to be perpetually uncertain because even when there is a lot of evidence to support a theory there always remains the possibility that new information could change that. Human brains aren’t keen on uncertainty.

This is a very interesting book and I would recommend it, with the caveat that, unless you’re already working as a scientist, it’s a tough read. I do feel much cleverer for having read it, which is a quality I enjoy in a book.

 

Consciousness Explained

consciousness-explained-500x500Consciousness is a tricky subject and how we come to be aware of ourselves is something not well understood. In Consciousness Explained Daniel C. Dennett explores the idea that consciousness is not something extra in us, that it is, instead, a by product of how our brains work.

First, Dennett dismantles the ghost in the machine argument. This is the idea that the mind is different to the brain/body which leads to the idea of a soul that continues after we die. It’s an observer, a translator of the processes in the brain, a someone that makes decisions, holds beliefs, acts. Then the book explores what else it might be that creates our sense of self and how it might have evolved.

Along the way, we learn a lot about the state of the science of the brain (or at least where it was in 1991 when the book was published, I imagine it’s moved on some way) and how things really work. There’s a lot of time spent looking at how vision works. I always thought that the eye fills in the gaps created by the pupil, but actually it doesn’t. It doesn’t have to fill in anything because it’s not recognizing the gap.

So, what’s left if there’s no ghost in the machine? No soul? Well, Dennett says that consciousness is a by-product of language and evolved because we tell stories. We are figments of our own imaginations, fictional characters in the story of our lives. Which, as a writer, I find charming.

“Our tales are spun, but for the most part we don’t spin them; they spin us.”

This is a hard read, no question. It’s a real work out for your brain muscle and I felt very virtuous reading it. I highly recommend it if you’re interested in knowing how your brain works, but I won’t lie, it takes some reading.

 

Physics of the Impossible

physicsimpossibleIn Physics of the Impossible, Michio Kaku tackles some of our favourite technologies from science fiction and parapsychology to see whether they are actually possible.

It includes chapters on force fields, telepathy, robots, time travel, perpetual motion machines and lots more. The chapter on robots was particularly interesting, because robots is something that we’re talking about a lot at work. That then leads to a discussion about artificial intelligence and its complications.

The technologies are classified into three classes. Class I technologies are things that are allowed in the laws of physics and will likely be seen within the next century. They include things like invisibility, phasers and starships. Class II technologies are theoretically possible but require resources that could only be at the disposal of a much more advanced civilization.

Lastly, there are two technologies that break the laws of physics as we understand them today. Of course, it’s entirely possible we don’t fully understand the laws of physics yet.

I really enjoyed this. It’s the kind of thing that makes me feel really excited about the future of humanity and our capacity to survive. It’s an easy-ish read, given the subject matter, and a lot of fun.