Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Over the last week I had a project to complete. In the lull period in the middle of lambing I wanted to extend our goat yard to create an adjacent sheep and goat pen, with hard standing and some cover, where we could undertake activities like drenching, shearing or foot clipping. We had a good area just next to the barn for this and all we needed to do was make planks and create a post and rail enclosure. While doing this kind of work I like to have a good book with me. It can be a handy companion when the work is laborious, or the weather turns foul. I found “Sapiens” by Dr Juval Noah Harari, who lectures in history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and saw that the majority of reviews had been favourable. I thought it might be a good choice.

I was glad I did. This is a book written on a huge scale, as the title proclaims it aims to be a “brief history of humankind” and it does not shirk from trying to cover a broad story and starts millions of years ago with the evolution of groups of humans (Neanderthals, erectus, sapiens, etc) and the commences in the stone age. The bulk of the book concerns the last 200,000 years and sapiens’ history and covers the periods through the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, the development of religion and money, the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution. Obviously with such a large filed to cover he needs to use a broad brush. However, this keep the book readable and lively and there are many things covered which will challenge the notions that you had held of our past. Harari has a deft writing style and make difficult concepts easy to comprehend without, I believe, oversimplifying them. He also has a good sense of humour so even sections on potentially leaden subjects become enjoyable.

There are two main strands to the book. Firstly he proposes that “inter subjective realities”, shared beliefs that humans hold (money, God, femininity, Nationhood, etc) act as the foundations of our cultures and these and the cultural impact they have are what have allowed our species to develop to extensively. The second strand of the book is to remind us of just how recent the majority of this development has been: the cognitive revolution and the emergence of language started about 70,000 years ago, but the scientific revolution only 500 years ago, and the industrial revolution only 200 years ago. The last 20 years has witnessed, with the development of the internet, a further revolution with major changes in our species’ community structures.

There is a warning running throughout the book. There is always a tendency to view the world from the viewpoint of humans and to marvel at our progress, our expansion in numbers to every corner of the globe, the domestication of our animals and the taming of our environment. However, if one looked at the history from the viewpoint of other animals now extinct, or enslaved, by our activities; or from the viewpoint of other humans in our genus (Neanderthals or Homo floriensis for example) who we probably drove to extinction; or from the viewpoint of the planet as a whole; then the picture is not as rosy and perhaps history will not be kind to our species. As our powers increase, and our desires also, we have become a very rapacious and dangerous animal. Capitalism, our current stage of development, demands constant growth and expansion to generate increasing wealth and this growth is based on ever increasing consumption. Though there are many benefits from this growth, there are also many dangers, and it is far from clear that this system makes us happier as people. Our religions served us well in times of scarcity and upheld our morals, but they do not seem to have weathered the passage of time. We are increasingly rootless individuals, atomised and alienated, and requiring the state to replace the families and communities we evolved, as a species, to rely upon. In planning for our future, we need to know of our past as blindly ploughing on carries huge risks. As Harari ends his book :-

We are more powerful than ever before but have very little idea what to do with all that power. Worse still, humans seem to be more irresponsible than ever. Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one. We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want ?

Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (p. 415). Random House. Kindle Edition.

I finished the yard and the book in about the same time and, having thought about our species handling of animals, was glad I’d done something that hopefully will improve their lot.

National Populism. The revolt against liberal democracy.

National Populism. The revolt against liberal democracy.

This book, by Roger Eatwell and51PPqhzUq0L._SX305_BO1,204,203,200_ Mathew Goodwin, deserves to be widely read. It is a sober and informed look at the growth of national populist movements  which have occurred all over the globe. It does primary focus on Europe and America and particularly on the surprises, to many, of Donald Trump’s election and the result of the UK’s Brexit referendum. However, its reach is much broader than this and it tracks the growth of this movement much further back, over two centuries, and considers its growth in very many countries.

Roger Eatwell is professor of Politics at Bath University and an acknowledged expert on fascism and the development of right wing politics. Mathew Goodwin (His PhD student) is similarly a Professor of Politics, at the University of Kent, and also a specialist on right-wing politics and Euroscepticism. The book they have produced is well researched and obviously the product of men with academic rigour. The ideas discussed and considered with good historical detail and opinions are not ventured without significant and adequate hard evidence.

This may sound as if the book is going to be data heavy, full of facts and figures, and in many respects this is true. However, in part this is why it is readable. Much of the data given is there to challenge the reader’s presumptions and to make them rethink what they think they know about national populist movements; whether it is Americans stunned by Trump, British people shocked by Brexit or the French worried about the Gilets Jaunes. The authors show that there are very many, largely well-meaning, myths held about these movement and present the data to show why these are wrong.

The myth that these movements are simply angry responses to the economic upheaval that followed the crash in 2008 is belied by their existence and growth well before that event. The myth, or possibly fond hope, that this is a movement of angry old white mean is not supported by the data on the demographics. The hope, likewise, that simply waiting for the more liberal young to grow and displace the more conservative elderly is not supported by the evidence. (There is data in the book to suggest that the degree of difference between the young and elderly in viewpoint is largely accounted for by a rightward shift in people’s outlook as they age. Rather than there being two different cohorts of people). Myths that these movements are simply fascist or racist trends are likely shown not to be in accordance with the known facts.

If we are to understand this movement it is important to know when we are wrong. We will not be able to preserve liberal democracy if we misdiagnose the threats that face it and, as a consequence, apply the wrong remedies. These are the types of failures we have seen happen in recent referenda. For example, in the Brexit referendum a belief that all this resentment stemmed simply from economic damage lead to a campaign primarily warning people they would be worse off (By £4000 a family) if they voted to leave. This was an error, cultural and political factors were far more important in the anger that was being felt, and had people listened they would have known this. There was even polling showing that people who supported Brexit would do so even if they were certain that there would be a negative economic impact to them personally. This lesson hasn’t been learnt and, still today, many of those petitioning for change of direction think that if they just point out economic hazards minds will change – there is little evidence that this strategy has proven any more successful second-time around.

The biggest myth that the book challenges  is that this movement is a temporary disruption and, as things get better (or through things worsening people see the light), shortly the status quo ante will be returned. The myth that this is an aberration and soon we will be back to ‘business as usual‘ is the most dangerous myth the book lays bare. Our political parties are no longer aligned with our populations political beliefs,  and thus the apparatus we have for running our democracies is out of step with the wishes of large swathes of public opinion. There is an increasing loss of connection between the electorate and the politicians, and it is likely populists from either the right or the left that will try and bridge this gap, and we should be surprised when we find that this continues to happen. The negative consequences of globalisation, and there ae many, have given a new fire to the ideas of nationhood and the importance of the nation state.

This book helps the reader understand this important strand of political thought and helps them correct some of the errors they may hold. It is a very valuable read in our continuing volatile political climate.

5star

‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns

I may have chosen to read this book even if it hadn’t been chosen by my Book Club. It is a story from the ‘Troubles’ in Belfast told 51Oyp+6sFzL._SL500_by a young woman from the republican side of the divide. As I grew up in Lanarkshire, in Central Scotland, where sectarian bigotry was rife; where we had red, white and blue painted unionist kerbstones on the pavements; where “F.T.P.” and “1690 ya bas” were sprayed on many gable ends; and where most childhood encounters started with the far-from-innocent question “What school do you go to?”; this is a period that captures my attention. So even had it not been chosen by the Book Club I would probably have started to read it. However, it is only because of the book club that I persevered.

Milkman, by Anna Burns,  was the book which won the Man Booker prize this year. It tells the tale of “middle sister” and her “maybe boyfriend” and their experiences in Belfast in the 1970’s. The places are never named though it is very obvious where they are. The protagonists are never clearly stated as the I.R.A., U.V.F. or British Army but are always easily identifiable. Indeed no character is named in the story, all are ‘named’ by descriptive terms such as, “maybe boyfriend”, “tablets girl”, “the international couple”, “third brother in law” and so on. This latter idiosyncrasy does wear thin after while but surprisingly it does help the story flow. I used to find when reading Russian sagas I’d be thinking “Which Anatolya is this one ? Is this Sergei’s wife or Anastasia’s sister ? ” This does not happen in this book there is never any mistaking who is “the real milkman” as opposed to “the milkman”. Indeed this was an interesting quirk which did give the character of overhearing gossip or hearsay to the novel.

The problem I had with the book was twofold. Firstly the writing is densely packed. A stream of consciousness oozes out with sentences extending over ten lines before meeting a full stop and paragraphs running over pages. Even just looking at the book it looks dark grey, there is little white space breaking up the text. I found reading this style hard work and fatiguing. Especially as some paragraphs were simply strings of synonyms or repetitions of the same fact slightly differently. It was taxing, tiring, very fatiguing, draining, arduous, exhausting, sapping and sometimes burdensome. There was never any doubt that Anna Burns owned a thesaurus.

After a few days, despite my best intentions, I hade made little progress and was ready, with some misgivings, to abandon the book. But it was the Book Club book and I’d have to discuss it the following week so I had a dilemma. I decided that the best course of action, one that I’d used successfully before,  would be to cheat – I’d listen to the book on Audible.

This was a revelation. After a few minutes I was drawn into the story. The narrator Brid Brennan was simply superb. Her voice, with a clear Northern Irish accent, brought a vitality to the text that I could not see when looking at the printed page. It was akin to sitting on a bus and overhearing a couple, seated behind you, relating a story. It was fascinating to hear despite being rambling, discursive and overinclusive. It really did bring out the paranoia and illogicality of living in sectarian areas in the middle of periods of strife.

It is strange that this book is so different in the two differing media. I could hardly recommend it as a book to be read. But as the script for a radio drama, or other production, I could hardly recommend it strongly enough. At first when I had noted that  it had won the Man-Booker Prize I thought of emperors and their new clothes. I thought perhaps it is a book aimed at writers rather then readers. But having listed to it I realise I was wrong and this clearly is work of a very talented author. I may go back and try and actually “read” the book but I am content to know that I “listened” to it and enjoyed it.

 

 

The Reader on the 6.27

It seems I am out of step with the world. All of France, every reviewer in the United Kingdom, and each and every member of my 9781447276494The Reader on the 6-27book-club thought that “The Reader on the 6.27” was delightful, except for me. This small novella, by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent has won plaudits worldwide and has been successful in many different countries. It is likely to be turned into a film and I can see that this, if done successfully, could be similar to the Gallic hit “Amelie”. A similar tale of quirky characters making their way in a world that fails to understand them.

It is not that I disliked this book. It is rather too slight to actively dislike. It is a short tale of a sad lonely man working in a book pulping factory with a number of rather fantastic acquaintances (For example the security guard who only speaks in alexandrines – verses of six iambic feet). Our protagonist reads out loud random pages he has kept, after cleaning the pulping machine, while on the train to work, to the apparent delight of his fellow commuters (Presumably those not wise enough to have headphones). Once, while on the train, he comes across a memory stick with the writings of another loner, a girl who works as a lavatory attendant, and falls in love with her. After searching, and a period of what some might call ‘stalking’, they make contact and in the tradition of all Fairy Tales ‘they all lived ….. …. …….“(I have blanked out some words so as not to give away the ending).

The writing is descriptive but the characters lack any depth. They are chimera created to tell us something about literature, books and reading rather than descriptions of possible people. Their quirkiness is too overdrawn and starts to grate after a while. It was rather like eating a “French Fancy“, or petit four;  fancya single bite it is sweet and pleasant enough, but any larger and it would become nauseating.Similarly the symbolism is rather heavily applied and we are never allowed to discover things for ourselves as the authors opinion is blatantly obvious with no room for doubt or discussion. But it is a short novel and these are minor gripes, it is all over quite quickly.

Where I seem to be discordant with the rest of the world is that I sense a seam of supercilious, misanthropy running through the text. All the characters who are not saved by a love of literature are guzzling or belching (co-workers), rutting or wanking (speed daters), or farting or shitting (toilet customers). Those who people the world outside the lives of the two autistic main characters would make anyone lock their doors and live alone.

I think this is perhaps part of the reason for its success. It is often touted as the “perfect book club book” and this is correct. It is a book which says : we are those who love books, we are often sad and alone as the barbarians outside do not recognise our sensitivities, we are not troubled by the bodily desires of the common herd, we are above all of that.

I can understand that it possibly is a case of casting pearls before swine, and hoi polloi like myself can’t suspend our disbelief adequately to engage with the novel. Perhaps I am just not sensitive enough to enjoy it. I can be considered as the large oaf sitting with a delicate little book, my big calloused hands having difficulty with the delicate pages. If there is an image of me with this book it would be the Abdominable Snow Rabbit petting Daffy Duck. So think of me as the Abdominal Snow Rabbit and take my advice on this book with this thought in mind. It is quite likely you will enjoy it, the rest of the world did, and you are almost certainly more cultured and sensitive than I am.

2-stars-out-of-5

 

 

 

Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair

“The only cure for vanity is laughter, and the only fault that is laughable is vanity.”

Henri Bergson

My wife was very keen to watch ITV’s new autumn drama “Vanity Fair”. We had seen the trailers and these had piqued her interest and indeed it did look like a well made adaptation with high production values. However, I didn’t share her enthusiasm as I knew little about the book, other than its title and author, and it looked like another boring period drama and unlikely to be to my taste (I remembered the boredom of the Downton Abbey and later Poldark years). However, I also knew it was very unlikely that I was going to win control of the television remote control on those nights and therefore needed a coping strategy.

It then occurred to me – I have never read any William Makepeace Thackery!  I have seen the book many times but its size and weight have always been off-putting.  Casual glances inside the covers, and the illustrations inside, tended to confirm my suspicions that it was too dated and I’d be unlikely to enjoy it. But these trailers made me think, why is this book still successful after so many years?  I could understand its success when it was published in serial form but why are people still reading it ? I decided that rather than wait for the television version I’d try reading the book. If nothing else came of it I could be a smug know-it-all when we watched the program later on.

I am glad I took this course of action. Not just that I read the book but also that I read the book before I saw the adaptation. The adaptation does not do the book justice. The book is a genuinely funny and biting satire. It excoriates the wealthy, the titled, the self-seeking and reveals their failing through their greed, lust, infidelity, duplicitousness,  and vanity. It is a story, as Thackeray says, without a hero – no-one is safe from criticism and ridicule. Much of the writing is dated and the allegories and symbolism, as is much of the humour, relies on a knowledge of both the history of the period (Napoleonic Wars) and classic mythology. I have to confess I was glad I was reading this on the kindle as at a press of a button I could find out details on historical or mythical characters such as the god Hymen (The god of marriage as I was surprised to learn). However, despite this his humour is still wicked enough to cause one to laugh out loud (to the annoyance of my wife as was reading this in bed at night)

The television adaptation does help in that it removes some of the hurdles of the text being antiquated but I fear that it also changes the book such that it looses its heart. Some of the changes I can fully understand. Thackeray was not an abolitionist and he held quite clear racist views. These are clearly shown through the characters of Mr Sambo (‘Sam’ on the television) and Miss Schwarz (who is invisible in the TV drama). I can understand why the racist jokes were omitted but fear that this might suggest that well regarded writers in the past were not tainted with unpleasant opinions. In this book it is important to keep in mind that, although all the characters are sinners, not all men are equal in the eyes of the author. On a similar vein the TV drama seems less able to portray Becky in the harsh light of the text. She is portrayed as a feisty go-getter and we rather skim over her picaresque period of decline, her manipulativeness, her abuse and neglect of her son and her possible role in two deaths.  Thackeray was able to display the shocking immorality of his puppets, it seems that this harder to do in our modern age.

I wonder if this problem of the adaptation is also why the humour fails today, When written its audience would have been well aware of the literary allusions employed by the author. Indeed it is likely most of them would have read about Vanity Fair in ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’. They would have shared a  Christian moral code and would have been very well aware when the characters in this tale transgressed, no matter what sugary words they employed in excuse. The gaps between apparent moral society and the real actions and intentions of the cast would be very clear and I am not sure that this is the case with a modern audience.

There was “no hero” in the tale I read, but the adaption possibly created a heroine to dull the edge of this literary weapon. This did blunt the whole enterprise and the television drama did, as I feared, largely end up as a period drama – lots of good costumes and a fair bit of romantic intrigue. Certainly not the funny biting satire that I had enjoyed reading. Though I did manage to become the smug know-it-all that I had hoped.

5star

‘Llyfr Glas Nebo’ gan Manon Steffan Ross

‘Llyfr Glas Nebo’ gan Manon Steffan Ross

I write this review with some trepidation and feel that I should issue a word of caution to anyone who decides to read this. It is unusual9781784616496_300x400 that I review a book which I have read that was not in my mother tongue. I have commented on books that were in a second language to me, but usually I was commenting as a learner of the language and discussing the book from this standpoint. This time things are a little different.

I became aware of this book because it won the prose medal at this year’s National Eisteddfod in Cardiff. Hearing this and because I have high regard for the author and her work I was eager to read it. I was also aware that there was a degree of hype around the book. Unusually there was quite a buzz on social media with recommendations coming from every corner.

The short story, or novella, is Manon Steffan Ros’s metier. There are few who are as able to condense so much emotion and thought into such well written small packages. Whether this is in her column, in Golwg, or through her novels, especially her contributions to the Stori Sydyn series, she is the master of the elegantly written but powerful piece. Therefore I was quite ready to go with the flow and believe the hype that I read.

This is the problem with the book. As I expected it is extremely well written; the descriptions of places are evocative and her portrayal of characters make them, and their relationships, come alive in the reader’s mind. No reader will forget the first description of Gwdig the unusual hare (I don’t want to give any spoilers so I will say no more) or the last description of Dwynwen. The writing is excellent, this is not the problem.

The writing style is simple and easy, very easy to read, and the story flows quickly. However, at times, it has the feel of a book from the Stori Sydyn series, as if it has been written for those reluctant to read or early in their lives as readers. It describes but doesn’t delve and this is disappointing. The hype, and the medal, lead one to expect more and this is a shame. This is not the author’s fault, but arises from inaccurate reviews and  from the medal process itself, as entries must be less than 40000 words. Also some of the literary references that pepper the story seem clunky and out of keeping. They have the feeling of being there to please the judges in a literary competition rather than as natural aspects of the story.

Read as science fiction, or a post-apocalyptic novella, it is enjoyable but rather lacking. There is very little science and this is not always correct, similarly with the self-sufficiency, this has not been developed accurately. In particular the scenes relation to animals, and their deaths, suggest that the author has little first hand experience of these events.

I therefore am uncertain on how to recommend this book. It is a good, if slight, read. Second language readers like myself will enjoy this and will find it useful. I am sure that many will enjoy it as a slim volume to while away an evening. But science fiction fans, or post-apocalyptic survivalists, are going to be disappointed, as I fear are many who are moved to purchase by the hype.

3-out-of-5-stars

 

 

 

‘The Undoing Project’ by Michael Lewis

Ask people to name those who have helped us understand the human mind, or helped us to understand why we act in the way we do, and it likely that only a handful of names will be found in the replies. Freud and Jung will be the most common answers by far. This is rather sad as, important as their insights were, the work of these luminaries is now rather aged, much of the work is outdated, or has been surpassed by better explanations, or has been shown to be simply mistaken. Much of it was understandable when viewed though the lens of the Viennese culture at the time, but under the scrutiny of a modern lens it is found seriously lacking. However, they were giants of their day and were lofty shoulders on which others have stood and seen further.

These more recent giants are much less well known. Though their work is far reaching and has much better explanatory power their names remain less likely to be known. Despite their work altering the practice of medicine, causing economists to rethink their premises, changing how sportsmen play and are chosen, and even altering how the military and legal systems operate, they are still far from being household names. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky are the names of two of the most important psychologists of the last century and “The Undoing Project” is the story of their friendship and their work.

This book is essentially a dual biography220px-TheUndoingProjectFrontCover it follows their lives and the lives of some who were affected by their work. As they were Israeli academic psychologists  their lives were also bound up in the history of the birth of Israel and the wars that accompanied this. As a consequence the book is lively and exciting as we see the development of their friendship, the discovery of their psychological insights, the application of these insights in medicine and industry and the unfolding of the situation in the Middle East. There are no slow sections in this book, it is densely packed but very readable.

Despite being readable and often like a thriller, ‘what will happen next”, it does not shy away from discussing the psychological research in reasonable detail. It explains their research on heuristics in judgement, explains why our view of ourselves as simply rational beings is difficult to hold, and shows some of the surprising factors that can influence our decision making. It could act as a introduction or summary of their theories but for a fuller review Daniel Kahneman’s own book “Thinking, fast and slow” is recommended.

Hopefully this book will bring more the  modern psychological work into the public eye and allow us to  view ourselves with more useful scientific insights. Knowing the limitations of our rationality, the factors which influence our decision making, and the common sources of our errors might make us less likely to fall into to error and perhaps be less easy prey to those who know these factors and use them to manipulate our choices.

4-out-of-5-stars


PS : the only caveat I might add is that there is a fair bit explained through the medium of American sports. This is awkward for a European reader. If female sexuality was a “dark continent” to Freud , then my ‘dark continent’ is the mystery that is  baseball and basketball.