Lately, I’ve mostly been bundling two months of reading together. In part because I’m making an effort to read fewer, longer books so it feels dull to publish one of these posts just describing a few reads. And in part because things have been delightfully hectic. In April and May, I went to Canada for the first time, spent some time in the countryside to get a break from London, saw Mother Mother and Better Oblivion Community Center live (both glorious), visited family, had some lovely days out in London with my partner, worked a lot, and started going to the gym after years. It feels good, yet a little terrifying to be fully immersed in life like this. The hard part is recognising how much of my writing inspiration comes from spending long periods of time alone, thinking.
I said at the start of the year that I wanted to read more books by women/more diverse authors, which hasn’t gone that well, mainly because I tend to pick books for the subject matter. Which means that, due to wider biases, I end up with uncomfortably homogenous authors. I’m also working my way through the many books I brought last year and didn’t read. Going forward, I’m going to make an active effort to buy books by authors that are more representative of humanity as a whole.
Anyway, here’s what I’ve read in the last two months.
Close To The Knives: A Memoir Of Disintegration — David Wojnarowicz
I first heard about Wojnarowicz from Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City and knew from there that I would adore his work. Close To Knives is a collection of essays about Wojnarowicz’s life, many of them focusing on the AIDs crisis and his experience of seeing almost everyone close to him succumb to the disease as he too was dying of it. He talks about his abusive father, about living on the streets, about his time as a sex worker, about malnutrition and drug addiction, about the suicide of a friend, about travelling and driving, and seeing or being subject to scenes of violence that are entirely unbearable to read. The essay where Wojnarowicz intersperses descriptions of a bloody bullfight he watched in Mexico with descriptions of his abusive father is particularly phenomenal and agonising. Parts lapse into unabashed rants but, as with What Makes Sammy Run? the unrestrained emotion only strengthens the book.
It was remarkable to see how far we’ve come in terms of attitudes to queerness in less than three decades. And how much further we have left to go. And how important it is not to forget how recent the events Wojnarowicz describes were. When I asked my mother about her memories of the AIDs crisis, her response was unintentionally poignant — “I don’t even remember the names of everyone I knew who died.” If you weren’t alive (or aware) at the time, this book does a lot to show, beyond the statistics, the sheer human toll.
Some books simply sink to the back of your memory about the final page, others linger around for weeks, odd words and phrases resurfacing at will. This book is in the latter category and was the first book for a while to make me cry.
The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World — Catherine Nixey
It’s always jarring and a little humbling to read a history book about something you’ve never heard about. The Darkening Age is one such book. It looks at how Christianity took over Western culture and its role in the fall of the classical world. Nixey describes in vivid detail scenes of early Christians destroying temples, statues, and literature. I enjoyed The Darkening Age and it presents an alternate side of history, but after reading some extensive criticism of its accuracy, I’m not clear how much to trust this book.
How To Lie With Maps — Mark Monmonier
How To Lie With Maps is about the ways in which maps distort our sense of reality, how they’re made, how they go wrong, how cartographers negotiate the unavoidable need to simplify reality, and how they’re manipulated intentionally. Maps do so much to shape our perception of the world, yet we pay little attention to how they’re made.
It’s a bit outdated in terms of the technology Monmonier, although this is really to be expected considering it was published before I was born and hardly counts as criticism. The underlying principles still stand and the chapter about how maps are used in advertising is of particular note.
A History of Knowledge: Past Present & Future — Charles van Doren
It’s hard not to let the reason you read a book colour your feelings about it. I read A History of Knowledge while scouting for topics to research for work, for which it was excellent, but from a non-research perspective, it’s more questionable.
It may be a function of this book (or at least, my edition) being twenty years old, but van Doren seems to make no efforts to portray colonialism as anything other than a glowing achievement of the Western world, glossing over slavery in a couple of sentences, and holding up genocidal colonialists as heroes. When he says ‘knowledge’ he really means ‘Western knowledge.’ It’s very hard to see what van Doren was trying to achieve and it’s hard to see it as more than an attempt to defend colonialism. The topic is far too broad for any individual to cover it in a single book, so as a result many chapters feel superficial and hurried. There are a few major factual inaccuracies (according to reviews by others — I don’t know enough about the subject matter) and van Doren makes no serious attempt at being objective. In particular, the descriptions of historical figures are clearly based on his personal opinion alone.
With that in mind, I did learn quite a bit from the early chapters which are perhaps worth reading if you’re interested in early human history.
Divided: Why We’re Living In An Age of Walls — Tim Marshall
I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve read a book close, say less than a year, to when it was published. This is one of those rare times, mainly because I demolished Prisoners of Geography last year and wanted more. Divided is a timely book about why we build walls and how national boundaries shape politics. Marshall looks at why wall building is on the rise and what it says about the current state of the world. He largely paints border walls not as something with genuine practical value, but as a symbol to people to show that ‘something is being done’, often a form of tilting at windmills.
The writing is clear and sharp, with plenty to teach in every chapter. The main downside is that Divided is a little too timely and is one to read NOW, lest it be out of date in a matter of months.
Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexity — John H Holland
This was a rare case of me powering through a book I didn’t really enjoy or understand, in the hopes of getting something out of it. If I hadn’t picked this up with the specific intention of learning more about emergence, I wouldn’t have finished it and don’t recommend it if you’re not extremely interested in the topic. It’s technical, with a lot of new diagrams and confusing descriptions of experiments. The early chapters formulating a description of complex adaptive systems are the most interesting part.
Shakespeare: The Biography — Peter Ackroyd
When this book arrived in the mail, I felt wildly sceptical about how anyone could possibly write a 500-page book on Shakespeare. Surely we know almost nothing about him? Doesn’t his biography fit onto a couple of pages, at best?
Somehow, Ackroyd achieves the impossible and writes what must be the most comprehensive biography of Shakespeare around, filling every page with rich detail without ever seeming to waffle or include irrelevant tangents. His research clearly left no stone unturned. Ackroyd’s underlying intention appears to be proving that Shakespeare did write his own plays, by tracing the links between events and influences in his life and his work — e.g. looking at the references to his father’s profession in his plays, or people from his home town showing up as characters. It clearly takes enormous skill to build a narrative out of the fragmentary, often controversial and often contradictory, bits of information we have about the bard.
There is a bit of repetition which is perhaps to be expected in a book of this length and which I probably wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t read it over the course of a few days. There are also points where Ackroyd assigns motivations to Shakespeare or makes strong assumptions based on tenuous evidence. This does make the book come alive a bit more and go beyond listing facts, yet it does require reading with the awareness that Ackroyd’s interpretations are subjective.
The French Revolution — Christopher Hibbert
I don’t know much about the French Revolution and this book does a wonderful job of running through it from start to finish. Hibbert mostly focuses on the key individuals in the Revolution, tracing their life stories, influences, and the parts they played.
Much of the book falls a little flat in the sense that it describes events that happened in chronological order without doing much to explain why they happened or what they meant. This is, I guess, a function of Hibbert focusing on individuals above all else, making it harder to grasp the wider context. I’d like to read more on the topic (feel free to send suggestions) but this felt like a solid foundation for understanding the French Revolution.
Scoop: A Novel About Journalists — Evelyn Waugh
I don’t read enough fiction — maybe one book a month, sometimes not even that. Which is a pity, considering how much more it generally has to give. Scoop is a satire about journalists (in particular, foreign correspondents) that pokes fun at the Fleet Street culture of the 1930s through the story of an innocent countryman who, due to a mixup, gets sent to the (fictional) African Republic of Ishmaelia. Laden down with pointless supplies, he attempts to cover a non-existent war.
It’s rife with the kind of casual racism that, in a similar vein to books like Heart of Darkness, might have been the norm at the time, but makes it easy to wonder how much relevance it still has. Waugh does seem to be highly critical of the appropriation of African resources and rarely strays from mocking it, which balances things out a little. In general, the parts of the book set in London and the British countryside are far funnier and more believable than those in Ishmaelia. Waugh seems more at home and the characters, while mostly leaning into caricature territory, are far more vivid.
Fear of Flying — Erica Jong
Incidentally, I read this on a plane. Not on purpose. It is a good plane read, though. Fear of Flying is sometimes categorised as the first book to portray female desire, except, you know, actually written by a woman. Ground-breaking. It’s a memoir masquerading as fiction, though interesting enough to get away with that. Isadora, the protagonist, is at a Freudian analysts’ conference with her analyst husband, when she finds a suitable figure to project her fantasies on in the form of another analyst. In a bid to find a simulacrum of freedom, she leaves her husband and goes on a road trip across Europe — which sounds romantic but has about the same miserable, charmless sense of impending doom as the road trip in Lolita. Along the way, she reflects on writing, femininity, her family, children, her early relationships, her mother, her husband, and all that.
I don’t agree with those who categorise this as erotica. There are very few actual sex scenes and I can’t recall one that wasn’t tragic in some way or even enjoyable for the protagonist. Fear of Flying might have been a bit far out at the time, but I don’t think Jong was trying to be titillating. If she was, she fails. It makes more sense as a book about women and art, as Isadora tries to reconcile her desire to be a writer with the expectation that she be a good wife and mother (favourite line: ‘But I was not a good woman. I had too many things to do.”) Personally, I found parts of it — in particular the descriptions of her mother and her conflicted, casual relationship with Judaism — incredibly relatable. It’s the sort of book I wish I’d read as a teenager.
(When I asked my mother if she’d read it, her response was “Everyone read it” which, much like Close To The Knives, just about sums it up.)
Amir Aczel is fast becoming one of my favourite authors, which is a surprise considering most of his books are tangentially about maths — but they do a beautiful job of blending it in with history and biography. The Mystery of the Aleph is about the history of infinity, from the Jewish scholars who attempted to conceptualise an infinite god, to the mathematicians who formulated the concept, and how it drove some of them insane. It’s not too technical, although some parts could have done with more explanation.
A rather sweet book that looks at some of the problems with consumer culture, why we should each seek to step away from it, and guidelines for doing so. Lane’s meditations on his own life are perhaps the most interesting part.
Risk: The Science & Politics of Fear — Dan Gardener
We are the healthiest, wealthiest, safest, most educated people to ever live, yet that has done little to assuage the constant fear we feel. Risk is about the ways in which we misunderstand risk. We overestimate the risk of long-tail events like plane crashes, shark attacks, childhood cancer, nuclear attacks, child abductions, and terrorist attacks. We underestimate the risk of common events, like diabetes and car crashes. Gardener begins by running through the science of fear, looking at the ways in which our brains are unsuited to the modern world and the common biases that trip us up. Then he considers the ways in which our fear gets manipulated. Of particular interest is Gardener’s analysis of how politicians manipulate the intense fear surrounding rare yet horrific events (like 9/11 and child murders by strangers) for political gain. If you want the world to seem a little less scary, read this book.
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century — Timothy Snyder
I try to avoid saying that everyone should read any particular book, but here we go: everyone should read this book.
That’s it for this month. Feel free to let me know what you’ve been reading lately.