June was one of the longest (in a good way) months I can remember. I’ve been raiding my partner’s bookshelves for books I might not otherwise choose.
Here’s what I read this month.
‘In complex and sometimes contradictory ways, the ideas, values, and practices used to justify the sovereignty of a particular understanding of ‘the human’ over the rest of sentient life are what create society and social life.’
This book takes as its starting point a letter written in 1872, by an anonymous person going by ‘An earnest Englishwoman’ who raises the question: are women animals? As with what else I’ve ready of Bourke’s work, she takes this seemingly innocuous starting point and spins out of it an incredibly dense, far-reaching yet organised book that touches on innumerable topics, without straying too far from its starting point.
Bourke carries out an extensive exploration of how we define humanity. Throughout history, people have found endless ways to draw the line between human and animal, often to justify the exploitation of certain groups. People have used science as justification for their definitions and created entire pseudosciences to support their views. To discuss humanity is to discuss rights; who deserves what treatment and why. But as Bourke explains, it is more often rights that make the human, not the other way around. There’s a lot in this- Darwin, vegetarianism, cannibalism, medical ethics, cosmetic surgery, segregation, slavery, and more- and I got a lot out of it.
‘The demonization of the working-class people is a grimly rational way to justify an irrational system. Demonize them, ignore their concerns — and rationalize away a grossly unequal distribution of wealth and power as a fair reflection of people’s worth and abilities.’
The title alone is provocative. Chavs is a powerful, well-written analysis of the state of working-class British people, with a focus on media misinformation.
Growing up, I heard adults often complain about people having hordes of kids, then living off benefits in council houses, buying heaps of expensive gadgets, and refusing to even attempt to work. I was taught that, if it ever came to it, I should never, ever, ever accept state benefits or risk ending up like ‘them.’ From a young age, I heard jokes about chavs and read articles lambasting them. Only after reading this book did it fully sink in that all of this was pure fiction, deliberately crafted to justify inequality and a near total lack of social mobility in the UK. There is little evidence to suggest such people exist in anything other than minuscule numbers and benefit fraud is essentially inconsequential compared to tax evasion. Focusing on garish isolated incidents as representative of all working class people creates a completely distorted image of reality. The map is not the territory.
‘The story of the compass is the story of human civilisation and its ability to flourish and prosper by invention and opportunity, by developing a technology and exploiting its promise.’
I’m currently working my way through Aczel’s back-catalogue. His main weakness as a writer is that his books never seem to know quite what they’re trying to be, alternating between mathematics, history, travelogue, and biography. However, if you accept that stylistic weakness and treat them as a means of kindling interest in unexpected areas, they work. Like his other books, The Riddle gave me plenty of new threads to follow.
The compass is one of humanity’s most significant inventions, having given us a new ability to traverse the globe and build new trade routes, enabling unprecedented levels of information dissemination. Yet we know little of its origins. In this book, Aczel attempts to identify who, where, first took the long-known lodestone and turned it into a navigational device. The topic is interesting, but the chapter about the history of Venice was the highlight for me.
‘…in some ways, people become more rather than less different from each other with the accumulation of time, especially in the manner in which we handle the apparently shared fears and difficulties of facing old age.’
I think about ageing a lot. Far too much. In part because it helps me make long term decisions and think about how best to use my time and resources at present, what to prioritise. But the fear of the unknown and the negative views of ageing I constantly hear (people tell me all the time to enjoy the next few years because “It’s all downhill after 25” which I do not believe at all) have prompted me to look for more positive perspectives. So I’ve read a few books similar to this one, looking for an encouraging tone, a la Susan Neiman.
Out of Time is not that. It’s a feminist look at what ageing means, heavily sprinkled with references to the work of a range of writers and artists who deal with the topic. Segal focuses on how ageing effects women, dealing with grieving, physical changes, isolation, and loss of desire. The passages about Simone de Beauvoir (one of my favourite humans right now) are the highlight.
For the most part, Out of Time presents the same consistently pessimistic, disparaging view of ageing as Cindy Sherman’s more recent works. Part of me wonders if this is because it’s mostly comprised of references to other books and perhaps only those who are unhappy with ageing bother writing about it, while the rest get on with living.
‘The need to temper British imperial nostalgia with post colonial responsibility has never been greater.’
It is rare to read a book that dramatically changes your world view. To read a second such book in a single month is even rarer. Like most people to go through the British educational, I was raised on a view of colonialism that places beliefs over facts. We learned a little about Gandhi, but the overall message was positive and in favour of colonialism. All my life, I’ve visited art galleries and seen paintings and statues of colonisers. I’ve visited museums and seen artefacts taken from colonies. It was only after attending my first Uncomfortable Art Tour that I started to seriously reassess the attitudes I absorbed without being altogether aware of it, and to learn more.
Inglorious Empire shatters the rosy image of colonialism and lays out the extent of the damage British rule did to India; its economy, its trades, its people, its culture, its education, its politics, its communities. Tharoor makes one thing clear: the British did not set out to improve India or help its people. And I won’t go into more details because this is one everyone should read, instead of responding to reviews or summaries of it.
The sort of non-fiction that shows reality can be even more beautiful than fiction. Left Bank begins with WW2, then tells the story of an intermingled group of individuals — writers, artists, poets, photographers — who inhabited the same social, geographical and philosophical space post-war. Poirier manages to turn the chaos of human life, let alone dozens of human lives, into a neat, elegant narrative. She tells of the every day lives and loves of people like Simone de Beauvoir, James Baldwin, Picasso, Albert Camus and others. The ongoing undercurrent is an attempt to define what gave Paris its cultural significance at the time and since.
Visiting Paris, the past always feels present, as if the 1940 and 50s linger around a corner. In London, the past is torn up as soon as possible, to make something new.
That’s it for this month. Feel free to let me know what you’ve been reading lately.