One of my favourite things about moving to London has been, surprisingly, my commute. Spending hours on trains and buses every day gives me plenty of undisturbed reading time (unless I'm on the Victoria line at 8 am, in which case just managing to breath takes enough focus.) Here's what I read in May, mostly underground.
The Ascent of Money - Niall Ferguson. This book has been on my shelf for nearly a year after I bought it then figured it would be tedious and kept procrastinating reading it. After about two pages I realised I’d been completely wrong: it’s a fascinating account of the history of money and how it has both shaped the world, and been shaped by it. The chapters trace the origins and significance of the most important inventions: stocks, bonds, loans, banks, insurance, real estate, and more. This book has drawn criticism for Ferguson's political opinions, but I read economics books for the fundamental ideas, not prescriptive statements, so didn't find that relevant.
Hunger - Hamsun Knut. Jeez. This one was dark. Painful. Haunting. I read most of it sat in a park on a sunny day and still couldn't help shivering at times. The unnamed protagonist is a young writer who can be best encapsulated by a line from one of Conor Oberst's old songs: I tried to pass for nothing / but my dreams gave me away. His attempts to destroy himself are always thwarted by his wish to write something magnificent. I've said before that Scandinavian books always seem to lose something in translation, which is clearly the case here. A certain nuance is missing. That doesn't detract from its fascinating, powerful literary punch though.
Bright Lights, Big City - Jay McInerney. This book fits into the same category as Hunger: a book about an unnamed young male writer crashing around a big city, frittering away their money, struggling to find the motivation to take their work seriously, fixated on a woman whose true personality clearly has little to do with their image of her. In Bright Lights, Big City, the protagonist meanders around New York in search of something to numb the pain of his model wife leaving him. It's told in the third person which is unusual and difficult to pull off, but when it works (as it does here), it has a way of hitting uncomfortably close to home. It's a little Bret Easton Ellis-esqe: a medley of cocaine-fuelled nights, casual anger and numb relationships.
At the same time, McInerney goes deeper beneath the surface and the whole thing takes an unexpected turn. The protagonist recognises that his alienation has a lot to do with unresolved grief over the death of his mother, and after reconnecting with his brother, he recalls her last days with surprising tenderness. As the book ends, he begins to heal. Some books need to be read at the right time. For me, now was the right time. I guess you could call is the Catcher in the Rye of the '80s - but, like, actually good.
London Under: The Secret History Beneath The Streets - Peter Ackroyd. Having just moved to London and started spending a good chunk of my waking hours underground, it felt appropriate to read this book about the world beneath the city streets. The rambling prose, flitting between topics with little organisation or structure, and focus less on what's physically there and more on what it says about us, takes some getting used to. Still, I found it fascinating to be able to know what lies beneath my feet as I travel around, the thrill of knowing there's an underground river or network of tunnels or set of catacombs under the pavement as I go about my day. The area where I live now features prominently which shifted my perspective on it.
Status Anxiety - Alain de Botton. Moving to London has also forced me to be suddenly aware of questions of status and hierarchies. Posturing, name-dropping, embellishing, and superficial status symbols play a huge role here, something I'm both unaccustomed to and uncomfortable with. So many of the people I speak to seem desperate to tell me about the make of their car, the value of their house, the breed of their dog, the institutions where they studied, and other superficialities chosen to convey that they are a Very Important Person.
I've never cared much about that stuff. I have no interest in ever owning a fancy home, car, designer clothes, dumb shit like expensive watches and jewellery, a home abroad, or anything like that. I pride myself on having low standards because I've always felt that luxury turns you into a weak slave, dependent on external sources of validation about your own value. So this book, covering the quest for status and how it has evolved over the centuries, was also timely. The main takeaway is that the notion of what connotate high status is constantly changing and varies dramatically around the world. Ascetic religious figures were admired for their rejection of any sort of comfort or material possessions. Some regard the ability to kill a jaguar as the highest marker of prestige. It's important to recognise that these ideas are just stories we tell ourselves.
The Pleasures & Sorrows of Work - Alain de Botton. Lately, I've been enjoying Andrew Taggart's Total Work newsletter which explores the all-consuming role of work in modern culture. It's prompted me to think deeper about my own relationship with work and the place it occupies in my life. Hence this book which charts the delights and nightmares of the workplace. De Botton charts visits to a series of under-studied locations with the sensitivity of a naturalist visiting an island in the Galapagos: a logistics warehouse, a tuna supply chain, an aviation convention, an inventors' show and club, the office of a career coach, a repair yard for old planes, the patch of electricity pylons, and the headquarters of an accounting firm. In the process, he pushes us to see the beauty and sadness in the myriad systems that make our world work, and the people who absorb themselves in minutiae that forms part of the bigger picture. As with all de Botton's work, it's heavily subjective and opinion based, but full of gems.
How To Think More About Sex - Alain de Botton. As is evident from all my reading round-ups, I have a tendency to read one book by an author, then immediately buy everything they've written. This month I did that with Alain de Botton. I didn't know what to expect with this one (the title has little to do with the content), but it proved to be an interesting philosophical exploration of relationships: the links between the partners we chose and the art we like, the problems with long-term relationships, the flaws in our understanding of what's normal and abnormal, and a suggestion that censorship isn't as evil as we imagine. It's a touch Freudian in places (something I've given up trying to avoid) and full of subjective explanations which I didn't necessarily agree with, but are one way of looking at things.
In the conclusion, de Botton disputes the notion that we waste too much of our energy on relationships and dating, instead suggesting that the world would be a far less interesting place without our messy, confusing desires. Take a look at art, or step out into the streets of a big city on a Friday night, or walk into a designer store, he explains, and everything you see is a monument to our attempts to find people who meet some sort of need. I really, really liked that perspective.
Three Tales - Gustave Flaubert. Reading Guy de Maupassant’s account of being mentored by Flaubert prompted me to turn to the latter's work. This book, perhaps his most successful work in his own lifetime, consists of three unrelated short stories. Much like de Maupassant, his stories centre on painstaking observations of people and the way they act and relate to each other. Unlike his protege, the scenarios and settings are far from mundane or every day.
The first story tells of a girl who spends her life as a servant to a rich woman, devoting herself to each child she looks after, before becoming obsessed with a parrot once she is left alone in old age. It might be the most depressing short story I've ever read. I'm half hoping it had some influence on the Monty Python pet shop sketch. The second is a slightly Narnia-ish modern folktale of a sadistic young man obsessed with hunting and killing animals, as he runs from a prophecy that foretells he will kill his own parents. The third is a reworking of an old religious story, full of heady descriptions of incense-scented banquets and concealed treasures.
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less - Greg Mckeown. I’ve been trying to avoid business management/ productivity/ personal development books. But every so often one sneaks onto my shelf, under the guise of a different subject. Like most books in this category, it’s about a fairly obvious concept, with a nifty name attached, the first ~50 pages are spent selling the idea, and the last ~50 spent repeating everything said in between. All the while citing the same few out-of-date, problematic studies these books always cite, and quoting the same people these books always quote.
That’s more a criticism of this genre, than this book in particular by the way. I quite liked this book. Still, although everything mentioned is very obvious, I’ve pointed out before that the best advice usually is. So if you want a reminder that simplifying your life always makes things better, it’s worth reading. The basic premise is that we should learn to say no to the non-essential to give us more time and energy for the essential. Oh, and a whole chapter telling you to sleep 8 hours a night because Bill Gates says so.
A Florence Diary - Diana Athill. A short, sweet record of Diane Athill’s first visit to Florence with her cousin in 1947. It’s a portrait of a time that feels so remote now, yet the sense of wonder at exploring a new place is timeless.
Other stuff I enjoyed this month:
- I saw Mary Gauthier live at last (in typical London style, everyone around me insisted on pronounced her name like 'Gautier') which was very emotional. It was wonderful to hear her explain the stories behind her songs and although I was probably the only person there below retirement age, I loved it.
- I saw the Another Kind of Life exhibition at the Barbican - 20 rooms of photographs depicting people on the fringes of society - and it was just incredible.
- And I also saw A Sense of Space, an immersive exhibition featuring four different rooms: one full of doodles, one full of cherry blossoms, one with a light display, and one with just a huge pink bean bag where you could relax. I didn't want to leave the cherry blossom room.