Most of July was consumed by the exhausting charade of looking for somewhere new to live in London, a process which only just ended. However, spending four hours a day at times on trains, trekking across the city to see another damp converted linen closet with a free pitbull thrown in, allows for plenty of uninterrupted reading time. After a lot of disappointment and getting turned down for half a dozen places, I’ve finally found somewhere perfect and hope to stay there a long time.
Here’s what I read this month.
Finding Zero — Amir D Aczel
Most of Aczel’s books blend together mathematics, biography, history, and travelogue. Finding Zero is no exception. In it, Aczel follows his childhood dream of learning where the numerals we use every day originated. In particular, he looks for the earliest known instance of a zero, lost during the Cambodian cultural revolution.
While the search (and discovery) of the zero is fascinating, the travel descriptions are a bit dreary in places and I came away desperately wanting more history or context on the importance of zero. This works as a starting point or a light read if you find mathematical history interesting.
How To Save Your Own Life — Erica Jong
‘We all go through various transformations in the course of growing older and become several different people even in our own brief lives. The soul is a process, not a thing; therefore you cannot put it in a box (or a book) and close the lid. It will crawl out and keep changing.’
The sequel to Fear of Flying, in which Isadora Wing is a bit older, still with the husband she attempted to leave (Bennett), richer and more famous, and still wracked by angst and indecision about leaving him. Throughout this book, she engages in affairs, is wracked by anguish at the discovery of her husband’s earlier affairs, attempts to reclaim her youth, grapples with fame, and tries to understand her need to stay in a marriage.
How To Save Your Own Life is perhaps best viewed as an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of prior generations. Isadora’s belief that a relationship would make her life complete, her tolerance of obvious emotional abuse, and general angst are relatable — though only in the sense that I recall them from my teenage years and are glad to have left them behind.
But as a whole, it’s gold. The writing is simply too good, the characters too ludicrous, and the neuroticism too decadent for it to be anything else. Even if there is a tendency among younger feminists to disregard the writings of our parents’ generation, I believe that there is still so much we can learn from them.
A History of God — Karen Armstrong
‘Men and women started to worship gods as soon as they became recognisably human; they created religion at the same time as they created works of art…our current secularism is an entirely new experiment, entirely unprecedented in human history.’
I have to admit it: I chose this book because it seemed like an impossible topic to cover in a single book. Somehow, Armstrong manages to craft a rich, compelling narrative that never feels incomplete or rushed.
Considering how sensitive, debatable, and historically questionable much of the content it, Armstrong does a marvellous job of traversing the history of the concept of god and its unique significance in all human societies. She looks at how the three major religions developed, the links between them, the lives of their major figures and early followers, and how they helped them survive. Of particular interest, Armstrong states that many of their early followers were marginalised groups in society, like women and slaves, who were more amenable to a new system of belief that promised to improve their lot in life. Yet as those same religions evolved, they became a tool for subjugating those same people.
I learned an extraordinary amount from this book and came away with a multitude of new perspectives. The downside is that the middle third or so gets far too into the weeds with terminology and combines far too many threads of thought for a reader without pre-existing knowledge of the topic to keep track.
Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software — Stephen Johnson
Reread. I’m diving back into emergence and this remains my favourite book on the topic, on account of Steven Johnson’s ability to explain complicated ideas through engaging narratives. Emergence looks at how disorganised systems (an anthill, slime mould, a city) lacking top-down control can ‘learn’ and become ordered.
‘It was pushed on us big time, the idea that they can’t become addicted if you’re using opioids to treat legitimate pain. The advent of the pain score, we now think, got patients used to the idea that zero pain was the goal, whereas now doctors focus more on function if the pain score is three or four.’
When dealing with a difficult, inscrutable issue, sometimes it’s easier to zoom in on certain stories — then zoom back out and connect them to the whole picture. This is what Macy does in Dopesick, which tells of the rise and spread of the US opiate addiction crisis. The numbers, the statistics, are always too overwhelming to mean anything. But the individuals Macy tracks — families of children who overdosed, addicts, dealers, law enforcement, regulators, volunteers — give the book its power. She manages to simultaneously make clear the extent of the crisis and the crooked incentives that led to it, while also humanising the most demonised groups involved. The downside is the consistently obvious sense that Macy views the deaths of well-off, educated, ‘nice’, white people as being of greater significance than those of less privileged addicts.
It’s been a while since a non-fiction book made me cry. This one did.
Fear of Dying — Erica Jong
“You must be very specific in your wishes or they’ll come back to haunt you.”
A more recent one by Erica Jong, consisting of a series of scenes from her life (yes it’s meant to be fiction but it’s clearly quite autobiographical) as she moves into her sixties. Her parents are dying, her dog dies, her husband has a heart attack, and she is mostly concerned with fretting about whether she looks her age.
It’s amusing and witty in places but somewhat disconnected from reality. The comment on the official blurb about this book showing ‘what it really takes to be human and female in the 21st century’ is a bit much. The millionaire husband, literary fame, and $100,000 facelift are not typical components of being ‘human and female.’
The Challenge of Pain — Ronald Melzack and Patrick D Wall
‘The psychological evidence strongly supports the view of pain as a perceptual experience whose quality and intensity are influenced by the unique past history of the individual, by the meaning he gives to the pain-producing sensation and by his state of mind at the moment.’
A classic medical text from the late 90s on the physiology and psychology of physical pain. Melzack and Wall cover various angles on how pain works, how it varies, how we treat it, and how people have historically treated it. Surprisingly readable, though probably dated in places, it’s an illuminating explanation of a topic we tend to take for granted.
Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order — Steven Strogatz
Synchronicity is at the heart of many of the most extraordinary phenomena in the universe; fireflies flashing, moons orbiting planets, pacemaker cells in our hearts pulsing in unison, our circadian rhythms, pendulums, and more. Strogatz combines his own research with that of his peers and contemporaries in this delightful celebration of synchronicity. Sync covers a lot of ground and is full of revelations.
Strogatz’s need to ingratiate the other researchers he talks about does wear pretty thin — especially when he attempts to put a positive spin on one guy’s belief in telepathy and unnecessarily comments on one female researcher’s appearance. I appreciate that these games are necessary for authors, but that doesn’t make them pleasant for readers.
Hello World: How To Be Human In The Age of Algorithms — Hannah Fry
“Using algorithms as a mirror to reflect the real world isn’t always helpful, especially when the mirror is reflecting a present reality that only exists because of centuries of bias.”
Hello World is a fun, preppy book about some of the ways algorithms are in use, with a particular focus on the areas where they are taking over from human decision-makers. Fry is an impeccable popular science author, making this an ideal starting point for the topic.
I read this hoping mostly for more details on how algorithms work, which Hello World mostly lacked. In addition, there’s a graphic, unnecessary description of a violent rape thrown into one of the chapters in a thoughtless, jarring manner. Gratuitous violence feels somewhat out of place in what is meant to be a light-hearted book about technology.
“Communications tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.”
When groups of people are able to come together at a low cost and with minimal organisational effort, remarkable change can happen. This is the premise of Here Comes Everybody, which Shirky supports with examples of people using the internet to form groups that would otherwise be impossible. Even though it’s dated ten years after publication, it forced me to re-examine and pay more attention to some of the technological tools I use on a regular basis.
That’s it for this month. As always, feel free to let me know what you’ve been reading.