Throughout March, I made an effort to get through some of the books I bought months ago and kept putting off reading for whatever reason. I’m still not reading as much as I would like because there is so much happening at the moment but I’m being more selective and more willing to go for in-depth books.
Here’s what I read this month.
Social Mobility And Its Enemies — Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin
“As our results show, individuals tend to always carry — at least in some shape or form — the symbolic baggage of the past. Moreover, the imprint of this history can have important consequences for both how people act in the present and — perhaps, more importantly — how they are evaluated by others.”
The British obsession with class is horrendous. We have the second lowest rate of social mobility in the world, yet unlike the US there’s no serious pretence that hard work will change that. This book begins with ‘a tale of two Davids’ (David Beckham and David Cameron) and how one rose up the ladder, while the other preserved the privilege he was born into. It goes into the hard facts surrounding social mobility, the relevance of education and housing, how the wealthy give their children a head start, and what this costs us all. The authors then consider, in light of the many failed initiatives, what we can do to change this and how it would benefit everyone. Sharp and engaging.
“ If you want to get better at what you do, if you want to get better at this thing called life, you have to pay attention.”
Adam Smith is best known as the father of modern capitalism, but there’s another side to his work; philosophy. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, his first book, isn’t about economics. It’s about living; how we can all improve the world, the path to choose for happiness, what motivates us to behave in a moral way, and ideas I interpret as explaining self-sabotage. This book is plainly written and a little dreary in place, but it serves its intended purpose of bringing Adam Smith to life. I plan to read the actual Theory next and this was a good starting point.
Willing Slaves: How The Overwork Culture is Ruling Our Lives — Madeline Bunting
“ It is through work that we seek to satisfy our craving for a sense of control, of mastery, of security and autonomy in a chaotic, insecure world: this is the gold at the end of the rainbow. The craving is never satisfied, we are always promised more if we work that bit harder.”
It’s telling that, over a decade after this book was published, most of what it includes remains as relevant as ever. Madeline Bunting sets out to understand why Britain is a nation of workaholics (compared to our European neighbours who tend to view excessive work as a sign of inefficiency, not dedication) despite an enduring lack of social mobility (see above), job stability, adequate benefits and so on. She talks to a range of people in different careers about their perspective on overwork culture and to a few who have managed to opt out.
One issue I take with this book is Bunting’s apparent assumption that a happy life requires time and energy for raising children, without taking into account that not everyone wants kids, nor should it be a default life choice from which any deviation is an apparent problem. Otherwise, it’s a strong book that elegantly combines the numbers and the stories, and offers solutions not just descriptions.
The Year of Magical Thinking — Joan Didion
It’s embarrassing to admit that I’m only just getting into Joan Didion. There are so many books and time is finite and sometimes wonderful authors slip through the cracks. After repeatedly coming across references to Didion in a short time, I finally got a copy of this and now can’t wait to read the rest of her books. The Year of Magical Thinking is about the time following the death of her husband, John, at the same time as her daughter is in hospital. It’s lucid and painful, raw and still measured. I don’t get the impression this was a therapeutic book to write. Sometimes those with the ability and inclination to write about painful experiences have a responsibility of sorts to do so.
“ Pure mathematics might seem like an abstract field of human study, with no direct connection with the real world. But, in reality, mathematics is closely intertwined with the general culture.”
In the late 1930s, a mysterious mathematician, Nicholas Bourbaki of Poldevia, set about revolutionising the way mathematics was taught. But despite his wide influence, Bourbaki never existed. He was the creation of a group of prominent mathematicians who collaborated on a series of books intended to form the basis of future teaching. Their methods were unorthodox, but their output was incredible. Aczel tells the life stories of the group’s members, examining how the cultural landscape of the time brought them together with the shared belief that mathematics needed updating. He also explains how the rise of structuralism at the time played its part.
This might be one of my new favourite books, although it’s the sort you need to read with an open mind, without expecting it to be any one thing in particular. It’s not really about maths, biographies of the people mentioned, history, art, structuralism, France or any defined topic. It’s a fascinating mixture of all of the above without covering anything in detail. Best viewed as a jumping off point for exploring other topics.
“ What we do not destroy in nature, we come to worship — although we may yet destroy it.”
It’s not hard to argue that elephants captivate us in a way no other animal does.
Love, War & Circuses traces the relationship between us and elephants, beginning with how they may have directed our early evolution and migrations. Scigliano looks at the way elephants have inserted themselves into religion, superstition, industry, art, geography, entertainment, conservation and more. We worship them. We tell stories of their antics to our children. We revere their teeth in much the same way as gold. We go on borderline pilgrimages to see them. We paint and sculpt them in countless ways. Yet at the same time, we also take them into battle. We slaughter them in the millions for their body parts. We treat them as slaves. We confine them in zoos and abuse them in circuses. We destroy their habitats and kill them when they become inconvenient. As Scigliano points out, they are the only zoo animal a keeper would even think of striking in response to bad behaviour. It’s as if we so absolutely believe our own stories that we accord malicious intent to their natural behaviour. We forget the reality of elephants, as creatures in their own right and not just in relation to us.
This is an exquisitely researched book, dense with rich detail and accounts of the author’s trips to visit elephants in different places. It was published 15 years ago so parts are presumably quite out of date (especially around conservation), which doesn’t make it any less worth reading.
The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers — Joanna Bourke
“ Suffering is deeply enmeshed with what it means to be human.”
This is a unique book in the way it takes an abstract, seemingly mundane concept (pain) we’re all familiar with and crafts a whole new way of viewing it. Bourke traces the way people have experienced pain over the centuries, covering pain relief, medicine, empathy, religion, metaphor, and other angles.
The main thesis of The Story of Pain is that pain is not an objective experience, nor is it an entirely physical one. The way we feel pain is tied up with every other aspect of our lives; our understanding of our own anatomy, the availability of pain relief, our sense of pain as something strengthening or weakening, our sense of purpose, or the presence of others. It’s not physical, it’s social. It is used as a form of social control — groups in power at any point in history will often claim that marginalised groups are less able, or even altogether unable, to feel pain than them as a form of dehumanisation. To deny that someone can feel pain is to deny them relief or sympathy, or to reconstruct their experience as a form of weakness or malingering.
Structuralism and Post Structuralism for Beginners — Donald D Palmer
“ All configurations of human behaviour are codes which, when decoded, reveal themselves as attempted solutions of universal human dilemmas.”
While I studied structuralism briefly at college, most of the details have since slipped my mind and I was always dubious of the value of the way we covered it. After reading The Artist & The Mathematician, I wanted to refresh my memory. This was the only book on structuralism and it’s not ideal, but it makes for a good starting point. It’s written half as a graphic novel, with lots of illustrations, diagrams and comics giving a quick overview of the basic concepts and key figures in structuralism and post-structuralism despite the lack of nuance. I don’t see any shame in using simplifications as a starting point for understanding complex philosophical ideas.
Post Truth: Peak Bullshit & What We Can Do It — Evan Davis
“…it takes more than a liar to create a false belief — the recipients of the lie are often willing accomplices to the falsehood.”
For whatever reason, I previously only knew of Evan Davis as the presenter of Dragon’s Den and had no idea of the other sides of his career, so this book was a pleasant surprise. Bullshit is everywhere. From the cheery promises of corporations to the fact-bending of politicians, “genuine frankness is not the norm but the exception.” It’s always been this way, but one of the pervading feelings these days is the sense that everyone except ourselves is gullible and that the very notion of truth is in jeopardy. This book looks at how and why that happened, the incentives behind bullshit, and how we can move forward. Davis managed to draw upon his experience in the media to put together a sensitive, objective argument. It’s optimistic about the future, although perhaps a little too much so.
That’s it for this month. Feel free to let me know what you’ve been reading.