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What I’ve been reading this month

In the short book The Snowden Operation, The Econonmist‘s Edward Lucas presented a short case against Edward Snowden’s leak of classified intelligence material. He also made a case for the leaks being heavily influenced by Russian intelligence services. As someone who has previously been fairly sympathetic to Snowden’s claimed motives, I found this alternative take revealing. Lucas made some great points about the disproportionate harm caused by Snowden’s actions, especially in contrast to the minimum actions he could have taken to achieve the same ends. This book also changed my mind a bit about the nature of the public debate around the intelligence services (though I don’t totally buy Lucas’s “regulate the use rather than the development of tools” approach).
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I really enjoyed Tim Harford’s latest book, Adapt. Harford gave lots of examples of successes resulting from review and adaptation, and made a good case for embracing, as opposed to rejecting, failure. He made the often overlooked and very important case for allowing variation in systems, and not expecting constant equality: something that health systems in particular are not great at understanding.
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I didn’t get on well with McEwan’s The Innocent. It seemed to be a combination of spy thriller, coming-of-age novel, absurdity-of-war satire, and a reflection on cultural politics. The prose was sublime, almost poetic, as McEwan’s writing always is – but it didn’t quite hang together for me. Maybe I was just in the wrong mood.
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This 2,319th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.






What I’ve been reading this month

A friend at work recommended Helen Russell’s The Year of Living Danishly after I recently visited Copenhagen. This book was the autobiographical tale of a well-off writer and her husband moving from London to rural Denmark, after the latter was offered a job at Lego headquarters. The stories of their experiences were mixed in with some light journalistic investigation as to why Danish people are so often reported to be among the happiest in the world. Russell’s writing was engaging but light, which made this book fun, but maybe less insightful than it could have been. Nonetheless, it was a pleasant, easy read.
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Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending has recently been turned into a film, which – guess what? – I haven’t seen. I found it to be a beautifully written book, which explored ageing and the flaws in memory. So many passages of this book were quotable that it read like poetry. I think that if the ‘revelations’ at the end of the book had been a little more mundane, then the wider observations about the reliability of memory and the incompleteness of the picture anyone holds in mind at any given time would have hit harder. But who am I to argue with a Booker winner?
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Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden was a deeply creepy book about four children hiding their mother’s corpse to avoid being taken into foster care, and then attempting to live independently. The plot was grotesque, but less so than the twisted, psychologically charged atmosphere McEwan built. I understand that this has also been turned into a film that I haven’t seen… Whatever. I found it brilliantly disturbing.
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This 2,318th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.






What I’ve been reading this month

Nick Clegg’s Politics was enjoyable mostly for his compelling account (and defence) of his time as Deputy Prime Minister. It provided real insight into what went on ‘behind the scenes’ in coalition government, and Clegg was refreshingly open about the tactical errors he made along the way. He also made a strong and coherent case for the role of liberalism in the world at large.
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The Big Short, Michael Lewis’s famed book (now a film that I haven’t seen) gave a surprisingly understandable account of the causes of the subprime mortgage crisis. Lewis gave the first explanation of ‘short selling’ that I’ve been able to understand and retain for longer than about five minutes. I was slightly disappointed that Lewis didn’t delve more into the underlying psychology of the problem: his repeatedly expressed view that the people involved acted immorally clouds the more interesting question of what drove the immorality. But I enjoyed this nonetheless.
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Yuval Noah Harari’s highly acclaimed Homo Deus didn’t do much for me. It had very well-written prose, with an occasionally astonishing clarity and precision of expression, but the central thesis seemed confused to me. One of Harari’s central theses is that humans (and all animals) are biological algorithms, responding in predictable ways to stimuli. He also spends a lot of the book talking about ethics and morality, particularly around treatment of animals. But how can something be judged ‘immoral’ if the actor is simply following an algorithm?
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Exploring broadly similar themes, I enjoyed Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen’s Human Universe far more than Harari’s book. Cox did a good job of giving enough of the detail of the physics to be interesting, without becoming overwhelming and uninterpretable. In fact, even in the most technical parts, it remained compelling and engaging. This celebratory book left me feeling inspired and full of wonder.
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Edit (on day of publication): I see that I’ve included The Big Short two months in a row… luckily saying much the same both times. I’m not going to correct it, because I’m not bothered enough to re-edit the header image…!

This 2,317th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.






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