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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.






What I’ve been reading this month

The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz was a series of case histories collected by a psychoanalyst, with an interwoven theme of coping with loss. While I’ve doubts about the psychoanalytical methods described (and some of the connections between thoughts and experiences were outlandishly fanciful), I was drawn in to reflecting on the conclusions and perspectives Grosz presented. I enjoyed this collection despite myself.
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The same can’t be said for The Road to Character, David Brooks’s best-selling work which argued that the modern world prizes “CV virtues” (essentially listable achievements) above “eulogy virtues” (those people are remembered for). The logical flaw was that Brooks illustrated the apparent importance of “eulogy virtues” by presenting mini-biographies of historical figures remembered for “CV virtues”, demonstrating that CV virtues have, contrary to his central assertion, long been prized. Coupled with a very confused position on religion and a tediously loquacious writing style, this was a slog to get through.
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The Big Short by Michael Lewis is now a major motion picture that I haven’t seen – I’ve mentioned before that I’m rubbish on films. I liked the insight this book gave into the causes of the subprime mortgage crisis, which was rendered understandable even to a fellow like me, with no knowledge of markets or financial instruments. However, I was disappointed that Lewis didn’t delve more into the underlying psychology of the problem. Lewis’s repeatedly expressed view that the people involved acted immorally clouded the more interesting question of what drove the immorality. But that’s a slightly unfair criticism, as I don’t think he ever intended to answer that question, and the book is great nonetheless.
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Sarah Hall’s The Beautiful Indifference was a collection of short stories featuring female protagonists, each of whom had an initially hidden ‘dark side’. I rarely enjoy short stories, and these were no exception. I don’t know why I keep buying short story collections. But the most irritating thing about this collection – and I write this in full acceptance of how pretentious it sounds – was Hall’s punctuation choices, and most particularly of all, the decision not to correctly punctuate direct speech. Combined with her sparing use of any punctuation beyond full stops and commas, the text became leaden and borderline uninterpretable. Rather than finding myself transported by the narrative, I found myself frustrated by having to figure out the literary puzzle of words scattered on a page.
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This 2,316th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.






What I’ve been reading this month

Booker Prize winner The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, opened with a black man brought before the Supreme Court accused of reinstating slavery. Flashbacks told of the narrator’s strange childhood as a subject of his father’s socio-racial experiments, and connected these to the narrator’s later work to reintroduce racial segregation. Despite the subject matter, this was a funny book. Beatty skewered racial stereotypes and political correctness, but did so in a way that made me reflect and realise how little I understand of the world, and how much my own prejudices affect my thinking. I found the experience of reading this a little exhausting: Beatty rarely paused for breath, and I found myself getting lost in some of the sub-sub-plots. But nevertheless, this was a memorable read.
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In Susan Hill’s celebrated The Woman in Black, a young solicitor travelled out to a small English town to set in order the affairs of a recently deceased elderly lady who lived in an old house on a causeway, regularly cut off by the tide. Some spooky stuff happens. I’m rarely gripped by horror novels, and this was no exception. The tale was entertaining enough, but this wasn’t really a page-turner. This seemed to me to be a ‘ghost story’ in the classical sense: designed to scare, without much more to say. Since I rarely find myself involved enough by tales of ghoulish things to become scared, there wasn’t really a lot for me in this book, save for the enjoyably tight, precise style of writing.
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Jane Gardham’s The Man in the Wooden Hat was the sequel to Old Filth, which I read last year. Old Filth was a fictional biography of Sir Edward Feathers. The Man in the Wooden Hat was the story of Feathers’s marriage, told largely from the point of view of his wife. It had much the same overarching theme, exploring the tensions and excitement that lie behind a “bland” exterior of socially acceptable relationship in the upper classes in the mid-1900s. I have to admit that I didn’t find this quite as engaging as the first volume, possibly because the story behind relationships is a much more commonly visited literary theme than the story behind a professional exterior. But this was still suffused with Gardham’s gentle humour and fantastic writing, so it was still an enjoyable read.
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This 2,315th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.






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