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What I’ve been reading this month

I think everyone has some cultural awareness of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels given the number of adaptations there have been. I think many people also read it in school, though I don’t remember doing so. It was 300 pages of often laugh-out-loud social and political satire disguised as a sort of fantasy. It’s nearly 300-years old but didn’t seem it. The satire was biting and relevant to today’s world. The repeated needling of misogyny, in particular, felt like it could be from a sketch show commenting on today’s gender politics, and the observation that, in England, “ignorance, idleness, and vice, are the proper ingredients for qualifying a legislator” is made as regularly today as it has ever been. I thought this was brilliant.
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“Husband, father, drag queen, sex worker, wife, funeral director, trauma cleaner.” This was quite the collection of roles in life, all of which have been played by Sandra Pankhurst, the remarkable subject of Sarah Krasnostein’s biography The Trauma Cleaner. Krasnostein is a gifted author who brought out the humour in Sandra’s story alongside reflections on the ordinariness of this remarkable life, while also drawing broadly applicable life lessons from the more extraordinary areas of Sandra’s life. There were sections of prose which read like poetry. Krasnostein was up-front about the limits of her confidence regarding the accuracy of Sandra’s story, but even if only half of it were true, Sandra would still be a great subject for a biography.
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Nothing opened my eyes as much this month as The Secret Barrister, a book which flew with wit through the many holes in the English criminal justice system to devastating effect. I had no idea of the degree to which cuts to funding have damaged the criminal justice system. I had no idea that acquitted defendants not entitled to legal aid are no longer able to claim back their legal costs. I had no idea that compensation for wrongful conviction and imprisonment had been eroded to such an extreme degree. I had some idea that the Crown Prosecution Service wasn’t working, but I had no idea of the degree of the problem. I found this educational, shocking, sad and also hilarious.
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Rutger Bregman’s Upoptia for Realists, translated by Elizabeth Manton, argued that our societal development has stalled because nobody in politics promotes “visionary” ideas any more, only different versions of the same basic model of society. I strongly disagree: I think we are living through a time of profound societal change at a pace never before seen in the history of humanity. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book’s discussion of three ideas which probably receive less attention than they deserve: the 15-hour work week, a universal basic income, and a world without borders. This book helped me to look at society from a couple of new perspectives.
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Outliers was Malcolm Gladwell’s book about the effect of cultural and societal norms on individual achievement. It aimed to challenge the notion that exceptional achievements typically result from individual exceptionalism, positing that they instead often result from a combination of social fortune plus a strong dose of luck. My impression is that this is generally taken as given in British society, but is perhaps less so in the US. This means that, as a British reader, bits of this seemed tonally ‘off’ to me. That said, most of the anecdotes and examples in this book were new to me, and I enjoyed reading through them.
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Lies That Bind Us was no more and no less than a perfectly serviceable beach-read thriller by Andrew Hart. It concerned a group of twenty-somethings who went on holiday to Crete, where “things” happened. The group returned to Crete 1,000 days later to find that the “things” came back to haunt them. The central character, a compulsive liar, tried to piece the whole thing together through flashbacks. There was nothing particularly spectacular about the plot or writing, but the pages kept turning. There’s a thread of Greek myth throughout the book which is spoiled by being continually and unnecessarily exposited, but I can forgive that in this sort of “read it with half an eye” novel. It was fine.
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This 2,334th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

PSA: Fake calls from fake me

I’ve been told that pranksters are using details on this site to call the CEO’s of various major companies pretending to be me, often regarding research proposals. The number usually used seems to be 0203 883 5035 (although there’s no reason another number couldn’t be used). Please ignore calls pretending to be from me from this number.

I don’t think I’ve ever cold-called a company’s CEO, but I suppose there’s always a first time. If you aren’t sure whether you’re speaking to real me or fake me, I’m always very happy for you to drop an email to sh@simonhoward.co.uk and I will reply to confirm.

If you want to know what I sound like – which certainly isn’t gruff, aggressive and rude like fake me – there are also a couple of YouTube videos featuring me!

This 2,333rd post was filed under: Site Updates.

What I’ve been reading this month

It struck me that Matthew Kneale’s An Atheist’s History of Belief was neither particularly for atheists nor a comprehensive history of belief. Rather, Kneale presented interesting potted histories about the development over thousands of years of soecific aspects of various religions, picked – by Kneale’s own admission – for the fact that they are interesting stories. For example, he tracked beliefs about violence within Christianity from Jesus’s time through witch trials and the crusades to the modern day; and he followed Buddhism from it being a lifestyle through to a fully fledged religion and back again. Kneale clearly has a good eye for a story, and made this book very enjoyable and interesting.
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Anthony Longden’s essay in Slightly Foxed persuaded me to seek out a copy of Ruth Adam’s A House in the Country. It was a gentle story written and set shortly after the Second World War. A group of six friends (and a couple of young children), ground down by wartime urban living, decided to club together to live communally in a large country house in Kent, which they had loved at first sight. Adam described the mostly humorous, but sometimes poignant, series of adventures and disasters which follow. The characters felt absolutely complete and true-to-life in a fashion that is rarely true in a book this short. The most interestsing aspect to me was the natural discussion of the rapid change in social mores over the post-war period, and the impact this had on individuals. I have no idea whether this book was entirely fiction or rather based on Adam’s experiences. This is not the sort of book I would typically pick up, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
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Every Third Thought was an extended reflection on death by Robert McCrum who explored how one’s perspective on death changes with age. This wasn’t a superficial examination of the topic which ended with cheery messages about ‘living every day as if it’s your last’: it was an uncompromisingly depressing examination of the pain and suffering that often accompanies the end of life. There was much in this book to think about and reflect on further.
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I found Nick Clegg’s book on How to Stop Brexit disappoiting and confused. Most of the book was a restatement of reasons why Britain should remain the EU, but this was followed by a logically flawed set of suggestions for stopping Brexit. For example, Clegg argued that the referendum was unfair because the result of a ‘leave’ vote was not clear in advance. In this book, he advocated for a second referendum with a clear ‘leave’ deal on offer, but in which a ‘remain’ vote would result in a commission to re-evaluate and re-negotiate the UK’s place in the EU: therefore, the very same charge about a lack of clarity of sequelae previously associated with the ‘leave’ campaign then becomes problematic for the ‘remain’ campaign. Having enjoyed Clegg’s autobiography, I expected a lot more from this book.
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In Trust Me, I’m Lying, Ryan Holiday shared his angry at how easy it has become to manipulate bloggers into publishing content that is blatantly untrue, and how credulously traditonal media outlets then pick up those posts and re-report them as fact. Holiday drew on his experience in using this technique to court controversy as a marketer for American Apparel. Holiday admitted to seeing no easy solution, but wrote admiringly about subscription-based approaches to journalism as part of the answer. I feel better informed for having read this, but found the snarky tone and strong language distracting.
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I picked up the Lionel Giles translation of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War because it is so often referred to in other things I’ve read. It was a short book of military strategy written 1500 years ago. Much of it seemed pretty obvious, but I suppose that is because it has become received wisdom. What struck me most about this, though, was not really the book at all. Other have suggested that this book contains great lessons for surviving modern life, or for succeeding as a politician, or for informing business strategies, or for managing a team. On reading and realising that this is just a manual for slaughtering adversaries without mercy, it made me feel a little sad that people see so much in this for other parts of life. I hope life isn’t about fighting with others: I hope life is about discussion and mutual respect and compromise and forgiveness and helping people out. So reading this left me with a general sense of pensive melancholy, not so much about the book itself, but about the place many people see it taking in the modern world.
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This 2,332nd post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

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