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What I’ve been reading this month

I’m not someone who would naturally pick up a book written 2000 years ago. I’m no classicist. But there has been so much written online and in magazines in recent years about Seneca’s Moral Essays that I thought I’d pick up a translation to see what all the fuss was about. The volume I selected contained Seneca’s essays On Providence, On Firmness, On Anger and the sliver that survives of On Mercy. These essays were many times better than anything modern I’ve read on character or morality. The John W Basore translations were highly readable and engaging. There were parts that made reference to Seneca’s contemporaries or cultural/religious figures that slightly went over my head, but the down-to-Earth “life advice” was astounding. It also made me reflect that there’s more in this single volume on effective management of people than anything I’ve ever previously read. I was completely blown away.
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A Death in The Family was the first of five parts of Karl Ove Knausgård’s radically honest autobiography. This volume covered Knausgård’s relationship with and the death of his father. The book was extreme in its honesty. Knausgård left nothing to the imagination. He didn’t spare family or friends in his descriptions of them and nor did he spare himself in documenting his darkest inner thoughts. His descriptions were detailed, meticulous and evocative. “Transcendent” seems to be a word commonly associated with this book and that captures my impression. It is a very impressive first volume.
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Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths’s Algorithms to Live By stood at the intersection of computer science and philosophy. The authors explained a number of fundamental algorithms used in computer science (many of which were new to me) and then used tenets of philosophy to explain how these algorithms were also applicable in everyday life.
The premise sounded like a terrible marketing-driven airport paperback ‘What X tells us about Y’ concept. In fact, it was carried off very well. The computer science was quite complex (certainly well beyond my rusty A-Level Computing knowledge), but explained with a clarity that outstripped most ‘popular science’ books. The ‘relevance to everyday life’ was also carried through expertly, delving fairly deep into evidence-based psychology. There was a lucid connection between the two which the authors brought to life with thoughtful examples. This was interdisciplinary thinking done right.
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I picked up Unmasked, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s memoir, because the reviews I read suggested that it was better than one might expect it to be—and that’s exactly how I found it. It would be interesting in any case to have some insight into the creative process of a man who has had musical successes writing everything from Elvis Presley songs to stage musicals to a requiem mass. But—perhaps surprisingly—this book was also very funny. There were bits that were a little cringe-worthy, including a bit where he makes a joke about the size of his penis, but he strikes the right note far more often than the wrong one.
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I struggled a bit to get through Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro, which is saying something considering that it was quite a short novel. In a nutshell, the novel found Quatro’s protagonist attempting to reconcile her Christian faith with a lifetime of sexual encounters. There were interesting ideas to unlock in that premise, but I didn’t really gain any real insight into them. This was partly because Quatro often took approaches which extended beyond my sphere of knowledge without anything like an adequate explanation (a treatise on apophatic theology, anyone?). It was also partly because the writing didn’t lead me to particularly care about any of the characters. Fire Sermon just didn’t quite do it for me.
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This 2,331st post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

What I’ve been reading this month

The complete title of the Geroge Horace Lorimer book I read this month was quite possibly the longest of any book I’ve ever read: Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son: Being the Letters written by John Graham, Head of the House of Graham & Company, Pork-Packers in Chicago, familiarly known on ‘Change as “Old Gorgon Graham,” to his Son, Pierrepont, facetiously known to his intimates as “Piggy.”. As the title suggests, this was a series of fictional letters from the ‘self-made’ owner of a meat-packing business to his son, first published in 1902. The letters, which started at the point that Pierrepont left home for university, dispensed fatherly advice as his studies and career in the family firm steadily progressed. This book was only 76 pages long, yet was packed with quotable lines that could have been lifted from any number of self-help books written in 2018, let alone 1902.

“Putting off an easy thing makes it hard, and putting off a hard one makes it impossible.”

“The easiest way in the world to make enemies is to hire friends.”

“I remember reading once that some fellows use language to conceal thought; but it’s been my experience that a good many more use it instead of thought.”

“What was the use of being a nob if a fellow wasn’t the nobbiest sort of a nob?”

The gender politics was very uncomfortably 1902 –

“I like a woman’s ways too much at home to care very much for them at the office. Instead of hiring women, I try to hire their husbands.”

– as was the casual racism –

“Business is a good deal like a nigger’s wool—it doesn’t look very deep, but there are a heap of kinks and curves in it.”

– but otherwise, it was astonishing how little good advice has changed in the last century. I really enjoyed this book.
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In The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett combined a cheerfully twee tale of the Queen developing an interesting in reading with a complete dismantling of the concept of monarchy. The endearingly naive Queen reaches an epiphany as she realises that, contrary to what her upbringing and surroundings tell her, she is no better than or different from the ‘common reader’, and that her position has caused her to become unpleasantly aloof and uncaring. The message seemed to be that the monarchy can only exist while people (most notably the monarch) are ignorant of ‘other lives’: an appreciation that we are all fundamentally equal renders it untenable. I thought that combining an inoffensive story with a devastating critique of the establishment was masterful.
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Daniel Handler’s All the Dirty Parts was a novella narrated by a sex-obsessed, and very sexually active, 17-year-old. This whole book was constant sex, and much of it stomach-churningly “squelchy”. I think this novella contained more description of bodily fluids than everything else I’ve read in the last five years combined. Despite that, there were some surprisingly touching moments, especially when the narrator was out of his comfort zone, and plenty of gentle humour. This was a great study in watching a narrator squirm. It was also an interesting take on the impact of freely accessible pornography on developing sexuality. From repulsion to awkwardness to tenderness, Handler made me feel exactly what he wanted me to feel on every page of this book, and that deserves respect. As a reader, I was totally wound around his finger.
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I’d been putting off reading Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath as I’d been bitterly disappointed by some of his previous books. This was a mistake: I enjoyed this volume. This book was a collection of stories in which underdogs won. These were told in a compelling manner, recognising the complexity of life and of the situations described. Gladwell’s perspective on the reasons why the underdog won seemed insightful, even if it always basically boiled down to the fact that the underdog was underestimated. While the attempt to form theories based on handpicked stories which fit a particular narrative still rankles, it’s less heavy-handed in this book, and easier to ignore.
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Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall was a milestone in the development of modern satirical literature. I found that it had a pleasingly absurd plot and was very funny in parts. It has plenty of genuinely laugh-out-loud dialogue which could have been lifted from Monty Python. Despite this, I didn’t feel particularly fondly towards the book as a whole. I think it is because Waugh was satirising 1920s social norms, many of which seem patently absurd to modern eyes regardless. Layering even more eccentricity onto characters which are already absurd to modern eyes makes for extreme caricatures that are hard to invest in or care about. So while I’m glad I read it and enjoyed reading much of it, I wasn’t bowled over in quite the way I expected to be.
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I’m afraid I struggled to finish Emma Cline’s The Girls this month. This novel told the story of a 14-year-old girl who gradually gets drawn into a cult. This was an interesting idea, and I could see that Cline was trying to create an atmosphere that gradually transitioned from childhood normality to eeriness to tension and to fear. Unfortunately, I just didn’t feel particularly drawn in, nor did I really feel like I cared about any of the characters. The writing felt like it tried too hard, almost as though the author had replaced every adjective with another found in a thesaurus without really understand the sense of the replacement. All things considered, I was disappointed.
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This 2,330th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

What I’ve been reading this month

Fall Out: A Year of Political Mayhem was another 600-page tour de force of political journalism by Tim Shipman. Picking up where All Out War finished, Fall Out dissected the 2017 General Election – a less historic event, perhaps, but still covered with remarkable access to the Labour and Tory campaigns, and some really stunning revelations about the inner workings of both. I’d very highly recommend this book. (As a side note, having been a bit less than convinced by Michael Wolff’s book about Trump last month, I was struck by the very different portrayal of Trump in Shipman’s book: “Trump showed his serious side … He was on top of any number of quite complex briefs and he’d only been president for a week. That impressed Theresa [May]”
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Manoush Zomorodi’s Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive & Creative Self was an entertaining self-help book about overcoming smartphone addiction. As someone not addicted to his smartphone, I wasn’t really in the target market for this book. Nevertheless, I did take quite a lot away from this in terms of understanding other people’s reliance on smartphones. I hadn’t really grasped the strength of the feeling of attachment that many people have, nor how widespread the attachment is. I was also interested to read about the research into the mechanics that smartphone software developers use to ‘hook’ people. This book also made me reflect on the nature of my relationship with “screens” in the broadest sense, even if that reflection didn’t make me think there was a need for urgent change.
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I picked up The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion after seeing Bill Gates recommend it on his blog. It was a short, charming, romantic comedy which followed an Australian professor of genetics with an autism spectrum disorder on his mission to find a wife – an process he treated much like one of his research projects. As you might expect, blossoming love forced his “project” off track. I really enjoyed this well-observed genuinely funny novel, and even found it a little moving. It did border on being a little too sweet for my taste at times, but nevertheless, I think I’ll pick up the sequel at some point.
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Law professor Joan C Williams wrote White Working Class in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election as US President. This short book tried to elucidate why white working class people in the USA felt marginalised in society, and how this led them to disproportionately support Trump. One of Williams’s central arguments was that because most of the Government assistance this group received was through societal benefits in kind (schools, roads etc) rather than more direct hand outs, they didn’t fully appreciate the support they received, and so voted against increased taxation and higher government spending. This despite the fact they were the group which benefited most from Government support in terms of outcomes, and were net recipients in cash terms. This group therefore voted against its own interests. There was a lot of generalisation about the views and behaviours of groups of people in this book, much of which didn’t ring true. Nonetheless, the book did connect some disparate ideas for me, and made me think a little differently about approaches to similar problems in the UK.
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This 2,328th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

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