About me
Archive
About me

Knowledge and understanding

I recently finished reading Don Bartlett’s translation of A Death in the Family, which is the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgård’s radically honest autobiography. It took me a long time to get through this book (around three months) because I found it so intense that I had to read sections at a time, interspersed with other books. Nonetheless, I thought it was a masterpiece.

Roughly halfway through, Knausgård writes:

There is no one who does not understand their own world. Someone who understands very little, a child, for example, simply moves in a more restricted world than someone who understands a lot. However, an insight into the limits of understanding has always been part of understanding a lot: the recognition that the world outside, all those things we don’t understand, not only exists but is also always greater than the world inside.

This caused me to reflect for quite a long time and stimulated a couple of thoughts to jot down here.


The description of people understanding their own world and being restricted to the world they understand is fascinating. I think there are lessons in that formulation for public health. People frequently make choices which are, by any objective measure, bad for them: smoking, refusing vaccinations, drinking a G&T while blogging. But taking action which is objectively harmful isn’t necessarily irrational, and we often forget that.

If someone’s understanding of their world is that vaccinations cause harm to children, then refusing vaccination is a rational choice in line with their understanding. Their understanding is wrong, but they are acting rationally within the limited world in which they move. If we are to effectively influence the behaviour, then we need to inhabit the world to understand the rationality of the choices people are making. Unpicking the reasons for the incorrect understanding and setting about correcting it is likely to lead to greater success than lecturing people.

At work, there is a sign in the lift which reads “Could you have taken the stairs?”. The answer for me is invariably “no”—I only take the lift when I’m unable to take the stairs—and every time I see the poster I get mildly annoyed at its accusatory tone. It also seems unlikely that it changes anybody’s behaviour, given that it is only seen after someone has decided not to take the stairs. It’s a poster that doesn’t have any effect on anyone’s understanding, nor does it expand anyone’s worldview.

I realise this is a fairly incoherent ramble (see also the reference to drinking and blogging), but I suppose my point is that public health interventions should try to be less preachy and more practical.


In professional life, it isn’t uncommon to hear people imploring other people to ask questions if they don’t understand something. “There are no stupid questions” and “If you’re thinking it, someone else is thinking it too” are commonly heard refrains. And yet, professionals often remain frightened to ask questions which they think might reveal a degree of ignorance.

A few years ago, after a particularly tense meeting which had featured the world “I really don’t understand what you’re talking about”, a former supervisor gave me a one-to-one aside of valuable advice which they said it had taken many years to learn: “If someone is coming to talk to me and is so poor at pitching what they say that I can’t follow it, it is my professional responsibility to politely challenge that by asking them to explain themselves. It solidifies my reputation as someone who is engaged, intelligent and listens to what people say.”

This made me pay much more attention to my own and others’ reactions to people asking questions. The first thing I noticed was the frequency with which, when challenged, people often weren’t able to explain their waffle. This is useful because it helps people to make a value judgement about the rest of what someone is trying to tell them. The second thing I noticed was that when people could explain, they were usually happy to do so, and altered the rest of their ‘pitch’ to a more appropriate level. The third thing I noticed was that my respect for the person who asked the question generally increased.

This completely changed my perspective, and I now regularly ask questions which I’d previously have thought might make me look stupid. This took an effort at first, of course, but now comes naturally. Sometimes the questions I ask are bloody stupid and I should know better—but rarely, and when it does happen, it at least gives people a laugh. I don’t know if it’s bolstered my reputation, but it has certainly meant that there are lots of things I now understand that would have otherwise passed me by.

“An insight into the limits of understanding has always been part of understanding a lot”.


I took the photo at the top of this post at Charles de Gaulle airport. It is a chandelier, which has absolutely no relevance to the content of the post. I just thought it was quite pretty.

This 2,435th post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, , , , , , , .

What I’ve been reading this month

Educated, by Tara Westover, was extraordinary: but given the universal praise the book has received, you probably didn’t need me to tell you that. It was a powerful memoir describing the impact of growing up in a violent religious cult-ish rural Idaho family home with no formal education (not even formal registration of birth!) and going on to earn a Cambridge PhD. There was some pretty harrowing physical and emotional violence, but I found the overall tone to be hopeful. It spurred all sorts of ideas and thoughts that I’ll mull upon for some time to come.

In Skyfaring, commercial pilot Mark Vanhoenacker offered thoughtful reflections on a lifetime of travel and flying. This absorbing book combined autobiography, lessons on flight mechanics, a history of human flight and poetic reflections on aviation. I read this in chunks between other books as I found that there was only so much of it I could take at oncebut I looked forward to coming back to it each time.

Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette was described in a newspaper book review column as “hilarious and uplifting”, but I found the cartoonish characterisations a bit grating at times. The novel was an easy holiday read about the relationships between two professionally successful but socially flawed parents and their teenage daughter. It was partly conventionally narrated by the teenager, and partly epistolary. I didn’t find it as funny as the newspaper reviewer, but the writing was a cut above what I’ve come to expect from this sort of book, and there was some welcome and unexpected depth to some of the social commentary.

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport changed my view on ‘healthy’ use of smartphones and social media. I expected it to be an anti-technology diatribe that might be quite fun. In fact, Newport was explicitly pro-technology, but made the point that technology is best used with a specific end in mind. Using technology as a mindless distraction without a clear goal is not particularly beneficial and may be harmful: at the very least, it has an associated opportunity cost. I didn’t try any of the self-help ‘exercises’, but nonetheless found the discussion around them insightful. Some of the language was irritating (‘detox’ etc), but the enjoyment and insight I gained from this book outweighed my nitpicking.

Jodie Jackson’s You Are What You Read was a very well-researched and well-referenced discussion of the psychological and social effects of news reporting that focuses excessively on negative stories, with little counterbalance from “solutions-focused” journalism. I enjoyed the book and found Jackon’s perspective insightful, but I wasn’t completely persuaded by all of the arguments (or the advice that flows from them).

True Love, the much-celebrated volume by Thich Nhat Hanh, was recommended to me by someone who’d seen my earlier review of The Tao of Pooh. It was a very short book, and while many of the ideas resonated with me, I didn’t find the book terribly affecting, and I’ve no particular desire to re-read it.

I struggled through the Ann Goldstein translation of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, drifting in and out of caring about the characters. The whole thing seemed a bit repetitive and boring to me. The descriptions of the Neapolitan setting were captivating; shame about the plot.

This 2,425th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , , , , , , , , .

Why I won’t subscribe to Kindle Unlimited

Amazon has just launched Kindle Unlimited in the UK. I read a lot of books – but won’t be subscribing. Here’s why.

Man reading book surrounded by falling letters

Amazon launched Kindle Unlimited in the UK a few hours ago. Kindle Unlimited, which has been available in the States since July, allows subscribers to pay a monthly fee (£7.99) to access 650,000 eBooks and an unspecified number of audiobooks without further payment.

I read a lot of books, mainly on a Kindle. I dread to think how much I spend each month on books, but it is most certainly more than £7.99. So, when Kindle Unlimited launched in the US, I was pining for a UK launch. This came up in a conversation over a drink with a non-techy friend: “What, like a library?” she asked, as I described the service.

The question was as barbed as it was sarcastic, and it struck a nerve. Some sliver of my Council Tax already funds the ability for me to borrow from an enormous collection of physical books, eBooks and audiobooks via my local library. It is vaguely absurd to pay a second time to access a more limited library.

So I set myself a challenge: ditch the Kindle and start using the library.

The first barrier was to discover that I don’t own an eReader compatible with the formats available from my library. But this wasn’t really a problem: I chose to read eBooks mainly because they are cheap, available ‘over the air’, and take up no space in my house. Library books are almost as good: they’re free, take up no space in my house, and are available to collect from the library.

My local library, in common with others, has a great click-and-collect service: I request a book online; they dig it out from whichever library branch or store it is in, whack it on a ‘collection’ shelf near the door in the most convenient branch for me, and notify me that it’s ready to collect. I can then pop into the library during my commute and swap books using a self-service machine. It takes less than sixty seconds from entering the library to exiting.

Of course, not all books feature in the library’s stock. Rather than have the library source these from elsewhere, I’ve bought my own copies; the joy of reading physical books from the library has convinced me to buy paperbacks. So much for saving shelf-space.

The last ten books I’ve read would have cost, in total, £66.89 in Kindle format. Only two of them appear to be among the 650,000-book Kindle Unlimited selection. All but two were within my library’s selection: I paid £9.09 for one of these two in paperback, and borrowed the other by post from the BMA library. Hence, I saved £57.80: an 86% discount.

And so (tl;dr): Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited package made me re-evaluate how much I spent on books. It made me realise the value of my local library, and has lead to me using Amazon far less, and saving myself a small fortune in the process.



If you fancy reading this same post in a slightly different format, it's also available on Medium.

This 2,273rd post was filed under: News and Comment, Technology, , , , , .

Summer Books: Looking back

Summer Books

Summer Books

The Summer Books series, which has hopefully kept both sjhoward.co.uk and Gazette Live readers entertained over the last three months, was an idea conceived back in June to stave off a summer of desperate, straw-clutching silly-season posts about random topics. I think it’s worked rather well.

But it’s also revealed some interesting things about my sjhoward.co.uk readers. For example, the most popular of the reviewed books from the point of view of orders placed through sjhoward.co.uk/shop has been Never Push When it Says Pull: Small Rules for Little Problems by Guy Browning. That single book has outsold its nearest Summer Books rival by a factor of almost ten-to-one, which certainly surprised me, considering the relative national best-sellers that have also featured.

So why should this be? Is it because people hadn’t previously heard of Never Push… and liked the sound of it, whereas they’d already read many of the others? Is it because many of my readers are Guardian fans, and have previously enjoyed Browning’s columns? Or is it because Never Push… was the only downright good fun book I reviewed?

Whatever it was, I’d like to thank everyone that’s supported the site by buying the reviewed books (and others!) through sjhoward.co.uk/shop. From the point of view of funding the site, the series has been a remarkable success, with profits from sales of the featured books actually outstripping the sjhoward.co.uk advertising revenue for the summer.

So thanks for your support over the summer – I hope you enjoyed the series, and I hope you’ll stick around and continue to read sjhoward.co.uk into the autumn and beyond.

This 1,370th post was filed under: Summer Books, , , , .

Summer Books: My Trade by Andrew Marr

My Trade

My Trade

As we reach the final review of this series of ten, it seemed appropriate that I should return to something at least mildly connected with politics, given that I claim this to be a political blog. Hence, I’ve chosen the thoroughly enjoyable My Trade, by then BBC Political Editor Andrew Marr. 

My Trade certainly delivers on its promise to provide ”A Short History of British Journalism”, but rather than delivering a dry journalistic history, Marr injects copious amounts of humour and panache. He provides many personal anecdotes – some longer and more developed than others, but all entertaining – and passes judgement on developments in the media world, rather than merely reporting their occurence. It’s certainly a very personal history for Marr, and that helps to involve the reader much more than the normal style of books written by journalists, which tend to read something like extended newspaper features.

Anybody remotely interested in British journalism would be well advised to read a copy of this book – which certainly is no chore – as it provides much background on how newspapers are put together, and how this has changed over the years. It even provides some history on the rivalries between newspapers, looking at (as an example) how The Mirror’s sales declined at the hands of The Sun, and how Marr’s own Indy set out to be different from everyone else, but ended up being much the same.

This is not intended to be – and nor is it – a detailed history of the development of the British media. Instead, it’s an enjoyable romp through the subject, stopping off at points of interest – particularly recent ones, and many of which you’d have thought he may have liked to avoid. He goes into some detail about Hutton and the problems of modern journalism, making convincing arguments for his point of view – which is, in part, critical of the BBC which pays him. It’s very clear from his writing that he’s experienced as a journalist, not just because he lists his many and varied jobs, but also because of the detailed insight he is able to deliver, and the apparent wisdom of some of his comments.

Certainly, this is a very easy-going enjoyable read, from a political editor who comes across as an affable kind of chap, and a book which I must highly recommend.

» My Trade by Andrew Marr is available now in the sjhoward.co.uk shop


This review was originally posted here on sjhoward.co.uk in June 2005, and has been re-versioned for the ‘Summer Books’ series of reviews published on sjhoward.co.uk and Gazette Live.

This 1,369th post was filed under: Summer Books, , , .

Summer Books: Get Dead by Jamie Oliver

Get Dead

Get Dead

The penultimate book in this series of reviews pointedly isn’t a polemic by the most irritating of celebrity chefs, but is rather a wonderfully light but deep book combining the words of writer Jamie Oliver and the wonderful photography of Cristian Barnett, breaking taboos surrounding death.

This is also the only book in this series which has severely limited availability since the publisher, The Friday Project, went into liquidation earlier this year. TPF was a great publisher that took risks on new authors and new ways of doing things, and so if you’ve read any books published by TFP, then you’ll instantly understand that this is no ordinary book about death.

Get Dead deals with the subject from new and unusual angles, in this case through interviews with people with a ‘vested interest’ in death, and presents these alongside quirky facts about the dying process. Did you know, for example, that five times more people commit suicide in the UK than die in Road Traffic Accidents?

It’s amusing without ever becoming frothy, dark without ever becoming macabre, occasionally spiritual without being religious, but perhaps most of all enlightening without being educational. Think of it as a documentary version of Six Feet Under, and you’re not far off.

I read Get Dead over a couple of days as I got utterly addicted, but its an equally good book to flick through now and again, as it will always come up with something interesting and enlightening. It’s certainly a book I’d be happy to recommend, if you can manage to find a copy.

The Friday Project is presently being reborn under the new ownership of publishing behemoth HarperCollins (the first release under their new ownership is the excellent The State of Me, a debut novel by Nasim Marie Jafry about ME), yet whether Get Dead will get a reprint at some point remains to be seen. At the time of writing, there are just over a dozen copies available via sjhoward.co.uk/shop.


This book was originally reviewed here on sjhoward.co.uk in December 2006, but the above review is a new original for the ‘Summer Books’ series of reviews published on sjhoward.co.uk and Gazette Live.

This 1,368th post was filed under: Summer Books, , , , , , , , .

Summer Books: Living with Teenagers

Living with Teenagers

Living with Teenagers

Week eight of Summer Books brings the second and (I promise) final collection of Guardian columns, and the only book by the most prolific author of them all – the much maligned Anonymous. This week’s selection is Living with Teenagers.

When the Guardian relaunched in its Berliner format, a number of new sections were added to the Saturday edition. One of these was the slightly ill-conceived Family section, and therein lay the Living with Teenagers column, a weekly anonymous diatribe on the difficulty and horrors of family life in bourgeois England. Specifically, predictably, bohemian London.

This book, as the collected edition of these columns, is possibly the least self-aware volume I’ve ever read. The writing is less self-aware than mine, and I take some beating in those stakes. And yet, that’s not a criticism; In fact, it’s what makes the whole thing work.

This is the story of a thoroughly modern parent try, and hopelessly failing, to deal with her three teenagers’ behavioural abberations of varying scale. She suspects her kids are on drugs, she’s shocked when they’re unhappy at the prospect of spending two weeks in an isolated cottage, and terrified by bad academic grades. In essence, she views everything her children do with her own frame of reference, which is not only far removed from theirs, but sometimes appears to reside in an utterly different universe to the rest of us.

Not only that, she views everything they get up to as a direct result of something she’s done at some point in their upbringing: A kind of social post hoc ergo propter hoc, with no more sense here than in a court of law.

Yet the anonymous mother seems genuinely to struggle throughout to be fair and accurate in her reportage, despite being so wildly removed from that goal. And whilst lacking self-awareness in her writing, she is incredibly self-critical, and perceives that she has many flaws as a parent.

Living  with Teenagers warms the heart, in that the imperfect children and the imperfect parents rub along, and genuinely care for and love one another. Yet it’s also wonderfully, unintentionally, darkly comic, and more engaging than I ever expected.

Unfortunately, the wonderful denouement to the series was published in The Guardian long after the book was released: The friends of one of the teenagers found out about the column, and it came to an abrupt end – with Jack given the right of reply.

If you prefer, you can read all of the Living with Teenagers columns online, but nothing’s quite the same as settling down with something akin to a diary, and becoming fully imersed in the world of the anonymous author and her family – you’ll want to intervene in the slow motion car crashes within, you’ll be frustrated at the mother’s inability to keep firm on even a single issue, and you’ll laugh out loud again and again, but I’m certain that you’ll feel a renewed sense of the good of humanity.

» Living with Teenagers is available now in the sjhoward.co.uk shop


This review has been written exclusively for the ‘Summer Books’ series of reviews published on sjhoward.co.uk and Gazette Live.

This 1,367th post was filed under: Summer Books, , , .

The content of this site is copyright protected by a Creative Commons License, with some rights reserved. All trademarks, images and logos remain the property of their respective owners. The accuracy of information on this site is in no way guaranteed. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author. No responsibility can be accepted for any loss or damage caused by reliance on the information provided by this site. This site uses cookies - click here for more information.