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What I’ve been reading this month

Like the first two books in the series, it felt like a privilege to be read Ali Smith’s Spring, which are sure to become a classic, at the moment in time in which they’re set. Smith captures the voice of an age. I’ve found the writing in this series dizzyingly brilliant—the language and the fascinating ways in which Smith manipulates it are somehow more important than the plot. The raw anger in this volume in particular was something else. This was astounding.

There are lots of different editions of Italo Clavino’s Difficult Loves: mine had the classic collection of “Difficult Loves” short stories written in the 1950s, followed by the slightly longer stories “Smog” and “A Plunge Into Real Estate”. The overarching themes were love (in its broadest sense) and loneliness. I don’t usually get on with short stories, but this collection was an exception. The everyday tales which beautifully captured universal emotions; the dry humour; the hint of craziness that made me look at the world slightly differently; all allowed Calvino’s prose to take flight. It’s been years since I last read any Calvino, but I won’t let it be so long next time!

Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls was a collection of amusing autobiographical short stories or ramblings about travel, writing, and life in general. As you probably know, Sedaris is an American living in rural England and he draws a lot on differences in US and British culture in this volume. This is the first time I’ve read any of his work, and it made me laugh out loud a few times, which books rarely do – and it was pleasantly cosy and inconsequential. I’ll certainly read more of Sedaris’s collections. 

I found Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall utterly gripping, and finished it in a day. It was a book about a group of undergraduates, guided by an amateur historian (and his wife and child) plus a university professor, going on a camping trip in Northumberland and trying to recreate Iron Age life. There were some beautiful descriptions of the expansive scenery of Northumberland, which meant all the more to me for being local, and some very carefully observed descriptions of the lack of recognition of domestic abuse among victims. This left me with a lot of food for thought.

Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen was a book about how to receive feedback effectively. I found the book baggy and over-long, with rather too many repetitive examples. That said, there was more useful stuff in here than I expected. It shifted my understanding of feedback conversations from being one-way (i.e. passively receiving feedback) to being two-way (i.e. working together to understand the intention behind the feedback and reach a mutual understanding on the next steps). This is an obvious point, but I confess that it’s not one that’s occurred to me in those terms before—perhaps fed by a lifetime of written feedback and evaluative assessment where there’s no opportunity to engage in further discussion.

Heartburn was a short and funny autobiographical novel about the breakdown of Nora Ephron’s marriage to Carl Bernstein. It used a series of relatively frothy vignettes (interspersed with the occasional recipe) to reveal rather deep reflections on life, pain and betrayal. I think I perhaps prefer Ephron’s shorter essays than this longer book, but I found the book so cleverly put together that I might come to think differently about that as I reflect further.

Women and Power was a book based on two speeches by Mary Beard about the way in which women have been systematically denied a public voice. The first took a historical, longitudinal and structural approach to that question, while the second focused more on contemporary examples. I found Beard’s historical account interesting and compelling, but I wish it had gone further. In particular, I would have liked to better understand Beard’s views on how things can change, and what the future may hold – but perhaps that’s not the point of a history book.

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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.

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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.

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