A new year means a new set of books. As in 2017 and 2018, I am recording the books that I read; partly for my own record and partly that it might help someone else find a book that sounds interesting.
27/05/2019 Added And Yet… and The Communist Manifesto.
21 Lessons For The 21st Century (2018) by Yuval Noah Harari
I got this one for Christmas. It’s a collection of essays, written by an Israeli historian, covering various topics, including truth, religion, terrorism, equality, war and education. Nearly all of the essays are interesting and raise many questions worth pondering. It’s a lot shorter on answers than questions but it certainly stimulates the mind.
One of the major topics that bothers him is what will happen when big data/AI and biotech combine. He sees the merger of the fields as likely creating an inequality that can’t easily be overcome. He fears that the wealth concentrated in the hands of a few will allow them to modify their biology to be superior while AI and robots will mean that workers are unnecessary making the masses functionally and politically irrelevant. Aside from that there are many other great essays on important topics, such as how the current rise of nationalism is fundamentally incapable of tackling issues like climate change which affect many and require a widespread, co-ordinated response.
Rise Of The Patcheé (2018) by Eben Prentzler
I was quite curious about this ebook for two reasons; it’s written by a South African author and I’ve actually met the author, several years ago through friends. Back then, he has just finished a book which I never actually read. This was an opportunity to see what I’d been missing.
Unfortunately, it was mostly underwhelming. The book is really three, short, fantasy stories that revolve around a common theme in the same world. There are some original ideas in there but, for the most part, it’s pretty badly-written. It is also self-published which is probably why so many mistakes remain. I did enjoy one of the three stories though but the others did not impress. There either wasn’t anything to grab my attention or it was executed poorly, which led to more frustration than anything else.
The Basilica Of The Sagrada Família (2016) by Jordi Faulí
I got this book in Barcelona at the Sagrada Família itself. At the end of last year, I attended the wedding of two friends and accompanied them on a cruise around the Mediterranean. One of the cities we visited was Barcelona. This is not really the sort of book one usually just reads but I found the basilica to be incredibly beautiful and wanted to know more. This is written by the current by the current head architect, so there’s not really any better source of information.
It gives the history, design and iconography of the basilica, accompanied by many, many photographs and drawings. I couldn’t follow everything from the architectural side, other than that it made many novel contributions, but I could certainly better appreciate it. One thing that was really striking, is how much symbolism is contained in the building. There are the obvious religious texts, figures and structures but the ratios, heights, colours, placement of features and so on, nearly all have meaning to them as well.
I really appreciate the building for what it is and what went into it. I am, of course, saddened that it is all constructed for a fictional deity but it is an immense achievement nonetheless. I would love to see more projects like this, where people come together to build something bigger than themselves. Perhaps universities could serve such a purpose but I’m not sure any government or organisations of the modern world would ever think about a 150-year-long project. Everything now is disposable and short-term.
Black Leopard Red Wolf (2019) by Marlon James
I originally heard of Black Leopard Red Wolf from a list of books to read in 2019. It sounded pretty cool; a fantasy story with an African setting, magic, shape-shifting and all that good stuff. It delivered in some respects but not in others and there were many odd things about it. It’s the first book in a trilogy but I am still conflicted over whether I will read the later books or not.
The best part of the book is that it’s familiar enough as a fantasy to easily get into it but different enough that it’s always interesting. It draws a lot from various African mythologies and I recognise some of the influences but not others. There are neither elves nor dwarfs but weird creatures that I haven’t seen before; like the impundulu, an anthropomorphic, lightning-shooting, vampiric bird, and omoluzu, strange creatures which attack from the ceilings of buildings.
The most negative part of the book is the way that it is written. I assume it’s a stylistic choice but it’s not one that really works for me. There is little explanation of unfamiliar terms and coarse vulgarity, often for little reason. Beyond that, the grammar is broken in many instances and, more often than not, detracts from, rather than adds to, the narrative. While I can think of many reasons why one would write in such a way, few of them seem to apply here and it takes a lot of getting used to.
The Four Horsemen: The Conversation That Started An Atheist Revolution (2019) by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, Sam Harris & Christopher Hitchens
Although published now in 2019, with a foreword by Stephan Fry and short introductory pieces by the remaining Horsemen, this is merely a transcript of the the only conversation that all four of these minds shared, which took place in 2007. There isn’t much more to it than that.
It is not as deep as any of their books but will at least serve as a reminder of the whole atheism debate and the questions it raised after the events of 11 September 2001 tragically reminded the world that religion could, and still continues, to inspire people to kill for their beliefs. In the conversation, The Horsemen cover questions such as how the universe was created, is there any value to faith, why is evidence important and are some religions simply worse than others.
Other than a reminder, there is little new to be gained here. However, I think it is a great addition to anyone’s library for its historical value. As Penn Jillette’s quote on the back of the book says, “This conversation is as good a place as any to mark the start of the Atheist revolution.” That said, I would recommend watching and listening to the conversation rather than reading it.
In A Dog’s World (2015) by Mary E. Lowd
This is a pretty simple romance story. If you’ve ever seen any young romance story where the main character is just arriving at college and has her eyes on an older student, then you probably know how this is going to go. It follows the basic idea without doing anything drastic but it really works for the story because it is just so enjoyable to go along with everything.
The book itself is not quite as simple. While the main story follows a fairly predictably plot, there are enough diversions to keep everything interesting. For one, it’s a world where humans have disappeared and now cats and dogs are the main inhabitants. The dynamics between the two species allow the story to explore issues such as racism and sexism in a gentle manner.
Simple and easy to read, it’s just a light-hearted romance with hidden depths. It makes a great palate cleanser of a book and I found it quite enjoyable.
The Time He Desires (2016) by Kyell Gold
This one is interesting because it’s a furry book that I first heard about through the mainstream media. There was an article on Slate which touted it as a way to resist the hatred of the Trump era. The book, as with many of Gold’s works, deals with homosexuality but the big difference here is that the story is from the perspective of a Muslim. While the book presents a more moderate form of Islam, I did see some irony in that I started reading it just days apart from Brunei enacting a form of Sharia law that punishes homosexuality with death.
The main character, a cheetah named Aziz, is having trouble with his marriage. He has grown apart from his wife and, a few years back, disowned his son for being gay. At the same time, property developers are trying to buy his and the neighbouring shops, to expand their shopping centre and apartment complex. Added to all of this, he becomes intrigued by a honeymoon tape of a gay couple, which one of the partner’s pawned but which the other is now searching for, and starts to consider other paths his life could have taken.
It’s a short, character-driven book as we see how Aziz handles the changes in his life and how they, in turn, change him. It’s interesting to see the motivations of a character from a religion that I have not experienced and in a situation which many people have to deal with in modern time. Although Gold is not Muslim himself, he was advised by a Muslim friend on the content of the book. As he describes it, he wanted to write about those who face problems with both Islamophobia and homophobia. It is certainly a good book to read to learn a bit about the two and to broaden one’s horizons.
And Yet… (2015) by Christopher Hitchens
Published posthumously, this is either the second or third collection of Christopher Hitchens’ essays that I’ve read. I do believe that I found the others more interesting. It’s not that the writing is bad but they often failed to catch my attention. Partly this is because the topics he writes about are often far from those that I am familiar with. On the one hand, that does make reading them good for growing my general knowledge but, on the other, with no framework to fit them into, they fade far more quickly from my mind than other pieces that I have read.
Two of the essays did catch my eye; both written in 2008 and both attacking Hillary Clinton. I don’t think I was paying all that much attention to politics back then but it was interesting how the essays could just as easily have been published far more recently. But I guess a lot feels like it’s just repeating itself these days. This year sees a new Godzilla, a remake of Child’s Play and a new take on Spider Man. That’s not even mentioning Disney’s, completely unnecessary and unwanted, remakes of Aladdin and The Lion King.
There was a third essay that I found particularly interesting. All the way back in 2004, Hitchens wrote about how we should embrace partisan politics and mudslinging and he lamented how big issues were ignored because no one wanted to be controversial. Given the way politics has shifted now, particularly in the US, I couldn’t help wondering whether he would still encourage polarisation.
The Communist Manifesto (1848, translated 1888) by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
The Communist Manifesto was originally published in German in 1848 before being revised and translated many times but the 1888 translation is, apparently, the standard English version. As it is one of the most influential political works – and very short – I figured I really should read it. On the whole, I found it disappointing.
It’s written in a rather strange manner. I didn’t find most of it to be particularly clear or relevant, especially as it often addresses events and situations which were contemporary over 100 years ago. The overarching theme is still relevant but I didn’t feel that they really made their future desirable. At best I had reserved agreement with some of their points but the way it was all presented was quite off putting.
To me, it was a huge contrast with The Conquest of Bread where Peter Kropotkin outlined his ideas of anarchist communism. While there were certainly some areas that were not completely clear, his message was for more positive and the ideal world that he described seemed far more desirable than that of Marx and Engels.
Dissident Signals (2018) edited by NightEyes DaySpring and Slip Wolf
This is not a single novel but a collection of short stories; all set in a post-apocalyptic world and involving anthropomorphic (or furry) characters. Altogether, there are sixteen stories by various authors who approach the subject matter in wildly different ways. This makes it difficult to say anything which applies to the collection as a whole.
I can say that I enjoyed very many of the stories and the quality is extremely high. It’s also worth reading them to see how various scenarios could play out. While some stories are fantastical or only deal with the world after society collapses, others describe what happened to cause the dystopias. Some occurred because of all-powerful AIs, others due to environmental collapse and still others reflect what happens when our politics becomes callous and uncaring. These are all fears which society has today and potential worst-case scenarios which we want to avoid.
One of the nice things about fiction is while the worlds are not real, they often can say something about our current situation. There are stories which address very pressing and real concerns in our current societies but without the judgement that comes from talking about specific people or groups. It would be good for more people to read collections like this, take the lessons to heart and then think about the way in which they conduct themselves and how they would be portrayed in a novel.
A Plea For The Animals: The Moral, Philosophical, And Evolutionary Imperative To Treat All Beings With Compassion (2014, translation 2016) by Matthieu Ricard
This book is by a French author who studied molecular genetics but later became a Buddhist monk. I picked it up when I was visiting Paris with my sister. One of my aunts had already been in Paris for a few weeks and took us to an English book store near Notre Dame. This book turned out to be a great choice; not only does it address the topic of human-animal relationships well but it does so mainly referencing French authors and with a slightly Buddhist approach, both of which are fairly alien to me. In some senses it is similar to Dominion, which was written from a Christian perspective and led to my becoming a vegetarian, but I would say that this is the superior book.
Ricard examines the treatment of animals from a wide range of perspectives and over a long period of human history. He talks about the Romans and Greeks as well as Seaworld and Zoos and discusses the religious, philosophical and scientific aspects of various arguments for and against the use of animals. While there are some areas that I was curious about but couldn’t easily find references for, most of the book is well referenced and supported by extensive quotations. Particularly refreshing is that Ricard speaks and lives his convictions. He says how things are and how it deviates from an ideal world, even if some people do not want to hear that.
I loved the book and think it is perhaps the best on the topic that I have read. I prefer Ricard’s conviction to the watered down conclusion at the end of Dominion and A Plea For The Animals is more recent and up-to-date than Animal Liberation. I would highly recommend anyone with an interest in animals to read it but, more importantly, those that do not generally think of animals should read it and consider how their lives affect other living beings.
On Anarchism (2014) by Noam Chomsky
Following a fairly interesting read into anarchism with Peter Kropotkin, I thought I would try to learn a bit more about the topic. I wasn’t particularly familiar with Chomsky apart from hearing about him as a major figure in left-wing politics and thought it might be a good place to start. Unfortunately, the book is not great and did not deliver on its promises.
Despite being published in 2014, On Anarchism is a collection of previous works, many of which were written in the 70s. This does not mean the information is necessarily bad but it was still disappointing. Furthermore, the book is generally not well-written. Chomsky has fallen into the worst excesses of academic writing; choosing fancy prose which obscures understanding. This is made worse by the fact that, although it seems like an introduction to anarchism, it requires a lot of background knowledge with one section being extremely difficult to understand without familiarity with the Spanish Revolution.
In the end, I found that the various chapters were only tangentially related to anarchism but did not explain anarchism itself, were much older than I expected and were poorly written. I would advise against bothering with it.
Anarchism: A Beginner’s Guide (2005, revised 2009) by Ruth Kinna
In contrast to the mess that was Chomsky’s book, Ruth Kinna delivered exactly what I was looking for. Anarchism gives an overview of anarchy including the definition, some history, general beliefs and how different schools of anarchist thought differ. Each chapter has its own list of links, further reading suggestions and references for anyone that wants to learn more.
This is the sort of book that should probably be read more than once. While it is written to introduce the subject, it does so topic-by-topic and contrasting different anarchist thoughts. This parallelism is compact but doesn’t have the linear flow that lets you easily build up a single idea. I felt, when I finished, that I had lots of concepts and ideas floating in my head but would struggle to sort them out into the different approaches. That said, it’s a highly-informative book which sets out the different ideas, arguments and thinkers. If you already have some idea of the different players, you will no doubt gain even more from it than I did.
There were two things in it that I found surprising. The first was very little discussion of the online space where I think anarchist thought is probably more common. It would’ve been nice to see a comparison to open source development, such as with Linux, and with the ideals of free software and decentralised software. The second is the sheer amount of overlap and influence between anarchism, communism, socialism and libertarianism. There seem to be many shared aspects but while the latter three are well-known, little attention is paid to anarchism. I suppose that’s because it’s the most threatening to those in power.