Books read in 2014

Halfway along life’s path (I turned 35 in June), I am increasingly conscious of all the books that I won’t read. What I do read must be either beautiful, useful or help to inspire conversation with people who have read the same things. The list below is typically desultory but I’d say at least half of them gave more pleasure than pain (recommended books are in bold).

  • A Room with a View by E.M. Forster
  • Life lessons from Nietzsche by John Armstrong
  • Echoes of the future by R. Klanten
  • Mindset by Carol Dweck
  • Kill your friends by John Niven
  • The Amateurs by John Niven
  • The Second Coming by John Niven
  • Straight White Male by John Niven
  • Just Enough Research by Erika Hall
  • The Quadruple Object by Graham Harman
  • Sass for Web Designers by Dan Cederholm
  • Daily Habits by Mason Currey
  • Smacss by Jonathan Snook
  • Service Design by Andy Polaine, Ben Reason and Lavrans Lovlie
  • The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters
  • Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes
  • Precarious Communism by Richard Gilman-Opalsky
  • Introducing Marx by Rius
  • Event by Slavoj Zizek
  • Worst. Person. Ever. by Douglas Coupland
  • Ghosts of my Life by Mark Fisher
  • Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin
  • Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
  • UnAmerica by Momus
  • The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders
  • Yes: the radical case for Scottish independence by James Foley and Pete Ramand
  • Any other mouth by Anneliese Mackintosh
  • To rise again at a decent hour by Joshua Ferris
  • A new earth by Eckhart Tolle
  • Transcend by Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman
  • My Work Is Not Yet Done by Thomas Ligotti
  • Ariel by Sylvia Plath
  • A gentle introduction to Unqualified Reservations by Mencius Moldbug
  • The Yoga of Eating by Charles Eisenstein
  • The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
  • The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Traveling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker
  • 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep by Jonathan Crary
  • Utopia or Bust by Benjamin Kunkel
  • Personal by Lee Child
  • The Ascent of Humanity by Charles Eisenstein
  • Revolt She Said by Julia Kristeva
  • Revolution by Russell Brand
  • Definitely Maybe by Alex Niven
  • what purpose did i serve in your life? by Marie Calloway
  • Postsingular by Rudy Rucker
  • The Village Against The World by Dan Hancox
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
  • What If? by Randall Munroe
  • What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund
  • Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
  • Sandman vol.1 by Neil Gaiman
  • On Web Typography by Jason Santa Maria
  • A Pocket Guide to Interviewing for Research by Andrew Travers
  • Lyrics: 2001-2014 by David Shah
  • Decoded by Mai Jia
  • Responsible Responsive Design by Scott Jehl
  • The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande
  • Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television by Adam Kotsko
  • Collected Poems by Philip Larkin
  • Adventures in Stationery by James Ward
  • Incognito by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
  • What men live by and other tales by Leo Tolstoy
  • The Critique of Everyday Life by Henri Lefebvre
  • Maligned Velocities by Benjamin Noys
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

 

My top five books this year

Kill your friends by John Niven
It’s so rare to laugh out loud when reading, but this cruel Britpop novel had me crying with laughter.

24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep by Jonathan Crary
I read a lot of political books as part of my reading group, but few provoked more thought than Crary’s book on technology.

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
Recommended to me by Chris and Caspar, this self-conscious literary novel was deeply problematic but nonetheless compelling.

What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund
Few books have stayed with me as much as Mendelsund’s meditation on the reading experience. Above all, I feel it has certainly improved my attention to detail of place and character in fiction.

Adventures in Stationery by James Ward
An obsessive look at the history behind what lives in your pencil case. People talk a lot about paying attention to the world in a mindful way, but this book brought the world to life like few other non-fiction books.

 

My five least favourite books

Life lessons from Nietzsche by John Armstrong
Vulgar litany of quotes that barely indicate what Nietzsche had to say.

Worst. Person. Ever. by Douglas Coupland
Deeply unpleasant story that completely missed the nasty humour of John Niven.

A gentle introduction to Unqualified Reservations by Mencius Moldbug
Unreadable pompous advocate of the neoreactionary movement.

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
Tedious space opera.

Revolt She Said by Julia Kristeva
Boring interview with no insights.

 

Yes

What is politics? For most of my life politics has been a spectacle of rich, white, middle-aged men exchanging petty insults in order that their interests might prevail. Platitudes about health, crime and education dominate debate, with economics being used as the only arbiter of success. Public participation is reduced to taking part in elections where most votes – under the first-past-the-post system – make no difference to the result. There may be change of government, but nothing really changes.

The debate on Scottish independence shows that politics could be much more. With intelligent, vigorous debate in every workplace, cafe, and pub – with social media being used to disseminate and criticize articles that come from outside the corporate mainstream (e.g. National Collective and Bella Caledonia) – politics now feels like something everyone can participate in.

For the first time in my life, I have experienced an active public sphere, one in which you can see how the aggregate of public debate helps make decisions. No longer should technocrats and wonks be allowed to determine the future direction of a country without regard to the people who have to endure their mistakes. We should have more referendums, more debate, more participation to avoid short-sighted policies like the privatisation of public services and the use of oil revenues to give tax breaks to the richest 1%. The debate hasn’t been bad-tempered or divisive, there has been no anti-Englishness or parochial nationalism. Instead, Scottish civic society has become better informed and more conscious of the needs and fears of others.

A yes vote on the 18th September will bring power closer to the people who live in Scotland. What we do with that power remains to be seen. No one knows if the country will be be more or less prosperous, but it will be more democratic.

The first few years will be disruptive and difficult, but I believe that it will be worth it in the long run. The Better Together campaign focuses on the security of being part of the larger union, but as Nassim Taleb shows in his book, Antifragile, the most robust countries are often those which devolve power to a local level rather than impose clumsy and inefficient top-down solutions. Small countries have better feedback mechanisms and are less likely to undertake hubristic schemes such as a neverending and counter-productive war on terror.

To the extent that you can impose a narrative on history, the 307 years that make up the British project consist of a spectacular rise and long, painful fall. Britain is haunted by having lost its empire. Look at the pride British politicians take in bestriding the world stage as a US deputy in illegal oil wars, in possessing costly nuclear bombs (Trident is estimated to cost £83bn over the next 50 years) and in being a member of the UN security council. Let’s take a stand against this madness, forget about a place at the top table, save the money and join the other 200+ countries in the world.

An independent Scotland could halt the narrative of British decline and flourish without the taint of empire. Scotland feels to me – an Englishman who has live here for ten years – like a different country with a different culture and different aspirations, it’s time to make that difference a reality. The debate over the last few months shows what happens when people are less alienated from the political process. Let’s embrace democracy and vote yes on Thursday.

Oxen Tests

Idi Probak is a traditional Basque sport where farmers test their oxen. The test consists of seeing how much they can walk up and down a village square in 30 minutes. We went to Rigoitia, a village outside Bilbao, to watch.

Sketches of Spain

(more…)

Bullfighting

Before I went to the Bullfighting I imagined it to be cruel and degrading for everyone. However, I didn’t get the sense that people were getting sadistic pleasure out of tormenting the poor bull. It seemed, rather, like a ritualistic confrontation with nature – a way for human beings to assert dominance. It is also incredibly macho, all the more for how camp everyone looks.

A fight starts with information about the bull (a bit like a boxing match on TV):

Sketches of Spain

(more…)

How to think about ‘How to change the world’ in a world of wicked problems

The world is changing all the time: people are born, people die and Heraclitus can never step into the same river twice. The idea that one human being – you? – could change the world seems like a confusion of terms. The conceptual artist Martin Creed summed it up in Work No.232, a neon equation stating ‘the whole world + the work = the whole world’. We don’t so much change the world as reconfigure it.

Perhaps a better title would have been ‘How to improve the world’, but how do we know what is better or worse? 250 years of industrial revolution has brought sanitation, speed, comfort and communication, but the side effects have been pollution, nuclear bombs, obesity and alienation. A pragmatic utilitarian might attempt to reduce overall suffering according to some measure, but what if the short-term reduction of suffering in one area increases suffering long-term in another?

For instance, whenever I see litter in the street my instinct is to pick it up and put it in the bin in order to reduce the amount of entropy in the world and avoid a ‘broken window theory’-esque societal breakdown. But then I hesitate, maybe my time might be better spent writing to the council about getting more bins and street sweepers. But then again, maybe we should address the underlying problem of why people litter in the first place – is it really just a lack of available bins or are the citizens of Glasgow particularly alienated? If they are alienated, is it because of deprivation, poor diet or lack of education? What would give civic purpose to the litterers? Should we try and help them all to become bourgeois – would they be happier? Or would it merely make them miserable on an existential level as well as a material level? It’s at this point that I start wondering about the problems of capitalism, the distribution of wealth and whether communism inevitably ends in stagnation … This is what I think when I see litter.

Any problem worth tacking is what Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber called, in their seminal 1973 paper ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning‘, a wicked problem. The idea of wicked problems came from the sphere of social planning, as the failure of utopian housing schemes built along Corbusierian lines became obvious. Wicked problems have no engineering-led solution (unlike, say, the building of sewage systems to prevent disease), they are ill-defined (at what level do you tackle them?), involve political judgment (right and left tend to be differentiated by looking at either the symptom or the cause), are never solved once and for all (there’s always more poverty, for instance), need a long time to see the effects (they have long half-lives), are unique to their circumstances (Scandinavian solutions won’t tend to work in South America), and are always a symptom of a higher problem.

Evgeny Morozov, in To Save Everything, Click Here, has recently applied a similar criticism to Silicon Valley, showing how their attempts to solve the world’s problems with smartphone apps, Big Data, nudges and gamification can actively undermine efforts at structural reform. If you want to change the world, you have to choose your level of focus wisely.

My contributions to the early issues of New Escapologist were focused on the individual and how they can take responsibility for their own decisions about consumption, work and pleasure. It is a libertarian view on change and improvement that fits in well with the neoliberal politics of our times. Indeed, for those looking for meaning at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it is very appealing. Yet the effects of neoliberalism on the wider society have been catastrophic – mental illness is increasing and there is a growing gap between rich and poor. We are surrounded by wicked problems, but the wickedest is what is the most effective use of your precious time on the planet.

The socially conscious Escapologist who wants to improve this situation must decide what odds they are willing to tolerate in order to do good. At one level, you could adopt an orphan and have a virtually guaranteed chance of making an effect (even if it is just through one individual). On another, you could write a book – which will have to compete with the 1.3 million books published in English each year, but could go on to be the new Das KapitalMein Kampf or Da Vinci Code.

The larger the scale, the more competition there is amongst memes, leading to the disheartening realisation that you can get more ‘likes’ on Facebook by posting a cat video than you can from writing an article on how to change the world. If this is the case, then why would you bother to go through the extra effort involved in the latter? Funny videos and status updates provide immediate gratification, whereas political change often means long-term frustration.

Worse still, the forces of capitalism have virtually unlimited advertising budgets and loads of manipulative tricks to distract and ensnare you. How can your efforts to change the world hope to compete with the intellectually repressive narcissism of Justin Bieber? Is there anything more futile than seeing someone selling the Socialist Worker on the high street? Ludicrous! Politics is a battleground of ideologies in which there is no longer any competition: the society of the spectacle is so all-consuming that, as Slavoj Zizek says, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

If it is futile to hope for a revolution, perhaps it is better to work within the system as it stands and do the best we can. Peter Singer has recently been promoting the idea of Effective Altruism, using simple utilitarian economic arguments to save real lives. Starting from the premise that all life is equal and that we wouldn’t ignore a child dying in our midst, he challenges us to give all we can to charities that save as many lives as possible. It takes $40,000 to train one guide dog, wouldn’t that money be better spent saving a thousand Africans from going blind? Singer gives the example of Robert Trigg, a 25 year old who took a job at a hedge fund in order to give away hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to charity rather than working in a more ethical job where he could afford to give away much less. The problem with Singer’s approach is that it often ignores larger issues, such as the effects of increased human population on the planet.

What is the way out of the impasse? How can we make the world a better place? The recent protests in Turkey and Brazil have shown that mass movements can catch fire in an instant, given the right spark. Such events make structural change possible because they help us remove the mental shackles that says it is impossible. As artist-campaigner Ellie Harrison said in the last issue of New Escapologist, the campaign to bring back British Rail is mainly an effort to make the idea of nationalisation thinkable again.

It is to be hoped that in the heat of protest alliances can be forged and political campaigns formulated. The great civil rights struggles of the twentieth century were not just about protest but also legislation – giving women the vote, black people equality, and gays legal access to each other’s bodies before the age of 21. The atomisation of society in interest groups means we no longer seem to have single causes to channel this energy into, so it is important to be tactical and take opportunities when they come. Only by accepting the difficulties of fixing wicked problems as a given and not something to be overcome or ignored can we hope to make any real improvement.