In no particular order, these are the books I have most enjoyed reading during 2019.
Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, Tom Holland
As a long-time admirer of Holland’s brand of history, I was very much looking forward to this. In this he retreads some of the basic territory covered in Millennium and In the Shadow of the Sword, but takes it in a new and startling direction. His basic thesis is that all every aspect of modern Western culture has been shaped by our Christian roots. He begins by addressing the cultural norms of late antiquity and the struggle early Christine thinkers from Paul to Origin to Augustine had to impose the values of Christianity on an essentially pagan mind. From there, Holland traces the development of Christianity through the Reformation and into Humanism to argue that Christianity has imposed the concept of ‘religion’ on the world. One of my favourite moments included the argument that Paul basically invents the idea of homosexuality (until then, who did what to whom was much more important than the respective genders of the doers) which, in the middle ages becomes a terror that God will mete out the punishments of Sodom and Gomorrah on any state where people practice sodomy. Precisely what ‘sodomy’ might be was a matter of some confusion (Aquinas suggested it was any homosexual act) but whatever it was, it was definitely something to be rooted out. I also enjoyed the idea that atheism is an essentially Christian worldview which is not only descended from the same roots but also requires many of the same mindsets and assumptions. If you enjoy sweeping historical narratives, this is for you.
Chaucer: A European Life, Marion Turner
I saw Marion Turner speak at the Hay Festival earlier in the year, and immediately afterwards rushed the book tent for a signed copy. She takes the view that the kind of literary biography that seeks to shed psychological light on its subject is impossible when we know so little about the figure in question. Although, when compared to, say, Shakespeare, we actually have quite a bit of biological detail about Chaucer’s life, we know very little about his character or personality beyond what can be inferred from his corpus. Instead, Turners writes about the ‘places’ with which Chaucer would have been familiar. Some of these places are actual physical localities, others are more conceptual spaces. So we travel from Chaucer’s early childhood in London’s Vintry Ward, to the idea of the Great Household; from places Chaucer actually visited like Genoa and Florence to places visited in his writing like Troy. She writes about parliament (Chaucer was an MP for a while), the Tower of London, gardens and, of course, Canterbury. For an unapologetically academic book (the references are impressively thorough) it is a joy to read. Turner’s enthusiasm for her subject is infectious she brings Fourteenth Century Europe vividly to life.
Surfaces and Essences, Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander
The thesis of this book is that all thought occurs through making analogies. The basic building block of thought is the concept and that we come to understand concepts through the often unconscious process of seeing that this is like that. The first three chapters are concerned with language and metaphor and together they demonstrate that all linguistic transactions are about seeing and making analogies. From there the authors delve into the hidden analogies which construct the word we live and through we make meaning. The final chapter on analogies that ‘shook the world’ is concerned with scientific discovery and the authors makes the case that every single scientific discovery that has been made has come through taking one process or idea and seeing how it might be similar to some other process or idea. There’s a fantastic section with reviews Einstein’s ‘annus mirablis’ (1905) the year in which he publish 5 papers which utterly transformed the world of physics and traces how each was an act of analogy making. The book concludes with a constructed dialogue between two invented personas who argue the role of concepts and analogy as central to human thought. It’s an interesting – if occasionally clunky – way of tying together all the themes and ideas in the book. I read this after the publication of Making Kids Cleverer and I was relieved to find that it only adds weight to arguments I made there about cognition being dependent on knowledge.
A History of the Bible: the Book and its Faiths, John Barton
After reading Dominion I felt I wanted to know more about the central text of Christianity and this book from John Barton (an Anglican priest as well as the former he Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford) is a magnificent place to start. Barton is always reasonable, cautious and incredibly well-informed and his trawl though first the Old and then New Testaments casting light on both Judaism and Christianity is breathtakingly detailed, meticulously researched and hugely enjoyable. Along the way he skilfully debunks all the so-called myths and controversies concerning inclusion in the Bible (Dan Brown fans may be disappointed) and provides an excellent account the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is read so differently by Jews and Christians. Early Christians had to work really hard to make a text largely concerned with Jewish history and law a meaningful part of the story of Jesus. I found the account of how narrative was imposed on the Bible fascinating. Christians read the Bible as a story of redemption: first the Fall, then the prophecies of a Messiah (mainly found in Isiah), then the gospels of Jesus and finally the Revelation of world to come. This book comes into its own when read alongside Dominion; many of the same historical figures and ideas feature, but in very different contexts; reading both will enhance your appreciation of either. I suspect this book isn’t going to appeal to many readers but for those who make the effort it’s a fantastic read.
The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt & Greg Lukianoff
Back in 2015, Haidt, and Lukianoff published an article in The Atlantic riffing off Allan Bloom’s brilliant book, The Closing of the American Mind. In it they argued that attempts to protect young people’s emotional well-being – like trigger warnings, safe spaces and micro-aggressions – have actually damaged their development and mental health. Their article traced the roots for such now commonplace campus practices back to moves in 80s and 90s to protect children by making play safer, removing risk from the physical environment as far as possible and exaggerating threats outside the home so that it’s now considered deeply weird to allow children to do anything independently. The unintended consequence was that a generation of young people grew up to believe the world was out to get them and that anything that threatened their emotional well-being was intolerable. These themes have become common currency with media pundits dismissing millennials and Gen-Z as snowflakes unable to fend for themselves, but, as Haidt and Lukianoff show, this is not only unfair, it absolves the rest of us from our part in what’s playing out. The book goes further, fleshing out the context with additional evidence and breaking down the psychological consequences of such cognitive distortions as overgeneralizing, discounting positives, and emotional reasoning. This book if far more than a whine about youngster these days. The last chapter offer a message of hope and a set of practical strategies for reversing some of the damage we’ve done. I found ehe chapter on using CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) to help make young people more resilient a real eye-opener, and some of the advice for parents is invaluable.
I Am Dynamite! A Life of Frederich Nietzsche, Sue Prideaux
Until reading this I knew embarrassingly little about Nietzsche’s life and ideas. Of course, everyone’s heard of Nietzsche; his influence on the modern world seems to echo everywhere, but I’d never actually tried to understand the nuance of his ideas. The first takeaway from reading this superbly written biography is that he was mad. Proper mad. A huge chunk of his writing was written in the midst of fairly severe psychosis and, after his breakdown in 1889 he was committed to an asylum and was released to the care of family. He never recovered and died in 1900. Although Nietzsche enjoyed early academic recognition (he became the youngest ever professor at the University of Basel, aged 24) his writing was, for the most part, ignored during his lifetime. The biography recounts his close friendship with Wagner and their eventual split over Wagner’s antisemitism. Indeed Nietzsche’s outrage at antisemitism seems surprising for the time and led to breakdown in relationships with publishers as well as his much admired mentor. This is particularly surprising in think who became, after his death (and mainly due to the influence of his sister, Elizabeth) associated with fascism and Nazism. The association is even more remarkable considering that Nietzsche abhorred nationalism, renouncing his Prussian citizenship in 1869 and living as a stateless exile for the rest of his life. The overwhelming impression I had from reading this was of deep sadness of a life so poorly lived. Although Nietzsche is still a touchstone of philosophical and political thought, the majority of what he wrote seems to have been composed during upswings in his undiagnosed bipolar state. The frailty of his body and mind seem so poignantly and dramatically at odds with the strength of his ideas.
The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed the World, Michael Lewis
I put off reading this for quite a while as I thought I knew about as much I could ever want to about Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s research. Indeed, as Lewis skilfully recounts the story of Danny and Amos’s platonic love affair, I found myself feeling quietly smug when I recognised bits of the tale in advance. If anything, having read Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow as well as most if not all of the duo’s published research, made reading this even more satisfying. Where Lewis excels is in turning the messiness of life into a well-constructed narrative arc, and this book is every bit as well written and expertly research as some his classics like Moneyball and The Big Short. I found the biographical details of both men’s early lives in Israel as well as their road to academic superstardom as entraining as it was fascinating.
How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy, Julian Baggini
There are a number of excellent histories of philosophy out there from Bertrand Russell to AC Grayling, but this is apparently the first that deserves the appellation ‘global’. There’s a lot in here I didn’t know and as such some of the less familiar aspects of Indian and Chinese philosophy, let alone the traditions from parts of Africa and aboriginal Australia were harder to hang on to, but although most reader will be well outside their comfort zones at times, Baggini is always a congenial guide, drawing readers’ attention to points of connection to more familiar concepts. He suggests that philosophers from different traditions talk past each other if they even talk at all. This may in part be because we’re all so deeply immersed in our own cultural baggage that it’s difficult to go back to the very beginning to learn to see the world in an entirely different way, but more often it’s because philosopher from the West hold their colleagues from other traditions in contempt, dismissing many of their thoughts as illogical and unreasonable. Baggini’s overarching message is that we have a lot more to learn from other traditions than we might suppose and that holding ideas from east and west in creative tension without ‘irritable reaching after certainty’ might benefit everyone. While I really enjoyed reading it at the time I find now I’m writing about it that I remember depressingly little that I hadn’t already learned from other sources. This is not a criticism of the book as an acknowledgement of the paucity of my background knowledge. What I do remembered is that I enjoyed reading it and will certainly revisit.
I’d never heard of the New York City based, charter school network Success Academy until hearing Pondiscio speak about his book at a researchED event in Philadelphia, so for UK readers, imagine a network of over 40 Michaela Schools in London and you’ll have an idea. Success Academy was founded by Eva Moskowitz – a figure, if anything, even more controversial than Katherine Birbalsingh – and has consistently out-performed all other charter networks in the United States. Remarkably, for chain its size, there isn’t a single weak Success Academy! There have been many criticisms of Moskowitz and her schools: accusations of endless test preparation, getting rid of students with special needs and selection through extraordinary parental demands and brutal discipline. Public speculation hit a low when secretly filmed footage of a Success Academy first grade teacher berating a students for making a mistake in maths class went viral. Whatever it is they’re doing seems to work and so the aim of Pondiscio’s book was to find out exactly what they are doing and whether their methods can work elsewhere. It’s an excellently written account of year spent embedded in one of Success Academy’s schools. Pondiscio – a former elementary school teacher in he Bronx – is open about his biases whilst maintaining an impressive journalistic distance; the book skilfully intercuts first-hand reportage of life at Success Academy with background on the wider educational debate in the US. What most surprised me was the tension between the strict discipline and preoccupation with oder on the one hand with Moskowitz’s antipathy towards direct instruction and emphasis on a project-based, conceptual approach to curriculum. As Pondiscio points out, the fact that there is a common curriculum liberating teachers from having to magpie whatever catches their attention on the internet is possibly more important than what’s in a specific curriculum. But, as Pondiscio points out, although Moskowwitz uses the language of progressive education, Success schools are about as far from John Dewey’s ideal as could be imagined. Perhaps the two most important takeaways of what makes Success different to other ‘no excuses’ charters is the quality and consistency of their curriculum materials and the specificity of their professional development with teachers trained in the ‘intellectual prep’ needed to teach most effectively. Whatever your personal preferences, this book is an important read.
Arabs: A 3,000 Yer History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires, Tim Mackintosh-Smith
A lot of what I thought knew about Arab history turns out to be… at least disputed. Having previously read Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword, which cast serious doubt over the historiography of Muhammad and the Quran I was surprised to find that Mackintosh-Smith doesn’t even comment on some of things Holland questions, such as Mecca actually existed before 700 CE and the date the Quran was written may have been as late as 400 years after Muhammad’s death. Mackintosh-Smith writes as if the generally accepted story of the Prophet’s life wasn’t in dispute. Not knowing anything about either author’s sources I’m in no position to ascertain the truth, but as Mackintosh-Smith is far more of a specialist it would seem reasonable to believe he knows what he’s talking about. Anyway, that’s not even the most interesting part of the book. I was fascinated to read about the early history of what we now think of as the Arabs and the development of Arabic as a language. The writer’s position is that it’s Arabic that made the the conquests of the Arabs and the position of Islam as a world religion possible and that it’s Arabic which binds together so many disparate peoples today. Mackintosh-Smith regularly intercuts the historical narrative with references to the conflict unfolding outside the window of his home in Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, and these interjections serve to punctuate the broad and beautiful historic sweep he describes. The glories and achievements of Arab civilzation are always tempered with the brutal realities of internal conflict, colonial oppression and religious turmoil. This is beautifully written book and required reading for anyone wanting to understand the currents at play in the modern sphere of Arabic influence.
Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading, Lucy Mangan
Lucy Mangan was a weird kid. She seems to have spent every available hour of her childhood obsessively reading books. With a few important differences, I was that kid. Lucy’s development of a reader followed a very different trajectory to my own, mainly, I suspect, because she was a girl and I was a boy. She recounts reading books which I only got to read as an adult reading to my own daughters; books like Anne Of Green Gables, Tom’s Midnight Garden and Little Women, as well as many others I’d not previously even heard of (I knew absolutely nothing about either Sweet Valley High or Judy Blume before reading this!) I read vast quantities of classic science fiction (cos that’s what my dad was into) and was instead a precocious aficionado of Heinlein, Asimov and Poul Anderson. But of course there was lots of overlaps and particularly enjoyed reading about Mangan’s serendipitous discovery of The Phantom Tollbooth, a book I was equally fortunate to stumble over and fall in love with. This is a book that celebrates children’s literature: anyone who was a similarly weird kid or who is just interested in what kids read will enjoy this.
Two books which ought to be read back to back are James O’Brien’s How to be Right… in a World Gone Wrong and Douglass Murray’s The Madness of Crowds. The writers come from different ends of the political spectrum but are united by a belief in scepticism, free speech, rationality and argument. O’Brien’s book is relaid through a series of transcripts from his LBC radio show where he sets out how to deal with ignorance and dogmatism by examining conversations around Brexit, Islamophobia, LGBT, political correctness, feminism and other hot button topics. Murray’s book is divided into four main chapters: Gays, Women, Race and Trans and is addressed mainly to the way these topics are viewed on social media rather than by most folk in the real world. Murray’s argument can be boiled down to a simple point: gays, women, people of colour and those who have decided to change gender should absolutely afforded equal rights and should certainly not ever be discriminated against, but neither should they be viewed as having additional or special rights. He argues that many of the positions assumed by activists for these various groups are contradictory and, were one to try to engage logically across the board, madness inducing. For instance, gay activists have asserted that being gay is something people are born to be – it is not a conscious choice (O’Brien’s account of how to argue with people who dispute this is hilarious: “So, when did you decide to be straight?”) whereas as Trans activists argue that one’s gender is always chosen and the body you happen to be born into is a biological fluke. He also suggests that being gay, black of trans and not holding mainstream views about what it means to identify with one or more of these labels disqualifies you from membership. For instance, Ta-Nehisis Coates decided Kanye West’s support of Donald Trump meant he could no longer be considered black, whilst Peter Thiel could, according to Jim Down, no longer be considered gay after speaking at the Republican National Congress. O’Brien’s book is by far the more comfortable read – Murray often expresses himself in ways that made me wince – but both should be read and, ideally, in conversation with each other.