Tuesday, July 14, 2020

A new view of humankind

Abandon all cynicism ye who enter here. Also, leave all preconceptions at the door, especially if you`re inclined to blame “human nature” for most of the world`s ills.

Instead whisper this radical thought: “most people, deep down, are pretty decent.”

Rutger Bregman`s latest book, Humankind, looks like a challenging, hefty tome but while it may indeed challenge many deeply held convictions it is an eminently readable, rigorously researched examination of why we`re so willing to believe that humans are basically selfish and self-interested.

Lord of the Flies? Try reading what actually happened when that story was played out in real life. It turns out that it`s a “heart-warming story” of cooperation, initiative and generosity.

Or did you read, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, reports of rapes and murders and looting? In other words, as an article in the Guardian put it, “Remove the elementary staples of organised, civilised life….and we go back within hours to…. a war of all against all”.
Turns out that wasn`t quite true either.
In fact, as subsequent research demonstrated, “the overwhelming majority of the emergent activity was prosocial in nature.” Rather than anarchy and self-interest, overwhelmingly, the city was “inundated with courage and charity”.

But don`t run away with the idea that Humankind is some kind of hippy-dippy-let`s-all-hold-hands-and-sing-It`s-A-Wonderful-World treatise. As Bregman says:
“this book is not a sermon on the fundamental goodness of people. Obviously we`re not angels. We`re complex creatures,with a good
side and a not-so-good side. The question is which side we turn to”.

The book debunks numerous stories and studies which purport to demonstrate the essential “savagery” of the human race but then digs deeper to try and find out why so many are willing to believe in this view of humanity.

And perhaps not surprisingly it turns out to have a lot to do with power and vested interests:
“for the powerful, a hopeful view of human nature is downright threatening. It implies that we`re not selfish beasts that need to be reined in, restrained and regulated…… a democracy with engaged citizens has no need of career politicians.”

Bregman`s thesis is a meticulous historical analysis of how we got to a place where our social structures are predicated on the understanding that humans are intrinsically brutal and self-centred. If, instead, we could base processes and organisations on an understanding that most people are decent and kind, the results could be genuinely revolutionary.

Not convinced? At least read this book before you make up your mind.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

"It is not always sensible to be sensible".

It would be unwise to start a Katherine Rundell story if you have some pressing business to attend to because once started her books are almost impossible to put down.
Within the first few lines of The Good Thieves we are offered the thought that “it is not always sensible to be sensible” and if that doesn`t conjure up the prospect of deeds of derrin` do with a bit of mischief thrown in, nothing will. The intriguing title in any case suggests a slightly sideways look at the world and perhaps that is as good a way as any to describe Rundell`s writing. From The Girl Savage and Rooftoppers, through The Wolf Wilder, The Explorer and Into The Jungle (the latter also reviewed here), her stories swing along with verve, panache and an assemblage of vibrant characters, all of whom you would like to spend some time with, even if you feel you might not be able to keep up with them.
In The Good Thieves we meet Vita, standing alone on the deck of a ship and nodding towards the approaching city of New York “as a boxer greets an opponent before a fight.” How could you not want to know what has brought her and her mother here? Soon you discover she has come to right a terrible wrong and though she may be “small, and still, and watchful”, with one leg bearing permanent testament to a bout of polio she caught when she was five, we soon learn she is nothing if not determined.
Rundell is an author you can trust: despite any number of setbacks and apparently insurmountable difficulties you know Vita will triumph. It is in the telling of how she does so that the magic happens and the adventure takes off. In the company of three, at first unlikely looking, companions, all on the edge of respectable society in their own ways, a plan to thwart the (properly villainous) criminal who has wronged her family are drawn up. Loyalties are put to the test and prove steadfast, friendships are forged and always great courage is displayed, not simply physical courage, though there is that, but also the courage to go against convention when the situation demands.
The descriptive writing is a joy, conjuring up never-to-be-forgotten images - coffee looking like “angry mud”. There is humour, the usual wit and, as we have come to expect from this author, the occasional acerbic though always understated observation which appears to signal the moral compass by which Rundell`s characters are guided.
Clothes and costumes, disguises – especially disguises – colour, music, performance, tenacity, vagabonds and rapscallions all fizz throughout the story and in the end triumph over snobbery, selfishness and doubt. Heart-stopping and heart-lifting in equal measure this is also a book which for once doesn`t cast a “Susan” in a sensible role (see Swallows and Amazons). For that I send a personal thanks to Katherine Rundell.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

“The Power Of Some Needs The Folly Of Others.”

Was ever a book more needed than this one?

Reader, Come Home
comes in the wake of Maryanne Wolf`s previous book, Proust and the Squid, in which she charted mankind`s invention of reading and the way in which that invention changed our brains, which in turn “altered the intellectual evolution of our species”.

In Reader, Come Home the author demonstrates that reading in the digital world re-wires our brains and suggests that, with some urgency, we should take a long hard look at the implications of that, especially for young people.

Wolf is a neuroscientist and her explanation of what happens in the brain is properly based on a wide range of research. But this is not a dry, scientific thesis. She uses metaphor and anecdote to communicate complicated processes and addresses the reader in the form of letters, coaxing us to contemplate the somewhat unnerving ramifications of her findings.

Central to an understanding is the perhaps surprising notion that “in the evolution of our brain`s capacity to learn, the act of reading is not natural”. It is the `plasticity` of the brain which has enabled us to develop this wonderful skill: unfortunately it is that very plasticity, the active way in which the brain is reacting to digital media, which may mean we are in danger of losing our ability to read “deeply”.

And that does not mean reading lots of very worthwhile literature. In this context it means reading attentively, as an act of contemplation which helps develop qualities of empathy and skills of critical analysis. Wolf argues that because digital media – the medium is the message – can be demonstrated to significantly alter the brain`s wiring, we are in danger of losing those skills and qualities.

Importantly, though, Reader, Come Home is far from being a Luddite`s charter. The author describes our transition to a digital culture as “the greatest explosion of creativity, invention and discovery in our history.” Rather, her exciting and radical proposition is that we work towards an understanding of the “limits and possibilities of both the literacy based (reading) circuit and digital-based ones”, aiming for the “best possible integration” of both.

And Wolf`s conclusions are perhaps the most arresting. She suggests that if we ignore these warnings it will be a massive abrogation of our responsibility to educate in a way that produces readers who are capable of analytical engagement rather than passive consumerism.

If we fail, she argues, it is a short step to populations who lack empathy, especially if they are denied the time and space to read a wealth of stories and who are unable to “process information vigilantly,” therefore being susceptible to propaganda and demagoguery.

Hence the importance of this book. Everyone should read it: parents and librarians, anyone who thinks they`re less able to concentrate on reading a book than they used to be and most especially teachers. And more important than reading it, is to act on it. A big ask but vital and here is a manifesto and handbook rolled into one.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Here Be Dragons

The world would be a lot duller without dragons so meet Vern, a world weary, reclusive dragon, possibly the last one left.

Vern, the eponymous hero of Eoin Colfer`s adult fantasy, High Fire, is prone to depression and acutely aware of the fragility of his existence.

He has seen more glorious days, when he was Wyvern, Lord High Fire,of the Highfire Eyrie, if, as he says “you could believe that melodramatic s**t name”. Now though he is simply focused on survival and survival is “all about profile, or the total lack of one.”

To that end he hides away in the Louisana swamp while his one friend keeps him supplied with the basic necessities of life: a reliable internet connection for reality shows and Netflix, which he watches from the comfort of his La-Z-Boy recliner; groceries including Cocoa Puffs, Cheerios and gallons of soya milk, not forgetting copious quantities of vodka, his Flash Dance t-shirts and a sort of edgy companionship - when Vern is in the right mood.

But then life gets complicated. Enter Squib a “swamp-wild, street smart, dark- eyed, Cajun-blood tearaway” and Constable Regence Hooke, a crooked cop with designs on Squibs momma and the fun begins.

And that`s the thing. The novel is huge fun, a joyous ride, full of twists and turns as the protagonists duck and dive around each other (quite literally occasionally) with boat chases, smuggling, explosions, and some of the snappiest dialogue you`ll ever hear.

In fact it is the writing which is the most joyous thing of all. The narrative sweeps you into a completely believable, totally fantastic world where dragons get really upset at the mention of Game of Thrones, (“Are you trying to push my buttons,kid? Game of f***ing Thrones! Those dragons are like servants…..Heap of s**t”) crooked cops don`t know when to quit and a boy who started out with nothing much going for him discovers his place in the world.

It is sweary and lewd but with an underlying moral compass guiding the story to a perfect resolution and best of all it is laugh-out-loud funny. Pure, unadulterated delight from start to finish…...unless you`re too old for dragons of course.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

"History does not repeat but it does instruct”.

Two things immediately spring to mind after reading On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder. The first is “Wow!” and the second is….why have I only recently discovered this erudite Professor who, even a little research suggests, has developed a large fan base as well as stirring up controversy in academic circles.**
Perhaps the best response therefore is to do what the Professor himself exhorts us to do: read books, with the emphasis on books.
In his words:

“Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet.”

So read this one certainly. It is short, easy to read and packs a powerful punch whether you find yourself agreeing or not. Set out in 20 snappy “lessons” it encourages the reader,in essence,to learn from experience, from history in fact. Not to take anything for granted.Not to sink into a weary “`twas ever thus” frame of mind nor to think that things were better “in the old days”. Rather we should stay alert: ask questions, be prepared to stand out (lesson 8), believe in truth (lesson 10), be courageous (lesson 20).

Other lessons urge us to interact in the real world,“Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people” at the same time as cultivating a private life, “We are free only insofar as we exercise control over what people know about us”.

Sound a bit melodramatic? Perhaps. But taken in its entirety this book is only suggesting we take personal responsibility for what`s happening in the world. Not an unreasonable proposition.
It is lesson 9 that emphasizes the importance of reading books (including, happily, fiction; "any good novel enlivens our ability to think about ambiguous situations and judge the intentions of others").
It`s a theme to which this reviewer will return.


Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Thinking holistically.

Rewilding; a word that has been floating around for a while but lately seems to have become firmly fixed in the zeitgeist. Look it up and definitions seems fairly obvious:
" restore (an area of land) to its natural uncultivated state (used especially with reference to the reintroduction of species of wild animal that have been driven out or exterminated)."
What`s more, there are hundreds if not thousands of “rewilding” projects, big and small, up and running all over the world. All seems pretty straightfoward.
Until, that is, you read Wilding by the appropriately named Isabella Tree and suddenly it doesn`t seem quite so straightforward after all.
The sub-title is "The return of nature to a British farm", in this case a large, conventionally farmed estate in West Sussex which, despite the family following all the best advice and their best efforts, was haemorrhaging money. It became clear that continuing in the same way was to keep digging a bigger and bigger hole.
What happened next was essentially a "spectacular leap of faith". Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell decided to stand back and let nature take its course.
Well, sort of. What they actually began to do was learn: from Ted Green, a distinguished tree expert; from Frans Vera and his project in the Netherlands; from dozens and dozens of research papers and conservation reports. But perhaps most compelling they learnt from their own observations and what they learnt turned much conventional conservation wisdom on its head.
The book challenges understood notions of appropriate habitats which turn out to be more about how birds and animals have adapted to the available environment rather than how they might behave given truly "wild" territory.
It also challenges the idea of establishing and trying to preserve an apparently suitable terrain for one species which seems to ignore the way, the often extraordinary way, that, given the chance, flora and fauna are interdependent.
In this beautifully written and meticulously researched book we are encouraged to share the author`s delight and in some cases astonishment at what happens on the Knepp Estate as she and her family dare to let go and give nature "the space and opportunity to express itself".
It hasn`t been easy: some conservation experts have been wary, not to mention neighbouring farmers and the local dog-walkers, but in the end the book is about possibilities, about
"thinking holistically,....rebuilding systems with natural processes rather than setting endpoints, measuring function as much as outcome" (and thereby changing) "our whole relationship with the land".
At the very least, it may make you look differently at your local park or nature reserve, or even your garden.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities

A potentially life changing....or at least mind-changing.....little book, Hope in the Dark had me by Page 4: “an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety”.

Rebecca Solnit doesn`t simply celebrate open-heartedness, she offers a joyful alternative to gloom, doom and despair at the state of the world, discarding, as she says, “the crippling assumptions that keep many from being a voice in the world.” What the book definitely isn`t, is hippy-dippy: all you need is love, it`ll all be fine, head in the sand, fingers in the ears la-la-la.

Anyone who has ever doubted the point of direct action, of marching in the streets, of non-violent protest, who has thought or said or heard other people say “it won`t make any difference” will find in this book all the answers they might need to counteract the temptation to give up - to be in her words “beautiful losers or at least virtuous ones.”

She redefines notions of revolution that replace “bad” with “good”, instead describing a process which rejects “the static utopia in favour of the improvisational journey”. By the same token “hope” then becomes more a way of approaching the world, not an inane, vapid optimism, but an acknowledgement of “wild possibilities”, a form of trust in the unknown. Which means the “dark” is not something to be feared but something to be embraced, a future we cannot know but which is ours to create - a darkness “as much of the womb as the grave”.

It helps to remember that, as Solnit says in one of her other books*, new ideas which are initially dismissed as extreme or unrealistic, often end up as “what everyone ….. thought they had always thought, because it`s convenient to ignore that they……...had thought something completely different, something that now looks like discrimination or cluelessness.”

Hope in the Dark is full of examples where the smallest act has helped new ideas take root, often in unexpected or unanticipated ways. It is a paeaon to the power of imagination, a joyful celebration of the possible and the conceivable. But be warned, it could inspire you to get involved in all sorts of mischief: "hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky....Hope is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency."

*Call Them By Their True Names

Image result for hope in the dark

A new view of humankind

Abandon all cynicism ye who enter here. Also, leave all preconceptions at the door, especially if you`re inclined to blame “human nature” f...