“It is on your back you feel the loss. Your front can keep up appearances. If nothing else, your face can face itself in the mirror. It’s the nape of your neck that is lonely. You can embrace your stomach and roll yourself round it. But your back remains, alone. That is why sirens and djinns are portrayed with hollowed-out backs—no one ever presses a warm stomach from behind against them. The carving chisel of loneliness works there instead. You don’t meet loneliness. It comes from behind and catches up with us.” –“Exterminate All the Brutes”: One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide – Sven Lindqvist
Previous book reports: 2021 – March, February, January. 2020 – December, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.
Thoughts on reading for April and May 2021
On a tear, reading book after book, the frenzy eventually comes to a screeching halt. I was instructed to read a book that was so bad, and so misplaced as a work of fiction, that I just couldn’t read. Anything. Not the book I was supposed to be reading, and not the books I wanted to be reading. It was a complete block to all motivation to read. I would get through two or three pages of the book before I just had to stop. It took weeks to finish. And once I finished the dreaded book, I ended up feeling unmotivated to read for a while. But now I am back to normal.
All of this to explain that my April and May reading chronicles are combined into one because May was a complete wash.
Now… how do I keep this as brief as possible when my list of notes is over 60 pages long? I don’t even have a sense of how to organize these things.
I apologize… it’s as random as the last two years have been.
*“Exterminate All the Brutes”: One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide – Sven Lindqvist
“I read Conrad as a prophetic author who had foreseen all the horrors that were to come. Hannah Arendt knew better. She saw that Conrad was writing about the genocides of his own time. In her first book, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), she showed how imperialism necessitated racism as the only possible excuse for its deeds. “Lying under anybody’s nose were many of the elements which gathered together could create a totalitarian government on the basis of racism.”
I read this book after watching director Raoul Peck’s series of the same name, which was based on observations from this book. The book offers insight, but the series brought it together cohesively, turning visual expectations around on the viewer, narrated in Peck’s ominously gravelly but reassuring voice (it was part of the draw, really). Underpinned by a common European assumption that racism is a part of its past, and really only an American problem in the present, Peck illustrates in stark, sometimes shocking terms, that none of what we experience now would be possible without European colonialism. The aftershocks continue to shake the foundations of the society we live in – and who controls it.
“This became a new epoch in the history of racism. Too many Europeans interpreted military superiority as intellectual and even biological superiority.”
““As I see the matter, Europeans are a curse throughout the East. What do they bring worth bringing, as a general rule? Guns, gin, powder, and shoddy cloths, dishonest dealing only too frequently, and flimsy manufactures which displace the fabrics woven by the women, new wants, new ways and discontent with what they know … these are the blessings Europeans take to Eastern lands.””
“But in this debate no one mentions the German extermination of the Herero people in southwest Africa during Hitler’s childhood. No one mentions the corresponding genocide by the French, the British, or the Americans. No one points out that during Hitler’s childhood, a major element in the European view of mankind was the conviction that “inferior races” were by nature condemned to extinction: the true compassion of the superior races consisted in helping them on the way.”
“Auschwitz was the modern industrial application of a policy of extermination on which European world domination had long since rested.”
*Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche – Haruki Murakami
“My conjecture is this. The Aum “phenomenon” disturbs precisely because it is not someone else’s affair. It shows us a distorted image of ourselves in a manner none of us could have foreseen. The Hare Krishnas and all the other new religions can be dismissed at the outset (before they even enter into our rational mind) as having no bearing on us. But not Aum, for some reason. Their presence—their appearance, their song—had to be actively rejected by an effort of will, and that is why they disturb us.”
I read most of Haruki Murakami’s output, but always feel that the book I read first (or that anyone read first) is the pinnacle of Murakami’s literary achievement, and everything read thereafter feels like a pale imitation. Yet, when Murakami dives into non-fiction or autobiographical writing, it’s more interesting. His book on why he runs offered insight into why he (and many runners) run; this book tries to unpack what led the Aum Shinrikyo cult to perpetrate Sarin gas attacks on Japanese subways.
“To quote from the Unabomber manifesto, published in The New York Times in 1995: The system reorganizes itself so as to put pressure on those who do not fit in. Those who do not fit into the system are “sick”; to make them fit in is to “cure.” Thus, the power process aimed at attaining autonomy is broken and the individual is subsumed into the other-dependent power process enforced by the system. To pursue autonomy is seen as “disease.” Interestingly enough, while the Unabomber’s modus operandi almost exactly parallels Aum’s (when, for instance, they sent a parcel bomb to Tokyo City Hall), Theodore Kaczynski’s thinking is even more closely linked to the essence of the Aum cult. The argument Kaczynski puts forward is fundamentally quite right. Many parts of the social system in which we belong and function do indeed aim at repressing the attainment of individual autonomy, or, as the Japanese adage goes: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.””
*Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America – Ijeoma Oluo
“How can white men be our born leaders and at the same time so fragile that they cannot handle social progress?”
“And when I say “white supremacy,” I’m not just talking about Klan members and neo-Nazis. Blatant racial terrorists—while deadly and horrifying—have never been the primary threat to people of color in America. It’s more insidious than that. I am talking about the ways our schoolrooms, politics, popular culture, boardrooms, and more all prioritize the white race over other races. Ours is a society where white culture is normalized and universalized, while cultures of color are demonized, exotified, or erased.”
None of what Ijeoma Oluo writes should come as a surprise to anyone who is paying attention. And with every conversation I have with men – mostly mediocre, white men for whom the world is designed – Oluo’s point is further driven home.
“…we continued talking about these white men and their unchecked anger, fear, and irresponsibility—this phrase kept popping into my head: works according to design. I thought about the white men who talked over me in meetings. I thought about the white male lead in a movie who sits in his cubicle and laments his lot, bemoaning that he was supposed to be so much more. I thought about the white men wearing swastikas in Charlottesville, angry about their own failures and shouting about the people they blamed for them.”
“White male mediocrity seems to impact every aspect of our lives, and yet it only seems to be people who aren’t white men who recognize the imbalance.”
“white male mediocrity is a baseline, the dominant narrative, and that everything in our society is centered around preserving white male power regardless of white male skill or talent.”
“The rewarding of white male mediocrity not only limits the drive and imagination of white men; it also requires forced limitations on the success of women and people of color in order to deliver on the promised white male supremacy. White male mediocrity harms us all.”
There’s so much more to this book that should be read in total, not just quoted piecemeal the way I do here. I have found myself getting angrier about the white male dominance as I get older, not just because I have lived longer and seen more examples of this but also because I live in a society where this phenomenon is least in evidence. It makes the idea Oluo highlights of “rather than risk seeming weak by admitting mistakes, white men double down on them” all the more clear when I see it. (The entire current UK Tory government, anyone?)
“The man who never listens, who doesn’t prepare, who insists on getting his way—this is a man that most of us would not (when given friendlier options) like to work with, live with, or be friends with. And yet we have, as a society, somehow convinced ourselves that we should be led by incompetent assholes. This patriarchal elevation of incompetence has a special flair, however, in capitalist and individualist societies like the United States. When wealthy white men hoard power among themselves, they also need a cost-efficient way to keep the masses from threatening the status quo. How do you keep the average white male American invested in a system that disadvantages him?”
“Nothing says “American” like a boy making a woman struggle so that he can seem independent.”
My only problem with this book is that there were several points where Oluo writes something like, “Studies say…” or “Many studies reveal…”, but then it’s not immediately clear what studies Oluo is referring to.
*The Forgotten Cure: The Past and Future of Phage Therapy – Anna Kuchment
I’ve become a bit obsessed with phage therapy the last couple of years and now read everything about it I can. It’s a fascinating alternative to antibiotics, although it’s more complex to find just the right phage therapy to apply. It has to be more specific than antibiotics to work… and sometimes it’s the last-resort solution.
When I talk to friends in the medical profession, they often have never heard of (or have only heard of in casual passing) phage therapy. When I mention it to non-medical people, I’m greeted with skepticism, as though I am sharing science fiction as fact. But phage therapy has been alive and well, particularly in the republic of Georgia (and in the former Soviet Union) for a very long time.
“Unlike antibiotics, bacteriophages make more of themselves as they work, eventually outnumbering and eradicating the bacteria they were sent to destroy. But, while antibiotics are effective against a wide variety of bacteria, each phage is specific, meaning that microbiologists must spend days and sometimes weeks in the lab identifying the bacteria in a patient’s tissue sample and finding a phage that will eradicate it.”
“But phages are no magic bullet. Critics point out that they can cause disease as well as cure it; by mingling their own genes with those of bacteria, phages have given rise to some of our worst killers, including diphtheria and food poisoning caused by E. coli 0.157. And, just like antibiotics, they breed resistance, though phage researchers say isolating a new phage is faster and cheaper than synthesizing a new antibiotic. Rapid genetic sequencing techniques help keep out so-called “lysogenic” phages that can pass dangerous genes to bacterial cells. While some still see phage therapy as a cultish phenomenon backed by weak science, the current crop of biotech startups is beginning to prove them wrong.”
I’ve spent a lot of the last ten years studying chronic wounds, and this book addresses exactly how bad chronic wounds are.
“Infected wounds are highly resistant to antibiotics, and not always because of the presence of superbugs. Once microbes penetrate a skin ulcer, they coat themselves in a protective layer that makes it difficult for antibiotics to reach them. This sugary coating, called biofilm, is a body-armor-like mesh that lets in nutrients for the bacteria but keeps out white blood cells, antibodies and, in most cases, drugs. “Everyone is so worried about [superbugs like] MRSA and VRSA,” says Wolcott. “But the biofilm is, like, orders of magnitude of that problem, and nobody is talking about that.” Chronic wounds have a cure rate lower than that of breast, prostate, and colon cancer: around 50%. Thousands of these patients are quietly living out their lives across the United States, virtually immobilized and in unrelenting pain.”
*McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality – Ronald Purser
“Void of a moral compass or ethical commitments, unmoored from a vision of the social good, the commodification of mindfulness keeps it anchored in the ethos of the market.”
Mindfulness as a practice has overrun the western world. Can you attend a corporate seminar or read a self-help book – or anything else – without someone recommending mindfulness or forcing you to participate in some kind of mindfulness exercise?
“Mindfulness is sold and marketed as a vehicle for personal gain and gratification. Self-optimization is the name of the game. I want to reduce my stress. I want to enhance my concentration. I want to improve my productivity and performance.”
Ronald Purser’s book explores a far deeper connection between how capitalism has co-opted any real truth or value from mindfulness, being reduced to “trickle-down mindfulness” as a “cover for the maintenance of power”. It results in, as we can all see if we’re paying attention, “an obsessive self-monitoring of inner states, inducing social myopia. Self-absorption trumps concerns about the outside world.”
“The problem is the product they’re selling, and how it’s been packaged. Mindfulness is nothing more than basic concentration training. Although derived from Buddhism, it’s been stripped of the teachings on ethics that accompanied it, as well as the liberating aim of dissolving attachment to a false sense of self while enacting compassion for all other beings.”
*Wild Is the Wind: Poems – Carl Phillips
Carl Phillips. Poetry. What more do you want?
*What Can a Body Do?: How We Meet the Built World – Sara Hendren
“Disability reveals just how unfinished the world really is, in its mundane forms and in its most aspirational politics—a contemporary reality tested most acutely under conditions of global pandemic, requiring fundamental shifts between our bodies and the world, and mutual trust despite deep uncertainty.”
What makes this book important is how well it centers the things we don’t see or notice. The world is built for the able-bodied, at specific “average” sizes, useful for the typical norm (which is most often the average, white, able-bodied man). And for everyone else, everything is an adaptation.
Whether or not a person is like a lecturer called Amanda, as described in this book, who forces us to ask the question: “Who is the world designed for?” Amanda calls herself disabled, as a person with dwarfism, and stands well under five feet tall. She is asking a design class to create a portable lectern for someone of her size and scale. Unless we see the world from Amanda’s perspective, would we think of these kinds of considerations as a designer?
“The idea of normalcy—a normal, average body or mind—is so ubiquitous and mundane that it’s settled into sleep in much of our collective cultural imagination. But its history as an idealized standard for human life is much more recent than you might imagine.”
“When the average is laden with cultural worth, everything changes: what was common began to be seen as what was “natural,” and what was “natural” came to be seen as right. The cult of normalcy reached its ugliest…”
*The Inevitable: Dispatches on the Right to Die – Katie Engelhart
“Here we were, in the country that spends more per capita on healthcare than any other in the world, and people were begging for a veterinary solution.”
I think a lot about the right to die/death with dignity. The US states that have passed assisted suicide laws have quietly adopted these laws into practice without much debate or fanfare once they came into force. The right to die has not led to, as the author explores, a slippery slope: “the right to die would evolve, by tiny and coercive steps, into a duty to die—for the old, the enfeebled, and the disabled”.
“What does this all mean? This hunger for absolute control—or maybe just a shred of control—at the end of life, and this revolt against the machines that sometimes sustain a spiritless version of it? It is about the desire to avoid suffering. It is about autonomy. In the American legal tradition, it is also about the right to privacy and the negative right to not be interfered with. But for most of the people I met, choosing to die at a planned moment was principally about “dignity.”
The issue continues to be one of great debate in countries where assisted suicide isn’t legal but is up for discussion. For me it’s not a debate: the option is one of mercy and choice.
*How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter – Sherwin B. Nuland
“But the fact is, death is not a confrontation. It is simply an event in the sequence of nature’s ongoing rhythms. Not death but disease is the real enemy, disease the malign force that requires confrontation. Death is the surcease that comes when the exhausting battle has been lost. Even the confrontation with disease should be approached with the realization that many of the sicknesses of our species are simply conveyances for the inexorable journey by which each of us is returned to the same state of physical, and perhaps spiritual, nonexistence from which we emerged at conception. Every triumph over some major pathology, no matter how ringing the victory, is only a reprieve from the inevitable end.”
“The greatest dignity to be found in death is the dignity of the life that preceded it. This is a form of hope we can all achieve, and it is the most abiding of all. Hope resides in the meaning of what our lives have been.”
*Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance – Atul Gawande
“Each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, two million Americans acquire an infection while they are in the hospital. Ninety thousand die of that infection. The hardest part of the infection-control team’s job, Yokoe says, is not coping with the variety of contagions they encounter or the panic that sometimes occurs among patients and staff. Instead, their greatest difficulty is getting clinicians like me to do the one thing that consistently halts the spread of infections: wash our hands.”
There are a lot of fascinating insights in this book – I am endlessly fascinated by the work of surgeons and physicians. While everything was riveting, what struck me most of all was the emphasis on basic things that we take for granted or don’t do, like hand-washing. It has taken a pandemic to make people wash their hands more. To understand that there isn’t a ready-made medical solution for everything.
A second point Gawande makes, which is relevant of course for medical professionals but equally so for everyone else, is the idea that our lives are about talking to strangers.
“MY FIRST SUGGESTION came from a favorite essay by Paul Auster: Ask an unscripted question. Ours is a job of talking to strangers. Why not learn something about them? On the surface, this seems easy enough. Then your new patient arrives. You still have three others to see and two pages to return, and the hour is getting late. In that instant, all you want is to proceed with the matter at hand. Where’s the pain, the lump, whatever the trouble is? How long has it been there? Does anything make it better or worse? What are the person’s past medical problems? Everyone knows the drill. But consider, at an appropriate point, taking a moment with your patient. Make yourself ask an unscripted question: “Where did you grow up?” Or: “What made you move to Boston?” Even: “Did you watch last night’s Red Sox game?” You don’t have to come up with a deep or important question, just one that lets you make a human connection. Some people won’t be interested in making that connection.”
*Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science – Atul Gawande
“In medicine, we have long faced a conflict between the imperative to give patients the best possible care and the need to provide novices with experience.”
How do doctors learn to be doctors, and how is it we think it’s fair to hold them to an entirely different standard when it comes to learning? Everyone makes mistakes, but when it’s a doctor, these mistakes can be life or death.
“How often does my intuition lead me astray? The radical implication of the Swedish study is that the individualized, intuitive approach that lies at the center of modern medicine is flawed—it causes more mistakes than it prevents.”
“To much of the public—and certainly to lawyers and the media—medical error is fundamentally a problem of bad doctors. The way that things go wrong in medicine is normally unseen and, consequently, often misunderstood. Mistakes do happen. We tend to think of them as aberrant. They are, however, anything but.”
“This is the uncomfortable truth about teaching. By traditional ethics and public insistence (not to mention court rulings), a patient’s right to the best care possible must trump the objective of training novices. We want perfection without practice. Yet everyone is harmed if no one is trained for the future. So learning is hidden, behind drapes and anesthesia and the elisions of language. Nor does the dilemma apply just to residents, physicians in training. In fact, the process of learning turns out to extend longer than most people know.”
“As patients, we want both expertise and progress. What nobody wants to face is that these are contradictory desires. In the words of one British public report, “There should be no learning curve as far as patient safety is concerned.” But that is entirely wishful thinking.”
*The Knife Man: Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern Surgery – Wendy Moore
I walked past the Hunterian Museum on the campus of the University of Glasgow every day, and never once thought about who it was named after. Then I read this book. While the Hunterian is named after Dr. William Hunter, a famous Scottish anatomist, this book is about William’s younger brother, John. John Hunter is perceived widely as the father of the scientific method in medicine, the value of observation (“early distrust of the written word would make him forever skeptical of classical teaching and the slavish repetition of ancient beliefs. He always preferred to believe the evidence of his own eyes rather than the recorded views of others”) and careful anatomical studies. He was also ahead of his time in devising surgical methods.
“But through Hunter’s pervasive influence, the future practice of surgery would be based largely on the doctrine of observation, experimentation, and application of scientific evidence. When Edward Jenner tested his smallpox vaccine on an eight-year-old boy in 1796, thus establishing the practice of vaccination, which would save millions of lives, he was studiously following his tutor’s principles. When Joseph Lister tried out his carbolic-soaked lint on eleven patients in 1867, thus launching antiseptic practices that would prevent countless deaths, he was purposefully adopting his hero’s methods. And numberless pioneering surgeons down the years would similarly follow Hunter’s scientific principles in helping to render surgery safe and effective.”
Other interesting stuff
*Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys across a Changing Russia – Lisa Dickey
The writer makes three cross-country trips across Russia, each ten years apart. What struck me was a very deep hatred for Barack Obama expressed throughout Russia during the writer’s last trip. It was fascinating to read about Dickey’s observations, and made me long for a time when I wanted the kind of adventure she pursued. I have still never even been to Russia.
*The Mile – Craig Smith
I enjoyed this because I enjoy anything that’s Scottish and focused on the independence question. But I do wonder if anyone else reading this would really like it. I’d like to think so. It’s brief but still imbues its characters with life and crisp dialogue. One wee problem; I like it when people discuss other small countries and their adaptability, their ability to thrive in independence, but lauding Iceland for halving unemployment and jailing bankers … that’s not quite the case:
“Small ships are easier to turn around Euan.” Ian said. “It’s easier for them to adapt to change. Iceland’s already halved unemployment, and what did they do? Bail out the bankers? Look after their friends in high places that fund their fucking election campaigns? No, they jailed the fuckers and invested in the people. Norway, discovered oil at the same time as us. Did they fritter it away like Westminster? No, they invested it in an oil fund that’s now worth billions!” He took another drink. A bit early for this, he thought, but might as well strike while the iron’s hot. “And look at Denmark, year after year, it tops the ‘happiest fucking country in Europe’ list. So what’s so different about us?”
A high note, though, is poking fun at the English:
“£66, not bad, he thought. But every time he saw that number he was reminded of the fucking English and the World Cup win they would never, ever, shut up about.”
*Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions – Johann Hari
“Loneliness isn’t the physical absence of other people, he said—it’s the sense that you’re not sharing anything that matters with anyone else.”
The heart of Hari’s book lives here, exploring how suffering, grief and the general malaise that sometimes stalk the range of human emotion. It has, like death, become medicalized and medicated. And yet it’s all a part of the complete human experience that we are trying to dull and silence, often in ways that create more problems than they solve.
“The grief exception revealed something that the authors of the DSM—the distillation of mainstream psychiatric thinking—were deeply uncomfortable with. They had been forced to admit, in their own official manual, that it’s reasonable—and perhaps even necessary—to show the symptoms of depression, in one set of circumstances. But once you’ve conceded that,4 it invites an obvious follow-up question. Why is a death the only event that can happen in life where depression is a reasonable response?”
“But this blasts a hole in the rudder of the boat the psychiatrists writing the DSM have been sailing in for so long. Suddenly, life—with all its complexity—starts to flood into diagnosing depression and anxiety. It can’t just be a matter of chemical imbalance, as verified by checklists of symptoms. It would have to be seen as a response to your circumstances.”
“If we started to take people’s actual lives into account when we treat depression and anxiety, Joanne said, it would require “an entire system overhaul.” There are many good and decent psychiatrists who want to think in this deeper way, she stressed, and can see the limits of what we are doing right now. Instead of saying our pain is an irrational spasm to be taken away with drugs, they see that we should start to listen to it and figure out what it is telling us.”
“Thinking like this, Joanne told me, makes her believe that “we’re such an utterly disconnected culture, we just don’t get human suffering.” She looked at me, and I thought of everything she has gone through, and the wisdom it has given her. She blinked, and said: “We just don’t get it.””
Much of this revolves around the lack of connection, becoming more isolated from a sense of community or sharing.
“Protracted loneliness causes you to shut down socially, and to be more suspicious of any social contact, he found. You become hypervigilant. You start to be more likely to take offense where none was intended, and to be afraid of strangers. You start to be afraid of the very thing you need most. John calls this a “snowball” effect, as disconnection spirals into more disconnection. Lonely people are scanning for threats because they unconsciously know that nobody is looking out for them, so no one will help them if they are hurt. This snowball effect, he learned, can be reversed—but to help a depressed or severely anxious person out of it, they need more love, and more reassurance, than they would have needed in the first place. The tragedy, John realized, is that many depressed and anxious people receive less love, as they become harder to be around. Indeed, they receive judgment, and criticism, and this accelerates their retreat from the world. They snowball into an ever colder place.”
“It made me realize: we haven’t just started doing things alone more, in every decade since the 1930s. We have started to believe that doing things alone is the natural state of human beings, and the only way to advance. We have begun to think: I will look after myself, and everybody else should look after themselves, as individuals. Nobody can help you but you. Nobody can help me but me. These ideas now run so deep in our culture that we even offer them as feel-good bromides to people who feel down—as if it will lift them up.”
*The Political Thought of Abdullah Öcalan: Kurdistan, Woman’s Revolution and Democratic Confederalism – Abdullah Öcalan
“Another ideological pillar of the nation-state is the sexism that pervades entire societies. Many civilised systems have employed sexism in order to preserve their own power. They enforced women’s exploitation and used them as a valuable reservoir of cheap labour. Women are also regarded as a valuable resource in so far as they produce offspring and allow the reproduction of men. Thus, a woman is both a sexual object and a commodity. She is a tool for the preservation of male power and can at best advance to become an accessory of the patriarchal male society.”
“On the one hand, the sexism of the society of the nation-state strengthens the power of men; on the other hand, the nation-state turns its society into a colony through the exploitation of women. In this respect women can also be regarded as an exploited nation.”
“All the power and state ideologies stem from sexist attitudes and behaviour. Woman’s slavery is the most profound and disguised social area where all types of slavery, oppression and colonisation are realised. Capitalism and nation-state act in full awareness of this. Without woman’s slavery none of the other types of slavery can exist, let alone develop. Capitalism and nation-state denote the most institutionalised dominant male. More boldly and openly spoken: capitalism and nation-state are the monopolism of the despotic and exploitative male.”
“ALL SLAVERY IS BASED ON HOUSEWIFISATION Ever since the hierarchical order’s enormous leap forward, sexism has been the basic ideology of power. It is closely linked to class division and the wielding of power. Woman’s authority is not based on surplus product; on the contrary, it stems from fertility and productivity, and strengthens social existence. Strongly influenced by emotional intelligence, she is tightly bound to communal existence. The fact that woman does not have a visible place in the power wars based on surplus product is due to this position of hers in social existence.”
“Gender discrimination has had a twofold destructive effect on society. First, it has opened society to slavery; second, all other forms of enslavement have been implemented on the basis of housewifisation. Housewifisation does not only aim to recreate an individual as a sex object; it is not a result of a biological characteristic. Housewifisation is an intrinsically social process and targets the whole of society. Slavery, subjugation, subjection to insults, weeping, habitual lying, unassertiveness and flaunting oneself are all recognised aspects of housewifisation and must be rejected by the freedom-morality. It is the foundation of a degraded society and the true foundation of slavery. It is the institutional foundation upon which the oldest and all subsequent types of slavery and immorality were implemented. Civilisational society reflects this foundation in all social categories.”
*Wee White Blossom: What Post-Referendum Scotland Needs to Flourish (Viewpoints) – Lesley Riddoch
“Culture, oil, politics, history and size. Scots have as many reasons as any other restless nation to consider independence, although in 2014 the No argument finally proved more persuasive – or less frightening.”
This book is exactly what it purports to be: a book on what Scotland needs post-independence referendum… and what it might take to move toward independence again. The present moment is the strangest and most painful: how anyone can want to stay a part of the broken union is beyond my comprehension.
“Betwixt and between, the average Scot does not know the best of times or the worst of times. So we settle too readily for something in between. This is not to blame anyone. Social segregation means we almost all live in ghettos – quite unaware of how other people live across the great divides of class, gender, geography, occupation and sometimes religion. The referendum though has made one thing abundantly clear.”
Riddoch’s book pulls together different viewpoints, particularly those pertaining to social justice and equality, and how Scottish society mostly embraces the idea of the basic good, which is part of what is pushing it further away from the fraying ‘united’ kingdom of which it is a part.
*Stolen: How Finance Destroyed the Economy and Corrupted our Politics – Grace Blakeley
“If the logic of capitalism is based on extraction from people and planet today, then finance-led growth is based on extraction from people and planet today and tomorrow, until the future itself has been stolen.”
Yeah, this is as horrifying as it seems. Capitalism has always been an extractive enterprise designed to feed short-term gains/profit and little else.
“Financialised capitalism may be a uniquely extractive way of organising the economy, but this is not to say that it represents the perversion of an otherwise sound model. Rather, it is a process that has been driven by the logic of capitalism itself. As their economic model has developed, the owners of capital have sought out ever more ingenious ways to maximise returns, with financial extractivism the latest fix. In many ways finance-led growth represents capitalism’s most perfect incarnation — a system in which profits seem to appear out of thin air, even as these gains really represent value extracted from workers, now and in the future.”
“The central argument of this book is that, having gorged themselves before the crash, today’s capitalists are running out of things to take. We are currently living through the death throes of finance-led growth.”
*Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone – Sarah Jaffe
“The ideals of freedom and choice that neoliberalism claims to embrace function, paradoxically, as a mechanism for justifying inequality. The choice is yours, but so are the costs for choosing wrong.”
“Exploitation is not merely extra-bad work, or a job you particularly dislike. These are the delusions foisted on us by the labor-of-love myth. Exploitation is wage labor under capitalism, where the work you put in produces more value than the wages you are paid are worth. Exploitation is the process by which someone else profits from your labor. This is true whether you’re a nanny making $10 an hour, allowing your employer to make much more money at her higher-paid job, or a programmer at Google making $200,000 a year while Google rakes in over $7 billion. The labor of love is just the latest way that this exploitation is masked. But increasingly, workers are stripping away that mask.”
“Turning our love away from other people and onto the workplace serves to undermine solidarity. Thatcher’s statement that there was no such thing as society came after she had crushed labor unions, those vehicles not just of shop-floor action but off-the-clock sociality. If workers have a one-on-one love relationship with the job, then the solution for its failure to love you back is to move on or to try harder. It is not to organize with your coworkers to demand better. Collective action is unthinkable; the only answer is to work harder on yourself or to leave.”
*Synthesizing Gravity: Selected Prose – Kay Ryan
“It is easy to be sentimental about memory because of its powers to intensify. If something is remembered, it has been selected by the mind, out of an almost infinite pool of things that might have been remembered but weren’t. The thing remembered thus becomes important, simply because it has been remembered.”
I have loved Kay Ryan’s poetry, and this book of selected prose also offers gems.
“The poem is a space capsule in which impossible combinations feel casual. The body of the capsule is of necessity very strong to have broken out of gravity. It is the hard case for the frail experiments inside. Not frail in the wasted sense, but frail in the opposite sense: the brief visibility of the invisible.”
*Frangipani – Célestine Hitiura Vaite
I kept this in the reading list just because you don’t hear often about Tahiti and certainly not Tahitian literature. I can’t say I cared for the book much, but I enjoyed the novelty of it.
*The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth: And Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine – Thomas Morris
“How long did the unfortunate John Marsh survive? Horrified and fascinated in equal measure, I could not stop reading. The answers proved to be just as intriguing. When the cartwheels had passed over Mr. Marsh’s belly, they had done so with such force that his intestines were squeezed through the inguinal canal, a narrow passage between the abdominal cavity and the scrotum. With his guts now competing with his nuts for scrotum space, as it were, the physicians had a simple task: Get them back where they belonged.”
A book of strange medical mysteries – we look back on what was standard practice and find it abhorrent. But we will undoubtedly look back and find that things that are standard practice now will appear abhorrent in the future – if you recall the scenes in the film Star Trek IV in which Bones exclaims in shock at the barbaric conditions of “modern medicine”, such as dialysis, in 1987.
*The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning – Maggie Nelson
“The “compulsion to repeat” the trauma—be it in art, nightmare, or waking life—is the organism’s attempt to master the surplus anxiety that the original incursion produced. Of course, these attempts typically fail, often to catastrophic effect—in which case art can be seen as a relatively innocuous arena in which to showcase the failure—to enjoy, as Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has put it, our symptoms.”
Our capacity to be cruel, and to absorb cruelty without reaction, is endless. The book explores different depictions of cruelty (and of course makes reference to Stanley Milgram, who appears constantly across pop culture references).
“As if a test were needed of how much sadism reality television participants, audiences, and producers are willing to indulge, on March 17, 2010, French TV broadcast something called Le jeu de la mort, or The Game of Death, a faux game show which re-performed the Milgram experiment on eighty unknowing contestants. The contestants had been told that they were taking part in a game-show pilot, in which they were to administer electric shocks to other contestants when they answered questions incorrectly. A smiling host and vociferous studio audience, rather than a taciturn guy in a lab coat (as was the case in Stanley Milgram’s experiment), urged the behavior on, but the results were remarkably similar: sixty-four of the eighty contestants were willing to deliver shocks that could have killed their recipients, had there been any actual receivers.”
*Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures – Merlin Sheldrake
“Our perceptions work in large part by expectation. It takes less cognitive effort to make sense of the world using preconceived images updated with a small amount of new sensory information than to constantly form entirely new perceptions from scratch. It is our preconceptions that create the blind spots in which magicians do their work. By attrition, coin tricks loosen the grip of our expectations about the way hands and coins work. Eventually, they loosen the grip of our expectations on our perceptions more generally. On leaving the restaurant, the sky looked different because the diners saw the sky as it was there and then, rather than as they expected it to be. Tricked out of our expectations, we fall back on our senses. What’s astonishing is the gulf between what we expect to find and what we find when we actually look.”
And once more a lovely and surprising connection with a Star Trek reference.
“IF ANYONE KNOWS about going fungal, it’s Paul Stamets. I have often wondered whether he has been infected with a fungus that fills him with mycological zeal—and an irrepressible urge to persuade humans that fungi are keen to partner with us in new and peculiar ways. I went to visit him at his home on the west coast of Canada. The house is balanced on a granite bluff, looking out to sea. The roof is suspended on beams that look like mushroom gills. A Star Trek fan since the age of twelve, Stamets christened his new house Starship Agarikon—agarikon is another name for Laricifomes officinalis, a medicinal wood-rotting fungus that grows in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. I’ve known Stamets since I was a teenager, and he has done a lot to inspire my own interest in fungi. Every time I see him I’m met with a flurry of electrifying fungal news flashes. Within minutes his mycological patter picks up speed, and he leaps between bulletins almost faster than he can talk, a ceaseless torrent of fungal enthusiasm. In his world, fungal solutions run amok. Give him an insoluble problem and he’ll toss you a new way it can be decomposed, poisoned, or healed by a fungus.”
“Not long before I arrived, Stamets had been contacted by the creative team behind the TV series Star Trek: Discovery, who wanted to know more about his work. He had agreed to brief them on the ways that fungi could be used to save worlds. Sure enough, Star Trek: Discovery, which premiered the next year, was laced with mycological themes. A new character was introduced, a brilliant astromycologist called Lieutenant Paul Stamets, who uses fungi to develop powerful technologies that can be deployed to save humanity in a fight against a series of terminal threats. The Star Trek team has taken plenty of license, though they hardly needed to. By tapping into intergalactic mycelial networks—“an infinite number of roads, leading everywhere”—(the fictional) Stamets and his team work out how to travel in the “mycelial plane” faster than the speed of light. Following his first mycelial immersion, Stamets comes to, dazed and transformed. “I’ve spent my whole life trying to grasp the essence of mycelium. And now I do. I saw the network. An entire universe of possibilities I never dreamed existed.””
*Men Who Hate Women: From Incels to Pickup Artists: The Truth about Extreme Misogyny and How it Affects Us All – Laura Bates
“Except…those two parallel claims—“not all men” and “it’s all accidental”—are directly contradictory. Either it’s “not all men,” in which case we must infer that it is only a small, specific group of men, deliberately committing acts of harassment and assault (a conclusion with which I broadly agree). Or this is all about poor, blundering men, making innocent missteps in a world in which behaving perfectly respectably risks being misinterpreted beyond one’s control, in which case, presumably, we are talking about all men, since the specific implication is that it could happen to anyone. So once again, the logic falls apart.”
A disturbing but unsurprising book about incels and extreme misogyny.
““Incel logic seems to reveal a hopeless contradiction: women are simultaneously reviled for sleeping with men and for refusing to do so. One user, for example, described women as “greedy selfish evil crazed sluts, who prevent decent hard working men, from achieving their biological purpose.” But things become clearer when viewed through the lens of the most basic incel belief. At its simplest, the argument goes like this: if women’s sexual autonomy has given them wicked and tyrannical control over men’s lives, then women’s liberation is at the root of all male suffering. Therefore, the obvious remedy is to remove women’s freedom and independence and to use specifically sexual means (like rape and sexual slavery) to do so. In other words, the problem is not women having sex but women having the choice of whom to have sex with.””
*Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women – Susan Faludi
“There’s a name for that: backlash. We witnessed the same dynamic in the 1980s: the more women speak up and demand their rights, the more a threatened male populace lashes back.”
As a corollary to the book on male anger, entitlement and incels, we revisit Susan Faludi’s classic.
“To blame feminism for women’s “lesser life” is to miss entirely the point of feminism, which is to win women a wider range of experience. Feminism remains a pretty simple concept, despite repeated—and enormously effective—efforts to dress it up in greasepaint and turn its proponents into gargoyles. As Rebecca West wrote sardonically in 1913, “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.””
Truly awful reads
*The BBC: Myth of a Public Service – Tom Mills
I thought this book would be interesting, and it was a dry, dull slog that pained me to get through.
*The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt – Robert I. Sutton
You would think that a book about assholes treating you horribly would at least make you think. But this book was rather terrible.
*The Unicorn Project: A Novel about Digital Disruption, Redshirts, and Overthrowing the Ancient Powerful Order – Gene Kim
Hands down, one of the worst books I have ever read. It’s meant to be fiction but doesn’t have fleshed-out, well-developed characters. It’s just surface-level vehicles who deliver information about how we might develop software better. This didn’t need to be – or try to be – fiction. It was so painful to read that it took me more than six weeks to read it.
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