All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.

– Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)


“We live in a society where the individual is far more empowered, but that brings other challenges. Once the mob gets going, it is very easy to silence authors, or to get publishers to pull books from publication. And that raises questions about the books that are getting out: who is writing them? And who is being approved to write them?”

“Is there a distinction between xenophobia and racism? If there is, then it would be that in the case of xenophobia, people who have never seen these other people before may be frightened, but they wouldn’t proceed from a theory of superiority.”

Fran Liebowitz: “I wouldn’t say that I dislike the young. I’m simply not a fan of naiveté. I mean, unless you have an erotic interest in them, what other interest could you have? What are they going to possibly say that’s of interest? People ask me, Aren’t you interested in what they’re thinking? What could they be thinking? This is not a middle-aged curmudgeonly attitude; I didn’t like people that age even when I was that age.”

All Helen talks about is her pain. Every time I see her she goes on and on and I’m tired of it. Other people’s pain is uninteresting. My own, though, is spellbinding.

– David Sedaris, Theft by Finding: Diaries, 1977–2002 (2017)

Like his concern that people should feel free to break wind at table, or his insistence on adding three new letters to the Latin alphabet, the complete lack of interest he had always shown in forcing himself on male partners marked Claudius out as a true eccentric. Not that people particularly disapproved – for it was the way of the world that different men had different foibles, and just as some might prefer blondes and others brunettes, so were there a few who only ever fucked females, and a few who only ever fucked males.

– Tom Holland, Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar (2015)

Sunday Review

Books I’m Reading:

Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland

Family Britain, 1951-1957 by David Kynaston


Books I will start reading this week, inshallah:

One Fat Englishman by Kingsley Amis

Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter


Books I will return to the library unread:

The Girls by Emma Cline

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline


Books recently recommended to strangers on trains:

Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves by Sarah B. Pomeroy

American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry by Ned Sublette and Constance Sublette


Articles I enjoyed reading last week:

“A Quick Reminder of Why Colonialism Was Bad” by Nathan J. Robinson (Current Affairs)

Anne Enright on the underrepresentation of women in Irish literature (London Review of Books)

“Imagining the Future of Nigeria: Accessing Africa Through Sci-Fi” by Deji Bryce Olukotun (Lithub)

Emma Brockes on Martin Amis. Anne Enright on Amis’s new book. (The Guardian)


Films watched last week:

The Levelling

Robocop (2014)


TV shows I’m looking forward to:

The Child in Time (BBC1)

Skilled as he was ‘in discerning a man’s secret wishes’, he brought a lethal and merciless precision to the art of mocking them. […] In truth, those who imagined that the only purpose of inflicting punishment was to educate the Roman people in the responsibilities of citizenship were grievously behind the times. Caligula made sport with senators so as to intimidate the entire elite – but also because it amused him. If sometimes the vengeance he meted out to his victims was necessarily as swift as it was discreet, then his preference in general was for toying with them in public. ‘Only strike such blows as permit a man to know he’s dying.’ The maxim was one that Caligula treasured.

– Tom Holland, Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar (2015)

Among the many paradoxes of human life, this is perhaps the most peculiar and consequential: We often behave in ways that are guaranteed to make us unhappy. Many of us spend our lives marching with open eyes toward remorse, regret, guilt, and disappointment.And nowhere do our injuries seem more casually self-inflicted, or the suffering we create more disproportionate to the needs of the moment, than in the lies we tell to other human beings. Lying is the royal road to chaos.

– Sam Harris, Lying (2011)

“Once an algorithm knows you better than you know yourself, institutions such as democratic elections and free markets become obsolete, and authority shifts from humans to algorithms. Instead of fearing assassin robots that try to terminate us, we should be concerned about hordes of bots who know how to press our emotional buttons better than our mother, and use this uncanny ability to try to sell us something. It might be apocalypse by shopping.”

Anne Enright: “I have met men, not just in Ireland, who are happy to say that they don’t read women. They. Just. Can’t. There are so many problems ‘with’ women. They write about feelings and not facts (they take and do not give). They use qualifications, modifiers, metaphors. They go all fuzzy on you.”

From authorearnings.com: US Trade Publishing by the Numbers.

Memories of the man the Princeps had once been were long since faded. As tales of the great war hero who had twice hauled the Republic back from ruin gathered dust, fresher stories told of Tiberius now had currency among his fellow citizens. No rumour of his perversities was so hideous that it could not be believed in Rome. That he had trained little boys to slip between his thighs as he went swimming and tease him with their licking; that he had put unweaned babies to the head of his penis, as though to a mother’s breast; even, most repellently of all, that he enjoyed cunnilingus. Yet beyond the streets and taverns of Rome, where slanders of the mighty, and mockery of their pretensions, had always bred, there were others who saw Tiberius in a very different light. In the provinces […] he had ended up widely admired as a prince of peace. ‘For wisdom and erudition,’ one declared flatly, ‘there is nobody of his generation to compare.’ Bloodstained pervert and philosopher-king: it took a man of rare paradox to end up being seen as both.

– Tom Holland, Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar (2015)

‘And then there was this business of Britain’s class system,’ recalled Doris Lessing about leaving Rhodesia in 1949 and coming to London. ‘It shocked me – as it does all colonials . . .’ One day she and an ex-RAF friend from Rhodesia went into a pub in Bayswater: ‘It was the public bar. We stood at the counter, ordered drinks. All around the walls, men sat watching us. They were communing without words. One got up, slowly, deliberately, came to us, and said, “You don’t want to be ’ere. That’s your place,” pointing at the private bar. We meekly took ourselves there, joining our peers, the middle class.’ The following year another young writer, Dan Jacobson, arrived from South Africa and was struck by ‘the appetite the English had for “placing” not only a stranger to the country like myself, but perhaps even more pressingly those who were not strangers, who were native to the islands, and whose hands, faces, accents, clothes and bearing would, if studied with sufficient attention, reveal valuable items of information about them: the most important of these, inevitably, being the social class to which they belonged’. He added that it was a ‘kind of detective work’ that reminded him of ‘an insect stroking an object ahead of it with its feelers, or of a cat sniffing a person’s shoes’ – and that the process reflected a society ‘deeply, obsessively divided by a host of invidious, criss-crossing “social indicators” that would go a long way towards determining relations between its members’.

– David Kynaston, Family Britain, 1951-1957 (2009)

“Whiteness is not a genetic category; it’s a social and political construct that relies on perception and prejudice. A century ago, Irish, Italians, and Jews were not seen as whites. ‘This town has 8,000,000 people,’ a young Harry Truman wrote his cousin upon visiting New York City in 1918. ‘7,500,000 of ’em are of Israelish extraction. (400,000 wops and the rest are white people.)’ But by the time Truman became president, all those immigrant groups were considered ‘white.’ There’s no reason to imagine that Latinos and Asians won’t follow much the same pattern.”

Foreigners is, perhaps, a uniquely British word.”

Daniel Dennett: “It is fortunate for us that philosophy is largely ignored by the rest of the society, since otherwise we would have to conduct our business much more cautiously […]. Philosophers can take a hard look at anything—whether pornography is good for people, whether capital punishment should be extended to white-collar crimes, whether money or numbers or chairs or people exist, whether there might be zombies, whether the universe was created exactly six minutes ago complete with all the bogus fossils and photons streaming in from imaginary stars—and this is quite innocuous because there is a sort of quarantine barrier between philosophers’ discourses and the general run of conversation and discovery.”