Seeing a man who walking down the street suddenly slips and falls on a banana peel may strike many as funny because it is not what we have come to expect when we watch someone walking. Our expectation is that walking in the future will follow the pattern of walking in the present. The disruption of our prediction so surprises us that we laugh. As Mel Brooks deadpanned, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.”

– Leonard Shlain, Sex, Time, and Power: How Women’s Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution (2003)

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Books Read in 2017

My Favourites 

Austerity Britain: 1945-51 by David Kynaston

Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers by Kwame Anthony Appiah

Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us about Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

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

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

The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla

Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Max Tegmark

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates

 

Everything Else

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD by Martin A. Lee

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea by Mark Blyth

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood*

Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett*

A Brief History of Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice by Jack Holland

Call for the Dead by John le Carré

Churchill and America by Martin Gilbert

Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky*

The Darkening Web: The War for Cyberspace by Alexander Klimburg

DarkMarket: Cyberthieves, Cybercops and You by Misha Glenny

The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters by Tom Nichols

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The Double by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers by Frank Trentmann

The Establishment And How They Get Away With It by Owen Jones

The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us by Richard O. Prum

Experiments in Ethics by Kwame Anthony Appiah

The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire by Kyle Harper

From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds by Daniel Dennett

The Gathering by Anne Enright

Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous by Gabriella Coleman

The Happy Atheist by P Z Myers

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

Hopes and Prospects by Noam Chomsky

The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers by Thomas Fleming

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë*

The Liar by Stephen Fry

The Meaning of Human Existence by Edmund O. Wilson

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill

No Is Not Enough: Resisting the New Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need by Naomi Klein

The Nuremberg Trial by Ann Tusa and John Tusa

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Dave Grossman

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

Otherness by David Brin

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West by Tom Holland

Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope

Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It by Evan Davis

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis*

The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein

Smut by Alan Bennett

Solar by Ian McEwan*

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam by Douglas Murray

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society by Cordelia Fine

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

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives by Sarah Williams Goldhagen

What Algorithms Want by Ed Finn

What If? The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been by David McCullough et al.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally) by John McWhorter

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë*

 

*Reread

New Year’s Resolutions

I, too, dislike them: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.
Reading them, however, with perfect contempt for them, one
discovers that there is in
them after all, a place for the genuine.

– from “Poetry” by Marianne Moore

 

(1) Read more contemporary poetry.

(2) Write five poems a week. Show them to no one.

(3) Read more philosophy.

(4) Seek out the company of those to whom philosophy and poetry are important.

(5) Read more fiction.

(6) Watch less TV.

Thoughts on Contemporary African Literary Criticism

What follows is a series of largely unfair and not entirely serious responses to this article by Prof Tony E. Afejuku, published in The Guardian (Nigeria) on the 17th of February, 2017.

 

(1) “A complete, thorough knowledge of African writers is compulsory for anyone interested in contemporary African literature.”

We should all be interested in African literature. But we don’t all have the time to be completists. The task itself (the containment of all African writing in one human mind) is impossible. If he or she is lucky, a diligent scholar may, after a lifetime of study, digest all notable works written in a single language over a half-century. To expect more is unreasonable. And to demand the same degree of commitment from a harried executive who picks up a copy of Half of a Yellow Sun on his way to work is to place unnecessary obstacles in the reader’s path.

 

(2) “Whether the African writer is liked or not liked is of no value, of no importance, of no relevance, but he or she must be read and evaluated dispassionately.”

A fine sentiment, but as Prof Afejuku knows, it is difficult to dispassionately review a writer one does not like and impossible to fairly judge an artist one detests. Professional critics, like the rest us, are adept at justifying their prejudices. They convince themselves they dislike a writer’s prose when they really dislike his politics, the size of his advance or the shape of his nose.

 

(3) “Today, in Africa, we seem to have far more writers than critics.”

Has it not always been so, at all times and in all places? Is this not desirable? I assume, of course, that by critic Prof Afejuku means one who engages in criticism as a rigorous intellectual activity, as opposed to one who has a casual opinion he is willing to share.

 

(4) “Ernest Emenyonu’s chastisement of Bernth Lindfors for his jaundiced criticism of Cyprian Ekwensi’s fictional art is too well known to be re-visited here in full.”

Well known perhaps to readers of the Journal of the African Literature Association, but not, I dare say, to readers of The Guardian.

 

(5) “Critics of conscience are giving way to critics of ethnic value, critics who encourage and father commercialism.”

Hear, hear.

 

(6) “Many years ago, when my sense of criticism was just above its fledgling state, as a young bird fledging to fly . . . .”

Here we witness a rare manoeuvre: the exhumation of a dead metaphor. Compare: “A few years ago, when the first green shoots of economic recovery began to appear, like tender shoots breaking through the earth . . .”

Or “He wore an expression of steely resolve, like a bar of steel that cannot be broken.”

 

(7) “He was not induced against me by the malaria of racial malice or the ‘jaundice’ of racial prejudice.”

Alternatively, and sticking with the alliterative theme, “He was not induced against me by the malaria of malice, the polio of prejudice, the jaundice of jealousy or the Ebola of envy. Nor was our relationship blighted by the tuberculosis of tension or the dengue fever of denial.” (There are, it turns out, a host of ideological maladies which the immunocompromised acquire, through no fault of their own, by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.)

 

(8) “This is in no way an exercise in self-trumpet-blowing.”

I, unlike Prof Afejuku, have blown a self-trumpet. It is an overrated experience.

Sunday Review

Song I listened to on repeat last Thursday:

 

Book I’m currently reading:

Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett

 

Books I’m supposed to be reading:

Family Britain by David Kynaston

A Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman

The Power by Naomi Alderman

 

Books read last week:

The Happy Atheist by P Z Myers

What If? The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been by David McCullough et al.

 

Films watched last week:

White God (2014)

Robin and Marian (1976)

 

Podcasts I haven’t listened to in months:

The Guardian Long Read

Filmspotting

All Songs Considered

 

TV shows I will watch this evening:

Electric Dreams: Impossible Planet

The Child in Time

 

Historical images I have been unable to forget:

Don Sturkey’s photographs of Dorothy Counts on her way to school

Alice Seeley Harris’s 1904 photograph of a Congolese man staring at his daughter’s amputated hand and foot

Sunday Review

Books read last week:

The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers by Thomas Fleming

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

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

 

Books I’m skimming to keep up with my fifteen-year-old nephew:

Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers 1973-1980 by Bernard Williams

The Concept of Mind by Gilbert Ryle

The Mechanical Mind: A Philosophical Introduction to Minds, Machines, and Mental Representation by Tim Crane

 

Books which, by remaining unread, have led me to reevaluate my relationship with Allah:

One Fat Englishman by Kingsley Amis

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

 

Film I watched because it was mentioned in Austerity Britain

Passport to Pimlico

 

Films I watched last week because I am yet to teach my wayward heart to do my mind’s bidding:

Surrogates

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

 

Films I intend to watch next week, come hell or high water:

Notes on Blindness

White God

 

TV series recommended to a pair of confused Jehovah’s Witnesses, apropos of nothing:

Masters of Sex

The Handmaid’s Tale

American Gods

 

TV shows with 2+ episodes sitting unwatched on my Sky Q box:

Garrow’s Law

Rellik

Doctor Foster

University Challenge

The Brain with David Eagleman

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)

Sunday Review

Book I’m currently reading:

A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War by Thomas Fleming

 

Books I should be reading:

Family Britain, 1951-1957 by David Kynaston

A Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman

The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II by Svetlana Alexievich

 

Books I took out of a public library two weeks ago and do not intend to read:

One Fat Englishman by Kingsley Amis

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The Girls by Emma Cline

(The plan, long since abandoned, was to take out three books each day and skim through them rapidly, mapping out territory I might choose to explore in detail later.)

 

Books I have recommended to friends in the last two weeks:

Experiments in Ethics by Kwame Anthony Appiah

Human, All Too Human by Friedrich Nietzsche

Austerity Britain, 1945-51 by David Kynaston

 

Films seen in the last two weeks:

I Am Not Your Negro (rewatched)

Prometheus (rewatched)

Lady Macbeth

Goodfellas (rewatched)

Regarding Susan Sontag (rewatched)

Renoir 

 

Films I should see this week:

Notes on Blindness

The Levelling

 

TV shows I’m looking forward to this week:

Liar (ITV)

Electric Dreams (Channel 4)

Tin Star (Sky Atlantic)

(Okay, I’m not exactly “looking forward” to any of these, but goddammit I paid for Sky TV and intend to get my money’s worth.)

The Rhinoceri, Washington and Lincoln

From The New York Times:

A class-action lawsuit about overtime pay for truck drivers hinged entirely on a debate that has bitterly divided friends, families and foes: The dreaded — or totally necessary — Oxford comma, perhaps the most polarizing of punctuation marks.

What ensued in the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, and in a 29-page court decision handed down on Monday, was an exercise in high-stakes grammar pedantry that could cost a dairy company in Portland, Me., an estimated $10 million. […]

Legal history is replete with cases in which a comma made all the difference, like a $1 million dispute between Canadian companies in 2006 or a very costly insertion of a comma in an 1872 tariff law.

Winning Battles, Losing Wars

chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-bbc-newsnight-donald-trump-racism-2.jpg

As soon as it became clear, early on Wednesday morning, that Donald Trump would be America’s next president, I logged off Twitter, turned off my TV, downloaded half a dozen books from Project Gutenberg, and resolved to pay as little attention to politics as is compatible with life. Each of us handles grief differently. Some drown their sorrows in drink. I curl into the foetal position and read Jonathan Swift.

So I missed Adichie’s turn on Newsnight and the social media furore it provoked. I later learned what she had said before calmly demolishing R. Emmett Tyrrell: “If you are a white man, you don’t get to define what racism is.” This disturbing statement was received rapturously by many on the left. The Huffington Post and Mashable reported that she had “shut down a white dude.” Cosmopolitan’s Laura Beck felt her response was “perfect.” And New York Magazine’s Jenni Miller accused Tyrrell of trying to gaslight Adichie. None of these writers, and few of Adichie’s supporters on social media, appeared to understand how meaningless these small victories are in the grand scheme of things. Hillary Clinton beat Trump in all three debates. Countless white men were “schooled” on Facebook. Trump’s surrogates were verbally outmatched and outgunned on TV shows and Twitter. In the end, none of that mattered.

Humiliating closet racists or ignorant old men is an effective political tactic if theirs are minority views. But if they have an army of voters behind them, mockery and condescension are counterproductive. Adichie didn’t so much shut down one elderly conservative as shut herself off from an important audience. She made it less likely that members of a politically powerful demographic will listen to anything else she says.

Who gets to define racism? No one person.  And similarly, no one should be excluded from the process. Perhaps Adichie meant to say that Tyrrell’s privileged status as a white man doesn’t grant him the right to unilaterally redefine such terms. Perhaps. But her words were interpreted as an affirmation of the liberal consensus, the pernicious idea that victims of oppression ought to have the final say when it comes to labelling oppressive acts. According to this playbook, only women decide what sexism is and only persons of colour decide what counts as racism. The problem with this is obvious. Each group is prone to systematic errors. The ostensibly oppressed, to false positives (overdiagnosis) and the privileged, to false negatives (underdiagnosis). Also, labels are meant to provoke action from those in power, from institutions dominated by white men. If those who control such institutions don’t agree with your definition, they are unlikely to act.

Political debate, online activism and “speaking truth to power” should ultimately be judged by results, by elections won or lost, laws passed, lives changed. Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic understand this. It’s about time liberals learned the lesson as well.