August 2020 reading list
A slow start to the month as I read less, unusually, while on leave than I do at home. That’s the power of habit for you and the physical exertions and privations of camping (minor though they are) meant I spent less time curled up with a book. However, I came back with renewed enthusiasm. I also caught up with a couple of books that were part read. It is satisfying to finish these up — piles (virtual or not) of half-read books are not good for one’s mental wellbeing. Here’s the August list.
Smallpox: The Death of a Disease by DA Henderson I came to this book after reading Polio: The Odyssey of Eradication by Thomas Abrahams last month. Given that smallpox is, so far, the only disease we’ve succeeded in eradicating it is referred back to frequently. This is an enjoyable read, enlightening around the tactics, but it does get a bit ‘listy’ at times with endless WHO epidemiologists and personel poppping up repeatedly.
Bothy Tales by John Burns Easy, fireside reading to make one yearn for a day on the hills. This is, and I don’t mean this disparagingly, something more of a palate cleanser for me. I’m not keeping any notes, I’m just immersed in the vicarious experience of being in the Scottish mountains.
Morality by Jonathan Sacks This is good stuff and I was particularly pleased to read it as it annoyed me at points. Quite severely, in fact, but it’s good to avoid too much confirmation bias. I have copious notes that I need to translate. There were, for me, a couple of major shortcomings. In areas which are not his own experience he relies on secondary sources — much the same books I have read myself in recent times. He seems particularly prone to a failure to differentiate between association and causation. His views on drugs and substance use are dismally biased and lacking any credible evidence base at all. It’s much stronger on the philosophical side and when he stops dragging everything back to religious examples, the latter half of the book is very good and keeps getting better.
This is an Uprising by Mark Engler and Paul Engler The Englers take us through the topic of non-violent resistance. If you are planning to get involved in any future social campaigns it’s vital reading. Even if that’s not on your agenda I found it incredibly instructive to understand how movements we do hear about regularly have worked and may find traction in the future.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer At the heart of this story is the tale of Chris McCandless who walked into the Alaskan wilderness and starved to death a few months later. Krakauer weaves in other tales and his own experience. It’s sensitive, well written, and a very fine piece of longform journalism.
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger Junger crams a lot of wisdom into a slim volume. It’s easy to understand how Jonathan Sacks quotes from this book: suicide, social isolation, PTSD, the nature of war and rampage killings. Damn, it’s good.
Austerity’s Victims: Adults with a Learning Disability by Neil Carpenter* Another damning indictment of the policies of the austerity decade and Carpenter lays out the impacts for many of the 900,000+ adults with learning disabilities in England. It’s not pretty reading.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl This scarcely needs introducing. Frankl was a psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz and Dachau who went on to develop logotherapy. Jonathan Sacks referred to it and I realised I had never read it. In fact, weirdly, I had barely heard of it and somehow it was hardly on the fringes of my awareness — somewhat like Richard Smith and Elizabeth Gilbert.° It’s not a book that needs my endorsement but it is a short read — as an audiobook it was fantastic.
Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed by Men by Caroline Criado Perez* I have written about this book before° and I couldn’t bring myself to completing the audiobook. This month, I finished off with the Kindle version for the last third that I hadn’t yet read. I just found this a hard book to get through and I’m still puzzling why. It might be because Criado Perez lets her (understandable) anger creep in but it’s not just that — her fury at the demonstrable gender bias means that for all the brilliant data exposed she often over-interprets or uses the data to buttress a wider point about gender discrimination where it just doesn’t hold. If you are going to use data as the main plank of your argument I’d argue it is critical that you stay within the limits of interpretation of the data or you hugely weaken your point. This is an incredibly important book but for me it’s not as good as it could be and CCP just doesn’t quite nail it.
The Good Ancestor by Roman Krznaric This is all about taking the long view and thinking about generations ahead. Krznaric (pronounced kriz-narik according to his website) covers the short-termism of the modern world and then added all sorts of tools and ways of thinking of the future beyond even our own life spans. He presents the moral case and offers practical examples. Of course, the climate emergency is the obvious area in which we need long-term thinking but there are many others as well. I have dozens of notes and it might be my book of the year thus far. More to come on it.
*Part read earlier this year and finished this month.