September 2021 Reading List
Updated 20 September 2021
20 September 2021
Monthly Reading List
- The Nanny State Made Me by Stuart Maconie
- Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli
- Football Hackers by Christoph Biermann
- Son of a Silverback by Russell Kane
- Trials of the State by Jonathan Sumption
- The Status Game by Will Storr
- On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming
- The Art of Making Memories by Meik Wiking
- Privacy is Power by Carissa Véliz
- Death of a whistleblower and Cochrane’s moral collapse by Peter C. Gøtzsche
- The Way Home by Mark Boyle
Having had a moan at various points about footnotes and referencing I wanted to set out what I think is good practice, from my perspective as a reader, for footnotes and referencing. This is for books, particularly mainstream non-fiction, and not for journal articles or academic texts. Though, for the life of me, I have no idea why they need to be harder to read. I sometimes wonder if the single biggest failure of academia is the notion that the writer has to demonstrate they are more clever than the reader. It is hardly any wonder that students and junior academics are so tortured by the need to write in an ‘academic’ style.
And for those of you who might argue for Harvard referencing let me pick a fight. Harvard treats its readers with contempt. It is tolerable when the referencing is very minimal and there is a need to cite the author — more common in single author pieces that might be encountered in the social sciences. Where the referencing is dense or the papers are multi-authored it quickly becomes ludicrous and almost unreadable. It took me two mins to find this example from the International Journal of Drug Policy.
Absolutely horrible. It is grotesque, though certainly not the worst I’ve seen, and an affront to any reasonable notion of readability.
Let’s go back to books. As a reader, I have often had the experience where I’ve struggled to get into a book. It can just be a background niggle and a difficulty in becoming immersed. The pull of our mobile devices, of the internet, makes it easier than ever to act on the mildest of distractions and disengage. Of course, sometimes this is down to bad writing, but I’m becoming more aware that it is often due to the way the text is presented and the footnotes/referencing can play a role.
17 September 2021
- Distinguish between footnotes and referencing. Don’t mix the two. Reduce the cognitive effort for the reader.
- Avoid commenting on the references unless it is specific information on the location or scope of that source.
- Miminise any intrusion on the text. Anything except the words the reader reads interrupts the flow. Ideally, an approach where the text is completely clear of all baubles and embellishment is best. I find superscript numbers tolerable but internet-style underlined hyperlinks with colour changes can be hugely intrusive.
- Think very carefully about footnotes and be sparing. Is that nugget better in the text itself or just simply binned? I sometimes think they are an ego trip — again, it’s all about the author and not so much about the reader. They can be informative and witty but to read footnotes on an ebook will involve clicking on the screen, usually at least twice. This breaks concentration that then has to be re-established. It is often slightly better for readers of print books as they will have the footnotes on the same page. Usually in a tiny font…
- If you have a lot extra to say and many references then plan for a notes section at the back of the book. This can be easily linked by chapter and using sentence markers. It is possible to dispense with all hyperlinks/superscripts using this method. Many books do this and, as a reader, it is now my favourite. It’s a win-win. The keen reader gets an extra source of information, easily bookmarked if they want to find it while reading, and the prose is clean.
I just finished The Status Game by Will Storr this week. It’s very good, full of insight, with little in the way of regurgitation of the well-trodden scientific anecdotes that often litter such books. I recommend it highly. It will be badged as a popular science book but it can be read, in many aspects, as a rather superior ‘self-help’ book. That’s not meant to be disparaging at all and I just want to highlight how it can help us see the world and our place in it with a little more clarity.
I want to talk about footnotes.
I now read almost all my books on an ereader — I recently moved to the rather deluxe Kobo Forma. (It’s superb, thanks for asking.) Ebooks do change the dynamic around footnotes and hyperlinks and referencing. Now, there is an element of personal preference around this but it is simply done badly by many publishers. Obviously, as a journal editor I do appreciate the importance of referencing; we deal with references all the time and they are a critical element of scientific writing. There are downsides and, sadly, the reader is usually a long way down the list of priorities.
It is frustrating to read books that are so casually dismissive of the reader experience. I wrote a blogpost in November 2019 about Cormac McCarthy’s advice on scientific writing. He said:
“Avoid footnotes because they break the flow of thoughts”
Yes. This is the core problem. Most people find it hard to concentrate for longer periods these days — all the modern distractions are well known. The most wonderful facet of reading is the immersion. There is nothing better than getting drawn in by the writer, following their train of thought, being led to new insights and revelations. Cormac has this right and footnotes are devastating to that process.
Now, I enjoy a snarky footnote as much as the next person but it is the job of the writer to pick out what they want to say. And, what they don’t need to say. Footnotes are far too often a lazy excuse for not writing better prose, or a paralysing inability to kill off the clever thoughts writers (or their editors) can’t stop themselves from sharing. Putting information critical to understanding of the text into a footnote is all too often a failure to write with sufficient clarity.
That said, I appreciate many readers love footnotes and I’ve used them myself (in my last post no less). I’m not against footnotes as such, I just think they are used carelessly, and the negative impact of them isn’t always taken into consideration.
A particularly egregious habit is to mix referencing with footnotes.
Referencing is the basic technique of pointing readers to sources. It’s very important and I would be aghast not to have some option to check references where necessary — though I would argue that they can be entirely dealt with in the rear of a book without any inline markers. Footnotes are usually an embellishment. They should not be mixed with referencing. As the Ghostbusters would say: don’t cross the streams.
Mixing them is problematic as this puts the burden on the reader. This is quite subtle so bear with me while I explain my gripe. Most readers won’t feel the need to look at every reference as they read through a text. Like many people, I like having them available. When an author starts mixing referencing with footnotes then they create a problem for the reader. Is this hyperlink an interesting snippet of extra detail? Or is it just a citation, a simple reference, for another source? The only way to find out it is to click. And, the spell of the writing, the story being told, is broken and the bubble pricked. The flow is disrupted.
Even when one doesn’t click, there is an additional cognitive process that is whirring in the background that is almost impossible to turn off. Click? Or don’t click? At the same time as reading the text I have another cognitive thread running weighing up each hyperlink to make a decision about whether this one is worth the gamble. It’s tiny, but many books have at least a couple of these links on every single page.
There is evidence that the presence of hyperlinks can increase that cognitive load.
Which brings me back to Storr’s The Status Game. He does mix the streams on some occasions but it is very minor and I wouldn’t make a thing about it. Rather than superscript referencing (which is unobtrusive but in ebooks can be annoyingly hard to click with my stumpy fingers) the ebook version uses full on hyperlinks, usually over several words. They appear in a different colour and are underlined. They are incredibly invasive and I found they disrupted my reading to a significant degree. Not good at all.
Worse and rather bizarrely, the hyperlinks don’t seem to have been contextualised, often spanning weird combinations of part sentences, or stopping in the middle of names. It looks like adding the hyperlinks has been palmed off to a disgruntled intern — or, more likely, I’d wager it has been outsourced to some poor freelancer, on the cheap, who perhaps doesn’t have English as their first language.
They are a mess. And, they are a terrible eye-bleeding distraction. The publishers, William Collins, should be royally embarrassed. I thoroughly enjoyed the book yet I found it quite difficult to get through as usual. (I actually stopped for a day or two and read the short Trials of the State by Jonathan Sumption in the middle.) The book deserves better and Will Storr’s work definitely merits a little more care and attention in the ebook version.
16 September 2021
More books to read… the Baillie Gifford Prize announces the 2021 non-fiction longlist
There are two main book prizes I like to keep an eye on. One of them is the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction and the other is the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction. I admit I get bookishly excited when the longlists are announced. Finding new books to read involves a fair amount of combing through blogs and Amazon and other sites - not unenjoyable in itself but the nature of algorithms and the interweb makes it challenging to break out of one’s filter bubble. The various prizes are incredibly helpful in offering different perspectives I might not otherwise consider.
The Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction was announced this week. Here’s the longlist:
- Consumed: A Sister’s Story By Arifa Akbar
- Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn
- Minarets in the Mountains: A Journey into Muslim Europe by Tharik Hussain
- Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945–1955 by Harald Jähner, translated by Shaun Whiteside
- Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe
- The Mutant Project: Inside the Global Race to Genetically Modify Humans by Eben Kirksey
- Things I Have Withheld by Kei Miller
- Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell by John Preston
- Blood Legacy: Reckoning With a Family’s Story of Slavery by Alex Renton
- Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain by Sathnam Sanghera
- In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova translated by Sasha Dugdale
- Burning Man: The Ascent of DH Lawrence by Frances Wilson
- Free: Coming of Age at the End of History by Lea Ypi
What has caught my eye? There is an announcement with a brief summary of the books. I have already read two of them: Preston’s Fall and Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain. I also have Islands of Abandonment tee’d up to read in the next book or two and I have Empireland in my Audible queue as well.
I am intrigued by Consumed which is about the author’s sister and her battle with tuberculosis - as well as a tale of grief there seems to be a fair amount of medical history which attracts me. And, the other obvious one with a medic’s eye is The Mutant Project and its exploration of a “genetically modified future for humanity”. I’m well positioned for this having read A Crack in Creation in July which details the history of CRISPR - a technology with staggering potential consequences and which will surely feature in the The Mutant Project. Indeed, if the Wuhan lab leak proves to be the root cause of Covid-19 we may already be living through some of those consequences.
Of course, these are the books that I lean towards through background. The others look intriguing and I will try to get to some of them. Interestingly, the comment from the chair of judges, Andrew Holgate, points out how they worked hard to ensure they “ranged a long way out of our boundaries”. It’s what we all need sometimes.
10 September 2021
August 2021 Reading List
Just one? Then I’d recommend The Book of Trespass. It’s not the only book on the topic but it is beautifully written and sets out the injustice of land ownership in England. It is hard to see how we can ever reduce dismal inequalities until we grasp this nettle.
Oddly, I had tried to read Mountains of the Mind several times in the past and, for reasons I’m not quite sure of, I stalled and dropped it. It’s odd as reading it this time I flew through it and was struck by how much I had in common with Macfarlane in terms of mountain experience.
1 September 2021
Monthly Reading List
- The Book of Trespass by Nick Hayes
- On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder
- The Power of Strangers by Joe Keohane
- The New Climate War by Michael E. Mann
- First, They Erased Our Name by Habiburahman
- Mountains of the Mind by Robert Macfarlane
- Men Who Hate Women by Laura Bates
- Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman
July 2021 Reading List
A lot of books this month. I was disappointed with the Orwell Prize winning Between Two Fires but I was completely charmed reading A Sting in the Tale and it led me to Rebirding which is about so much more than birds. In that vein, Who Owns England should awaken the rebel rambler in you.
1 August 2021
Monthly Reading List
- Why the Germans Do It Better by John Kampfner
- English Pastoral by James Rebanks
- Between Two Fires by Joshua Yaffa
- A Crack in Creation by Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg
- A Sting in the Tale by Dave Goulson
- Paint Your Town Red by Matthew Brown
- Rebirding: Rewilding Britain and its Birds by Benedict MacDonald
- Wayfinding by Michael Bond - Notes
- Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker
- Freedom by Sebastian Junger
- Who Owns England by Guy Shrubsole
- How Spies Think: Ten Lessons in Intelligence by David Omand
- Mind Games by Neville Southall
- Philosophy for Polar Explorers by Erling Kagge
OK, so my first day of leave and I can’t complain. A one hour fell run, plenty of time sitting in the garden reading, then a riverside evening barbecue to cap it off. And, I finished a great book that I started yesterday evening: Wayfinding by Michael Bond. A fine book; a fell run; time with family; a spot of sun. There was even just the tiniest smidge of trespass. What more could one ask for?
Wayfinding isn’t overlong, is written with exceptional clarity, and offers a fair few gems. It digresses enough to take in some fascinating niches but doesn’t lose sight of its destination. The neuroscience is deftly handled without some of the breathless overstatement common to this field. I’ve always loved maps and navigating and Bond has made me realise how smartphones have, as is their way, eroded a simple pleasure. We need to put away the GPS, stop slavishly following the little blue dot, and build our own spatial maps.
23 July 2021
But navigation also reveals other truths, if we engage with it fully: a vivid experience of place, and the knowledge that you are here. These are eternal truth. They matter to us as they mattered to the first wayfinders. The journey is still important. There is still a world out there to explore, and we need to find a way through it.
June 2021 Reading List
If you read just one…
Some fine books here to choose from. Our Boys had been on my list for a while after it had been longlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2019 and I’m sorry I left it so long. Parr has put together a richly detailed story of the Paras and, certainly from my own experience, it is one of the few that is genuinely nuanced. There is no goggle-eyed adolescent admiration here for camo-clad heroes but there is a deep appreciation for the social history, the culture, as well as the very real flaws and the horrors of war.
Catching Fire is a fascinating account of the theory that cooking had a major role in the evolution of our species. It did, perhaps, drift a little towards the end but I took a lot from it. I couldn’t help noticing the astonishing number of reviews Born a Crime has on Audible and after listening I’m happy to add my own 5-star endorsement. After reading a lot of books about the opioid crisis Hillbilly Elegy layers fascinating social detail that I found incredbly valuable. There’s also plenty of insight into the long-term effect and impact of adverse childhood experiences.
You have to really love your hardcore science to get the most out of What We Cannot Know. I enjoyed it but it was seriously tough going in places. I’ve already written about Diary of an MP’s Wife and Sunburn so you can check them out for yourself. The Compleat Trespasser is a short but compelling summary of the history of trespass and access to the countryside. Empire of Pain is a long book but undoubtedly worth it. It deserves a longer review and I will try to get to that. The Sacklers are laid bare for all to see.
1 July 2021
Monthly Reading List
- Our Boys by Helen Parr
- What We Cannot Know by Marcus du Sautoy
- The Scout Mindset by Julia Gatef
- Catching Fire by Richard Wrangham
- Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
- Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
- The Compleat Trespasser by John Bainbridge
- Diary of an MP’s Wife by Sasha Swire - Notes
- Sunburn by James Felton - Notes
- Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe