October 2021 Reading List
Updated 11 October
- Hooked by Paul Merson
- Time: 10 Things You Should Know by Colin Stuart
- How to Be a Liberal by Ian Dunt
- Spike by Jeremy Farrar with Anjana Ahuja
Updated 11 October
I can’t claim to have read this fully but I am noting it for completeness. I read the first quarter of the book and couldn’t stand it any more so skimmed the rest. It details to quite extraordinary levels (depths?) the minutiae of the interactions between the Cochrane Collaboration and PCG. Ye gads. It’s not edifying. And it is, frankly, remarkably dull. I didn’t know anything of this saga and the indications are that Gøtzsche was treated badly. I can understand his desire to record his version. He has certainly done that.↩︎
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.
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 Scribbles
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:
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.
Frustratingly not released until 28 October 2021. Which seems bizarre and a huge missed opportunity by Allen Lane, the publisher. The Baillie Gifford Prize shortlist is announced on 15 October. I hope that someone at Allen Lane is hustling. I appreciate that the judges may have had a pre-proof copy and that print runs have certain logistical constraints. But, really, not even a ebook version at the moment?↩︎
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.
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.
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 Scribbles
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.