Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits, Jack Murnighan
Originally reviewed November 11th, 2011
It’s perhaps inevitable that I wouldn’t get on with this book, for three reasons. One, I’m an academic type. Two, Beowulf genuinely is my idea of a beach read. Three, in his words, I sit down to pee.
No, no. I don’t mean that in a derogatory, ‘women always argue’ way. I mean that Jack Murnighan keeps going on about ‘Man Lit’, and how amaaaazing it is that he managed to find anything worth reading in Pride and Prejudice, and how all women are going to be all starry-eyed over Darcy, and whatever.
The very idea that there has to be something ‘sexy’ about the books to keep a reader’s interest strikes me as quite guy-centric — or not so much that as it’s a very consistent idea of what’s sexy, or even more generally, what might draw a reader. No mention is given to the compelling nature of David and Jonathan’s love for each other, for example.
There’s possibly a fourth point, in that this is the literary canon of primarily dead white men. It’s European to the extreme. It perhaps wouldn’t be such a dealbreaker for me if it advertised itself as such, but considering the title is ‘Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits’…
Naturally, I disagree on other levels with his ideas of what to skip, and I don’t really get on with his flippant tone. About all I credit this book with is encouraging me to pick up some of the classics I previously gave a miss — but I already had that vague intention in mind anyway.
(Oh, and if you don’t want to view the Bible as a literary document, avoid.)
Geek Feminist Revolution, Kameron Hurley
I wouldn’t read this just for the geek feminist point of view, or just for Hurley’s thoughts on writing; I read this because I know that Hurley can write stunning essays, like the Hugo Award-winning ‘We Have Always Fought’, that she has interesting thoughts on media, because I know that she’s not afraid to take down an idiot. She’s also unashamedly about the self-care: despite being outspoken in many ways, she also has a very carefully filtered Twitter feed, and blocks people as necessary. The general feeling I get from Hurley is that she hasn’t got time for bullshit: she’s earning her living, dealing with chronic illness, and sometimes pausing to hold a mirror up to society’s bullshit because it’s getting in her way.
She writes engagingly and honestly makes me consider watching things like True Detective, because her essay just makes it seem all the more interesting through her analysis. And if there’s anyone who has taught me to be a better copywriter by viewing my writing as work, it’s Kameron Hurley.
My only quibble would be that I’ve read quite a lot of these before, in the collection I think I got for free which contained ‘We Have Always Fought’. I still enjoyed them, but as a collection, I could wish for more of Hurley’s hard-hitting awesomeness.
Being Mortal, Atul Gawande
Death and ways of dying is a thing that a lot of people don’t like to think about, but which is really, really important, and Atul Gawande’s book treats the issues with sensitivity, thought and a wisdom born of experience. It’s not just a doctor’s point of view on death, but an educated look at the ways people die in our society, how things can be different, and a personal point of view — as well as talking about his patients, Gawande talks about his own father’s experience of dying.
It’s not a cold and clinical book, at all; in fact, I found myself crying while reading parts of it. I don’t necessarily always agree with Gawande (I think that voluntary euthanasia and better end of life care can and should co-exist, while he is much more cautious about whether allowing euthanasia causes people to pay less attention to providing better palliative care), but I do respect his point of view and his careful exploration of the facts. He discusses different ways of running nursing homes, different case studies, and different approaches to death and dying, and never did I feel that he was seeing an illness instead of a patient, a problem to be solved instead of a person.
I think this is a very worthwhile read for doctors, for patients, for young people and old people, for carers… for everyone. These are discussions that need to be had. My family know what I want to happen if I were to be ill without hope of recovery, when I would want the life support machines turned off, that I would want my organs to be available for transplants, etc. Do yours?
Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics is Fuelling Our Modern Plagues, Martin Blaser
Seeing the subtitle of this book, you might think it’s about the overuse of antibiotics which causes diseases immune to every method we have to treat them, especially the practice of giving antibiotics “just in case” and feeding antibiotics to animals (which actually helps them grow faster). In fact, while he does bring those issues up, Blaser is also concerned about an unforeseen effect of antibiotics: they’re killing “good” bacteria, with which we’ve co-evolved and which provide us with advantages (even if they aren’t always unmitigated advantages).
This is the sort of thing that’s really fascinating to me, even if I’m not sure I’m 100% comfortable with some of the things he refers to as “modern plagues” — especially not autism, because hey, I don’t think my friends with autism are “ill”. I think they just think differently, and society has the problem. In any case, Blaser does have some interesting research backing up his ideas, and the first half of the book does a very good job of explaining how we form our own personal microbiomes — and the catastrophic effects (viewed in the long term, as an average, not necessarily for a single person) of our modern health system, which actually destroys, undermines, or even prevents the formation of our microbiomes. Caesarian sections, for example.
I think Blaser’s theories might feel a little overstretched at times, but I don’t mind going along with the basic principle: we have these bacteria in our bodies for a reason, we tolerate them for a reason. We don’t really know the effects of what we’re losing, and the invisible advantages and protections it might offer. This much is definitely true, and also the fact that we’re overusing antibiotics as a kind of “better safe than sorry” — except it is going to make us very sorry, via antibiotic resistance alone.
I found this an enjoyable and pretty well-supported read, with the caveat of course that I’m only on the first year of my BSc and most of my knowledge comes from pop science and online courses.
The Greatest Show On Earth, Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins is, from my point of view, a fairly unpleasant man even when I agree with him. He sets out to make this book an explanation of how evolution works (but for that, I would go with Coyne’s Why Evolution is True), and why it is the correct explanation for various phenomena we can observe around us. It’s not as bad as The God Delusion for anti-theist statements, though there are a few speckled in there, and he makes a fairly good line of argument.
Of course, since I think evolution is an obvious conclusion, so I’m not exactly the audience he was hoping to convince — and it’s likely I didn’t notice instances of his usual arrogant attitude that would bother someone who doesn’t already believe in the same things. I think you’re probably safer with Coyne’s book.
Or this set of logical steps:
- There are creatures who are better adapted to their environment than others of the same species.
- Because they are better adapted, they will be more successful in survival and, consequently, breeding.
- These traits, when heritable, can be passed on the creature’s offspring — and they can have many offspring.
- These offspring will be better adapted, and will meet others who are also well adapted to breed with.
- Good adaptations accumulate over the course of generations.
- The environment is not stable and changes over time. Adaptation is necessary to allow a species to survive in the same area, and species do survive in the same area.
- Over a long period of time, enough changes will accumulate that individuals of that species would not be able to breed with the original species, or with a branch of the species that adapted differently.
- Evolution via natural selection has necessarily occurred.
Plus extra evidence like shared DNA, the fact that we can artificially (and in a very short space of time) cause a species to evolve by selecting traits we want (e.g. high milk yield in cows), and the fossil record which contains plenty of examples of transitional fossils… You don’t need Dawkins; go back to Darwin. Even without the evidence we have now, he saw the necessary chain of events, and he was much more sympathetic to other views, and meticulous about his evidence.
Nonetheless, Dawkins’ book is clear and pretty well-written; I just don’t like his attitude, and I don’t think he will reach the desired audience.
Talking Hands, Margalit Fox
Talking Hands is in part the story of the development of sign languages around the world, and in part an exploration of the development of language and how that might have occurred in human history. The little Bedouin settlement which is the main case study is a place where a sign language has arisen independently of other sign languages, and its development has mirrored that of the development of spoken languages in ways which may reveal important things about the way the human brain handles language.
Most of the neurological stuff wasn’t new to me, and it’s definitely on a level any reader can appreciate; it doesn’t go into massively technical terms, or dissect vast case studies about the way injuries affect the brain, etc. The historical context of sign language and how people treated deaf and dumb people in the past was newer for me. I wasn’t aware, for example, that for ages people — even deaf people — considered sign language inferior because it lacked the sort of grammar people recognised. It was even suppressed in favour of cumbersome sign language which followed word-for-word the pattern of spoken language, ignoring the potential for a spatial grammar.
Margalit Fox comes across as a science writer rather than a scientist, making the book very accessible — either on its own, or as a complement to more in-depth works about language like Steven Pinker’s. I didn’t find it as fascinating as her book on decrypting Linear B, but her writing is clear and concisely informative, and I enjoyed reading the book. I wasn’t always sure about the way she characterised actual people; I wouldn’t find some of those descriptions very flattering/respectful… but she did write it with the approval and help of the team working in the Bedouin village, according to her introduction, and it’s never disrespectful about disability or intelligence.
The Ancient Paths, Graham Robb
The problem with this book is that, despite Graham Robb’s claims of having disbelieved the idea and sought extra hard for proof, etc, etc, it’s hard to believe something which is so broad and sweeping, which if true would change the perceptions of a whole period of history. Despite his attempts to methodically lay out the proof, it still reads kind of like someone excitedly believing in ley lines, or maybe better, imagining they can see the lines of intelligence-made canals on the face of Mars. It feels so massive and coincidental, especially because Graham Robb comes to this from the point of view of someone cycling across the ancient paths, rather than an archaeologist or historian.
Would I like to believe that the ancient Celts were this clever, this organised, this technologically advanced? Yes. And the idea of things being laid out along the solstice line isn’t so far fetched on its own: archaeologists like Francis Pryor have claimed similar for sites like Seahenge. But you don’t have to coordinate across the countryside to lay things out along solar lines, and place names could turn out to be a false signal — maybe it was just a common way to refer to places, maybe it was just a way of saying ‘the middle of nowhere’.
As far as I can tell, when Graham Robb links deities and folklore together, he isn’t going against the general wisdom, and that and the way some of his evidence hangs together makes me think that parts of his theory do have merit. It just seems overall too sweeping, and too much like wishful thinking — and sometimes his explanations of how x or y might have happened sound far too much like a story. In the end, I don’t have nearly enough knowledge of the field to make any real judgement on the theory.
Nonetheless, this does make for an interesting read, explaining the ways fairly advanced mathematics would’ve been possible, how communication might have been kept up across all the Celtic areas, and how some myths and stories might still connect to reality. It feels like a good story, regardless of whether the history and theory is sound.
Lucky Planet: Why Earth is Exceptional, David Waltham
For the most part, I found Lucky Planet interesting enough, though at times there were gaps when it comes to the possibilities for life elsewhere — and no mention at all of the idea that there could be life somewhere else on Earth which uses molecules of the opposite chirality to us, suggesting more than one separate origin of life. There was nothing about the Viking biological experiments, which per Michael Brooks’ pop-science books are still thought by some to have shown evidence for life on Mars — the experimenter, Levin, still thinks so, and he’s not alone.
I think the problem with all these theories is that they rely on a gut feeling of how likely life is to arise and, once arisen, to become intelligent. Obviously, as Waltham points out repeatedly, because we exist, conditions are possible in which we can exist and observe (a condition called the anthropic principle). That tells us nothing in itself about how likely life is to arise, though. In fact, with everything that might indicate how likely life is to arise, we have a sample size of one.
It’s really impossible to scientifically judge, I think. It depends on whether you decide life is likely or unlikely, and follows from there. Waltham does discuss all the factors that make Earth a rarity, which may constrain life. But again, sample size of one, so how do we know that a planet’s satellites or seismic activity or atmosphere or predominant minerals are important or not? Life doesn’t have to look the same as us (but if it did, that would go a fair way to confirming Waltham’s point; we require very specific circumstances to have arisen, after all).
So, if you’re looking for an answer, I don’t think Waltham has one for you (though nor does anyone else, by the same logic).
Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists, Rebecca Stott
If we’re not careful, we end up thinking of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution as something completely revolutionary, standing alone, unprecedented and bitterly opposed by a world totally unprepared for it. In some ways, it is true, but Darwin himself knew there had been other theorists before him — even if he didn’t agree with their conclusions — who had seen descent with modification at work and tried to come up with explanations, mechanisms, reasons. Rebecca Stott’s book redresses the record somewhat, engaging with various different theories which glimpsed a part of the truth which Darwin, in the end, really managed to explain and prove.
This is not so much a book which proves evolution or explains Darwin’s theory, although it does cast light on it. Jerry A. Coyne’s Why Evolution is True might be more what you’re looking for, explaining the nuts and bolts of the theory. Stott’s book is more about historical context and the scientific framework Darwin had to work with when he wrote On the Origin of Species.
Stott did well at explaining some of the diversity of opinion and thought before Darwin, and without sounding patronising about the theorists who were, after all, wrong. In some cases, it’s even apparent there were aspects which they got right (Lamarck, for example, may have been wrong in scale, but the existence of epigenetic modifications to DNA shows he was not all wrong). I did find the book dry at times, and it felt more like history than science — very accessible on a scientific level, and somewhat biographical about the people mentioned. A lot of it was not new to me, which might have been part of why I found it dry.
Ashoka: the Search for India’s Lost Emperor, Charles Allen
Ashoka was an emperor of India who, for around two thousand years, was virtually unknown. After war-like beginnings, he became a Buddhist and began to spread Buddhist values throughout his kingdom, with the hope of conquering neighbouring territories with moral force rather than military force. There’s a certain amount of idealism about this emperor and the good works he may or may not have done, but Allen’s book does show that he seems to have been dedicated to his vision.
However, this book is less about Ashoka himself and more about the search for him — the India enthusiasts, often British people coming over to run the colonies, who hunted down the references, visited the ancient sites, and began to put things together. He’s relatively sympathetic toward those endeavours, with the attitude that if Britain did no other good for India, well, we had these clever people who helped them figure out their own history. I don’t have anything to set against that (although he does often mention local experts in languages and religion), but if you’re sceptical of a colonial narrative, I would say this verges on that territory.
It is a fascinating story, though, and doubly so to me because I know so little of India in either time period. I did sometimes wish I was better at geography, so I could draw more of it together on a mental map, but alas, I couldn’t even sketch the shape of India. Ashoka’s story is definitely worth telling, and so too that of the people who reinstated his legacy, I think.