Tag: non-fiction

Review – Hidden Hands

Posted June 10, 2022 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Hidden Hands by Mary WellesleyHidden Hands: The Lives of Manuscripts and Their Makers, Mary Wellesley

Hidden Hands is a book about manuscripts, and more than that, about the people behind the manuscripts. It’s not necessarily about the most beautiful or most impressive manuscripts, or the rarest, though it discusses manuscripts from all those categories. Wellesley isn’t just interested in the contents of the manuscripts, but also the people who composed the words, the scribes who wrote the actual script, the owners of the manuscript, and the potential readers of them.

I was familiar with most of the manuscripts mentioned, to the point where I’d have been interested in hearing more about the Pearl/Gawain manuscript or something for once, rather than the Beowulf manuscript yet a-fucking-gain. There were a couple of surprises too, though, like the discussion of the collection of letters from a particular family and how some of them were illiterate and thus the anxiety about the use of scribes. I’m not sure I’d normally count a collection of letters as a manuscript, but it was still an interesting section.

I also knew nothing about Gwerful Mechain, a medieval Welsh poet who wrote erotic poetry and protests against the misogynistic poetry circulating in her day. She was a definite and welcome surprise to me (as was the mention of a scholar who taught me, Katie Gramich).

All in all, I felt like there was so much to say that it would have merited a longer book, one which I would’ve read eagerly!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Wood for the Trees

Posted June 9, 2022 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Wood for the Trees by Richard ForteyThe Wood for the Trees, Richard Fortey

The Wood for the Trees is a ramble through the woods that Fortey owns and maintains (a small patch of woodland that once belonged to a large estate). With the curiosity of a lifetime’s work in science, he examines every little bit of the wood in all seasons of the year, lifting up rocks, turning over fallen branches, and digging around in the history of the woods.

I got it because he made geology really interesting in another book I read, though I find this book didn’t have quite the same touch — perhaps because it’s so wide-ranging, so unfocused. Instead of just looking at the geology or the biology, he digs into the archaeology as well, into literature and historical figures that touched upon the wood, into the way the wood used to be worked with.

His little cabinet of curiosity is interesting, and his enthusiasm for the wood admirable — but unlike his other books, this didn’t keep me picking the book up to pursue more of it.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Laziness Does Not Exist

Posted June 3, 2022 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Laziness Does Not Exist by Devon PriceLaziness Does Not Exist, Devon Price

I found this an interesting read more because of what I had resistance to than because of what it said, almost. Much of it is well known to anyone who’s had a course of CBT (yes of course I should turn notifications off on my phone, and of course I don’t because I have unrealistic expectations of how much I should work)… but it’s quite provocative to come out and say it’s due to the “Laziness Lie”, and see every case of “laziness” as something non-lazy.

It’s an easy enough read, and brings together some good points, but it could seriously use fewer anecdotes and more research-based conclusions. It’s sometimes self-contradictory, saying that people are more productive when they take time to rest and then saying at the end that if you take time to rest, you’ll be less productive… which I think is mostly the author not quite connecting dots where they meant to point out that if you’re taking time to rest, you might just find some other priorities arise that you care about more than the work that made you exhausted in the first place.

There are some things it made me think about doing; of course, its conclusions are about the opposite of what I do every day working for an app that helps people commit to their goals, often involving productivity… But mostly I didn’t think it was wrong, just that there’s room for me to find a lot of satisfaction in my job and find some more time to rest. I think it bangs the drum a bit too hard about the joys of not working, and forgets that security is really key too.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Built

Posted June 2, 2022 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Built by Roma AgrawalBuilt, Roma Agrawal

I didn’t get into Built at first, since this is not one of my major interests, but once Agrawal began to describe the challenges of levelling the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral, I was sucked in. The problems there of subsidence — and uneven subsidence at that — and the history being built on were fascinating to me, and from that point I was all on board.

Agrawal explains things well, and has included helpful images as well — especially useful for me, as someone who can’t imagine anything. I don’t care enormously about skyscrapers, or bridges, but once I entered into the spirit of thinking of them as problems to be solved, I got interested despite myself. Which is of course part of why I picked this up in the first place!

One quibble would be with the way the book is organised. The chapter titles aren’t very informative, and it all seems to skip around quite a bit — I didn’t see any underlying logic to the organisation of the book.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Why We Read

Posted May 17, 2022 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Why We Read by Josephine GreywoodeWhy We Read, ed. Josephine Greywoode

Received to review via Netgalley

This is a collection of 70 pieces of writing on the topic of reading non-fiction. Many of the writers chosen speak about reading quite broadly, and some seem outright confused about the assignment, talking largely about fiction. In retrospect, I shouldn’t be surprised that the responses are largely predictable, with some authors discussing their personal need to read (often sounding ridiculously pretentious as they do so) and others talking about how reading elevates people, or even the entire human race. Some make sure to add a soupçon of contempt for those who don’t read, or at least hasten to make it clear that the illiterate are utterly impoverished, morally deficient, and overall doomed.

Why do I read non-fiction? I’m curious. That’s it. I don’t expect enlightenment, and I’m not seeking it. I just want to know things, and crave the moment where I can excitedly turn to someone else and share what I just read in tones of unbelief.

I suppose I also seek out non-fiction in specific moods, when I’m anxious or restless and I can’t bear to live in other people’s emotions too much. So I read non-fiction in much the same way as I read fiction, just in a different mood: to escape.

There. Now I’ve contributed.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The History of Magic

Posted January 31, 2022 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The History of Magic by Chris GosdenThe History of Magic, Chris Gosden

You know the joke about archaeology where, if they don’t know what something is, it’s obviously for ritual purposes? That’s kind of how I find this book. Everything in the past that we don’t understand, as far as Gosden’s concerned, was done for ritual purposes. If someone in the pre-literate past got tattooed with a tiger, then they were trying to blend themselves with the tiger or take on some of the tiger’s power or express that they were a tiger.

I’m sure people with Hello Kitty tattoos will be pleased to know that absent written intention, going to the effort of having ink stamped into their skin means they are trying to take on the power of Hello Kitty for themselves.

It’s difficult to look at paintings deep within caves and see anything other than magic, but that’s the problem. We have no idea at all what they meant by it. Maybe it was just thrill-seeking, going deep into the dark to do something time-absorbing and difficult that might get interrupted by a bear. Maybe it was a rite of passage thing, without having to be magical.

Humans have done a lot of things for spiritual and magical reasons throughout our history, and of course it makes no sense to think that that suddenly emerged when literary did, so there must have been magic/ritual/supernatural beliefs at that time. I’m just sceptical that we can assume what those were from the meagre scraps in the archaeological record, or even if we do identify something as being a magical practice, whether we can correctly understand its intent. I think Gosden goes a little too far into interpretation, resulting in pages on pages of “perhaps they believed… maybe they wanted to… we can imagine that…”

When he discusses the archaeology and some basic interpretations of it, it’s very interesting, but the more he tries to embroider on it the more I feel like I’m reading nothing more than a flight of fancy. On the other hand, I’m sure it would have been a dry read without any imagination — it’s just a difficult balance. I think in this case he says “maybe” and “perhaps” so often that they become invisible, and then there’s a risk of taking his suppositions to be fact because they’re served up alongside it.

I sound very critical, but I did enjoy the reading experience and find the archaeology he described absolutely fascinating. I was more sceptical of his thesis that we should stay open to magic as a relevant way of interacting with the world, not because I disagree, but because I think he ended up then suggesting that if we’d all just believe in magic and go back to ancient beliefs about oneness with other species, we’d fix climate change and change our consumer lifestyles and so on. The problem being that he contrasted that against science, as if scientific views and Linnaean species names are, well, the problem that led us here.

I don’t think there’s inherent moral value to either way of approaching the world, and there are plenty(!) of scientists who are very ready to change the world. It’s not, for the most part, scientists who are holding us back, but politicians and corporations. You’re not going to catch them believing in science or magic unless it benefits the bottom line.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Immune

Posted January 24, 2022 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Immune by Philipp DettmerImmune: A Journey into the Mysterious System That Keeps You Alive, Philipp Dettmer

Immune: A Journey into the Mysterious System That Keeps You Alive is a beautifully illustrated book that aims to make a complex system clear and accessible for a reader who is pretty much new to the topic (maybe you’ve got a GCSE in biology or something, but that was a long time ago). It’s chatty and informal and uses a lot of analogies to make things simple to remember, and it’s often irreverent. (At one point it compares the shape of antibodies to crabs, and then refers to their “butts”, leading to this immortal phrase: “The pincers are for enemies, the cute butts for friends.”)

The author is clearly absolutely bowled over by the beautiful dance that is the human immune system, the various clever ways it protects us and regulates itself, and that shines through in pretty much every chapter. He’s explaining things and being really clear and going into detail because he wants you to see how gorgeous it all is.

Now I already appreciated that (everyone close to me flashes back to my impassioned glee about the membrane attack complex), so it wasn’t new to me — but still, his enthusiasm made me smile. It’s not bad as a revision session for me either, and even though I’ve studied human biology and infectious diseases quite a bit, there were still one or two surprises for me. Just wait until you get to the bit about NETs. Wow.

Throughout, he mentions the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and how some of this information applies to that; it’s not a book about the pandemic, but it can definitely help you understand the pandemic. It also explains why vaccination works, and why there’s no meaningful difference between “natural” immunity and that gained through vaccination — your cells go through exactly the same process. It’s all pretty great, and I’d recommend it to people at all levels of ability. It’s also just beautiful, with a ton of diagrams that make things really clear.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Humankind

Posted January 22, 2022 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Human kind: A Hopeful History by Rutger BremanHumankind, Rutger Bregman

This was a really quick read which I found myself really enjoying. It’s a profoundly optimistic book, arguing that humans are generally inclined toward cooperation and care for one another, and highlighting the pitfalls (and manipulations inherent in) certain famous studies that people have relied on for a rather pessimistic view of humanity. We’re talking Stanley Milgram’s electric shock experiments, Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment, and Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave experiment — “I was just following orders”, “power will inevitably be abused”, “kids will go full Lord of the Flies if left alone”.

The criticisms of these are known elsewhere, based on methodology and skewed reporting (the experimenters put heavy pressure on the subjects of the electric shock studies, and many of the subjects didn’t actually believe there was anyone being shocked; the prison guards were heavily coached to behave the way they did by Zimbardo himself and a hand-picked guard, plus the guy who allegedly went crazy just wanted to get out of there and acted it; the kids were manipulated into fighting, but actually tended toward cooperation and reconciliation when left alone), and Bregman lays out the criticisms well. He’s not some lone voice in the wilderness here: if you read around, there are plenty of critiques of those old experiments, and attempts to reproduce the results have failed or had markedly less success.

He also picks apart the very well known “bystander syndrome”, by pointing out that one of the people who didn’t act in the famous case of Kitty Genovese’s murder was terrified of being found out for being queer, and instead ran to find someone else… who ran out of her home immediately and held Genovese in her arms until an ambulance arrived. Kitty Genovese didn’t die alone, and witnesses did call the police, who gave the reports low priority as the witnesses didn’t know what they’d witnessed was a serious attack.

At the same time, Bregman does acknowledge that these results were obtained and can be under some circumstances. It would be wrong to characterise his point as being that humans are always going to be good. In fact, he points out situations that bring out the worst in us, mostly (in his view) in line with the mismatch hypothesis: humans as a species didn’t evolve for this modern, technological world with crowded cities, neighbours you don’t know, etc.

His answer is not that we necessarily need to go back to pre-city ways of living. In fact, many of his suggestions are about bringing out the best in ourselves in the world that we have, with individual-level suggestions about trust, avoiding the news, not getting swept up in the latest outrage, etc.

I think he’s an optimist and an idealist, and his argument that we can’t be cooperative and good to one another without trust is difficult to refute in a world where suspicion seems like the best option. His most realistic suggestion is to live, as an individual, as trustfully as possible, and reach for the cooperative solution as much as you can. To do good openly, and spread that goodness by example.

Much of what he says is what I’d like to believe, and much of what he suggests is how I already choose to act, so of course the book plays into my bias. Still, I think it’s well-written, spiced with just the right anecdotes to make his point, and a good (and surprisingly quick) read — I tore through it. If he’s wrong, well, I’d like him to be right, and I think little harm will come from believing that he’s right.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Money: The True Story of a Made-up Thing

Posted January 15, 2022 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Money by Jacob GoldsteinMoney: The True Story of a Made-up Thing, Jacob Goldstein

Money: The True Story of a Made-up Thing is exactly what it says on the tin. It’s not an exhaustive history, or a manifesto for any particular path forward. Rather, it’s a series of stories about money in different time periods, which in aggregate tell us something about how money developed and how its been seen over time. It includes some really clear explanations of why the gold standard isn’t ideal, why the financial situation in Greece was a potential disaster for the euro, etc; it makes things which I thought were complicated sound really simple by breaking them down and demystifying them.

However, it’s worth noting that it doesn’t have footnotes. There are endnotes, which are not traditionally formatted but do point to some sources… but not nearly enough and not really specific enough to be able to say “ah, this assertion came from here, which I can read for myself”. It’s breezy and light and definitely intended for someone like me who is only very mildly interested in the topic, and it does well at being appealing for that audience. Others with more knowledge will no doubt find it shallow/overly-simplified/etc.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Darkening Age

Posted December 31, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Darkening Age by Catherine NixeyThe Darkening Age, Catherine Nixey

The Darkening Age is a very readable book about a very depressing subject: the loss of knowledge, art and culture from the classical world when Christianity became mainstream. You often hear people saying that Christian monasteries preserved classical knowledge and literature, and it’s true — there are manuscripts which only survived because they were held in monasteries.

Unfortunately, as Catherine Nixey discusses at length, much more was destroyed by Christianity. Deliberately, purposefully, and with malice. Temples were torn down, books burned, inscriptions destroyed, etc, etc. If Christianity had truly been such a preserving force, we’d have a lot more than we do now, perhaps. Nixey goes through it step by step, the initial period of co-existence (and the fact that evidence suggests Christians were not persecuted nearly as much as they liked to think they were) and then the ramping up of hostilities, the sanctioned-and-encouraged utter destruction of “pagan” idols and temples, etc.

For such a heavy subject, it really is a very readable book, and I pretty much tore through it. It gets perhaps a bit repetitive, and other reviews are right to point out that there were other causes of the loss of texts, destructions of temples, etc.

The author is a journalist, rather than a historian, and the text is pretty much uninterrupted by footnotes/sourcing, so definitely be aware that it’s very much a popular history, and flavoured by opinion, rather than being an academic work. I found it an absorbing read!

Rating: 4/5

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