01 Sep Books I read in…. August 2017
I do the vast majority of my reading in the early mornings, when it’s quiet and peaceful. It’s a great way to ease myself into the working day. Throughout this month I’ve watched the sunrise arrive just ever so slightly later each day and now I’m getting up in the dark again – a reminder that we’ll soon be swapping our electric fans to combat the 30ºC+ heat for the woodburner.
Here’s the best of what I read in August.
In March 1996, Krakauer – a journalist and seasoned climber – was sent by ‘Outside’ magazine to be part of an expedition to climb Everest, led by highly experienced Everest climber Rob Hall. By the end of summit day, eight of the expedition were dead.
Such expeditions were once only attempted by the climbing elite, but by the mid-1980s, expeditions were being run by experienced climbers for basically anyone who had the wealth to pay to be ‘shepherded’ up the mountain. This was one such expedition (one member – a New York socialite – brought an espresso machine with her) and Krakauer’s book tells the story of the catalogue of errors which eventually led to the tragedy. He wrote the book in large part to exorcise the demons which had haunted him ever since, but also in an attempt to provide a more balanced picture of the people and events than was initially portrayed in the media.
It’s a harrowing yet gripping read. He brilliantly evokes a sense of time and place – that rarefied atmosphere where the simple act of breathing becomes almost impossible; the grinding cold; the majesty of his surroundings; the limits to which we can push our bodies and still – remarkably – survive; the absolute horror as the tragedy unfolds. High octane stuff. Brilliant.
The Shallows (how the internet is changing the way we think, read, and remember): Nicholas Carr
If you’ve ever watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, there’s a fair chance that if you read this book, the scene where Hal is ‘deactivated’ is going to come to mind from time to time.
That said, this book is not about how robots are going to take over the world, nor is it having a bash at the internet in general. What it does set out to do is to fire a shot across our bows to warn us that – for all its many advantages – the internet is changing the fundamental structure of our brains and as a result our ability for deep thought.
To be fair, our brains have been changing throughout time and this book is as much a history lesson about that journey, from oral to written language, as it is a peek into our possible future. I learned a lot about the plasticity of the brain when I read ‘Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot earlier this year, so was familiar with some of the science. Cal Newport also references Carr’s work in Deep Work.
I found it incredibly sad to read that reading – as in reading books – is coming to be seen as ‘old fashioned’. “I can’t get my students to read whole books anymore,” confesses Duke University professor Katherine Hayles. The degree course she teaches? English Literature.
This book is very accessible, and one I enjoyed despite how uncomfortable it made me. Possibly one more for those over the age of 40 or so, although I do think it should act as a terrible warning to the younger generation.
Flowers for Algernon: Daniel Keyes
It feels like a while since I read a piece of good fiction. This was a good one. Another Kindle Daily Deal (which must take credit for me reading – and enjoying – so many books I would ordinarily not even consider).
Originally published as a novella in 1959, then as a full-length novel in 1966, it is classified as science fiction (not a genre I would ever normally choose to read). The book tells the story of Charlie Gordon, born with an IQ of 68, who is given the opportunity to have experimental brain surgery to increase his intelligence. A white mouse, Algernon, has already had the surgery, with amazing results, and the effects of the surgery on Charlie are recounted by him via his journal and his written ‘progress reports’.
Charlie’s is the only side of the story we hear and he provides a detailed record of how the changes resulting from the surgery affect him and those around him.
I won’t say any more about the storyline, other than to say it’s a beautifully written, thought-provoking and moving story. Heartily recommended.
The Year of Magical Thinking: Joan Didion
“Time is the school in which we learn” (Caitlin Thomas, widow of Dylan Thomas)
Following a few days of ‘flu like’ symptoms, on the evening of Christmas Day 2003 Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne’s only daughter Quintana was admitted to hospital, put into an induced coma and placed on a life support machine. Five days later, John suffered a massive heart attack at the dinner table and died, ending a marriage partnership which had lasted 40 years. It would be another four weeks before Quintana pulled through, only to collapse two months later at LA airport, following which she underwent six hours of brain surgery and once again, for many weeks, her life hung in the balance.
This book is Didion’s attempt to try to make sense of it all and record the grieving process she went through. This was the second book I read this month where it struck me just how robust the human body – and mind – can be. Quite how someone copes with tragedy on that scale in their tiny close knit family, I have no idea.
Didion writes beautifully – I had not read anything by her previously – and with a precise brevity. You feel that not a single word is superfluous (I wish I could say the same for my own writing!).
I found it fascinating that, whilst she was experiencing these events one of her coping mechanisms seemed to be finding out as much as she could about the subject. I feel I would do exactly the same in her shoes. She references a number of books (on grief, neurosurgery and intensive care – amongst others), which clearly helped her, not just on an emotional level but practically as well. She found herself using the knowledge she gleaned (no doubt much to the annoyance of the medical team) following her daughter’s brain surgery to ‘wonder’ if her daughter might not be ‘waterlogged’ (she found using the word ‘wonder’ to be the least offensive to the team), or to ‘wonder’ “if the monitored administration of a diuretic might not allow extubation.” Gusty lady.
As writers, Didion and her husband were together more or less 24 hours a day. The huge gulf left by his absence is poignantly described: “I could not count the times during the average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him. This impulse did not end with his death. What ended was the possibility of response.”
It’s that age-old question for those in long term relationships: which is worst? To die first, or be the one who is left behind?
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed – Jon Ronson
For anyone who interacts regularly on social media, I think this book could represent their worst nightmare. A joke told in poor taste, an off the cuff comment, a perceived slight against someone or something, that can be all it takes for ‘the mob’ to turn on you. The immediacy with which messages can now be shared and retweeted, the speed with which something can go viral. As Justine Sacco found out, you can tweet a bad taste joke at Heathrow to your 170 followers (who never share any of your tweets), board a plane to Cape Town and wake up on landing several hours later to find that what seems like the whole world hates you.
Ronson’s book looks at a number of case studies like this one, delving deep into the stories behind the ‘Twitter frenzy’, and as well as asking, is the wrath of the public justified he asks how we have ended up engaging in this kind of mob behaviour. This is not just about internet trolls, this is about ‘us’ and how easily we get caught up in it. It’s a book which says as much about us, as a society, as it does about the people we choose to shame – some of whom, it could be argued, deserve it (the question is, who gets to decide who ‘deserves’ it?).
My husband Eddie and I often say that if public hangings were brought back, people would flock to them and Ronson hypothesises that what we see today on social media echoes the days when people would be placed in the stocks as a form of public shaming. The problem is, in those days you could leave town and start again somewhere else, but the global reach of social media today means you can never leave your past behind. An interesting and thought-provoking read.