Books I read in February 2017

Books I read in February 2017

I think some of my reading choices this past month have reflected how I am processing and trying to understand what is going on in the wider world.  Here’s a selection of some of the best.

All that I am – Anna Funder (Fiction)

What happens when someone is elected to ‘fix’ a ‘broken’ country?  What happens when you persecute those who would speak out and criticise you?

This book is a fictional dramatisation of true events involving a group of Jewish intellectuals (the ‘liberal elite’ of their day): Ruth Wesemann, Dora Fabian and the playwright Ernst Toller, amongst others.  They were part of the early warning system throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s which the world chose to ignore until it was too late.

Following the election to power of the Nazis, the group is forced to flee Germany, arriving in London in 1933 where – as refugees – their ability to speak out and warn the world of what was happening in their home country was severely restricted.  I found it shocking how easily refugees fleeing persecution at that time could be sent back to Germany if they were found to be taking part in political activities and how, in some cases, British bureaucrats colluded with Nazi operatives stationed in London.

It is a story of love, betrayal and incredible bravery – being prepared to commit acts of physical and moral courage which they could never have been expected to do based on their privileged upbringing.  Although written as a novel, Funder tried to stay as close to the actual events as possible, which makes it all the more heartbreaking a read.

Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell

I should perhaps start by pointing out that this book has received criticism in some parts and Gladwell has been accused of faulty logical reasoning behind his claims.  That said, I found this to be a hugely enjoyable, engaging and fascinating read.  I have already added two more of his books to my reading list.

The premise of Part One of the book is that talent, incredible amounts of hard work and in many cases genius are not necessarily enough to achieve success.  An added element is needed – opportunity.  That opportunity might be the month of the year you were born, your upbringing or even at what point in time you were born (e.g. at what point in the 20th century).  Being in the right place at the right time.

Part Two deals with how the culture in which you are born and raised affects how you approach the world and your place in it (the chapter on airline pilots is both fascinating and scary.  Bottom line – if you’re taking a flight, you ideally want your pilot to be from the US).

Through a wide range of case studies Gladwell sets out his case, and I thought he did it very well.  As he says, ‘No one ever makes it alone’.  Every successful person has been helped on their way by opportunity, timing or just sheer luck.

Nothing is True & Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia – Peter Pomerantsev

Pomerantsev is the British born son of Russian émigrés who came to England as political exiles in the 1970s.  A TV producer, he spent almost a decade from early 2001 working in Russia and this book chronicles his time there.

I think this is one of the most bizarre – and at times one of the bleakest – books I’ve ever read.  Part of Russia may be in Europe but reading this book dispelled any lingering thoughts I might have had that Russians share a similar cultural outlook on life to us.

From the wanton destruction of hundreds of historical buildings in Moscow, to make way for ever more grotesque ‘Disney theme park’ inspired new builds, to the grinding daily exhaustion brought on by having to deal with corruption at every level of your life, from what food you eat to where your children go to school, to getting access to a doctor, life for most people in Russia is frankly unimaginable by those of us in the West.  The story he recounts of Yana Yakovleva is chilling in its absurdity.

The frenetic pace of change in Moscow is partly a product of Russia’s history which “had seen so many worlds flick through in such blistering progression – from communism to perestroika to shock therapy to penury to oligarchy to mafia state to mega-rich – that its new heroes were left with the sense that life is just one glittering masquerade, where every role and any position or belief is mutable”.

Of course, Putin is behind much of what Pomerantsev describes, cleverly creating an ideology that “instead of simply oppressing opposition, as had been the case with 20th-century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting them and rendering them absurd”.  So, whilst on the face of it you have what looks like a democracy with a free press and regular elections, it’s just an illusion.  The elections are rigged, the president controls all the political parties, and the media obey their owners, who in turn obey the Kremlin.

You know how sometimes you read a really good thriller, and you get to an exciting point in the plot where your palms get sweaty, and your heart starts thumping?  I felt like that a lot of the time while reading this book.  The difference was that the world he describes is so horrifically awful, it was stress which caused those reactions.

So, not an easy read, but on balance definitely worth it.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking – Susan Cain

BLUF*: I loved this book.  It was one of those books where I found myself saying, ‘Yes, that’s me!’ over and over again.  This book will stay with me for a long time.  When I think about it, even those thoughts have a quiet, calm quality to them.

Introverts are not necessarily shy.  However, they often prefer listening to talking, socialising in small groups rather than large and are generally quite happy to be just in their own company.  Unfortunately these are not traits which appear to be highly prized by society.

The book does not in any way set out to ‘bash’ extroverts.  What it does do is shove the introvert into the limelight for just a bit, to showcase what an important role introverts can, and do, play in the world.  Society often lauds extroversion and parades it as the preferred norm.  It is often the case in team-based workplace structures that the dominant personalities’ views are favoured.  That’s understandable but Cain argues that sometimes we ignore the ‘quiet, well-informed’ individuals in the group at our peril.  She has some great stories about the financial crisis of 2007/08 to illustrate this point.

Bloomsbury Wealth is, by and large, with a couple of exceptions, a group of introverts.  When I think about it, so are most of our clients.

The Elephant in the Room: A Journey into the Trump Campaign and the “Alt-Right” – Jon Ronson

Not so much a book as a long essay, at only 45 pages.  Jon Ronson is an author and Guardian columnist.  In the summer of 2016 he travelled to Cleveland to witness the Republican National Convention.  By a bizarre twist of fate he happened to know one of Trump’s ‘inner circle’, Alex Jones, (brace yourself before you click on that link) and this book covers his experiences on meeting up with him again at the convention.

The book was published in September last year – before the result of the election was known.  I found reading it now, when you know how the ‘story’ ends was a somewhat chilling experience.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari

An epic book, like The Silk Roads, this makes a pretty good stab at condensing 70,000 years of history into a little under 500 pages.  No mean feat.

Why did Homo sapiens (Latin for ‘wise person’) succeed rather than one of the other human species?  In Part One, Harari theorises that it is due to the Cognitive Revolution – sapiens’s ability to communicate about fictions – which led to the ability to act as a collective unit and co-operate with one another, not just in small groups or tribes, which many species can achieve, but in much bigger groups which we now call societies.  Societies work because we are able to believe in things that don’t actually exist (he cites Peugeot as an example.  It’s a company, governed by company law, but it doesn’t actually physically exist.  It’s a fiction in which society believes.  The same is true of laws, money and religion – they all require an element of trust and a willingness to believe in them).

Part Two deals with the Agricultural Revolution, when we transformed from hunter-gatherers into farmers.  Whilst this move enabled sapiens to strengthen cultures and societies, Harari argues that we were actually better off as a species – from a health and intelligence perspective – as hunter-gatherers, and states that there is evidence that the size of the average sapiens’s brain has actually decreased since the age of the hunter-gatherers.  In simple terms, as hunter-gatherers, stupid people tended not to survive (natural selection), whereas ‘When agriculture and industry came along people could increasingly rely on the skills of others for survival, and new ‘niches for imbeciles’ were opened up.  You could survive and pass on your unremarkable genes to the next generation by working as a water carrier or an assembly-line worker.’

Part Three deals with the Unification of Humankind – that sounds noble but actually covers the period when ‘explorers’ roamed the world conquering new found societies and pretty much wiping out not just the indigenous populations they discovered but most of the flora and fauna too.  There are some horrific statistics, which make our current relatively lackadaisical approach to environmental matters seem positively enlightened.

‘Merchants, conquerors and prophets were the first people who managed to transcend the binary evolutionary division ‘us vs them’ and to foresee the potential unity of humankind.  For the merchants, the entire world was a single market and all humans were potential customers.  They tried to establish an economic order that would apply to all, everywhere.  For the conquerors, the entire world was a single empire and all humans were potential subjects and for the prophets, the entire world held a single truth and all humans were potential believers.  They too tried to establish an order that would be applicable for everyone everywhere.’

In Part Five, we arrive at the Scientific Revolution, which occurred around 1500 AD.  The biggest surprise in this revolution is that it began in western Europe, which had played no important role in history up until that point.  This final part of the book is perhaps the most chilling as it considers not only the effect that growing scientific knowledge has had up to today, but also where that might lead us in the future.

‘….the dynamics of history are not directed towards enhancing human well-being.  There is no basis for thinking that the most successful cultures in history are necessarily the best ones for Homo sapiens.  Like evolution, history disregards the happiness of individual organisms.  And individual humans, for their part, are usually far too ignorant and weak to influence the course of history to their own advantage.’

A book that made me confront some uncomfortable truths about our species.  We have huge power at our disposal.  The question is, how will we choose to use it?

BLUF*…and in case you were wondering, this means ‘Bottom line up front’.