It's nice to read some books not-too-strictly applicable to the course, and I thought I'd recommend some of the ones I've enjoyed so far. First, though, I have to recommend the latest Bagehot column, for the astute characterisation of our political commentariat, and Evgeny Morozov's piece in this month's Prospect (second-years may remember Suzanne recommended an essay by him last year in Pw/oR) - he is thoughtful and penetrating as ever.

13 things that don't make sense - Michael Brooks

First, the least likely to be on the list. I picked this up on a whim in the airport last week, and tore through it. Brooks looks at the least-explicable (and potentially, therefore, the most revelatory) problems in science. For all our mastery of the physical universe, we don't know where, or what, most of it is. After the dark matter/energy chapters, he moves onto some truly bizarre phenomena - two space probes exhibiting an uncanny drift, with no indentifiable cause in the realms of known physics; the discovery that the universal 'constants' (figures observable and fundamental to the way the universe works) aren't so 'constant', and may have varied in the past; a signal exhibiting everything expected of alien life-forms, from a point in space where there isn't anything. The list goes on. Brooks' prose is spritely and fun, he doesn't wade through figures and theorems, but gives you enough of an insight to feel you've learnt something. Later chapters deal with the more esoteric - free will (don't worry, but it looks like we don't have it, he says) and the nature of death and aging. How Brooks manages to understand both the intimate details of partical physics and, at the same time, the fronteirs of biology, cosmology and chemistry is beyond me, but it makes for an excellent primer in the edges of human knowledge.

Fun fact: physicists don't know where more than 90% of the universe is

The Age of Absurdity - Michael Foley

The great philosophical and religious thinkers throughout the ages have exhibited a great deal of overlap in their prescriptions for a happy life, Foley tells us in this mix of philosophy, psychology and polemic. Unfortunately, modern life militates relentlessly against living such a life, he says. Using various insights provided by psychology and neurology into the human condition, Foley talks about various areas of life, and shows how difficult in can be to follow the insights provided by the thinkers he cites. How can we be free from desire for wordly success and material objects in a consumerist society? When contentment arises from trying, what should be done in a litigious, rights-orientated world, with a 'cult of entitlement'? Foley offers few prescriptions himself, merely pointing out the absurdity of the way we live, but the lessons to be drawn are manifold.

Fun fact: activists try to undermine consumerism by seling t-shirts and merchandise

Country Driving - Peter Hessler

Hessler has lived in China for years, many of them as the Beijing correspondent for the New Yorker. His book is split into three sections: an exploration of northern China (by car), to see the various 'Great Walls' (there isn't a single wall - many small ones were built over hundreds of years); an account of his life in a village just north of Beijing; and a description of life in the boom-cities of the south. It's worth persevering through the first section, which contains quite a lot of the wall's history, and tells of the effects of the rapid urbanisation on Chinese villages, namely: they're emptying out. It's an interesting part, but pales in comparison with the second and third sections. In part two, his life becomes increasingly entwined with those of the villagers he lives among. There are moving episodes, particularly regarding a family he gets very close to (I won't spoil them by detailing any), but there is also a great deal of insight into the way China is changing, and the particularities of living with the legacy of communism. I didn't think the final part would interest me as much, but some of the statistics are simply jaw-dropping. The genesis of the factory cities in the south is such that many end up producing a single good - be it playground equipment, buttons or (as in the case of a factory he follows from its fruition) components of bras. Having disparaged the beginning of the book somewhat, I should say that the accounts of Chinese drivers in it are absolutely hilarious. A truly eye-opening book.

Fun fact: one third of all the socks manufactured in the world are made in a single city in southern China

Justice - Michael Sandel

Sandel, a hugely popular lecturer at Harvard, examines utilitarianism and liberalism in this introduction to political-philosophy. He peppers his discussion with fascinating moral dillemmas (some real, some conjured) in order to elucidate the applications of the various philosophies he looks at. Having discussed the utilitarianisn of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham (names familiar to us all from Tim's lectures), he moves on to the approaches of Kant and John Rawls to justice. How, he asks, do we decide what is the right thing to do? Utilitarianism and liberalism are insufficient, he says, for dealing with the various situations and questions that life throws up. It is Aristotle's notion of telos, which means discovering the purpose or meaning of something (thus taking a stance on a notion of 'the good life') that makes up for the deficiencies of the other perspectives. Persuasively, and citing many problems that he contends utilitarianism and liberalism cannot fully solve, Sandel argues for a new type of politics of 'the common good'. The conclusions he finally draws feel somewhat half-hearted given the extent of argument it has taken to get him there, but the case he makes for a political philosophy that engages with moral questions, rather than arbitrating loftily above them, is convincing.

Nothing to Envy - Barbara Demick

Probably the most acclaimed book in the list (it won this year's Samuel Johnson prize), this is an account of the lives of six North Korean's who have, via various means, ended up living in South Korea. Demick has created an encapsulation of life, from various perspectives and walks of life, under what is surely the most brutally repressive regime on earth. A pair of lovers, an orphaned boy, a mother with unquestioning faith in the regime and her rebellious daughter are among the protagonists. I found myself drawn in further and further, until I was completely gripped by their stories. There are heroics and, aways, the shameful selfishness that is required to live through a famine. As people start dying, gradually the mist of belief in the country's greatness lifts (the title comes from a song taught in schools which claims says North Koreans 'have nothing to envy in the world'). As well as the misery suffered whilst in the country, Demick discusses the problems of resettling in the south, particularly when family, or even children, have been left behind in North Korean. It is reminiscent of the Soviet defectors from the USSR: one can never know what those left behind go on to suffer as a result of your leaving. Touching and excruciating in equal measure.

Fun fact: all North-Korean teachers must learn to play the accordian, and are examined in it before they qualify

 

Comments

I heard Barbara Demick (who is an American journalist)  being interviewed last week and immediately ordered some copies of this book for the library. It sounds like a priceless account of living under a totalitarian regime with absolutely no freedom of speech. The two lovers who are the protagonists were apparently  together for ten years without telling each other that they both longed to defect - so scared were they of trusting anyone else. On the reading list I sent the First Years recently there were a few novels such as 1984 or 'A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch' which I wanted you to read to understand the experience of living in a totalitarian society. 'Nothing to Envy' gives another and very contemporary dimension.

Yes, I heard it too, and on listening to the lovers' tale was reminded of the cruelly amusing satirical ditty from Team America sung, of course, by the Kim Jong Il puppet: "I'm so ronry, so ronry and sadry arone." I imagine they felt their solitude even more intensely.

They go on to meet again in the south, too. It's very moving.

Most interesting for me was the journey of the unquestioningly faithful woman, who would polish her portaits of Kims Jong-il and Il-sung lovingly every day. She reluctantly starts to sell things at the market (a serious crime in North Korea) as food runs out, but it takes years for her to give up on her country.

It also raises issues around resettlement in the south: if the mere hundreds making their way there each year already find it so hard to adapt, what are the prospects for South Korea's stated aim, reunification, going smoothly?

I came across him at a conference organised by this organisation last week. He is a very compelling speaker - and made a powerful case for treating the cyberworld with caution, especially where the safeguarding of democracy is concerned.  It was rather amusing when Stephen Coleman (who is a UK politics academic ) waxed on about the wonders of the internet in aiding political participation, but Morozov was having none of it. John Lloyd tried hard  to mediate and almost had to stop them coming to blows. Morozov spoke with passion and incidentally comes from Belarus and seems to know a thing or two about how repressive regimes function.

Summer reading