For the sixth year in succession I want to open this year’s blog account with some recommendations of books I found particularly stimulating and/or enjoyable last year. Some of these occasioned individual blogs during the year while others, I hope, will still be of interest.
To start with, two history books, but with a twist:
Sapiens- A Brief History of Mankind. Yuval Noah Harari. 2011 Hebrew. Harper 2014 English
This book has been a publishing phenomenon selling over 10 million copies and translated into nearly 50 languages. I came to it comparatively late on the recommendation of various friends and relatives but it has also divided opinion. In general the public have loved it; The Guardian
listed the book as among the ten “best brainy books of the decade”; the Royal Society of Biologists in the UK shortlisted the book in its 2015 Book Awards and Bill Gates ranked it among his ten favourite books. Conversely various anthropologists have criticised it as speculative and even inaccurate.
Its central thesis is that Homo Sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money and human rights. Thus Sapiens
retells the history of our species from a completely fresh perspective. It explains that money is the most pluralistic system of mutual trust ever devised; that capitalism is the most successful religion ever invented; that the treatment of animals in modern agriculture is probably the worst crime in history; and that even though we are far more powerful than our ancient ancestors, we aren’t much happier.
I found much of it persuasive and certainly thought-provoking. While there have been critical reviews the vast majority have been favourable. However, I think to focus on the cruelty of humans to other animals is to ignore that the majority of animals survive through eating other animals and some of them are pretty vicious.
Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism. Bhu Srinivasan. Penguin Random House 2017
This is an entertaining gallop through the businesses and industries that turned America into the biggest economy in the world. Right from the days of the Mayflower and the Virginia Company, America has been a place for people to dream, invent, build, tinker, and bet the farm in pursuit of a better life. Srinivasan breaks down this huge theme into the story of individual industries from the telegraph, the railroad, guns, radio and banking to flight, suburbia, and sneakers, and brings us up to date with the Internet and mobile technology.
Srinivasan is a second generation immigrant and perhaps that is how he brings such a fresh approach to what otherwise might seem a familiar story. He finds connections that are unusual such as the idea that Andrew Carnegie’s early job as a telegraph messenger boy paved the way for his leadership of the steel empire that would make him first one of the nation’s richest men and then one of its greatest philanthropists.
Here are two books on some of the major challenges facing the world today:
How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future. Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt. Crown. New York 2018
I blogged on this earlier in the year. [i]
The authors are Professors of Government at Harvard University. Levitsky’s research focuses on Latin America and the developing world. Ziblatt studies Europe from the nineteenth century to the present. They show that democracies can die with a coup d’état
– or they can die slowly. This happens most deceptively when in piecemeal fashion, with the election of an authoritarian leader, the abuse of government power and the complete repression of opposition. All three steps are being taken around the world - not least with the election of Donald Trump - and I would suggest that we must all understand how to stop them.
They draw insightful lessons from the past hundred years of history – from the rule of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile to the steady undermining of Turkey’s constitutional system by President Recep Erdogan – to shine a light on the breakdown of many democratic systems of government in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Notably they point to the dangers of an authoritarian leader faced with a major crisis, real or faked.
The Fifth Risk. Michael Lewis.
I also blogged about this. [ii]
The excellent Michael Lewis has approached the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States of America, not from the point of view of policy but looking at the extraordinary and dangerous lack of competence. The morning after Trump was elected president, the people who ran the US Department of Energy – an agency that deals with some of the most powerful risks facing humanity – waited to welcome the incoming administration’s transition team. Nobody appeared. Across the US government, the same thing happened: nothing.
People don’t notice when stuff goes right. That is the stuff government does. It manages everything that underpins people’s lives, from funding free school meals, to policing rogue nuclear activity, to predicting extreme weather events. It steps in where private investment fears to tread, innovates and creates knowledge, assesses extreme long term risk.
If the first four risks are the dangers posed by Russia, China, North Korea and Iran the fifth risk is the human factor. Project management. The tragic consequences that may result from some of the extremely short term decisions that the president has made.
Here are two major biographies on two major political figures.
Edmund Burke: the Visionary Who Invented Modern Politics. Jesse Norman MP. Harper Collins 2013
Philosopher, statesman and founder of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke is arguably the greatest political thinker of the last three hundred years. Born in Ireland in 1729, and greatly affected by its bigotry and extremes, his career constituted a lifelong struggle against the abuse of power. Amid the 18rh Century’s golden generation that included his companions Adam Smith, Samuel Johnson and Edward Gibbon, Burke’s controversial blend of conservative and subversive theories made him first a marginal figure, and finally a revered thinker. He warned of the effects of British rule in Ireland, the loss of the American colonies, and most famously, he foresaw the disastrous consequences of revolution in France. This, he predicted, would trigger extremism, terror and the breakup of society.
As a contemporary politician Norman shows that Burke’s wisdom applies well beyond the times of empire to the conventional democratic politics practised in Britain and America today.
Churchill: Walking With Destiny. Andrew Roberts. Allen Lane. 2018
On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of my publication of blogs on this website I returned to one of my favourite subjects - Sir Winston Churchill. I had already written an In Memoriam piece on the great man after meeting some of his grandchildren and great grandchildren at a commemorative event at the Carlton Club. But stimulated by this new biography by Andrew Roberts I wrote a second piece. [iii]
‘Far too much has been and is being written about me,’ Churchill told his great friend Professor Lindemann – and that was in the 1920s. Despite all that literary activity (which has continued unabated), General Sir Alan Brooke wrote in August 1943, ‘I wonder whether any historian of the future will ever be able to paint Sir Winston in his true colours.’ In 1960, when he started writing his memoirs Lord Ismay, Churchill’s chief military assistant in the Second World War, told President Eisenhower that an objective biography of Churchill could not be written until at least the year 2010. That proved accurate in that Roberts had access to archives that have only recently been open to researchers including King George VI’s unexpurgated diary, Lawrence Burgis’s verbatim reports of the War Cabinet meetings, Churchill’s children’s private papers, and much more.
‘To do justice to a great man,’ Churchill himself wrote, ‘discriminating criticism is necessary. Gush, however quenching, is always insipid.’ Roberts does not hold back from criticism which is certainly discriminating. There were many times when Churchill’s judgment could legitimately be called into question, including his opposition to votes for women, personally attending the Sidney Street Siege, appointing Jackie Fisher in the First World War and Roger Keyes in the Second, continuing the Gallipoli operation, employing the paramilitary Black and Tans in Ireland, rejoining the Gold Standard, supporting Edward VIII during the Abdication Crisis, mismanaging the Norway Campaign, failing to appreciate the military capacity of the Japanese, describing the Italian peninsula as a ‘soft underbelly’, allowing the deportation of the Crimean Cossacks to Stalin and of anti-Tito Yugoslavs to Tito, remaining as prime minister after his stroke in 1953, and much more besides. Yet as he told his beloved wife Clementine from the trenches of the Great War, ‘I should have made nothing if I had not made mistakes.’ And that is true of all of us.
Many questioned his judgement but when it came to all three of the mortal threats posed to Western civilisation, by the Prussian militarists in 1914, the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s and Soviet Communism after the Second World War, Churchill’s judgement stood far above that of the people who had sneered at his. One of those, Clement Attlee was still opposing rearmament and conscription before the Second World War long after Churchill had called for both.
Rebel Ideas – The Power of Diverse Thinking. Matthew Syed. John Murray. 2019.
I was so impressed with this book that I wrote two blogs on its ideas. [iv]
I attended an event at the Royal Society of Arts, where I am a Life Fellow, when best-selling author and Times
columnist Matthew Syed presented a radical blueprint for the future: one that challenges hierarchies, encourages constructive dissent and forces us to think hard how success really happens. In this book Syed draws upon cutting-edge research in psychology, economics and anthropology, and takes lessons from a range of case studies, including the catastrophic failings of the CIA before 9/11, a tragic communication breakdown at the top of Mount Everest and a moving tale of deradicalisation in America’s Deep South.
Syed is careful to distinguish the kind of diversity which can be a function of social engineering, or even political correctness, based mainly on demographic factors, from cognitive diversity. As the son of a Pakistani father and a Welsh mother he is perhaps on stronger ground than most of us to explain this. It is not a box-ticking exercise but rather dependent on context. If, for example, you want to pick an Olympic 100 metre relay winning team of four then provided your men can pass the baton to each other you simply want the fastest four men over 100 metres you can find. And if they’re all Jamaicans of African descent then so be it.
But we are naturally attracted to like-minded people. It was Plato who coined the phrase ‘birds of a feather flock together’, though I suspect it didn’t rhyme in Ancient Greek. The organising concepts in Syed’s book are holistic. The collective brain. The wisdom of crowds. Psychological safety. Recombinant innovation. Homophily. Network theory. The dangers of fine-grained assorting. The content of these concepts emerges not from the parts, but the whole. This is crucial in an era where our most pressing problems are too complex for individuals to solve; an era where collective intelligence is moving front to centre.
But in a sense this has always been true. The dominance of humans over all other creatures comes from our bigger brains. They are four times the size they were in early man. They have been driven by collective brain power. Great ideas drive bigger brains and it has been the diversity and collective nature of that that has been the driving force.
Fiction. I read good books from many of my favourite authors: Lee Child, Bernard Cornwell, Martin Cruz Smith, Sebastian Faulks, Frederick Forsyth, John Grisham, John Le Carré, Allan Mallison, Henning Mankell, Alexander McCall Smith, Ian Rankin, and Scott Turow, but I found two from more obscure writers that were thoroughly entertaining. It is the custom in some self-catering establishments to provide a limited library of assorted fiction which you can “borrow” on the understanding that you will leave a similar volume in its place. On this basis I read these:
The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society. Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows
This is an historical novel that was published in 2008. It was turned into a film in 2018 featuring Lily James. The eponymous society is a cover for Guernsey residents seeking to break the curfew during the German occupation during World War II. The main character is a writer who hears about the Society after the war and visits Guernsey to research it. In the process she uncovers quite a few twists and turns.
The primary author is Mary Ann Shaffer, an American who planned to write the biography of the wife of the English polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott. She travelled to Cambridge to research the subject but found that the subject’s papers were nearly unusable. Frustrated, she decided to visit Guernsey, but on arrival the airport was shut down through thick fog. She therefore spent her visit stuck in the airport bookshop and read several histories of the German occupation.
It took her 20 years to get around to writing a novel about the occupation which had fascinated her so much and some more time before it was accepted for publication in 2006. However the book’s editor requested changes that would involve considerable rewriting. Sadly Shaffer’s health deteriorated dramatically. Before her death she asked her niece Annie Barrows, an established author of children’s literature, to finish the editing and rewriting. The result is a good read.
The Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared. Jonas Jonasson
Swedish 2009, English 2012
The protagonist Allan Karlson is about to celebrate his hundredth birthday and his retirement home is planning to throw a party. Allan has his wits about him and has no intention of attending the party. Instead, he climbs out the window and escapes to the nearest bus station. There he meets an angry young man with a suitcase which he cannot take into the toilet because it’s too large, so he desperately asks Allan to take care of it. However, Allan’s bus soon arrives and Allan boards it, taking the suitcase with him. It turns out to be stuffed with drug dealer’s money and from there a wild goose chase develops involving Allan, the drug dealer and his gang, the police and a whole bunch of other dubious characters.
But in the telling we get flashbacks of Allan’s amazing life. Among other events he saved General Franco’s life in the Spanish Civil War and gets a permit to travel anywhere he wished as part of Franco’s gratitude. He gets to America where he helps to make the atom bomb and befriends Harry S Truman. Truman sends him to China to help the Kuomintang fight against the communists. No more spoiler alerts but you get the idea.
It reminded me of my Uncle Bernard who well in his 90s also escaped from his retirement home. The lady who ran the place came after him, put her arm through his and said “Now Bernard, let’s go inside”
Bernard replied “I’ve heard about ladies like you!”