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Posts tagged ‘Non-Fiction’

22. Why Read?

I was a sickly child. But I was fortunate in having a mother who was ambitious for me and who had a long shelf for my books built above my bed. I could reach my entire library without having to get up. Nearest to the pillow end were the ten volumes of my Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia. I don’t know who Arthur was, but he did a cracking encyclopaedia. It was not arranged alphabetically but quite arbitrarily, so it was perfect for browsing, rather like the London Library. It moved seamlessly from Mme. Roland ascending the scaffold (‘Oh Liberty! What crimes are committed in your name!’), a line I have never forgotten, through a cutaway drawing of the engine room of RMS Queen Mary to ‘Dusky Beauties’, pictures of women of the British Empire, always naked to the waist and frequently with discs the size of soup plates set into their lower lips, or long sharp pegs through their noses, parallel to the ground, as if they had been ambushed by someone with a bow and arrow.

Solid reading came next with the complete Sherlock Holmes long and short stories and then Conan Doyle’s Historical Romances. I particularly liked The White Company. Next on the shelf came my Arthur Ransome’s packaged by Jonathan Cape in handsome green covers. People call them the Swallows and Amazons books but that title is one of the dullest. Pigeon Post and We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea were my favourites. That reminds me of Enemy Coast Ahead, another great favourite; a shabby little Pan book about Guy Gibson. ‘It takes strength to fly a Lancaster’ it told me. Well, I could imagine corkscrewing the plane in an emergency and spiralling out of those dazzling searchlights. Next would be my Observers Book of Aircraft, small enough to fit in my blazer pocket, but actually I didn’t need it if I was out with my binoculars because I knew every aeroplane in the skies of England at the time. No, its well-executed three-views of the Hawker Hunter, the Avro 504 and the Bristol Brabazon (for example) were a kind of roughage for the imagination; I saw myself in them, or making models of them, or improving on them – another jet here, more sweepback there.

Herbert Ponting’s book about being the photographer on Scott’s expedition to the South Pole didn’t make me want to be an explorer, but may have led to my training as a photographer. There were books that one got out of the library but didn’t own. W. E. Johns’ Biggles books passed the time but didn’t win shelf room. I found books in other peoples’ houses that I would have liked to own. Emil and the Detectives (Kästner) was a joy to me and lives on in my mind 60 years later, and so does an American children’s book called Little Britches. I liked Hornblower and would have adored Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey novels; if only they had been available then! On the bedroom shelf was a curious little Penguin that I liked very much called I Was Graf Spee’s Prisoner, the true story of a merchant seaman whose ship had been sunk by the German pocket battleship. The war had only been over for seven years when I was ten and cast a long, strong shadow. I had two volumes of the government’s propagandist Britain at War series, one RAF, one Royal Navy. I pored over the pictures, but the text was unreadable. H. E. Marshall’s Our Island Story taught me some history and was useful if one had history prep. Also useful for prep was Pear’s Cyclopaedia which I was given every Christmas by an uncle. But this was a dangerous book, for its medical dictionary convinced me that I had a terminal pulmonary tuberculosis and ruined one Christmas as I waited for the blow to fall. If there were other books on my shelf, I have forgotten them. They failed, then, to be memorable and that is the first thing that a good read should be. Why read? Well, why live? Why think? Why dream?

 George Pownall

The God Argument

 GraylingThe God Argument – A.C. Grayling

Faith is believing what you know ain’t so” Mark Twain

With the carnage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still looming behind a fragile ceasefire, and with ISIS still rampaging their way across northern Iraq, now seems like a good time to talk about atheism. A.C. Grayling’s short book is essentially a step-by-step guide to giving up religion, with absolutely no ground conceded to my kind of wishy-washy agnosticism. Grayling takes us through each of the main arguments for religion before savagely but politely uprooting them and tossing them aside. The second part of the book is then a celebration of humanism, which is the author’s preferred alternative to God.

The book is chiefly memorable for the way in which Grayling goes about his business of dismantling preconceptions regarding religion, basically doing a lot of the intellectual groundwork that most of us can never summon the energy for. A particular favourite of mine is the manner in which he illustrates the nature of proof via Carl Sagan’s story of the invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire – the lesson being that an inability to invalidate a hypothesis is by no means the same as proving it true. The implications of this are twofold. Firstly, that redefining religion to fit modern science smacks of inconsistency. Secondly, that not being able to disprove the existence of something does not make the odds of its actual existence 50-50, as is sometimes assumed when we say we can’t know with absolute certainty that God does not exist. Grayling points out that this is exactly the same as saying we can’t know that fairies, goblins, unicorns or mermaids don’t exist, but we usually reconcile ourselves to the extreme improbability that they actually do.

More important than the powerful logic Grayling deploys in his favour, however, is the fact that the author is clearly motivated by a genuine preoccupation with the effect of religious belief in the world, and not by a proselytising desire just to make sure everyone agrees with him. I say this is important because I think a lot of atheistic thinkers get caught in the proselytising trap, Richard Dawkins being chief among them. This is, of course, not to say that they are necessarily wrong, but that the way in which they put forward their case harks back to a manner of ideological persuasion we might normally associate with religious preaching, not the opposite. In other words, more or less impartial observers of the religious debate, myself included, need to feel that it is more than a frenzied bout of intellectual masturbation – the stakes may be high but I have always preferred Sartre’s approach, which is to say that even absolute certainty of God’s existence wouldn’t deprive you of responsibility over your own actions (i.e. it should make no difference to how you choose to live your life).

Unfortunately, the reality is that organised religion does make a difference, and for the most part it makes a difference in a profoundly negative way, as has been made abundantly clear to everyone over the past few weeks. Grayling is uncompromising in setting out exactly what he finds distasteful about religion, from its fundamentally divisive nature, to the way it perpetuates itself by targeting children for indoctrination. The latter point is one that bears remembering – no one chooses which side of the wall they are born on.

The Editors

Night Walks

Night Walks – Charles Dickens, Penguin Books ‘Great Ideas’

Penguin do a couple of great lines in quirky short books called ‘Great Ideas’ [eds: we review another here]. About one hundred authors are showcased and, from what I can tell, the series is aimed at introducing the reader to an essay or a passage from an extremely famous writer/politician/philosopher/champion of the arts. Some books are a more natural fit than others. Engels’ and Marx’s Communist Manifesto fits the 100-200 page bill perfectly. There is, however, a danger that a reader might approach this literary fast-food and then believe themself to be familiar with the author. This is likely to end in disappointment bearing in mind the collection of contributors range from Kant to Rousseau, Shakespeare to Dostoyevsky. Gaining familiarity, confidence and enjoyment from these gods takes a rather more sustained effort. That isn’t to say that fast food isn’t enjoyable.

 

nightwalks

 

It was seeing the photo above, a study of night time London in the 1920s which encouraged me to seek out Dickens’ Night Walks. I never really need much convincing where Dickens is concerned. He is the author of one of my favourite books – Great Expectations – and his writing has a conversational style which, to me, sounds like a quirky uncle time-travelling from the mid 19th Century to tell you a story. Furthermore, whilst his English is obviously not modern I never find it old-fashioned, which makes for a more relaxed read when compared with other literary greats.

Night Walks is a rather awkwardly cobbled together collection of commentaries by Dickens on the London of his day. The best parts are invariably the chapters which chart the walks which Dickens took during the nights where he lost his battle with insomnia, hence the name of the book I suppose. There is also a wonderful chapter where Dickens recounts a time when as an 8-year-old he spends a day lost in the City pondering what to do with his life and how to find his fame and fortune. Following in the footsteps of Richard ‘Dick’ Whittington is entertained at length. It might be complete fabrication, but it makes for a good tale nonetheless. There are also passages on the prevalence of betting shops, regular state funerals, and other peculiarities of the time which I found less interesting. Nonetheless, there is some genius about this book and it has little to do with the excellence of the writing or the writer.

One of the marvellous things about London is that the streets and the boroughs are unchanging. The British capital has never enjoyed/suffered a major reworking at the hands of a revolutionary band, an occupying power or any other force for radical change. You and I can walk the streets as Dickens once did, you and I can reconstruct the Limehouse, Whitechapel, Covent Garden or The Borough of the time based on the information provided by Dickens. Whilst the docklands that Dickens talks of are now in the shadow of Canary Wharf, the old streets and yards remain. The abject poverty of Tower Hamlets may have been somewhat relieved and the streets paved, but it isn’t beyond the realms of imagination to mentally recreate Dickens’ London.

Indeed, it seems as though some of the author’s reflections on certain areas of the city are not too far removed from modern sentiment: “When I go into the City, now, it makes me sorrowful to think that I am quite an artful wretch. Strolling about it as a lost child, I thought of the British Merchant and the Lord Mayor, and was full of reverence. Strolling about it now, I laugh at the sacred liveries of state, and get indignant at the corporation as one of the strongest practical jokes of the present day.”

In Night Walks you have both a guide and a companion.

Matt Bradley

The Wager

Human Happiness (excerpts from Pensées), Blaise Pascal

PascalThis is a short book of extracts from Pascal’s Pensées put together by Penguin Books as part of their ‘Great Ideas’ series, which they launched a few years ago.  I’m not sure why they chose to call it Human Happiness, but it may have something to do with Pascal’s observation that “[a]ll men seek happiness. This is without exception.”  It is, however, worth pointing out that happiness is not really the central theme of the excerpts in question here, and the desire for happiness serves more as an anchor for Pascal’s views on the ‘wretchedness’ of the human condition.  In other words, the fact that we endlessly pursue happiness makes our anguish and doubt all the more difficult to bear.  This is perhaps the ‘classic’ view of Pascal and his writing, and indeed the quote on the cover of the book gives us a flavour of how the 17th century French Jansenist viewed man’s natural state as caught between the cold cruelty of nature and the warm embrace of God:

“What then is to become of man? Will he be the equal of God or the beasts? What a terrifying distance! What then shall it be?”

The idea of distance between polarities ties in nicely with Pascal’s famous metaphysical wager, which is helpfully signposted to us in the book as [THE WAGER] in case we miss it.  Despite this warning I didn’t actually see it coming and it was only afterwards when I thought about what Pascal was proposing that it occurred to me that I’d encountered the wager before.  For those of you haven’t had the pleasure, or who need reminding, Pascal’s Wager basically posits that man must choose between God and No God – “God is, or He is not” – and that mathematically this should boil down to a rational assessment of the risk involved in either option.  In other words it comes down to the following: (i) if we bet on God and He exists then we win everything (and if we bet on God and he doesn’t exist then we lose nothing); and conversely (ii) if we don’t bet on God and He exists then we lose everything (and if we don’t bet on God and He doesn’t exist then we win nothing).

Pascal’s straightforward conclusion is that we should obviously bet on God.

My immediate reaction upon processing all this was that the simplistic logic of the Wager only carries weight because Pascal is renowned as one of the greatest mathematicians in human history (i.e. he must be right because he’s good with numbers).  I think this initial objection (Objection 1, if you will) stems from the fact that Pascal’s equation seems to rely on what Dawkins labelled “inauthentic belief”, otherwise known as the “you can’t just feign belief and ‘bet’ on God” objection.  However, further investigation has led me to conclude that this does a disservice to what Pascal is saying, mainly because the context of the Wager indicates that it’s not really supposed to be a cynic’s hedging of bets, but rather a way of placating man’s voracious appetite for reason.  In other words, the Wager is there as a sort of gateway to religious enlightenment, which presupposes that every man and woman will be able to find the truth of God so long as his or her rationality is temporarily assuaged (i.e. he/she is willing to give God a chance).  This gives rise to Objection 2.

Objection 2 is based on the fact that the Wager then becomes a placebo of sorts, to be taken in order to ignore our rational faculties, and more importantly it assumes that belief in a particular Christian God is a foregone conclusion once the placebo has been administered.  As Diderot pointed out, “an Imam could reason the same way.”  This is particularly worrying as Pascal himself recognises that imagination is “the dominant faculty in man, master of error and falsehood.”  Given this propensity for error, it seems unwise to further dampen our ability to consider things rationally and just drift towards spirituality.  This could lead us anywhere or nowhere (particularly if we accept that “man is vile enough to bow down to beasts and even worship them”).  As such, I prefer Pascal’s other argument, which is basically that man trying to understand God is like a two-dimensional animal trying to understand a three-dimensional universe (Dante said much the same thing).

For those of you who’ve made it this far, however, I wouldn’t base your decision on whether or not to approach this book on your feelings for the Wager, which only has a minor role to play, or even religion, which admittedly has a larger part.  Pascal’s writing is incredibly sharp, and his observations regarding human nature are both shrewd and hilarious:

We would all cheerfully be cowards if that would acquire us a reputation for bravery.”

It is also challenging, and that’s not always a bad thing.

The Editors

La Serenissima

5369757294_fbefe6e16dWatermark, Joseph Brodsky

A History of Venice, John Julius Norwich

Having read your entry of September 17th entitled “We are here” you have emboldened me to provide a similar two-for-one contribution. I must admit that I have not, until recently, been a great lover of fiction in its broadest sense. I tended to read for fact – and as there is so much of it that I do not know I was content on my course. Recently things have changed. I am now pursuing a business degree and I do nothing aside reading for fact. At times it feels as though I am a good way through Harvard Business School’s oeuvre, which is neither true nor entertaining for the most part. My summer break gave me some much needed time and space for escapism. A late summer started with The Master and Margarita, regressed to The Idiot and then brought me to A History of Venice. Why the curious final stop? There are many reasons but possibly the easiest to describe is that I have completely fallen in love with the city. At first sight I was besotted and, having been lucky enough to live in Italy for a year, my feelings have deepened in exponential proportion to my many visits more recently. I understand that this is rather tragic (colloquial). Anyway, as anything that I love, I tend to like to learn as much as I can about it/them so that I can make the most of the relationship.

A History of Venice is a (rather lengthy) history book detailing the very beginnings of La Serenissima, The Most Serene Republic of Venice, in the 8th century through, Doge by Doge, to its forced conclusion at the end of the 18th. Whilst I understand that this might not be the standard content discussed on your site I can only encourage friends and acquaintances to read a chapter or two the next time you are in a suitable bookshop.

As a clear lover of the City and its history Norwich charts a purposeful course through time. Reflections on the city, the character of the inhabitants, aggressors in the form of Spaniards, Milanese, Holy Armies, Genoese, Neapolitans, Florentines, Hungarians, Austrians, Ottomans and French are treated with utmost objectivity and as a result this book is an absolute pleasure. This history is no indulgence for its author, it is written with the reader’s education in mind at all times and as a result it achieves its aim with aplomb. Not only is this achieved but it is also written rather beautifully. Norwich writes in classic British prose whilst never being verbose. Nor does he allow himself lengthy digressions into architecture, art or beauty where accusations of pomposity would be easy to level. That being said he does allow flashes of humour, certainly enough to enliven the read at more academic moments. In response to the secret expedition to Alexandria in order to steal the remains of Mark The Evangelist, Norwich proposes that “history records no more shameless example of body-snatching; nor any – unless we include the events associated with the Resurrection – of greater long term significance”.

In fact this book is so well put together that by the time that you reach Part Four: Decline and Fall your spirits sink with the book and with the city. As she loses Cyprus and Crete as colonies you are resigned as a reader to the conclusion. Then at that conclusion, Norwich’s excellent description of Napoleon’s schadenfreude toward La Serenissima leads you to yearn for the end, you imagine that your feelings are closely aligned those of oligarchic states creaking under the weight of wealth, loose morality, laziness and corruption that it experienced in its dotage. The author asserts near to the end that Venice “like any great beauty, she was acutely conscious of the effect that that beauty had on others; and she used it to the full”, and through his skilled commentary that beauty continues to bewitch the reader. Or at least it did me.

Following Norwich’s tome, I took on the altogether easier challenge of reading Brodsky’s Watermark. This book is a collection of short stories, a poem or any other classification that one would care to make. At a length that would make Of Mice And Men look like a leviathan it contains brief thoughts, reflections and anecdotes from the author’s many winters spent in Venice. Similar to Norwich, but very much like me, he is a clear lover of the city although no historian. A good proportion of the focus, if not all of it, is on the city’s effect on the eye and the eye’s metaphysical significance in its role as conduit-in-chief to its beholder.

Watermark-Cover

I allowed myself to read some criticism of Watermark. In fact I sought it out primarily as I have so many conflicting feelings about the book. To some, the historical and cultural errors of the date of the aforementioned body-snatching and references to churches as cathedrals is enough to denounce the content. Other readers take issue with the uninitiated attacks on Ezra Pound, his widow or indeed the fairer sex in general. That being said, the majority clearly support and appreciate these candid and at times beautiful tales of a great writer in the greatest city.

Watermark is the antithesis of A History of Venice. It is pure indulgence, unadulterated dogma, subjectivity and frequent portentousness: “My notion of Eden hinges on neither weather nor temperature. For that matter, I’d just as soon discard its dwellers and eternity as well. At risk of being charged with depravity, I must confess that this notion is purely visual, has more to do with Claude than the creed, and exists only in approximations. As these go, this city is the closest”.

I asked myself why I should bother reading another man’s thoughts on Venice. Well, Brodsky’s are certainly better articulated than mine even if he was writing in his second language! Whilst his arrogance (he suggests that Watermark’s publication might have profound impacts on Venice’s success as a tourist destination) is at times insufferable, there are enough splendid passages to keep the reader interested. There are a beautiful couple of pages where, beginning from the Book of Genesis, he deduces in mock-scientific logic a true quality of the city:

‘And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters’ to quote a famous author who visited here before. Then there was that next morning. It was Sunday, and all the bells were chiming…I always adhered to the idea that God is time. Or at least His spirit is. I always thought that if the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the water, the water was bound to reflect it…It is as though space, cognizant here more than anyplace else of its inferiority to time, answers it with the only property time doesn’t posses: with beauty. And that’s why this water takes an answer, twists it, wallops it and shreds it, but ultimately carries it by and large intact off into the Adriatic.

Whilst this rambling, at times repulsive, little book with its terribly abrupt conclusion may not exactly endear the author to its reader, it contains some of the wonderful thinking and writing that in conjunction with a visit to the city (preferably in Winter) is an essential companion. And if you find yourself disliking Brodsky too much, you can at least comfort yourself in the knowledge that he was no prophet. His strong assertions in the book about the financial health of Kodak and of the prospect of the Biennale and Venice as a center for modern art have proved to be embarrassingly incorrect.

 Matt Bradley

On Liberty

libertyOn Liberty – John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill’s classic philosophical text is probably best known for the expression of libertarianism’s fundamental principle, that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

It is a principle that, in its striking simplicity, still frequently recurs in modern discourse to oppose itself to any infringement of the individual’s freedom to do as he pleases without harming others: it is the bar by which prohibitive laws are measured in the public’s mind.  See for instance the ban on cigarettes, which only gained momentum when it became accepted that smoking is not just a danger to the individual smoker, but also to others.  Similarly, the principal argument against euthanasia is not that people should not be free to end their own lives, but that allowing people to do so might indirectly result in situations where others feel they are in some way being coerced to do so.

It is a philosophical equation that is astoundingly easy to grasp, which is why it remains such a powerful guardian against the encroachment of individual liberty.  And yet, what is fascinating about Mill’s essay is the way in which, having established this principle in the opening pages, it goes on to discuss the practical implications of abiding by it in everyday life.  Firstly, Mill explores the importance of freedom of thought and how it relates to what we consider to be ‘right’ and ‘wrong’: “if any opinion be compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we know, be true.”  However, much more radically for the mid-nineteenth century, Mill then asserts that “though the silenced opinion be in error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of the truth.”  The idea that truth of any kind is multi-faceted, and must therefore be consistently challenged, is harder to accept because it takes the position that you can never be certain of what you know; it is an idea that introduces the spectre of doubt, which is something we all naturally recoil from.  In fact, it seems to me that this is why we recoil from the idea of pluralism generally, often accepting the natural logic of the assertion that “we can’t all be right”.  This is an assumption that Mill definitively rejects, making the point that it is for the individual to weigh competing opinions for himself in a world of doubt and half-truths.  To turn away from challenging prevailing custom and modes of thought is to deny one of the great virtues of humanity:

Thus the mind itself is bowed to the yoke: even in what people do for pleasure, conformity is the first thing thought of; they live in crowds; they exercise choice only among things commonly done: peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes: until by dint of not following their own nature they have no nature to follow: their human capacities are withered and starved: they become incapable of any strong wishes or native pleasures, and are generally without either opinions or feelings of home growth, or properly their own.  Now is this, or is this not, the desirable condition of human nature?

It is for its espousal of individualism that On Liberty deserves to be reread in the twenty-first century.

The Editors

The hard way

bounce-cover-image-of-book-matthew-syed

Bounce – Matthew Syed

“In January 1995, I became the British number-one table tennis player for the very first time which, I am sure you will agree, is a heck of an achievement.”

Despite what is almost certainly the worst first sentence ever written, the rest of Bounce does not quite follow its opening line into literary oblivion.  This is mostly because it is held together by an extremely compelling central idea: that there is no such thing as innate talent, and that all success in any arena that involves complex skill (e.g. sport, music, chess etc.) is predicated entirely on practice.  The author recognises early on that he has essentially stolen this from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and its much-vaunted “10,000-Hour Rule” – the rule that claims that the key to success in any field lies in amassing 10,000 hours of practice in that field – but he tweaks it slightly so that the focus is on the debunking of the ‘talent myth’, emphasising the ability of most humans to learn anything given enough time.

As with all interesting non-fiction, it relies on a series of anecdotal case studies that should probably be far more widely known than they are.  Here, Syed’s crown jewel is the story of Laszlo Polgar, a Hungarian pedagogue besotted with the idea that all education should be built around an emphasis on hard work as opposed to natural ability or genius.

“Children have extraordinary potential, and it is up to society to unlock it.  The problem is that people, for some reason, do not want to believe it.  They seem to think that excellence is only open to others, not themselves.”

In order to prove his point Polgar embarked on a career-defining experiment to create a “child prodigy”, and unbelievably managed to find a willing wife to cooperate in this enterprise.  Having completed the more mundane step of fathering a daughter, Susan, Polgar decided that he would turn his first-born into a chess genius by subjecting her to thousands of hours of tuition and practice, thereby showing that hard work trumps ability.  At age fourteen, Susan became the top-rated female player in the world, and later the first woman player to reach the status of grandmaster, winning four world championships and five chess Olympiads in the process, all this at a time when the chess world was plagued with an extreme prejudice against women.  But in case this wasn’t enough, Polgar’s second and third daughters, Sofia and Judit, followed their elder sister into chess apprenticeship from an early age.  Sofia is credited with one of the greatest chess performances of all time, the ‘Miracle in Rome’, when she won eight straight games against some of the best chess players at the time.  Judit, at the age of fifteen, became the youngest grandmaster, male or female, in the history of the game, and is now universally considered to be the greatest female player of all time.

Whether or not this story in and of itself proves Syed’s/Gladwell’s/Polgar’s point about the fallacy of innate talent, it is surely one of the most powerful examples of the value of practice, or at the very least of the ability of hard work to unlock underlying potential.  Either way, the ‘practice theory of excellence’ is an inherently positive idea, and, like Polgar’s tale, should probably receive far more attention than it currently does.  There is, of course, a more negative side to the theory, particularly where it involves intense training from a young age, and it is not hard to imagine that it may have been put into practice a little too forcefully in the gyms of East Berlin or the swimming pools of Hangzhou.  However, putting tiger mothers to one side, there is clearly a lot to be said for refuting the notion of innate talent, and Syed’s whole-hearted belief in this, as well as his ability to tell a story, is what makes the book readable.

The Editors

The Literature of Oppression: Part 1

I know many books which have bored their readers, but I know of none which has done real evil.

So said Voltaire in the eighteenth century.  Since then, the world has seen the publication of Mao’s Little Red Book, Qaddafi’s Green Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf, three books which might be considered as a sort of grotesque canon of totalitarian literature, covering as they do both extremes of the political spectrum, with rogue state oppression somewhere in the middle.  All three were published in the twentieth century, the century in which totalitarian ideology somehow managed to evade reason and irreversibly scar the face of human history.

“[Our purpose is] to ensure that literature and art fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part, that they operate as powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy, and that they help the people fight the enemy with one heart and one mind.”

The above quotation from Mao’s Little Red Book provides a singularly perverse view of the function of literature and art in society.  It is not often that books are seen as weapons that can be wielded by the forces of oppression, but unfortunately art is an inherently malleable thing, only as benign and constructive as the artist chooses it to be.  As such, we can hardly be surprised if on occasion literature is co-opted by the forces of darkness and used as a tool to further the totalitarian policies of oppressive regimes, all the more so since propaganda is a key element of any dictatorship.  Ultimately, there is no denying that books have been complicit to a certain extent in some of the worst atrocities committed by human beings.

And yet the hideous number of deaths caused by the regimes of twentieth century tyrants does not necessarily refute Voltaire’s point; a book in and of itself can do no harm, unless the reader is of a particularly frail and sensitive disposition.  Of course, that a book is unable to commit genocide of its own volition does not settle the debate over the potential harm caused by books either, in vaguely the same way that a rifle being unable to commit murder on its own does not settle the debate over US gun control (see the laughable simplicity of the NRA’s slogan “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”).  One could argue that Mein Kampf, which is still banned in numerous countries, including Austria and Russia, continues to incite racially aggravated violence across the world, from Greece to Colombia.

Interestingly, Mein Kampf was never banned in Germany, but its publication has been restricted since the end of the Second World War by the state of Bavaria, which owns the copyright to it.  This copyright expires in 2016, seventy years after Hitler’s death, and Bavaria plans to publish an annotated edition of the book before this happens, in an attempt to educate new readers and make it “commercially unattractive” to publish in the future.  The latter may be optimistic, but perhaps this is the best way to proceed.  After all, to ban books, however offensive or inflammatory the content, is to fall into the totalitarian’s trap.  In view of this, the Literature of Oppression series aims to look at some of the worst books ever published by oppressive regimes, not, we hope you will agree, in an attempt to stoke anger or resentment, but in order better to understand the influence they continue to exert, whether or not that influence is still enforced down the barrel of a gun.

The Editors

When The War Was Over

indexWhen The War Was Over – Elizabeth Becker

Elizabeth Becker first started covering Cambodia for the Washington Post in 1973, at a time when the escalating crisis in that country was viewed as a “footnote to the Vietnam war”.  After two years reporting on the civil war between the American-backed Republic and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, she left Cambodia along with the rest of the foreign press when Phnom Penh eventually fell to the Communist guerrillas in 1975.  During the Democratic Kampuchean period (1975-1979), she continued to write about Cambodia from Washington, piecing together second-hand accounts of the atrocities committed by the incumbent Khmer Rouge regime, until in 1978 she was one of a party of three Westerners invited back to Phnom Penh to be given a tour of the country under Khmer Rouge supervision.   The other two invited with her were Malcolm Caldwell, a Scottish academic and Marxist activist, and Richard Dudman, also an American journalist.  Their visit to Cambodia, which occurred days before the Vietnamese invasion at the end of December 1978, gained international notoriety as a result of Caldwell’s murder at the hands of an anonymous gunman, an incident that has never been satisfactorily explained, although Becker suggests that it was probably engineered by Pol Pot as part of an internal purge (the last recorded confessions from the security centre at Tuol Sleng contained references to Caldwell’s murder).

“It is as a witness that I came to write this book.”

Becker’s ill-fated visit to Cambodia is recounted in a chapter towards the end of the book entitled “Return to Phnom Penh”, and is notable as the one section of the book in which the author allows first person subjectivity to take over.  This is understandable, given that she was one of only two Western journalists to visit Cambodia under Pol Pot and make it out alive.  Not only that, but Becker was granted an audience by both Pol Pot and Ieng Sary during her time in Phnom Penh, thus putting her in a fairly unique position as a witness to life under the Khmer Rouge (in fact, she is due to give expert witness testimony at the trial of two of the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders at some stage in the coming months).

However, Becker’s visit to Cambodia in the dying days of the Khmer Rouge is more important for what she didn’t witness than for what she did.  The version of the country she experienced was a heavily stage-managed illusion, and by the sounds of it not a very convincing one.  As a result, it sits in stark juxtaposition to the myriad accounts that Becker assembles as the basis for the rest of the book.  Indeed, Becker constructs her history of the period around the stories of a select handful of individuals, each giving an insight of the horror of that time from a slightly different perspective.  Mey Komphot, for example, who had formerly worked as a banker in Phnom Penh, tells how he survived the regime by playing dumb and hiding his middle class upbringing during the three years he was forced to work as a manual labourer in the Cambodian fields.

It is this willingness to embrace multiple perspectives that ultimately makes the book one of the foremost accounts of that dark period of South East Asian history.  If it is anything to go by, Becker will be an invaluable witness at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.

The Editors

You can buy the book here.

Zombie

Through the Window – Julian Barnes

It might seem odd for a literary website to review what is essentially a collection of literary reviews, but that is what it is going to do.

Perhaps the single greatest problem with writing about literature, particularly well-established, widely acclaimed literature is the feeling that one should write objectively, or at the very least with an overriding awareness of and respect for the academic literary criticism surrounding your chosen subject.  This seems reasonable enough, after all, academics specialise in writing about literature, they do it all the time, they’ve read a lot more than you have, and they weren’t promoted and published by accident.  In short, they are very good at what they do.  And yet, literary criticism is not a science; it can’t and shouldn’t be left to the professionals and forgotten about by the rest of us, however tempting that might be.  This applies to Shakespeare as much as it does to Hemingway.

Julian Barnes is not an academic in the true sense of the word, but nor is he an amateur, having published eleven novels and won the Man Booker Prize in 2011 (so the sleeve of this book tells me).  Similarly, his collection of essays, Through the Window, is not academic in the sense that the essays do not approach their subjects with a desire to break them down and rigorously lay out an authoritative interpretation.  Instead, each essay attempts to capture something about an author, novel or series of novels – something that can’t really be discerned objectively but only by a well-read, perceptive reader.  In this way, the title of the collection is appropriate because what Barnes offers in each essay is a window into the world of a particular novelist, whilst implicitly recognising that what is revealed is only a partial glimpse of the whole, and a glimpse that also reflects back on the viewer (Barnes in this case).

This gives the book a thoroughly personal dimension which might in some circles be seen as detracting from the insight it offers.  Regardless, these essays are extremely enjoyable, and the fact that they are coloured by anecdotes from the author’s experience makes them all the more vivid.  The first essay, for example, opens with an account of how Barnes once met Penelope Fitzgerald on a panel at York University, and shared a train back to London with her.  Rather than make the essay less “serious”, this personal detail brings the subject to life, not in a name-dropping, “look at my famous mates” way, but because it reveals a willingness to view novelists as human beings (albeit highly skilled and intelligent human beings), and not part of an incomprehensible literary sect.  Perhaps this reflects the fact that Barnes himself is a highly successful novelist, thereby breaking down some of the barriers between the essayist and his subjects – and maybe this is the intention, to act as a gateway between layperson and literature.

Whatever the case may be, it is exhilarating to read a reader like Barnes because he succeeds in bringing the written word out of the past and into the present, and in doing so manages to shatter what is one of the greatest myths surrounding literature in the modern world – that it is an antiquated medium for dead people.  As Barnes tells us in the preface:

“Fiction makes characters who have never existed as real as your friends, and makes dead writers as alive as a television newsreader.”

The Editors

You can download the book here.