What I read in: April 2019

What I read in: April 2019

April was a great month for books. About halfway through this month, I decided to focus on reading about capitalism and feminism this year, to try to make a dent in my huge pile of books about social issues and economics. I might stop this next month because I can be fickle, but the end of this month saw me knock out two big books on feminism and global inequality, which was a good start. I also read a lot about ethics this month which gave me a lot to think about.

Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now – Jaron Lanier

I go back and forth regularly about whether or not I like social media. Sometimes, it feels good to share a funny tweet or great photo and easily keep up with your friends’ lives, but at other times it feels like an enormous time-suck and meaningless method of following the lives of people you barely, or entirely, don’t know. Even though I continue to use social media intermittently, I do feel like that’s the result of being low-key addicted to scrolling and checking up on people rather than genuinely getting much from it.

This book broadly confirmed that feeling. Lanier was a Silicon Valley exec around the time social media came to prominence and he is not pleased with the result of that period of technological innovation. He is not down on the idea of social media in general, but he thinks that the current iteration is designed for high-level behaviour modification and isolating us from the people around us. He wants everyone to get off social media to prompt the developers to come up with something better and less harmful. He goes through ten reasons why you should delete your accounts, including that we are losing our free will, we are being made into assholes, our capacity for empathy is being destroyed, truth is being undermined and we are being made unhappy, among other cheery chapters.

The book is okay. I think lots of his reasons are compelling, but despite being a short book, it feels long and clunky. He also uses the acronym BUMMER constantly (Behaviours of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent), which, even though he explains it at the start, is easy to forget making his argument difficult to follow. I like the ideas and think his views have a lot of merit but I think he could have written a much better, more interesting and more accessible book.

The Most Good You Can Do – Peter Singer

I have been reading a lot about ethics recently, in an attempt to think a little more deeply about how I move through the world and whether I feel I’m living a life that reflects my principles (or to figure out what my principles are). Singer is a famous ethicist and this book is his manifesto for effective altruism, the way of ethical living that is concerned with maximising the good you do based on what we know about how best to help those around us. It’s a data-driven, rational approach to ethics, which appeals to my rational, data-loving brain.

This book gave me a lot to think about. One of the biggest focuses is on effective charitable giving, which convinced me totally, to the point that I changed my monthly donations to support charities on GiveWell’s ‘top charities’ list. GiveWell features heavily in the book and is an organisation that evaluates the effectiveness of charities that aim to alleviate poverty, the cause that the founders believe is the most urgent and deserving of aid. Singer breaks down the amount it costs to save a life with a malaria net versus funding a new wing of a museum or making a kid’s dying wish come true and explains that, despite art and terminally ill children being emotionally compelling, the number of lives you could easily save from malaria or schistomiasis with that money should be the priority. I can totally see why people struggle with Singer’s approach, in that it involves making value judgments on which causes matter the most and being what many would consider emotionally cold. For example, many effective altruists work in the financial sector, rationalising it by saying that the higher their paycheck, the more they can donate to life-saving charities. While I understand this approach and am currently trying to decide whether I think a long-term career in finance is something I want or not, I understand how many would see this as a poor justification for dedicating your life to investment banking, even if you live frugally and donate 50% of your income to the poor, as many effective altruists he mentions in the book do.

I can’t say I agreed with everything he said but it did push me to think about how the decisions I make will actually help people, rather than massage my own ego. Just because I like donating to an ocean conservation charity (which is obviously not a bad thing to do) doesn’t mean that it’s the best use of that money. That donation has been chosen based on my own interests rather putting the needs of others above my own (perceived) needs, which is the point of donating.   

I think it’s an important perspective, though, because helping people around the world is not an emotion-based, feel-good task – it’s a massive mission that needs smart, strategic thinking, which would be better served by smart, strategic funding. 

Ethics in the Real World – Peter Singer

This is another of Singer’s books, a collection of 82 short essays on an enormous variety of topics in ethics and politics.

It mainly made me think about what a cool and weird job being a philosopher is. I mean, people rate how this guy sees the world so highly that everyone just wants his opinion on things, regardless of whether or not he has any expertise in that area. I am both awed and skeptical of someone really being such an exceptionally great thinker in a world full of experts and extremely smart people.

In this book, Singer covers death, animal rights, geopolitics, identity, sex, gender, politics and the sanctity of life, among other topics. I particularly enjoyed his thoughts on death, the sanctity of life, the potential of human extinction and being a good person. Some of the other essays were harder to get into or I downright disagreed with, but generally they are the perfect length, easy to read and great brain food for thinking about the world philosophically.

All about love – bell hooks

I wanted to like this book. I am a gigantic, mushy romantic at heart but I am crying out for a book about love that manages to convey its beauty and reality at the same time. hooks made some great points about being open to love and what it means to love when you grew up in a dysfunctional family, and I loved reading about a staunch feminist activist who openly loves love and believes in the absolute necessity of a loving community, but at points the book was way too spiritual, fantastical and religious for me. It’s not an academic look at love – though lots of points do veer into the sociological – but rather her personal treatise on love with some quotes from other people. It felt like one straight monologue about love being great and important, without enough separating the chapters and holding the narrative together.

Love is wonderful. I love love. But this book isn’t a robust enough examination of the ways in which love manifests to really be a must-read on the topic.

Everything I know about love – Dolly Alderton

Oh, this book. Everyone told me to read this book. It has become a key conversation piece among twenty-somethings lamenting dating, growing up and realising that binge drinking is just not as glamorous as we thought it would be.

The start of the book was funny to me, though not particularly insightful. If you didn’t grow up in a middle-class area, go to university or spend at least some period of time using the potential for a good story as your main motivation for doing anything, it’s probably unrelatable. But I knew those moments well and they gave me a good laugh.

As the book goes on, we get into the meat of Alderton’s twenties. This is where she started to deeply frustrate me. It quickly gets into the deep, crushing resentment she feels when her friends do the most awful thing imaginable – get into relationships. These aren’t dysfunctional, dramatic relationships like the ones Alderton finds herself in (including considering accepting a proposal from a man she’d met in New York 48 hours prior) but healthy partnerships with nice men – this is a very heterosexual book – that progress at a reasonable pace.

This is the kind of ‘single girl narrative’ that is deceptive. Yes, for most of the book, Alderton is technically single. But all single means in this context is that she’s not in one continuous monogamous relationship. She still spends all of her time obsessed with dating, Tinder and men. I mean honestly, the amount of time she will have expended on these crappy short flings and thinking about what he meant by that text probably vast exceeds the amount of time her friends in stable relationships spend thinking about their significant others. There’s nothing wrong with dating, flings, not being monogamous or anything else, but Alderton is almost unbearably righteous about being single while all of her friends become boring and terrible in their very normal relationships. It would be great to get some single girl narratives that were not all about faceless men and talked about the great things about being contentedly single – having more time and freedom to do what you want, when you want and all the amazing things that can come from that kind of settled independence.

It also seems a bit rich to be so upset about her friend getting a serious boyfriend when her objection isn’t that her friend, Farly, has done anything wrong in particular, but that Alderton wanted to live with Farly, go on holidays with Farly, be Farly’s plus-one to family events and otherwise be in a (platonic) committed relationship with her. The problem isn’t that Alderton is sad because Farly has actually abandoned her, she’s sad because best friends can occupy an extremely similar role to romantic partners and she feels like she’s been broken up with. The lack of self-awareness is especially notable when she grumbles about committed relationships generally but then explains that she wants Farly to fulfill the exact role that a romantic partner typically offers. There’s so much missed nuance here, it’s no wonder it was hard for them to talk it through.

I wished we’d heard more about Farly at the end of the book. Alderton mines some pretty rough moments from Farly’s life for her memoir – including the death of her younger sister from leukaemia and the break up of a seven year relationship – but doesn’t offer a follow-up as to whether Farly is in a better place by the end. Farly seems truly lovely and I’m sure many readers would have appreciated knowing where she ended up.

I did like the last third the most, as some of Alderton’s thoughts on ageing were insightful and funny. She’d clearly grown up a bit – with the classic revelation of being enough, just as she is – and that does show. It is relatable generally to a certain kind of girl in their twenties (and I am that girl). But the book was a bit depressing overall and glorified the crushing anxiety Alderton clearly felt throughout that decade. It’s easy to romanticise an alcohol problem, shit relationships and massive insecurities when they’re in the past, but it clearly would have super unpleasant to live like that. This book makes it seem like all that stress is a rite of passage for young women and that it’s perfectly normal to do hard drugs, starve yourself and give lots of time and attention to apathetic dudes. You don’t have to do that.

Her ultimate conclusion is that female friendship is the love she’s known all along. This is clearly where the book was going and it is a nice message, but it does perpetuate the silly notion that you can either have close, meaningful friendships or a happy intimate relationship, but not both. Alderton’s standards for her friends were way too high and most of them seemed to manage balancing their friendships and relationships beautifully. Alderton writes well, the read itself is enjoyable, and the book is funny and recognisable (to me, at least) but I can’t say that she knows very much about love that’s worth learning from.

Feminists don’t wear pink and other lies – Scarlett Curtis

I’ll start by saying that I don’t think this book was aimed at me. I think this book is aimed at younger people, probably mid-teens, who are new to feminism and its core issues. For me, someone who has been reading, thinking and talking about feminism for over a decade, it was a little simplistic. This book is a collection of essay by women about… anything, really. Clearly the brief was “write something of any length in any format about feminism,” which meant that the book varied hugely in quality and style. There are essays, lists, poems and short stories; some of them are two pages, some are twenty. It is stylistically frenetic. This book would have been better with half the essays, each double the length. Often these “essays” are too short to get into the meat of the issue, with the issue being simply “women are discriminated against” without much deeper analysis.

It is full of diverse authors, which is important, and they do cover a wide variety of issues in feminism, however superficially. The essays I enjoyed the most were from the career activists in the ‘action’ section, who had created or worked on projects that had changed the lives of women around the world. I also enjoyed Keira Knightley’s essay The Weaker Sex, Braless White Women by Angela Yee, Imposter Syndrome by Alaa Murabit and, for a bit of light relief, The Catastrophizer’s Alphabet by actress Kat Dennings, about all the (irrational and hilarious) ways her mother thinks she’ll be kidnapped as a woman.

If you are well versed in feminism and its literature, then this book probably isn’t worth a read. If you are looking for a very accessible intro to a number of key feminist issues, or a present for a young person who you’d like to introduce to feminist ideas, then this book is an option.

The Female Eunuch – Germaine Greer

From tween pop-feminism to classic second wave texts. I’m trying to read the core feminist canon this year and this is one of the most famous books.

It was… interesting. It was very dated. There were a number of shocking racist, transphobic and homophobic slurs, which I’m surprised haven’t been edited out given this book has been re-printed numerous times and has an extra intro in the front that has been added in the 21st century (the book was originally published in 1970). In that sense, it was unpleasantly dated (though I’m aware there are still plenty of non-intersectional feminists in the movement today).

It was pleasantly dated in the sense that lots of the very sad statistics about how few (British) women received post-18 education or had jobs are now wonderfully out-of-date. It is clear that we have made some great steps for women in the past fifty years and that should be celebrated. However, Greer’s commentary on the interactions between men and women, especially in heterosexual marriage, still seem painfully relevant to me. She also analyses the role of the woman in the family and why it leads to resentment for so many. The home is where gender politics play out most intimately and deconstructing the ways men and women interact personally is crucial to addressing gender equality at a granular level.

While some of the parts seemed less relevant or insightful, and there are some deplorable phrases used to describe gay women, trans women and women of colour, I think there is powerful analysis of the way women’s lives and bodies are coopted by men and women alike and how to recognise and tackle these important issues.

The Great Escape: Health, Wealth and the Origins of Inequality – Angus Deaton

Nobel-prize winning economist Angus Deaton uses this surprisingly accessible book to tell the story of how, beginning 250 years ago, some parts of the world experienced sustained progress while others languished, opening up health and wealth gaps and setting the stage for today’s disproportionately unequal world. Deaton takes an in-depth look at the historical and ongoing patterns behind the health and wealth of nations, and addresses what needs to be done to help those left behind.

Deaton dives deep into the statistics around increasing life expectancy, vaccinations, the HIV/AIDS epidemic and how wealthier nations have all but eradicated death from easily preventable causes. He also considers how economic growth in India and China has improved the lives of more than a billion people and how the US is now seeing a rise in inequality after years of progress. Some of his conclusions about how international aid is ineffective – or even harmful, when funds are put into the hands of corrupt governments – are not backed up by viable other options, making the conclusion to the book a little flat, but overall, this is a great overarching look at global economic inequality and development and is full of important comments on the dangers of not exploring statistics fully before drawing conclusions.

I am trying to read more about inequality, especially globally, and this book was an excellent addition to my growing pile of books about capitalism, globalisation and development.

The Diet Myth – Tim Spector

Ostensibly, this is a book about nutrition, but really, this is a book about microbes. Spector examines common parts and types of food (protein, saturated fats, unsaturated fats, trans fats, sugar, starch, nuts, alcohol etc) through the lens of our gut microbes, making the case that it’s really our microbial diversity that we should be paying attention to regarding health and weight.

I liked this book a lot. I’ve been reading so much politics and sociology lately that I forgot how much I like science, especially nutrition and physiology (both of which I studied during my degree). I know quite a lot about nutrition already, from both my studies and my stint as a weight-classed athlete, so I had a good framework to slot all this information into though I think it is still accessible if you are new to nutrition. Some of the ideas have been well-covered in other nutrition books I’ve read, but some of the chapters gave me a load of new ideas and information. The chapter on antibiotics did make me sweat a little, given that my recent adventures in chronic UTIs have involved a lot of antibiotics (including one stretch where I took antibiotics for three months straight) but I just have to hope that my little gut microbes have survived the constant influx of pills.

Ultimately, he makes clear just how personal and individual nutrition is. Everyone’s microbiome is different – though there is likely overlap among family members and people living in the same area – so everyone reacts to food differently. His broadest advice is to eat as diverse a diet of whole foods as possible (highly processed is never good for you, sorry to say, but you’d be surprised how healthy cheese, wine and chocolate can be).

Nutritional science is also rife with poor methods and questionable conclusions, something which Spector addresses head on. It’s refreshing to hear a scientist openly admit to publishing poorly backed up articles and explain how he now approaches his research. There are a lot of myths around nutrition and the ideal diet, but this book goes a long way to dispelling some of those myths, providing helpful and fascinating information and being honest about its shortcomings at the same time.

What should I read next month? Please leave any recommendations in the comments!

One thought on “What I read in: April 2019

  1. If you haven’t read it you should read ‘the heart’s invisible furies’ by John Boyne! It’s a long ‘un, but so worth it 🙂

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