Home Books What I read in: August 2019

What I read in: August 2019

by Ellie Hopgood

Any month in which I take a two-week trip is always going to be good for reading. I decided to not make my holiday reading too heavy on the politics, economics and imminent environmental collapse front, so there’s a bit more variety in this month’s list.

Doughnut Economics – Kate Raworth

The meat of this book was good. I found the visual of the doughnut – the happy space for humans where our basic needs are met but our planet isn’t unsustainably infringed upon – to be useful, and many of Raworth’s ideas challenged my accepted notions of the world, which is always a good thing. I liked her emphasis on just how entrenched our beliefs about the economy and its insatiable desire for growth are and those thoughts partly inspired my post on ‘the blank page.’ This book also contained a lot of ruminations on climate change, which I wasn’t expecting from the cover or the blurb, but that I appreciated given my continued efforts to write as much about climate change as my brain can cover. In fact, as I made my way through the book, the undeniable link between economic fundamentals and the climate crisis was further reinforced, as was the sad state of affairs that is our understanding of our planet’s vital role in the survival of our species until this point. This isn’t a book about the climate crisis, but it is impossible to consider our future and what kind of economy will serve future generations of humans without taking into account how it will affect the Earth (indeed, it was the opposite kind of thinking that got us into this mess in the first place). As she reflected on a young student’s tangible recreation of the circular model of the economy (involving water, pipes and motors) that underpins much of modern economics, I thought her seldom-addressed point that the whole contraption needed mains electricity to work at all expresses just how little the planet’s role in our industries has been part of economic thinking, which I found powerful. I liked that this book added fuel to my writing fire and explored our reliance on growth in more detail, a good follow-on from David Pilling’s book the Growth Delusion, which I read and enjoyed earlier this year.

However, this is not a perfect book. While the core of the book was interesting, it was often hard to decipher it’s most powerful ideas between page after page of etymology or a brief history of the power of visual storytelling. Raworth has a tendency to meander, which, in a long book about twentieth century economics, can be a death sentence. The subtitle on the front also reads “7 things every twenty-first century economist should know,” which suggests a broad structure of exploring those seven things. This does not happen. In fact, the seven things are barely emphasised, which contributes toward the book lacking a cohesive story. You can contrast this to Ha-Joon Chang’s book 23 things no one tells you about capitalism, which has an intro, a conclusion and 23 chapters, each explaining one of the 23 things. That’s how you do it.

The World Without Us – Alan Weisman

The idea of this book is fascinating, but sadly, the book itself didn’t quite live up to its premise. The World Without Us aims to explore what would happen if humans disappeared right now and the world was returned to its pre-human years. What would happen to our cities; what would happen to animals; what would happen to the billion tons of plastic and chemicals we’ve dumped into nature? I wish it had been more interesting! But instead, it was three hundred pages of deep dives into botany, taxonomy and geology, with the info about human impact often getting lost in a chapter about a single forest or an expedition to extract geologic information from the bottom of Lake Tanganyika. I had to skim those sections a little.

I enjoyed the section on Cappadochia’s underground city, and I found the plastics chapter illuminating (spoiler alert: that plastic is going to be around for millions of years, even if it ends up in pieces too small to be seen by the naked eye). I was reading this book to further my climate change reading efforts so the parts on plastics, oil and minerals were the most useful to me.

Weisman ends the book with a rogue suggestion for a global one child policy as a solution to climate change, which is poorly explained and pretty left-field for what is otherwise a book focused on history and science, not politics. There are some interesting parts to this book, but overall, it was a bit of a snooze.

Thick – Tressie McMillan Cottom

Thick was a book that took no prisoners in its examination of race, beauty, feminism and society. As I read the series of essays, I remembered Audre Lorde’s essays in Sister Outsider and couldn’t help but contrast the two; Lorde’s essays, while as powerful, are softer, and more obviously trying to bring white people into the conversation. Cottom told us about her thoughts and experiences in a way that felt harsher, though I don’t mean that in a bad way. She was more forthright in her analysis of race and her experiences as a black woman, which felt good to read. It wasn’t always comfortable (as I’m sure was the point) but I felt more confident that she was sharing her honest thoughts, which is important. Cottom is clearly fiercely intelligent; she is an academic and her essays are a midpoint between writing for the masses and an academic piece, which shows. I had to read some of the sentences twice to get their full meaning, which doesn’t happen to me very often.

I haven’t read a book in a while that is so candid and damning about racism and its effects on the lives of black women. I found the essays on racism and beauty standards particularly enlightening. Cottom’s ideas are fresh – she was often discussing ideas I’d never seen written about – and her delivery incisive. Great read.

How to Be a Writer – David Quantick

There is a great irony that a book titled as an instruction manual for writing is primarily comprised of words the author did not write. How to Be a Writer shares a series of interviews with an array of writers, about their lives, their routines, their thoughts on the profession and their advice for younger writers.

This was a quick read. It was interesting to take a peek into the lives and heads of people who support themselves writing full-time (for the most part) and there were a few pages I made a note to go back to as they contained genuinely useful advice about writing and the business of becoming a writer. The authors chosen cover a wide ranging of writing disciplines – columnist, novelist, stand-up comedian, TV writer, playwright – though I can’t say they are particularly diverse beyond that. There are a few gems in here and it’s an easy read for anyone interested in looking behind the scenes in writers’ lives.

It’s What I Do – Lynsey Addario     

I am both supremely jealous of Addario’s life and deeply glad that I’m not doing it. Addario is a celebrated photojournalist, which, given my penchant for political writing combined with my borderline compulsive love of photography, is clearly something I would love to do in future. There’s just one problem: in Addario’s work as a war photographer and photojournalist, there is a very real risk of death. She has been kidnapped twice, threatened at gunpoint and in a car accident that killed her driver. She has spent years living in warzones around the world, photographing wounded civilians, deceased soldiers and the devastation of war. She once spent three months deep in the Afghan jungle, ending up literally in the middle of a gun battle, bullets flying, between the Americans and the Taliban. Many of her friends and colleagues have been killed while working. This profession, while amazing, is also lethal.

Her work is beautiful, and her story of getting started by buying a plane ticket, flying to places of conflict, shooting pictures and then pitching them to editors was both inspiring and informative. It is clearly a very cool life, but also a traumatic one. On the one hand, it’s clear why and how she keeps going; on the other hand, her decision to hang out in warzones while pregnant or head straight into active conflict mere weeks after a six day kidnapping in Libya strike me as things only a certain type of person has the stomach for. It sounds like an amazing world, but a brutal one. I would love to do political photography in the future – I like to think I already do, at protests – but it would be another level (or, like, another six levels) to be at the forefront of international crises with my camera. Addario is awesome and I will be buying a photobook of hers in future, I’m sure of it. Her chronicle of life around the world photographing conflicts makes for a brilliant read.

Bullshit Jobs – David Graeber

A few years, Graeber wrote a polarising essay in which he declared that many of the jobs that exist today are unnecessary and comprise of bullshit that we only do to keep people busy. The article received such an enormous response that he was commissioned to explore the issue further in a book.

This book is tremendously interesting. The nature of work is something I find fascinating, especially as a young person just starting out in the workforce, and Graeber is scathing in his analysis of our economy. He dives deep into not only which jobs are bullshit, but also how this came to be the case, what we can do about it and why the world doesn’t deem it a bigger problem. There is also a section in which he explores the philosophy and development of work, which was very, very interesting, if a little off the main topic. The book’s main weakness for me was that Graeber struggles to come up with a convincing definition of a bullshit job that is widely applicable, even though most people who have had wholly or partially bullshit jobs will, I’m sure, know exactly what he’s talking about.

Given that I currently have a corporate 9-5, aspects of this book resonated with me deeply, though that’s as much as I’m willing to divulge on the Internet. I picked it up to help me think about various work issues I’ve had over the past few months, and it didn’t disappoint. There is so much good stuff in this book that almost no one is talking about. If you ever sit at your desk and wonder what the point is, this book will probably resonate with you. Graeber also provides evidence for the claim that the better your work is for society, the less money you will make, a topic that I wrote about earlier this year. While I still haven’t made any decisions for myself long-term, this book certainly gave me a lot to think about.

Heartland – Sarah Smarsh

Heartland is a beautiful chronicle of the past five or so generations of Smarsh’s family, a family that is rarely centred in popular culture. Smarsh grew up poor in Kansas, the next in a long line of farmers and teen mothers. In this book, she explores the complexity of growing up poor in the richest country on Earth, with careful – and sometimes heavy handed – nuance as to the different experiences that poor people of various identities have across the USA. The book combines the classic storytelling of a memoir with the sociology and economics that is necessary to provide context to an individual narrative.

This book is so close to being great. This must have been a wonderful project for Smarsh, and I’m glad that her family were able to have their stories told. But it was a little hard to follow at times (a family tree at the front would have gone a long way, as in Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homegoing) and it wasn’t that clear at what pace the story was progressing. Smarsh repeated basic points about privilege over and over, constantly referencing how poor white people experience both racial privilege and class-based oppression at the same time (though perhaps this necessary for people to whom that idea is new), in service to intersectionality.

Smarsh addresses this book to the poor daughter she never had, as she has managed to avoid a teen pregnancy and poverty in adulthood, challenges experienced by every other member of her family. The levels of gendered violence were atrocious and heartbreaking, and I felt deeply for all the women in this book trapped in the clutches of violent men. Despite it’s flaws, this is book full of love, telling the story of a group of people too often overlooked. It’s worth a read, but don’t expect greatness.

Bad Blood – John Carreyrou

This story is as batshit as everyone says it is. I knew the broad story of Theranos’ rise and fall already, but Carreyrou shares many of the unbelievable details in this pacey book. Essentially, Theranos was a medical device company, which purported to have designed a machine that could conduct hundreds of diagnostic tests from a single drop of blood. The problem is that it didn’t work. It never had.

That didn’t stop Theranos’ CEO Elizabeth Holmes from raising almost a billion dollars in funding and lying outright to investors about the success of the firm. More importantly, Theranos lied to patients, resulting in false positives, false negatives and high medical bills. It truly was a scandal, especially as, by the time Carreyrou broke the story in the Wall Street Journal, Holmes was the darling of Silicon Valley.

I loved reading about the investigative work done by Carreyrou in uncovering this huge scoop. I am hugely interested in journalism so anything that gets into the meat of investigative reporting is always going to entice me (though the part that includes Carreyrou directly is only the final tenth of the book). Aside from that, I was struck by how difficult whistleblowing is, and couldn’t believe how dangerous it was for former and current employees to declare that Theranos was committing fraud. This is the problem with businesses that are so powerful they rise above the law – individuals can do very little about unsafe, unjust or illegal working practices, which leaves us with profit-hungry executives managing to avoid scrutiny for far too long.

Of course, the biggest question remains: how much did Elizabeth know about what she was doing? Did she become trapped in the lie after she’d raised a certain amount of money? Did she always know it didn’t work? Or did she really believe her own lies? Given that she has so far declined to discuss the matter publicly, we may well never know…

What should I read next month?

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