What I've Been Reading: Oct-Dec 2017

Posted on Dec 22, 2017

October to December 2017 has been a period where I've really, really liked popular science. And popular history too, but mostly science.

I have actually read one fiction book in this period. That book is Middlesex (by Jeffrey Eugenides), which I have far too many complicated feelings on to fit into this tl;dr. I have therefore excluded it (along with a couple of self help books I feel cast too much light onto my life) from the list of books I've read in this period.

A Little History of Science

I’m not sure what the market for this book is. It’s the exact kind of book I would devour at the age of ~12, and some of the language choices ("icky", "upset tummies” etc) suggest it was intended for this age group. However, it was placed in the popular science section of the bookshop I bought it in, and the fact that every description of it suggests it’s for adults confuses me a little.

Basically it’s general an tl;dr of scientific discoveries. It succeeds at this, but still has some issues. It mostly focuses on the life sciences, and focuses on scientific interests within Europe. This includes times when the “West” was not doing much, and the author downplays important Chinese and Indian contributions to science by comparing them to contemporary understanding. This is something the author doesn’t do when talking about European discoveries. Bit suspicious.

I do think the author communicates the idea of science as a process rather than a body of knowledge well, however. I think this is a problem in terms of public understanding of science, that most people perceive science as being a GCSE style remember of facts rather than a process by which understandings change.

Am I being too harsh on this book? Am I not the intended audience? Probably yes to both. It’s a fine enough book, and I’d say it was good for children, and possibly even for adults with little or less understanding of science if you prodded me enough. I don’t think it’s successful at what it tries to be, but only because I don’t think it actually knows what it’s trying to be.

The block prints at the start of each chapter are pretty af though.

Stars: ☆☆ (☆☆☆ for appropriate audience)
Author: William Bynum
Publisher: Yale University Press

To Be A Machine: Adventures Amongst Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers,and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death

To Be A Machine (which I'm now calling this to avoid repeating the long ass title) is a book about transhumanists. Not really transhumanism, but transhumanists themselves.

I don’t know how I feel about transhumanism. I lurk in forums sometimes, and I’m on board with the idea of using technology to overcome biological problems. I quite like biohacking, and I’m planning on getting a couple of implants at some point. But I’m also exceptionally boring- I like having a physical body. I like being a biological organism. I take comfort in the idea of dying at some point in the future. And generally I can’t actually stand most (other?) transhumanists, or at least the weird libertarian ones.

The weird libertarian ones are what this book focuses on. And it’s a really really good book. It’s definitely very sceptical about transhumanism- O’Connell is a wonderful mix of amused and horrified, and he communicates this really well through his writing.

I do wonder if the focus on transhumanist individuals is an issue, and I think this depends on what you want the book to communicate. Do you want this book to focus on transhumanist theory? This book isn’t that. Do you want it to focus on transhumanists as people? Think theory and practice can’t really be separated? Maybe it is that. Maybe.

O’Connell’s choices are sometimes questionable- he does mention the dominance of white (cis, although he doesn't say cis) men in transhumanism (which is absolutely a valid point imo). He then doesn’t interview any transhumanists who aren’t cis white men. Are the people who he interviews representative of transhumanists in general? I’d lean towards yes (sorry not sorry), but that is going to be something that somebody whinges about.

Overall, I think O’Connell is an excellent reporter, and To Be A Machine is a really really well written book. Don’t go in looking for an exploration of transhumanist theory or explanation of technologies, but I think it’s an excellent and (because I love to be controversial) honest depiction of what the transhumanist scene currently is, at least in Europe and North America.

Stars: ☆☆☆☆☆
Author: Mark O’Connell
Publisher: Granta Books

Necropolis: London and its Dead

People are really interested in dead people. I know I’m not in a position to call anyone out, given my subject of study, but its really interesting how much the general public becomes more interested in something if it involves dead people.

Necropolis: London and its Dead is a quick whistle stop tour of how dead people have been treated and buried at several points in London’s history. It mostly focuses on Christian (and specifically CoE when it’s applicable) behaviours, but does touch on other traditions a few times. There’s a whole four paragraphs on Jewish cemeteries and a single mention of Sikhs and Muslims, for example.

That’s bitchy I know. It is genuinely a good book and I enjoyed reading it. There’s a weird enough mix of archaeology and anecdote that it’s both easily digestible and informative (although there were a few things stated as fact that I would take issue with). There are also some weird choices in what periods Arnold chooses to focus on, and how she presents them. She glosses over Roman burial practice a lot, and often doesn’t focus on contextual information, instead presenting each chapter in isolation. She also spends a lot more time on the Victorians than other time periods, which I understand the reasons behind, but I’d have been interested in Arnold’s take on changes in later behaviours (beyond her thesis that WWI ruined it all), or even seen other time periods. Maybe I’m just bitter because I don’t really care for the Victorians too much. Who knows?

Overall I would recommend this book to members of the general public with interest in the history death, London’s history, or both. It’s a pretty good overview of the two topics, and remarkably thorough in talking about the time periods it chooses to focus on (mostly anyway…). It’s always entertaining, mostly informative, and never exploitative, and I’m not sure what more I could ask for in a book about death written for a general audience. Wouldn’t hurt to have some more stuff about non Christians though.

Stars: ☆☆☆☆
Author: Catharine Arnold
Publisher: Pocket Books

Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity

So this book is actually a couple of years old (it won the Samuel Johnson prize in 2015 but I only read it this quarter. It’s really interesting as a book, and I’m not quite sure of my take on it.

It’s an odd structured book. It starts with an introduction on the modern politics of autism, then goes on to talk about the 18th-century scientist Henry Cavendish, then about Dirac, and then finally to the history of Autism (and other names for behaviours we would call Autism today) as a diagnosis. The history of the diagnosis is basically a showdown between the ideas of Hans Asperger (who viewed Autism as a continuum and “not at all rare”) and Leo Kanner (who thought Autism was limited to “low functioning” children).

I have ASD (I prefer to call myself an aspie - or occasionally an assburger because I find it funny- but I know not everyone likes that language) and I’d heard about this book through the grapevine of neurodiversity activism. The way I’d heard about it implied that it was somehow a revolutionary text. It isn’t. It’s a meandering text, even as it’s enjoyable. The only real conclusions the book seems to come to are more tacked on to a longer piece where Silberman doesn’t seem to know what to say or conclude. I agree with Silberman that the language of disability and illness is inescapably political, but it still seems a rushed conclusion to a book that doesn’t seem to know where it’s going. It’s an enjoyable book, but just oddly structured.

Stars: ☆☆☆☆
Author: Steve Silberman
Publisher: Avery Publishing

13 Journeys Through Space and Time: Christmas Lectures from the Royal Institution

When I was a child, one of the reasons I looked forward to the Christmas holidays was being able to watch the Christmas Lectures from The Royal Institution. I’d cuddle up in bed (I was allowed to watch in my parents’ bedroom, which had a TV in it!) and watch enraptured.

Does this prove I was quite a sad and boring child? Probably. But it’s also the basis for why I really like 13 Journeys Through Space and Time. It’s a wonderful piece of nostalgia for me.

This isn’t an in depth book. It’s not meant to be. The Christmas Lectures are mostly aimed at children, and the chapters in this book are recaps of specific lectures. But they’re all eloquent, and good at explaining what seems like complex theories. The historical span of the chosen lectures is good- the earliest is from 1881 and the newest from 2015, and this choice provides a really unique glimpse into how our knowledge has evolved.

It’s a charming, lovely book. There’s some really excellent choices in pictures and diagrams (the RI archives have been made use of properly), and contextual information to each lecture is provided seamlessly. Also it’s also super pretty! It’s a dark blue hardcover with gold printing. While my love for this book is coloured by nostalgia, 13 Journeys Through Space and Time is a genuinely lovely book.

If life sciences are more your thing, there’s also 11 Explorations into Life on Earth: Christmas Lectures from the Royal Institution to check out.

Stars: ☆☆☆☆☆
Author: Various, Collected by Colin Stuart
Publisher: Michael O'Mara Books