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Frontlist | Thirty books to help us understand the world in 2020

Frontlist | Thirty books to help us understand the world in 2020
on Oct 19, 2020
Frontlist | Thirty books to help us understand the world in 2020
The climate crisis, gender, populism, big tech, pandemics, race… our experts recommend titles to illuminate the issues of the day

Michael E Mann on the environment

A distinguished climatologist and geophysicist, Michael Mann is director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of more than 200 peer-reviewed and edited publications tagias well as four books, including 2012’s The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars and his forthcoming The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planetdue out in January 2021 (Public Affairs Books). For Small Creatures Such as We Sasha Sagan (Murdoch Books, 2019) Carl Sagan was arguably the greatest science communicator of our time. He inspired many – including me – to enter the world of science. He is sadly no longer with us. But his daughter, Sasha Sagan, honours his legacy in her wonderful new book. Drawing its title from a line taken from Carl’s novel Contact ( adapted into the 1997 feature film of the same name), Sasha invites us to appreciate the everyday wonders of life through the eyes of science, sharing a worldview instilled by her unique upbringing, which she delightfully recounts for us. Read this book and feel a bit better about our world, our universe, and our place in it. The Ministry for the Future Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit, 2020) Doomist framing can be disabling, and it is all too common these days in popular climate change-themed narratives. A refreshing counterbalance to the glut of apocalyptic visions of climate catastrophe is this latest novel from sci-fi novelist Kim Stanley Robinson (with whom I recently spoke about the effort). In The Ministry for the Future, Stan uses the accounts of fictional future eyewitnesses to convey the stark threat of climate change. But that future, by some measure, is already here. Rather than suggesting our doom is destined, he shows how we can rise to this extraordinary challenge. A dystopian future is possible if we fail to act. But a utopian future is not out of reach if we succeed in doing so. All We Can Save Edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K Wilkinson (Penguin Random House, 2020) Climate change is a powerful “threat multiplier,” taking existing vulnerabilities and injustices and making them worse. Women and girls face greater risk of displacement or death from extreme weather disasters, and there is a link between climate change and gender-based violence. Tasks core to survival, such as collecting water and wood or growing food, fall largely on female shoulders in many cultures. These are already challenging activities; climate change can increase the burden, and with it struggles for health, education, and financial security. All We Can Save is a welcome collection of provocative and illuminating essays from more than 60 women, many of them friends and colleagues of mine, who are at the forefront of the climate movement. The Great Derangement Amitav Ghosh (University of Chicago Press, 2016) Are we deranged? The acclaimed Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh argues that future generations may well think so. How else do we explain our imaginative failure in the face of global warming? In his first major book of nonfiction since In an Antique Land (1992), Ghosh examines our inability – at the level of literature, history, and politics – to grasp the scale and violence of climate change. And he calls for collective action and transformative change as we rise to tackle the defining challenge of our time. Resetting Our Future: What If Solving the Climate Crisis Is Simple? Tom Bowman (Changemakers, 2020) Too often we encounter efforts to dismiss climate change as a “wicked” – that is, essentially unsolvable – problem. But nothing could be more wicked than such unhelpful framing. Tom Bowman is a communication expert who has helped create museum experiences that engage and educate the public about climate change. In this breezy, concise primer on climate action, he explains why the only obstacles that remain are societal and political will. And we have the ability to surmount those obstacles, if we simply make the commitment, to paraphrase the great Yoda, to not just try, but do.

Anne Applebaum on populism

A Polish-American journalist and historian, Anne Applebaum is a staff writer at the Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University. In 2004, she won a Pulitzer prize for Gulag: A History. Her latest book is Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. What Is Populism? Jan-Werner Müller (Penguin, 2017) The movements that we have come to call “populist” are defined by one central idea: they reject pluralism. That’s the argument Jan-Werner Müller makes in What Is Populism?, the definitive account of contemporary authoritarian populism. Populists, Müller explains, claim that they alone represent the people or the nation; that their opponents are traitors, foreigners or unpatriotic elites; that there can be no neutral political institutions and symbols. If they obtain power, authoritarian populists invariably argue that they need to change the rules of the system, undermining democratic norms and institutions so that they can remain in power. If they can convince people that these norms and institutions are worthless, they can succeed. The People vs Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It Yascha Mounk (Harvard University Press, 2018) Authoritarian populism, which he calls “democracy without rights” is also an important focus of Yascha Mounk’s The People vs Democracy. But Mounk also identifies another phenomenon, that of “rights without democracy” – the rise of technocratic elites who effectively take what should be political issues out of public contestation. Mounk argues that to combat both of these dangerous trends, a broader rejuvenation of democracy is needed: deep economic and cultural changes that can give people agency and control over their lives as well as the conviction that they are truly represented by their political leaders. How Democracies Die Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (Viking, 2018) In How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, scholars of democratic breakdown, concentrate their formidable historical and political knowledge on the United States. They pick up some of the warning signs that Müller describes: the breakdown of “mutual toleration” – respect for election results, respect for media – as well as the rising number of political actors who are no longer convinced that their political opponents are legitimate. Using their study of other countries, they also offer some solutions. Everyone, on all sides, should learn how to speak to their political opponents; everyone, on all sides, should treat opposition parties and platforms as legitimate. As the US election gets closer the lessons of this bestselling book seem to become more pertinent every day. Ruling the Void: The Hollowing-out of Western Democracy Peter Mair (Verso, 2013) The late Peter Mair’s Ruling the Void was a kind of canary in the coalmine, a book that pointed to the real dangers of democratic decline before they were widely acknowledged, and before the populist movements in Europe and the US were fully visible. Mair, a keen observer of political parties, noted that political participation was falling, that the public was less interested in democratic debate; like Mounk, he also identified the dangerous emergence of a separate class of professional politicians, cut off from the trade unions and church groups that had produced grassroots political leaders in the past. He explained why they were losing support, and why this was dangerous, before they knew it themselves. Post-Communist Mafia State: The Case of Hungary Bálint Magyar (Central European University Press, 2016) Authoritarian populism is usually associated with a rise in corruption. This is no accident, argues Bálint MagyarOnce government inspectors, courts and media are all politicised, run by people with links to the ruling party, there is no accountability and a mafia-like oligarchy will inevitably emerge. Magyar explains how this worked in Hungary, a country where cynicism and greed have led not only to the end of democracy but to the end of fair markets. Instead, Hungary has a rigged system, one in which the top layer of the economy is dominated by the prime minister’s friends. Required reading for anyone who wants to understand not just how populism begins, but where it ends.

Jeffrey Boakye on race

A writer and teacher from south London, now living in Yorkshire, Jeffrey Boakye is the author of Hold Tight: Black Masculinity, Millennials, and the Meaning of Grime, and Black, Listed: Black British Culture Explored. His forthcoming book, I Heard What You Said, examines racism in British schools. Think Like a White Man Dr Boulé Whytelaw III: As told by Nels Abbey (Canongate, 2019) Powerful exploration of race politics is one thing, searing social commentary is another, and razor-sharp satire is a third entirely. But put them all together? This is a book like no other, taking you on a thrill ride/thrill guide through the world of default white dominance. Nels Abbey has created a work of the blackest humour (pun intended) and it is unrepentantly rewarding. Think Like a White Man is a reminder that while the race debate doesn’t come with a safety net, a sense of humour will soften the blow. Or make it hit harder, I’m not sure. I’m still recovering. Wicked in every sense of the word. Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging Afua Hirsch (Jonathan Cape, 2018) Afua Hirsch takes a journalistic lens to her life, her times and her own thoughts on race and identity, and the outcome is compelling. Brit(ish) operates as a beautifully written, poignantly honest memoir while also scrutinising modern history and popular culture. The breadth of Hirsch’s focus is impressive, throwing the spotlight on everything from sport, arts and the media to politics, education and capital H history. Her insights are numerous and profound, big and small, woven into the details of a personal life we can all learn from. The Good Immigrant USA Various, edited by Chimene Suleyman and Nikesh Shukla (Dialogue, 2019) “Twenty-six writers reflect on America” might sound straightforward enough, but this collection of essays on the experiences of being “othered” in the United States today quickly reveals itself to be a complex and varied tapestry of marginalised perspectives from numerous fascinating angles. White, mainstream America’s relationship with minority groups is always worthy of serious attention, with space needing to be given to hear narratives, plural, lived by first and second-generation immigrants. This is a book that lays bare the fissures, cracks and cavernous ravines that ripple through American identity politics, offering sensitive, generous debate and genuine insight. I Am Not Your Baby Mother Candice Brathwaite (Quercus, 2020) When you start with the sobering fact that black British women are five times more likely than their white peers to die during childbirth, you know that this is going to be an essential exploration of the realities of black motherhood in the UK. Candice Brathwaite does the difficult job of packing deep treatise and social commentary into a seriously readable memoir. Not only does this book lift the lid on the biases and racial prejudices entrenched in our various institutions; it also invites you to make a new friend – one who has something important to teach you about being a) black, b) a mum and c) British, at the same time. Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire Akala (Two Roads, 2018) Akala has aimed to carve a fairly narrow niche for himself as a (deep breath) rapper producer recording artist theatre producer novelist essayist entrepreneur historian, but he pulls it off with impressive confidence. Natives is a vital interrogation of the myths of empire, namely the British empire, zooming in on the intersections of race and class, while exposing the realities of growing up black and British in imperial shadows. Without sensationalism, Akala draws back the curtain on parts of the empire that it would rather not see, with insights that throw our current position into sharp relief. Illuminating.

Helen Lewis on feminism and gender

Formerly deputy editor of the New StatesmanHelen Lewis is a staff writer for the Atlantic and a regular host of BBC Radio 4’s The Week in Westminster. Her first book, Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights, was published earlier this year. Men Who Hate Women Laura Bates (Simon & Schuster, 2020) “Women have very little idea of how much men hate them,” wrote Germaine Greer in The Female Eunuch. Well, the internet certainly fixed that. At first, it seems surprising that Laura Bates – perhaps the nicest woman in British feminism – would choose to immerse herself in the worst sewers of online misogyny. But Bates has spent eight years giving talks to schools, and in that time she has watched boys become “angry, resistant to the very idea of a conversation about sexism”. The book uncovers the “incels”, pickup artists and trolls whose sense of victimisation can bleed into threats and violence. In the Darkroom Susan Faludi (William Collins, 2016) The life of Susan Faludi’s father – born Istvan, became Steven, died as Stefánie – would be unbelievable if it weren’t true. In 1930s Hungary, the young Istvan Friedman escaped Nazi death squads who pulled down men’s trousers to see if they were circumcised. After the war, he reincarnated himself as all-American Steven Faludi. And at 76, Faludi went to Thailand to become Stefánie, before returning to a homeland once again succumbing to authoritarianism in the early 2000s. Today, the farright in eastern Europe rails against “LGBT ideology”; Hungary recently banned citizens from changing their legal gender. Istvan Friedman’s generation of assimilated Jews found it hard to believe that acceptance can go backwards; before she died, Stefánie Faludi might have wondered if the same was happening with gender nonconformity. Invisible Women Caroline Criado Perez (Chatto, 2019) Shameless nepotism – Caroline is a friend – but for a good cause. Simone de Beauvoir’s book The Second Sex was a feminist landmark, untangling how cultural codes designated women as the “other”. Here, Criado Perez updates that observation for an age where algorithmic bias matters just as much as human prejudice. The pandemic has made her message even more relevant: men are more likely to die from Covid-19, while many women have struggled with poorly fitting protective equipment designed for male bodies. It will help women and men if medical trials and industrial design take biological sex – and cultural gender – into account. Loud Black Girls Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené (Fourth Estate, 2020) Not every essay in this collection of young black British female writers is a knockout – it is heavy on undigested slabs of biography – but it is full of gems. My favourite contributions are from financial journalist Fiona Rutherford, on her struggle to get out of debt; writer Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff on conquering shyness; and influencer Candice Brathwaite on the moment her father-in-law expected her daughter to wait on him at the dinner table. (“But Grandpa, why?” the six-year-old asked him, innocently. “There is nothing wrong with your legs.”) Read it to understand the fears, obsessions and cherished beliefs of a generation of writers who are determined to be heard. How Not to Be a Boy Robert Webb (Canongate, 2017) Men are often the forgotten half of the gender conversation – perhaps because they are less likely to buy books telling them what they’re doing wrong. Like Caitlin Moran’s feminist blockbuster How to Be A Woman, this book is a bittersweet memoir about growing up in the Midlands, reckoning with gender roles, and the challenges of adolescence. Webb is honest about his struggle with alcohol, his flirtation with bisexuality, and the importance of male friendship. Also like Moran, his success created a mini-industry: this year’s masculinity-themed memoirs include Alan Davies’s Just Ignore Him and Charlie Gilmour’s Fatherhood.

Laura Spinney on pandemics

A British science journalist based in Paris, Laura Spinney is the author of Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World. She has written for NatureNational GeographicNew Scientist and the Guardian, and has also published two novels. The Black Death 1346-1353 Ole Benedictow (Boydell Press, 2004) Some excellent books have been written about possibly the worst pandemic of all time. I’m thinking of Philip Ziegler’s The Black Death (1969) and Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror (1978), in particular. Unfortunately, they’re out of date. If you want the latest facts on a calamity so terrible that the poet Petrarch lamented nobody in the future would ever believe it had happened, pick up Ole Benedictow’s complete history of the Black Death. A historian at the University of Oslo, Benedictow has revised the death toll up dramatically, arguing that the plague wiped out 60% of Europe’s population. His revision is based on painstaking analysis of mortality data, rather than estimates, and he continues to strengthen his case. A new, expanded edition is due early next year. 28: Stories of Aids in Africa Stephanie Nolen (Walker & Company, 2007) Likewise, some memorable books have been written about Aids – including David France’s How to Survive a Plague (2016) – but relatively few nonfiction accounts of one of the other great pandemics of our time have addressed its impact beyond the United States of America. Stephanie Nolen’s 28 does just that, through 28 stories of Africans whose lives were affected by Aids. One thing her book brings home is how powerfully politics, society and culture shape a pandemic – and hence, how it assumes different forms depending on where it strikes. The Pull of the Stars Emma Donoghue (Picador, 2020) The other big one, sometimes referred to as the mother of all pandemics, is the 1918 “Spanish” flu. Contemporary writers of fiction mostly ignored it, training their gaze on the first world war instead, but lately their modern counterparts have been playing catch-up. Emma Donoghue’s novel is set in a flu-ridden maternity ward in Dublin. Pregnant women were extremely vulnerable to that flu, as were their unborn babies, and Donoghue does something clever: she shows that their struggle was no less dramatic, or heroic, than the one unfolding on the western front. The Rules of Contagion Adam Kucharski (Wellcome Collection, 2020) “If you’ve seen one pandemic, you’ve seen… one pandemic,” is a saying dear to disease modellers. Covid-19 behaves differently from flu which behaves differently from every other disease that has ever caused a global outbreak, and yet they all obey a basic set of rules. Epidemiologist Adam Kucharski’s timely book explains those rules along with such by-now celebrity concepts as the R (reproduction) number and herd immunity. One intriguing idea he explores is that a fake news pandemic such as we’re witnessing obeys the same internal logic as the disease it feeds off. Kucharski’s is an accessible account of the science that is guiding our governments, when they choose to listen. Sulphuric Utopias Lukas Engelmann and Christos Lynteris (MIT Press, 2020) Lest we forget what a pain in the arse infectious diseases are, and how much effort our forebears invested in keeping them at bay, the magnificently titled Sulphuric Utopias exists to remind us. A pleasure to read and also available via open access, it’s the story of how early 20th-century fumigation technologies transformed maritime quarantine practices and inspired utopian visions of disease-free global trade. Remember that?

John Naughton on big tech

The Observer’s technology columnist, John Naughton is emeritus professor of the public understanding of technology at the Open University and a senior research fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. His most recent book is From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: What You Really Need to Know About the Internet. Steve Jobs Walter Isaacson (Little, Brown, 2011) Steve Jobs revolutionised five industries – personal computers, animated movies, music, phones and tablet computing – so if you want to understand how our digital world evolved, this sprawling, 630-page biography by a man who knew him well is a good place to start. Although Jobs cooperated with the author, he asked for no control over what was written and put nothing off limits. Reading it, you wouldn’t want to work for Jobs. On the other hand, you’re glad that people like him exist. The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves W Brian Arthur (Simon & Schuster, 2009) Brian Arthur is a brilliant economist who one day started to wonder what this force that we call “technology” is. What is its nature, its essence? And how does it evolve? This remarkable book was the outcome of his search for an answer to these questions. It comes in the form of a theory about technology’s origins and evolution. In a way, Arthur did for our understanding of technological progress what Thomas Kuhn did for our understanding of how science advances. In his account, technology doesn’t advance by the “lightbulb” moments of popular imagination but at points where a number of other apparently unrelated developments suddenly come together to enable something entirely new. Which, of course, is also why tech often catches us unawares. Re-engineering Humanity Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger (Cambridge University Press, 2018) We like to think that technology is there to serve humanity. But this sobering book by a legal scholar (Frischmann) and a philosopher (Selinger) suggests a darker possibility, which is that we have been building a world in which humans are being subtly re-engineered to make them more receptive to machine-driven logics. Our looming problem, they argue, isn’t so much the rise of “smart” machines as the dumbing down of humanity. Implausible? Maybe. And then you remember that the only response option offered to its users by Facebook is to “Like” something: the entire spectrum of possible human responses is forced through a single, narrow aperture. If that isn’t dumbing down, I don’t know what is. Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control Stuart Russell (Allen Lane, 2019) Stuart Russell is one of the leading experts on artificial intelligence and this book is a real tour de force that outlines the risks of increasingly powerful AI in an authoritative and readable way. Russell believes that our current approach to designing intelligent machines is fundamentally misguided – and would indeed lead to dystopian outcomes if the visions of its evangelists ever came to fruition. He’s very good at explaining how we got to where we are now, but is also able to make a persuasive case for how we can escape catastrophic superintelligence and ensure that machines augment human capabilities rather than make them redundant. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism Shoshana Zuboff (Profile Books, 2019) A big book in every sense of the term. It’s the first account of how capitalism morphed to exploit the conditions of the digital age. It’s “a new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction and sales”. What’s most interesting about the book is the way it provides a historical context that makes the business models of Facebook and Google more intelligible. In a way, capitalism hasn’t really mutated. It’s merely adapted to new opportunities and found new kinds of resources to pillage. Except that now it’s not the Earth’s resources that are being appropriated, but our minds and behaviour.  

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