Only three books purchased?! What’s going on?
That’s right; I only bought three books in August. There were no trips to second-hand stalls, no tempting sales, only the books I already intended to purchase. And on that, I am sticking with my recent resolution to get those books I had been avoiding. First up is Globalisation and its Discontents by Joseph Stiglitz.
Globalisation is going through a tough period at the moment. It’s become a dirty word, ironically in the very places where its strongest champions once were. For the record, I still believe globalisation is, overall, a great thing. Its greatest achievement is the way world poverty is being demolished by globalisation with all the patience and subtlety of a battery of sledgehammers. That being said, it is not good for all people at all times and in all places and it is annoying that both its advocates and its detractors seem to expect it to be.
It seems ironic that it is presently most unpopular in Britain, which began the global economy through its empire, and in America, which has carried the torch for global capitalism since the Second World War, and was an important argument in the victories of Brexiteers and Trumpists. It was so unpopular, Hillary Clinton had to disown the same free trade agreements she helped negotiate.
And yet it is not ironic that these feelings were strongest in Britain and the US. There seems to have been a degree of complacency and overconfidence because of, rather than despite, Britain and America’s economic strength. There seems to have been an assumption that, because of their economic strength, because of faith in the markets, that any downside to globalisation can be absorbed, corrected for, and will disappear without the need for their governments to do anything.
Other, smaller, less powerful countries, who have been the subjects and not the agents of globalisation, have had a different approach. Theirs has been for government policy intervention; to try to maximise the advantages, minimise the disadvantages and try to spread the benefits more evenly. Yet even those who have done this with relative success have their issues with a vocal opposition whose leaders have found an easy scapegoat.
I think we get into trouble when we turn ideas into ideologies. People seem to get over-enthused when an idea turns out to be successful in one area and they want to turn it into a whole philosophy and apply it everywhere. Capitalism may be a good way to run an industry but not a water supply. Democracy may be a good way to select political leaders but not military leaders. Those examples seem obvious, but even where they are less obvious people seem to behave as if they believe that applying different ideas to different situations is a bad thing.
Every political party will not countenance certain ideas, not because they don’t work but because it goes against the party ideology. To be fair, voters agree and can be devastating when they sense what they interpret as hypocrisy or double-standards. We seem stuck with taking the bad with the good until we feel it is time for the other guys to have a turn with their bad and their good. There is no party I know of that just stands for ideas that work, irrespective of the philosophy behind them. A party comprised of experts in economics, science, public health and education, foreign policy, etc, would be an easy target for all other parties and voters to denounce as ‘elitist’. Nobody would vote for that.
I try to be more pragmatic. I don’t believe there is, or ever will be, a universal philosophy that works everywhere at all times. I think some level of hypocrisy is inevitable and that it’s better to accept some level of hypocrisy than endorsing ideas that don’t work or ignoring ideas that do work. I support globalisation because it works, where and when it is supposed to, and it works better than any alternative, but I resist any temptation to become a fundamentalist. I don’t deny it has downsides but I think even with the downsides it is still better than alternatives, that a lot more could be done to mitigate them and certainly don’t think the downsides can be ignored. It’s when people’s ideologies lead them to think that taking action to mitigate the downsides is committing some sort of blasphemy against the idea or that the downsides mean the whole idea should be scrapped that we have problems. Yet that sounds like a good summation of what the two sides in the debate currently sound like.
Anyway, I could go on, but I should stop my rant here. The above is my personal – and I cannot emphasise this enough – unqualified opinion! Which brings me back to the book. Globalisation and its Discontents purports to be a challenge to globalisation from a foremost critic. There are no shortage of those, but what makes Stiglitz worth listening to is that, unlike others (and me), you can’t call him unqualified. He is a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Economics and a former Chief Economist at the World Bank.
In a world where social media algorithms feed us opinions we already agree with, it has never been more important to read books that challenge our preconceptions. That is why I bought this book. But I wonder if it has a sting in its tail. I wonder if in fact Stiglitz, like me, is a pragmatist who is not so much critiquing globalisation as an idea but as an ideology? We’ll see.
The second book I bought was The Bible Unearthed by Finklestein and Silberman.
Is there any subject more fascinating than biblical archaeology? I didn’t even know it was possible to investigate the events of the Bible with physical evidence until recently. A few years ago I watched the BBC documentary series The Bible’s Buried Secrets presented by Francesca Stavrakopoulou and found it incredible. I did reach out to Stavrakopoulou on Twitter to see if there were any books for laymen on the subject she could recommend. Unfortunately, she did not reply, but she did reply to someone else with a similar question. Finklestein, a leading scholar on biblical archaeology, is one she pointed out. I can barely contain my excitement for reading this book but there is so much else I have to read. Finklestein and Silberman have another book on David and Solomon and I think it will be inevitable that I will get that too.
The third book I bought was Maybe Yes, Maybe No by Dan Barker. I’m not going to say anything about it because it is a short book and I may read it and review it soon.
August was a difficult month personally. My two-year-old is doing a great job building up her immune-bank at her playgroups and day-care and it feels like she has hardly been cold-free all year. Naturally, I get most of her colds. August was a real struggle with us both being sick, being severely sleep-deprived, but also worn out and stressed with day-to-day work, study and even doing some paid work from home.
Despite all this, I did manage to finish three books in August, which puts me about four books behind in my reviews with no relief in sight for finding time to write those reviews up.
First, I finished River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh, the second novel of his Ibis Trilogy following Sea of Poppies. Most of the way, I found it to be OK. It was not what I was expecting having read the first novel. But it really came together in the end. So much so that I would have to say I enjoyed it as much as Sea of Poppies. I am currently knee-deep in the third novel, Flood of Fire, and so far enjoying it even more!
I also finished Genius; a biography of Richard Feynman by James Gleick. I am half way through writing up my review and, as usual, struggling to keep it brief.
The third book I finished is one that was not on my 2017 Reading List – Fatherland by Robert Harris. Hmmm. I think I will keep my thoughts on this one for the review.
So, I did the math and it turns out I may have ample time to complete my 2017 Reading List even though the remaining books are difficult ones and I may have to read them one at a time. So, there is the possibility of squeezing another book in. What book will it be? Well, my wife gave me an ultimatum. Either I read The Handmaid’s Tale or she is going to start watching the TV series without me.
This is totally unfair! TBR lists are sacred and ought to be respected! Of course, I will read The Handmaid’s Tale… one day, in my own time. I have a lot of Atwood, unread, on my shelves and was even thinking of working through them chronologically but this has thrown a spanner in those works. I’m also strongly allergic to hype and the TV series is difficult to avoid, the novel has returned to the bestseller lists, which only turns me off from reading it soon even more.
[Sigh] But there is not much I can do about it. So I’m reading The Handmaid’s Tale too. Is there any point to reviewing it? If there was a Venn diagram of books read and loved, The Handmaid’s Tale must reside in one of those regions most overlapped by people of varying tastes? What could possibly be said that has not been said many, many times over?