My #reading: July 2016

Historians indeed hope that their books might entwine intimately with the lives of their readers and that their histories may sit on bedside tables ready to enter dreams.

History – that unending dialogue between the present and the past – is essential to human consciousness. It is conducted as part of the daily business of living, of knowing oneself, of grappling with memory and of finding meaning.

The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft  by Tom Griffiths has been reviewed positively and is even better than that. The author explores the craft of fourteen of Australia’s most interesting historians and the text certainly reflects Griffiths’ belief that “History is essential to meaning and identity and…its greatest virtue is uncompromising complexity”. Historians discussed – in all their complexity – that I enjoyed most included: Eleanor Dark, Judith Wright, Geoffrey Blainey, Henry Reynolds, Greg Dening and Inga Clendinnen. Griffiths successfully makes his considerable understanding of these historians clear to the reader and in some cases it will be as revelatory as it was for this reader. For example, having read Blainey my entire adult life I found much to contemplate in Griffiths’ analysis of this historian’s approach to the “great seesaw” of history:

When struggling to explain great social and intellectual transformations, especially the one in his own lifetime, Blainey turned repeatedly to the great seesaw. It is an exhilarating metaphor and illuminating in the connections it makes across the vast terrain of history, but it is also a mechanism that poses simple binaries and reduces novelty to passing fashion.

Some of Blainey’s work ranks highly on my favourite lists while other points of view he has espoused horrify me, especially as promoted by a former prime minister. Griffiths, although generous to each historian he discusses, manages to illuminate the context in which they wrote/write successfully.

I found myself, after reading anecdotes about the previously unknown (to me) Greg Dening, wishing I had been lucky enough to experience his teaching philosophy in action:

Dening was critical of the narrowing impact of professionalisation on the teaching of history. He urged a new socialising process in undergraduate teaching, one that would free students from the rigidities of disciplines and enable them to write history as well as read it. He exposed his students to exciting and sometimes bewildering freedoms: freedom from the overlay of others’ interpretations, freedom to ransack insights from other disciplines, freedom to experiment.

Griffiths – who is a keen walker – is the most likeable of writers and what I can only describe as a most pleasant authorial tone and attitude is captured in this quote:

No matter how practised we are at history, it always humbles us. No matter how often we visit the past, it always surprises us. The art of time travel is to maintain critical poise and grace in this dizzy space. There is a further hazard: we never return to exactly the same present from which we left, for time cycles on remorselessly even when we seek to defy it. And in the course of our quest we find that we, too, have.

Highly recommended. You can follow Tom on Twitter.

I agree with the novelist James Bradley that we mustn’t value fiction for its non-fiction: we ‘mustn’t make research the thing that matters about fiction’. Tom Griffiths

Clade by James Bradley has been on my “to read” list since it was published last year, especially as my partner read it very quickly and rated it highly. The novel is set in a near future where climate change is becoming more and more catastrophic. Many would classify it as speculative fiction but there increasingly doesn’t seem much that is particularly speculative about the looming environmental crisis and resulting impact of refugees and large-scale population movement. The novel feels like the unfolding of what is more than just likely – it feels inevitable. 

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The characters are well-drawn and their responses to the crumbling of our world and what quickly becomes a new familiar is very believable. Each family situation feels real. The section where Ellie meets Amir is the strongest in the book, along with the scenes outside of London where Adam and his grandson flee, that precede it. Both moved me. Bradley’s passion for nature, art and family are reassuringly human in a world teetering on the precipice of something quite nasty – and terrifyingly real.

My only disappointment with the novel was that it felt truncated. I really wanted it to go on and project further into an imagined future. Maybe that was just too painful to do.

History repeats itself, in part because the genome repeats itself. And the genome repeats itself, in part because history does. The impulses, ambitions, fantasies, and desires that drive human history are, at least in part, encoded in the human genome. And human history has, in turn, selected genomes that carry these impulses, ambitions, fantasies, and desires.

The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee is a comprehensive, scholarly and, as the title suggests, quite personal exploration of a scientific topic that has completely obsessed our society in recent decades. The history covers all the familiar names such as Mendel, Darwin, Crick, Watson and Rosa Franklin but includes many innovators and scientists in the burgeoning biotech industry, especially in the last few decades, who are not so well-known. The six parts range from 1865 to conceptions of a post-human future. He explores a vast range of topics that many people will have but a passing knowledge through reading newspapers and magazines. There are particularly insightful passages about Nazi eugenics, heredity, population genetics, twins, cloning and the politics of race, sexuality and identity that make for interesting reading for those who wish to think further about the impact of scientific understanding in and on our culture. 

I like how Mukherjee reflects on the ways in which many of us are now forced to think about our genes and ourselves. Moral complexities and a range societal challenges are explored as successfully as the scientific story. He asks important questions which are often left to science fiction writers and filmmakers:

What becomes of being human when we learn to “read” and “write” our own genetic information?

Our ability to read out this sequence of our own genome has the makings of a philosophical paradox. Can an intelligent being comprehend the instructions to make itself?

This book is deserving of a 5000 word review but alas, not tonight. I have been reading and thinking a great deal about genomics in recent years and can highly recommend this book to any reader willing to make what will be a very worthwhile effort to tackle it. I listened to the audiobook but will now buy a hardback copy to re-read what is an important and quite unique, well-written and comprehensive look at an essential scientific concept. Highly recommended.

An A to Z of DNA Science: What Scientists Mean When They Talk about Genes and Genomes by Jeffrey L. Witherly is a book I need on my shelf as the terminology to understand DNA science is challenging. My lifelong challenge is to overcome the incredibly poor science education I had at school and my own lack of wide-reading in the sciences during my formative years. For two decades I have read popular science, often struggling with concepts that I never really comprehended. I read this quickly, from A-Z and will find myself reaching for this dictionary in coming months as I take on some challenging, although quite introductory, courses to the subject.

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I finally finished The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution by Richard Dawkins only to realise that there is an updated edition of the book co-authored to bring it up to date with the latest scientific understanding. Oh well. The audiobook is read by Dawkins and his wife, Lalla Ward (who we know as Romana in 1980s episodes of Dr Who and as Tom Baker’s wife at the time they worked together in the series). It occasionally hard work but not too bad as far as readings go.

I have always admired Richard Dawkins’ bravery and rationalism in fighting ignorance. He often is attacked but like Dawkins, since I was an 11-year old boy, I have not been able to really understand why people believe in deities with such fervour. Dawkins’ logic always seemed so fundamentally obvious and watching a satirical news show this week one has to wonder why this sentiment is not more widespread in the 21st century?

…isn’t all belief in an all-powerful supernatural being ultimately a mental health issue?          Shaun Micallef in “Mad as Hell

I guess that situations like that Salman Rushdie has experienced for most of his adult life is one reason why more do not speak out or maybe it is just quite simply because power-structures will defend their privilege over rational enquiry in anyway they can…including dismissing Richard Dawkins.

Another passage flanked by stone figures, another doorway, and this next room was white, the shelves full of Anglo-Saxon poetry. ‘Of course, he was the last of his generation,’ said Anthony. ‘No one else survived. They were the war dons, the ones who postponed their careers to go away and fight. He was seventeen when the war began. Elegant young men, studying in these sequestered colleges and then they were blood-stained and terrified, struggling each day to survive, vomiting with fear and yet concealing every shudder of dread, every spasm of pure unbridled horror and they killed so many men, they lost count, and witnessed the gory death spasms of their comrades and then, they went back to Oxford. They were supposed to carry on. As if nothing had happened.

I was disappointed by A Field Guide to Reality by Joanna Kavenna as the author is clearly a very promising one and the blurb drew me into what seemed like a moody, interesting idea for a novel. By the end it felt like a draft in need of an editor than a completely realised novel.

What went wrong? Maybe it was just the impossibility of dreaming-up what such a ‘field guide’ these Oxford dons are seeking might be or the difficulty of doing anything much to not find it with a sufficiently clever, ironic musings with Douglas Adams-like humour. Having said that, there are some memorable observations, descriptions and episodes that amuse. The illustrations by Oly Ralfe are excellent.

Words are terrifying. They are not real. I prefer shapes.

Of course, a death brings insane torrents of bureaucracy, but I couldn’t face embarking on them at first, I was too tired and I couldn’t believe they were really necessary…

I really wanted this novel to be a tour-de-force and may give it another chance and re-read it if anyone else can summon up enthusiasm to tell me why they enjoyed the book just in case it revealed itself to you more completely.

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Speaking to the Rose: Writings, 1912-1932 by Robert Walser should be read slowly and savoured – especially the second half of the book. The work was never written for publication and occasionally this is obvious. There are many moments of insight and beauty.

Education is always a reciprocal affair, the teachers learn from those they teach, who learn from them.

“In my opinion nothing is not political. Everything, beginning with this scoop I lift from the carefully polished floor, is political. Every step, every kiss, every gift, every word, every mouthful of food, every hat, every pair of trousers, every breath drawn belongs with politics, and that’s a fact of which I’m unshakeably convinced.”

Never was I adversely affected by the idea that people might think I’d gone artistically astray. The question “What you’re doing isn’t art any more, is it?” sometimes seemed to lay a hand gently on my shoulder. Yet I could tell myself that a person who persists in his endeavours did not need to be troubled by demands so laden with idealism that they made him miserable. I freely admit that I had no heart to deny myself the taking of a walk, within certain limits. For me it’s enough to allow myself to think that time continued wondrously to look after me. I’m still alive and am thankful for that, and perhaps I may permissibly give thanks that I’m of a mind to be of one mind with myself. If I sometimes wrote at a venture, on impulse, it looked a bit comical to deadly earnest people; but I was experimenting with language, hoping that it contains an unknown livingness, the arousal of which is a joy. Insofar as I wished to enlarge my scope and made that wish come true, people may now and then have disapproved. Criticism will always keep company with endeavours.

I am only just coming to grips with Robert Walser (1878–1956) and this book has a particularly good introduction and a useful chronology to the author’s life. It becomes obvious why Hermann Hesse believed, “if he had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place,” It may also have been more sensible to read this after his fiction but nevertheless it is an enjoyable, gentle read. I am currently reading a couple of his novels and will review them next month.

The coronation stone at Kingston upon Thames, where on 4 September 925 Athelstan was anointed, presented with a ring, a sword and a sceptre, and – a first in England – crowned.

For the first time, a single king laid claim to the whole of Britain. The heartland of Athelstan’s realm was to be found in the south of the island, in the ancient kingdom of Wessex, which by the time of his accession in AD 924 had come to stretch from Cornwall to Kent. At his coronation, though, he had been crowned as the king not of the West Saxons, but of the Anglo-Saxons: due reflection of the fact that the Angles of Mercia, who inhabited the lands immediately north of Wessex, were his subjects too…When poets and chroniclers hailed Athelstan as ‘rex totius Britanniae’ – ‘the king of the whole of Britain’ – they were not indulging in idle flattery, but simply stating fact. 

Athelstan by Tom Holland is the first king in the 45-book Penguin Monarchs series. I have a reasonable understanding of his grandfather, Alfred the Great but Athelstan (c. 894-939) was but a name (as was his father, Edward). This period of history is not easy to understand and Holland does a good job showing the politics of the period and family power struggles. It was illuminating to see how his Alfred’s love of learning and understanding of the power being literate confers influences and connects his heirs with the past:

Alfred, in his desperate and ultimately triumphant struggle to stave off the ruin of his kingdom, had marshalled scribes as well as spearmen. The royal household into which Athelstan was born in either 894 or 895 was not lacking in ‘ancient books full of wisdom’. The young boy, as he grew up, would have been left in no doubt as to the antiquity and achievements of the dynasty to which he belonged.

I know understand that Athelstan’s conquest of York in 927, a few years after becoming the King of the Anglo-Saxons, was the decisive moment in the forging of a unitary English kingdom. Coins, minted in the city soon after its capture, probably shows York Minster. Alfred’s grandson holds onto his hard-won kingdom for over a decade but has no children and his half-brother succeeds him.

I like Tom Holland’s work and this did not disappoint. It is a quick read and I suspect that the series will be popular.

Building the Nation: N.F.S. Grundtvig and Danish National Identity by John A. Hall, Ove Korsgaard, Ove K. Pedersen has taught me much about a most important 19th century figure in the development of Danish civil society and identity. Interesting enough, Grundtvig’s personal experiences in Great Britain informed much of his progressive thinking.

Here are just some of the many quotes I clipped from the ebook which will provide a summary of Grundtvig’s life, ideas and influence:

A society is primarily a community of feeling that lives in the imagination of its citizens.

The significance of an individual like N.F.S. Grundtvig must be seen in terms of the building of a modern Danish nation, which was, in turn, critical to the success of the modern Danish state.

In other words, the state is an organization within civil society, not the other way round. It is the physical heart-muscle that distributes and guides the spiritual streams that emanate from the larger heart of civil society. The state guards society and administers its infrastructure, while society embraces the state as its inner life, foundation, and reason for being. Thus, built into the image of the state as a heart-relation is the idea of a “civil society” as the spiritual and reflexive dimension of the state.

Grundtvig lived a very long and productive life from 1783 to 1872. In this long life, he not only witnessed enormous changes in his own society and state but also lived through the intellectual periods of the Enlightenment and romanticism, both of which left a deep imprint on his thinking. He is the single person most responsible for the national culture and political thinking that came to characterize the Denmark of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It may even be argued that he still plays a dominant role in the national and social thinking of the globalized inhabitants of Denmark today, even when they operate as relatively successful managers in transnational companies all over the world.

Nikolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig was born on 8 September 1783, the last of five surviving children, in the village of Udby, ninety-seven kilometres south of Copenhagen. His father, Johan Grundtvig, preached a pietistic Lutheran Christianity; his mother, Marie Bang, was a strong-willed and practical woman, who traced her lineage back to the famous Danish warrior Skjalm Hvide (ca. 1040–1113). After private tutoring in the vicarage, the young Grundtvig was sent away to Jutland at the age of nine to be prepared for Aarhus Grammar School by a family friend. Academically he went from success to success, gaining a first-class degree in theology from Copenhagen in 1803 at only twenty years of age.

Grundtvig’s earliest writings show him concerned to raise the standards of the people, seen as a category within an estates society. But his three trips to England between 1829 and 1831, together with the pressure of events, moved him to a new position, in which the sovereignty of the people was vested in the nation (see Korsgaard 2004). In this context, it is important to note the difference between Grundtvig and the National Liberals. The latter wanted to build the nation by means of a state nationalism from above, in which popular forces would have limited power within the electoral process. Grundtvig stood a little closer to the great liberal thinkers in England, keen to extend the vote but only once the populace was enlightened (Harvie 1976).

Grundtvig and his movement are of interest because they present a case of a strong national identity being formed from the bottom up rather than by a top-down state builder using authoritarian methods. They also present a case of a strong national identity being defined in a way that is compatible with democracy and a non-aggressive foreign policy. It stands in sharp contrast to the kind of chauvinistic nationalism being cultivated to the south in Germany at the time.

The most important of Grundtvig’s ideas, however, had to do not with politics but with education. Returning from a trip to England in 1831 when he visited Trinity College, Cambridge, he conceived the idea of a “People’s High School” that would recreate the atmosphere of fellowship and collegiality that he had witnessed there. He distinguished between the “masses” and the “people” and saw education as a means of transforming the one into the other. And he believed that the language of instruction should be the language of the peasants – Danish – and not Latin, as was still the case for much of European elite education at the time. The new People’s High School was to be complemented by a Nordic university in Gothenberg, and the two would link the teaching of practical skills with the kind of higher academic education needed to link Denmark to the rest of the world (Grundtvig 2011).

The key figures in this process are what we may term “national educators” and artists: historians, poets, writers, musicians, and visual artists who, through their literary, philosophical, historical, musical, and artistic work, were able to open the way to an understanding in the minds of their co-nationals of the distinctive qualities and trajectory of the nation and inspire in their hearts an ardent love of the people and the homeland. Starting with Rousseau and Herder, there has been a succession of men and women who sought to reveal the true worth and inner life of the community.

…in Denmark the notion of the popular came to be equated with the liberal notion of ‘voluntarism’” (321). While the Danish political elite continuously bestowed significance on state institutions, on the building of the nation, the Grundtvigians relied more on institutions outside the state. It is this that lends an air of populism to Danish political culture, seen at its best in Denmark’s rescue of the Jews during the Second World War (Buckser 2001).

The state consists of tangible institutions like armies, police, bureaucracies, and the like, while the nation has to do with shared traditions, symbols, historical memories, language, and other cultural points of reference.

National identity is one form of the even larger phenomenon of identity, plain and simple. Key to the idea of identity is the notion that there can be a disjunction between one’s inner, authentic self and the social norms or practices that are required by the surrounding society. Identity becomes problematic, and a source both of personal anxiety and political contestation, because of a perceived gap between the inner self and outward social practice.

Grundtvig’s ideas were highly eclectic. He read British liberals like John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill, but he also delved into German idealists and romantics like Herder, Hegel, and Fichte. He expressed himself less in systematic treatises than in speeches as a parliamentarian and in songs and poems. Grundtvig’s writings were critical in positing the idea of a Danish folk, or people, who were united by their use of a common language across the class lines established by the feudal system of estates.

The purpose of the suggested high school was to produce an ideal citizen subjectivity, to create in youth an inclination towards the general good rather than self-interest.

Grundtvig did not believe in Adam Smith’s “hidden hand” – that is, that the individual pursuit of wealth is the best way to secure a happy society. On the contrary, extensive freedom presupposed citizens with a strong sense of responsibility towards the common good and the survival of the nation.

The core of Grundtvig’s political ideology is freedom – freedom of the voice of the people, and freedom of the king (or the government) to consider the common good and the will of the people. To Grundtvig, the central democratic element is free public debate and, especially, a general responsibility towards the common good. However, to ensure that all potential members of the public participate in the debate and display their responsibility as citizens, they must be enlightened. In other words, enlightenment was needed to inscribe civic virtue in their hearts.

Although Grundtvig is a 19th century figure who lived in a very different culture, his ideas are pertinent in an era when democracies appear to be floundering, or at least in need of rethinking. Building the Nation has been an important book in assisting me to understand the importance of this man on Danish society and in developing the esprit de corps that is so essential to having a happy, prosperous nation.

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An Uber-driver in San Francisco recommended The Psychic Soviet and Other Works by Ian F. Svenonius. It sounded great so I was filled with some enthusiasm for this satirical offering. Ultimately it was really very dull. I think the humourless tone detracted greatly from what should have been amusing pieces lampooning rock, ideology and politics. Give it a miss.

What have you been reading?

 

 

 

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1 Comment

  1. Brendon:

    It’s fascinating to hear your thoughts on Mukhurjee’s ‘The Gene’. They have helped my choose my month’s credit on Audible.

    I’m also glad you found ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’ worthwhile. I loved this read as it helped place a lot of prior biological knowledge into a workable timeline. And Dawkins is one of the great science writers, even if I could take or leave his larger athiest arguments.

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