Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Carole King, Tom Holland and Tim Lott.

A Natural Woman by Carole King

Writing in the Independent Fiona Sturgiss praises Carole King whose “elegant and “evocative” memoirs not only recount her Brooklyn childhood but also describe the social and political changes that took place during the fifties and sixties. As Sturgiss points out, King’s autobiography may be “one of the more reliable accounts of the era”. Unlike many of her contemporaries, King drank only in moderation and completely abstained from drugs: “Any decadence detailed in her memoir is other people's, and even then she is unfailingly discreet”. Indeed, King’s modest autobiography is a far cry from the rock ‘n’ roll memoirs of Keith Richards or Sammy Hagar. Sturgiss describes her life story as “one of resourcefulness, ambition and unfathomable strength. For the most part, King conveys the impression of an artist operating in isolation, impervious to the music world's extra-curricular activities and forever out of step with the cool kids”, concluding, “her independence and fierce protection of her values gives her the space to blaze a trail all of her own”.

In the Guardian Carole Sullivan likewise enthuses over King’s modesty. However, she is more critical of her “prim” style. She describes the book as “cosy and comforting”. From her review, you can’t help but read Sullivan’s disappointment at the lack of insight into King’s show-biz experiences: “It must have been life-changing, yet she skims over what it felt like suddenly to be America's biggest-selling singer”. Indeed, she continues, “towards the end of the story [] is clogged by a dull account of her legal fight to stop the public accessing a road running through her ranch; this is where her earnestness becomes tedious rather than charming”. However, she ends warmly, “her generosity, towards [her late husband] and almost everyone else, lights up A Natural Woman. This is a pop icon you'd (probably) like to have as a friend".

In The Shadow Of The Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World by Tom Holland

Tom Holland is widely congratulated for his brave grand tour of history and religion. His new novel covers a substantial stretch of the later Roman Empire, the last years of the Persian empire, the conversion of the Arabs, the spread of Christianity and what happened to Judaism, but, centrally, the establishment of Islam and its political and martial setting and the possibility that the Qu’ran that has evolved and developed over time. Here lies Holland’s bravery, as Philip Hensher notes in the Spectator, “suggesting anything remotely similar about the Qu’ran is to condemn you to an existence where the gendarmerie have to accompany your children to school every day”. Certainly, his subject matter is, as Heshner describes, “colossal”. He goes on to describe Holland as, “a writer of clarity and expertise… a confident historian who is able to explain where this great religion came from without illusion or dissimulation has us greatly in his debt”.

Anthony Sattin, writing in the Guardian, agrees, enthusing, “The life of Muhammad and the rise of Islam are boldly re-examined in this brilliantly provocative history”. Again, Satin is awed by Holland’s courageous choice of subject matter, “Christians have choked on the notion that many of their rituals were borrowed from pagan rites. And heaven help the historian who dares to suggest that Islam might be a product of earlier religions and not, as the faithful insist, a revelation direct from God. Tom Holland has done exactly this in his brilliantly provocative new book – and we must hope that heaven is smiling on him now”.

In the Shadow of the Sword will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the New Statesman.

Under the Same Stars by Tim Lott

In the Guardian Alex Clark is ambivalent about Tim Lott’s tale of two brother’s search for their estranged father: “It's a relatively complicated set-up, and Lott has his work cut out juggling the frequently comic tone of the brothers' road-trip – from Christian bumper stickers to hokey tourist attractions to mammoth portions of food – and the more sombre working-out of a buried family trauma”. Clark is critical of Lott’s somewhat fraught style, his use of aphorism and clunky phrases. “Lott,” he notes, “is not great, for instance, at getting people in and out of rooms, "They made their way happily into the hotel lobby" and his writing can strain a bit for no apparent reason, a “lacuna” in the traffic might more naturally be a “gap’”. Clark is less critical when it comes to the grander themes of the novel. He praises Lott’s exploration of cultural and geographical contrasts between Britain and America, which often acts to represent his character’s mental landscapes. He goes on, “his real talent lies [] in a willingness to allow emotional rawness and confusion to remain unfinessed, the loose ends to stay frayed”.

The Telegraph’s John Preston is more complimentary. He ponders whether the novel’s long gestation can be attributed to “the fact that it’s so close to the bone. The book is based on a road trip across America that Lott took with his brother, Jeff. Lott was estranged from his brother at the time, just as his main character, Salinger Nash, is estranged from his”. Preston describes the novel as “a clever take on brotherly relations”. Though he recognises that Lott’s subject is “well-worn as it is potentially corny”, he praises Lott as, “far too sharp a writer to topple into sentimentality”.

Similarly, Sean O’Hagan’s interview with Lott for the the Observer reveals the strong autobiographical element of the novel: “At the heart of the book, is a very English protagonist, whose constant tendency to scratch away at the deeper meaning of things is, I suspect, an urge Lott knows all too well. At the end of the interview, Lott concedes, "I guess I do hang on to a lot of stuff”.

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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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