Books of the decade

Here's our top ten -- now name yours

Just in case you missed it, buried in the pile of goodies that was our Review of the Decade, here is our list of the top ten books of the past ten years. But what did we miss? Have your say in the comment box below.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)

The definitive post-apocalyptic novel. An unspecified disaster has befallen America, and a father and son wander unconsoled and afraid through a blasted landscape. Charting the pair's peregrinations across this "cauterised terrain", McCarthy's prose achieves a pitch of poetic intensity and terrible beauty that few, if any, of his contemporaries could dream of matching.

The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen (2009)

Sen's magisterial critique of the dominant mode of liberal political philosophy, which chases after the chimera of an ideally just society rather than identifying existing injustices, confirmed him as the English-speaking world's pre-eminent public intellectual. By 2009, leading politicians from all sides were falling over themselves to claim Sen as their own.

Austerlitz by W G Sebald (2001)

Austerlitz was Sebald's final book; he died in a car crash shortly after it was published. Like its critically lauded predecessors, it mixes fiction and memoir in order to cast light on the darkest hours of European history in the middle of the 20th century.

The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda's Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright (2006)

The 11 September 2001 attacks may have shaped the world as we now know it, but al-Qaeda remains a mysterious and misunderstood organisation. Wright's meticulously researched account of the events leading up to the attacks shed light on Osama Bin Laden and his network of followers.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)

Didion has been one of America's sharpest essayists for many decades. In The Year of Magical Thinking, an account of the year that followed her husband's sudden death in 2003, she turns her skill as a writer to the most profoundly personal and traumatic events. The result is an unmatched study of grief.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell (2000)

Anticipating the public's hunger for books that explain the world with a catchy-sounding theory, The Tipping Point told us why certain ideas catch on, and others don't. The Tipping Point, like Gladwell's subsequent books, sold millions of copies and launched an entire new genre.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000)

Written while Smith was still a literature student at Cambridge, White Teeth announced a major new talent. Drawing on her upbringing as a mixed-race child in north London, the novel captured a certain kind of confusion and longing at the heart of post-colonial Britain as it teetered on the edge of the 21st century.

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2009)

Wilkinson and Pickett's study gave scientific weight to a long-held claim of the left: that people are happier and healthier when they live in societies where wealth is distributed more equally. But the book's influence stretches across party lines and its findings are likely to shape political debate for many years to come.

No Logo by Naomi Klein (2000)

This was the work that turned Klein, a Canadian journalist, into the world's foremost critic of globalisation. An investigation into corporate branding, No Logo was a rallying call for activists across the world. Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand radical politics -- including its failures -- during the past decade.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2003)

In the vein of Art Spiegelman's Holocaust tale Maus or Joe Sacco's Palestine, Satrapi's memoir was a comic book with literary weight. A global bestseller that was then turned into a film, the book struck a chord with western readers in particular, desperate for human stories behind their countries' antagonistic relationship with Iran.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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