Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Simon Sebag Montefiore and John Gray.

Jerusalem: the Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Writing in the Guardian, Anthony Beevor has high praise for this account of the holy city's complex history: "Montefiore's book, packed with fascinating and often grisly detail, is a gripping account of war, betrayal, looting, rape, massacre, sadistic torture, fanaticism, feuds, persecution, corruption, hypocrisy and spirituality." Despite Montefiore's close links to Jewish Jerusalem, Beevor finds the narrative to be "remarkably objective". Though certain details could be quibbled over, it is a "reliable and compelling account, with many interesting points".

The Telegraph's Munro Price admires Montefiore's "compelling and thought-provoking" book, which eloquently investigates the city's "fascinating but ghastly past". Though it does not inspire optimism about Jerusalem's future, Montefiore illustrates one enduring lesson to be learnt from the past, that "attempts by any one religion to control the city are doomed".

Montefiore's book is delivered with "flair" and a "bracing pace", supplying "doses of salacious detail", says Rebecca Abrams in this week's New Statesman. It is "a gripping read that throws the city's present problems into sharp relief." Ultimately Montefiore's conclusions about the future are "muted but hopeful", urging each side to recognize the other's narratives of "tragedy and heroism."

The Immortalisation Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death by John Gray

Writing in the Financial Times, Stephen Cave describes Gray's book as "an absorbing study" of humanity's post-Darwinian anxieties. Gray's polemical and anti-humanist instincts "bore through the book like a worm-hole through an apple" as he seeks to "expose the quasi-religious and magical thinking that underpins our visions of progress".

In the Guardian, John Banville heralds the author as "a connoisseur of human idiocy". His "brief, modest-seeming yet profound book" charts the neurotic "teleological wishfulness" of educated Victorians and the "mad dreams" of savants and scientists who planned to embalm and reanimate Lenin's body. Ultimately, he offers a "compelling plea for man to come to his senses and stop dreaming of immortality".

Marek Kohn of the Independent praises Gray's "engrossing style" and his readiness "to take absurd endeavours seriously and to consider morally complex individuals sympathetically" as he discusses the strange mixtures of mysticism and rationalism that have strived to overcome mortality.

Gray's work "is on to something important regarding the delusion that science consists of indefinite progress" according to Michael Burleigh in the Telegraph. Yet the quality of the book "deteriorates" as Gray's "deep pessimism" develops and he eventually "ends up sounding like Hamlet."

"The Immortalisation Commission" will be reviewed in a forthcoming New Statesman

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Doing a Radiohead: how to disappear online

The band has performed an online Houdini in advance of its ninth album – but it’s harder than it looks. 

At the beginning of May, the band Radiohead’s web presence – well, its Twitter, Facebook, and website, at least – went offline.

Lead singer Thom Yorke has repeatedly criticised streaming, and the future of online music in general, and it's clear that his opinion fed into this month's decision to reject social media in favour of sending individual cards to the band's fans in the post. 

However, it’s also a clever publicity stunt in the run up to the rumoured release of the band's ninth album, since it plays into a growing paranoia around the lives we live online, and quite how permanent they are. In reality, though, Radiohead has done a pretty terrible job of disappearing from the internet. Its Facebook and Twitter accounts still exist, and widely available caching services actually mean you can still see Radiohead.com if you so wish. 

These are the steps you’d need to take to really disappear from the internet (and never be found).

Delete your acccounts

Radiohead may have deleted its posts on Facebook and Twitter, but its accounts – and, therefore user data – still exist on the sites. If this was a serious move away from an online presence, as opposed to a stunt, you’d want to delete your account entirely.

The site justdelete.me rates sites according to how easy they make it to delete your data. If you only hold accounts with “easy” rated sites, like Airbnb, Goodreads and Google, you’ll be able to delete your account through what justdelete.me calls a “simple process”. JustDelete.me also links you directly to the (sometimes difficult-to-find) account deletion pages.

Failing that, delete what you can

If, however, you’re a member of sites that don’t allow you to delete your account like Blogger, Couchsurfing or Wordpress, you may be stuck with your account for good. However, you should at least be able to delete posts and any biographical information on your profile.

If this bothers you, but you want to create an account with these sites, Justdelete.me also offers a “fake identity generator” which spits out fake names and other details to use in the signup process.

Go to Google

Search results are the hardest thing to erase, especially if they’re on sites which published your details without your permission. However, thanks to the European Commission “Right to be forgotten” ruling in 2014, you can now ask that certain search results be deleted using this online form.  

Ditch your smartphone

Smartphones tend to track your location and communicate with app and web servers constantly. For true privacy, you’d want to either disconnect your phone from all accounts (including iCloud or Google) or else get a basic phone which does not connect to the internet.

Give out your passwords

The artist Mark Farid decided in October 2015 to live without a digital footprint until April 2016, but was aghast when he realised quite how often our data is collected by our devices. As a result, he decided to live without bank accounts, use a phone without internet connectivity, and use an unregistered Oyster.

When I saw him speak at an event just before his off-grid experiment was due to begin, he announced that he would also be handing out the passwords to all his online accounts to the public. The kind of “bad data” which randomly hacked accounts would show would actually make him less traceable than a radio silence – a bit like how words written over other words mask them more than simply erasing them or scribbling on them would.

Accept that it probably won’t work

Even if you managed all this, the likelihood is that some of your daily activities would still leave a trace online. Most jobs require internet activity, if not an internet presence. Bank accounts are, let's face it, fairly necessary. And even Radiohead will, I’m willing to bet, reappear on the internet soon after their album arrives.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.