Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Amos Oz, Charles Emmerson and Michael Burleigh.

Between Friends by Amos Oz

 

In a collection of eight stories, Amos Oz uses his own experience of living on an Israeli kibbutz to explore the difficulties in striving for equality in communal living.

For Lucy Popescu of the Independent, “Oz brilliantly conveys the harsher side of kibbutz life”. Whilst Oz suggests no easy answers to the questions he raises, “he builds an evocative portrait of a 1950s kibbutz, the hopes and dreams of its inhabitants, and the successes and failures of communal living, using beautiful, spare prose”.

Similarly, for Alberto Manguel in the Guardian, the novel is a “lucid and heartbreaking chronicle of [a] well-intentioned and hard-working community of lonely souls”. Manguel argues that the novel makes salient points about the "Middle East conundrum”, as well as “the impossibility of utopia [as] ongoing proof of our determination to keep on trying.”

Although acknowledging that Oz “may have written more dazzling books”, Ben Lawrence in the Telegraph praises this "deeply affecting chamber piece”, suggesting it “draws on… the contradictory urges that lie at the heart of Israel’s psyche”.

All three reviewers praise Sondra Silverstein’s “deft” translation. 

 

1913: The World Before the Great War by Charles Emmerson

 

Charles Emmerson’s account paints a strikingly different picture of 1913 to more conventional tales of extravagant social endeavours undertaken in anticipation of looming destruction.

According to Kathryn Hughes writing in  the Guardian, Emmerson wants readers to experience what it felt like to be alive in 1913, “unaware of the coming rip in history”. She sees his work as an “ambitious, subtle account," noting that "Emmerson tries hard not to play the hindsight game. Still, he's honest enough to acknowledge the cheap pleasure that comes from knowing what happens next”.

David Crane, in the Spectator, is even more forthcoming in praise: “this is an immensely impressive book”. Emmerson turns 1913’s lack of headline events into a strength and “gives us a masterful, comprehensive portrait of the world at that last moment in its history when Europe was incontrovertibly ‘the centre of the universe’ and, within it, London ‘the centre of the world’”.

In contrast, Mark Damazer, reviewing the book for the New Statesman, feels Emmerson’s attempt at discussing painting, literature and architecture is “a bit half-hearted”. For Damazer, there are too many long quotations and too many important events that go untouched, although “occasionally, the world of 1913 throws up something satisfyingly contemporary”.

 

Small Wars, Far Away Places by Michael Burleigh

 

The historian Michael Burleigh's Small Wars, Far Away Places, is a document of the national liberation movements which sprang up in the two decades after the Second World War.

Although praising Burleigh’s ability to compose “pungent and pithy prose” and “bring history to life”, David Herman in the New Statesman is critical of some “puzzling absences” in the book, such as the Portugese colonial project. The reliance on Anglophone sources is also criticised, rendering the book “out of date and parochial”.

Historian John Lewis-Stempel, writing in the Express, sees Burleigh as “the don of elegant, historical writing and every vignette in this book is arresting”. However Lewis-Stempel similarly laments the gaps in knowledge and occasional errors, to him a product of Burleigh’s inability to remain a “dispassionate” historian.

Ben Shepard in the Guardian is more positive, arguing that the historical narratives Burleigh composes are “small masterpieces of lucidity and concision with complex political backcloths effortlessly painted in”. Nevertheless, Shepard argues that the “book never quite hangs together and the serial narrative method it uses gradually exhausts both writer and reader”.

The new work by Amos Oz has been praised as "a lucid and heartbreaking chronicle."
Photo: Getty
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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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