Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Dawkins, Leigh Fermor, and King and Crewe.

An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, by Richard Dawkins

He is the world’s most famous atheist and evolutionary biologist. Author of The Selfish Gene, responsible for popularising the gene-centered view of evolution, and more recently, The God Delusion; An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist is the first volume of Richard Dawkins's autobiography. The memoir explores both the emotional and intellectual influences that shaped Dawkins's upbringing and young adulthood. It is a journey that takes readers from childhood in colonial Africa, to teenage rebellion and finally, Oxford. Here is a narrative that blends a love of poetry with scientific skepticism, and the result is a mixed response from the critics.

Writing for the Guardian, Richard Fortley praises the authorial style of the scientist, culminating in an account that is “surprisingly intimate and moving”.  “Dawkins's mother is delightfully described,” writes Fortley, “Most geeks cannot write: it is a brutal fact of living symbiotically with machines. But then most geeks do not have a taste for poetry.” An Appetite for Wonder gives readers a window into the personal conflicts and chapters of Dawkins's life, including a memory of a particularly inspiring teacher, “who put the young scientist on the road to zoology and to Oxford, where he has spent more or less his whole life.”

Brandon Robshaw in the Independent is likewise pleased with Dawkins's readability. “The reason Richard Dawkins’s books are so successful is that they are both intellectually rigorous and refreshingly easy to read.” The first volume of his autobiography, we are told, is “no exception”. “The book simply bubbles with ideas,” continues Robshaw, relishing in observations and theories which pepper the memoir. But Robshaw is also pleased with Dawkins's biographical style: “Dawkins studied zoology at Balliol College, Oxford, and he beautifully conveys the tweedy, pipe-smoking atmosphere of intellectual camaraderie”.

Jenni Russell, writing for The Sunday Times, is at odds with the reviews of both Robshaw and Fortley. What Robshaw calls “delightfully described” narrative is reconsidered by Russell to be “jarring awkwardness.” The awkwardness is said to stem from an inability to write about the nuances of human beings. Robshaw notes: Dawkins “isn’t observant, has no gift for conjuring up characters or situations, and is unwilling to reveal anything other than the most superficial emotions in himself.” A “misjudging of tone”, Dawkins is reported to lack “the skills or characteristics of a good autobiographer” which results in a book that is ultimately “self-promotion without self-knowledge”. 

The Broken Road, by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Hailed as one of the greatest British travel writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor began his journey through Europe in 1933, shortly after Hitler came to power. But it was not until middle-age that he wrote up his travels, publishing A Time of Gifts in 1977 and Between the Woods and the Water in 1986. Despite ending the latter with “To be concluded”, his death in 2011 suggested that, sadly, the trilogy would never be completed. But since then, his biographer Artemis Cooper and travel writer Colin Thubron have edited a Leigh Fermor’s unpublished work into The Broken Road.

Writing in the Financial Times, Suzi Feay writes that despite the fact that Leigh Fermor never finished the work, “it’s a surprise to find that the book is so readable”. She hails above all Leigh Fermor’s well-known energy, saying that “The sheer zest with which he delineates each monastery, its history, setting and eccentric monks, is infectious.”

William Dalrymple, writing for the Guardian was also impressed by how polished the book was, despite having to be finished by editors. He writes that “few of us thought it likely that it would contain any material to equal its great predecessors. The wonderful surprise is that, while the book is certainly uneven, and contains some jottings and lists that are little more than raw, unworked data, overall it is every bit as masterly as Between the Woods and the Water”. He concludes that “by any standards, this is a major work. It confirms that Leigh Fermor was, along with Robert Byron, the greatest travel writer of his generation, and this final volume assures the place of the trilogy as one of the masterpieces of the genre, indeed one of the masterworks of postwar English non-fiction.”

The unfinished nature of the book is noted in the Scotsman as well, but the reviewer comments that, although this is effectively a draft, it is a “Patrick Leigh Fermor draft, which makes it superior to the finished work of most other writers. The youthful joy shines through, and the deep cultural learning that was superimposed in later years is there in sufficient quantity to lend wonder to this fragmented tale.” The reviewer concludes that “This will be the last full book by Patrick Leigh Fermor to appear in print. Anybody who loved its two preceding volumes will fall upon it hungrily. Anybody who has not read the two preceding volumes should do so without delay.”

In the New Statesman magazine, Jeremy Seal again acknowledges that "the text sometimes lacks the perfectionist gleam found in Leigh Fermor's earlier work", but overall judges that "these occasional slips barely show through the dazzle". He also hails the editors' "stroke of brilliance" in including Leigh Fermor's separate diary he kept during his exporation of Mount Athos which, Seal concludes, "finally brings the journey to its rightful end in the spiritual heart of the country that was to prove, though the young author did not know it yet, Leigh Fermor's 'real love and destination'". 

The Blunders of Our Governments, by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe

A historical catalogue focusing on the worse errors of governments from the last 30 years, The Blunders of Our Governments shows the British establishment in its worse hours. Authored by a former and current Professor of Government at the University of Essex, this book is probably not the best choice for someone who is deciding whether to embark on a career in British politics.

King and Crewe show where the accountability in our political system lies, as explained by Dominic Lawson in The Sunday Times. “Obviously a government can be punished for its blunders at a general election. But the top civil servants sail serenely on, to collect their knighthoods and fine pensions”.

A big theme of the book is the inability of civil servants and politicians to comprehend people’s lives outside the Westminster bubble. Peter Wilby, in The Guardian, sums it up fantastically concisely: “The causes of the blunders were numerous. In many cases, ministers and their senior officials were simply ignorant – King and Crewe politely call it 'cultural disconnect' – of how large sections of the population lived from day to day”.

Sonia Purnell, in The Independent, describes the cause for the appalling record of blunders. “Part of the problem is a dangerously common desire among politicians to be seen as action heroes whose innate good sense and dazzling cleverness preclude the need to pause to consult or bother with boring detail”.

Self-promotion without self-knowledge? Richard Dawkins. Photograph: Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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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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