Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Di Cintio, Laing and Pagden.

Walls by Marcello Di Cintio

Walls by Marcello Di Cintio is an exploration of walls which divide people around the world, including the West Bank Wall, Belfast barriers and The Indo-Bangladesh ‘fence’, amongst many others. Di Cintio argues that these walls do not serve their intended purpose. Rather than providing security, they often prove more harmful to the people living in the areas around them.

Roger Boyes from the Times praises Di Cintio’s thoughts when suggesting that Di Cintio “uses his explorations as a way of thinking about unresolved conflicts” and is “at his best when he makes the trip into an adventure”. Boyes however, also states that “Di Cintio sometimes over-writes” and takes sides, saying he is “plainly laying out his preferences for the Palestinians over Jewish settlers.” Despite this, Boyes ultimately describes the book as something “that always follows its thread, that charmingly and unpompously accepts the haplessness of being an outsider.”

Raja Shehadeh from the Financial Times agrees with Boyes, writing that Di Cintio “realises the limit of what he, as an outsider, can experience.” He goes on to praise Di Cintio stating that he “writes with passion and empathy for the victims of those monstrous walls”, something which gives the reader “a sense of what it is like to live on one side of a wall and to experience the fragmentation and destruction”. In addition, Shehadeh points out that Di Cintio identifies “symptoms of a prevailing sickness afflicting many countries, causing them to resort to building expensive but useless walls” which ultimately proves to be “harmful to the people living next to them.”

Writing in the New Statesman, Owen Hatherley describes Di Cintio as “very good – honest, sharp, nuanced and vivid” but argues that it is easy to be “distracted” when questions are raised by Di Cintio, such as: "How do you just go to Western Sahara and hang out with guerrillas in tents in the desert?" Hatherley agrees with Boyes when stating that Di Cintio’s “sympathies are with the oppressed”, showing him to be taking sides. The idea of Walls, “the constructions of brick, concrete and steel that divide people”, are described as “not only enduring but thriving.”

The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink by Olivia Laing

The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink by Olivia Laing focuses on six writers: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever and Raymond Carver. Laing visits the places in America where these writers had variously lived and drank, to find an answer to the question: why do so many great writers become alcoholics? Laing is influenced by her own childhood being surrounded by alcoholism.

Gordon Bowker of The Independent gives this book the thumbs up, describing Laing as a “fine and stylish travel writer, with a sharp eye for passing detail”, as she includes precise detail by looking at “the techniques alcoholics adopt to obscure their addiction – denial, displacement, and self-deception”. Laing uses a “rich array of images, and literary allusions” which allows her to make “intriguing links” to a “wider literary landscape”, something Bowker describes as ultimately providing the “beauty of Laing’s book”.

The New Statesman’s Talitha Stevenson explains how “Laing’s mix of intellect and intuition” provides the “greatest force” for the book. Stevenson continues and recognises the importance of Laing’s childhood in her being able to write in a psychoanalytical style: “Of a childhood scene involving her mother’s alcoholic girlfriend and the police, Laing notes that her strongest memory is ‘my conviction that if only I were allowed to speak to her I could calm her down – a piece of absurdly unrealistic co-dependence that’s had long-reaching consequences in the relationships of my adult life’.” Laing’s own experience with alcohol “makes her a good match for her muddled subjects”, in writing about fellow writers. Stevenson describes Laing as not having produced an answer to the question, but rather “a nuanced portrait – via biography, memoir, analysis –of the urge of the hyperarcticulate to get raving drunk.”

John Sutherland of the Times agrees with Stevenson and reflects that “Laing’s childhood was blighted by the violent drunkenness of her mother’s lesbian partner”, which prompted her to write the book. Sutherland praises Laing's analysis of alcohol addiction in writers, noting that “Laing’s analysis of the complex addiction is consistently shrewd.” Sutherland shares the sentiments of Bowker, and describes The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink as “truly worthwhile” because Laing “is a terrific writer.”

The Enlightenment: And why it still matters by Anthony Pagden

Anthony Pagden‘s The Enlightenment: And why it still matters tells the story of how the modern world was created. Anthony Pagden argues that the ideal of a global and cosmopolitan society became a central part of the western imagination in the tumult of the Enlightenment, and how those ideas have done battle against the more traditionally-orientated ideas of the world.

Stuart Kelly of the Guardian describes Pagden as being part of “the camp that believes an enlightenment, across several countries and with broad similarities of purpose and method, did indeed occur.” Kelly continues and states that “Pagden's selections from writers of the period are markedly partial” because of a lack of a “counterargument” provided by Pagden for the views of Edmund Burke in An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs. Kelly further complains at the lack of mention by Pagden of Karl Marx,without referencing Marx is to write the history of ideas without ideas or history.” Finally, Kelly describes this book as “strident, partisan and always willing to overlook a fact in favour of a thesis.”

The Independent’s Kenan Malik writes “Pagden's retelling of the Enlightenment story, and his defence of cosmopolitanism, are cogent and important” as Pagden is writing about something which “has significance well beyond the history books”. Malik identifies that Pagden pursues an important argument, that the Enlightenment “developed through a struggle with the ghosts of two Thomases: Aquinas and Hobbes.”

Noel Malcolm of the Daily Telegraph agrees with Stuart Kelly and states: “Pagden’s new book is firmly on the pro-Enlightenment side.” Malcolm questions Pagden’s assertion that had the “preconditions of the Enlightenment not occurred ... we would now be living in an ossified society, with little original thinking”, questioning this “an implausible scenario”. In addition, Malcolm describes aspects of Pagden’s version of the Enlightenment as having “its radical moments”. He finally describes Pagden as having the same notion of enlightenment as “put forward by that movement’s greatest philosopher, Immanuel Kant: the point was to stop taking things on trust, and start thinking for yourself.”

West Bank wall being climbed by Palestinians. Photograph: Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
Show Hide image

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

0800 7318496