Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Raymond and Tallis, Bergner and Adichie.

What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire by Daniel Bergner

Daniel Bergner’s ‘What Do Women Want?’ is an in-depth and unique take on female desire. Bergner uses scientific experiments and studies, anecdotal evidence, and interviews with experts in the field of arousal (sexoligists, behavioural scientists, and psychologists), to enlighten his thesis concerning the relationship between women and themes such as monogamy, intimacy, porn, narcissism and sex. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Bergner argues that women are naturally the less monogamous and more desire-driven than men and in the process forces the reader to challenge many common conceptions about the sexuality of the sexes.

Emma Brockes for The Guardian suggests that Bergner’s exposition of female desire is hardly a “new narrative” and criticises the implied causation in certain examples which extrapolate from the behaviour of rats and monkeys to human nature, saying they “can sometimes feel a bit flippant”. In addition, Brockes complains that “the potted social histories are cursory”, and dismisses Bergner’s superficial analysis of social or political context as “practically meaningless”. That said, Brockes concedes that there are “good sections” on the subjects of female mental health and reluctantly admits that Bergner’s discussion on the “difficulty of sustaining interest in a partner over the course of a long marriage” is “touching”.

Zoe Williams, also for The Guardian, looks at the disconcerting ramifications of Bergner’s findings and remarks that “the idea that fidelity has no natural defender” is somewhat unnerving. Moreover, Williams comments that it “blows [her] mind a little bit” that Bergner’s conclusions about female sexual energy were not arrived at sooner.

At the New York Times, Elain Blair, like Brockes, is sceptical of the task Bergner has set himself. She comments that despite primatologists finding evidence “that many kinds of female primates initiated sex, while their male counterparts pretty much sat around waiting for the ladies to take an interest in their erections”, in fact “[h]uman arousal and sexual behaviour are difficult to study in a lab.” Blair concludes that Bergner “seems to get lost in the sexiness of it all” – sometimes letting vaginal blood vessels “throb” with arousal - and states that “[t]here is something drastically under-theorized about what all these tentative findings and speculations…might mean taken together.”

NHS SOS: How the NHS Was Betrayed and How We Can Save It Edited by Jacky Davis and Raymond Tallis

This summer marks the 65th anniversary of the British National Health Service and coincides with the implementation of a series of far-reaching reforms. NHS SOS, edited by Jacky Davis, a consultant radiologist and co-chair of the NHS Consultants' Association, and Professor Raymond Tallis, a British polymath who specializes in geriatric care, depicts the “dismemberment” of the NHS as an institution and provides a manifesto for the retraction and reversal of Lansley’s reforms, paying particular attention to the effects of the Health and Social Care Act 2012.

The New Statesman’s Richard Horton writes that NHS SOS “lucidly describes” the way in which Lansley “infiltrated the Department of Health, ignored the advice of his most senior civil servants and implanted his plan to end more than 60 years of consensus.” Horton elucidates upon the “three catastrophic failures” which Tallis and Davis claim resulted in the “end of the NHS”. Firstly, Labour MPs are said to be “culpable” for having effectively “prepared the NHS for privatization”. Then Horton switches the onus to the media’s failure to ask the right questions concerning Lansley’s reforms. Finally Horton laments the “most atrocious betrayal of all”, citing the BMA’s policy of appeasement as the final nail in the NHS’s coffin. Horton calls NHS SOS “a painful story” but resolves that it is “one that we must confront if we are to have any hope of reclaiming what was once ours”.

Bernadette Hyland at the Morning Star is of the opinion that NHS SOS “is a difficult book to read” because “In chapter after chapter we see the way in which determined neoliberals have hacked away at a cherished British institution.” Despite calling NHS SOS a “devastating read”, Hyland achieves a more optimistic outlook than Horton, deciding that “the purpose of the book is to bring together the various individuals and organisations that are horrified by the prospect of the new NHS” and emphasising that “A whole section at the end of the book gives advice on what people can do to save the NHS.”

In a similar vein, Yvonne Roberts, writing for The Observer, provides an impassioned analysis of the nuances contained in Section 75 of the Health and Social Care Act, which removes the Health Secretary’s duty to “secure or provide” free of change “a comprehensive health service for the prevention, diagnoses and treatment of illness”, leaving behind only a duty to “promote”. Roberts, like Hyland, accentuates the optimistic normative ending of the book and advises her readers to “Buy the book, read that chapter, act” otherwise, in her words, “we'll all be sorry when she's dead and gone – and 90% of the country can't afford to be sick.”

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

In her third novel “Americanah”, former winner of the Orange Prize Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, follows the lives of two former sweethearts from modern-day Nigeria, Ifemelu and her first love Obinze. As a student, Ifemelu makes the decision to relocate and continue her studies in the U.S. Here she suffers a series of tribulations, eventually falling into prostitution. Obinze opts to move to the U.K. where he too is faced with trying times, and finds himself cleaning toilets before he is deported. Adichie tackles pressing issues regarding race, having acknowledged that many of the experiences faced by Ifemelu were very similar to her own. 

Claire Lowdon, Assistant Editor at Areté, unravelled “Americanah” for the New Statesman. Although in parts, examples of racial torments feel “like an anthology of examples - an agglomeration rather than an arrangement”, Adichie is undoubtedly insightful. Her observations “are always sharp, intelligent, humourous and humane” and her commentary “will challenge the way you think about race”. Despite some “wobbles, moments when the whole book risks losing its balance”, Adichie “is a very skilful writer and her talent for illuminating the intricacies of human interactions carries her.”

Mike Peed in the New York Times also acknowledges Adichie’s insightfulness. He praises her as “an extraordinarily self-aware thinker and writer”, and again remarks how “Americanah” manages to challenge our perceptions of race, holding “the discomfiting realities of our times fearlessly before us”. Adichie is “hugely empathetic, both worldly and geographically precise” and her work “never feels false”.

Laura Pearson in the Chicago Tribune, offers similarly impressive praise for an “absorbing love story”. Its ambition is evident, managing to present “a multilayered meditation on learning to belong to one's own life” alongside a romantic novel.  Like Lowdon, Pearson does note that Adichie “indulges in a lot of detail” to the extent that the novel “meanders” and “lags in places”. Yet the novel still remains precise, as Adiche manages to “capture specific emotions with rich, exacting detail”. Accompanied with Adiche’s own experience of life in Nigeria and the U.S., we “get vivid descriptions about the often lonely, disorienting experience of adjusting to a foreign country.”

Like Raymond and Tallis, protesters leading a mock funeral procession in London are critical of the Government's changes to the Health Service. Photograph: Olly Scarff at Getty Images

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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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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