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20 October 2021

Reviewed in short: New books by Michael Brooks, Parag Khanna, John Callow and David Hare

The Art of More by Michael Brooks, Move by Parag Khanna, The Last Witches of England by John Callow and We Travelled by David Hare

By Lola Seaton, Anoosh Chakelian, Michael Prodger and Leo Robson

The Art of More: How Mathematics Created Civilisation by Michael Brooks

Maths has an ambivalent reputation. A common complaint heard in classrooms is that it’s pointless and gratuitously difficult. But maths is also revered, as though it is an innate language that expresses, in its purest form, the logic of reality. In The Art of More the science writer Michael Brooks debunks both these viewpoints by restoring the subject to history. He recasts algebra, geometry, calculus, and so on as a series of marvellous innovations with highly practical origins, some of which are staggeringly recent: negative numbers and the concept of zero only caught on in the West a few centuries ago.

 Maths is not a primordial reality, Brooks explains, but a man-made way of describing it in order to do useful things – calculate taxes, navigate the seas, construct buildings – without which civilisation wouldn’t exist. Explicitly pedagogical, The Art of More is an alternative textbook that suggests a new way of thinking about maths, and a more congenial way of teaching it – as not simply an abstract science but as a cultural achievement, an indelible and indispensable part of human history.
By Lola Seaton
Scribe, 336pp, £18.99

Move: How Mass Migration Will Reshape the World by Parag Khanna

When Parag Khanna goes on long hikes, he falls into a “light trance”: daydreaming about a world where “disparate communities” across the globe mix “freely and peacefully” and “people circulate as they please”. Khanna, a geopolitical thinker and self-described “citizen of everywhere”, decries high school geography lessons for defaulting to “political geography, as if the most arbitrary lines on our maps (borders) are the most permanent”. It suits him, then, that planet Earth is hurtling towards a certain future of mass movement, as the ravages of climate change, industrial automation and demographic imbalances accelerate the relocation of future generations.

While the questions he poses in Move – where will billions of people have moved by 2050? Which parts of the world will be abandoned, and which will thrive? – are compelling, they are tackled with Panglossian visions (“An archipelago of sustainable Arctic settlements”) rather than couched in the messy and often dismal reality of being uprooted or forced to flee. For a study of human destiny, this book contains surprisingly little humanity.
By Anoosh Chakelian
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 352pp, £20

The Last Witches of England by John Callow

In 1660, the Royal Society was founded, with its early members including natural scientists such as Christopher Wren, Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke: the moment is often held as the starting point of the age of reason. More than two decades later, however, in 1682, three poor women from Bideford in Devon – Temperance Lloyd, Susannah Edwards and Mary Trembles – were hanged for witchcraft. John Callow’s intriguing book is both a case study of the Bideford witch trial and an examination of how superstition prevailed in a time of increasing rationality.

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When a magpie flew into the bedroom of a sick woman, Grace Thomas, a chain of events started which saw Lloyd accused of having “discourse or familiarity with the devil in the likeness or shape of a black man”. It was the Devil who led her into tormenting Thomas with pricks and pinches. The other two women were caught up in the increasingly febrile atmosphere, and hearsay, rumour and public fear were enough to send all three to the gallows. Callow’s fascinating and vivid unpicking of the  English Salem is also an account of the birth pangs  of the modern age.
By Michael Prodger
Bloomsbury, 304pp, £25

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We Travelled: Essays and Poems by David Hare

The playwright and film-maker David Hare called his first collection of journalism Writing Left-Handed. Yet his essays are a reliable source of delight. His prose is breezy, never overtly stylish but always capable of a ringing phrase, underpinned by anger at injustice and irritation at blinkered thinking. Among the errors he sets about redressing here include the idea that Chekhov was a cool writer, that Terence Rattigan was knocked from his perch atop English theatre by angry newcomers such as John Osborne (a narrative with “so many misconceptions… that it is hard to know where to begin”), and that Tony Blair was merely obsessed with popularity: “How clever of him, then, to prove the opposite – that he gave not a fig for public opinion!”

Hare is a wonderful appreciator, as shown in his tribute to the “hardy heroism” of the New York theatre producer Joe Papp, and in a memorable and strikingly authoritative essay on the photographer Lee Miller. He also displays a newfound – or hitherto-concealed – taste for introspection. The 35 poems that comprise the book’s second half are full of allusions to his legion of past failures and too-thin skin, revealing yet another side to this great, unflagging writer.
By Leo Robson
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £14.99

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This article appears in the 20 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the West