Some winter reading suggestions

Over the past year or so the blog the blog has been putting aside books it fully intended to review. Now the tower is threatening to topple over so – instead of proper reviews some comments and recommendations.

Catherin Nixey describes herself as journalist although she did have an Oxbridge classics education. Her first book – The Darkening Age – has some striking first paragraphs. They describe an enraged black clad horde riding across the desert towards a great city. However, enlightened you are, you almost involuntarily assume these are some Islamic mob heading off to commit an atrocity. Well, the atrocity part is right it’s just that the mob is Christian, and they are on the way to murder Hypatia the great Alexandrian scientist.

Her latest book – Heresy – looks at the early history of Christianity and makes clear there is no one singular history but rather a story melded over centuries and enforced by campaigns against ‘heresy’. She recounts how there was never one Jesus, one gospel, one saviour and that biblical miracles were actually a retelling of stories by people such as Ascelpius, Apollonius and Salmoxis who variously cured the blind, rose people from the dead and promised their followers eternal life.  She says Christianity was ‘uniquely successful’ but not unique.

For those who despair of the disinformation and misinformation of modern politics Jennifer Mather Saul’s book Dogwhistles & Figleaves is a brilliant deconstruction of how manipulative language spreads racism and falsehoods. In a bit under 200 pages (not counting end notes) it explains exactly how the things we hear from Trump, Dutton and others work. There is also a small section on ‘Just asking questions’ which reminds Australians of a particular politician here.

The Triumph of Doubt by David Michaels is a primer for understanding how corporations deceive the public and influence policy and governments through misinformation on issues such as sugar and chemicals to brain damage in professional sport. It is a great companion to Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway’s 2010 Merchants of Doubt about the campaign to evade climate change action.

What can you say about 2015 Nobel Prize in Economics winner, Angus Deaton? His book Deaths of Despair graphically describes the massive downsides of US society and life. Now, in Economics in America, he debunks almost all the conventional wisdom about the US, its economy and its failures. Economics might have been called the dismal science and, while what he writes about is dismal, the book is immensely entertaining and witty. The only other economist who wrote so well was the late Alan B. Krueger who would have shared a later Nobel Prize in Economics but tragically took his own life before it could be awarded. His book Rockonomics is like no other economics book you will have read.

While on the US, Scott Galloway’s Adrift describes in 100 charts all you need to know about US society. For instance, it compares life expectancy in the US vs life expectancy to other countries in terms of health care expenditure. The US has the highest healthcare costs and one of the lowest life expectancy rates. Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam came in for a lot of criticism when it was published in 25 years ago, but a Galloway table shows how much of a problem there is still today.

Ian Buruma has bounced back from being cancelled by the humourless and turgid NYRB. His latest book Spinoza Freedom’s Messiah is probably the best short introduction to Spinoza. It is no substitute for the many books about Spinoza by Jonathan I. Israel but if you are daunted by the thousand odd pages of Israel’s latest – Spinoza Life & Legacy– it is well worth reading.

You probably think you know about as much as you want to know about the Reformation but Bruce Gordon’s God’s Armed Prophet, a biography of Huldrych Zwingli, is well worth reading to revisit those times. Back in those days quite a few religious leaders died at the stake, but Zwingli died on the battlefield fighting his Catholic opponents. Charismatic, inspirational, heretical (according to some) he created the Reformed tradition later inherited by Calvin, which ultimately became a global religion. His opponents hacked up his body, burnt it and spread the ashes.

Jill Lepore is a Harvard Professor. She is perhaps best known for her New Yorker essays and has written a wonderful biography of Jane Franklin (the sister of Benjamin) Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin. After Jane died her cottage was destroyed and her burial place – like Zwingli’s is unknown. She hasn’t had a TV series about her either – unlike her brother. Now Lepore has published The American Beast, which is a collection of her essays in the New Yorker. It ranges from the Columbine shootings to impeachment debates. Insightful, learned, entertaining and enlightening.

Ferdinand Mount was an advisor to Magaret Thatcher and has written novels, biographies and essays. His new book is Big Ceasars and Little Ceasars: How they rise and how they fall – from Julius Caesar to Boris Johnson. The book ranges over the concept of a Caesar, how they rise, how they get unmade and what it means for politics now and in the past. It is both deeply erudite and enormously entertaining.

Rory Stewart – the man who might have been PM but never really knew how to play the game – came out to the Adelaide Writers Week earlier this year with Alastair Campbell. He is now coming back – this time to Melbourne’s Hamer Hall in October. If Alastair Cambell – along with Dominic Cummings – represented the darker side of British politics Stewart represented another side. Stewart’s book, Politics on the Edge is an amazing read and an insight into the dysfunctionality of both British politics and the British bureaucracy.

And if you want a preview of what another Trump Presidency might bring, American Midnight by Adam Hochschild and It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, are good starting points. Phillip S. Gorski and Samuel L. Perry’s The Flag + The Cross on how white Christian nationalism is a threat to American Democracy is also a short but compelling read on the same themes.