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I went to an actual book club tonight run by organised by Sicamp (Social Innovation Camp – they run weekends putting techy and charity people together to solve social problems) and Bethnal Green Ventures (who seem to do something similar). They were looking at Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson (you can watch his great TED talk here about how – amongst other things – coffee shops started the Enlightenment in England because they were where “ideas could have sex”). In true book-club form I hadn’t actually read the book, so the discussion was kind of like my A-level English class where did my best to blag my way through. (Sorry to the other participants!)

Johnson’s big theme is that we have a misleading idea about how great ideas come about. We picture good ideas coming from a brilliant individual cut off from the world (‘solitude is the soul of genius’ wrote Edward Gibbon) being struck suddenly by inspiration. 

Johnson turns this on its head. Ideas fade slowly into view (he calls this the ‘slow hunch’). They are around for years until the circumstances are right for their genesis. And the circumstances can mean that ideas meant for one purpose end up solving very different problems. As the Telegraph writes:

[Ideas] are the result of the right place and the right time; of chance and failure; of letting things mull for a bit; of thinking across borders. He asks us to rethink where we place innovation … [Johnson] looks at how the artistic glories of Renaissance Florence also produced double-entry book-keeping and how the printing press was developed using technology originally designed for winemaking.

The temptation to try and follow this path is highly tempting. (Darwin for example pretended in his autobiography that his ideas for natural selection cam suddenly one day in his office in 1838, yet we know from his notebooks that the ideas had been nagging him for decades). 

Yet the question that struck me from the discussion was, do we need innovation? In this sense: is it the lack of new ideas that is holding us back? So often, it seems to me, it’s not the idea we’re lacking (how about eating healthily? how about drinking water for all children everywhere?), or even the know-how, but the ability to make that idea a reality. 



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Waxing Lexical

I’ve just finished reading a book that I never knew I simply had to read about a subject that I had no idea I was interested in.  Philip Hoare’s Leviathan or, The Whale is a strange mix: partly autobiographical, part history of whaling, partly an in-depth study of Moby Dick and its author, and partly a love letter to whales; words mixed with grainy monochrome pictures.  Yet far from being fragmented and confusing, this strange combination is utterly compelling.

Hoare flagrantly romaticises the whale, writing about these creatures with an often mystical and spiritual tone.  He tells the tale of how as man developed technology, we became more and more brutally efficient at slaughtering a creature which to this day, we have a fairly limited understand of.  He speculates on how man’s intervention has quite possibly destroyed whale culture; knowledge that was somehow passed down through generations before the whale population was so comprehensively disrupted and brought to the brink of extinction.  He traces the history of man’s encounters and those that sought to document them in fact and fiction.

The real power of this book, however, is not in the subject matter but the strength of its writing.  Book lovers will know that a book – merely words – can be more immersive than any other form of media.  Immersive doesn’t begin to describe this title.  This is truly a book to be experienced.

“It was as if I were looking into the universe.  The blue was intangible yet distinct; untouchable and all-enveloping, like the sky. I felt like an astronaut set adrift, the world falling away beneath me.  Floating in and out of focus before my eyes were a myriad of miniature planets or asteroids, some elliptical, some perfect spheres.  Set sharply against the blue, the glaucous, gelatinous micro-animals and what seemed to be fish roe moved in a firmament of their own, both within and beyond my perception.

I was moving through another dimension, suspended in salt water, held over the earth that had disappeared far below.  I could see nothing ahead.  The rich soup on which those same tiny organisms fed combined to defeat my sight, reducing lateral visibility as they drifted like dust motes caught in the sunlight.

Then, suddenly, there it was.

Ahead, taking shape out of the darkness, was an outline familiar from words and pictures and books and films but which had never seemed real; an image I might have invented out of my childhood nightmares, a recollection of something impossible.  Something so huge I could not see it, yet which now resolved itself into reality.

A sperm whale, hanging at the surface.  I was less than thirty feet away before I saw it, before its blunt head, connected by muscular flanks to its infinite, slowly swaying fukes, filled my field of vision.

…I could not believe that something so big could be so silent.  Surveyed by the electrical charge of her sixth sense, I felt insignificant, and yet not quite.  Recreated in her own dimension, in the dimension of the sea, I was taken into her otherness, my image in her head.  As the whale turned past me, I saw her eye, grey, veiled, sentient; set in her side, the centre of her consciousness.  Behind it lay only muscle, moving without effort.  The moment lasted forever, for seconds.  Both of us in our naked entirety, nothing between us but illimitable ocean.”

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Gangland by Tony Thompson

I’ve read Tony Thompson’s books on crime before. They are always marketed in a low-brow tabloidy way but are brilliantly written. They are gripping and informative: basically, my definition of the perfect nonfiction book. One technique he always uses is to bring his personal experience into the writing. In Gangs – an earlier book – he describes getting high on crack cocaine and heroin, and in this book he recounts almost getting beaten up by bouncers whilst pursuing an interview, and selling drugs in Camden. This could be annoying, but done with restraint and a bit of self-deprecation – as Thompson does – it adds a real thrill to the ride. (The most amusing story is getting arrested by police for firearms he’d bought over the internet. He arrives home one morning to find a police squad searching his flat:

“The living room is a sea of chaos. There are papers and clothes and books and boxes everywhere. It is as though a tornado has torn through the place, destroying everything in its path. It is exactly as I’d left it the night before.“)

There are many interesting parts to the book (the chapter on how important mobile phones are in prison was particularly eye-opening – it includes a story of one con who had to go to hospital to have a bit of his rectum removed, after hiding a phone up his bum during a routine room inspection) but one little note stood out because it confirmed something in another book I’d read recently.

In Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner, in one chapter titled ‘Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?’ the authors look at how many drug dealers make little money. Drug dealing – like music or film – is a glamour industry: a few people at the top earns piles of money supported by scores of ambitious younguns who’ll do anything to make it big. In the book Thompson cites a  Joseph Rowntree study that gives the example of two runners, employed by a relative who had to sell 200 bags of heroin and 200 rocks of crack a week between them to earn £150 a week. As Thompson notes:

“considering how often teenagers protest they have no choice but to work the streets because ‘it’s better than flipping burgers in McDonald’s’, a sixteen-year-old working a forty-hour week at the fast-food chain would actually take home £163 after deduction of tax and national insurance”


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An Englishman’s Home is his Castle – but Why?

The English are obsessed with housing. The newspapers are full of articles about it, politicians argue about it, and young people struggle and worry about ever being able to afford it. John Lanchester points out that while 70% of Brits live in their own homes, only 40% of Germans do.

Why is this? There are many reasons why buying is a terrible idea: expensive repairs, a fall in prices will leave you in negative equity, you are less flexible …

Going into the credit crunch, the typical household in the UK owed 160% of his or her average income. In France a bank will only lend you a third of what you’re owning, and if you get into trouble paying it back, the bank can be sued for reckless lending. One of the reasons we can’t join the Euro is because there’s so many property owners, interest rates are too politically important to hand over to Brussels.

So why the Anglo-Saxon obsession with housing?

John Lanchester has a theory:

“Our longing [for property] is connected to the sense of dislocation which spread throughout British society during the industrial revolution. …

Countries with the go-go attitude to the free market, countries which pride themselves on their openness to competition, willingness to take a chance, lack of feather-bedding and protection from the laws of the jungle, might be expected to have a property market in which people were easy-going about rening and reluctant to tie up all their money in a single illiquid asset. On the other hand countries with more traditional, less capitalistic attitudes, less open to the cold winds of the markets and more willing to protect their citizens from market realities, might well have a conservative appetite for bricks-and-mortar. Instead it’s the other way around. Why? Well perhaps that’s exactly why. It’s precisely the most free-market, go-go countries which show this overpowering appetite for people to own their own homes. The less security there is in the workplace, the more exposed the rest of life is to the pressures of competition and uncertainty, the more people want to feel secure within their own four walls, at the beginning and end of the harsh working day.

The huge expansion in British home-ownership began during the 1840s, when the effects of the industrial revolution had spread sufficiently to create a new middle class with the economic means to buy their own homes. Because we were alienated and insecure at work, we felt an increased need to own the walls we live in, to feel safe and in possession of our own property. It was the psychic trade-off for the other losses of industrialization.”

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How do you discover new non-fiction books? No prizes for guessing…

‘Non-fiction’ includes books on virtually any subject, any skill, idea or person in history. With your credit crunched bank balance, your limited precious time and the finite number of bookcases in your abode, you want to make sure you are only purchasing and reading quality. Unless you are already well read in a particular field, how on earth do you go about discovering new non-fiction books to read?

The way I purchase books tends to be quite haphazard and often comes down to what I am feeling or thinking at the time. Here are the ways in which I discover new non-fiction books to read:

  • Book prizes. There are several book prizes out there which seem to always have top quality reads. The BBC Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction. The Royal Society Winton prize for science books. The newly launched Guardian Book Award (which includes a sub-category of non-fiction). Annual book prizes tend to include only the best books in the category and I don’t think I’ve ever been let down by purchasing from book prize shortlists.
  • Author publicity. Authors often promote themselves by doing opinion pieces in newspapers, magazines or television. I’ve discovered many books this way, having enjoyed reading an article and then seen at the bottom that Joe Bloggs is the author of Some Non-fiction Book. “Go on then” I think to myself. “If I enjoyed the article, surely I’ll enjoy the book too”.
  • Amazon recommendations. I buy quite a lot of my books from Amazon
    (which is another discussion for another time). Amazon is creepily excellent at using its customer purchasing trends data to push products onto you. Every single product page has a ‘customers who bought this item also bought’ section and I can honestly spend hours clicking on these links, trawling my way through different genres, reading customer reviews and wikipediaing the authors.
  • Word of mouth. Obvious but couldn’t leave it out of the list. When someone enthuses about a book it can be incredibly infectious. Thanks to the joy of smartphones and internet shopping it’s possible to order a book 30 seconds after hearing a recommendation.

Conspicuous in its absense from this list is book reviews. Personally I rarely read book reviews in printed or online media. I also don’t buy from the book charts, or from promotional plinths at bookshops, which many people must do. Feel free to recommend some book review sites or other methods in the below comments.  And of course, if you’re looking for a new book you could always have a read through this blog.

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