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Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Just Finished Reading

Inside the Real China by Xu Zhiyuan

Xu Zhiyuan is an exiled Chinese journalist who writes on political and cultural life in China. Described by the perhaps better known dissident and artist Ai Weiwei as “the most important young Chinese intellectual of his generation,” his book Paper Tiger: Inside the Real China is a no-holds-barred look at the devastation caused by the Chinese Communist Party in his native land. But although this is a profoundly anti-Party book, the pieces inside also reveal the positives of modern Chinese life.

These pieces – loosely organised into themes – are all short, but each packs a punch. Xu is scathing about the damage done to Chinese individuals and to the people as a whole through totalitarianism, obsessive secrecy, domination and arbitrary use of power, including detention and theft. And although, as expected, the political aspect of all this is centre stage, Xu makes a lot of how some pseudo-capitalist changes (rooted in the leadership of Deng Xiaoping) have robbed the Chinese of their ethics and indeed their selves. China is revealed through his writing as mostly shallow, trite, money-obsessed and incapable of anything other than disconnected thought.

It is a melancholy book in places, but there is insight enough to make it very readable, often fascinating. China is revealed as a country unique on the planet, with what appear to be Western style freedoms knocking around in the worst kind of twentieth century dystopia. Xu Zhiyuan himself offers little hope, but he does at least show the direction in which hope could be found.
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The People Vs Tech by Jamie Bartlett

In this excellent book Jamie Bartlett looks at the corrosive and malign effects of the internet on political democracy, and how online life affects the way people interact with government and authority generally. I bought the book having seen the author’s two part documentary on democracy and the online world, which made quite a few jaw-dropping assessments in its tale of political chicanery and corporate manipulation – not just Cambridge Analytica, not just Google, but much more. This book expands on what was conveyed in the tv programmes.

The book takes six crucial facets of democracy – including such things as independence of the political process, an informed electorate, civil society, a burgeoning middle class – and deals with the effects of social media and the internet generally upon them. There is little good news. Mostly the effects are malign and dangerous, causing democracy to buckle beneath the stress. In all cases the arguments are clear and well put; Jamie Bartlett is not only a good tv presenter, he can write very well. The whole book is concise, well argued and clear. And this is a worried author. After a fascinating chapter on crypto-anarchy, he states twenty things which could aid the great bargain made between people living in a democratic state and the state itself. Yet most of these statements seemed to me unlikely to come about. This book is in some ways a portent of danger, or perhaps even of dystopia. We are creating tools which will make us slaves, and because that is happening in an unregulated corporate environment nothing can be done to stop such tools appearing.

A highly recommended read.

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Mind Change by Susan Greenfield

Mind change is to human psychology as climate change is to the planet. Susan Greenfield’s thesis in this excellent book is that the digital world, especially the online world, is causing the brains and therefore the minds of billions of people around the world to change.

In some regards, this book is similar to Mary Aiken’s The Cyber Effect, but here the emphasis is more on a nuts-and-bolts approach. Dr Aiken is a cyber-psychologist. Susan Greenfield is one of Britain’s best known scientists – as a neuroscientist she has much to say on her subject.

The book makes similar warnings to The Cyber Effect, and it is clear that Greenfield is as concerned as Aiken. Both authors come to similar conclusions: online life is changing the default setting of the human brain, from local-scale, word-based and empathic to meaningless, visually overloaded, cold and shallow. The often repeated concern that far too many young people have the attention span of a gnat is here given a proper scientific basis. Her approach is commendable – often giving alternative interpretations, sometimes admitting that the truth is difficult to ascertain, sometimes demolishing her opponents. It’s also a very good read – she can write.

Enjoyable and interesting, then, but also a warning about a future humanity is sleepwalking into.

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The Penguin History Of Modern China by Jonathan Fenby

Although I was given this because a family member bought it twice by mistake, it has come in really useful for research on AI novels set in China…

The book begins around 1850 and tackles the history of the nation in six parts. Although it was tricky for this Western reader to get his head around the names, once you make the effort to remember them using phonetics (I tried to do it mostly on the surnames, which by Chinese tradition are written first) it does get easier. The book is really well written, engaging and thorough. It’s also fascinating, and gives great insight into how and why the Chinese are attempting to make the twenty-first century their own.

Highly recommended to all readers of history.

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The Cyber Effect by Mary Aiken

This is a very important book.

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot recently about issues of the internet, social media and mental health – not just for this week’s blog series, but also for a novel I’m preparing. The Cyber Effect explains what the main issues are, how important they are, and, above all, how young people and children are being affected and how little time we have to halt the damage.

Dr Mary Aiken is a highly experienced lecturer, consultant and researcher in the new field of cyberpsychology, which in a nutshell is the study of how the internet and digital media affects human behaviour. If anybody is going to sound the alarm, it should be her. And she does. This book is something of a personal crusade, but that makes it a better read.

Aiken states a few central conclusions in this worrying, occasionally jaw-dropping read. These are: the internet is changing behaviour in the real world by a process of cyber-migration, where online extremes begin to appear offline; children are at extraordinary risk of psychological damage because of the actions of unregulated international tech corporations; a huge social experiment is in effect being performed on the human race, an experiment entirely unmoderated, the effects of which on children in particular should be a matter for immediate concern; very little research has been done on even the basic psychological effects of the online world.

One of the effects of the internet for instance is to amplify behaviour already prevalent in real-world society. We still live in a world designed by boys for boys. That, alas, is even more the case online.

This book is an urgent warning to us all. The final chapter is a summary of all the actions Aiken thinks could and should be taken to halt this unfolding situation before it’s too late, but I doubt many of her thoughts will be taken up. As she observes, there are small pockets of hope at the moment, but the overall design of the internet militates against any serious work being done to improve it, a situation outlined recently by its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee. It’s basically a new Wild West out there, designed by people who don’t care about the consequences of their actions. Nothing will happen because those who control and exploit via the digital world stand to lose so much. Of course, they will only lose it for themselves – theirs is an entirely selfish outlook. But they don’t care anyway.

It would be great to see this book in every school, college and university library. It should be an essential read for all, especially for those who have or who work with children. Through unregulated use of the internet, humanity is currently failing an entire generation.

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The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong

I first came across Karen Armstrong when I read her inspirational A Short History Of Myth. Well known as an author of books on religion (she herself was a Christian, albeit with controversial views), she has addressed most of the main religions in a series of influential works.

In The Great Transformation she looks at the change from polytheistic, often nature-inspired religions in regions such as Mesopotamia, the Middle East and China to religions that we might recognise today: the Abrahamic religions, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism etc. She also looks at how Greece changed during this period (which for her runs from about 1600BC to around 300BC). Other scholars have named this the Axial Age, a convention she adopts.

The book is essentially a history of four regions – Greece, China, the Levant and India. Armstrong goes into a lot of detail here, naming historical figures and developing their lives in times of violence, change and social distress. It is these conditions, she contends, that made certain individuals think about the nature of life: suffering, collectivity and individualism, redemption. She focuses on Buddha, Confucius, Jeremiah and Socrates in this work, but also investigates Lao Tzu, Plato and Aristotle, and various other kings and misfits along the way.

I would have liked a little less history and a little more analysis. The fabulous and inspirational final chapter, for all its brilliance, seems tacked onto the end of dry history. I would have preferred much more of this and fewer ancient tales. But the book is still excellent, and well worth reading for those interested in the human condition. Of course, Armstrong, a believer, is essentially relating the history of imaginary stories told by people to themselves and one another, but it is vitally important that all atheists and humanists uncover the reasons for such stories. Therefore her work has merit.

In a way, this book is a history of the change from one method of explaining things people didn’t understand to another. In an ironic conclusion, she observes that after the sixteenth century our leaders changed from those mentioned above to Einstein, Freud and Newton. I do agree with her criticisms of the global change from mythos to logos (one of the subjects of my as yet unpublished Woodland Revolution), but Armstrong lacks the insight to take another step back from mere faith into understanding. Though she grasps the importance of understanding suffering and pain, she believes the experience of the transcendent is a real experience, not an imaginary one. In this regard, her book fails. Yet it is a success too. Humanity can always learn from reality, if it wants to. We could make the effort to learn from where we have gone wrong. One of the sad lessons of this book is that such education takes a lot of effort, and most people, religious or atheist, can’t be bothered with that.

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Revolution In The Head by Ian Macdonald

This book is revered by many and often described as the best book on the Beatles’ music. Having read it and enjoyed it, I do think that is rather an exaggeration, for all its comprehensive excellence.

The book opens with short essays on the ‘sixties, most of which are interesting, before heading off into a song-by-song analysis of what the Beatles created in their extraordinary eight year restructuring of pop music. Make no mistake – this is the greatest band of all time. But this is not the greatest book on their music.

While Ian Macdonald is no slouch when it comes to scholarly research – all the great stories are here, along with a slew of less well known insights – he repeats many of the standard Beatles clichés: Lennon was the really brilliant one because he was ‘dark’; McCartney was the ‘lighter,’ sentimental one who couldn’t write lyrics; Harrison was saturnine and judgemental; Starr helped. To be fair, in places he redeems himself: Starr helped create rock drumming; Harrison wrote some good stuff later on; McCartney’s gift for melody is evident; Lennon was a bit of a bastard. But no amount of back-pedalling should allow this author to get away with his claim that everything McCartney wrote after 1970 was trite rubbish. That’s just stupid. As with Mozart, people like McCartney come along every few hundred years.

I think this book is best when considering the formative years and the jagged, disintegrating later years. Its author never got a handle on what a seismic shift the period 1965 – 1967 was, at least not in the way other cultural commentators have. He recognises the essential contributions of George Martin and Geoff Emerick, for instance, but, as many others have, considers that extraordinary period far too much in the light of LSD.

This is definitely a book for Beatles fans, and I’m glad I bought and read it, but I think it is revered too much. In many respects it is a coffee-table book, to be picked up after listening to the music. It’s a book to be enjoyed, not idolised.

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Bedlam by Catharine Arnold

This is very good general history of the Bethlehem Mental Hospital, telling the tale of the place itself alongside a more general history of how Britain has treated mental illness.

The book covers centuries of history, is well researched and referenced, and reads well. Recommended, though rather horrible in places.

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Proust And The Squid by Maryanne Wolf

This book is an overview of how the brain works when reading, but its author – a neuroscientist and expert in linguistics – also takes in child development and dyslexia.
The book is split into three sections, with the best and most interesting first; a history of the development of reading in ancient societies. The next section is also interesting, but (like some other reviewers) I found it a little too technical, and lacking the range and verve of the first section. The same comment applies to the third section, though more so.
This is a good book, but I did struggle in places. Though it presents itself as a work for the general reader, I think its structure and content sometimes acts against it. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, but I did find it rather tiresome in places. That first section though really is fantastic.

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I Have Something To Say! by Kathryn Harper

I read this book as research for a novel I’m expecting to write next Easter, in which one of the two main characters is a selective mute. What I didn’t expect was that the book would be relevant to me in a personal way. I usually steer a balanced path when researching such things (for instance, shell shock in Tommy Catkins), so that I have on the one hand a grounding in the subject, but also plenty of freedom to imagine what my character will be like.

Selective mutism is a condition sourced in sensitivity and anxiety. A child with selective mutism is unable because of high levels of anxiety to speak in all but the safest circumstances. So, a selective mute can usually speak at home despite not being able to speak in any public or social circumstance.

Although I’ve never had this condition, as an HSP (highly sensitive person) I immediately grasped the reasons for its appearance. HSP is not the easiest thing to live with, for all its benefits in certain areas, and it is still much misunderstood. For example, I find it difficult to forgive people who have lied to me, especially if that person was somebody I previously respected, or liked. I do not wish to be lied to.

Add anxiety to an HSP and you have a recipe for selective mutism in a child, or even, on occasion, in an adult.

This book is an honest and moving read. Kathryn Harper went through her teenage years and into her twenties suffering because of the consequences of her undiagnosed anxiety. She struggled with alcohol and with relationships. But she pulled through, and when she began to understand that her childhood traumas with selective mutism were rooted in anxiety she made the courageous decision to face herself, so that she could try to move on.

The final sections of the book are a testament to her courage, and to her realisation that she had to stop fitting in with other people’s expectations, and try to be herself. Now she has a new relationship with what she calls the most common word used to describe her: quiet. Quiet is good. Quiet is often better than good. Quiet people should be celebrated, supported, cherished. But all too often we are not. Too often we are mocked or belittled. Kathryn Harper’s quietness was extreme when she was a child, but she has renegotiated her relationship with quietness to her advantage, and to the advantage of people with selective mutism, who will enormously benefit from her remarkable book.

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