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Tuesday 4 January 2011


The Return of the Public, by Dan Hind (Verso, 2010)

Hind effectively conflates Kant’s notion of public reason as a scholarly ideal with the whole idea of public participation in politics. The effect is to restrict severely what counts as properly ‘public’ participation, and even public opinion.

Thursday 18 November 2010

Civilisation: Should we rehabilitate this unfashionable idea?

In Search of Civilization: Remaking a tarnished idea, by John Armstrong (Penguin, 2010)

It is not just the negative associations with a neo-colonialism to which we react but a dominant cultural mood which is nervous of asserting any strong values at all, or that one work of art, or thought or activity has intrinsically more value than any other. Values we are always told are relative – although it is seldom explained relative to what. It is this cultural climate that is really inimical to the full-blooded and positive account of civilisation Armstrong seeks to articulate.

Stranger friends

A Short History of Celebrity, by Fred Inglis (Princeton University Press, 2010)

In many respects the 20th century saw an extension, not a revolution, in the way public figures were regarded. The likes of Jackson Pollock and Tracey Emin continued where Reynolds left off. After Byron has come a multitude of stars from James Dean to Pete Doherty, whose embrace of the Dionysian has enthralled and appalled.

Thursday 28 October 2010

She freed herself

3,096 Days, by Natascha Kampusch (Penguin, 2010)

Her story was challenged, her accounts of suffering were dismissed and she was even seen to have been complicit in her own capture. This book is a very touching, nuanced and determined two fingers up to those rumour-mongers.

Thursday 14 October 2010

History’s preception

The Sleepwalkers: a Trilogy, by Hermann Broch (first published 1931-32)

The title of the novel refers to how the characters relate to their world, sleepwalking, without questioning conventions, and remaining oblivious to what is changing. As the novel progresses, we also realise that each one of the parts, still acknowledging the sleep and sleepwalking metaphor, is a state of consciousness

Friday 8 October 2010

Character, education and the role of the state

Of Good Character: Exploration of Virtues and Values in 3-25 Year-Olds, by James Arthur (Imprint Academic, 2010)

For Arthur, character is ‘an interlocked set of personal values which normally guide conduct. Character is about who we are and who we become, which can result in good or bad conduct.’ If character is about values then it’s important where we get these values from. Surely teaching children good values in school is preferable to law of the jungle in terms of peer pressure and media messages?

Harry Hoare in • BooksEssays
Thursday 30 September 2010

Something special

Just Another Ape? by Dr Helene Guldberg (Imprint Academic, 2010)

Chimps have to take a step back to square one each time knowledge is transmitted, having to discover an innovation for themselves through ‘aping’ their peers rather than truly learning from others in the sense that humans do.

Saturday 18 September 2010

The politics of secularism

Taming the Gods: religion and democracy on three continents, by Ian Buruma (Princeton University Press, 2010)

While faith flourished in secular America, radical anti-clericalism in Europe was historically a reaction to its relative lack of secularisation. It is ironic that ‘secularism’ (increasingly implying a suspicion of faith rather than mere neutrality concerning religion) has become a kind of official ideology of Europe’s ruling elite and intellectual class.

Thursday 9 September 2010

Canned laughter?

Andy Warhol and the Can that Sold the World, by Gary Indiana (Basic Books, 2010)

Any work that doesn’t have a Romantic artist forcing it out of his tortured consciousness is seen as somehow invalid. But whilst Pop Art may have been loaded with varying degrees of well-meant pretentious theory by academics, at heart it is straightforward representational art which gives people something which they understand: and that is what they want to see.

Thursday 19 August 2010

The internet: made for Islam?

iMuslims: Rewiring the House of Islam, by Gary R Bunt (Hurst & Company, 2009)

But what of the ostensible contradiction between Islam and modernity? Far from being in antithesis to Islam, the internet is entirely germane to a religion that has always been ‘wiki’ in its nature.

Thursday 5 August 2010

Facebook, freeware and working for fun

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, by Clay Shirky (Allen Lane, 2010)

The dirty secret of free software and services is that they imply free – read unpaid – labour. While this may be difficult for certain business models to accommodate, such as the print media and the music industry, which now have to compete with free alternatives, it is far from clear that it is difficult per se for capitalism as a social system.

Thursday 29 July 2010

Goods are good

Ferraris for All: In Defence of Economic Growth, by Daniel Ben-Ami (Policy Press, 2010)

The implication of Ferraris is that the incessant focus on limits of all kinds today is about the idea of, the necessity for, limits per se rather than specific limits themselves. Any attempt to argue that such and such a particular limit – the ‘tyranny of oil’ – can be overcome – with biofuels - will be countered almost immediately with another limit – a claimed shortage of land.

Friday 23 July 2010

Gets your motor running

The Case for Working with Your Hands or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good by Matthew Crawford (Viking, 2010)

Crawford’s well-aimed blows at scientific management principles, staff team-building exercises and the resistance of modern machinery to home servicing will strike chords with many, and he synthesises a fresh and thought-provoking outlook from his experiences. However, alongside the ambition of his remit, his basic argument - that we can make the world a better place by fixing stuff - is pretty modest.

Monday 19 July 2010

Big Two-Hearted Hemingway

Lost in the life of a dead writer we’ve never met but whom foolishly we think know well

Hemingway hasn’t been, not since the 1940s, a mere writer and man, but a preposterous piece of Americana, a living riposte to a 20th century that seemed to otherwise deplete opportunities for masculine privilege and duty as the years of industrialisation, commercialisation, domestication, and entertainment-media saturation rolled on.

Thursday 24 June 2010

Guilty fantasies

The Tyranny of Guilt, an Essay on Western Masochism, by Pascal Bruckner (Princeton University Press, 2010)

Moreover, it’s noteworthy that for all his shrewd criticism of the way the left projects its fantasies onto the Israel-Palestine conflict, Bruckner himself was a keen supporter of the break up of Yugoslavia and the punishment and demonisation of Serbia during the 1990s. Bruckner failed utterly to understand that the left (and indeed many on the right such as himself) were projecting a fantasy onto the Yugoslav break up and war.

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