One of the things I love about family summer holidays is that you get to catch up on your reading. It might be after breakfast, or on the beach, by the pool, or in the evening, before and after dinner and any activities, be it a game of cards or the open air disco. Whatever, there is time to relax, contemplate and think things through.
I’ve managed to finish one book – Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit From The Goon Squad”, which combines a love of modern music with a wistfulness about the passage from youth to middle age and the missed opportunities – and start another: David Mitchell’s “Black Swan Green”. I’ve really enjoyed Mitchell’s other novels, not least “Cloud Atlas” and “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet”. They combine fluid and entrancing prose with bizarre and often brutal happenings. I’ve been meaning to write something about Jacob de Zoet, which really is an extraordinary novel about Dutch traders in 19th century Japan and some nasty secret societies. Will do, in time. In good time…
But the thing I enjoy most is catching up on my magazines, in particular The Economist and Prospect. Both are brilliant and both stack up at home, because there is so much else to do. Especially now, with Twitter, Facebook and of course this blog. All eat into the time that I might have used to read the weeklies and monthlies, though to be honest, I think the Economist has always stacked up, as I’d always read the NME or some music magazine like The Word or Q first.
But just today, after a bit of breakfast, I settled down with the June edition of Prospect and enjoyed an extraordinary variety of articles in the second half of the paper. I’d already enjoyed some reflections on Britain over the last sixty years and some troubling issues about the government in Hungary. Today I started with a piece on the sheer variety of cultures in Indonesia and the trouble in governing it when a lot of power has been devolved to hundreds of small districts. Good for local potentates, harder for national strategy, or dealing with big mining companies. An interesting dilemma. We extol the need for local empowerment these days, but the sense in Indonesia is that it leads to corruption as local magnates are captured by big companies, and confusion as charities and NGOs don’t know who to turn to for decisions.
There was a strand running through the article on local customs, including the island of Sumbu, where they prop up the deceased for a few days while people come to pay homage and drink tea. Weird! Reminded me of when my wife and I toured round the island of Sulawesi. Tourists were invited to attend animal sacrifices, which were a big part of funerals. We declined, but did see a funeral procession, which involved a huge train of people and animals. And all the skulls lodged in the cliffs. Spooky!
Next up was Will Self in characteristically entertaining mode analysing the advertising industry, suggesting, I think, that it was all about subliminal emotions, rather than direct hits. But it wasn’t entirely clear. Then, the philosopher, John Gray, likened “The Wire” TV series to Greek tragedy, suggesting that it was a return to the idea that humans don’t really have control of their destiny, that the Gods, or today, the System, determine most things. Heavy stuff, but maybe in contrast to the Indonesian essay, which suggested that the system was losing control.
Then I read a review of art exhibitions in Dusseldorf – El Greco and his influence on German expressionists – and London at the Tate Modern, which is showing a selection of works by Edvard Munch (not including The Scream). Fascinating, thought-provoking. I’ve already been to the Munch exhibition, as well as a lecture on it. I wasn’t as impressed as I thought I’d be: he came across as rather commercially-driven (all those repeat paintings) and strangely keen on taking photos of himself. But I think I’ll go again. The repeat paintings were fascinating in their nuances.
Next a short story by a Chilean novelist who I’d not heard of, called Roberto Bolano. He died in 2003, but has come to be widely recognised since then. Though not by me! The story is about a Spanish soldier who somehow gets involved in world war two with the Germans, gets injured and released, sent on the wrong train so he ends up with the SS in Russia, gets caught by the Russians and tortured, but somehow gives them the impression he is an artist, ends up in a Siberian camp, is released and winds up as a janitor in Barcelona. All in a few pages!
And the last piece was by Richard Dawkins, sticking a very large boot into a fellow scientist, Edward O Wilson, who takes a different view on evolution to him. Wilson has just published a book called The Social Conquest of Earth. Dawkins does not like it as it suggests that evolution can come through societal groups rather than genes jumping through individuals. That is my massively simplistic summary of the dispute. Dawkins’ article seemed rather abusive for a scientist, but also highly entertaining and informative. I flipped to the July edition to see the reaction. Turns out it has had the biggest response ever to a Prospect article. Lots of scientific types getting very arsey! But hey, I’ve learned quite a lot from both sides.
That’s the point. Just a couple of hours reading expanded my knowledge and appreciation of things in so many ways. Usefully? Who knows? Who cares? It’s good to learn, as far as I am concerned. I know a bit more about quite a few things as a result of today’s reading.
That feels good to me.