It’s Live and Lovely!

SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245Yes, Shiny New Books went live this morning – we were all there (virtually) for a momentous switch-on at 8am. We think it looks amazing, and hope so much that you do, too. I do strongly recommend that if you want to start an online magazine, you do so with Annabel, Harriet and Simon. They are such talented and hard-working people. But now of course it’s over to you. Visit, read lots of reviews, leave your comments and don’t forget to enter the competitions – oh and if you’re a keen reviewer, think about writing for us, too.

Now, I promised you all a tale of disaster, wrought by my own two hands… So for this we have to go back to early February, when we were in the thick of finding our books and sourcing reviews. Whilst we editors have our individual sections for which we have final responsibility, we all help out with reviews across the board. I was thinking about the non-fiction section and wanting to get a bit more variety in there, when Ms Thrifty, my friend in the book shop, happened to mention that her husband was reading and enjoying Why Nations Fail, a big socio-economic title. Now, I had a mental flashback to seeing the book on the new shelves in Heffers, and I thought, hmm, what an interesting bit of variety that would provide. So I asked Ms Thrifty if Mr TH would be so kind as to give us a review. I knew he liked writing and is a very intelligent sort of chap.

Well, Mr TH thought about it and said he would. He’d been given the book for Christmas, so I had a quick look at dates on amazon, saw that it was a February release, and figured that the paperback would soon be out. And onwards we went. The copy deadline neared, Mr TH gave up television watching in the evenings so he could finish the book and write his review in time, we editors did all sorts of editorial things, and then the review arrived. Fantastic! Only Mr TH dropped me a line in an accompanying email saying: I’ve just noticed this came out in 2013. Uh-oh.

I checked the dates and read the whole thing this time. In my excitable haste on the previous occasion, I’d only looked at the month. And indeed, the paperback came out in 2013, and the hardback in 2012. Not so shiny-new, then (heaven only knows what I hallucinated on the shelves of Heffers). Of course this had to happen with the one reviewer who did not have a blog of his own and had written the review specially for us. So, with no further ado, I will give you below the review of:

 

Why Nations Fail

by James A. Robinson & Daron Acemoglu

Reviewed by Edward Leigh (editor of The Reformist)

 

why nations failIt is notable how many books have been published in recent years on the topic of why civilisations flourish or wither. Jared Diamond, Ian Morris, Francis Fukuyama, Niall Ferguson and others have written extensively on the subject, citing a wide range of candidates for drivers and impediments to social development: geography, climate, natural resources, infectious diseases, culture and ideology, rulers and government, war, migration, science and discovery; the list goes on.

The authors of this book make the bold assertion that just one of these candidates is of primary significance: the nature of a nation’s economic and political institutions, in particular whether they are ‘inclusive’ (that is, serving the majority of citizens) or ‘extractive’ (serving an elite).

Now even if this is not the last word on the subject (and it surely won’t be), it is nevertheless a highly instructive lens through which to view history. What is most exhilarating about reading this book is its historical and geographical breadth, encompassing the Spanish conquest of South America, the Glorious Revolution in England, the Meiji Restoration in Japan, and diverse other case studies.

The authors anticipated a sceptical response to their thesis and so begin the book with examples of where geography and culture cannot be the primary factors in determining progress, where two geographically adjacent or culturally homogeneous peoples diverged markedly following a historical inflection point or ‘critical juncture’ (to use the authors’ terminology). Nogales is the name of two cities that have grown up either side of the 1853 US-Mexico border: Nogales, Arizona, ranks far higher in terms of economic and social development than Nogales, Sonora; yet the people share the same ancestry and geography. Similarly, since the division of Korea along the 38th parallel in 1945, the two countries have diverged drastically: according to the UN’s GDP figures, South Korea now ranks 15th in the world; North Korea 119th. The Black Death (around 1350), which decimated the population of Europe, was followed in western Europe by peasant revolts that led to the end of serfdom, better pay and working conditions, and ultimately greater participation in government; whereas in eastern Europe there was a resurgence of serfdom, which held back social progress until the Napoleonic invasions in the 19th century.

The point is this: events that change the course of history, such as wars, plagues and famines, do not in themselves predetermine the outcome. The authors refer to these events as ‘contingencies of history’, which may seem trivialising, but their theory is that the outcome is actually determined by the societal institutions that pre-exist such an event, or that grow up in response to it.

One of the keys to progress is ‘creative destruction’, the displacement of one industry or methodology by another. Arkwright’s water frame could spin 100lb cotton in 300 hours, something that previously took 50,000 hours. The invention inevitably put many workers out of a job, but it also created new jobs that required different skills. One of the cornerstones of the authors’ theory is that political and economic institutions that permit creative destruction thereby permit progress and adaptation; whereas institutions that protect the narrow interests of an elite, be they government cronies, landowners, capitalists or well-organised workers’ unions, may progress for a while, but ultimately regress, often precipitously, as in the case of the Khmer Empire (Cambodia) and the Soviet Union. This may seem self-evidently true, but what is interesting is the authors’ analysis of why some monarchs and governments were able to resist creative destruction, whereas others were not.

The strength of any theory lies in its power to predict and explain, and the authors do a convincing job of proving their theory. Their analysis of post-colonial Africa is especially insightful. The (literally) extractive institutions created by colonial powers were taken over at independence by indigenous rulers. Almost all of them, most notably Congo’s Joseph Mobuto, Sierra Leone’s Siaka Stevens, and Zimbawe’s Robert Mugabe (who even rigged a national lottery so that he won the top prize), felt little inclination to dismantle those institutions, which quickly enriched and corrupted them, their cronies and successors, at terrible cost to their citizens. Only really Botswana stands out as a beacon of social progress in sub-Saharan Africa.

China will be a major test of the authors’ theory. In contrast to most political commentators, the authors believe that China’s rise is not inexorable: the market-based reforms of Deng Xiaoping have created more inclusive economic institutions, but the political institutions remain as extractive as they were under Mao Zedong—just how extractive is well illustrated by this statistic from What’s gone wrong with democracy? (The Economist, 1st March 2014):

“The 50 richest members of the China’s National People’s Congress are collectively worth $94.7 billion—60 times as much as the 50 richest members of America’s Congress.”

At some stage, which may be sooner rather than later, China’s continued development will require creative destruction and greater pluralism, which is something that the Communist Party will resist, possibly to the bitter end.

The book reviewed:

James A. Robinson & Daron Acemoglu, Why Nations Fail (Profile Books: London, 2013). ISBN 978-1846684302, 560pp, paperback.

Other recent books on this subject:

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive (Penguin: London, 2011). ISBN 978-0241958681, 590pp, paperback.

Ian Morris, The Measure of Civilisation: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations: The Story of Why the West Rules for Now (Profile Books: London, 2013). ISBN 978-1781250198, 400pp, paperback.

Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (Profile Books: London, 2012). ISBN 978-1846682575, 608pp, paperback.

Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The Six Killer Apps of Western Power (Penguin: London, 2012). ISBN 978-0141044583, 432 pp, paperback.

 

Finally, I Can Tell You

There have been good and bad reasons why I’ve been so quiet in the blogworld lately, and finally I can tell you about the good reason.SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245I’ve been involved in getting a new online review magazine off the ground, and on Monday 7th April, Shiny New Books will be going live, ready to tell you what to read next and why.

When we first began thinking about the magazine, we thought there was an absence of a) places that brought lots of book bloggers together and b) nowhere that you could read up on all the latest releases that you see all the time in book shops and libraries, without knowing if they are any good or not.

So we decided to publish a quarterly magazine (covering new books out from January to the start of April in the first edition) and have picked only those to review that we loved, enjoyed and were entertained by. We’re based on UK publication dates, but the book world is so globalised these days that they aren’t so very different to anywhere else.

The first edition carries over 70 reviews, features, interviews, and behind-the-scenes glimpses of writing and publishing. We’re covering as wide a range of books as we can, and as wide a range of publishers too. There’s also going to be some pretty fantastic competitions (I want the prize myself for the first one). The only thing we’re not doing is supporting amazon.

The editors behind Shiny New Books are all bloggers you will probably know – Annabel, Simon, Harriet and me. But we couldn’t have done it without the fabulous bloggers who also contributed reviews – a huge thanks to them. We’ll be looking for more bloggers to write for us, because we also want to make the magazine a showcase of the best book writing on the blogosphere.

So, do sign up for our newsletter, which will alert you to each edition when it appears. We’ll have a mini-issue in May with additional reviews, and the email newsletter will be monthly-ish with competitions and discussion threads and all sorts of booky goodness. To sign up, do visit Shiny New Books, or like our facebook page, or twitter feed.

It’s been a really rocky few months chez Litlove, and I have been pretty thankful at times to have such fine distraction as looking at the nth version of a logo, deciding how to organize menu bars and figuring out possible channels for publicity. I’m here to tell you that nothing focuses the mind like a pile of seven books that need to be read and reviewed to a deadline. I must say a big thank you to the other editors, too, who have been a joy to work with, and not nagged me once for being a bit scatterbrained at times There was one big boo-boo that I made, but I’ll tell you about that next Monday when we launch.

A Rare Linky Post

Usually I think of my blog as the place where I put down my thoughts. But things have been so hectic of late that I haven’t really had any that are worth noting. Instead, I’m going to link to three posts that have caused me lately to stop and think.

 

Andrew Blackman: The Future of Books: Reactive?

This fascinating post reports on advances in technology in ‘reactive media’ in which we get to be hooked up to a machine that stimulates the storyline we’re reading if we get bored, or dials it back if we’re overreacting.

I guess that whether your reaction to all this is “Wow, that sounds cool” or “Please shoot me now” depends on what you want from your media,’ Andrew writes.

No prizes for guessing which camp I’m in.

 

Dutch Courage (written by my friend Ingrid): Proving Yourself

This is a beautifully written post in which Ingrid considers the subtle difference between ‘justifying yourself’ and ‘proving yourself’, a distinction linked to gender identity that she becomes aware of while supporting her young son as he grows. Masculinity, she learns, consists in part of:

The unshakeable drive to prove oneself worthy of a higher and nobler calling (love), the need to have one’s action’s approved by a band of brothers, that all-in-allness that men establish between each other through competition and the fair fight is absolutely hardwired into them. They could no more let go of it than they could drop down and walk on all fours. To laugh at this drive is to wound a man profoundly.’

 

The Guardian: Top Five Regrets of the Dying

This is an old post that Mr Litlove alerted me to a while back and which I return to every now and then to check in with and check myself against. It arose out of a book written by an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care. The regrets are:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard (apparently every single man said this).

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings (many felt that buried resentment and bitterness had played a part in their illnesses).

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends (ironically, while typing this my neighbour came to the door for a chat and after catching up with the headlines I had to shoo her away because I had so much work to do).

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

What a salutory lesson those five regrets encompass. I find myself particularly drawn to the last one, although I think that, taken wrongly, it can be made into an excuse for suppressing problems that really need to be dealt with. I’d probably change it into ‘I wish I’d let myself fully recognise what emotions were appropriate to any given situation, and let myself experience them.’

On that note, I will just say that I think my son is beginning to find more emotional equilibrium, and my back is a great deal better. Thanks to the splendid heated band-aid, I did make the event in Heffers last week with Jill Dawson (who turns out to be absolutely lovely). I was not what you’d call comfortable, but I was there. One less thing to regret. :)  Thank you all for your amazing, invaluable support; I certainly couldn’t manage without my virtual friends.

It’s A New Year, Again

Happy New Year, dear blogging friends!  I didn’t intend to take quite such a long blogging break, but just as Christmas was feeling properly passed, I fell ill with, well, I would call it vertigo, but Mr Litlove says you can only get that standing on the edge of a precipice. So I had a dizzy-headed thing that was very annoying because it got in the way of the orgy of reading I had planned with my new Christmas books. And it got in the way of blogging, of course. As you can see, I am much improved, as I could not have tolerated looking at a line of print a few days ago, but my head is still somewhat tender, so this won’t be a long post.

But I did want to talk about New Years Resolutions. I don’t always have them, but when something seems obviously ripe for change, I like the idea of having them, even if I can’t always follow through. This year in particular will be somewhat experimental as I’m not sure I can find the right strategies for change, or if change is actually possible. The dizzy-headed thing was a good example of the way I burn my brain out quite regularly, and I need to find ways to rest it more effectively. I have a very chatty and hyper brain that simply will not shut up, and it is never more exercised than when there are people around for whom I feel responsible. So Christmas is classic burnout time – not, I hasten to add because I am actually responsible for the people around me now, but I still feel it, in an impotent and pointless sort of way.

So, for instance, yesterday was a good case in point. I was in bed still, listening to Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool on audio book (it’s very good) and Mr Litlove was sitting on the bed reading Robert Harris’ take on the Dreyfus affair, An Officer and a Spy (which he has been absolutely super-glued to), when I heard the cat come running along the landing, into our room, where he jumped up on the bed. I instantly saw he had dirty hind quarters and something long and trailing protruding from his backside. Fortunately, Mr Litlove was right on it and scooped him up and took him downstairs (to much feline protesting). I cravenly counted to a hundred and then followed them down to see what had happened. It turned out to be a long, thin string of plastic that we can only presume he had eaten. Our cat does have a thing for plastic, despite the fact that we are all trained in the rapid response technique that means he is instantly removed from the vicinity of any plastic packaging. But who knows what he does on the quiet? Well, I think we have proof positive, should we ever have required it, that he does not poop rainbows, whatever he tries to tell us. By the time I rejoined the action, Harvey was wearing the offended look of a cat who has been doused with cold water and he spent the rest of the evening with his nose pressed against the study door, shut in the kitchen for sins he evidently found incomprehensible.

But the evening seemed to take a bit of a down turn from that point. Mr Litlove, who only yesterday had declared he felt Tigger-ishly bouncy again after fighting off a cold over Christmas, started to wonder if his cold was coming back. He spent the rest of the evening with the long face of a man condemned to return to work in the morning after ten lovely days of holiday. And our son, who has generally the sweetest and most even temper practically snarled at me when I tapped on his knee to give him an apple. Though in all honesty, he was probably involved in an online game at that point and I was caught in the crossfire of a reaction that was directed at something else entirely. See, my point here, really (and you could be forgiven for thinking we were never going to get to it) is that none of these things are in any way strange, serious or unusual. It’s all just ordinary life stuff. But I seem to notice everything, every little shift and nuance, and it bothers me. I begin to wonder whether I should do something. And I wonder whether I should have done something earlier. I wonder whether my loved ones are happy, and wish that they were. What usually happens is by some weird act of contagion I feel miserable for them and they then cheer up no end. And all the time this is happening, I am thinking, Litlove, this is THE most tremendous waste of emotional energy, time and thought and you know that, right?

So somehow, 2014 has to be the year where I Let Them Get On With It. This year is about reinforcing the bubble. It’s about trying to find ways not to let the moods, desires and caprices of other people get to me so much. How does one go about doing this? I have absolutely no idea. I was determined just to let yesterday evening wash over me, and yet when Mr Litlove came up to bed I found myself saying: ‘What made you so grumpy?’ And Mr Litlove replied, ‘Was I grumpy? Did I seem grumpy? I didn’t think I was grumpy!’ said somewhat grumpily, of course, and I thought to myself: let that be a lesson to you, my girl. This is a good and necessary resolution and you had best learn how to stick with it. Or at least, there’s another 364 days ahead in which to fail better.

Other resolutions are much easier because they seem more within my control. I’m not making any reading resolutions because I never stick to them. But I am going to dedicate a part of this blog to chronic fatigue syndrome and anxiety. I’ll be collecting all previous posts on those topics together under a menu bar and writing some new essays. I really hope that it might offer some sort of a resource to other people in the same boat. In terms of writing, I hope to be working steadily across the year on my latest book, which involves a fair amount of research and will certainly not be finished in 2014. Hence the desire to keep my energy more contained and focused and to avoid brain burnout. Oh and this is also going to be the year of tai chi. I have found a local group that actually meets in the morning and is not for the disabled or elderly – result! Classes start on 30th January and doubtless you will hear more about them in due course.

So a very happy New Year to you all and may it be a peaceful and productive one for all of us. If you have resolutions you want to make, do share them here and we’ll make a pledge to stick with them – nothing like confessing in public to strengthen one’s resolve and all that.