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.

Tuesday Bullet Points

1. Yesterday was my birthday – I’m now 45, and wondering where the time went. Yes, I know, I’m not completely out to pasture yet, but this is still the oldest I’ve ever been and it takes a bit of getting used to. I think I’ve moved from ‘young in a good light’ to ‘officially middle-aged.’

2. I seem to be coming down with a cold, which is not great news for…

3. Tomorrow evening I’m going to the Penguin bloggers’ party for the first time, as Annabel’s plus one. I’ve been very excited about this, though I am less excited by the prospect of sniffing and sneezing my way through it.

4. My back is much better, thank you all you kind people who have asked me about it. My shoulder and arm are still troubled by my compressed nerve, which dates all the way back to the end of October last year. Oddly enough, I have two sisters-in-law who have been suffering from the same thing, and it seems to be taking all of us a while to recover, which is at least solidarity, even if I might wish instead for a speedy recovery for the three of us.

5. I’ve been reading 750-1,000 pages a week, though you wouldn’t know it from this blog. I’ll be able to tell you why in two weeks’ time, thank goodness, the restraint is killing me.

6. I only received four books for my birthday this year, but I was very pleased with them: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee, Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim, and Her Brilliant Career; Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties by Rachel Cooke.

7. I am still loving tai chi class, but I am haunted by guilt. On about the second or third week, one of the other newbies complimented me on picking it up quickly and seeming very at ease with the exercises. It was a lovely compliment, and I did that dreadful fumbling thing, not expecting anyone to say anything so nice. I laughed it off as a good facade, which was completely the wrong thing to say. I should have said that years of ballet training as a child made this sort of thing easier for me, or I should just have said, thank you, how kind. The lady who was so nice to me never came back after that session and I feel like I chased her away. My social skills are really not what they were. This does not bode well for tomorrow night, either.

8. My son is job hunting in London and doing okay, given the circumstances. He’s been getting on well with the reading, though he says he can watch any kind of film at any time, but realises he has to have the ‘right’ book for his mood. He recently finished the Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and very much enjoyed it. Thank you for all your wonderful suggestions – I’m looking forward to seeing him branch out.

9. In my current reading, I’m splitting my time between the Tudor court, riven with potentially lethal intrigue, the story of a newly appointed psychiatrist on an emergency admission ward, and you would not believe the crazy things people do to themselves, and a juvenile detention centre for kids with disabilities. I have to say that, even if things have been a little rocky lately, such reading reinforces my awareness that they are really NOT that bad!

 

Thursday Reading Notes

It has to be notes at the end of this week rather than a review because I’m reading Eleanor Catton’s magnificent epic, The Luminaries, and I’m afraid at this point that it might just go on forever. I am enjoying it and admiring it hugely. The writing is outrageously good. But heavens, it’s long. It’s also intricately plotted and where I am (250 pages in) there are still new characters being introduced, so I don’t like to put it down and pick anything else up for a mental palate cleanse. I’m keeping all the information in my head at the moment, but a break might set free details that will turn out to be essential to understanding the outcome later on. I worry about these things.

I’m really not good with very long books and it seems to me that, generally, books are getting longer. The average length for a novel seems to be about 350-400 pages, often with 50 pages that could have usefully been edited out. I’m not sure why longer books should be so fashionable, unless they look like better value for money. But I also wonder whether the length is about increasing complexity, and the urge, so prevalent in a tortured bookworld, to grip a reader and not allow them to go.

Tuesday's goneLast week I read the second Nicci French book featuring Dr Frieda Klein, their psychotherapist-detective. It was by sheer chance that I read the first book first – another thing I’m bad at is reading in the right order, prefering to cherry pick the best books from a prolific author when given the chance. But in this case, order is essential, because the opening chapters of the second novel give away pretty much eveything that happened at the end of the first, and continue to develop the plot lines that were started. I get the feeling that if you’ve read one, you’ve got to read ‘em all, and the second book has 450 pages, because now there’s not just a murder enquiry to be developed, there’s so much else going on in Frieda Klein’s life as well.

What I really appreciate about the books is their properly disturbing atmosphere. Nicci French have done a great job of tapping into the feeling of shifting sands that comes with mental instability, how dislocating and disorienting altered mental states can be. Tuesday’s Gone begins with the discovery of a corpse, but one that’s being given tea and buns by a woman with a severe mental abnormality. It was one of the creepiest openings to a work of crime fiction that I’d read in a long while. The character of Frieda Klein is also very well drawn, showing the way that therapists both seem calmer and more in control in emotional situations than most, but also how deeply wounded they may be in other ways. The third in the series Waiting for Wednesday, is just out and yes, I have a copy. I’m hooked in now.

I’m also writing about Dodie Smith, which involves reading all four volumes of her memoirs. Clearly this was an example of Dodie getting going and not being able to stop herself – she is having such a ball describing her life, but I found to my surprise that I wasn’t having so much of a ball keeping her company. In principle I should love these books; Dodie Smith is a very funny, self-deprecating writer who had a half-life on the stage before becoming an author (and writing 101 Dalmations and I Capture the Castle if you can’t place her). After reading up on a couple of male authors who could be rather full of self-pity, I thought I’d appreciate her sparky, spirited good humour. And I do. But her ability to brush problems and difficulties aside and to come out with a stream of amusing anecdotes is perversely turning her into an uninteresting person. The memoirs are funny, yes, and somehow relentlessly shallow. At the moment, we are in the thick of World War One, but after three years of warfare, world events have scarcely warranted a mention. So caught up with her failing and foolish love affairs is Dodie, that when she watches a zeppelin raid over London from the blacked-out theatre she’s appearing in, all she sees is a delightfully pretty phenomenon in the night sky and she’s rather proud not to feel in the least bit scared. It’s quite a mindset that can trivialise WW1. But the experience of the memoirs is telling me something very interesting: we hate the dark emotions, the painful events, the fear and the sorrow. But these are the things that give us depth and make us interesting people. 800 pages of frivolity is turning out to be the hardest going of all.