Stranger Than We Can Imagine

stranger-than-we-can-imagineWhat a difference a century makes! Back in 1900 the streets held mostly horse-drawn carriages, you could die from a simple infection and if you wanted to communicate with a person who was not in the same room, you had to sit down and write a letter. On paper, and with a pen. A glimpse of a woman’s ankle was daring, and duty and respectability were the great social forces of the day. It seems almost impossible that a hundred short years should take us to the 21st century, with its stem cell science, hand-held wireless nanotechnology, global capitalism and politicians who act more like shouty, grudge-bearing teenagers with every day that passes.

How on earth to trace the story of 1900 to 2000? Well, this is the immense task that John Higgs sets himself, and he not only does it with searing intelligence and insight, but with clarity, accessibility and some very entertaining metaphors. If this strikes you as in any way a heavy or difficult book, or one that doesn’t have anything to say that you might be curious to hear, think again. This brilliant account of the modern history of ideas and ideology is an engaging and amusing tale illustrated by a cast of glorious eccentrics and their crazy but influential obsessions.

Perhaps the most important concept in the book is drawn from ancient history. The omphalos ‘is the centre of the world, or, more accurately, what was culturally thought to be the centre of the world.’ In 1900, Higgs tells us, the omphalos that mattered was the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, South London. This was the point on the earth from which time and space were measured, and it was supported ‘by four pillars: Monarchy, Church, Empire and Newton.’ Over the next decades, these great insitutions would crumble, fade in important and be superseded by new ideas. The first of which, in this account, is Einstein’s relativity. Einstein discovered that there was no absolute place of measurement in the universe – everything altered, depending on where you were standing, and what perspective you embodied. This realisation, which forever changed the face of science, becomes the catalyst in Higgs’ analysis for all kinds of other change across the twentieth century. No longer would the Emperor be the great omphalos for his people – instead we would witness the rise of individualism. The ultimate ideology of all that is relative, individualism refused all the hierarchies on which life had previously been organised. No more ‘knowing one’s place in the great scheme of things. Now the fact that we really knew our place, and that it was on shifting sands, viewed from a unique subjective perspective, would come to dominate all subsequent thinking.

Higgs’ influential thinkers on individualism are Aleister Crowley and Ayn Rand. Crowley – whose extraordinary life provides many eye-popping anecdotes – was the author of the injunction to ‘Do what thy will’, whilst Rand promoted ‘the virtue of selfishness’. For both of them ‘the solution to a clash of competing liberties was the use of force. When someone was stopping you from doing what you wanted, then the strongest will must prevail.’ Crowley had an amazing number of interested followers – the early pioneers of space travel were deeply into his writings – and of course Ayn Rand’s theories went on to inform modern financial policy. We all know how that went.

Higgs divides his material up into a series of chapters that each deal with a significant area of change – war, Modernism, the discovery of the id, the rise of the teenager, the influcent of nihilism, the spread of the network. Along this primrose path, he strews some brilliant insights, such as: ‘technology had made warfare psychologically too terrible for soldiers to bear’, and the recognition that postmoderism was at work in New Age thinking, with its pick n’ mix approach to spiritual doctrine: ‘to dismiss a spiritual movement on the rational grounds of factual inaccuracy is, in many ways, to miss the point. Religions and spirituality are maps of our emotional territory; not our intellect.’ One of my favorite points concerns modern day capitalism and the rise of big business. In America, corporate lawyers managed to argue for businesses to be classified as individuals, thus gaining them all the rights of the Fourteenth Amendment and encouraging unrestrained growth. However, since there was no one employee or founder in the company who could be held as responsible for its actions, companies became individuals with none of the restraints or responsibilities real people have. In other words, they were granted the legal right to act like psychopaths, and I think it’s fair to say they have done so.

Higgs is also extremely adept at finding helpful ways to explain his more complicated concepts. In the most demanding chapter on mathematical uncertainty and quantum physics, he offers the reader an eye-catching metaphor to think through the subatomic world:

Let us imagine a single unit of news, such as Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, being photographed fighting a kangaroo. Such an event is unpredictable, in that it is not possible to say in advance when it is going to occur. All we can say, and both supporters and detractors of Putin will agree on this point, is that at some point the President is going to punch a kangaroo. That’s just the sort of person he is.’

I absolutely loved this book, and my husband who read it alongside me, loved it too. The only time I stumbled was on the extremely rare occasions when I had read widely in an area Higgs tackles – for instance, Existentialism, which Higgs rightly cites as a response to nihilism. But to say Existentialism IS nihilistic is to miss the insistence of its authors on social and political engagement as essential to our lives, on the way meaning remains no matter that it can seem irrational, and on the responsibility we must all take to do something with our time on earth. However, to cut such a clean swathe through a century of complex and confusing theories it’s inevitable some details will get lost by the wayside, and I was more in awe of Higgs’ ability to explain things so clearly than I was bothered by a few intricacies of thought. Another criticism that came to my mind was that there were not many women represented in the book – but I think that ought to be a criticism of the century, which has been dominated by men and masculine structures of thought, despite second wave feminism. We ought to ponder the consequences of such a celebration of strength, force, individualism, science and technology, when we find ourselves so often suffering from the problems of recklessness, competitiveness and selfishness.

Although Higgs does end on a potentially positive note, with the idea that the twentieth century has been a big blip, a lacuna of compassion as we move from one way of relating in society (based on the omphalos of the Emperor) to another, the transparency-obsessed, interconnected network. It’s a clever idea, and a hopeful one, too. May he be right in this, as he is in so many other things. Stranger Than We Can Imagine ought to be required reading in schools, it’s that excellent and essential a guide to modern history.

Shiny 12!


Yes, it’s that time again – the latest edition of Shiny is available here.

Thanks to my eye issues, I haven’t got many reviews in this one, and the books I have reviewed were read out loud to me by Mr Litlove. There’s dedication to a cause. Fortunately we really enjoyed them all.

There’s the new novel by Ann Patchett, Commonwealth.

A very funny debut novel about university students and the philosophies of Nietzsche, Confidence.

And a classic boo-boo on my part, a non-fiction title that we had already reviewed in an earlier Shiny, duh, that I’ll post on this blog next.

Do go over and browse all the reviews and features available.




Shiny 11 is out!

Yes, a new edition of Shiny is always a cause for celebration, so, pop your slippers on, get into a comfy chair with snacks to hand and turn your mobile off. The palace of bookish delights awaits you!

SNB-logoClearly, I am in a frivolous mood today.

Okay, so I wrote quite a few reviews for this edition, so let me give you a guiding hand towards a selection of them:

A novel about the sort of topic I might usually avoid as not being ‘my thing’, but which went straight onto my best of the year list.

A brand new heroine of cozy crime, the widow of an Archdeacon, who offers the utmost discretion to her clients in a wonderfully redolent Victorian setting.

The long-withheld novel by a properly famous American cookery writer that has now been published posthumously.

A debut author whose completely gripping novel is set in a Hopperish 60s America and is based on a true story.

A charming, thoughtful, clever novel translated from the German about the friendship between Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill.

A memoir that won the National Book Critics’ Circle award this year about a life spent as part of the black Chicago elite in the 1950s.

We had a lot of fun with our latest ‘Eds Discuss….’ piece, this time thinking about the books we’d read by European authors.

And finally, I put together a Brexit reading list, covering all sorts of fiction and non-fiction that sheds a little light on our current situation.


Hope very much you enjoy!



It’s Been A Strange Sort Of Week

And it began with Mr Litlove discovering a Pokemon gym right outside our house. At first, he’d thought there was some sort of youth convention taking place in the village, as we kept seeing teenage boys with their phones out walking up and down in front of our windows, and congregating by the village pump across the way. But Mr Litlove had heard of Pokemon Go while I was still in blissful ignorance. In order to test out his theories, he loaded the game onto his phone and was delighted to find that his suspicions had been correct. The first I knew of it was when he shoved his phone under my nose and exclaimed at a three-dimensional arrow pointing downwards on the map towards the place where our front door could be found.

Now personally, I might have left it there. But Mr Litlove decided that if we had a gym outside our house, he ought to be able to take advantage of it. So he began collecting Pokemon, which I confess I found very disturbing. Once when we were waiting in the car by the traffic lights, I noticed a middle-aged man turning the corner onto our road. He had a bald tonsure above dark hair in a ponytail that reached his waist. He was tall but with a stoop and a little pot belly. He was wearing glasses and flipflops and he was not looking where he was going, his gaze glued to his phone. ‘Look,’ I said to Mr Litlove. And that steadied him for a few days. But then the cox of his rowing boat turned out to be keen on the game and she helped him catch some more. Finally he reached the required level five and took his Pokemon to the gym, where apparently they all received quite the whooping. ‘It’s put me off a bit,’ Mr Litlove admitted and I am hoping very much that that is the end of the Pokemon craze in this household.

In any case, Harvey was now taking up all his attention. For some reason (he is getting older but still seems sprightly) he’s been suffering very badly this summer from hairballs (Harvey, not Mr Litlove). And when Mr Litlove had a good look at him, he found his coat was unusually matted and he is moulting like crazy. So Mr Litlove set to with the brush, despite our cat’s disinclination to be combed, removing great piles of fluff that looked like we could knit whole other cats out of them. I do stress that this is highly unusual; we’ve never needed to comb him much. But every time Mr Litlove got hold of him and started work, great clouds of fur would dissipate on the air, and I fear I might have breathed in enough cat fur to produce a hairball myself. It began to strike me that Harvey was racking up more hours of concentrated attention out of his owner than I had enjoyed while we were on honeymoon. I even asked one morning whether, if I came down with my hair especially matted, Mr Litlove would comb it out for me. ‘You’d understand if every morning you woke to a new hairball on the kitchen floor,’ he said. I believe Harvey had been sick not just on his new rowing t-shirt, but also on his Kermit chair, and at that point, a line had been crossed.

But in any case, I soon had a distraction of my own. On Wednesday morning I woke full of anxiety after a nightmare in which I had walked into a familiar room to find it full of cobwebs that had dumped all these big spiders in my hair (writing this now, I am inclined to blame the cat, though I hadn’t seen the connection at the time). And the anxiety stayed with me throughout the day. When my jaw started to ache I felt sure that it was muscle and nerve tension, but I was uncomfortably aware I had a cracked tooth in the vicinity. You won’t know about this because it all happened on the eve of the referendum. I’d seen a mark on the tooth – the corresponding tooth to the one that was removed – and thought it was a cavity. So with a heavy heart I went to the dentist only to be told it was a crack that we just needed to keep an eye on. I was so happy I floated out of the surgery and down the street to the polling station. What a great day! How could anything go wrong now? I thought, as I posted my vote in the box.

Ah well.

So I spoke to my sister-in-law on the phone and she said, ‘Listen, I have a tooth that aches all the time and it’s been x-rayed so many times,  but it’s fine. Aching isn’t always about decay.’ Indeed, the right side of my face was feeling very odd, as if my cheek had gone to sleep, and it certainly wasn’t like your usual toothache. But then I went for a session of reiki and my practitioner more or less hit the roof. ‘If a dentist has told you there’s a problem that you’re keeping an eye on,’ she said stressing the words, ‘then you’ve got a ticking time bomb in your mouth that could explode at any moment! Get to the dentist!’ Then she said, ‘Honestly, Litlove, I don’t think there’s enough reiki in the room to deal with your anxiety. What are we going to do about it?’ When the healers start to doubt, it’s not very encouraging. And I actually felt that was a tad unfair. I think I’ve been pretty good about my anxiety lately. What used to be generalised seems now to exist in acute pockets that are difficult to manage. But when I’m fine, I’m fine.

So I rang the dentists and they were kind enough to squeeze me in at the end of the day, and while waiting I distracted myself with the Booker longlist. This was good distraction! Only of course the book I had put aside just a couple of days ago as not quite right for my mood was the only book on the longlist that I owned and had been intending to review for Shiny. Isn’t that typical? It was Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it, just not at this moment. As for the rest of the list, I am constantly astounded by the Booker judges’ ability to longlist books I have never heard of, not even a whiff or a trace. About half the list was news to me.

Anyway, the dentists. My extremely nice dentist gave me a thorough check over and said the pain came from a muscle spasm and I should wear my mouthguard (in daylight hours! when it makes me look like Hannibal Lecter!) and eat soft foods for a while. Sister-in-law: 1 Reiki practitioner: 0. The pain went completely yesterday, but then I triggered it with some rather chewy chicken again. It’s not so bad, though.

But it has prompted me to go back to my lovely Alexander Technique lady, whom I saw on Friday for an unwinding session. Something happens to me when I concentrate: I seem to squeeze my neck vertebrae together and clench muscles I don’t even know I have. While there I asked her if Mr Litlove could come and speak to her as he’s very keen on making ergonomic chairs and wanted to consult with an expert. Well, it turned out she is only the leader of a Campaign For Better Seating. How cool is that? Having networked so splendidly for Mr Litlove he then rewarded me by pruning the entire top off of a still-flowering clematis. So he was in the dog house. The garden is always the source of our worst disagreements because I identify emotionally with the plants that flourish, seeing in them hope for a new uprising of energy. Whereas Mr Litlove suffers a sort of negative recoil from anything he perceives as ‘getting above itself’.

But he did redeem himself by sending me a youtube clip of John Oliver looking back over the RNC Convention and the interview with Newt Gingrich in particular in which he defended Trump’s evidently untrue claim that the violent crime figures have gone up in America. Gingrich insisted that in America people ‘feel more threatened’ and his argument was simply to take that feeling and turn it into a fact: that crime is worse. Oliver’s take was that this idea that ‘feelings are as valid as facts’ produced the scary prospect of candidates being able to ‘create’ facts, which we see in Trump creating his own reality.

So it’s official: being right is an emotion.

O America! If you have any belief in this special relationship with Britain, do please look closely at what happens when people ignore facts in favour of their prejudices, fears, and frustrations. Already in the UK thousands of jobs are being shed and the economic figures are showing a marked downturn. The pound has plummeted and we haven’t even stepped into our new reality yet.

I think this state of affairs has been coming for a long time. It probably begins with economics, which claims to be a science but can sometimes look like a religion with graphs. And then there have been these big scientific arguments over (for instance) whether or not climate change will happen, and the humanities have been pulling chunks off the idea of truth for decades now. The media’s dogged insistence on reporting only the bad, the threatening and the scandalous has indeed made experts look like idiots. And then all it takes is a democratising of intelligence like the internet for the whole notion of an ‘opinion’ to be bigged up until it burst its banks entirely. Opinions are feelings, feelings are not facts. But we do seem to be living now in a post-factual universe and just think how surreal and alarming this state of affairs might become.

And so my friends, while we hurtle towards an even crazier version of life than we’ve ever managed to embrace before, I can only urge you all to read. Because the only place where untruths have real value is fiction, where we do our best to explain and understand and evoke compassion for the odd business of being alive.