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Do you often find yourself dancing the “reasonable tango”? This is what the sociologist Kirsty Sedgman, in On Being Unreasonable (Faber), calls the kind of polite argument that acknowledges the opponent’s point with a “Yes, but …” and carries on indefinitely, with no mutual agreement in sight. In this bracing manifesto for being just a little less civilised, she considers subjects such as what should count as bad behaviour in the theatre, what “reasonable” means in law, and why we should not “debate” with fascists. (Sunlight is not the best disinfectant, she points out; bleach is.) Does being meek ever bring about justice? Is performative “reasonableness” really a cloak for the “terrifying thrill of self-righteousness”? The pious tone-policers, she argues, are Unreasonably Reasonable; we could all do with pulling down a few more statues and in general being a bit more Reasonably Unreasonable.

What more reasonable way to investigate the weird misogyny of popular culture in the 2000s than via case studies of famous women? That is Sarah Ditum’s gambit in Toxic (Fleet), a furious and funny book about the public discourse around Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Jennifer Aniston and others. The febrile combination of social media with hungry paparazzi feeding a new ecosystem of online gossip sites gave rise to what Ditum calls the “upskirt decade”, a virtual cesspool of celebrity culture. From “Nipplegate” (Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the Superbowl) to Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines and the singer’s pillorying as a poster boy for rape culture, Ditum always has something new and insightful to say about old scandals, and how they continue to reverberate in many current conversations, not least among the Unreasonably Unreasonable.

naomi klein doppelganger

Viciousness towards famous women is also part of the story in Naomi Klein’s Doppelganger (Allen Lane), in which she becomes obsessed with her half-namesake Naomi Wolf, and the latter’s curious transformation from hip feminist to Covid conspiracy theorist and truther on the topic of contrails. It doesn’t help that Klein (author of No Logo and The Shock Doctrine) is so often confused with her subject “in this crowded and filthy global toilet known as social media”. But as she continues “cringe-following” Wolf her themes widen and darken, taking in a cultural history of doubles and evil twins, conspiracy theories more generally, the rise of the populist right in the person of Steve Bannon, and a close reading of Philip Roth, whose Operation Shylock she reads persuasively as the key to many such mythologies.

One chapter of Dasha Kiper’s Travellers to Unimaginable Lands (Profile) begins, almost Rothishly: “When Peter Harwell’s seventy-nine-year-old mother punched a doctor in the face …”, setting the tone for a deeply compassionate but often gently humorous investigation into the psychology of caregiving for those looking after people with Alzheimer’s. The psychologist author explains how ordinary human biases and foibles are ruthlessly exploited by the disease, so that caregivers too often feel terribly guilty at not doing better. As Kiper points out in her lucid explanations of what is known about memory and consciousness, and the brain biology of self-control, no one can be perfect in such a situation: the carers, too, are victims of the disease.

Travellers to Unimaginable Lands: Dementia, Carers and the Hidden Workings of the Mind by Dasha Kiper

Therapy of an arguably less productive kind is the subject of Seamus O’Mahony’s splendid The Guru, the Bagman and the Sceptic (Apollo), an almost incredulous narration of how the cult of Sigmund Freud took hold in Britain and then the world as a hobby for “rich directionless strays” – largely thanks, in this telling, to the Viennese sage’s “bagman”, a sexually incontinent Welsh doctor named Ernest Jones. The latter made himself chief of the British Psychoanalytical Society and introduced Freudianism to the Bloomsbury set. “Being theoreticians of the passive, dividend-drawing and consuming section of the bourgeoisie,” as Prince DS Mirsky remarked acidly of that crowd, “they are extremely intrigued by their own minutest inner experiences and count them an inexhaustible treasure store of further more minutious inner experiences.” Let us give thanks, at least, for the titular “sceptic”, a surgeon named Wilfred Trotter who was superbly unimpressed on meeting Freud but did later coin the term “herd instinct” in social psychology.

After the upskirt decade, might it be time finally to take the female body seriously? In Eve (Hutchinson Heinemann), Cat Bohannon takes a stylish scalpel to innumerable examples of the dysfunctional ways in which medicine and technology have been limping along according to an assumed “male norm”, and investigates the evolution of female anatomy all the way back to mammals that scurried around under the feet of the dinosaurs. Highly entertaining, and full of novel perceptions. “Bodies are basically units of time,” Bohannon points out. “What we call an individual ‘body’ is a way of bounding a series of cascading events that follow self-replicating patterns until finally entropy sets in and enough goes wrong that the forces that keep you from flying apart at the seams finally let go.”

delhi pollution

You could say much the same for planetary bodies, for example Earth, which began as a fiery lava ball and will probably end up incinerated by an expanding Sun. In a short window in between, human civilisation, miraculously, has arisen. In The Earth Transformed (Bloomsbury), Peter Frankopan reads the history of Homo sapiens as inextricable from the history of climatic and ecological change, whether naturally abrupt or anthropogenically gradual. Was Genghis Khan’s success made possible by unusually heavy rains? Were the Norse myths inspired by the sun-blotting ash of a huge eruption? One worrying lesson is that, even today, we are not doing nearly as much as we should to increase our resilience against the awakening of large volcanoes.

Fire Weather by John Vaillant

As destructive as a lava flow but more terrifyingly mobile was the apocalyptic forest fire that engulfed parts of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, in 2016. John Vaillant’s riveting account, Fire Weather (Hodder), draws on interviews with officials, firefighters and other citizens to provide a minute-by-minute disaster-movie narrative of the inferno, while also pointedly remarking on the fact that Fort McMurray is an oil town, devoted to processing the products of the Alberta tar sands. It is fossil-fuel-induced global heating that is making such “natural” disasters both more frequent and more intense, while modern houses filled with fossil-fuel byproducts (vinyl, plastics, etc) burn more quickly and completely than ever. A deserved winner of this year’s Baillie Gifford nonfiction prize.

And even if plastic doesn’t burn, it pollutes the environment in many other ways: 20,000 plastic water bottles are sold every second, and 4 trillion cigarette butts are chucked away every year. Oliver Franklin-Wallis’s Wasteland (Simon & Schuster) is a book about all our rubbish: a travelogue around dumps, scrapyards, disposal and recycling facilities, from giant machines that shred TVs and other electronic devices to vast landfill sites in India: the all-too-solid hinterlands of our obsession with buying and throwing away so much stuff.

End Times by Peter Turchin

Can there be a science of history? Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series proposed an elite cadre of “psychohistorians” who could predict the future; in Peter Turchin’s End Times (Allen Lane), the proposed science of “cliodynamics” (after Clio, the Greek muse of history) is less confident of precise prediction but nonetheless makes much of the author’s own forecast, in 2010, that by the 2020s there would be a surge in political instability and violence in the US. He got that right. Surveying the rise and fall of empires and parliaments through global history, Turchin argues that civic upheavals become due when “popular immiseration” (eg, the stagnancy of real wages) is combined with “elite overproduction”: the number of people qualified (via PhD or otherwise) to high social rank exceeds the number of spaces available, leading to dangerous disgruntlement in both camps. Pumping wealth upwards, from low to high in the social hierarchy, eventually leads to “state collapse and social breakdown”.

The Coming Wave- Technology, Power, and the Twenty-First Century’s Greatest Dilemma by Mustafa Suleyman

Another source of state collapse and social breakdown might be artificial intelligence, at least if you believe the most gloomy prognostications from a year in which OpenAI launched GPT-4 and pioneers of the field, such as Stuart Russell, warned that superintelligence might just decide to kill everyone. The Coming Wave (Bodley Head), by Mustafa Suleyman and Michael Bhaskar (the former a co-founder of Google’s AI subsidiary DeepMind), though, focuses not on the existential scenario of AI exterminating all humans, but nearer term and more plausible threats of bad actors using AI in concert with synthetic biology or drone weapons.

There are more hopeful stories of biotechnology, of course. Modern practices of vaccination, rather than being a conspiracy of mind control by the deep state as per Naomi Wolf, were in fact developed by heroic outsiders who themselves had to battle the forces of hostile bureaucracy. Such is the lesson of Simon Schama’s magnificent work of medical history, Foreign Bodies: Vaccines and the Health of Nations (Simon & Schuster). Its central protagonist is a Jewish microbiologist from Ukraine, Waldemar Haffkine, who became a hero of the Raj by vaccinating millions of Indians against bubonic plague and cholera. As thanks, he was subsequently blacklisted by the British academic establishment, a victim of the virus of antisemitism – for which no vaccine has yet been invented.


Do you often find yourself dancing the “reasonable tango”? This is what the sociologist Kirsty Sedgman, in On Being Unreasonable (Faber), calls the kind of polite argument that acknowledges the opponent’s point with a “Yes, but …” and carries on indefinitely, with no mutual agreement in sight. In this bracing manifesto for being just a little less civilised, she considers subjects such as what should count as bad behaviour in the theatre, what “reasonable” means in law, and why we should not “debate” with fascists. (Sunlight is not the best disinfectant, she points out; bleach is.) Does being meek ever bring about justice? Is performative “reasonableness” really a cloak for the “terrifying thrill of self-righteousness”? The pious tone-policers, she argues, are Unreasonably Reasonable; we could all do with pulling down a few more statues and in general being a bit more Reasonably Unreasonable.

Toxic by Sarah Ditum

What more reasonable way to investigate the weird misogyny of popular culture in the 2000s than via case studies of famous women? That is Sarah Ditum’s gambit in Toxic (Fleet), a furious and funny book about the public discourse around Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Jennifer Aniston and others. The febrile combination of social media with hungry paparazzi feeding a new ecosystem of online gossip sites gave rise to what Ditum calls the “upskirt decade”, a virtual cesspool of celebrity culture. From “Nipplegate” (Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the Superbowl) to Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines and the singer’s pillorying as a poster boy for rape culture, Ditum always has something new and insightful to say about old scandals, and how they continue to reverberate in many current conversations, not least among the Unreasonably Unreasonable.

naomi klein doppelganger

Viciousness towards famous women is also part of the story in Naomi Klein’s Doppelganger (Allen Lane), in which she becomes obsessed with her half-namesake Naomi Wolf, and the latter’s curious transformation from hip feminist to Covid conspiracy theorist and truther on the topic of contrails. It doesn’t help that Klein (author of No Logo and The Shock Doctrine) is so often confused with her subject “in this crowded and filthy global toilet known as social media”. But as she continues “cringe-following” Wolf her themes widen and darken, taking in a cultural history of doubles and evil twins, conspiracy theories more generally, the rise of the populist right in the person of Steve Bannon, and a close reading of Philip Roth, whose Operation Shylock she reads persuasively as the key to many such mythologies.

One chapter of Dasha Kiper’s Travellers to Unimaginable Lands (Profile) begins, almost Rothishly: “When Peter Harwell’s seventy-nine-year-old mother punched a doctor in the face …”, setting the tone for a deeply compassionate but often gently humorous investigation into the psychology of caregiving for those looking after people with Alzheimer’s. The psychologist author explains how ordinary human biases and foibles are ruthlessly exploited by the disease, so that caregivers too often feel terribly guilty at not doing better. As Kiper points out in her lucid explanations of what is known about memory and consciousness, and the brain biology of self-control, no one can be perfect in such a situation: the carers, too, are victims of the disease.

Travellers to Unimaginable Lands: Dementia, Carers and the Hidden Workings of the Mind by Dasha Kiper

Therapy of an arguably less productive kind is the subject of Seamus O’Mahony’s splendid The Guru, the Bagman and the Sceptic (Apollo), an almost incredulous narration of how the cult of Sigmund Freud took hold in Britain and then the world as a hobby for “rich directionless strays” – largely thanks, in this telling, to the Viennese sage’s “bagman”, a sexually incontinent Welsh doctor named Ernest Jones. The latter made himself chief of the British Psychoanalytical Society and introduced Freudianism to the Bloomsbury set. “Being theoreticians of the passive, dividend-drawing and consuming section of the bourgeoisie,” as Prince DS Mirsky remarked acidly of that crowd, “they are extremely intrigued by their own minutest inner experiences and count them an inexhaustible treasure store of further more minutious inner experiences.” Let us give thanks, at least, for the titular “sceptic”, a surgeon named Wilfred Trotter who was superbly unimpressed on meeting Freud but did later coin the term “herd instinct” in social psychology.

After the upskirt decade, might it be time finally to take the female body seriously? In Eve (Hutchinson Heinemann), Cat Bohannon takes a stylish scalpel to innumerable examples of the dysfunctional ways in which medicine and technology have been limping along according to an assumed “male norm”, and investigates the evolution of female anatomy all the way back to mammals that scurried around under the feet of the dinosaurs. Highly entertaining, and full of novel perceptions. “Bodies are basically units of time,” Bohannon points out. “What we call an individual ‘body’ is a way of bounding a series of cascading events that follow self-replicating patterns until finally entropy sets in and enough goes wrong that the forces that keep you from flying apart at the seams finally let go.”

delhi pollution

You could say much the same for planetary bodies, for example Earth, which began as a fiery lava ball and will probably end up incinerated by an expanding Sun. In a short window in between, human civilisation, miraculously, has arisen. In The Earth Transformed (Bloomsbury), Peter Frankopan reads the history of Homo sapiens as inextricable from the history of climatic and ecological change, whether naturally abrupt or anthropogenically gradual. Was Genghis Khan’s success made possible by unusually heavy rains? Were the Norse myths inspired by the sun-blotting ash of a huge eruption? One worrying lesson is that, even today, we are not doing nearly as much as we should to increase our resilience against the awakening of large volcanoes.

Fire Weather by John Vaillant

As destructive as a lava flow but more terrifyingly mobile was the apocalyptic forest fire that engulfed parts of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, in 2016. John Vaillant’s riveting account, Fire Weather (Hodder), draws on interviews with officials, firefighters and other citizens to provide a minute-by-minute disaster-movie narrative of the inferno, while also pointedly remarking on the fact that Fort McMurray is an oil town, devoted to processing the products of the Alberta tar sands. It is fossil-fuel-induced global heating that is making such “natural” disasters both more frequent and more intense, while modern houses filled with fossil-fuel byproducts (vinyl, plastics, etc) burn more quickly and completely than ever. A deserved winner of this year’s Baillie Gifford nonfiction prize.

And even if plastic doesn’t burn, it pollutes the environment in many other ways: 20,000 plastic water bottles are sold every second, and 4 trillion cigarette butts are chucked away every year. Oliver Franklin-Wallis’s Wasteland (Simon & Schuster) is a book about all our rubbish: a travelogue around dumps, scrapyards, disposal and recycling facilities, from giant machines that shred TVs and other electronic devices to vast landfill sites in India: the all-too-solid hinterlands of our obsession with buying and throwing away so much stuff.

End Times by Peter Turchin

Can there be a science of history? Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series proposed an elite cadre of “psychohistorians” who could predict the future; in Peter Turchin’s End Times (Allen Lane), the proposed science of “cliodynamics” (after Clio, the Greek muse of history) is less confident of precise prediction but nonetheless makes much of the author’s own forecast, in 2010, that by the 2020s there would be a surge in political instability and violence in the US. He got that right. Surveying the rise and fall of empires and parliaments through global history, Turchin argues that civic upheavals become due when “popular immiseration” (eg, the stagnancy of real wages) is combined with “elite overproduction”: the number of people qualified (via PhD or otherwise) to high social rank exceeds the number of spaces available, leading to dangerous disgruntlement in both camps. Pumping wealth upwards, from low to high in the social hierarchy, eventually leads to “state collapse and social breakdown”.

The Coming Wave- Technology, Power, and the Twenty-First Century’s Greatest Dilemma by Mustafa Suleyman

Another source of state collapse and social breakdown might be artificial intelligence, at least if you believe the most gloomy prognostications from a year in which OpenAI launched GPT-4 and pioneers of the field, such as Stuart Russell, warned that superintelligence might just decide to kill everyone. The Coming Wave (Bodley Head), by Mustafa Suleyman and Michael Bhaskar (the former a co-founder of Google’s AI subsidiary DeepMind), though, focuses not on the existential scenario of AI exterminating all humans, but nearer term and more plausible threats of bad actors using AI in concert with synthetic biology or drone weapons.

There are more hopeful stories of biotechnology, of course. Modern practices of vaccination, rather than being a conspiracy of mind control by the deep state as per Naomi Wolf, were in fact developed by heroic outsiders who themselves had to battle the forces of hostile bureaucracy. Such is the lesson of Simon Schama’s magnificent work of medical history, Foreign Bodies: Vaccines and the Health of Nations (Simon & Schuster). Its central protagonist is a Jewish microbiologist from Ukraine, Waldemar Haffkine, who became a hero of the Raj by vaccinating millions of Indians against bubonic plague and cholera. As thanks, he was subsequently blacklisted by the British academic establishment, a victim of the virus of antisemitism – for which no vaccine has yet been invented.

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