The Great American Novel(ists)

GbyeColumbusI read Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint – found on my parents’ bookshelves –  as a teenager and I have read Philip Roth ever since.  A great novelist and a great American political novelist; what a line up: American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Plot Against America, The Human Stain, Everyman. 

Here is the intoxicating, bewildering start of The Prologue (The Great American Novel):

CALL ME SMITTY. That’s what everybody else called me – the
ballplayers, the bankers, the bareback riders, the baritones,
the bartenders, the bastards, the best-selling writers
(excepting Hem, who dubbed me Frederico), the bicyclists,
the big game hunters (Hem the exception again), the billiards
champs, the bishops, the blacklisted (myself included), the
black marketeers, the blonds, the bloodsuckers, the
bluebloods, the bookies, the Bolsheviks (some of my best
friends, Mr. Chairman – what of it!), the bombardiers, the
bootblacks, the bootlicks, the bosses, the boxers, the
Brahmins, the brass hats, the British (Sir Smitty as of ’36), the
broads, the broadcasters, the broncobusters, the brunettes,
the black bucks clown in Barbados (Meestah Smitty), the
Buddhist monks in Burma, one Bulkington, the bullfighters,
the bullthrowers, the burlesque comics and the burlesque
stars, the bushmen, the bums, and the butlers. And that’s only
the letter B, fans, only one of the Big Twenty-Six! Continue reading “The Great American Novel(ists)”


Reading 2016 (April)

I came across The Screwtape Letters by C.S.Lewis (1942) via an article in The New Yorker. I downloaded a copy from the Gutenberg website (Canada). It is a dry deadpan satirical tale following the efforts of Wormwood an apprentice demon and Screwtape his mentor and senior demon to capture the soul of an unnamed man (who is not tempted, but rather falls in love and is killed in an air raid).  Lewis was a well-respected broadcaster and writer during WW2: he was wounded on the Somme in 1917/18. Its enduring power comes from its portrayal of a typical life, which despite temptations and failings reveals the strength of human nature. When we were kids my mother didn´t let us read Lewis – so of course we borrowed The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe from school friends. Perhaps she was not keen on christian apologetics.

lady van

I saw the movie the The Lady in the Van by Alan Bennett (1989) and then immediately caught up with the novel (really a short albeit true story, a Graham Greene ´entertainment´). I had read some of the stories before in the London Review of Books. The screenplay is actually much better than the novel. I also re-read his more recent novella The Uncommon Reader (2007) which is a firm favourite, a gentle piece of lèse majesté. The Queen comes across a mobile library parked outside the kitchens of Buckingham Palace, and starting with Ivy Compton-Burnett moves on eventually to Marcel Proust, causing much discontent in the Palace and beyond. For republicans the ending is a treat too.


Power: A Radical View (2nd edition) by Steven Lukes (2005). This classic text was published in 1974 and updated in 2005, showing Lukes´ willingness to re-assess his ideas. Lukes describes “three faces of power”, of which  – the third dimension – is about power as domination over people: “how do the powerful secure the compliance (unwilling or willing) of those they dominate?” Much of this translates into drivers of change and theory of change approaches in my own field of work.

The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera (2014) is sadly not much good. His classic novels – The Joke, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable kunderaLightness of Being – were written before the fall of the Czech communist regime. Since then he has rather lost his mojo. Jonathan Coe reviews Kundera´s legacy, which includes his apparent disdain for his women characters.

Kundera would fail a literary version of the Bechdel–Wallace test that asks whether a film features (a) at least two women who (b) talk to each other (c) about something other than a man.


My own bookshelves show that I would fail such a test in terms of what I buy. Most of these books are non-fiction, not that that is an excuse. I am making an effort to read more fiction written by women. One of my favourite writers has been Jenny Diski who has sadly died. I have copies of Rain Forest and Skating To Antarctica.  As she wrote she lived with cancer. The London Review of Books has put all her contributions online, a lovely gesture.




Reading 2016 (January)
Reading 2016 (February)
Reading 2016 (March)

Creative destruction for books

blackheath book

The old bookshop in Blackheath has been a part of my Village landscape in both the 60s and the 90s – Raggedy Ann’s,  Fenner’s (they had mad dalmatian dogs which would rush in and out of my parent’s house in Foxes Dale and my dad would to help fix their MGs and frog-eyed Midgets on Saturday afternoons), the other bookshop, and later Black’s Jewelry are also fondly remembered. A visit to London would not be complete without a walk around the Village and going to the bookshop (plus a stroll around Greenwich Park, a Charlton home game, and stopping at one or two pubs…). The news that it is for sale shows how the market for books is changing and becoming more fragmented.

E-books are the perhaps the most obvious factor. A recent blog – The flattening of e-book sales – argues that the growth of e-books is tending to decline because: e-books tend to be complementary and not substitutes for ‘real’ books, and that they are better suited to some types of books (that is, sotto voce, free books and popular cheap fiction); the  early adoption and novelty effect is wearing off, and the advantages of printed books have been underrated (the smell and feel of a new book, books as furniture), and the suggestion that tablets have been taking sales from e-book readers. And throw in some price-fixing, and the small price differential between e-book and paperbacks.

It is not so straightforward to separate out trends in e-book sales and the wider woes of the economy. But to me it does look much more of a lull than a change change in trajectory. The rise and fall of Nokia underlines how quickly global communications and the supporting technology are changing. Who knows that new new types of hand-held devices may emerge in the near future? Or the content that will be available? The music industry has shifted with the likes of Spotify and SoundCloud, and television seems set to make a much greater impact.

Perhaps education will be a new driver. The Khan Academy is a not-for-profit project ( and 100% free to use) with excellent mathematics, science, and other educational videos, for which a mobile app is available ( The Udacity project is also an innovator in online collaborative education, which seeks to challenge the traditional mode of formal education. And Boundless are offering tremendous free on-line textbooks, which looks like the thin-edge of the wedge for traditional textbooks. In Catalunya high-school kids are now given a free laptop loaded with textbooks.

In Liberia in 2006-07 I met a consultant working for Google. They were looking at cities to wire up. Unfortunately they did not choose Monrovia. It would have made such a positive impact on a poor country and with half the population living in the capital. I wonder if 25,000 school-leavers would have failed the admission test to the University of Liberia had Google shown some more courage and had been more willing to dig deeper into their pockets.

Above all the ‘Internet generation’ is coming of age as Sunny Bindra explains:  

There is a very rapidly growing cohort of the population that has known no other way: these folks have always experienced the Internet, smartphones and apps, social media and ‘24-7’ connectivity…This is not just the usual generational change; technology and demography have come together to create a perfect storm in Africa.

The democratization of digital content will break the rigidity of book publishing, which will in turn put to the test the thorny issue whether an authentic African  literature (based also on local languages and cultures) was unable to emerge due to the rigidity of book publishing  – pace Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Prof Louis Gates – or whether the locals aren’t that bothered, and anyhow globalization makes this moot.

I read Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ’s novel Nairobi Heat, purchased on Amazon since I failed to find a copy in any Nairobi bookstore, and now I’m looking for his latest novel Black Star Nairobi. Thank goodness for bookshops.


I have just read this article on secondhand bookshops

Even if bookshops survive, without secondhand shops the drive towards homogeneity will become almost irresistible. “Amazon recommends” over time works to drive us into fewer and fewer sheep pens, not to explore pastures new… Writer Ruth Ozeki recently described independent bookshops as a keystone species – the one on which the rest of the (in this case cultural) ecology depends.

What I read in 2012

I have noticed that I haven’t been reading much fiction these days. I keep adding novels to my Amazon wish list, and find myself returning to (older) le Carré and Kipling’s Stalky & Co…. But I did re-read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, sadly as relevant as ever, and I was mesmerised with Wole Soyinka’s You Must Set Forth At Dawn. Michael Sandel’s Justice: What is the right thing to do? and Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save prompted a lot of thought. I realise that I have been giving less than I used to – I am keeping up with Give Well blogsite. I bought Chade-Meng Tan’s  Look Inside Yourself to try something different. The language and style grate on this Brit – best not to read the cover or forewords … and try to let the assertion that “happiness is the default state of mind” wash over – but there are many useful pointers and guidance that I have found useful. I caught up with Alex Ross’ Listen to This having enjoyed The Rest Is Noise. And I am now enjoying trying out Messiaen, Morton Feldman, Jonathan Harvey, Elliot Carter, and most recently Esa-Pekka Salonen (Sibelius has been a long-time favourite).

Otherwise it’s been economics.  Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman left me a bit cold – the style is ponderous, a good editor would have halved the length. That homo economicus, homo sapiens, homo faber are straw men was not even an issue for Eric Hobsbawm: I was re-reading The Age of Capital when he died in November. That repeated crises are endemic to capitalism is also a theme of Nouriel Roubini’s excellent Crisis Economics. I enjoyed reading Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s Why Nations Fail, including their fence-sitting, which Nicholas Shaxson’s Treasure Island could not be accused of. But I have learnt most from The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis of Capitalism by David Harvey, and John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology.