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Things you learn from reading books

It’s amazing what you can learn from books.

Sounds silly, that sentence…

I love when I’m deep in a book and something stops me halfway through a paragraph and makes me say “Holy shit!” out loud – I never knew that! Or, “Wow. Who knew?”

And sometimes it’ll send me off to investigate further.

There are some writers, editors etc., and I suppose readers, who don’t like this. They don’t anything that makes you interrupt the story, that keeps your nose in the leaves.

But for me, a really rich book is one that makes you pause every now and then and think about what you’re reading, ponder the meaning of what you’ve read, assimilate the knowledge this piece of writing has given you over and above an entertaining read.

This is why people read fiction. This is why science indicates that people who read fiction are more empathetic.

Here are three examples:

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I started reading Homo Deus, a recent non-fiction book, the sequel to Sapiens, which you might have heard of.

But before I go deep into it, I wanted to read a similarly titled novel – Men Like Gods, by HG Wells.

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An interesting book. We are clearly still in Wells’ Age of Confusion, with our population soaring way, way past what Wells worried was too many (2000m), and our world yet being pillaged by the rich.

But what really amazed me, in a book about a crossing dimensions into new universes (where the telecommunications department knows where every human is at all times but the knowledge can only be used for the good of the individual!) was the fact that the main character commented on the fact that there were thrushes singing in July – that he knew these birds stopped singing by June.

This is a character who writes for a liberal paper in the centre of London.

I’m a zoologist – sorry, I have a doctorate in zoology (there are picky fuckers out there in twitterlandia who like to point out that there’s a difference if I no longer gain employment from zoology except by teaching biology, who I hope die when they’re on a plane and a retired doctor tells them he’s no longer qualified to give them first aid while they suffer cardiac arrest, but I digress) – though not an ornithologist, but I had no idea.

He also commented on the fact that nightingales could be found in Pangbourne and Caversham, both in Reading just outside London were great places for nightingales (I wonder if there are any there now) which was amazing knowledge for an average Joe, too.

Why don’t we all know such things now? Where is our general knowledge of the life of other species around us gone? I was only familiar with the Blackbird and Robin – aside from the magpies and seagulls – back home in my hedgerow.

 

How much we have lost, even from such busy, hedonistic, polluted and poverty-stricken times as 1920’s London.

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Another book I recently read, and commented on in my facebook feed, is Point Counter Point, by the contemporaneous Aldous Huxley, who only predicted the future in this particular novel by talking about the fact that the world would run out of phosphorous, and other important raw materials and minerals due to unhinged addiction to progress, while politicians fucked around with petty, inconsequential nonsense that they hoped with get them elected over someone equally competent – or in competent, as the case usually is – while the problems that really affect us only snowball.

 

The third novel was Meridian, the second novel by Alice Walker, the author of The Colour Purple.

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At the end of the book, Walker describes the main character in the following paragraph:

“On those occasions such was her rage that that she actually felt as if the rich and racist of the world should stand in fear of her, because she – though apparently weak and penniless, a little crazy and without power – was as yet of a resolute and relatively fearless character, which, sufficient in its calm acceptance of its own purpose, could bring the mightiest country to its knees.

And I couldn’t help but think of Greta Thunberg – a beam of light in our own dark times, who seemingly powerless, is nonetheless, so resolute in her purpose that she has an immense effect upon countries.”

It is so often the person who seems weakest who can stand the strongest.

I only hope that in contrast to how people treated people like Meridian in the era of civil rights, that we will appreciate Greta for the positive influence she is on global justice and the survival of our society, and protect her from the evils we know some amongst us would wish her.

 

 

 

Human evolution: looking back, looking forward

I have said this before, but we really are a strange species.

On the one hand, the Aboriginal Australians have stories that go back ten to fifteen thousand years, describing how their formal lands were flooded when the sea level rose after the last ice age. This made me remember an article about disposal of nuclear waste and the super intelligent nuclear physicists thinking about how to label the area so that future generations will know it’s there. The local Native American tribe told these scientists not to worry – they’d tell the future generations. It made me laugh.

But then, on the other, Yuval Noah Harari writes a book:Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind about how our species of humans becoming so powerful because we can believe stories (including complete bullshit), and thinks that the first really big impact of humans in the world was the arrival of humans in Australia, after which the megafauna of that continent disappeared from the record (a little further back than the sea-level rise in the story). The second big impact he says was when humans arrived in America and destroyed even more species of giant mammals.

In case it’s not clear, the book does not say the rise of humankind was in fact a great thing: for individual humans or for other species. He does speculate about the future, and reckons that humans will quickly evolve into some kind of new human-computer hybrid… But first, there will probably be a speciation event between the poor and the ultra -rich, the latter going on to becoming superhuman and somehow avoiding the coming problems.

One thing he seems to have missed (from the radio show I listened to), is that there are still people who live like our ancestors did, hunting and gathering, and they are, I hope, still as happy as Harari believes (and I agree) our ancestors were. I can only say that the this book is a huge reason to support NGOs like Survival International (to which 10% of the royalties of my second book in the Silver Nights Trilogy will be donated) so these people can be left alone in their happiness, and not made sad just because we are so blind to our own sadness that we think we are helping them. I can only hope that in the future, when the rest of us have evolved into whatever strange stuff will befall us, there will yet be uncontacted tribes living in the forests the way they have since they destroyed the megafauna.

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