What are you reading? – 4 January 2018

A weekly look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

January 4, 2018
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A.W. Purdue, visiting professor of history, University of Northumbria, is reading Niall Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power (Allen Lane, 2017). “Probably today’s most influential historian, Ferguson considers global history in terms of the interaction between hierarchies and networks. Hierarchies are akin to towers, vertical and highly visible, while networks are squares where influence comes from the horizontal web within which ideas and opinions are expressed. History, Ferguson suggests, has seen alternating periods in which the towers of hierarchy have provided stability and authority and then been succeeded by squares of influence that have rapidly altered political, economic and intellectual life. Networks can be regarded as agents of change or as conspiracies, enabling secretive groups or dark forces to exercise illegitimate power. Ferguson sees the role of the printing press, its potential and dangers, replicated today in the much more powerful facilitators of our networked age, the internet and the personal computer. His literary skill and panoramic range of expertise make this a fascinating, if controversial, book.”

John Shand, associate lecturer in philosophy, The Open University, is reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake (Vintage Classics, 1998). “Vonnegut has an ability to step outside the run of the mill in both form and content. Armed with his ‘bullshit repellent’, he takes few things seriously, believing that the human condition is one of laughable insignificance, and anything else is pretentious hubris, but all from what feels like a position of moral integrity. He cares about caring for people, but that’s about it. The slender hook of Timequake is that we all go back 10 years and end up repeating it but without free will. It of course makes no difference. But this is irrelevant really to what is not a novel but more like a commonplace book. And what you get are some wonderful barbed insights on life and memorable aperçus: ‘I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.’ ”

R. C. Richardson, emeritus professor of history, University of Winchester, is reading Cecil Torr’s Small Talk at Wreyland (Oxford University Press, 1979). “Although this is unashamedly a piece of antiquarianism, first published in three volumes between 1918 and 1923, it is far from being tied to the parish pump and dry-as-dust in its content and style of writing. Lively accounts of the local Devon scene, place-names, customs, culture and institutions are interspersed with an extraordinary assortment of recollections and observations, Torr’s own and his father’s and grandfather’s, wide-ranging geographically and chronologically. The author’s forthright views on politics, government, bureaucracy, architecture and education come across very strongly, but so does his sense of fun. And although chiefly about the past, major novelties such as the arrival of the railway, the motor car and the aeroplane also find their place.”

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