Monthly Archives: April 2019

The Secret River – how a lack of understanding can lead to a disaster

The Secret River is loosely based on the story of Kate Grenville’s ancestor Solomon Wiseman, but it’s a work of fiction.
It’s incredibly well written. The book tells the story of William and Sal and it feels heavy from start to finish.
William and Sal meet as kids in London. William has a big family with a lot of brothers and sisters. There isn’t enough food for everyone and he’s often cold. Sal’s an only child and her family is a bit better off. William and Sal end up being some of Australia’s early settlers.

Usually, when reading I try to identify with one of the main characters. In this book, I’m on the outside looking in. None of the characters are very likable. I felt sorry for them, but at the same time, they don’t seem to handle their circumstances very well. It’s easy to say that while being sat on a comfortable sofa with tea and a biscuit of course.

In a way, the book shows the worst sides of humans. There is a total lack of empathy for other classes and people with a different background and culture. Those in a position of power treat the people that need their kindness and support the most with contempt. As they gain power people behave like their former oppressors, even though they are aware of how that behavior hurt them in the past. They take the full force of their self-loathing out on others.
Throughout the book decisions and actions lead to crashes in slow motion. With horrible consequences. While it’s easy to see it happening from a distance it does make me wonder if I would be able to see it happening if this was my life and these were my decisions and actions.

The Secret River is a strong reminder of how important it is to be open to other people and to try and understand what’s driving them. The characters in the book are unable to truly connect and reach each other and shame and entitlement is stopping them from really trying. It’s painful to watch.
The more different people seem to be at first glance, the harder it can be to connect. We should look for ways to communicate and not give up because it’s hard. We shouldn’t feel embarrassed because we are trying and not succeeding the first time.
This is a reminder for myself as much as anyone. Especially being prepared to try to connect, fail and try again. It’s ok to be uncomfortable and as today’s world is becoming smaller and more diverse it might be more important than ever.

The Secret River made me feel some of the painful history of Australia. It also made me realize while I learned about the facts of Dutch colonization, I have little awareness of the feelings and the emotions that must have been part of it. The violence, pain, and injustice.
I want to find a book like The Secret River that can teach me about the pain and injustice that are part of my own past.

I learned about The Secret River through this Youtube video.
If you are lucky enough to have an Australian iTunes account I think the Secret River mini-series will be well worth a watch.

The Secret River

Macbeth – A tale of ruthless ambition

Macbeth is the second Shakespeare play that I read. Before I tried, I didn’t think I’d be able to understand, let alone enjoy Shakespeare. Last year I visited Shakespeare’s Globe during a weekend trip to London. I found these cute little books from the Macmillan Collector’s Library that didn’t seem too daunting, so I decided to try one. Some of the words look a bit different, but often reading out loud will make it easier to understand.

The books in this series start with an extensive introduction, which explains the outline of the story. There’s also an overview of the names and roles of the most important characters in the play. With names like Macbeth, Macduff, and Malcolm this is helpful.

Macbeth is a story about how ambition and greed can make ordinary people become violent and ruthless. It’s called the Scottish play, as most of it is set in Scotland and focuses on the fight for the Scottish crown.
Macbeth is a general in King Duncan’s army. When three witches tell him that he will one day be king Macbeth’s ambition gets the best of him. He decides not to wait for “one day” and takes matters into his own hand. At first, Macbeth is hesitant about killing, but Lady Macbeth is ruthless and even asks the spirits to fill her with cruelty.
After having killed the roles are reversed. Macbeth develops a taste for it while his wife is being consumed by guilt and slowly loses her mind.

There is a lot of violence and death in the book, but the most heartbreaking part is when one of the noblemen has to deliver the news of the death of Macduff’s wife and children to him in England.
“Let not your ears despise my tongue for ever,
Which shall possess them with the heaviest sound
That ever yet they heard”

Needless to say that the writing is beautiful. It’s easy to be so focused on the story that you forget to pay attention to the beautiful sentences. There are several parts of the book that I read multiple times because I wanted to focus on the beauty of the prose rather than just read and understand the story. I know that I’m a couple of centuries late to this party, but I feel it’s worth noting as there might be more non-native English speakers who shun away from Shakespeare, thinking it will be too difficult to read. It’s doable and worth the effort!

By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World

I expected to just read this book by Francis Wheen as a reference (and therefore for it to be a bit boring). I thought it would be like a Ben Goldacre book, super interesting, but not necessarily written to entertain a large audience.
The beginning of the book is almost the opposite. I was immediately absorbed in it and couldn’t put it down. It’s much more Harari than Goldacre.
The book is not just interesting though. It’s also devastating and if the news today isn’t enough to make you feel like we’re screwed, this book might do it.

Wheen starts out by explaining The Enlightenment or the Age of Reason. This is a movement that started in the 17th century and was based on the idea that “rational inquiry leads to objective truth”.
After this upbeat start of the book, Wheen uses the remainder of the book to show how the humane values of the Enlightenment have been abandoned since 1979. 1979, incidentally, is the year in which I was born but I promise I had nothing to do with this betrayal of reason.

The late 20th-century movement that rejects objective facts, science, reason, and logic is called post-modernism. The movement was popular among progressives and made it a hip thing to talk nonsense and be as vague as possible. Few progressives who didn’t subscribe to this epistemic relativism dared to criticize it for fear of being ridiculed. This feeling was justified as it’s almost impossible to argue against bogus ideas if notions of truth and falsity no longer have any validity. It’s scary and depressing that this seems to be just as relevant today and that we still haven’t found a way to counter it.

What shocked me is the totality with which the world has seemed to reject reason. World leaders whom I have looked up to all my life (even if I might not have agreed with some or even most of their policies) turn out to have been enthusiastic believers in the power of mumbo-jumbo. If world leaders fall for the charms of charlatans, it’s not hard to imagine that entire communities can fall under their spell.
The personal beliefs of these world leaders have led to a lot of spending of public resources and money on all sorts of nonsense and to vulnerable people being exploited.

Man once surrendering his reason has no remaining guard against absurdities

I expected the book to mostly be about alternative medicine and spiritual beliefs, but a lot of it is focused on economic mumbo-jumbo. The book describes examples of how the west in general, and the US and the UK in particular, have used and are using their power to extend their own power and wealth and to slow down the growth of developing nations. Leaders like Thatcher and Reagan were among the first firm believers in the “trickle-down” effect”, meaning that when the rich get richer, they will share their wealth with the poor, without intervention through taxes and the government. I don’t think anyone still believes this today. The gap between the rich and poor is increasing at an ever greater speed and the further the poor fall behind, the harder it becomes to catch up.

Wheen also explains how the stock markets have gone crazy, especially over internet start-ups. A company nowadays can be worth many millions on the stock exchange without having made any profit and in some cases without realistically being expected to ever do so. As in this case value is literally “in the eye of the beholder” that value can also be diminished if people decide to start selling their shares. This means that people and companies trading stocks can gain a lot of money in a short amount of time, but they can lose it just as easily.

History shows that most people are unable to believe that a large group of people would follow someone who would use violence to oppress opponents, people of a certain race or of a different religion. Even when it happens right under our noses it’s very hard to believe it. Until it’s too late. We all think we wouldn’t fall for it and things will work out in the end. After all, we can clearly see that Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot were despots. Surely we are able to spot the next one coming along and prevent similar atrocities from happening again. Unfortunately, we are too gullible and because of that at risk of letting history repeat itself.

If you are willing to have your mind blown and if you think you are able to stomach reading all about how mumbo-jumbo conquered the world I’d urge you to read this book. It provides an eye-opening background story to recent history and hopefully if enough people become aware we can work together on a more reasonable future.