Category Archives: non fiction

We Should All Be Feminists – short, but not just sweet

Thoughtful and Rad Feminist Gifts For the Holidays

I love Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus are both amazing books, and Americanah is definitely on my long TBR list. This tiny little gift book, We Should All Be Feminists, is based on and expanded from Adiche’s excellent Ted talk on the same subject.

Because it’s so short and because the beautiful, graceful, wise and warm Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche is a better writer than I am, I’m just going to share with you verbatim what I thought were some of the greatest insights from this book (although there are many, many more). It’s an interesting, accessible and thought-provoking quick read for any feminist or feminist-decrier. I recommend it as a nice gift for either.

“We do a great disservice to boys in how we raise them. We stifle the humanity of boys. We define masculinity in a very narrow way. Masculinity is a hard, small cage, and we put boys inside this cage. We teach boys to be afraid of fear, of weakness, of vulnerability. We teach them to mask their true selves, because they have to be, in Nigerian-speak, a hard man. … But by far the worst thing we do to males – by making them feel they have to be hard – is that we leave them with very fragile egos. The harder a man feels compelled to be, the weaker his ego is.”

“And then we do a much greater disservice to girls, because we raise them to cater to the fragile egos of males. We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. … We raise girls to see each other as competitors – not for jobs or accomplishments … but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way boys are. … We police girls. … We teach girls shame. Close your legs. Cover yourselves. We make them feel as though by being born female, they are already guilty of something. And so girls grow up to be women who cannot say they have desire. Who silence themselves. Who cannot say what they truly think. Who have turned pretence into an art form.”

“What struck me [about her friend who had problems with misogyny in the workplace] and many other female American friends I have – is how invested they are in being ‘liked’. How they have been raised to believe that their being likeable is very important and that this likeable trait is a specific thing. And that specific thing does not include showing anger or being aggressive or disagreeing too loudly.”

“We spend too much time teaching girls to worry about what boys think of them. But the reverse is not the case. We don’t teach boys to care about being likeable. … We must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our sons differently.”

“My own definition of a feminist is a man or a woman who says, ‘Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better.’ All of us, women and men, must do better.”

 

 

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Women Who Run With the Wolves – through treacle to transformation

Women Who Run With The Wolves : Clarissa Pinkola Estes ...

Women Who Run With the Wolves: Contacting the Power of the Wild Woman was bought for me by my best friend, a wild woman I love like no other, who now lives on the opposite side of the world. She loves this book so I assumed I would too – plus there’s a quote on the front from Maya Angelou that says, “Everyone who can read should read this book” which is quite the recommendation. I mean, Maya Angelou. All in all, I had high hopes for it, and I took it down from my shelf at a really bad time in my life when I hoped it would have some answers for me.

It’s a 500-page beast of a book so requires some real commitment, especially as it’s much more academic than I expected. I started it when I was struggling in general so that might have something to do with it, but I can’t lie, there were huge parts of this that were really hard work for me. I’m an English Literature graduate and a non-fiction editor by profession so I think of myself as a pretty competent reader but sometimes I felt like I was wading through treacle with this book. It’s hugely well and widely reviewed though so there must be plenty of people who feel differently.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés is an academic, a senior Jungian psychologist (as well as an award-winning poet and cantadora or Latina story-keeper) and so it makes sense that she approaches the book from that standpoint, but an accessible self-help or lifestyle book this is not. It requires patience, study and grit – or at least it did for me, but I’m glad I read it, and I suspect it’s probably one of those books whose true worth comes to you later down the line, rather than in one satisfying hit at the time of reading. I saw one Amazon reviewer say that they bought it in 1994 and finished it in 2004, which they considered an enjoyable reading pace for it. They likened it to a bible rather than a regular book and I think there’s probably something in that.

Estés examines folk stories from all over the world with some interesting analysis. My favourite was “Sealskin, Soulskin”, about a lonely man who takes a seal-woman’s pelt hostage in order to get her to marry him. He says after seven summers she can choose to stay or go, and if she goes he will give her back her pelt, but in the end he is too insecure to return the pelt in case she leaves him. She’s desolate, because she has started to dry out and crack from the inside without her pelt. Their son, Ooruk, sneaks his mother the pelt though and with the seal-woman’s health restored they take a journey to the seal kingdom. Ooruk eventually becomes a translator between the seal (soul) and human (ego) worlds. Another interesting story, “The Red Shoes”, says a lot of about addiction and what Estés calls “instinct-injured women” going after facsimiles of happiness.

As well as the folk-story analysis, Estés deconstructs women’s lives in what at times is a fascinating way. She has a lot to say about the interaction of the soul and the ego, the importance of effective rebellion, dealing with anger, grief and forgiveness, and indeed having tolerance for every emotion, which I liked, in the face of the trend for relentless positive thinking.

She has insightful commentary on body image and the patriarchy (and the idea of the body as a practical, useful and soulful thing), survival (becoming strong without becoming cold) and the compensatory nature of dreams.

But one of the biggest things I got out of this book is what Estés says about the life/death/life nature, She talks about how modern culture has tried to write death out of the story of life, or put it only at the end, whereas the reality is that death is a part of life and in itself gives birth to new life. She stresses that our lives are cyclical, not linear, and that if we give up trying to always “make the magic last” we will lead fuller, less fearful lives. Death is a part, and not only or always an end, of lives and relationships.

Throughout this book, Estés also has a lot to say about creativity, about how creating is an essential part of the wild woman’s life, and how we shouldn’t cheat ourselves by making excuses about not having time or by “sneaking a life” only in between other more pressing mundane tasks. I think she’s right, and her book gave me the push I needed to carve out more time in my own life for creative stuff (including finally learning how to properly play the guitar).

Estés says in the book that, “Deep in the wintry parts of our minds, we are hardy stock and know there is no such thing as a work-free transformation”. She’s surely right, and this book is nothing if not proof of it.

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Filed under folktales, non fiction, poetry

French Women Don’t Get Fat – it’s time to take the stairs

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Mireille Guiliano’s French Women Don’t Get Fat is an interesting addition to the huge and varied selection of diet books out there in the world, partly because it’s not a diet book as such. It’s part memoir (the author’s story of a brief flirtation with fatness on an exchange program to America in her youth and lots of stories about life in a well-heeled French country family and how they ate, amongst other things), part recipe book (everything sounded delicious and French and not very diety) and part food and lifestyle advice.

I can’t imagine that it’s for everyone – Guiliano has a tendency to brand Americans in particular as lazy slobs in ‘garish running shoes’ who gobble corn on the cob (which in France, apparently, is mostly reserved for livestock) and eat all sorts of other bland, processed horrors by the bucketload. And I’m sure it grates on some people to be told that food in supermarkets is crap and the sensible thing is to shop daily in farmer’s markets and cook with champagne (lots of plugs for champagne from the CEO of Veuve Cliquot throughout the book, naturally). Personally though, I found what you could perhaps call the pretentiousness of the author’s style…well… French. Just like Parisian waiters tend to see themselves as purveyors of fine food rather than fine service, Guiliano seems less concerned with keeping you on side than with enticing you with a new way of life.

Now maybe I feel this way because I live in central London within walking distance of a market, and both my office and flat are situated up numerous flights of stairs (Guiliano is resolute on the importance of climbing stairs). While we Brits do love slouching in front of the TV with big bowls of pasta more than the elegant French do, we’re undoubtedly closer to the French way of life than the average American (we’re still Europeans at the end of the day – let’s not let the miserable Brexit situation get that twisted). God knows how the average suburban small-town American would follow her rules without a load of hassle, even with the best will in the world.

When I visited my mother’s father in Los Angeles a few years ago, after a week of stuffing my face with more food than even my greedy self could handle (for the first time in my life I was leaving half a plate of food and getting called ‘a little bird’ by waitresses), I tried to take a walk to the shops. My granddad was so confused. He kept telling me he could drive me to the mall, and even after I left the house he came after me in the car ten minutes later. I guess that point is twofold: 1) this book is going to be a tough follow for people who live in places that aren’t designed for French living and 2) Mireille Guiliano has a point about the fact that this is a different lifestyle that is likely to have different results for weight management.

And it’s not that Americans are lazy – many US adults report working 47 hours a week and I know from working with them that their phones are usually never off (they’ll ring you at crazy hours of the morning from the middle of that hellish LA traffic jam!). You don’t get that in France, it’s not the culture – their 35-hour maximum working week is LAW! The French expect a different work-life balance than Americans, and even Brits, and I think there’s something charming about that. It’s that culture that has the author of this book proposing three-course menus for lunch and dinner quite casually.

To be fair to Mirelle Guiliano, she’s quite clear at the beginning of the book that this is not a prescriptive one-size-fits-all approach to diet and lifestyle. She pretty much tells you to enjoy the read (and it is enjoyable as a book in its own right) and take whatever you want from it and leave the rest. I imagine her saying that with a Gallic shrug, of course. Much of her useful advice is not rocket science (but we all know that weight management is not that difficult in theory). However, the ingenuity is in her approach. Guiliano preaches that healthier choices should be incremental, lifelong and enjoyable. She made me think of myself as a chic Parisian woman as I huff and puff my way up the stairs rather than using the lift, as I scale back on the pasta without feeling guilty about it when I do eat it, as I set about trying to eat more seasonal veg. This book is unlikely to produce quick or impressive results, but is a very pleasant way of improving your habits bit by bit, and settling into changes that are sustainable, which if you just want to stay in better overall shape while eating chocolate and drinking wine, is just the ticket.

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Filed under memoir, non fiction, recipe book

My Thoughts, Exactly – admirably, unapologetically honest

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I heard Lily Allen discussing her new autobiography on Woman’s Hour and put it straight on my Christmas list. I’ve always quite enjoyed Allen’s music, her quirky fashion sense and her generally relatable, messy vibe. She’s rather beautiful – an original face in a sea of bland, symmetrical perfection – and I’ve always admired her gobbiness. I was also aware that she and I had a traumatic experience in common and was interested to hear her in-depth take on it here.

I expected to find My Thoughts Exactly engaging and entertaining but I was really blown away by what a fantastic read it actually is. Allen is searingly honest, which means the book is full of juicy stories about the celebrity world – and not coy references either, it’s literally like you’re friends in the privacy of the pub. I was amazed at how upfront she was prepared to be! But that’s really only a small part of what makes this such a good read. It is also a very brave account of a variety of life experiences – sexual assault, stalking, cheating, divorce, co-dependency, family dysfunction, fame, addiction, loneliness … the list goes on. Allen lays it all out here with brutal honesty, even when she comes out looking like the bad guy, and yet she is prepared to be vulnerable to such a degree that it’s impossible not to identify with her, to like her, to pity her at times, but also to very much admire her.

On the back cover of the book, Allen says, “When women share their stories, loudly and clearly and honestly, things begin to change – for the better.” When I first read that, I thought it sounded a little naff and possibly a bit overdramatic – after all, this was Lily Allen, not Malala. I very much changed my mind as I read the book, however. It was hugely refreshing to hear such an honest account of a young woman’s interesting, and in many ways quite difficult, life. I could relate to so much of it and it even moved me to tears in a few places.

Though it may perhaps seem glamorous from the outside, Allen’s account of her childhood – being left in a hotel room at the Groucho Club with her brother all day eating minibar Toblerones while her dad got drunk with his friends downstairs – was actually pretty sad. For a young woman with a lot of issues in search of stability, a sudden rise to fame in tabloid-ridden Britain is sure to bring disaster, and so it did for Allen in many ways, despite her success. She has been through a lot, and in some ways her story is a fantastical one, but she is brilliant, in this book, at smashing through all the smoke and mirrors and letting you into the real life she has lived in her head.

It feels a bit strange to be describing Lily Allen’s autobiography as a triumph for contemporary feminism but, actually, that’s what I think it is. It is the honest, unflinching story of a woman who has both succeeded and failed, who is both brave and terrified – in short, a three-dimensional, real, live woman with a voice, who refuses, at thirty-three, to pretend to be anything else. I highly, highly recommend it!

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Salaam Brick Lane – we don’t need your red-trousered hipsters

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I read Tarquin Hall’s Salaam Brick Lane with interest, not least because it’s a book about my neighbourhood. I don’t live on Brick Lane obviously – this book is set nine years before I moved to London and by the time I got to the East End, Brick Lane was already arty enough as to be too expensive for me. But I live in the surrounding area, which itself has changed a huge amount over the last decade that I’ve been here – particularly in the years since Crossrail was announced.

I remember (this couldn’t have been much more than a few years ago, I don’t think) when Whitechapel market, a stronghold for fruit and veg, meat and fish, household sundries, pashminas and cheap jewellery and makeup, saw its first coffee stall open. Urban Café, it was called, and me and Mr Literary Kitty laughed when we saw it. Then came a Costa on a high street which has never had anything brand name since we’ve been there, except for a JD Sports and a Budgens, which is run by an insanely hardworking 24-hour staff and sells hot samosas at 4am, and is open even on Christmas Day. Someone was stabbed in there one year around the festive period – but that was extremely unusual. This is an overwhelmingly safe area, especially given the poverty (with 44-66% of people living in income poverty depending on which side of the area you’re in).

I can imagine it was grimmer in 1999. I know some people still consider it a bit grim now. I’ve never much considered West London – I know it’s expensive and apparently prettier, but I recently started working in Fulham and, coming home at the end of the day it makes me realise how different the East really is. It’s full of high rise blocks, the streets are floating with carrier bags and empty, greasy chicken boxes (for every school in Tower Hamlets there are 42 fast food outlets), the market stinks of fish-water and it’s crammed tight with people. That much hasn’t changed since Tarquin Hall lived in the vicinity. It’s still full of Sylheti Bangladeshis (Bangladeshis are the largest ethnic group in the area at 38%), street signs are still in Bengali, and people still live packed into council flats with not enough bedrooms. I’ve moved around a lot since I’ve lived in the area and consequently viewed a lot of properties, including plenty where there are four generations of a family living there and every square foot seems filled with humans.

In the block I live in now, the flats are max of three bedrooms, but when I come down the stairs and see my neighbour’s front door is open, I can see in the bathroom at least ten used toothbrushes crammed into the mug on the sink. My neighbours work incredibly hard – you can nip down to the cornershop at midnight on a Sunday and it still might be open. You can buy an amazing array of food, spices, exotic vegetables, all parts of the animal you could ever want, and huge, HUGE pots and pans to cook all that in, for reasonable prices.

People are pleasant, friendly and relaxed and not nosy. I know my little old lady Jewish neighbours and the young Asian families well enough to exchange pleasantries in the lift or in the hallways. We smile and wave and talk about that inevitable British thing, the weather. There are always gangs of boys and men loitering around at night – the result, in some cases, of having too many people crammed into a small space at home, I suppose – but though I’ve had a few minor unpleasant incidents over the years I’ve walked the streets here at night, these have been rare, and nothing horrible has ever happened to me.

Sometimes, people’s politeness is surprising, when you consider what an unfriendly place London is supposed to be. A group of hooded teens crowded round the entrance to the flats stand smoking a spliff, only to open the door for you as you pass – an unusual kind of neighbourhood concierge. It’s nice and I didn’t want to hear Tarquin Hall say bad things about it. And he didn’t really. Or at least he gave a balance. He got to know his neighbours, despite his initial misgivings that the place was a shithole. There’s the irrepressible, friendly slum landlord Mr Ali, who against his brow-beating wife’s wishes supports his teenage daughter studying at Cambridge. There’s the feisty old Sadie Cohen who hates ‘poofters’, loves her cat, the sticky-eyed Mr Beigleter, and carries a sad secret beneath her tough-as-leather exterior. There are the proud, hard-working Albanian refugees and their Afghan friend who solve the problem of Christmas dinner by nonchalantly killing a Canada goose in Victoria Park and bringing it home, and unassuming Cockney wheeler-dealer Chalky. There’s library enthusiast Naziz with his emotionally abusive father and a treasure he keeps hidden under the floorboards for the day he and his mother make their escape. And there are more.

Salaam Brick Lane is a colourful collection of life stories that intersect with Hall’s during his year in Brick Lane and it’s a rich tapestry, especially interesting if you’re familiar with the general area, as there’s quite a bit of local history woven in there too. It’s interesting that the hipster influx was already beginning in 1999 and it’s interesting, too, that Whitechapel at least has hung on so long to being Banglatown. It’s still very much recognisable from Hall’s book, although I wouldn’t have called the area I moved into in 2008 dangerous by any stretch.

After his year there, Hall is keen to leave, even if he never actually makes if further than Dalston. I have no such plans, I love it here, but I suppose ten years is a long time in the East End. Maybe it’s more different now than it seemed to me when reading this book. When I look back, it’s changed quite a lot in the time even I’ve lived here. With the Costa came an independent coffee shop with black wood frontage and a chalkboard with cheeky slogans that change daily. It sells expensive juices and eye-wateringly expensive cakes. At the moment it’s still nestled in with the Indian sweet shops and pound shops but it won’t always be.

Next to the mission where the morning drinkers congregate there’s now a Coffee Republic (just on the other side of the road from the other two coffee shops in case you’re too desperate for caffeine to cross the road). Towards Aldgate next to the halfway house the gleaming skyscrapers full of multi-million-pound flats, which languished so long as dusty building sites, are filling up with a new and different kind of tenant. The cosy, run-down pubs where you could still get a £2.99 pint and buy meat and socks from a man coming round the tables close and close. Then, six months later, they’re back with loud music and funky lighting and everything costs three times as much and you can’t get a seat. (I know, I know how I sound.)

Now the Crossrail’s coming to ferry people in and out of Whitechapel, big chains will muscle in. Rents are edging up and up. I wasn’t born round here so am I part of the problem? I’m under no illusions that some people will think so. But I know I want the market and the pound shops and the cheap beer and I’m not interested in paying the best part of a fiver for a slice of cake. I won’t be forced to move out as the prices go up but I don’t want to lose my neighbours either. “But it’s progress!” some people say. “Living standards are going up.” But they’re not, are they? My neighbours, most of them, who rent, aren’t getting rich, they’re being forced out to make way for people who are already rich. They don’t want fish-water or stalls selling £1 lipstick and dresses for a tenner and that for me is part of the problem. Moving somewhere is one thing, changing the place beyond all recognition is another. When Tarquin Hall moved in, the Sylhetis were the latest in a long line of immigrant communities who’d moved into the East End, when the previous occupants seemingly moved on up and out, but it seems like this time it’s just going to be out, much, much further out. To conclude this rant, in which I’ve admittedly not told you much about Tarquin Hall’s book, I just want to say that if you ask me, the place was fine the way it was. I’m not saying it’s great that people are poor, just that poor people shouldn’t get forced out of an area just so richer people feel comfortable living there, and if red-trousered hipsters and suited professionals want to live here, why can’t they just enjoy it for what it is? Yes, it’s slightly worn, slightly grubby, but it’s also fun and charming and full of life. Fulham already exists, and if you can’t afford to live there, tough shit, but we don’t need another one in the East End.

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Quiet – on the power of the introvert

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Every so often, a book comes along that changes things, and Susan Cain’s Quiet, a study of introverts, their traits and their habits, and an examination of their place in a world run by and for extroverts, is one of them. It wasn’t always this way, she tells us. Before the rise of the Culture of Personality in the early twentieth century, when Dale Carnegie taught us all how to win friends and influence people, there was the Culture of Character, when moral standing in one’s community was the most important thing of all. As people increasingly moved away from small, tight-knit communities where everyone knew everyone else (and their business!), it became more important to make a good first impression, something that often comes more easily to extroverts than introverts – or at least introverts who know how to exhibit extroversion.

Introversion isn’t the same as shyness, says Cain, and that is very true, although many introverts are also shy. Many are also what she calls ‘sensitive’ or ‘high reactive’. She discusses a study of children (from the time they were babies) where the subjects were tested for reactivity by measuring their responses to things like loud popping balloons (babies) and seeing scary-looking strangers in gas masks (young kids). Some babies and children took these surprising new things in their stride and others reacted strongly, but this isn’t a case of one set being deliberately braver than the other; the study showed that some children (and therefore some adults) simply are more sensitive to stimulus than others.

High reactives are not always introverts, and vice versa, but there is a strong correlation between the two types and it makes sense. Low-reactive extroverts need more risk, noise, colour, company and novelty to make a dent on them, whereas sensitive introverts need far less. Being curled up on a sofa quietly reading a book may seem understimulating to the point of deathly boring to one person, while being jostled in a colourful, loud bar, full of new faces is another person’s worst nightmare. That is perfectly natural, and indeed there many of both types of personality (it is estimated that between one third and one half of the world is made up of introverts). So everyone knows plenty of introverts, and yet, Cain argues, in the modern world they often seem invisible, at least in the West.

Cain considers the difference between Eastern cultures, which are often based on community ideals, and the Western culture of the individual. Interestingly, she studies a number of Asian-Americans who are often, and in many ways, caught between two different worlds. She explores the idea of ‘soft power’ and how this can sometimes be more effective than ‘hard power’ and considers how introverts and extroverts can work together in harmony (see Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt), and how each type has its own particular strengths and weaknesses. She discusses how dangerous it can be when a relentless insistence on extroversion leads to groupthink, how the Wall Street crash was wrought in large part by an imbalance of power between introverts and extroverts, and investigates some fascinating outliers – the super-wealthy introvert Warren Buffett, for example.

Cain also considers how far temperament is destiny, how much nature and nurture interact when it comes to temperament, whether it ever makes sense for introverts to borrow extrovert ideals (and vice versa), and crucially, what introverts and extroverts need to be happy, and how you can live in the modern world and stay true to the core of who you really are in terms of temperament.

This is an absolutely fascinating read, whatever your personality style, but if you suspect you might be an introvert, reading this could genuinely change your life. It’s meticulously researched, but written in an appealingly accessible style and will make many people reassess certain things in their lives and how they approach them. Maybe your child likes their own company and you worry they won’t learn the things they need to live in this extroverted world; maybe you’re an outwardly gregarious person in a high-powered job who sometimes shuts yourself away in a bathroom stall for an hour and thinks you’re alone in doing that (you’re very much not); or maybe you’ve always thought there was something a bit weird about the way you think and the way you are inside, and you wish there was a way you could just be allowed to be yourself at work, at home, or wherever. If so, this book comes particularly highly recommended.

Susan Cain’s Quiet is an ingenious, intriguing thesis that turns on its head the prevailing view that introverts are people who are simply not capable of being extroverts, and asks whether we can make the world better by righting its lop-sidedness, and looking at certain things in a different way. It’s worth considering at least, isn’t it?

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The Art of Thinking Clearly – imperfect evolution

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I found Rolf Dobelli’s The Art of Thinking Clearly on my bookshelf and I’m not sure where it came from, but it’s a fascinating study of the human mind: specifically, the common thinking errors we make in everyday life. Ever ordered something rank and then forced the food down because you’ve spent good money on it? Then you’ve fallen victim to Sunk Cost Fallacy (after all, the money’s been spent either way). Ever taken credit for a success and then blamed a failure on external circumstances? Well, Rolf Dobelli is here to make you think again about doing these things.

The book has 99 fascinating entries, each only a few pages long, making this the ultimate dip-in read. Dobelli covers everything from Why We Prefer the Wrong Map to No Map At All (Availability Bias) to Why Evil Strikes Harder than Good (Loss Aversion). He invites us to ask ourselves all kinds of odd questions like Would You Wear Hitler’s Jumper? (If not, that’s probably Contagion Bias.) He explains How First Impressions Deceive, Why Those Who Wield Hammers See Only Nails, Why You Shouldn’t Read the News and Why You Have No Idea What You Are Overlooking. There’s so much pause for thought in this little book. With the help of maths (lots of it, but accessibly explained even for those like me who don’t really speak the language) Dobelli explores our species’ imperfect evolution. Like songbirds, who have unknowingly harboured cuckoos’ eggs in their nests for hundreds of thousands of years, we have had bred out of us only those things that really led, in the past, to something terrible. We have been able to get away with error-riddled behaviour and survived, and these errors have therefore survived with us. But many things that once served a purpose in the wild (following the crowd, for example) no longer make sense in a world where innovation pays dividends.

Another reason, Dobelli points out, that we carry on with our thinking errors is that we are wired to persuade others we are right – evolutionarily speaking, that has always been more important than actually being … well, right. And rational. There’s power in persuasion, especially for the purposes of passing on your genes to the next generation. But when it comes to everyday life, Rolf Dobelli makes a convincing case for trying to iron out those thinking errors that naturally plague us all. And he does it in a very entertaining and accessible way. Well worth a read.

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Filed under non fiction, Reviews