Archive for August, 2009

I read this a couple of weeks ago, but have only just tracked it down online. Lists are great fun: to argue about; to get you thinking. Bryan Appleyard lists twelve books that have helped change the world. Not necessarily ones that are important, lasting, true, or good; but ones that have been ‘effective’ in communicating a big-idea, that have sent ripples through the culture.

remember to thank all the books you haven't read over the past three years by ailatan.

Here is his list. You can see his reasoning and add your own comments on his article:

  • The Power of Positive Thinking, Norman Vincent Peale, 1952
  • The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard, 1957
  • Silent Spring, Rachel Carson, 1962
  • The Use of Lateral Thinking, Edward de Bono, 1967
  • The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer, 1970
  • In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Robert H ­Waterman Jr, 1982
  • The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom, 1987
  • A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking, 1988
  • The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama, 1992
  • The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell, 2000
  • The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, 2006
  • The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, 2007

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Tristram Hunt: on how progressive politics is in danger of losing touch with notions of good and evil, dignity and nobility.

He takes the analysis from Susan Neiman’s new book, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists, and applies it to Labour’s deregulatory policies on betting shops and lap-dancing clubs. There have traditionally been two impulses in progressive politics: first, to create a society where certain human values and ideals can flourish – a society that has some common notions of what it means to be happy and fulfilled as a person; second, to create a society in which individuals are free to pursue their personal fulfilment  in whatever way they choose. The latter move, which seems so attractive and egalitarian, can end up merging with the worst aspects of the unrestrained market economy: witness the proliferation of bookies and strip clubs in suburban high streets; it can also lead one to deny that there is anything objectively worthwhile about human life – other than the choice itself of how (or whether) to live.

The Governor. by Manky Maxblack.

These are big questions about the relationship between personal autonomy and objective morality, between subjective notions of happiness and objective fulfilment (if there is such a thing). Peter Maurin (co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement in New York) once said that we should try to create a society in which it is easier for people to be good. He wasn’t moralising. He meant, I think, that it is almost impossible to imagine how a politician – or anyone committed to their own community or society – can avoid having some notion of what is truly good and fulfilling for the human person. It’s hard, in other words, to have ideals and zeal for progress if one does not have some convictions about good and evil, dignity and nobility.

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I finally got to Trafalgar Square to see One & Other. The artist Antony Gormley has signed up 2,400 ‘ordinary people’ to occupy the Fourth Plinth for an hour each. You can see what is happening on their webcam in real time now.

Here is someone as an example:

One & Other by erase.

I saw a middle-aged man in a baseball cap throwing fluorescent plastic men into the crowds below. Each figure, about 2 inches tall, had a parachute. If he was lucky, he threw them over the safety net. Part of the fun, the tension, was not knowing if the daring plastic soldier would make it. And part of the ‘art of unintended consequences’ (or perhaps he had cunningly thought this through beforehand) was that the figures that didn’t make it down were stuck in the net, hanging there, like those films where paratroopers are off course and stuck in the trees. Each figure had to be unwrapped before it could be thrown. The guy looked noncholant, a bit bored; like a street vendor shelling his hot chestnuts. The greatest unspoken thrill of watching was wondering whether he would jump over the edge with his own parachute when the hour was up.

There was so much to enjoy and reflect on. The children below were having a ball; with a frisson of danger too, because the parachutists were landing on some steps – so you couldn’t lunge easily. And the sociologists could have had a field day. At first it was an image of innocent, playground fun. Then I realised the complications: their parents. They had the height advantage, so it became a contest between which parent was tallest or most desperate; they then passed the toy onto their child, who took it not as a personal victory but as a reward for having a pushy parent. Eventually, the parents got bored, and it was back to the children – genuine, devlish innocence.

The star of the show is the JCB crane/tractor/digger that swaps the participants over. It is a thing of beauty: that JCB yellow/orange, polished by the sponsors; the grace of a carefully designed machine; the awesome size of each tyre; the memories of Tonka-toys; and the performance itself – people in fluorescent jackets parting the crowd like circus artists going before an elephant.

There was a palpable sense of disappointment when the next person got up and the crowd realised she was going to do… nothing. Nothing but sit in a pink chair, take photos, write some notes, and wave to the crowd now and then – without any regal affectation. I went through a surprising range of emotions: frustration (why can’t you do something interesting?); anger (you have had weeks to think about this – and now it’s wasted); forgiveness (I guess you have every right to do what you like); to appreciation (wow – you are just there). And perhaps that’s the point, if there needs to be one: she is there; with enough self-confidence to just sit on the plinth and look at others, at us; to invert the artistic experience; a middle-aged woman in a green T-shirt and jeans looking at the artistic event of Trafalgar Square itself. The banality, the glory, the sheer fun of humanity itself – up there on the plinth, and down here in the crowd.

And the first person who ever stood on the plinth? Christ, in the form of Mark Wallinger’s sculpture Ecce homo in 1999. All the same questions about is it art and who is he and why is he there and what is he doing; only with the added poignancy that he stood for everyone. The only photo I can find is copyrighted – see it here.


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I was talking to a group about the experience of wonder; how it is more than just an emotional response to something, more than just a subjective effect caused by what is out there in the world. Quite the opposite, it is an intuition that what we meet in this experience is completely other and independent from us – that it is, strangely, outside of our experience. And then I came across this quote from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, where John Ames is reflecting on his use of the word ‘just’:

“I almost wish that I could have written that the sun just shone and the tree just glistened, and the water just pourred out of it and the girl just laughed – when it’s used that way it does indicate a stress on the word that follows it, and also a particular pitch of voice. People talk that way when they want to call attention to a thing existing in excess of itself, so to speak, a sort of purity or lavishness, at any rate ordinary in kind but exceptional in degree… There is something real signified by the word ‘just’ that proper language won’t acknowledge.” [Virago, p32]

It reminds me of Chesterton’s explanation of fairytales: We need to invent golden apples on golden trees in stories for slightly older children, to remind them of the wonder they experienced as little children when they first came face to face with the sheer being of an ordinary apple and an ordinary tree.



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