Summer books and summer heat

January 21, 2019 at 2:21 am | Posted in capitalism, Common Good, Democracy, libraries, social capital | Leave a comment
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The cover of ‘Mistakes Were Made, But Not by Me!’

After finishing the rewrites of my novel just before Christmas it’s been an orgy of reading. Among recent books that have impressed me are Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean; Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson; and D.B.C. Pierre’s Release the Bats. There’s also beautiful, strong writing in another of Elizabeth Harrower’s trenchant, insightful and bleak novels about relationships, In Certain Circles. But I’ll focus on the three non-fiction books here.

Democracy in Chains

Democracy in Chains: The deep history of the radical right’s stealth plan for America (Viking, 2018) tells the story behind the subversion of democracy in the United States, a story of dark money and radical right-wing politics, and how ‘liberty’ came to mean liberty for the rich few to concentrate vast wealth and deny basic fairness and rights to the majority. And it all started with racism, back in the 1950s. I can’t hope to summarise it adequately in such a short space but it’s a mesmerising book, understated in tone and jaw-dropping in its implications.

Nancy MacLean tells stories of complex deceptions and political machinations in simple language the way that filmmaker Adam McKay does with similar areas of politics and governance in the US in his films, The Big Short and Vice. Critic Greg Grandin writes that Democracy in Chains ‘is essential reading in order to understand the ideas that billionaires use to justify their control of our political institutions. I can’t imagine a more timely or urgent book.’

Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)

When I came across the title, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) (Pinter & Martin paperback, 2016) I thought it must be a book about politicians. But this book deals with much more. It has the subtitle, Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. In lucid prose and with compelling examples, the authors expand on how, because of the way the brain is wired, none of us is immune from the cognitive dissonance and self-justification that distorts reality for us. Yes, it’s relevant to the behaviour of you and me, not just to the politicians who so love that awful passive voice in the title. It’s scary.

The authors explain that the brain is designed with blind spots, optical and psychological. Dissonance theory is a theory of blind spots – we all have self-serving habits that allow us to justify our own perceptions and beliefs as being accurate, realistic and unbiased. We all tend to assume that we perceive objects and events clearly and that other reasonable people see things as we do.

The book outlines evidence of this and its profound implications, drawing on solid evidence from many areas, including politics, but also law, psychology and personal relationships, which illuminate this concept.

The authors write: ‘These conflicts between friends, cousins and countries may differ profoundly in cause and form, but they are woven together with the single, tenacious thread of self-justification.’ (p. 243) This book is entertaining, fascinating, funny and sobering.

Release the Bats

I’ve read countless books on how to write (it is so much easier to pretend to be writing by reading such books than to actually write!) But I was attracted to yet another, D. B.C. Pierre’s Release the Bats: A pocket guide to writing your way out of it (Faber, 2016) because it’s slim and cheap and seemed ideal for a bus ride home from Sydney to Canberra, and it did tell me things I hadn’t read before.

He covers the usual themes (plot, characters, dialogue, structure etc) but he does it in his own inimitable style and in doing so reveals much about his own life and philosophy. He tells the reader that he is not a teacher and that maybe that’s a good thing, and to think of the book ‘as a notebook from someone a day ahead of you on the same hunt.’

There are also some wonderful quotations. Some of my favourites follow.

Muriel Rukeyser: The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.

Ernest Hemingway: ‘I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.’

And from the author himself: ‘Throughout history one has only had to say the truth to be subversive, and that has never been more true today.’

Libraries save lives

These books are available online, in bookshops and at your local public or state library and the National Library. Where would we be without our libraries? In spite of relentless cuts in funding, year after year, they remain an important part of democracy.

And they save lives! – On Thursday of last week’s heatwave (with a maximum temperature of 41 degrees) I spent the whole day in the air-conditioned cinema, seeing three films in a row. Stepping out of the Palace Electric at about 6.10 pm I was appalled to see that it was still 38 degrees! It usually cools down a lot in Canberra evenings. And it was also humid – a new, disgusting development in Canberra. It’s a long walk to the bus stop from there and I was sweating by the time I reached it.

Because of the tram-works my local bus stop, which was a two minute walk from my house, has been taken away so I can’t catch the bus with the direct route any more. The bus I caught wound its way around countless suburbs before it got to the destination written on the front, taking 40 minutes instead of 15.

The bus was not air-conditioned and its tiny high windows did nothing. Perspiration collected under my fringe and crawled like insects down my face. My armpits were lubricated. (Yes, I wear deodorant but not toxic anti-perspirant.) My feet had swelled in the unusual heat and my previously comfortable sandals were biting into my feet and my thin cotton top stuck to my skin.

When I finally got off that stifling bus at 7.15 I felt like a walking oil slick. The ten-minute walk home assumed the proportions of a hellishly long trek. Sadly, the library en route – with its famously freezing air conditioning – closes at 5.30. I could hardly breathe. I wondered if it was actually possible to die of the heat, not only, say, when trapped on the Nullabor Plain with no water, but when walking one’s sweaty way from a suburban Canberra bus stop to one’s house.

But when I walked past the library, a brightly coloured sign outside announced that it was open till 9.00 pm!

A quaint notion

I walked in and was greeted by the life-saving icy cool space and two young smiling library assistants offering free bottles of cold water. They had a big box of them by the door. The young man said,

Because of the exceptional heat we’re staying open till 9.00 pm tonight and tomorrow night.

I could have hugged him. I drank three-quarters of the cold water and poured the rest on my head. I wanted to thank the wonderful person who decided to take us back for a glimpse of a pre-corporatised society where public servants served the public and there was a strong sense of the notion (quaint though it now sounds) of some of our tax money being spent on a Public Good and not the majority of it on maximising financial profit and bonuses for the few. It was a time when library users were called borrowers, sick people patients, and public transport users travellers instead of everyone, everywhere called ‘customers’.

The story of how democratic notions like the Public Good were subverted is told in Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains and if this is not in your library, you should ask them to order several copies of this important book.



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