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Book reviews of the year 2020

22 December, 2020

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"if this life of ours
Be a good glad thing, why should we make us merry
Because a year of it is gone? but Hope
Smiles from the threshold of the year to come
Whispering 'It will be happier';"
The Foresters, Act I: Scene III, Alfred Lord Tennyson

 

It is unsurprising that for many the word of this year was 'unprecedented', to the point of it becoming hackneyed. As we approach Christmas it might be tempting to use it again. But this is not the first time that the festive season has been disrupted.

The best known may well be the total 'ban' on Christmas during The Interregnum in England following the execution of Charles I. Between 1647 and 1660, at which point the crown was restored to Charles II, the excesses of earlier decades were disposed of. Gone were the feasts, drinking and dancing, much of which had been historically encouraged by the establishment as it was partly seen as an important safety-valve through which much of the population could let off a bit of steam. It was viewed by the Puritans however as smacking of excess and vulgarity, a remnant of the Catholic faith in the country. Instead they encouraged fasting over the period, as well as restful contemplation.

Unfortunately for the puritanical leadership, initial acceptance of the 'ban' was rather lacklustre. In Kent, decorations of holly and ivy went up as normal, and the usual feasting began. In fact the party went so well, that finally the army marched on Canterbury to break up the festivities. Rioting broke out, and eventually the mayor of the city was arrested for allowing the revelries. Christmas celebrations still took place during the following decade, but in a far more clandestine manner than before.

Jump forward to the Second World War and Christmas was disrupted again. Blackouts meant no Christmas lights and many staples were unavailable for Christmas lunch due to rationing. As the strain of the war effort grew, 'mock' meals were often had, such as 'mock goose' (potato casserole) and 'mock cream' (an unappetising combination of cornflour, water, margarine and sugar.) Similarly, present giving was far more of a DIY affair than might have been normal. In fact according to records, the most popular Christmas gift in 1940 was soap, while later on in the war, War Bonds were gifted in an attempt to help the war effort. Thankfully one thing that boomed during the war was reading. With blackouts meaning far more time had to be spent indoors, book clubs sprang up all over the country and publishers in America even gave away over 120 million books to the armed forces.
This year we again look back at some of the books that have, for various reasons, piqued our interest.

 

Technology books

 

This year we have continued to read as much on Technology as possible. Three books stood out.

The Technology Trap by Carl Benedikt Frey reveals that workers' fears about displacement by technology are justified. It is clear that this has been understood for a very long time and he quotes a story told by Pliny the Elder about a man who had invented unbreakable glass. The man took the idea to the Emperor Tiberius (42BC to 37AD) who could have rewarded this technological development but instead he had the man executed. The reason was that Tiberius was alarmed by the possibility of a rebellion instigated by angry workmen made redundant by the new glass. Frey ends by reminding us that technology brings wealth and benefits but his book usefully sweeps away the bromides that suggest its disruptive impact is always positive.

Carlota Perez takes up this theme in Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital by examining past technological revolutions for patterns of development. She rescues herself from perhaps too schematic an approach by demonstrating great intellectual suppleness. The book, written in the early millennium at a time when the bursting of the TMT bubble led to pessimism about what could be delivered by the internet era, is remarkably accurate about the positive developments that followed. She notes that at the end of a similar frenzy in 1929 there were 23 million registered automobiles in the USA, a market coverage of 32%. The real saturation level appears to have been much higher, at 70%, by the end of the golden age around 1970. She also suggests that what is expected and needed during a time of great change is wholesale cultural and regulatory change and only then can a golden age emerge.

Finally, The Lever of Riches by Joel Mokyr is full of fascinating stories about developments from every era. The Medieval Period was surprisingly full of ambitious ideas for inventions that were unfortunately constrained by workmanship and materials. Separately, developments in metallurgy were fundamental to the development of the printing press because they allowed Guttenberg to invent moveable type (he came from a family of goldsmiths). Technology often builds on technology. The mechanical clock helped with the creation of universal standards and gave birth to the notion of efficiency which is, of course, built on time measurement. Here, the development of a new machine led to huge, permanent cultural changes. Technology wears two faces but it is driven by the heights of human imagination and is a key element in the growth of economic value.

 

Citizen Capitalism by Lynn Stout & Tamama Belinfanti

 

Amongst the proliferation of books which have emerged over the last few years that attempt to address the changing relationship between corporations and society, many involve large ideas but lack the mechanisms to address them. Often this is because the mechanisms involved are just as large as the ideas proposed.

One interesting concept is put forward by co-authors Stout and Belinfanti (the former being the late author of the well regarded The Shareholder Value Myth) which revolves around the idea of a Universal Fund. Similar in aspects to a sovereign wealth fund, this fund would be privately created and would therefore have no government involvement. It would in turn invest in participating businesses.

The authors suggest that this would empower the voice and vote of all people rather than just the richest percentage of the population, as well as encouraging long-termism and civic engagement in the corporate world and its behaviour. Finally, it would go a small way towards trying to address wealth inequality. The book notes the success of numerous sovereign wealth funds, such as those in Norway and Alaska. The latter provides a dividend payment to all citizens every year, an element the author's Universal Fund would to replicate.

There are of course many difficulties concerned with the central idea of the book, especially the requirement of a substantial buy-in from other parties to gain the scale for the fund to make a significant impact. However there remains an optimistic view of what capitalism can do for society, and visa-versa. Investing will continue to be an important tool in promoting those companies that provide solutions to many of the problems we face, and encourage others to follow suit.

 

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

 

In a year when our sense of time's linearity has been disrupted, there is something simultaneously comforting and unsettling about seeing a character's life condensed into a novella. Seethaler's novel fits neatly into our experience of 2020, with a sublime elucidation of isolation and how an individual can shape their own experience of it. Born around 1898, abandoned Andreas Egger lives his life in solitude near a tiny village the Austrian Alps. His life is a roll call of understated tragedy (his time in a Soviet POW camp is condensed into fewer than five pages and yet feels like an eternity), the most extraordinary of which is watching the relentless march of modernisation as his mountain side is slowly transformed by the construction of a cable car.

The sparseness of Seethaler's writing - translated superbly it should be noted - contributes to an almost reverential subtleness. The concept of how one can respond to tragedy and disruption with dignity is complemented by the acceptance of the ups and downs of life in tandem, an unregretful submission to circumstance. Egger's time as a mountain guide also chimes with many of our own reintroductions to nature and the outdoors during the pandemic: "People were evidently looking for something in the mountains that they believed they had lost a long time" which ultimately reveals itself as self-fulfilment in a lifetime of disruption.

The apparent experience of A Whole Life may superficially come across as disheartening. And yet in a year such as this it is nothing short of an uplifting, shared experience of how lives can still flourish even under intense pressure and transformation.

"For last year's words belong to last year›s language, and next year's words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning." T.S Eliot

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