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Aug 08, 2022

Could the universe be an elaborate game constructed by bored aliens?

Elon Musk thinks you don’t exist. But it’s nothing personal: he thinks he doesn’t exist either. At least, not in the normal sense of existing. Instead we are just immaterial software constructs running on a gigantic alien computer simulation. Musk has stated that the odds are billions to one that we are actually living in “base reality”, ie the physical universe. At the end of last year, he responded to a tweet about the anniversary of the crude tennis video game Pong (1972) by writing: “49 years later, games are photo-realistic 3D worlds. What does that trend continuing imply about our reality?”

This idea is surprisingly popular among philosophers and even some scientists. Its modern version is based on a seminal 2003 paper, Are We Living in a Computer Simulation? by the Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom. Assume, he says, that in the far future, civilisations hugely more technically advanced than ours will be interested in running “ancestor simulations” of the sentient beings in their distant galactic past. If so, there will one day be many more simulated minds than real minds. Therefore you should be very surprised if you are actually one of the few real minds in existence rather than one of the trillions of simulated minds.

This idea has a long history in philosophical scepticism (the idea that we can’t know anything for sure about the external world) and other traditions. The Chinese Taoist sage Zhuangzi wrote a celebrated fable about a man who couldn’t be sure whether he was a man dreaming of being a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming of being a man. René Descartes imagined that he might be being manipulated by an “evil demon” (or “evil genius”) that controlled all the sensations he experienced, while the 20th-century American philosopher Hilary Putnam coined the term “brain in a vat” to describe a similar idea. But while Neo in the Wachowskis’ 1999 film The Matrix really is a brain (or rather a whole depilated body) in a vat, the simulation hypothesis says that you do not have a physical body anywhere. “You” are merely the result of mathematical calculations in some vast computer.

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Aug 08, 2022

Joining the dots between Ali G and Nietzsche, the poet and psychoanalyst’s unguarded exploration of laughter will leave readers enlightened and emboldened

An outburst of laughter, Freud maintained, is an eruption from the unconscious. It’s a belief that American psychoanalyst and poet Nuar Alsadir sets about unpacking in Animal Joy, her ruminative interrogation into the might and meaning of this vital mode of human communication. Understanding it better, she suggests, can open us up to a less constrained, more spontaneous experience of the world around us.

Splicing sometimes dense academic theory with provocations drawn from the fraught years of the Trump presidency as well as from her own personal and professional life, she covers topics as diverse as the equalising properties of a New York subway car, the Brett Kavanaugh supreme court confirmation hearings, and computer viruses as “a form of art and a form of prophecy”.

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Aug 08, 2022

Written in the 1920s, this is a young man’s daring and defiant assertion of his sexuality

Legend

As silent as a mirror is believed
Realities plunge in silence by ...

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Aug 07, 2022

Three junior doctors share the gruelling rite-of-passage of night duty in the practising oncologist’s poignant novel

We usually think of hospitals as somewhere safe, where patients get better or move on. The quote from Dante’s The Divine Comedy prefacing Austin Duffy’s latest novel implies an extreme version of this liminal space. This is underlined when his protagonist suggests his workplace resembles “one of those medieval paintings of hell, swarming with devils and the wretched”. The demons are the medical staff “directing the show”, the wretched are their helpless patients.

The unnamed narrator is one of a trio of surgical interns on call during the hospital’s gruelling night shifts. They prefer to patrol as a group, although it makes sense to take turns to sleep. Two, however, are anxious about several rudimentary procedures such as “putting in lines” or conducting a blood gas test. The inexperienced interns are wary of practising on the sick: “They didn’t know that we didn’t know anything, and it was probably better that way.”

The Night Interns by Austin Duffy is published by Granta (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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Aug 07, 2022

This funny, fearless debut novel about a student’s dissertation on a fictional poet dives into the maelstrom of topical arguments about race and comes up fighting

Recent years have seen a string of scandals around white people pretending to be other races in order to obtain presumed advantages. Rachel Dolezal, then a chapter president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, went viral in 2015 for claiming to be a black woman despite not having African ancestry. That same year, a white poet called Michael Derrick Hudson was found to be submitting poems to literary journals using the name Yi-Fen Chou. Hudson admitted to using the pseudonym whenever a poem of his was rejected under his real name.

This type of incident is a central concern in Elaine Hsieh Chou’s debut novel Disorientation. Twenty-nine-year-old Taiwanese-American PhD student Ingrid Yang is eight years into her dissertation on the fictional Xiao-Wen Chou, considered to be “the greatest Chinese-American poet”, who has a dedicated archive at Barnes University. Yang was coaxed into this line of research by her supervisor, Michael. “They’ll be looking for another Chouian scholar in a few years. They’ll want someone young and energetic,” he tells her. But writing about Chou’s enjambment (a literary device in which a sentence of poetry continues after the line breaks without a grammatical pause) yields few words for Yang, who instead procrastinates by taking too many antacids, obsessing over her rival Vivian – the darling of the postcolonial department – and avoiding anything political, including the word “white”. Everything changes when Yang finds a note in one of the books in Chou’s archive. She then descends into a rabbit hole, alongside her best friend Eunice, and eventually discovers that the acclaimed poet is not only still alive, but is actually a white man called John Smith who, for decades, pretended to be Chinese, through the use of black wigs, yellowface makeup and eyelid tape.

Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou is published by Picador (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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Aug 06, 2022

Access to the papers of Lord Northcliffe, founder of the Daily Mail, gives the historian a wealth of detail to work with, but significant questions go unanswered

Towards the end of The Chief, his keenly researched biography of Lord Northcliffe, the Daily Mail founder and “Britain’s greatest press baron”, the historian Andrew Roberts observes: “Great men are seldom nice men.”

Northcliffe, or Alfred Harmsworth as he was born, possessed several unpleasant characteristics. He was an outspoken antisemite – alas, not unusual in Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; he was a devoted imperialist and jingoist, a remorseless bully and, in the inglorious tradition of the job, a towering hypocrite in matters of social morality.

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Aug 06, 2022

The playwright on branching out into poetry, contemporaries he admires and his need to challenge audiences’ beliefs

David Hare, 75, is the author of more than 30 stage plays, many of them dealing with politics and major British institutions, including Plenty, Racing Demon, Stuff Happens and The Absence of War. He has also written (and sometimes directed) numerous screenplays and television series such as Collateral and Roadkill. We Travelled, just published in paperback, brings together reminiscences, reflections on his ideal theatre, political polemic and tributes to some of the artists he admires – as well as a selection of his poetry, published for the first time.

What led you to write – and now publish – poetry?
I started writing poetry because [my wife] Nicole [Farhi, the fashion designer turned sculptor] complained that I never wrote about her. And I said, considering the kind of writer I was, it was probably a great compliment! I began with love poetry and then expanded from there. I published it privately as a 70th birthday present to myself… There is obviously a poetry establishment in this country [and] people said I was very brave to write poetry when I knew nothing about “the state of poetry”.

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Aug 06, 2022

The literary cartoonist talks about taking graphic novels mainstream, his feelings of imposter syndrome, and processing his darkest childhood memories in his latest book

Nick Drnaso finds himself in a disconcerting position. His hobby has become his job. He is still struggling to get used to a world in which it makes more financial sense for him to sit at his drawing board from the moment he wakes up until 2am. He feels, he admits when he speaks to me from his home studio in Chicago, like an “impostor”. Until 2016 he was working behind a pressing machine in a factory that made tin badges. “You would kind of assemble the pieces. It just felt like cartooning,” he says, “problem solving and repetitive motion and working delicately with your hands. So I loved it.”

The mundanity of ordinary work, and its way of anchoring people in their lives, is a theme that runs through his new book, Acting Class. As well as the button badges, Drnaso, 33, has done nine-to-fives as a janitor, and painting slogans on to dolls at “a weird ornament company” – both jobs that are faithfully (and wanly) reproduced on the page.

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Aug 06, 2022
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Aug 05, 2022

A human rights lawyer charts the history of his country through his late father’s papers

For those not forced to live them day to day, the realities of Israel’s occupation of Palestine can be conveniently repackaged with whatever euphemism fits the prevailing political mood, from “peace initiative” to “rising tensions”. For the past couple of years, the buzzword has been “normalisation” – the aim of the US-brokered Abraham accords of 2020 by which a number of Arab states, led by the UAE, discarded their red line of independence for Palestine and established official relations with Israel. The Palestinians themselves were not invited to the talks, and the star US negotiator, Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, described their 70-plus-year history of violent dispossession as “nothing more than a real-estate dispute”. The new tactic for dealing with the injustice at the heart of the region’s modern history was simply to act as if it didn’t exist.

The backdrop to this sudden reversal is a changing Middle East in which faith in the US is shrinking, hostility to Iran is growing and repressive Arab regimes now find they have more in common with the occupiers than the occupied. Normalisation has not only opened up Dubai’s luxury hotels to Israeli influencers, but given Gulf autocrats access to preferential weapons deals, intelligence training from the Mossad and Shin Bet and Israel’s world-leading surveillance technology. Earlier this year, a New York Times investigation concluded that sales of the notorious Pegasus spyware – which a major media and NGO project revealed has been unlawfully used by states to target rights activists, journalists and political opponents – played an “unseen but critical role” in securing the 2020 deal. In the new regional status quo created by normalisation, Joe Biden could last month fly the previously forbidden direct route from Israel to Saudi Arabia, after the most cursory and noncommittal of calls on the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank.

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Aug 05, 2022

The actor brings sensitivity, warmth and humour to Ann Patchett’s multi-generational novel of loss and family strife

Ann Patchett’s Pulitzer-nominated novel begins and ends in an art deco mansion in a Philadelphia suburb. The former residence of a Dutch family who sold up after going bankrupt, it is now home to the Conroy family, headed by the self-made property magnate Cyril Conroy. Spanning half a century, the story is told from the perspective of Danny, son of Cyril and younger brother of clever, caring Maeve. Danny recalls how their mother, Elna, left when he was three without explanation; later he learns that she loathed the house and its ostentatious grandness, and moved to India to help the poor. The children’s lives are upended once more with the arrival of Andrea, Cyril’s new bride, who proclaims the house to be “a work of art”. When Cyril dies suddenly from a heart attack, Andrea orders Danny and Maeve to pack up their things and leave.

Tom Hanks is the narrator, bringing his customary warmth and sensitivity to a multi-generational tale that has shades of Hansel and Gretel, plus a dash of Cinderella. Despite the sombre themes of loss and familial strife, Hanks teases out Danny’s dry humour – “He loved buildings the way that boys loved dogs,” he says of his father – and his bemusement at losing his home. Once a year following their expulsion, the siblings park outside the Dutch House where they smoke and share stories from their past, such as when Cyril brought their mother to the house for the first time. “He’d bought the most beautiful house in Pennsylvania,” Maeve recalls, “and his wife was looking at him like he’d shot her.”

• The Dutch House is available from Bloomsbury, 9hr 53min

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Aug 05, 2022

The crime writer on enjoying James Joyce, rereading Charlotte Brontë; and diving into Wide Sargasso Sea

My earliest reading memory
I was six, walking home from school with a book that had the word “city” in it. I only knew the hard “c” and couldn’t figure out what a kitten had to do with the story.

My favourite book growing up
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I first read it when I was seven or eight. I was the only girl in a family of boys, and I loved immersing myself in the family of sisters. My family also had a lot of anger and volatility, and the thoughtful, attentive parenting Marmee gave her daughters offered a window into an idealised family story. The book appealed to me, too, for the same reason it appealed to girls 150 years ago: the four sisters quarrel, they have flaws, they love and support each other, they figure out ways to solve their problems. And the story itself is told against the backdrop of the American civil war, a history which continues to obsess me both as a citizen and as a writer.

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Aug 04, 2022

A love triangle is at the heart of Gabrielle Zevin’s engrossing novel exploring the ways in which video games bring us together

Teenagers of the 21st century are as likely to bond over video games as they are rock music or movies. Gabrielle Zevin’s exhilarating, timely and emotive book is perhaps the first novel to truly get to grips with what this means.

Sadie and Sam meet as precocious, somewhat awkward children in a hospital where Sadie’s sister is being treated for leukaemia and Sam is recovering from injuries sustained in a car crash. Sam hasn’t spoken since the collision, but Sadie gradually drags him from his self-imposed exile, via long sessions of Super Mario Bros in the hospital games room. Their video game-enabled friendship sets in place a major theme of the novel. “To allow yourself to play with another person is no small risk,” writes Zevin. “It means allowing yourself to be open, to be exposed, to be hurt.”

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Aug 04, 2022

Anonymous testimonies collected from people across the UK create a snapshot of dreams and frustrations, pain and joy

From October 2018 to March 2021, the English novelist and nonfiction writer Will Ashon spent 30 months in a state of deep listening. He spoke to 100 people from across the UK by phone, online, or while hitchhiking. Like the men and women sporting cardboard confessions in a Gillian Wearing photograph, they told him secrets. They dug up half-forgotten memories, revealed hopes and dreams. He filleted those testimonies for vivid details, and juxtaposed them to hint at strange echoes and shared frequencies. Each is presented anonymously – no headings, no timestamps, no coordinates. In this way a nation’s psyche comes to the surface. The Passengers is not just an oral history of the contemporary moment but, drenched in mood and texture, renders the country itself as a sonic collage.

Politics, at least the Westminster version of it, is barely mentioned. (An exception is the interviewee who mentions being bought a Priti Patel doll as a dog chew.) But long memories often inform social critiques – not least in the case of the respondent who observes that many of his friends were imprisoned in the early 1990s for possessing weed. “‘Oh, we think we smelt marijuana on you.’ There’s Black men in jail, and there’s dispensaries and CBD oil and lip balms and hair treatments made out of hemp.” The language of someone who seems to be a traumatised immigrant is gaspy, fragmented, as if from a Samuel Beckett play – “I cried, too much cry. Yeah. Dream, dream. And then, wake up, I see my cry. Oh, too much.”

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Aug 04, 2022

Based on true events, this harrowing novel charts the police infiltration of environmental groups and its moral fallout

Clare Clark’s seventh novel, her first book to be set in the contemporary world, explores one of the defining scandals of recent times: from the 1980s to the present day, undercover police officers infiltrated activist groups in the UK. They developed sexual relationships with their targets as part of their cover, in some cases fathering children. This story was brought to public attention by the unmasking and subsequent disclosures of the former undercover officer Mark Kennedy. It was also exposed in the Guardian by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis, whose landmark work, Undercover, is credited as the source material for Trespass.

Clark’s novel is a harrowing and compelling act of excavation. It feels almost like a moral necessity to read it, and through doing so bear witness to something that wasn’t just perpetrated by the police against political activists. It was done in the name of the people whose taxes fund the state and whose votes decide its direction.

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Aug 03, 2022

Why has drag culture exploded in the past decade? Pasulka finds answers in the stories of Brooklyn’s charismatic queens

On a Saturday afternoon in September 2018, I went to Bushwig, a drag festival in New York, where, over two days, 150 queens appeared in front of a highly enthusiastic and somewhat unhinged crowd – perhaps channelling Britney Spears at the 2001 MTV awards, someone even brought a live python on to the dancefloor. There was bawdy comedy and performance art so out there it was almost extraterrestrial. A dizzying variety of ages, genders and aesthetics were represented, with music ranging from heavy metal to diva classics. Bushwig confirmed that drag had become the pre-eminent performing art of the decade, and that Brooklyn was its spiritual home.

Nicole Pasulka’s book How to Get Famous sets out to explain why that happened. While modern drag was born in prohibition-era Manhattan, as evidenced by dances like the Hamilton Lodge (also known as Faggots’) Ball where men would frolic dressed as showgirls, it took 80 years and a trip across the East River for drag to get supercharged by a new generation. These queens – mostly young, often people of colour – wanted to use drag not just as a means of performing a gender illusion, but in order to express their personal history, cultural and racial identity or penchant for gross-out humour. While the drag they performed was rough and messy, low down and dirty, they had artistic aspirations that were higher than just a flawless face or a super-convincing tuck – though if they could manage those as well, all to the good.

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Aug 03, 2022

The ecstatic mingles with the banal in a novel about lives lived too close for comfort in an apartment block in rust-belt Indiana

“On a hot night in Apartment C4, Blandine Watkins exits her body. She is only 18, but she has spent most of her life wishing for this to happen,” begins The Rabbit Hutch. “The mystics call this experience the Transverberation of the Heart, or the Seraph’s Assault, but no angel appears to Blandine. There is, however, a bioluminescent man in his 50s.”

So whatever happens next, you know that debut author Tess Gunty can nail an opening. What happens next is the gradual, chronology-hopping revelation of who Blandine is, what the mystics have to do with anything, how a glowing middle-aged male got himself involved in all this, and why so many human lives (and one goat) have converged on this one horrible moment.

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Aug 03, 2022

From the real story of a virus that took out Iran’s urianium centrifuges to a surprisingly good Dan Brown novel, these are some of the best stories of our new era of ill online deeds

A generation ago cybercrime was as esoteric a subject to write about as quantum mechanics or fluctuations in the derivatives market. Now it’s a central feature of many novels.

Whether it’s criminal gangs phishing to steal sensitive data to sell on the dark web, or that creep from college catfishing people on Facebook, or the daily texts asking us to click a link to claim a prize or verify a payment, we are under continuous attack. Pension scams, identity thefts, all those strangers following our children on TikTok, everywhere we turn, someone is trying to turn the technology on which we rely against us.

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Aug 03, 2022

Preti Taneja, David Whitehouse, Graeme Macrae Burnet, Margo Jefferson and Lea Ypi are shortlisted for the prize rewarding ‘bold and innovative’ books

Books by David Whitehouse, Preti Taneja and Graeme Macrae Burnet are on the shortlist for this year’s Gordon Burn prize.

The award is for the year’s “boldest and most innovative” books, and is open to fiction and nonfiction.

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Aug 03, 2022

The Zimbabwean writer and film-maker’s nonfiction debut weaves the personal and the political to arresting effect

I read Tsitsi Dangarembga’s debut novel Nervous Conditions in 2016, nearly 30 years after it was first published. I was 23 and hungry for literature that reflected my reality as a black woman. I found it a compelling but deeply uncomfortable read, and was shocked by the almost violent emotions it inspired. I put it on my bookshelf and tried to forget about it, but, like great literature always does, it stayed with me.

The story, set in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during the turbulent 1960s and 70s, follows teenager Tambu’s desperate attempts to escape her family’s poverty and get an education. Motivated by the belief that if she works hard she will be able to realise her potential, she ends up both isolated from her family and rejected by the western millieu she is desperate to join. This state of affairs leads to her complete unravelling. As I prepared to enter the workforce, knowing that I would also have to navigate the expectations of two cultures, Tambu’s fate struck me as a cautionary tale.

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Aug 02, 2022

As white people suddenly awake in brown skin, they are forced to confront uncomfortable truths about power and identity

“One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown.” So begins Mohsin Hamid’s inventive new novel, The Last White Man. Anders, as it turns out, is not an isolated case. More people in an unnamed town begin to change, including Oona, a yoga instructor and a friend of Anders. Violence inevitably erupts around them. White vigilante gangs terrorise the transformed, while some doggedly refuse to accept an end to whiteness.

At its heart, this is a novel about seeing, being seen, loss and letting go. The loss of privilege that comes from being perceived as white, and no longer being able to view the world from within whiteness, are some of the anxieties examined here.

They were converting us, and lowering us, and that was a sign, a sign that if we did not act in this moment there would be no more moments left and we would be gone.

They felt the dead daily, hourly, as they lived their lives, and their feeling of the dead was important to them, an important part of what made up their particular way of living, and not to be hidden from, for it could not be hidden from, it could not be hidden from at all.

She could shed her skin as a snake sheds its skin, not violently, not even coldly, but rather to abandon the confinement of the past, and, unfettered, again, to grow.

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Aug 02, 2022

Educational publisher’s move into non-fungible tokens is intended to claw back some of the income lost to secondhand sales

Textbook publisher Pearson plans to profit from secondhand sales by turning its titles into non-fungible tokens (NFTs), its chief executive has said.

Educational books are often sold more than once, since students sell study resources they no longer require. Publishers have not previously been able to make any money from secondhand sales, but the rise of digital textbooks has created an opportunity for companies to benefit.

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Aug 02, 2022

The Liverpudlian’s composure, compassion and controlled imagination shine through in his polished debut

Mark Pajak’s debut does not read like a debut: there is no fumbling beginner’s luck, no rough moments or threadbare patches – its polished craftsmanship throughout is striking. Slide suits the book’s atmosphere: these supple poems seem to be about to give you the slip but go on to prove tenacious and to linger pleasingly in the mind. Pajak is a Liverpudlian poet and his defining quality is the composure with which he encourages his readers into a false sense of security. He is a safe pair of hands writing about unsafe things. Take the opening poem, Reset. A 13-year-old girl is fiddling with a cigarette lighter – and, yes, OK, maybe it would be better if she were not smoking at her age but you, unsuspectingly, can’t help but enjoy the description of action and flame:

She chafes a flame from the lighter,
listens to its gush of butane.

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Aug 01, 2022

In the superstar footballer’s latest memoir, vanity goes hand in hand with an appreciation of his absurd persona

It’s nine years since I Am Zlatan Ibrahimović was published in English and described by the Guardian’s Richard Williams as the “most compelling autobiography ever to appear under a footballer’s name”. That book told in revealing detail the rags-to-riches story of Sweden’s most celebrated footballer, born to a Bosnian Muslim father and Catholic Croat mother in a tough neighbourhood of Malmö. It was raw, unapologetic and, though ghostwritten, resounded with the unmistakable voice of this most egocentric of athletes.

Adrenaline: My Untold Stories revisits some aspects of that first book, but really it’s all about the AC Milan striker’s coming to terms with getting older – an unforgivingly accelerated process for those in elite sports. He turns 41 in October, which is an exceptional age still to be playing at the highest level.

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Aug 01, 2022

The justice department is seeking to block the $2.2bn merger between Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster

The government and publishing titan Penguin Random House exchanged opening salvos in a federal antitrust trial Monday as the US seeks to block the biggest US book publisher from absorbing rival Simon & Schuster. The case will be a pivotal test of the Biden administration’s antitrust policy.

The justice department has sued to block the $2.2bn merger, which would reduce the Big Five US publishers to four.

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