Jun 22, 2022
A tour of the science, culture and history of bisexuality that ranges from the vehemently political to the charmingly weird
According to periodic reports in the media, bisexuality has been a brand-new fad since at least the 1890s. It was all the rage in 1974, for example, when the US magazine Newsweek discovered “Bisexual Chic: Anyone Goes”. A generation later, in 1995, the same magazine published a cover story declaring it “A new sexual identity”. In 2021, the Daily Telegraph parodied itself with a letter from an “Anonymous Dad” complaining about his bisexual daughter. “My daughter doesn’t like girls and boys, she likes boys”, he fumed. “But she says she is attracted to both to jump on another woke bandwagon, because for snowflake Gen Z, it’s trendy.” Like flares, student protest and hating your children’s taste in music, it seems bisexuality is always back in fashion. Criminal psychologist Julia Shaw’s book is an impassioned attempt to bring decades of serious academic research out of the shadows, to show that being bisexual is nothing new, it’s here to stay and is simultaneously less and more provocative than you think.
As Shaw explains, the first use of the word in English was probably in 1892, in a translation of German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s book Psychopathia Sexualis. “The book was intended for clinical-forensic settings, and Krafft-Ebing wrote it in intentionally difficult language and with parts in Latin so that laypeople couldn’t read it.” There is a rich seam of nonfiction that translates impenetrable academese about interesting subjects into language that curious lay readers can understand, including this book with its juxtaposition of academic language and cute social media speak. Here, “penile plethysmography” rubs shoulders with “[my] adorable bi bubble” and a church minister “so sparkly gay that he is a bit of a local legend”. Continue reading...
Jun 09, 2022
A fascinating exploration of how beliefs are formed ends up asking whether it’s always right to want to win the argument
This book is bad news for anyone who thinks we should use facts and evidence to change people’s minds. It is disappointing for lovers of debate. It reveals the psychological and evolutionary reasons why all humans are certain we are right, and why “certainty” is nothing but an illusion. But it’s an optimistic, illuminating and even inspiring read. Because while you can’t talk someone into changing their mind, you just might be able to listen them into it, and David McRaney thinks he can show you how.
McRaney, the bestselling author of You Are Not So Smart, is fascinated by the intersection of brains, minds and culture, and in this book he takes a tour through politics and fashion, social media, psychology and human evolution, to understand “the new science of belief, opinion and persuasion”. He talks to Charlie Veitch, a well-known 9/11 conspiracy theorist who was demonised by his online community after announcing that he had changed his views. He meets young people who have left the extremist Westboro Baptist church, and interviews a psychologist who is so passionate about promoting progressive conversations that she created “an Uncle Bot, a simple AI to stand in for an argumentative relative”. He even holds in his hands The Dress – the one in the viral photo that half of people see as white and gold, half as blue and black – and learns how our brains add information based on past experience to fill in knowledge gaps and convince us that the result is the only possible version of reality. Continue reading...
Feb 10, 2022
To know the story of this dark science is to inoculate ourselves against its being repeated, argues the science writer and broadcaster
This is a short book about a big subject, with a thorny history stretching from the Spartans and Plato’s Republic, all the way to present-day science and policymaking. A glance at the index gives some idea of its scope. Ancient Greece rubs shoulders with Avengers: Infinity War and the “Do Not Resuscitate” notices of the Covid-19 pandemic with the doctors’ trial at Nuremberg.
It takes patience to trace the complicated web linking these ideas, and Rutherford does so with much-needed nuance and an absence of alarmism. “For just over a century, we have referred to the deliberate crafting of society specifically by biological design with a word which was for half of its existence regarded as desirable, and for the other half, poisonous,” he writes. As a geneticist and author of books such as How to Argue with a Racist, Rutherford aims to distil a rounded, scientific analysis from the deeply tainted and overheated subject of eugenics. Continue reading...
Jan 19, 2022
From to self-isolating bees to bonding baboons, lessons on cooperation from the animal world
Vampire bats “have each other’s backs”, according to one of the extraordinary stories in this fascinating book. Should one bat be hungry, a roost mate will regurgitate a nutritious meal of semi-digested blood to help it live to bite another day. In a similar display of apparent altruism, a bee with a parasite will isolate itself rather than infect the rest of the colony – a Captain Oates-like sacrifice on the bee’s part. And, say what you like about rats; in experiments they will open a door to let a cold, wet stranger into their cosy nests.
“We can trace direct and important parallels between our own societies and those of the animals with whom we share the planet,” writes Ashley Ward, a professor in animal behaviour. “By understanding animals on their own terms, we can understand ourselves so much the better.” Actually, he draws very few explicit connections between animal behaviour and our own, and is cautious about ascribing emotions or motivations to the creatures he studies – even in tear-jerking anecdotes about how elephants and wolves appear to mourn. But it’s hard not to take from some of his stories the idea that humans could learn a lot from social animals, for all our massive brains and our ability to pass knowledge down generations. “Our instinct for co-operation has provided the foundation for human civilisation,” he points out. We need that now more than ever. Continue reading...
Jan 01, 2022
New writing from Ali Smith, Marlon James, Elena Ferrante and Jarvis Cocker – a taste of good things to come Continue reading...
Apr 14, 2021
Sleeping sickness, strange behaviour and mass hysteria ... a neurologist makes sense of ‘psychosomatic’ illness
In Sweden in recent years, hundreds of children of refugee families have fallen into coma-like states and not woken up again, sometimes for months or years. Dozens of people in three Nicaraguan communities have had tremors, convulsions, breathing difficulties and hallucinations that make them fight with superhuman strength and run into the jungle. Diplomats in Cuba, experiencing headaches, dizziness, tinnitus and fatigue, became convinced that they were victims of a new and terrifying sonic weapon. Older victims in two small towns in Kazakhstan blamed toxic mines for their sleeping sickness and strange behaviour, while fainting high school girls in Colombia were told they were crazy, attention-seeking and sexually frustrated. When similar symptoms swept through a school in New York, the environmental activist Erin Brockovich turned up, along with news crews, wanting to examine the site of a 40-year-old train crash.
While local communities give these symptoms distinct names and have very different opinions about their causes – from poisoning to secret weapons to being led astray by the devil – neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan is convinced that they are the same type of disorder. What this book is far less clear about is what exactly we should call it. We may know it as “psychosomatic” illness, from the Greek words for “mind” and “body”, but in modern neurology the word “functional” has largely replaced that term. What was once known as “mass hysteria” (a term that has echoes of misbehaving nuns, dancing Canadians or the 1962 laughing epidemic of Tanganyika) is now more carefully described as “mass psychogenic illness” (MPI). O’Sullivan refers at different times to “functional neurological disorders” (FND) and “biopsychosocial” disorders, which seems a sensible label for symptoms that exist in the body as a result of activity in the brain and the influence of culture and environment. Whatever we call them, there are many reasons why these disorders are difficult to identify and treat – not least that many patients would rather be diagnosed with almost anything else. Fortunately, O’Sullivan is convinced that they can be helped. Continue reading...
Mar 15, 2021
The taboo-busting poet has written her first novel, Mrs Death Misses Death. She talks about missing performing and why Brits struggle to speak about her novel’s all too timely subject
The day after our interview, Salena Godden emails me first thing. She’s dreamily watching the snow, she says, and eating a huge Jamaican banana cake with rum in it, but she’s also kicking herself for forgetting to say something important. “I woke up thinking I’d hate the idea that I was in the Guardian and didn’t namecheck these good people,” she writes, above a list of books she’s excited about, by authors including Courttia Newland, Nikita Gill, Kathryn Williams and Irenosen Okojie. It’s typical that, just as she’s publishing her first novel, she wants to share the love with fellow authors. Godden has mentored writers for many years (including Nikesh Shukla, whose book Brown Baby was published a week after hers) and, having worked so hard for her share of the limelight, she really cares about paying it forward.
Related: Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden review – the poet's debut novel Continue reading...
Dec 19, 2020
In this impressive reassessment Neanderthals emerge as complex, clever and caring, with a lot to tell us about human life
Homo sapiens’ relationship with our long-lost relatives the Neanderthals has undergone a lot of rethinking since our relatively recent reintroduction in 1856. Until then, three years before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, we had no idea that they existed. Thanks to the Parisian anatomist Marcellin Boule, who “inaccurately reconstructed” a skeleton in 1909, the popular image of them has been of an ugly creature with a stooped spine and a “decidedly ape-like” appearance. Now, a blink of an eye later, we know that many of us – at least, those without sub-Saharan heritage – carry between 1.8 and 2.6% Neanderthal DNA. So it’s reassuring to read that these people whose genes we share were not the brutish caricatures of Victorian myth, but complex, clever and probably caring individuals with a lot to tell us about human life.
Rebecca Wragg Sykes has studied their landscapes, territories and tools and emerges as an expert and enthusiastic character witness for Neanderthals and their way of life. In Kindred she looks at their “life, love, death and art”; and in the light of the fascinating evidence that is painstakingly presented here it seems likely that they had sophisticated tools, built home environments, art and ornamentation, family structures and possibly even “a richer culinary world than ours”. There is even evidence that they tidied up. Neanderthals probably didn’t have PR, but they do now. Continue reading...
Dec 19, 2020
Latham, a bookseller for 35 years, has put together a heady mix of history, philosophy, anecdotes and entertaining facts
What most people know about the American librarian Melvil Dewey is his phenomenal classification technique, the Dewey decimal system, which is still used in 135 countries. Less well known is how he liked to classify people, too. In a chapter entitled “Dubious Dewey”, Martin Latham describes how the great librarian created groups from A to D, banning all in the D group – Jews, African-Americans, Cubans and the “new rich” – from his Lake Placid resort. He was also a prolific groper of women. Latham speculates that Dewey’s hypocrisy, and his “obsessively domineering persona”, were what caused his lifelong constipation and piles.
This is a book that is down on banning, rigidity, abuse of power and all kinds of snobbery, bookish and otherwise. It celebrates stories, scribbling in margins and the collecting, cherishing and even kissing of books – something done with surprising frequency, apparently. Latham, a bookseller for 35 years, currently runs Waterstones Canterbury, where he proudly filed the biggest petty cash claim in the chain’s history to pay for the excavation of a Roman bath house under its floor. But this is not one of those funny “anecdotes from a bookshop” books that have recently been popular – though anecdotes there are aplenty. It is rather a history and celebration of all things bookish, from Alexander the Great’s unusual habit of reading silently in an age when all stories were oral stories, through printing, chapbooks, book hawkers and beyond. Continue reading...
Dec 04, 2020
From Palaeolithic paintings to astrophysics … a glittering history takes in explorers, aliens and a world vanishing from view
Twenty thousand years ago, in a cave in France, Palaeolithic humans painted a great bull with a collection of seven dots above his shoulder. Scholars are divided over the meaning of such paintings, but at the start of this book Jo Marchant makes a convincing and picturesque argument that the image is a remnant of a fairly sophisticated astronomy, in which the movement of stars informed human hunting: “a star calendar, with the Pleiades marking key moments in the life cycle of the aurochs bull”.
It’s the earliest of many stories in which the cosmos is intrinsically bound up with human behaviour, beliefs, art, science, discovery and understanding – a fundamental connection whose recent loss, Marchant argues, is bad news for humans today. The star myths we tell “are not just stories. They’re cultural memories passed through generations for thousands of years.” Continue reading...
Aug 01, 2020
Two ‘leftover women’ search for an undiscovered species in this touching journey of self-discovery
Rachel Joyce’s wonderful 2012 debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, was about a man who walked 600 miles to see an old friend and found comfort and wisdom on the way. Its follow up, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, told the story of that friend, a woman who was dying having missed out on something in life. Miss Benson’s Beetle is also a pilgrimage of sorts, this time made by Margery Benson, one of a stifled generation of “leftover women” who are marking time in the aftermath of the second world war.
Fortysomething Miss Benson is a disappointed domestic science teacher, showing girls “how to iron men’s shirts, and boil vegetables”, and feeling as though even blue sky is rationed – until a final straw of humiliation inspires her to set off to New Caledonia on a reckless mission to find an undiscovered species of golden beetle. It’s an excellent premise, and one that pans out almost as heartwarmingly as you’d expect, but with some powerful, moving and sometimes violent surprises en route. Continue reading...
Jul 22, 2020
A bold and optimistic theory of gender and cooperation, based on the insights of maths
Eugenia Cheng is on a mission to change the world for the better, using maths. Her first book, How to Bake Pi, used recipes to teach readers how to think mathematically. The Art of Logic, published in 2018, was about using the principles of mathematical logic to have more productive arguments. x + y is an even more ambitious project, the aim of which is to end the gender wars and create equality by building “a whole new theory of people”.
Cheng begins by addressing why it is unhelpful to associate characteristics with gender, and explains why “leaning in” and “positive discrimination” both fail to fix inequality. She proposes a solution based on her specialist subject of category theory, which is more interested “in describing things by the role they play in a context, rather than by their intrinsic characteristics”. Mathematically, she says, “if we have two things that are not equal, we could make them equal by making the lesser one greater or by making the greater one less ... However, there is a completely different way we could do it, which is by evaluating the two things on a new dimension entirely.” Cheng insists that proper maths, the fun kind, is not about being right, but is a way of thinking differently, and that includes exploring ideas that are impossible according to existing rules. It’s a way of seeing this exhausting debate from a completely new angle. Continue reading...
Jun 17, 2020
From Roman baths to the ‘Australian crawl’ and the politics of swimming, this chronicle is ideal for readers missing the water
In a cave in Wadi Sura, in the southwest corner of Egypt, there is evidence that one of the driest corners of the Earth used to be flowing with water. The Cave of Swimmers (famous from The English Patient) is covered in paintings of little human figures that appear to be doing doggy paddle. They suggest not only that the Sahara desert was once crossed by rivers and lakes but that, about 8,000 years ago, people were swimming in them. And apparently loving it.
So begins this fascinating history of how, where and why humans swim. It is perfect reading for those missing a splash-about during the lockdown. Howard Means, a lifelong swimmer and coach, explains that swimming “remains deeply encoded in our biology”, and sees it not only as a panacea but also a leveller for humans. Water “forgives our infirmities, physical and otherwise,” he writes. “It frees us to dream. Swimming is an equal playing field.” Or, at least, it should be. Continue reading...
Jun 11, 2020
Through colliding storylines, this debut collection touchingly evokes the interconnectedness of fractured lives
In the sixth story in The Cat and the City, “Chinese Characters”, a teacher of Japanese tells her American student: “Characters shift meaning when placed alongside others, so it’s important we focus on the relationships between them. No character truly exists in isolation, and there’s always a story for even the most complicated or simple of characters.” She is talking about kanji, the characters used in written Japanese, but what she says is equally true of the cast of this unusual novel, who skim across each other’s lives having the narrowest of misses and the most profound impacts as they follow their own trajectories across Tokyo.
The book is ostensibly a collection of stories, linked by the same little calico cat, who curls up with a homeless man in “Fallen Words”, is struck and injured by a jilted lover in “Omatsuri”, looked after by an agoraphobic gamer and a sad little boy in “Hikikomori, Futoku & Neko”, and so on. There are footnotes, photographs, first-person and third-person stories and a short manga section, and each voice is very much its own. But the incursion of characters into each other’s stories, in Nick Bradley’s ingenious choreography of a constantly moving city, is touching, surprising and sometimes heartbreaking. For example, a tiny puzzle in “Fallen Words”, when two taxi drivers hand three empty coffee cans to the homeless storyteller, Ohashi, is quietly resolved later in “Sakura”; it may have barely snagged in the reader’s brain, but Ohashi had just missed bumping into his long-lost brother. Continue reading...
Apr 06, 2020
From the Duchess of Cambridge’s canonical classics to Jon Snow’s eclectic collection, social isolation has opened a window on celebrity libraries
Lockdown Britain has added a new dimension to one of readers’ favourite games: nosing around other people’s shelves. With broadcasters and politicians addressing the nation from their own front rooms, it has become easier than ever. Now we don’t even have to go to someone’s home (fortunate in these times) to judge them by their reading habits. Now the libraries of the famous are laid bare for us all to mock or admire.
What does it tell us about Boris Johnson, for example, that he has a collection of big, gold-lettered, red-spined hardbacks that look as if they’ve come straight from the fabled library of Alexandria? Or that Prince Charles keeps a hefty Dick Francis close at hand? MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt and the Washington Post’s White House reporter Seung Min Kim both arrange their books by colour, it seems. Joe Wicks has beautiful shelves with … no books on them. And a screenshot of the “first ever digital cabinet”, shared by the PM, suggests that Jacob Rees-Mogg has one of those dream libraries with dark wood shelves and ladders on wheels. Continue reading...