NON-FICTION CLUB @ THE ENGLISH BOOKSHOP

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The English Bookshop at Lauriergracht is currently closed until further notice. Before re-opening at a different location there will be no Non-Fiction Club meetings.

Non-Fiction Club is a by-monthly gathering at The English Bookshop (Lauriergracht 71, 1016 RH Amsterdam) where recent non-fiction books are read and discussed. I moderate the group and write the reviews after meetings. If you would like to join, please check the website of The English Bookshop: http://www.englishbookshop.nl. Below you find a list of books we have read so far – and what we thought of them.

Introduction
Always wanted to know everything about ‘the world as you encounter it’ but were afraid to ask? Non-Fiction Club at The English Bookshop is a by-monthly reader’s group for laymen, experts and the curious at heart. Here we discuss non-fiction books that relate to relevant current issues. Does it need stamina to participate? Not at all: the fun of non-fiction is that you may read only parts of it. So please join us for lively discussions, great company and nice drinks at Non-Fiction Club! Groups are hosted by journalist and artist Teresa van Twuijver.

These are the rules of Non-Fiction Club
• Every two months we discuss a non-fiction book that sheds light on a current issue
• You do not need to finish the book: read what interests you, what makes you think
• Bring the book along, together with one question you might have about it
• To lighten up conversation, also bring something that represents your views on the book – this could be anything:  an object from your home, a quote from another book, a clip from the newspaper, a piece of music, a YouTube-movie, your ticket from the tram if you think that is relevant
• As we go along we try to assess the book and place it into a larger context
• Non-Fiction Club takes a maximum of 15 participants (let us know in advance if you want to bring a friend)
• We love to see you

Tips for reading

  • Read what you like: you do not need to read the full text to make it meaningful to you
  • Browse! Non-fiction is not always best read from A to Z
  • If you want to quick-scan: read introduction, first and last paragraphs, and conclusion
  • Before you start: jodd down an ultra short expectation on a blanc page of the book. This will enhance your perceptions and pleasure of reading
  • Don’t be discouraged by boredom but stop if boredom is all you get from the text: it will be interesting to talk in the reading group about what bothered you so much

Books on our reading list

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When I was a Child I Read Books (2012)
Marilynne Robinson

Perhaps there is a grave shortage of éminence grise in the current ‘youthful, energetic and upbeat’ society: Wise men and women you want to listen to quietly when they tell stories about an experienced life and lived-through emotions. Marilynne Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize Winning novelist, is just such a woman. In this lyrical collection of critical essays she reflects on the questionable effects of general presumptions and on lonesomeness, which she equals not with loneliness but with a space to think, feel and freely explore ideas. Combining the sharpness of Mary Wollstonecraft with the literary talent of Doris Lessing: readers that love ‘mindful consideration’ are in for a treat.

Review: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a profound mind is in want of  a good editor. Who dares edit Marilynne Robinson? Her ideas are brilliant, her talent for writing is evident, but in When I was a Child I Read Books she apparently gets so absorbed in the complexity of deep thinking that she somewhat forgets about her less immersed audience. Unsurprisingly the bewildered reader looses her thread of argument practically two pages in each chapter. Our Non-Fiction Club suspects Robinson writing ‘on the sherry’, unleashed in the privacy of her own writing screen, with no editor to stand up as mediator for the poor bookworm. We recommend the book to brave hearts and treasure hunters who love to plough through dense sociological critique. It is difficult to extract meaning but when it happens Robinson’s ideas unravel as persuasive wisdoms.

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The Science Delusion (2013)
Rupert Sheldrake 

A contemporary heretic speaks out against the iron dogmas of science, which for some seem to serve only as an excuse to reject religious principles and unorthodox medicine. We should not forget, argues Sheldrake, that science is a method of inquiry and not the waterproof confirmation of a purely material universe. Sheldrake’s lecture about this book was recently banned from the TEDx website, which is all the more reason to read it.

Review: Our Non-Fiction Club considers professor Rupert Sheldrake’s The Science Delusion an interesting book, though not necessarily a scrumptious read. Sheldrake builds an excellent case for a more experimental and playful scientific method, even though he seems to stick to the old guns of dogmatic academic inquiry himself – as if he wants to convince his arch-enemies professor Richard Dawkins et. al. in their own lingua franca that they should ask more questions instead of just confirming answers. Pity, for Sheldrake’s rebellious mind and childlike curiosity have delivered fun experiments in biology and biochemistry. Nonetheless we grade the book with a 5 out of 5 for trying to rock the solid cruise ship of scientific endeavour: Sheldrake’s small ‘Beagle’ on the vast ocean of academic tradition reminds us that current research strategies are only a few hundred years old and not necessarily designed for eternity.

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The Hare with the Amber Eyes (2010)
Edmund de Waal

A ceramic artist from England inherits a collection of 264 tiny figurines in a vitrine from a great-uncle in Japan. They are netsuke, virtuoso mini-sculptures that the Japanese used to wear as buttons on kimonos and that mid-nineteenth century art collectors used to covet as treasures. The ceramist is Edmund de Waal and on the arrival of the netsuke in London he departs on a non-sentimental journey to Paris, Vienna, Odessa, Tokyo and Tunbridge Wells to trace down the origins of this beautiful and perplexing legacy from his family. They had been Jewish. They had been assimilated. They had earned riches beyond imagination. This changed when Nazi’s invaded their private palaces during the Anschluss to un-assimilate them. Nazi’s looted the Renoirs and the Rembrandts, but overlooked the gentle hand of a gentle goy servant named Anna, just Anna, who moved the netsuke from the vitrine to her apron and from her apron to her matrass and from that back to the family after the war. The Hare with the Amber eyes is the vitrine in which De Waal carefully presents, like porcelain, the fragile stories of his ancestors and former owners of the netsuke-collection.

Practically all members of our Non Fiction Club read this book in one sitting. It is a touching story about a dynasty of assimilated Jews that perhaps became too rich for its own good. Ceramic artist De Waal, as young offspring, makes a real effort to find a clever balance between what needs to be told and what needs to stay private. His professional fascination with vitrines shows itself throughout the text, which serves as a symbolic showcase for carefully phrased family stories and anecdotes. Objects are portrayed as fragile carriers of precious memories, like a beautiful earthenware cup holding tea, but don’t expect too much information about the netsuke (the Japanese carved objects from the title). Also do not suppose to read ‘a book of ideas’: for that you should pick up Proust, really. Rather this book gives an intimate idea of how European history influenced (and sadly destroyed) the culture and domestic life of a high and mighty banker’s family. We gave it a 4 out of 5. ‘Not bad for a potter.’

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The Swerve. How The Renaissance Began (2011)
Stephen Greenblatt, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for general Non Fiction 2012

The Swerve is a provocative book arguing that an obscure work of classical philosophy, discovered nearly 600 years ago, changed the course of history by anticipating the science and sensibilities of today. Nearly six hundred years ago, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. That book was the last surviving manuscript of an ancient Roman philosophical epic, On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius – a beautiful poem of the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion, colliding and swerving in new directions. The copying and translation of this ancient book (the greatest discovery of the greatest book-hunter of his age) fueled the Renaissance, inspiring artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno; shaped the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein; and had a revolutionary influence on writers such as Montaigne and Shakespeare.

Reactions and questions of our Non-Fiction Club reading group on this excellent work of Stephen Greenblatt. • So much science already present in ancient times, so much science totally forgotten in the Dark Ages. • So much knowledge lost forever: how many manuscripts have been destroyed by moths, mildew and bacteria? • Epicures had such a kind, social view on human connectedness. • A truly good read which keeps you from wanting to put the book down. • A delicious gossip on the dirtiest dirt hanging on the robes of popes and the curie of Vatican City. • If the world suddenly had no electricity any more, how would knowledge survive? The Swerve, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction 2012, is a wonderful read. Entertaining, exciting, fulfilling – although it strangely does not explain in any way how the discovery of an ancient poem on physics and atheism kick started the Renaissance. We graded is 4,5 stars out of 5. The Non-Fiction equivalent of Dan Brown.

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Religion for Atheists (2011)
Alain de Botton

Religion for Atheists (2012) by ‘philosopher of every day life’ Alain de Botton suggests that rather than mocking religions, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from them – because they’re packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies. Blending deep respect with total impiety, Alain (a non-believer himself) proposes that we should look to religions for insights into, among other concerns, how to: build a sense of community, make our relationships last, overcome feelings of envy and inadequacy, escape the twenty-four hour media, go travelling, get more out of art, architecture and music, and create new businesses designed to address our emotional needs.

Non-Fiction Club Review: The core business of religious systems is to teach people how to live wisely, kindly and mercifully. Secular (atheist) culture has no equivalent machinery for as thoroughly endowing its bewildered flock with moral values, despite shelves of self-help books, ethical subplots in Eastenders and lofty reverences to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in any presidential speech. In Religion for Atheists philosopher Alain de Botton embarks on a pragmatic crusade to save the non-believer’s soul. Our Non Fiction Club members simply loved the book and rated it 4,5 out of 5. If you are in want of gentle guidance, and also want to know about the benefits of beautiful buildings, dining with total strangers, mother figures and, yes, serious pessimism, be sure to read this excellent book. Suitable for parents with young children.

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Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2013)
Susan Cain

One day, in an extravert world, one woman softly closes the door of her private study. The Introvert Strikes Back! Susan Cain writes a bestselling book about the vigor of wallflowers. (Blurb:) At least one-third of the people we know are introverts. They are the ones who prefer listening to speaking, reading to partying; who innovate and create but dislike self-promotion; who favor working on their own over brainstorming in teams. Although they are often labeled “quiet,” it is to introverts that we owe many of the great contributions to society–from van Gogh’s sunflowers to the invention of the personal computer. Passionately argued, impressively researched, and filled with indelible stories of real people, Quiet shows how dramatically we undervalue introverts, and how much we lose in doing so. This extraordinary book has the power to permanently change how we see introverts and, equally important, how introverts see themselves.

Review. Former Wall Street attorney turns civil rights activist. Meticulously she builds an argument to liberate introverts, who find themselves marginalized in an extravert world of social networks and 3.0 workspaces. It is no coincidence that Susan Cain opens her book Quiet with Rosa Parks’ soft-spoken act of resistance against segregation. Society is not a one-size-fits-all playground for the gregarious, Cain suggests, as she delivers a convincing plea for temperamental autonomy and mutual respect. Our Non-Fiction Club members find the book a thought-provoking read and grade it with a 4,5 out of 5 for its empowering merits, although Cain’s firm case-building leaves ‘the thinking introvert’ with little shades of grey (as ‘the hands-on extravert’). Nonetheless the book is a gratifying comfort for the quiet person who prefers small groups of people over large, and who likes to spend time alone. We recommend Quiet as the perfect gift for your party-pooping friends, coy mistresses and timid loved-ones. Please allow them to start reading it straight after dinner.

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The Information (2011)
James Gleick

Do fish know they swim in water? Perhaps. Probably not. Can humans point to their most obvious natural surroundings? Who would have guessed it is not air. It is information. Science writer James Gleick, author of the Chaos and Genius, delivers with The Information (2011) a book that shows how information has become the ultimate defining human modus operandus—the blood, the fuel, the vital principle of a digitalized world where political revolutions are Twittered and iPhone-apps make us forget less and not more. On Thursday December 6th from 18.30 hrs Non-Fiction Club at The English Bookshop shall emerge itself into a mass of data about… data, from the Stone Age until now.

Review. The Information (2011) by science writer James Gleick deals very interestingly with the history of our information saturated society yet frivolously adds to the problem by causing a data tsunami for its readers. You want to be in for a challenge – or a 24/7 geek and computer scientist – to consume this book completely from cover to cover. However once you commence the quest, the book is very rewarding. Our Non Fiction Club was dazzled by the intellectual width and learned scope of the book, and particularly enjoyed the personal histories of pivotal inventors who stood at the cradle of the information age, like the mathematician Ada Byron (daughter of Lord Byron the poet), her Victorian peer Charles Babbage (who invented the first, fully automatic but analogue computing machine), and the enigmatic computer scientists Alan Turing and Claude Shannon at Bell Labs, who wanted to create an electric circuit with a mind. The book centrals around telecommunication and code, but strangely leaves out major players in the field, like Steve Jobs’ Apple and Bill Gates’ Microsoft. Regardless, in times of massive iPhone-usage and mobile internet, the point that The Information powerfully drives home is that present day people should know how to curate information rather than to generate new knowledge, and need to install an ‘information discipline’ in order to not lose the capacity to structure one’s own thoughts. To excel means to be able to focus. This book is a great gift for people working in IT, the telecom business or computer science, precisely because it gives human context to otherwise rather formal data. We rated the book 3.7 out of 5. (By the way: it is a true recommendation to Google some of Gleick’s subjects; YouTube has some great video’s on the Babbage machine, young girls working early telephone switch boards and African drummers speaking in rhythms by way of ancient text messaging.)

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Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011)
Daniel Kahneman

Kahneman is a psychologist who was awarded with the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002. Thinking, Fast and Slow is an easy to read, hands-on survey of ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ decision making. It gives good insights into the psychology of judgement and, in essence, behavioural economics. In this way the book relates interestingly to the current economical crisis.

The very first Non-Fiction Club gathering focuses on Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) by psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahnemann. The participants find it a good read (they rate it 4,5 on a scale of 5) and heartily recommend the book to anyone with an interest in the processes of human understanding. The Club Members believe that the insights of Dr. Kahnemann are in fact important and suggest these be implemented in educational systems, politics and economics. The book gives a wealth of commonplace examples that we can easily relate to, resulting in the unveiling of many unknown knowns and a lot of aha-erlebnis. However some participants think the book is sticking too much to the academic principle of ‘introducing what you want to say, saying it and then summarizing what you just have said’. The book therefore gives little surprises after the introduction. Also Kahneman sticks rigorously to his own field of expertise, happy to pass the task of assessing the relevance of his academic findings to any future philosopher who is willing to digress and think through the consequences for society. Kahnemann tells his readers he simply wants to give people a vocabulary to discuss the workings of the mind (and the problems of biases) over the water cooler and coffee machine. The book, he assures us in interviews, is not a self-help book. The little quotes at the end of each chapter seem to give the book a bit of a self-help stance anyway, and indeed most Non-Fiction Club Members feel the book gives them useful guidance for the improvement of their own thinking. The book is suitable for a large audience but in order for lively discussions to really take place at the water cooler, Kahnemann should probably have to call on documentary maker Adam Curtis to soundbite his little end-of-chapter-quotes into a funky film version of Thinking, Fast and Slow.

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