Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

SapiensThis was another one of my increasingly frequent (on the timescale of my reading life) non-fiction reads, and another one I feel compelled to share my enthusiasm for.

I had in fact just about started hearing about the not so linear evolution of humanoids before reading Sapiens. So I did realise that the traditional tree or the very graphic illustration of a distinctly ape-like figure morphing in several stages into a modern man only tells a partial story. However, this book contains so much more than a simple presentation of that fact. I won’t summarise the book here or outline its contents. I’ll just talk about what stayed with me the most.

 

Without a doubt, the analysis of the true (OK that’s a subjective term, I should say the author’s assertion-backed-by-pretty-convincing arguments version of the truth, but as I find it makes complete sense to me, I’m going for the shortcut of “true”) impact of that major revolution in human history that was the agricultural revolution. I had never thought of it as being a  cause of massive population growth, with the majority of humans producing food from the sweat of their brow (which instantly made me want to check how “old” the agricultural revolution was when Genesis was written, but which I haven’t got round to doing yet, sigh) and the simultaneous establishment of an elite class fed by this labour. Like many others I’m sure, I’d always thought of it as the natural, fairly linear progress of humans of having one bright idea after the other: fire, tool-making, crop growing and livestock husbandry etc. In my mind, this would lead “logically” to population growth, accelerating first with the industrial information and accelerating perhaps again with the digital revolution (but I’m less sure about that). The fact that the agricultural revolution has had a far more profound role in the shaping of human destiny was a real revelation for me.

The focus on empathy to non-human beings was another thing that resonated particularly strongly. Here in France, which generally follows societal trends from Anglo-Saxon countries a little later than the latter, usually having tweaked it a little bit, usually with some conceptual definition no-one had quite formulated in that particular way, the words “végétarien”, “végétalien”  (but increasingly also, sadly, “vegan” although here is not the place for the defence of a range of languages) and “flexitarien” are given far more bandwidth than they used to get. Our (half-French half-British) family is right in the middle of this journey of changing our eating habits. Of course, that is only one aspect of empathy to other species than ours but I mention it because it is clearly linked to  a growing unease over the years of what we are doing to our planet and its inhabitants.

 

Of course, I’m now going to read Homo Deus (I’m assuming Deus would have been an awkward title?) and probably get my mind blown away by human-machine interfaces I have never even thought of thinking about.

Interviewing the Queen

There is a lot of information out there and the information we mostly focus on isn’t around for very long. The news on your favourite radio station, your daughter’s Twitter feed, the thing everyone is talking about in the office leave few traces; only a small part of it gets printed before usually being chucked away after a few days. The old information doesn’t actually disappear, it just drifts down to the seabed of Ocean News. There may be some poking at “old” news every now and then, usually with the purpose of muddying the waters somehow or other but it is very rare indeed for there to be any continuity in the topics that are dealt with or in the people who narrate and comment them.

There is, however, one person I can think of, who has had access to information relating to one particular topic, in a fairly unchanged format, for many years: Queen Elizabeth II.

800px-Queen_Elizabeth_II_and_Prince_Phillip_sit_on_thrones_before_a_full_Parliament
BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives from Canada – Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip at the opening of parliament / La Reine Élizabeth II et le prince Philip à l’ouverture du parlement. Creator(s) / Créateur(s) : Gerald Thomas Richardson

 

The Queen has read every Speech from the Throne (which presents the government’s broad agenda for the year) at the State Opening of Parliament since 1952, except in 1959 and 1963 when Princes Andrew and Edward respectively were on their way. In addition, she holds weekly audiences with the Prime Minister in office. I think it would be an excellent idea if she were to be interviewed in a formal manner by a professional like a historian.

It’s probably useful for me to state at this point that I don’t support constitutional monarchy as a form of government, I prefer republics. I find that a system based on a monarch plus a parliament minus a written constitution is, on balance, more muddling than a republic. But that doesn’t stop me from thinking that it would be very interesting to get the Queen’s memories, thoughts and possible comments on this unparalleled data pool concerning a fairly important topic: the government of the United Kingdom.

The official Royal Family website helpfully notes that: “Although The Sovereign no longer has a political or executive role, he or she continues to play an important part in the life of the nation.” She does indeed. Personally, I find it impossible to imagine that she has merely read all these speeches, paying attention only to her delivery of them, or that she has met all these Prime Ministers and not come to some judgment about their performance.

 

If the interviews I propose were to actually yield any of the Queen’s opinions on governmental policies or the heads of government, I believe that any such information would need to be kept secret for a good long while. The publication of Prince Charles’s so-called “black spider memos” generated some disquiet. They did reveal some of his opinions on and indeed involvement in various matters of public interest, but he is not the Head of State. What I am proposing here is directed at gaining information from the Head of State and then to come to a decision on what is shared publicly and what is not. I’m not sure who should decide that but that would come under the “details to be sorted out later” category… Who knows, maybe if this idea were to be implemented, the interviews would one day become historical documents widely shared with future subjects (assuming UK citizens retain a monarchy), rather like the Georgian Papers Programme today.

But even in the absence of any comment on the content of the speeches the Queen has read and the audiences she has held, wouldn’t it be fascinating to have a record of her thoughts on the process in which she has been a key player? Wouldn’t it be interesting to get insight into how successive governments have gone about formulating their road map year after year? How the format of weekly audiences and pre-budget briefings might have evolved after time?

Of course, the Queen is not exactly a typical interviewee and the person selected to undertake the task I propose would need to demonstrate a range of talents. They would need to combine the rigorous search for evidence of a historian with the astuteness of a ghost writer collating material for a celebrated person’s memoirs. They would probably also need to have the sort of personality that would “fit” into the Royal household, given that their job, if it were to be done correctly, would require a number of fairly long meetings with her.

 

In a way, I feel that recording the Queen’s recollection of one of the duties she has diligently discharged over the years, and one that is most closely connected with the administration of the realm, is something that is owed to her. Rather than all the media coverage of her person and reign, including fanciful film and television productions, is she not entitled to be asked about her role in accompanying the business of government?

Holes by Louis Sachar

Contains spoilers

 

I read Holes by Louis Sochar because my younger daughter (eleven years old when she read it) told me it was one of her favourite books.  It turns out that I liked it a lot too.

 

It is one of those tales where a child faces hardship and injustice for a large part of the story and redemption comes at the end. A bit like Joseph in the Old Testament, David Copperfield, Charlie in the chocolate factory etc. etc.

HolesHere, the young Stanley Yelnats finds himself at Camp Green Lake juvenile detention centre after his conviction for a very minor offense. Living conditions are awful and the youngsters have to dig holes of precise minimal dimensions for no purpose whatsoever, “to build character”. They do this in scorching desert temperatures and are overseen by a range of variously creepy supervisors, the harshest by far being the Warden, a Disneyesque evil queen character.

Stanley learns how to dig holes in the least painful way, he hasn’t much choice, and he quickly adapts to the hierarchy that prevails among his fellow inmates. In fact, he is adept at transposing the rules of the playground to the rules of the camp and realises that his nickname of “Caveman”, probably inspired by his podginess, is an honourable one when compared to “Armpit” or “Barf Bag”. He feels sorry for the withdrawn boy called  “Zero”, who is always at the back of the queue when it comes to being served water, out in the desert.

Right from the beginning of the book, we hear in parallel about Stanley’s family history or possibly legend. Stanley’s Mum, for instance, prefers to refer to bad luck than a curse. More details emerge as we follow “Caveman”’s experiences at camp, and his growing friendship with “Zero”, whose real name we learn late on. The two share an adventure/rite of passage, a link between them is revealed and things end up a lot better for the two of them at the end of the novel.

 

The book is a nice blend of humour and clever plot weaving. The legend of Stanley’s infamous great-great-grandfather has plenty of ridiculous and improbable detail. The scenes involving the female Warden are also funny in a more horrible way. The involved story of Stanley’s journey to Camp Green Lake and his escape from it is marginally more plausible. The author even adds nuance to the happy ending, ensuring it doesn’t become nauseating.

 

I had assumed that the entirety of the story had no basis in fact whatsoever. However, this assumption was challenged by recent news concerning the pardon of Joe Arpaio, a real life person I had never heard of until now. It turns out that rogue sheriffs didn’t disappear with the gold rush and that former sheriff Joe Arpaio was convincted for a variety of offenses, including setting up a  widely decried “tent jail” in Arizona. I can only now think of think of  Camp Green Lake as a sort of fictional cousin of this place.

 

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