“OF MAKING MANY books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh”, as the writer of Ecclesiastes wisely said, at a time when you could probably have fit every book in the world into the space where you parked your camel overnight.
It’s worse now, of course, after hundreds of years of printing, and a decade or more of Amazon. There are just too many of the damn things. My pile of books to read is high enough, and I frequently have a dozen on the go at one time. Sometimes it will take me a couple of years to get through a particular title. I read the first half of Proust’s A la Recherche in six months (in English, with occasional forays into the French), but it’s taken me six years to get half way through the second. That’s the part, from “Cities of the Plain” onward, where Proust has obviously gone mad and is just writing anything that comes into his head.
On the other hand I read Fritz Fischer’s tome, Germany’s Aims in the First World War in about a month, and there wasn’t a sniff of polymorphous perversity in it to spice things up.
These days I tend to read non fiction, often of a political nature. Two of the most recent include How Civilizations Die by David P Goldman, and Occidentalism by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit. The latter is an antidote and rebuff to Edward Said, whose Orientalism I found so full of self-preening and special pleading as to be unreadable.
What I am looking forward to once I have Moby Dick, Fagles’s Iliad, and Dennis Wheatley’s To the Devil a Daughter out of the way, are three literary titles: Under the Spelling Wall: The Poetry of Dylan Thomas by my good friend John Goodby, Edward Thomas, From Adlestrop to Arras by Jean Moorcroft Wilson, and A Strong Song Tows Us, a biography of the poet Basil Bunting by Richard Burton.
What I have no intention of reading are three titles currently popular with the left: Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Owen Jones’s The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It, and Paul Mason’s PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future.
Capital is nearly 700 pages, which is far too long, especially for a book on economics, and especially for one written by a Frenchman. As with Finnegan’s Wake, I don’t believe that most of the people who talk about it have actually read it. Reports suggest it goes on about inequality, which is one of the fashionable worrying points of the day, a good reason to ignore it. I don’t care about inequality because I don’t think it’s important, and I’m a heartless bastard.
I didn’t read Chavs, the book that made Owen Jones a serious fixture of the media left, partly because I don’t trust these intellectual types picking up on various “working class” sub-groups and parading them as examples for the better-off to feel guilty about. I’m sure his book on the Establishment (nice to see that old term resurrected) is well-researched, ie replete with the usual suspects, Eton and Oxford types, bankers, civil servants, etc, and that his argument is unsensationally predictable.
According to the Guardian, Jones’s natural home, he thinks what binds these and all the others now included in his definition of Establishment (“tabloid hacks, the big accountancy firms, the police, the construction industry, the arms trade, the lobbying industry and foreign energy companies” and even Russian oligarchs) is an ideological commitment to a pared-down state. If he believes that then he’s spent too much time down the estate smoking weed with the Chavs. Politicians may talk of reducing the state but they only ever expand it, and even if the British government ceased passing any laws for a year, the amount of legislation would still have increased, courtesy of the European Union.
Two books that deal cogently with the Establishment are The Triumph of the Political Class by Peter Oborne and New Elites by George Walden. If you’re going to waste money on the Owen I recommend you make amends by getting these two at the same time.
Finally, there’s PostCapitalism by Paul Mason, erstwhile Business Editor on BBC’s Newsnight, and currently Economics Editor on Channel 4 News. Unlike Jones he looks like he’s been around a bit. To Greece, mainly, where’s he’s covered that country’s chaotic exposure to the reality of having to pay back borrowed money while living in the madhouse of the Euro.
The subtitle of his book is “A Guide to our Future”, and, as both the title and Mason’s glaring lefty views indicate, points prophetically at the non-capitalist spectre haunting the world. The use of the prefix “post” is a sign of the terminal trendiness of the idea. We appear to be leaving the stage of “late” capitalism, and “neoliberalism” is in its death throes. Not that any of us need fret, since both concepts are nonsense.
Mason’s thesis is that with capitalism on its way out, we are about to enter a new kind of economy, one of “sharing”, in which collaboration becomes prevalent and technology reduces the need for work. We don’t need capitalists any more, or individualism. We can all share the products of our labour without the cash nexus.
If you are not sure about this, that’s because none of it is obvious to the rest of the world as yet: as Mason himself says, “You only find this new economy if you look hard for it.” So keep looking. Full marks to Paul for being so eagle-eyed. Or deluded.
In the interest of spreading that sharing ethos, though, I’ve saving you the expense of paying your soon-to-be rendered-obsolete-moolah into the corporate machine and benefitting the middlemen and the tax-dodging Amazon by saying you don’t even need to read the book, since Mason himself has provided a precis in the Guardian (another enterprise that doesn’t believe in or make profits).
Happy un-reading, folks.