Maquina Lectora

Notes of a curious mind

The Square and The Tower by Niall Ferguson

To understand the title of the book, says Niall Ferguson, we need to go with him in Sienna, walk across the Piazza del Campo, a place that was by turns a marketplace, a  meeting place and, twice a year, a racetrack, to the Palazzo Bubblico, passing under the shadow of the majestic Torre del Mangia. “Nowhere in the world will you see so elegantly juxtaposed the two forms of human organization depicted in this book: around you, a public space purpose-built for all kinds of more or less informal human interaction; above you, an imposing tower intended to symbolize and project secular power.”

The Square and the Tower is a very ambitious, rich, and extensively researched book, it sweeps across history examining the interactions and the tensions between distributed networks and hierarchical orders, like states or corporations. The central theme of the book is that these relations and tensions exist regardless of the state of technology, though technology may affect and at times disrupt these networks

This is in sharp antithesis to the modern technologists’ view that history is irrelevant to them and they have nothing to learn from it, because their technology is so awesome that nothing could stand in its way. Ferguson tries to show that history applies to them as much as it was applied to Wall Street when, ten years ago, they were faced with the financial crisis.

Many people today think that the Internet has fundamentally changed the world today. This is true, but, in a way, it is also wrong, says Ferguson. A recent majority ruling of the United States Supreme Court, noted, that “”cyberspace” is the most important place for the “exchange of views” in our society today …… the modern public square,”  in the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy. [1] This is a public square all right, but who own it, asks Niall Ferguson.

In The Square and The Tower, he explores the role of powerful, visible but also invisible, networks of people throughout history. From the Illuminati, a secretive group that had around 2000 members and lasted less than a decade, to Facebook, which has 2 billion members and does not seem to be secretive at all.

One of the most important periods analyzed in the book is the Reformation. Ferguson argues that Reformation is an important period in terms of networks due to the technological (printing press), social and theological revolutions that occurred during that period.

A critical argument in the book is that the ways in which printing press led to a dramatic decline in the cost of books and a dramatic increase in the volume of books produced in the Reformation, are similar to what you get when you map the personal computers explosive growth in our time.  That is, Ferguson argues, two examples of network revolution commenced by new technologies.

Although Niall Ferguson, as it mentions in the introduction of the book, is a network person, he does not think that the world can be run on networks, the vision he has for a world run on networks is in fact, a nightmare vision.

“The lesson of history is that trusting in networks to run the world is a recipe for anarchy: at best, power ends up in the hands of the Illuminati, but more likely it ends up in the hands of Jacobins.”

Therefore, he concludes, in order to avoid chaos and anarchy, must be some kind of  hierarchy – a modern pentarchy of great powers in the form of U.N. Security Council, an “institution that retains the all-important ingredient of legitimacy,” and recognize the common interest in fighting climate change and resisting the spread of jihadism, criminality, and cyber vandalism.

But why not reforming the U.N. Security Council then? As  Hardeep Singh Puri, an eminent Indian diplomat, Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations from 2009 to 2013, has said, United Nations have an important role to play but needs to be more fit for purpose, on improvements in the organization’s management and finance, on preventive diplomacy and to concentrate more on reaching out to people.[2]

[1] Louise Matsakis, Supreme Court Rules Government Cannot Restrict Your Access to Social Media, June 19, 2017,

[2] Hardeep Singh Puri, Perilous Interventions: The Security Council and the Politics of Chaos

Escape from Kathmandu by Kim Stanley Robinson

Sometimes the best way to escape the chaos in your world is to slip into another. I don’t remember who said it but she was right.  A couple of evenings ago, I was looking for a good book to unwind, something witty, and Kim Stanley Robinson’ s Escape from Kathmandu, came to my mind. It was perfect.

I am, since I read the Mars trilogy,  I big fun of KSR. I have read most of his recent work and I am always looking for his older novels and short stories. So when a rainy afternoon, I saw on the shelf of a second hand bookstore, the Escape from Kathmandu, I took it and I went straight to the bookseller. In my excitement, I didn’t even ask for the price.

Kim Stanley Robinson is primarily known as a science fiction writer, but that category doesn’t fit all of his work. Escape from Kathmandu can best described as a surrealistic fantasy. It is a collection of four linked novelas, Escape from Kathmandu, Mother Goddess of the World, The True Nature of Shangri-La, and The Kingdom Underground, and  tells the story and the adventures of two Americans, George and Freds, who have fallen in love with the Himalayas. They both are now semi-permanent residents of Kathmandu and they work as tour guides for mountaineers and tourists.

As in almost all Robinson’s novels, the environment and the wilderness has a pervasive presence in all four stories. He looks at the impact and behaviour of people and how they relate to the physical world and he examines our intimate relationship with landscape, by shaping it and being shaped by it. In an effort to define what constitutes human nature, Robinson also touches on a lot of religious, buddhism in particular, and political issues, such a bureaucracy and corruption.

Escape from Kathmandu is surprisingly funny, comical at times, a bit didactic, and more relaxing than Robinson’s later stories. It is absolutely delightful.

Standing up to a Kingdom of Men

Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening by Manal al-Sharif

Imagine you are a woman in Saudi Arabia. Legally you are a minor, you must obtain a male guardian’s consent for even the most mundane activities, like opening a bank account or renting a house. Your father, husband, brother or son constitute a guardian. You cannot marry or divorce without the consent of your male guardian.

You cannot get a job or travel or even obtain a passport or an identification card with the consent of your guardian. If – for some reason – you are in prison, you cannot leave without the permission of your male guardian. Your guardian’s permission is required for certain medical – even life-threatening – treatments.

In addition, you cannot interact freely with men and you have to cover your body and hair when appearing in public. Α survey conducted by the Riyadh-based King Abdul Aziz Centre for National Dialogue, in 2014,  found that 86.5 per cent of the men polled believed that women are to blame for the rising cases involving molestation of females on the grounds they are seduced by women’s excessive make up (to clarify  – that means mascara and eyeliner).

And until now – for first time women will be allowed to obtain a driver’s license in June 2018-  you were not able to drive in Saudi Arabia.  You couldn’t drive to go to work, or pick up your children from the school, of visit family and friends.

Women in Saudi Arabia were fighting for years, to change that. One of these women is Manal al-Sharif. An evening, a few years back, Manal was on her way home from a doctor’s appointment.  The surgery was just 15 minutes drive from where she lived in Dhahran. She was alone, it was dark, and she was struggling to find a taxi. Men in cars, kept driving past jeering at, and harassing her. One man in a car followed her, until the terrified Manal threw a rock at his car. Then she burst into tears.

Manal had a driver’s licence, issued from the United Arab Emirates, she owned a car, she worked as an Information Security Consultant for Saudi Aramco. She was educated, respected by her colleagues, independent. But she wasn’t allowed to drive her own car .

“Once women can drive, all this evil will fall.”

That evening was the turning point for Manal. Enough was enough. She became an activist, an accidental activist. In 2011, she launched the Women2Drive campaign. She posted a video of herself driving, filmed by Wajeha Al-Huwaider a women’s rights activist and writer who repeatedly defied Saudi laws by posting on the internet, footage of herself driving. Manal was sent to prison.

The Rain Begins with a Single Drop

On Friday, June 17, 2011, about three dozen women drone in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Some drove for less than an hour around the streets of Riyadh, the capital. Others got behind the wheel in Jeddah ad Khobar and elsewhere. Many weren’t stopped, even when they passed police officers on the road. Those who were stopped were escorted home and sternly told not to drive again.

Daring to Drive reads like a thriller. It is a compelling and infuriating account of a woman’s life. It is about the magnitude of obstacles that women face in this kingdom of men; it is about their fight for dignity and freedom.  It also provides rare glimpses of life and especially the internal contradictions of a strict fundamentalist Islamic society.

The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District by James Rebanks

This is an unbelievably good book, and I still can’t explain why I took me so long to read it. It was sitting quietly on the bookself for sometime until I decided to pick it up and give it a chance. I am not that kind of reader that follows the bestselling books; I am, rather, a chronological reader, slowly and methodically, one by one, I am trying to  read my ever increasing pile of ‘to read’ books.

Back to The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District, James Rebanks, a Herdwick sheep farmer in Lake District, has written a wonderful tale. It is a book about the story of his family that dates back many generations. It is also a tale of the Lake District, a place well known to tourists and readers. A place that inspired William Wordsworth and John Ruskin. It is the place that Beatrix Potter, who fell in love with, and where she began to dream up her anthropomorphic woodland animals.  She had her own Herdwick flock and she played a major role in the conservation of this special breed.

I have been in Lake District a few times, hiking and walking around, even studying the geology of the place, but James Rebanks made me see the place differently. Lake District is not only the beautiful landscape, it is also the people who have lived there for centuries, isolated and poor but also proud and independent, building walls and shepherding, generation after generation. The world around changes but the shepherds in Lake District still follow the traditional way of farming with the sticks and the dogs. It is the only way if you want to farm in Lake District. It is a hard life but it also a free life.

James Rebanks shares his love about the place and his way of life with the world. It is a world that represents a pastoral ideal, a mental refuge perhaps, from our fast, technological world. It is a book about continuity and belonging in an age of migration and mobility.

Life and Times of Michael K. by JM Coetzee

“There is no home left for universal souls, except perhaps in Antarctica or on the high seas.”

I read J.M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K in one go. It has been a disturbing, beautiful and emotional experience. It has made a deep impression on me.

The story takes place in an unreal South Africa which is torn by civil war.  Michael K, a man deformed by a hare lip, a disfigurement which makes people look down on him, works as a gardener in the De Waal Park in Cape Town.  One day his mother, who is suffered from edema, calls him to collect her from the hospital. Moving with difficulty, she asks Michael to return her to the farmland of her girlhood, in Prince Albert.  Facing a real possibility of being made redundant, Michael quits his job and decides to made the trip, convincing himself that ”he had been brought into the world to look after his mother.”

After the death, on route to Prince Albert, of his mother, Michael decides to go anyway. He finds the farmland, or one that resembles his mother’s description. It is a desolate and abandoned land but he stays, and there in the veld, he spends his days sowing and tending a few pumpkin seed and a pair of watermelons.  One day the soldiers arrive and Michael is taken prisoner. He is transferred to a “rehabilitation” prison camp for deserted soldiers set up on a former race course in Cape Town. And then, one night, he disappears.

Life and Times of Michael K is an austere, marvellous and allegorical novel, strongly located in the specific South African context. It is deeply political; it exploits the ‘unreality’ of South African state for change.  There is a sense of meaningfulness throughout the book. At the same time, an irony, a search for freedom, fuelled by Michel’s desire to live in the moment and to be the lord of his own life, even if this cause him a lot of suffering. It is a visceral experience, instinctive, not rational, and therefore impossible for the others to understand.   All, but one. The doctor at the prison camp  develops a personal relationship with Michael, something he has never done before with an inmate, and slowly, as time passed, he began to see,

“…… the originality of the resistance you offered. You were not a hero ad did not pretend to be, not even a hero in fasting. In fact, you did not resist at all. When we told you to jump, you jumped. When we told you to jump again, you jumped gain. When we told you to jump a third time, however, you did not respond but collapsed in a heap; and we could see, even the most unwilling of us, that you had failed because you had exhausted your resources in obeying. So we picked you up, finding that you weighting no more than a sack of feathers, and set you down before food, and said: Eat, build your strength, so that you can exhaust you again, obeying us. And you don’t refuse. You tried sincerely, I believe to do as you were told. You acquiesced in your will, but your body baulked. Your body rejected the food we fed you and you grew thinner. Why? I asked myself: Why will this man not eat when he is plainly starving? Then I watched you, day after day, I began to understand the truth. That you were crying secretely unknown to your conscious self for a different kind of food, food that no camp can supply.”

The Life and Times of Michael K won the 1983 Booker Prize.

What would Orwell make of the world today?

What would Orwell make of the world today?  While I was reading Orwell: On Truth, this question was constantly on my mind.  If he were alive today, Orwell would be writing, about injustice, inequality, racism, fake news, and populism.

Today, Orwell is everywhere. In the digital propaganda of the Russian government, in the fake news and the ‘alternative facts’ of Trump’s White House, in Westminster politics. Sixty years after its publication, Nineteen Eighty-Four remains the greatest fictional demolition of totalitarianism, and even teenagers know that the Animal Farm is an allegorical fable where Orwell, through the pigs’ treatment of the other animals and the unfair privileges they give themselves, expose the issues of injustice, exploitation and inequality in human society.

‘The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those that speak it.’

George Orwell

Orwell: On Truth is a thought-provoking selection of George Orwell’s writing, from both his novels and non-fiction on the subject of truth.  It includes an introduction by Alan Johnson and passages from Burmese Days, The Road to Wigan Pier, Coming Up for Air, The Lion and the Unicorn, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four as well as extracts essays (for me Orwell’s best work) and his war-time diary.

George Orwell’s brilliance is depicted in every single page in this book. A radical writer who does matter today as much as ever. As Alan Johnson writes, Eric Blair died in 1950, George Orwell lives on.

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