Book Review: Cranky, Beautiful Faith by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Before I begin, it should be noted that this book has two titles. In the UK it was released under the title Cranky, Beautiful Faith but in the US it was released under the title Pastrix. I am not aware of any significant differences in the contents of the book, but just in case you’d read Pastrix and were thinking of getting this book, I believe they are the same. All I can say is that the American spelling mistakes were left in the edition I read, published by the Canterbury Press imprint of Hymns, Ancient & Modern.

So what’s it all about? This a personal testimony, a memoir of half a life. For those who’ve never come across Nadia before, she is the minister at House For All Sinners & Saints (HFASS) in Denver. Yet this hasn’t always been her occupation. We get a whistlestop tour of how she came to be a pastor, having been “the religious one” in a group of friends of junkies, drop-outs and alcoholics. When one of them died at a hideously young age, she took his funeral. From then on, she took it upon herself to become a pastor. Yet Bolz-Weber was never going to be conventional.

Her first thing to do was to get a tattoo of Mary Magdalene (readily visible on the front cover of the book). There never seems to have been much of a plan either. The book is told almost as a series of anecdotes. Yes, there is a story that emerges and yes, it’s roughly linear in time, but each chapter lives in its own little space, with slightly thin walls separating it from the next, so that you can faintly hear the shouting from the room you’ve just left as you enter the new one.

The style of writing is probably what will appeal to most people. It has the peculiar feeling of being both rough n’ ready as well as being thoroughly thought through. It is as though it has been carefully crafted to sound uncrafted. In this respect, it is like a less staccato, less annoying version of Rob Bell’s writings. At least Bolz-Weber manages to write in paragraphs!

Bolz-Weber often gets rather close to the bone. One of the incidents that stuck firmest in my memory was her recounting a time when she was conned by a pimp posing as a surivor of hurricane Katrina. This is just one example of a world which, to this British middle-class accountant, seems rather alien. Yet there is a familiarity to the kind of situations and characters described. They are just so much more exaggerated than one normally faces.

One of the things that shines through is her passion for the inclusion of the outsider. The church she established, HFASS, became known as welcoming those who… can we put it…..aren’t generally associated with church. Not because they shouldn’t be, but because churches have done a dastardly good job of shutting people out or demanding conformity. The question of inclusion of the LGBT community is possibly one of the most divisive issues in the Church today. In noting that it is needlessly so, I am in full agreement with Bolz-Weber.

Yet while Bolz-Weber may come across as wonderfully liberal and rather bucking against conformity, she stills holds to quite a conservative, pro-liturgy ecclesiology. Throughout the book, then, there’s this tension between the liberal and the conservative. Just when you think you’re agreeing with her, she drops something in there that makes you think “Really? I’m not sure about that.” An example of this would be that while the book is heavy on practical and thin on the academic side, one of the few theologians she speaks highly of is the late Marcus Borg (see here for why I find this a questionable stance).

Holding these contrasts together, there is something beautiful in Bolz-Weber’s testimony. Not everyone will share in her extremes, but there is a vein of great honesty that feeds her narrative and makes for compelling reading. I’ve already compared her to Rob Bell, but I know that he annoys many and that some may be put off by that. So let me add two more names whose voices I heard echoed or imitated here: Rachel Mann and Stanley Hauerwas. If you’ve read them and found them stimulating, then this is definitely a book that will interest you. If not, then I still recommend it to you as a work to make you smile, shake your fist, weep and think.

Book Review: The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek

Disclaimer: This is published under the Routledge Classics label, an imprint of Taylor & Francis, which is a wholly owned Division of the company that, at the time of reading and reviewing, I work for. I bought it at retail price and was not asked to review it by anyone I work with. As ever, I review it of my own volition and the opinions expressed here are wholly my own and should not be taken as indicative of the publisher or the parent company.

At the start of the year, I wrote a blog piece about books that would challenge my worldview. This was one I chose myself, rather than having it suggested to me by anyone else. Known as one of the fathers of neoliberalism, Hayek’s economics stand is stark contrast to my kind socialism. And I am a firm believer that one should, from time to time, read and engage with those who hold a vastly different opinions than you do.

Hayek’s opening premise is one that is a distinct product of his time. The Road to Serfdom was first published in 1944. As such, many of the horrors of fascist Germany were known to the world. An Austrian by birth, Hayek was living and working in England at the time. His opening assertion is that the rise of fascism was the natural outcome of socialism in Germany. He is here issuing a warning that England is in danger of following along the same path.

He speaks of socialism as having, as its essential feature, the idea of planning. i.e. that central government decides what needs to be done and then plans to do it. This view rather misses the point. He mistakes process for outcome. In order for the realisation of a socialist society (i.e. one where people are paid fairly, where none are left behind, where people are treated fairly instead of being exploited and where those who gain from the benefits of living in a civilised world pay their fair share of taxes) it is inevitable that some planning is necessary. But Hayek is too short-sighted and sees only the planning, not the goal. It like saying that the construction of a block of flats is all about cranes and heavy lifting. There is some truth in that, insofar as it is the means, but it omits from the narrative the idea that there will be homes where people will eventually live.

While it is absolutely right that any number of political/economic systems should come under scrutiny, there are further flaws in Hayek’s reasoning. Implicit in his writing that there are two possible systems: liberalism and socialism. He frequently puts capitalism into scare quotes, implying that there’s no such thing. This seems to be because he so keen to appropriate the positive connotations of the word ‘liberal’ that he wishes to push aside other, more accurate terms, in favour of a terminology that puts his own views in the most rosey light. In so doing he sets up the logical fallacy of a false dichotomy. He posits these two ideals and attempts to trash one, thus leaving only one left – Hayek’s neoliberalism. Yet this in itself is assumed by default. It is an early example of the ide of TINA (There Is No Alternative), yet the consequences of neoliberalism are not adequately explored in Hayek’s work. Like a mediocre chess player he considers possible moves, rules each one out in turn and opts for the one he has thought about the least, not examined with the same critical eye that he has applied to the others.

Hayek is, in effect, telling us a ghost story. It is the story of how evil has come to rise, and it is because of certain views that have been held in the past. Like John the baptiser, he calls us to repent of our socialist ways and make straight the way for free enterprise. But Hayek’s messiah is not Jesus, it is a certain kind of freedom. It is the freedom for any individual to do as they please. Here, he comes up with the ultimate statement of laissez-faire fundamentalism: “It is necessary in the first instance that the parties in the market should be free to sell and buy at any price at which they can find a partner to the transaction, and that anybody should be free to produce, sell, and buy anything that may be produced or sold at all.”

Wow, that sounds good doesn’t it? Yes. Until you think about it. If followed through, there is nothing here to prevent a manufacturer from making weapons of mass destruction and selling them to terrorist organisations or hostile governments, providing they pay the right fee. There’s nothing here to prevent the sale of narcotics to children, if they’ve got the cash on them and can negotiate a price amenable to all. There’s nothing here that protects the rights of workers, ensuring that they are given a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work or any legal protection as to whether they can rely on the ongoing nature of their employment.

Another underlying assumption that the kind of liberty Hayek is so desperate for exists and is readily attainable.

Here are just a few more quotes that demonstrate the paucity of Hayek’s thinking:

On individualism:

“…recognition of the individual as the ultimate judge of his ends, the belief that as far as possible his own views ought to govern his actions, that forms the essence of the individualist position.”

Here, Hayek shows his contempt for the rule of law. It’s no different in substance from the philosophy of Sheryl Crow (“If it make you happy, it can’t be that bad”).

On property & privilege:

“It would indeed be privilege if, for example, as has sometimes been the case in the past, landed property were reserved to members of the nobility. And it is privilege if, as is true in our time, the right to produce or sell particular things is reserved to particular people designated by authority. But to call private property as such, which all can acquire under the same rules, a privilege,  because only some succeed in acquiring it, is depriving the word privilege of its meaning.”

This misses the point by an almost unbelievable amount. We may have the same rules, but not all have the same means. Private property remains (and possibly more so than ever) the reserve the richest elite in the country. I’ve written before on the generational gap that those under the age of 34 will possibly never be able to own their own home.

Probably no part of the book turned my stomach as when Hayek came onto the subject of inequality. In it, he states that a person who loses their job out of sheer misfortune is bound to feel less hard done by than someone who has had their job taken away from because of the actions of the state. That may have some truth in it, but if we dig under the surface we find a level of denialism firstly that the state may be the provider of jobs and secondly that private enterprise is ever in any way at fault for causing people to become unemployed. It is merely attributed to market forces. Further, Hayek states a flat contradiction to a statement of Jesus that “the worker deserves his wages”. What Hayek proposes is that if a person, employed to do a job, does it, only for the end product to, for some reason or other, be rendered redundant, then the worker should not be paid. In other words, the worker should bear the cost of the labour, while his employer takes no financial hit. This is an idea that I find morally repugnant and should be shunned by any person who takes seriously the idea that workers should be treated with dignity and fairness.

Hayek acknowledges that his form of economic liberalism will inevitably result in ineqaulity. In effect, though, he says “[tough titty]” to this, as it is of little consequence compared to the dangers inherent in striving for a fairer society. For in Hayek’s view there is no such thing as moderation; any economic planning that is designed to curb the increase in, or reverse, inequality must be wholly totalitarian and therefore the temptation to go down this route must be resisted. In effect, Hayek holds the liberty of the individual to do act as they want is the highest, most sacrosanct of all things, and that inequality is a justifiable expense of maintaining this freedom, even if it is the freedom of the individual to economically oppress another.

In a chapter entitled ‘The End of Truth’, Hayek puts forward the idea of the power within narratives and that such narratives may be constructed as a post hoc rationalisation for the prejudices which one holds. In this, he is quite correct and I understand the theme was later picked up by the philosopher Mary Midgely in The Myths We Live By. For example, he states, “The need to rationalise the likes and dislikes which, for lack of anything else, must guide the planner in many of his decisions, and the necessity of stating his reasons in a form in which they will appeal to as many people as possible, will force him to construct theories, i.e. assertions about the connections between facts, which then become an integral part of the governing doctrine.”

Hayek is here speaking of the speck in the eye of his opponents. But the log is own eye is just around the corner. It is somewhat apt that immediately following ‘The End of Truth’ we catch Hayek doing exactly what he has just warned about. For he rationalises his dislike of socialists by stating, in ways that are designed to appeal to many, a theory that socialism is at the heart of Nazism. This is indeed the heart of Hayek’s doctrine. In so doing, he makes the foolish mistake that many on the right still make, by supposing that because the German regime was called National Socialism, that that is demonstrative of what socialism is. Such thinking would also lead one to look to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a model of democracy. It is sheer idiocy.

As he tries to make his case, one will note some absurd statements. For example:

“”The ideas of 1789″ – Liberty, Equality Fraternity – are characteristically commercial ideals which have no other purpose but to secure certain advantages to individuals.”

This displays a crass ignorance of the French Revolution. Equality is one of the things that Hayek denounces over and over in this work. As for fraternity, that is by no means a bad thing, but it is the very opposite of the individualism which is the hallmark of the society Hayek wishes to build. It should be plain by now to the reader that Hayek’s view of liberty is a rather warped one indeed; a kind of liberty where one individual or corporation should not be prohibited from economically oppressing another individual, a community or even a democracy.

“To regard war as inhuman and senseless is a product of commercial views.”

Frankly, this bullshit. To regard war as inhuman and senseless is a product of humanity and sense. Loss of life is far more important than loss of profit, but Hayek seems not to have grasped this.

In what passes for analysis, such non-sequiters are not in isolation. Though it is interesting to note what Hayek doesn’t say as what he does. In his account of the rise of Nazism, the figure of Hitler is barely mentioned. Neither are the crippling war reparations that were imposed on Germany after the first world war. Nor is there any sign of the great depression. These are all vital factors that any reasonable person would need to consider amongst the many circumstances of history, culture and geography that saw the rise of the Third Reich. So why might Hayek have missed them out? It seems that he has already found his scapegoat: socialists. Those democratically minded lovers of justice and equality must have been the cause of the the totalitarian, evil regime, convinced of its own superiority over other races that the 20th century ever witnessed.

These are but only a glimpse of the flaws in Hayek’s thinking.

So what became of his fears? Ultimately, Hayek was proved to be wrong. His warnings weren’t heeded and Labour ended up leading a socialist government after the end of the second world war, just a couple of years after Hayek wrote his thesis. Did this result in the inevitable slide into totalitarianism? No. It resulted in the most progressive government this country saw in the 20th century. It kick-started the rebuilding of the country, established the welfare state and the National Health Service, under the leadership of Clement Attlee and with the vision of Nye Bevan. It wasn’t really until the 1980s, under Thatcher, that we really saw the outplay of Hayek’s philosophy, though usually through the lens of Friedman. Mass privatisation and deregulation of the markets sowed the seeds for the 2008 crash, the biggest economic failure since Hayek’s time, which came about not because of socialist planning, but because of the neoliberal lack of good governance and oversight that is dismissed as “big government”.

So read Hayek, not because he speaks a warning from history, but because he is a warning from history. Sadly, it is a history that is still being played out today.

Prayer on the silver screen

Photo by Leland Francisco - used under CC license

Photo by Leland Francisco – used under CC license

Yesterday morning, one of the top news stories on the BBC was that an advert featuring the Lord’s prayer had been banned by a number of cinemas. It seems to have had something of a Streisand effect by getting a lot more people talking about it than otherwise might have done so had the advert been shown without any fuss over banning it.

It’s raised a number of issues, some of which are less interesting than others. Let’s get those out of the way first.

Firstly, it’s not that the Lord’s prayer has been banned; it was an advert that portrayed the Lord’s prayer. In spite of having it passed several hurdles it did contravene some rules about political and religious advertising that were brought in earlier this year, after the plan for the advert was first mooted, but before the final ruling made recently. So it’s a bit of a muddy timeline, but the ban was in line with current advertising rules.

Secondly, it’s not really an attack on christianity. I’m a secularist as far as I agree with the idea that no religion (or lack thereof) should be privileged above any other, but I stop short of agreeing with campaigns that seek to marginalise religious voices by excluding them from the public square.

So what is interesting about it?

Well, for starters, it’s the means through which the message was being made: advertising. It’s the hallmark of a consumerist society, which, the last time I checked, christianity wasn’t all about. In the early church, the public forums were just that: forums. They were places that people went to discuss the issues of the day. And where did the evangelists go to declare their message? The forums. They used what was around them to get their message across in ways that tapped into the public consciousness. Paul’s use of the statue to the “unknown god” is a great example of this.

Whilst watching The Big Questions yesterday morning, one of the objections raised to this was that it reduced christianity to the same level as other things for which cinema advertising is used for; namely, sugary snacks. The fear was that christianity was then to become a commodity. It’s a risk, certainly, but one that isn’t inevitable if the Church uses modern means of advertising to gets its message across.

Thinking it through, I quite like the idea of advertising as a part of Church strategy. This is my thought process: We cannot argue people into coming into the Church (and by Church, I mean the body of people as a whole, not a building or any particular institution). Apologetics has its place, but I am highly sceptical about its effectiveness as a tool of evangelism. That place is as a means of countering bad arguments, both for and against christianity, and of clearing up misconceptions about christianity. The difficulty comes when there is disagreement about what one means by “christianity” and results in a lot of apologetics going down wildly misleading paths.

Instead, evangelism is far more gentle and appealing when it comes in the form of invitation. “Taste and see that the Lord is good” not “Here, let me force-feed you some doctrine, it’s good for you”. If we stretch the analogy a bit further, if people are to taste and see that the Lord is good, then the Church needs some good cooks. Yet people do have different tastes. This is why the variety of emphases across different denominations is a good thing, not necessarily a sign of division. See here for a recent take on this.

Another interesting aspect is the idea of the Lord’s prayer. Did you know there isn’t one? There are a few; and I’m not talking about translations. Read the gospels. It never appears in the gospels according to Mark or John. Luke has a short version and Matthew a longer version. Even then, if your bible has some decent footnotes, it will have references to “other ancient authorities” including other bits that aren’t in the main text.

Yet these biblical versions remain relatively unknown. Why is that? Because the version that is heard most often only goes back as far as the 17th century. It was an amalgamation of the two (including the added bits in the footnotes) and was published in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). This, then, is seen as (even if it not often declared to be) the “definitive” or “complete” version.

Here’s an anecdote to illustrate.

A few years ago, the finance team I was a part of had a corporate training day. Part of this was about memorisation and a point was made that we all can memorise things, even if we think we can’t. To show this, we were asked to recite the Lord’s prayer. And everyone in the room recited, word perfect, the BCP version. As far I know, only myself and one other person were practicing christians. To everyone else, was a little chant that had become incorporated into the cultural psyche.

As an aside, it often strikes me as odd that this is often chanted en masse, which rather rips it from the context of Matthew where immediately beforehand Jesus said “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypcrites ; for they love to stand pray in the synagogues…But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” If you ever struggle to understand why I abhor liturgy, this is probably the most concise summary explaining why.

Back to the point. What this corporate training day showed to me was the danger of dilution. If something becomes commonplace, it’s impact can be lessened because it is seen as an everyday thing. One of the reactions I read was from a vicarbot (@AJWtheology) on Twitter who posed this:

The question is not, “How could anyone find The Lord’s Prayer offensive?” The question is, “How could anyone not?”

There are many commentaries on the Lord’s prayer and I won’t add to them here. For a nonconformist perspective, I’d recommend Roger Forster’s book on the subject (disclaimer: Roger & I are part of the same local congregation). I would just bring out the term, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. That is one of the most revolutionary calls ever made in human history. If, instead of monotonously chanting it, we took it to heart and made that a heartfelt plea, then christians would be seen not as a harmless anachronism in the modern world, but as a subversive movement. It’s not one that sets out to destroy the world and replace it with a new ideology, it’s a movement that we invite you to try out.

Book Review: Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil

Disclaimer: This book is published by Taylor & Francis, a subsidiary of the company that I work for. I bought this book of my own volition and was not asked by anyone at work to review it. As ever, I write and publish these reviews purely on my own accord.

Simone Weil is a writer whose name I have heard a few times, but never really knew anything about her. Part-way between a philosopher and a mystic, she is an intriguing prospect. Jewish by birth, but choosing to be a christian, with activism amongst some on the radical left, this melting pot of cultures and thought seemed almost bound to result in fresh expressions of thought, of belief and highlighting aspects of life in ways alien to many, offputting to some and captivating to others.

It needs to be noted, as is made clear in the extensive introduction by her friend and confidante, Gustave Thibon, that this is not a book she set out to write. Rather, it was put together by Thibon from notes that she left him before she died. This is then the collection of those notes, ordered by approximate them.

The introduction gives an insightful background into Weil’s personality and her politics. It is very valuable, though does drag on a bit. The only word of caution I would give is that Thibon was a catholic, and as such he is rather muddled in his thinking and frequently conflates catholicism with christianity. This isn’t always the case, though. He does state that Weil wasn’t a catholic, though when I mentioned to a friend that I was reading this work, my friend was adamant that she was; just one who refused to take the sacraments. In a few references, her take is rather ambiguous and I would conclude that she certainly wasn’t catholic but neither did she fit into any recognisable stream of christianity. If anything, she might be regarded as a supreme non-conformist!

The idea behind the title begins with gravity. What Weil does is to adopt a well-known concept from physics (natural philosophy) and turn into a metaphysical analogy, even if it is more akin to entropy what she describes. The idea is that “nature” tends to descend, to fall to a lowest state. This is what she calls gravity. In this sense, low is regarded as being degenerate. My thought was that she was driving at the state of sin, though I don’t think this was mentioned quite so explicitly. The opposite of this is grace, which is something that defies this descent into entropy, a kind of anti-gravity.

The aphoristic nature of the book does make it somewhat to review, as there is no central idea being put forward and one paragraph may be nearly wholly unrelated to the one that either precedes or follows it. Some of the aphorisms are relatively straightforward and uncontroversial; others are verging on the incomprehensible. Unfortunately, this tendency increased as the book went on and I found it harder to take her seriously. At times, it was like looking down a bad Twitter feed where someone, puffed up with self-confidence, is pumping out material they think it deep, but which is just nonsense.

It made me think of a term used by the atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett: deepity. There are some incredibly mundane and nonsensical things said here, but which have a thin veneer of thought on them. If one wants to believe that Weil says something profound, then you can fool yourself into thinking that she does, when in fact there are times when there is simply no substance to her writing. In contradistinction to Dennett, however, I would be willing to give Weil the benefit of some doubt and say that she was merely a poor communicator. But then, as this is a book review, it means I can’t recommend the book. There are good things said here, but they are too few and far between.

It’s not a book that will linger long with me and I won’t be rushing to read any more of her work.

A lack of concern for the dead

Recent events in the world have prompted a lot of questions. Many of those I’ve asked myself have been asked by others and many words have spilled in trying to answer them. One question doesn’t seem to have been asked, though. This is what troubles me:

Do we really care about who dies, or are we only concerned with how and how many?

When news started to come from Paris last Friday night, the reports were of multiple gunmen killing around 30 people. Next came word of a hostage situation at the Bataclan. It was worrying, it was important; that much I knew. But it wasn’t something I could do anything about. I could pray, I could wail, but I couldn’t lift a finger to prevent the deaths from happening. So I went to bed.

It was only  as I awoke the next morning that the full scale of the horror emerged.

Then came the comments and the comebacks. Why focus on Paris when Beirut had been bombed not long before, while that was largely ignored? What about the deaths in Brazil from the burst dam? It got me thinking.

To the best of my understanding, the number of people who die every day is somewhere around the 100,000 mark. For the overwhelming majority, we never hear how they died, nor is it reported as a daily tragedy that the equivalent of the population of a large market town died of old age whilst we were asleep.

Yet when a plane is blown up over the Egyptian desert or people get shot in the street, we sit up and pay attention. Partly, it’s because that’s the intent. Terrorism is meant to be noticed. But what’s disturbed me is thinking through the question of why. The media inevitably plays its part. We notice what newspaper and television editors want us to notice. In the age of social media, there is an additional pipeline into our heads, though there remains a deep suspicion about anything reported on social media not confirmed by a mainstream news outlet (conversely, there can also be suspicions of censorship if something seems to have enough traction on social media to be credible, yet it is seemingly ignored by the mainstream media).

But to simply say, “it’s all because of the media” is rather simplistic. Like it or not, we live in a consumerist society, and the media are providers of information that we want to consume; and they tailor their output in accordance with what they think we want. There’s something of a feedback loop going on, though I’m not here interested in who started it and how. I merely note that it exists.

When watching the news break on Friday night, the key piece of information that the broadcasters wanted to keep updating was the number of people killed. There seems to be something instinctive that says “[the number of people killed should be proportional to the amount of outrage I feel]”. It feels like a natural response. Yet when I think about it, in particular its converse, it makes less and less sense. If a report says that 50 people were killed in an act of violence, should our outrage be ameliorated if we later find out it was “only” 30?

Of course, it’s possible that I am guilty of projecting here, in which case this is something of a confessional as to the sickness of my mind and my morals. It certainly won’t be true of everyone, so please don’t be too offended if this doesn’t apply to you. I have a suspicion that this view may not be alien to everyone.

If there is any discriminating factor between those many deaths we don’t care about and those few that we do it is justice. If someone aged 25 is gunned down in a cafe on a Friday night, they are the victim of a violent and horrific crime. If someone aged 90 stops breathing in a hospital bed after years of heart disease, then the impact of their death on the world causes far less of a ripple; although it is, of course, felt by their family and friends.

Violence, such as that instigated by Daish (or call them what you will) is obvious to many as injustice on a large scale. But what about more small scale injustices? Are we angry about the children who die from diseases contracted as a result of drinking dirty water? Many are, but I suspect probably fewer than are outraged by Daish. Is that even an injustice, or just a fact of life?

Thinking through these questions of ethics, in particular those where there is an idea of boundaries, lines in the sand, is a troubling exercise. In the meantime, all I can try to be is a person of peace, living in a violent world that I don’t understand. When acts of hatred and violence are perpetrated against us, I try to hold on to these two pieces that I’ve written which, when holding up Daish/IS/ISIL in the place of the antagonist, it makes me all the more appreciate the depth of the cross:

Why I love EDL

Why I refuse to love my enemies

Book Review: Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit

Readers of this blog with a good memory will recall this I picked this up at a bookshop around Crystal Palace/Gipsy Hill back in February after having walked some way to get there. During some of the summer following I continued to walk some of the South Downs Way and began on the North Downs Way. So I decided to read Solnit’s work, which I understood to be a collection of essays, on the subject of walking. Indeed, the book carries the subtitle ‘A History of Walking’. In a few other works I’ve picked up on the subject, Solnit is constantly referred to.

I must note that the editors put in a lovely touch. The book is printed in fairly small print, so the reader is forced to take their time, almost squinting at the page, in order to read. This slows the reader and evokes the slowing to a walking pace from the rush of everyday life. At the bottom of every page there is a quote in some way related to walking. But they are not restricted to a single page, some run over for a few pages, as they only include one per page, in what looks like an old fashioned share price ticker. So as you read the text, underneath it is a steady stream of words of beauty that evoke the feeling of walking by a river, with the words flowing like the water.

What of the content of the book?

Solnit’s work covers a huge range of subjects, which one might not expect for a book about walking, but it is a fascinating and enlightening work, written with prose of the highest calibre. She covers the romantic poets (in particular Wordsworth), the peripatetic philosophers, urbanisation, the flaneurs (check spelling) of Paris, walking as a leisure activity, as an act of protest (e.g. through Reclaim The Streets), an act of pilgrimage, as art and a whole host of other things. It is so wide-ranging, it’s quite staggering that one person could so confidently and adroitly write with such wit and grace on these, intertwined with her own reflections on some personal encounters while walking in the western United States.

This may all sound rather gushing, as though I had lost all my critical senses, but let me assure that such high praise is well deserved. From page to page, one has (in the proper sense of the word) an apocalypse, an unveiling of a world we may have been faintly aware was there, but which is revealed to us now in splendid glory. I thought I liked walking and am generally regarded as “a walker” but I can see that I have had such a narrow definition that it seems hardly anyone can be. My walking is restricted to a little urban travel when I have the time, some long distance paths in sunny weather and the occasional protest.

In reading through the book, there are some paths we wander down several times. The one most frequently trod is the one marked ‘social history’, but there are other than are near parallel such as ‘politics’ and ‘culture’, while at times we may go off in other directions entirely. Yet with this range of topics, there is a risk that the book could lack cohesion, but it doesn’t. It all hangs together as one. Given the small print, and the fact that it runs for some 300 pages, it’s not a thin book to read over the course of a weekend. It is a book to be savoured.

I probably ought to add that from the time I started to the time I finished, I covered about 55 miles (a little over half) of the North Downs Way. Since starting the book, I’ve taken to collecting a few more volumes of walking literature, as Wanderlust has given me a real taste for the genre. In particular, I look forward to The Old Ways and A Philosophy of Walking.

Book Review: Neither Here Nor There by Miriam Drori

This was one of the books that was recommended to me at the start of the year as one to challenge my view. It does seem, though, that it was merely a recommendation from a friend of the author who was just trying to boost sales by 1. But I got it anyway.

Neither Here Nor There is a debut novel from Drori.

The story centres on Etsy. We meet her shortly after she has made a major life decision; she has left a community of ultra-orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, known as the Haredi. Her dream is to “become secular”. The book’s title can then be understood as saying that Etsy has left one life, but has not yet integrated into a new one. She is an in between space, neither here nor there.

The impetus for the plot is provided by Mark, who is the first person she happens to meet. What evolves is the love story between them, though it did come across as a bit rushed and contrived. There was no reason given for their attraction; it was little more than “love at first sight”.

One of the things I couldn’t get past as I read was that Drori was very keen on getting the reader to understand the emotional side of the characters. Quite often, though, this was told to us in a quite forthright manner, rather than being shown to us. So the characterisation ends up a little flat, with no mystery at all. The whole person is laid out on the page for the reader to see. But this happens for both Etsy and Mark. So while we might used to be reading a book from one character’s perspective, what Drori does is try to show us both main characters at the same time.

The other problem I had with the book was the lack of a sense of place. So much has been invested in the emotional feel of the book, that Jerusalem fades into the background. With a few exceptions, the story could take place almost anywhere. I wanted to be able to get a sense of the ground underneath my feet, the heat of the atmosphere, the smells of the city, but it was all just a bit thin. It was almost as though the intention had been to write a play rather than a novel, given how dialogue-driven the whole book was.

The progression of the plot has a very familiar feel to it. Anyone who has encountered Romeo and Juliet knows the idea of the love between two people from different, but intersecting worlds. What we get here then is the walking down of a well-trodden path, almost to the point of cliché. It’s not a bad book, especially considering it is a first novel, but it’s not one that I feel rushed to recommend to people as (to compare to another debut novel) I did with The Night Circus. If Drori writes a second novel, I wouldn’t be disinclined to read it, but I would be hoping for something with a little more substance to it, where the reader gets to smell the atmosphere and has to work a little to get to know the characters and their motivations.