I’ve been reading

Most recently:

The End of Trauma – George A Bonanno (2021)

An insightful review of the concepts of trauma, PTSD and resilience leads into a well-evidenced, practical coping strategy to use in response to traumatic experiences.

Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich –  Normal Ohler (2016)

Fascinating and detailed history of the key role played by narcotics in the Weimar Republic and in the success and failure of military action.

Putin’s People  – Catherine Belton (2020)

Well-documented story of Putin’s unexpected rise from a KGB agent working in Germany, to the corner he has painted himself into.  And Western naivety and incompetence.

Surviving Katyn: Stalin’s Polish massacre and the search for truth –  Jane Rogoyska (2021)

Compelling account of the events leading up to the massacre, and what followed.  Impressed by the author’s ability to shift between levels of analysis – from the importance of the exact words used by Beria, or the precise date of an event, to the massive consequences of manipulating facts for political ends.  Poland has had a rough deal for centuries.

Brideshead Revisited –  Evelyn Waugh (1945)

Glad I read this later in life because I have a better understanding of history and how we change with age and experience.  For me, the book is  about how people in a range of situations get by –  or don’t.

Chums: How a tiny caste of Tories took over the UK –  Simon Kuper (2022)

Insightful analysis of the impact of Oxford University (and particularly the Oxford Union) on British government.  Explains everything really.

Villette – Charlotte Bronte (1853)

Quasi-autobiographical account of the life and loves of Lucy Snowe.  I wish I’d read this as a teenager –  it might have spared me similar agonies of self-doubt.  Some of the best descriptions of mental anguish I’ve ever read.  Also acutely observant and witty.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke (2004)

Brilliant tale of magic, politics and intrigue set in the early 19thc, by a consummate storyteller.  Over 1000 pages, but so well-paced I didn’t notice. Reminiscent of Eleanor Farjeon’s lyrical writing.

Unholy: Why white evangelicals worship at the altar of Donald Trump – Sarah Posner (2020)

Traces the development of evangelicals’ support for Trump from the reaction to the civil rights movement onwards.  A useful resource, but I lost track of who was who.

McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime  –  Misha Glenny (2008)

Misha Glenny was the BBC correspondent for the Balkans, which gave him a head start in understanding the political, economic and social ramifications of the wave of international organised crime that followed in the wake of the collapse of the USSR and globalisation.  Detailed analysis based on 300 interviews.  Fascinating, but felt overwhelmed by the scale of it all.

Conference at Cold Comfort Farm –  Stella Gibbons (1949)

Not as accessible as the first book –  lots of modernist jokes –  but the descriptions of the picnic and the end of conference party are acutely observed and could be contemporary.

Cold Comfort Farm –  Stella Gibbons (1932)

Re-reading.  Funnier than ever.

Piranesi –  Susanna Clarke (2021)

Magical.  Superb weaving of mythologies into an intriguing tale.  One of the best novels I’ve read in years.

Overloaded: How Every Aspect of Your Life is Influenced by Your Brain Chemicals –  Ginny Smith (2021)

Useful and accessible round-up of research into the role of neurotransmitters.  Shame about the editing – more sections and more use of bold type would have made it clearer.  I had to read through twice to summarise and make sense of it.  Also full of irritating, culturally narrow, asides.

Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory in Action –  Oliver Lovell (2021)

The author has an inquiring and critical mind and I was wondering how he would approach a theory that makes some rather contentious claims. The answer is –  brilliantly.  The rest of the book is one of the best practical guides for teachers I’ve ever read.

The Lion and the Unicorn  –  George Orwell (1941)

Orwell’s take on English culture, society and politics in the early part of WW2.  Fascinating insight into how the world looked to the English at the time.

The Inflamed Mind –  Ed Bullmore (2019)

Intriguing, and convincing, theory that much ‘mental’ illness is caused by inflammation.  Plenty of evidence cited, and some very accessible explanations about physiology.

Martin Chuzzlewit –  Charles Dickens (1842)

Saga of two Martin Chuzzlewits (grandfather & grandson) and their awful relatives.  Written for people who read as a pastime, but still made me laugh aloud in places.  Dickens scathing about US culture.

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century 1978, 2017)

Filled in many gaps in my historical knowledge.  Compelling read, and very timely analysis.

Participation Ideology –  Peter Beresford (2021)

Fascinating account of how ideology and power structures impact on democracy and public participation in civil institutions.  Lots of practical ideas for community groups.

The Rise in the Meritocracy  – Michael Young (1958, 1994)

Read this because it’s been cited so often recently.  Found it perplexing; a satirical sociological treatise published in 1958, as if written in 2034. Some interesting observations about education and social mobility. Probably seen as witty and entertaining in 1958, not so much now.

Budgetary Control –  James McKinsey (1922)

American corporations grew rapidly in the late 19th/early 20th century, so not surprisingly many weren’t that well managed.  McKinsey sets out in detail a method of controlling budgets.  He makes it clear he’s well aware of the dangers of making the budget paramount, rather than operations.  What he’d make of the company named after him, we’ll never know.

Leviathan –  Thomas Hobbes (1651)

Hobbes’ take on what government should look like; in short, that kings are appointed by God.  He appears to take an evidence-based approach, but makes the implicit assumption that his religious views are the right ones, leading him to overlook evidence that contradicts his model.   Blogged about this here.

Letters of the Queens of England – Anne Crawford (ed) 2002

From Matilda, Queen of Henry I, through to Katherine Parr.  The introductions to the letters are the most informative part of the book, giving insights into social and economic factors driving the actions of the monarchs.

The Untouchables –  Eliot Ness with Oscar Fraley (1957)

These days, corruption is rife and is difficult to eradicate.  So how did Eliot Ness and his team get Al Capone convicted, and all but eliminate endemic police corruption?  This is a riveting tale rather than an in-depth analysis, but Ness’s effective strategy comes through clearly.

Superforecasting:  The Art and Science of Prediction – Philip Tetlock & Dan Gardner (2016)

Excellent, detailed account of findings from the Good Judgement Project.  Significant implications for individuals and policy making.  On Dominic Cummings’ reading list.  Hope he understood it properly.

The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs Private Sector Myths – Mariana Mazzucato (2013)

Explains importance of state taking on R&D risks that private companies can’t or won’t.  Shows how Apple was successful because it put together products that emerged from state-funded research, but state (ie the people) hasn’t reaped rewards.

Good Economics for Hard Times:  Better Answers to Our Biggest Problems – Bannerjee & Duflo (2019)

Exploration of the economic and (importantly) non-economic factors that impact on human wellbeing, and the relationship between the developed and developing world.

A Long Goodbye to Bismarck? The Politics of Welfare Reform In Continental Europe – Bruno Palier (ed.) (2010)

I was hoping this would tell me more about Bismarck’s welfare system.  It didn’t but it’s an informative comparison of welfare systems, mainly since the 1970s.

The Pelopponesian Wars –  Thucydides (~400BC)

Account of wars between Athens and Sparta.  Thucydides, an Athenian commander exiled in Sparta, pioneered an objective, historical style.  He also managed to make it engaging, analytical and colourful.  Parallels with current political landscape are inescapable.

The Expense of Glory:  A Life of John Reith  –  Ian McIntyre  (1994)

Re-reading this insightful, detailed account of Lord Reith’s life and work.   Reith thrived on challenging projects, but could behave like a petulant child if the project wasn’t to his liking.  He found it hard to follow being the first director general of the BBC.

The Origins of the Authoritarian Welfare State in Prussia:  Conservatives, Bureaucracy, and the Social Question – Hermann Beck (1995)

Detailed account of narratives behind Prussian bureaucracy and constitutional debates in the 19th century.  Very relevant to current situation in UK.  Doesn’t go into detail about the development of the welfare state.

Christian Reconstruction: RJ Rushdoony and American religious conservatism –  Michael J McVicar (2015)

Prompted by reading Nelson’s book. When Reagan endorsed the work of the 17,0000 strong Religious Round Table conference in Dallas in 1980, Robert Billings, a founder of the Moral Majority, commented “If it weren’t for [Rushdoony’s] books, none of us would be here.”  Huge influence, but few have heard of him.

Shadow Network –  Anne Nelson (2019)

Author traces rise of radical Right in US, from the reaction to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s to Trump’s presidency.  Shows the confluence of religious and political influences that have succeeded in changing not just who rules, but the rules (James Buchanan).  Highlights influence of Koch brothers and Prince & De Vos families.

Old Baggage –  Lissa Evans (2018)

I’ve lost count of how many modern novels I’ve abandoned after the first few chapters, but I loved this one.  A story of what happened to suffragettes after women got the vote, it’s well-crafted, well-researched, funny, populated by utterly believable characters,  and perceptive at every level from the mundane through the political to the ethical.  Very relevant to challenges we’re facing 100 years on.

The Patient Revolution: How we can heal the healthcare system –  David Gilbert (2019)

The introduction to this book is one of the most insightful, perceptive and moving accounts of why patients need to be actively involved in all levels of healthcare.  What follows is a series of vignettes of patients who have done just that.  What’s missing is a systematic analysis of how they healed the healthcare system.

The Fifth Discipline –  Peter M Senge (1990)

Re-read because cited by Seddon (see below).  Senge’s 5th discipline is metanoia –  thinking about thinking.  He’s a systems thinker, but I felt the key points were obscured rather because he’s writing for managers, and so has to link to contemporary managerial thinking.

Systems Thinking for Curious Managers –  Russell L Ackoff with Herbert J Addison & Andrew Carey (2010)

More of Ackoff’s f-Laws; pithy observations about systems thinking – or the lack of it.  Has a tendency to see systems thinking from the perspective of people who already understand it.  All too easy for people who don’t, to miss the point.

Beyond Command and Control –  John Seddon et al (2019)

Seddon is a better speaker than writer in my view, but he does manage to summarise the massive problems caused by the ‘command and control’ approach first advocated by James McKinsey in the 1920s.  Seddon also has solutions.

The Limits to Growth  –  Meadows, Meadows, Randers & Behrens (1972)

First read this soon after publication, when everyone was talking about sustainability and limiting population growth.  Then Thatcher & Reagan came along and the narrative changed completely.  I’d forgotten how succinct this report is; lots of graphs modelling future scenarios. 40 years ago, the changes were urgent. Now we’re in the ‘overshoot’ phase.  Buckle up.

The State We Need –  Michael Meacher (2013)

I read this when it was first published, but felt a re-read was timely.  Michael Meacher, a long-serving Labour MP, died in 2015: a real loss, given his knowledge of economics and social policy.  An accessible book, but a steep learning curve for me because it’s so information-rich.  The author assesses the causes leading to current socio-economic problems, and proposes solutions.  These include ending austerity, tackling the deficit and household debt, reviving manufacturing, getting the finance industry under control, and developing a sustainable green economy.

The Constitution of Liberty –  FA Hayek (1960)

I’ve had quite a bit of interaction with libertarians who often reference Hayek.  The section on freedom and the law is masterful –  a careful analysis of liberty and limiting arbitrary control.  Otherwise, I get the impression Hayek has never met anyone who’s been overwhelmed by life events or who’s got caught in the poverty trap, so I found the other sections, on the value of freedom and freedom and the welfare state, frustrating and disappointing.

Thinking in Systems –  Donella Meadows (2008)

Donella Meadows was one of the contributors to The Limits of Growth (1972).  She was working on the content of Thinking in Systems when she died.  It’s essentially a systems theory handbook  –  an accessible guide to systems characteristics and how they play out in economic and political systems.

The Shaping of Us:  How everyday spaces structure our lives  –  Lily Bernheimer (2017)

Fascinating review of how our physical environment shapes our behaviour.  Found it very informative in respect of geography and architecture, but a bit speculative when it came to cognition and history.  Some great ideas for people-centred housing design.

The Undoing Project –  Michael Lewis (2017)

The lives of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, whose work transformed our understanding of human rationality, judgement and decision-making.  Found the early biographical accounts a bit clunky; the rest of the book is compelling.

Doing Harm –  Maya Dusenbery (2018)

Alarming analysis of how health research is focussed on males and how female health issues are marginalised in medicine.

The End of Poverty  –  Jeffrey Sachs (2005)

Initially I thought Sachs was naively optimistic.  But his explanation is explicit about the root causes of poverty.  The eradication of poverty is now completely feasible –  which hasn’t always been the case.  Now human nature is the major obstacle.

Kursk: The Greatest Battle Eastern Front 1943  –  Lloyd Clark (2011)

Caught my eye when on my way to the fiction section of the local library.  My knowledge of WW2 is improving, but I knew little about the German invasion of the USSR and how it was repelled.  This is a detailed account of the battle of Kursk in the summer of 1953.  I found the strategy and tactics a bit difficult to follow, but the first-hand accounts were very moving.

San Miguel –  TC Boyle (2012)

Author’s observational skills are brilliant.  And he doesn’t pull his punches about life on this remote island off the Californian coast.  Things could get pretty bleak.

The Pigeon Tunnel –  John Le Carre (2016)

A series of vignettes from Le Carre’s colourful life.  Funny, insightful, poignant and so well crafted.

The Terranauts –  TC Boyle (2016)

Teams are selected to live in a sealed, self-sustaining ecosphere for two years. Written from the perspective of three participants in the project. Great idea for a plot, and Boyle’s characters are well-observed, but as one reviewer noted, they don’t develop.  Group dynamic and impact of environment could have been explored in more depth.  Instead, it felt at times like a high school diary.

The Harder They Come –  TC Boyle (2015)

Traces strands of the American Dream from their origins (embodied in the adventures of John Colter, a trapper who joined the Lewis & Clark expedition) through to its present day manifestations in military veterans and libertarians.  Well-written, fast-paced page-turner.  I learned stuff as well.

Language at the Speed of Sight: How we read, why so many can’t, and what can be done about it – Mark Seidenberg (2017)

Couldn’t help comparing this book (unfavourably) with Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain.  Both authors are cognitive neuroscientists, both books have similar content, are at the same technical level, and are the same length.  But Dehaene’s is a step-by-step guide to how reading happens, and Seidenberg’s is more about his views on the reading process.  I also felt he makes some unsupported assumptions about the US education system.  Interestingly, Dehaene draws conclusions about how best to help children learn to read, but despite his subtitle being about people who can’t read, Seidenberg doesn’t have as much to say about that as I hoped.

Golden Hill –  Francis Spufford (2016)

Intrigued by the idea of a novel set in 18th century New York, I gave up a third of the way through.  Found the historical detail interesting, but the narrative couldn’t decide whether it was 18thc or 21st. The moral stance was squarely from the 21st too.  Unconvincing.

A Treatise of Human Nature  –  David Hume (1740/1985)

Found this hard going, for three reasons.   I don’t have a background in philosophy, I don’t read much 18th century English, and Hume was addressing contemporary challenges many of which are now much better understood.  But did give me an overview of the contemporary challenges and of Hume’s thought.

Sartre: A Graphic Guide –  Philip Thody & Howard Read (2013)

I’ve crossed paths with Sartre numerous times.  This is an excellent summary of key features of his thinking.

Mr Pip –  Lloyd Jones (2007)

Matilda and her neighbours get caught up in the Bougainville civil war in Papua New Guinea in the 1990s.  An expat from New Zealand abridges Great Expectations for the village children  –  with catastrophic consequences.  The quality of writing –  about the island, Matilda’s community, the atrocities –  is superb.  But I struggled with the plot.  Each event, and the sometimes shocking outcomes, are completely plausible.  But together they pushed my credence beyond its limits. More reminiscent of Thomas Hardy than Dickens.

The Plague –  Albert Camus (1947/2001)

A metaphor for the German occupation of France during WW2.  Appreciated, rather than enjoyed, this.  Like the way the author observes how people’s behaviour in response to their situation changed over time.  Indebted to existentialist writers for offering a workable, moral worldview.

Fantasy Island:  Waking up to the incredible economic, political and social illusions of the Blair Legacy –  Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson (2007)

The subtitle is an accurate summary of the book.  The authors’ thesis is that there were inherent contradictions in Labour government policy that pave the way for later problems. (The Conservatives don’t get away lightly either.) They accurately predict the economic collapse of 2008.

The plot against America: A Novel –  Philip Roth (2004)

Something of a rarity these days –  a truly well-written novel.  Written as an autobiography, it recounts what would have happened to Jewish communities in the US if fascist sympathiser Charles Lindbergh had succeeded FDR as US president in 1940.   It’s about the banality of evil.  It’s also a story of how women hold their families and communities together.

Daughter of the Desert: The remarkable life of Gertrude Bell – Georgina Howell (2006)

Gertrude Bell was instrumental in Iraq coming into being as a nation, but you wouldn’t know that from most historical accounts.  From a well-to-do English family, strong-willed, opinionated, and a friend of TE Lawrence, she became an expert on what was then Arabia.  Inspiring, moving and gripping story of her life.

Shadow State: Inside the secret companies that run Britain – Alan White (2016)

Fascinating and hair-raising insight into public sector outsourcing.   Very informative but depressing.  No one is in control.

Kolymsky Heights –  Lionel Davidson (1994)

Science a bit clunky and characterisation wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test, but still a gripping thriller set mainly in Siberia, where Davidson’s experience as a submariner shows.

Early Category and Concept Development – David H Rakison & Lisa M Oakes (eds) (2003)

The most informative and stimulating account of this field that I’ve ever read.  As the commentary on the content points out, most research is carried out with undergraduates who have already formed most of the important categories and concepts they’ll ever need, but young children (who this book is about) are forming them for the first time. A challenging read, but very rewarding.

The Dark is Rising –  Susan Cooper (1973)

Story is about 11 year-old Will’s defeat of the magic of the Dark, by seeking six elemental mandalas.  Reminiscent of John Masefield’s Box of Delights.  Some powerful descriptive writng.  Finally caught up with this book thanks to Robert MacFarlane’s Twitter account.  A virtual reading group over Christmas 2017 with some amazing contributions from illustrators at #TheDarkIsReading.

The Silk Roads: A new history of the world –  Peter Frankopan (2015)

Fascinating sweep of history from the perspective of central Asia. Very topical in view of the shift of power from Europe. I was riveted.

The Order of Things –  Michel Foucault (1970)

I’m not a philosopher, so I’ve always steered clear of Foucault.  But his observations about categorisation intrigued me, so I dipped my toe into the water with this.  The first two chapters are masterful; about Las Meninas and similitudes.  Some are informative –  the history of classification and representation.  But I struggled with those about language – I think Foucault gives it far too much weight.

Colossus: The secrets of Bletchley Park’s code-breaking computers  –  Jack Copeland & others (2010)

Very detailed account of the pivotal role of the people and machines at Bletchley during WW2.  Very detailed; had to skip some of the coding explanations. Otherwise a compelling read.  One for systems enthusiasts.

Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie (1981)

Finally caught up with this.  Storytelling at its finest, interweaving the history of the India-Pakistan partition with that of Saleem Sinai, one of the children born at the moment of partition.  Would I read it again?  Dunno.  There’s a thread of (realistic) brutality running through it that I found uncomfortable.

A hundred million francs –  Paul Berna (1955)

First read this aged 9 and was gripped.  Its descriptions of life post-war urban France were so evocative, winter sunsets have reminded me of it ever since.  A great adventure story, with some cleverly disguised warnings to children about how adults can behave, and a touch of exoticism from the names.

The Art of the Publisher –  Robert Calasso (2015)

Fascinating insight into European publishing houses in the first half of the 20th century.  Loved the section on book covers.  Found it difficult to follow as unfamiliar with most of the publishers and authors.

Justice for Laughing Boy: Connor Sparrowhawk –  A death by indifference –  Sara Ryan (2017)

Connor, aged 18, drowned in a bath in an NHS unit in 2013.  A chilling account, by his mum, of his life, death and his family’s long journey to find out why he died.

Getting to Yes: Negotiating an agreement without giving in – Roger Fisher & William Ury (2012)

Painstakingly deconstructs negotiating skills and illustrates with some very varied examples. Particularly helpful advice on what to do if the person you’re negotiating with doesn’t play fair.

The Explosive Child –  Ross W Greene (1998)

Other parents have been recommending this book for years.  Neither of my children is exactly ‘explosive’ so I’ve only just got round to reading it.  It’s behaviour management but not as we know it, based on resolving difficulties caused by lagging skills and unsolved problems, not on adult authority.  Brilliant and intensely practical.

What every teacher needs to know about psychology –  David Didau and Nick Rose (2016)

Excellent introduction to findings from psychology that have practical applications in the classroom.  Theoretical issues need a bit more attention, I felt.

All Out War:  The Full Story of Brexit – Tim Shipman (2016)

A blow-by-blow account of the referendum campaign and its aftermath.  Excellent documentary account of what happened.  Found it hard going at times because the focus is more on the events (over 600 pages), than the analysis.

Candide –  Voltaire (1759)

Brilliant, darkly satirical take on 18th century European thought.  Presented as a rollicking good tale about Candide’s adventures across the world.  My copy is the beautiful Penguin Popular Classics edition: plain lime green cover and recycled paper.

Homage to Catalonia –  George Orwell (1938)

Account of Orwell’s experience fighting in the Spanish Civil War.  Surprised at how little he knew about the politics when he went there.  The two most interesting chapters for me were the Appendices  –  about the splits in the Left.  Orwell’s view was that Stalin’s influence on the Communists resulted in the fragmentation of opposition to Franco.

The Systems View of Life: A unifying vision –  Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi (2014)

This is a textbook written for undergraduates, but I read through all of it.  Readable but required some hard work in parts.  Brilliantly pulls together findings ranging from quantum physics to economics to religion by applying systems theory.  A theory of everything.  Thanks to Nate Babcock (@coachnateb on Twitter) for his systems reading list.

Decline and Fall –  Evelyn Waugh (1928)

Entertaining satirical commentary on life between the wars.  Many themes are unnervingly contemporary.  One reviewer described it as ‘not quite Wodehouse’ –  an apt description.

Stoner: A novel – John Williams (1965)

One of the best novels I’ve read.  Gripping, moving, and allusive.  How distant world events impact catastrophically on individual lives.

Such Tender Years: Leicestershire’s Young Asylum Patients – Diane Lockley (2013)

Drawn from the records of three Leicestershire asylums between 1845 and 1912.  The asylums provided a surprisingly humane environment for many children and young people whose families were unable to care for them.  Rich source of information for researchers, but still makes harrowing reading.  Includes many photographs.

How Will Capitalism End? – Wolfgang Streeck (2016)

Streeck’s argument is essentially that recent economic theory is based on false assumptions and hasn’t been integrated with people’s needs; that there’s an inherent tension between capitalism and democracy, and unchecked capitalism is unsustainable in systems terms.  Streeck writes and argues clearly but a bit of effort required from me because I’m not familiar with terminology of economics.   Some great quotes.

Structure of Decision: The Cognitive Maps of Political Elites –  Robert Axelrod (ed) (1976)

Early artificial intelligence was able to model simple human reasoning pretty accurately, but complex reasoning, such as the processes involved in political decision-making, was a different matter. Axelrod and his colleagues use historical documents to map causal reasoning during important policy decisions: British policy in the Middle East in 1918, the US Constitutional Convention in 1787, the Syrian intervention in Jordan in 1970, commuter transportation during the energy crisis of the early 1970s and an international agreement on control of the oceans in 1974-75.  Causal mapping offers an important insight into how to predict the outcomes of complex decisions.  The case studies are still relevant today.

The Principles of Scientific Management – Frederick Winslow Taylor (1911)

Much cited management classic.  And like many much cited classics, widely misunderstood.  Taylor’s aim was to apply a scientific approach to work in order to reduce wasted effort and maximise benefits for employer and employee alike.  Taylor was taken aback by the way his ideas were misapplied.

The Little Book of Big Management Theories and How to Use Them – James McGrath & Bob Bates (2013)

Useful if you want a quick reference to a management theory.  Organised into ‘how to…’ sections.  Erm… that’s it.

The Modularity of Mind –  Jerry Fodor (1983)

At the time the book was published, evidence about the nature of cognitive architecture was ambiguous.  It indicated that cognitive processing was modular (domain specific),  and that it was global (across several domains).  Fodor sticks his neck out and proposes that perceptual and linguistic processing is modular and stable and that higher level processes (thought) are global and unstable.  Needed to work at this book because Fodor is writing for philosophers.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way – Katharine Birbalsingh (ed) (2016)

Explains the systems, values, behavioural expectations and pedagogical approach of the Michaela Community School in Wembley Park, London.  Left me viewing the systems, values etc rather more positively, but a bit taken aback at the Tiger Teachers’ approach to their own knowledge.

Responsibility and Public Services  –  Richard Davis (2016)

A clear and practical account of why public sector services aren’t delivering the services people actually need and how to fix it.  For a lot less money.  Good explanation of the Vanguard approach https://vanguard-method.net/services/ (not to be confused with NHS Vanguards).

The Spirit Level: Why Equality is better for everyone  –  Wilkinson & Pickett (2009)

Finally got round to reading this.  I felt as if I knew most of it already, but it is so useful to have the data.   Shame it hasn’t changed the world yet.

The Nurture Assumption –  Judith Rich Harris (1998)

Loved this book. It challenges a fundamental assumption that the environmental influences on child development are mainly those from the child’s parents. The author demonstrates, using evidence from psychology and anthropology, that a primary environmental influence is a child’s peers. Harris has a dry sense of humour too.

Education:  A Very Short Introduction –  Gary Thomas (2013)

Neat, concise and informative summary of major debates in education.  Puts Peal’s narrative in context.

The Machine that Changed the World –  Womack, Jones & Roos (1990, 2007)

This is the book that told the world about ‘lean’ manufacturing; a term coined by  John Krafcik to describe processes that used about half the resources of mass production.  ‘Lean’ has since taken on a life of its own.  I have next to no interest in the car industry and have misgivings about the widespread misapplications of  ‘lean’ but found The Machine compelling, informative and inspiring.

Learning from Baby P – Sharon Shoesmith (2016)

Sharon Shoesmith was the director of children’s services for the London Borough of Haringey when Peter Connelly (Baby P) was killed.  She was very publicly sacked by Ed Balls during a press conference, but her dismissal was ruled illegal by the High Court.  She’s since done a PhD to try to understand the aftermath of the Baby P trial and draws on her research for this book.  An insightful and informative analysis.  My only quibble is that she doesn’t question the conceptual frameworks she uses  – not that doing so would have made much difference to her conclusions.  The ‘Baby P effect’ is profoundly troubling.

General Systems Theory –  Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1969)

Von Bertalanffy was a polymath who was ahead of his time.  He explains the similarities  across disciplines that emerge at different levels of (self-) organisation.  Key points include the differences between closed systems and open systems, entropy and negative entropy, and reductionism and isomorphisms.  Knowledge of calculus required to understand the maths.

Emile  –  J-J Rousseau (1974/1762) 

According to Voltaire “a hodgepodge of a silly wet nurse in four volumes”.  Not far wrong, but fascinating to see where Rousseau’s ideas came from. The section called the Creed of a Savoyard Priest sets out some remarkably modern questions about perception, cognition, reasoning, consciousness, truth, free will and the existence of religions.

Militant – Michael Crick (1984, 2016)

Fascinating account of the Labour Party’s struggle with extreme left-wing influences.  Provides insights into the current leadership contest.

In Search of the Perfect Health System –  Mark Britnell (2015)

The author has worked with health systems worldwide.  He briefly summarises the strengths and weaknesses of health systems in 25 different countries, identifies the lessons to be learned, and outlines the global challenges faced by all of them.  An excellent, concise overview.

Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece –  Patrick Leigh Fermor (1966)

Patrick Leigh Fermor describes, vividly, a Europe anchored in its past that is now gone forever. I’ve loved travelling with him.

Why Nations Fail: The origins of power, prosperity and poverty – Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson (2012)

The authors propose a simple theory.  Although it’s a simple theory, it’s not simplistic.  They use it to explain economic failure and prosperity since the beginning of the Neolithic period until the present, across the world.  The theory is that inclusive political institutions set up a virtuous circle that results in inclusive economic institutions, innovation and prosperity.  Extractive political and economic institutions, in contrast, set up a vicious circle that discourages innovation and leads to poverty and civil unrest.    My only quibble was their critique of Jared Diamond’s analysis in ‘Collapse’.  Diamond highlights the constraints and affordances of natural resources and culture.  I felt Acemoglu and Robinson marginalised them.   Otherwise an easy to read, informative, convincing and important book.

Linnaeus: Nature and Nation –  Lisbet Koerner (1999)

The first academic biography of Linnaeus for a century  –  and an eye-opener.  Koerner sets out to present Linnaeus’ life from his perspective and succeeds in explaining the worldviews common at the time.  Linnaeus comes across as a bit of a dabbler and as not realising the full import of his taxonomic system.  For him, it was a by-product of his failed attempt to make Sweden self-sufficient.  Well researched, informative and readable.

Neurotribes: The legacy of autism and how to think smarter about people who think differently –  Steve Silberman (2015)

Bought this book because Oliver Sacks says it “belongs on the bookshelf of anyone interested in autism and the workings of the human brain”.  I was disappointed.  Some fascinating background sketches of autism researchers including Asperger and Kanner, and Silberman points out that Asperger’s assistant Georg Frankl might provide the missing link between Asperger & Kanner’s accounts of autism.  But on the downside, there are lengthy, detailed accounts of people who might qualify for a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome, like Henry Cavendish and Hugo Gernsback, likely to be interesting only if you’re into Cavendish or Gernsback.  Silberman also takes every opportunity to criticise autism researchers he doesn’t seem to like, such as Kanner and Bernard Rimland.  Over 500 pages of poorly edited, poorly evaluated material.  Little about the brain.   Adam Feinstein’s A history of autism is much better.

Illegality Inc.: Clandestine migration and the business of bordering Europe – Ruben Andersson (2015)
I loved this book – if you can love a book about human misery and chaotic systems. Andersson is an anthropologist who has applied carefully thought-through theory to the subject of borders and has also succeeded in writing a lyrical, moving, empathetic account of migrants’ experiences.

Sustainable Medicine: Whistle-blowing on 21st century medical practice – Dr Sarah Myhill (2015)
I know several people whose lives have been transformed for the better after taking Sarah Myhill’s advice, and I was hoping this book would explain the biochemistry and physiology behind her ideas. I was disappointed. It reads more like her personal notes presented for public consumption. Perhaps I should read it again.

Jesus, Politics and Society: A Study of St Luke’s Gospel – Richard J Cassidy (1978)
Read this soon after publication. It completely transformed my perception of Jesus and of the political implications of Christian belief. On re-reading what stood out was the Appendices describing the key political players in 1st century Palestine.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed – Paulo Freiere (1970)
Frequently cited (favourably and otherwise) by teachers. Familiar with Freire’s ideas via teacher training and liberation theology but had never read him. Found the Marxist terminology tedious and needlessly obscure, but got the drift. Important point for sceptics: Freire is discussing adult education and education in the broadest sense.

The Republic – Plato (c.380 BCE)
Tried to read this in my youth and failed because I hadn’t grasped that in the book Socrates is actually Plato. Second time round it made sense. Sort of. It’s written in the form of a discussion between Socrates-Plato and various Athenians. Reads remarkably like a debate on Twitter in places. Plato had some bizarre ideas.

The Open Society and Its Enemies Volume Two: Hegel and Marx – Karl Popper (1945)
I’m not a philosopher, so I expected this book to be hard going. It wasn’t, despite being closely reasoned. Popper follows the thread of Plato’s essentialism through the thinking of Hegel and Marx and its emergence in the nationalism that precipitated WW2. Criticisms of Hegel by Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard are hilarious – unless you’re a fan of Hegel, of course.

The Open Society and Its Enemies Volume One: The Spell of Plato – Karl Popper (1945)
Popper’s thesis is that Plato’s ideas underpin Western philosophical thought. And that Plato was profoundly wrong in some respects, notably about essentialism, and that has had catastrophic consequences for subsequent generations. Popper tackles some fundamentally important and often difficult ideas. He works through them step-by-step and following his reasoning requires close attention. But Popper isn’t difficult to read. His writing is lucid, his reasoning transparent and he has a dry sense of humour. His insights are wide-ranging and profound.

Diffusion of Innovations – Everett M Rogers (2003)
Rogers’ book was first published in 1962 and has been the go-to resource for anyone interested in the take-up of innovation of any sort. It’s clear, concise, comprehensive and packed with fascinating and insightful case studies. Most memorable for me: the San Francisco bartenders used to contact opinion leaders for an HIV reduction programme and the devastating impact of snowmobiles on Lapp reindeer-herders.

The Meme Machine – Susan Blackmore (1999)
I’m currently fascinated by the transmission of ideas and Susan Blackmore’s book is a classic on the topic. Her writing is lucid but very informative. Gets to grips with the hows, whys and implications of memes.

The Psycholinguistic Nature of the Reading Process – Kenneth S Goodman (ed.) (1968)
OK, I must confess to not actually having read this book all the way through. It’s a collection of papers from a symposium on reading held in Wayne State University, Detroit, in 1965. Much of what Goodman has written is for a wide audience. I was interested in Goodman’s eponymous opening chapter in this book because I wanted to get a flavour of his academic writing. It’s essentially an overview of reading and of the cueing process that was the focus of Goodman’s work, very similar in tone to “Reading: The Psycholinguistic Guessing Game“.

What’s Whole in Whole Language – Ken Goodman (1986)
This book summarises Goodman’s approach to learning to read. Like Smith, he’s a leading light in the whole language approach. This book is short and accessible, but I found it frustratingly lacking in theoretical explanation. Some ideas for literacy development that teachers might find useful, but I can understand why synthetic phonics advocates are so critical of Goodman.

Understanding Reading – Frank Smith (4th edition, 1988)
Frank Smith is a controversial figure due to his outspoken views on using whole language to teach children to read. Some of the hypotheses that emerged from the theory set out when this book was first published in 1971 have since been tested and found wanting. So I was surprised to discover it contained a solid, concise overview of what cognition research has to say about reading and learning to read that’s still relevant today – despite the demise of some hypotheses.

Progress in Understanding Reading – Keith E Stanovich (2000)
Stanovich is a leading reading researcher. This book consists of a selection of his key papers and thus constitutes a very useful review of reading research in the last quarter of the 20th century, with especial reference to reading acquisition. What I liked particularly was his overview of the direction of research, how it converges and why some ideas have spread and others haven’t.

Growing a Reader from Birth – Diane McGuinness (2004)
McGuinness’s work is frequently cited favourably by systematic synthetic phonics proponents. I’ve found her books simultaneously informative and frustrating because despite being very knowledgeable she tends to generalise and gloss over debatable points. This book is no exception. Having said that, like all her work, it’s very readable.

Moral Panics: The social construction of deviance – Erich Goode & Nachman Ben-Yehuda (1994)
Readable, accessible account of well-documented moral panics over the centuries plus a discussion of how concepts and research have changed since Stanley Cohen’s landmark study of Mods and Rockers.

The Whitehall Effect – John Seddon (2014)
I’m a big Seddon fan because he’s one of the few organisational consultants who really seems to understand how systems work. He’s a bit prone to jargon, but the ideas are clear enough. He’s done some great work and is highly critical of the model for public sector services adopted by successive governments.

The Establishment and how they get away with it – Owen Jones (2014)
Exploration of how The Establishment has emerged since the 1950s and the impact it has on all our lives. Not sure an endorsement by Russell Brand will enhance Jones’ reputation, but it’s a useful analysis.

Eyeless in Gaza – Aldous Huxley (1936)
Love Huxley’s writing but still trying to understand the confusion so many writers between the wars seemed to experience over what life was all about.

Old Wives’ Tale – Arnold Bennett (1908)
First introduced to Bennett via Radio 4 dramatisation of ‘The Card’ in the 1970s. Read ‘Old Wives’ Tale’ after review on R4’s ‘A Good Read’. Dry Dickensian observations, fascinating insights into 19th century life on both sides of the Channel, great awareness of how personal beliefs, preoccupations and actions impact on and interact with ‘great’ historical events.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – Robert Tressell (1955/1914)
Not a great work of literature, and a bit on the optimistic side regarding socialism. But a devastating insight into the quality of life endured by many people at the turn of the 20th century and the economic ideas that were responsible. Particularly engaging if you’re interested in painting and decorating.

Progressively Worse: the burden of bad ideas in British schools – Robert Peal (2014)
Useful overview of education policy in England in the last half-century. Main thesis is that progressive educational philosophies led to shortcomings. Other possible causes not given serious consideration. Not what I’d call research.

Seven Myths about Education – Daisy Christodoulou (2014)
An informative overview of recent pedagogical trends, but overlooks some important factors involved in cognition and knowledge. Not so much mythbusting as replacing one set of myths with another. Have blogged about this book at length.

Why Don’t Students Like School? – Daniel Willingham (2010)
Very helpful explanation of findings from cognitive psychology applicable to teaching and learning. Only reservations are that author appears to see education in terms of current US school system, and that teachers reading this book might not realise how complex a field cognitive psychology is – despite Willingham pointing this out.

A Straight Talking Introduction To:  Psychiatric Diagnosis –  Lucy Johnstone (2014) Concise, accessible introduction.  Sets out the key issues clearly.  My only, and major, reservation is that the possibility of adverse experiences causing unpleasant unwanted thoughts and feelings does not mean that all unpleasant unwanted thoughts and feelings must be caused by adverse experiences.  Or that the only function of medication is to take the edge of the unpleasant unwanted thoughts and feelings.

Social Work Skills:  A practice handbook –  Pamela Trevithick (2005)

Not so much a handbook, more a literature review.  Replete with references to theory behind practice, but little evaluation.  I can’t see where social work is going.

Intuition Pumps – Daniel Dennett (2013)
Inspired to read Dennett because he was a student of Ryle’s, like some other readers I got as far as page 80 then gave up. Found Dennett’s style trivial and disjointed. Maybe it was just this book.

The Concept of Mind – Gilbert Ryle (1949)
Painstaking, systematic explanation of why ‘mind’ is a flawed concept and why Descartes was wrong. Relatively jargon-free and not difficult to understand if you take it slowly.

Bad Education: Debunking Myths in Education – Philip Adey & Justin Dillon (eds) (2012)
Collection of solid but accessible essays on school organisation, teaching methods and learners. Some excellent, evidence-based insights into the current English education system.

Education, Education, Education – Andrew Adonis (2012)
Not so much about education as about Adonis’ academies manifesto. Worth reading if you’re interested in how academies got onto the political agenda. Don’t expect an impartial analysis of data.

Attachment – John Bowlby (1969, 1982)
The first of the trilogy. I’ve read so many extracts from and commentaries on Bowlby over the years I thought I knew what he’s actually said. I didn’t. Nor do a lot of other people. The more I read, the more my respect for Bowlby grew. Disagree with some of his conclusions, but his scholarship is great.

Freaks of Nature – Mark Blumberg (2009)
Not for the squeamish. Fascinating insight into how genes influence development.

The Creation of Dr B – Richard Pollack (1997)
Bettelheim from another perspective. Pollack’s brother, who tragically died in an accident, was a resident at Bettelheim’s school. Great biography. Very critical of Bettelheim.

The Empty Fortress – Bruno Bettelheim (1967)
One of the classic books on autism. Bettelheim writes well although is hard going at times. Great illustration of how bizarre Freudian psychology can get, and what happens to constructivist theories unconstrained by data. Worth reading if you are interested in child development theory and how the ‘refrigerator mothers’ idea got off the ground.

2 thoughts on “I’ve been reading

  1. Oh, there’s some interesting ones! I, of course, disagree with Popper – not just because I read Hegel in a quite different way, but also because Popper is far from being “scientific” in his criticism. Obviously he did not read much of Hegel himself, but relied on other sources, cites phrases totally out of context and the like. To honor the nationalist and anti-semitic Schopenhauer as a fighter against the enemies of free society then is ridiculous. 🙂

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