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Saturday, April 09, 2005
The Black Spot

I'm doing a lot of travelling and campaigning this weekend, but before I catch the 0630 from Darlington to King's Cross, Chris Brooke has answered some questions about his reading habits over at Virtual Stoa, and added me to his list of three people he now wants to answer them. Here goes ...

You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?

I'm not sure what Fahrenheit 451 is, or whether it could make me want to be a book.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

None spring to mind. (Getting off to a great start here!)

What are you currently reading?

The Mating Mind, by Geoffrey Miller. A bit too long on the history of evolutionary science for my tastes, but I feel I am now getting on to the actual scientific thesis. Miller convincingly pushes the boundaries of what Darwinian sexual selection can explain. Sexual selection is the process by which a trait makes a creature more attractive to the opposite sex and so more likely to reproduce, which in turn benefits its children and grandchildren as they inherit the traits and also the preference for them. A runaway selection process emerges whereby those who are genetically a bit sexier in whatever way keep on gaining ground in the gene pool at the expense of their competitors, until the feature in question is a defining characteristic of that sex and species - eg. the flamboyant tail of the male peacock. Miller appears to be preparing to argue (I shall find out later) that sexual selection explains, or was an indispensible part of, the development of all human culture and civilisation, because everything from wit to musical ability that requires higher brainpower found its utility not through natural selection (agriculture may help one feed oneself and ones genetic kin, but it was invented only 10,000 years ago) but sexual selection.

Does America Need a Foreign Policy?, by Henry Kissinger. Dr Kissinger's pre-9/11 epic covers the whole planet continent by continent, and looks at the way America needs to respond to the emerging challenges. The book's twin virtues are towering: (i) an encylopaedic knowledge and profound understanding of the issues and events at the turn of this century, and (ii) recommendations and proposals I suspect most mainstream people would oppose only because they haven't heard the arguments in their favour (for which see (i)). Realism, especially of the Kissingerian variety, is now commonly presented as being almost inherently morally depraved and cruel. In fact, Kissinger simply takes the world as it is, and - never losing sight of the interests of America and the free world that she leads - advocates the means of defending and advancing those interests.

Blair, by Anthony Seldon. A fantastic biography of the Prime Minister, with essays on key figures in his life and how they came to know and influence him spliced in between each of the more traditional narrative chapters. Seldon is uncannily good at concluding every chapter just as I start to think a new one would be good just about now.

Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris. Not having seen the film, I have found this novel interesting and original. I enjoy the detective work and the intelligence of the characters. Those characters themselves are weaker, however. I only find Hannibal Lecter himself at all interesting, and he's appeared so infrequently so far that the book has suffered consequently.

The last book you bought is:

Hannibal, by Thomas Harris.

The last book you read:

Running Scared: Why America's Politicians Campaign Too Much and Govern Too Little, by Anthony King. Prof. King opens his book examining the working lives of three politicians: a British Member of Parliament (Alan Haselhurst, as it happens), a German member of the Bundestag and an American Congressman. What is inescapable in comparing them is the tendency for the last of these always to be campaigning, fundraising and thinking, worrying, about the first Tuesday after the first Monday of the next November in an even-numbered year. Prof. King argues that America's legislative terms of just two years, her weak party structure and her widespread use of primary elections produce a political culture damagingly short-term and unable to satisfy the voters precisely because it is so (overly) responsive.

The thesis is pleasingly short, but well-supported. King concludes that American democracy would be enhanced by some of the very things that are often derided in Britain (including by me, in the latter case) - stronger parties and greater political isolation through longer legislative terms - on the grounds that the superficial attractions of the alternative mean outcomes less satisfying to voters than a less direct, more representative democracy might.

Five books you would take to a deserted island:

I'd stock up on those weighty tomes I have started but never quite got down to. Philip Bobbit's Shield of Achilles, Kissinger's Diplomacy and Tolstoy's War and Peace all stare at me from the bookshelves opposite. I'd also like having a thick economics textbook there, Blanchard or Mankiw's Macroeconomics, perhaps. And it would be wrong not to include The Bible.

Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons) and why?

Let's get the Right invited into this hitherto leftie bookclub: Natalie Solent, Anthony Cormack and Peter Briffa.

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