Ah the summer holidays – lying on a beach reading a book, snoozing after lunch after reading 2 pages of a trashy thriller. It’s all about relaxing, and giving your remaining brain cell some much needed time off. Or is it? On a beach holiday last year, in Vietnam, I realized that it’s actually much more fun obsessively reading about the place you’re visiting. In the local book shop in Hoi An, my husband and I found two photocopied books : Michael Herr (an American journalist)’s Dispatches and Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War, a novel about the Vietnam War from the point of view of a North Vietnamese soldier. We were mesmerized.
The odd thing is that as I walked past all the people lounging around the pool at our resort and saw one woman reading Helen Fielding’s latest offering, I actually felt sorry for her. ‘You’ve in Vietnam!” I thought to myself. “How could you?” We do have a Five Books interview on Vietnam with Karl Marlantes, a Vietnam vet and novelist. So after getting home, I read his book, Matterhorn (also about the war). A guy from the US Embassy in Beijing saw it in my handbag, and said “Oh, if you’re enjoying that, you must read this…” And so it went on. To say that reading these books made the holiday more interesting would be an understatement. It helped it one of the most fantastic holidays ever. And I don’t even like sunbathing.
Five Books interviews are long -- often 4000 or even 5000 words. This is what it takes to explain books and sometimes rather difficult concepts. It's not about trying to create soundbites. But sometimes individual lines from interviews stay in my head, and almost haunt me. Some profound insight is conveyed and just sticks with me. Here is one such quotation, from an interview from 2013, with Ruth Wisse on Jewish Humour.
"I begin with a joke from World War I: a Jew gets lost on the border between warring nations. Suddenly he is at the border and the searchlight shines on him and the guard says, “Stop, or I'll shoot!” And the Jew says, 'What? Are you crazy? Don't you see this is a human being?'"
I don't know what it is about it, but I just find it incredibly compelling...
There are a handful of books every decade that are so good that everyone should read them. The 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide is a reminder that one of those books is Philip Gourevitch's We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda. For one thing, it's worth trying to understand what happened in Rwanda in order to get a sense of what, under certain circumstances, human beings are capable of. But it's also just a beautifully, beautifully written book, quite unputdownable once you get started.
I've just finished posting our most recent interview, Alec Ash talking to Adam Minter about the global trash trade. Minter is an American who comes from a mid-western scrapyard background, but has spent the last nine years living in China. I haven't read his book yet, but I think a look at those two countries and economies in the context of trash is fascinating. One line of the interview in particular jumped out at me: "Modern China was, in part, built on the developed world’s waste." Trash is a big story which reveals a lot about our own culture and history. I really recommend taking the time to read it.
We've had a great selection of cookery writers choosing their favourite cookbooks for us on the Five Books site, including Ruth Reichl, Nigel Slater, Ruth Rogers, Yotam Ottolenghi and Madhur Jeffrey. Have a look at all their cookbook choices on one page HERE.
A few highlights:
1. A book that came up again and again (chosen no less than 3 times): Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Italian Cooking
2. Was Nigella Lawson's best cookbook her first?
3. I can't vouch for the outcome of the recipes, but here's a book that's extremely tempting to busy people.
4. The book I intend to buy next, because I haven't got it and Nigel Slater is one of my favourite cookery writers.
I have to confess I'm a little disappointed that no one we have asked to select their favourite cookbooks has yet picked one of my own favourites, Katie Stewart's Times Cookery Book, or what I consider The-Most-Useful-Cookery-Book-Ever. If you have time, please list your own must-have cookbooks below, as I am in buying mode. A good one on bread-making would be particularly helpful as here in China I have to travel quite a long way to buy a fresh loaf (I don't have a bread machine).
Posted by Sophie Roell
Dear Five Books reader,
Welcome to our new site. I want to point out one or two things that might be helpful when you're using it. One of the main reasons for changing the old format was to make it easier to find books. With the new site you have the option to "browse by book" so you don't have to go through long interviews to find recommended books. So, for example, say you are interested in philosophy. You can you can straight to this page, to find a list of all our recommended philosophy books. If you click on any of the books, a short quote will appear, explaining why the interviewee liked it.
If you still prefer to browse the philosophy section by reading interviews, you can go to this page and still "browse by interview" as was possible on the old site. Red buttons allow you to easly switch between the two ways of browsing, and you can also use the dropdown menus on any page to either browse by "interviews" or "books."
A list of all our sections — from Atheism to World History — is available on this page.
Anytime you wish to return to our home page, just click on our beloved manatee. It is, by the way, the work of Roland Chambers, Five Books's first editor. (You can see more of his drawings in this fabulous children's book he wrote.)
Like the old site, our new site was built by our Belarussian tech team, ThinkFabrik, who have worked extremely hard and done a fantastic job. The design is the work of Alexandra Maynard, who not only did a wonderful job on the look and feel of the site, but also did a lot of thinking on its underlying structure. She previously did the beautiful artwork on this book and continues to create gorgeous websites like this and this. (Disclosure: Alex is also my sister-in-law).
I'm sure there will be a number of glitches these first weeks, so please bear with us and do email us if you find something incredibly annoying or that could be improved. Positive feedback is, of course, better for morale...
Posted by Sophie Roell (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Spring is in the air so perhaps I am thinking of gardening a bit too much (short of actually doing any -- even my basil seeds remain unplanted) but for the record, I just wanted to say how much I love what the North Coast Gardening website did with the Five Books concept. Someone has even recommended five books "for the butterfly garden."
Posted by Sophie Roell
One of my key focuses with our new site -- which, hopefully, is only a few weeks away now -- is that individual sections are strong. That means good interviewees and good topics. One of the challenges is that beyond certain fields, I personally don’t have the knowledge to judge whether an interviewee is really a respected authority in a field, or if the topic is one worth doing. Sometimes -- say in the case of our children’s section -- I know I could organize an excellent section if I devoted myself to it, but I simply don’t have the time. As a result, I have started, tentatively, approaching other people to see whether they can take the lead on certain sections. I’m really happy to say that Nigel Warburton, who himself did an interview with us on Introductions to Philosophy, is now actively pursuing a number of philosophy interviews. We’ve had quite an active back and forth about who to cover, what to cover and how to set about it, but starting soon, you’ll be seeing about one interview per month with an eminent philosopher and/or on an important philosophy topic. I hope this will be a good model for getting the site moving forward and providing valuable book recommendations.
Posted by Sophie Roell (email@example.com)
International Women’s Day seemed a good day to bring up one of the enduring challenges faced by our site as we try to identify experts and interview them about books. Just take a look at any of our sections, and you’ll see that with the odd exception like chick-lit or cookery, they’re all dominated by men. I get the feeling one could be more specific and say they’re men of a certain age (middle) and ethnic group (Caucasian), but I haven’t checked carefully on that, so I should probably hold back. This preference for men isn’t the result of an active policy. Our decision-making has traditionally been fairly diffuse, lots of people doing interviews on people they think would be good, without anyone paying any attention to what sex interviewees were. But put it all together, and you end up with nearly 700 men and only 200 women.
I realize that across disciplines I know little about, my instinctive stereotype of an expert is almost always a man. If you say physics, the first person I think of is Stephen Hawking, if you say evolutionary biologist -- or atheist for that matter -- Richard Dawkins is the image that springs immediately to mind. When you say foreign policy I think Henry Kissinger and if you said philosophy…I would probably go with Peter Singer. But interestingly, when I think of my own field, the subject I focused on as a graduate student, the person I actually admire most is a woman.
So why do men dominate so much as experts in the public perception? This is a blogpost rather than a scientific analysis, so I’ll get straight on and tell you that I think, which is that men are just much happier holding forth than women. They like having opinions and telling other people about them. Women less so. A couple of years ago I came across a wonderful not-for-profit called The Op-Ed Project. They’re trying to remedy the fact that 80-85% of opinion pieces in newspapers (97% in the case of the Wall Street Journal) are written by men. Part of their effort is simply getting women to submit these kinds of pieces in the first place.
When you think about it, being willing to be an expert on anything involves a kind of self-confidence that an uncharitable person might call arrogance. All in all, this International Women’s Day I can only hope women, rather than receiving flowers, develop some more of that quality. Which means that if, say, you’re an economist -- a field in which only one woman has ever won a Nobel prize -- please be more ready to hold forth and tell other people what you think and what a great authority you are. Maybe you could even start by doing a Five Books interview?
Posted by Sophie Roell
Dear Friend of Five Books,
Thank you for following us so loyally these past few years. I am writing to let you know that, starting in the spring, our book recommendations and interviews will once again be available through a separate website, www.fivebooks.com. We will remain closely affiliated with The Browser, but the FiveBooks interviews and archive will be separated out to the new site.
Our main reason for doing this is that over the years, while I have much enjoyed conducting interviews and reading what interviewees had to say, when I actually wanted to quickly find a book to read it was difficult within our combined site. For a long time I have wanted to make the site more like a bookshop, where you can pick up one or two random books that have been put on display, or go straight to your favourite section and easily get an overview of all the interesting books on offer. We are also working on the technology to extend your buying options, so you can support your local bookshop rather than just Amazon, as before.
The interviews themselves will continue broadly as before, with a focus on getting leading people in a field to not only recommend their favourite books, but also explain why those books are important. The result often goes well beyond just recommending books, and it is rare that I read an interview without learning something I didn't know before, occasionally something quite profound. In future, we are going to focus particularly on developing individual sections -- so that if you are very interested in, say, gardening or neuroscience, you can go straight to that section and find your favourite gardeners or neuroscientists there, recommending the very best and most readable books in the field. To that end, please do feel free to email us at any time with recommendations of people you'd like to see interviewed. They may not say yes, but we can but ask.
While we build the new site, our interview archive will still be available at The Browser (www.thebrowser.com). I will keep you briefed of developments via this newsletter and we'll also post updates on a new Facebook page we're creating, Five Books. But you can also check our progress directly by going to www.fivebooks.com. For now, it will still route you back to the The Browser, but we intend to launch a barebones test site in the next few weeks, so you can see how we're getting on. Feedback and advice will, as ever, be much appreciated.
With best wishes for the New Year,
Editor, Five Books