Lockdown reads

recommended by Christopher Dixon

The world today may be a chaotic and radically uncertain place, but it remains more fascinating than it has been for some time. Although we have been living in a period of massive historical rupture for some years now, there is still sense to be made of the increasing absurdity of human affairs. Some books here that illuminate and mock times such as ours. There is no deadening escapism here.

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    Viruses, Plagues, and History: Past, Present and Future
    by Michael B. A. Oldstone M.D.

    A former consultant to the WHO on their initiatives to eradicate polio and measles, Oldstone chronicles the history of the worst viruses humans have faced. He gives brilliant vignettes of the scientists who worked to defeat these deadly plagues, the shape of the efforts as well as short overviews of the viruses themselves. This richness, coupled with two brilliantly relevant chapters introducing the principles of virology and immunology for lay readers. Necessary reading for the COVID era.

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    The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad
    by Emily Thomas

    In her new book Thomas mixes travel writing with historical analysis and breezy philosophical reflection. The result is a book that reminds one of the sheer joy of finding new places, discovering new spaces and the impressions they create. It makes one long for the radically different perspectives that can be found there amongst the usual bustle. Written with a light touch and intellectual curiosity that helps create a hopeful anticipation of what is waiting out there for after this is over, and the excitement that comes with not knowing what one is likely to find.

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    False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism
    by John Gray

    A prophetic polemic and scathing indictment of the West's self-defeating attempt to institute a global free-market. Gray correctly asserts that imposing a model of monolithic globalisation rooted in historically and culturally contingent economic arrangements, specifically American, on disparate societies with their own histories and cultural traditions could only end in failure and instability. Gray argues that deregulating the western heartlands of the global economy would lead to workers being shafted the world over, increase social dislocation and disillusionment, and tear up social cohesion. Unconstrained capital movements provides opportunities for global arbitrage strategies, which enables bad capitalisms to drive out the good. The result of which would ultimately erode US dominance as its model became less appealing. A globalised world of information technology based interdependence could only be a fragile, leaderless and anarchic place. Events since 2008 have borne out much of the thesis of this book.

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    The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power
    by Shoshana Zuboff

    The most indispensible book to have been published in many years and by far the most demanding book in this list. Marrying theoretical arguments with empirical case studies, Zuboff provides a pathbreaking study of the emerging economy taking shape from data-driven value chains. She argues the heart of the 'knowledge economy' of today's capitalism is a condition in which not only predictive but manipulative mechanisms for altering future behaviour are what actually confers huge profits and power on the tech giants. The real value being created by the new cyber economy of convenience and instant gratification is the 'behavioural surplus' generated by our interactions with the shiny toys of these new monopolists, these new 'robber barons.' Although it would have been nice to have a wholly new interpretive framework for understanding this shift, Zuboff's theoretical structures mirror the best Marxian analyses of old and the work loses none of its importance for that. Never before have so few had so much power over so many.

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    High-Rise: A Novel
    by J. G. Ballard

    The perfect lockdown novel if ever there was one. The residents are inexplicably confined to a tower block and floors are hierarchically arranged by class. The residents lose the trappings of civilisation, their repressed impulses are given free rein and they soon engage in orgies of violence to tap into something that still feels real. But, as usual with Ballard, there is life affirming beauty and poetry to be found amongst the desolation.

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