Tom Holland’s “Islam”, Disappointing Documentary from a Brilliant Writer.

I was very much looking forward to reading The Shadow of the Sword, Tom Holland’s latest book. In it, he looks at how it was that the Islamic Empire sprang up from the sands to replace the Roman and Persian ones to the West and East.

I still am. But there’s no getting away from it, the documentary he made to accompany the book for Channel Four was very disappointing. Quite simply, its thesis just wasn’t compelling enough.

Essentially, his argument was, that in the absence of any documentation it was impossible to say for certain what had happened during the 100 years or so after the death of Mohammed in 632. That is to say, there’s no actual record of how and in what way Islam developed in its first few years.

But, and as some of the Muslim scholars interviewed explained a tad wearily, the culture that Mohammed grew up in was an oral one. And he, like almost all of his countrymen, was illiterate. So a dearth of documentation was hardly surprising. 

You don’t have to adhere to the strictures of western academia to be able to see the staggering speed with which the new Empire exploded into life to hungrily devour everything it could. Or to realize that the engine that powered that extraordinary expansion was the faith that bound them all together and drove them on.

So what if we’ve no written evidence? We’ve absolutely none for Pythagoras for that matter, but it doesn’t stop us forming a picture of the disciples who followed him or the groups they splintered off into.

In point of fact, Nietzsche says that the only thing we can say about Pythagoras is that we can say nothing for certain about him whatsoever. Whether he was a vegetarian, a mystic or could even count. But that doesn’t stop us placing him in the Greek world that he lived in, or in forming a picture of the effect he had on those around him.

A flawed thesis is less of a problem when it comes to a book. The best books are about the journey that the author takes you on as much as they are about the destination that they lead you to. And Holland is so easy going, companionable and effortlessly erudite a guide that spending any time in his company is always a pleasure whatever his purpose.

And, as last year’s BBC4 programme Dinosaurs, Myths and Monsters showed, he’s clearly as comfortable on television as he in print.

But Islam: the Untold Story promised, well, an untold story. And the fact that there’s a dearth of written evidence to bolster the story of Islam really isn’t terribly surprising. So as a television programme, it just didn’t work.

If you want to appreciate why it is the Holland is held in such high regard by so many people, read his 2003 book, Rubicon. There he takes the events that led to the dissolution of the Roman Republic under Julius Caesar and the creation of the Empire under his nephew Augustus, and imagines what it was that the principal players were driven by.

It is at once exhaustively researched and breathlessly compelling. Imagine if Tom Wolfe had been educated at Oxford instead of on the streets of New York, and had employed a team of the most brilliant researchers he could find there to help him with a book.

And I’m still looking forward to reading Holland’s account, however tangential, on the birth of Islam in The Shadow of the Sword.

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Apple, Amazon, the Big 6 and the Future of Publishing.

In May, Apple and three of the Big Six lost the first round in what looks likely to be a long and costly fight (two of the other three had reluctantly settled and one, Random House isn’t involved). What’s at stake is, not to put too fine a point on it, the future of publishing. So here, very briefly, is the story so far.

When Amazon began selling ebooks through their Kindle in 2007, the price they charged for them was a lot less than for actual physical books. For one thing they didn’t cost as much to produce. But much more importantly, ebooks were a completely new idea, and people had to be encouraged into trying them out. So frequently, Amazon would sell their ebooks at a loss, for even less than they had purchased them from the publisher in the first place.

Culturally then, this discount selling was both welcome and necessary. Economically however, it meant that Amazon quickly established a stranglehold on a rapidly expanding market. Not only that, but the rise of ebooks threatened to render the traditional bookstore and indeed the conventional publishing world redundant.

Nobody wanted to let what had happened in music take place in publishing. So when Apple entered the ebook market with the iPad two years later (followed by Barnes & Nobles and their Nook), a new pricing system was put in place; the agency model.

Instead of publishers selling at a discount to retailers, who would then take their cut from the price they sold it on to the public for, publishers would set the price that the public would pay for a book, and the retailer (whether Amazon, Apple or whoever) would get a flat 30%. This is what Apple did in music.

But Apple would only agree to enter the market in the first place if a minimum of four of the big six (see image below) agreed to implement their new agency model. In the end, five of them did, and the sixth Random House joined in a year later.

So Amazon had no choice but to play along. But they were as the Americans say pissed. They made more money from the books that they sold now, but their share of the still growing ebook market had gone down from 90 to 60%. And culturally, they were being forced to sell books for more than they might have liked. Or to put in another way, they were being prevented from so dramatically undercutting their rivals.

So they went to the courts, and in May the US Department of Justice found in their favour. After all, as Ken Auletta says in his much more in-depth piece in the New Yorker here, the letter of the anti-trust legislation is crystal clear. Didn’t Apple say that they would only go ahead if they got agreement from at least four of the big six? And hadn’t the cost of books to the public gone up once their agency model had been put in place?

But wait a minute. The cost had gone up, but the publishers were now receiving less. So how can it be a cartel, if the people organizing it end up making less money? What’s more, Amazon was now getting more. And wasn’t the whole spirit of the anti-trust legislation designed to curb the likes of Amazon, and prevent them from putting the much smaller publishing companies out of business?

Of course Amazon could afford to sell its books at a loss. Books make up just a tiny fraction of what Amazon sells. But books is all the big six do.

All of this has been brilliantly charted by publishing (and now digital publishing) guru Mike Shatzkin, whose blog (here) is a must for anyone interested in the world of publishing. But what it all seems to boil down to is this:

The publishing world allows for a wide variety of books to be published by using the money it makes from the few books that sell hugely, to fund a plethora of books that might, but almost certainly won’t do anything like as well.

And the physical bookstore is the best and only place for some of those smaller titles to get noticed. And who knows, maybe even take off.

By siding with Amazon against them, the DoJ is seriously putting that whole eco system in grave danger. And there is a very real possibility that the only thing that will result is a significantly narrower choice of books to read from, with significantly fewer writers making a living from it.

And the question then is, if Amazon is the only player left standing once bookstores and the world of publishing have been dismantled, will they have any interest in trying to do anything about that? Or will they just be far too preoccupied in having to compete with rival monoliths Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook for an ever-narrowing choice of profitable content?

Oh, and for all of you who still think that e-readers are a fad, have a look at this one year old trying to operate a magazine, here.

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“Religion For Atheists”, The Terribly, Alas, English Book By Alain de Botton.

For many years, scholars puzzled over what appeared to be the outline of a hideous figure, cowering in the depths of the ninth cycle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. Who exactly was that frozen forever in the bowels of the Earth, more lowly even than Brutus, Judas, and even Satan himself?

Of course we now know that what we find there is a vegetarian, caught forever in the act of eating a veggie burger. Why would a vegetarian want to eat a burger?

Surely the last thing a vegetarian would ever want would to sink their teeth into would be something that embodies everything they’ve so proudly rejected? And yet there they are, on every vegetarian menu in the Western world. So we shouldn’t I suppose be too surprised about the latest offering from Alain de Botton, Religion For Atheists which is based on a similarly non-sensical idea. But that doesn’t make it any less lamentable.

Though Swiss by birth, there’s something terribly English about his new book. Religion For Atheists reeks of the same spirit that moves Anglican vicars to so needlessly explain and rationalize the parables in the gospels and the stories in the bible.

We’re not meant to be able to rationally comprehend the mysteries in the bible, hence the name we use to describe them. Their truths are beyond mere human understanding. Ours, famously, is not to reason why. That’s why no one is ever punished for behaving badly or rewarded for behaving well in the Bible. The only thing you’re ever punished for in the Bible is for acting of your own volition.

The one thing that’s demanded of you throughout the Bible, and it’s repeated over and over again, is that you submit your will to the higher and unknowable will of God. That’s what Muhammad understood having absorbed the worlds of Judaism and Christianity, and why he summed up his message with the single word Islam; “submit”.

Your beliefs demand that you make a profound sacrifice. That sacrifice is that you abandon your mere human logic and reason, and submit your will to a higher and unknowable authority.

All you succeed in doing by trying to explain and rationalize the mysteries that underpin that authority is to hopelessly weaken the bonds that bind you and it together. Your beliefs are only as strong as the sacrifices they demand of you.

That’s why Anglicanism is constantly under threat from the twin pillars of Catholicism and Protestantism, and why in contrast to the former, Islam goes from strength to strength.

The sacrifice demanded of atheism, which, some argue, is just a particular strand of belief, is the foregoing of the institutional shelter and communal succour that organised religion so vitally offers.

In its efforts to restore to atheists precisely that which they’ve sacrificed, de Botton’s book demonstrates a failure to understand what belief is for and how it operates, either for atheists or believers. He’s trying to sacrifice sacrifice.

He seems like an affable sort of chap, and when he sticks to arcane corners of architecture, or laymen’s philosophy he can be an engaging if slightly over-eager guide. But his Religion For Atheists bears all the markings of a man with more money than sense, and one who has far too much – and yet not enough – time on his hands.

“Wonders of The Universe” – BBC

Of the many memorable images in Prof. Brian Cox’s regal Wonders of the Universe, the one that lingers longest is that of Andromeda, which he shows us on his laptop from the jeep he sits in near the Great Rift Valley in east Africa. Andromeda is the nearest spiral galaxy to our own. Indeed it’s so near, that despite the fact that practically everything else in our expanding universe is accelerating away from each other, the force of gravity between our two galaxies is so strong, that they are set on a crash course that should see them collide in about 3 billion years. For Andromeda is just two and half million light years away. But what exactly does that mean?

Well, two and a half million years ago our earliest ancestor, Homo habilis appeared on the African plains where he fashioned the first ever stone tools. And as he evolved through Homo erectus, antecessor, neanderthalensis and eventually into sapiens, those tools become increasingly sophisticated. But with the advent of agriculture after the ending of the Ice Age, around 15,000 years ago, he stopped roaming the plains and began to settle down. And when he did that, he started to look up and into the night skies, because agriculture needs a calendar, and for that you need the rhythms of the sun, the moon and the stars.

Over the thousands of years that followed we got better and better at reading the night skies, until finally, in the second decade of the 17th century, Johannes Kepler arrived at his third law of planetary motion as, at last, their mysteries were revealed. At exactly the same time, Galileo (and others) invented the telescope, giving one as a gift to Kepler, and we began the business of scientifically charting the heavens. So that by the time we get to where we are now, we can read the skies with such precision, sophistication and subtlety that we can point to Andromeda and say what it is, and how far away it is. Two and half million light years.

In other words, when the light that we see today left Andromeda, Homo habilis had just set foot in Africa. And during the time that it took that light to travel from there to here, at the fastest speed in the universe, we went through the whole of human evolution. Until eventually it reached us, its nearest neighbour, two and half million years later. That’s how vast the universe is, and that’s how much we can now say about it. And that’s why Prof. Cox was showing us that image, there, against the backdrop of Africa.

Incredibly, science is so badly taught at school that most of us leave with a profound aversion to it. And the full failings of our education system are only really exposed as we later come to realize what a magnificent vista it reveals. Which is why this series and the book that accompanies it is so important. Anyone with even the vaguest interest in a genuine education and all that that is supposed to encompass should have this series, its book, or both in their house.

You’ll probably need to watch the four episodes at least a couple of times – I certainly did – to digest all the information they contain. But be warned, the first episode bizarrely takes fully 30 minutes to get to its first bit of science. It’s then that he explains the significance of the second Law of Thermodynamics and its relation to the concept of entropy. And from that point on the series takes flight.

Entropy, the idea that time is only ever one-directional, that things only ever end up broken, they never end up whole, is something we’ve known instinctively for millennia. Indeed, it was the subject of the very first philosophical idea, by the Greek Anaximander, and lies at the very core of Judeo-Christianity. Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust. But it was only in the late 19th century that we came to understand it scientifically. And both the series and the book illustrate and explain this, and much else besides, pristinely. What follows is three and a half hours of gloriously compact, unabashedly intelligent yet brilliantly accessible insights into the incomparable wonders of our universe.

Every house should have a copy, as they should the previous series, the equally impressive Wonders of the Solar System.

Jonathan Franzen and “Robinson Crusoe”

The Beatles V the Stones, Picasso V Matisse, digital V vinyl, youth is spent drawing up battle lines on either side of these divides. And one of the first choices that all first year English literature students are faced with is Defoe V Swift. This is because the publication of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in 1719 is traditionally seen as the first ever novel and is therefore the starting point for any course in modern literature. Unfortunately, it’s inevitably compared to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels which was written, at least superficially, as a response to Defoe’s exotic tale of distant shores.

However successfully you might have suppressed your initial suspicions about Robinson Crusoe – this is after all your first term, and they surely couldn’t have knowingly saddled you with something so obviously second-rate to begin your studies with? – reading Swift immediately after Defoe puts paid to any such illusions. And whilst you might have been able to dismiss Defoe’s casual racism as part of his cultural make-up, there’s no getting away from that dreadfully leaden, and painfully clumsy prose, so cruelly exposed in the light of Swift’s Olympian brilliance.

Reading Jonathan Franzen’s superb piece Farther Away in the New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/04/18/110418fa_fact_franzen) it’s impossible not to be reminded once again of quite how dreadful a novel Robinson Crusoe is. Franzen had retreated to Robinson Crusoe island off the coast of Chile, and his emotionally charged piece charts his efforts to come to terms there with the suicide of his friend and fellow star novelist David Foster Wallace in 2008. Defoe’s novel, and his father’s fondness for it when he was a child, gives Franzen the scaffolding with which to construct his moving edifice. And the carefully crafted sentences with which he sculpts his confession produce an intimate portrait of painful confusion. Because Franzen is a real writer.

Defoe was a businessman who decided to write his first book as a means of making money now that he was approaching 60. And Robinson Crusoe is exactly the sort of thing you’d expect a retired businessman to produce. It’s not the first novel, it’s the first airport novel, and is not therefore something to be studied, but consumed.

It does serve one purpose though. It is to anybody struggling to write a novel, what Lady In The Water is to anyone trying to write a screenplay. Every budding novelist should have a copy of Robinson Crusoe on their bedside table. So that in their darkest hour, paralysed by despair as thoughts of worthlessness and abject fear threaten to envelop and engulf them, they can turn to Defoe, happy in the knowledge that however awful whatever it is that they’re writing is, it couldn’t possibly be as bad as what they have to hand.