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 ( 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.