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Books of the year 2020

LSTS books of the year

Every year, the members of the Law, Science, Technology and Society (LSTS) Research Group of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) are invited to reflect on the books that have influenced the most their (academic) lives and/or have been inspirational.

As per tradition, here are our best reads of 2020, listed in alphabetical order by author.

See the following links for the editions of 2019, 2018, 2017 and 2016.

Bachmann, Ingeborg and Celan, Paul - Herzzeit: Briefwechsel (Suhrkamp Verlag, 2009)

Cover of Herzzeit

It is hard to imagine a love story more profoundly interwoven with the political tragedy of its time, than the one between Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann. There is palpable, knife-edge intensity from the very first letter from Celan to Bachmann in 1948 that does not stop until Celan’s death in 1970 when he threw himself into the River Seine in Paris.

Love and hate, life and death, poetry and art, the limits of language. In 2017 a selection of the letters were performed in a no-eye-left-dry film by Ruth Beckermann, Die Geträumten, featuring the splendid Austrian experimental musician Anja Plaschg and Laurence Rupp reading the parts.

J. Peter Burgess

Bjørn, Kim and Harper, Scott - Pedal Crush: Stompbox Effects for Creative Music (Bjooks, 2019)

Cover Pedal Crush

I totally fell for Pedal Crush. I couldn’t sleep until I finished reading it for the first time, and I have read it many times since then. I occasionally open it at random pages, stare at the pictures, and think about specific sentences forever deserving further consideration. I also read, and equally adored, Push Turn Move: Interface Design in Electronic Music (Kim Bjørn, Bjooks, 2017), which is also great. I must blame both books for most of the stupid things I did this year, notably buying too many effect pedals, a few superfluous synths, and all sorts of devices in between like a Critter & Guitari’s Organelle which took the whole summer to cross the Atlantic. I have had a lot of fun, and dramatically expanded my technical skills. I learnt that sometimes when the manual says “if you connect here a cable different from the authorised one, you risk causing permanent damage to the unit”, the manual is right. I rediscovered the simple pleasure of turning knobs and pushing buttons.

And much to my delight I realised that a great deal of technological innovation in this area is enthusiastically driven by a celebration of technology’s limitations. Effects producers’ obsession with tape is particularly dear to me, as tape was crucial for the evolution of modern music, but also the original data storage device, and key to many historical computer developments like the popularisation of 8-bit games. There are effects revisiting tape from all ages and recreating all kinds of tape imperfections and all states of tape deterioration, both in historically faithful and unfaithful attitudes.

You can, for instance, connect a pedal emulating the sound of VHS videotape, an advanced handcrafted algorithmic sequencer with bit-crushed stutter, a limited edition glitching modulating delay from Norway, and a made-in-China ‘lo-fi machine’. The possibilities for conceptual perversion - and the opportunities for anthropological meditation - are just endless. Pedal Crush opened my eyes to this. It made me poorer, but smarter, and stronger. In addition, it features an interview of Amulets, who is my current cassette tape hero. Absolute obsession-of-the-year book.

Gloria González Fuster

Butler, Judith - The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind (Verso, 2020)

Cover Butler

«…if I shoot on his forehead or his heart he’ll only have the time to die…but I’ll be left with the time to see…to see the eyes of a dying man». These are the words of Piero, a soldier at the front, in the song La Guerra di Piero (Piero’s war) of the Italian songwriter De André. Piero suddenly sees the enemy and should shoot but is seized by hesitation and asks himself whether he should really kill. He realises that doing it will affect himself in the first place. These verses seem to me well suited to introduce Judith Butler's The Force of Nonviolence

This book with Gandhian title inherits from many thinkers, especially Sigmund Freud and his considerations on war and death, and revives the theme of nonviolence guiding us through the ambiguities and prejudices that surround it in the contemporary political spectrum. There are times when violence, anger and aggressiveness seem to be saturating the world, leaving us with no alternative. It is because we are capable of destruction that we need to understand why we should control such capability. The task of nonviolence is that of finding ways of acting according to which aggressiveness can be transformed and its directions reversed for collective struggle. 

To take nonviolence seriously, we need to depart from the ways of thinking that allow its critics to dismiss it under the claim that it is unrealistic. 

In traditional liberal thought, humans appear in the social world from a 'state of nature' in which they are in conflict with each other. We are not told how this process has occurred, Butler writes, nor why conflict, rather than attachment, should be our primary and foundational relationship. If the state of nature is pure fiction, it remains a powerful one. The human is (re)presented as an adult and independent individual, as if he had never been a child, never depended on parental figures, kinship or other ties to survive, grow up and learn anything. Dependence is unknown to this original man equipped with anger and cravings.

The fulcrum of this book lies perhaps in this word: dependence and in its re-elaboration towards interdependence and solidarity. This implies giving away the idea of a body delimited by individual boundaries. Here the individual acknowledges constitution by relation: every life is in the hands of another, there are no lives more worthy of mourning than others.

Nonviolence then becomes an ethical obligation not to destroy each other. It starts with the awareness that preserving the lives of others has something to do with self-preservation. 

This attitude takes lot of trouble. In the end, the other soldier of the song does not ask himself why Piero is not shooting and – out of fear – shoots him first.

Nonviolence involves hesitation, self-moderation (sophrosyne), conscious and stubborn choice. 

Alessia Tanas

Chekhov, Anton - A Life in Letters (Folio Society, 1994)

Chekov

His letters are the best place to get a glimpse of Chekhov the man, which is not easy to do with a writer who kept his inner life closely guarded. This beautifully bound and illustrated selection of his letters gives evidence of the writer’s humanity and humour, and contains the kinds of insights that also fill his stories and plays (‘real talents always sit in the shadows’; well-bred people ‘feel compassion not only for beggars and cats. Their heart grieves also at things unseen by the naked eye’).

We also learn in a letter from his wife how he died what sounds like the perfect death: he took a glass of champagne that he had asked for, ‘turned his face towards me, smiled his wonderful smile, said “it’s been a long time since I’ve drunk champagne”, calmly drained the glass, lay peacefully on his left side and soon fell silent forever’. A wonderful book.

Christopher Kuner

Dobelli, Rolf - Stop Reading the News (Sceptre, 2020)

Cover of Dobelli

In the times of the ever-growing cacophony of information, Dobelli continues his provocation, first made to The Guardian in 2013, to critically self-reflect on what you read (watch, listen etc.) to be up-to-date with what is going on in the world, where you read news, how much news you read, how much time you spend on reading news, why you do so, what you do with what you have read and what such reading does to you.

I got this book as a gift and I am still wondering whether this was meant to be a hint.

Dariusz Kloza

Dostoevsky, Anna - Dostoevsky: Reminiscences (Liveright, 1975)

Cover Anna

Putting aside Joseph Frank’s monumental five-volume biography (the work of a lifetime), this little-known memoir by Dostoevsky’s second wife may be the single most illuminating book about the great writer, and also brings to light the life of a truly remarkable woman. Misfortune was drawn to Dostoevsky like a moth to the flame, and among the dire circumstances Anna had to put up with during her life with him were his epilepsy and constant ill-health; several serious illnesses on her part; the death of their first daughter; his gambling away all their belongings several times; being constantly hounded for money by Dostoevsky’s creditors and scheming family; their young son nearly having his arm amputated unnecessarily by a quack doctor; and many other similar catastrophes.

Besides bearing all this with equanimity, she provided crucial support as his stenographer and editor, so that we would likely not have some of his greatest works if she had not been at his side. If this were not enough, she also played a key role in preserving his papers for posterity and in propagating his memory. She tells the story of their life together in gripping fashion, and does not stint from self-criticism. One is left with boundless admiration for a talented and selfless woman, as well as gratitude for her role in helping to give birth to some of the greatest literary and philosophical works of the 19th century.

Christopher Kuner

Eggers, Dave - The Monk of Mokha (Vintage Books, 2019)

Cover Mokha

This was without doubt my most entertaining read of 2020. The true story of a Yemeni American who returns to his country of origin to revive its ancient tradition of coffee making. Scouting for coffee farms with a potential to conquer the international market, Mokhtar Alkhanshali travels to Yemen’s remotest areas but soon gets caught in the erupting civil war and Saudi air raids. In a breathtaking climax he tries to escape the country with a suitcase full of coffee samples, circumnavigating frontlines and multiple check-points staffed with belligerent militias.

This is of course a classic American story of immigration, entrepreneurship and the quest for success. But it is also representative of our times in which many people seek to connect to their place and identity through the rediscovery of ‘authentic’ local produce. Most importantly, however, this book sheds light on Yemen, a forgotten country with a rich history and civilization, now caught in the crossfire of regional geopolitics and devastated by years of armed conflict. 

Marcus Michaelsen

Evaristo, Bernadine - Girl, Woman, Other (Penguin, 2020)

Girl Woman Other Cover

Benardine Evaristo has written a magnificent tale of black women in the UK, immersing the reader in twelve different lives – loosely and surprisingly intertwined – giving us a taste of what it would be like to live any and every one of them. There is warmth, reflection, rhythm, forgiveness and incisive analysis in the narrative, time and again putting the reader in the midst of a life. As a reader, we are forced to go with the flow and to feel the constraints that character imposes on whoever does the living, while simultaneously confronting the frustrations, pain and confusion that black women face when navigating a world defined by white privilege.

Evaristo steers free from pontification and moral high ground, instead uprooting assumptions on gender, sexual orientation, ancestry and racism. The narratives are epic, they span generations and continents – they stream from past predicaments to future achievements, and back. There is something innocuous about the writing style that draws the reader into a world we thought we knew; repeatedly caught unawares as we are set off on the wrong foot. There is cynicism and irony, patience and zest, daring and withdrawal. Though some may believe the end to be sentimental or romantic, it is never that – it is just that Evaristo knew when to stop the narrative (if you continue long enough, every story ends bad; if you stop in time, every story ends well).

This work won the Booker Prize of 2019 (together with Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, which I tried to read but left aside unappetized). There is a surge in English literature written by women of African descent, bringing new voices to the fore that were not heard. I can warmly recommend Abi Daré (The Girl with the Louding Voice), Imbolo Mbue (Behold the Dreamers), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Americanah and so much else), Helen Oyeyemi (e.g. The Icarus Girl), to name but a few. For more see e.g. Gary Younge’s article in The Guardian reflecting on his year of reading only African women authors.    

Mireille Hildebrandt

Gabriel Vásquez, Juan - The shape of the ruins (translated from Spanish by Anne McLean, MacLehose Press, 2015/2018)

Cover of shape of the ruins

It is difficult to find the right words to describe this book. It is partly autobiographical, partly historical, partly fiction and as a reader you can never be quite sure which part you are currently reading. It is a book about Colombia and its politics, but also about the assassination of JFK. It is about family and personal values. It is also about writing and the struggles of finding a narrative.

What fascinated me about this book is that it asks deep questions about history and whether we are ever really capable of knowing what happened in the past or even about what is happening right now. It deals with conspiracy theories, misinformation and fake news but not in the way you would expect. It made me want to learn Spanish just so I can read it again, but in its original language.  

Laura Drechsler

Editors

LSTS books of the year 2020 was edited by Laura Drechsler, Laurence Diver, and Serge Gutwirth.

Accompanying pictures are included for illustration and may or may not correspond to the cover of the edition the reviewer actually read.

Glück, Louise - Proofs & Theories. Essays on Poetry (Harper Collins, 1995)

Cover Glück

Nobel Prize winning Louise Glück has a knack for keeping her readers at a distance – disrupting their expectations just in case they get her wrong. She has no mercy for those who prefer sentimentality and romantic endearment to sensitivity and acuity. She fulminates (though this may be the wrong word) against honesty and sincerity as she finds them contrary to the kind of truth that is at stake in art. Glück identifies the ‘tendency to connect the idea of truth with the idea of honesty’ as ‘a form of anxiety’, betraying a quest for certainty, for what is already known and can thus be confirmed. I found her rejection of the urge to identify the author’s voice with the person of flesh and blood even more incisive than Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia – Glück’s defence of the difference is less complicated, simply dismissing the wish to reduce a work to the person who wrote it. In the brief ‘Author’s Note’ that opens the work (thank God not one of these endless inventories of all those that must be acknowledged), Glück suggests that her work offers no proofs or theories; the essays are explorations that raise questions rather than offering answers.

In the final essay on death and absence, she recalls a poem on motherhood: ‘Originally, the second section, which describes a hypothetical painting, began: “That embrace, I ask you/does it guard or restrict?” In the end, those lines were cut: they summarized what the poem had to suggest.’ Don’t tell if you can help it, merely suggest: ‘Poems do not endure as objects but as presences. When you read anything worth remembering, you liberate a human voice; you release into the world again a companion spirit.’

This is not what we do in scientific research, not even in the humanities. We tell, we argue and we explain. And we should, science is not poetry. Nevertheless, the acuity of perceiving what has not been made explicit is pivotal for robust scientific exploration, just like the particular combination of modesty and daring it requires. 

Mireille Hildebrandt

Graeber, David - Fragments of an anarchist anthropology (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004)

Anarchist Anthropology

2020 was an annus horribilis. As if climate disruption, COVID-19, war, desperate migrations, the deadly global orgy of competition, productivism and profit were not enough, on September 2 we also lost David Graeber, one of the strongest voices of activism, science, hope and possible futures. Graeber was indeed well known as an inspiring voice of many social and political battles, be it for the Occupy movement or the revolted students of Amsterdam, the gilets jaunes or the ZADistes in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, examples of movements he participated in. But he was at least as famous[1] as an anthropologist who inquired into and commented on contemporary issues which do not usually lay in the focus of this discipline, with bureaucracy, debt, bullshit jobs and economy as the most remarked-upon examples. And no, he was not schizophrenic: he was at once an engaged academic and a scientific activist, both aspects mutually feeding each other as in Esher’s drawing of a hand drawing the drawing hand. Contrary to what we are nudged to believe as Kuhnian zombies, Graeber knew and showed that commitment and acting in and upon a milieu, a world, are stimulating and enhancing the production of scientific knowledge, rather than the positivist creeds of asepticism and adequatio rei et intellectus. We are really going to miss him. 

The Fragments of an anarchist anthropology is a short but quintessential work wherein I think that Graeber touches upon the core of his approach. E.g., we should no longer be obnubilated by a number of fictions that we take for unquestionable realities: the individual, the state and ‘economy’. These are indeed the three main building stones of the world according to the political economy of liberalism: the building stones, in other words, of the almost hegemonic set of ‘truths’ that effectively steer and drive the contemporary world, eradicating, oppressing, making invisible and poisoning everything that doesn’t match these fictions. 

To start with, Graeber wonders how it comes that he sees and meets anarchist-inspired movements – that thus refer to autonomy, voluntary association, self-organization, mutual aid and direct democracy – growing everywhere, while in the academy anarchism is at best unknown, but generally bluntly and self-righteously dismissed as nonsense or violent extremism. His answers to this question are manifold: anarchists are more activists and do not aim at developing encompassing theories; Marxism has occupied the place of academic resistance with ‘critique’ for too long, and mainstream social sciences have traditionally taken the State for granted, disqualifying differing opinions as utopist and naive. So, the challenge is to develop an approach which is in the “interest to those who are trying to help bring about a world in which people are free to govern their own affairs?” (p.10) and which takes a pragmatic stance, namely that another world is possible and hence must be constructed. That is why Prof. Graeber is David-the-activist: the radical intellectual has “to look at those who are creating viable alternatives, try to figure out what might be the larger implications of what they are (already) doing, and then offer those ideas back, not as prescriptions, but as contributions, possibilities – as gifts” (p.12).

And so the booklet unfolds. Precursors of an anarchist anthropology do exist: Pjotr Kropotkin, who described ‘mutual aid’ as a counterpart for the darwinian and economic ‘struggle for life’ (a very actual stance, actually, in times of a bio-ecology of symbiosis and interdependence); Marcel Mauss showed that economies can be based upon gifts, rather than upon barter and calculations; Pierre Clastres showed that Amazonians lived without a notion of state; James Scott described Zomia as a region where not being governed turned into a culture, and so on and so forth. In fact, the world is riddled with anarchist spaces and they appear to us, not as exceptions, but as a default position. If we do not see this bottom-up forms of auto-organization it is simply because they have been either made invisible by the glasses we wear upon our noses for 250 years, or colonized, or simply destroyed. But the fact is: the excluded, the re- and oppressed, the activists and the concerned publics keep these collective dynamics of hope alive, while the intellectuals may develop words and concepts that match and boost such dynamics. Ethnography and anthropology can meet this double appeal.

Graeber’s work and proposals do delightfully meet the concerns and driving forces of the actual commons-movement. The affinity between Graeber’s anarchist anthropology and e.g. David Bollier’s political activation of a strong reclaiming of our capacity to think and act a commoners[2] are kindred.  That is clear when Graeber writes: “Revolutionary action does not necessarily have to aim to topple governments. Attempts to create autonomous communities in the face of power would, for instance, be almost by definition revolutionary acts. And history shows us that the continual accumulation of such acts can change (almost) everything”.

If a better world is possible, an anarchist anthropology may certainly help us making it. 

[1] Many would say “excellent”, because he was a professor at Yale and LSE, but I don’t, because that word has lost all sense since the academy left the determination of its signification to a private business called Thomson Reuters. 

[2] David Bollier & Silke Helfrish, Free, Fair, and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons (Gabriola Island, New Society Publishers, 2019) and David Bollier, Think like a commoner. A short introduction to the life of the commons (Gabriola Island, New Society Publishers, 2014)

Serge Gutwirth

Groff, Lauren - Fates and Furies (Riverhead Books, 2016)

Cover Groff

After the first lockdown, I was keen to fulfill at least one of my resolution of 2020, so I picked the most realistic one – getting a public library subscription in the little Flemish town I live in. It was definitely the best thing I did in 2020. The first book I lend from them was Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, which got me hooked immediately. This is one of these books however, where explaining about the plot kind of ruins the plot. In a nutshell, it investigates a marriage from all relevant perspectives.

For me, this book emphasized once more that human beings are complex, contradictory and surprising, and even in a relationship one cannot ever truly ‘profile’ the other. 

Laura Drechsler

Hartzog, Woodrow - Privacy's Blueprint: The Battle to Control the Design of New Technologies (Harvard University Press, 2018)

Cover Blueprint

My mother enjoys online shopping.  While I imagine it’s very rare for her generation, she enjoys messaging, makes small payments using apps, and occasionally tells me how she had a nice shopping experience by comparing and purchasing a good product using shopping websites. One day, she was a bit nervous, and told me she needed to cancel her Amazon Prime membership as she had “accidentally” subscribed to it.  After cancelling with struggle, we learned two lessons: cancellation itself is “challenging,” and anyone can “accidentally” subscribe to paid membership unless we pay very close attention to how the website/interface is designed.  We checked what went wrong, and found that when a choice was given, the interface is crafted so that one looks like a button as if it’s the only choice and the other is designed as if it’s part of the background.  Later, we learned there is a term for such things: deceptive design or dark patterns.

Now some questions arise. 

Are entities free to design their interface in a way that maximizes the collection, use, and disclosure of personal data? Should laws intervene with designs, and if so, to what extent?  How can and should privacy law set boundaries and goals for technological designs so that protection of privacy is not circumvented because “users chose so”?

Hartzog’s Privacy’s Blueprint addresses these questions and discusses how the design of information technologies is critical to privacy.  With ample examples, the book begins by making the case how “design is (almost) everything,” “design is everywhere,” and “design is power” and thus “design is political.”  It continues to provide a more specific “blueprint” from three different perspectives, and further, it spends extensive length on applying the blueprint to online services and IoT.  The book provides common grounds for privacy advocates and experts as well as law and policymakers to discuss the design agenda for privacy law.

The concept of privacy by design (PbD), a closely related concept, dates back to 1995 according to the report entitled “Privacy-enhancing technologies: the path to anonymity,” and subsequently many guidelines and opinions have been published, including the recent Guidelines on DP by Design and by Default (DPbDD) by the EDPB. The Directive 95/46/EC had recital 46 and the GDPR has Article 25 along with recital 78.

The book, however, is still new to me and pushes me to think more about the issues.  In my view, this is because the Article 25 approach heavily focuses on data, while the book extends the PbD’s goals, expands to include manipulation, obscurity, and trust issues within relationships, and takes a more holistic approach.  For anyone who’s interested in issues concerning privacy and design, I recommend reading Hartzog’s Privacy’s Blueprint, along with CNIL’s Shaping Choices in the Digital World, and two opinions by the EDPS (Opinion on online manipulation and personal data and Preliminary Opinion on privacy by design).  They help you put the design agenda for data protection/privacy law into perspective.

Hideyuki Matsumi

Hertmans, Stefan - De opgang (De Bezige Bij, 2020)

Cover Opgang

Some Flemish authors compose music when writing prose. There is a sensual love of detail, a daring dance on the fine line between hyperbole and dry description, an oblique acuity that verges on the lyrical while always returning to an earthly, embodied existence where the physical horror and the sensuous beauty of love and death, labour and jouissance, violence and stillness, deception and care mingle and provoke. Being able to read these novels and taste their gusto for life is one of the best reasons to master Dutch (for those not native to Belgium or The Netherlands), my favourites are Kristien Hemmerechts, Erwin Mortier, David Van Reybrouck (check his latest Revolusi and seminal Congo), Lize Spit, Greet Op de Beeck (looking forward to seeing the movie based on Kom hier dat ik u kus) and Jeroen Olyslaegers but there is so much more. Strangely, I dare call Flemish novels un-Dutch; there is a quality of carnal precision and lush reflection that is absent from ‘the Dutch mind’ (if there were such a thing). 

In De opgang (The Entrance) Hertmans recounts the history of a mansion in the Gent neighbourhood of Patershol (a Flemish word that I shall leave untranslated for now) and its previous inhabitants. Hertmans owned the house and lived there for years, unaware of the Flemish Nazi-collaborator Willem Verhulst who resided there with his family during the second world war. The book unfolds a deeply personal history of Flemish collaboration, through the lens of Verhulst’s ‘flamingant’ activism, and his three marriages to a Jewish woman, to the Dutch mother of his children and to his collaborator mistress turned wife. The idiosyncrasies of Verhulst’s character are both incredible and convincing (human beings can be understood but hardly explained), while simultaneously exploring some of the roots of the perplexing intricacies of Belgian politics. 

Mireille Hildebrandt

Lefteri, Christy - The beekeeper of Aleppo (Ballantine Books, 2019)

Cover Lefteri

I nearly brought this book back to the library without reading it as I was scared it would make me too sad. I am very glad I did not and that I read it after all. In it, Christy Lefteri, who gained experience providing all kinds of assistance (including legal) in refugee camps in Greece and in the UK, describes the full journey of a Syrian couple from Aleppo to the UK. The book is at times very depressing and captures the complexities involved in fleeing your country and having to redefine your identity. It also deals with immense personal loss and the ways the human mind deals with trauma. The book also gives hope however and reminds about the resilience of humans.

I think if everyone (especially politicians) would read this book, the world would be a place with more empathy and grace.

Laura Drechsler

Plath, Sylvia - The Bell Jar (Faber and Faber, 1963/1999)

Bell Jar Cover

"She wants, [...], to be everything.” 

Plath’s autobiographical novel The Bell Jar offers a mighty and honest look into mental health. The imagery she uses and the topics she discusses are not far from her poetical themes: an omnipresent Death Drive, depression, feelings of inadequacy, suicidal thoughts and attempts, hospitalization and treatments, an effort to wake up in the morning and lead a living, the search for her identity, the constant limbo between hope and hopelessness. Yet the reader may have not expected this turn, when reading the first chapters.

Plath (as Esther in her novel) is a Lady Lazarus trapped in a personal and societal bell jar. Even when the bell jar is lifted, her impression of being trapped does not vanish. Instead, her transparent prison with its stifling distortions follows her everywhere she goes, hovering over her head as a constant threat. There is plenty to say about the book, but again I will conclude with Plath’s own words (The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath): “[…] I am the present, but I know I, too, will pass. The high moment, the burning flash, come and are gone, continuous quicksand. And I don’t want to die.”

Olga Gkotsopoulou

Pushkin, Alexander - Пиковая дама (ELI Graded Readers, 2018)

Cover Pushkin

Reading one’s first book in a new language (Russian in this case) is something special, and there was no better choice than a work that has fascinated me since I originally read it in German, in which language it is known as Pique Dame. Russian and German are about as different as two languages can be, so reading it in the original opened up a whole new world of meaning (though ironically, the anti-hero of the story is an officer of German heritage).

Imperial St. Petersburg, glittering on the outside but casting a sinister shadow, is the real protagonist of this dark tale of suppressed emotions and secret obsessions, which also evidences Pushkin’s Gogolesque love of the fantastic and his acute sense of social commentary. In the doddering, malignant old Countess Tomskaya he created one of the unforgettable characters of literature, and the almost nihilistic dénouement stays with one long after the story is finished. Now, on to Chekhov…

Christopher Kuner

Rich, Adrienne - Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972 (W.W.Norton, 1973)

Cover Diving into the wreck

The words are purposes. 
The words are maps.

These verses come from the poem “Diving into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich, included in her seventh volume of poetry. A lot can be said about Rich’s poetry and life outside poetry, but I will limit myself to simply quote her own words from the Credo of a Passionate Skeptic towards the end of her life: “I began as an American optimist... I became an American skeptic… Perhaps just such a passionate skepticism, neither cynical nor nihilistic, is the ground for continuing.” 

Olga Gkotsopoulou

Russell, Stuart - Human Compatible: AI and the Problem of Control (Penguin Books, 2020)

Cover Human Compatible

Human Compatible is a must-read guide to AI for anyone searching for a realistic overview of the latest developments and challenges in the field – from the not-so-great AI debate to how machines may learn human preferences when we ourselves often struggle to understand them – by one of its most influential voices. As a professor of Computer Science at Berkley and prominent AI scientist, Russell brings his learnings to a wider audience in an effort to spark a bigger conversation about the kind of future we want to create and the role of superhuman AI within it. 

Russell challenges the relevance of the current definition of an intelligent machine - which is usually classed as such when it achieves its objective(s) – and asks us to rethink it in a way that establishes an explicit power dynamic where humans remain in control. This new definition proposes that: “Machines are beneficial to the extent that their actions can be expected to achieve our objectives.” Throughout the book, Russell places Harriet and Robbie in the different decision-making scenarios in which a human might interact with a robot, from the mundane to the more complex. It shows us how these scenarios might play out when intelligent machines are designed to always defer to the human in case of uncertainty, be switched off, and ultimately bring about a beneficial outcome. 

Though these accounts are anything but straightforward, and indeed will often make you sigh in near-exasperation, Russell’s knowledge of the field and masterful storytelling never lets you sink too deep. On finishing this book, I felt better equipped to engage in meaningful conversations on the topic with the people around me – just as Russell intended.

Bianca Marcu

Shelley, Mary - Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (Wordsworth Classics, 1818)

Cover Frankenstein

A classical parable with an abundance of dimensions (obviously) and amongst these, the limits of science and technology development, and own’s curiosity and responsibility therefor.

To be read and re-read regularly.

Dariusz Kloza

Snowdon, Edward - Permanent Record (Metropolitan Books, 2019)

Cover Snowdon

Once Mr. Snowden’s state surveillance revelations were published, the whistle-blower prompted strikingly different reactions. Mr. Snowden was perceived as a hero by many Europeans and was pronounced an outlaw in the US. 

His personality was of little interest to me at that time in the summer of 2013. It was the undeniable evidence of general and indiscriminate surveillance programmes that mattered. The profound impact of this news was certain. Indeed, thanks to his revelations, the Court of Justice of the EU was able to annul the Safe Harbour Decision and the amendment for Article 48 of the GDPR (at the time Article 43 A) was acknowledged as an important one. 

The documents shared by him with a few selected journalists made it crystal clear that the US intelligence agencies were playing fast and loose with (meta and not only) data collected by intercepting communications, including emails, phone calls, and internet browsing. 

Fast forward to 2020, Snowden’s name is still relevant in policy and data protection circles and beyond. For this reason, I thought that it’s time to get to know Mr. Snowden a little better and learn about his motives for publishing revelations about NSA snooping practices. 

I recommend reading this informative book because it talks about many other things as well (e.g. the clash of generations, relationship between government and business organizations). For me, a genuine believer in the importance of international relations, the most striking part of the book was the description of the ruthless conduct of US embassy staff. Finally, the book is a great reminder that critical thinking is an important asset if one sets out to churn the waters. 

Lina Jasmontaite

Stanley Robinson, Kim - The Ministry for the Future (Orbit Books, 2020)

Cover Ministry Future

I’m happy that I remained faithful to Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR) writings, of which I am, since long, a voracious amateur. His last hard science fiction novel is a jewel again. 

We are in the very near future. In India there has been a terribly deadly heat wave and ice masses are gliding into the seas. The catastrophe is palpable and geo-engineering is experimented at a large scale. But all kind of other solutions are envisioned and thought as well. 

This is not a pessimistic book, but a book full of hope, showing how human practices might, if we let them, find solutions for climate change, not only through technology and science, but also through locally embedded politics, commitment and cooperation. Amongst others, the path towards the imagination and deployment of sustainable solutions is fed by the author’s fictional establishment of a subsidiary body under the COP-agreements, named The Ministry for the Future charged with “defending all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves, by promoting their legal standing and physical protection”. The pleasure of reading KFR is that the many plots do bring the reader in a rooted and situated position again and again. This indeed gives flesh to the development, experimentation and deployment of ideas that can work as inspiring engines for new subsequent explorations. These imaginations are rich and inspiring: from a Ministry for the future over to the creation of ‘carbon coins’, the elaboration of land reforms and regenerative agriculture, to great rewilding projects though corridors. 

Just this, as an appetizer (I have found at least 20 other quotable paragraphs like this one !): 

« The whole field and discipline of economics, by which we plan and justify what we do as a society, is simply riddled with absences, contradictions, logical flaws, and most important of all, false axioms and false goals. We must fix that if we can. It would require going deep and restructuring that entire field of thought. If economics is a method for optimizing various objective functions subject to constraints, then the focus of change would need to look again at those “objective functions.” Not profit, but biosphere health, should be the function sold for; and this would change many things. It means moving the inquiry from economics to political economy, but that would be the necessary step to get the economics right. Why do we do things? What do we want? What would be fair? How can we best arrange our lives together on this planet? Our current economics has not yet answered any of these questions. But why should it? Do you ask your calculator what to do with your life? No. You have to figure that out for yourself. » (KSR, p. 66)

Serge Gutwirth

Tokarczuk, Olga - The Books of Jacob (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2014)

Cover of Books of Jacob

How to change a system of which we have become part? The Book of Jacob is a multi-level, complex narrative about Jacob Frank, a Jew who caused a revolution amidst oppression caused by a feudal system. Frank is a historical figure, the leader of a mysterious, heretical Jewish splinter group that lived in the eighteenth century in Eastern Europe. At its height, the movement claimed around 50,000 followers. The book describes the story of Jacob Frank and his acolytes.

Frank’s revolution, although based on Judaic orthodoxy, should be seen as a fruit of disagreement with it and its critical assessment. Jacob attempted to deconstruct the existing order and break up the old social, political and religious schemes. His in-depth and thoughtful contestation of the existing reality and the eighteenth century world order as well as liberal views, resulted in his views being considered a heresy. 

The story as presented by Tokarczuk, a Nobel prize winner in literature, goes beyond the convention of a historical novel - it is a universal tale, about the need for transcendence and freedom, spirituality, but at the same time - about oppression and religious violence. 

Only by contesting the reality and by challenging existing schemes we can change them.

Michał Czerniawski

Van Middelaar, Luuk - The Passage to Europe: How a Continent Became a Union (translated from Dutch by Liz Waters, Yale University Press, 2013)

Cover of Europe

A fascinating history of the making of European integration from mid-20th century onwards. (Note the book was written long before ‘Brexit’.)

What Van Middelaar offers are many explanations and commentaries about why we are where we are in Europe, and he tells a few captivating stories, e.g. de Gaulle and the empty chair crisis or Craxi and the 1985 Milan summit.

Dariusz Kloza

Walsh, Declan - The Nine Lives of Pakistan. Dispatches from a Divided Nation (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020)

Cover Pakistan

This book brought up a lot of memories: during the same decade in which the author worked as the Pakistan correspondent for The Guardian and later The New York Times, I spent several years in Islamabad. In this time Pakistan witnessed not only a rise in religious extremism and violence, but also the election of the first government in its 70-year history able to complete a full regular term. 

The book opens with Walsh’s sudden expulsion from the country at the orders of the powerful secret service, the ISI. It is only at the end that the reader learns, together with Walsh, what line he has crossed, after one of his former observers, now exiled to Europe, contacts him to tell the story. Instead of delivering the typical memoir of a foreign correspondent, overloaded with information and anecdotes, Walsh approaches Pakistan through the portrayal of nine protagonists representing different facets of this complex and contradictory country: among others, a flamboyant businessmen turned politician who gets killed by his own bodyguard for taking a position against the notorious blasphemy law; a Karachi police officer fighting crime in the megapolis while occasionally himself crossing into not-so-legal territory; and a secret service agent who has spent the better part of his career grooming the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, only to be later captured and killed by their radical offspring, the Pakistani Taliban.

With in-depth knowledge, an eye for detail and fondness for the country and its people, Walsh brings to life the key moments of Pakistan’s contemporary history. 

Marcus Michaelsen