Books Read in 2015 37. Just My Type – Simon Garfield

eclecticreader15

Genre: Non-Fiction, Microhistory

Narrative Style: Academic, Some first person anecdotes

Rating: 5/5

Published: 201151lZzrI4UcL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: This is book is the story of how we came to live in a type saturated world and how there came to be quite so many fonts to choose from. This is a book for anyone who has ever pondered what font to write that letter in or why the 2012 Olympics logo was just so terrible. This book takes us from the very beginnings of print to the very latest computer designed fonts and takes in all the stages in between. 

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge Genre: Microhistory

The reading of this book came about because my husband is obsessed with fonts and often bemoans the trend for not saying what font a book has been typeset in. So I bought him this book a while ago and when this genre came up, it seemed to fit perfectly.

This is not just a book about type and its (seemingly) infinite varieties. it is also about the history of the industry. It takes the reader from the very beginnings of type when it was a laborious and highly skilled job to the modern day where anyone can invent a font or base on one their handwriting using their personal computer. This is not to suggest that modern font designers are not craftsmen, just that it is a completely different process and as with so many things, the computer has made it a much wider playing field.

Along the way, there was much nostalgia with discussions about printing sets for children and Letraset – both of which I can remember. I loved the inkiness of using the printing set and it was less irritating than trying to actually use Letraset. Certainly, children who are interested in such things these days will never know that particular frustration. There is an undercurrent of longing for the old days throughout this book as if the computer has sucked some of the romance out of font design. Which undoubtedly it has.

There are also chapters on specific fonts, the circumstances of their birth and the use to which they are now put. These were particularly interesting as they showed the eccentricity of many designers. This thankfully hasn’t changed with the advent of computer design. There are still mavericks out there, doing their best to be as different as possible despite the universal pull towards simple – and I think boring – fonts such as Helvetica which is becoming stupidly ubiquitous.

Finally, here is a warning. When you read this book, you will bore your friends silly with the amount of interesting font trivia in this book. And also, you will find that it is almost impossible to walk down the street without surveying every single sign you see. It’s funny how much we take for granted. It is strange to think of motorway signs being designed. This is because they work so well. (And when you see the font we could have had, you understand exactly how important this design was.) Everywhere in our lives, we see type working well, doing its job. it’s only when the font doesn’t work that we groan and hold our heads. For the most part, the designers get it right and fonts don’t invade our consciousness when we are trying to find our way or read important information. But now, I will certainly think about it a little more and appreciate the effort a designer took to make life a little bit more effortless for me.

Books Read in 2014 – 13. The Sociopath Next Door – Martha Stout

Genre: Academic, Psychology
narrative style: first person, case studies and analysis
Rating:3/5
Format: Paperback
Published: 2005

Synopsis: Stout recounts examples of sociopathy from her practice as a psychologist and analyses what the origins of such behaviours are. 

This book was part research, part pleasure. I have always been fascinated by the psychopath or sociopath in fiction and film. As such, in my next book, I have a character who has some features of sociopathy and I have been reading around the subject for a while.

The book opens with a discussion of conscience and the way most of us react in circumstances when we might have to make a sacrifice in order to help others. This is called the seventh sense and according to Stout 96% of us have it. The other 4% are sociopaths. This seems quite a large amount. And it seems that most of us will have come across at least one in our lives. She then describes exactly what she means by living without conscience. This is by far the most interesting part of the book. Stout uses case studies to illustrate the symptoms of sociopathy and they are quite horrific to read. But also, I must admit, fascinating. Perhaps it is the thought of what it would be like to never feel any obligation towards another person – intriguing but almost impossible to imagine.
She also charts the origins of conscience in a few different ways – religious, evolutionary, psychologically – all of which are also interesting. Personally, I am most drawn to evolutionary theories – what’s good for the group is good for the species. After all, as Stout points out, if we all did exactly as we pleased, the whole species would very soon die out.
However, there are irritating things about this book. There is something deeply spiritual about Stout’s version of conscience which, as an atheist, I found quite hard to stomach. One of the later chapters is devoted to religious leaders who have suggested do into others as you would to yourself as a way of life. This is not really what I would have expected from a psychological all study. It all gets a bit subjective.
Stout seems to want to have her cake and eat it. She obviously feels that she can judge sociopaths lacking as they do not have the emotional connections that we good folk with consciences have. Which maybe true. But she also suggests that sociopathy is a mental illness and may be, at least partly, innate. If this is the case, the it is hardly fair to pass moral judgement.
Finally, there is a sense of either you are a sociopath or you are not. It is black or white. I would suggest that, as with most things to do with the mind, it is a lot more complicated than that.

Media Panics and the Need to be Sceptical: Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

I’ve always considered myself to be quite a sceptical person. That’s why I started to read Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in the first place. It was confirmation of things I already thought – the media are responsible for making the public both fearful and hopeful in a completely irresponsible way. It also gave me new tools with which to judge stories, the way statistics are distorted and science misrepresented, for example.

A little while ago, I went to see Goldacre speak about his new book Bad Pharma at The Showroom in Sheffield. It was both enlightening and deeply worrying as he highlighted exactly the ways that the big pharmaceutical companies bury results that don’t suit them and as a result, how doctors may not have all the information that they need to treat a patient. This was disturbing but, I thought, at least there are intelligent and motivated people like Goldacre trying to do something about it.

Seeing Goldacre speak prompted me to return to his writing and I decided to read Bad Science first although I don’t think it will be too long before I read Bad Pharma.

The first chapters in the book are about detoxing and other nonsense that the media seem to love. While it is always great to read someone debunking things quite so eloquently, part of me thought, well, if you are willing to fork out money for ear candles or an aqua detox so be it. A fool and their money and all that. I didn’t have very much sympathy for them.

One of the most interesting chapters was on the placebo effect. Everyone has some idea about what this means but I certainly had no idea how wide reaching it is. even the colour of the tablets or the packaging was important. Not long after this I tried – and failed – to convince my mother that own make, plain packaging pills were just as effective as the more expensive, official brand ones. She wouldn’t believe me or the doctor on the edition of Watchdog that we saw later that evening. It’s her money, I suppose. images

The subject matter gets more serious as the chapters progress. Goldacre looks at nutritional “experts” such as Gillian McKeith and Patrick Holford who play on the nation’s insecurities by peddling not just nonsense but expensive pills, gadgets and books. People may be foolish when it comes to dieting and miracle solutions to eating problems  but it is such an emotive issue and it is so caught up with self-esteem that it starts to be easier to sympathise. If someone is described as an expert in their field then why should the public not believe it. After all, most people don’t have the time to check up on these things. They take things at face value.

The final chapters look at how the media creates health panics and then specifically the MMR scare. I have to say, at this point, that I have no children so it is easy for me to look at this issue in an emotionless way and say I’d take the chance of immunisation and possible autism (if there were a link, which there isn’t) over the risk of a measles epidemic. That was my thought all the way through when this was all over the media. It is exactly the emotion of the case that the media have played on here along with the worry of being a bad parent. Imagine the guilt you would feel, they insinuate, if you did this to your child. Now you might say, this is all well and good because the media thought they were doing the right thing. Well, if that was the case it wouldn’t have taken them long to discover the flaws in this research but it is obviously more dramatic to blow a story out of proportion then to discover there isn’t really a story at all.

As Goldacre points out, there was a cry for more research into this area at the time and there has been more research, all of which finds no link. This does not make a good headline so it will probably never be reported so parents are still unable to make a balanced decision. Because even if you are sceptical, the details they still creep in. A part of your brain says well, there must have been something in it.

It is kill or cure and nothing in between is worth reporting on. Or creating  a scare about. And now measles and mumps are returning. Perhaps we will soon be seeing scare stories about that. And the media will probably blame the very research that they used to create the MMR scare in the first place.

In the end, I think the main thing I got from this book, is the need to be always sceptical. There will always be media panics – on health, video games, violent films, too much TV etc. – and they will always sell newspapers. It is down to us as readers to be aware of the tricks they use. Think it through and look beyond what it is saying.

Eclectic Reader Challenge – Published in 2013 – Levels of Life – Julian Barnes

In an earlier book, (The History of the World in 10 and a half chapters, a book dedicated to Pat Kavanagh) Julian Barnes made in clear how much he loved his wife. He recounted, with a sense of wonder, the moment in sleep when she moves her hair from the back of her neck so that he can snuggle in closely to her. For Barnes, this is a moment that every night proves the bond between them. (Incidentally, it is an image I think of almost nightly as I move my own hair from the back of my neck so that my husband can snuggle closer to me.) I had already associated the word uxorious with him, a word I am nearly certain I came across in one of his books although I cannot prove this without looking back through them all to find it. His once close friend, Martin Amis, called him uxorious (perhaps suggesting that Barnes was henpecked) when he moved from Kavanagh’s publishing company and Barnes severed all ties with him. This was a man that really loved his wife. So when I decided to read Levels of Life for the Eclectic Reader Challenge and I realised it was, at least in part, a meditation on grief at the loss of his wife I knew that it was going to be an emotional ride.

And it certainly was. The final chapter – The Loss of Depth – felt almost intrusive in its honesty about how he felt. It was like reading a diary entry or even an extended suicide note. Barnes has laid his soul bare for the reader to judge. I wonder if it has helped him to write it as he seems even at the end to be confused and lost, wondering if anything will ever change from the moment he is in now.

When I was reading the earlier chapters, I was wondering how this could possibly fit with what I the book to be about. But it soon became clear that they were joined by an extended metaphor photo (7)about flying, about freedom and about love, all of which Barnes feels he has now lost. All of this is exquisitely written. (Maybe I’m biased, Barnes is one of my favourite voices but it is always clear that he has a love of language and he writes in a very precise way which I enjoy.) But is in the final chapter that the writing has real emotional resonance. I felt devastated on his behalf as if he was someone I knew, not just an author I love. In the way of the un-bereaved, in the face of real grief, I longed to be able to do something. All I could do was make myself a cup of tea and shed a few tears for a woman I didn’t know who had such a profound effect on the life of one man.

Eclectic Reader Challenge – Humour – A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson

This was the category it took me the longest to decide on for the eclectic reader challenge. It almost seemed too obvious to pick Pratchett, Adams, Bryson, Collins, Maconie, all writers that had made me laugh out loud. At the same time, it seemed a bit risky to pick an author that I wasn’t sure of – maybe their humour wouldn’t appeal – so I decided to go for the tried and tested. Really, all of this was simply a justification for reading another wonderful Bill Bryson book.

I picked A Walk in the Woods because although I have never hiked the Appalachian Trail, I do like to hike and have done a long distance walk before so I thought I would have some empathy with what he went through.photo-3

As with all of the Bryson books that I have read, this was like being reunited with a particularly talkative old friend. The tone of the book is warm and friendly as if you were one of the fellow hikers that Bryson meets and chats to after a long days hike. Bryson is always engaging even when passing on historical detail which could be boring in a lesser writer’s hands.

Bryson, and his friend Stephen Katz, face many challenges on this walk, not least of which is their own lack of fitness at the beginning. They hit snowstorms, are assailed by insects, have maps that are dangerous in their uselessness and meet a fellow hiker so annoying that I would certainly have understood if they had murdered her in the middle of the night. In the end, they abandon her and go to spend the night in a motel.

Even when Bryson feels he is facing certain death – be it by bear, snow, sun or dehydration – he never loses his sense of humour and is quite happy to describe his own idiocy in as much detail as he describes Katz’s. He knows he is a little bit hopeless and that helps the reader to warm to him.

In the end, they do not hike the whole trail – the hundred mile wilderness at the end proves too much for them. And I must confess I was disappointed. Not because I felt that they should tried harder but because it meant the end of my journey with them, a little bit sooner than expected. A superb read for anyone who has ever donned a pair of walking boots.

Eclectic Reader Challenge – Memoir – Girl Interrupted – Susanna Kaysen

I have always been interested in reading about madness so when I signed up to do the Eclectic Reader Challenge, I decided to use Girl Interrupted for the memoir category as I had been meaning to read it for a bit. I had re-read The Bell Jar not so long ago and was interested to see what comparisons there would be in Kaysen’s memoir of the same hospital, in roughly the same era.

And there were some similarities. Both Plath and Kaysen seem distanced IMG_0045from life, unable to envisage the future or find joy in the things that were supposed to be joyful for girls their age. The difference came in the fact that Kaysen’s life outside of the asylum is not shown, simply the time she spent in hospital and, of course, in the fact that Kaysen survived to be able to look back on this period of her life.

Kaysen does not seem particularly insane. A lot of the time, her voice is reasonable with the odd descent into hysteria. Even then, like when she demands to know how long she has been unconscious during a tooth extraction and no one will tell her, there is something understandable about it. Maybe you or I wouldn’t continue to obsess about it but it was surely a reasonable request.

The ward is described in unrelenting detail and it is possible to imagine the horror of it. Every minute of their lives are accounted for. But what really comes across is the relationships between the women and the way they help each other. There are casualties along the way but there is no time to mourn and perhaps dwelling on it would be too difficult.

Towards the end of the book, Kaysen includes the description of her diagnosis – Borderline Personality – from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders III and reflects on whether it was apt and whether she has recovered. For me, this was the most interesting part of the book. She is finally allowed to leave the hospital, not because she is cured, but because she has a marriage proposal. It does seem that a lot of the problem was to do with the narrow opportunities for women at that time. One of the symptoms of Borderline Personality is social contrariness which seems to point to social causes rather than medical ones. The fact that she is released in order to get married reinforces this fact.

Kaysen’s conclusions about her own madness reflect how I imagine a lot of people feel about themselves, a constant checking to make sure that we are not that crazy, an internal questioning and striving for normality that may evade us to a greater or lesser extent. She didn’t seem out and out crazy, more like there but for the grace of god type crazy. The sort of crazy you could imagine going.

DAY 26. – Book that makes you laugh out loud.

This was a difficult one. I don’t read a lot in the way of funny books. An obvious choice would have been Terry Pratchett or perhaps Douglas Adams as both their series of books have made me laugh out loud. However, choosing a single book by either of these authors was impossible. In the end, I decided on Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson which is on of the best travel guides to Britain you could hope to read.

I have read a few of Bryson’s travel books and they are all immensely photo (6)amusing but what is particularly good about this one is that I knew the truth of Bryson’s observations. Whenever I climb a hill in the Lake District, I think of Bryson puffing and panting his way up Haystacks and try and convince myself that it will be worth it when I get to the top. As Bryson knows, it always is but he describes the way you wonder what on earth you are doing when you are about halfway up perfectly.

Bryson has an easy going style which makes it feel like you’re having a chat with a good friend. I recently read A Short History of Nearly Everything and felt, at least for a short while after reading, that I understood some of the science involved, largely due to Bryson’s humorous and open style. His description of some of the early eccentrics of science and geology were truly wondrous to behold. It seems that there is no subject that Bryson could not make entertaining and funny.