Non-Fiction: How the World Thinks by Julian Baggini
-Words by Amy Gatenby
How the World Thinks by Julian Baggini is a fairly daunting book to pick up. The hardback copy seems to be undoubtedly sizeable, sitting at approximately 450 pages, but the beautiful cover makes this rather sturdy book inviting to all.
As you would expect the book itself considers many philosophical traditions, not just in the Western World, but all over the world. As explained by Baggini what we in the West call Philosophy is not the picture as a whole but only a mere snippet of the theories and ideologies that run through the world and its hundreds of cultures. In this book Baggini, a keen traveller, sends us on a journey to explore the lesser known philosophies of Japan, China, India, Africa, Australia, and the Muslim world.
Part one of the book focuses on how the world knows. It explores the idea that although the world is split into many cultures in so many different places, we all tend to gravitate towards the same moral grounding. Using quotes from well-known philosophers and providing his own opinion, Baggini strikes a strong balance of opinions but leaves room to interpret for yourself. The conclusion Baggini draws is that many people and cultures throughout the world often battle the moral questions of life and struggle to balance the positives and negatives, the need to do social good with the need to be selfish. The difference is not that people share different morals or issues, but they position themselves in different places when facing those extremes. The theory that he touches upon throughout is that of a music producer saying, “by sliding controls up or down, the volume of each track can be increased or decreased.” We are all beating from the same drum, or playing the same song, but we just listen to it in different pitches.
One notable feature of this work is that it is explored thematically rather than by school, making for a much better understanding but also better comparisons. However, the book slows its pace when describing some of the philosophical ideologies, as they can seem to be skimmed over and with something as interesting as this you would hope to come out feeling satisfied with knowledge. While Baggini has left a lot to be desired, he has certainly sparked an intrigue to delve deeper into the topics he presents.
How the World Thinks by Julian Baggini, Granta, 432 pp, £20
Fiction: Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
-Words by Josh Mcloughlin
Willa Knox’s magazine has folded. Husband Iano Tavoularis has managed to find a new job with a big pay cut near the crumbling house Willa has inherited in Vineland, NJ. Tig, their passionate and political daughter, and Zeke, their son and a single father unable to cope after the suicide of his girlfriend, have both moved in. Add to job losses the bitter irony of Iano’s father Nick, a Greek immigrant to the US, spewing out unthinking racisms whilst in dire need of expensive medical treatment, and Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered demands to be read in the immediate context of contemporary US politics.
Yet this is only half the story. Kingsolver introduces a second narrative, that of Thatcher Greenwood, a new arrival to the Vineland of the 1870s, itself just a decade old after its founding as a utopia by Charles K. Landis. However, Greenwood, an ardent Darwinist, discovers one person’s paradise is another’s conservative nightmare. Whilst well-known for the social inflexion of her writing, Kingsolver doesn’t just offer political criticism for us to nod along to. With the hypnotic repetition of ‘shelter’ and its synonyms and antonyms throughout the text, Unsheltered urges the reader to remember the basic tenet of any functional community, whether in the biblical call to support those in need or more secular socialism that urges solidarity in the face of the unchecked auspices of power.
Written mostly during the 2016 primaries, Unsheltered can feel uncannily prophetic: an unnamed presidential candidate claims to be so popular that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without political consequence; Greenwood’s Vineland sees a journalist shot in broad daylight. The interpretative question posed is whether or not we read this apparent ‘eternal return of the same’ with despair or with hope.
The two last chapters, ‘The Downfall’ and ‘The Survival’ make it quite clear that the responsibility lies with the reader. In the end, Kingsolver navigates the thorny problem of the dual narrative with admirable poise, and weaves into her measured prose strokes of vivid effusion, from the revolutionary zeal of a ‘roar of peasant ancestors with rocks in their fists’, to the oddly melancholy ‘the end of something that everyone agrees must end’. A novel that rescues itself from falling into grim despair with a compelling narrative and genuinely sympathetic characters, Unsheltered nevertheless harbours a pointed warning that we are – or, perhaps, have been for too long – sleepwalking, unprepared, into a storm of our own.