Stuff I’ve been reading recently – #5

The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak

It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath.

Death has never been busier and will become busier still.

By her brother’s graveside, Liesel’s life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Gravedigger’s Handbook, left there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery.

So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordion-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor’s wife’s library, wherever there are books to be found. But these are dangerous times. When Liesel’s foster family hides a Jewish fist-fighter in their basement, Liesel’s world is both opened up and closed down.

The Book Thief is a story about the power of words to make worlds. In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, award-winning author Markus Zusak has given us one of the most enduring stories of our time.

Conversations with Friends
by Sally Rooney

Frances is twenty-one years old, cool-headed and darkly observant. A college student in Dublin and aspiring writer, she works at a literary agency by day. At night, she performs spoken word with her best friend Bobbi, who used to be her girlfriend. When they are profiled by Melissa, a well-known journalist, they enter an exotic orbit of beautiful houses, raucous dinner parties and holidays in Provence.

Initially unimpressed, Frances finds herself embroiled in a risky ménage a quatre when she begins an affair with Nick, Melissa’s actor husband. Desperate to reconcile herself to the desires and vulnerabilities of her body, Frances’s intellectual certainties begin to yield to something new – a painful and disorienting way of living from moment to moment. But as Frances tries to keep control, her relationships increasingly unspool: with Nick, with her difficult and unhappy father, and finally even with Bobbi.

Written with rare precision and probing intelligence, Conversations with Friends is exquisitely alive to the pleasures and inhibitions of youth.

Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe
by Roger McNamee

This is the dramatic story of how a noted tech venture capitalist, an early mentor to Mark Zuckerberg and investor in his company, woke up to the serious damage Facebook was doing to our society and set out to try to stop it.

If you had told Roger McNamee three years ago that he would soon be devoting himself to stopping Facebook from destroying democracy, he would have howled with laughter. He had mentored many tech leaders in his illustrious career as an investor, but few things had made him prouder, or been better for his fund’s bottom line, than his early service to Mark Zuckerberg. Still a large shareholder in Facebook, he had every good reason to stay on the bright side. Until he simply couldn’t.

Zucked is McNamee’s intimate reckoning with the catastrophic failure of the head of one of the world’s most powerful companies to face up to the damage he is doing. It’s a story that begins with a series of rude awakenings. First, there is the author’s dawning realization that the platform is being manipulated by some very bad actors. Then there is the even more unsettling realization that Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg are unable or unwilling to share his concerns, polite as they may be to his face.

And then comes Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, and the emergence of one horrific piece of news after another about the malign ends to which the Facebook platform has been put. To McNamee’s shock, Facebook’s leaders still duck and dissemble, viewing the matter as a public relations problem. Now thoroughly alienated, McNamee digs into the issue, and fortuitously meets up with some fellow travellers who share his concerns, and help him sharpen its focus. Soon he and a dream team of Silicon Valley technologists are charging into the fray, to raise consciousness about the existential threat of Facebook, and the persuasion architecture of the attention economy more broadly – to our public health and to our political order.

Zucked is both an enthralling personal narrative and a masterful explication of the forces that have conspired to place us all on the horns of this dilemma. This is the story of a company and its leadership, but it’s also a larger tale of a business sector unmoored from normal constraints, at a moment of political and cultural crisis, the worst possible time to be given new tools for summoning the darker angels of our nature and whipping them into a frenzy. This is a wise, hard-hitting, and urgently necessary account that crystallizes the issue definitively for the rest of us.

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