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Matthew D Lieberman – Social

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We were not made to be alone, not even for a short while.

Publisher: Crown (Random House)
Pages: 305
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-307-88909-6
First Published: 1st January 2013
Date Reviewed: 7th January 2014
Rating: 2.5/5

Looking at various regions of the brain, Lieberman tells the reader how each section revolves around sociability and how we evolved to be social creatures.

Social sports an interesting topic that is unfortunately marred by a lack of reasoning and a lot of bizarre and poorly thought out propositions. On the surface the book presents itself as the antithesis of Susan Cain’s Quiet and will therefore likely attract those readers who enjoyed Cain’s work. However where Cain was mostly objective, Lieberman is incredibly biased.

The book is structured so that different brain regions are examined one after the other with statements about evolution, information about relevant experiments, and short resolutions created by Lieberman, scattered throughout each chapter. The book ends with Lieberman’s most ‘pressing’ resolutions for society in general. It’s not a bad set-up, per se, but it does mean that the book is monotonous and that for the reader who is not intimately aware of the brain regions it will likely be all too easy to become confused by what is what, given the inevitable similarity between acronyms and names that seems apparent when you know little.

Whilst the book begins with promise and the author writes with due attention and care, the content soon devolves into the simple explanation that everything is the way it is because of evolution, and the author’s views of anyone who doesn’t fit the box he has constructed drench the book with a bias that by the end of the work displays more than a hint of intolerance.

There are areas of the book in which it’s usual to find issues in texts, for example there are too many references to the author’s particular country. In this case there is too much Americanisation, which means that some examples of pop culture, used to explain concepts, are likely to be lost on many readers and therefore these readers won’t be able to understand the point being made through them. Sometimes the examples Lieberman chooses are those that are known worldwide, but otherwise the choices are so specific that there may even be some American readers not familiar with them, and due to this it is a particular problem.

The book is incredibly repetitive. Experiments are detailed only to be detailed again a few chapters later, referred to in the chapter after that, and detailed once again further on. Regarding these experiments and researches, Lieberman is inconsistent. He always names the scientists involved but doesn’t always afford the reader the information of who the person is – what field they are in, what university they work for and so forth. Having the names is of course necessary for citation but for the reader having the names without any further information is meaningless.

Looking into the experiments, the cautious reader should note that nowhere in the book is it mentioned that experimenting on animals is considered by some to be immoral. This is the case in other similar works, such as Lynne McTaggart’s The Bond, which was more graphic than Social, but in Lieberman’s book the point is particularly worth noting, not just because of the topic (thinking about others as was the likewise ironic topic of McTaggart’s book) but because of the way Lieberman gives information as to why humans are not experimented on in the same way. For example, consider this extract:

For obvious reasons we do not conduct experiments with humans that involve giving people morphine after they have been rejected, excluded, or cheated on.

The irony here is that this statement appears right after a paragraph about puppies being given morphine after being forcibly separated from their parents.

As an aside, if you find yourself distressed by this story, [about rats having emotional neurons being removed, thereby meaning that they start shunning their young] it probably means your own dACC is intact.

When you consider that you are more likely to be distressed by this story simply because the experiment happened, the author’s statement is artless to say the least.

The downside to studying rodents is that we can’t measure their experiences or even verify that they have them. The upside is that more invasive studies can be conducted to examine how individual septal neurons respond or how surgical removal of the septal area alters behaviour.

In the same way as the above extracts, this is said without any thoughts of wrongdoing or an acknowledge that to many people the ‘upside’ is seen as a downside.

The issue with the experimentation is that everyone knows it takes place and that it is of course going to be included in works involving science, but given the subject of this book and the way it is presented as a work on something that is of general interest, some sort of deliberation or debate (given that very idea of being social and caring for others) ought to have been included.

There is a major focus on autism that isn’t apparent from the book cover or summary that bares commenting on because of Lieberman’s approach. Lieberman, as becomes plain the further you read, is fixated on the idea of the social, of us being social creatures and, especially towards the end of the book, he shows how overtaken he is by this idea to the exclusion of all else. It should come as no surprise then that, when it comes to autism, denigration is the mode of the day. As autism is related to a lack of ‘normal’ social skills, it is easy to see where Lieberman’s issues lie.

The author says that if empathy is the peak of the social mind, autism is sadly one of its low points, showing no positivity whatsoever. Lieberman wonders if when he took drugs he ‘didn’t seem a bit autistic that day’ – does he also say, upon finding his fridge devoid of chocolate, that he knows what it must be like to be a child starving in Africa?

It’s important to note that, strictly speaking, this description is far more accurate than the normally developing child’s… Although the description from the child with autism is more accurate [reviewer’s note: it is completely accurate] it is far less useful. It doesn’t give us the kind of insight we all crave into the psychological drama that unfolded.

This comes after an image of shapes on a page, which is what the autistic child described. There is no drama to unfold, there is no usefulness in the normal child’s description of the shapes bullying each other because that would give you a false idea of what the image shows. What the children questioned do intimate is the possible difference in imagination and storytelling between ‘normal’ children and autistic children.

The denigration of autism is very odd, especially when you consider that a person with autism is as likely as anyone else to be interested in reading this book. And whilst Lieberman may make some good statements that are unfortunate but true, his attitude mars them. It is also interesting to consider that the fact autistic people have ‘problems’ with social skills implies that Lieberman’s theory of the social mind could actually be wrong, for who is to say what is truly normal?

Further denigration is conferred on introverts (whose qualities also beg the question of whether Lieberman’s theory holds any water):

Being smart and motivated, without being able to connect with others in the lab just won’t cut it. I’ve had a couple of students in the lab over the years who never really integrated socially with the rest of the team, and they often struggled. They could leverage their own intelligence and hard work, but they were less able to access the intelligence and expertise sitting in the next office over. From this perspective, social connection is a resource in the same way that intelligence and the Internet are resources. They facilitate getting done what needs doing.

It would not be wrong to say that Lieberman does not understand introverts. It is also apparent why, at least in part, the students referred to in the extract struggled – a lack of support and understanding of your students is going to affect their progress because they are likely to pick up on it.

The assumption that productivity is about smart people working hard on their own has been masking the fact that individual intelligence may only be optimised when it is enhanced through social connections in the group.

This is where we see Social as the antithesis of Quiet. In the latter work, Cain says introverts need their own time and space. But whereas Cain is respectful of extroverts, Lieberman is not respectful of introverts. Furthering this difference, Lieberman states that only those with good social skills should be leaders in the workplace, neglecting to consider the negative impact that this would have if the leaders were not also of good intelligence. He also states that ‘the greatest ideas almost always require teamwork to bring them to fruition’, saving himself by saying ‘almost’ but still showing his lack of research and overall knowledge of the present day that suggests that people can be just as successful working by themselves.

Lieberman suggests a vastly different education system which betrays his age. He says that history classes should teach the whys and the social effects – they do. Perhaps they did not when Lieberman was a boy, but as they do now this section is irrelevant. The author suggests that English lessons should be scrapped in favour of ‘communication classes’. This would be problematic given that such classes are not viable alternatives – language (if we assume he is referring to language rather than literature) is not quite the same as communication – both are indeed about society and communication but there are differences. There is also the fact that the world remains in accordance with, for better or worse, the idea that those who can read and write have power and more opportunities to get ahead in the world.

Lieberman says:

Why would bullying, which typically takes place outside the classroom, affect performance in the classroom?

This is one of the first times where the author’s lack of knowledge really starts to become an issue. To suggest that victims of bullying should just leave their issues at the door displays a complete misunderstanding of what bullying is and how it affects a person. Lieberman somehow does not know that bullying can affect someone’s overall well-being and, furthering that, he should know that bullying isn’t restricted to school corridors and is more often than not just as bad in the classrooms where bullies torment children behind the backs of clueless teachers.

Lieberman suggests cutting back on school lessons that are forgotten so that more time can be spent on the important ones. This is a good idea in theory, but the way Lieberman speaks of it he is in favour of removing the sorts of classes that inspire lifelong interests and passions. Algebra may be boring for many people, but without it would the mathematicians our world needs have been inspired to become mathematicians?

The author is in favour of letting older children learn lessons to then teach them to younger children. A fantastic idea, but how long would it be until the novelty wore off, and would children pay attention to a lesson essentially learned twice when they already find a lesson taught once boring?

It is this lack of knowledge and understanding of children, of people, ironically, that ends the book. Lieberman turns to preaching. The subtext is evident – Lieberman’s way of life, the way his residential area revolves, is superior and ought to be introduced worldwide. He suggests that apartment blocks have socialising areas and appointed people to curate social lives – “Throughout our childhoods and young adulthoods, our social lives are curated by others. Couldn’t we find a way to replicate that in our adult communities as well? Why don’t we have someone on each apartment floor designated to create social activities?” The author does not seem to think that maybe having had their lives curated as children, most people would prefer to control their adult social lives themselves. He does not account for those who just want to live their lives, who don’t want to be social all the time – which, it could be argued, accounts for most people. He suggests closing streets at the weekends for social events without thinking about how this would disrupt traffic, how it would result in noise, how many people prefer to just relax at home.

The author even takes on the individuals who run companies, complaining at the way they focus their efforts ‘incorrectly’. He suggests that most employees would take recognition over more money, which doesn’t sound so bad – until he ruins the sentiment entirely by saying that the profits from the savings the company would make would therefore be able to enter the company coffers and so the company would benefit. Recognition is a ‘free’ and ‘infinite’ resource – which, when used in place of pay rises, would ultimately make a boss a measly employer.

Lieberman does have some interesting things to say, for example that botox disabling a person’s ability to mimic expressions means that the person will be worse at recognising emotions in others. He says that “society values our self-control more than it values our quality of life”, a very sobering thought, and he in no way suggests that the book is all his own work, always attributing research to those responsible. But at the end of the day it is hard to believe that Lieberman didn’t decide to live away from society for several years to write this book, losing touch with everyone in the process.

Ill-informed, rose-tinted, repetitive, and lacking in tact, Social may have a few ideas and statements to astound, but by and large it does not come anywhere near the convincing argument, of humanity being social, that it declares.

I received this book for review from Random House.

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Becky Aikman – Saturday Night Widows

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Life after death. A great life.

Publisher: Crown (Random House)
Pages: 334
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-307-59043-5
First Published: 22nd January 2013
Date Reviewed: 31st January 2013
Rating: 5/5

Aikman tells the story of life as a widow; first being dumped from the stereotypical support group, and then her quest to create a new sort of group – one focused on remaking lives and finding oneself in new experiences. She gathers five women of similar ages together and each month for a year they try something new – a spa, a cooking lesson, and lastly a grand holiday. Along the way they learn to live with their new lives and to love again. Interspersed with this main story are those of the days each woman lost her husband, Aikman’s discovery of new love, and information about research into grief.

Saturday Night Widows is a fantastic book with fantastic characters. It’s safe to say that if this were fiction, these women would be on book-lover’s lists everywhere and this is testament to how wonderful they are and how well Aikman writes. Rather than focusing on loss and grief, Aikman looks at the positives, the second chance at life and the chance to remake oneself – whilst grief is included, this is a book about happiness and triumph.

From what Aikman says, it appears that apart from wanting to simply conduct an experiment, Aikman may have envisaged a book from the very start; that is perhaps the reason why the memoir is insightful, helpful for those going through grief, and just simply a good book in general.

One of the most important themes of the book is the way both outsiders and the women themselves relate to widowhood and death, for example when Aikman wished to hire staff at an art museum to conduct a tour about remaking lives, the manager phoned her with ideas for art focusing on death. Aikman details how people can be overly helpful or say the wrong things, whether in innocence or because they feel the time for mourning should be over, and she explains (often in the context of her friends) why these things are bad.

Important too are the issues with blending families – two newly-single parents coming together when children are in the mix – which includes Aikman’s own issues with being a stepmother to a girl who didn’t want a stepmother. Whilst the women in the group are of similar ages their children are not, and this allows for a broad assessment of complications, and, of course, achievements.

And considering the ages of the women – the youngest 39, the oldest 57 – there was no easy acceptance of death as there might have been in old-age. With a variety of reasons for the deaths, including sudden death and suicide, the women present a detailed look at grieving and coping.

Dawn didn’t know anything about lotus blossoms when he gave her the photograph six months before he died. She asked him why, of all the glorious sights in the wild, he had chosen this image of a lotus, rooted in an inky swamp, for her. “It is because a lotus blossom will grow and perfume and flower,” he said, “even in the muck”.
Everyone made that same contented sound that Dawn had uttered before. We got it, all right. All of us – Denise, Dawn, Marcia, Lesley, Tara, me – we were blooming in the muck.

Wonderful is the way Aikman presents the women, how they leap off the pages, as colourful and positive in print as they’ve become in real-life. The presentation to the reader is a remaking in its own way as you grow to love them and know them rather well.

The one thing that might divide readers is the focus on experiments. There is quite a lot of exploration into scientific research and trials that can at times seem rather careless (the trials themselves that is, rather than Aikman’s retelling). Aikman details the women as though they are an experiment and this can make them read as children sometimes rather than friends. True, the group was an experiment of sorts, and Aikman, a reporter by trade, speaks of how she took her tape recorder to meetings and lead them in a way, but it can subtract from the friendliness and healing aspects of it all. One could say that to Aikman these women were subjects, but as you read on it is clear she is one of them just as much as any other. Yet all this is understandable because of Aikman’s job as a reporter, and, it must be said, it’s also quite a boon to the book because of the unique angle it takes and the information it offers to anyone wishing to look into it as a subject.

A great deal of credit must go to Aikman’s writing style, the way she mixes accounts of the monthly meetings with memories of the past and what is happening in the present. The book would likely not suffer if it were just focused on the meetings, because it is a strong thread as it is, but these three aspects and time periods mean that the book is so varied and detailed (even without straying from the main theme) that it is difficult not to want to keep reading. There is never a dull moment where nothing happens. If this is a prime example of Aikman’s work then the newspaper she worked at has surely lost a fabulous employee.

Saturday Night Widows has a vast appeal. Undoubtedly a book for women who have also lost their husbands, the work has a general interest aspect to it as well as being a likely candidate for a book about women that would interest a male audience, too. Filled with memorable people who you will find yourself continuing to root for beyond the last page, the book is an example of looking adversity in the eye without suggesting that grief is anything but awful to get away from. Sad, happy, contemplative, funny, and sentimental without dwelling too long (indeed this is the group’s aim), and written by a true talent with plenty of experience in the craft, Saturday Night Widows is one to look out for on any night of the week.

I received this book for review from Crown Publishers.

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Susan Cain – Quiet

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For too long we’ve been silent about being silent.

Publisher: Broadway (Random House)
Pages: 266
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-307-35215-6
First Published: 2012
Date Reviewed: 29th January 2013
Rating: 4.5/5

Cain explores the history of personality and details experiments and social situations to tell her readers why introverts are important and why they’ve been relegated to second-class citizen status.

Quiet is a rather good, often provocative book that seeks to change the way the world works. Drawing on her personal experience and research, Cain has compiled a thorough document that is both an explanation and a manual for change.

The word personality didn’t exist in English until the eighteenth century, and the idea of “having a good personality” was not widespread until the twentieth.

Cain begins by explaining how there hasn’t always been this conscious split in the western culture, between those who are quiet and those who are louder. It is very interesting, however she doesn’t allow the facts of this to be the focus of her book, in other words her aim is not to go back to the days when to be quiet was preferred, rather it is to create a balance in society where both extroverts and introverts are valued equally. The focus is the overall way in which society has come to value the traits of extroverts, for example that teamwork and the insistence that prospective employees have people skills has caused a skew, leaving introverts at a loss, literally, and favouring a sector of society that, Cain says (and uses evidence to back up) accounts for at the most two thirds of the population.

If we assume that quiet and loud people have roughly the same number of good (and bad) ideas, then we should worry if the louder and more forceful people always carry the day.

Cain highlights the fact that introverts are often better off working alone as opposed to in teams, that team-building days and brainstorming sessions can make it appear as if they have nothing to contribute. Indeed one of Cain’s hopes is that society will not be so obsessed in future with open-plan offices. And in case anyone is reading the book and thinking that she is wrong in her suggestions, Cain spends a chapter looking at other cultures (as opposed to the US) and how they value introversion more. She looks at how Chinese Americans function in American schools and the way they feel they must adapt – and, of course, how they feel America is does it wrong sometimes. This is not to say that some white Americans don’t feel this way, but in highlighting an obviously different cultural group Cain is able to enforce her point.

A big part of the book, even if it is only most obvious at the end, is Cain’s wish to impart teaching ideas and methods for parents to better support their children. For example, Cain describes the extreme of extroverted parents who seek medication for their child, not understanding why the child is quiet. She suggests how classrooms could work better and speaks of how school is so important to get right, how teachers should stop including on report cards the wish that a child would speak more. This is an understandable part of the book but due to its focus on children it could be off-putting for the childless reader or simply just a reader looking for something more adult-orientated. It’s true that a great deal of the book looks at adults, but there isn’t the same dedication in those parts as there is this latter section.

However the main area of the book that is an issue is the bias. Although it is obvious that this book will be quite subjective, the way in which Cain pushes for the rights of introverts can be rather strong, even for the introverted reader. Cain does a great job of being balanced and talks of how both personality types are important, but there are occasions where she becomes a bit of a preacher and denigrates extroverts. If this book was targeted only to introverts that wouldn’t be so much of a problem, it would be more of a book for “bigging up” a reader, but as it is plain that the author plans for anyone to find it accessible, these moments of sudden power are not appropriate.

As Americans moved into cities, working with strangers was needed.

The prospective reader may be interested to know that besides the obvious focus on the artistically inclined – the writer who holes themselves up in their study – there is a great deal of time spent on famous figures in technology, science (this beyond those conducting experiments), and politics. Thus the book would appeal to people who look up to the various leaders in computing, and there is time spent documenting the lead up to black freedom.

Quiet is quiet by nature, but the book has its loud moments. It may not always be objective but at least the intentions of the author make understandable, if not quite acceptable. The few quizzes in the book allow those on the fence to find out who they are in the context of the material. It’s true that there is some repetition in the book, phrases and ideas repeated more than a couple of times, but overall the product is a success. The book will appeal to anyone who considers themselves, well, quiet, shunned by their peers and interested in changes. It will also appeal to teachers looking for insight, and also extroverts – as long as the bias doesn’t put them off (this is the reason the bias is such an issue, because this sort of book needs to be accessible to all). Will it change the world? Who knows? But it might just change a life or two.

I received this book for review from Crown Publishers.

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Jim Al-Khalili – Paradox

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Some paradoxes aren’t paradoxes at all.

Publisher: Broadway (Random House)
Pages: 292
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-307-98679-5
First Published: 12th April 2012
Date Reviewed: 1st November 2012
Rating: 4/5

Professor Al-Khalili demystifies a number of scientific paradoxes, aiming to make them understandable to the casual reader. As such the book will likely seem juvenile to a more experienced enthusiast and is recommended for those without a scientific background.

“One reason there are no time travelers among us today is simple: time machines just haven’t been invented yet.”

A welcomed element, albeit that you might expect it, is the laid-back writing style Al-Khalili has employed for the book. It fits the overall intention – making the descriptions clear (for the most part – sometimes explanations without large scientific descriptions are understandably difficult). The “narrative” if it can be called so, sometimes seems rushed, but if read with a dip-in approach this likely will not matter. The love and enthusiasm Al-Khalili has for his subject, and his wish to impart the information to the masses is obvious and one of the biggest draws of the book. Even when he falters, this wish remains, and it will keep you reading.

Because unfortunately there are times when Al-Khalili falters. The book is at once apologetic for geekiness (surely not needed if one has decided to read the book themselves) and a little elitist, and it is the elitism that causes the problem; Al-Khalili, whether meaning to or not, ends up belittling the reader. The first cases are forgiveable, for example, “in case you are nervously wondering what you’ve let yourself in for” – in which the author is obviously anxious that he keep your interest and trying to make up for the scientific terms he inevitably has to resort to. But as the book continues this effort to be understandable to the layman comes off as prejudice: “I should warn you now, though, that however carefully I try to explain it you will probably be left with a sense of it slipping from your grasp.” This is a nicer example, some are quite strong, but even here you can see the idea that is in Al-Khalili’s head, that his reader will not be able to understand what he says even if it has been explained clearly. If every instance was accompanied by a difficult scientific theory, it would not matter, but on so many occasions the concepts Al-Khalili hopes the reader will grasp are, in fact, described adeptly by the writer himself, and thus likely easy for anyone who has so much as heard of the word “science” before.

This means that sometimes Al-Khalili ends up sounding as though he were preaching to a reluctant scientist. It’s a case of him trying to teach people science without wanting to teach them anything for fear he’ll lose them.

However due to the very nature and complexity of science, the reader will inevitably come away having learned something. A bare basis knowledge of quantum physics will help, but it isn’t necessary. Assuming you are in the least bit interested in science, which is to be assumed really, since you are reading the book, you will likely find something in it to fascinate you, whether that is the dissection of the paradoxes or the extra knowledge Al-Khalili has added. The author does go off on a tangent sometimes, an aspect of his enthusiasm, but he always relates it back to the main question at hand and it is generally the case that the tangent he explores will aid comprehension of a later paradox to be discussed. It ought to be said that Al-Khalili’s tone is undeniably British and in a way stereotypical of the stereotype – he writes like you’d expect a scientist to write.

And although the subject matter of the book is limited, paradoxes in quantum physics, the discussion is broad. There are sections for those interested in astronomy, sections that relate to science fiction (time travel, for instance), as well as your standard physics ideas. Concepts such as the Theory of Relativity and the as-yet-to-be-overturned rule that nothing exceeds the speed of light, are included and ensure a well-rounded experience. If you’ve ever had the slightest interest in particles, you’ll find a friend in Al-Khalili. The subjects have clearly been chosen to satisfy both the general public as well as those with a little knowledge, and the obvious addition of Al-Khalili’s own interests.

There are times when the author will make statements that you might find yourself questioning the statement: “We can never defeat the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Always remember that.” This happens mainly because of the nature of the book; Al-Khalili will remind the reader that science is always developing, but at other times he will make a closed statement. This element may in fact prove to make the book a better read, as the layman (who somewhat relates to Al-Khalili’s suggestions of philosophers with unscientific backgrounds making brilliant suppositions) is free to disagree with the author within the confines of their own mind.

Albeit that there may already be numerous science books for the layman, the sheer amount of information, the casual style of writing, and the obvious benefits that come with having an author who teaches in person the very things he is writing, ensures that Paradox is one you’ll want to flick through and consider in your quest to learn more.

I received this book for review from Broadway Paperbacks.

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Glynis Ridley – The Discovery Of Jeanne Baret

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Women in the 1700s weren’t supposed to join expeditions, but rules are made to be broken.

Publisher: Broadway (Random House)
Pages: 249
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 9780307463531
First Published: 2010
Date Reviewed: 5th January 2012
Rating: 4/5

In eighteenth century France, a poor herbalist was able to change her life by, firstly, becoming the lover of Commerson, a prominent botanist, and secondly by following him onto a ship that would take them around the world in order to gain knowledge of the new lands being discovered. To join the ship, Jeanne had to pose as a man and this led to both happiness at being able to see what few before had seen, and utter wretchedness as she strove to keep her identity concealed. Ridley presents Jeanne’s story, or at least as much as is known, introducing readers to the woman that science forgot.

Here we have perhaps the only book that details Jeanne, and while it cannot always be reliable – for reasons that will be discussed in due course and doesn’t necessarily equate to a bad thing – the information it provides is of great value and interest. Indeed you need not have a passion for social history or even science in order to enjoy it as most of it revolves around the voyage and there is a lot about the finding of new lands, meaning that there is something here for many. And it means that although Ridley rarely sways from her main subject, when she does it is fascinating in its own right.

There is plenty to devour on maritime activity, and all the hilarity that the mixture of hardened scurvy-ridden sailors sharing space with curly-wigged nobility brings. A good basic knowledge of plant collecting is here too as well as information about the initial meetings between Europe and the Americas. Ridley grants the reader insight into both sides of the story, including primary source material from the French and the thoughts of the native populations in, for example, Tahiti. And reading about the way the French, in their insecure position as travellers by sea, treated the islanders, is often a nice respite from all the information we have about the atrocious treatment that happened after colonisation.

As the theme is of a woman going round the globe at a time when women were nothing, there are a lot of mentions of gender differences as seen from Ridley’s perspective. As a woman herself, Ridley tends to give the full view, which is always interesting. Depending on the gender and opinions of the reader they may find her harsh, correct, or completely brilliant.

Copus asked his [male] guests if any man could identify the herb. None could, and all agreed the tasty addition to the salad must be some newly introduced exotic. Calling in the kitchen maid to see what she might say on the matter, Copus watched the surprise on his guests’ faces as the woman announced the “unidentifiable” herb to be parsley.

[…]

Ordinary women know what plants look like in the field and in the kitchen, while supposedly educated male scientists know only what they are told.

[…]

In an age of crude woodcut illustrations that only served to obscure identification… even the best [reference books] were inadequate as field guides.

In fact the reader is very much included by Ridley as she employs an intriguing interactivity – describing how a person might find a place today, meaning how the place has changed. By doing this she inevitably draws parallels, which give you pause for thought.

Ridley makes use of evidence and generally tells you where her information comes from, despite a lack of footnotes. However sometimes what she says, or, moreover, her point of argument, is difficult to follow because it becomes mixed in with everything else. It is understandable that when a person writes on a subject they know well, they are not going to explain everything because it may appear to them obvious, but there are a few places where more detail would have been of great benefit. There are also many many mentions of how far, or rather how not far at all, peasants would travel from their homes during their lifetime. This is an issue by itself, but it’s also an issue when the author concludes that Jeanne would have met Commerson when she was away from home and he also. Unfortunately it sounds just as romantised as the ideas of others that Ridley dismisses.

Yet this is where we come to the major point. There is a great deal of speculation in the book. And although Ridley is generally good at saying what is factual and what is not, there are times when it’s not obvious. Now there are two schools of thought here. One is that it is bad to spend a book speculating. However two is that if there is little evidence surrounding a person but an author feels the need to introduce them to the world, then speculation can be forgiven. It’s not as though Ridley is talking about, say, Louis XIV, of whom there is lots of information – she is talking about someone who is interesting for being the first woman to travel the globe but, for reasons of gender equality as well as there simply being no records, remains someone whom we can never know all that much about unless new evidence comes to light. As Ridley is not suggesting she has new evidence, indeed Ridley’s goal is transparent – that of an informer – the speculation must be viewed more favourably and seen as a positive rather than a hindrance.

The work Ridley has done could spawn a new burst of research, thus hopefully less reason for probabilities, and indeed in the afterword Ridley says that since publication a plant has been named after Baret at last.

It is up to the reader, of course, to come to their own conclusions. It’s far from an easy book to continue at times as the content often sounds archaic for the behaviours of humans back then, but the vast amount of information is worth its weight in gold (which is a lot more than can be said for the results of the expedition).

Ridley has done Baret a great service and if further research proves that some declarations are false then so be it – Ridley has propelled Baret back where she should be.

I received this book for review from Crown Publishers, Random House.

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