Tag Archives: books

Required Reading? Oh yes.

To live in the modern world, you need to understand social networks. That’s not the same as using them; you can understand them without using or wanting to use them, and you can quite happily use them without actually understanding how they work at all. In fact, I would suggest, most people do, and that ignorance is amongst the bigger problems facing the world today.

Fortunately, we have a good antidote to it, in Charles Arthur’s latest book “Social Warming: The dangerous and polarising effects of social media”. I think it is superb.

Arthur is a highly-respected writer and journalist of long standing, but it’s still quite an achievement to produce a book which is nicely written and enjoyable to read, yet simultaneously extremely serious and important.

The title draws an analogy with global warming: there’s no one single massive event that causes climate change: it’s the result of millions of small actions and interactions taking place all over the planet for an extended period. And the mechanisms which drive social networks, which make them tick, also seem mostly harmless at the level of individual interactions, but they too accumulate to have enormous impact. We remain in ignorance of them at our peril… until perhaps one day we’ll find things have gone too far.

The dramatic cover might lead you to think this is going to be a shocker: a breathtaking exposé of corporate evils, which you can only escape by banning Facebook from your life forever. In fact, however, it is a rational explanation of the algorithms social networks have found to be effective in driving ever-greater engagement of the audience (and hence ever-greater revenues for their shareholders). And it’s a journey through numerous examples of the impact these mechanisms have actually had in key situations in different parts of the world.

The phrase “required reading” is a somewhat clichéd one, and I don’t think I’ve ever used it before, but I think it may be appropriate here. Perhaps, though, I should moderate it a bit. This book should be considered required reading if you post to social networks, read social networks, have any close friends or family who use social networks, read papers or watch media where the journalists get information from social networks, meet people whose approach to global pandemics depends on what they read on social networks, live in a country where voting is heavily influenced by social networks, or have kids growing up in a world dominated by social networks.

The rest of you don’t need to read it.


‘Social Warming’ can be purchased from Amazon and many other sources, with hardback, Kindle and audiobook versions available now, and paperback to follow in the spring.

Pied Piper

Every time I read something by Nevil Shute, I realise that this is something I should do much, much more frequently. He is truly brilliant, yet I have, so far, read only a few of his books.

The latest one is Pied Piper, which I’ve just completed in the unabridged audiobook version read by the (also superb) David Rintoul. (I’ve enthused about audiobooks here before – if you haven’t tried them, they look, individually, rather expensive, but an Audible subscription makes them about the same price as a book.)

Anyway, Pied Piper comes highly recommended, in whichever form you consume it.

Men are from Mars

If you enjoyed Andy Weir’s book, The Martian, anything like as much as I did, then you’ll certainly enjoy this splendid hour-long interview with him. (If, for some reason, you haven’t yet read it or listened to the audiobook, you should probably save this until you’ve done so.)

Laudable Audible

There are few services, I think, that give me quite so much enjoyment per shilling as Audible. For anyone not familiar with it, Audible is the biggest retailer of audiobooks. These are normally rather expensive things retailing for around £20-30 each, but if you like them enough you can take out a subscription which gets you a book each month for £7.99.

Since I spend about an hour a day walking the dog, or driving to and from dog-walking spots, I manage to ‘read’ a lot of books this way simply by tucking my phone into my shirt pocket – I don’t even bother with earphones. And then there’s shaving, and ironing, and train journeys and flights and… well, you get the idea. I read quite a bit more this way than I do when lying in bed, and remember it better, because I’m not half-asleep at the time! Also, since Rose and I have fairly similar tastes in reading, we both get to benefit from the subscription. Unabridged audiobooks are typically 10-20 hours long, but I have also listened to Scott Brick’s recording of Atlas Shrugged which runs to 63 hours and still only counts as a single credit. Now, that’s pretty good value for £7.99, I think!

How often have you thought, “I’d like to read that, if only I had the time”? Well, perhaps this is a good way to enhance your commuting time in the coming year?

Anyway, here are a few of my favourite books from 2014, in case you need some ideas:

  • The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir, read by R.C. Bray. Somebody described this as “Robinson Crusoe on Mars”, which tells you the basic plot, but it’s very nicely done, and has an interesting history: the author serialised it on his web site, then self-published it on the Kindle, and in about a year it’ll be a Ridley Scott film starring Matt Damon. I thoroughly enjoyed and was gripped by this – it’s a great plot – but it does come with one warning: don’t give it to anyone who’s likely to object to strong language!
  • writing_on_the_wallWriting on the Wall by the ever-wonderful Tom Standage of The Economist, read by Simon Vance. Subtitled, “Social Media: The First 2,000 Years”, it examines many of the communication methods we consider novel today and finds their predecessors in the world of ancient Rome, the pamphlets of Martin Luther, the early days of radio. Very readable and educational stuff.
  • deceptive_mind Your Deceptive Mind by Steven Novella is rather different. Novella is a clinical neurologist at Yale, and this is a set of 24 lectures on critical thinking published by The Great Courses. How can we know what is true? What are the different ways our brain deceives us? What are the strengths and limitations of the scientific method? Critical Thinking wasn’t a subject we had at school in my day; it should be compulsory now.
  • master_and_commanderMaster and Commander by Patrick O’Brian. O’Brian is, I think, the finest historical writer in recent decades, and, more importantly, this view is shared by Rose, who knows a great deal more than me about both writing and about the eighteenth century. We’ve read most of them in paper form. His books are loved around the world, so it’s not surprising that there are many different recordings, both abridged and unabridged, and, while I was tempted by those from Robert Hardy, or Tim Piggott-Smith, in the end I settled on these, which are beautifully read by Ric Jerrom. This was partly because he has recorded the entire, unabridged series, and to give you an idea of how much I’ve enjoyed them, I’m currently just starting book five, Desolation Island

Anyway, I hope these are recommendations are useful to somebody. It’s worth noting, by the way, that these are on the UK store: if you’re in another part of the world you may have a different selection available (and need to use different links).

Happy listening for 2015!

The Face & Tripod revisited

I’ve written before about my favourite guide to public speaking: Brian Robinson’s curiously-named slim volume: “The Face & Tripod”.

So I’m delighted that it’s now available in a Kindle edition (UK, US, DE) which means I’ll have it not just on my bookshelf, but on my Kindle, laptop, iPad and phone, when I head for the next speaking engagement…

Recommended. It’s a fun read, too.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser