Book Review: Selfie, by Will Storr

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_selfieI am not being overly dramatic when I say that we are living in a time of increasing levels of mental illness and challenges to emotional health, actual and attempted suicides, unhappy and unfulfilled people, over whelming pressures to be someone that we may not be internally programmed to be. These have always been issues in our communities through the centuries, but in the last fifty years or so there these issues have jumped to the fore of the lives of many many people in our world. But why? And what can we do about it?

Will Storr’s Selfie takes a look at the very complex issue in two ways – how us humans have become so self-obsessed and, what exactly it is doing to us. Such a complicated subject cannot be easy to write about and the result is quite a complicated, wide ranging, energetic and fascinating exploration into what makes us, and our own individual self. On the flip side, this is a very long book, there is an enormous amount of very detailed information which at times is too much. Plus, for me, way too much space given to long-word-for-word conversations between the author and his interviewee. Some more vigorous editing would not have gone amiss. All of this does make for a book that you need to concentrate on while reading – this is one of my ‘read in the daylight hours’ books, rather than a ‘read before going to sleep’ book, because you do have to be concentrate.

The author himself is an investigative journalist, whose life and career is very, very interesting and successful. In this book, he is very open about his own suicidal thoughts, his perceived dissatisfaction with his own self. After looking at his website, with its diverse range of articles he has written, and his bio listing his achievements, you wonder why. But this is why he is perhaps the perfect person to write such a book. After all he has made it in his field, so what the hell is wrong with him? For these reasons alone this book is excellent as it is written with self interest at its heart, full of passion and that most important ingredient – curiosity.

He firstly sets the scene by looking at why people commit suicide or try, then takes us back to the beginnings of human civilisation when we lived in tribal groups, and conformity/sameness was the way the tribe survived. Then he takes us to Ancient Greece, where a beautiful and perfect physical form was such a crucial part of the philosophy of the times. The rise of Christianity/Catholicism with its rampant notions of guilt planted the seed for self doubt, inability to meet expectations. A long period of time passes till we get to mid 20th century USA with the beginnings of liberalism, the power of the individual, decline of collectivism, which have since evolved into the current latest greatest piece of economic thinking that benefits a few at the top of the money tree, and negates everyone below – neo-liberalism, epitomised in its most raw form as I see it in zero hours contracts. I still can’t get my head around employing someone, but not guaranteeing them any work. Tied up with this is a hilarious and almost unbelievable chapter about the ‘self esteem’ industry in America. That was an absolute revelation for me! He then moves into the frightening world of Silicon Valley, start ups, venture capital, Google and the like.

Finally, the last chapter – how to stay alive in the age of perfectionism – where it is all supposed to come together, but for me doesn’t! The only message I got out of this chapter, is that if you are unhappy in your life, things aren’t going right, you are overwhelmed and not coping, do not try to change yourself. We are essentially programmed from birth to react to situations in a certain way – how do you explain children brought up exactly the same way reacting differently to a life changing event. Because the answer is that you can’t change yourself – there goes the self help industry, cognitive therapy etc. What you have to do is change the world you live in, which translates as change your job/profession, where you live, how you live, who you live with. Easier said than done, but what this solution does is take away that you yourself are 100% responsible for your negative self-perception, and gives you the power to fix things in another way.

Well worth reading, and keeping for future forays. The ten page index is excellent, and the notes/references take up another 50 pages. Whenever you hear or read about why people self harm, you wonder if someone maybe a narcissist, what really went on in those hippie retreats in the 1960s, how Donald Trump got to be in the White House, pick this book up because it explains a lot.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Selfie
by Will Storr
Published by Macmillan
ISBN 9781447283652

 

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AWF17: Vanishing Voices, with Russ Rymer

Russ Rymer spoke at 10am, Friday 19 May at the Auckland Writers Festival in 2017.

This was a free session – yes, free! What a joy to see at 10am, the first session for the day, that the room was almost full – there were around 300 people there, I found out from a volunteer.

I went into this session knowing nothing about the writer, aside from the small blurb in the Festival programme. I wanted to be engaged by the presentation, to be stimulated by new information, ideas delivered orally rather than by the written word. This is especially fitting given that Russ Rymer was speaking about the extinction of tribal languages around the world, which he then wrote into an article for National Geographic, winning an Overseas Press Club of America Award. I gather this is the Oscars of the journalist world. He has had a very successful and respected career as a journalist and writer, also being a Guggenheim Fellow.

russ rymer

Rymer went to three regions around the world, travelling with linguists who were doing their own research – likening them to Indiana Jones-types, and with locals who could also speak English. The first place he went to was the “dark hole of language,”as linguists know it, the remote village of Pilizi in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is in the far north-eastern corner next to Bhutan. This has been disputed land for a very long time, which has left much of the state untouched, and so a rich trove for researchers. Even if it did take three days to travel to Pilizi where the language Aka is spoken.

The second area was in the Mexican desert with the nomadic Seri people, around 1000 to 1300 of them, who have a very small vocabulary as, being nomadic, they have very few possessions that they need identifying labels for. Again, this area is untouched by the West, due primarily to the murder of the first Catholic missionary in the 1700s. The third language was that of the Tuvan people, in remote Siberia. The Tuvans live an urban existence much like we do, but their language is uniquely different from the rest of Siberia and Russia. Unlike in the other two communities, approximately 200,000 people speak Tuva.

Tuvans

马上的图瓦人 (Image of a Tuvan, from Wikipedia)

This sounds pretty simple really – investigating tribes and their language around the world, suffer living in primitive conditions for a little while, speak to a few linguists, and kaboom, you have an article, and bonus an award! Not so. And not for a minute did Russ Rymer go down this path. This project of his was a life changing experience, and has turned him into an advocate for the preservation of thousands of near-extinct languages.

This is something difficult for the average first-world native speaker of English to understand. Never once have we felt that we could communicate an idea or message in any other way than we do. Consider, for example, our decimal-based counting system -learning your numbers is probably the easiest thing about the English language. Even the French change the way they count when they get to seventy. Or words for colours. In one of the languages Rymer investigates, there is no word for yellow. Yet their most precious items are necklaces made from yellow stones picked by ancestors from the rivers. The rivers were picked clean of the stones generations ago, so now there is no word for yellow, only for the necklaces. In this same language, the Aka, there are only two words for animals – those that can be eaten, and those that can’t. For the Tuvans there are 89 different words for a cow!

The anecdotes and the facts were incredibly interesting, as was Rymer’s travelogue, particularly of his time in India. But the whole crux of his research, his article and his presentation to us was: what happens when the last person who speaks the language dies? It is gone, vanished, just like that. And no way of recovering it.

And this perhaps is the greatest challenge facing language extinction – the people who speak the language are dying out, and so the language also dies. What is lost when a language dies? Language is not only words, sounds; it is the expression of ideas, thoughts, culture, identity, spiritualty, communicated in its own unique and precious way. He informed us that there are 7000 languages in the world, dying at the rate of one a fortnight. We now have only a few languages spoken by many. Look at the millions who speak Chinese, the 1.2 billion speakers of Hindi. These are staggering figures.

Here in New Zealand we have our own indigenous language – Te Reo Māori – that could well go down the same path if the careful nurturing and attention given to it over the past few decades does not continue. In Australia, 90% of the indigenous languages are considered endangered.

Loss of a language is also loss of a culture, loss of identity, loss of pride. So much of how things are done in a community are wrapped up in oral communication, for example, in Pilizi, disputes are solved by an elder or shaman telling a story complete with metaphors that fixes whatever the problem was. What was particularly interesting was hearing about the amount of environmental and ecological knowledge, centuries old, wrapped up in these endangered languages. Being urban-based, we have lost touch with the land, with nature. Scientists are finding that by interviewing peoples in their native languages, they are learning much more about the local ecosystems than they ever could have by their own observation and research.

I could go on and on with what I learnt and enjoyed from this session. I was especially pleased at the end when two women, one younger Māori, one older Pakeha, stood up, greeted him in Māori and thanked him most graciously for his time and for contributing to the preservation of endangered languages. The younger woman was now ensuring her children were learning to speak Te Reo, which led Rymer onto his final point: How absolutely crucial that it was for parents to talk to their children and grandchildren in their own language, not just for the sake of the words, but for the preservation of the ideas and cultural values that those words articulate.

I found this session very enlightening. Rymer was a wonderful speaker, warm, gracious, funny, and I think a little stunned by what these two women had to say, stating that he will have to come back to New Zealand to study further the state of Māori language in this country, something it was pretty clear he knew very little about – his appalling pronunciation of the word Māori– but he was so gracious and humble, I think we could forgive him!

Attended and Reviewed by Felicity Murray on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Book Review: News Pigs, by Tim Wilson

Available in bookstores this April 2014.

With its unconventional style and a helter-cv_news_pigsskelter, relentless plot, it took me a while to find myself immersed in this semi-satirical, darkly humongous tale. News Pigs is written almost like a stream of consciousness, and shamelessly thumbs its nose at the basic “rules” (aka guidelines) associated with writing: there are exclamation marks a-plenty, footnotes scattered about but once one gets used to the technique (about one-two chapters in) it really makes for a compelling read. So compelling, in fact, that one is tempted to begin again once they are finished, so that they can re-experience the first-chapter events within the greater context.

It is highly amusing − although some of the jokes went over my head − and filled with over-the-top instances and madcap pacing. Tom Milde is a poet and, to put it frankly, a bit of a no-hoper, when entirely by chance he receives his big break: the chance to travel across to report-from-the-scene of the greatest gun massacre America has ever known − named the Santa Shooter. What follows is an insane comedy of errors involving rival journalists, posh-boy rednecks, a rare manuscript, an orphaned red shoe, a foul-mouthed editor (all the swear words being transformed into strings of symbols, ie: “$#*!”) and a distinct lack of sleep and food on the part of poor Tom. The narrative is relentless, pebbled with social satire, littered with subtle digs at New Zealanders, Aussies and people from the PLC (a fictional country situated somewhere near New Zealand from which Milde originates), Americans, news reporters (from which profession the author hails), and NRA lobbyists. Pretty much everyone Milde encounters along the way is taking the mickey of someone or something.

Despite the almost-haphazard structure, it is actually very precise, very deliberate and extremely clever. The sort of story that digs its claws in, dragging you with it (not *quite* kicking and screaming) and forces you to stay up well after midnight so that you can finish it.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

News Pigs
by Tim Wilson
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739179

News Pigs gets it first outing in Auckland on Tuesday next week. If you’re around, please drop into Corner Bar, Hotel de Brett on Tues 8 April, 6pm-7.30pm.