The life-changing power of reading is beautifully depicted by Jorge Méndez Blake’s artwork, ‘The Impact of a Book’. The knock-on, shockwave effect is expressed with artful simplicity:
I luxuriated in many good books this summer. They sparked countless connections and reading each one made me want to share themes, thoughts and ideas. So, as the summer days come to a close, here are the ones that had that rippling effect on me.
I came across The Tyanny of Numbers while I was writing my last blog. The title reminded me of some qualitative research training I delivered where I was playfully booed by the statisticians in the room! I had shared a quote by Dr. Kip Jones that: “Qualitative research abandons the tyranny of numbers for the enigma of words”. Qualitative research can seem like the poor relation to its confident and more assured cousin, quantitative research. Boyle’s book delves into the history of how our society is ever more dependent on numerical analysis, often at the expense of rational thought and logical reason. His paradoxical suppositions such as: ‘You can count people, but you can’t count individuals’ and: ‘The more we count, the less we understand’ are set out with justification and interspersed with a series of historical anecdotes and explanations.
Boyle doesn’t purport to offer an alternative, rather it is a critique of the preferential treatment that numbers get in all aspects of social policy and political decision-making. This leaves you with a ‘What next; How can this change?’ feeling. But this rather tentative conclusion on the final page made my heart sing, as it’s what I steadfastly believe too:
“I’ve a feeling it’s about telling stories and asking difficult questions. Telling stories because they can often communicate complex, paradoxical truths better than figures. Asking questions because they can devastate most political statistics.”
‘The Good Story’ caught my eye in a bookshop and I couldn’t resist its allure. It features a captivating set of exchanges between eminent author, J.M. Coetzee and psychotherapist, Arabella Kurtz. I had to persevere initially, but I loved the intensity of the exchanges and the deep, thoughtful discussion. Coetzee and Kurtz embrace difficult questions and the conversational exchanges develop in their richness and complexity. As Boyle observes, these deep cross-disciplinary conversations are fundamental to exploring human attitudes and behaviour. I particularly enjoyed the exchanges around individual and group identity and the significance of groups coming together with a shared approach to a problem. Kurtz captures this eloquently in the following passage:
“The ability to see others as complex beings, capable of good, bad and the shades of grey in between, and to tolerate frustration and ambivalence is, it seems to me, essential for constructive engagement in group life. It is one of the things that begin to make it possible for people to come together to work, with time and effort, on a shared approach to a problem. Without this ability in some or many members of the members of a group, collectives fall prey to them-and-us thinking, either breaking up into cliques or small groups within a group, or organising themselves around the perception of an external enemy.”
I am reminded of a recent Guardian article by Stephen Hawking, which elaborates on this in a similar vein. I appreciated his reference to ‘cathedral thinking’ – i.e. that in the same way that it took generations to build grand church buildings as part of humanity’s attempt to bridge heaven and earth, so too will it take generations working together to question and respond to the complex social challenges that we face:
“Pressing issues will require us to collaborate, all of us, with a shared vision and cooperative endeavour to ensure that humanity can survive. We will need to adapt, rethink, refocus and change some of our fundamental assumptions about what we mean by wealth, by possessions, by mine and yours. Just like children, we will have to learn to share.”
Political and social polarisation is deeply regressive and is happening to an alarming degree in our society. We need to keep asking difficult questions about why and how we can solve challenging social problems. And we need to keep telling stories about creating shared ground – both physically and metaphorically.
Charles Dickens embraces difficult social questions and wraps them up in compelling fiction. I relished reading Hard Times as it captured the essence of the ludicrous nature of over-quantification so aptly. Its message is as pertinent now as it was in Victorian times. Thomas Gradgrind is ‘a man of realities’. He praises facts above all else. He chastises his children and remonstrates with them to focus on facts and facts alone:
‘By means of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, settle everything somehow, and never wonder.’
Gradgrind’s dry and technical approach to life is purposefully juxtaposed with a labourer’s musings on the inability to calculate what constitutes our human souls:
‘It is known, to the force of a single pound weight, what the engine will do; but, not all the calculations of the National Debt can tell me the capacity for good and evil, for love or hatred, for patriotism or discontent, for the decomposition of virtue into vice, or the reverse, at any single moment in the soul of one of these quiet servants, with the composed faces and the regulated actions.’
Over 160 years on and we are still in the ‘Gradgrind grip’, choosing to prize numbers and facts as the definitive way of running our society at the expense of creative expression, intuition, emotion and feeling. Deciding the attainment level of our children is just one example. This cartoon on school testing comes to mind:
Or as Albert Einstein puts it:
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
As my children get older, reading with them has become one of our greatest pleasures. This summer some of our favourites were the old classics: The Magic Porridge Pot; Monkey Say Monkey do; The Emperor’s New Clothes – allegorical fables that unpick our human psyche in ways that children can understand, but can be repeated tirelessly. The have a timeless, cross-generational appeal and are deeply illustrative of how powerfully stories can shape our behaviour and actions.
We also read The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupéry. It’s a bemusing, poignant parable that speaks to the heart through the eyes of child-like wonder. This passage continues the recurring message that all the books I’ve referred to here have extolled – that our multiple identities and human abilities of creative expression are profoundly precious and should be cherished and explored, rather than reduced to dry quantification:
“Grown-ups love figures… When you tell them you’ve made a new friend they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you “What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies? ” Instead they demand: “How old is he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?” Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.”
Next on my reading list is ‘Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A story about women and economics’ by Katrine Marçal. What a smashing title: a clever, witty question and the promise of a story; it sets off ripples before you’ve even turned the first page.