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  • The title for Tony Judt's latest book comes from the Eighteenth Century Anglo-Irish writer, poet, and physician Oliver Goldsmith: "Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, Where wealth accumulates, and men decay." It is an unsettling line that succintly sums up Judt's wider concerns:

    Something has gone profoundly amiss in our public affairs over the past thirty years. In the West, we are wealthy and secure enough to allow ourselves to drift very far off course before anything has to be done. But we have forgotten how to think about the life we live together: its goals and purposes. Not only are we post-ideological; we have become post-ethical. When we ask ourselves whether a particular policy objective should be pursued -- universal healthcare or investment in public transportation -- we know only how to inquire about its efficiency: its profitability or cost, its impact upon growth and the National Product, its implications for taxation. We have lost touch with the old questions that have defined politics since the Greeks: is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society? A better world?

    The US and UK today are more unequal -- in incomes, wealth, health, education, life chances -- than at any time since 1914. Is this desirable? Is it prudent? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. Until we have learned -- or re-learned -- how to pose them, we shall go on as before. Can we go on 'like this'? Yes. Should we? No. If we are to replace fear with confidence then we need a different story to tell, about state and society alike: a story that carries moral and political conviction. Providing that story is the purpose of this book.

  • Paul Davies' The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence gets its New York Times review:

    The scientific project known as SETI -- the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence -- began in earnest 50 years ago, when an astronomer named Frank Drake pointed a radio telescope toward a few nearby stars and began to sift through the aural static. A half-century later SETI has matured and remains a bustling enterprise, even though it no longer receives government financing and even though E.T., if he's out there, does not appear to have Earth on his speed dial.

    Paul Davies's new book, The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence, is a birthday card of sorts to SETI, an appraisal and acknowledgment of the interesting (if quixotic) work the project has done thus far. It's also a pointed wake-up call. Mr. Davies believes that SETI has grown conservative in its methods. He thinks we're looking for alien life in all the wrong places, and in all the wrong ways.

    Mr. Davies is a British-born physicist and cosmologist, an astral popularizer in the Carl Sagan mold. He's written more than 20 books, and has made BBC radio documentaries and Australian TV shows with titles like The Big Questions. He is the director of "Beyond, the Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science", at Arizona State University, which according to its Web site (, seeks "to create new and exciting ideas that push the boundaries of research a bit 'beyond'."It looks like the kind of place where you wouldn't be embarrassed to put some Jean Michel Jarre space music on your iPod and get sort of heavy.

    More saliently, for the purposes of this book, Mr. Davies is chairman of the SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup, dedicated to thinking about how Earthlings might react, and how we should react, to a signal from beyond. He's an interesting and sometimes funny thinker on this topic...

    Mr. Davies's arguments in The Eerie Silence are multiple and many-angled, and difficult to summarize here. But among other things, he thinks we need to pay as much attention to Earth as we do to the cosmos. If we can find evidence that life began from scratch more than once on our own planet -- a "second genesis" -- it would vastly increase the odds that the universe is teeming with life. What's more, because it's as likely that alien civilizations visited Earth a million years ago as last month, they might have already been here, and we've missed the signs (more...)

  • 'The Magnetic North'

    Thu, 22 Apr 2010 03:55

    Just longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction is Sarah Wheeler's The Magnetic North: Travels in the Arctic reviewed in the Guardian late last year:

    To many British people, the word "Arctic" may still conjure up the Canadian High Arctic, the ice-locked wonderland of whalers and lost Victorian expeditions. "Arctic peoples" probably suggests the Inuit, with igloos and sleds. Alternatively, "Arctic" may mean the home of climate change. Ice is frightening, but so is the sudden lack of it. With the Chukchi and Sami peoples we are less familiar, as we are with the "taiga": the vast band of pine forest reaching across the extreme north of Europe and Russia.

    "What is the Arctic?" is a question Sara Wheeler sets out to answer. It's important we update our imaginations, and set aside the igloos, because whatever the Arctic is, "everyone wants what the Arctic has": land, oil and minerals.

    Fifteen years ago, then a younger woman and one without children, Wheeler wrote Terra Incognita, about the Antarctic. After that unpeopled emptiness she was, she admits, prejudiced against the "complicated, life-infested north". There is, however, an irrepressible flavour to Wheeler's writing, and to her sense of project. She sets out on a series of journeys to different parts of the extreme north, travelling into all the Arctic-holding countries: Russia, the US, Canada, Greenland, the Scandinavian states. In a lovely image, she likens the Arctic to a bracelet made of antler horn, which she was given by a Sami man with whom she stayed. It was cold and hard and white, and "I fancied that it smelled of smoke and beechwood". What she discovers, though, is a sorry mess of brutality and ignorance, cruelty and environmental pillage -- and resilience and beauty (more...)

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    Exciting stuff: we have some very limited stocks of these beautiful signed limited editions of Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ.

    We have copies in both the white slipcase and the black slipcase. Production of these gorgeous editions has been limited to just 400 signed and numbered copies of each -- and we have for sale just 60 of each colour (limited, I'm afraid, to just one per customer of each colour).

    Any Pullman fan -- or indeed just about any bibliophile -- would walk a million miles for a chance to get hold of these fantastic books. So get clicking now as these are going to sell out super fast...

  • Wodehouse winner

    Thu, 15 Apr 2010 07:44

    We ran a great competition last month for you to win all seventy (yes, 70) of the gorgeous, hardback Everyman editions of P.G. Wodehouse's matchless novels...

    We asked:

    • a) Where does Lord Emsworth live? ANSWER: Blandings Castle
    • b) Who played Bertie Wooster in Granada Television's 1990s series of Jeeves and Wooster? ANSWER: Hugh Laurie
    • c) Which bank did Wodehouse work for between 1900 and 1902? ANSWER: (Hong Kong and) Shanghai Bank in London

    And our winner is James Wall from Harrogate. Well done James! And thanks everyone for entering... More competitions coming soon...

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