Book Festival: Susan Greenfield | Nate Silver | Joe Sacco
Edinburgh International Book Festival review: David Robinson reports from the Book Festival, which yesterday saw events featuring Susan Greenfield, Nate Silver, Tom Devine and Joe Sacco.
Another busy day out of the office for Kirsty Wark. First up, helping the 570 members of the book festival audience to make up their minds about Scottish independence. Just over half an hour later, and she’s back in the main tent with Susan Greenfield helping us make up their minds about whether computers are modifying our minds.
The first gig was the easiest. The main cultural differentiator between English and Scots these days is that Scots have grown used to turning up to – yes, credit where it is due – very polite and unfrightening but frankly tedious debates about independence, that great itch we can’t stop scratching in public.
Even if American political forecaster Nate Silver (also on yesterday) hadn’t already proclaimed that the chances of a Yes victory in next year’s referendum were “virtually impossible”, the Independence debate could have sold out many times over. It was, apparently, the first event to do so at this year’s book festival, which just shows that there’s no accounting for taste.
Because what did anyone in the audience learn? Tom Devine argued with his usual pungency that everything will be determined south of the Border, where there are more English Nationalists who want Scotland to go its own way than there are Scottish Nats in Scotland who want to do just that. I’m not sure whether this is even true, but at least it was newish to my ears, which was more than anything else I heard in the debate.
At its start, Kirsty asked the audience to stand up in turn according to their voting intentions. The thunder of seats as the No voters – the clear majority – got to their feet was deafening.
On to Baroness Susan, an interesting woman who is so smart she has 30 honorary degrees to her name along with a few of her own, so committed to research into degenerative brain disease that she gets into the lab every morning at 7.30am and so controversial in putting forward her thesis that our children are harming their brains by spending so long in front of computer screens that she is surely a pin-up for the Daily Mail.
Sorry. Cheap shot. But fascinating as the good professor is as a trail-blazing neuroscientist, I sensed the audience wanted to chew over her thesis a bit more. Good to hear that she’s put 200 peer-reviewed papers on her website to show her side of the argument, and that she’s writing a book for publication next year about her “Mind Change” thesis (“every bit as multi-faceted, controversial and global as climate change”), but I came out unenlightened yet again.
Which brings me – thankfully — to Joe Sacco. Whether or not it’s because of the decline in print journalism, but the quality and depth of his comic-book reportage from the world’s trouble-spots is clearer than ever.
He started his own career as a cartooning foreign correspondent, he admitted, back in 1982 when he couldn’t understand news coverage of the 1982 massacres of Palestinians in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps because he thought, based on all the TV news he’d ever heard in the US, that all Palestinians were terrorists.
That was a bit ironic, because he’d already trained as a journalist and learnt all about journalistic objectivity. Slowly, over the course of decades drawing comic books from the world’s trouble-spots, he realised that journalists came with a lot of subjective prejudices. Talking to marginalised people, listening to the stories than never made the news bulletins, just paying attention to the details of their ordinary lives, was the way forward.
In a cartoon strip, he could do all that. His readers would pick up atmosphere from the repeated backgrounds, would follow the story’s switch back into the past more easily in this form than perhaps any other. And he’d draw himself into the picture just to remind everyone that while he was being subjective too, he was doing his best not to be.
One final thing I love about Sacco: when he does that, he draws himself as a bumbling, nerdy geek. The man on stage last night – who is working, he revealed on a wordless project about the First World War – is handsome, eloquent and not geeky at all.
Originally published in The Scotsman