Philippa Thomas Online

Occasional thoughts about life, books and news.


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A broken neck and a brilliant memoir. #Half-Life

When you first meet Joshua Prager, you see his stick. Then you see the smile, the warmth in his face, and the light in his eyes. And the stick doesn’t matter.

But in his memoir, of course it does. It symbolises another life entirely from the one he meant to lead.   Continue reading

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Is it really so bad to be American? On “Time to Start Thinking”.

Is it really so bad to be American? 

“Faith in America’s promise is at the heart of America’s story”. 

There’s not much evidence of that faith in Edward Luce’s epic analysis of “America and the Spectre of Decline”.  But as the title has it, “Time to Start Thinking”.  Right now, Obama and the Republicans aren’t thinking, but fighting over the looming fiscal cliff.  Luce urges them to the long view. By 2020, China might overtake the USA as the world’s biggest economy.  

It’s an excellent read: clear, crisp, packed full of original interviews.  It matters, because as Luce quotes Samuel Huntingdon, America “can only be a disappointment because it is also a hope”.

The book focusses on three key disappointments –  in manufacturing, innovation, and education.  Continue reading


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A dozen summer books

All those words drunk deep along with dusty sunshine, on the red tile verandah of a whitewashed house.

“.. Grasshoppers rattling like dry paper in hot weeds…”

I sat outside each morning to feel the sunlight slide round the side of the house and watch a slinky litter of kittens play in the almond trees below.

“… They were people running from the past, who didn’t look back at much if they could help it, and whose whole life always lay somewhere in the offing…” Continue reading


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Our Virtual Bookclub

The headlines are gloomy.  The newspaper industry is contracting; print publishing is suffering at the hands of Amazon’s low prices and the e-book alternative.  There is a justified pessimism about the traditional mechanisms of delivery.

And it’s thrown up very big questions.  What about the appetite for news and the appetite for reading?  What’s the impact of our expectation, in the early 21st century,  that it’s not just comment but content that comes free?

The gloomy wisdom, again, is that serious Reithian news provision is suffering. It costs money to staff foreign bureaux, to cover town halls, to mount a lengthy investigation. It’s easier to offer news-lite, news you can use, news that shades into light entertainment. And as for reading, some of the most remarkable growth is in the softer options, like teen reads for adults,  and guilty pleasures, like Fifty Shades of Grey on your Kindle on the tube.

But what do we make of the silver lining? These comments are purely anecdotal, no science.  I’m just enjoying the new enthusiasm about reading that seems to have been sparked by our new ability to share.

All the world’s a virtual bookclub. And anyone can start a conversation.

A blogpost book review gets an echo – whether it’s picked up by algorithm or another blogger with a human face.

Hashtags on twitter can create a global bookclub that forms and disperses within hours, like a literary flashmob.

A recommendation brings rewards: if at the end of a Kindle read, I post an appreciative tweet, a fellow-reader’s find often bounces right back – “if you liked that, you’ll love this” – or “try this one, it’s much better!”

Here are just three of my  online discoveries; I’d like to know yours.

A hashtag – #Fridayreads. 

A website – Brainpickings. 

And a weekly email from The Browser. 

They’ve made my reading broader, more prolific, more fun. And so far, they’re all free. Though I’ve enjoyed The Browser’s eclectic offerings of long reads so much, I’ve just responded to their polite invitation to become a subscriber for more.

It’s as if we’re all wandering within an enormous virtual bookshop, not as strangers wrapped up inside our own heads, but neighbours immersed in a hum of civilised conversation.

If you love to read – and like to make connections – this is one way in which you’ll never be lonely again.

I’m not ignoring the hard part – the harnessing of that enthusiasm to a willingness to pay the price which keeps authors (and journalists) in business.  I’m trying to see the bigger picture.

Could the rise of apps like The Browser lead to the end of my local library, or make it more likely that my child will get the library habit?  Does a rising tide float all boats? Or am I failing to see what’s struggling to survive : not waving, but drowning?


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The Warmth of Other Suns

I thought I knew the outlines of America’s racial history, from the battles of the civil war to the struggles for civil rights. I knew very little.  Isabel Wilkerson’s book helped me imagine the inside story, and absorb some astonishing details. 

It’s a great read about America’s 20th century “great migration”, the outflow of around six million black southerners over six decades.  It’s a vast “macro” book that’s anchored in three “micro” stories about Ida Mae, George and Pershing – ordinary characters who did the extraordinary thing of leaving everything they knew, risking punishment or worse, and heading north. Continue reading


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Kashmir and Korea: stories from the inside

Kashmir and North Korea. We see both in news headlines, both as political flashpoints, both as tough places for outsiders to comprehend. 

They both exist in my imagination today in a way they didn’t a week ago – thanks to two women writers I met at the Oslo Freedom Forum – and their books, “In the Valley of Mist” and “Nothing to Envy”.

Continue reading


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“Why the West Rules – for Now”

I just finished 620 densely written pages that propelled me through history from the Ice Age to the Atomic Age – filled with dramatic stories of war and sex and famine and migration and discovery – and suddenly realised that this is the best history book I have ever read.

Ian Morris began in the fields of ancient history & archeology. His book, published four months ago, reads like a life’s work. It aims to chart the entire course of human history “East and West”, tell us which trends matter, explain which factors had most impact and why, and extrapolate our probable future – or extinction – as a species. I’d be interested to hear any other readers’ thoughts on how he does it. Or what I should read next!

“Why the West Rules – for Now” is a book that made me think about why we need to study history, and why I want my little boy to enjoy it. If he grows up disconnected from the past, he’ll lack vital resources for shaping his future – and that of others. Especially now we feel as if we’re hurtling down the path of history thanks to the pace of technological advance – as if time itself is speeding up. My eight year old is going to get so much more out of life if he can adopt adaptation as a lifestyle. Continue reading