September 2020 | Books & Links

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Links & Essays & Articles

Photos of the California / Oregon / Washington state wildfires and the surreal orange skies, as if 2020 didn’t feel enough like a horror film. The lead image is particularly powerful. This year started with fire, and looks like it will end with it too. I really feel for the affected communities and hope that the fires can be extinguished as soon as possible.

I have been reading a lot about botany and mycology this month, and found this article on Victorians, botany and pteridomania – obsessive fern hunting and collecting – interesting:

Botany was, after all, one of the few avenues open to women who wanted to experience adventure for themselves; it was popular and widespread enough to be deemed an acceptable outdoors activity for the ladies. Indeed, women could even engage into fern hunting unchaperoned, since it was considered an entirely wholesome, healthy, and moral activity.

How the Victorian Fern-Hunting Craze Led To Adventure, Romance, and Crime

I found this article on sex, gender and feminism to be balanced and well reasoned. We need to find a better way to talk about sex and gender that recognises a person’s right to identify as a different gender to the one that matches the sex they were assigned at birth, without minimising the very real challenges that women whose gender matches their birth sex face in everyday life. At the moment, the language is messy and makes this more complicated than it needs to be. We need to be able to refer to ‘women’ when talking about menstruation – without being seen to exclude trans men who may or may not be pursuing hormone therapy and / or have undergone surgery to suppress or end their cycles. We need to be able to talk about ‘female bodies’ when discussing things like the way the built environment and tools we use in our jobs, hobbies and everyday lives are often designed for male – the sex – bodies. Take for example the world of professional cycling and the injuries some women develop as a result of their anatomy being incompatible with using saddles designed for men.

Sex is real, to recognise it isn’t an exercise in exclusion. I think part of the problem has arisen as a result of heated debates surrounding toilets and changing rooms. The solution to that ‘challenge’ seems obvious to me: do like my university sports centre has and make the changing rooms and toilets unisex with individual cubicles. Nobody needs know what sex organs you have and whether or not they match the identity you present yourself to the world as. This debate ties in with something else which has been troubling me lately, and that is the trend towards using ‘woman’ or ‘women’ as an adjective in place of ‘female’, for myriad reasons including the argument that ‘female’ can be transphobic. I’ve got a lot to say on the matter, so I’ll save it for an essay at a later date.

On sentiment analysis, machine learning, and how algorithms are being designed to explore how humans experience and respond to everything from adverts, to the news, to heatwaves. Coming from a social science research background where coding is a key part of research methodology, I find computational sentiment analysis – a form of qualitative coding – intriguing. Of course, much depends on how the algorithms are created – and the article touches on the challenges associated with different models and approaches – as well as the applications and data sets they are let loose on. I must say, I’m not surprised that sentiment analysis on Twitter encountered so much negativity and I don’t think it’s the best gauge of public mood, though I acknowledge it’s a large and readily accessibly body of data to use as a launchpad for future research.

In this piece Emma Copley Eisenberg discusses non-fiction writing, fact checking, and the roles writers, publishers, copy-editors, fact checkers and audiences play in the production and distribution of book-length works of non-fiction. The editing phase of my PhD was excruciating, just as Emma describes with her book, because of the need for rigorous fact checking. This was a three way process between me and my two academic supervisors whose own research covers two separate fields – one is an environmental scientist who focuses on energy, public participation in decision making and public perception of risk, and the other is a social scientist who specialises in the history and politics of Central and Eastern Europe. Fact checking involved a lot of time trawling through sources and triple checking tiny details from historical dates to transcripts from interviews, with the additional complication of many resources having been translated from Polish to English. Emma explains what fact checking for her looked like as she worked alongside a fact checker she hired to go through her manuscript before submitting it for publication, and it’s clear how painstaking the work was.

Aside from the challenges and responsibilities of fact checking, Emma raises a point which I find particularly concerning in this age of individuals being given book deals as a result of their sizeable social media followings rather than a result of them being learned experts in their fields:

Despite the common sense idea that books are the longer and more permanent version of magazine articles, there is an informal division of church and state between the worlds of book publishing and magazine journalism. The latter is subjected to rigorous fact checking, while the former is not. There are some reasons for this, including that authors of books are more typically considered experts on their material, while a journalist writing a single article on a topic may not be held to that same standard. Further, magazines typically own the copyright to all pieces they publish, while a book’s copyright remains with the author. All of this contributes to the sense that the magazine is responsible for the accuracy of the words published in their pages, while for a book, it’s the author.

If the responsibility for fact checking is left to the author of a work of non-fiction from biography, to memoir of social or political events, to true crime, and the author doesn’t have the budget, the interest, or an awareness of how essential fact checking is, then as a society we face significant challenges when it comes to controlling the spread of misinformation and documenting history as it is lived and remembered. We need to do more to ensure that non-fiction is rigorous and that all published accounts – from online investigative journalism to books – are held to the same high standards.

But the reason why the publishing industry has been slow to implement such guidelines for fact checking may lie further down in the foundation of the whole system. Without widespread consumer awareness that most books are not fact checked, or about which imprints publish which books, there’s no real reason for publishers to care about fact checking. If it comes to light that a book contains major errors, it’s the author, not the publisher, whose reputation takes the hit.


Speaking of books, September passed by without me completing a single physical book. It’s been another month with my head buried in periodicals and opinion online. I’ve fallen out of the habit of reading books and need to find a way to rebuild it.