the guardian Sat 01 January 2011
How to Stop Living and Start Worrying, by Simon Critchley with Carl Cederström (Polity, £12.99)
The decision to stop living and start worrying is probably as good a new year's resolution as any, and this ought to provide some anti-self-help inspiration, from a man who despises "well-being". Books of thinkers "in conversation" can seem like slackerish substitutes for written texts, but philosopher Critchley, under the friendly interrogation of Cederström, here provides both limpid introductions to the themes of his own books (on deconstruction, mourning, philosophers' deaths and so forth) and intriguing hints of what is yet to be published, on medieval female mystics and the Song of Solomon.
The pages are stuffed with reminiscence (Critchley reading while working as a lifeguard: "Thousands of children drowned as a result") and intriguing passing ideas ("the tinnitus of existence"), as well as more arguments (of greater or lesser plausibility) than most books twice the length. The intellectual register soars and plunges in a pleasing rhythm: Heidegger is "the diminutive Schwarzwald Nazi", and eventually "There's just something fucked up about being human". As a bonus, there is a climactic threesome that includes novelist Tom McCarthy, of whose International Necronautical Committee Critchley is Chief Philosopher. They make a good double act. Critchley: "We're anti-theatre." McCarthy: "We're interested only in car-parks."
A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilization, by Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed (Pluto, £19.99)
If you still need something to worry about, how about a grand conflagration of climate, financial, energy, food, and civil-liberties crises, which might destroy the world as we know it before the century is out? Such troubles, Ahmed argues, are not blips in our civilisation but "integral to the ideology, structure and logic of the global political economy", which therefore needs to be changed if humanity is to survive.
Ahmed could be charged with a certain ebullience in his delineating of potential catastrophe, which will necessitate "the dawn of a post-carbon civilisation". But his arguments are in the main forceful and well-sourced, with particularly good sections on agribusiness, US policies of "energy security", and what he terms the "securitisation" of ordinary life by western governments. Finally he offers a rather catholic range of recommendations, including treating water and energy as "part of the Global Commons" and eliminating the lending of money at interest. Building more car-parks for philosophers and novelists to frolic in, sadly, doesn't seem to be on the world-saving agenda.
Soup: A Global History, by Janet Clarkson (Reaktion, £9.99)
As serendipity would have it, I had just picked up this book when I heard on the radio that intrepid Chinese archaeologists had discovered a sealed bronze bowl of 2,400-year-old soup, but didn't yet know what flavour it was supposed to be. Clarkson has previously written the volume Pie in this series, and confesses cheerily that she took on the present subject "on no stronger impulse than that I really, really, like soup". Helped by tasty colour reproductions of old soup adverts, Clarkson investigates soups as comfort (chicken), medicine (lentils or, believe it or not, vipers) and weapon ("Arsenic-laced soup was the method of choice of the serial killer Hélène Jégado (1801-52)").
She limns too soup's association with the poor, its military utility (portable soup in the Navy) and the introduction of canned soup as a gourmet item a century ago. I suspect that it is impossible to worry while eating soup, in which case readers planning to spend this year trembling in philosophical anxiety might have to forswear it altogether.