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Latest news and features from theguardian.com, the world's leading liberal voice

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    It’s always fun to read about the dozen exceptional women this book collects together but does each writer’s distinctive wit and thought get lost?

    At times Michelle Dean’s Sharp feels like a zany game of Twister. How to connect the dots between such disparate figures as Dorothy Parker, Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag, Nora Ephron and Janet Malcolm – and, more importantly, why? There’s no denying that Dean has great taste in women: those she has chosen are fabulous company, always worth revisiting. Yet her argument might appear to be right there in the subtitle – The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion– it remains frustratingly vague.

    Sharpness, Dean seems to suggest more than once, is something of a lost virtue in the current era, and she undertakes a vindication of fierceness, of the willingness to forgo “niceness” in favour of intellectual rigour. She particularly admires women who, far from trying to ingratiate themselves, responded to a hostile or indifferent environment by growing ever more acerbic – and she evidently believes this is a mode that deserves to be revived and championed. Yet that notion is undermined by her inclusion of so many familiar 20th-century figures, which gives the book a rather clubby atmosphere. Dean sometimes falls prey to the sort of self-defeating pop-feminism that bigs up women whose stature has long been undisputed while also accidentally undermining that stature by slinging them together, privileging what they have in common – whether that’s social class, the tendency to be opinionated, or, often, little beyond womanhood itself – over what is distinctive in their ideas. One of the ironies here is that Dean has produced just the kind of soft‑centred work that most of her subjects would have delighted in eviscerating.

    The form of the book tends to imply once more that women writers must occupy the same category

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    A trenchant j’accuse against the old-boy chumocracy and the ‘apartheid education system’ that perpetuates social inequality in the UK

    From a 21st-century perspective, the term “public schools” is a semantic puzzle: what is “public” about a private, fee-paying school? But Winchester, Eton, St Paul’s and Westminster all started out as philanthropic institutions whose statutes expressly excluded the children of the wealthy. Moneyed interests forced their way in, and fee-paying pupils outnumbered free scholars by the 15th century; in 2017, only 1% of pupils attending independent schools paid no fees at all. In order to justify their charitable status – which confers tax advantages worth an estimated £2.5bn per year – independent schools are legally required to do a modicum of work “for the public benefit”, but a 2011 court ruling held that it is up to their own trustees, not the government, to determine whether they have met this criterion.

    “The public schools were founded to educate the poor and ended up serving the interests of the rich,” Robert Verkaik writes in Posh Boys, a trenchant j’accuse against what he calls the “apartheid education system” that perpetuates social inequality in modern Britain. Research suggests the standard of teaching in the private sector is not significantly higher than in the state sector: parents “are really paying for smaller classes … and a place in the privilege network”. Public schools are steeped in an oppressive culture of hierarchy and domination – the now obsolete practice of “fagging”, whereby senior pupils used younger ones as servants, persists in attenuated form in the prefect system – but the pay-off is substantial. As Evelyn Waugh’s Grimes puts it in Decline and Fall: “One goes through four or five years of perfect hell at an age when life is bound to be hell anyway, and after that the social system never lets one down.”

    Verkaik’s book is a timely intervention that asks all the right questions

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    The consequences of the technological revolution may be even more frightening than we thought

    I suspect your enjoyment – or otherwise – of James Bridle’s New Dark Age will depend very much on whether you’re a glass half-empty, or a glass exactly-filled-to-the-halfway-mark-by-microprocessor-controlled-automatic-pumping-systems sort of a person. I like to think that while I may have misgivings about much of what the current technological revolution is visiting on us, I yet manage to resist that dread ascription “luddite”. It’s one Bridle also wishes to avoid; but such is the pessimism about the machines that informs his argument, that his calls for a new “partnership” between them and us seem like special pleading. As futile, in fact, as a weaver believing that by smashing a Jacquard loom he’ll stop the industrial revolution in its tracks.

    If we’re in ignorance of what our robots are doing, how can we know if we’re being harmed?

    I suspect many readers will find Bridle’s perceptive and thought-provoking book terrifying rather than enjoyable

    Related: Rise of the machines: has technology evolved beyond our control?

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    A stylish, playful exploration of what digital life is doing to the way we find meaning in the world

    Laurence Scott’s first book, The Four-Dimensional Human, zoomed straight on to the Samuel Johnson (now the Baillie Gifford) prize shortlist in 2015. In a crowded field of commentary on our lives with new technology, his first-hand reports on digital existence, narrated with blushes and allurements and a scholar’s grasp of intellectual history, were not like anyone else’s.

    Picnic Comma Lightning brings us further meditations on what digital life is doing to the way we find meaning in the world. Here again, Scott ponders his world with a mix of delighted avidity, candour and melancholy. But this second book goes deeper, ranges even wider, and takes many different forms in the mind. It is a philosophical meditation on perceptions of reality, achieved by means of beguilingly playful moves from confession to anthropology to social analysis. It is also an elegy for two lost parents, who died in quick succession when the author was in his early 30s.

    Related: From that dress to Yanny and Laurel: what tribal memes tell us about our fantasy-land politics

    Now we have furnishings that really do listen and store our data in their silicon drawers

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    This timely survey traces the political roots of the current ‘America First’ movement back to the early 20th century

    In its initial incarnation, the Ku Klux Klan was a southern organisation born of denial: Klansmen rejected the obvious consequences of Confederate defeat for the racial character and social structure of the South. Although the Klan had been suppressed by the turn of the century, it was reincarnated in 1915, and soon spread far beyond the southern states, becoming a national phenomenon.

    Black Americans remained a target, but its demonology extended to encompass other presences unwelcome to white Anglo-Saxon Protestant America: Jews and Catholics, southern and eastern Europeans. On Monday 30 May 1927 there were violent scuffles at New York’s Memorial Day parades, when protesters confronted Klan marchers. In Queens there were seven arrests: five “avowed Klansmen”; a sixth person arrested by mistake and immediately released; and – mysteriously – a 20-year-old German-American by the name of Fred Trump.

    Related: The American far-right is crashing after its Trump victory high | Cas Mudde

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    In this extract from his radical book Poverty Safari, former rapper Darren McGarvey sets forward a new approach to an old and complex problem

    • Q&A with Darren McGarvey: ‘I have more respect for politicians than my work suggests’

    I no longer believe poverty is an issue our politicians can solve. Not because they don’t want to, but because an honest conversation about what it will require is too politically difficult to have. If those in power were straight about what addressing this problem would require it would shock us to our core. And not merely because of the magnitude of the task facing society, which is unconscionable in scale, but also because there is a certain level of personal responsibility involved that’s become taboo to acknowledge on the left. For all the demand we in leftwing circles feign for fundamental change and radical action, people get a bit touchy and offended when you suggest that might apply to them too. The truth, whether we want to accept it or not, is that when it comes to poverty there is no one actor or group that we can blame with any certainty.

    Contrary to what we’ve been told, the issue of poverty is far too complex to blame solely on “Tories” or “elites”. It’s precisely because of the complexity at play, and how difficult it is to grasp, that we look for scapegoats. Whether it be the left blaming the rich or the right blaming the poor, we tend only to be interested in whichever half of the story absolves us of responsibility for the problem. That’s not the sort of thing a politician looking to get elected can say to a potential voter.

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    Robert Verkaik comprehensively illustrates thestranglehold the public school system still has on Britain

    Robert Verkaik could hardly have picked a better time to publish this. One notorious posh boy (Eton, Oxford) exits Her Majesty’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, another (Charterhouse, Oxford) arrives to take over. No surprise there, but the nation, or the 93% of it that did not go to private school, is left wondering again how this crony class of bought privilege and vicious self-interest has managed to hold on to the reins for so long. Not least when – from Balaclava to Brexit – they haven’t run things very well.

    Of course, it may be that the grockles and plebs are not very bothered. In his fascinating, enraging polemic, Verkaik touches on one of the strangest aspects of the elite schools and their product’s domination of public life for two and a half centuries: the acquiescence of everyone else. “Public schools have a mesmerising influence over British people,” Verkaik says, echoing George Orwell (Eton) 85 years ago. Verkaik says we are all seduced, not least by the innocent question: “Who doesn’t want the best for their children?” As a parent and a troubled posh boy myself, I understand him.

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    Portions of the civil rights activist’s landmark book, reportedly too controversial to publish at the time, have been acquired by New York Public Library

    “Lost” material from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, reportedly seen as too controversial to publish in the 1960s, has emerged this week at an auction in New York.

    Along with the original typed manuscript, which reveals the back and forth between the black activist and his collaborator Alex Haley, to whom he told his story, the unpublished writing was put up for sale on Thursday by New York auctioneer Guernsey’s. The papers, including an unpublished chapter and a series of unpublished pages, were acquired by the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

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    According to the novelist, mothers are punished whatever they do. She talks about trans parents, the male psyche and why Sheryl Sandberg’s advice for working mothers isn’t feasible

    Everyone in the world has or has had one, yet our conception of what it is to be a mother is fatally flawed, argues Jacqueline Rose. The consequences of our devotion to that skewed vision are dire, ranging from a systemic hatred of single mothers, punished for perceived sexual and social irresponsibility, to an expectation of maternal perfection and joyfulness at damaging odds with the messy reality of birthing and raising children. Her book, Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, is, she tells me as we sit at the kitchen table of her north London flat, an attempt “to raise the ante and have a truer, more virulently exhilarating and disturbing account of motherhood in our general culture. That’s what the book’s trying to do; it’s trying to say, can we put this out there?”

    It’s not all that Rose has put out there; this week, perhaps the most surprising Man Booker prize longlist ever has been published, and Rose is one of the judges. There are few big names, plenty of newcomers, and of the 13 books, one is a graphic novel and one a thriller. “In each case it felt as if our chosen novels were alerting us to something very hard to take on board but that we urgently needed to think about.”

    There’s all this hostility to mothers, along with the expectation that they will make the world perfect

    I feel trans people are in touch with the peculiarity of what it means to make a gender distinction absolute and rigid

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    We are too smart to be manipulated by algorithms, argues a mathematican. But the maths misses the crisis we are facing

    “Space is big,” wrote Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

    Adams’s assertion comes repeatedly to mind when reading David Sumpter’s Outnumbered, which attempts to reckon with the sheer scale of the systems that manage much of our digital lives. It’s easy, when faced with the numbers at hand, to succumb to a kind of vertigo: Facebook has two billion users, who make tens of millions of posts every hour. From this data, along with millions more photos, likes and relationships, Facebook builds models of all of us that extend in hundreds of dimensions – the puny human mind, at best, is capable of visualising four.

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    From terrible table manners to defecating in public to ideals of civilisation as a class weapon … a brilliant work by a consummate historian

    We’re all appalled when we witness signs of the decline of civilisation. Whether it is the spread of casual xenophobia, the pollution of the oceans or the ubiquity of texting in restaurants, each of us carries around a mental picture of what an ideal society ought to look like, and an instinctive antipathy towards behaviours that don’t measure up. “That’s souncivilised,” we think, contemplating Donald Trump, or an ugly facial tattoo, or someone noisily consuming smelly food on a crowded train.

    In truth, of course, standards of civility are changeable. As Keith Thomas points out in his wonderfully entertaining history, according to Giovanni della Casa, the 16th-century authority on polite behaviour, it was perfectly proper for the master of a household to relieve himself in front of his servants and inferiors. When King James I went out hunting all day, he similarly didn’t bother getting out of the saddle to answer calls of nature; and when parliament met in Oxford in 1665-6, Charles II’s courtiers left behind “their excrements in every corner, in chimneys, studies, coal-houses, cellars”. Seventeenth-century searchers after potassium nitrate were keen to excavate under church floors, because they knew that, during services, “the women piss in their seats, which causes excellent saltpetre”. Visiting England in 1763, Casanova was startled to find people defecating in the streets: evidently he wasn’t used to such behaviour elsewhere.

    Thomas shows how the notion of civilisation was used to justify the exploitation of ‘lesser’ humans at home and abroad

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    A new survey of western black radical thought is lucid, fluent and compelling

    Black radicalism, Kehinde Andrews argues, is the most misunderstood ideology of the 20th century. And he’s right. It has become a vague term, lazily employed to encompass everything from the black nationalism of WEB Du Bois or Martin Delany, the Pan-Africanism of Kwame Ture (AKA Stokely Carmichael) and the black Marxism of Amilcar Cabral to the self-sufficiency of Marcus Garvey and the cultural nationalism of the Nation of Islam.

    The reasons for misunderstanding black radicalism are intertwined with the reasons it exists in the first place – black thought has been minimised, dismissed and treated with contempt.

    You might not agree with Andrews, but we need him

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    The author of global bestseller Sapiens is back, with a self-help guide for a bewildering age – and its sweeping statements are peppered with truly mind-expanding observations

    Yuval Noah Harari’s career is a publishing fairytale. An obscure Israeli academic writes a Hebrew-language history of humanity. Translated into English in 2014, the book sells more than a million copies. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg includes it in his book club in 2015. Ridley Scott wants to turn it into a TV series. Barack Obama says it gave him perspective on “the core things that have allowed us to build this extraordinary civilization that we take for granted”. Its sales spike when it is mentioned on Love Island.

    That book was Sapiens, which is bold, breezy and engaging; romping its way from the discovery of fire to the creation of cyborgs in less than 500 pages. The future-gazing follow-up, Homo Deus, was also a global bestseller, and now Harari has turned his attention to the present with 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. It covers everything from war – Harari’s academic specialism – to meditation, his favourite leisure activity. (He does two hours a day, and a month-long retreat every year.) The collection of pieces aims to take stock of where humanity has reached, and where it might be going. Ultra-topical concerns such as “fake news” and the rise of authoritarians such as Donald Trump are set in the context of centuries of our biological and social evolution. As Obama said, this approach certainly gives the reader perspective. Ivan the Terrible was probably more, well, terrible than Trump. Cheer up! Until you remember climate change, at least – because, to his credit, Harari is one of the few futurists to factor ecological collapse into his predictions.

    The essay format plays to Harari’s big selling point: his ability to smash together unexpected ideas into dazzling ​​observations

    Related: Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari review – how data will destroy human freedom

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