Is everything you think you know about depression wrong?

In this extract from his new book, Johann Hari, who took antidepressants for 14 years, calls for a new approach

In the 1970s, a truth was accidentally discovered about depression one that was quickly swept aside, because its implications were too inconvenient, and too explosive. American psychiatrists had produced a book that would lay out, in detail, all the symptoms of different mental illnesses, so they could be identified and treated in the same way across the United States. It was called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. In the latest edition, they laid out nine symptoms that a patient has to show to be diagnosed with depression like, for example, decreased interest in pleasure or persistent low mood. For a doctor to conclude you were depressed, you had to show five of these symptoms over several weeks.

The manual was sent out to doctors across the US and they began to use it to diagnose people. However, after a while they came back to the authors and pointed out something that was bothering them. If they followed this guide, they had to diagnose every grieving person who came to them as depressed and start giving them medical treatment. If you lose someone, it turns out that these symptoms will come to you automatically. So, the doctors wanted to know, are we supposed to start drugging all the bereaved people in America?

The authors conferred, and they decided that there would be a special clause added to the list of symptoms of depression. None of this applies, they said, if you have lost somebody you love in the past year. In that situation, all these symptoms are natural, and not a disorder. It was called the grief exception, and it seemed to resolve the problem.

Then, as the years and decades passed, doctors on the frontline started to come back with another question. All over the world, they were being encouraged to tell patients that depression is, in fact, just the result of a spontaneous chemical imbalance in your brain it is produced by low serotonin, or a natural lack of some other chemical. Its not caused by your life its caused by your broken brain. Some of the doctors began to ask how this fitted with the grief exception. If you agree that the symptoms of depression are a logical and understandable response to one set of life circumstances losing a loved one might they not be an understandable response to other situations? What about if you lose your job? What if you are stuck in a job that you hate for the next 40 years? What about if you are alone and friendless?

The grief exception seemed to have blasted a hole in the claim that the causes of depression are sealed away in your skull. It suggested that there are causes out here, in the world, and they needed to be investigated and solved there. This was a debate that mainstream psychiatry (with some exceptions) did not want to have. So, they responded in a simple way by whittling away the grief exception. With each new edition of the manual they reduced the period of grief that you were allowed before being labelled mentally ill down to a few months and then, finally, to nothing at all. Now, if your baby dies at 10am, your doctor can diagnose you with a mental illness at 10.01am and start drugging you straight away.

Dr Joanne Cacciatore, of Arizona State University, became a leading expert on the grief exception after her own baby, Cheyenne, died during childbirth. She had seen many grieving people being told that they were mentally ill for showing distress. She told me this debate reveals a key problem with how we talk about depression, anxiety and other forms of suffering: we dont, she said, consider context. We act like human distress can be assessed solely on a checklist that can be separated out from our lives, and labelled as brain diseases. If we started to take peoples actual lives into account when we treat depression and anxiety, Joanne explained, it would require an entire system overhaul. She told me that when you have a person with extreme human distress, [we need to] stop treating the symptoms. The symptoms are a messenger of a deeper problem. Lets get to the deeper problem.

*****

I was a teenager when I swallowed my first antidepressant. I was standing in the weak English sunshine, outside a pharmacy in a shopping centre in London. The tablet was white and small, and as I swallowed, it felt like a chemical kiss. That morning I had gone to see my doctor and I had told him crouched, embarrassed that pain was leaking out of me uncontrollably, like a bad smell, and I had felt this way for several years. In reply, he told me a story. There is a chemical called serotonin that makes people feel good, he said, and some people are naturally lacking it in their brains. You are clearly one of those people. There are now, thankfully, new drugs that will restore your serotonin level to that of a normal person. Take them, and you will be well. At last, I understood what had been happening to me, and why.

However, a few months into my drugging, something odd happened. The pain started to seep through again. Before long, I felt as bad as I had at the start. I went back to my doctor, and he told me that I was clearly on too low a dose. And so, 20 milligrams became 30 milligrams; the white pill became blue. I felt better for several months. And then the pain came back through once more. My dose kept being jacked up, until I was on 80mg, where it stayed for many years, with only a few short breaks. And still the pain broke back through.

I started to research my book, Lost Connections: Uncovering The Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions, because I was puzzled by two mysteries. Why was I still depressed when I was doing everything I had been told to do? I had identified the low serotonin in my brain, and I was boosting my serotonin levels yet I still felt awful. But there was a deeper mystery still. Why were so many other people across the western world feeling like me? Around one in five US adults are taking at least one drug for a psychiatric problem. In Britain, antidepressant prescriptions have doubled in a decade, to the point where now one in 11 of us drug ourselves to deal with these feelings. What has been causing depression and its twin, anxiety, to spiral in this way? I began to ask myself: could it really be that in our separate heads, all of us had brain chemistries that were spontaneously malfunctioning at the same time?

To find the answers, I ended up going on a 40,000-mile journey across the world and back. I talked to the leading social scientists investigating these questions, and to people who have been overcoming depression in unexpected ways from an Amish village in Indiana, to a Brazilian city that banned advertising and a laboratory in Baltimore conducting a startling wave of experiments. From these people, I learned the best scientific evidence about what really causes depression and anxiety. They taught me that it is not what we have been told it is up to now. I found there is evidence that seven specific factors in the way we are living today are causing depression and anxiety to rise alongside two real biological factors (such as your genes) that can combine with these forces to make it worse.

Once I learned this, I was able to see that a very different set of solutions to my depression and to our depression had been waiting for me all along.

To understand this different way of thinking, though, I had to first investigate the old story, the one that had given me so much relief at first. Professor Irving Kirsch at Harvard University is the Sherlock Holmes of chemical antidepressants the man who has scrutinised the evidence about giving drugs to depressed and anxious people most closely in the world. In the 1990s, he prescribed chemical antidepressants to his patients with confidence. He knew the published scientific evidence, and it was clear: it showed that 70% of people who took them got significantly better. He began to investigate this further, and put in a freedom of information request to get the data that the drug companies had been privately gathering into these drugs. He was confident that he would find all sorts of other positive effects but then he bumped into something peculiar.

Illustration
Illustration by Michael Driver.

We all know that when you take selfies, you take 30 pictures, throw away the 29 where you look bleary-eyed or double-chinned, and pick out the best one to be your Tinder profile picture. It turned out that the drug companies who fund almost all the research into these drugs were taking this approach to studying chemical antidepressants. They would fund huge numbers of studies, throw away all the ones that suggested the drugs had very limited effects, and then only release the ones that showed success. To give one example: in one trial, the drug was given to 245 patients, but the drug company published the results for only 27 of them. Those 27 patients happened to be the ones the drug seemed to work for. Suddenly, Professor Kirsch realised that the 70% figure couldnt be right.

It turns out that between 65 and 80% of people on antidepressants are depressed again within a year. I had thought that I was freakish for remaining depressed while on these drugs. In fact, Kirsch explained to me in Massachusetts, I was totally typical. These drugs are having a positive effect for some people but they clearly cant be the main solution for the majority of us, because were still depressed even when we take them. At the moment, we offer depressed people a menu with only one option on it. I certainly dont want to take anything off the menu but I realised, as I spent time with him, that we would have to expand the menu.

This led Professor Kirsch to ask a more basic question, one he was surprised to be asking. How do we know depression is even caused by low serotonin at all? When he began to dig, it turned out that the evidence was strikingly shaky. Professor Andrew Scull of Princeton, writing in the Lancet, explained that attributing depression to spontaneously low serotonin is deeply misleading and unscientific. Dr David Healy told me: There was never any basis for it, ever. It was just marketing copy.

I didnt want to hear this. Once you settle into a story about your pain, you are extremely reluctant to challenge it. It was like a leash I had put on my distress to keep it under some control. I feared that if I messed with the story I had lived with for so long, the pain would run wild, like an unchained animal. Yet the scientific evidence was showing me something clear, and I couldnt ignore it.

*****

So, what is really going on? When I interviewed social scientists all over the world from So Paulo to Sydney, from Los Angeles to London I started to see an unexpected picture emerge. We all know that every human being has basic physical needs: for food, for water, for shelter, for clean air. It turns out that, in the same way, all humans have certain basic psychological needs. We need to feel we belong. We need to feel valued. We need to feel were good at something. We need to feel we have a secure future. And there is growing evidence that our culture isnt meeting those psychological needs for many perhaps most people. I kept learning that, in very different ways, we have become disconnected from things we really need, and this deep disconnection is driving this epidemic of depression and anxiety all around us.

Lets look at one of those causes, and one of the solutions we can begin to see if we understand it differently. There is strong evidence that human beings need to feel their lives are meaningful that they are doing something with purpose that makes a difference. Its a natural psychological need. But between 2011 and 2012, the polling company Gallup conducted the most detailed study ever carried out of how people feel about the thing we spend most of our waking lives doing our paid work. They found that 13% of people say they are engaged in their work they find it meaningful and look forward to it. Some 63% say they are not engaged, which is defined as sleepwalking through their workday. And 24% are actively disengaged: they hate it.

A
Antidepressant prescriptions have doubled over the last decade. Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA

Most of the depressed and anxious people I know, I realised, are in the 87% who dont like their work. I started to dig around to see if there is any evidence that this might be related to depression. It turned out that a breakthrough had been made in answering this question in the 1970s, by an Australian scientist called Michael Marmot. He wanted to investigate what causes stress in the workplace and believed hed found the perfect lab in which to discover the answer: the British civil service, based in Whitehall. This small army of bureaucrats was divided into 19 different layers, from the permanent secretary at the top, down to the typists. What he wanted to know, at first, was: whos more likely to have a stress-related heart attack the big boss at the top, or somebody below him?

Everybody told him: youre wasting your time. Obviously, the boss is going to be more stressed because hes got more responsibility. But when Marmot published his results, he revealed the truth to be the exact opposite. The lower an employee ranked in the hierarchy, the higher their stress levels and likelihood of having a heart attack. Now he wanted to know: why?

And thats when, after two more years studying civil servants, he discovered the biggest factor. It turns out if you have no control over your work, you are far more likely to become stressed and, crucially, depressed. Humans have an innate need to feel that what we are doing, day-to-day, is meaningful. When you are controlled, you cant create meaning out of your work.

Suddenly, the depression of many of my friends, even those in fancy jobs who spend most of their waking hours feeling controlled and unappreciated started to look not like a problem with their brains, but a problem with their environments. There are, I discovered, many causes of depression like this. However, my journey was not simply about finding the reasons why we feel so bad. The core was about finding out how we can feel better how we can find real and lasting antidepressants that work for most of us, beyond only the packs of pills we have been offered as often the sole item on the menu for the depressed and anxious. I kept thinking about what Dr Cacciatore had taught me we have to deal with the deeper problems that are causing all this distress.

I found the beginnings of an answer to the epidemic of meaningless work in Baltimore. Meredith Mitchell used to wake up every morning with her heart racing with anxiety. She dreaded her office job. So she took a bold step one that lots of people thought was crazy. Her husband, Josh, and their friends had worked for years in a bike store, where they were ordered around and constantly felt insecure, Most of them were depressed. One day, they decided to set up their own bike store, but they wanted to run it differently. Instead of having one guy at the top giving orders, they would run it as a democratic co-operative. This meant they would make decisions collectively, they would share out the best and worst jobs and they would all, together, be the boss. It would be like a busy democratic tribe. When I went to their store Baltimore Bicycle Works the staff explained how, in this different environment, their persistent depression and anxiety had largely lifted.

Its not that their individual tasks had changed much. They fixed bikes before; they fix bikes now. But they had dealt with the unmet psychological needs that were making them feel so bad by giving themselves autonomy and control over their work. Josh had seen for himself that depressions are very often, as he put it, rational reactions to the situation, not some kind of biological break. He told me there is no need to run businesses anywhere in the old humiliating, depressing way we could move together, as a culture, to workers controlling their own workplaces.

*****

With each of the nine causes of depression and anxiety I learned about, I kept being taught startling facts and arguments like this that forced me to think differently. Professor John Cacioppo of Chicago University taught me that being acutely lonely is as stressful as being punched in the face by a stranger and massively increases your risk of depression. Dr Vincent Felitti in San Diego showed me that surviving severe childhood trauma makes you 3,100% more likely to attempt suicide as an adult. Professor Michael Chandler in Vancouver explained to me that if a community feels it has no control over the big decisions affecting it, the suicide rate will shoot up.

This new evidence forces us to seek out a very different kind of solution to our despair crisis. One person in particular helped me to unlock how to think about this. In the early days of the 21st century, a South African psychiatrist named Derek Summerfeld went to Cambodia, at a time when antidepressants were first being introduced there. He began to explain the concept to the doctors he met. They listened patiently and then told him they didnt need these new antidepressants, because they already had anti-depressants that work. He assumed they were talking about some kind of herbal remedy.

He asked them to explain, and they told him about a rice farmer they knew whose left leg was blown off by a landmine. He was fitted with a new limb, but he felt constantly anxious about the future, and was filled with despair. The doctors sat with him, and talked through his troubles. They realised that even with his new artificial limb, his old jobworking in the rice paddieswas leaving him constantly stressed and in physical pain, and that was making him want to just stop living. So they had an idea. They believed that if he became a dairy farmer, he could live differently. So they bought him a cow. In the months and years that followed, his life changed. His depressionwhich had been profoundwent away. You see, doctor, they told him, the cow was an antidepressant.

To them, finding an antidepressant didnt mean finding a way to change your brain chemistry. It meant finding a way to solve the problem that was causing the depression in the first place. We can do the same. Some of these solutions are things we can do as individuals, in our private lives. Some require bigger social shifts, which we can only achieve together, as citizens. But all of them require us to change our understanding of what depression and anxiety really are.

This is radical, but it is not, I discovered, a maverick position. In its official statement for World Health Day in 2017, the United Nations reviewed the best evidence and concluded that the dominant biomedical narrative of depression is based on biased and selective use of research outcomes that must be abandoned. We need to move from focusing on chemical imbalances, they said, to focusing more on power imbalances.

After I learned all this, and what it means for us all, I started to long for the power to go back in time and speak to my teenage self on the day he was told a story about his depression that was going to send him off in the wrong direction for so many years. I wanted to tell him: This pain you are feeling is not a pathology. Its not crazy. It is a signal that your natural psychological needs are not being met. It is a form of grief for yourself, and for the culture you live in going so wrong. I know how much it hurts. I know how deeply it cuts you. But you need to listen to this signal. We all need to listen to the people around us sending out this signal. It is telling you what is going wrong. It is telling you that you need to be connected in so many deep and stirring ways that you arent yet but you can be, one day.

If you are depressed and anxious, you are not a machine with malfunctioning parts. You are a human being with unmet needs. The only real way out of our epidemic of despair is for all of us, together, to begin to meet those human needs for deep connection, to the things that really matter in life.

This is an edited extract from Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari, published by Bloomsbury on 11 January (16.99). To order a copy for 14.44 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99. It will be available in audio at audible.co.uk

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/07/is-everything-you-think-you-know-about-depression-wrong-johann-hari-lost-connections

Nkechi Anele from Saskwatch: ‘I’ve hated my hair for most of my life’

In our series Beauty and the books the lead singer of Saskwatch talks about how coconut oil helped change her feelings about natural hair and the Art of War

Nkechi Anele, the lead singer for Saskwatch, also hosts Roots n All for Triple J and is the co-founder of The Pin. Anele has been reading an ancient war manual to help her with awkward social situations, and shares her secret weapon against sunburn.

Whats thrilling

Im really loving The Art of War. Its a 2,000-year-old military manual that came out of China and is written in code. It talks about tactics on the battlefield but its more philosophical so it can be applied to everyday life how to conduct yourself and how to master changes and challenges. Its all about talking about being on the offence, not on the defence. It can be applied to a lot of things, such as conversations or dealing with awkward social situations or turning awkward situations into your favour.

Its really good to apply to personal instances of your life like the way you see things and the way you see yourself in everyday life. Its all about taking care of yourself and making sure youre in the best possible position in your life.

I still havent got over the coconut oil phase. Its been a life changer for me. In the last year Ive followed the natural hair movement of black women and decided to stop having my hair in braids, or feeling like I had to have my hair in braids to feel beautiful. Its been a really big journey and coconut oil has been my hair saviour. Its an all-in-one moisturiser but it also helps curly hair grow; it protects curly hair from the sun. Coconut oil has been part of my transformation into loving my natural hair.

Turning to natural hair happened in two parts. I had my hair braided and it was braided really badly. I was at my friends house and shes one of those friends who tells the truth. She said, Your hair looks horrible. I have to take it out. I cant stand it. And she took it out.

Ive had my hair natural a few times in my life but not really loved it. Theres been semi-traumatic experiences such as strangers grabbing my hair and touching my hair in public. This has been an evolution because every day I wake up and think, Today is going to be the day that I hate my hair, and I dont hate my hair. Thats been a really unique thing for me to experience because Ive hated my hair for most of my life.

Hair is a very significant thing for women of colour, especially African women. My friend explained that hair to African women is like weight to white women. Its very important to maintain and it also establishes how you see yourself and how you feel about yourself in society. It becomes a philosophy: if youre not taking care of your hair, youre not taking care of yourself. The internet and social networking have meant we have a place where people are making black beauty content that isnt trying to say Hey, heres a black option. Its saying, This is what black people do. Now theres so many more resources on how to take care of your hair and so many hacks on how to manage it. Our hair is so intense; so curly and so knotty and so strong. I know so many people who are African and have broken combs with their hair. Its always a battlefield. The natural hair movement has been another step forward for black women in being proud of what theyre born with. Im happy I came to it in my 20s, but I wish I had come to it earlier.

Whats nostalgia-inducing

Recently I met Pia Miranda and it reminded me how much I loved Looking for Alibrandi when I first read it. From ages 12 to 17, I think I read the book twice a year. That book for me was the first time experiencing someone who was seen as Australian but not really the idea of Australian. There was this kick-ass chick full of attitude and full of spunk, had these crazy love crushes and was super intelligent, and was the underdog. When I saw [Miranda], it brought back so many memories of how much I loved that book and I really want to reread it.

Im a moisturising fiend. Im quite obsessed with Aesop at the moment. Ive been using Damascan rose facial treatment ($75) which is like rose oil. The first time I was introduced to Aesop, it was a present my mum gave me the first time I went overseas. Aesop has this smell that reminds me of Australia when I go away. When Im away and using Aesop, I can still smell the gumtrees of home. I live near a park and you can smell the flowers as the seasons change and it reminds me of that.

What I keep going back to

Raymond Carvers What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is something I reread again and again, mainly because sometimes you think, What the hell did I just read? The stories are so short and nothing happens but everything happens in them. I have to read them over and over again because, depending on your mood, the stories can be interpreted in so many different ways and have such an impact. Youre reading his short stories and waiting for the punch to happen, for the moment when it all clicks and all makes sense to you.

Its a classic but Ive only been introduced in the past two years. I still find myself when looking for something to read choosing a random story and thinking, Oh god, this is so epic.

I bite my lips when Im nervous or when if Im working on something [so] paw paw is my saviour. Its like coconut oil in that I use it for different things but I feel like its the only thing when your lips are dry beyond repair that will work.

Another thing I use again and again is vitamin E cream. I get sunburnt on one part of my face. Ten years ago my friend put me on to vitamin E cream and its the best thing. Whenever you burn yourself or you want your skin to look really lovely, its just the thing. I rarely wear foundation; I use moisturiser as my foundation. If Im going out and I want to look fresh or dewy thats what I put on my skin. Its the be all and end all for me.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/nov/14/nkechi-anele-ive-hated-my-hair-for-most-of-my-life

Leonard Cohen’s last book, finished ‘days before his death’, due out next year

The Flame collects unpublished poetry, as well as notebook entries and song lyrics, and offers an intimate look inside the life and mind of a singular artist

A book of Leonard Cohens final poems, completed in the months before his death and tackling the flame and how our culture threatened its extinction, according to his manager, will be published next year.

Describing the collection, The Flame, as an enormously powerful final chapter in Cohens storied literary career, publisher Canongate said that the Canadian singer-songwriter had chosen and ordered the poems in the months before his death in November 2016. The overwhelming majority of the book, which will be published next October, will be new material, it added.

Cohen, who died at the age of 82, originally focused his career on poetry, publishing the collections Let Us Compare Mythologies in 1956, The Spice-Box of Earth in 1961, and Flowers for Hitler in 1964. By the late 60s, he was concentrating more on music, releasing his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967.

Cohens manager and trustee of his estate Robert Kory said that pulling The Flame together had been a key ambition for the singer-songwriter at the end of his life. During the final months of his life, Leonard had a singular focus completing this book, taken largely from his unpublished poems and selections from his notebooks. The flame and how our culture threatened its extinction was a central concern, said Kory.

Though in declining health, Leonard died unexpectedly. Those of us who had the rare privilege of spending time with him during this period recognised that the flame burned bright within him to the very end. This book, finished only days before his death, reveals to all the intensity of his inner fire.

In an interview with the New Yorker last October, Cohen spoke of how my natural thrust is to finish things that Ive begun, and of how he was getting up well before dawn to write.

I dont dare attach myself to a spiritual strategy. I dont dare do that. Ive got some work to do. Take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope its not too uncomfortable. Thats about it for me, he told the magazines editor David Remnick.

In a certain sense, this particular predicament is filled with many fewer distractions than other times in my life and actually enables me to work with a little more concentration and continuity than when I had duties of making a living, being a husband, being a father. Those distractions are radically diminished at this point. The only thing that mitigates against full production is just the condition of my body At a certain point, if you still have your marbles and are not faced with serious financial challenges, you have a chance to put your house in order.

The Flame will also include an extensive selection from Cohens notebooks, which Canongate said he kept in poetic form throughout his life, and which it promised would offer an unprecedentedly intimate look inside the life and mind of a singular artist and thinker. The full lyrics of his final three albums, along with those he wrote for the album Blue Alert by his collaborator Anjani, will also be included, along with prose pieces and Cohens own illustrations.

Canongates Francis Bickmore, who acquired UK and Commonwealth rights, called it a towering final book, hulking with morbid wit and lit up with insight This substantial parting work, from a great artist now gone, will speak to anyone who has been moved by Cohens unique voice.

The Flame will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the US, and McClelland & Stewart in Canada.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/06/leonard-cohens-last-book-finished-days-before-his-death-due-out-next-year-the-flame

The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life: the new sleep science

Leading neuroscientist Matthew Walker on why sleep deprivation is increasing our risk of cancer, heart attack and Alzheimers and what you can do about it

Matthew Walker has learned to dread the question What do you do? At parties, it signals the end of his evening; thereafter, his new acquaintance will inevitably cling to him like ivy. On an aeroplane, it usually means that while everyone else watches movies or reads a thriller, he will find himself running an hours-long salon for the benefit of passengers and crew alike. Ive begun to lie, he says. Seriously. I just tell people Im a dolphin trainer. Its better for everyone.

Walker is a sleep scientist. To be specific, he is the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, a research institute whose goal possibly unachievable is to understand everything about sleeps impact on us, from birth to death, in sickness and health. No wonder, then, that people long for his counsel. As the line between work and leisure grows ever more blurred, rare is the person who doesnt worry about their sleep. But even as we contemplate the shadows beneath our eyes, most of us dont know the half of it and perhaps this is the real reason he has stopped telling strangers how he makes his living. When Walker talks about sleep he cant, in all conscience, limit himself to whispering comforting nothings about camomile tea and warm baths. Its his conviction that we are in the midst of a catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic, the consequences of which are far graver than any of us could imagine. This situation, he believes, is only likely to change if government gets involved.

Walker has spent the last four and a half years writing Why We Sleep, a complex but urgent book that examines the effects of this epidemic close up, the idea being that once people know of the powerful links between sleep loss and, among other things, Alzheimers disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity and poor mental health, they will try harder to get the recommended eight hours a night (sleep deprivation, amazing as this may sound to Donald Trump types, constitutes anything less than seven hours). But, in the end, the individual can achieve only so much. Walker wants major institutions and law-makers to take up his ideas, too. No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation, he says. It sinks down into every possible nook and cranny. And yet no one is doing anything about it. Things have to change: in the workplace and our communities, our homes and families. But when did you ever see an NHS poster urging sleep on people? When did a doctor prescribe, not sleeping pills, but sleep itself? It needs to be prioritised, even incentivised. Sleep loss costs the UK economy over 30bn a year in lost revenue, or 2% of GDP. I could double the NHS budget if only they would institute policies to mandate or powerfully encourage sleep.

Why, exactly, are we so sleep-deprived? What has happened over the course of the last 75 years? In 1942, less than 8% of the population was trying to survive on six hours or less sleep a night; in 2017, almost one in two people is. The reasons are seemingly obvious. First, we electrified the night, Walker says. Light is a profound degrader of our sleep. Second, there is the issue of work: not only the porous borders between when you start and finish, but longer commuter times, too. No one wants to give up time with their family or entertainment, so they give up sleep instead. And anxiety plays a part. Were a lonelier, more depressed society. Alcohol and caffeine are more widely available. All these are the enemies of sleep.

But Walker believes, too, that in the developed world sleep is strongly associated with weakness, even shame. We have stigmatised sleep with the label of laziness. We want to seem busy, and one way we express that is by proclaiming how little sleep were getting. Its a badge of honour. When I give lectures, people will wait behind until there is no one around and then tell me quietly: I seem to be one of those people who need eight or nine hours sleep. Its embarrassing to say it in public. They would rather wait 45 minutes for the confessional. Theyre convinced that theyre abnormal, and why wouldnt they be? We chastise people for sleeping what are, after all, only sufficient amounts. We think of them as slothful. No one would look at an infant baby asleep, and say What a lazy baby! We know sleeping is non-negotiable for a baby. But that notion is quickly abandoned [as we grow up]. Humans are the only species that deliberately deprive themselves of sleep for no apparent reason. In case youre wondering, the number of people who can survive on five hours of sleep or less without any impairment, expressed as a percent of the population and rounded to a whole number, is zero.

The world of sleep science is still relatively small. But it is growing exponentially, thanks both to demand (the multifarious and growing pressures caused by the epidemic) and to new technology (such as electrical and magnetic brain stimulators), which enables researchers to have what Walker describes as VIP access to the sleeping brain. Walker, who is 44 and was born in Liverpool, has been in the field for more than 20 years, having published his first research paper at the age of just 21. I would love to tell you that I was fascinated by conscious states from childhood, he says. But in truth, it was accidental. He started out studying for a medical degree in Nottingham. But having discovered that doctoring wasnt for him he was more enthralled by questions than by answers he switched to neuroscience, and after graduation, began a PhD in neurophysiology supported by the Medical Research Council. It was while working on this that he stumbled into the realm of sleep.

Matthew
Matthew Walker photographed in his sleep lab. Photograph: Saroyan Humphrey for the Observer

I was looking at the brainwave patterns of people with different forms of dementia, but I was failing miserably at finding any difference between them, he recalls now. One night, however, he read a scientific paper that changed everything. It described which parts of the brain were being attacked by these different types of dementia: Some were attacking parts of the brain that had to do with controlled sleep, while other types left those sleep centres unaffected. I realised my mistake. I had been measuring the brainwave activity of my patients while they were awake, when I should have been doing so while they were asleep. Over the next six months, Walker taught himself how to set up a sleep laboratory and, sure enough, the recordings he made in it subsequently spoke loudly of a clear difference between patients. Sleep, it seemed, could be a new early diagnostic litmus test for different subtypes of dementia.

After this, sleep became his obsession. Only then did I ask: what is this thing called sleep, and what does it do? I was always curious, annoyingly so, but when I started to read about sleep, I would look up and hours would have gone by. No one could answer the simple question: why do we sleep? That seemed to me to be the greatest scientific mystery. I was going to attack it, and I was going to do that in two years. But I was naive. I didnt realise that some of the greatest scientific minds had been trying to do the same thing for their entire careers. That was two decades ago, and Im still cracking away. After gaining his doctorate, he moved to the US. Formerly a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, he is now professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California.

Does his obsession extend to the bedroom? Does he take his own advice when it comes to sleep? Yes. I give myself a non-negotiable eight-hour sleep opportunity every night, and I keep very regular hours: if there is one thing I tell people, its to go to bed and to wake up at the same time every day, no matter what. I take my sleep incredibly seriously because I have seen the evidence. Once you know that after just one night of only four or five hours sleep, your natural killer cells the ones that attack the cancer cells that appear in your body every day drop by 70%, or that a lack of sleep is linked to cancer of the bowel, prostate and breast, or even just that the World Health Organisation has classed any form of night-time shift work as a probable carcinogen, how could you do anything else?

There is, however, a sting in the tale. Should his eyelids fail to close, Walker admits that he can be a touch Woody Allen-neurotic. When, for instance, he came to London over the summer, he found himself jet-lagged and wide awake in his hotel room at two oclock in the morning. His problem then, as always in these situations, was that he knew too much. His brain began to race. I thought: my orexin isnt being turned off, the sensory gate of my thalamus is wedged open, my dorsolateral prefrontal cortex wont shut down, and my melatonin surge wont happen for another seven hours. What did he do? In the end, it seems, even world experts in sleep act just like the rest of us when struck by the curse of insomnia. He turned on a light and read for a while.

Will Why We Sleep have the impact its author hopes? Im not sure: the science bits, it must be said, require some concentration. But what I can tell you is that it had a powerful effect on me. After reading it, I was absolutely determined to go to bed earlier a regime to which I am sticking determinedly. In a way, I was prepared for this. I first encountered Walker some months ago, when he spoke at an event at Somerset House in London, and he struck me then as both passionate and convincing (our later interview takes place via Skype from the basement of his sleep centre, a spot which, with its bedrooms off a long corridor, apparently resembles the ward of a private hospital). But in another way, it was unexpected. I am mostly immune to health advice. Inside my head, there is always a voice that says just enjoy life while it lasts.

The evidence Walker presents, however, is enough to send anyone early to bed. Its no kind of choice at all. Without sleep, there is low energy and disease. With sleep, there is vitality and health. More than 20 large scale epidemiological studies all report the same clear relationship: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life. To take just one example, adults aged 45 years or older who sleep less than six hours a night are 200% more likely to have a heart attack or stroke in their lifetime, as compared with those sleeping seven or eight hours a night (part of the reason for this has to do with blood pressure: even just one night of modest sleep reduction will speed the rate of a persons heart, hour upon hour, and significantly increase their blood pressure).

A lack of sleep also appears to hijack the bodys effective control of blood sugar, the cells of the sleep-deprived appearing, in experiments, to become less responsive to insulin, and thus to cause a prediabetic state of hyperglycaemia. When your sleep becomes short, moreover, you are susceptible to weight gain. Among the reasons for this are the fact that inadequate sleep decreases levels of the satiety-signalling hormone, leptin, and increases levels of the hunger-signalling hormone, ghrelin. Im not going to say that the obesity crisis is caused by the sleep-loss epidemic alone, says Walker. Its not. However, processed food and sedentary lifestyles do not adequately explain its rise. Something is missing. Its now clear that sleep is that third ingredient. Tiredness, of course, also affects motivation.

Sleep has a powerful effect on the immune system, which is why, when we have flu, our first instinct is to go to bed: our body is trying to sleep itself well. Reduce sleep even for a single night, and your resilience is drastically reduced. If you are tired, you are more likely to catch a cold. The well-rested also respond better to the flu vaccine. As Walker has already said, more gravely, studies show that short sleep can affect our cancer-fighting immune cells. A number of epidemiological studies have reported that night-time shift work and the disruption to circadian sleep and rhythms that it causes increase the odds of developing cancers including breast, prostate, endometrium and colon.

Getting too little sleep across the adult lifespan will significantly raise your risk of developing Alzheimers disease. The reasons for this are difficult to summarise, but in essence it has to do with the amyloid deposits (a toxin protein) that accumulate in the brains of those suffering from the disease, killing the surrounding cells. During deep sleep, such deposits are effectively cleaned from the brain. What occurs in an Alzheimers patient is a kind of vicious circle. Without sufficient sleep, these plaques build up, especially in the brains deep-sleep-generating regions, attacking and degrading them. The loss of deep sleep caused by this assault therefore lessens our ability to remove them from the brain at night. More amyloid, less deep sleep; less deep sleep, more amyloid, and so on. (In his book, Walker notes unscientifically that he has always found it curious that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, both of whom were vocal about how little sleep they needed, both went on to develop the disease; it is, moreover, a myth that older adults need less sleep.) Away from dementia, sleep aids our ability to make new memories, and restores our capacity for learning.

And then there is sleeps effect on mental health. When your mother told you that everything would look better in the morning, she was wise. Walkers book includes a long section on dreams (which, says Walker, contrary to Dr Freud, cannot be analysed). Here he details the various ways in which the dream state connects to creativity. He also suggests that dreaming is a soothing balm. If we sleep to remember (see above), then we also sleep to forget. Deep sleep the part when we begin to dream is a therapeutic state during which we cast off the emotional charge of our experiences, making them easier to bear. Sleep, or a lack of it, also affects our mood more generally. Brain scans carried out by Walker revealed a 60% amplification in the reactivity of the amygdala a key spot for triggering anger and rage in those who were sleep-deprived. In children, sleeplessness has been linked to aggression and bullying; in adolescents, to suicidal thoughts. Insufficient sleep is also associated with relapse in addiction disorders. A prevailing view in psychiatry is that mental disorders cause sleep disruption. But Walker believes it is, in fact, a two-way street. Regulated sleep can improve the health of, for instance, those with bipolar disorder.

Ive mentioned deep sleep in this (too brief) summary several times. What is it, exactly? We sleep in 90-minute cycles, and its only towards the end of each one of these that we go into deep sleep. Each cycle comprises two kinds of sleep. First, there is NREM sleep (non-rapid eye movement sleep); this is then followed by REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. When Walker talks about these cycles, which still have their mysteries, his voice changes. He sounds bewitched, almost dazed.

During NREM sleep, your brain goes into this incredible synchronised pattern of rhythmic chanting, he says. Theres a remarkable unity across the surface of the brain, like a deep, slow mantra. Researchers were once fooled that this state was similar to a coma. But nothing could be further from the truth. Vast amounts of memory processing is going on. To produce these brainwaves, hundreds of thousands of cells all sing together, and then go silent, and on and on. Meanwhile, your body settles into this lovely low state of energy, the best blood-pressure medicine you could ever hope for. REM sleep, on the other hand, is sometimes known as paradoxical sleep, because the brain patterns are identical to when youre awake. Its an incredibly active brain state. Your heart and nervous system go through spurts of activity: were still not exactly sure why.

Does the 90-minute cycle mean that so-called power naps are worthless? They can take the edge off basic sleepiness. But you need 90 minutes to get to deep sleep, and one cycle isnt enough to do all the work. You need four or five cycles to get all the benefit. Is it possible to have too much sleep? This is unclear. There is no good evidence at the moment. But I do think 14 hours is too much. Too much water can kill you, and too much food, and I think ultimately the same will prove to be true for sleep. How is it possible to tell if a person is sleep-deprived? Walker thinks we should trust our instincts. Those who would sleep on if their alarm clock was turned off are simply not getting enough. Ditto those who need caffeine in the afternoon to stay awake. I see it all the time, he says. I get on a flight at 10am when people should be at peak alert, and I look around, and half of the plane has immediately fallen asleep.

So what can the individual do? First, they should avoid pulling all-nighters, at their desks or on the dancefloor. After being awake for 19 hours, youre as cognitively impaired as someone who is drunk. Second, they should start thinking about sleep as a kind of work, like going to the gym (with the key difference that it is both free and, if youre me, enjoyable). People use alarms to wake up, Walker says. So why dont we have a bedtime alarm to tell us weve got half an hour, that we should start cycling down? We should start thinking of midnight more in terms of its original meaning: as the middle of the night. Schools should consider later starts for students; such delays correlate with improved IQs. Companies should think about rewarding sleep. Productivity will rise, and motivation, creativity and even levels of honesty will be improved. Sleep can be measured using tracking devices, and some far-sighted companies in the US already give employees time off if they clock enough of it. Sleeping pills, by the way, are to be avoided. Among other things, they can have a deleterious effect on memory.

Those who are focused on so-called clean sleep are determined to outlaw mobiles and computers from the bedroom and quite right, too, given the effect of LED-emitting devices on melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone. Ultimately, though, Walker believes that technology will be sleeps saviour. There is going to be a revolution in the quantified self in industrial nations, he says. We will know everything about our bodies from one day to the next in high fidelity. That will be a seismic shift, and we will then start to develop methods by which we can amplify different components of human sleep, and do that from the bedside. Sleep will come to be seen as a preventive medicine.

What questions does Walker still most want to answer? For a while, he is quiet. Its so difficult, he says, with a sigh. There are so many. I would still like to know where we go, psychologically and physiologically, when we dream. Dreaming is the second state of human consciousness, and we have only scratched the surface so far. But I would also like to find out when sleep emerged. I like to posit a ridiculous theory, which is: perhaps sleep did not evolve. Perhaps it was the thing from which wakefulness emerged. He laughs. If I could have some kind of medical Tardis and go back in time to look at that, well, I would sleep better at night.

Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreamsby Matthew Walker is published by Allen Lane (20). To order a copy for 17 go toguardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99

Sleep in numbers

Two-thirds of adults in developed nations fail to obtain the nightly eight hours of sleep recommended by the World Health Organisation.

An adult sleeping only 6.75 hours a night would be predicted to live only to their early 60s without medical intervention.

A 2013 study reported that men who slept too little had a sperm count 29% lower than those who regularly get a full and restful nights sleep.

If you drive a car when you have had less than five hours sleep, you are 4.3 times more likely to be involved in a crash. If you drive having had four hours, you are 11.5 times more likely to be involved in an accident.

A hot bath aids sleep not because it makes you warm, but because your dilated blood vessels radiate inner heat, and your core body temperature drops. To successfully initiate sleep, your core temperature needs to drop about 1C.

The time taken to reach physical exhaustion by athletes who obtain anything less than eight hours of sleep, and especially less than six hours, drops by 10-30%.

There are now more than 100 diagnosed sleep disorders, of which insomnia is the mostcommon.

Morning types, who prefer to awake at or around dawn, make up about 40% of the population. Evening types, who prefer to go to bed late and wake up late, account for about 30%. The remaining 30% lie somewhere in between.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/sep/24/why-lack-of-sleep-health-worst-enemy-matthew-walker-why-we-sleep

Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz review what internet searches reveal

Do web porn clicks deliver data that Freud and Foucault would have drooled over, or are we not as weird as our online behaviour suggests?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz wanted to call his new book How Big Is My Penis?, but his publishers demurred. He settled for Everybody Lies. The book is subtitled What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are and its a polished display of some of the early fruits of big data science. Its principal defect, perhaps, is that it doesnt say enough about how many of these fruitsare rotten.

Stephens-Davidowitzs first source, when he set up as a data scientist, was Google Trends, which records the relative frequency of particular searches in different places at different times. He soon added Google Adwords, which registers the actual number of searches. Then he moved on to other vastnesses: Wikipedia, Facebookand then PornHub, one of the largest pornographic sites in the world. PornHub gave him its complete data set, duly anonymised: every single search and video view. He also scraped many other sites, including neo-Nazi sites such as Stormfront, which account for the internets resemblance to the box jellyfish, a highly poisonous predator with 60 anuses.

Ignoble metadata flowed in. He found that searches for racist jokes rise about 30% on Martin Luther King Day in the US, and that in the recent Republican primaries, regions that supported Donald Trump in the largest numbers made the most Google searches for nigger. Data from Prosper, a peer-to-peer loan website, showed that there are five expressions in particular that one should beware of when reviewing applications for loans: God, promise, will pay, hospital and thank you. Making promises is a sure sign that someone will not do something. God is particularly bad news.

There are many such facts waiting to be harvested. For a social scientist such as Stephens-Davidowitz, big data has four central virtues. First, its a digital truth serum: it supplies honest data on matters people lie about in surveys, for instance racist attitudes, but above all (to quote Mick Jagger) sex and sex and sex and sex. Second, it offers the means to run large-scale randomised controlled experiments which are usually extremely laborious and expensive at almost no cost, and in this way uncover causal linkages in addition to mere correlations. Third, the sheer quantity of data allows us to zoom in precisely on small subsets of people in a way that was previously impossible. Finally, it provides new types of data.

Stephens-Davidowitz thinks searches of internet pornography habits are probably the most important development ever in our ability to understand human sexuality. They deliver data that Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud and Foucault would have drooled over.

Some of his sexual facts are depressing, others are funny and touching. Some are engaging because we find them extraordinary, others because we find them all-too-human. The search data suggests that hundreds of thousands of young men are predominantly attracted to elderly women. Many heterosexual men feel about their partner what William Wordsworth felt about his wife Mary (they wish shed put on weight). Anal sex is on course to overtake vaginal sex in pornography before the end of the decade. Pornography in which violence is perpetrated against a woman almost always appeals disproportionately to women. More than 75% of searches of the form I want to have sex with my are incestuous. Men search for ways to perform oral sex on themselves as often as they search for how to give a woman an orgasm.

There are many unwavering specialisations. For some women, only short fat men with small penises will do; for some men, only massive nipples. Thirty per cent only ever watch pornography of the ugliest kind. But many of us are not as weird as our online behaviour may suggest. Distortion is introduced by the fact that certain types of Google searches skew towards the forbidden, and there are numerous subtleties and traps when it comes to the interpretation of data, many of which Stephens-Davidowitz expounds clearly. For all that the numbers are big, and they add up.

The next Foucault will be a data scientist. The next Freud will be a datascientist. The next Marx will be adata scientist. This is unlikely, I think, but these future individuals will do well to work with data scientists, and by the end of Everybody Lies Stephens-Davidowitz has almost earned his flourishes (What constitutes data has been wildly reimagined Everything is data!). What he hasnt done is say enough about the dangers. I expected a reference to Cathy ONeil, who shows in her book Weapons of Math Destruction (2016) how programs based on big data introduce a frightening new efficiency into predatory advertising, distort higher education, drive up debt, spur mass incarceration, pummel the poor at nearly every juncture, and undermine democracy. Programs designed with the very best intentions fall into deadly self-confirming feedback loops that confirm their efficacy even as they spiral away from the truth and increase injustice.

One of the greatest dangers of the internet, noted by Daniel Kahneman in his valuable book Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), arises from the fact that people can maintain an unshakable faith in any proposition, however absurd, when they are sustained by a community of like-minded believers. This isnt any sort of exaggeration (witness the fact that some people deny the existence of consciousness); the trouble is that any belief any prejudice or hatred can now find a large supporting community on the internet.

Stephens-Davidowitz has a reply to these worries. Hes a social scientist, and malignant programs arent data science in his sense of the term. Their creators arent simply trying to describe and explain human behaviour; theyre directing it and manipulating it. Big data isnt intrinsically dangerous or evil, and it can be extraordinarily valuable and engaging. New facts spring up everywhere. Some of the results such as the correlation between hurricanes and the consumption of strawberry Pop-Tarts are agreeably surreal. For him the big point is this: social science is becoming a real science. Andthis new, real science is poised to improve our lives.

I like Stephens-Davidowitzs suggestion in a recent interview: Sometimes I think it would be a good thing if everyones porn habits were released at once. It would be embarrassing for 30 seconds then wed all get over it and be more open about sex. But Idont share his general optimism. Isuspect the easy availability of pornography is turning out to be one ofthe great tragedies of human history, destructive of the best kind of sexual relations. If we had an infallible happyometer that could measure the overall gains and losses to human existence caused by the internet, I think wed find that the balance was will increasingly be negative.

Everybody Lies: What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are is published by Bloomsbury. To order a copy for 17 (RRP 20) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/aug/17/everybody-lies-seth-stephens-davidowitz-review

Terry Pratchett’s unfinished novels destroyed by steamroller

Unpublished works are lost for ever with crushing of computer hard drive as the late fantasy novelist had instructed

The unfinished books of Sir Terry Pratchett have been destroyed by a steamroller, following the late fantasy novelists wishes.

Pratchetts hard drive was crushed by a vintage John Fowler & Co steamroller named Lord Jericho at the Great Dorset Steam Fair, ahead of the opening of a new exhibition about the authors life and work.

Pratchett, famous for his colourful and satirical Discworld series, died in March 2015 after a long battle with Alzheimers disease.

After his death, fellow fantasy author Neil Gaiman, Pratchetts close friend and collaborator , told the Times that Pratchett had wanted whatever he was working on at the time of his death to be taken out along with his computers, to be put in the middle of a road and for a steamroller to steamroll over them all.

On Friday, Rob Wilkins, who manages the Pratchett estate, tweeted from an official Twitter account that he was about to fulfil my obligation to Terry along with a picture of an intact computer hard drive following up with a tweet that showed the hard drive in pieces.

The symbolism of the moment, which captured something of Pratchetts unique sense of humour, was not lost on fans, who responded on Twitter with a wry melancholy, though some people expressed surprise that the author who had previously discussed churning through computer hardware at a rapid rate would have stored his unfinished work on an apparently older model of hard drive.

The hard drive will go on display as part of a major exhibition about the authors life and work, Terry Pratchett: HisWorld, which opens at the Salisbury museum in September.

The author of over 70 novels, Pratchett was diagnosed with Alzheimers disease in 2007.

He became an advocate for assisted dying, giving a moving lecture on the subject, Shaking Hands With Death, in 2010, and presenting a documentary for the BBC called Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die.

He continued to write and publish, increasingly with the assistance of others, until his death in 2015. Two novels were published posthumously: The Long Utopia (a collaboration with Stephen Baxter) and The Shepherds Crown, the final Discworld novel.

The Salisbury museum exhibition will run from 16 September until 13 January 2018.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/aug/30/terry-pratchett-unfinished-novels-destroyed-streamroller

Neil Gaiman: Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming

A lecture explaining why using our imaginations, and providing for others to use theirs, is an obligation for all citizens

Its important for people to tell you what side they are on and why, and whether they might be biased. A declaration of members interests, of a sort. So, I am going to be talking to you about reading. Im going to tell you that libraries are important. Im going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. Im going to make an impassioned plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things.

And I am biased, obviously and enormously: Im an author, often an author of fiction. I write for children and for adults. For about 30 years I have been earning my living through my words, mostly by making things up and writing them down. It is obviously in my interest for people to read, for them to read fiction, for libraries and librarians to exist and help foster a love of reading and places in which reading can occur.

So Im biased as a writer. But I am much, much more biased as a reader. And I am even more biased as a British citizen.

And Im here giving this talk tonight, under the auspices of the Reading Agency: a charity whose mission is to give everyone an equal chance in life by helping people become confident and enthusiastic readers. Which supports literacy programs, and libraries and individuals and nakedly and wantonly encourages the act of reading. Because, they tell us, everything changes when we read.

And its that change, and that act of reading that Im here to talk about tonight. I want to talk about what reading does. What its good for.

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldnt read. And certainly couldnt read for pleasure.

Its not one to one: you cant say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.

And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.

Fiction has two uses. Firstly, its a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if its hard, because someones in trouble and you have to know how its all going to end thats a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, youre on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a post-literate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading. People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.

The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.

I dont think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of childrens books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. Ive seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.

Enid
No such thing as a bad writer… Enid Blytons Famous Five. Photograph: Greg Balfour Evans/Alamy

Its tosh. Its snobbery and its foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isnt hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it. Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is a route to other books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste as you.

Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a childs love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian improving literature. Youll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.

We need our children to get onto the reading ladder: anything that they enjoy reading will move them up, rung by rung, into literacy. (Also, do not do what this author did when his 11-year-old daughter was into RL Stine, which is to go and get a copy of Stephen Kings Carrie, saying if you liked those youll love this! Holly read nothing but safe stories of settlers on prairies for the rest of her teenage years, and still glares at me when Stephen Kings name is mentioned.)

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. Youre being someone else, and when you return to your own world, youre going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

Youre also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And its this:

The world doesnt have to be like this. Things can be different.

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

Its simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere youve never been. Once youve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

And while were on the subject, Id like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if its a bad thing. As if escapist fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldnt you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.

Tolkien's
Tolkiens illustration of Bilbos home, Bag End. Photograph: HarperCollins

Another way to destroy a childs love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books. I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up. I had the kind of parents who could be persuaded to drop me off in the library on their way to work in summer holidays, and the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the childrens library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders. And when I had finished reading the childrens library I began on the adult books.

They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader nothing less or more which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.

But libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.

I worry that here in the 21st century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally.

I think it has to do with nature of information. Information has value, and the right information has enormous value. For all of human history, we have lived in a time of information scarcity, and having the needed information was always important, and always worth something: when to plant crops, where to find things, maps and histories and stories they were always good for a meal and company. Information was a valuable thing, and those who had it or could obtain it could charge for that service.

In the last few years, weve moved from an information-scarce economy to one driven by an information glut. According to Eric Schmidt of Google, every two days now the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation until 2003. Thats about five exobytes of data a day, for those of you keeping score. The challenge becomes, not finding that scarce plant growing in the desert, but finding a specific plant growing in a jungle. We are going to need help navigating that information to find the thing we actually need.

A
Photograph: Alamy

Libraries are places that people go to for information. Books are only the tip of the information iceberg: they are there, and libraries can provide you freely and legally with books. More children are borrowing books from libraries than ever before books of all kinds: paper and digital and audio. But libraries are also, for example, places that people, who may not have computers, who may not have internet connections, can go online without paying anything: hugely important when the way you find out about jobs, apply for jobs or apply for benefits is increasingly migrating exclusively online. Librarians can help these people navigate that world.

I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them. They belong in libraries, just as libraries have already become places you can go to get access to ebooks, and audiobooks and DVDs and web content.

A library is a place that is a repository of information and gives every citizen equal access to it. That includes health information. And mental health information. Its a community space. Its a place of safety, a haven from the world. Its a place with librarians in it. What the libraries of the future will be like is something we should be imagining now.

Literacy is more important than ever it was, in this world of text and email, a world of written information. We need to read and write, we need global citizens who can read comfortably, comprehend what they are reading, understand nuance, and make themselves understood.

Libraries really are the gates to the future. So it is unfortunate that, round the world, we observe local authorities seizing the opportunity to close libraries as an easy way to save money, without realising that they are stealing from the future to pay for today. They are closing the gates that should be open.

According to a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, England is the only country where the oldest age group has higher proficiency in both literacy and numeracy than the youngest group, after other factors, such as gender, socio-economic backgrounds and type of occupations are taken into account.

Or to put it another way, our children and our grandchildren are less literate and less numerate than we are. They are less able to navigate the world, to understand it to solve problems. They can be more easily lied to and misled, will be less able to change the world in which they find themselves, be less employable. All of these things. And as a country, England will fall behind other developed nations because it will lack a skilled workforce.

Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.

I think we have responsibilities to the future. Responsibilities and obligations to children, to the adults those children will become, to the world they will find themselves inhabiting. All of us as readers, as writers, as citizens have obligations. I thought Id try and spell out some of these obligations here.

I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places. If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.

We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.

We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. Use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.

We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not to attempt to freeze language, or to pretend it is a dead thing that must be revered, but we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time.

We writers and especially writers for children, but all writers have an obligation to our readers: its the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages. One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading. And while we must tell our readers true things and give them weapons and give them armour and pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned from our short stay on this green world, we have an obligation not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers throats like adult birds feeding their babies pre-masticated maggots; and we have an obligation never, ever, under any circumstances, to write anything for children that we would not want to read ourselves.

We have an obligation to understand and to acknowledge that as writers for children we are doing important work, because if we mess it up and write dull books that turn children away from reading and from books, we ve lessened our own future and diminished theirs.

We all adults and children, writers and readers have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. Im going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. Its this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on.This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things.

We have an obligation to make things beautiful. Not to leave the world uglier than we found it, not to empty the oceans, not to leave our problems for the next generation. We have an obligation to clean up after ourselves, and not leave our children with a world weve shortsightedly messed up, shortchanged, and crippled.

We have an obligation to tell our politicians what we want, to vote against politicians of whatever party who do not understand the value of reading in creating worthwhile citizens, who do not want to act to preserve and protect knowledge and encourage literacy. This is not a matter of party politics. This is a matter of common humanity.

Albert Einstein was asked once how we could make our children intelligent. His reply was both simple and wise. If you want your children to be intelligent, he said, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales. He understood the value of reading, and of imagining. I hope we can give our children a world in which they will read, and be read to, and imagine, and understand.

This is an edited version of Neil Gaimans lecture for the Reading Agency, delivered on Monday October 14 at the Barbican in London. The Reading Agencys annual lecture series was initiated in 2012 as a platform for leading writers and thinkers to share original, challenging ideas about reading and libraries.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming

Hunger by Roxane Gay review how the world treats fat people

A catalogue of horrors and public humiliations, Gays memoir responds to societys condescension and disgust about her body size

This is a book its author Roxane Gay has, over many years, earned the right not to publish. Even though she has found great success as an essayist, writer of fiction and university teacher, and attracted a large, passionate online following, its clear from her account that her weight is still the first thing strangers notice about her, and that she must spend much of her time dealing with their unsolicited responses to it. These range from rude to abusive, encompassing all sorts of casual mockery, faux concern and outright aggression along the way.

Shopping for clothes or food, visiting a restaurant or getting on a plane frequently involve a humiliating ordeal. Doctors not only patronise her but routinely refuse her basic care. Simply leaving the house means navigating a physical and emotional obstacle course. No doubt Gay is thoroughly sick of being reduced to her body and of enduring constant inquiries, prejudices and criticism, and she has evidently worked hard to make space for herself to talk and write about other things. People asking those kinds of questions dont deserve an answer, and yet here Gay has decided to give them one.

Hunger comprises at least two stories: a partial but more or less linear telling of Gays life so far, and a more halting, spiralling description of her everyday experience as a fat woman. The first of these hinges on the horrifying rape visited on her as a 12-year-old by her boyfriend and several of his friends. Gay blames herself, and her suffering is compounded when the boys report their version of events to their peers at school; she keeps hers quiet, unable to say anything about it to her family. The brief evocation of her childhood before this point conjures an almost fairytale-like atmosphere of love and optimism, peopled with adoring parents and siblings. I fell asleep most nights, Gay writes, flush with the joy of knowing I belonged to these people and they belonged to me.

Afterwards, everything changes: she begins to overeat and her weight gain is swift and dramatic, to her familys dismay. Various attempts to reverse it, some undertaken willingly, others under parental pressure, never last long, and both the traumatic event and her highly visible response to it overshadow everything else that happens to her. Gays mother and father are well-to-do Haitian Americans who clearly have high expectations of their children. Gay, who attends an elite boarding school followed by Yale, drops out and moves to another state without letting anyone know where she is. She eventually completes a PhD and garners acclaim as a writer, but this book is still a catalogue of horrors large and small: there are abusive relationships and public humiliations. Particularly striking are the depictions of what its like for Gay to go to the gym or on a date. Unable to fit on a restaurant chair and denied a more comfortable booth, she spends an entire meal holding herself up in an excruciating squat. At the supermarket, random people entitle themselves to remove foods they deem unsuitable from her cart.

Gays tone shifts between a breezy, conversational style and something harsher, and she recounts painful events in short, almost incantatory sentences: There was a boy. I loved him. His name was Christopher. Thats not really his name. You know that. She occasionally makes light of the cliches that surround public discussion of weight loss (though she herself cant avoid some of these). Scoffing at Oprah Winfreys metaphor of the cheerful, skinny alter ego lurking inside every fat person, she notes, I ate that thin woman, and she was delicious but unsatisfying.

But in general theres not much to laugh about. Gay alludes to or summarises difficult conversations, but rarely recounts them in full, and the overall effect is often one of claustrophobic intensity, as if the reader is trapped inside her head much the way she describes feeling caged in her flesh. Some of the books repetitions may be due to its origin in shorter pieces written for various publications, but most reflect the near-constant frustrations of living in a body the world both fixates on and refuses to accommodate. One of the few scenes rendered in detail is the gruesome early description of her father taking her to a group consultation with a doctor who performs gastric bypass surgeries. They must watch a video of patients steamy red and pink and yellow insides being carved up in an exorbitantly expensive and devastating procedure that even in the best case scenario will leave them permanently malnourished.

Though Gay does not owe anyone a single explanation of her size, she gives her readers an abundance of them. If some can seem a little too neat and familiar, that effect is complicated by how many accumulate, often directly contradicting each other. She characterises her initial weight gain as an attempt to take up more space, growing bigger and more powerful, but also as an effort to disappear and avoid ever attracting male attention again. She deliberately eats to create a protective shield of flesh, or simply cannot resist using food to soothe unbearable emotions. Gays mixed feelings often feel inevitable, though, in a culture that gives fat women no safe place to stand: you must feel bad about your size, but not enough to make anyone else uncomfortable; you must feel good about yourself as you are, but not too good. I am a product of my environment, she writes, explaining why her feminist convictions cant protect her from the cycle of selfblame, from longing to be thinner and accusing herself of weakness or lack of discipline when her body doesnt change.

Elna
Elna Bakers 2016 account of her own extreme weight loss sheds light on Hunger.

Most of what Gay endures is neither her fault nor within her control, but since she believes society will not change fast enough, if at all, she makes no apology for yearning to adjust herself to it. And of course, much of the more or less veiled fear and disgust expressed by others is a self-fulfilling reaction to their own conditioning: People know how they see and treat and think about fat people and dont want such a fate to befall them. The book is crammed with agonising ironies, some more strongly emphasised than others. Gay gains weight as an outward expression of her unhappiness, but those around her dont get the message, and only make her more miserable in their reactions to her changing body. In trying to develop a defence mechanism after her rape, she inadvertently invites half a lifetime of invasive threats to her physical autonomy and violations of her consent. When her parents want her to go on a liquid diet or to a fat camp, she agrees because I had learned that saying no meant nothing.

As she has before, in her hit essay collection Bad Feminist, Gay proclaims her refusal to represent anyone but herself. Among other things, that means she isnt interested in trying to make anyone feel better including other people of size who would rather not hear that she hates her body and blames herself for her inability to change it. This is not, as she notes repeatedly, a story of triumph neither of triumphant weight loss nor triumphant self-acceptance.

Stories that skirt those two possibilities are far rarer than they should be, and the exceptions, whatever their individual failings, stick in the mind. Reading Hunger reminded me of radio producer Elna Bakers 2016 account of her own extreme weight loss and its aftermath, which in some ways holds up a funhouse mirror to Gays experience. Its only after losing a huge amount of weight that Baker fully discovers the miseries the world inflicts on fat people. As a thin woman, she finds her love life, job prospects and everyday existence suddenly transformed. And she encounters head-on the stubborn denial that enables other people to enforce sadistic norms: when Baker insists to her husband that hed never have fallen for her at her previous weight, he tries to weasel out of it, suggesting that all the benefits Baker derives from being thin are simply due to how much happier and more confident she must now feel. But that isnt true, she says she was fine before, whereas now she must live with the knowledge that her new life and relationship require her to keep up an unnatural (and unhealthy) struggle with her weight for ever. Bakers story helps shed light on one of the most intractable knots in Hunger. Gay knows that losing the weight would not solve everything or grant her happiness, and yet she longs for the entirely different, less painful life she imagines she could have had without it.

Early in the book, Gay characterises it as a confession, that term so often flung as an insult at women who write about themselves. These, she writes, are the ugliest, weakest, barest parts of me. Its more a provocation than a promise. There are certainly flashes of confession, passages in which Gay lays out, say, the precise effects her rape has had on the formation of her sexual desires. But mostly she is not prepared to be so bare and weak as all that. Its the world around her that comes off as out of control in its appetites hate-filled, obsessed with womens body parts, eager to punish what it helps create.

Hunger is published by Harper. To order a copy for 11.89 (RRP 13.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jul/19/hunger-by-roxane-gay-review

How ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ has become the meme of the resistance

Image: Christopher Mineses / mashable 

Earlier this week, 18 women dressed up in red cloaks and white bonnets, stood in pairs in the rotunda of the Texas state capitol, and began chanting, “Shame!” in unison. They didn’t stop shouting for eight minutes.

They call themselves the Texas handmaids. You probably first saw them back in March, when images of their original protest in Austin went viral. That’s when they sat silently in the Texas senate gallery, watching as lawmakers debated bills that would make it harder for women to get an abortion.

What you may not know is that their demonstrations, inspired by Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale and Hulu’s vivid TV adaptation, are slowly spreading across the country.

Women are holding sewing parties to turn yards of blood-red fabric into capes. They’re swapping ideas on private Facebook pages about how to stage protests. They’re even planning a coordinated demonstration where dozens of handmaids simultaneously show up at state capitols or in other public places in cities across the country.

If the visually striking meme takes off, it could become one of the most effective acts of protest from the resistance. The sight of even a dozen women wearing the handmaid costume, while staying silent and keeping their heads down, offers a stark contrast to a group of mostly white men deliberating over what happens to their bodies. The imagery is practically made for the digital era.

The point, activists say, is to send a powerful message: We’re closer to a government that strips women of their bodily autonomy than you might think.

“The easiest way we try to explain it is that the handmaids represent a future where women are nothing more than their reproductive capacity,” says Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas. “Unfortunately, with the laws that are being passed, that future is not so unrealistic and not so distant.”

We’re closer to a government that strips women of their bodily autonomy than you might think.

The idea to enlist Texas women as handmaids started with Busby a few months ago. She happened to see women dressed as the title character from The Handmaid’s Tale at South by Southwest. That was a marketing stunt by Hulu, the streaming entertainment provider that brought Atwood’s novel to the small screen.

But Busby then joked on Facebook about how someone should send the handmaids down to the capitol, where lawmakers had been busy introducing bills that would curtail abortion rights. Soon NARAL Pro-Choice Texas ordered white bonnets from Amazon Prime and a volunteer rented red capes. A small group of volunteers quickly drew up a plan. They liked the element of surprise in showing up at the capitol in costume and wanted to let legislators know that women were watching.

After that yielded local and national press coverage of the legislative agenda in Texas, activists around the country started reaching out to Busby for tips on how to start their own handmaids brigade.

You could argue that all of this is moot, that the United States is nowhere close to becoming the Republic of Gilead, The Handmaid’s Tale‘s totalitarian, theocratic state that freezes women’s bank accounts, forbids them to work, sends them to re-education camps, and forces many of them to bear children for leaders and their wives.

The New York Times‘ conservative columnist Ross Douthat argued this week that liberals are seeing the wrong parallels. On the same day, Times op-ed contributor Mona Eltahawy wrote that the Republic of Gilead already exists in Saudi Arabia, where women can’t drive and may be imprisoned for disobedience. For her part, Atwood has said that nothing in her novel hasn’t already happened before in history.

“I still have a credit card, I still have a nice car, but I can feel the future here.”

For the volunteers who are deep into the work of creating and wearing the costumes in public, it’s not about whether they still have credit cards or the right to get a job. What they see is the federal and state governments largely in the hands of conservative, even authoritarian, men who’ve vowed to defund Planned Parenthood and roll back reproductive health rights like abortion and access to affordable birth control. At the same time, those men plan to funnel money to abstinence-only education and vouchers for “school choice,” which includes religious schools.

The fact that they’re led by Donald Trump terrifies these women.

“We have somebody in the White House who thinks it’s OK to grab women and do whatever he wants, and I’m supposed to sit back and be cool with that?” says Emily Morgan, executive director of Action Together New Hampshire, an activist group that emerged in the wake of Trump’s election.

Earlier this month, Morgan contacted Busby for details on how to create handmaid costumes. But instead of bringing women into the New Hampshire legislative gallery during a debate or hearing, Morgan and her co-organizers asked them to appear at a press conference calling for the resignation of Rep. Robert Fisher, a Republican who The Daily Beast identified in April as the creator and former moderator of Reddit’s popular men’s rights “Red Pill” forum. The message board bills itself as a “discussion of sexual strategy in a culture increasingly lacking a positive identity for men,” and Fisher regularly questioned whether rape is real, according to The Daily Beast. (Fisher resigned later in the day following the press conference.)

A sexual assault survivor with handmaids demanding Rep. Robert Fisher’s resignation, on May 17, 2017, in Concord, N.H.

Image: Granite State Progress

“Fisher and the Red Pill embody exactly what The Handmaid’s Tale is a foreshadowing of or is a warning against,” Morgan says. “Saying that we’re not there it’s sort of degrading to what’s actually happening to women.”

In the days before the press conference, volunteers made six costumes, but some of the women bowed out after learning the media would be in attendance. Morgan says they feared in-person and online harassment. Nevertheless, she thinks more women will step forward to participate in upcoming demonstrations, particularly since volunteers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire are sewing new cloaks so that activists in New England quickly have access to them for future protests.

The time-intensive, costly aspect of buying the bonnets and making the cloaks is one challenge to growing the handmaid ranks. There’s also the danger that different groups will splinter in an effort to launch the first nationwide demonstration. Morgan is moderating a private Facebook page to coordinate a national action. A similar page started by one of the Texas handmaids has close to 300 members.

The handmaids’ signature costumes are also a relatively obscure reference compared to pussyhats, the knit pink caps that have become a symbol of the resistance. But they’re also memorable even if you don’t know the origin.

Ane Crabtree, the costume designer for the Hulu series, says the outfit’s visual power is rooted in both the bright red color, which can signify blood, birth, and passion, and how the cloak conceals women who wear it. The combination tells the viewer what she needs to know about how the body underneath the costume is oppressed.

“It’s an easy form of expression to say that everything’s been taken away and is being taken away, and its a real thing,” says Crabtree, who is encouraged and inspired by people making their own version of the costume.

Deborah Marsh, a 65-year-old retiree who is one of the Texas handmaids, says people who get the reference often approach her on the street or in the capitol’s rotunda to thank her profusely for the act of defiance. Some, however, have seen the symbolism and don’t like it. Marsh says a few people on the street have had “outbursts” or called the women “pathetic.”

Joe Pojman, executive director of the anti-abortion rights nonprofit group Texas Alliance for Life, seemed to criticize the handmaids a few times, focusing on the fact that they’ve used smartphones while silently protesting in the gallery, a silly point that Marsh feels makes their case about men who are obsessed with policing women’s behavior.

What Marsh didn’t expect was how confident she would feel while wearing the costume. “It’s such a bold costume, it’s making such a bold statement,” she says. “And my body is inside that costume, so why wouldnt I feel bold? Why wouldn’t I feel empowered?”

Among reproductive rights activists like Marsh, the Texas legislature is infamous for its anti-abortion legislation. In 2013, the state passed a law that effectively led to the closure of dozens of abortion clinics, which the Supreme Court found unconstitutional last year. The Republican-led legislature recently voted to ban the safest type of second-trimester abortion and require hospitals and abortion clinics to bury fetal remains, including those from miscarriages that happen at home. Texas has already moved to keep Planned Parenthood from state and federal funding.

In other words, as Texas limits access to both abortion and reproductive health care like birth control, it’s easy to imagine a future in which women have little practical control over how and when they have children. That vision shouldn’t be limited to Texas either; other Republican-dominated states are pursuing a similar agenda with regard to limiting access to reproductive health care, as is the Trump administration.

“I still have a credit card, I still have a nice car, but I can feel the future here,” Marsh says. “If [people] aren’t affected by it today, they are going to be affected by it in four yours. Texas is a little bit ahead of the game.”

“Am I going to change someones mind who is pro-life? I dont expect that. Im aiming higher. I want to change the culture.”

Stephanie Martin, a mom from Round Rock, in central Texas, who recently dressed up as a handmaid for the first time, says she’s realistic about who the message is going to reach.

“Am I going to change someone’s mind who is pro-life?” she asks. “I don’t expect that. I’m aiming higher. I want to change the culture.”

It’s still early to gauge exactly how that culture will respond beyond the videos and photos that have gone viral. But the parallel between the male aggression and control that characterizes Gilead feels particularly fresh in a week where a Republican congressional candidate body slammed a reporter for asking a question he didn’t like, and the president appeared to shove aside a European leader to get a better position in a photo-op.

Let’s not forget the complicity of Ivanka Trump, who promotes herself as a champion of gender equality but says nothing critical about healthcare and budget proposals that are arguably hostile to women. Nor can we ignore the benign-looking malevolence of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who couldn’t come up with a single instance of discrimination at publicly funded schools that would give her pause when asked about it at a congressional hearing. In Gilead, after all, the women who are not outrightly oppressed get the privilege of wielding what small power they have against the vulnerable and marginalized.

Morgan admits that some people won’t make connections between what’s happening today and Atwood’s fiction. Yet she urges skeptics to focus less on a dramatic, sweeping end to women’s rights. What’s more important, at this point, is the underlying implication of attitudes and laws that see no harm in making it more difficult or even impossible for women to determine their own fate.

“These are steps on the same path,” she says of the parallels between Gilead and Trump’s America. “You have to start somewhere.”

Read more: http://mashable.com/2017/05/28/handmaids-tale-protests-costumes/

Pics Or It Didn’t Happen: reclaiming Instagram’s censored art

The authors of a book curating 270 images that Instagram censored explain why they are making them visible again

Early in March 2015, artist and poet Rupi Kaur uploaded a picture to Instagram of herself in her room, wearing jogging bottoms stained with menstrual blood. Lying with her back to the camera in a nondescript bedroom, nothing about the image was strange. A few days later, Kaur found her image had been removed, so she reposted it. A few days after that, it was removed again. This time she found out why: Instagrams moderators had deleted the picture for violation of community standards. Kaur responded with a rallying post on her Facebook and Tumblr accounts that was shared 11,000 times. We will not be censored, she wrote.

Kaurs photograph is just one of the 270 deleted images featured in Pics Or It Didnt Happen, a contemporary art book by digital artists Arvida Bystrm and Molly Soda that brings the pictures Instagram have removed back into the spotlight. But the book is about much more than simply shocking us with controversial pictures; both Bystrm and Soda agree that some level of social media censorship is needed. I do understand why censorship exists. Im not free the nipple because I dont give a shit about that, Soda says. But I do think that females presenting bodies are going to be censored more as theyre always going to be in conversation with sex no matter what the topic of the photo is.

@c.har.lee
@c.har.lee by Lee Phillips. Photograph: Lee Phillips

Pics Or It Didnt Happen exposes an ominous flaw in Instagrams community guidelines: women are getting an extremely hard time. For a variety of reasons, we dont allow nudity on Instagram, the guidelines read and yet it bare chested men remain largely uncensored, while topless images of women are guaranteed to be deleted. And it is not only nipples: when Soda and Bystrm asked their combined 207,600 Instagram followers for examples of censored images, the book explains: We began to see patterns in the types of images that had been subjected to censorship. Overwhelmingly, the photos are of female nipples, vaginal secretions and body hair. Presented together, Pics Or It Didnt Happen demonstrates how taboo very ordinary elements of female bodies, such as hair, fat and blood, have become. The stuff Ive had taken down was never explicitly sexual, Molly says. But the thing is, when you have a picture removed, it immediately sexualises it.

Since it launched in 2010, Instagram has helped to democratise the art world, making it possible for young women from different backgrounds to take a spot in a famously masculine industry, promote their work, and find recognition. Many of the women in this book have done just that. One of Instagrams most famous banned pictures, Petra Collinss 2013 crotch portrait is included, along with well-known artists like Isaac Kariuki and Maisie Cousins.

But, frustratingly, the book is very white. It was mostly white women that sent us images after we made the callout for banned pictures, says Bystrm. Whats in the book is representative of what we were sent, which I think says a lot about the state of the art world. And, as Bystrm is quoted in the foreword: White, abled, cis young women, often pretty thin These types of people tend to feel more entitled to their bodies.

The lack of non-cisgender women, and women of colour, is something that should be noted and challenged. But in making a book out of these removed online works, whether you think the photos are good or not, the authors have created an archival document with its own artistic criteria, delivering a deleted contemporary art movement into the hands of those who shun it. As a historical document, the book is interesting, says Bystrm. In 10 years time, things will be different. Instagram probably wont even exist then.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/10/pics-or-it-didnt-happen-reclaiming-instagrams-censored-art