Welcome to our weekly Books Digest where we round-up the new books you should, and shouldn’t, be reading. This week features Break the Internet: In Pursuit of Influence by Olivia Yallop, Why Food Matters by Paul Freedman and Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks: 1941-95.
For more books take a look through our Books Digest Archive.
How better to investigate the world of influencer culture than infiltrate it? This is how Olivia Yallop, author of Break The Internet, finds herself at an influencer training camp, changing outfits behind a van in the middle of Notting Hill for a photoshoot and joining influencer “engagement pods” (virtual groups that commit to engaging with each other’s content).
The result of Yallop’s immersive investigation is a comprehensive education on influencer culture, its evolution and future. From her insight into the illusion of influencing as an equal opportunity (anyone can become an influencer, but every influencer “rents” their platform from big tech, social media giants retain control), to her understanding of the reasons behind the appeal of mass-consumerism on YouTube, Yallop is a one-stop internet culture expert. Break The Internet is essential reading material for anyone interested in internet culture and a masterclass in engaging non-fiction.
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Food is fuel, but aside from its obvious biological significance, it is usually not considered “highbrow” enough to be a subject worthy of inquiry. This mode of thinking has endured in Western intellectual thought.
Paul Freedman, who specialises in medieval social history, admits himself that it wasn’t until he reached his fifties that he began to consider food an intriguing subject. But in his new book, he makes a strong case for just how much we are defined by what we eat – throughout history and across the globe. Food has rich cultural meaning and is central to identity and memory formation, and it conditions how we see the world and ourselves.
Freedman explores how cuisines from different cultures have intersected and influenced one another, as well as the subjectivities and socialisation of eating: “Every society makes choices about what is edible and what is not.” While food brings people together, it can also be a source of conflict or division. As Freedman puts it, “food serves to differentiate rich from poor, male from female, and to separate along lines of class and ethnicity.”
The book sheds light on the enduring snobbery associated with different types of food, using examples dating as far back as the upper-class disdain for the rustic food habits of peasants in the 1000s-1500s. Similarly, in the contemporary world, ethnic minorities are often mocked for their food preferences.
Yet crucially, cooking constitutes a powerful form of resistance. Ultimately, Why Food Matters is a fascinating illustration of the importance of food for cultural as well as biological survival.
Patricia Highsmith is one of the most famous and most prolific novelists of the twentieth century. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train, was made into a famous 1951 film by Alfred Hitchcock, and The Talented Mr Ripley has been adapted more times than it is possible to list – the best including the all-star cast of Matt Damon, Jude Law, and Gwyneth Paltrow.
But she was not just prolific in writing novels and short stories: when she died in 1995, she left behind eighteen private diaries and thirty-eight notebooks in fifty-six identical spiral-bound journals. Their uniformity – and the fact that Highsmith had clearly edited and revised the books – suggests that she had intended them for publication.
Anna von Planta has dutifully edited these eight thousand pages down to a meagre 999: no slim volume – and one that will almost definitely break your back if you attempt to read it anywhere other than at home – but compact enough to be genuinely readable.
And the picture that emerges of Highsmith is fascinating. She writes in English, French, and German, and each language has its own particular flavour – from confessional, to poetic, to reportage. Highsmith was evidently an incredibly intense young woman who worried about dedicating herself to her art, and her troubles did not fade as she grew older. But here, for the first time, is the chance to read it all in her own words.