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on 11 March 1997
A great fiction writer such as Lessing has the tools to describe the causes and consequences of human behavior better than most psychologists or historians. In these beautifully written, brief essays, she describes the phenomenon of Eric Hoffer's "true believer" in the light of her own experiences with war, racism, political movements, and the seductive pleasure of self-righteousness. I have probably personally bought 100 copies of this book to give to friends; it is a great antidote for those times when you are sure you are right, and that you are justified in treating other human beings as the Enemy. Lessing addresses the fact that this kind of moral certitude, which is one of the fueling factors for most war, is equally prevalent among all political belief systems. She ends with hope that it is possible to raise children who are too good at thinking critically and at asking questions to ever get swept up in some vicious madness.
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on 11 January 2009
A clear-sighted, well-argued plea for individuality of thought in an age of mass emotions and social conditioning.

Doris Lessing has faith in the power of writers to stay detached from these mass emotions and "enable us to see ourselves as others see us." I like the image she gives of writers as a collective organism, constantly evolving but always providing this same crucial function of detached examination of the human condition.

It's refreshing to hear Lessing's account of how often majority opinion has been completely wrong, and the most seemingly unchangeable opinions have changed completely - for example the white minority in the Rhodesia of her childhood thought that their racist regime would last forever, but it didn't. Also in World War Two, Britons revered friendly, pipe-smoking Uncle Joe Stalin, their ally against Hitler, but then a couple of years later he was their worst enemy (I remember my grandmother talking about this as well).

This book was written in 1987, before the arrival of technologies like the internet. The methods of control and manipulation are surely stronger now than in 1987, but so are the possibilities for resistance. It's easier now to find the information that undercuts official propaganda, or to publish your own individual views, or to connect with other people who dissent from the majority opinion. Not following the herd is a challenge at any time, but, as Lessing says, it's vital:

"Of course, there are original minds, people who do take their own line, who do not fall victim to the need to say, or do, what everyone else does. But they are few. Very few. On them depends the health, the vitality of all our institutions."
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Prior to her death in November 2013, I had read little of Doris Lessing. Of what I've seen of her interviewed there was much to impress. Politically engaged against apartheid, the bomb and many other things, she was never frightened to change her mind as she learned more. This freedom of mind underwrites the essays in this short book.

The prisons that we chose to live inside, for Lessing, are our thought patterns: our conviction that we are right and that others are wrong, and this may be in politics, religion, philosophy or anything else. She is not frightened to suggest that some people enjoy fighting wars, even if they are in the minority. She points out that many people of the left have the same thought patterns as those on the right, though they may deny this. She also adds that a person fighting for a just cause may still be a rabble rouser and dangerous for that reason.

Essentially these essays are about the real nature of freedom. Lessing suggests that, though people don't always know it, the future may point out that the twentieth century provided people with the means to observe their own prejudices, and may in the end prove to be liberating. Her solution to this is the cultivation of individuals able to take responsibility for themselves. In this find parallels with Jung's essay The Undiscovered Self: which also argued that the fate of the world depended on individuals. But as both would agree there are many resistances to this, not least political, educational and business institutions.

Lessing fearlessly independent all her life. She points out near the end that people saying writers should do one thing or another are wrong. A writer should only write what they are given to write. In these essays we get a taste of what that meant to her.
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on 8 February 2014
Under a very promising name for the book and the author, I found just a few interesting ideas drowned in a lot of pointless ranting against the Soviet Union and communism (certainly not of actuality in 2014). The condescending tone towards the young is also quite disappointing.
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on 21 November 2014
Fantastic read Doris Lessing is a legend
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on 23 March 2014
some of the ideas in the book are a bit outdated now, but i would imagine they caused a stir when written. Simply written, ideas expressed well, small and compact.
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on 21 July 2015
this book is ageless, its like she writes with what is happening now. its one of the best books ive ever read.
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