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Et cetera: non-fiction roundup – reviews

Roland Barthes’ Travels in China, Enjoy Every Sandwich by Lee Lipsenthal and Screw Business As Usual by Richard Branson

Travels in China, by Roland Barthes (Polity, £16.99)
Rummaging around in deceased writers’ drawers for material they never wanted to publish being a mysteriously uncontroversial enterprise, we are now treated to typed-up versions of Barthes’s notebooks from a three-week voyage to China in 1974, when he was dragged around with other left luminaries to tourist attractions, ballets and factories, dinners and Maoist lectures. Towards the end, he explicitly considers publishing the notebooks “as they are” (thinking of them as a simple record of sights and smells, a “phenomenology”) but then he didn’t. Now, though, he is safely dead, sublimed into academic industry, so his decision obviously cannot be allowed to stand.

Barthes in China was semiotically frustrated (everything too obviously meant what it meant, congealed into interchangeable “bricks”), often bored (“trips in the minibus are irritating”), and had migraines. He reports on weather and meals (“Dish: sheep’s stomach, etc. Very nice”), and admires young factory workers. The book’s most charming aspect is his little sketches: of hairstyles, or statues, or seating plans, and one tiny caricature of a near-featureless but somehow reassuring Confucius, an apparition perhaps of one whom Barthes wished to meet but didn’t.

Enjoy Every Sandwich, by Lee Lipsenthal (Bantam Press, £10.99)
This is one of those self-help books that arrives in an apparently impregnable force-field of authority: the writer was a doctor with terminal cancer. Who better to teach us how to live, while we still have time? But if sickness made everyone a philosopher, the hospitals would be heaving with Hegels. The subtitle, “Living Each Day As If It Were Your Last”, is not promising, since you couldn’t function in society if you really did that. But Lipsenthal’s memoir of facing illness with his beloved family is sweet and touching, and there are some intriguing “lifehacking” tips. (When studying, alternate 20 minutes of cramming with four minutes of rocking out to loud music.)

The most provocative message is that our modern materialist substitutes for spirituality are not effective: “There is more to life than just managing cholesterol, exercising and eating well.” That for this author the “more” extended to the “recall” of past lives or Shamanic “journeying” doesn’t vitiate the general principle. In the right frame of mind, remember, you can choose to enjoy even a really disgusting sandwich. I expect supermarkets to make more of this in their advertising soon.

Screw Business As Usual, by Richard Branson (Virgin, £12.99)
Business as usual? Forget it. Business as usual is destroying the Earth! But I wake up happy every morning, and not just because I’ve created lots of fabulous companies. The good news is that revolution is in the air. I’m talking a cultural revolution like in the 1960s, when I single-handedly invented magazines and pop music – except this time it’s about being ethical in business, but still having fun and being a bit crazy (!) too.

Some people talk about Capitalism 2.0, but my vision is huger: we need Capitalism 24902. (That’s the circumference of the Earth, in miles!) Just look at my Mates condoms, which funded HIV awareness, or my Virgin Unite charitable arm. But it’s not just about me. Consider the success of microfinance, Virgin Mobile, eco-groceries, Virgin Active health clubs, green energy companies, Virgin Media, virtual-education startups, and Virgin Atlantic! My close friends Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Peter Gabriel, the Queen, and Buddha all agree with me. You can do good and profit at the same time! Get to work! (Psst: want to open a bank account?) © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds