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I have been reading, Q1 2013

(c) Giuseppe Arcimboldo (c.1570)

As before, loads of non-fiction and no poetry. Grading system:

1/5: No.
2/5: For enthusiasts?
3/5: Skim.
4/5: Read receptively.
4.5/5: Exceptional, but one readthrough is enough.
5/5: Read it now, slowly, and probably repeatedly.

  • Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell. Was impressed by this, but I also felt a little contempt. It has features befitting a great book: stunning detail, perfectly historicised prose, engaging characters, intricate narrative structure, embrace of multiple genres. It's too clean, somehow. Though it depicts us being preyed on by us at our worst; though its dystopic future is a plausible extrapolation from our current world-system, it's not as challenging as it thinks it is. Pop-Hegel, pyrotechnic Joyce. On structure: there are ten sudden and non-linear narrative shifts, moving back and fore through four or five centuries in a world which almost matches our history up to 2000CE. These sections are connected by each having a reader (the opening sea journal being read by the Romantic composer, whose letters are obsessed over by the journalist, whose memoir is seen by the hack editor, whose tale is seen as an ancient film by the saintly clone, who is remembered as a god in the post-apocalypse story that is as far forward as we see. (They are also connected by a nice reincarnation overlay - but apart from giving brutal history more chances to be brutal to the same people and giving matters a hint of fatalism, I don't really get it.) The bit with the composer Frobisher is my favourite strand: he transcends his cheeky bohemian archetype and becomes horribly tragic despite his pig-headedness and camp pretention. The book's last line, returning to the original C19th narrator, is a good summary of the book's wounded, pessimistic collectivism: "He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!’ Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?" So: Enjoyable, ambitious, occasionally profound, unsatisfying. 4/5

    (PS: Think about how weird the phrase 'undeniably impressive' is. So mean.)

  • Still Life with Woodpecker (1980) by Tom Robbins. Funny, cynical comedy about the politically radical hippies. DeLillo on MDMA (if he had less of a problem with women). The narrator is loud (talking to his typewriter and the moon) in the manner of Douglas Adams but with subtler prose. ("It worked. Mongooses did kill the rats. They also killed chickens, young pigs, birds, cats, dogs, and small children. There have been reports of mongooses attacked motorbikes, power lawn mowers, golf carts, and James Mitchener. Hawaii had traded its rat problem for a mongoose problem... Society had a crime problem. It hired cops to attack crime. Now society has a cop problem.") While it mocks New Age politics, Robbins still loves an outlaw and a weirdo, and so he takes on their anarchic personal project, to "preserve insanity" and all that. ("A better world has gotta start somewhere. Why not with you and me?") The book's conclusion is funny and irresponsible: roughly that, when faced with a conflict between social activism and romantic individualism (as we all always are), ditch the former. Man. 3/5.

  • [A bunch of works of philosophy of essential indexicals.] Interesting stuff. It's an oddly light-hearted debate, I suppose because the wry John Perry got to set the tone. I'm now convinced that (some) indexicals are irreducible, and need to be included as a base ontological category, if you're into base ontological categorisation. So that makes for three types of things in fundamental reality: physical units, qualia, and (some) indexicals. 3/5.

  • The 80,000 Hours website. Graduates attempt to maximise the good one can do with a life (within the system). I don't endorse every part of their bright-eyed gradualist careerism - but it's broadly the correct way to live, so I joined up. (For something more substantive, try Will Crouch's piece on the ethics of career choice.) 4/5.

  • Edge Magazine's Answers 2013. A portrait of the worst things in the world by some of the cleverest people in it. Loads of people went for the cheap way out and said "We should worry about too much worrying", which is true. Quality varies: these are the most astonishing bits. 4.5/5.

  • Is that a Fish In Your Ear? (2012) by David Bellos. Great strident stuff, wrestling against the prevailing pessimistic dogmas of English lit and ling. (e.g. "We can never fully understand each other as individuals or cultures." "Truth is just power.") This is a poppy treatment of his work, but he stills manages to pack in a lot of brilliant (original?) theory, a refutation of Sapir-Whorf in four pages, and lots of charming stats about the state of world language today. I imagine he's a great teacher - provocative, clear and original. 4.5/5

  • Read aloud: And Then There Were None (1939) by Agatha Christie. My first go with her. Didn't guess the baddie. 3/5

  • The March of Unreason (2005) by Dick Taverne. Good and grumpy attack on the strange alliance of anti-vaxers, environmentalists, and anti-globalisers that attack science when it shows up their ideologies. Greenpeace's internal mechanics turn out to be quite Stalinist. Rorty is cited in this - as a man of unreason -and Taverne's whole chapter on postmodernism misses the point profoundly, but still. Optimistic in the manner of successful scientists. 3/5.

  • Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) by Daniel Kahneman. Gentle collation of forty years' work on systematic errors in the human mind. Basically a quieter, less hostile version of The Black Swan (which was based in equal measure on Kahneman's research and Classical stoicism). I confess to being a bit obsessed with the Heuristics and Biases program. They are hard ideas to grasp, no matter how they are presented, and since the science he presents is solid - and vital for the prosecution of a halfway rational life - I'll be back. 5/5.

  • Kluge (2009) by Gary Marcus. A rare beast: a funny and humane work of evolutionary psychology. Part of the cognitive bias project and so I am mad for it. 4/5

  • [Loads of Critical theory, Queer theory, Race studies, two sociology dictionaries, a lot of Tumblrs, and a shower of political philosophy], for my piece on Liberationism. 2/5

  • The Social Construction of What? (1999) by Ian Hacking. Wonderful. Balanced and humane analysis of the usually partisan matter of constructionism. I've been sympathetic to SC for years (anyone who looks closely at gender must be), but he is the first scientific constructionist to not irritate me. He gives an illuminating logical analysis of the different kinds and many muddled uses of the idea. He concludes that, in science at least, construction is a very real and consequential process, one that cannot be dismissed by appeal to the "Context of Justification". This is all the more plausible because (like, say, Bruno Latour), he is clearly very well-informed about the science he discusses. He's fond of the science, even. The section where he tries to navigate the trade-off between realism's history of oppression, and relativism's potential for totalitarian abuse is really touching. (He concludes that he is of the wrong generation to get behind radical constructionisms!) Required reading for anyone who wants to use, or dismiss, the concept. 4.5/5. (First two chapters 5/5.)

  • Unspeak (2006) by Steven Poole. Startling and witty linguistic analysis of modern politics' framing. ("UNSPEAK - mode of speech that persuades by stealth, E.g., climate change, war on terror, ethnic cleansing, road map.") Poole is a model for political writing in his eloquent, empirical, reasoned rage. It is a product of the time - attacking New Labour and the Bush administration in particular - but its principles transfer to today. Enough to radicalise anyone. I've struck off "ethnic cleansing", "community" and "West Bank barrier" from my active vocabulary, so should you. 4.5/5

  • Everything Zach Weiner has published online, including his reading lists (2005-13). He's just a really inspiring guy. A literature graduate, now studying physics, his webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal has an amazing wry grasp of basically every academic field. His jokes are sceptical and romantic, puerile and hyperintelligent. (Unlike most topics, there are not enough jokes about economists being bastards!) His science podcast with his wife is badly recorded but always worthwhile, his Youtube group is always funny and often transcendent, and even many of his blogged offcuts are charming- see in particular this one about the future of the library. /mancrush. 4/5

  • How to be an Existentialist (2011) by Gary Cox. Chatty, trite, and presumptuous. ("Young people are stupid", "disabled people should stop moping" "political correctness is oppressing me".) It is at least trying to process the massive abstractions into an accessible intro, but ends up childish and uncritical. He's a tenured academic, too! Taken as systematic description of the real world, Existentialism is a fruitless neo-Kantian mess. Taken as extreme postwar poetry or stoic-fictionalist cognitive stance, it is beautiful and stark. 2/5.

  • My Uncle Oswald (1979) by Roald Dahl. Comic novella about raping famous men for money. I got appalled at this here. 3/5. (1/5 if you're sensitive to blithe horror.)

  • Social Identity (2003) by Richard Jenkins. Was drawn in by the cute epigrams ("Everybody needs somebody"), but this is turgid. Sociology/anthropology mix, producing an airless, evidence-poor citation-circle-jerk. Reading around, I find this to be typical of the field. 1/5.

  • 'The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Truth About Morality & What to Do About It" (2010) by Joshua David Green. The first PhD I've ever read: a witty and authoritative piece of meta-ethics. He surveys almost every large approach under the criteria of strong naturalism, and concludes that anti-realist utilitarianism is the least unsatisfying - which is handy, since I just read 377 A4 pages, and anything that long had damn well better confirm my prejudices. 4.5/5