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Been reading, Q4 2013

(c) Timothy Leo Taranto, (2013) "Ernest Lemingway"

Here’s the bird that never flew,
Here’s the tree that never grew,
Here’s the bell that never rang,
Here’s the fish that never swam.
- Glasgow city motto

Mankind has various ways, some of them too technical to register as art, of adding to the store of beautiful things.
- Clive James

Unemployment, so the library. (Free meaning, also free heating.) Worked back up to my big themes (Formal theory v informal humanity, Scottish independence, the contemporary Left). Books by Gill, Malcolm X, Rousseau, and Moran pose a really big question: how should we read people with moral or political failings? I blab on about this here

  • 1/5: Avoid: significantly false and clichéd or ugly. 
  • 2/5: For enthusiasts only, or, very bad prose with ok content.
  • 3/5: Skim it, some worth. 
  • 4/5: Read attentively; true, novel, or good. 
  • 4*/5: Outstanding. 
  • 5?/5: Outstanding, might reread it. 
  • 5/5: Too much for one reading, or, deserving refreshing. Vade mecum.


  • Open the Door! (1920) by Catherine Carswell.

    Wise but wearing bildungsroman, full with super-Romantic sincerity. Joanna’s life is about embracing pleasure and freedom, but is suffused with the bible; even living godlessly, J thinks in its language and punishes herself in its mood. Unconventionally emotional: while she doesn’t love her husband (“What they had was not love, but it had beauty, and it served.”) and doesn’t grieve her mother’s death, Joanna (and Carswell) are brimming with strange new emotions: at one point she’s thrilled to ecstasy by a dripping tap. (“It was the still small voice of a new birth, of a new life, of a new world… For it was the voice before creation, secure, unearthly, frail as filigree yet faithful as a star.”) Ornamented, worthy, but hard work. Probably important.
    3/5. [Library]

  • Read on the bus: Moranthology (2012) by Caitlin Moran.

    Gleeful, rarely zany. I don’t laugh at books much, but snorted all the way through this on a long megabus. The middle section on class and gender is light and uncliched and makes her fall from grace among pious people all the sadder. We need people who can talk about these things without sounding like an appalling prig.

  • The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (1985) by Oliver Sacks.

    Repetitive and overwrought, but also of course astonishing and extravagant and humane. Quirky case-study format and title suggest a voyeuristic pop sci jaunt, but it’s deadly serious, theoretically couched, concerned with the poor buggers’ well-being. He’s against “mindless neurology and bodiless psychology”, the long tradition of cognitive elitism and relegation of emotion and spirit in his field.

    Disease is not always just an affliction, but sometimes a proud engine of altered states” – so a man with severe Tourette’s is an excellent pro jazz drummer, a woman with debilitating migraines is the polymath Hildegard of Bingen. Sacks has a funny habit of using philosophers’ names as misrepresentative pejoratives – a man with radical amnesia is a ‘Humean’ (a flow of unrelated sensations), a woman who loses sense of her own body has a ‘Wittgensteinian’ life (because doubting the hinge proposition ‘here is a hand’). Actually, that last one works, never mind.

  • Seeing Things (1991) by Seamus Heaney.

    Don’t like nature poets. I can’t pardon their casual nihilism about science and humanity, however much beautiful innocence they display. But Heaney’s a naturalist, not a nature poet. He talks about the same few things – stone, dirt, the nature of light for a child, the act of building, wind – hundreds of times and still casts newness. It hurts to read it, for some reason – he’s never miserable, and rarely handles tragedy explicitly, but I get tight behind my eyes, short of breath.
    3/5. [Library]

  • Read aloud: The Shape of Water (1997) by Andrea Camilleri.

    Cynical but not very cynical, funny but not very funny. Uses food for comic and existential relief between murders. Maybe Sicilians love the book's local colour, but meh. Half a point to compensate for translation.

  • A Point of View (2011) by Clive James.

    Ah! pleasure. What others get out of Wodehouse or Rowling, I get from this grumpy old Australian’s stoic nonfiction. Had my notebook handy the whole way through, sieving gold gobbets.
    4*/5. [Library]

  • The Education of a British-Protected Child (2009) by Chinua Achebe.

    Title suggests nostalgia for colonialism, a gag which needs you to know who he is to work. He waffles a bit, full of avuncular banality as well as post-colonial ire. The most shocking anecdote is of Jim Crow in Africa – up to 1961, black people had to sat behind a partition at the back of the bus, in fucking Zambia.
    3/5. [Library]

  • The Classical World: Homer to Hadrian (2005) by Robin Lane Fox.

    Was tired of my own titanic ignorance (Where was Carthage? Were Spartans Communist? Did Greeks ever love their wives? What did upper class women do all day?) and mostly got answers. Bit of a story-book, though he does always tell us when he papers over something controversial. Most common phrases in this are ‘surely’ and ‘in my view’ (e.g. he just says that the Greeks probably had our kind of parental affections), which is nice.
    3/5. [Library]

  • Killing Us Softly: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine (2013) by Paul Offit.

    Heinous illusions leech £200bn off the world’s vulnerables, annually. The problems of CAM have been covered with more originality and verve by Goldacre / Singh & Ernst, but Offit covers its history, as well as some newer meta-analyses (2005: n=136,000 finds increased mortality from dosing vitamin E. 2008: Cochrane (n=230,000) concludes multivits correlate weakly with increase in cancer and heart disease risk, further confirmed in 2011). But you can’t hear these ideas too often: there’s no such thing as conventional or alternative medicine (only stuff that works and stuff that doesn’t); everything is chemicals; origin is irrelevant to chemistry; too much of a good thing is lethal; the natural is not always or generally good. I’d say Offit’s too quick to jump from the conclusive (weak-magnitude) evidence against multivitamins (particularly overdosing vitamins A, C, and E) to his simple attack on all supplementation. For instance: some two-thirds of the world is deficient in vitamin D; few people get enough magnesium through their food; and it’s uncontroversial that vegists should supplement B12 and creatine. But we’re not really in conflict, because he’d change his mind if he looked at the evidence, and we each accept that (public-funded) science will out the truth.
    Prose 2/5, ideas 4*/5. [Library]

  • Previous Convictions (2009) by AA Gill.

    What an excuse of a man he can be, but what a writer he always is. The piece on golf’s characteristic - hilarious, fluid, razor-bladed. The basic problem with him: his horror of golf would be better spent on actually horrific things (e.g. his own aestheticised violence). To be fair the second half’s travel pieces spend exactly that: from being right inamidst hallucinatory police brutality in Haiti, to the Africa pieces which buck stereotypes and complacency. There’s vast sensitivity or sensibility in him, but he pairs it with a kind of generalisation (e.g. “begging is a consequence of opportunity, not poverty”) and off-piste counter-PC phrasemaking, as if to shock us out of respecting him. He uses Jeremy Clarkson brilliantly – as stooge, counterpoint to Gill’s own professed post-masculine, pro-gay, pro-grey, pro-oppressed enlightenment. But then he reports all these uber-macho exploits and self-conscious leering at women. What compels him to be so indirect about being progressive,? It’s that he wants to be both LAD and liberal intellectual, but needs the approval of neither side.
    4/5. [Library]

  • Feynman (2011) by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick.

    Properly brilliant man with a peerless anti-authoritarian anti-pomp streak. But this is hagiography, presenting his good puns as profundities and his bad puns as good puns. It avoids his maths and almost avoids physics, which needless to say is vitiating in dealing with the Lives of technicians. Worthwhile for its 20-page comic distillation of his (already distilled) pop masterpiece QED.
    2/5. [Library]

  • My Shit Life So Far (2009) by Frankie Boyle.

    He is more than he’d have us think – but that isn’t saying much, since his core gag is wanking over inappropriate objects and taunting the weak. Book’s tolerable when he’s busy liking things – Chomsky’s politics, Grant Morrison’s comics, Moorcock, old Clydeside socialism – and hating on the powerful (he disses working in the civil service). A cursory rant against PC, which he bizarrely (satirically?) blames on the Mail. Humane islands in an insincere sea. On marriage: “Fuck it, I tried”; “we struggled along like badly set bones”. Makes Gill look like Tolstoy. Higher humour’s about laughing at yourself.

  • Read aloud: The City and the City (2009) by China Miéville.

    Heavy-handed metaphysical mystery (“there is another world - economic world, national world - visible but the vision suppressed”). His usual incandescence is present under a shade: the prose is conventional, with spectacular Miévillian words like ‘topolganger’ (identical-but-Other place) popping up only twice a chapter, rather than page. Similarly his characteristic details – protagonist Borlu is in an open relationship with a woman identified only as an economic historian. Hints of the Matrix’s ontological sensationalism and noir’s worn-out idioms, but it works because Mieville’s good enough (with ontology, but also generally) to redeem clichés. tC&tC twists repeatedly without losing credibility; the Cities’ omnimalevolent atmospheres make great noir. There’s even a rooftop showdown. An unfair consequence of extreme talent is that your ‘merely’ interesting well-constructed books are marked down, judged by ghostly expectations.

  • Out of the Storm: The Life and Legacy of Martin Luther (2006) by Derek Wilson.

    Poppy, secularish, filled a large gap. Downplays Luther’s anti-Semitism, who knows if rightly. A huge, dictatorial person, without whom fake European unity could have continued and prevented Enlightenment and the attempt at real European unity.
    3/5. [Library]

  • Capital (2012) by John Lanchester.

    Grand account of London’s strange socio-emotional contortion up to 2008. When he listed the banker’s sky-high rationalised outgoings (“nanny: £20,000 plus employment tax nonsense”), I thought Capital was going to be a didactic book; when its first chapters revealed its prose to be plain story-book, I thought it was going to be pat and mundane. Instead it’s humane, deliberate and clear, implying radical critique while focussing on the inside of the matter, flicking between a dozen vivid characters (who collide neatly in the very way of The C21st Novel) and noting the sharp line between the City people and the immigrants who serve them. (There’s a sick sharp bit where a pro bono human rights lawyer is looking to be begged for their services.) Lanchester uses whodunit tension without detracting from Capital’s main achievement, which is engrossing ordinariness (traffic wardens and Polish rewiring, infidelious twinges and infant irrationality).
    4/5. [Library]

  • Celebrity Culture (2006) by Ellis Cashmore.

    Kinda lightweight sociology. Picked it because it asks the right questions in its Contents (“What part did consumer society play in making us dote on celebrities? When did the paparazzi appear and how do they pedestalise and destroy people? How are cosmetic surgery and the preoccupation with physical perfection linked to celebrity culture? Why have black celebrities been used as living proof of the end of racism? How have disgrace and sexual indignity helped some celebrities climb onto the A-list?”). But while chatty, he’s critical in an uncritical way, high on anecdote, low on data - and there are no footnotes. Cashmore’s answers are thus suspect, trendy. The big contrarian move in sociology is to view fans as active & canny manipulators of the ‘culture’ (…)

  • The Book of Dead Philosophers (2008) by Simon Critchley.

    List of little biographies, ends and attitudes to endings. Plenty of good anecdotes – Avicenna’s raging horn, Nietzsche’s supposed 'lethal masturbation', Ayer vs Tyson – but Critchley’s argument (“my constant concern in these seemingly morbid pages is the meaning and possibility of happiness”) is lost to me in the plurality of attitudes on display. His new canon is a success anyway, including as it does Mohists and Daoists, Christian saints, John Toland, women. Good toilet book, or introduction to (continental) philosophy.
    3/5. [Library]

  • Interpreting Pollock (1999) by Jeremy Lewison.

    Does Expressionism do anything but look cool and foil the old School of Paris? I’m a slave to content, so I resent the mindless haste and vitiating freedom of Pollock and Co’s anti-painting, born of the macho belief in chaos (cf. Hunter Thompson, Jim Morrison, Debord). But Pollock’s not empty nor, really, chaotic. Apart from anything else, he makes Picasso look smooth and Mannered, a useful service. Apart from anything else, nothing made or viewed by humans can be non-representational. I like Full Fathom Five & The Deep (1953).
    2/5 [Library]


  • Cultural Amnesia (2008) by Clive James.

    Dark, teeming cultural biography of C20th humanism and its enemies. James homes down to “the relationship between Hitler’s campaign on the eastern front and Richard Burton’s pageboy haircut”. It’s full of faded and non-Anglo stars (Egon Friedell, Arthur Schnitzler, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Paz, Urena), villains (Brassilach, Celine, Pound, Sartre, Brecht), pop-defining celebrities (Beatrix Potter, Dick Cavett, Michael Mann) and sad outrage. It’s also or really an autobiography, a list of the people and one-liners that struck James as he travelled the century. WW2 and the Soviet Empire dominate as the most deadly instances of the theme “how politics invaded art and came close to killing it”. I can’t suggest this is inappropriate. Other themes: irrational violence, the nonconformist left, collaborators and fellow-travellers, Jewish achievements, the failure of totalitarian simplicity, ‘the American century’, rise and fall of jazz. He falls for clash-of-civilisation talk a bit, but he’s never conservative without a reason. I think what I love about him is that he stands up for boring truths – ‘it takes another power to keep a power in check’, “the law’s imperfections are tokens of its necessity” etc.
    5?/5. [Library]

  • Read loud: The Divine Comedy (2013) by Dante and Clive James.

    He claims Amnesia took him 40 years to write and that this translation took 50. Lucky he saw the two keystones to the end! I was surprised by how much of Dante’s this audacious fleshing out of vague Scripture is revenge verse; standing in judgment over historical (Alexander, Attila) and contemporary enemies (his Latin teacher). He was probably echoing Church proclamations, but still: the author as towering demigod. After Book One you’d be forgiven for thinking that most people in hell are Italian. It’s impossible to ignore Dante’s medieval sneer in places (even though he was a big liberal by the going standard): he parades the Church’s varied idiot retributions, some of which persist, e.g. promising suicidal folk that they are going to get fucked up, or having sweet modest Epicurus roasted alive forever for holding the soul to be mortal. The final, most irredeemable circle of hell is reserved for, well, me: childless anti-nationalist atheists. Didn't quite have the stamina, but I'll be back.
    4/5 but da capo. [Library]

  • Radical Evolution: The Promise and Perils of…  (2005) by Joel Garreau.

    Pop account of scary/apotheosising technological accelerations and explosions. (AKA transhumanism v bioconservatism.) We face four types of potentially dislocating technologies: Genetics, Robotics, Infotech and Nanotech. Garreau gives loads of stage time to two dogmatic cranks from each side: Kurzweil (booster technocrat), and Fukuyama (neocon fearmonger) as well as an unclassifiable polymath, Lanier. But this is the way science journalism is done, and Garreau is later courageous in half-endorsing the transcendent transhuman rationale of beautiful bioprogressive Bostrom. Unfortunately his prose is Gladwellian, full of glib pop references and leaden line-break punch-lines. Still a balanced intro to the scenarios and figureheads.
    Prose 2/5, object 4/5. [Library]

  • Fooled By Randomness (2004) by Nassim Taleb.

    I had skipped this, assuming I received the full contrarian worldview from Black Swan and Bed of Procrustes. But it’s a different beast, more playful and modest, with less of his latter-day overstatement and invalid ad hominems. As anti-disciplinary provocateur and writer of empirical art he is unbeaten (I rank him with Nietzsche for delightful arrogance and hard-ass enculturation.) Still, these ideas (from cognitive science and applied statistics) are hard: one needs several runs at them. Taleb is a great introduction, then Kahneman and Gigerenzer for the calm conservative estimate.

  • Identity and Violence (2006) by Amartya Sen.

    Nice: in one ugly sentence ‘how overlooking intersectionality ruins worldviews and gets folks killed’. He repeats this idea fifty times or so, but it’s a good one. It’s stats-free but I trust him, he’s proved his mastery. “Widespread interest in global inequalities, of which anti-globalization protests are a part, [is the] embodiment of what Hume was talking about in his claim that closer economic relations would bring distant people within the reach of a ‘gradual enlargement of our regards to justice’.”– neat, catching the antithesis in the thesis' process. Sen’s prose & I don’t get on: he’s clear and warm but studied in a way that chafes me.
    3/5. [Library]

  • Read aloud: Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) by Conan Doyle.

    Dull, four-fifths preamble. Got whodunit, didn’t see why.
    2/5. [Library]

  • The Great Equations (2008) by Robert Crease.

    Droll, scientifically proficient, philosophically superconductive. The cast is standard – ‘Pythagoras’, Newton, Euler, Boltzmann, Maxwell, Einstein, Heisenberg – but his treatment’s lucid and alive to the art and philosophy of the things. (Get this: “special use of language, often over the heads of untrained readers, that seeks to express truths concisely & with precision, that allows us to understand otherwise inaccessible things, changing our experience in the process” – equations, or poems?) Thermodynamics is best, casting physicists as Shakespearean (there were four suicides in the twelve of them). Crease wants science to have cultural presence, since at the moment it has authority, cultural reputation without real presence). He suggests that “science criticism” is the way to get this - not in the sense of know-nothing postmodernists attacking instrumentalist hegemony (Holmes on Cochrane), but as in the work of engaged human bridges between practitioners and audience. Every art has a surfeit of such critics. Pop science comes close, but it’s more often cheerleading and radical simplification than artful play on precedents, implications and meaning. Well, here’s at least one example. (See also the Edge and 3QuarksDaily people.)
    4/5. [Library]

  • Slavery by Another Name (2008) by Douglas Blackmon.
    The South deluded itself that the Negro was happy in his place; the North deluded itself with the with the illusion that it had freed the Negro.
    – MLK.
    Toe-curling account of the extra century of de facto slavery in America: hidden in plain sight from 1865-1945, hidden in archives and historians’ de-emphasis since then. ‘Jim Crow segregation’ is a grave euphemism. (I didn’t know the first thing about it, but assumed the South had something of the sort judging by lack of progress after formal emancipation.) Sham laws, racist courts, and ‘prisoner leasing’ led to millions of (especially) black men spending years in forced labour for ‘vagrancy’ (being black in the street). Blackmon’s research is no doubt exemplary, but his prose is a big dim bulb.
    3/5. [Library]

  • Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim (2005) by Ziauddin Sardar.

    Wanted a life of Muhammad to match the life of Luther, but the available biographies were credulous, downplaying his Machiavellian – or rather, since successful, ‘Napoleonic’ – accomplishments and mercantile background. So, the ‘sceptical Muslim’ it is, and a good thing too: Sardar has been everywhere, involved in every big event in the Muslim world for 40 years. He gets beaten up by Iranian revolutionaries; sees Bin Laden in Peshawar in ‘85; is offered £5m by the Saudis to shut up; is at Anwar’s side in Malaysia; his nephew worked in the WTC in late 2001. He shows the full crushing procession of forces in Muslims’ lives – Western bootprints old and new, Israel locking up 1.6 million and scattering a million others to the wind, the former Ba’athists, the Brotherhood, the ‘simpleton’ Tablighi Jamaat, Saudi power soft and hard, and a dozen home-grown oppressions and gross inequalities. Sardar in the middle: willing the backward chaos to end, but recoiling from the resulting medieval theocracies. “But maybe paradise does not want to be found”.
    4/5. [Library]

  • Consider the Lobster (2005) by David Foster Wallace.

    Ah, ah. Postmodern and prescriptivist, enthusiastically wise, Wallace was the one, as loveable as intellectual, as iconoclastic as judicious. He’s the model of finding meaning in places beyond sanctioned loci like Dostoevsky and 9/11: in for example an old sincere conservative, in tennis, and arthropods. Not that he ‘found’ meaning: he generated it, erupting bittersweet priority over parts of the world held to be artless or empty. Theoretically rococo and colloquially concentrated. Our loss is marked. It’s disappointing that ‘Consider the Lobster’, his more or less honest analysis of vegetarianism, founders and shrinks from responsibility. (In short, the piece says “they feel: so why do we do this?”. But he asks: “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental?” without discounting the latter weaselly ad hominem aspersion.) Tensions: he insisted on democratic clarity and yet wrote wilfully distracting pieces. But he’s one of the ones.

  • Both Flesh and Not (2012) by David Foster Wallace.

    Bravura essays from all over the cultural instant he encompassed and abruptly let go (1988-2007). They are I suppose dregs, but DFW’s dregs are better than decade-projects of others. I can’t help but see foreshadows of Infinite Jest: he touches on 1) the obsessive, commercial, and religious aspects of pro tennis, 2) the obstacles to good prose about or involving maths, 3) self-conscious engagement with pop (for how else can we understand a world constituted by and obsessed with pop?), 4) ‘interpretation-directing’ books (like Jest), and above all 5) on the need to build after waves of high-entropy postmodernism, to work past its crucial (but bewildering) negativities. It was ‘obvious’ to him that ordinary late-capitalist life is ‘at best empty and at worst evil’. But he was extraordinary; panoptic, judicious and sensationally beautiful, and that wasn’t enough either.

  • The Emotional Brain (1999) by Joseph LeDoux.

    Maybe a bit dated, but thoughtful and historical enough to pull through. His big contention’s that conscious feelings are red herrings: most emotional activity is demonstrably unconscious (though not in a Freudian way). So we should see emotions as products of several separate bodily-response systems: “the word ‘emotion’ does not refer to any thing the mind or brain really has or does”. Getting there takes a lot of careful conceptual work, debunking old artefacts (“the limbic system”), probing the line between cognition and emotion, evolved emotional setups and enculturated expressions of them. Rather than reporting his theories as settled, he lets us in to the history, experimental setups, and argue for his theory choices. He’s well-versed in the philosophy (he cites Rorty!), is a master of fear (research), and I feel smarter coming out of it.

  • The Campus Trilogy by David Lodge.

    • Changing Places (1978). Beautiful 60s farce, mocking the zany side while accepting the force of the hippy challenge to all sorts of things, lastingly sexism. The jokes rely heavily on the difference in vitality and affluence between 60s Britain and California – one grey and without central heating, the other soaked in optimism, sex and cute subversions. 4/5.
    • Small World (1984). Even better, more romantic and full of risky narrative moves – regular cinematic cuts, 40 characters in two dozen Richard-Curtis conjunctions, a character commenting on his narrative role, a cod-Japanese passage without articles... Generous and barbed and fun. 4*/5.

    • Nice Work (1988). I suppose what I like most about Lodge is his marriage of (and subversion of) highfalutin Theory with daft romcom conventions. This last one’s grimmer – based more on the mutual misunderstanding and vices of literary theory and industry. Thatcher’s jaws lurk in the background. Also race. Robyn, his feminist protagonist is good and 3D, principled and struggling with the contradictions of the radical academic (their privileged position in a system they abhor, ‘revolutionary’ abstractions, the attack on logocentric realism leading to detachment from lived life where things happen). Robyn’s attitude to love inspired this great satire.

  • The Retreat of Reason (2006) by Anthony Browne.

    Pamphlet about PC by a man most famous for blaming Britain’s AIDS on African immigrants. Tricky: the pamphlet is pumped up with outrage, playing with the nastiest fire, and on the face of it his central claim's the most hallucinatory tabloid racism. On the other hand, he’s careful to list PC’s achievements, and official figures underlie his arguments. Like everyone, he tries to claim the rational high ground over his enemies, but the connection between identity politics and postmodern irreason is nowhere near the tight caustion he claims. However, reality is fucked up; if we can’t even test any hypothesis which offends anyone, then we are doomed to delusion and early death.
  • Reread: Scott and Scotland (1932) by Edwin Muir.

    Exciting, novel and almost totally wrong, in a fertile and important way. Muir diagnoses four hundred years of post-Reformation Scottish art as weak, makes giant claims about national psychology, and traces out a Scottish Renaissance at odds with the nationalists, MacDiarmid in particular (Muir thinks it’s not the Union’s fault but Knox’s.) A sort of radical conservatism. Pairing Muir with Allan Massie’s careful hatchet-introduction strikes me as a public service.

  • Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X (1995) by Michael Eric Dyson.

    Because we have gotten better, old radicals often seem less radical over time. The pragmatic hedonism and secular calm of Epicurus was once fanatically detested, but is now a standard worldview (it's roughly that of the happy scientist); at one time Spinoza’s Ethics (determinism, Nature as deity, religious and political tolerance) was the wildest thing ever said in the history of the Christian world; Montesquieu’s disgust at aristocratic brutality, gross luxury and torture are commonplaces; Paine’s raging insistence on human rights and total secularism are very successful (in Europe at least); and anyone who disagrees with duBois’ or MLK’s aims is foolish or virulent. Malcolm X has not yet been so incorporated - but on reading his less demagogical stuff (not the early “TOO BLACK, TOO STRONG” variety) you wonder why. Might have been his influential homophobia, but that’s hardly stopped other thinkers. (This suggests it's because we have a false, caricature of him in mind, one that believes in whites-as-devils and Fanonian purifying violence.) Dyson does not skimp on his downsides, and tackles the thorniest idea in identity politics: that experience is absolute, and so understanding a group’s ideas and values requires group membership – that ideas have colour as people do.
    4/5. [Library]

  • The Secret Life of Numbers: 50 Easy Pieces (2006) by George Szpiro.

    Tiny happy columns on false proofs, primacy wars, Newton as a gigantic loon, and the Swiss maths scene. He assumes no background - explaining primes even - but is concise and so not hand-holding. Lots of repetition because originally standalone columns, lots of bucolia because he likes mathematicians so much. Harsh words for Wolfram, though. The banality of eternal truth:
    The next morning Mignotte informed him that he thought the proof [of the 500 hundred year old Catalan conjecture] was correct. They did not rejoice, but they were very happy.


  • Shakespeare is Hard, but So is Life (2002) by Fintan O’Toole.

    Angry. Angry at lazy teaching, angry at Aristotelian crap being applied to and vitiating Shakey, angry at four hundred years of racists reading Othello. Ra ra raar.

  • The Faber Book of Useful Verse (1988), ed. Simon Brett.

    Amusing mnemonics and proverbs, mostly from ancients and Victorians. Includes a canto explaining exactly how James Watt’s steam engine was different and several songs to remember the list of English monarchs and US presidencies, etc.

  • Selected (1993) by George Mackay Brown.

    Distrust and death but never self-pity; drowning and drama but wise. Of one place’s Vikings, fish, and pain – like Under Milk Wood without the japery and authorial distance. Seal Market is amazing; the Hamnavoe poems are so good I feel I’ve been there (which means I don’t have to go). Brown seems stuck writing about the Middle Ages – “what are these red things like tatties? (apples)”– but then the Middle Ages lasted right through to the 1960s, on Orkney. And since “a circle has no beginning or end. The symbol holds: people in AD 2000 are essentially the same as the stone-breakers of 3000 BC.”


  • Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011) by David Graeber.

    Forceful anthropology against certain obvious delusions of economics (and from there to the entire globalised world). As exciting as polemic, reliable as literature review, his iconoclasm, logic and impressive clarity are the more impressive for my “bullshit detection” prejudice against anthropology. He goes into an array of new and fucked up human economies, slaving, . He’s careful with evidence, moving from what must be false (the idea that barter preceded money) to a grand identification of the market and the state and then (implicitly) to resistance to them. As someone who went through the great crypto-conservative fairytale that is ‘training’ in positive economics, I can’t fault his argument about barter, but his estimation of its significance is perhaps excessive. An anthropologist who cares about the balance of evidence? Take me now!
    4/5. [Library]

  • Empire (2000) by Hardt and Negri.

    What a crock of shit. Economics without reference to anything actually economic, Marxism without even speculative economics, melodrama without sweetness. Much less clotted than I’d expected.

  • True Brit (2004) by Kim Johnson “&” John Cleese.

    Superman Englishman, Jonah Jameson Murdoch. I don’t much care for the core commercial thing Marvel and DC do where they reboot series over and over with one new gimmick – Commie Hulk, Zombie Hulk, Nihilist Hulk. One good joke “We should have taught him to control himself, like a true Brit”.
    2/5. [Library]

  • Kick-Ass 2 (2013) by Millar and Romita Jr.

    Eh; art’s really good, dialogue and world are lazy, hardcorer-than-thou (the one centrefold is of a groin being bitten; “I feel like Rihanna after a quiet night in”). Inevitable matching gangs of vigilantes and villains form after pioneer, attendant cheap gags (“I’m Insect-Man!”). The bit where they tweet each other is good (and surreally true, á la the last Israel incursion). “I guess the cops couldn’t tell the heroes from the bad guys.” Yeah.
    2/5. [Library]

  • How Should a Person Be? (2010) by Sheila Heti.

    Ooft. Uncomfortable navel-gazing about navel-gazing. Autobiographical metafictional first-world problems: unrequited narcissism and joint solipsism. Also writer’s block. It’s hard to talk about pretentious things that know they are and discuss it well: this is sophomoric navel-gazing, but masterful about sophomorism and novel about the navel. So it directs interpretation – ‘I can’t call it wanky, it just called itself wanky’. Heti’s deadly serious about frivolous things, but also important ones (e.g. the passage detailing her sexual masochism, or ‘The White Men Go to Africa’, mocking poverty tourists.) The artistic equivalent of a hundred selfies. Distinctive and intended even when dull. The answer to the title is “My friend Margaux but not too much so” (twee and wilful and sceptical and direct).
    3/5. [Library]

  • The Art of Thinking Clearly (2013) by Rolf Dobelli.

    Shonky list of cognitive biases / love letter to Taleb. It has occasioned raging critique rather than reciprocation. At first I was very taken by Dobelli’s article ‘Why you shouldn’t read news’, and still think there’s something to it (particularly as goes news' inevitable over-dramatisation of reality via availability bias and our inbuilt credulity), but it’s all Taleb’s work, except unjustified and not actually good. (Consider that one is to free-ride and, in the hypothetical aggregate of a trend of people quitting news, suppress journalism’s deterrent effects on governmental and business malfeasance.) Anyway his Art isn’t well-organised or -conceptualised – he stretches the perhaps 20 reputable cognitive biases of Kahneman et al into 99 anecdotal smirks. (Redundancies: he splits illusion of control and action bias, the paradox of choice and decision fatigue...)– consider the ‘It’s-gotta-get-worse-before-it-gets-better effect’. The big problem for the heuristics and biases program is when you get contradictory pairs of biases – how can people be both ? The actual researchers have done well in synthesising these and providing base-rates for effect sizes (without which the programme is little more than a new way for intellectuals to insult each other). Dobelli offers no classification, effect sizes, or even citations (they’re hidden online), just clomping informational candy. Taleb for dummies. (Where Taleb is already Kahneman for dramatists.)
    2/5. [Library]

  • Basic Statistics: Conventional Methods and Modern Insights (2009) by Rand Wilcox.

    Introductory versions of knowledge are usually misleading (e.g. the eukaryotic cell, first described to me as a circle with a dot in when it’s really a fourth-order factory crammed full of reflexive difficulty). Wilcox’s excellent obvious idea is to render advanced post-Fisher statistical fixes in ordinary language and teach them from the get-go, so to preclude the damaging simplification that most people (who don’t spend three years studying it) take away from Stats 101. (If Economics were to make the same qualifications in its freshman iteration, the business world would be unmasked as more obviously ideological and unjustified.) Wilcox’s big three modern fixes are Winsorizing, bootstrapped confidence intervals, and non-linear estimators of the Theil-Sen variety. It’s worth going for posher books on technical matters, since a single extra insight goes a long way there.

  • The Overflowing Brain: the Limits of Working Memory (2009) by Torkel Klingberg.

    Nice gentle probe of our faddish fear that tech is pumping too much info through us, and thereby vitiates our branes and produces ADHD. Working memory, if you haven’t heard, is trumpeted as the constitutive component of intelligence. Klingberg’s optimistic about it all, pointing to the Flynn effect as an epidemiological sign that we are (cognitively) ok with being overloaded. His own research is much more promising about training working memory and gF than others I’d read.

  • Prescriptions for the Mind: A Critical View of Contemporary Psychiatry (2008) by Joel Paris.

    Not what you’d expect (“DSM hiss!! Pharma woo!!”). An ‘evidence-based psychiatrist’ (a good guy), his main target is people who overinterpret current neuroscience and just churn out pills. He concedes that the old analysts were ‘brainless’ but calls the worst of the new brain-scan boom ‘mindless’. The evidence for talk therapy – things like CBT (for anxiety and personality disorders) – is much better than I’d thought, and Paris reckons this is now overlooked in favour of cheaper and truthier biological determinism. A good, hard thing to say: “What causes mental illness? By and large, advances in neuroscience notwithstanding, we still don’t know.”

  • Gods and Soldiers: Penguin Contemporary African Writing (2009).

    Africans set down in English, whether by birth or choice (or translation choice). ‘Contemporary’ is pushing it a bit, since these pieces are from the last sixty years, but the scope raises the bar. Achebe laid the ground for Anglophone (and Francophone) writing when mocking the incommensurability people. A piece about Aberdeen oil (Leila Aboulela)! 4/5.

  • The Ig Nobel Prize (2002) by Marc Abrahams.

    Sublimely silly: my favourite piece of modern art. The joke is the same each time – informality in formal contexts – but like modern art it’s the framing makes them. The titles alone: Williams & Newell (1993) ‘Salmonella Excretion in Joy-riding Pigs’; Wyatt  McNaughton (1993) ‘The Collapse of Toilets in Glasgow’; Watanabe & Sakamoto (1995) “Pigeons’ Discrimination of Paintings by Monet & Picasso”; Solodi (1996) “Farting as a Defence against Unspeakable Dread”.

  • Triumph of the City: Our Greatest Invention (2011) by Ed Glaeser.

    Engrossing optimistic catalogue of counter-intuitions of urban economics: “poverty can mean a city’s doing well, since they wouldn’t stay, otherwise”, “cities are greener and more democratic (smaller houses, less travel, scale utilities)”, “zoning laws ensure prices are too high, apartments too small, congestion, sprawl, slums and corruption”, “people are less unhappy and less suicidal in cities”. Glaeser’s aims are larger than simple Gladwellian gee-whizz information: he’s out to get a prevailing anti-city mood (e.g. Blake, Rousseau, Thoreau, hippies). Explains why art is urban, why we didn’t have good ideas before settlements, the origins of the restaurant (in a crap Parisian health-food place), the skyscraper, and the global bank Chase Manhattan (in a scam defrauding money meant for NY’s first public water supply). Valuing the devalued, staying within evidential warrant, and honest about the achievements of public agencies, for an American economist.

  • The Selfish Capitalist (2008) by Oliver James.

    Speaking as a lapsed Marxist: What a stupid, flat title. Much less glowing about the modern way. His thesis is the Spirit Level again: social inequality and stupid ultra-individualism of the last 30 years hurts everyone. Amazing how dated this seems when it discusses Cheney’s ties to Halliburton, or that John Perkins guy. Another world. James attacks CBT (praised for its effectiveness in Paris, above) as the psychic equivalent of overmedication – “society makes people anxious and then reprograms them to fit in with the anxiety” – which seems a bit much. Empirically dubious but at least clear.

  • Present Laughter (1982), ed. Alan Coren.

    Strange anthology of mostly amazing excerpts from e.g. Wodehouse, Naipaul, Thurber, Perelman, Joyce, Updike. I say strange because some of them are more poignant than funny, and the only connection seems to be that they tickled Coren. I say mostly cos there’s a couple of nasties mixed in (e.g. someone called Keith Waterhouse’s racist Caribbean calumny). But drowned out; see them as historical, what Punch magazine has always represented.

  • Women’s Lives in Medieval Europe: A Sourcebook (1993) ed. Emilie Amt.

    This is the thing: primary sources in all their muddled import, but abridged so as to avoid the four years of sifting it takes to know what’s important in a given historical period. Was surprised by how obsessed with precise fines pagan society was – you can tell the monotheists’ moralising from the lack of numbers. Many of the mortal heresies of the time were about giving women more respect – teaching them to read, letting them be judges… The tone of voice is often alien – and a good thing too.

  • A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths about Science (1999) ed. Noretta Koertge.

    Title is more strident than the contents. Their common target is the over-interpretation and over-socialised Foucauldian muddle of seeing society in supposedly objective scientific matters. Some – especially Collins – lump in dogmatic radfems with more scholarly and right-on constructivists. My admiration of Sokal grows - his entry is both the clearest and the most constructive. The book also furnished me with a large and excellent distinction, Phillip Kitcher's one between two incompatible but valuable modes of thought: the 'realist-rationalist' and the 'social-historicist', which form a spectrum that most people unforgiveably cluster at the ends of.

  • The Pursuit of Unhappiness (2009) by Daniel Haybron.

    I find it hard to think about happiness, and the first great thing this does is show I’m not alone. The next is to pick up an abandoned conception of happiness as (mere) emotional state, rather than common broad-base ideas – happiness as net pleasure, as being in a good overall situation, being treated justly, as the net outcome of a whole life (Solon), etc. The third is admitting the twin awful points that we are neither good judges of our own happiness nor skilled at pursuing happiness. He nonetheless resists the decentring findings of cognitive psychology (and they are frequently overturned). Haybron appreciates the virtue revolution in ethics while subordinating it to well-being. He has read everything. In a sweet but possibly inadmissible strategy, his paradigm for a happy society is an unnamed fishing community in an island somewhere on the Pacific – the tiny size, low-stress and natural fixations being emotionally 'best' for people. Yeah, maybe mate.

The placebo is a tangible object made essential in an age that feels uncomfortable with intangibles, an age that prefers to think that every inner effect must have an outer cause. Since it has size and shape and can be hand-held, the placebo satisfies the contemporary craving for visible mechanism. But the effect dissolves on scrutiny, telling us that it cannot relieve us of the need to think deeply about ourselves. The placebo, then, is an emissary between the will to live and the body. But the emissary is expendable.
- Norman Cousins