Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Reading’

The Better Angels of Our Nature

the_better_angels_coverThe Better Angels of Our Nature – Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard University, and Better Angels is his attempt to chart (and explain) the history of human violence more or less since records began. Pinker’s book is a fairly intimidating prospect at just under 900 pages, but then again it is a monstrously ambitious undertaking, and in fact it’s surprising that he manages to deal with the subject as comprehensively as he does.

The basic proposition is that violence of all kinds amongst humans has been in decline for a very long time. Pinker acknowledges that in absolute terms that hypothesis is plainly wrong, but argues that the statistic that really matters when looking at human violence is the relative chance of a person suffering a violent death at the hands of another person over the course of his or her lifetime. In other words, the question should be: would you rather have a 50% chance of dying a violent death over the course of your life, or a 5% chance? For Pinker, it is the rate of violent death that counts, not the total number of violent deaths at any given stage in history. Looked at in this way, the statistics presented in Better Angels show a clear downward trajectory in human violence across the ages, even when the atrocities of the 20th century (‘the bloodiest in history’) are taken into account. Interestingly, Pinker notes that the absolute death tolls of historical conflicts often tend to be underestimated, or at least not scrutinised in the same way as death tolls for modern wars. Apparently the Mongol conquests in the 13th century accounted for the deaths of around 40 million people.[1] Although that figure must clearly be open to challenge in a way that more recent statistics are not, it is uncontroversial that the Mongols systematically massacred the populations of the lands they conquered. For example, somewhere between 700,000 and 1.3 million people were killed by the Mongols in the city of Merv alone. As well as haggling over statistics, however, what Pinker is interested in doing is exposing the phenomenon of historical myopia that allows people to assess different periods of history through different lenses.

Having engaged in the argument surrounding his central hypothesis, Pinker then spends most of the book explaining what he thinks might be the causes of this long-term decline. He examines the Hobbesian ‘pacification process’ whereby fiefdoms were gradually replaced by kingdoms, thus suppressing localised violence as power came to be concentrated in a sovereign of some sort. He also looks at Norbert Elias’ theory of manners, the so-called ‘civilising process’, which posits that as centralised sovereign authority grew, so too did a system of courtly manners intended to minimise violence and pay homage to the monarch. The latter was in fact considered as part of David Mitchell’s BBC4 series on manners last month, which also featured an interview with Steven Pinker discussing the civilising process and its contribution to lower rates of intra-human violence.

Of all Pinker’s factors contributing to the reduction in violence over time, however, there is one that stands out for the purpose of this blog, and that is reading. In particular, Pinker argues that the revolution in printing, and the expansion in literacy, had the effect of widening people’s perspectives to the extent that they were no longer prepared to view strangers as less human and therefore less worthy of protection:

Reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else’s thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world from that person’s vantage point. Not only are you taking in sights and sounds that you could not experience firsthand, but you have stepped inside that person’s mind and are temporarily sharing his or her attitudes and reactions. […] Stepping into someone else’s vantage point reminds you that the other fellow has a first-person, present-tense, ongoing stream of consciousness that is very much like your own but not the same as your own.”

Pinker then goes further, and looks at the impact of different literary movements across the ages. He notes Lynn Hunt’s observation that the “heyday of the Humanitarian Revolution, the late 18th century, was also the heyday of the epistolary novel.” This was the time of Richardson’s Pamela and Rousseau’s Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangereuses doesn’t get a mention for obvious reasons). This was followed by the rise of realism in the 19th century, which was perhaps more closely linked to political movements aimed at eradicating conflict. The causative effect of these literary trends on a global phenomenon like human violence is clearly impossible to know with certainty, but Pinker argues that the “ordering of events is in the right direction: technological advances in publishing, the mass production of books, the expansion of literacy, and the popularity of the novel all preceded the major humanitarian reforms of the 18th century.”

Whether or not you agree with Pinker (and I think it is difficult to poke many holes in his overall thesis), Better Angels is a fascinating study of history and psychology that deserves to be read by anyone interested in knowing more about what drives people to be violent. The conclusions are overwhelming optimistic, particularly the view that human beings can moderate and control violence. It is not necessarily the inescapable demon that it often appears (and is made out) to be. However, what really sets the book apart is the neutrality of its tone. Whilst Pinker may be a self-confessed liberal, Better Angels is the work of a thoroughly empirical mind, hence the obsession with statistics (which require some effort to process if you are as statistically illiterate as I am, although Pinker suggests that most of us are). Pinker acknowledges this towards the end of the book, and apologises if he seems cold-hearted in the face of reams of statistics on death and destruction. However, he is undoubtedly right that violence does not often get examined with the objective tenacity required of the subject, which is perhaps why Better Angels seems like such a revolutionary tome.

The Editors

[1] Matthew White: “Worst Things People Have Done” (The Great Big Book of Horrible Things).

Review of 2015: Part 3

Welcome to the third and final instalment of this year’s ‘Review of the Year’. We owe a huge thanks to all our contributors and readers, without whom the DRTF project would be a lifeless irrelevance; 2015 has been wonderful and we look forward to seeing more of you in 2016.

 

Editor 1

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. This account of a Ted Hughes scholar aided in rearing his sons by a foul-mouthed crow, summoned by their jagged mourning, was simply brilliant. For anyone who admits to not knowing what to say when it comes to an absence, for anyone who has ever loved Ted Hughes, and for everyone who is keen for some lucidity and dark humour.

Mislaid by Nell Zink. This book will make you laugh on public transport, sometimes in a shocked ‘I hope no one is reading over my shoulder’ sort of way. Zink is outrageous, and I cannot compare her lolloping pace and wit to anyone writing today. The collapse of a marriage, unconventional upbringings of the best sort, intellectual snobbery defied and some brilliant defiant female characters I would love to befriend.

Porcelain by Benjamin Read. Read creates graphic novels that could loosely be described as fairy tales, but they owe a lot to H G Wells, steampunk, the gothic tradition and the Art-Deco movement, to name a few influences apparent in his work. This tale of an alchemist creating animated porcelain figures within Dickensian London is beautifully drawn by Christian Wildgoose.

Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari. This book is not beautifully written, but just as with Gomorrah (also reviewed on this site) that does not seem quite as paramount as the treatment of such an enormous global topic as the trade and treatment of illegal drugs and its inevitable consequences. Hari, a journalist, travels to the most affected parts of the world to better understand how addiction can be tackled and the perception of addicts changed for the better.

 

Editor 2

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. This brilliant book is the most clear and concise refutation of twenty-first negativity I have yet encountered. By studying the decline of violence (of all kinds) over the course of human history, Pinker persuasively makes the case that humanity is not in fact doomed to a never-ending recurrence of genocide and destruction, despite what the media may have us believe. Although it was first published back in 2011, I felt this was the perfect antidote to the growing sense of impending disaster that seems to have gripped the world in 2015.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel. As is usually the case with literary trends and me, I arrived several years late at the Hilary Mantel party. I got there eventually, and have since been making up for lost time. In February this year I was even lucky enough to hear Mantel read from the as yet unpublished The Mirror and The Light (see review). For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, Mantel’s ability to make the 16th century seem like it happened a few weeks ago is an absolute delight.  

 

 

The Literature of Dreaming: Part 2 (The Science of Sleep)

the-masterpiece-or-the-mysteries-of-the-horizon-1955(1)

I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?
― Ernest Hemingway

On Thursday 22nd October, Lavinia Greenlaw chaired a discussion between Jonathan Coe, Deborah Levy and Dr Russell Foster on all matters surrounding sleep at an event co-hosted by the Royal Society of Literature & Royal Society. Foster, a neuroscientist, opened by reminding the audience that 36% of our lifespan is spent sleeping. He described sleep as “the single most important behaviour we experience”, as well as giving a historical portrayal of its significance by citing Thomas Dekker, who thought that sleep was “the golden chain that holds health and our body together”.

Lady Macbeth refers to sleep constantly, using it to her advantage initially by making the sleeping state the moment to take the lives standing in her way, until it gets the better of her by abandoning her for good. She is deprived of rest, and yet clamours “To bed! to bed!” Shakespeare knew it was not something to be trifled with, and perhaps it wasn’t, until Thomas Edison came along. He thought sleep a criminal waste of time, and in inventing the light bulb he curtailed our natural sleep in a way candles and gas lamps didn’t and couldn’t.

Research continues to consolidate the link between mental illness and sleep disruption: illustrated by Foster’s graphs of hormone levels released whilst sleeping in the brains of schizophrenics. Sleep and mental illness have shared origins of overlapping neural pathways, as well as the more obvious factor that one is clearly able to influence the other. We need sleep to be able to use our brains as we would wish. The body at rest allows the brain to repair itself, sort information and perform memory consolidation, which is why we can sleep ‘on’ something and wake up with the solution.

Sleep deprivation actually puts the brain in an altered state, where you cannot tell how dampened a level it is working at. The part of the brain that controls impulse is asleep, which is why every idea seems outstanding when you are tired enough. Jonathan Coe said this was partly why he always felt sorry for Thatcher attempting to function on four hours a night. None of the three speakers put any faith in the concept of the brilliant idea at 3am. Rather than trust it for genuine inspiration, Coe recalled the story of a Hollywood producer who, agonized by ideas in the night dissipating on waking, put a pad by his bedside at his wife’s suggestion. The first morning he awoke to find he had written “boy meets girl” overnight.

Deborah Levy’s statement that “dreams tell us the things we don’t want to know but know anyway” clearly signposted that the scientific part of the evening was essentially over. She read Kerouac’s “rhapsodic manifesto” against sleep, containing his assertion that “the only ones” for him were “the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars”. His rule of no yawners allowed does reveal the short jump between sleep avoidance and a fear of death. Just as brothers Hypnos and Thanatos lived cheek by jowl, some of us fear sleep in the event we should never wake again; Poe described sleep as “those little slices of death — how I loathe them”. Children require talismanic blankets and soft toys as part of their bedtime rituals in order to feel happy about going to sleep, but is this because of a painful (to them) separation from the waking world? Their fear of sleep could be more closely related to the threat of nightmare, depending on your personal views of the liminal state. Children are instructed to have sweet dreams, but more often see what truly lurks under the bed, or in the recesses of their minds.

Just as we have no control over the content of what we encounter within as we sleep, there is the area of considering what happens around us while we are unconscious. Jonathan Coe read from The House of Sleep, written 19 years ago about visiting a sleep clinic. Coe sleep walked frequently (nearly climbing out of a first floor window at one point) and decided not to visit a clinic, as he was frightened by the idea of being watched over while caught in the powerlessness of sleep. A parallel he drew with being in love. This powerlessness was summed up by a passage where characters Sarah and Gregory (an aspiring sleep clinician) have just had rather disappointing (for her) sex. The post-coital sleepiness and nostalgia were her favourite parts of the whole process. He tells her in one such period that his favourite part of her body is her eyelids, from watching her sleep. This is the first hint of his fondness for standing over sleepers. He likes to look down, fully in control, watching the helpless (a brilliant segue from sweet intimacy to sinister humour in the space of a few paragraphs). Sarah wakes from a nightmare where a creature has seized her by the eyes by its tongue, to find she cannot open her eyes as Gregory is holding her lids down with his fingers. He expressed a desire to see life flickering behind the lids.

If dream reveals the parts of the subconscious we would rather not tackle, daydream presented to Freud the ideal case scenario where we can make the little directions we desire to reality, much like the habit of thinking of a great response to an argument rather after the fact.

In the same way, we tend to think most truly in the quiet period immediately before sleep, moments described by Ondaatje in the English Patient “when she feels most alive, leaping across fragments of the day, bringing each moment into the bed with her like a child with schoolbooks and pencils. The day seems to have no order until these times, which are like a ledger for her, her body full of stories and situations.”

Full of possibility, in other words. Levy’s hypothesis was that only psychotics are truly certain. There is value in being separated from our certainties, as a state of floating helps ideas, and allows us to encounter endeavour. Our super conscious state – where we are at our most controlled and articulate – lies in direct opposition to a sleeping or semi-conscious state where you encounter what you can’t articulate, and you lack the imperatives to control it. As science has no definition for the unconscious, literature revels in bridging the gap. Coe’s apt response to Levy was that a novel or a poem is not a daydream, as there is control there. A controlled daydream then.

Science and literature agree that sleep is a transitional state. Raymond Carver captured it perfectly when he talked of crossing an invisible line to “a place where a little harmless dreaming and then some sleepy, early-morning talk has led me into considerations of death and annihilation.”

The Editors

Man Booker Prize 2015: Readings

man-booker-prize-longlist-2015

“This group shows what a broad church we are. Long may it remain so. ”

Man Booker Prize Readings, 12th October 2015, Southbank Centre, London

The night before the winner was announced, the six shortlisted Booker Prize nominees met at the Southbank Centre. Mariella Frostrup was presenting, and appeared to have mislaid her notes before mounting the podium, as her summary of Hanya Yagihara’s novel was:four men descending into horror because of one’s childhood secrets”. Anyone who has read A Little Life knows it is all about Jude. More on this from the Book Club Spy next week.

Much more important to focus on the six writers, starting with Marlon James*, who read from A Brief History of Seven Killings, set in 1976 Jamaica with “an ill wind, a malaria”, and “now, something new is blowing”. Bob Marley is playing football with anyone who will play with him, when his toe is skewered by an errant wire hidden inside his boot, his toenail is torn off, he nearly loses it entirely to cancer. Time speeds up rapidly and a litany of injuries whirl together in a global journey that seems full of blood – his boot fills with it every night on stage. Marley is ill, “the mattress has sucked two pounds of water from your skin”. One minute he is running in Central Park, the next his hips lock, then his neck, finally his arms, bringing him crashing to the ground with a dead scream in his throat. The cancer in his foot spreads throughout his body and he is transported around a series of hospitals before dying.

When questioned about his choice of Marley as a subject, it was not his music that clinched it (James is a Pet Shop Boys fan: “For me, reggae is like a family member, it’s great, I love it, but then I just want it to leave”) but his desire to find the 1976 his parents lived through while in Jamaica, the place James was born and where: “For me, a crisis was Starsky or Hutch”. He talked compellingly about his childhood reading of Dickens, who recounted history via marginal characters who, in the process, made history.

Tom McCarthy followed him with a brilliantly delivered reading from Satin Island. His hero is a corporate anthropologist, who writes in numbered paragraphs. McCarthy (who is also a performance artist, the head of an extraordinary group called the International Necronautical Society that seems to promote death) placed entirely perfect stresses upon the phrase “fucking buffering”. He revels in playing with language used by corporate structures and information exchange; seeing the data powering the spinning hourglass on his screen reassures our hero “a grace conferring act of generosity….an inexhaustive torment of giving”. The horror to him is that the spinning circle we are all painfully familiar with isn’t anything but the things itself: “We become buffering and buffering becomes everything”.

McCarthy feels that the digital world is the terra we live on now, citing the opening scene of the Oresteia, where Clytemnestra sees the beacons being lit, bringing news from Troy as proof that the remote transmissions of signs is nothing new. He asked what Hamlet is if not an examination of personal correspondence by the state. He later responded to an audience member asking if one needs to like a central character by crying: “No, look at Hamlet, he’s not even a character.

When probed on his continual treatment of themes such as doubling and transcendence, McCarthy politely answered that one tends to return to old wounds; however a blunter response could arguably be is this not what writers do?

Third came Chigozie Obioma with The Fishermen, reading a passage in which a group of boys, returning from the river with two large tilapia, find a dead man lying under a mango tree next to the Celestial Church. The ugliness of the soles of his feet are commented upon. He is, it turns out, not dead at all, simply mad. He performs a ‘calisthenics display’ covered in rotting mango, while the boys goggle at him in the gloaming, comparing him to a lion or Superman. They then watch him throw a mango twenty miles. From Obioma’s part of West Africa, there is strong belief in everything being pre-ordained, of the power of fate, spells and superstitions. He created his tale of fratricide while he was at college abroad and extremely homesick for…his brothers and sisters.

Next up was Sunjeev Sahota with The Year of the Runaways, which he rather undersold with the description of the novel as “four people together in Sheffield”. He read a scene where one character – “alone in the world and in himself” – leaves a suitcase of clothes at his future wife’s flat. The couple talk of the weather, and there is clearly something staged and/or sinister going on. He shows her clearly falsified photographs of them on holidays they never took, created by his lawyer. His involvement is not entirely fabricated, as he searches for excuses to stay in her company: “he couldn’t remember ever feeling that warm”.

Frostrup asked about his decision to write (as the child of migrants) about migration in light of recent press coverage devoted to the topic. He very gently answered that the question of migration had always been ‘gnawing’ at him – on his frequent trips to India it is an “open conversation” regarding the number of people who want to move to the UK or Canada – and for the 34 years he has been alive the question has been there, so it is not, for him, a topical issue.

The penultimate reading came from Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread. She read the contents of a phone call between an (estranged) brother and sister in Baltimore that was more of a monologue, with the sister using rather clichéd language – dusty motes of sun, doors being flung open and people sitting on stoops – in order to manipulate her brother with shared memories, or simply punish him through boredom. She was more engaging during the Q&A, exclaiming: “I don’t know why we’re all so fascinated by family, but I’m sure I’m not the only one”. Her description of reducing a novel’s plan to one sheet of paper over the course of a month, then knitting it together through an intricate editing process with multiple stages.

Finally, Hanya Yagihara read from A Little Life. The passage focussed on the main character Jude’s process of managing memory by erasing the small and avoiding the big, but the gaps he creates in his memory widen and try to infiltrate his waking life. His techniques (phyically checking locks, and those of the mind where he envisions a white expanse, where he is finally clean) are employed to make himself feel safe. Yagihara described her way of writing the novel as frenzied and exhilarating, though physically and emotionally difficult. Upon being complimented for her competence at writing as a man, she explained she felt that she has always been surrounded by women and thus is more interested in men (though “less as I grow older”). She was wry and polished, quipping that as someone having lived there for twenty years and who works in the literary world, she was tired of people writing about the physical geography of New York. What she is interested in is the shared ambition of those who live there, as everyone is on the run from something. To be continued.

The quote in the title of this review was from Sunjeev Sahota and felt apt: in the course of an hour, six writers gave us a dizzying range of style in every sense of the word, while showing a quiet regard for one another and the canon into which they had all been hurled headlong.

*Marlon James was announced as the winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize on Wednesday 15th

The Editors

27. Why Read?

I have what can only be referred to as Magical Realism Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which gives me the great pleasure of thrilling highs while I’m in the throes of a Louis de Bernieres, and a crushing, soul-destroying depression when I’m not.  I scour bookshops, and paw at the covers of books that promise a journey into the deepest jungles of South America, where I might learn how to cast spells from a 300-year-old Indian and where it’s totally normal to have a giant black jaguar as a pet.  The compulsion finds me boring through a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez to the detriment of my social life and personal relationships – you, my dear, can’t give me anything this book cannot.  It’s a deeply personal obsession.

I’ve thought a lot about why I dive so deeply into books, especially those of magical realism, and why when I think about getting lost in one, I think of a wardrobe, doors through which I escape into another world.  Perhaps the image of a wardrobe relates to a room in a house where a family reside, and it seems the most simple reason for my reading is to explore familial situations I’ve never had the joy of experiencing.  In books like One Hundred Years of Solitude and Of Love and Shadows, I find great comfort in exploring the stories of storied families who have survived for generations on grit and honour.

As I build up in my head my desire for a family, and whether or not it is something I’ll ever really have, these books deliver me into the bosom of a mother who was never actually there, and impart on me words of wisdom from an overbearing father who doesn’t spend his time searching for his own answers at the bottom of the bottle.  In books like The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, I raise a gaggle of children who tug at my shirt tails and climb onto my shoulders as I prepare dinner, and who I boil in a bath of tea so they go to bed smelling of peppermint.  I build a home with my bare hands and spend years turning it into a home that I will pass on to my children, who will live with me there until I push them away because of my cloying love, and who will return because they can’t live without it.

Books introduce us to authors with hopes and dreams and fears just like ours.  In my case, and as with any Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, my voracious appetite for books is borne of a void.  Each time I read a novel exploring the intricacies of family life and of love, the void feels a little less big, the pills of truth easier to swallow because of the inebriating effects of magical realism.

Josh Rivers

Logicomix and the quest for a quest

Logicomix_coverLogicomix: An Epic Search for Truth – Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou

Logicomix is a graphic novel, no less, that sets out to tell the story of the foundational quest for mathematics. The superhero in question is Bertrand Russell, the British mathematician cum philosopher whose life we follow from austere upbringing to his role as one of the protagonists in the attempt to root the whole of mathematics in a logical framework (more on which below). The attempt to portray this quest in graphic novel form is itself, of course, a highly ambitious project, and the authors reflect this by building their own artistic quest into the narrative. In this way, we are presented with two parallel quests (or a quest within a quest): the foundational quest in mathematics, on the one hand, and the attempt to tell the story of that quest in a 300-page comic, on the other. When I started reading I found this format both slightly irritating and slightly patronising, but actually it works very well as a means not only of showing the difficulty of navigating an artistic project on this scale (involving at least five major players), but also of defusing the tension created by the inevitable liberties that the authors take with some of the events they depict.

The foundational quest in mathematics, for those who like myself had no idea that such a quest even existed (it is apparently also known as the foundational crisis in mathematics), was the concerted effort to find a rigorous logical and philosophical basis for mathematics. The quest started towards the end of the nineteenth century with the growing awareness of so-called “foundational issues”, including inconsistencies between the main branches of mathematics. The goal of finding a complete and consistent set of mathematical axioms from which everything in mathematics can be derived is also known as Hilbert’s programme, after the logician David Hilbert, who identified it in his famous list of problems in mathematics.

Bertrand Russell joined the quest after becoming frustrated with what he saw as unproved assumptions underpinning the study of mathematics. In 1900, he attended the Congress of Philosophy in Paris where he was introduced to the work of Giuseppe Peano, who was busy developing Georg Cantor’s principles of set theory. Russell’s personal attempt to achieve the Holy Grail of foundational mathematics is reflected in the enormous Principia Mathematica, which he co-authored with Alfred North Whitehead and which was eventually published in 1910. Unfortunately for both of them, and for foundational mathematics as a school of thought, Kurt Gödel’s two incompleteness theorems of 1931 proved that for every set of mathematical axioms, there are mathematical statements whose truth cannot be derived from the system itself. The presentation of the two theorems led another great mathematician, John von Neumann, to declare: “it’s all over.”

The rise and fall of foundational mathematics, and the consequences for those involved, is really at the heart of Logicomix, and the authors struggle to find the best way of portraying this in narrative form. The main point of difference between Doxiadis and Papadimitriou is over the issue of whether or not to depict the quest as essentially tragic. Broadly speaking, Doxiadis (a novelist) thinks that it must be seen as a tragedy, whilst Papadimitriou (a computer scientist) disagrees, pointing to the importance of the work of these mathematical crusaders in leading to the development of computer science:

Follow the ‘quest’ for ten more years…and you get a brand-new, triumphant finale…with the creation of the computer, which is the ‘quest’s’ real hero! Your problem is, simply, that you see it as a story of people!

As Papadimitriou notes above, the issue is really about whether the quest is seen in personal or impersonal terms. For Russell, the quest in its purest sense was a failure, even if he did live to see his work and that of other logicians inspire Alan Turing’s prototype computer, the theoretical “machine”. Papadimitriou, on the other hand, takes a wider (more contentious) view of events and, understandably perhaps as a professor of computer science, sees the computer as humanity’s great hope for freedom and democracy. To this extent, Russell’s failure was part of the “greater good”. I’m naturally inclined to side with Doxiadis on this one, probably because as a reader of novels I’m drawn to the human aspect of the narrative, and Bertrand Russell makes for a fascinating protagonist. However, the way the schism is ultimately reconciled via a dress rehearsal of Aeschylus’ Oresteia is cunningly staged, and ties in well with the Athenian backdrop. Having said that, perhaps more could have been made of the human/non-human divide, particularly because the limits of mathematics and by extension of human reasoning seem to have led indirectly to the ‘shadow’ humanity that is the world of computing that we have become so accustomed to. After all, without Turing and von Neumann this computer, let alone this online blog, would almost certainly never have come into being. [Ed: I’ve now been advised that this is a whimsical historical counterfactual that doesn’t stand up to rigorous philosophical scrutiny – apologies.]

Finally, it would be wrong to write anything about Logicomix without mentioning the stunning artwork. The two artists, Alecos Papadatos and Annie di Donna, do a fantastic job of recreating scenes from Russell’s life and more generally from the history of mathematics. I was also struck by the depictions of modern-day Athens, which is shown basking under a perpetually clear-blue summer sky. Even when Papadimitriou notes at one stage how much the city has changed in recent years, it still seems like an ideal place from which to write/draw a graphic novel. Inevitably, thinking of Greece nowadays immediately conjures images of queues outside banks and Alexis Tsipras sweating as he attempts to negotiate another bailout package with troika bureaucrats. However trite it may seem though, Logicomix reminded me of the enormous intellectual and artistic debt the rest of the world owes the country.

The Editors

26. Why Read?

Man on fish reading

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If aliens from outerspace came down and saw us reading they might think we were mentally challenged. They would probably blow us up as useless.

“Why are they they looking at these strange lines and curves and shapes when they can be talking to each other or running or watching movies or whatever.”

Or “Why slouch on a couch, squinting at an obscure and probably meaningless piece of paper when they can be doing healthy things?”

Reading seems like a very hard activity. You have to learn a written language, sit very still, focus, and try to translate the 100,000 or so marks that appear in every book.

And, by the way, if you read enough it’s a guarantee you will damage your eyes.

But it’s worth it. Here’s 10 reasons why:

A) EDUCATIONAL (with an important caveat):

Today, for instance, I read from “End of Power” by Moises Naim, to prepare for my podcast with him.

The man is a genius. I read about his theories of why countries like America or companies like Microsoft inevitably experience a decay in their power and influence despite their massive size and ability to coerce.

How photo companies like instagrapm can have a dozen employees, zero revenues, and be sold for a billion dollars while other photo companies like Kodak can have 140,000 employees and then go bankrupt.

He explains how, why, what, and how to take advantage of it. It was fascinating.

The caveat is: I’ll only remember a small amount. Maybe a year later, one or two pieces of information and maybe one theme will stick with me. But that’s ok.

Hopefully I’ll remember the important parts.

B) ENTERTAINING

Given that I’m only going to remember a small amount in the long run, I have to also love the act of reading.

I love how writers put together words to form sentences I’ve never thought of. How the sentences weave together into stories.

I imagine myself in the story. I imagine that for a moment I’m the main character. I live their lives.

In the middle the night, with wind blowing, Claudia sleeping next to me, the anxieties of the day subsiding, I get to travel to an entirely new Universe and be a part of it. I’m Harry Potter. Or I’m Frodo. Or the guy stuck on Mars in “The Martian”.

Why not watch it on TV instead? I am!

The TV is in my head and much more vivid. It’s IDTV – Imagination-Density-TV and has many more colors and pixels and dreams infused in it.

C) INSPIRATIONAL

The other day I was reading “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin. She decided to spend a year focusing on making 12 different parts (one for every month) of her life happier.

Each month she had a dozen or so suggestions about how to improve that part of her life. Again, some I’ll remember, some I’ll apply, some will make me happier, some will be applicable only to her. She admits that.

And some I will forget.

I was inspired by the fact that several hundred small suggestions could add up to a significant increase in our level of equanimity in her life – our ability to be calm in the face of the difficult and to enjoy more the higher peak moments.

She gave one suggestion which I tried the other day. Claudia and I were bickering about something or other. I forget.

Gretchen suggests hug for at least six seconds. It takes six seconds of hugging for the oxytocin and serotonin “happy chemicals” (which I learned about in another book: “Meet Your Happy Chemicals” by Loretta Breuning) to get triggered into the body, causing feelings of intimacy and happiness.

I hugged Claudia and slowly counted to six.

It worked.

D) VIRTUAL MENTORSHIP

Although reading is inspiring, it feels like the inspiration lasts for a few hours and then starts to get metabolized.

I feel grateful and mindful and “present” for awhile but then I need more.

I don’t mind though, since I like to be inspired. And the more of it I read, the easier it gets to become a practice.

But just as important and inspirational to me, is reading about the lives of virtual mentors.

At any given point, I have interests. And with any interest, there are people who came before me who are much better than me. They have put in their 10,000 hours.

They have dominated the subtleties of their field and have spent a lifetime mastering their craft.

We’re the average of the five people we surround ourselves with. But I don’t usually hang out with five people a day. But I can hang out with five people through books.

Every day I read about people who have done what I would like to do. I then try to model myself after them: their behavior, learn from their failures, their successes, their behavior, their courage.

It’s hard to get a real-life mentor. That said, I think at every stage of life we need one. And for every passion and interest you have, I, at least, learn the fastest from the people who came before me.

A book about a person you want to model yourself after, allows you to have a virtual mentor. Virtual mentors are often greater than real-life mentors.

A book is the curated life of these mentors, the exact pivotal points where their actions had the most impact on the people they came to be. I love to read these books.

I just finished “Born Standing Up” by Steve Martin. He might not know it but he’s now my mentor.

E) LAUGHTER

Food, by Jim Gaffigan.

Trust me on this one.

F) YES, READING MAKES ME BETTER THAN OTHER PEOPLE

I love playing games. For instance, since I was a kid I love games like chess, scrabble, poker.

But if I just play the games day after day, I never get better. The only way I get better is to study the books written by or about the great players of history.

It’s a sad goal: to want to beat your friends mercilessly in a game. But it’s worth it and reading lets me achieve that goal.

In every area I read about, I slightly improve my knowledge, my understanding, and my ability to come up with new ideas in that area.

It’s that little bit each day, that can give any of us a huge edge in the long run. Knowledge compounds rather than increases little by little.

G) ART

This sounds pretentious. So I will make it less pretentious.

The other day, right here on this page, I plagiarized my 12 year old daughter.

She had written a story. In one part of the story things were somewhat somber. So she used the phrase “the hush of silence” to describe the feelings of the characters.

Later, as they often do in life, things got more tense.

The atmosphere was “stung with silence”. I liked that juxtaposition. I honestly was a bit envious she used these phrases and they didn’t seem like cliches.

Two opposite ways to describe something that was essentially empty: silence.

So, like a good father … I stole from my daughter, figuring she would never know (shhh, don’t tell her). I used the phrase “stung with silence” in a post.

I need to improve as a father.

But I can’t help it. Sometimes the way words weave together, and connect me to other parts of a story where similar words were used (like a poem), makes me want to put a book down and think the words over and over in my head.

Sentences and stories and articles have a rhythm, like a song. The best writers make beautiful songs.

Many great authors do that through the authenticity and honesty in their language: Denis Johnson, James Baldwin, Miranda July, and on and on.

You don’t have to be a great poet. Just really dig out the honesty of a single moment.

H) OPTIMISM

This is why newspapers are junk. “Being informed” is a scam marketing campaign. Fear drives subscriptions. Period.

But books don’t worry about that.

“Bold” by Peter Diamindis and Stephen Kotler gives me huge reasons for optimism in a world where the daily junk media is nothing but doom and gloom.

3D Printing, Robotics, Synthetic Biology, virtual reality, space travel, and historical trends on literacy and poverty and violence – all show the direction the world is heading and it’s a positive one.

One great example: many of the tools we take for granted in our cell phone (GPS, a game player, video recorder, camera, music library) when added up would have cost close to a million dollars in 1982 and now cost just a few hundred dollars.

This democratization of technology is spreading throughout the developing world, creating a larger middle class than ever and bringing people out of poverty. As Dr. Naim said in “The End of Power”, for the first time, more people live above the poverty line in Africa than below it.

Not a huge cause of celebration but a start. It’s a direction of growth. And as I learned in Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project” – growth and happiness go side by side.

Or “Sapiens – a Brief History of Humankind” describes the historical evolution of our species going from tribes to cities to kingdoms to empires to leaving us with an optimistic hope that further unification will lead to greater abundance and eventual peace.

I) WRITING

I can’t write unless I read first. I’ll read and read and read and then suddenly a little electric bomb goes off in my head when the reading uncovers a memory I had forgotten existed.

It’s like reading digs into my head as if it were an archaeological find.

Then I almost feel like I’m hypnotized until I write.

Often I like to try on the styles of different writers as well. It’s like they’ve woven clothes out of their words and I get to try on the different sets of clothes.

The writers become my mentors after I read them.

J) SHARING

The reality is: as much as we have in common, I’m different from my daughters. But guess what – we’ve all read The Hunger Games.

And so we can talk about the ethics of what happens in the Games. The dynamics of how the world is set up politically. We can make up possible ways fan fiction can exist in the world created by the author.

We can talk for hours about it.

With almost anyone I meet, our common ground is usually based on the things we read. The more we have both read, the more common ground in most cases.

It’s such a pleasure to occasionally speak the same language as my children like we are complete equals. Even though they are smaller than me and love to watch the reality show “Dancing Moms”, reading has become our great equalizer.

I like to sleep eight uninterrupted hours a day (many reasons for that by Dave Asprey’s “The Bulletproof Diet”, AJ Jacobs “Drop Dead Healthy”, and Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project” give good descriptions of how to build a good sleep routine). Sleeping is the number one way to build energy and rejuvenate the brain.

But I also once read that when you wake up with an idea, you have to write it down immediately or you’ll forget it.

I woke up at 2am with the idea to write this post. It’s 3:04 and I’m going back to sleep.

James Altucher

This post originally appeared in the newsletter of jamesaltucher.com with the title ‘10 Reasons Reading Makes Your Life Better‘ and is reproduced with thanks to the author.  

Book Club Spy: Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Richard Flanagan – The Narrow Road to the Deep North

the_narrow_road_9f6ab061951_originalIt is getting harder to record the dialogue of Book Club as time goes on. Partly because I am too busy trying to interrupt to write down the finer points ricocheting about, and partly because a pattern has appeared where the group divides into two – fairly sharply down the middle – and one half then proceeds to disagree with the other. In the most good natured way possible. At great speed and volume.

For the session on Lorrie Moore’s Bark this was more of a problem (coming soon) but for Flanagan it was ideal, because of the LRB review.

For those of you who have not yet had the pleasure, The Narrow Road to the Deep North received a fairly scathing review from Michael Hofmann in the December issue of The London Review of Books. It is full of scything blows like this:

This novel is truly an entitled thing: it demands both action and high-value misty contemplation or ‘memory’. It is a universal solvent, or claims to be. You want love, it says; I got love! You want death? I got it. All the kinds. Any amount. It is all bite, and no chew. ”

I read this article before I read the novel; despite being warned not to, but could not contain myself. It is both terrible and wonderful. As a testament to the thickness of my skull or ability to compartmentalize, I truly enjoyed the book despite this. It is an account of life in a Japanese POW camp for Australian soldiers building a railway in impossible conditions, and then beyond to life after the war, full of crossed wires and missed opportunity.

Those in Book Club who disliked the novel in its own right – having escaped Hofmann’s surgical body blow – did so for the wrong reasons. That is was not worthy of the Man Booker; that there are too many books on the Second World War; that the protagonist Dorrigo Evans is not complicated enough – these do not really stand up as arguments in themselves.

Hofmann makes several fair points: the love story is jerkily executed. Our hero falls in love with the wrong woman, and they do not get a happy ending. So far, not so bad, but there is a halting uncertainty to how Flanagan plots this missed opportunity so that it is more awkward than tragic. However, there is an argument that every love story in wartime does not get to be a sweeping epic. Similarly, Dorrigo is no Captain Dicky Winters from Band of Brothers, especially once he gets home, but surely that is the point of him. He plays the hero, but knows he is performing a necessary role in the camp, and once he gets home he continues to act. Unfortunately he is a Don Draper figure in peacetime: a facsimile, a shadow of a man, blankly pursuing women for the sake of it having already ticked all of life’s necessary boxes. The only problem is that Flanagan did not make the character darker.

Flanagan’s use of language veers towards the trite, and then reels itself back in in the nick of time with phrases like “the heat felt like a maternal force commanding him not to get up“. Some argued he has no style and others simply no affectation, comparing him to Colm Toibin.

One thing emerges for sure: there is a lot of surface work going on. Life in peacetime is not explained in detail until years have gone by, the difficulty of rehabilitation for Dorrigo is glossed over, when this would have gone a long way towards explaining his later difficulties. This may have also been because of the nature Flanagan’s own father’s recollections, which formed the spine of the book. The war comes to an end, people change their names and attempt to move on from the horror of starving to death in the damp jungle, and of course Dorrigo Evans can’t relate to those around him on a deeper level post war. None of them were dying of dysentery for want of a single egg in trenches full of human excrement. Both Evans and his captors in the camp have a certain amount of uncertainty about their names, especially the latter when it comes to the war crimes trial. No one knows who to be afterwards; this is nothing new.

Of course, some of the Japanese disappeared into ruined Tokyo and effectively eluded any attempt to identify them, at least for years. Nakamura, the General of the camp, hooked on speed and given an impossible job to do (build a railway in a sodden jungle with dying prisoners and dwindling resources) feels ticks biting him under the skin and believes he represents the Japanese spirit in its purest form. He survives by changing his name, and by refusing to remember. He believed the Australians died in their thousands because they did not have the necessary ‘spirit’ that the Japanese exemplified – the irony behind the spirit of nations being that every nation believes it is unique to them. The Australian attitude in the camps was refreshing to someone reared on British Blitz and Bridge Across the River Kwai bravery: they make jokes at the bleakest moments on the Line, and those who make it go back to the haunts described by the fallen, to drink together. This was a refreshing change to David Niven-esque lighting of cigarettes and telling each other to buck up during a dogfight, etc etc.

With all of the anniversaries of wars occurring so close to each other, some may be saturated with stories of horror from both World Wars and now Waterloo. This book deserves a look out of the Booker Prize beam, and in the light of being an Australian book (one of several I have enjoyed in recent years and would like to see more around) written for the right reasons.

The Editors

Review of the Year 2014

Fiction: Part 2

Welcome back to our Review of the Year 2014 – enjoy our remaining “best reads” and if there’s anything you’d like to contribute please send us an email: editors@dontreadtoofast.com

Alice Farrant
Alice Farrant writes the blog ofBooks.org. Follow her on Twitter: @nomoreparades.

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

I love all of Tartt’s novels (including The Little Friend), but The Secret History is one of the best books I have ever read. Reading it felt like fireworks exploding in my mind and I’ve never felt as creative or motivated as I did after finishing it. Who knew five intellectuals, two deaths and a murder could bring me so much joy.

Mrs Hemingway, by Naomi Wood

Fictionalising historical events or people is a complicated task that has the potential to go horrendously wrong. However, Wood manages to breath live in Hemingway’s four wives in a way I never have thought possible. She destroyed my preconceptions of his wives, ones that were predominantly negative of the three who followed Hadley, but after reading Mrs Hemingway I had grown to love all four women who loved and suffered with him.

Editor 1

Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger

That place had phonies coming out of the window” was one of my favourite sentences of 2014. A book I am looking forward to reading, and re-living, over and over again. I am not sure why I hadn’t read it before. (Read the DRTF review).

Your Fathers, where are they? And the Prophets, do they live forever? by Dave Eggers

A chilling take on the rational justifications we make for the actions we use to mask our fear and the sense that we don’t belong. One of the more impressive works in the psycho-lit genre that has been born out of America’s lost youth taking up arms to define and discover their place in an alienating society of the twenty first century. (Read the DRTF review).

Editor 2

This year has had the requisite amount of furtively ploughing through science fiction and fantasy hardbacks such as The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss, Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman and the collection from everyone in that generously sized genre aptly named Rogues.

I have reaffirmed my respect for the short story thanks to Bark by Lorrie Moore, and shall endeavour to keep reading entirely different kinds of stories, such as S by JJ Abrams, and the wonderfully funny and entirely bonkers In the Approaches by Nicola Barker. The latter book is essential reading for anyone who has ever lived on the South Coast and/or suspects that their family are mad.

2014 has also been a really strong year for comics: Through the Woods by Emily Carroll shows beautifully dark fairy tales with bite (read with Marina Warner’s latest if you are interested in the roots of these stories). Porcelain: A Gothic Fairy Tale by Benjamin Read is drawn by the wonderful Christian Wildgoose, and perfect for reading over Christmas. Finally, decades later, Neil Gamain has returned to fill in a few gaps he left when The Sandman came to an end, with Overtures. Everything I could have hoped for.

Editor 3

Stoner, by John Williams

An almost inconceivably succinct, heartbreaking account of the highs and lows of human existence. Despite the ostensible adversity with which Williams besets his protagonist, I found this an extremely uplifting novel, as though the author had somehow managed to crystallise the essence of what it is that makes life living. (Read the DRTF review).

Levels of Life, by Julian Barnes

This book was written as a glorious tribute to the love the author shared with his late wife, Pat Kavanagh. It is a book that deals with the immense suffering of loss, yet recognises that a loss of this magnitude must be preceded by the greatest possible victory. The novel revolves around the central metaphor of ballooning, which deals precisely with, to quote Nick Cave, “those moments when the gears of the heart really change.”

Review of the Year 2014

Fiction: Part 1

Welcome to Don’t Read Too Fast’s review of the year 2014.

For those who have yet to experience our yearly extravaganza, our approach is not to give a list of the best books published this year, but rather to share some of the best of what we’ve actually managed to read, whether 21st century offerings or tomes from the Dark Ages. With that said, please sit back and enjoy the first instalment.

Hannah Joll

The Dig, by Cynan Jones

This is very short and very good by a fairly new writer, I think. The length and intensity of language (like Ted Hughes or Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist collection his ear is poetic and rough at the same time e.g. describing a badger’s nose hanging from ‘a sock of skin’). It’s about badger baiting but also farming, briefly. The physical descriptions, (knowingly) brilliant attention to detail, and its address to grief make the book tender as well as frightening.

The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi

I’d looked at this book on other people’s shelves and skipped over it for years (also vaguely mixed it up with Italo Calvino). The whole thing is great but a story like ‘Iron’ I’d recommend to anyone, anytime and feel confident. It’s about friendship and bear meat as a euphemism for experience. ‘Nitrogen’, a story about the author sifting through chicken shit with his new wife on their honeymoon to try and synthesise the factor that makes the better post-War lipsticks stay on is also tip top. He’s so thoughtful and excited, it’s good to read.

Alexander Starritt

Naples ’44, by Norman Lewis

I’m pleased to say I’ve read lots of good books this year, but the best I think is Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44. Lewis was a population liaison officer in the War and for this book has basically written up his diary, taking out the boring bits. It is still in the form of entries a page or two long, and each of them is fantastical. Naples seems only half-real, only half-European, starving, oriental, in thrall to sex and superstition. Lewis reports that the Neapolitans raided the aquarium for food, sparing only a baby manatee they could not bring themselves to kill; it lived a few short weeks more before the American commander in chief demanded it for his table. A prince comes to Lewis to find a position for his sister at a military brothel. The populace anxiously awaits the annual liquefaction of a vial of San Gennaro’s blood. The volcano erupts. The mafia seize control. The warped and the monstrous gather in caves. Each diary entry is the most astonishing short story you’ve ever read.

Olivia Hanson

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

I’ve never read such a long book that is so compelling. A well-written page-turner! I have now totally forgiven Donna for The Little Friend on this basis. (Eds: we agree)

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

This, plus The Corrections, are two of my favourite novels ever. Beautiful turns of phrase and highly believable characters. Perfect reflections of the human condition.

The Last Tycoon, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Beautifully written, one of Fitzgerald’s best. If only it were complete!

Tender Shoots, by Paul Morand

A jewel-like collection of short stories, set in Paris at the turn of the century. Such a find.

The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst

Wonderfully written, sympathetic narrator, startling insight into 80’s life for gay people.

World War Z, by Max Brooks

What a revelation.

Imogen Lloyd

Innocence, by Penelope Fitzgerald

Chosen for the scene with the tailor and all the other bits I wanted to underline and remember forever but was too greedy to.

A Girl is Half Formed Thing, by Eimar McBride

Because once I found a rhythm, it became the most ferocious and intimate thing.

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

I got there in the end. Because every scene felt intricately painted (like those tiny Dutch rooms ), not just the characters but their surroundings, as if she’d been spying on them inhabit that world before she started writing, and that richness and made all the tricksy twists and turns easier to navigate.

There but for the, by Ali Smith

It was a bit like if all the best, weirdest characters from legendary sitcoms have been told to hang out, and the master of ceremonies is an unassuming genius who has never watched TV and has no clue who they are. I loved it so much but can’t really explain why!

This list seems a bit sexist now, I did read men too but they didn’t cut the mustard this time.