All reviews in alphabetical order by title
- "Bamboo Palace"
- "The Black Swan"
- "Counter Clockwise"
- "The Diving-Bell And The Butterfly"
- "Eats, Shoots And Leaves"
- "English As A Global Language"
- "The God Delusion"
- "Happiness By Design"
- "Hatchet Job"
- "A History Of God"
- "Mother Tongue"
- "The Next 100 Years"
- "Nothing Is Impossible"
- "Predictably Irrational"
- "The Philosophy Gym"
- "Religion For Atheists"
- "River Of Time"
- "The Social Animal"
- "The Story Of English In 100 Words"
- "Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart"
- "Touching The Void"
- "Tuesdays With Morrie"
- "The Vagina Monologues"
- "Watching The Tree To Catch The Hare"
- "Would They Lie To You?"
- "Your Personal Survival Guide To The 21st Century"
"Bamboo Palace" by Christopher Kremmer (2003)
Written by an Australian journalist in 2003, the title is a reference to the circumstances of the royal family of Laos who traditionally lived in bamboo homes until the colonial French built a grand palace for them in Luang Prabang, only to find that the take-over of the country by the communist Pathet Lao in 1975 condemned them to imprisonment in so-called re-education camps where they died of ill-treatment and malnutrition. Set mainly in 1995, the book explains Kremmer's persistent efforts to find out the truth of the royal family's demise. It is written with fine attention to detail and evokes a sense of being there. It is unfortunately based largely on one source - the testimony of camp member Khamphan Thammakhanty, now resident in the USA - but he is the only one of a mere three survivors of the camp to be located.
I read the book on a holiday in Indochina [click here].
"The Black Swan" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2007)
This book spent 17 weeks on the "New York Times" bestseller list and has been translated into 27 languages, but it is one of the most over-hyped and badly written works of non-fiction that it has ever been my misfortune to read (I only continued reading it because I thought - mistakenly - that it must get better but actually it becomes worse). It is rambling, repetitive and indulgent, while Lebanese former trader cum academic Nassim Nicholas Taleb (or NNT as he characterises himself) is immensely pretentious and flaunts his erudition at every opportunity. And yet ... there are some really insightful ideas here.
The central one is the notion of 'the Black Swan event'. For centuries the black swan was the conceptualisation of something highly improbable to the point of probably impossible and then, in the 17th century, black swans were discovered in Australia. For NNT, a Black Swan event has three attributes: it is unexpected, it has extreme impact, and after it has occurred we concoct rationalisations trying to make it explainable and predictable. Think of events like the Second World War, the civil war in Lebanon, or 9/11 or inventions like the telephone, the computer or the Internet. The central idea of the book is that we are blind with respect to randomness, especially the highly improbable.
NNT describes two types of worlds. The first he calls Mediocristan where there are few extreme events. The classic case is where the likelihood of cases can be plotted on a normal distribution (or bell or Gaussian) curve. Examples are the heights, weights and IQ of a large enough sample of the population or, in economic terms, the income of a baker who can only work so many hours. The second world he calls Extremistan where a single but unexpected event can have a huge impact. Examples are book or music sales, where a celebrity can achieve absolutely outstanding success, or the massively uneven distribution of income or wealth in a free market society.
His (incontestable) assertion is that we behave as if the world is Mediocristan when it is usually Extremistan. He talks of the experience of the turkey being prepared for Thanksgiving (or Christmas). Each day that it is fed confirms its view that each day it is going to be fed (Mediocristan), but one day it is not simply not fed but killed (Extremistan). He illustrates the risk of Extremistan with reference to the stock market crash of 1987 but, since his book was published, the global banking crisis of 2008 is an even more dramatic case.
Quite what we are supposed to do about Black Swan events - other than doubting those who claim to be able to predict events, opening our mind to the possibility of negative Black Swans, and being ready to seize the opportunities presented by positive Black Swans - is beyond Taleb. But I guess, in the end, those are important lessons.
"Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell (2005)
This book is billed as the "No 1 international bestseller" - which it is (in part perhaps because of Gladwell's earlier hit "The Tipping Point") - but whether it deserves its success must be challenged. Certainly Gladwell, a staff writer for the "New Yorker" magazine, presents his very interesting material with clarity and readability, but in essence he says so little at such length and with such repetition that one concludes the work with a measure of real disappointment.
His simple but powerful idea is that we can make judgements incredibly quickly - a process he calls "thin-slicing" and which apparently uses our "adaptive unconscious" - and often these snap judgements can be remarkably accurate (even if the reasoning is poorly understood), but sometimes such judgements are at best prejudiced and at worst lethal. He gives a very wide range of examples, many taken from academic studies, ranging from judging a statue to be a fake to (mis)assessing a (black) man as a dangerous criminal but, although he claims that our snap judgements can be educated and controlled, this is thinly and weakly explained.
Gladwell writes: "We need to respect the fact that it is possible to know without knowing why we know and accept that - sometimes - we're better off that way". On the other hand, he asserts: "We have, as human beings, a storytelling problem. We're a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don't really have an explanation for." These are immensely difficult tendencies to reconcile intelligently and fairly and Gladwell does not provide a framework for doing so.
"Counter Clockwise" by Ellen J Langer (2009)
Dr. Ellen Langer is a professor in the Psychology Department at Harvard University. She is the author of over 200 research articles and 11 books, almost all of them dealing with the illusion of control, aging, decision-making, and mindfulness theory. The essential message of this latest book - published in the USA in May 2009 and subtitled "Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility" - is endlessly restated, but it is a powerful one.
Langer believes that our mind is so inter-related to our body that how we think about our aging process and our state of health profoundly influences how we much aging affects us and how much we enjoy health or cope with ill-health. She recommends a form of thinking called mindfulness which involves abandoning old mindsets, being more aware, noticing variability, drawing distinctions, taking control, and making choices.
Although she quotes a variety of research work, Langer regularly refers to her seminal research project which she later called "the counterclockwise study". This was conducted in 1979 and involved small groups of old people living for a week as if it was 1959, so that for instance they could only talk about events before 1959 and listen to music and watch television programmes of that period. The project found that, on a range of physical and mental tests conducted before and after the retreat, the participants became 'younger'.
She writes: "Over time I have come to believe less and less that biology is destiny. It is not primarily our physical selves that limit us but rather our mindset about our physical limits." She insists: "My research has shown that how using a different word, offering a small choice, or making a subtle change in the physical environment can improve our health and well-being."
She is clear that she is not against conventional medicine, but she argues that it is uncertain and fallible and that it is limited in its efficacy in the circumstances of any particular individual. She believes that, when an individual is labelled old or infirm or ill, the very labelling acts as a 'prime' to limit the individual's perception of their capabilities or state of health.
Langer's message of mindful health is a liberating one and her work on "the counterclockwise study" is being made into a film involving Jennifer Aniston.
Link: author's web site click here
"The Diving-Bell And The Butterfly" by Jean-Dominique Baulby (1997)
This is a most extraordinary and moving book written by the blinking of his left eyelid by the editor-in-chief of Elle magazine in Paris following a massive stroke on 8 December 1995 which left him with locked-in syndrome. The composition of the work took three hours a day, seven days a week, over a period of two months and required more than 200,000 blinks.
The diving-bell of the title refers to the imprisonment of his body, while the butterfly relates to the freedom of his mind which is still able to explore the world in a fashion. Bauby died on 9 March 1997 just two days after publication of the book, but he left behind this (necessarily) short work which is a humbling insight into both his unique situation and the whole human condition.
"Eats, Shoots And Leaves" by Lynne Truss (2003)
Who would have thought that a book on punctuation could have become a best-seller? But this one has been mega - thanks mainly to the lively, entertaining and amusing writing style of writer and broadcaster Lynne Truss. Who else would comment on the inventor of several modern punctuation marks, the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius the Elder (1450-1515): "I will happily admit that I hadn't heard of him until about a year ago, but am now absolutely kicking myself that I never volunteered to have his babies"?
Truss points out that "for over a quarter of century, punctuation and English grammar were simply not taught in the majority of schools" and she is absolutely passionate about the correct use of punctuation, citing countless examples - many very funny (including the origin of the book's title) - of how incorrect punctuation changes the whole meaning of the sign or the sentence. The longest chapter is on the apostrophe (which dates from the 16th century); there is one on the comma; another on the colon and semi-colon; and others covering the dash and hyphen, the question mark and exclamation mark, brackets and the ellipsis (...), quotation marks, and italics, with reference even to the emoticons of e-mail communication.
Truss concludes "Proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking. If it goes, the degree of intellectual improverishment we face is unimaginable".
"English As A Global Language" by David Crystal (1997)
This is a commendably short book of only 142 pages, but it is a fascinating work which addresses three questions: What makes a global language? Why is English the leading candidate? Will it continue to hold that position? The author is a former professor of linguistics at the University of Reading (England). He tells us that there are today around 6,000 living languages, but some estimates suggest that perhaps 80% will die out in the next century. In terms of mother tongue use, Spanish is spoken in more countries and is growing in use more rapidly than any other language.
But Crystal is clear that we are rapidly approaching the position where we have a genuinely global language, that language is English, and it is unlikely to be challenged by any other. Already, according to his statistics, there are some 320-380 million people for whom English is the primary language (notably the UK and USA); there are another 150-300 million for whom English has an important second language role (for instance, India and Singapore); and there are up to a billion others in countries which recognise the importance of English as an international language (including China and Russia). Already it is the dominant language of science, business and popular culture and some 70-80% of everything on the Internet is in English.
'Freakonomics" by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner (2005)
Levitt is the unorthodox economist at the University of Chicago and Dubner is the writer on the "New York Times" who have joined forces to produce an immensely readable, but rather lightweight, book that has been a massive best-seller. They themselves summarise the ideas in the work as follows:
"The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins (2006)
Dawkins is a world-acclaimed evolutionary biologist who has written here a controversial bestseller that had its origins in the Channel 4's television programmes entitled "Root Of All Evil?" It is a wonderfully well-written work, showing considerable erudition and sharp thinking by its author and rarely have I read a book which resonates so strongly with my own fundamental beliefs and values.
For the most part, this is an utterly convincing book that demolishes intellectually all the arguments that have been proffered for God's existence; demonstrates why there is almost certainly no God because the power of evolution is sufficient and proper explanation for our world and our lives; explains the likely Darwinian imperatives which underly the origins of religion; exposes the utter ridiculousness of the selective, inconsistent and outrageous messages of the Bible; shows how religion is in effect attempting to fill a seeming gap for explanation, exhortation, consolation and inspiration; and argues that morality does not need a God and is perfectively effective without one.
Dawkins insists that "I do not, by nature, thrive on confrontation", but he is not afraid to use strong language, refering to "the time-consuming, wealth-consuming, hostility-provoking rituals, the anti-factual, counter-productive fantasies of religion", calling redemption through Christ's crucifixion "barking mad, as well as viciously unpleasant", and describing those who learn the Koran by heart as demented parrots".
I part company with Dawkins towards the end of his work when he adopts two positions which sit uncomfortably with me. First, as someone who spent six years chairing a body which combats the dissemination of child abuse images on the Internet, I cannot accept Dawkins' comparison of parents' religious education of their children with the experience of sexual abuse of children. Second, as someone with many friends with sincere religious beliefs, I cannot share Dawkins' hostility towards non-fundamentalist religion and see no need to taunt or ridicule people with such beliefs.
Dawkins is a scientist and writer who demonstrates incisive thinking and much humour but, underlying his passion against religion, there seems to be a kind of anger. Certainly religion has been, and continues to be, responsibile for much injustice, inhumanity and suffering in the world and we should not be afraid to say so. But most of the time most religious people are struggling to make sense of the world and sincerely believe that their faith helps them. The answer lies in a clearer separation of church and state, of sacred and secular, of private faith and public affairs, and in continued education and debate with mutual respect and tolerance.
Richard Dawkins' site click here
Dawkins rebuts book's critics click here
"Happiness" by Richard Layard (2005)
Like several other recent bestsellers - such as "Blink" and "Freakonomics" - this is a work that takes a good deal of recent research findings in the social sciences and presents the conclusions in a readable and accessible way. The subject matter in this case - the notion of personal happiness - is clearly very important but might seem not to lend itself to quantitative research, but Richard Layard - the founder of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics - argues that we can measure happiness and determine what most influences it. His findings may seem obvious and commonsensical but it is fascinating to have them validated by the most recent research in economics and psychology.
He argues that seven factors stand out in affecting happiness: our family relationships, our financial situation, our work, our community and friends, our health, our personal freedom and our personal values. Interestingly, except for health and income, they are all concerned with the quality of our relationships.
In his final chapter, Layard summarises "twelve truths about happiness":
"Happiness By Design" by Paul Dolan (2014)
I was given this book when I attended a seminar run by a company called Advizzo which advises clients on behavioural insights to understand how consumers and citizens make decisions. Dolan - a Professor of Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics - is an adviser to Advizzo. Unusually he opens the book with a personal confession (he has a stammer) and this admission characterisies a book that, while constantly referencing behavioural studies as evidence, is quite personal in its anecdotes and views (he has trouble sleeping and he has never read a novel in his life).
Dolan's analysis can be briefly summarised. He defines happiness as "experiences of pleasure and purpose over time" and insists that "your happiness is determined by how you allocate your attention". So, having examined what we know about happiness, what causes happiness, and why we are not happier, he develops a three-part model for delivering happiness: based on deciding, designing, and doing. There is a lot of good sense in this book - even if some of it may seem obvious - but there is a degree of repetition and verbosity in setting out the material.
So let's cut to the chase: what is it that makes us happy? Dolan led a comprehesnsive review of the literature on longitudinal studies of life satisfaction, especially large data sets generated in the UK and Germany. The conclusions were that life satisfaction ratings are higher for those who:
So much to think about here. My best take-away from Dolan's book? His comment - obvious perhaps but immensely practical - “There is one almost surefire way to be happier: spend more time with people you like.”
"Hatchet Job" by Mark Kermode (2013)
I really rate Mark Kermode as a professional film critic: I read his reviews in the "Observer" newspaper, I watch his reviews on BBC television, I follow him on Twitter, and I attended an event at his beloved Phoenix cinema in East Finchley where he spoke about this book. The work is not about films or even film criticism as such but essentially about the role of film critic and one in particular. He is absurdly self deprecating about his persona ("I have a stupid name and a stupid haircut") and overly defensive about his profession ("these days professional film critics are viewed as being on a par with child-molesters and pension-fund embezzlers in the popularity stakes").
Kermode writes like he speaks - a tendency to long, breathless but perfectly-formed sentences full of wit and eudition, so this is an immensely readable work. The book lacks structure - the chapters could have been in any order - and the text has a habit of meandering (several times, he has to resort to a phrase like "anyway, back to ...") , but eventially we always come back to one central message: even in the age of the online, amateur film critic (like me), there is a role for the professional but all critics should identify themselves, the reviews that readers tend to remember are the bad ones, but in the end reviews make little difference to the box office.
"Hatchet Job" tells us something about the odd life of professional film critics. Twice a week, every week, they sit in a darkened room and watch movies that have not yet been released. Kermode reckons that he has averaged 10-12 films a week for the past 25 years, but laments "if you happen to see a couple of good films in any given week, you're doing pretty well". Nevertheless he believes that "watching movies for a living is an insanely privileged existence".
In the course of the book, we learn some things about Kermode: "As a child, my only real friends were movies", as an adolescent his most memorable films were 'Silent Running' and something called simply 'Jememy', and he is "a former student Trot turned wishy-washy bleeding-heart liberal".
Above all, we learn about the movies he loves and loathes respectively. On the affection side, he declares that "I (still) think 'The Exocist' is the greatest movie ever made", he shares the view that 'Casablanca' is "one of the greatest movies ever made", much more controversially he has declared "'The Devils' to be "one of the greatest films ever made", and he admits to being "an unabashed 'Twilight' movie fan". He insists that the assessments of critics and public are not so far apart and I have seen and admired five of his all-time top ten films including such wonderful work as 'Don't Look Now' and 'Pan's Labryinth'.
On the hate side, he says that 'Heaven's Gate' was "catastrophic" and 'Eyes Wide Shut' "piss poor", he shares the view that 'The Straight Story' was "'Forrest Gump' on a tractor", he was savage about 'Transformers', 'Pirates Of The Caribbean' and 'Sex And The City', and he calls 'Zardoz' "the worst science-fiction movie ever made" and 'The Heretic' "the worst movie ever made" - both directed by John Boorman which leads him to the view that the auteur theory is "utter hooey".
One of the most interesting chapters - which underlines how difficult it is to be right about a movie at first viewing - is the role of focus groups in viewing and commenting upon movies not yet released and possibly not yet finalised. He takes the reader through the evolution of 'Fatal Attraction' which has a very different ending from that intended by the writer or director as a result of audience research. He rightly argues that this kind of approach to film-making would have changed the ending of 'Casablanca' making it an utterly different and inferior film.
In a sense, "Hatchet Job" is a cry of existential angst: "Isn't all criticism - good or bad - just white noise; waffle; static hiss; a distraction from the real business of making films?". He admits: "Whereas once I was stupidly certain about my opinions, age has withered that sense of single-mindednes to the point that I no longer trust myself when it comes to judging movies". At one point, he even pleads "What, in brief, is the bloody point?"
Yet, in the end, Kermode is optimistic about the future of professional film criticism: "Despite the culls sweeping through the profession in the twenty-first century, film criticism simply refuses to lie down and die" and "the web has proved a boon rather than a bugbear - despite my frequent moans to the contrary".
"A History Of God" by Karen Armstrong (1993)
A good friend recommended this book of more than 500 pages so many times that I eventually read it, but its erudition makes it a tough read and I wish I had discovered the glossary at the back at the beginning of the exercise instead of at the end. The author was a Catholic nun for seven years but felt her belief in God slip away before she finally left the religious life. It seems that, in writig the book, she rediscovered a belief in some kind of God.
Of course, this is not a history of God because, if there is a God (which I strongly doubt), by definition He - all the monotheistic religions offer a masculine perspective - is timeless and therefore can have no history. Instead what we are offered is a history of how men - all the prophets and philosophers were male - have interpreted and reinterpreted what they understand by God in the main monotheistic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. What is abundantly clear that the concept of God has undergone constant and profound revision over the past 4,000 years.
A believer would argue that this demonstrates the permanence of the essential idea of God at all times in all civilisations which is proof of humankind's need for God and perhaps even a proof of the existence of God. An atheist would argue that this demonstrates that, far from God creating man in his own image, man has created God in his own image - an image than has changed again and again - and that this is proof that there is no God but simply a cultural artefact that attracts the same name but vastly different - and often contradictory - characteristics.
Armstrong shows how, throughout history, two very different ideas of God have been put forward: one whose existence cannot be proved but only subjectively experienced and who is an unknowable being with no interest in the detail of humankind and never intervenes in it; another which is a very personal God with whom we can have an intimate relationship and who communciates with us through prophets, miracles and signs and with whom we can communicate and ask for intercession in our affairs.
Armstrong asserts: "The idea of a personal God seems increasingly unacceptable at the present time for all kinds of reasons: moral, intellectual, scientific and spritual." But she has real sympathy for the idea of what she calls "the God of the mystics".
Link: interview with Karen Armstrong click here
"Mother Tongue" by Bill Bryson (1990)
The American writer Bill Bryson is best known for his travel books, but this examination of the origin and use of the English language is simply brilliant, written with great erudition and real wit. Almost everyone agrees that English contains more sounds and more words than any other language. A recent edition of the Oxford English Dictionary has 615,000 entries, but a noted American lexicographer has suggested that the average well-read English speaker has a vocabulary of only about 20,000 words and probably uses just 1,500-2,000 in a normal weeks conversation.
In this fascinating work, Bryson demonstrates the fluidity and flexibility of English, explaining from where and why many words have entered the language and how and why their use, spelling or pronunciation has changed. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on wordplay where he gives some excellent examples of palindromes (sentences that read backwards exactly the same as they read forwards), the best being; A man, a plan, a canal, Panama! Bryson asserts that: More than 300 million people in the world speak English and the rest, it sometimes seems, try to. After reading this book, any English speaker would know immeasurably more about this marvellous language.
"The Next 100 Years" by George Friedman (2009)
Making forecasts of any kind for any period is fraught with difficulty and danger; making a forecast of geopolitics for the next century is, on the face of it, a crazy proposition. But this is what is attempted here by American George Friedman who is founder and chief executive of STRATFOR which claims to be the world's leading global intelligence and forecasting company.
Although Friedman appears to be writing with certainty and precision, one has to take this book as really simply a provocative and stimulating 'thought exercise' - an encouragement to think about some of the broad trends that might just occur. In fact, nobody is going to check out his forecasts in a 100 years time and, even if they did, he would not be around to be embarrassed at how wrong he got it all.
Friedman takes as his building blocks some rather contradictory principles. On the one hand, he looks at the history of nations and assumes that similar aspirations and rivalries will replicate themselves in the future. On the other hand, he emphasizes how dramatic change has been and can be and in effect invites us to think the unthinkable and expect the impossible. It is fun - but can one really call it a forecast?
He is sure that the current US-jihadist war will be over in a decade or so. He believes that Russia will attempt to reassert its power but fall back into disarray in the early 2020s. Contrary to many views, he expects that China's explosive growth rate will falter with the economy encumbered by bad debts and that the country will suffer internal tensions and a tendency to fragment. He expects Finland to take back Karelia, Romania to take back Moldova, Tibet to break free of China, and Korea to be reunited well before 2030. He foresees the rise of Japan and Turkey plus Poland as major powers again, each extending influence over adjacent nations and posing a threat to the global stability desired by the sole super power the United States.
By the middle of the century, he projects a major war between the Coalition of Japan and Turkey, with some backing from Germany, and the Alliance led by the USA with the involvement of Poland and Britain, a conflict initially fought in space with Japan launching a surprise attack from the moon on the three American Battle Stars in geostationary orbit (possibly on Thanksgiving weekend, 2050). He envisages the US fighting the war with unmanned hypersonic aircraft capable of delivering non-nuclear, high precision bombs and electrical grids being key targets. Thanks to the new weaponry, he expects a Third World War to result in a mere 50,000 lives, mostly in Europe as a consequence of the Turkish-German ground offensive. He is confident of US success in this global war which will lead to "a golden age for America - and a new and growing maturity in handling its power".
Friedman is confident of the supremacy of the United States for the remainder of the century, but he expects the USA to become a bicultural country like Canada or Belgium as a result of immigration from Mexico. Indeed he forecasts, late in the century, rising tensions with Mexico, with a considerable number of citizens of Mexican origin populating the south-west of the USA making the region Mexican culturally, socially and even politically.
It is striking how quickly he writes off the influence of China, which he sees limited geopolitically by its geographical position and weak navy, and how absent growing nations like India and Brazil are in his thinking. The Middle East - seen by many as the most likely region for outright war - is barely mentioned.
Whereas many observers anticipate a decline in the relative strength and dominance of the United States in the decades to come with a move towards a more multi-polar world, Friedman boldy asserts that: "The United States' power is so extraordinarily overwhelming, and so deeply rooted in economic, technological and cultural realities, that the country will continue to surge through the twenty-first century, buffeted though it will be by wars and crises." In case there is any doubt of his certainty, he concludes: "In the end, if there is a single point I have to make in this book, it is that the United States - far from being on the verge of decline - has actually just begun its ascent."
Friedman insists that the prime underlying factor of the changes he forecasts is "the single most important fact of the twenty-first century: the end of the population explosion" - with population growth either stable or declining by 2050. Although many would see the dominant trend of the next century as the impact of global warming, he barely mentions this because he is convinced that demographic changes and technological developments will deal with the issue. Specifically he postulates the conversion of solar energy from vast numbers of photovoltaic cells in geostationary orbit with the resultant energy delivered to the earth's surface after conversion into microwaves.
American readers - at whom this book is principally aimed, I suspect - will find these messages reassuring and the centrality of US power which it postulates plays into the notion of 'American exceptionalism'. But I am not sure either of the rise and rise of the strength of the United States - Friedman says nothing of the challenges of declining education standards, rising economic inequalities, and the sclerosis of the political system - or of the weakness of other powers who will complicate his neat unipolar vision - not least Russia, China and Brazil on the global stage and the likes of Iran, Korea, and Indonesia on a regional basis. Furthermore, though Friedman's expertise is in warfare and military matters, it could well be that the great geopolitical conflicts of the 21st century are not military but economic and cultural and that what matters to most individuals is not which nation is on top but issues of food, water, climate and technology.
"Nothing Is Impossible" by Christopher Reeve (2002)
There is nothing particularly special in the content of this short book, but it is written by someone who is very special in an iconic way. Christopher Reeve was the 6' 4'' eponymous caped crusader in four "Superman" films before, on 27 May 1995, he had a riding accident which rendered him at aged 42 - to use his own technical words - "a C-2 vent-dependent quadriplegic ". What makes Reeve special is two things.
First, the way he has coped with his profound disability pschologically. He admits that, in the first few weeks, he considered suicide. Yet, since the appalling accident, he has directed a television programme, acted in a television film, written two books, and carried out considerable public speaking and political lobbying. Many people have assumed that this strength of mind must be buttressed by a deep religous faith, but far from it. Reeve narrates how, before the accident, he experimented with Scientology (involving auditing) and later Loving Relationship Training (involving rebirthing) and, after the injuries, he tried two healers with no result, but only very recently has he embraced Unitarian Universalism which is very spiritual and non-institutional.
Second, the way he has tackled his paralysis physically. Obviously Reeve has financial resources and professional support not available to most (he has 24 hour care from a team of 17 nurses and aides). However, he explains how, starting with the almost accidental discovery of movement in the index finger of his left hand, he has developed a punishing exercise schedule which has gradually brought about some significant sensitivity and movement in both his arms and his legs. He is an inspiration to us all and retains the belief that one day he will walk again. He puts faith in stem cell research and therapeutic cloning and berates the lack of research in the USA as a result of religous fundamentalism and frightened politicians.
Link: Christopher & Dana Reeve Paralysis Resource Center click here
"Nudge" by Richard H Thaler & Cass R Sunstein (2008)
Like "Predictably Irrational" by Dan Ariely (which I read first), this is a work essentially about behavioural economics from an American academic stable - Thaler is a Professor of Behavioural Science and Sunstein is a Professor of Jurisprudence, both at the University of Chicago - but it is a duller read than Ariely's book, although it covers broader ground in being concerned with non-economic as well as marketplace decisions.
Thaler & Sunstein present their writing as about choice architecture which they describe as "organizing the context in which people make decisions". The choice architecture which they advocate is what they call "libertarian paternalism": the libertarian element derives from their stance that people should be free to do what they want and to opt out of undesirable arrangements if they wish, while the paternalism bit lies in their claim that it is legitimate for choice architects to try to influence people's behaviour "in a way that will make choosers better off as judged by themselves". The means of achieving this is what they characterise as a 'nudge' which is defined as "any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people's behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives".
What sort of 'nudges' do Thaler & Sunstein suggest? Options include simplification of choices, careful presentation of choices, provision of relevant and timely information, early and useful feedback, application of peer pressure, use of priming, application of default options, and use of incentives. The authors review the use of such 'nudges' in a whole variety of contexts including selection of a mortgage, use of a credit card, selecting a prescription drug scheme or a social security plan, choosing a pension plan and paying into it over its life, deciding how much to invest and where to do so, designing an organ donation programme, and even the privatisation (as they term it) of marriage.
In terms of when and where 'nudges' can be most useful and appropriate, they argue that 'nudges' are necessary when decisions are difficult and rare (such as chosing a mortgage or a pension arrangement), for which they do not obtain prompt feedback (such as diets and long-term investments), and when they have trouble translating aspects of the situation into terms that can be easily understood (such as the implications for the environment of consumption choices).
The main messages of this valuable work are that people do not make wholly rational choices based on what classical economics and traditional economists predict or politicians and policymakers expect, decisions can and should be shaped or influenced by a wide variety of 'nudges', and - since 'nudges' cannot be avoided - we should use choice architecture that is based on the principle of libertarian paternalism. It is a practical and pragmatic stance which should appeal to both conservatives and liberals.
Link: online companion to the book click here
"Predictably Irrational" by Dan Ariely (2008)
Israeli acdemic Dan Ariely - who at 18 suffered third-degree burns on 70% of his body - is a very clever guy with four degrees who works as the Alfred P Sloan Professor of Behavioural Economics at MIT in the United States and he has written many papers with titles alone that would be unintelligible to the lay person; yet, although he confesses "Figuring out how to write in 'non-academise' was not easy", he has written an immensely readable and accessible work, based largely on his own studies, that can be summarised easily.
Classical economics assumes that consumers make rational decisions which justify the application of economic theory to real markets, but behavioural economics shows us that consumers constantly reach decisions on grounds that strictly-speaking are irrational, but are so capable of study and understanding that we can call them 'predictably irrational'. If public policymakers, those who market things, and indeed consumers themselves can better understand these decision-making processes, then they are more likely to make better policies and better decisions.
A number of Ariely's studies illustrate the role of price in the decision-making processes of consumers. Classical economics states that price is determined by supply and demand. However, he shows how we tend to compare things that are easily comparable and, as a result, sellers often create an 'anchor' price (typically artifically or unacceptably high) that is intended to direct us to another pricing choice that is more acceptable to us and what the seller always expected and wanted us to choose. He demonstrates the impact of sellers offering something as 'free' and argues persuasively that "Zero is not just another price, it turns out. Zero is an emotional hot button - a source of irrational excitement". So, for instance, when offered 'buy two - get one free', we are tempted to buy twice as many as we originally intended.
As Ariely puts it: "we are pawns in a game whose forces we largely fail to comprehend". This is a book, therefore, that can educate and empower us.
Dan Ariely's homepage click here
book's web site click here
"The Philosophy Gym" by Stephen Law (2003)
It was seeing Stephen Law speak in 2009 that encouraged me to read his 2003 book which is subtitled "25 short adventures in thinking". For a book on philosophy, it is remarkably accessible: each chapter addresses the sort of question that most intelligent people ponder - does God exist? where does the universe come from? is creationism scientific? - or ought to - what is the basis of morality? how far is genetic modification acceptable? could a machine think? - plus some that are perhaps a little more esoteric - what is knowledge? what is art? is time travel possible? - usually in the form of conversations reflecting the positions of well-known philosophers.
The book is effectively a tutorial in thinking clearly and arguing logically and it concludes with an examination of eight everyday reasoning errors. This is helpful - but too many of the individual essays pose two lines of argument that individually seem not totally adequate and in combination appear contradictory. For instance, is morality intrinsic to certain actions or is it determined by the viewer of that action? On other occasions, the line of thought developed seems so counter-intuitive. For example, in a chapter entitled "Why expect the sun to rise tomorrow?", Law insists that induction is logically false since, however many times something has happened (such as the sun rising), we cannot be absolutely sure that it will happen every time in the future.
Link: Stephen Law's blog click here
"Quirkology" by Richard Wiseman (2007)
So what exactly is 'quirkology'. It's a term invented Wiseman who was once a professional magician and is now professor for the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire and has spent 21 years - in his words - "examining the quirky side of life". He states that "quirkology uses scientific methods to study the more curious aspects of everyday life" or what he calls "the backwaters of human behaviour".
Chapter 1 is all about chronopsychology which is the study of time and mind. He examines the validity of astrology and finds it non-existent, but discovers some strange relationships between birth dates and life experiences, such as a tendency for women to die in the week following their birthday and men to depart in the week before their birthday. Chapter 2 is concerned with trust and deception. He reveals that one cannot detect a liar by looking at him but by listening to him; liars tend to say less, provide less detail, and make fewer references to themselves than truth-tellers. Chapter 3 looks at the prevalence of superstition around the world (it is all about trying to cope with uncertainty) and contrasts this with some rational explanations for seemingly paranormal activities (anyone with sufficient confidence can walk across around 15 feet of burning coals).
Chapter 4 examines how we make decisions. The name, height and face of people influence how we see them and even how they see themselves, while something as simple as tipping in a restaurant can be affected by mood-altering actions like smiling at or touching the customer. Chapter 5 is all about a huge project to find the funniest joke in the world. Different jokes came top in different countries but all the most popular jokes created a sense of superiority in the reader because we laugh when we look down on the subject of the humour. Chapter 6 studies when people are most likely to help others or not. Put simply, we are at our most altruistic when those in need are most like us in age, background and dress.
The many academic studies quoted reveal a complex but fascinating picture of human behaviour and suggest that public policy and business practice would be much more effective if it was preceded and followed up by careful empirical research rather than based on ideology or assumptions.
book's web site click here
Richard Wiseman's web site click here
"Religion For Atheists" by Alain de Botton (2012)
I doubt that I would have bought this book, had it not been that I had a long flight from Los Angeles to London and I wanted something thoughtful but not too heavy that was not too long and presented in manageable chunks. The work is divided into chapters addressing emotions such as kindness, tenderness and pessimism and issues like community, education and architecture. In each case, there is a standard structure.First, de Botton explains how different religions address fundamental emotional needs of people. He shows remarkable knowledge and erudition in his examinations of practices and rituals followed in Christianity (especially Catholicism) and to a lesser extent Judaism and Buddhism (it is pity that he does not include Islam in his review). Next he explores how these religous rituals actually work in meeting the emotional and spiritual aspects of people's daily lives, whether they mark the passage of seasons or life stages or respond to personal challenges such as illness or death. Finally de Botton ponders how the benefits of religious rituals could be transposed into the secular, rational world inhabited by sceptics such as the author and this reader without subscribing to any of the metaphysical beliefs of the various religions. As he puts it: "The premise of this book is that it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless find religion sporadically useful, interesting and consoling - and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm". He speculates about how one could create practices or institutions or buildings that do what religions do at their best without requiring any religious belief whatsoever. These are notions with which I have considerable sympathy since it is clear that the decline of religion has impacted adversely on the sense of community that is so essential to the emotional welfare of humankind. The problem comes in translating these general notions into specific proposals. Here some of de Botton's ideas are intriguing but many are odd to the point of being amusing. He muses about restaurants which are devoted to community and friendship and a guidebook for the meal like the Jewish Haggadah, places of retreat where one can practice mindfulness and even aimlessness, pieces of art that represent experiences like the Seven Sorrows of Parenthood, locations which represented new temples to such notions as serenity, reflection and tenderness or shrines to such ideas as the promise of the tropical sun or the calmness of the deserted tundra or places to promote contemplation of the number and distance of the stars and the immensity of the universe. In fact, there a sense in which the secular world is already creating rough substitutes for religious rituals without either the creators or the consumers of the new activities being aware that the needs that are being met are not just material but emotional. Shopping in supermarkets and malls could be seen as the new 'religion' with the vivid displays of the products emulating the sacred pictures and statuary in churches and the smells of the fresh bread and fruit being the simulacrum of candles and incense. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter, together with chatrooms and e-mail, could be seen as means of replicating the Sunday service and parish newsletter. Christmas and Easter have already been turned into secular as well as religious occasions and events like Thanksgiving and Mothers Day are providing us with opportunities to celebrate family and show kindness. There is certainly room for more ideas to encourage contemplation and community and de Botton provides much food for thought.
Link: author's The School of Life click here
"River Of Time" by Jon Swain (1996)
Written by a British journalist in 1996, the title is a reference to the Mekong River which flows through all three of the countries at the heart of this narrative: Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia - all ravaged by war in the 1970s. There are briefer sections set in Thailand and Ethopia (where he was kidnapped for three months), but the special emphasis of this very well-written account is Cambodia. Here Swain - in a reckless return to Phnom Penh - witnessed the Khmer Rouge take-over of the city and had his life saved by local interpreter Dith Pran whose story featured in the film "The Killing Fields". He concludes: "I was in Indo-China for only five years. But I know that in my heart I will be there all my life. I will always lament its romantic past and sentimentalise the grand adventure of death we lived through in the midst of such ravishing beauty".
I read the book on a holiday in Indochina [click here].
"The Social Animal" by David Brooks (2011)
In the United States, David Brooks is well known as a thoughtful columnist in the New York Times and here he has written a book which has attracted considerable attention from politicians on both sides of the Atlantic and both sides of the classic ideological divide. It is a hugely ambitious work: in his words "an attempt to integrate science and psychology with sociology, politics, cultural commentary, and the literature of success".
If this sounds 'heavy', it is not really, partly because Brooks is a clear and engaging writer and partly because he has adopted an unusual structure for such a non-fiction work. The whole of the book takes the form of life stories of two Americans called Harold and Erica - a device inspired by a 1760 work by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
This device has the twin advantages that it provides a 'scaffolding' on which Brooks can hang information from all sorts of researchers, thinkers and books and a narrative which moves the story along in a neat birth-to-death biography. The problem with this approach is that it makes the book much longer (some 400 pages) than it needs to be and it involves a lot of detail that seems extraneous to the central theme and more an effort to be a pseudo-novelist.
The social animal of the title is of course us, humankind, and the theme of the work is that our behaviour is at every stage of life influenced powerfully by unconscious forces and factors. As Brooks puts it : "Decision making is an inherently emotional business". The sub-title of the book is "A story of how success happens".
It all starts with childhood, of course, and Brooks underlines the influence of parenting, contrasting the upbringing of middle-class, white Harold and working-class Mexican-Chinese Erica. He writes: "50 per cent of lifetime-earnings inequality is determined by factors present in the life of a person by age eighteen". He constantly emphasizes the importance of culture and mentions research showing that "parents and community have a greater effect of achievement than school". Another factor he emphasizes is character: "self-control is twice as important as IQ in predicting high-school performance, school attendance, and final grades".
Through the personality of Harold, Brooks extols the motivational power of what the Ancient Greeks called "thumos" which is a wish for recognition and worth that goes beyond mere celebrity. He argues that the source of ambition frequently comes from a role model or a parental loss: "highly ambitious people often have met someone like themselves who achieved great success", while many "ultra-driven people" and "the greatest .. leaders" had a parent die or abandon them between the ages of nine and fifteen.
He argues that ambitious people "often possess some early talent that gave them some sense of distinction" and "often have a vision of an elevated circle they might join" and he quotes research of business leaders which suggests that "the traits that correlated most powerfully with success were attention to detail, persistence, efficiency, analytical thoroughness, and the ability to work long hours".
Brooks constantly contrasts the conscious and the unconscious, what he calls level 2 and level 1 respectively, or what the philosopher Karl Popper called clocks and clouds. He suggests: "The general rule is that conscious processes are better at solving problems with a few variables or choices, but unconscious processes are better at solving problems with many possibilities and variables".
And where does Brooks stand politically? He regularly critiques both the positions which in American terms are classed liberal and conservative. But then he writes: "The nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinkers who called themselves socialists weren't really socialists. They were statist. They valued the state over society. But true socialism would put social life first." He insists that "State power is like fire - warming when contained, fatal when it grows too large" and "Statecraft is inevitably soulcraft". His (American) heroes are Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.
Brooks exhibits incredibly eclectic and detailed knowledge but, unlike say Nassim Nicholas Taleb in "The Black Swan", this does not come across as pretentious because usually the subject matter is represented as the explorations of Harold or Erica (although it is obvious that most of Harold's thoughts especially are those of Brooks himself). Some of the ideas in the book are simplistic or idealistic, but most of the material is evidence-based, nuanced, and thoughtful. Also it is positive - hence the opening line: "This is the happiest story you've ever read".
“The Story Of English In 100 Words” by David Crystal (2011)
Crystal is one of the most outstanding authorities in the world on the English language and has written extensively on the subject. This work adopts a novel approach by using just 100 words to illustrate key features of the origins and development of what is now a global language and the mini essays of two-three pages each make for a book which is as readable as it is informative.
Crystal explains that, although the origin of English is Germanic (the actual name of the language is not recorded until the 10th century and the spelling England not till the 14th century), Norse and Latin contributed much to early developments and French had a huge impact in the Middle Ages. Later Latin again and Greek were used as sources of many new words. As he puts it:
“English is a vacuum cleaner of a language, whose users suck in words from other languages whenever they encounter them. And because of the way English has travelled the world, courtesy of its soldiers, sailors, traders and civil servants, several hundred languages have contributed to its lexical character. Some 80 per cent of English vocabulary is not Germanic at all.”
As Crystal takes us through his 100 chosen words, it is clear that the irregular and often odd spellings and pronunciations in English owe a lot to this borrowing from many other languages and the way English evolves over time without any authority imposing standard rules. For instance, over the history of English, 'music' has been spelt in over 40 ways.
I learned so much from this book. Just a few of the nuggets:
"Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart" by Gordon Livingston (2004)
Livingston is an American psychiarist with a special personal history: as a young man, he was depressed; he volunteered for military service in Vietnam where he won a Silver Star and was considered for court-martial; at the age of the 37, he discovered that he was adopted; he lost his eldest son of 22 to suicide following a struggle with bipolar; thirteen months later, he lost his youngest son of six to leukaemia, having himself been the bone marrow donor; as result of his grief, he contemplated suicide. Meanwhile he has spent decades listening to people in mental pain in his capacity as a professional therapist. Brought up a Catholic, he is now an agnostic who nevertheless appreciates the comfort that religion and prayer can give to many - but not him now (or me).
So this is a man with perceptive insights to offer on loss and love. As he himself expresses it: "Grief has taught me many things about the fragility of life and the finality of death".This international bestseller, originally published in 2004, is exceptionally easy to read, consisting of 30 very short chapters, each with a title containing the central message of the essay. It is not so easy, however, to accept and to follow the considered and wise advice that is set forth. So many of us are constrained by our memories of childhood or the disappointments of adulthood - as Livingstone puts it: The most secure prisons are those we construct for ourselves". The book is imbued with a message of love - for one's children, one's partner, one's family, one's friends - but it is often tough love.
Livingston writes "Life is a gamble in which we don't get to deal the cards, but are nevertheless obligated to play them to the best of our ability" and he asserts that "The three components of happiness are something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to". At times, Livingston is almost philosophical. He refers to life as "this flicker of consciousness between two great silences" and urges "an unwillingness to let the present moment be drained of joy by fear of the future or regret for the past".
Link: author's web site click here
"Touching The Void" by Joe Simpson (1988)
In June 1985, two British mountaineers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates made the first-ever climb of the West Face of the 21,000 foot snow-covered Siula Grande mountain in Peru. It was an exceptionally tough assault - but nothing compared to what was to come. Early in the descent, Simpson fell and smashed his right knee. Yates could have abandoned him but managed to find a way of lowering him down the mountain in a series of difficult drops blinded by snow and cold. Then Simpson fell into a crevasse and Yates eventually had no choice but to cut the rope, utterly convinced that his friend was now dead.
The survival of Yates himself was extraordinary. That Simpson somehow found a way of climbing out of the crevasse after 12 hours and then literally crawled and dragged himself six miles back to camp, going three days and nights without food or drink, losing three stone and contracting ketoacidosis in the process, would be the stuff of heroic fiction if it was not so true. Simpson's 1988 account of the climb, the descent and his miraculous survival is utterly compelling and life affirming, although a guide to the more technical mountaineering terms would have been useful. The style is fluent and candid and gripping.
In 2002, Joe Simpson's book was turned into an award-winning documentary film [for film review click here].
"Tuesdays With Morrie" by Mitch Albom (1997)
Professor Maurice Schwartz - known to all as Morrie - has spent 20 years as a much respected teacher of social psychology at Brandeis University in the USA when, in August 1994, he is diagnosed with the terminal illness amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Mitch Albom is one of his favourite students whose frenetic journalism career has meant that, in the 16 years since his graduation, he has never found the occasion to revisit his old mentor. A television programme about Morrie's determination to use his last months as positively as possible brings the two back together. Over 14 Tuesdays, Mitch flies 700 miles from Detroit to Boston to talk to the man he always called "Coach" about his thoughts on life and death. While Mitch's company is locked in a bitter labour dispute and much of America is fixated on the O J Simpson trial, Morrie imparts his wisdom on family, emotions, money, love, marriage, and our materialistic culture. This short and very readable work is both instructive and moving and full of affirmation and aphorisms.
"The Vagina Monologues" by Eve Ensler (1998)
In the late 1970s, there was a feminist novel, "The Women's Room" by Marilyn French, that was marketed under the heading: "This novel changes lives". I guess the same could be said today about the stage performances of American writer Eve Ensler, published in this short book, because there is no doubt that the off-Broadway production and all the publicity that has ensued has transformed how many, many women feel about themselves. The challenging and eloquent monologues are the authentic voices of a wide variety of women about female sexual organs and reproduction, about the brutality of rape, about the violation of genital mutilation. Since 1998, the "Monologues" have given risen to V-Day, a growing world-wide movement to combat violence against women held appropriately enough each 14 February [for British events click here].
"Watching The Tree To Catch The Hare" by Adeline Yen Mah (2006)
Following my holiday in China [for details click here], I've become fascinated by all things Chinese and this oddly-titled work is a wonderful introduction to Chinese culture and thought. The author is best-known for her autobiographical work "Falling Leaves" and, as someone brought up in China, educated in Britain and living in the USA, she is very well qualified to introduce Chinese beliefs to a Western readership.
I was particularly fascinated by her explanation of how the Chinese language shapes Chinese thought. The lack of rules of grammar makes ambiguity almost inevitable; words do not concentrate on the nature of things (as in Western languages), but on the relationship between things; and some concepts - like the English words for 'rights'or 'privacy' or the Chinese words for 'face' or 'white'- have no exact correspondent in the other language.
I was equally enthralled by the explanation for why the Chinese, who were so far in advance of the West in inventions such as the abacus, subsequently fell so far behind scientifically. Much of it was to do with the absence in the Chinese number system of the concepts of position or zero.
Using anecdotes from her unhappy Chinese childhood, Mah explains why the Chinese embrace Taoism and Confucianism, why they use the concepts of yin and yang, why they see food and medicine as the same thing, why they invest such importance in feng shui, and some of the thousands of meanings of the word qi.
Link: author's web site click here
"Would They Lie To You?" by Robert Hutton (2014)
Hutton is a journalist who has worked for the "Mirror" and "Financial Times" newspapers and since 2004 he has been UK political correspondent for Bloomberg. He has a produced a short and humorous guide as to how those in the Establishment - especially politicians and civil servants, managers and marketeers, and the media - contrive to deceive us without actually lying. As he puts it: "You can steer a truck through the gap between a lie and the simple truth." The work is replete with examples of words, phrases, sentences, statistics, graphs and bar charts that initially look as if they are communicating something meaningful and honest but quickly turn out to be meaningless and, well, lies.
There are two possible reactions to reading such a text: either you can become deeply cynical and disengaged from public discourse or you can use this material to sharpen your critical thinking and determine to expose such nonsense wherever it appears. If you're the kind of person who favours the more constructive form of action, check out my guide to "How To Think Critically" [click here].
'Your Personal Survival Guide To The 21st Century" by Roy Sheppard (1998)
In the late 1970s, there was a feminist work - it was "The Women's Room" by Marilyn French - that was marketed with the slogan: "This novel changes lives". Well, in a different way, this book could change your life. The author read the BBC breakfast news for five years before he was suddenly declared redundant. He reinvented himself as a business communications consultant with more control over his life, more satisfaction with his career, and much more money. He argues that, in a world of increasing business and technological change, we all need to take more responsibility for our future by acquiring new skills, seeking new contacts, and marketing ourselves which involves becoming more entrepreneurial, developing a portfolio of work opportunities, and ideally becoming self-employed.
There are general chapters on social & technological trends and changes in the workplace as well as practical chapters on how to embrace lifelong learning and how to manage your health, your time and yourself. As Sheppard puts it: "The future belongs only to those who have adequately prepared for it".
Link: author's web site click here
All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON
Last modified on 23 December 2016
Any of these books can be purchased on-line from any one of the following suppliers:
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