Articles about books

A book is a present you can open again and again.

On Numbers and Games — John H Conway

On Numbers and GamesThis amazing book sets out a mathematical framework for describing and constructing numbers, and then generalises this to a way of analysing certain games. You probably need a postgraduate degree in mathematics to really understand all of it. I am not quite that qualified, but I know enough to be awed by what can be done by simply starting with nothing. Literally nothing: Conway starts with just an empty set, and proceeds to show how to spin this out into integers, rational numbers, real numbers, infinite numbers, infinitesimal numbers, and (believe it or not) more.

The whole class of numbers he constructs is called the Surreal numbers, and that’s a fair evocation of the way this book stretches my mind. I can generally understand the steps in the various derivations, but it takes some time and effort to develop the intuition to really understand the later constructions and to see where they are heading. Conway obviously had this intuition: after working on the ideas for some years, he wrote this book in just a week.

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The Ego Trick — Julian Baggini

The Ego Trick by Julian BagginiThis is a pretty good exposition of the “bundle theory” of consciousness. The idea is that “consciousness” does not exist: all there are are discrete conscious experiences, which combine to form the illusion of an integrated cohesive mind. This is the “ego trick” that we all play on ourselves.

These days I feel that this is something like the truth, but I will need to do a lot more thinking and read a lot more books like this one before I am fully comfortable with the idea.

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Roots of Empathy — Mary Gordon

Roots of EmpthyRoots of Empathy is a program that tries to teach schoolchildren empathy. Empathy is a crucially important quality: it can help overcome the problem of the “ethical fade“. And it seems obvious that empathic people are probably just nicer people.

Roots of Empathy works through regular class visits from a newborn baby and parent. Over the year of the Roots of Empathy program, the schoolchildren are able to see the baby grow and develop, and experience first-hand the bond between parent and baby. It seems to be quite successful in instilling worthwhile values, even in children that are hard to reach any other way. This books describes the program and tells its story.

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The Fall Of Light — Sarah Laing

The Fall Of LightI like this book. It has a story to make you happy and sad, pictures to make you wonder, and themes to make you think.

Sarah Laing is a cartoonist as well as a writer — I knew of her work from magazines and from her blog Let Me Be Frank. I read a review of The Fall of Light somewhere and thought it sounded interesting. Sometime later I realised that the cartoonist/blogger was also the novelist, so I went out and bought the book.

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How Children Succeed — Paul Tough

How Children SucceedHow do you rate for the following personal qualities?

  • Grit
  • Self-control
  • Zest
  • Social intelligence
  • Gratitude
  • Optimism
  • Curiosity

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There But For The — Ali Smith

Have you ever been at some awful social gathering and just wanted to get up and walk out? Have you ever been at a stranger’s lovely house and wished you lived there instead of your own hovel?

That’s what happens in the central event of There But For The — a man, Miles, gets up in the middle of an excruciating dinner party, goes upstairs, and barricades himself into the spare bedroom. He stays there for many weeks, eventually becoming a local celebrity.

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Redirect — Timothy Wilson

Redirect lays out a set of techniques for achieving real, lasting change in our behaviour and improving our lives. Actually, this book doesn’t really tell you what to do — it isn’t a self-help book — instead, it describes why these techniques work so well (and also points out that many other ideas don’t).

Story-editing is a way to change behaviour indirectly, by changing the narratives we all have about the kinds of people we are, and the way we interpret the thing that happen to us. This is important because flawed concepts of ourselves and others leads us to all kinds of damaging cognitive errors (see also, for example, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) and Blind Spots). All of us fall prey to these errors. Yes, that includes you. (Also, me.) Wilson also talks about story-prompting, subtle ways to influence behaviour for the better (or otherwise, as the advertising industry has discovered). This is covered thoroughly by another book, Nudge, which I have read but somehow forgot to write about.

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Life After Life — Kate Atkinson

Cover of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson“What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?” This plot micro-summary was enough to make me pick up this book. That and Kate Atkinson’s reputation. I had planned to read her first novel when it was released; then her second and third, but somehow I never managed to read any of them. I probably will now.

So I wondered, suppose you did get the chance to live your life again and again. How would you know that you were getting repeat chances? And how would you know when you finally got it right? And then what would happen? Atkinson manages to convincingly address these questions, but without letting the technical issues dominate an affecting story of an engaging and (necessarily) resilient protagonist living through two world wars. The story is about her inner life, her family life, and society during these unimaginably difficult times.

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Blind Spots — Bazerman & Tenbrunsel

This book is all about the field of Behavioural Ethics — how what we do is affected by the way we think about what we do. And vice versa. (Perhaps I could have explained that better.) Probably the most important concept is the idea of Ethical Fade, which happens when a problem with a strong ethical dimension is recast as a different kind of problem. For example, company executives trying to decide how much to charge for some drug might think of it as purely a business decision; the ethical element fades away, leading to a decision that may benefit the company’s profits but is actually at odds with what the executives would normally wish to do.

This is related to the hoops that our minds jump through in trying to reduce feelings of cognitive dissonance. This idea is developed more in an earlier book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me).

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The Meaning of Things — A. C. Grayling

This book of thoughtful mini-essays on life’s big topics is a pleasure to read. But maybe I only think that because I agree with a lot of what Grayling has to say. But maybe I only agree with him because he’s right. You’ll have to read it and decide for yourself.

Most of the essays are only a page or two, so this is a good book to delve into at random. (In fact that’s what Grayling recommends. I always ignore recommendations like that though — I’m a “begin-at-the-beginning” kind of guy.) They are grouped into three categories: Virtues and Attributes (such as Fear, Death, and Blame); Foes and Fallacies (Racism, Christianity, Capitalism); and Amenities and Goods (Education, Reading, Age). The essays originally appeared as newspaper columns, so there is some repetition and a few rough edges — the book could do with a bit of editing.

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