Review articles

Learn from my mistakes.

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work — Alain de Botton

This book sees de Botton travelling on a commercial fishing vessel, shadowing an accountant for a day, and accompanying an aeronautical engineering team as they prepare and launch a rocket into space, among other adventures. He takes us through each assignment and uses them to muse on how human beings use their time, and why, and how we might do it better.

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Confessions of a Heretic — Roger Scruton

“The Scrutonizer”*, real name Roger Scruton (or more correctly and impressively, Sir Roger Scruton) is an English conservative (but not Conservative) philosopher. He is no right-wing loony though — his views tend to be very carefully considered and sensible. This book collects a number of his thoughtful yet somewhat fierce essays.

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How Bad Writing Destroyed the World — Adam Weiner

A bad 19th-century Russian novel inspired Ayn Rand’s bad 20th-century novels, which inspired Alan Greenspan to become chairman of the US Federal Reserve and “destroy the world” by laying the foundations for the Global Financial Collapse of 2008. That’s the premise behind this book.

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How Not To Be Wrong — Jordan Ellenberg

One of the great joys of mathematics is the incontrovertible feeling that you’ve understood something the right way, all the way down to the bottom.

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The Beat of the Pendulum — Catherine Chidgey

This experimental “found novel” is great. Once I got into it, it was like a beautifully edited minimalistic fly-on-the-wall documentary in print.

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Images — Ingmar Bergman

I have never seen an Ingmar Bergman film. They have always seemed to me to be the epitome of impenetrable, confusing European art-house cinema. This book doesn’t change that impression, but it does make me want to watch some of these films.

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Man’s Search for Meaning & Introducing Existentialism

Viktor Frankl was a doctor who spend several years during the second world war in concentration camps and forced labour camps, including Auschwitz. He writes about his experiences in the camps and about how camp life affected people — both the prisoners and the guards.

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Can You Solve My Problems? — Alex Bellos

You have a handful of coins spread out on the table in front of you. You put on a blindfold, and someone flips over some of the coins, then tells you how many are showing heads. You can now move the coins around and turn them over.

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The Ten Types of Human — Dexter Dias

This book introduces ten types of human, such as the Aggressor, the Tribalist, the Nurturer, the Rescuer. They’re really types of personality, not human, since the idea is that human beings have all these traits to varying degrees. Each is illustrated by stories of people who have survived various extreme situations. Dias’s idea is that these people’s stories will illustrate the different types. I don’t think they all do, but they are mostly interesting nonetheless.

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The Soul of the Marionette — John Gray

“Provocative and freewheeling” reads the blurb on this book. That’s a fair description, though “freewheeling” could just as well be “unfocused” or “rambling”. Gray claims that modern culture, especially western culture, pretends to be rationalistic and scientific but is actually just as religious as older faith-based cultures. In fact he treads the well-worn path of saying that the older cultures are more “authentic” and that what we have now is just a confused version of what came before:

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Everybody Lies — Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Google remembers every search anyone does. If you combine all that data in the right ways, you can come up with a lot of results, theories and conclusions. That’s what Seth Stephens-Davidowitz does in this book. The title comes from one of his conclusions: people say they do things (in surveys and so on) but the aggregated search data from Google shows that a large number of them are lying. It’s a clever idea and he draws out a lot of interesting material (enough to fill a book!). If you’ve ever typed “why does my cat” into Google just to see what suggestions pop up, then this book is for you.

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A Cabinet of Philosophical Curiosities — Roy Sorensen

Each day you must take an A pill and a B pill. After you tap an A pill into your palm you inadvertently tap two B pills into your hand. The A and B pills are indistinguishable. The pills are expensive and you must not overdose. Can you still use the pills you have mixed up?

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Elizabeth Smither — The Mathematics of Jane Austen

It was probably the title that enticed me to buy this collection of understated short stories. The title story is about a woman trying to write a thesis on the use of mathematical concepts in the writings of Jane Austen. It’s clever, amusing and likeable. I enjoyed reading the stories, which made a relaxing contrast to the harrowing writing of Lucia Berlin or Miranda July.

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Minna Needs Rehearsal Space — Dorthe Nors

This book is fun.
This book is short.
This whole book is a staccato list of sentences.
Like these.
It’s about a woman called Minna.
Minna needs rehearsal space.
Obviously.
But she is stymied by her boyfriend.
She is stymied by her sister.
She is stymied by her friends.
It’s harder than you think, getting a rehearsal space.

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One Hundred Prisoners and a Light Bulb — van Ditmarsch & Kooi

You and two other logicians (Alice and Bob) are in a room. A controller comes in and paints a spot onto each of your foreheads. You can each see the others’ spots (Alice and Bob both have black spots) but not your own. The controller tells you all that all the spots are black or white, and at least one of you has a black spot. Then the controller asks if anyone knows the colour of their spot. Everyone says no. The controller asks the same question a second time: again, everyone says no. The controller then asks the same question a third time. What do you say now?

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The Ring of the Nibelungen — P. Craig Russell; Rudolf Sabor

I’ve heard of comic operas, but here is a comic based on an opera. My children have some books illustrated by P. Craig Russell, so I was excited to find that he has produced a comic book adaptation of Richard Wagner’s Ring operas. It’s pretty impressive: the opera cycle runs to about 15 hours long, and this comic book adaptation (or graphic novel, if you like) is over 400 full-colour pages.

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The Mind-Body Problem — Rebecca Goldstein


If you don’t already know a lot about the history of philosophy, you will by the time you’ve finished this book. If you do, then you’ll recognise a lot of it. Like Goldstein’s more recent 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, this book is full of philosophy, Jewish culture and academia. But there’s also quite a lot of sex. Or at least lots of musing about sex.

I find it pretty ingenious how Goldstein manages to incorporate so many concepts from philosophy explicitly into this story of a young woman academic’s love life. She explains the ideas succinctly either through the characters or direct to the reader, and makes them all relevant and apposite. This would actually be a great book to read as you embark on a course in philosophy.

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On What Matters — Derek Parfit


How should we live? And why does it matter?

This book is just amazing. In its two massive volumes, Derek Parfit lays out a very detailed and very carefully argued ethical framework. It’s like a prodigiously sustained deep dive into his classic book Reasons and Persons with lots of examples and explanations. It’s also a conversation: one chapter consists of responses to parts of the book from other philosophers, which Parfit then responds to in turn.

From free will to the trolley problem, there is a lot to argue with and a lot to think about. Immersing yourself in it will give you a greater appreciation of what really matters — and just as importantly, why.

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The Long Earth — Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter


Like a lot of great SF, this starts with just one single premise. What if we suddenly discovered an unlimited number of pristine Earths, and we could all travel between them at the flick of a switch?

One day, a blueprint for a very simple electrical device appears on the Internet. Thousands of people build one of these little boxes, flick the switch — and disappear. They’ve “stepped” to an alternative Earth, untouched by humans. From there they can go back or continue on to a multitude of more-or-less parallel Earths. The story follows a number of characters through the massive social changes that follow on from this: suddenly there are endless frontiers, on pristine worlds where environmental degradation and climate change are irrelevant. There is also a lot of sci-fi adventure as people explore millions of the alternative Earths, some of which are very different — essentially alien worlds. And they don’t just stop there — the third book in the series is called The Long Mars.

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Meg


Meg is the Italian Björk. And if you think that’s glib, try this: Meg would be the result if Björk joined Fever Ray and they went clubbing in Naples. Glib, yes, but maybe on the right track. Of course there is a lot more to her music than those easy comparisons, but they are a good place to start.

Meg’s singing reminds me a lot of Björk, but also of Karin Dreijer (from Fever Ray and The Knife). A lot of her songs seem to come from the same place as Björk’s, from the (mostly) electronic production that somehow still sounds organic, to the huge expressiveness of her vocals. But there is sometimes a slightly unhinged edge to the voice that makes me think of Dreijer. The only thing I can’t comment on is her lyrics, since I don’t understand Italian. She does sound a bit more subdued in her few English-language songs, so I’m sure Italian speakers would get even more out of Meg’s music than I do.

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A Selfie as Big as the Ritz — Lara Williams


I loved this book of short stories even though most of them don’t end especially happily. The stories are written in a variety of voices, but almost all concern young women navigating problematic relationships. (Some of the women are older; some stories focus on men; but relationships are a constant.) Reading each story feels like inhabiting the character. It’s fun to be in someone else’s skin for a few minutes.

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Turning Learning Right Side Up — Ackoff & Greenberg

Standard education systems are broken: Turning Learning Right Side Up points towards a way of fixing them. It argues that the current system of education was designed for purposes that no longer make sense. (Ken Robinson’s TED talk Do schools kill creativity? is the classic formulation of this problem.) Then this book talks about how education could be designed to help children become fully-rounded adults.

The emphasis is on learning rather than teaching, with children taking the initiative in their activities and even in the organisation of the school. This is already the norm at a few places, such as the famous Sudbury Valley School in the USA. It works well partly because a family that sends their child to such a school has probably already prepared them for this more independent style of education. I think it could work more generally, but it must start very early — children will need to grow up understanding that this is how schools work. Places like Playcentre in NZ get them started on the right track, with their philosophy of child-initiated play. We just need to continue this idea as they move through the education system.

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The Trolley Problem — Thomas Cathcart

You see a runaway railway trolley about to careen through a tunnel: five people in the tunnel will not be able to escape in time and will surely be killed. But then you see a switch that would divert the trolley into a different tunnel. Unfortunately there is somebody in there too, who will be killed if you divert the trolley. What do you do? Do you flip the switch and kill one person to save five?

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The Road to Serfdom — Friedrich Hayek


“Freddie” Hayek is, of course, famous for the epic rap battles between him and his arch-nemesis, the maverick economist and Bloomsbury groupie John Maynard Keynes. Keynes may have been more charismatic, but Hayek had the edge in writing. The Road to Serfdom is a compelling and passionate defence of free-market economics and is much more readable than Keynes’s dense The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Even the title is snappier. (The General Theory wasn’t written for a popular audience, though — Essays in Persuasion is a better read, although maybe less influential.)

Hayek does come across as a bit of a Cassandra, terrified that a bit of well-meaning socialism is just the first step on the slippery slope to fascism, totalitarianism and, well, serfdom. The shrillness of his warnings is explained by the context: he was writing during the second world war, and saw echoes in contemporary American society of Germany in the interwar years. He grew up in Austria before living and working in the USA and England, so he was well-placed for this comparison.

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Slouching Towards Bethlehem — Joan Didion


This classic book of essays is divided into three parts. The first part covers California in the 1960s. This makes the sixties seem just as crazy as their reputation — Didion lived through some turbulent times back then so I’m glad she wrote it all down for us to read about. The third part of the book is more varied as she writes about various other places from different viewpoints.

The middle of the book is my favourite part. These more personal essays are just wonderful. She can capture feelings with uncanny accuracy and she offers a lot of wisdom and understanding. I will be rereading them often.

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Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction — Susan Blackmore


This is a nice pocket-sized guide to consciousness. Actually it’s a guide to the problem of consciousness, since there is no consensus on what consciousness is or even exactly what the word means. Blackmore is even-handed regarding the various competing viewpoints, though it may all be slightly coloured by her own views, which are heavily influenced by Buddhism. And if you think that’s an incongruous stance for a hardcore psychologist/philosopher to take, then you really should read this book.

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Demian — Hermann Hesse


Demian is very mysterious and alluring. This book is about him and his influence on the narrator — they first meet when they are both schoolboys. Demian then turns up repeatedly as the years go by, gradually taking the narrator into a circle of freethinking misfits. It’s less fanciful than the other Hesse novels I have read, but still packs a bit of a punch.

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Blink — Malcolm Gladwell


Snap judgements are surprisingly accurate. Even the ones we make without knowing how. Even the ones we make when we don’t even know we are doing it: “I just had a bad feeling about him, I can’t explain it”. This book gives evidence and explanations for this. It’s interesting in itself, but the trouble is it has been a very influential book — since it was published, its examples have been cited and reused so many times in so many places that what must once have been groundbreaking now seems overly familiar. I had similar thoughts the last time I saw a performance of Hamlet: the dialogue just seemed to be one cliche after another. Of course, they weren’t cliches when Shakespeare wrote the play!

Even so, the sections towards the end about microexpressions were very interesting and new, at least to me. They give some insight into where the “bad feelings” about people might come from, and maybe some pointers into how you could train yourself to read people and situations better. So even now this is still a worthwhile read from a very influential writer.

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Zeustian Logic — Sabrina Malcolm


This story is more fun than you would think, given that it is about a teenage boy coming to terms with his father’s death. Astronomy and mythology are two of Tuttle’s boyish hobbies; they run like threads through the stories he tells his younger brother and the conversations he has with his friend, and also play a big part in the novel’s resolution. His father, a famous mountaineer, disappeared in controversial circumstances which made his loss even harder for his family to deal with. The repercussions continue even a year later, when the novel is set.

Apart from dealing with his father’s death, he also has to deal with his mother and brother, who are struggling in their own way to manage. And of course he also has to negotiate the usual teenage issues; mostly school, and also the juvenile delinquent petrolhead who lives next door (along with his cute half-sister — it’s not all bad).

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Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea — Jules Verne


It’s good to finally read this famous book, starring the famous Captain Nemo and his famous ship the Nautilus, and discover that its fame is well-deserved: it’s a page-turning adventure story with drama, intrigue and nifty gadgets.

The narrator, a maritime expert, joins an expedition and eventually ends up aboard the Nautilus with couple of his companions. In a series of episodes we find out about the ship, a little about the captain, and a lot about various going-on under the sea. Verne puts a lot of really interesting and generally plausible ideas into the story, which is impressive for a speculative fiction written nearly 150 years ago. I have always wondered about the title though: I always thought that it referred to a depth of 20,000 leagues, but then I discovered that 20,000 leagues is about 100,000km, ten times deeper than any ocean. I now realise that it’s simply the distance travelled while under the sea — they circumnavigate the globe underwater, following a very meandering path.

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