This is the fictional autobiography of one Humbert Humbert, written in his jail cell near the end of his life. He is very erudite and quite engaging despite being unhealthily obsessed with young girls. He falls in love with the title character (his landlady’s young daughter) and ends up taking her on an extended a road trip across the USA. They purport to be father and daughter but are actually lovers. At the beginning Lolita seems reasonably willing to go along with everything, but Humbert gradually reveals how controlling he is and how unhappy Lolita really is. He slowly loses his grip and eventually loses Lolita, and commits the crime that finally lands him in jail. The writing throughout is clever, inventive and endlessly rewarding to read, despite the bleak and tawdry subject matter.Continue reading
This slim volume sets out some pretty radical proposals for fixing New Zealand’s monetary and financial systems. These systems are not working as well as they should, and Kent’s ideas could improve society and help deal with climate change. I can’t see them happening anytime soon, but the future is a very long time…Continue reading
Did you ever read a book or watch a film where you could just tell that something awful was going to happen? You dreaded the turn of every page in anticipation of the imminent horror. And yet you just had to keep reading, to find out what actually happens.Continue reading
“Algorithms” will save the world, or possibly destroy it. This book is a good survey of how computerised algorithms are used and misused, and how they can be harnessed so their power can be used for good rather than evil.Continue reading
This is a dizzying whirlwind tour of Marxism, feminism, postmodernism, and so many other isms, theorists, philosophers and various thinkers. It can’t do much more than give the briefest summaries of these ideas, but it does help to see how they fit together historically. Sadly there is nothing on critical race theory, which seems to have become a thing recently. Still there is a lot to chew on and a lot of launching points for further reading, if only I had a spare decade or so.
This is an enlightening discussion of what identity is and how it works, both in history and in the present day. Appiah weaves explanations together with history, anecdotes and analysis. He also adds some personal stories and perspectives from his own quite interesting background.Continue reading
When you need to make a decision, having more choices isn’t necessarily better: what really matters is ending up with a good result. Greenfield cites an old Burger King advert: “Choices don’t mean a thing when there’s nothing good to choose.”Continue reading
The news is a consumer product.
That’s the one thing that Matt Taibbi wants us to learn from this book. He lays out in great detail why the media has become such a monster: conflict is good for ratings, so it’s in the interests of TV shows, websites and newspapers to emphasise conflict, and manufacture it if necessary.Continue reading
This Alice In Wonderland-inspired puzzle book is a fun setting for lots of logic puzzles. They are mostly the “Liar and Truther” type, like this one:Continue reading
This random grab bag of philosophical ideas covers religion, ethics, metaphysics, logic and quite a lot more. It’s not really cohesive but it is interesting all the way through.Continue reading
This book is a diary written by the last person on earth. It’s not initially clear what happened to everyone else, but we find out that she has been alone for some years, travelling around in abandoned cars and living in various interesting abandoned buildings (such as museums). It becomes clear that she is becoming a bit unhinged; understandable in her circumstances. To me this book reads like a study in memory, regret and self-deception, though that makes it sound a bit grim; there is a fair bit of humour in this book. The overall tone is reminiscent of Markson’s This is Not a Novel. Wittgenstein’s Mistress is more conventional, but that wouldn’t be hard: it’s still a strange, amusing and unsettling read.
Grayling always has something interesting to say, and a carefully-considered and nicely-worded way of saying it. This book is divided into three parts, devoted to Art, History and Science. Each part contains a dozen or so essays on related topics.Continue reading
In 1962, a short philosophy paper caused a little flurry in philosophical circles. Two decades later David Foster Wallace, armed with further developments in analysis, created an elaborate system of notation to solve the problem raised in the paper. This book contains Richard Taylor’s original paper, the resultant flurry, and Wallace’s solution. It also contains a fair amount of background information about the whole exchange.Continue reading
I almost always find it faintly depressing reading comment threads on social media. They so often consist of two sides vigorously attacking imaginary strawman arguments from the other side. Nobody wins; everybody just ends up looking shrill and petty. I often start typing a response, but usually think better of wasting my time adding fuel to the fire. As Alan Jacobs says in this excellent book: “We have an inbuilt and powerful disposition towards dichotomising — but one that we don’t have to obey.” I have gotten better at not doing this, partly because I find it so dispiriting when reading comments from people who have eagerly retreated far into their corner so they can poke barbs at the “other” in their corner.Continue reading
A hundred or so years ago, the English working classes had terribly rough lives.They spent half their time working under harsh conditions and the other half desperately looking for work. They never had enough food or clothing. But despite their ragged clothing they were content to spend their lives working for the betterment of their fellow men — in particular, their employers, who did no productive work themselves but instead spent their time cheating and exploiting their clients and employees.Continue reading
This is a description of how human languages work and why they cannot be tamed. Greene thinks we should understand language by understanding how it originated and developed, and allowing our understanding (and standards) to develop too. This is opposed to the “traditionalist” or “prescriptivist” point of view, which says we must determine the most logical set of rules for our language and defend them to the death. But the prescriptivists have been discredited now. We don’t think there’s anything wrong with splitting infinitives or ending with prepositions any more; even the singular “they” has become more and more acceptable, even before Facebook and all the modern gender pronoun malarkey. Like Thanos, it is inevitable.Continue reading
Mary-Kay Wilmers writes like she’s the editor of an august literary magazine. And in fact she is the founder and editor of my favourite magazine, the London Review of Books. She also writes for it sometimes, and this book is a collection of her writing from the magazine. In these pieces, her tone is dispassionate, even when she writes about herself; the end product is “clear as vodka”, as John Lanchester writes in the introduction.Continue reading
This affecting story has a bit of mystery and a satisfying resolution, and some lovely writing along the way. I also quite appreciated the single-word chapter titles, which reinforce an atmosphere of uncertainty throughout.Continue reading
Like you, I try to think carefully and express my points of view clearly, with meticulous steps of reasoning combining seamlessly to form watertight, irrefutable arguments. And yet people still argue with me and fail to be convinced. How can this be so? This book explains how logic works in theory, how it fails in the real world, and how to fix it.Continue reading
Friedrich Nietzsche has been called the most influential philosopher of the 20th century. His life story is full of pain and frustration; it’s harrowing at times and does not end well for him personally. This detailed yet lively biography is pretty interesting despite, or maybe because of, the mountain of tangential minutiae in it.Continue reading
This book starts out as a day in the life of a group of six schoolgirls. This is a world that is unfamiliar to me, so it seemed exotic and yet still quite believable. After establishing the characters and putting them through some ups and downs, we fast-forward several years: we get to see the girls as adults, see how they’ve changed but how they mostly haven’t, and see how they deal with the directions their lives have taken. It’s a nice ensemble piece. The women are more or less relatable but they are all interesting, and their stories are full of nicely-rendered moments. And there are some very satisfying resolutions too.
Many people consider this to be the greatest novel ever written, and who am I to argue — I loved it. The main characters are well-rounded and believable — I especially liked the man-about-town Oblonsky (he of the famous unhappy family which is unhappy in its own way) and the solid and thoughtful Levin (Tolstoy under another name).Continue reading
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.Continue reading
“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.Continue reading
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.Continue reading
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.
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.
Every day for a year, Catherine Chidgey recorded or wrote down a conversation, email, overheard snippet, advertisement or some other piece of text. That’s what this book is. Initially it’s pretty disorienting as there’s only speech — no introductions, descriptions or even “he said” or “she said”. It takes a while to figure out who the characters are and what their relationships are. Even by the end of the book I was still losing track of who was talking during long conversations.Continue reading
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.Continue reading
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.Continue reading
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.Continue reading