Review articles

Learn from my mistakes.

How Free Are You? — Ted Honderich

Science tells us that determinism (or near-determinism) is very likely to be true. Yet we feel as if we have free will. How can these be reconciled?

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How to Lie with Statistics – Darrell Huff

This book explains the many ways that people can misuse statistics to mislead you. Maybe a more descriptive title would be, “How to Tell When People are Lying to You with Statistics”. It’s a bit like being shown how a magician does a trick – except that at least with the magic trick, you already know you’re being fooled.

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Making Money – Terry Pratchett

Brilliant. This book took me some time to finish: many times I found myself re-reading sentences just because they were so clever and funny. I had several chuckles on each page, to the amusement of my family.

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The Night of All Souls – Philippa Swan

Several different narratives, two interwoven tales of deception and intrigue, and a few good tips on landscape architecture. Maybe overcooked in parts but overall a fun read.

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A Mathematician Plays the Market – John Allen Paulos

Back in the dot-com bubble of 20-odd years ago, WorldCom was one of the many companies that crashed and burned, taking investors’ money with it. John Allen Paulos was one of these investors, obsessively throwing good money after bad, long after the point when he should have cut and run. In this book he tries to explain why he succumbed to the madness of crowds like that, and in the process explains a lot about how the stock market works. He also discusses lots of interesting mathematical details, and also the benefits and pitfalls of various investment approaches.

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Human Croquet – Kate Atkinson

Book cover of Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson

This story has a dizzying start: it takes “begin at the beginning” to the extreme, and starts off at the Big Bang with an apparently omniscient narrator. Soon it settles down into a family saga where the narrative moves between a present and various times in the past. The characters are lively and well-drawn but mostly pretty stereotyped. And there is a good amount of mysterious goings-on and dramatic irony.

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Angrynomics – Lonergan and Blyth

People are always angry about something. These days they are either angry about vaccination, or angry about people who are angry about vaccination. But until recently, they were angry about things like worsening financial inequality, immigration, and lack of action on climate change. These things are affected by economic policies and events, and this book puts forth analyses and ideas to address some of the anger.

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Pond – Claire-Louise Bennett

“I only wish you could just spend five minutes beneath my skin and feel what it’s like. Feel the savage swarming magic I feel.”

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Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter — Mario Vargas Llosa

La Habanera dances in the streets
And like every night
Pedro Comacho sells peanuts
Outside the Tropicana Club

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No One Is Talking About This — Patricia Lockwood

No One is Talking About This

The first half of the book is dizzying — stupid — hilarious — it’s a series of seemingly random impressions, vignettes, observations and ideas of a narrator who is an Internet celebrity and is steeped in Internet culture.

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X + Y — Eugenia Cheng

X + Y: A mathematician's manifesto for rethinking gender, by Eugenia Cheng

It seems to me that the world is set up in such a way as to give men an unfair advantage. (Lucky me.) And not just because they are men — more because the world is set up so that certain kinds of behaviour are favoured, and those behaviours are more common in men than in women. There are behaviours that are thought of as typically masculine or feminine, but talking about them in those terms just reinforces the stereotypes that we should try to abolish. As soon as we say “men are like this”, someone else will reasonably say “not all men!” and we end up with an argument instead of progress.

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At the Existentialist Cafe — Susan Bakewell

At The Existentialist Cafe by Susan Bakewell

This is an excellent and wide-ranging description of the genesis of existentialism. It includes descriptions of all the major figures you have heard of, like Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus, and further back to the likes of Heidegger and Nietzsche and many many more. After reading this I feel I have a much better idea of these people as people, rather than abstract ideas or buzzwords. Although mostly, I would rather just know their ideas since it seems they weren’t all the nicest people. It’s interesting to read about the long and fraught relationships that (maybe) helped shape their thought.

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The Deficit Myth — Stephanie Kelton

Why can’t the government just print more money?

That’s a pretty obvious question, and I feel it’s not often answered satisfactorily. This book discusses the way money works from the viewpoint of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), which seems to make a lot of sense. As I understand it, here’s how things should work.

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Free Speech — Timothy Garton Ash

This is a considered and level-headed approach to free speech. Ash avoids the platitudes and black-and-white dogmatism of the more extreme woke and anti-woke thinking. Instead, he tries to go back to first principles: about what is good and bad about free speech and what happens when it gets pushed too far in various directions. He discusses what the rules concerning free speech should be, and also the laws (they aren’t necessarily the same). In the end he distills it down to ten principles:

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Lolita — Vladimir Nabokov

Book cover: The Annotated Lolita. This is a boring clip art image since I read an ebook and so have no nice photo of my own.

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 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.

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The Big Shift — Deirdre Kent

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… 

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Rain — Kirsty Gunn

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.

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Hello World — Hannah Fry

“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.

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Introducing Critical Theory — Stuart Sim

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.

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The Lies that Bind — Kwame Anthony Appiah

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. 

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Replay – Ken Grimwood

I do love a good time-travel story. A middle-aged man has a heart attack and dies – and then wakes up again as a young man back in his college days. Once he figures out what has happened, he sets about figuring out how to deal with it. He’s got an amazing opportunity to replay his life, fixing all the mistakes and maybe becoming rich too. (If it happened to me I would definitely be buying quite a lot of Bitcoin.)

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The Myth of Choice — Kent Greenfield

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.”

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Hate Inc. — Matt Taibbi

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. 

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Alice in Puzzle-Land — Raymond Smullyan

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:

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5000 B.C. and Other Philosophical Fantasies — Raymond Smullyan

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.

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Wittgenstein’s Mistress — David Markson

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.

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The Mystery of Things — A. C. Grayling

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. 

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Fate, Time and Language — David Foster Wallace

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.

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How to Think — Alan Jacobs

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.

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The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists — Robert Tressell

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.

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