Review articles

Learn from my mistakes.

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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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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Talk on the Wild Side — Lane Greene

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.

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Human Relations and Other Difficulties — Mary-Key Wilmer

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.

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Unless — Carol Shields

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.

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The Art of Logic — Eugenia Cheng

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.

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I Am Dynamite! — Sue Prideaux

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.

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Six Clever Girls Who Became Famous Women — Fiona Farrell

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.

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Anna Karenina — Leo Tolstoy

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).

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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.

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.

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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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