Articles about books

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

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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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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