Articles about books

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

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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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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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 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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