on books

16 October 2013

Malcolm Gladwell is sometimes criticised on the basis that, although he has a reputation as a thinker, all he does is précis other people’s research. That’s not fair. Popularising academic ideas with style for a broad audience is hardly an ignoble pursuit. The real problem with Gladwell goes far deeper. It is the method that he has helped make ubiquitous in modern non-fiction trade publishing.

“Through these stories,” he explains in the introduction to his latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, “I want to explore two ideas.” The method of “exploring” ideas through stories is now the preferred mode of, or replacement for, serious thought and argument. Unfortunately, it can lead an incautious writer into a conceptual shambles.

Gladwell is a brilliant salesman for a certain kind of cognitive drug. He tells his readers that everything they thought they knew about a subject is wrong, and then delivers what is presented as a counterintuitive discovery but is actually a bromide of familiar clichés. The reader is thus led on a pleasant quasi-intellectual tour, to be reassured at the end that a flavour of folksy wisdom was right all along. Little things really can make a big difference; trusting your gut can be better than overthinking; successful people work hard.

The art here lies in making the platitudinous conclusion seem like a revelatory place to end up, after one has enjoyed the colourful “stories” about carefully described plucky individuals with certain hairstyles and particular kinds of trousers. (Actual quote: “He is a tall young man with carefully combed dark-brown hair and neatly pressed khakis.”) Such books must thus be constructed with a certain suspenseful cunning. Gladwell likes first to tell an apparently convincing story and then declare that it’s not true, like a magician pulling an empty hat out of a rabbit.

Read the rest at the New Republic.

6 July 2013

On modern nature writing

The idealisation of the natural world is as old as the city, to the corrupting influence of which a return to pastoral life is always presented as a cure. But the increasing modern appetite of metropolitan readers for books about walking around and discovering yourself in nature is the literary equivalent of the rise of the north London “farmers’ market”. Both feed on nostalgie de la boue – the French term for a kind of rustic-fancying inverted snobbery, which literally means “nostalgia for the mud”. In the case of the urban consumer of nature writing, of course, the mud is to be hosed off one’s mental Range Rover immediately one lifts one’s eyes from the page and gives silent thanks for the civilised appurtenances of hot yoga and flat whites.

Much of the pastoral literary genre has long been a solidly bourgeois form of escapism. But nature is today also the arena for an oddly sublimated politics, and recent nature writing reflects some peculiarly modern concerns – sometimes in a way that the nice liberal audience would surely disown if applied to human affairs. In an era of immigration anxiety, for example, the ubiquitous ecological rhetoric of “native” and “invasive” species projects on to the natural world the patterns of human geopolitics. People talk of the grey squirrel as though he were the Middle Eastern asylum-seeker or eastern European plumber of tabloid hate-mongering, come over here as a benefits tourist or cunning job-thief.

Consider, too, the poor sheep, target of George Monbiot’s passionate scorn in Feral, his recent manifesto for “rewilding” (bringing back animals that were once native, such as wolves). “I have an unhealthy obsession with sheep,” Monbiot writes. “I hate them.” Why so? “Partly as a result of their assaults,” Monbiot laments, evoking a picture of serried ranks of sheep marching militaristically over the hillsides in coordinated attacks, “Wales now possesses less than one-third of the average forest cover of Europe.” Sheep have been able to wreak such devastation, he says, “because they were never part of our native ecosystem”, and so “the vegetation of this country has evolved no defences against sheep.”

So goes the green version of the English Defence League: sheep aren’t natives! They are “a feral invasive species”. They don’t belong here. “Invasive species,” Monbiot complains, “challenge attempts to defend a unique and distinctive fauna and flora” – just as anti-immigration demagogues claim that foreigners will destroy a unique and distinctive British culture. “Certain animals and plants,” Monbiot warns us, even “have characteristics that allow them to invade” – what, like Panzers and U-boats? – “and colonise many parts of the world.” Thus each ecosystem is conceived as a little Westphalian nation state, vulnerable to assault by expansionist outsiders.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

14 May 2013

Inferno
by Dan Brown

The tall writer Steven Poole opened the wooden door of the strong house and peered at the small figure on the stone doorstep. It was a boy. Cradled in his palms the boy nervously proffered a startling object. It was the new book by the famous novelist Dan Brown.

The tall writer took the precious artefact from the nervous boy’s hands and thanked him. The miniature human scuttled off. An idling engine revved into life. The writer glanced down the street, then retreated into the residential building. He knew he had better get to work. Looking at his Tag Heuer Swiss watch, he calculated that he had only 48 hours to decode the arcane puzzle of the bestselling author’s latest novel.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

13 April 2013

Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, by Melissa Mohr

Did he just say what I think he said? In late 2010, Britain erupted in merriment when a radio interviewer attempted to introduce his guest, “the culture secretary Jeremy Hunt,” and accidentally replaced the first letter of the man’s surname with an earlier-used consonant. Swearwords, even in our proudly informal age, have lost none of their power to offend or amuse. Last year, the Supreme Court earnestly discussed whether the Federal Communications Commission could punish broadcasters for “fleeting expletives”—words that “unexpectedly” arise during live conversation. For the moment, the court decided, the FCC can, though it was advised to reconsider its overall “indecency” policy.

One long-standing response to regulation and social censure has been to adopt an innocent expression and just change a letter or two. Norman Mailer’s World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead, featured salty-tongued sailors saying “fug” and “fugging.” More recently, Syfy’s much-admired TV series Battlestar Galactica had swearers in space saying “frak” and “frakking.” (Today these words are more likely to evoke a method of getting at shale gas.) One can be even more direct with homophony. Generations of students have giggled in not-quite-innocent pleasure over Hamlet’s asking Ophelia: “Do you think I meant country matters?”

We can safely assume that humans have been both reveling in and claiming to be offended by language deemed “obscene” for as long as they have been talking. Or at the very least, as Melissa Mohr demonstrates in her intelligent and enjoyable new book, since Roman times, when there were already a variety of names for acts and body parts, from proper to very lewd (the guessable “cunnus” and “futuo”; the more obscure “landica” and “irrumo”). In Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, Ms. Mohr leads us on an often ear-boggling tour of verbal depravity, through the medieval and early-modern periods (via a fascinating analysis of scatological phrasing in early Bible translations) to the Victorian era and then our own time. She also makes a serious point, cutely captured in the book’s title. Our idea of “swearing” is irredeemably muddled—caught between the sacred, as in the taking of oaths (the title’s “Holy”), and the profane, as in the use of terms for evacuatory and erotic adventure (the title’s other word).

Read the rest at the Wall Street Journal.

27 March 2013

Sound and its discontents through history
Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening, by David Hendy (Profile)

During a classical music concert, a cough is rarely just a cough. According to a recent paper by the economist Andreas Wagener, people are twice as likely to cough during a concert as at other times. Furthermore, they are more likely to cough during modern, atonal music than during better-known repertoire and they cough more during slow or quiet passages than during fast and loud ones.

The classical cough, then, is no accident but rather a form of communication disguised as involuntary physiological tic. “Because of their ambiguity – they may always be forgiven as bodily reflexes – coughs are a noisy substitute for direct, verbal communication and participation,” Wagener writes. “They allow for social interaction up to contagious herding, propagate (possibly incorrect) assessments of the performance and reassure concert-goers in their aesthetic judgements.”

Coughers might thus be rebelling nonverbally against the hierarchy imposed on them – that of powerful, noise-making performers and submissive, silent audience. Wagener’s paper is too recent to have found its way into David Hendy’s book, but it reflects in this way one of Noise’s major themes – that social groups struggle for supremacy using sound as a proxy.

Read the rest at the New Statesman.

20 March 2013

To Save Everything, Click Here, by Evgeny Morozov
Big Data, by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier

Newsflash: the internet doesn’t exist. If you think there is just one thing called “the Internet” with a single logic and set of values — rather than a variety of different networked technologies, each with its own character and challenges – and that the rest of the world must be reshaped around it, then you are an “Internet-centrist”. If you think the messiness and inefficiency of political and cultural life are problems that should be fixed using technology, then you are a “solutionist”. And if you think that the age of Twitter and online videos of sneezing cats is so unlike anything that has gone before that we must tear up the rule-book of civilisation, then you are an “epochalist”. Such coinages are one of the drive-by amusements of reading Evgeny Morozov, who, since his first book, The Net Delusion, has become one of our most penetrating and brilliantly sardonic critics of techno-utopianism.

He certainly has some colourful adversaries. One is Jeff Jarvis, a new-media cyberhustler and consultant who is serially wrong about the near future, and seemingly cannot bear to hear any criticism of his adored Silicon Valley corporations. Appearing on the BBC earlier this year after Facebook had been hacked, he accused his interviewer of spreading “technopanic”, insisted the whole story was “crap”, and said: “This interview shouldn’t exist.” Afterwards, he tweeted: “The BBC can kiss my ass,” and “Fuck you, BBC.”

Among Morozov’s other targets are Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, with his “populist rage against institutions” (except his own); LinkedIn supremo Reid Hoffman, who has perpetrated a book-shaped product entitled The Start-Up of You; Google’s Eric Schmidt, who believes that an algorithm could one day tell you what is the “Best music from Lady Gaga”; Microsoft engineer Gordon Bell, lifelogger extraordinaire and exemplary lunatic of the mindset that holds that Truth, in the form of perfect data recall, is the absolute social value; and the games-will-save-the-world theorist Jane McGonigal, whose work Morozov likens to “a bad parody of Mitt Romney”.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

14 March 2013

The Slow Fix, by Carl Honoré (HarperOne)

Carl Honoré is a writer and public speaker who flies around the world telling people to slow down. “My life has been transformed by deceleration,” he confides in The Slow Fix, though it has also clearly been transformed by acceleration, of the jet-engine variety. In 2004, he published In Praise of Slow, a critique of our cultural addiction to speed, advising readers to take more time over eating, exercising, sex and bedtime stories. “The Slow movement is on the march,” he announced then. If so, it was marching at a snail’s pace, since nine years later we are due another reminder of the virtues of dawdling.

This time Mr. Honoré focuses on the desirability of taking things slowly when you are trying to solve a problem. “We are hooked on the quick fix,” he says, but our pill-popping, speed-yoga, retail-therapy, drive-thru-funeral, rent-a-pal, high-frequency-trading world is still broken. The author strains somewhat to convince us that his message is a novel one. Every culture has long had a suspicion of quick fixes. Even in our hyper-accelerated age, when a problem arises you never hear people demanding half-baked solutions.

Read the rest in the Wall Street Journal.

1 February 2013

Best European Fiction 2013, ed Aleksandar Hemon

In a European short story, anything can happen, whereas in an American short story, it is almost guaranteed that nothing will. This richly strange collection of tales, from all over the old continent, features a nameless thing growing behind a television set, an itinerant theatre troupe who take Brechtian alienation to alarming extremes, and a music shop in which you can buy a CD of Oscar Peterson’s nonexistent “solo recorder recital” in 1967 New York. Aleksandar Hemon’s agreeably obstreperous introduction to his fourth edited anthology itself offers a couple of rough-and-ready heuristics for identifying European writers – they will, for example, show a “disinclination to entertain by deploying TV-friendly banalities masked as social commentary” (I confess I immediately thought of Jonathan Franzen) – but he rapidly tires of the whole question. “For the past few years, every single review of the anthology brought up the question: what is European fiction? I am happy to report I have no clue.”

Read the rest at the Guardian.

19 December 2012

Genes, Cells and Brains, by Hilary Rose and Steven Rose

We have outsourced the job of interpreting ourselves to the modern life sciences. The decoding of the human genome will tell us who we really are, pledged the gene-merchants. Brain scans will tell us who we really are, swore the neuro-hustlers. And what did we get? We got suckered. It turns out that humans have roughly as many protein-encoding genes as a fruit fly, and that fMRI scanning is still such an inexact art that a team of satirical neuroscientists have demonstrated significant “brain activity” in a dead salmon.

This fascinating, lucid and angry book by the sociologist Hilary Rose and the neurobiologist Steven Rose (they are married) boasts abundant targets and a lethally impressive hit ratio. They decry the entrepreneurialisation of science – “wealth creation is now unabashedly formalised as the chief objective of science and technology policy” – not least because it actually impedes science. (“PhD students can work for months on a project only to find that they cannot continue as they have run into a patent.”) They lambast the “armchair” theorising of evolutionary psychology, with its ungrounded assumption that we have “stone-age minds in the 21st century”. They scorn the “neuromyths” sold to the educational establishment, with the result that schoolchildren become the unwitting subjects of uncontrolled experiments in applying alleged lessons from animal psychology to the classroom.

The book performs in high style the necessary public service of recomplicating the simplistic hogwash hysterically blasted at us by both uncritical science reporters and celebrity scientists.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

7 December 2012

Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, by Chris Anderson

Chris Anderson thinks you might be a toy company. After telling the heartwarming anecdote of how he fabricated some doll’s house furniture for his daughters using a new 3D printer – which works like an inkjet printer but sprays down layers of liquefied plastic to make a solid object – the former Wired editor says he might never buy doll’s house furniture again. “If you’re a toy company,” Anderson threatens, “this story should give you chills.” I didn’t get chills, but then I’m not a toy company. This is the sort of book, however, that is mainly aimed at corporate persons, and at individuals only to the extent that they work for corporate persons, cherishing the dream of becoming an “entrepreneur”, that perfection of the human spirit to which all human history, at least as Anderson recounts it, has been leading.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

6 September 2012

The neurovision wrong contest

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism — aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash — and it’s everywhere. Continued →

3 July 2012

“The Week in Books”, Guardian, 30 June 2012.

The fatwa against Salman Rushdie has now gone virtual. A nasty-sounding new videogame announced this week by Iran’s Islamic Association of Students aims to show the writer’s “sin”, under the menacing title The Stressful Life of Salman Rushdie and Implementation of his Verdict.

Videogames’ use as political propaganda is not new, and neither is their engagement with the world of literature, but this news could spark a topical trend. Continued →

21 April 2012

Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer (Canongate)

How did Bob Dylan write “Like a Rolling Stone”? The pop-science writer Jonah Lehrer wasn’t there, but he pretends to know anyway. Inspired by Dylan’s own description of “vomiting” forth the song’s lyrics, Lehrer peers inside the singer’s 1965 skull and announces confidently that the “right hemisphere” of Dylan’s brain was combining “scraps” or “fragments” of existing songs and poetry in a “mental blender”, before spitting out a set of “lyrics that make little literal sense”.

Strange, because “How does it feel / To be without a home” and so forth makes a fair amount of literal sense to me. Continued →

9 November 2011

The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories, by Don DeLillo (Picador)

Don DeLillo makes some people’s brains ache. They hurry to consign his novels — from Americana and Ratner’s Star to the great Underworld — to curiously inappropriate categories, whether readymade (“postmodernism”) or jerry-rigged for the purpose (“hysterical realism”). Minds skid on the glacial beauty of his fictive thought. Perhaps a slower pace, encouraged by the short-story form, will facilitate a better grip. Continued →