on books

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 →

18 October 2011

1Q84, by Haruki Murakami (Harvill)

Haruki Murakami has always been a cult writer, if one can say that about a novelist who regularly sells millions, both in his native Japan and in translation. Well, 1Q84 — an epic romance in three “books” and two volumes — is his cult novel. In Underground (2000), Murakami interviewed former members of the Aum sect and survivors of its 1995 nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway. In that book, he implicitly promised a fictional engagement with the subject of cults; now he has delivered. Continued →

28 July 2011

I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59, by Douglas Edwards (Allen Lane)

In Douglas Coupland’s 1995 novel Microserfs, the twentysomethings who work at Microsoft are so cossetted by perks and freebies that they barely have lives outside the office “campus”. Reading this book’s picture of the early days at Google, one is tempted to suppose that the founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, pored over Microserfs very carefully indeed: “Google encased us in a cocoon of essential services — on-site haircuts, on-site car washes, on-site dentist and doctor, free massages, free snacks, free lunch, free dinner, gaming groups, movie nights, wine and beer clubs,” and so on. If you worked at Google, Google was your life. Continued →

11 June 2011

The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise, by Georges Perec, translated by David Bellos (Vintage)

Having resolved to exercise your brain and refresh your literary palate you decide to read this newly translated 1968 text by the deceased experimental french writer georges perec who is celebrated for once having written a long novel without using the letter “e” so having forked over your ten quid for this short story or at a stretch novella but a book is not any the better for being cheaper by the word you remind yourself in any case having forked over ten pounds you begin to read and either you find the looping style immediately so rebarbative that you cast the book to the floor and feyly lament your wasted cash or you find the style intriguing and continue reading Continued →

28 May 2011

Carte Blanche by Jeffery Deaver (Hodder)

What kind of sunglasses would James Bond wear today? Such is one of the important branding questions addressed by this literary reboot, which is “Copyright Ian Fleming Publications Limited”, though composed by a writer of serial-killer thrillers. Bond in 2011 still drives a Bentley, wears a Rolex, and waves a Walther, but his shades are hip and technical: he sports Oakleys.

This new Bond is “a man of serious face”, which probably does not mean that he has a really massive face and needs oversized Oakleys. Bond is in his thirties, a former Navy officer who saw frontline action in Afghanistan and was then recruited — not to MI6, but to a black-ops outfit called the “Overseas Development Group”. Bond is still run by M and furnished with gadgets by “Q Branch”. (Bond’s mobile phone, in an excitingly modern way, has lots of espionage “apps”.) Continued →