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Book review: Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahnemann

The ideas in this book originated in large part from a collaboration lasting many years between Kahnemann and his colleague and friend, Amos Tversky. The central insight on which the book is based is that our minds can function in two ways, which Kahnemann refers to as System 1 and System 2. System 1 gives a quick appraisal of things that is often biased emotionally or in other ways. System 2 is slower and analytical; its operation is effortful, so the default approach to a problem is usually System 1. This is not always wrong, but it often is. Read more

A reluctant conversion to Kindle

I've long resisted the lure of e-readers, insisting that I prefer to read proper paper books. But I've now had to eat my words; I've bought a Kindle Paperwhite. There were several reasons for this.

1. My eyes now make it difficult to read small print, at least with any enjoyment, and most of the paperbacks I buy, and even some of the hardbacks, have eye-straining print. Now I can enlarge the text to whatever size I like.

2. I review nearly all the books I read on my website, and this usually needs me to take notes while I'm reading. Hitherto I've done this either on a laptop or on paper, provided one of these was to hand when I was reading, but it wasn't ideal. The Kindle allows me to make notes on the fly, save them, and email them to myself to use later when writing the review.

3. Also in relation with reviewing, I often want to find a particular passage in the book to quote. Sometimes this can be done with the index, but often it can't, and then I have to thumb through the text to find the passage I want, which can be a lengthy business. With an e-book I can search it easily.

4. Our house is literally overflowing with books and there is nowhere to put new ones. I often want to look something up in a book which I know we have, but finding it often entails a long search through different rooms which may be ultimately unsucessful. So I expect most books I buy in future will be e-books.

5. I often come across a reference to a book I decide I want to read. If there is a Kindle edition it's usually cheaper than the paper version, and another advantage is that it is delivered instantly.

I gather that sales of e-readers such as the Kindle are declining as more people are reading e-books on either a mobile phone or a tablet. I don't have or want either of those. I could use my desktop or laptop to read the books, but that isn't pleasant. I wanted a device that was as book-like as possible, hence the Kindle. And I have to say that I am pleased with it. The screen is excellent - clear, sharp, and book-like -- so much so that I sometimes forget it isn't a paper book and find myself trying to turn the page over in the usual way!

The only thing I don't like is the absence of external buttons to operate the book; it's all done by tapping the screen to access menus. But that aside, I'm considerably impressed.

It's taken me a long time to reach this point. It was an article in The Author that finally convinced me to take the step, quite late in life. I'm glad I did. Probably there were people in the fifteenth century who lamented the replacement of manuscript books by this new-fangled printing process with moveable type, but I expect most of them were converts in the end.

Book review: The Russian Interpreter, by Michael Frayn

The novel is set in Cold War Russia, some ten years after the end of the second world war. Paul Manning is living in Moscow, where he is writing a thesis. He receives a visit from Gordon Proctor-Gould, who had attended the same Cambridge college as Manning although they did not know each other at that time. Read more

Book review: Towards the End of the Morning, by Michael Frayn

This is a novel about a kind of journalism that no longer exists. John Dyson and Bob Bell work for a newspaper that seems to have some literary pretensions, never sacks anyone and would certainly have folded long before the end of the twentieth century, let alone with the arrival of the Internet. The two men are friends and share an office where not very much work gets done. John is approaching middle age and has the ambition to get on television, which he thinks will transform his life. Bob, who is younger, eats sweets for comfort and has no ambition of any kind; he seems destined to potter along as a third-rate journalist for the rest of his working life. His ultimate future is probably foreshadowed by the third member of the office, 'poor old Eddie', who spends most of the day asleep, waking up occasionally to reminisce about old times and long-dead journalists of his acquaintance. Read more

Book review: What We Cannot Know, by Marcus du Sautoy

Marcus du Sautoy is a Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University and in 2008 succeeded Richard Dawkins as Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. Like Dawkins, he is an atheist, but unlike Dawkins he intends to focus on science rather than religion. And yet religion does surface in this book, in which he considers whether there are things we can never know. Read more

Book review: The Young Visiters, by Daisy Ashford

This novel was written in 1890 when the author was aged nine. She rediscovered it in a drawer in 1917 when she was 36 and it was published two years later, spelling mistakes and all; the only editorial concession made was to insert paragraphing to aid readability. (Incredibly, a reviewer on Amazon recently complained that the publishers should have corrected the spelling!) The book was an instant success, being reprinted 18 times in the first year alone; it is still in print today. Read more

Book review: How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker

This is a book about evolutionary psychology, which Pinker explains at the outset as follows.

The evolutionary psychology of this book is in one sense a straightforward extension of biology, focused on one organ, the mind, of one species,Homo sapiens. But in another sense it is a radical thesis that discards the way issues about the mind have been framed for almost a century.

The view outlined here includes a number of ideas: that the mind is a set of modules whose organisation is genetic, that it is an adaptation designed by natural selection, and that the goal of natural selection is to propagate genes. But Pinker cautions us that none of these ideas should be pushed too far. Each of them contributes part of the explanation but none gives us the whole story. Read more

Book review: A Life in Questions, by Jeremy Paxman

This is a memoir but not an autobiography because, as Paxman explains at the outset, he does not say anything about his family: 'what they choose to disclose about themselves is up to them.' The first three chapters describe his early upbringing and education. He went first to a preparatory school and then to a minor public school, Malvern College. He was not greatly impressed by either of these institutions, which he saw as designed to foster class prejudices in those who attended them, but in the end he got an Exhibition (minor scholarship) at St Catherine's College, Cambridge, where he read English and edited the student newspaper Varsity . Read more

Book review: Yoga Body, by Mark Singleton

Yoga is becoming ever more popular in countries outside India and it is claimed to have all kinds of mental and physical benefits. It is also widely believed to be an ancient practice and this is an important part of its appeal for some. But Singleton presents a wealth of evidence to show that modern yoga, with its emphasis on postures (asanas), is not rooted in ancient traditions (whatever these may have been) but instead owes a lot to Western gymnastics and other physical culture techniques. Yoga has also been cross-fertilised with Indian nationalism and New Age spirituality. Read more

Book review: The Closing of the Western Mind, by Charles Freeman

This book covers much the same ground historically as the author's later book A New History of Christianity, although its time span is wider, starting with Plato and Aristotle and ending with Thomas Aquinas. And rather than being purely descriptive, Freeman wants to advance a thesis,which he summarises at the outset like this.

We begin by returning to ancient Greece and exploring in particular how reason became established as an intellectual force in western culture. Then we can see how Christianity, under the influence of Paul's denunciation of Greek philosophy, began to create the barrier between science - and rational thought in general - and religion that appears to be unique to Christianity. Far from the rise of science challenging the concept of God (as is often assumed by protagonists in the debate) it was Christianity that actively challenged a well-established and sophisticated tradition of scientific thinking.

The first seven chapters present a survey of events and ideas in the ancient world before the advent of Christianity. The classical period in Greece was followed by Hellenism after the conquests of Alexander; then came the establishment of the Roman empire with its absorption of many Greek ideas. All these periods were characterised by plenty of intellectual activity. Christianity was to bring about a major change, although not immediately. Freeman's book is intended to explain how this came about. Read more

Book review: A New History of Early Christianity, by Charles Freeman

This book provides an account of Christianity from the death of Jesus in approximately 30 AD to the founding of the mediaeval papacy by Pope Gregory (the Great) at the end of the sixth century. The story is told three parts. Part 1 describes how the followers of Jesus developed their understanding of him in the decades after his death, Part 2 is about how Christianity arose from this background and expanded as a religion in the Roman empire, sometimes in the face of persecution, and Part 3 describes the radical changes that followed the Emperor Constantine's patronage after 313. Read more

Book review: A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, by Adam Rutherford

Rutherford is a journalist and a BBC Radio 4 presenter as well as a geneticist, and I think this background shows in the way this book is written. It could almost be the script for a broadcast. The style is informal in the extreme, sometimes slangy and with plenty of often good jokes. Contractions such as "would've", "could've" abound.

And this informality is more than skin deep; it extends to the way the book is conceived. Its basic aim is to educate the reader. I don't mean that the tone is patronising, but Rutherford wants to convey certain messages and to counteract some erroneous ideas about genetics that are widespread today. [Read more]

Book review: The Pursued, by C.S. Forester

Marjorie Grainger comes home after spending the day with a friend to find that her sister Dot, who is baby-sitting Marjorie's two children, has committed suicide by gassing herself in the oven. (That wouldn't work today but this novel was set between the two world wars, when coal gas was in use in Britain.)

At the inquest it emerges that Dot was three months pregnant. The verdict is suicide but Marjorie and her mother, Mrs Clair, realise that Dot was having an affair with Marjorie's husband, Ted, and that he has murdered her. They don't acknowledge this explicitly to each other and neither of them wants to involve the police, which would make the children the object of notoriety and scandal. Marjorie tries to put the knowledge of Ted's crime to the back of her mind, but her mother has a different response. Read more

Book review: Brown on Resolution, by C.S. Forester

The story opens on the (fictitious) volcanic island of Resolution in the Galápagos, where a wounded British sailor is dying of blood loss and thirst. The rest of the novel tells the story of how he came to be there.

Leading Seaman Albert Brown is the son of Agatha Brown, a middle-class religiously brought-up woman who conceives him as a result of a five-day fling in 1897 with a young naval officer, Lieutenant-Commander Richard Saville-Samarez. Agatha is resourceful, and as she has her own income she is able to leave her disapproving family and take lodgings, where she represents herself as a widow. [More]