Book review: Infinite Powers, by Steven Strogatz

Strogatz’s enthusiasm for calculus knows virtually no bounds. “My goal in this book has been to show calculus as a whole, to give a feeling for its beauty, unity and grandeur.” He sees it as a major part of mathematics, with a long history. In this he is unusual. The conventional view is that calculus burst on the scene in the seventeenth century with the work of Leibniz and Newton, entered a golden period of wild expansion in the 1700s, and consolidated its achievements in the 1800s; by 1900 the story was practically finished.

Strogatz, in contrast, sets it in a much wider historical perspective. He doesn’t want to say that it was invented in the late seventeenth century. Rather, he sees its roots extending back to the Greek thinkers, especially Archimedes, and he compares the seventeenth-century development by Newton and Leibniz to the dramatic biological evolutionary event known as the Cambrian explosion that occurred half a billion years ago, gave rise to new types of animals, and shaped the subsequent course of life on earth, Biological evolution and the evolution of calculus are still continuing. Continu reading.

Update on Kindle

I posted my reasons for buying a Kindle reader about 18 months ago (see A Reluctant Conversion to Kindle). I haven’t changed my mind since then but I have upgraded to the Oasis. This is expensive but I’d say worth it, for two main reasons: the larger screen and the buttons for moving forward and back.  There are other minor adantages as well, such as the option to turn off the touch screen.

Book review: Believers, by Melvin Konner

Melvin Konner is a medically qualified anthropologist who had a conventional Jewish upbringing and was a convinced believer in God until, at the age of seventeen, he lost his faith and became an atheist. But in this book he takes issue with four prominent atheists, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens—”the Quartet”.

According to these authors, religion is an irrational and potentially dangerous superstition which is fated to disappear, and the sooner this happens the better. But Konner doesn’t think that religious belief is necessarily a bad thing, nor does he believe it will disappear in the foreseeable future. Continue reading.

Book review: The Bodhisattva’s Brain, by Owen Flanagan

In 2003 Flanagan wrote an article for New Scientist with the title “The Colour of Happiness”, about preliminary research using brain imaging (PET and fMRI) to study the brains of Buddhists to see if there was evidence that they were exceptionally happy. They turned out to have a marked degree of activation in an area of the brain (the left prefrontal cortex) that had earlier been identified as related to positive emotions (negative emotions activate the right prefrontal cortex).  Continue reading

Why are some of your books free?





This question is really part of a larger one, which is why do I self-publish? Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately: it isn’t because I can’t get published by mainstream commercial publishers.

In the past I’ve had seven books published in this way, both fiction and non-fiction, but I’ve abandoned that route now, as have many other writers.

Why self-publish?

In a word, disillusionment. The science writer John Horgan explains why he decided to self-publish his latest book. “After I got the idea for Mind-Body Problems in 2015, I pitched it to a few agents and editors and got chilly responses. Fuck ‘em, I thought, and wrote the damn book anyway.” My feeling precisely. Mainstream publishing ain’t what it used to be.

In recent years I’ve gone down the self-publishing route entirely, for similar reasos, with eight books produced so far. All are available electronically as e-books and most are also in hardcopy as paperbacks (on Amazon and Lulu).

But why are some of them free? Don’t you want to make money from your writing? (‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money’ – Samuel Johnson,) I certainly don’t dislike receiving the payments I get for these books from various sources.

Still, pace Johnson, there are other motives for writing, such as being read. This has prompted Horgan to make his latest book free, and I’ve done the same with three of mine.

This isn’t as quixotic as it may appear. The sad fact is that you are very unlikely to make much money from any of the books you self-publish unless you are extremely lucky or willing and able to invest a lot of time and effort in marketing your work, which I’m not.

That may be discouraging, but don’t think that you’ll do a lot better if you take the commecial route. Mainstreame publishers these days make little if any attempt to publicise and market your book, and the cbances that you will make even a modest income from writing is small unless you have a specific audience in view (as in the case of a standard textbook, for example).

The changing face of publishing

Money always mattered to publishers, of course, but they often also wanted to feel they were doing something for literature.  That attitude is as dead as the mechanical typewriter (something else I grew up with).  The independent publishers who used to exist have virtually all been swallowed up by giant international conglomerates.

Things were very different when my first book, a novel, was published by Chatto & Windus in 1967. My editor was one of the directors, Cecil Day Lewis, who shortly afterwards was appointed Poet Laureate. After my book was accepted I went to see him in his Central London office and he asked me if I would allow him to edit my manuscript for publication, assuring me that I could trust him to do a good job! He also said he thought I had married too young (something which I think he had done himself).

Two decades later things had changed a lot but some of the original publishing houses still maintained their independence. One of these was Victor Gollancz Ltd, which published a book of mine in the 1980s.

I got to meet the Managing Director, Livia Gollancz, the daughter of Victor Gollancz, the founder of the firm. She had been a fine concert musician and became a publisher reluctantly, when her musical career ended owing to ill-health. She was a tall imposing woman who I think ran the firm rather imperiously. She took the decision to publish my book herself, but that wouldn’t happen today. Such decisions are now made on strictly commercial grounds by accountants.

If you have a book published commercially today you are most unlikely to meet any of the directors. In fact, you may not even get an editor, which explains the shoddy standard of some of the books I read nowadays.


The moral of the story is that if you want to write, go ahead and do so, but don’t count on its making you a fortune or even a modest income.



Book review: Mind-body Problems, by John Horgan

Horgan thinks that few apart from professional philosophers are familiar with the phrase “mind–body problem”, but it has been a life-long obsession for him, as it has for me. It’s interesting that we are both former Catholics; at least in my case awareness of the problem goes back to my late ‘teens or early twenties, when I was starting to question the faith in which I had been brought up. Since then I’ve read practically everything I’ve come across on the subject and its various allotropes (consciousness, free will, the soul…), although, as Horgan says, much of it is “dauntingly arcane”. Continue reading

On not finishing reading books

I generally don’t like giving up on books once I start reading them. As a rule I only do so if I decide they are not worth reading, in which case I don’t feel bad about jumping ship. But it’s harder to explain what happens in other cases, when I think the book is worth reading but for one reason or another I just don’t continue. An example of this is Hilary Mantel’s novel about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall. I got half-way through this several years ago and then started reading something else, though I can’t remember what. I always meant to go back to Wolf Hall but never did, and now probably never will.

A more humiliating kind of failure is giving up owing to a book’s sheer impenetrability. This happened to me in 2012, when I bought Terrence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature. I’d read his previous book, The Symbolic Species, which still seems to me to be one of the most impressive accounts of the biology of language that I’ve come across, so I started the new book with enthusiasm.  I quickly found myself completely bogged down, though I was somewhat relieved to learn that the philosopher Colin McGinn found it all but unreadable. (I’ve recently discovered that another philosopher, the late Jerry Coyne, had a similar experience.) I still haven’t given up completely and hope to come hack to it at some point in the future.

In the most recent case of giving up I can’t claim that excuse. I’m currently reading, or not reading, two books by Raymond Tallis, The Black Mirror and Of Time and Lamentation. Both are about time and mortality, which are themes that I think a lot about. They are written from a humanist standpoint that I find congenial. On the face of it, Tallis is exactly the kind of writer I’m looking for. His books have received widespread respect and praise from reviewers and I can understand why. So why am I thinking of giving up?

It isn’t that Tallis writes obscurely. In fact, the problem is almost the opposite. I’ve seen him described as a writer’s writer, which I think means he is a mannered stylist. He writes poetry as well as prose (and admits to a liking for ‘poetic prose’). Reading him is an aesthetic experience as well as an intellectual challenge. An added bonus, you might think.

I got these books from The London Library. I’d expected there would be a waiting list for them, but to my surprise there wasn’t; and when I received the books I saw, again with surprise, that they had only been taken out once or twice a year since their acquisition. So perhaps I’m not the only one to have given up.

Part of the reason for this may have been identified by Andrew Brown in a review in The Guardian. He wrote:

Raymond Tallis’s books are not often easy to summarise, and not always easy to finish. … Although he is capable of writing with great clarity and force about really important things, there is a sense that he is conducting an argument with the people he has read, rather than the people who might be reading him.

This is an astute observation, but there is something else as well.  Here is a passage from a section headed ‘The unknown future’ in Of Time and Lamentation, which illustrates one of the stylistic tropes Tallis uses (he has many others) and also indirectly helps me to see why I’m having difficulty in reading his books.

When I began this book, I estimated that I had an actuarial advantage of about 7,000 or 8,000 tomorrows compared with my 22,000 yesterdays. Quite a few todays later, the number of the former is significantly less and of the latter rather more. I have of course a clearer idea of the number of my yesterdays than tomorrows and can calculate their number precisely because there is a precise number to calculate. This highlights a more general point, in addition to the mathematical one that I am more than three-quarters through the time that Raymond Tallis is a walking, talking, thinking enterprise; namely, that the uncertainty in “over three-quarters” comes from my tomorrows rather than my yesterdays; I know what is on the numerator but not on the denominator. While I can be certain that I have just under 3,500 fewer tomorrows than lay before me when I began this book a decade or so ago, I do not know which tomorrow will be the tomorrow after which there will be no more tomorrows.

I apologise for this lengthy quotation (it could have been even longer; the theme continues for several more lines, which I haven’t cited), but it’s needed just because length is important to Tallis. Passages like this demand to be read slowly and savoured. The meaning could have been conveyed more succinctly, but that isn’t how Tallis writes. One reads him, perhaps, as much for the style as for the meaning. At the same time, the meaning does matter. The books are full of ideas, and each one is put through its paces to the maximum possible extent.

As a result, this is a long book – over 600 pages of small print. And it isn’t Tallis’s only book, far from it. He’s been astonishingly prolific. Until his retirement in 2006 he was a professor of geriatrics with an interest in neuroscience. While he was a clinician, we are told, he used to write every morning between 5 and 7 o’clock before setting off to the hospital; since his retirement he has been a full-time author, now with over thirty books to his name. To do his ideas anything like justice would demand a huge investment of one’s own time and thought.

Without doing the calculation, based on the passage I quoted just now I expect that I have fewer tomorrows left than Tallis is likely to have. Do I want to devote them to a study of his work, when there is so much else out there to read for as long as my eyes hold out? The answer, perhaps regrettably, has to be no.

The scholar and critic F.L. Lucas, who wrote the best book on writing style that I know, was relaxed about not reading books to the end. ‘There are many, no doubt, that it is a pity not to; but many more where he that runs and skips, reads quite enough.’ I have decided to follow his advice in this instance. (Incidentally, I’d love to know what Lucas would have said about Tallis’s writing – he was a strong advocate of brevity.)

Derek Parfit – Biographical Article

As noted on my Personal Choice page, Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons is a book that has a particular resonance for me, as indeed it does for many people. Thanks to a link in Parfit’s Wikipedia page I found this detailed biograhical article, How to Be Good, from the New Yorker. You can download or print it for free and it’s excellent, so I’m linking to it here for anyone who shares my fascination with this extraordinary philosopher.

Book review: The Last Neanderthal, by Claire Cameron

Rose is a Canadian archaeologist working in France who finds two skeletons in the floor of a cave. One is of a female Neanderthal, the other of a male modern human. They are lying face to face, as if looking into each other’s eyes. The temptation to interpret the find as a burial of two friends or lovers is strong, of course, and Rose has to struggle to maintain her scientific objectivity in the face of this. Like Cameron herself, she holds the view that the Neanderthals were in no way inferior to ourselves, and her discovery seems to support this. Continue reading.

Book review: Why Freud Was Wrong, by Richard Webster

The prestige once enjoyed by psychoanalysis may have declined considerably from the level it had attained in the first half of the twentieth century, but it still is practised as a therapy. And in addition, psychoanalytic theory continues to be influential in literary criticism and other cultural activities. Many of Freud’s ideas have seeped into common parlance (‘Freudian slip’) and terms such as ‘complex’ are used by people who may have little if any idea of their provenance. It’s still quite common to find Freud’s name cited alongside those of Galileo and Darwin as one of the thinkers responsible for a series of radical revolutions in how we humans understand our place in the Universe; Galileo showed that the Sun, not the Earth, was the centre of the solar system; Darwin told us we were part of the animal kingdom and descended from apes; and Freud revealed that much of our mental life is unknown to us and takes place in the hidden depths of the Unconscious. But does Freud deserve his place in this pantheon? Yes and no, according to Webster.  Continue reading.