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?

I’ll answer this question in a moment, but it’s really tied in with why I’ve moved from being published by mainstream publishers to self-publishing, so I’ll start by saying something about that.

Publishing as it used to be

My first book was a novel, The Sacred Malady, which came out in 1967. In those days most publishing houses were independent enterprises but they have now virtually all been swallowed up and digested by large international conglomerates.

My novel was published by Chatto & Windus and 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).

A changing scene

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. We talked about a book she had published, The Teachers of Gurdjieff. It was by a pseudonymous author, “Rafael Lefort”. She didn’t know his real name but he had told her that she could get in touch with him if it was ever essential.

She believed the book to be an authentic account of a journey in Central Asia in search of spiritual enlightenment, which now seems to me extremely doubtful. (Lefort was almost certainly Idries Shah, the writer on Sufism who had earlier, with his brother Omar Ali-Shah, imposed on Robert Graves to collaborate in a ‘translation’ of a probably non-existent manuscript of the poems of Omar Khayyam.)

Publishing today

My later books didn’t bring me into contact with any directors as editors;  in fact, nowadays you are lucky if you get an editor at all. Even to to find a publisher in the first place is becoming increasingly difficult. In the past the decision to publish a book might be taken on a whim by one of the directors, but today it is governed by purely commercial considerations and is largely in the hands of accountants. All of this makes for a pretty unsatisfactory outlook for authors.

The science writer John Horgan 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.”

Self-publishing

My feeling precisely. So far I’ve self-published seven books, both as e-books and paperbacks, and I have no thought of going back to mainstream publishing. None of them has made me a fortune, of course, but most of them continue to sell some copies. But if you look at my list you may be surprised to see that three of my books are available as free e-books. Why are they  free?

In the first place, making a book free isn’t as big a sacrifice as you might think. The sad fact is that you won’t 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 seem depressing, but don’t think that being published commercially is very different. Contrary to what many authors suppose,  in most cases mainstream publishers these days make minimal if any effort to promote your book. This means that you are unlikely to make your fortune by writing, no matter whether you are published commercially or self-publish.

There can however be indirect benefits from self-publishing. I’ve produced a medical acupuncture textbook which I use on the courses I run for health professionals, and it costs me far less to print this than I used to pay to buy copies of an earlier textbook that had been brought out by a mainstream publisher.

As I don’t depend on my writing income to make a living my main reason to produce books is to be read. More than that, I’m in favour of making information as freely available as possible, which is why I support the academic protest against Elsevier’s restrictive practices (see the Cost of Knowledge). It’s also why some of my books are free: they deal with ideas I think are important and I want them to be read as widely as possible.

One of these books, Making Word.doc Files on Linux, describes how to use free software to make a file that will be accepted by Smashwords. This is my small contribution to the free software movement, which I’m strongly in favour of.

The other two books are on ideas that have been important to me for more than sixty years. Essentially, they are about the nature of belief, and therefore lie on the margins of religion.

The first, Totality Beliefs and the Religious Imagination, is a personal account of my journey through a couple of totality belief systems to a position best described as metaphysical naturalism.

The second, Religion, Language, Narrative and the Search for Meaning, is about the puzzling question of why religion exists and why, despite the best efforts of Dawkins, Dennet and company, it probably always will.

Both books, incidentally, also exist in print form on Amazon.

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 to my 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.

 

Book review: The Diet Myth, by Tim Spector

Spector is professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College, London, where he specialises in twin studies, genetics and epigenetics, and diet. Readers of his earlier book Identically Different will know that he is also interested in the human microbiome—the innumerable microbes that live on and especially inside us, and this is a central preoccupation in the present book. Spector believes that it is the key to understanding why diets to control our weight nearly always fail in the long run. Continue reading

Book review: D-Day, by Antony Beevor

This book covers the invasion of Europe by the Allies from the landings in Normandy to the liberation of Paris. As the subtitle indicates, most of the space is devoted to the fighting in Normandy. This was almost unimaginably savage, not least for the French civilians. ‘It is a sobering thought that 70,000 French civilians were killed by allied action during the course of the war, a figure which exceeds the total number of British killed by German bombing.’ Yet the ‘cruel martyrdom of Normandy’ spared the rest of France. Continue reading

Book review: Riverita, by Armando Palacio Valdes [in Spanish]

This is a coming-of-age novel, a bildungsroman. Its hero, Miguel Rivera, is a slightly-built young man of wit and charm who receives the nickname Riverita (a diminutive). We first meet him when, as a young boy, he is notified by his uncle that his widowed father is about to remarry. His new stepmother is a beautiful woman from Seville who takes an instant dislike to him and soon manages to have him packed off to boarding school. However her daughter Julia (Julita) proves to be a very different character and her loving relationship with Miguel is an important element in the story. Continue reading