Not saying goodbye – a book series that died

Somewhere between trashy and literary, there is a set of historical detective novels about Erast Fandorin. I was a fan when I was younger and recently, the concluding book was released, Not saying goodbye. The character has a beautiful sense of duty mixed in with a XIX century James Bond style immortality.

Spoiler alert. Until he doesn’t. The ending was disappointingly cynical. Once again, he prioritised his sense of duty over his family, just like he did in the first book, Azazel, which I never really liked. The cynicism comes from the setting: orphans, an explosion… It’s almost like fate herself came around to avenge the death of his first wife for which he is arguably responsible. I felt he wasn’t. The author seems to think he was – after all this time.

I think the author’s main concern throughout his writing has been this sense of duty to the world at large – which he felt was impossible to combine with the duty to one’s loved ones. Alas, I think the author turned into a different man to the one who wrote the books that I really liked, namely The Death of AchillesThe Coronation and Special Assignments.

“People are suffering and dying under the torture of the fantasy self they’re failing to become.”

Ten. Billion. Dollars. A year.

That’s how much the self-help industry makes. That is actually more than make up.

A lover of books, I stopped looking at the best-sellers sections of book shops because they inevitably contain self-help books, about how to optimise this and maximise that. I spoke about books I regretted reading and definitely anything like self-help is in that category.

A reflection of our time for sure, with their “aspirational narcissism” and “predatory optimism”:

Where success can be measured with increasing accuracy, so, too, can failure. On the other side of self-improvement, Cederström and Spicer have discovered, is a sense not simply of inadequacy but of fraudulence. In December, with the end of their project approaching, Spicer reflects that he has spent the year focussing on himself to the exclusion of everything, and everyone, else in his life. His wife is due to give birth to their second child in a few days; their relationship is not at its best. And yet, he writes, “I could not think of another year I spent more of my time doing things that were not me at all.” He doesn’t feel like a better version of himself. He doesn’t even feel like himself. He has been like a man possessed: “If it wasn’t me, who was it then?”

The New Yorker article itself is a bit self-helpy, ironically, but has a few gems and a review of the literature, if it may be called that.

I think that for many people, improving yourself is happiness: seeing progress, seeing results of your work and what you have become as a consequence. So in theory we shouldn’t deride self help.

I don’t know what bothers me the most about it: the feeling of constantly being sold to? The relentless inward focus when a lot of these problems are better solved with the help of those closest to you? The idea of a cheap shortcut to “radical change”? All of the above and many more. In my view, self-help is definitely not the best way to improve yourself.

I also think that the generation below us aren’t going to go for it anymore. They prefer “not giving a fk” to getting rich and thin or dying trying. Of course, this won’t reduce the amount of money spent on the genre as it is highly adaptive in telling people what they want to hear.

Adult books for children

Do you think that certain books should be kept away from children?

I would generally have said no:

Freedom of speech! No to censorship!

Being in touch with reality is important!

It’s preparation for the real world!

But then I realised that as a teenager I’ve read a few of those books and sometimes I wish I hadn’t…

  1. Fowles’ The Collector. I still struggle to find the artistic value in it.
  2. Three Comrades – pretty dark. I guess given the amount of “white lies” we tell kids the disillusionment has to start at some stage, but there is something hope-shattering in this. Same as in Maupassant’s Bel Ami 
  3. Anthony Burgess’ Clockwork Orange.
  4. I won’t make many friends by saying I don’t like The Catcher in the Rye – and it fascinates me how it became popular among teenagers. Ew though.
  5. Lolita. Goes without saying.

When you think about it, Anna Karenina even is quite PG. Then again so is nearly all of Shakespeare. I think that it’s easier not to suspend disbelief with things written in super archaic or unfamiliar language – same with the Greek myths, hence they don’t hit as hard. Perhaps that’s the reason most of my books non grata come from the last 150 years.

Have you ever regretted reading a work of fiction?

The Bed of Procrustes: 15 highlights

  1. Studying neurobiology to understand humans is like studying ink to understand literature.
  2. People reveal much more about themselves while lying than when they tell the truth.
  3. Mental clarity is the child of courage, not the other way around.
  4. Most info-Webmedia-newspaper types have a hard time swallowing the idea that knowledge is reached (mostly) by removing junk from people’s heads.
  5. Supposedly, if you are uncompromising or intolerant with BS you lose friends. But you will also make friends, better friends.
  6. True humility is when you can surprise yourself more than others; the rest is either shyness or good marketing.
  7. Another marker for charlatans: they don’t voice opinions that can get them in trouble.
  8. You can only convince people who think they can benefit from being convinced.
  9. Even the cheapest misers can be generous with advice.
  10. Trust those who are greedy for money a thousand times more than those who are greedy for credentials. [Curious what people think about this. In some cases credentials can mean reputation.]
  11. When conflicted between two choices, take neither.*
  12. They think that intelligence is about noticing things are relevant (detecting patterns); in a complex world, intelligence consists in ignoring things that are irrelevant (avoiding false patterns).
  13. In twenty-five centuries, no human came along with the brilliance, depth, elegance, wit, and imagination to match Plato—to protect us from his legacy.
  14. For the classics, philosophical insight was the product of a life of leisure; for me, a life of leisure is the product of philosophical insight.
  15. The first, and hardest, step to wisdom: avert the standard assumption that people know what they want.

More from Taleb’s own website

Appearance vs reality

Sometimes I get tired  and retreat into a safe echo-chamber where everything will agree with me. On that note, I downloaded The Black Swan and bought a paper copy of The Bed of Procrustes.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but The Black Swan seems dated and overly reliant on Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.

I will share some gems from The Bed of Procrustes when I am done, but for the most part it doesn’t have the insight porn quality that I was looking for.

On another note, I noticed some autumnal waistline creep and decided that I should take measures.

During a moment of intense boredom with a hint of sadness, I complained that had I not been watching what I eat, I could have had a chocolaty pick-me-up, alas I am on a diet, so I will just sit here and be sad.

I was and am fully aware of how pathetic that is, but I figured sharing my feelings is better than comfort eating.

The reason I am sharing with you now is the response I got, which was:

How will food make it better?

It hit me like a ton of bricks.

I guess normally I would have said, it would make me feel better. However, I was just after writing an essay on appearance vs reality in Macbeth and the idea that the reality won’t be better crystallised for me.

The world weighs a little heavier since that realisation, but maybe I won’t.

 

In defence of four letter words

So,  now that D.H. Lawrence is on the Leaving Cert syllabus, to understand the man better, I’ve decided to read his most famous and controversial Lady Chatterly’s Lover.

My first impression was that there must be something really different about those times and now.

I thought: I can honestly say that my millennial brain didn’t detect anything remotely scandalous in it. The publisher was taken to court, you know, under the Obscene Publications Act in the UK… Fair enough, the subject is a little racy, but no racier than, say, Anna Karenina.

Apparently the man who led the prosecution of the trial in 1960 asked if it were the kind of book “you would wish your wife or servants to read”… Hard to believe that that was said not even 60 years ago!

My other impression was that it was bland. What is this book about at all? Why is it famous? Just by virtue of the trial?

Something wasn’t right.

Well… it turns out that I read a censored version without being aware of it.

I’ve looked over the full text now, and I can see how much I missed out on. Whoever insists on publishing abridged and censored versions has no soul.

Up until this point I never believed that swearing adds anything, but this has made me change my mind. And want to swear, too.

Here is the full version if you need it.

Rules for picking books to read: optimise for age and readability

how to pick books to read
Arthur Schopenhauer introduces the concept of alternative cost

I have a problem: I really don’t like giving up books I started.

Is the solution to read them to the end?

No, because they are either full of mistakes and fakes or mostly because they are shallow.

Is the solution to not read them?

No, because then I’d start living in an echo chamber and that’s bad.

Is there a solution?

Yes: entertain a point of view and be able to throw it in the bin without succumbing to the slavish “it’s in a book, therefore it’s right”.

Does that mean I should read everything?

Absolutely not. For me, the purpose of reading is to come across ideas that I am not familiar with.

I recently asked the Slate Star Codex reddit thread how they choose their books because modern non-fiction has been getting on my nerves. Some good points came up and I will add some of my own (relating to both fiction and non-fiction):

1. The main criterion to optimise for is the product of age and readability

For example,

Saw The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck on the best sellers book shelf?

Read Moral letters to Lucilius (1st century AD) instead.

Is everyone reading Fifty Shades of Grey? Anna Karenina (1877) is what you need.

Looking at Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind?

Pick up The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant.

Old books are free from copyright too, so you will easily find them online.

Readability is tough one. I have suffered through many a Shakespearean play. It’s not him, it’s me. I just find him difficult to understand. It happens to be worth it.

In general, the only disadvantage to old books is that they aren’t always intelligible on a practical level.

2. If the book is recommended by a friend, consider it and if you are stuck, ask a friend for a recommendation

Make sure they themselves have read it.

This is how I got into reading Nassim Taleb.

3. If it is on your favourite subject/sub-genre, older than 50 years and still relevant, it’s worth a read

Like Sherlock Holmes? You will probably like Hercule Poirot

4. If the author is a journalist first and foremost, don’t bother with it

Let’s not get political and mention names, but they usually have a lot of interests to defend

5. Authors who spend a lot of time in your part of the world are generally easier to read

Occasionally, for me, reading modern American authors feels like watching an informercial. I mean I really don’t want the first 3 chapters explaining why I should read the book, it’s already in my hands ffs.

6. Sample three random pages in the book: if a paragraph doesn’t make sense, the whole book it unlikely to make sense

This is what I do in book stores. Style is part of substance. When it comes to reading books by academics, this is especially important.

7. If the book itself promises to change your life, destroy as many copies as you can, so that our grandchildren are saved from the intellectual pollution

I could go on a rant, but I won’t.

how to decide what books to read
Delete, delete, delete

There are obviously exceptions to the above.

In addition,

8. Books by the same author seem like a good idea, but this isn’t a reliable rule

J. R. R. Tolkien, for example.

9. Reviews aren’t very important

Arthur explains it well above.

Case in point: The Da Vinci Code is 4.5/5 on Amazon.

And what if you are too cool for books?

Who do you like to read online?

Maria’s Brain Pickings is excellent

The Brain blog is overly academic in its tone, but still nice

Massimo’s Footnotes to Plato is lots of cool philosophy

Lots of other blogs where I know, or feel like I know, the author.