Category Archives: books

Notes on Gone Girl

It reminds me of Martin Amis’s The Information, in that it is a really well-made thing, but one which I think probably shouldn’t have been made, and which I’m probably sorry I read, because it’s sick in its heart.

Everything else I can say is a spoiler so I’ll put it below a tab.

Continue reading

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Loved and reviled

The jacket copy for the paperback of Sheila Heti’s novel How Should A Person Be? starts, in large bold type:

By turns loved and reviled upon its U.S. publication…

That’s pretty bold jacket copy writing, to come right out and say that the book you’re considering buying was reviled!

In fact, it was very good.  One thing I like about it is the way that the title seems to leave room for an invisible adjective which shifts the sense of “How,” i.e.

How ______ should a person be?

where the implicit word in the blank space shifts around a lot as the novel progresses.

 

Stoner

Stoner, a 1965 novel by John Williams, has been named the 2013 Waterstones Book of the Year.

Pretty cool to see an old book recognized!  I read this a while back; it’s one of those books often mentioned as a “forgotten classic” and I read such books out of a sense of obligation.  But sometimes, like this time, it pays off.  (See also:  Independent People, The Bridge on the Drina.)  Stoner represents a certain strain in the mid-century American novel that I really like, and which I don’t think exists in contemporary fiction.  Anguish, verbal restraint, weirdness.  Among famous authors, maybe some of Salinger, maybe some of O’Connor (but not glowing like O’Connor, more subdued, and not funny like Salinger, more deadpan.)  Besides Stoner I am thinking of James Purdy and Richard Yates — not even so much Revolutionary Road but The Easter Parade, which is grinding and merciless but at the same time strangely mild-mannered, in the same way Stoner is.

What else belongs here?

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Gladwell, Chabris, and the responsibilities of the science writer

It started with Christopher Chabris’s highly negative Wall Street Journal review of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath:

One thing “David and Goliath” shows is that Mr. Gladwell has not changed his own strategy, despite serious criticism of his prior work. What he presents are mostly just intriguing possibilities and musings about human behavior, but what his publisher sells them as, and what his readers may incorrectly take them for, are lawful, causal rules that explain how the world really works.

Chabris complains that Gladwell places a lot of weight on a tiny study, which later researchers have failed to replicate, a fact unmentioned in Gladwell’s book.  Chabris went into greater depth in his blog, in a post title “Why Gladwell matters (and why that’s unfortunate)”.  On Gladwell’s readers:

Who are those people? They are the readers who will take Gladwell’s laws, rules, and causal theories seriously; they will tweet them to the world, preach them to their underlings and colleagues, write them up in their own books and articles (David Brooks relied on Gladwell’s claims more than once in his last book), and let them infiltrate their own decision-making processes. These are the people who will learn to trust their guts (Blink), search out and lavish attention and money on fictitious “influencers” (The Tipping Point), celebrate neurological problems rather than treat them (David and Goliath), and fail to pay attention to talent and potential because they think personal triumph results just from luck and hard work (Outliers). It doesn’t matter if these are misreadings or imprecise readings of what Gladwell is saying in these books—they are common readings, and I think they are more common among exactly those readers Gladwell says are his audience.

Daniel Engber, in Slate, complained that Gladwell’s books don’t send a coherent message:

So which is it: Do the poor get poorer (Outliers), or does being poor make them rich (David and Goliath)? It’s both…. The notion that a rule holds true except for when it doesn’t runs through David and Goliath, and insulates its arguments from deep interrogation.

And today, Gladwell himself weighs in with a testy response to Chabris’s review.  Who told him it would be a good idea to title it “Christopher Chabris should calm down?”  For that matter, who told him it would be a good idea to respond at all?  Don’t get me wrong, I get it — if somebody said those things in the national press, I too would probably say

What is going on here? The kinds of people who read books in America seem to have no problem with my writing.

but I would say it to my wife and my friends — that’s what they’re there for! — and maintain a dignified silence in public.  At least I hope that’s what I’d do.  (A wag on Twitter pointed out that the last guy to write a long public complaint about a bad review from Chabris was Jonah Lehrer.)

Heard enough about Malcolm Gladwell?  Too bad, because now you get to hear my take.  I like Malcolm Gladwell.  I sometimes feel a little bit alone in my defense of him.  I thought The Tipping Point showed a strong intuitive grasp of mathematics.  I don’t care if he doesn’t know how to spell eigenvalue, because I feel like he instinctively gets how differential equations work.  I think he is a superb writer of English sentences and I think people consistently underestimate how much that has to do with his popularity.  (See also:  Nate Silver.)  I can’t defend David and Goliath because I haven’t read it, or Outliers, or any of his books after the first one.

But I want to talk about this point Chabris makes on his blog, which I think deserves focused attention even though I disagree with it:

It doesn’t matter if these are misreadings or imprecise readings of what Gladwell is saying in these books—they are common readings

Is that true?  Are we, science writers, responsible not only for what we write, but for what careless readers are likely to make out of what we write?  I can’t accept that we are.  I write a lot of articles of the form “People justify X by saying Y but actually Y is not a good argument for X” and every single time I do this, the comments demonstrate that most people read it as “X is false.”  Is there a sentence in the piece of the form “None of which is to say that X is false?”  Of course there is.  Doesn’t matter.  I claim this is not sufficient reason to stop writing articles of that form.  But I think it’s something we all ought to be conscious of as we write:  not just, am I saying what I mean to say, but what are the obvious and inevitable misreadings, and how can we express ourselves so as to make them rarer?

Then there’s the question, more central to Chabris’s criticism, of how thorough science journalists must be in their treatment of the literature.  What Chabris wrote about Gladwell’s use of the small, unreplicated study seemed pretty damning to me.  But then I thought:  well, what do I do in How Not To Be Wrong?  In order to make my point I write about a study — in fact, a study by Christopher Chabris — about genetic influence on general intelligence.  Has Chabris’s study been replicated?  Frankly, I don’t know.

Here’s where I think the difference is.  A book like Gladwell’s is meant to advance a certain thesis, and the studies he cites are adduced as evidence for that thesis.  In my book, the thesis, which is some point of mathematics, is something I know is correct.  So the studies play the role of illustrations, not evidence.  My approach is like Gladwell’s, in that my goal is to tell a story.  But writing about math is much easier, because I know in advance that my story is true.

 

Update:  Andrew Gelman weighs in with a great post on popular science as stone soup.

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“Why don’t books come with e-books?” revisited

Last year I wondered why print books didn’t come bundled with e-books.  Today Amazon announced Matchbook:  for a limited add-on price, ranging from nothing to $3, you can get e-books of print books you’ve previously bought from Amazon.

At least for me, this is a substantial incentive to buy books there.  But I think my use case is kind of weird:  I bought a Kindle but don’t like it and never use it, and read e-books almost exclusively on the phone.  For me, “the book I’m reading” is almost always a print book, while the phone is for reading random bits of things a few minutes at a time.  But it would be nice indeed to have the print book at home enhanced with the option of reading a few pages by phone over the course of the day.

Baseball players and Brooklyn hipsters

My mom got me the excellent Baseball in the Garden of Eden, by John Thorn, whose book The Hidden Game of Baseball I studied obsessively in the pre-sabermetric days of my youth.  The new book aims to clear out some of the mythic fog surrounding the history of the game — which means taking a clear-eyed look at urban America in the 1840s and 50s, something we learn almost nothing about in school.

Here’s a small insight I drew from the book.  You know how we make fun of young hipster dudes in Brooklyn who form leagues to play kickball, because it seems such a dopey affectation for adults to play a kids’ game and drink beer while they do it?  Well, the early history of organized baseball is more or less exactly the same.  Thorn shows persuasively that baseball (and its relatives, like “round ball” and “old cat”) were popular children’s games, which no more had an inventor than do Capture the Flag or Kick the Can.  The innovation was for adults to play the game in organized leagues, to drink beer, to bet on the outcome, and to charge admission.

Also, I was surprised to learn that the use of the word “plugging” to describe hitting a runner with a thrown ball was already prevalent in the 19th century.  My idiolect somewhat favors “pegging” over “plugging” for this, but both make sense to me.

 

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A brief note on the quantified self

Cathy’s post reminded me to record here what Samuel Beckett had to say about the quantified self, in his 1951 novel Molloy:

I can’t help it, gas escapes from my fundament on the least pretext, it’s hard not to mention it now and then, however great my distaste. One day I counted them. Three hundred and fifteen farts in nineteen hours, or an average of over sixteen farts an hour. After all it’s not excessive. Four farts every fifteen minutes. It’s nothing. Not even one fart every four minutes. It’s unbelievable. Damn it, I hardly fart at all, I should never have mentioned it.  Extraordinary how mathematics help you to know yourself.

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Dan Sharfstein wins Guggenheim

Congratulations to Dan Sharfstein, who is one of this year’s Guggenheim Fellows!  I have written before about my admiration for Dan’s book The Invisible Line, and this seems a good occasion to say again — if you’re at all interested in the long, complicated history of race in America, buy the book and read it.  His new book will be about Oliver Otis Howard and the Freedmen’s Bureau.  This is the kind of project that requires long, deep research and painstaking thought.  I don’t know if we can Kickstarter things like this, and I’m glad we have the Guggenheim Foundation to help make them possible.

 

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Math on Trial, by Leila Schneps and Coralie Colmez

The arithmetic geometer Leila Schneps, who taught me most of what I know about Galois actions on fundamental groups of varieties, has a new book out, Math on Trial:  How Numbers Get Used and Abused in the Courtroom, written with her daughter Coralie Colmez.  Each chapter covers a famous case whose resolution, for better or worse, involved a mathematical argument.  Interspersed among the homicide and vice are short chapters that speak directly to some of the mathematical and statistical issues that arise in legal matters.  One of the cases is the much-publicized prosecution of college student Amanda Knox for a murder in Italy; today in the New York Times, Schneps and Colmez write about some of the mathematical pratfalls in their trial.

I am happy to have played some small part in building their book — I was the one who told Leila about the murder of Diana Sylvester, which turned into a whole chapter of Math on Trial; very satisfying to see the case treated with much more rigor, depth, and care than I gave it on the blog!  I hope it is not a spoiler to say that Schneps and Colmez come down on the side of assigning a probability close to 1 that the right man was convicted (though not nearly so close to 1 as the prosecution claimed, and perhaps to close enough for a jury to have rightfully convicted, depending on how you roll re “reasonable doubt.”)

Anyway — great book!  Buy, read, publicize!

 

 

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The Magic Circle, by Jenny Davidson

Strange and kind of great new novel by Jenny Davidson (who, for full information’s sake, is someone I’ve known on and off since college) about young intellectuals who believe in the power of text more than is perhaps good for them.  “Text” here means books, as you’d expect, but also text-as-in-texting and chat windows and games.  A lot of the dialogue is in an interestingly distant Delmore Schwartz register.  It reads strangely at first but makes sense once you get used to it.

What I liked best is this.  The book gestures at being one of those in which real life gives way to the fantastic, but ends up insisting (correctly, I think!) that when the fantastic intrudes into ordinary life, it does not replace ordinary life but rather overlays it — so that one can have the most heightened and extrawordly experience possible, and then go home, with the smell of it still on you, and check your e-mail and brush your teeth.  It is a novel for the world of Google Glass, and should be read whether or not the world of Google Glass turns out to be our world.

 

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