Tag Archives: book reviews

A Supposedly Fun Thing (a book review)

I wrote a review of David Foster Wallace’s book A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again in 1997 for the late great Boston Phoenix, whose archives don’t seem to be online anymore.  (SOB)

But I have a pdf copy, so here it is, for my own reference, and yours if for some reason you need it!

I should have anticipated this and downloaded all my Phoenix stuff. The first pieces I ever reported were there, a short one about a Michael Moore rally and a long one about the MLA. They’re gone. But wait! I was able to recover the MLA piece from the WayBack Machine.  Thanks, WayBack Machine!  I’ll post that later.



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Trireview in the Wall Street Journal

With all the ABC excitement I forgot to mention that I have a review in last week’s Wall Street Journal of three books about trust and security:  Bruce Schneier’s Liars and Outliers, Kip Hawley’s Permanent Emergency, and Harvey Molotch’s Against Security.

With limited space to cover all three books, I ended up not really talking about any of the mathematical content.  There was some!  I didn’t get to mention, for instance, that Schneier uses the prisoner’s dilemma as a central organizing principle of his account of trust.  Or that Hawley, the former director of the TSA, asserts that he was strongly influenced by complexity theory, chaos theory, and network theory in his approach to transportation security.  I certainly would have written about that last part if Hawley had given a clearer account of what he meant by this intriguing claim.  But what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.

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RIP Paul Fussell

The Great War and Modern Memory is one of the finest books of literary criticism I’ve read, though I can’t say I’ve read many.  It was probably only when I read that book that I started to get a sense of literary criticism as a literary form in itself.  I took lots of English courses in college, but the kind where you read novels and poems, not books about novels and poems.

The copyright status here is questionable, but on the day of the man’s death it’s surely OK to link to a scanned copy of Fussell’s very funny essay on the ABM, or “Author’s Big Mistake” — the angry response to an uncomplimentary review.  It’s been years since I read this, and reading it again just now I think about 60% of the paragraphs demanded to be read aloud to Mrs. Q.


Imagine what mortification it is for an author to pass through crummy discount bookstores and see great piles of his masterpiece stacked up on the remainder tables, marked down from $14.95 to $1.95, and moving sluggishly even then.

This is lovely — the high style of “pass through” swooping down to “crummy,” the syntactic insult of using “his masterpiece” as a mass noun, and of course the quiet suggestion of feces provided by the phrase “great piles.”  Fussell was a g–d— pro, is what I’m trying to say, and I’m lucky to have come across him when I was learning to write.

Update:  But I will say that changing “sluggishly” to “slowly” would sacrifice only a little vividness, and would make the end of that sentence scan much more cleanly.  That’s the choice I would have made.

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My review of Charles Seife’s Proofiness, a field guide to mathematical trickery in the grand tradition of How to Lie with Statistics, is in today’s Boston Globe.  Very pleased to have the chance to lead with my favorite Eugene Mirman bit.

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In re pigeons, Mr. Darwin is immense

The New York Times reviews The Origin of Species, March 1860.

Shall we frankly declare that, after the most deliberate consideration of Mr. DARWIN’s arguments, we remain unconvinced?

The book is full of a most interesting and impressive series of minor verifications; but he fails to show the points of junction between these, and no where rises to complete logical statement.

The difficulties, of course, are enormous. This he frankly acknowledges. “Some of them are so grave that to this day I can never reflect on them without being staggered.” Such are his own naive and noble words.

He thinks, however, they are more apparent than real. We fear they are very real. To us insurmountable.

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“One To Nine” review in the NYTimes

I reviewed Andrew Hodges’ pop-math book One To Nine for the New York Times Book Review — it appears in tomorrow’s paper, but you can read it now online if, like me, you don’t get the Times.

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