The road to bulging cortex

Reposting some stuff I put up as a comment at Harry’s Place in response for requests for books to make one an intellectual. Further to lists of books (so help me, I’m not writing ‘The Canon’..look what you made me do) that everyone simply has to read, spanning three millenia and hundreds of thousands of pages, I demurred:

I worry that the goal of reading the ‘greats’ is never going to be achieved through a sense of obligation. I’ve embarked upon Proust twice, because I’m doing a PhD on memory and time and it seemed like I simply had to be familiar with his work. Don’t get me wrong, Proust was immensely rewarding; paragraph upon paragraph of precise articulation of what the relationship is between ourselves, our lives and our past. Even the few hundred pages I read changed the way I think about the world. But I lost the pace, and then lost the thread entirely, I think in part because I began thinking “I ought to read Proust” rather than “I want to read Proust”. (I’ve read some people saying you only totally get him once you’re at the age he was when writing À la recherche du temps perdu.) My take on it would be to read thought-provoking books that you want to read – stuff that is written well and engaging, and can be enjoyed on multiple levels. Once in a while, when motivation grasps you, you can go for the less forgiving stuff; I managed to swallow a book on Rawls and Theory of Justice (by Crooked Timber’s infrequent Jon Mandle, actually) last year without it sticking in my throat, mainly because I was on a roll from all the other stuff (it’s an engaging book by the way, also serving as a good introduction to communitarian and post-modern critiques of liberalism, and responses to those).

As such I would second Huck Finn (and Connecticut Yankee, a stunning book) by Mark Twain and the Periodic Table – Primo Levi, as totally engaging works that arrest the mind as well. Moreover

Bleak House – Dickens. It is humongous. But from the very beginning it’s laced with this bitter energy that crackles and sparks. It’s split between chapters from the POV of the heroine, using a bit of an ‘unreliable narrator’ approach, and other chapters from a truly 3rd person perspective that nonetheless stabs out emotion in every description (just read the opening chapter describing the fogs around the law courts and comparing it to the lawyers themselves). Can do with being taken on holiday, but works ok serial-like too.

Graham Greene – most anything I’ve read by him, but The Comedians is tremendous and the totalitarian angle (Haiti) might particuarly interest. He’s an uncomplicated writer but his prose is breathtaking anyway.

Chekov – haven’t read since I was a kid, but I remember the Cherry Orchard and the Seagull as being pretty great.

I’d recommend reading some (fun) science. Fun science for me takes a few forms, most seemingly on evolution:
Pinker. Any of his books. Given the political angle and its tendency towards stoking feuds and taking the scalps of opponents, The Blank Slate might be a good read for any HP member. For me it was riveting when read but on re-examination just too onesided, cheap and polemical to be a really great book. The Language Instinct is the most playful in some senses (but pretty focused); How the Mind Works is perhaps the most useful book of his, for its efforts in getting to grips with Cognitive Neuroscience.
Dennett. Mentioned above, he is a real heavyweight but writes too well for you to notice at times. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is a great intro to the implications of selection processes, and its transformative influence on the world we live in. Other stuff of his seems heavier, but I haven’t tackled his new book, freedom evolves.
Dawkins. Getting tired of the names yet? Obviously known for the selfish gene, I think he continued to develop his metaphor and would recommend Climbing Mount Improbable for carefully employing metaphor that invigors how we understand evolution.
Paul Broks – Into the Silent Land. A wonderful book about brain damage and implications for how we understand ourselves; also deeply personal and inventive. He writes about whether Robert Louis Stevenson could be right that little people in his head wrote his stories in his sleep (answer: possibly), imagines himself at a kangaroo court of Hardline Materialists, and describes all his cases with vigour and humanity. Think Oliver Sacks, I suppose, but more playful and provoking.

Part of the reason I recommend these folks is because (Broks aside) I disagree with all of them on some issues: their privilaging of evolutionary psychology over other (evolutionary-friendly) forms of neuroscience, their preoccupation with rebranding atheism etc. I get the sense that being an intellectual, whatever that means, involves having some critical perspective to what you are reading or watching or listening to. I find it easier to step into that mode by reading those I don’t fully agree with. Further to this are

C.S. Lewis – He comes generally recommended, but I’ve only read The Screwtape Letters, which is an exposition on Christianity livened up by being told from a devil’s POV. As a quick and demonically funny introduction to Christian Theology you’d be pressed to do better.

and, more Scholarly than Intellectual – please don’t ask me to justify this, merely a sense I get- Samuel P Huntingdon’s Who are we? about American identity. There is much there, mainly factual, to make you think, and although I’m resistant to his central premise, that America should formally embrace its Anglo-Protestant culture, there’s enough there to force you to reassess your arguments. But I’m not sure if it really counts as it’s chiefly a historical work, dealing with particular contingencies, and I often get the sense that intellectual works grapple with eternal truths and whatnot.

I learned a lot from these kind of books (and others) to challenge myself and attempt to criticise the work of my betters.

Oh, and a modern intellectual I can half recommend is Geoff Dyer. I read his In Pure Rage and he has a special grip on the world, thought and language – so many paragraphs where I went ‘wow’. Then again, he comes across as extremely unlikable (the book is in the main a record of him traipsing about various locations writing a book about T.S. Elliott and moaning ‘oh no! I’m fed up with Sicily. Oh no! I’m fed up with Mexico) so much so you want to hit him.
I forgot Abelson’s Statistics as Principled Argument which I’ve blogged about before – a wonderful introduction to statistical thinking. But more importantly, what do others think about this? Firstly, is every book that makes you think an intellectual or intellectualising book? See my reluctance to put Huntingdons book on that shelf, although he’s personally surely as smart as the other authors, and his book is authoratative and thought-provoking. I see that history or biology or computer science can be mind-expanding, but fall short of being intellectual. Am I wrong?

Moreover, what books do you recommend? Either to pad out that cortex in the proper way, or just because they’ve been floating your boat recently> Tell, tell, tell.

[A great source of second hand books here. ]

4 Replies to “The road to bulging cortex”

  1. Hi Alex,

    Are books on history, biology and computer science intellectual? I think they can be – even if we are implicitly using a kind of loose “worthiness” definition of intellectual. I would argue that any book is intellectual if informs you and stimulates further thought. It should give you a deeper understanding of a topic and not just a body of knowledge. So here are three books I read over the last year or so that I believe meet the criteria:

    Why should an electron stay near the nucleus? What is electrical force? QED by Richard Feynman gives a good intuitive introduction into this area of quantum physics. Electrons are not deterministic billiard balls and “attraction” is merely an apparent phenomenon of the fact that the electron is more likely to be found near a nucleus because (I think) there are more possible paths involving exchanging photons with the nucleus when you are near it. It’s weird but it’s an exciting way of thinking and very well explained in this book. Read it and you too can get annoyed with postmodernist abuse of the “uncertainty principle”.

    How can we objectively measure the state of the world and the environment? How can we decide what is the best course of action? I’d heard Bjorn Lomborg come under a lot of personal criticism for writing The Skeptical Environmentalist but I’d hadn’t seen much factual criticism of his book. Lomborg is trying to inject rationality and statistical rigour into a highly charged and politicised area. He is not a neo-con and yes, it has been peer reviewed. I found it challenging and extremely thought-provoking. Read it and make of it what you will.

    Finally from left-field, how about The Japanese Mafia by Peter Hill? How do you legislate against the uniquely Japanese “minbo” crime – extortion based not on actual threats but rather ingeniously exploiting your traditional notoriety within a society? (Did I need a question mark there?) Does destroying the yakuza lead to a power vacuum where the crimes such as robbery and burglary that they previously subdued can now flourish? Do the Japanese police tacitly allow some of these groups to exist? Interesting questions. This book presents lots of statistics but doesn’t really seem to argue one side or another and left me without much in the way of answers. Which I guess is the reality of the law… If you do fancy it, why not follow it with the excellent (but off topic) Minbo no Onna.

    Smoke me a kipper – I’ll be back for breakfast.


  2. Nice stuff. I think I will definitely give the last a poke at. I love books that reverse the way in which you look at an issue. Even if you leave them with the same position, the new perspective is undoubtedly something that enhances the way we think. As a consequence, I think all of your books meet those expectations, and you are right to say that compsci, biology and history can all be intellectual. I still have a sense that some books that make you think aren’t doing this – the Huntingdon book (which I got a lot out of) is the example I’m going to ride here as a edge case. The books thesis was that there is an issue with American identity, it matters because the ‘cultural security’ (basically the glue that keeps everything together) of a nation depends upon identity and that various measures (e.g. restricting bilingualism, immigration, encouraging religious trimmings to the ‘naked public square’) are consequently not kneejerk but important principles. It ammassed evidence in a grave way, it made an argument. But while it was scholarly, it didn’t feel wholly intellectual, in the way that a book of Did you know? facts may expand your mind without being intellectual. I think (although I have yet to read it, though it is on a priority list) that Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel would definitely be a book of history that is intellectual. I’d like to think that its not just that the former takes a conservative perspective, in which case I am really abusing my terms. But it comes back to that ‘transformative power’ to make you think in a new way. Huntingdon did bring attention to ways in which say bilingual education could be harming immigrants, and how the different types, spread and frequency of immigration have led to very different effects (see: Mexicanised California vs rapidly assimilated Poles, due in part to their spread across different cities putting a premium on it), but it all felt like someone putting a hand on your shoulder and saying ‘now look’ and then shoving some surveys in your face – in an impeccably written way, of course.

    Regarding Lomborg, the only people I know who stay on top of him are the folk at Crooked Timber – see here; which makes me cautious but then again I’m sure he’s got some good points.

    I think you do need the question mark; I have the 500-page Chicago Manual of Style sitting next to me, but I’m buggered if I’m going to check.

    Lager! The only thing that can kill a curry!

  3. Just a quick point on Lomborg. The more contentious issue with him seems to be to do with his opinion of global warming. Chiefly because the confident evaluation of future costs is difficult at best. This forms only one chapter in the Skeptical Environmentalist – I would recommmmend the book more on the strength of the earlier chapters.

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