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Sunday, June 12, 2005

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. ]