“the conformist anti-conformity of the books marketed at my generation” – my thoughts on “record store books”, March 17th 2005 SAU Blog

On St Patrick’s Day 2005 this piece appeared on the SAU Blog. It is somewhat in the spirit of my grumpy thoughts on book clubs from 2006 in the same online publication. Re-reading it, I didn’t lake for definitive pontification – see my dismissal of Catch-22 below.

Have things changed? Alas, conformist anti-conformity is even more prevalent now. Of course, the record store is now an endangered species. James Hamilton’s comment, the first on the site, is on one level of its time, on another as relevant as ever in our age of bourgeous-bohemian virtue signalling:

I too have wondered why record shops should stock those books in particular. I can only come up with one, rather weak, explanation. The supersized record shops of today sell what approximates to every CD, in every genre. Thus, everyone shops there at one point or another. How to stay “edgy” and countercultural, therefore? The books serve as a sign to the customers that the (huge, corporate) store they are in is, in spite of appearances, against “the man”; it’s as young and fancy-free as they are.
I’ve never actually seen anyone buy a book in one of these places, which lends some substance, if not much, to that view of things.

Anyway, here is the review:

“Airport novel” is a derogatory term conjuring up images of the latest Danielle Steel or Tom Clancy schlockbuster piled up high in Terminal B. It is shorthand for a weighty pot-boiler with just enough sex and violence scattered throughout to make Heathrow to JFK bearable. Mass travel has brought about changes in reading habits – the French had their romans du gare. My own reading is perhaps too much influenced by commuting on the bus. If there was such a thing as the “bus novel”, it would be a bitty work, divided into handy chunks that one can read between stops, with a typeface large enough that one doesn’t lose one’s place when jostled.

“Airport novel” seems an obsolete term now, although the masters of the genre continue to churn them out; anyone who has been in an airport recently will know that the bookshops now resemble the average high street emporium. Surprising, serendipitous titles may not lurk on every overlit shelf, but neither do airport book stores stock only the soon-to-be-a-major-movie books. There are a lot of self help books of varying quality, from the sensible to the silly, and how-to-make-a-million-by-next-week type books – but after all every bookshops’ Mind, Body, Spirit section (what a curious formulation!) is equally groaning with stock.

Record stores, increasingly, don’t just sell musical recordings. Video games, DVDs and assorted hi-fi paraphrenalia are also available; indeed, Our Price dropped “Records” from the end of their name some years back to emphasise the fact that they sold far more than records. “Record store” is, therefore, perhaps something of a misnomer nowadays. Nevertheless, the record store gives a good idea of what media is aimed squarely at the all-important yoof demographic.

Most largeish record shops now sell books. And far more than “airport books”, record store books share a grim homogeneity and sameness that depresses, especially when one considers that this, one supposes, is in someway characteristic of “my generation” (I’m 26).

There is a surface diversity to the subject matter of record shop books. Naturally, there are a lot of books about popular music. The vast majority are either bland pap or wildly pretentious pap, although there are some gems (such as Peter Guralnick’s rise and fall of Elvis diptych – Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presleyand Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley) amongst the dross. It is always an interesting exercise to pick up any magazine devoted to popular music – especially the more ostentatiously “intellectual” of them – and read the reviews therein. Adjectives pile up, awkward metaphors and similes congeal together – lacking the common language that enable writers on classical music to at least communicate something, however imperfectly, about the music they described. As Truman Capote said of Kerouac, it’s not writing, it’s typing.

But just as music is less and less important to the activities of the record store, books about music are less represented in bookstores than one would assume. Increasingly dominant are books about gangsters, drugs and football hooligans. Some, such as Howard Marks’ hugely popular Mr Nice, combine one or more of these categories. Someone once told Alan Coren that the most popular categories in publishing were golf, cats and Nazism; thus his next work was entitled Golfing For Cats and featured a putter-wielding moggy wearing a Nazi uniform on the cover. I presume a book on a drug-dealing gangland boss-cum-football hooligan has been done – if not, a fortune looms for the reader who wishes to steal the idea.

Novels sold in record stores are either written by stand-up comedians or are “cult” novels. “Cult”, of course, has become a completely meaningless term. In Your Face Here, their rather repetitive account of various “cult” British films (repetitive because it follows a predictable pattern – underappreciated British genius makes transcendent film underappreciated at the time only to gain later “culthood”), Ali Catterall and Simon Wells describe how the makers of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels deliberately set out to make a cult movie. “Cult” novels include some awful stinkers, such as the wildly overrated Catch-22 (the same not terribly funny joke told again and again and again. And again.) and such ludicrous “counter cultural” tosh as The Dice Man.

Then we come to the what could be called the anti-Bush, anti-capitalist shelves. Michael Moore is one of the great capitalists of our age, for he has made a wildly successful career through giving the people what they want. The shelves of all bookshops groan with his many imitators, all hoping to get in on the immensely lucrative isn’t-America-terrible-bandwagon. A few years ago, most of these books would have had slickly-designed covers and been written by photogenic young women (cf. Naomi Klein), and decried the West’s suicidal obsession with slicky-designed, photogenic branding and such evils. Now, would-be zany cover montages and clumsily wacky titles abound. The anti-American bestseller now is a cousin of the McCarthy’s Bar type book, a constant and ingratiating barrage of jocularity that ultimately exhausts.

There are some other categories of book one comes across in a record store. Tower Records have shelves groaning with occult manuals of various kinds, and books about tattoos. They also have a section of erotica, which looks to be anything but erotic in any meaningful sense.

Why is all this so saddening? For all the surface variety of theme and tone, record shop books are truly homogenous. Like anything ostentatiously “alternative”, there is much more conformism here then anywhere else. These books are conformist aesthetically, socially, and politically. The books sold in record stores reflect the fact that self-conscious transgressive tastes are the most truly conservative of all.

There’s a real sense of ahistoricality about the shelves. Aside from a few novels of sufficient culthood (The Catcher in The RyePortrait of An Artist), nothing written before 1960 seems to feature. Unless they were lucky enough to enhance the gaiety of nations by using hallucinogenic drugs, ancient civilisations may as well not have existed. Religion exists to be debunked, or denigrated in the name of “spirituality”.

Contemplating the books available in a record store is a bit like contemplating what used to be called men’s magazines but now can only really be called lad’s magazines. Even the ones that used to be somewhat “quality” – GQEsquire – now plough the same thematic furrow. Men of around my age, it would seem, are only interested in clothes, pornography, gadgets, criminality, the acquisition of “rock hard abs” and more clothes. It’s not a comforting thought. Neither is it comforting to contemplate the conformist anti-conformity of the books marketed at my generation.

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“The Faber Popular Reciter”, Introduction by Kingsley Amis

In a letter of 12 August 1977 to Robert Conquest, Kingsley Amis wrote:

The Faber Book of Non-Trendy Verse has been easier and is going faster: a careful look through the Dict of Quots took me most of the way, then hymnals and old-fashioned anthologies.

“The Faber Book of Non-Trendy Verse” is The Faber Popular Reciter, edited and introduced by Amis (the “Dict of Quots” is the dictionary of quotations; obvious to most readers no doubt, but I was initially thrown!) Here is the blurb, which along with the Conquest letter quote, gives a good sense of the thing:

I have never quite taken to Martin, but the elder Amis is an interesting figure. I previously noted his judgments, too easy to dismiss as crustily reactionary, can be surprising. “Stanley and the Women” contains, amongst other things, one of the best, most realistic and least sentimental portrayals of schizophrenia in a novel. Anthony Powell commented of him that “his hatred of pretension was itself a form of pretension.”

His introduction to The Faber Popular Reciter is a splendid, at times tendentious, always interesting little essay in its own right. There are few poems I can think of since the 1930s that could possibly be considered recitation pieces in Amis’ terms (as opposed to poetry reading performances) – perhaps Heaney’s “Mid-Term Break.” As the book is out of print and I cannot find any trace of this introduction online, I have taken the liberty of reproducing it in full below.

The book itself is a splendid collection of splendid, and very non-trendy (to the degree they may have a trendiness of their own again) poems. There are five Wordsworth poems, despite Amis’ words below. There are two Yeats, the Lake Isle of Inisfree which I would expect and Easter 1916, which I wouldn’t (I would have thought The Second Coming, or The Ballad of Father Gilligan, or many others, were more recitation pieces…. but a terrible beauty is born is a great phrase I suppose)

When I was a schoolboy before the Second World War, the majority of the poems in this book were too well known to be worth reprinting. If they were not in one anthology they were in a couple of others; they were learned by heart and recited in class, or performed as turns at grown-up gatherings; they were sung in church or chapel or on other public occasions. Some were set as texts for classical translation, an exercise that gives you insight hard to achieve by other means: the fact, noted by my fellow and me, that Mrs Hemans’ ‘Graves of a Household’ went into Latin elegiacs with exceptional ease encourages a second look at that superficially superficial piece.

Most of that, together with much else, has gone. I suppose hymns are still sung here and there, classical verses written and – another way of gaining insight – poems learned by heart and recited. But in any real sense the last could only happen in school, as part of an academic discipline. Any adult who commits a poem to memory does so for personal satisfaction; if he utters it in company he does so to share it with like-minded friends (or as a harmless means of showing off), and as one who quotes, not as one who recites.

I should be sorry, the, if readers of this book were to be confined to those in search of material for what we usually understand by recitation. ‘Reciter’ is a nineteenth-century term used here for a collection of characteristically nineteenth-century objects: poems that sound well and go well when spoken in a declamatory style, a style very far indeed removed from any of those to be found at that (alas!) characteristically twentieth-century occasion, the poetry recital, with all its exhibitionism and sheer bad art. If recitation has died out in the family circle, reading aloud has not, and it is as material for this that my anthology is ideally intended; let me remind the doubtful that here is a third way, less troublesome that the first two, of finding out more about a piece of writing and so enjoying it more. Others will perhaps be glad to have within one binding a number of old favourites now obscured by changes in taste or fashion; yet others, younger than the other others, may make a discovery, if only that poetry need be none the worse for being neither egotistical nor formless.

I mentioned just now the nineteenth century as the main source of my selection, and sure enough is drawn from authors born either in its course or so soon before as to have done the larger part of their growing-up within in, between 1788 and 1888. More than this, the pieces from longer ago are very much of the sort that the nineteenth-century poetical outlook could accept without strain: Shakespeare at his most direct, Milton on his blindness, ballads, hymns, the patriotic, the sententious (https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-character-of-a-happy-life/Wotton, Gray). Thus the Elizabethan period and the years immediately following contribute more than the major part of the seventeenth century, and there is one solitary poem in the Augustan heroic couplet.

No age of course has a single poetical outlook, always half a dozen. I was talking about the kind of person of that time who was intelligent and educated without having we would now call literary tastes, who liked poetry without finding it in any way a necessity and much of whose contact with it would have been through recitation and song, both sacred and profane. What our man, or woman, required is what first verse for rendering in those ways: absolute clarity, heavy rhythms and noticeable rhymes with some break in the sense preferred at the end of the line. (Outside Shakespeare, understood to be a special case, there are only two blank-verse pieces here, both by Tennyson, a different special case) Subject-matter must suit the occasion by being public, popular, what unites the individual with some large group of his neighbours. The emotional requirement is that the reader, or hearer, be stirred and inspirited more than illuminated or moved to the gentler emotions: love poetry, for instance, can often be recited effectively, but not in the course of the kind of recitation I have described. For another set of reasons, comic poetry is likewise inappropriate.

The exclusions necessitated by all this obviously exclude a very large part of the best poetry in the language, even of that written in the nineteenth century. For instance, I have felt bound to omit Wordsworth, the poet of Nature: ‘The Solitary Reaper’ gets in because it takes an untypically detached, almost a townsman’s, view of the central figure. Shelley, Browning and Arnold are among those less than fairly represented; Charles Kingsley, Alfred Austin and Austin Dobson are not greater poets than Coleridge, Keats and (Some would add) Hopkins, who are altogether left out. Perhaps popular poetry, outside the accidental contributions of poets whose critical esteem rests on other achievements, can never be anything but what George Orwell called good bad poetry.

The phrase occurs in his entertaining and valuable review-article on Kipling, whose works he describes as ‘almost a shameful pleasure, like the taste for cheap sweets that some people secretly carry into middle life’. Orwell goes on to give other examples of good bad poetry, half of which I have included here, and remarks, accurately enough on his terms, that there was no such thing until about 1790. The characteristics of this kind of poetry, he says, are vulgarity and sentimentality, though he softens the latter term by adding: ‘ A good bad poem is a graceful monument to the obvious. It records in memorable form – for verse is a mnemonic device, among other things – some emotion which nearly every human being can share. The merit of a poem like ‘When All the World Is Young, Lad’ [‘Young and Old’] is that, however sentimental it may be, its sentiment is ‘true’ sentiment in the sense that you are bound to find yourself thinking the thought it expresses sooner or later, and then, if you happen to know the poem, it will come back into your mind and seem better than it did before,. Such poems are a kind of rhyming proverb ….’ Sentiment is usually considered different from and higher than sentimentality, and an example with almost universal appeal (which is perhaps a nice way of saying ‘vulgar’) hardly seems to deserve being called bad, even good bad. Not all popular verse, again, is in the Kipling manner; perhaps that manner deserves to be called vulgar and sentimental, though to me it does not in principle, but I can find nothing of either quality in , say, ‘The Old Squire’ 1887‘, ‘Ha’nacker Mill’ or the poems of the Great War that close the volume. Indeed, to anyone not blinkered by political prejudice, from which category I would exclude Orwell, ‘The Soldier must surely be counted one of the greatest poems of our century.

And yet … Well, I have included ‘Horatius‘ entire; I could not bear to cut so much as a single stanza; even to glance at it in the course of preparing the book sent a thrill through me; it is probably the best and most characteristic we have of military-patriotic popular verse – in it, Rome of course has the appeal of a golden-age England, though there are English notions in the ranks of Tuscany too. And yet there is something unreal, something almost ritualized about it, not vulgar not sentimental as those words are normally applied, something not of pretence but of let’s pretend. The brave days of old belong to the time when all the world was young: this is what used to be called a boy’s poem, founded on values that are few, simple and certain. They are none the less valuable for that, and certainly none the less fundamental. The distinction of Macaulay’s magnificent poem is that it enables the adult reader, or hearer, to recover in full some of the strong emotions of boyhood, an experience which is not a lapse from maturity but an endorsement of it.

For a number of reasons, a poet of our own day cannot write like that – in fact, during the 1930s, this entire literary genre quite suddenly disappeared, never to return. Such a poet would certainly lack in the first place the required skill and application. Should he possess these, he would even so find himself using a dead style and forms. Clarity, heavy rhythms, strong rhymes and the rest are the vehicles of confidence, of a kind of innocence, of shared faiths and other long-extinct states of mind. The two great themes of popular verse were the nation and the Church, neither of which, to say the least, confers much sense of community any longer. Minor themes, like admiration of or desire for a simple rustic existence, have just been forgotten. The most obvious case of it all is the disintegrative shock of the Great War.

I thought at first of grouping the poems by subject, but was defeated by a shortage both of categories and of poems that fitted squarely into one and only one. (I should perhaps explain here to readers under forty that the generous selection of war and battle pieces is due not so much to national belligerence as to the fact that their fellow-countrymen used to feel peculiarly united at such times. The feeling persisted for some years after it had become impossible to write patriotic verse.) So – the poems are arranged chronologically instead, according to the year of their authors’ births. Although this is not a perfect plan, it has the advantage of offering a view not only of literary developments but also parts of our history. Read in this way too, some poems shed an interesting, even ironical, light on those that follow them.

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2001: I am not a fan of Malcolm Gladwell. Review of “The Tipping Point” from The Lancet.

I actually quite enjoy Gladwell’s articles – a bit solutionist at times but he can tell a story well. Like many other books by New Yorker writers whose New Yorker pieces I quite enjoy, Gladwell’s books tend to disappoint. From The Lancet in Feb 2001, here is a not very flattering article on The Tipping Point.

The Tipping Point clearly has influenced Nudge and a range of other small-things-make-a-big-difference approaches to social issues. As a principle it is not inherently wrong, and the examples Gladwell discusses are pretty interesting…. but the complexity and subtlety of a situation can get missed.

Looking back on this review, I was (am?) prone to some hackneyed phrases (“insightful pieces with quicksilver intelligence” for instance) and the piece doesn’t really hang together – I evidently dislike the book, but why? I seem to only cite literary grounds, finding Gladwell’s style here a bit annoying. Looking back, it is clear the solutionism is pretty rampant here, and I could have reflected more critically on that:

The new New Thing
Seamus Sweeney
Published: 03 February 2001

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(05)71540-3

The tipping point has much to recommend it—certain fascinating ideas and phenomena explained clearly. But it also has much to deplore—tendencies towards pop psychology and writing to match. The book is subtitled “How little things can make a big difference”, and Gladwell uses the sharp fall in crime in New York City in the 1990s and the sudden hipness of Hush Puppies, previously chronically unfashionable, to introduce the book, as examples of sudden, unpredictable trends. He claims to apply the thinking of an epidemiologist to how social and cultural trends spread. “The Tipping Point is the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point”, the tiny, decisive moment where the slightest push makes all the difference.

Gladwell tells us of the “Three Rules of Epidemics.” The first is The Law of the Few—in any epidemic, a small group of people infect a disproportionate amount of people. He uses the examples of Darnell “Boss Man” McGee, who infected at least 30 women with HIV, and Gaetan Dugas, “Patient Zero”, the flight attendant linked to over 40 of the earliest cases of AIDS in New York and San Francisco. The same principle applies to social and cultural epidemics. Gladwell defines who the few are: Connectors, who know a lot of people in different social groupings; Mavens, well-informed people who discover new products, concepts and trends; and Salesmen, who persuade people to try The New Thing. A social epidemic must touch base with representatives of all three groups. The second rule of epidemics is the Stickiness Factor. Gladwell uses the examples of the famous Winston’s cigarettes slogan (“Winston tastes good like a cigarette should”) and the story of Sesame Street to illustrate the properties of The New Thing that make it memorable. The third law of epidemics is the Power of Context. In 1964, a woman called Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in Queens on the street with her 38 neighbours watching, none of whom bothered to call the police. At the time it was cited as evidence of the selfishness induced by urban life. But subsequent psychological work found that in such events, the biggest factor that determines whether someone helps is the number of witnesses. The more witnesses, the less likely that an individual will take the responsibility to act; it is diffused among too many people. In other words, the effect of The New Thing depends on the context.

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Gladwell invokes the tumble in New York crime statistics, and in particular the concept known as “Broken Windows”; apparently petty crime like graffiti or broken windows acts as a suitable context for violent crime. Thus minor changes such as cleaning up graffiti help spread the social epidemic of not committing crime. The lesson here is that context is crucially important in behaviour. A rather mean-spirited experiment on a group of seminarians is cited as proving this; they were asked to prepare a sermon and cross over to another building. Some were told to sermonise on “The Good Samaritan”, while others were given more general texts. As they headed off, some were told that they were running late while others were told they were early. En route they encountered a man who had collapsed on the ground and was in some distress. It was found that the seminarians who helped the stranger were those who were running early— even those who were about to speak on the Good Samaritan would hurry past if they thought they were late. Thus the physical context (lateness versus punctuality) was more important than the moralistic context (the actual content of the sermon) in determining behaviour.

Gladwell has many more examples than those referred to here; from the epidemic of suicide in Micronesia to the rise and fall of Airwalk sneakers. His universe is a giddy one, one where “with the slightest push—in just the right place—it can be tipped”. As an adventure through a world of ideas, it is highly enjoyable. But as a work of literature, it has an irritating factor of its own.

A critic quoted on the press release for this book compares Gladwell to Edmund Wilson. Another literary figure came to mind: Anthony Robbins, author of Unlimited power and Awaking the giant within. What sounds like a cross between popular science writing and cultural commentary instead occupies a no-man’s-land between books for salesmen and self help books for people who don’t read.

The tipping point marks something of a dumbing down for Gladwell, who writes thought-provoking, insightful pieces with quicksilver intelligence for the New Yorker. One can’t help thinking that Gladwell started writing a very different book, and commercial imperatives took over. Or possibly it is the condescension of the metropolitan New Yorker writer to the little folks out there in Middle America. There is a fascinating book to be written about Gladwell’s basic thesis—that little things not only make a big difference, they make the biggest difference. This is, alas, not it.

Review of “The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, The Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity”, Amir D Aczel, Lancet, 17th February 2001

Following on from a review of a book on Nabokov on butterflies, my second piece in a proper non-student publication was this review of Amir D Aczel’s book on George Cantor and infinity. I still find the topic of this book quietly mind-blowing. The “diagonal argument” is a wonderfully accessible “ah-a” moment. Around this time I read a lot of popularisations on maths – which may have given me an entirely false confidence in my own mathematical ability.

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The French mathematician Henri Poincaré wrote that the work of Georg Cantor was “a malady, a perverse illness from which someday mathematics will be cured”; the equally legendary German mathematician David Hilbert held that “no one will expel us from the paradise that Georg Cantor has opened for us”. Cantor, working in isolation in a provincial university, was at the cutting edge of late 19th-century mathematics, discovering set theory, establishing notation for infinite numbers, and stating the continuum hypothesis, for decades regarded as the most difficult problem in pure mathematics.

Galileo demonstrated in 1638 that one can prove that the set of all whole numbers is equal in number to the set of all squares of whole numbers, which is a subset of the set of all whole numbers. How can this be so? If we list all the natural numbers 1, 2, 3… and so on, we can place each of these umbers in direct one-to-one correspondence with its square. We can also put each one in correspondence with a prime. Cantor would later use such thinking to define an infinite set as a collection of objects that can be put into a one-to-one correspondence with a part of itself. Cantor realised that the paradoxes of infinity produced weren’t just slightly bothersome games but required a new type of arithmetic. Sets that can be matched to each other like the example above are then said to have the same cardinality; Cantor dubbed such sets “countably infinite” and denoted their cardinality by “aleph-null”—the Hebrew letter aleph with the subscript zero.

Cantor proved that there are infinities larger than countable infinities by a remarkably ingenious argument—if we try to count all possible real numbers (numbers that can represented as decimals) between 0 and 1, we find we cannot put them in a one-to-one correspondence with the natural numbers of countable infinity. Suppose we list the natural numbers and correspond them with all possible decimals between 0 and 1, in no particular order, like so: and so on forever. Cantor constructed a “diagonal number” by taking the first digit from the first place after the decimal point of the first number, the second digit from the second place after the decimal point of the second, and so on. In this example we get the number 0·27267…which is made of a digit from every single number on the list. If we alter each digit in this number by adding one to it, we get a new number (in this case 0·38378…) which cannot appear anywhere on the original list, since by its very construction it differs by at least one digit from every single entry in the list. In other words, constructing the diagonal number creates a number that has at least one digit in common with every single decimal on the list—and by changing that digit we create a number that loses this common characteristic with each of the numbers on the list. So the decimals cannot possibly be put into one-to-one correspondence with the natural numbers—they are uncountably infinite and are denoted by the symbol C for continuum. The author also demonstrates how Cantor used the concept of the continuum to prove, amongst other things, that there are as many points on any given line as in any shape or volume, no matter of what size. “I see it, but I don’t believe it!” Cantor wrote (in French) of this result.

1 ………… 0.2345678 to infinity
2 ………… 0.5756037s to infinity
3………… 0.6729283 to infinity
4 ………… 0.2386412 to infinity
5 ………… 0.9877754 to infinity

The continuum hypothesis was Cantor’s next step. He wondered whether infinite sets exist that are intermediate in size between aleph-null and C. He thought they didn’t—in his own notation, he hoped to prove that aleph-one (which he defined as the next order of infinity following aleph-null) equalled C—but was unable to prove so. The problem increasingly began to haunt him. His work was under attack from the Berlin-based mathematical establishment, embodied in Leopold Kronecker, who sternly declared “God made the integers; all else is the work of man”. He longed for an appointment to the mathematical faculty in Berlin, and began to believe that his enemies were conspiring against him. Spending increasing amounts of time in the Halle Nervenklinik, he also became an enthusiastic advocate of the Baconian theory of Shakespearean authorship; Aczel represents this as Cantor’s tortured intellect taking refuge from the blinding light of infinity, which he compares to the infinite brightness of the chaluk, God’s robe in Kabbalah tradition. Increasingly Cantor gave the continuum hypothesis the status of dogma, declaring that “from me, Christian philosophy will be offered for the first time the true theory of the infinite”.

The mathematicians Kurt Gödel (who himself suffered from paranoia and hypochondria) and Paul Cohen would later show that, firstly, if we treat the continuum hypothesis as an additional axiom of set theory, it doesn’t contradict any of the other axioms of set theory, and secondly if we treat the opposite of the continuum hypothesis as an additional axiom of set theory, it doesn’t contradict any of the other axioms of set theory. Thus the continuum hypothesis is independent of the other axioms of set theory, and therefore can neither be proved or refuted from those axioms.

As he discusses Cantor’s existence in the provincial university of Halle, Aczel announces “mathematical research is best done within a community of good mathematicians. Research results can be shared and ideas exchanged, so that new theories can develop and thrive”. This is almost certainly true, yet within a few pages Aczel has discussed not only Cantor but two of his contemporaries who made spectacular advances working in isolation; the immensely likeable Karl Weierstrass (who developed the modern theory of mathematical analysis by night while working as a schoolteacher), and Richard Dedekind (who made equally important contributions to the definition of irrational numbers in the provincial University of Brunswick)—yet Aczel never even discusses the implications of this.

It is significant that a recent survey of American scientists’ attitude to the divine found mathematicians the most likely (with biologists the least likely) to believe in a God. Reading of the dizzying orders of infinity that Cantor explored, one feels perhaps that maths and music are the closest humanity can get to any sense of the divine. Aczel treats this potentially fascinating theme in a curiously perfunctory way; the Kabbalah is discussed in one chapter, belying the subtitle. There are some rather superficial references to the ability of the human mind to comprehend the infinite, with occasional references to the connection between Cantor’s fragile mental state and his work on the continuum hypothesis. Periodically Aczel announces that Galileo or Cantor or Güdel had the ability to face in full the concept of infinity, which most mathematicians and indeed human beings never do, but never explores precisely what this means.

All told The mystery of the Aleph deals with one of the most fascinating themes that mathematics holds for the general reader, and deals sympathetically with its central character. Indeed the rarefied world of infinity and its relationship with the divine is perhaps the most beguiling seductress mathematics can rely on to persuade the reflex numerophobes conditioned to see mathematics as dry, soulless, and worst of all, boring. Like Paul Hoffman’s The man who loved only numbers and John D Barrow’s Pi in the sky, this is another accessible introduction to the world of pure mathematics, although perhaps Hoffman’s work is more engaging. Aczel’s work belongs in the set of books dealing with fascinating tales and concepts that fall just barely short of greatness.

Review of Oliver Sacks, “The River of Consciousness”, TLS 13th March 2018

A Medical Education

I have a review in the current TLS of Oliver Sacks’ essay collection, “The River of Consciousness” . The full article is subscriber only so here is the opening….

Who is the most famous medical doctor in the world today? Until his death in 2015, a reasonable case could be made that it was Oliver Sacks. Portrayed by Robin Williams on screen, inspiring a Michael Nyman opera and plays by Peter Brook and Harold Pinter, Sacks took his followers far beyond the confines of neurology.

In their Foreword to The Rivers of Consciousness, a posthumously published collection of Sacks’s essays, the editors recount the time Sacks appeared in a Dutch documentary series, A Glorious Accident. Along with, among others, Daniel Dennett, Freeman Dyson and Stephen Jay Gould, Sacks discussed “the origin of life, the meaning of evolution, the nature of consciousness. In a lively discussion, one thing was clear: Sacks…

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Peter Reason on being a pilgrim and being a tourist

I recently re-blogged a section from Peter Reason’s new book, In Search of Grace. I’ve been reading it over the weekend and am sorely tempted to simply copy out sections. I hope to write a fuller, more considered review in due course but also hope to blog responses to particular themes. Reason’s “ecological pilgrimage” touches on a huge range of topics related to nature connection, silence, conservation, pilgrimage, and time and whole range of topics close to my heart.

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It is an engaging read which is helpfully upfront about the messy human reality of pilgrimage – very far from a continuous series of flow experiences, epiphanies and so on. His pilgrimage is ecological rather than explicitly religious and draws on a wide range of traditions, including secular/scientific ones – but with a great deal of respect for the religious underpinnings of pilgrimage.

He is also unsentimental – observing for instance that as the “Sixth Great Extinction” began pretty much once homo sapiens showed up, blaming the depradations humans have wrought on the planet on “Western” or “modern” man is a mistake.

Anyway, there is a huge amount to get to grips with and I hope to feature some highlights and thoughts here over the next while. For the moment, one theme which is relatively minor but highly significant is the distinction between the pilgrim and the tourist. I have blogged on this before – or rather on the distinction often made between being a “tourist” and a “traveller” – my own preference being for honest tourist rather than pretentious traveller.

For Reason, these reflections are most acute on Inishmore, largest of the Aran Islands. Aware of the tension inherent in bringing economic benefit to an isolated community (although as he writes, given the preponderence of day trippers the main beneficiaries are the ferry companies), he also notes his own preference for solitude in sites like Dun Aengus. Yet, is he so different from the mass of tourists? As he reflects afterwards:

I sailed north with a heavy heart, disappointed with my visit. Inishmore is a remarkable place. First for its lessons in geology: it is one thing to read about how erosion creates limestone pavements, quite another to actually walk over them. Second, for its lessons in history: while this is not my part of the world, I know is has been deeply influenced and impoverished both by its own conflicts and those imported from England. For me, however, these qualities were overwhelmed by the visitor culture, not so much by the curiosity of the people who visit, but by the infrastructure that is required to cater from them and to profit from them. The tourist business requires that large numbers of visitors move through the sites fairly quickly and are returned to the tourist hub where they can spend their money.

It is all too easy to make a crude distinction between tourist and pilgrim. We are all both. The line is a subtle one that I found myself continually crossing and recrossing, never entirely sure which side I was on. Indeed, nature writer Paul Evans refers to people like me who go in search of wild places as ‘wilderness tourist.’ Religious pilgrims who go to sacred places in search of a holy realm will often take time out for sightseeing; and tourists visiting the same place may find themselves affected more profoundly than they had bargained for. The tourist may see a haughty arrogance in the pilgrim’s claim to a higher purpose, and the pilgrims may look down on the superficiality they see in the tourists.

Reason goes on to write as to why he finds the distinction still worth making; I don’t want this to turn into simply posting extracts from his writing so I would urge those who wish to know more to seek out the book For me, sites like the Louvre and the British Museum do acquire the status of pilgrim sites, and when somewhere is described as “touristy” it is usually because there is something worthwhile there. Of course, the experience of visiting it may be wrapped up in a lot of tiresome tat and overcrowding, but it was ever thus …