Some time ago I had commented to Janice, the proprietrix of Moruya Books, on what I had thought was Warren Zevon’s observation that when you buy a book you are kidding yourself that you are buying the time to read it. She was good enough to stick the quote on the wall behind the counter.
W Zevon: genius
Then, a few days ago, my son Sam sent me a link to an article in The Daily Review headlined Warren Zevon: Time Stands Still. Zevon was a brilliant song-writer with a massive library. I learned that Zevon was, in fact, quoting from the philosopher Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860) who said that “buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them; but as a rule, the purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of their contents”. Schopenhauer also apparently said “I've never known any trouble that an hour's reading didn't assuage.” A fine fellow indeed.
Above: Takleb’s Black Swan: named after our black swans
Then, quite by coincidence I was idling through my LinkedIn feed and I saw a reference from a very old friend of mine. His name is Shawn Callahan (anecdote.com) and he tells stories for a living. His book Putting Stories to Work is aimed at the corporate world but contains lessons for anyone that wants either to inspire someone or to tell a story and keep it interesting. The reference was to an article called Why you should surround yourself with more books than you'll ever have time to read. Its author refers in turn to the thought-provoking The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (which I have read). Taleb refers to Umberto Eco’s library of some 30,000 books. Taleb says that “read books are far less valuable than unread ones.”
You may wonder where all this is going. I meet occasionally with the editor of The Beagle and he and I both have a heap of books that one day we expect to get around to reading. It is highly likely that our expectations will not come about before we shuffle off this mortal coil. When that day comes there will still be a heap of unread books. I had never been particularly concerned about having more books than I could read. My late Aunt, who was one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools in the UK (and therefore a reliable source in these matters) once told me that you could not spend too much money on books, you could only spend more than you meant to. And my friend Shawn underlined my view that you cannot have enough books and he would support, I am sure, my life goal to die happy only when I have read every book that there is.
But our editor tells me that people read the book reviews I write, and I thought that these same people, few in number though they may be, might enjoy a look at what is in my unread heap. At any rate I shall enjoy writing about them; this is not by any means the whole heap, merely a subset. The first of these, and the heftiest, is Ron Chernow’s massive (at 800 pages) Alexander Hamilton. I bought this book partly because of the huge success of the musical of the same name and partly because the life of any American politician who was killed in a duel with the extant Vice President of the US has got to be a remarkable story. I noticed while I was in Moruya Books this week that Janice has Ron Chernow’s equally massive life of the 18th US President, Ulysses S. Grant, called simply Grant. It was only with the greatest difficulty that I resisted the temptation to add this to my heap.
I had bought I Contain Multitudes before I had heard of fecal transplants. The Fecal Transplant Foundation describes the procedure as one “in which fecal matter, or stool, is collected from a tested donor, mixed with a saline or other solution, strained, and placed in a patient, by colonoscopy, endoscopy, sigmoidoscopy, or enema.” Now this may make you a trifle queasy, but it underlines the fact that our bodies are the most remarkable organisms, or more accurately the most remarkable collection of organisms. We exist symbiotically with all sorts of creatures on whom we depend and that, in turn, depend upon us. Who would not want to know about this stuff? I Contain Multitudes is by Ed Kong and tells us how a vast range of microscopic companions shape our organs, protect us from disease and guide our behaviour. Perhaps I should promote this book up the heap. And it has a great title.
Today’s journalists seem to be fascinated in varying proportions by Big Data, algorithms and artificial intelligence. Weapons of Math Destruction is essentially a book about Big Data and the potential for its misuse. I am lucky enough to be (or to have been) a mathematician so the idea that we can analyse the huge quantities of data now available to us is, to me, pretty straightforward. This analysis is statistical, and Mark Twain once said that there are “lies, damned lies and statistics”. The idea behind Cath O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction is that the analysis of Big Data is not without its dangers. Another area of technology change is artificial intelligence or AI. The capabilities of AI today are pretty rudimentary, at least in comparison with the human brain. Your iPhone X may well do facial recognition very quickly, but it cannot change the wheel on your car. The AI devices we have, even including Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, are pretty simple. What will happen when we create an AI device that is conscious? And what does it mean to be conscious? And what are the moral implications of a machine that is conscious? Giulio Tononi’s Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul is an exploration of consciousness. Of course, it is on the unread heap, so I have not tested its claim that “not since Gödel, Escher and Bach has there been a book that interweaves science art and the imagination with such originality.”
I read last year Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth which I enjoyed hugely (though whether or not its assessment is reasonable I cannot judge). Organised religion holds no particular attraction to me. Notwithstanding the wonders exposed in I Contain Multitudes I am sure we are the accidental result of the application of the physical laws of the universe. I cannot accept that some supernatural being put us here. So, I bought Reza Aslan’s book God: A Human History to learn more about why we seem to need something that we call “God.” It’s there on the unread heap. I suspect that this one will rise to the top of the heap in 2018. I have read some pretty uncomplimentary reviews of it though that often makes me more rather than less interested.
One day I may read this
This, of course, is but a sample of my unread books but I see that it contains no novels. It should: I have never read Don Quixote, I have never read War and Peace. I have never read Jack Kerouac’s On the road or Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs. I should have read all these and thousands more besides. But I am happy to go with Warren Zevon (even if it was Schopenhauer’s quote) that when we buy a book we are trying to buy the time to read it. Because we would all be happy to have more time. And when I look at my unread heap not only do I know that I do not know but I know that I could. And I am convinced that there is still time.