Never one to do things in conventional style, I didn’t 2017 with an article about the books that stood out to me over the course of that year; instead, three months into 2018, I am going to share three books that have either challenged, confused, or angered me — or all three! — over the past year. The first of which is David Deutch’s dazzling The Beginning of Infinity, which I wrote about here.
My second book was authored by the great pipe-loving, political activist, Nobel Laureate and self-acclaimed ‘logical atomist’, Bertrand Russell. A remarkably clear thinker with the most brilliant, capacious intellect, Russell took the impossible task of revising the entire history of Western Philosophy, and condensing it, quite beautifully, in the space of 1500 pages that serve as the perfect introduction to the philosophy newbie. His way of writing and explaining difficult ideas is almost alien (David Deutsch of Oxford University is very similar), and it makes this book one of the most gratifying reads you’ll ever experience. This doesn’t make it easy, of course—it is a very difficult book in spite of Russell’s explanatory talents—but it does make the struggle far less, well, consciously agonising, let’s say.
There is no book—at least that I’m aware of—that compares to this in terms of depth, lucidity and utility; it’s not just in a league of its own within the realms of philosophy, but of all important disciplines. A History of Western Philosophy is simply excellent.
Granted, my final book belongs on a non-existent list unwritten list from 2012, which was when This Will Make You Smarter was written. Unusual for a book, it’s a collection of essays written by over 150 of the world’s leading scientists, philosophers and creatives answering the one big, commonly-asked-but-almost-always-answered-dissatisfying question: How can I become smarter?
The website, edge.org is a foundation that pulls together the smartest people on the planet — from artists to scientists, playwrights to mathematicians, academic philosophers to flâneurs — to share their ideas, debate each other, and converse with the world. Every year these public thinkers are asked a big question — voted for by a select few — which they answer in the form of a short essay. A large percentage of the essays are published first on edge.org, before all of them are touched up and condensed into 300 pages.
This Will Make You Smarter contains the answers to the 2011 question: What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody’s Cognitive Toolkit? In layman: What technique do you think could make everyone a better thinker? The answers are very wide-ranging. Some are short, some long; some are complex, some simple; some are funny, some cold; some are math-based, some poetic. All are fascinating. And all, you will find, can immediately be added to your crucially important but very little thought about, cognitive toolkit.
This year (2018), after 20 years of fruitful, engaging and memorable discussion, John Brockman retired the Edge question — with just one more question, of course: What is the last question?