The Mind Body Problem

“But I discovered early that I liked ideas much better than people and that was the end of my loneliness.” Rebecca Goldstein

Some weeks ago in my search for a novel of intellectual debate with a good story thrown in, as well, I recalled The Mind Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein that I had read many years ago, so long ago, it predated my commonplace book. Goldstein majored in philosophy at college, earned her doctorate in the discipline and subsequently returned to her alma mater to teach several philosophy courses. She wrote The Mind Body Problem during a summer vacation break.

I had just come through a very emotional time….Suddenly, I was asking the most unprofessional’ sorts of questions (I would have snickered at them as a graduate student), such as how does all this philosophy I’ve studied help me to deal with the brute contingencies of life? How does it relate to life as it’s really lived? I wanted to confront such questions in my writing, and I wanted to confront them in a way that would insert `real life’ intimately into the intellectual struggle. In short I wanted to write a philosophically motivated novel.

This is exactly what she accomplished in this novel and why I both recalled it, which isn’t always the case for one I read a long time ago, to say nothing of those I read last month. The novel begins with a question. At once you know a philosopher is a work here. “I’m often asked what it’s like to be married to a genius.”

Thereafter, Goldstein proceeds to unravel what it was like for Renee Feuer who enrolls as a graduate student in philosophy at Princeton where she meets the legendary mathematical genius, Noam Himmel, who she marries. They squabble, battle over intellectual puzzles, he treats her distainfully, she has affairs, and along the way delves deeper into the mind-body problem. Renee describes it this way: how is it possible to reconcile the “outer place of bodies and the inner private one of minds.” Sex versus cerebration as one person aptly put it.

In a recent interview Goldstein was asked, “What is love?” She answers rather elliptically but thoroughly true to life. “What is love? … we all want good things to happen to ourselves and keep the bad things at bay. You know when you love somebody you want that as much for them if not more than you do for yourself. I mean that is just the world has to go right for them or you won’t be able to bear it. … “

The novel ends with an expression of her answer. Within a few years, Noah loses his mathematical prowess. “I don’t have it anymore. I never knew what it was when I had it, and now I don’t have it anymore.” Noah breaks down with his confession. He no longer has the power to create but the desire as well and for a mathematical genius you need both.

A few years ago, Goldstein was awarded a MacArthur “genius” award. The Foundation announced: “Rebecca Goldstein is a writer whose novels and short stories dramatize the concerns of philosophy without sacrificing the demands of imaginative storytelling. … Goldstein’s writings emerge as brilliant arguments for the belief that fiction in our time may be the best vehicle for involving readers in questions of morality and existence."

You may find more of Goldstein’s numerous literary and philosophical works here.


The Spirit of the Coffee House

It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old water-proof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt had on the rack above the bench and ordered a cafe au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write. Hemingway

Over thirty years ago I bought a book titled Coffee Houses of Europe. I don't know how I managed to save it all this time, since it is a large, heavy book, filled with beautiful color photographs of some of the most famous coffee houses in Europe. Really, it’s a coffee table book and apparently it has become quite a treasure.

I’ve also had a life-long interest in the coffee house culture and the spirit that it is said to engender. No doubt that’s because most of the cities I’ve lived in have not been blessed with coffee houses or its culture. But in those that I have visited in France and Italy, I’ve felt their warmth and congeniality.

In his Introduction to the photographic plates, the Hungarian-born writer George Mikes distinguishes between the classic coffee houses of Central Europe--Vienna, Budapest, Prague—from those of Lisbon, Paris and London. He calls the latter “places,” while those in Central Europe are “a way of life…a way of looking at the world by those who do not want to look at the world at all.”

While the distinction is untrue, the classic coffee house often becomes a habitual part of a “regular’s” daily life and for some, a place where most of the day is spent. “There were coffee houses for writers, journalists and artists, and these were the most famous, because their members were…”

Mikes must have a thing against the French because he asserts, The French simply use the cafes; they don’t live there.” He claims they actually go there to have a cup of coffee or meet a friend. That is contradicted by my brief experiences at the cafes around the Sorbonne. There I have observed lively conversations between students and their professors that have surely lasted more than the hour or so of my visit.

In The Great Good Place Ray Oldenburg writes, “The coffee house, however, was fundamentally a form of human association, a gratifying one, and the need for such a society can hardly be said to have disappeared.” This has been the case from their beginning in Istanbul, where the first coffeehouses were established during the sixteenth century.

A French observer described these early coffeehouses as settings where “…news is communicated and where those interested in politics criticize the government.” Games—chess, backgammon, checkers—were also played and writers of the days read their poems and stories. This tradition spread to England and the countries of Western and Central Europe during the following century. Again their central features were sociability marked by congeniality, conversation, and social equality.

The spirit of the classic European coffeehouse has all but vanished in this country. Instead, they have been transformed into solitary, monastery-like places of keyboards and screens. Where there was once a lively conversation, now there is silence. Where there was once a group of friends and colleagues gathered around a table, now there are solitary individuals. Where there was once writing notebooks, now there are laptop computers.

Malcolm Gladwell put this as well as anyone: “I like people around me; but I don’t want to talk to them.


Bookstore Revivals

All my life, though, among my daydreams about careers that might have made me happy, has been this one: a small shop somewhere, some partner and I buying and selling used books. Sigrid Nunez The Last of Her Kind

Is there anything more pleasurable than walking into a bookshop, a small independent bookshop and roaming around the tables and bookshelves for a while? Just poking around, having a look, selecting a book to read for a while, moving on to another one.

Patrick Kurp writes about such an experience on his blog Anecdotal Evidence: “I grew up a hunter-gatherer, with the emphasis on hunter. Truly, hunting is the thing, not the gathering. Stalking the butterfly is the adventure, not the netting, pinching and pinning. Trolling the dim shelves of a book shop, alert and expectant, outweighs the pleasure of finding the three-volume Everyman’s edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy priced at $10. Ordering the same from Amazon.com is not the same. My Burton carries an addendum of happy memory, a covert connection to an autumn afternoon in Schuylerville, N.Y.”

There are still a few book lovers dedicated to preserving this type of hunting by opening and maintaining independent bookstores of their own. Perhaps you have heard that Ann Patchett and her business partner have recently opened Parnassus Books in Nashville. She professed to little interest in retail bookselling but “I also have no interest in living in a city without a bookstore.”

In describing Patchett’s new store Julie Bosman writes in the Times that “She is joining a small band of bookstore owners who have found patches of old-fashioned success in recent years, competing where Amazon cannot: by being small and sleek, with personal service, intimate author events and a carefully chosen rotation of books.”

During her summer book tour to promote her novel, State of Wonder, Patchett became more and more convinced by the crowd that showed up night after night, that not only were people still reading books, but that a small, independent bookstore was a solid business model. This did seem a little out of touch, although perhaps not for a community like Nashville where there are a fair number of universities, a sizable literary community, and the kind of start-up cash that both Patchett and her business partner are willing to make.

If a small bookstore is going to be successful today, I think it has to have a few features that set it apart from others, especially online stores and the one remaining big-box chain in this country. Sarah McNally the owner of McNally Jackson Books in New York seems to have found a few ways to do that

The store is known for its large literature collection organized by country—French, Italian, Portuguese, etc. It has a small café, lounge chairs, and the only “print-right-now” book-making machine in New York, one of 80 worldwide.

The rather enormous Book Espresso Machine (an ATM for books) can download, bind, and trim a paperback book in minutes drawing from a current collection of seven million titles. The device can also print self-published books which McNally’s machine does on the average almost 700 a month. Walk into her bookstore, hand her your masterpiece, bingo, you can put it on the shelf.

At a book fair several years ago, McNally realized “There were people greedy for books, rabid for books and I thought: This is what I want to be doing. I want to be with readers.”


The Truck

“…he felt at home in Africa as food was scarce there too and everyone was also barefoot"

Nouakchott is the capital and largest city of the west African country of Mauritania. It lies on the border of the great Sahara desert. Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish writer and journalist is sitting on a stone at the edge of the Ouadane oasis, northeast of Nouakchott. He sees two glaring lights off in the distance. They appear to be moving around quite a bit. They draw closer.

I am learning about Mauritania. I am entranced by the names—Nouakchott, Ouadane, Ryszard Kapuscinski. Can you pronounced those words or know much about them? I am reading “The Truck: Hitchhiking Through Hell” Kapuscinski’s 1999 New Yorker “Letter from Mauritania.” He is describing a journey he took across the Sahara.

After a day of blistering hot heat, it suddenly becomes bitter cold. A few men sitting nearby wrap themselves in blankets. The lights draw closer. Eventually he sees that it is enormous French built truck--there are no roads; cars cannot manage the sandy, pitted, dunes of the Sahara. The driver motions Kapuscinski over, so he climbs high up into the cab.

They drive away, try to speak to one another, meanwhile Kapuscinski has no idea where they are going, although he hopes they are headed for Nouakchott. Have you ever wanted to trek across the Sahara? I doubt I could survive such an adventure. Instead, I will read Kapuscinski’s essay.

They drive on across the pitted, sandy dunes, trying desperately to avoid getting stuck. All Kapusciniski sees is the desert, dark stones scattered about. It must be like the moon. He falls into a deep sleep from which he is awakened by a sudden silence. The truck has stopped, the engine is dead, they are stuck.

He realizes he is thirsty, looks around the cab for some water, sees nothing. He begins to calculate. “Without water, you can survive in the desert for twenty-four hours; with great difficulty, for forty-eight or so. The math is simple. Under these conditions, you secrete in one day approximately ten litres of sweat, and to survive you must drink a similar amount of water.

He gets out of the cab, looks around and sees underneath the truck bed four goatskins that are used to store water. He sighs with relief but only for a moment as he realizes they will empty quickly once the two of them begin drinking.

“The sun was climbing higher. The desert, that motionless, petrified ocean, absorbed its rays, grew hotter and began to burn. The Yoruba are said to believe that if a man’s shadow abandons him he will die.”

As the afternoon hours begin, the two of them spend the rest of the day lying underneath the truck. They drink from the second goatskin and quickly empty it. Two remain.

And once again he sees off in the distance two glaring lights that are far away but moving about wildly. The sound of a motor draws closer, he hears voices in a language he does not understand. Several dark faces, resembling the driver’s peer underneath the truck.

I read Kapuscinski’s essay in Great Adventures, a collection New Yorker travel journeys and short recollections drawn from its archives that is only available as an iPad app. They include pieces by H. L. Mencken (Spain), E. B White (Alaska), Susan Orlean (Bhutan), Peter Matthiessen (Peru), etc.

Evan Osnos’s account of a group of travelers from China taking a Grand Tour of Europe amused me the most. The tourists spend a great deal of time shopping and less touring. But in Florence the relationship is reversed. And when it came time to leave, Osnos describes a sentiment many departing travelers to this city have felt.

“The tour group enjoyed the city [Florence] so much there was a mini-mutiny when the bus prepared for departure.”


Write a Prisoner

I first learned about Lorri Davis and Damien Echols on one of Piers Morgan’s CNN interview shows--why they were being interviewed, how they met, and the reason Echols had been a death-row inmate in Arkansas.

Echols had been sentenced to death as the leader of two other teenagers, both given life sentences, who were convicted of murdering three young second grade boys.

Before they met, Lorri was living in Brooklyn and working as a landscape architect. She first became aware of Echols in a documentary film about the three young boys and the three older teenagers convicted of murdering them.

After viewing the film, Lorri wrote her first letter to Echols: “I came home that night and couldn’t sleep…It breaks my heart that you are where you are and forced to endure it, so I am committed to doing whatever I can to make your life a little bit more bearable.”

So began their correspondence, writing letters to each other, sometimes several during the same day. There is no Internet in the Arkansas penitentiary. In one she wrote, “It’s great, isn’t it? Getting to know someone by writing. It’s quite wonderful and mysterious…”

Five months after they met, Lorri moved to Little Rock, and began managing the movement to arrange his release, obtaining financial support from several celebrities. They were married while he was still in prison and eventually, through a DNA analysis and unusual plea bargain, Echols, at the age of 36, was released from prison having spent half his life on death-row.

I write about Lorri and Damien because it illustrates the power and unexpected consequences of letter writing, that all but extinguished tradition of communicating with another person. Yes, Echols release is cause for celebration; so too is the love that developed between the couple. But it was the way in which their letter writing correspondence made both possible that first drew me to their story.

Writing letters to prison inmates may be one of the last contexts in which it survives. It is often the only channel for self-expression that prisoners have, especially those who are isolated from the Internet, telephone, or any other link to the world outside the prison. Writing to a prisoner may also appeal to anyone who may find themselves socially isolated, with few if any friends, and quite simply in need of someone to whom they can express themselves, particularly someone who might also benefit from the exchange.

Write a Prisoner is an organization devoted to facilitating letter-writing relationships among prisoners and their pen pals. The organization posts prisoner profiles, photos, and details about their crime. In turn, the inmates are charged a nominal fee that the organization claims is used to fund their other programs—educational materials, house and employment information for released inmates, and a scholarship fund for their children.

According the Write a Prisoner website: “Research shows that inmates who establish and maintain positive contacts outside of prison walls are less likely to return to prison. In fact, they are less likely to return to crime and substance abuse and more likely to find employment and remain productive members of society.”

If you wish to write to a prisoner, click on the link at the bottom of their home page.

Lorri and Damien now live in New York, no doubt still getting acquainted with one another and adjusting as to the hustle and bustle of life outside the walls. They are still writing to each other. But instead of writing letters, they are now sending text messages. I should have guessed.

I thank Geoffrey Gray for background information in his New York Times Magazine article (10/13/11), “My Dearest Damien.”


Hot Off the Press

1. Texting has become the royal road to isolation.

2. The opened-ended, leaderless character of the Occupy movements has been the key to their success.

3. Margin Call is one of the best movies of the year and finest Wall Street movie ever made.

4. A second look at the inventive talent of Steve Jobs.

5. Do you live in one of the top ten literary cities?

6. Jane Austen has started blogging.


Print or Electronic?

At Gadgetwise, a New York Times blog about technology, Jenn Wortham writes about her experience reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s latest novel, The Marriage Plot, on her Kindle. She had “adored” his previous works, couldn’t wait for his latest to be shipped, so she downloaded it to her gadget.

But reading the novel was surprisingly disappointing. Of course, she wonders if it was due to the e-reading experience or to the novel itself, a question that is impossible for any single reader to answer. Nevertheless, she decides to borrow a friend’s printed copy and attempt to see if her experience was any different.

Wortham concludes by asking her readers if they like reading certain kinds of books on their e-readers or any work of fiction or non-fiction? As of 11/12/11, 79 individuals have responded. The fact that so many have done so speaks to the significance many readers attach to the transition from print to electronic books.

Setting aside the biased sample of New York Times blog readers, more than half, 45 (57%) said they either preferred reading on the Kindle or that there wasn’t any difference between a printed or electronic version of a book. “Reading is reading. The words are what matter. You can read writing on a wall, on a can of soup, in pages, or on an electronic screen.”

In response to my query, the author of the literary blog So Many Books wrote: “I get just as much pleasure reading on my Kindle as I do in reading a print book. You know when you are into a story and all your surroundings drop away and the world could explode and you wouldn't even know it and you don't even notice you are holding a book let alone turning pages? The same thing happens on the Kindle. When I am reading a good story, the world falls away and the Kindle in my hand disappears too. There is no difference in the experience of the story.”

Still another 16 (20%) said there was a notable difference and they preferred reading on the printed page. “I simply cannot find the same emotional connection to reading something on yet another piece of soon to be obsolete tech equipment.” They offered several additional reasons: they retained more of a printed book, missed its feel or tactile sensation, found it difficult to skip around on digital readers, or they didn’t handle footnotes and page numbers well.

Only two readers expressed my major concern about e-readers. Both said it was impossible to easily make notes in the margins, although one of them wondered if that was really such a loss.

Finally, 18 individuals (23%) didn’t answer the question. They weren’t sure, preferred audio books, noted either is a trade off, or mentioned a totally unrelated subject.

Perhaps the best summary of the matter was offered in this comment: “I've had a Kindle for about 3 years and would not be without it. The advantages are: 1. It's easier to cart around than a book, so it's always with me 2. Being able to change the type size really helps with my aging eyes. 3. It's easy to hold, sometimes large books hurt my arthritic hands. 4. It can be read in bright sun. 5. You don't need bookshelves to store the books you want to keep - a real plus in small apartments. But there are disadvantages too: 1. You can't loan your books to a friend or pass them along to a charity. 2. It's very hard to skip around in the pages 3. Diagrams and illustrations don't work at all. 4. The Kindle Fire may solve the color problem, but now they don't even bother selling the art books I love. 5. Not every book I'm likely to buy is available - not by a long shot.”

While I’ve been a long-time critic of e-readers largely because of the difficulty of note taking and marking up pages, I confess I returned to my iPad recently and found reading the New Yorker app a genuine pleasure.

I made notes on a separate pad of paper or computer and, unlike printed books, was able to listen to poets reading their poems or musical groups being discussed and view a video preview of a film or a dance group that was reviewed. These were not the least bit distracting. To the contrary they enhanced the reading experience for me, although it is still not possible to highlight passages or print articles with the app.

Reading books and long essays on an e-reader is another matter.


Breaking Ranks

You know you always have choices. You can go with the flow because it’s easier or you can let your convictions guide your actions if you are prepared to face the consequences.
Helene Grimaud

On January 25, 2002 fifty-two soldiers of the Israeli army published a letter in the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz explaining why they would no longer serve in occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The major reasons enunciated in their declaration included:

• We…were issued commands and directives that had nothing to do with the security of our country, and had the sole purpose of perpetuating our control over the Palestinian people

• We, who believed the commands issued to us in the territories destroy all the values we had absorbed while growing up in this country.

• We shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve, and humiliate an entire people.

• We hereby declare that we shall continue serving in the Israeli Defense Forces in any mission that serves Israel’s defense.

• The missions of occupation and oppression do not serve this purpose and we shall take no part in them.

Breaking Ranks: Refusing to Serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip edited with interviews by Ronit Chacham profiles the rational of nine members of the IDF (Israel Defense Force), among the earliest of 1,100 the Israeli soldiers who have now pledged not to serve in the occupied territories.

All of the nine Refuseniks profiled in this book agree they will serve in the defense of Israel but not beyond the borders that existed before the Six-Day War of 1967 since it does not serve that purpose. Instead, it only perpetuates bombing of innocent people, destruction of their homes, humiliation, starvation and needless killing.

The nine live with an intense conflict between the values they were raised with and those displayed by the IDF in the occupied territories. Ishay Rosen-Zevi said, “What happens to a soldier, decent people, in the occupation is that power takes over, power poisons you. You can do anything. I was witness to beatings, roadblocks, curfews, going the in the middle of the night to get people. And I thought it was OK because we were all decent people…”

Most of the Refuseniks have served repeated jail terms, experienced the criticism and loss of friendship of their fellow solders, and resentment of some members of their family and, in some cases, their rabbis and teachers. In reply, they say, how can the Jews who have suffered so much violence and oppression over the centuries perpetuate the very same practices on the peoples who live in Palestine?

Rosen-Zvi comments, “In Gaza, I saw people living in shameful poverty. My heart ached for them. At the ckeckpoints, they look at your fearfully….It’s the unwillingness to see the other side that shackles our ability to comprehend terror and what motivates it….It must be stated clearly: Israeli government policies in the occupied territories are fertilizer for suicide bombings. We produce terror. Who in the right mind thinks that more destruction and humiliation will curb it?”

David Chacham-Herson puts it this way. “I am a soldier in the Israeli army, imprisoned for refusing to take part in the oppression of a people. My position arises from the feeling that you cannot be a Jew, the son of a refugee people, and oppress refugees.”

Finally, Guy Grossman expresses the subject lurking silently in background of this issue. “I see Germany right in front of me. And I hate being told that we should make the comparison. True, you can’t compare systematic Nazi genocide with our own occupation regime. But you can compare the psychology processes [italics mine] that took place there and are taking place here among our soldiers and Israeli society in general.”


Why Read Novels?

It was the potential for self-recognition that made Collette’s novels so compelling.
Vivian Gornick.

In a recent interview Philip Roth, the author of more than 30 novels and no doubt a prodigious reader of countless others, said he no longer reads fiction. When asked why, he replied, “I don’t know. I wised up…” What did he mean by that enigmatic comment?

In a similar vein the novelist Nicole Krauss recently expressed her concerns about the current state of the novel. “Things seem to be changing for those of us who have staked our lives on literature. The value of the literary mind appears to be in doubt; as Nicholas Carr writes in his book about how the internet is changing our brains, there is a growing suspicion that its worth has been overinflated, that “surfing the Web is a suitable and even superior substitute for deep reading and other forms of calm and attentive thought.” Krauss’s full remarks can be viewed here.

I still read novels, as Krauss does, and I am sure, like countless others, she is always reading at least one or more. Why do we readers continue to read this type of literature? Is it simply because we haven’t “wised up?”

As for me, I cannot conceive of not reading a novel, it is simply a given, a necessity if you will. And while I’ve am certain I haven’t wised up, I am equally certain that will always be true.

I have written many answers to the question the interviewer asked Roth, but Michael Ondaatje recently gave an eloquent one in his magical tale, The Cat’s Table. He was describing one of the passengers on the ship that was taking the young “fictional” Michael from Sri Lanka to England.

He knew passages from all kinds of books he could recite by heart, and he sat at his desk all day wondering about them, thinking what he could say about them….Mr. Fonseka seemed to draw forth an assurance or a calming quality from the books he read…But he had a serenity that came with the choice of the life he wanted to live. And this serenity and certainty I have seen only among those who have the armour of books close by.

The question “Why Do We Read Literature?” was also posed recently at the online magazine “On Fiction.” The magazine discusses the psychology of the reading experience; “Using theoretical and empirical perspectives, we endeavour to understand how fiction is created, and how readers and audience members engage in it.”

The authors describe a laboratory study of the responses of forty-one individuals when asked to read Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” They say that the poem as well as literary works that engage us put into words feelings that “we may not previously have been able consciously to recognize.”

A work of fiction or more precisely a passage or character enables us to see ourselves more clearly, to express a belief that we did not realize we held or an emotion that we were unaware of before seeing it on the page. The act of reading also sets the occasion for looking more closely at our beliefs and viewing them from another point of view. Yes we read for pleasure, both aesthetic and intellectual, but we also read for personal insight and those truths that might otherwise pass us by.

I think we often read ourselves into literature without thinking twice if it is true for others. Instead, the truth of any given passage or character becomes true for a reader because it corresponds to his or her experience or provides a language for it in a way that had not been available before. “Yes,” we say, “that is true for me. This is my story. That’s exactly the way I felt. I had not realized its truth until I saw it on the page.”


Perlmann's Silence

Philipp Perlmann is attending a conference on linguistics, his academic discipline. There was a time when he was deeply engaged by the field, spoke and wrote eloquently about it. But that sense of purpose has slowly disappeared from his life, the field means little to him anymore.

Yet he is about to take the podium at an important linguistics conference to deliver the opening address. He realizes he has nothing to say, has prepared no remarks, hasn’t even thought about it.

This is the second book of Pascal Mercier’s that I have read. The first was A Night Train to Lisbon, one the finest novels I’ve ever read. Both novels are about academic linguists who speak several languages but have grown weary of their discipline and seek in one way or another to take flight from it.

But Perlmann’s Silence is perhaps twice as long, twice as heavy and already, after only 65 of 616 pages, I am growing weary of reading it. So I have set it aside for a bit. (Why are so many novels so “fat” today? Haruki Murakami’s IQ84 is close to a thousand pages and Stephen King’s 11.22.63 is over a thousand.)

I am surprised at this turn of events, couldn’t wait to get my hands on Mercier’s new novel, ordered and had it sent from England. (It won’t be available in the US until January of next year.) How can one great book be followed by one so unappealing?

The novel scarcely moves a centimeter away of Perlmann’s ruminations, worries, headaches, troubles, broodings, anxieties, ambivalences, hesitations, etc. He cannot sleep, he is out of ideas, and I am about to cast the book in the recycling bin.

Now that I think of it, I had the same experience in reading Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Solar. His earlier novel, Saturday, is also one of my favorites, as is most everything McEwan writes. Solar is said to be a comic novel. But it never seemed the least bit humorous to me.

After reading Saturday a few years ago, a novel that still percolates in my mind, I found Solar a bit of ordeal and at times also considered giving up on it. I found its central character utterly repulsive and, in spite of the fact that he was a Nobel-Prize winning physicist with a sharp and crafty mind, I could not overcome my distaste for his excesses.

In order to enjoy a novel, does its central character need to be likeable, provocative, or deserve our sympathy? As I think back upon the novels I have most enjoyed they are always peopled with individuals I admire and respect. While Henry Perowne in McEwan’s Saturday and Raimund Gregorious in Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon are certainly among them, the physicist in Solar definitely is not.

I remain hopeful that Phillip Perlmann will not continue to displease me. I will give him another chance for he has already made some noteworthy comments, albeit the same ones more than once and ever so laboriously.

The interest in methodical investigation, analysis and the development of theories, hitherto a constant, an unquestioned, self-evident element in his life and in a sense its centre of gravity—he had utterly lost that interest, and so completely that he was no longer sure he understood how it could once have been otherwise.

Running away: at first it must be wonderful; he imagined it as a quick bold rush, headlong through all feelings of obligation, out into freedom.

…he could never experience the present as it was taking place; he always woke up too late, and then there was only the substitute, the visualization, a field in which he had, out of pure desperation, become a virtuoso.

Expressions like this are the reason I keep reading novels, why I like Mercier so much and why I will return to this tome, in spite of its length and sense of weariness.


Knowing Is Not Enough

To get to the point, Daniel Kahneman (winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics) makes a striking claim in writing about his new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. In spite of years of study and important research on shortcomings in human reasoning, he confesses that he still subject to them.

He is fully aware of the biases and inferential errors that we all make in evaluating the information we have in an uncertain situation and yet he continues to make such errors.

He admits he is simply unable to do anything about it.

“My intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions and the planning fallacy as it was before I made a study of these issues.”

In writing about his early work on predicting the future leadership ability of individual Israeli Army soldiers (New York Times October 10, 2011) he concludes:

“I thought that what was happening to us was remarkable. The statistical evidence of our failure should have shaken our confidence in our judgment of particular candidates, but it did not. We knew as a general fact that our predictions were little better than random guesses, but we continued to feel and act as if each particular prediction was valid. I was reminded of visual illusions, which remain compelling even when you know that what you see is false.”

Can knowledge or self-awareness of our judgment biases help to avoid them? Like most everyone else, Kahneman hoped that his research findings would contribute to that end. But if even he admits they haven’t, how can the rest of us do any better?

In his post about Kahneman’s book on the New Yorker Book Bench (October 25, 2011), Jonah Lehrer concludes:

“But his greatest legacy, perhaps, is also his bleakest: By categorizing our cognitive flaws, documenting not just our error, but also their embarrassing predictability, he has revealed the hollowness of a very ancient aspiration. Knowing thyself is not enough. Not even close.”

This is bleak, isn’t it? And yet, can it be true? Must it be true? I am more optimistic than Lehrer or even Kahneman. The question is clear—we need to learn how to make our knowledge of mental flaws more salient in situations where it might prove useful.

This often occurs naturally, when, for example, newly acquired information is still readily available. However, as the information is gradually forgotten with the passage of time, we need to be reminded of its relevance by a conspicuous signal or prompt to ourselves. Until we figure out how to do this more reliably, we must be careful not to overestimate the extent to which knowing about our biases influences our reasoning.


Higher Ground

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves... And the point is to live everything. Live the questions.”

Higher Ground is a movie about individuals who never stop asking questions, who wonder if they have taken the right path or if their beliefs make as much sense as they once did. How many individuals do you know who live a life of such questioning?

On the surface the film depicts the gradual erosion of a woman’s faith in the religion she was born into. We first see her as a young child, then a teenager, and then for most of the film an adult, around 40, who is born again with a full immersion in the midst of her friends and eventual husband.

Vera Farmiga directed the film and also plays the role of the adult (Corrine), while her sister is the teenager and a young look-alike is the child. Farmiga brings the film alive as she did in Up in the Air. She has deep-set eyes and an expressive face that reflects skepticism and uncertainty at every turn without uttering a word.

Little by little she begins to have doubts, her religion lets her down, doesn't answer her questions, and cannot explain the tragedies she sees and experiences. She prays, implores, almost pleads again and again for evidence, anything would do, but nothing is forthcoming.

It is all done so subtly, without the usual rancor or dispute. You see Corrine’s gradual changes in her expressions and behavior exclusively.

Beyond the story of how a woman grows in and out of religion, I also viewed the movie more generally, the way people gradually loose their faith in something that once meant a great deal to them—their profession, marriage, fundamental beliefs. There are some who simply put these doubts aside, others grow to accept them, while some act upon them.

In writing about this film, Roger Ebert comments, “…a person who suffers great misfortune is unlikely to be comforted by the assurance that God’s will has been done. (In the case of my own misfortune I prefer to think that God’s will had nothing to do with it. People who tell me it did are singularly tactless.)”

Ebert has undergone several operations to control his thyroid cancer and has recently lost his voice and lower jaw. He communicates using text-to-speech software that produces a robot-like voice that takes his written words and translates them into sound. Regardless of this debilitating condition, he continues to write with as much energy and insight as ever.

Corrine did something about her doubts and the absence of evidence. Acting on your doubts is not always easy and sometimes takes considerable courage and hard work. It is an exceptional person who alters their fundamental beliefs when the evidence for them is sparse or even contradictory.