Books round-up: Clearing out the cobwebs
Was one of your New Year Resolutions to improve your mind and clear your reading list of all those guilty but shortlived pleasures. Giles Broadbent reads some weighty tomes with plenty to say to kick start his brain in 2013.
The Victorian City: Everyday Life In Dickens' London
Judith Flanders (Atlantic Books) £20
If the lives of Pip, David Copperfield and Oliver Twist are the bricks, Judith Flanders and her immaculate research are the mortar - filling in the bits in between; the domestic routines, the smells and sounds a Victorian would meet negotiating the unforgiving city. Dickens used to walk the streets at night, with his journalistic eye noting colour and character. Flanders does the same from afar and the result is immeasurably satisfying. For those of us who spend our life duelling with London, the accounts of slums and sewers, transport woes, street lights and railways, rivers and cemeteries are a glimpse at the foundations of the city and a reminder that our travails are lame in comparison.
Both Flesh And Not
David Foster Wallace (Hamish Hamilton) £20
The title of this collection refers to Roger Federer in the first of Foster Wallace's essays but could easily refer to the author himself. His voice and intent is still a major presence in the US literary scene even though he killed himself in 2008. Here, an erudite examination of modern mores, including studies of "conspicuously young" authors and Terminator 2, display his erudition, passion and love of language through 15 essays, some never before available in print in this country. If his novels appear formidable then this collection allows for a gentle, but intellectually rigorous, introduction.
The Signal And The Noise: The Art And Science Of Prediction
Nate Silver (Allen Lane) £25
There has never been more information about than there is today. But, somehow Big Data is not making the art of prediction any better and, in the case of the financial collapse, actually aids distortion. Nate Silver is an expert in using statistical information to assess likely outcomes and characterises this duality in the title of the book. He makes the case for a more sophisticated, analytic and dispassionate reading of the information available. Silver's book is an unashamed geek's reading of probability and uncertainty leavened with graspable case studies - US elections, baseball statistics, the failure of the ratings agency. Don't expect an easy read, but do expect a frighteningly illuminating one.
Antifragile: How To Live In A World We Don't Understand
Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Allen Lane) £25
Taleb introduced the world to "Black Swans" - high impact events that occur outside the realm of normal expectation (see The Signal And The Noise above). He develops his idea to argue that Black Swan events are, ultimately, beneficial and invents a word to suggest the qualitative nature of the aftershock - Antifragile. The thesis can be described in the evolutionary notion that "what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger" so it isn't as radical and new as Taleb insists the reader must believe. However, his thorough analysis is a useful weapon against his subtitle - that debilitating "world we don't understand".