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Book review: This is Going to Hurt, by Adam Kay

Adam Kay is now a comedian and writer for television and film. Before that he was a junior doctor in the NHS for six years and this book contains the diaries he kept at that time. We follow him as he embarks on his career after qualifying, and quickly finds that his medical training has not prepared him for what awaits him: not just responsibility for the lives of his patients but frequent relocations, substandard accommodation, and above all lack of sleep. The experiences he describes will no doubt surprise anyone whose idea of hospital medicine has been formed by a diet of medical soaps but will be entirely familiar to readers who have been there themselves. [Continue reading]

Book review: Somewhere Towards the End, by Diana Athill

This book was written in old age, when Athill was about to turn 90 (she is now 100). But although the experience of growing old and facing death is one of her themes, it is far from the only one. She writes perceptively about people she has known and objectively and frankly about herself and her earlier life, including her many love affairs. Hers has been a pretty full life, one would think, but she wishes it could have been even fuller—one regret is that she would have liked to learn modern Greek and to have lived and worked in Greece.

Although she had previously published a collection of short stories and a novel, she didn't think of herself as a writer, and discovering in old age that she could produce memoirs that people wanted to read came as a delightful surprise. It shouldn't have done. She is moro of a 'writer' than are many of those who ostentatiously describe themselves as such. [Continue reading]

Book review: Candide, by Voltaire

Voltaire's satirical novel Candide is probably known by reputation to more people, at least in the English-speaking world, than have actually read it. This is a pity, because it scores very highly for readability as well as importance. It is quite short and the narrative moves along at a cracking pace; there is no time to be bored. Read more

Book review: Ultimate Questions, by Bryan Magee

In Confessions of a Philosopher, published twenty years ago, Magee described his thoughts about the possibility of survival after physical death and said that this was a question that troubled him deeply. In his new book he returns to this theme, whose importance for him is now even greater than it was when he last wrote because of its greater immediacy (he is now in his late eighties). The book could be described as an extended meditation on the nature of the self and what this means for our future prospects, if any. Continue reading

Book review: Confusion, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

This book continues the story of the Cazalets from the point it reached at the end of Marking Time. It covers the period from March 1942 to the end of the war in Europe in 1945. The main characters are the same as in the previous volume except that Sybil, who had terminal cancer, has died. Read more

Book review: Science and Nonbelief, by Taner Edis

I wrote a review of Science and Nonbelief, by Taner Edis, when it appeared in 2006. A revised paperback version was published by Prometheus Books in 2008, and I've recently read this in the Kindle version which I downloaded from amazon.co.uk.

I don't think there is any need to revise my earlier review of the book (something I don't normally do anyway) but I think it may be worth making few comments in the light of recent developments in the ongoing 'war' between science and religion.

Those authors who are sometimes referred to as the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, A.C. Grayling and others) continue to take an uncompromisingly hard line on religion, which they regard as incompatible with the world view that science gives us. Religion is for them a collection of irrational beliefs which in some cases are positively harmful, and it should therefore be resisted and if possible eliminated.

Other nonbelievers, such as Tim Crane and David Sloan Wilson, are less extreme, while the late Stephen J. Gould regarded science and religion as "non-overlapping magisteria", meaning they were talking about different things so were not in conflict. A non-confrontational attitude seems to be popular among scientists in the USA, many of whom are unwilling to identify themselves as frank nonbelievers, at least in public.

This is not exactly Edis's case. He does state that he is a nonbeliever (a term he prefers to atheist, nontheist, Bright and others that are current today) but he does not expect that scientific thinking will displace religion. As he wrote in The Ghost in the Universe, "It is scientific thinking, not religion, which is profoundly unnatural for us; no matter how science progresses, most of us will be most comfortable explaining the world through the actions of personal agents ... For most people, learning to go without a God is a costly undertaking for no clear benefit."

Edis's books don't seem to have attracted as much attention as those of the New Atheists. This isn't surprising; the media love confrontation and aren't much interested in balance, but I think it's a pity. I enjoy reading books by Dawkins and Dennett, who are brlliant controversialists, while Dawkins seems to me to be one of the best prose writers around today. But I'm not sure how successful they are at keeping alive the values of the Enlightenment, which I think is something we need to do at all costs. It's too easy for critics to accuse them of being atheist dogmatists.

Dogmatism of all kinds—not just in religion—is in vogue today and its effects are bad. Tolerance of differing views is what the Enlightenment gave us. We cannot assume unquestioningly that it will always be there. To quote Barbara Ehrenreich: " What we call the Enlightenment and hold on to only by our fingernails, is the slow-dawning understanding that the world is unfolding according to its own internal algorithms of cause and effect, probability and change, without any regard for human feelings." [Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World]

Book review: How Language Began, by Daniel Everett

Everett is an anthropological linguist who has lived for extended periods with the Pirahãs, a small group of Amazonian natives (see Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes). His new book presents his view of how language has developed in the course of human evolution.

There is a wide range of opinions about the antiquity of language. Some, notably those influenced by the theories of Noam Chomsky, think that it is quite recent, perhaps only 50,000 years old, and is due to a new brain adaptation to construct and understand grammar. Language is therefore confined to Homo sapiens, and recent Homo sapiens at that. Everett is at the other end of the scale; he finds that language is more than one million years old and arose in Homo erectus. No sudden mutation was required for this; it resulted from a progressive increase in brain power linked to more complex culture. Language is a cultural invention, not primarily a biological phenomenon. Continue reading.

Book review: The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery, by Richard Elliott Friedman

In a sense this is a sequel to Friedman's earlier book, Who Wrote the Bible?, but its focus is different and more personal, particularly in the later chapters. Like the first book, it has a detective story element, which is signalled by its being framed in the form of three Mysteries. The first of these, which takes up the first half of the book, is about the progressive hiding of God's face in the course of the Bible: the second and third mysteries concern what this implies for the modern world and its future.

Many people probably think of the Bible as a collection of stories and other texts of varying kinds but not as having a unifying plot. But Friedman says that if we read it as a whole, instead of, as usual, in small extracts, we see that it is really a coherent drama which traces the history of the Jewish people and their relation to God as it developed over a long period. What gives it dramatic unity is precisely the theme of God's progressive withdrawal. This is certainly a surprising idea—Friedman himself finds it "astounding". But he demonstrates it with ample citations. [Read more]

Book review: The Meaning of Belief, by Tim Crane

In 2007 Tim Crane was invited to give the Bentham Lecture at University College London. The lecture is sponsored by the Philosophy Department at UCL and the British Humanist Association. His lecture was badly received. The reason, Crane thinks, is that the audience members were expecting an attack on religion of the kind they were used to, whereas what they got was a call for understanding and toleration.

Crane identifies himself as an atheist, but he disagrees with those he describes as the New Atheists: Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, A.C. Grayling, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. The combative attitude of these writers and others who think like them has, he believes, been counter-productive; they want to eliminate religion but they are unlikely to succeed. [Read more]

Book review: The Winter King, by Bernard Cornwell

This is the first book in a trilogy, The Warlord Chronicles, telling the story of Arthur. As Cornwell concedes in a pThis is the first book in a trilogy, The Warlord Chronicles, telling the story of Arthur. As Cornwell concedes in a postscript, we know very little about Arthur—his very historical existence is in doubt—so this is largely a work of imagination.

It is set in the Dark Ages, in the early years of the sixth century. The Romans left Britain a hundred years previously and now the Britons are fighting the invading Saxons. Unfortunately they are also fighting one another.This is the first book in a trilogy, The Warlord Chronicles, telling the story of Arthur. As Cornwell concedes in a postscript, we know very little about Arthur—his very historical existence is in doubt—so this is largely a work of imagination. [Read more]

Book review: Living with a Wild God, by Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich, two of whose previous books I have already reviewed here, has many talents. She trained as a scientist and obtained a Ph.D in cellular immunology from Rockefeller University. But she then changed course and has been active in numerous other areas, especially feminism and left-wing politics. Throughout her career she has been a freelance writer, producing a wide variety of books and journalism, for which she has won many awards.

The present book is quite different from anything she has written previously. It is based on a journal which she started at the age of fourteen in 1956 and continued intermittently until 1966. The main reason for returning to it now is that it included the account of an ecstatic or mystical experience that happened to her when she was seventeen. As a rationalist and atheist she had not been able to come to terms with this and kept it to herself for many years, but now she feels it is time to try to understand it. [Read more]

Book review: Improbable Destinies, by Jonathan B. Losos

An important controversy in evolutionary biology concerns the inevitability or otherwise of the appearance of humans. According to Steven J. Gould, if the tape of life could be rerun from the beginning it is very unlikely that anything resembling humans would appear. But Simon Conway Morris disagrees. He and those who think like him hold that something very similar to us was pretty well bound to arise, and similar organisms would evolve on any other planets that support complex life (though these are likely to be rare). So who is right? This is the question that Losos tackles in his new book. [Read more]

Book review: Strange Bodies, by Marcel Theroux

This is a complex book. It could be described as science fiction or fantasy, but also as a philosophical or metaphysical novel—perhaps a fictional extension of the kind of thought experiments that Derek Parfit makes use of in Reasons and Persons; a meditation on the nature of human personality and its uniqueness or otherwise. And, finally, it is a thriller. [Read more]

Book review: A Voyage to Arcturus, by David Lindsay

I first tried to read this book many years ago but gave up baffled, probably expecting it to be science fiction of the kind I was used to. Yet it continued to stick in my mind, and recently I decided it was time to give it another go.

Science fiction it certainly isn't, at least as that genre is generally understood. It could be described as fantasy, but that isn't really right either. It has elements of both of these but could also be classed as philosophical allegory (it has been compared to Pilgrim's Progress). It evidently was written out of its author's deep religious and metaphysical preoccupations, not to say obsessions. In other words, it is a very unusual book that defies conventional categorisation. Read more