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Book review: The Other World, by Janet Oppenheim

This a detailed scholarly account of spiritualism and psychical research in England in the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Oppenheim chose to restrict her study geographically to keep it in manageable bounds and she ended it at the outbreak of World War I because the context of spiritualism changed after that time.

The Victorian era was marked by sometimes agonised questioning of traditional religious beliefs, caused partly but not wholly by science. This is the broad framework in which Oppenheim examines her subject. The book has three parts. Part I, "The setting", looks at mediumship and the growth of spiritualism since 1850. Part II, "A surrogate faith", covers a lot of territory, including spiritualism and Christianity, psychical research in relation to agnosticism, and the influence of the Theosophical movement. Part III, "A pseudoscience", describes attempts to evaluate spiritualism scientifically, most notably by the founding of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR); there are also chapters on evolution in relation to spiritualism and the ideas of physicists concerning psychic phenomena. Read more

Book review: Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahnemann

The ideas in this book originated in large part from a collaboration lasting many years between Kahnemann and his colleague and friend, Amos Tversky. The central insight on which the book is based is that our minds can function in two ways, which Kahnemann refers to as System 1 and System 2. System 1 gives a quick appraisal of things that is often biased emotionally or in other ways. System 2 is slower and analytical; its operation is effortful, so the default approach to a problem is usually System 1. This is not always wrong, but it often is. Read more

A reluctant conversion to Kindle

I've long resisted the lure of e-readers, insisting that I prefer to read proper paper books. But I've now had to eat my words; I've bought a Kindle Paperwhite. There were several reasons for this.

1. My eyes now make it difficult to read small print, at least with any enjoyment, and most of the paperbacks I buy, and even some of the hardbacks, have eye-straining print. Now I can enlarge the text to whatever size I like.

2. I review nearly all the books I read on my website, and this usually needs me to take notes while I'm reading. Hitherto I've done this either on a laptop or on paper, provided one of these was to hand when I was reading, but it wasn't ideal. The Kindle allows me to make notes on the fly, save them, and email them to myself to use later when writing the review.

3. Also in relation with reviewing, I often want to find a particular passage in the book to quote. Sometimes this can be done with the index, but often it can't, and then I have to thumb through the text to find the passage I want, which can be a lengthy business. With an e-book I can search it easily.

4. Our house is literally overflowing with books and there is nowhere to put new ones. I often want to look something up in a book which I know we have, but finding it often entails a long search through different rooms, which may be ultimately unsucessful. So I expect most books I buy in future will be e-books.

5. I often come across a reference to a book I decide I want to read. If there is a Kindle edition it's usually cheaper than the paper version, and another advantage is that it is delivered instantly.

I gather that sales of e-readers such as the Kindle are declining as more people are reading e-books on either a mobile phone or a tablet. I don't have or want either of those. I could use my desktop or laptop to read the books, but that isn't pleasant. I wanted a device that was as book-like as possible, hence the Kindle. And I have to say that I am pleased with it. The screen is excellent - clear, sharp, and book-like - so much so that I sometimes forget it isn't a paper book and find myself trying to turn the page over in the usual way!

The only thing I don't like is the absence of external buttons to operate the book; it's all done by tapping the screen to access menus. But that aside, I'm considerably impressed.

It's taken me a long time to reach this point. It was an article in The Author that finally convinced me to take the step, quite late in life. I'm glad I did. Probably there were people in the fifteenth century who lamented the replacement of manuscript books by this new-fangled printing process with moveable type, but I expect most of them were converts in the end.

Book review: The Russian Interpreter, by Michael Frayn

The novel is set in Cold War Russia, some ten years after the end of the second world war. Paul Manning is living in Moscow, where he is writing a thesis. He receives a visit from Gordon Proctor-Gould, who had attended the same Cambridge college as Manning although they did not know each other at that time. Read more

Book review: Towards the End of the Morning, by Michael Frayn

This is a novel about a kind of journalism that no longer exists. John Dyson and Bob Bell work for a newspaper that seems to have some literary pretensions, never sacks anyone and would certainly have folded long before the end of the twentieth century, let alone with the arrival of the Internet. The two men are friends and share an office where not very much work gets done. John is approaching middle age and has the ambition to get on television, which he thinks will transform his life. Bob, who is younger, eats sweets for comfort and has no ambition of any kind; he seems destined to potter along as a third-rate journalist for the rest of his working life. His ultimate future is probably foreshadowed by the third member of the office, 'poor old Eddie', who spends most of the day asleep, waking up occasionally to reminisce about old times and long-dead journalists of his acquaintance. Read more

Book review: What We Cannot Know, by Marcus du Sautoy

Marcus du Sautoy is a Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University and in 2008 succeeded Richard Dawkins as Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. Like Dawkins, he is an atheist, but unlike Dawkins he intends to focus on science rather than religion. And yet religion does surface in this book, in which he considers whether there are things we can never know. Read more

Book review: The Young Visiters, by Daisy Ashford

This novel was written in 1890 when the author was aged nine. She rediscovered it in a drawer in 1917 when she was 36 and it was published two years later, spelling mistakes and all; the only editorial concession made was to insert paragraphing to aid readability. (Incredibly, a reviewer on Amazon recently complained that the publishers should have corrected the spelling!) The book was an instant success, being reprinted 18 times in the first year alone; it is still in print today. Read more

Book review: How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker

This is a book about evolutionary psychology, which Pinker explains at the outset as follows.

The evolutionary psychology of this book is in one sense a straightforward extension of biology, focused on one organ, the mind, of one species,Homo sapiens. But in another sense it is a radical thesis that discards the way issues about the mind have been framed for almost a century.


The view outlined here includes a number of ideas: that the mind is a set of modules whose organisation is genetic, that it is an adaptation designed by natural selection, and that the goal of natural selection is to propagate genes. But Pinker cautions us that none of these ideas should be pushed too far. Each of them contributes part of the explanation but none gives us the whole story. Read more

Book review: A Life in Questions, by Jeremy Paxman

This is a memoir but not an autobiography because, as Paxman explains at the outset, he does not say anything about his family: 'what they choose to disclose about themselves is up to them.' The first three chapters describe his early upbringing and education. He went first to a preparatory school and then to a minor public school, Malvern College. He was not greatly impressed by either of these institutions, which he saw as designed to foster class prejudices in those who attended them, but in the end he got an Exhibition (minor scholarship) at St Catherine's College, Cambridge, where he read English and edited the student newspaper Varsity . Read more