Helpless Dollops of Custard

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Were there any books purchased this year that weren’t furnished with sex dungeons, spanking paraphernalia and a hard-bodied, emotionally crippled oligarch, in whom the urge to punish struggles desperately with the urge to dispense health and safety advice about what to do if the nipple clamps have been applied a little too tightly? Fifty Shades […]

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Well Constructed Polemics

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The back cover of Museum Without Walls proclaims, in large capital letters: ‘There is no such thing as a boring place.’ What?! Is this guy going to bore the pants off me? I wondered. Well, my pants stayed largely in position throughout this tumultuous and hefty book, which is mainly composed of journalistic firecrackers about […]

You Do the Math

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In this delightfully chatty and informative book, the prolific historian of mathematics Benjamin Wardhaugh steers well away from Fermat’s last theorem, imaginary numbers and the other esoteric topics that specialists usually delight in. Instead, in a welcome and refreshing change, he examines how ordinary men and women of Georgian Britain used arithmetic and geometry for […]

Thinking Inside the Box

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Back in the early 1980s Martin Amis compared harbouring an intellectual interest in football to being a pervert. Reviewing a preposterous anthropological study of the game, he outed himself as one of a rare breed. ‘Pointy-headed football-lovers are a beleaguered crew, despised by pointy-heads and football-lovers alike … Oh, how we have to cringe and […]

On the Road

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

It was a relief to discover that Michael Holroyd, esteemed and genial doyen of literary biographers, has wheels. Decades of dedication to literature and the life of the mind have at last raised his consciousness to the level at which he discerns the shaping presence of motorism (as Edwardians called it) in his own life […]

No More Black Holes

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

I did not know that a reliable and discreet way of stealing a map from a book is to suck on a thread of cotton and lay it along the bound edge until the enzymes have thinned the binding sufficiently for the page to be gently detached. The cruder, swifter way – with a blade – […]

Through the Keyhole

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

This little book turns out to be full of information and ideas that transform it into something, as estate agents would say, surprisingly spacious. Edwin Heathcote is the architecture and design critic of the Financial Times, and you feel that the book has been packed with half a lifetime’s cogitation, much of it recondite, on […]

Physic, Heal Thyself

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘Medicine’, begins Bad Pharma, ‘is broken.’ It’s a false and pompous opening. Medicine has never been better. Less than a century ago, we doctors were as we always had been: trusted by our patients, trusted by ourselves and entirely untrustworthy. Up until close to the Second World War, medical care did more harm than good […]

Inner Visions

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Hallucinations is an absorbing study of an exotic subject. Its author is perhaps best known for two books: Awakenings, a spellbinding account of treating post-encephalic patients with the ‘wonder drug’ L-DOPA; and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a hugely popular collection of outlandish neurological case studies. One of these, ‘The Dog […]

Native Wisdom

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The World Until Yesterday starts with a simple premise: traditional societies are actually far more representative of human experience than the now-dominant Western states. As relatively recent inventions, Western norms are but a ‘thin slice’ of human possibility. For the vast bulk of human history, mankind lived in small, mobile groups roving across the world’s […]

The Rest is Noise

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Acursory glance at their careers would not suggest that Pete Townshend of The Who and Neil Young of Canada via the American West Coast musical community have much in common: Townshend is rooted in the London mod scene; Young is an unreconstructed hippie. Yet their separate autobiographical endeavours – both conducted over many painstaking years […]

Art Attack

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Coming across octogenarian art critic Brian Sewell’s late appeal to Truth in Outsider II, his second volume of autobiography, I thought of Keats’s familiar equation of Truth with Beauty (‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’). Sure enough, a paean to Beauty soon follows, in Sewell’s reflections on the flawless skin of the young and the ‘ridiculous’ […]

Shake Your Tail Feathers

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The first ever birds of paradise seen in Europe – or at least their dried skins – arrived in a small port north of Cadiz on 6 September 1522. They were carried by the Victoria, the last surviving ship from the fleet of five led by the great Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan – and the […]

‘As British as Suet Pudding’

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Wouldn’t it be nice to meet the British soldiers who tortured Hussein Onyango Obama in Kenya in the 1950s by squeezing his testicles between two plates of metal and piercing his fingernails and buttocks with a sharp metal pin while he lay face down with his hands handcuffed behind his back? I’d like to meet […]

Model Thinkers

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Economists have earned our distrust. They oversimplify things, presenting normal elements of an economy – such as strikes, tariffs and corruption – as aberrations. They overcomplicate things, too, smuggling ideological agendas into objective-looking newspaper columns. And they do it all in the name of ‘science’, even as their spectacularly unscientific recent failures have done nothing […]

The Shocking Truth

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

There’s a scene in the film The Princess Bride where Vizzini, the character played by Wallace Shawn, is asked to describe his genius. ‘Let me put it this way,’ he explains. ‘Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Morons!’ Nassim Taleb would understand Vizzini, for he has written a masterpiece that transcends almost all […]

Future Perfect

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

This is one for my desert-island longlist – a book to re-read section by section for as long as it takes until I’m sure I have grasped the whole of Nate Silver’s thesis on ‘the art and science of prediction’. If that opportunity arises I will do so with pleasure, because Silver unravels the complexities […]

Picture Posts

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In the two decades since Joe Sacco invented comics reportage as a genre, his work has fuelled a revolution in respect. Together with Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust memoir, Maus (1986), Sacco’s war-zone masterpieces, including Palestine (collected in one volume in 2001), Safe Area Goražde (2000) and Footnotes in Gaza (2009), prised open doors. His example can […]

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