Reading Feynman, Stevenson, Gladwell

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Six Easy Pieces, Richard Feynman

Easy pieces? You don’t expect me to understand any of that math, do you? It seems I’m not as smart as I thought I was, but neither are physicists, which is some consolation. (Anyway, per Socrates, the discovery of our ignorance is true wisdom, right?) In this book Feynman explains how we used to believe that we had discovered certain physical laws which went a long way toward making a kind of sense of the universe. It was a heady time. There seemed no limit to our mastery of the material world. But that was then, before quantum mechanics. These days, you can still trot out the old “physical laws” for some harmless diversion if you like – but don’t call them laws anymore. Because they’re wrong. Call them probabilities instead, but only when applied at a certain scale. They’re not even probabilities at the atomic scale. The truth is that we don’t really understand the relationships and interactions between objects. We don’t know why things do what they do, and we can’t begin to say what they’re going to do next. We don’t even really know what gravity is.

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Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, Robert Louis Stevenson

Reading Travels with a Donkey, which is so far my favorite of Stevenson’s travel books, I remembered a visit my wife and I made a few years ago to the tony Napa Valley town of St Helena. The public library in St Helena shares space with a small museum dedicated to Robert Louis Stevenson, run on a volunteer basis by enthusiastic retirees. Stevenson and wife Fanny enjoyed their 1880 honeymoon in nearby rustic Silverado, where the site of their cabin and the summit of Mt St Helena are now embraced in California’s Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. I learned while reading the present title that there is a Robert Louis Stevenson Trail in France, which closely follows the route trod by RLS and dear Modestine (the donkey) in 1878. It seems that wherever he went in life, Stevenson’s passage was commemorated. This is remarkable because he is by no means a Shakespeare or Milton, nor even what most people would consider a second-tier Olympian of English letters. Geography bears witness, however, and many of his readers down the years will second the notion, that it’s very easy indeed to enjoy his company and to miss him when he’s gone.

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David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell

I’ve done my best never to join any kind of book club, but now one of my corporate overlords has decided that’s just what we’ll have at the office. We begin with Malcolm Gladwell’s latest – and instructions to draw lessons from it on the challenges facing our business. When I was still a teenager, I remember despairing of adulthood when I saw my Dad reading books on the art of management, books like Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun. Now it seems I’ve come to the same grim pass. Not that this is a business book per se. But it stinks of the same cult of “accomplishment” and is not the sort of thing I would voluntarily read. Having done so, I’m convinced that Gladwell (who may be the love-child of Art Garfunkel and Whoopi Goldberg) is a bit of a poseur. I won’t subject you to a detailed review of this book (for a slaying one, see John Gray in The New Republic.) I will only say that Gladwell’s blend of social science and self-help is not my idea of fun. I’m not sure what people see in him. The prose is limp. The preoccupations are mostly shallow. The “insights” are prejudiced. The much-vaunted storytelling is bland. As for the challenges facing our business – well, I hear there’s lots of money to be made in publishing.

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3 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews

3 responses to “Reading Feynman, Stevenson, Gladwell

  1. Never read any of the Stevenson travel titles, though I really love ‘Catriona’ – but perhaps I am missing a trick and should begin. I sympathise over the Gladwell – have had various naff uplifting, team building, asserting, lean, self help, leadership, personality typing titles poked at me down the years, but have managed not to read any of them yet!

    • Douglas Dalrymple

      I haven’t read Catriona yet. It’s the sequel to Kidnapped, is that right? I’ve been looking for a copy of The Wrecker, but it’s hard to find.

  2. Thanks for the notes on the Stevenson book…I’ll have to check it out!

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