Monday, 5 January 2015

An improving book.

I felt catastrophically stupid today. I don’t have new year resolutions, but I have set some goals for 2015. Even writing that makes me feel a little cringey, as the setting of goals is something I idiotically associate with gimcrack self-help gurus, or those asinine magazine articles which promise to transform your life in seven easy steps. However, there is quite a lot of empirical evidence to show that the discrete setting of goals is a good and productive thing, so I gave it a shot. I wrote them down and everything.

Oddly, already it has had a salutary effect. Reading improving books was not one of my goals, but as if galvanised by my three main aims for the year, I found myself doing exactly that today.

The improving book was How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker. I would love to know how the mind works, and Professor Pinker is a brilliant and engaging writer, cleverly bridging the gap between the academy and the ordinary person. Or so I thought. I am now so bogged down in the weeds of his erudition that I actually have a physical response to it. My throat aches and my head feels as if someone is pressing down a large metal plate on it. Just now, I had to look up the word ‘transitivity’. I genuinely had no idea what it meant, not even a guess.

The dictionary definition is: a key property of both partial order relations and equivalence relations.

I have no idea what this is. I’ve never heard of a partial order relation. I would not recognise an equivalence relation if it came up to me and said ‘Hello, I am an equivalence relation’ whilst wearing an equivalence relation HAT.

At the party in the south, I was introduced to a charming cardiologist. ‘I sense you are a polymath,’ he said. (This was before I almost told him the entire story of the Repeal of the Corn Laws.) I felt stupidly proud. ‘I am a polymath,’ I cried, shining with delight.

Actually, I’m not. I am a duffer, because I don’t know what the buggery bollocks an equivalence relation is.

As I take a deep breath and calm down, I realise that I am probably not that stupid. There are lots of things I do know, like how to put on a poultice and how to pick the winner of the 3.00 at Musselburgh. But I really, really felt stupid.

It’s not the prof’s fault. All this is like ABC to him. I imagine that he could not truly visualise anyone not understanding what he was on about. It would be like me explaining to someone how to make chicken soup. I expect I shall bash on with the improving book, but it made me realise that I think books should be like friends. They should make you feel cleverer and brighter and better than you are. They should get the wings of your finer angels beating.

You don’t need fancy words and abstruse jargon. A book is not a proof of brilliance. It is an offering. All you need to make it fly is the simple declarative sentence, and a little syncopation. And probably a sprinkle of fairy dust.


No time for pictures today. Here is an archive shot of Stanley the Dog having fun with a tremendous stick. He too has no idea what an equivalence relation is, and the lovely thing is HE DOES NOT CARE:

5 Jan 1


  1. I'm with Stanley the Dog. My immediate reaction to "transitivity" was that Pinker made it up.

  2. Academics have to publish to stay in their jobs, I believe. I doubt he will be making a living out of his book sales. Polymath, eh? Were you being flirted with?

  3. I am afraid I distrust the media savvy Steven Pinker. Listening to him being interviewed by Mariella Frostrup on a Good Read last year made me squirm. Would recommend Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman as an antidote to transitivity induced head squish.

  4. I looked it up -- equivalence relation.
    It's math.
    My "most adventurous" math is figuring out percentage reductions in the sales (currently on), comparing prices and quantities on offer for the "best" buy (I'm suspicious of the supermarket posted unit pricing -- biggest isn't always least expensive) &, once in a blue moon, calculating how much paint I'll need to cover a particular surface (area = L x W). All the rest, ESPECIALLY the terminology, might as well be Chinese (Cantonese OR Mandarin, it matters not!).

  5. I can't send you a cake, so here instead are two books that might help you feel cleverer and brighter:

    The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind—Barbara Strauch
    (Science Editor of The New York Times)

    Proust and the Squid—Maryanne Wolf
    (Cognitive neuroscientist and Director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University)


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