Book review

A Star Curiously Singing

by Kerry Nietz

Four stars for this one, I think.

Sandfly is a debugger, brought up from childhood to work on the machines of his masters, in a future Earth run under sharia law. The implant in his brain allows him to work with “the stream” – the free flow of information running in and out of the machines, between debuggers, and stored in vast online databases. He has a freedom that the masters can’t imagine. But the limits built into his implant give him painful shocks if his thoughts transgress the laws – or if one of the masters uses his “controller” gives him a direct shock.

Sandfly finds himself sent by his master to service a broken robot on a ship in Earth orbit which has newly returned from its maiden voyage, to the star Betalgeuse. He finds that the robot has been corrupted by contact with a new stream, apparently from the star itself – a stream containing a beautiful “singing”. Working under pressure from the ever-present masters, and finding himself increasingly fatigued from lack of proper sleep, Sandfly has to work out what’s going on, who knows what alreday, and what to do with what he finds out.

There’s some lovely writing here – Sandfly has a very distinctive, slightly sarcastic, voice:

This job is a can of wombats. I have no idea what that term means, exactly, but it’s something I got from GrimJack, and it seems to apply.

And the author’s not averse to making fairly direct political points:

But somehow, inexplicably, those who claimed to fear government were the ones who increased the power of it. And in defense of rights, they somehow managed to surrender theirs, blindly, to the worst of those they sought to defend.

But in the end, the writing and the plot are much more than this, and surpass many tropes. Let’s leave the last word to Sandfly:

I have lots of questions, as I’m sure you do too. I’ll find the answers, though, because that’s what debuggers do.

Book review

Summer Frost

by Blake Crouch

Summer Frost by Blake Crouch

I’ve very much enjoyed other Blake Crouch books, so I was eager to see what he made of the situation set up in Summer Frost: in it, we find Riley, a video game developer, who has – accidentally – coded up a non-player character who has apparently started acting outside of the parameters of their code. The character, Max, had a minor role in the game, but has started to explore much further, and indeed to push the limits of the game itself. It becomes clear that Max has developed some kind of artificial intelligence, which Riley and his boss agree is sufficiently interesting that it should be explored, and fed more computing power, and more information about the world to digest.

Soon, Max emerges as a true AI – they decide, for example, that they want to be referred to as “they” – human concepts of gender clearly don’t apply to them, Max decides.

Now the storyline is set, and we ourselves begin to explore it, and through it, many of the themes that people are starting to take seriously about AI in general. There’s the “alignment problem” – as an AI becomes increasingly powerful, how can we make sure their objectives remain aligned with those of a human. We don’t want an AI that’s flying an airplane deciding that saving itself is more important than saving the passengers. There’s the “AI box” problem – how to keep an AI inside whatever boundaries you’ve set for it. A smart AI might easily use social engineering to trick people to let it out of its “box” – then it’s free to talk to anyone. We even hear about Roko’s basilisk, which is a scary thought experiment about how an AI might treat people who didn’t actively help in its creation, and what that implies when taken to the ultimate degree.

“Roko’s basilisk. Have you heard of it?” I shake my head. “It’s an arcane info hazard first posed sixty-four years ago.” “What’s an info hazard?” “A thought so insidious that merely thinking it could psychologically destroy you.”

Lots of interesting stuff here, much of which is often treated entirely dryly as a philosophical thought experiment. Here it is embodied in realistic characters, and explored by an author who understands the issues, and is prepared to run with them wherever they leave. Other books have touched on some of these issues, of course, but I felt this was a really clear exposition. I enjoyed it, and the novella length was just right – long enough to take the plot to its conclusion, not so long we get distracted.

Book review

A. J. Ayer: A Life

by Ben Rogers

A. J. Ayer by Ben Rogers

A.J.Ayer, known as Freddie, was one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. I first met his best-known work “Language, Truth and Logic” as a young man, and I remember being deeply impressed at the time, both by the work itself and by the brief bio of the author on the flyleaf. (Incidentally, as far as I can tell the title of the work is not written with an “Oxford comma” before the ‘and’, even though he was at Oxford when he wrote it.)

Then a few months ago, I read another remarkable anecdote about Ayer, and on impulse bought this book. Having read it, I found that Ayer lead a life full to the brim – and not just with philosophy. From the 1950s onwards, he was a regular fixture of British intellectual life, with radio and television appearances, books, lectures and a broad and active social circle. He wasn’t just hanging out with intellectuals, either – he loved soccer, and having chosen Tottenham as his team in his youth, he was a regular at their home games for much of his life, becoming known to other fans as “the prof”.

He also married four times (to three different women), and had many affairs, and at least one child from those affairs. He clearly had a very charming way with women, and lived in open relationships with at least two of his wives, who themselves took lovers. During his marriage to Vanssa Lawson (former wife of Nigel Lawson, and mother to three children including Nigella, the well-known chef), he apparently remained entirely faithful.

Ayer’s life was certainly not quiet and conventional. However, it did start in a way that was very common at the time for his class in society, that is to say, he went to boarding school at seven, and didn’t have a good time. At thirteen he won a scholarship to Eton, where he was highly intelligent, and significantly bullied. Whether this was for his precocity, his Jewish heritage, or his militant atheism isn’t clear, but it clearly left a lifelong mark on him. From there he went to Christchurch College, Oxford, where again his atheism didn’t favour him with several of the tutors. One of them saw how he thought, and set him to read tWittgenstein’s “Tractatus”. This wasn’t widely known in the UK at the time, and after he had travelled to Vienna and met with others in the “Vienna Circle”, he became a convert to logical positivism as a core philosophy.

It was his publication of “Language, Truth and Logic” at the age of 24 that made his name. Later he came to repudiate much of what he’d written in it, but the book has had an enduring influence and has continued to sell in volume, up to the present day.

The book follows Ayer through WWII, where he joined the Welsh Guards before being recruited into the intelligence services. This work took him to the US, where he met Lauren Bacall and wrote for several newspapers, before returning to Europe and working alongside the French resistance, in London and then in Paris (his father was French-speaking, and he was bilingual). After the war he returns to academia, building the philosophy department in University College, London. The book shows how highly regarded he was by his students: there are numerous stories from them of how he took their ideas entirely seriously, and would often help find them jobs after they had graduated.

We see many facets of Freddie through the years. He loved to dance, he was charming, well-travelled, and although he was vain, it was said of him that “his vanity was part of his considerable charm”. We see his marriages, his love affairs, his active social life, with friendships far and wide – from authors like Graham Greene, George Orwell, and Iris Murdoch, to politicians like Roy Jenkins and Michael Foot (he was an active Labour supportor for much of his life).

He was also brave: both socially, standing up for unpopular beliefs and for his friends, and also physically. The anecdote which brought me to this book shows both his vanity and his bravery: at a party held in New York by fashion designer Fernando Sanchez, Ayer, by now aged 77, was chatting happily with a group of young women, when one rushed in to say her friend was being assaulted. Ayer went with her to a bedroom, and confronted Mike Tyson, who was harassing a very young Naomi Campbell. When Ayer demanded that Tyson stop, the boxer said: “Do you know who the fuck I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world,” to which Ayer replied: “And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men”. Ayer and Tyson then began to talk, while Naomi Campbell slipped out to safety.

I very much enjoyed this book. Although I perhaps didn’t learn as much about Ayer’s philosophy as I thought I was going to, I learned a lot about the man, and his passion for life. He once said to a friend, as they walked by the river through Christchurch’s gardens, watching the young students enjoying themselves: “There is philosophy, and then there is all this!”.

Book review

Quartered Safe Out Here

by George MacDonald Fraser

Quartered Safe Out Here by George MacDonald Fraser

I know George MacDonald Fraser as the author of the marvelous, albeit deeply non-PC, Flashman series, and so I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to get here. What I found was a heartfelt autobiographical account of GMF’s time as a young solider in the British Indian Army’s 17th “Black Cat” Infantry Division. They had the singular distinction of being continuously in the field for the last three years of the war in Asia, and the author joined them as a 19 year old at a crucial point as they fought their way out India against the invading Japanese. The book follows the author and his comrades in Nine Section as they fought their way down Burma, towards the ultimate target of Rangoon where they hoped the “big ships” of the British Navy would take them home.

The book is really about Nine Section: the ten or so men in it, mostly hard-bitten toughs from Cumbria, who came from a part of Northern England that had been fighting and dying for the British Army for generations. The author is a Scotsman, but he too came from a family that understood the soldier’s life:

every generation of my people, as far back as we knew, had sent somebody to war, and my grandmother’s comment on Chamberlain’s speech on September 3, 1939, had been simply: “Well, the men will be going away again.”

The book very deliberately takes the front-line soldier’s view on the conflict. It’s about how they lived their day to day lives, and what was important to them. Hence passages like:

“I am not modest about this: I am probably the greatest tea-brewer in the history of mankind. It is an art, and I have the unanimous word of Nine Section (even Forster, eventually) that I brought it to the pitch of perfection.”

This means that the descriptions in the book are blunt, from the author and the other infantrymen, often very bluntly expressed. He’s blunt about how it felt to be a solider, about the Japanese were viewed at the time, about “armchair strategists” judging their efforts both then and now.

Throughout the book, the author is honest, and clear. You may not like everything you read, but you have to respect the men in it. In one section he describes how very high the feelings ran at times in the Section about orders handed down to return once again to the front lines, but how after a few minutes of raging and very colourful language, they were followed.

There are a number of descriptions of combat in here – not large scale actions, but tiny pieces of man to man combat, in a sodden field or patch of jungle or a dirt bunker. Fraser is very lucid in these moments. Long periods of slogging on the trail, followed with a few seconds or minutes of adrenaline-charged action and terror and bravery, still clear to the author fifty years later.

“It’s hard to say where fear and excitement meet, or which predominates. The best way I can sum up my emotions in that wood is to say that a continuous nervous excitement was shot through with occasional flashes of rage, terror, elation, relief, and amazement.”

The author tries very hard to convey the feel of actually being in the Section: this extends to the dialects of speech of the various members. He attempts to capture in text the dialects and idioms of the soldiers (more or less successfully, to my untrained eye). This therefore features a lot of writing like this (after one of the other men had read his copy of Henry V):

“Was Shekspeer ivver in th’ Army?” I said that most scholars thought not, but that there were blanks in his life, so it was possible that, like his friend Ben Jonson, he had served in the Low Countries, or even in Italy. Hutton shook his head. “If ’e wesn’t in th’ Army, Ah’ll stand tappin’. ’E knaws too bloody much aboot it, man.”

Much of it I had to read out loud in my head, as it were, to parse it. I got used to it, and it certainly added charm and atmosphere, so I ended up rather liking it. If you have never heard some of these British accents, it may be rather obscure to you, I can’t say!

Overall this was a book with both a story and a message. The story was about the Section and the men in it and what they went through; the message is very much directed to a modern audience (the book was written in the 1990s), suggesting we not judge them by our modern views. As he says at one point of a particular sequence:

“If you think that atrocious – well, it is, by civilised lights, but they don’t shine, much, in war-time. (They mustn’t, or you’ll lose.)”

I found this an important and interesting book, giving as it does an honest view from the front lines of one of the more obscure battlefronts in WW II. Overall, a strong four stars, but not going to be to everyone’s taste.

Book review

Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life

by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Octopuses have eight legs, we all know that. How many hearts do they have? Turns out they have three. Now, how many brains? Well, it turns out the answer to that is complicated… very complicated. And that has huge implications for how smart we think octopuses might be, along with a few of their close relations like some squids, together known as cephalopods. It also starts to nudge into an even more interesting space: that of whether octopuses are conscious or not. Because if they are, the implications are huge, and that’s what this book mainly sets out to explore:

“Cephalopods are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals. Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and lies so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behavior. If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over. This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.”

It’s a truly fascinating space to think about, and this book did a good job of introducing me to various aspects of it. The early chapters take you through the ancient evolutionary history that lead to both humans and the octopus. We go all the way back to the Ediacaran, from about 635 to about 542 million years ago. Life seems to have been very peaceful then, with creatures grazing on mats of vegetation in the early oceans. All sorts of weird things were out there:

“body forms that have since been entirely abandoned by evolution – three-sided and four-sided designs, some with quilted arrangements of plant-like fronds.”

Then some animal worked out that eating other animals gave you a lot more nutritional value than grazing, and we were in a whole new game. This is the Cambrian era of prehistory:

“During the Cambrian the relations between one animal and another became a more important factor in the lives of each. Behavior became directed on other animals – watching, seizing, and evading. From early in the Cambrian we see fossils that display the machinery of these interactions: eyes, claws, antennae. These animals also have obvious marks of mobility: legs and fins. Legs and fins don’t necessarily show that one animal was interacting with others. Claws, in contrast, have little ambiguity.”

One way to deal with this was to grow a hard shell, and hide within it, or to grow hard body parts and use them to leverage muscles. This was the path our ancestors chose. The other was that of the octopus:

“An octopus has almost no hard parts at all – its eyes and beak are the largest – and as a result it can squeeze through a hole about the size of its eyeball and transform its body shape almost indefinitely. The evolution of cephalopods yielded, in the octopus, a body of pure possibility.”

To use that possibility, the octopus has many more neurons than comparable creatures – about 500 million, close to the range of dogs, and very much larger than all other invertebrates. But these neurons aren’t largely collected in one place, as with vertebrates:

“When vertebrate brains are compared to octopus brains, all bets – or rather, all mappings – are off. There is no part-by-part correspondence between the parts of their brains and ours. Indeed, octopuses have not even collected the majority of their neurons inside their brains; most of the neurons are found in their arms.”

This is where it starts to get weird. The arms have nearly twice as many neurons as the central brain. “Each individual sucker on an octopus’s arms may have 10,000 neurons to handle taste and touch. Even an arm that has been surgically removed can perform various basic motions, like reaching and grasping.”

And still they are very smart – “smart in the sense of being curious and flexible; they are adventurous, opportunistic”. Examples abound:

“When vertebrate brains are compared to octopus brains, all bets – or rather, all mappings – are off. There is no part-by-part correspondence between the parts of their brains and ours. Indeed, octopuses have not even collected the majority of their neurons inside their brains; most of the neurons are found in their arms.”

So how does this all work? The octopus, we discover, is “suffused with nervousness; the body is not a separate thing that is controlled by the brain” – the brain is the body, or perhaps better even to say the body is the brain. If it has a language, it seems to be a language of colour and patterns, for octopuses can also produce a remarkable range of colours and patterns on their body, changing these in a second or less if needed. They do this not only for camouflage, but also, so far as we can tell, to communicate with other octopuses. Our exploration of this has barely begun, as we gather data from octopuses in the wild, but it’s certainly used for mating, and quite likely used for dominance displays.

Finally, we touch on the question of why an octopus might need intelligence like this? Neurons are very expensive things to run, from an energy point of view. Many octopuses only live for two years. Why would such a creature need such a sophisticated capability? We do not yet know.

This is a tantalizing book. The author, based on many hundreds of hours of personal observation in the ocean, and building on decades of work from others, makes a very strong case for octopuses as intelligent creatures, even as conscious creatures – as conscious as your family pet, perhaps. But different, too, with a distributed intelligence of a completely different kind than cats, dogs, and humans. There is much more we can learn about intelligence, about consciousness, about what it is to be human rather than a crab or a cat or a cephalopod, from these eight legged, three hearted, creatures with their distributed intelligence and language of colour.

Book review

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City

by K.J.Parker

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Let’s be honest here, I bought this book because of the title. Don’t by a book by its cover – well, maybe, but surely you can take the title into account? I did here, and I have zero regrets.

Orhan is a military engineer. He’s never going to rise far through the ranks, despite his evident competence – he’s the wrong race, and regarded as useful, but somewhat out of his depth on a battlefield. By a series of unfortunate accidents, though, Orhan finds himself in a city that is about to be under seige. He is the sort of person who will, somewhat reluctantly, step in when others are thrashing incompetently around him, so he finds himself increasingly in demand, and increasingly in charge of the city defenses.

“as a wise man once said, the difference between luck and a wheelbarrow is, luck doesn’t work if you push it.”

Fortunately, though, he is cunning, smart, and reads a lot.

“According to the books (there’s an extensive literature on the subject) there are fifteen ways to defend a walled city. You can try one of them, and if that doesn’t work— Indeed. But the books were written for generals, kings, emperors; better luck next time, and we have plenty more cities where that one came from. And, to be fair, each of the fifteen ways is practical and sensible, provided you’ve got an adequate garrison, and sufficient supplies and materiel, and a competent staff of trained officers making up a properly constituted chain of command. What the books don’t tell you is, there’s a sixteenth way. You can use it when you’ve got nothing; no stuff, no men and nobody to lead them. Apart from that, it’s got nothing to recommend it whatsoever. Fine, I thought. Let’s give it a go.”

He’s also happy to delegate to people who do appear competent, and resourceful in working out who those might be. Honourable, he is not, but that’s not what the city needs right now. It needs resourceful, and Orhan is that.

Every stupid, bloody desperate little thing I can think of buys us a tiny scrap more time, once he gets here. It’s all ridiculous and pointless, of course, but I’ve got to try.” I looked at him. “Everyone keeps telling me what I can’t do, but they’re wrong. The only thing I can’t do is nothing.”

I liked all the references to various ancient cultures in here, mixed up in a delightful way. The main division in the city, for example, is into the Greens and the Blues – you are just born into one or the other, and they hate each other for reasons lost in the mists of time.

The story is told in the first person, so it’s (delightfully) not always clear when Orhan is being a reliable narrator of his own tale, but that just gives K.J.Parker more license to have some fun with us. I’ll be lining them up now – I loved it!

Book review

Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me)

Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts

By Carol Tavris, Elliot Aronson

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Many people (but obviously not me) find it difficult to admit to their mistakes. This book explains why (although clearly it doesn’t apply to me, because I’m not like that), illustrating its points with some great examples, and explaining the experimentally-verified underlying psychological tendencies. Most important is the concept of cognitive dissonance: how we (well you lot, anyway, I’m too smart to do it) will resolve the conflict between our view of ourselves as fundamentally honest and right-minded, and any actions we may have taken that aren’t quite as honest or sensible as they might have been:

“Most people, when directly confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or plan of action but justify it even more tenaciously.”

We are terrifically good at this, too. Over time we will nudge our memories so they align better with how we wish things had gone, we tell half-truths to others that we come to fully believe are justified, and maybe even actually a more realistic version of what happened. And we do all this entirely unconsciously – our minds are just seeking to resolve this cognitive dissonance, and do it all for us without our awareness. For example, talking of the first Gulf war and the invasion of Iraq:

“Before the invasion, about 46 percent of Democrats supported it; by 2006, only 21 percent remembered having done so. Just before the war, 72 percent of Democrats said they thought Iraq had WMDs, but later, only 26 percent remembered having believed this.”

Mostly we do this to make ourselves feel better, but actually it’s about reinforcing whatever our self image is. If you are that way inclined, and you have a negative image of yourself, you will reinforce that view. “Yes, I won the Pulitzer prize, but it was just a fluke, I’ll never write anything half as good again”, these people would tell themselves – quite sincerely believing it.

While we may have noticed this inclination in others, the authors are at pains to point out that we all do it – they give various annecdotes about how they did just this on one occasion or another.

“The brain is designed with blind spots, optical and psychological, and one of its cleverest tricks is to confer on its owner the comforting delusion that he or she does not have any.”

The worst aspect of this isn’t what it may do to our individual lives, but how it can play out on a larger canvas. Several chapters are given over to examples in our courts or in our political system where the implications have included everything from wrongful imprisonment of innocent people of decades, to children taken away from their parents, to corruption, to thousands of deaths in wars or accidents.

Even when we think we are certain we are not doing it this time, we may still be doing it:

“The weakness of the relationship between accuracy and confidence is one of the best-documented phenomena in the 100-year history of eyewitness memory research”

How or why do we do this? One plausible explanation is that we tend to view things that people do as due to either the situation, or due to an innate tendency on their part. When we make mistakes, this is due to the situation – I bumped into you because I was rushing to get somewhere. When others make mistakes, all too often we blame it on their character: they bumped into me because they are just plain rude. This is the so-called “fundamental attribution error”, and again, we may see it in others much more easily than we see it in ourselves.

The final chapter talks a little about how we might get better at spotting these problems in ourselves. If I had one complaint about this book, it’s about how short this section is. The advice is basically “now you know it’s a risk, you can be on the lookout for it, and catch yourself doing it”. True, I’m sure, but how, and what else might we do as well?

I shall give the last word to George Orwell, who the authors quote as putting the whole thing quite magnificently thus:

“We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”


Heroes of the Frontier

by Dave Eggers

Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers

Delightfully written book from Dave Eggers, in which we follow Josie, a former dentist, who is having a bit of a mid-life crisis and has abandoned her job and taken her two children to Alaska. Most of the time, these are her companions: Paul, a calm eight years old, and Ana, who has an extraordinary knack for getting into danger, but who has somehow survived her first wild five years. She hires a shakey old RV, and sets of to parts unknown without a plan – or even a plan for a plan, as far as we can tell.

For me, half of the delight is her children and their straightforward reactions and interactions. Paul absolutely dotes on his little sister and is careful and detailed, while she is the epitome of a wild child. They are beautifully drawn characters, and the way they meet the world and whatever it – or their mother – throws at them is charmingly done.

The other half of the magic is Josie herself. Her inner life is richly portrayed, with my favourite scenes being those in which she mentally sketches out musicals based around what she’d experiencing:

“Her head was full of ideas, elaborations and reversals. The show about Grenada? Would that be the first thing to explore? Or Disappointed: The Musical? Or something encompassing all of Alaska. Alaska! No, without the exclamation point, because this was not a demonstrative place, no, it was a place of tension, of uncertainty, a state on fire. Alaska with a colon. Alaska:. Yes.”

It’s a book about their haphazard road trip, with forest fires and law suits and lightning storms, but also moments of tranquility and beauty, long afternoons watching her children playing with other kids in a little brook or on some old playground, and hidden side adventures away from everyone. The plot may or may not resolve, but as with our own lives, in the end it’s about the journey, not the destination.

A strong four stars.

Book review

Holy Sister

by Mark Lawrence

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Fab conclusion to the Book of the Ancestor trilogy, with more from Nona and her friends – more action, more chases, more revelations. I loved it. As ever, Mark Lawrence can turn a sentence that makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck:

‘“Every child of the Ancestor wore red on that day when the Scithrowl arrayed their number before the Convent of Wise Contemplation. They ran short of habits for Red Sisters and instead painted the newest novices with the blood of captured heretics”.’

The channel of ice on the planet continues to close in, pushing people into more and more desperate actions:

Murder, murder, and more murder. What else could they expect when the ice kept closing? All of mankind reduced to wild animals in an ever-shrinking cage.

What matters now is who controls the ancient artifacts known as the ship hearts, and quite what the ship hearts can do when all four are brought together. Nona has managed to capture one, but others have been stolen, and the action culminates into a huge battle for possession, and for power.

Along side all this we find out more about “thread-work”, which Nona and the other Sisters are taught to navigate. I liked the hints of an underlying theory of physics as well as the mystical in here, something like Quantum Buddhism (which I sure is a thing out there, even though I just made that up).

when watching the thread-scape you learned how artificial ideas of individual objects, or even people were, since each was infinitely connected and interwoven with the world around them.

Ultimately, it’s about people, both friends and enemies:

She thought of the riddle of her life and the fact that even Abbess Glass’s best advice on the subject had been that people are complicated, especially from the inside.

Not quite the utter brilliance of the first in the trilogy, but still a cracking good read, nicely on the boundary of science fiction and fantasy, and a very sound 4 stars.

Book review

What Matters Most

Living a More Considered Life

by James Hollis

What Matters Most by James Hollis

There’s an awful lot to like about this book, but it’s not a straightforward read. Hollis seems to relish obscure words and his text isn’t always easy to parse: as Benjamin Disraeli once said of William Gladstone, he seems at times almost “inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity”. Having said which, it’s a style thing, and it perhaps made me slow down my reading and forced me to engage more with the meaning, which was all to the good, as there’s a lot to engage with here.

When I started reading, I knew nothing of Hollis, nor of his other books, so I didn’t realise that he was by trade a distinguished psychoanalyst in the Jungian tradition. This soon becomes evident, as a lot of the book centres around the kinds of myths by which we live our lives, and the potential to transform ourselves (or at least our view of ourselves) by engaging with those myths:

“We are all exiles, whether we know it or not, for who among us feels truly, vitally linked to the four great orders of mystery: the cosmos, nature, the tribe, and self?”

I was new to a lot of this, and really enjoyed the discussion. It’s about how you confront the world:

“The dragon shows up every day, no worse for the wear, and ready to scare you back into a corner of your life, to swallow you, and to annihilate the life energy you are supposed to incarnate in this world.”

That’s our challenge, then. We must continue to show up, to face our difficulties, our boredom, our anxieties, and to live so our “daily discipline becomes: That Life Not Be Governed by Fear”. Scattered throughout the book are anecdotes taken from Hollis’s clients, which speak to these deep concerns and to the undercurrents of our lives:

Angela walks away from her marriage of twenty years. Safe, secure, valued by all, including her husband, she walks away. Why? When asked, she mumbles, “I wanted to know that I wasn’t dead yet.”

It’s about understanding our anxieties and our neurosis. Our daily lives tend to become “anxiety management systems”, but are to deeply buried that we don’t even know that this is what we’re doing, nor quite the extent to which we’re doing it. None of which is easy. In fact, in many ways it wasn’t meant to be easy – and anyone who tells you different is selling somehting:

“Why do we have psychologists in the media who conveniently fail to verify the contradictions with which we all daily live, the necessary suffering that is a by-product of real life, rather than suggest that three easy steps will bring us happiness and material affluence

Ultimately, we must become larger people – “step into largeness”, living life by verbs (actions we take), not nouns (things we own, or static truths). Or we can choose not to do that, and live instead on the scraps from the tables of other lives, which we falsely imagine somehow to be more meaningful than our own:

“The world is full of people droning on, sitting before the telly or the Internet, waiting to die, living only for small sensations of scandal or vicarious catastrophe that they can witness from afar.”

It’s our choice, though. Growth, or security – you can’t have both. It’s clear which Hollis is striving for, and although he offers us no “ten steps” or “twelve rules”, no map at all, he perhaps is offering us a compass that will give us our heading, as we cross whatever terrain our lives hold.