May 16, 2021
The Nobel-winning psychologist on applying his ideas to organisations, why we’re not equipped to grasp the spread of a virus, and the massive disruption that’s just round the corner
Daniel Kahneman, 87, was awarded the Nobel prize in economics in 2002 for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making. His first book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, a worldwide bestseller, set out his revolutionary ideas about human error and bias and how those traits might be recognised and mitigated. A new book, Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, written with Olivier Sibony and Cass R Sunstein, applies those ideas to organisations. This interview took place last week by Zoom with Kahneman at his home in New York.
I guess the pandemic is quite a good place to start. In one way it has been the biggest ever hour-by-hour experiment in global political decision-making. Do you think it’s a watershed moment in the understanding that we need to “listen to science”? Continue reading...
Yes and no, because clearly, not listening to science is bad. On the other hand, it took science quite a while to get its act together.
May 02, 2021
The potter and memoirist’s exacting study of a Parisian family’s collection of art objects is an exquisite coda to The Hare With Amber Eyes
Edmund de Waal, the master potter and memoirist, subscribes to the famous imagist dictum: “no ideas but in things”. This book is an exquisite and profound coda to The Hare With Amber Eyes, his bestselling personal history of a branch of his maternal family, the Ephrussi banking dynasty, told through the few surviving treasures – a trove of Japanese netsuke, including the hare – that escaped Nazi looting. Here he returns to that same milieu. Count Moïse de Camondo was a friend and neighbour of Charles Ephrussi during the belle époque in Paris, living at 63 Rue de Monceau, a few doors down from number 81, the Ephrussi mansion. Like Ephrussi, he was a man of great wealth and taste, who experienced the beginnings of the terrible wave of antisemitism in Europe.
The gift to De Waal as a writer lies in the fact that the house in which Camondo lived has been preserved according to his wishes exactly as it was at his death in 1935. Number 63, a fabulous golden stone house with parkland, was gifted to the French nation in part in memory of Camondo’s only son, Nissim (the name means “miracle”), who was killed in the first world war, in part because he was a great collector, a man incapable of throwing anything away. The house is a vitrine of that past in which there was “talk and food and porcelain and politesse and civilite and everything possible”, a museum of curiosities, each one bearing what De Waal calls in his epigraph “lacrimae rerum”, the tears of things. Continue reading...
Apr 18, 2021
In these seductively curious essays, Dyer scrutinises images and photographers, unearthing hidden truths and a sense of the uncanny
Geoff Dyer first became interested in photography not by looking at photographs but by reading about other people looking at them. That meant the holy trinity of seers: Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes and John Berger. For Dyer, the most inspirational of these three was Berger, about whom he wrote his first book, Ways of Telling, 35 years ago, and from whom he learned his habits as a critic – always letting the evidence of his eyes have precedence over theory, and bringing what psychologists like to call “his whole self” to the task at hand. In Berger’s writing, that had invariably meant something soulful and learned, almost sculptural in intent. Dyer’s sensibility is more fleeting and alive to comic ironies; his writing dramatises both a restless attention, and the moments it is stopped in its tracks. He shares with his mentor, however, that autodidact’s sense of bringing his singular frame of reference to bear on a singular framed image. “Naturally, I have no method,” he says, characteristically, by way of casual introduction to this collection of short essays. “I just look and think about what I’m looking at.”
Dyer has achieved that rare elevation as an essayist that allows him to demand all his published thoughts be preserved between hard covers Continue reading...
Apr 18, 2021
The New Yorker editor on Fragile Earth, a new collection of the magazine’s climate crisis writing, the continuing dangers of Trumpism – and seeing his family for the first time in a year
David Remnick has been the editor of the New Yorker since 1998. The Fragile Earth, a selection of the writing that has appeared in the magazine about climate change, is out now.
You say that as a young reporter you wrote quite a lot about dramatic weather events. Can you remember when those localised storms and fires and floods started to suggest something more apocalyptic? Continue reading...
When I was at the Washington Post, Len Downie, Ben Bradlee’s successor as editor, was obsessed with “weather stories” and played them big. And there was much high-minded, wise-guy joking about this, as if it were the height of ordinariness. But when I think back on it, Downie was right. Weather is what envelops and affects us all. And our decades-long heedlessness to climate change has done great damage to the world. So when we think about all of these unusual storms and fires, these are no longer “weather stories” – banalities, part of the nature of things – they aren’t merely that. They’re exacerbated by human behaviour over time and they are harbingers of worse.
Mar 27, 2021
From the troubled marriages to the breakthroughs that led to Sabbath’s Theater and American Pastoral… a beautifully written book by Roth’s chosen biographer
In response to that staple biographer’s question, “when were you happiest?”, Philip Roth tended to think of his first year as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, when he was free to pursue his persistent “Byronic dream” of “bibliography by day, women by night”. In the six decades that followed, as Blake Bailey’s compulsively readable life of the novelist reveals, this idealised schedule was generally compromised one way or another, to Roth’s frequent frustration and sometime derangement. In Chicago and subsequently during his two-year national service beginning at Fort Dix, he had regular visits from his first obsessive lover, Maxine Groffsky, and he reminisced fondly to Bailey how on meeting, they would always tear each other’s clothes off at the door. “I haven’t done that in a while,” Roth mused, aged 79. “I take them off nicely, I hang them up, I get into bed and I read. And I enjoy it as much as I enjoyed tearing the clothes off.” That late-life liberation from desire is 900 pages in the making.
The two great and lasting traumas of Roth’s life were his marriages. He came to believe he had been trapped into both of them. First by Margaret Martinson, a waitress five years his senior, whom he had initially seduced as a “test” to see if he could charm a “shiksa blonde” and who Bailey later describes, through Roth’s eyes, as “a bitter, impoverished, sexually undesirable divorcee”. Martinson tricked him into a terrible union with false claims that she was pregnant, backed up with a sample of urine bought for $3 from an expectant mother in a homeless shelter, and threats of suicide if Roth should ever leave her. The second perceived “entrapment” was with the actor Claire Bloom, with whom Roth spent nearly 20 years from 1975, years that she documented in her brutally critical memoir of his role in their drama, Leaving a Doll’s House. Continue reading...
Feb 07, 2021
The former Daily Mail columnist details the lies that assisted the prime minister’s rise to power, but is slow to admit his own part in a culpable media
There have been some spectacular U-turns from political observers in the past five years – Piers Morgan’s desperate and tragically belated efforts to distance himself from Donald Trump, for example – but no reverse-ferret has been quite so vehemently trumpeted as that of Peter Oborne. Back in 2016, in his Daily Mail column, Oborne was proclaiming a new dawn of Conservatism, with Labour in collapse and David Cameron a busted flush. A “glittering prospect of 12 uninterrupted years as prime minister” awaited the winner of any leadership campaign, he suggested, and Boris Johnson’s years as mayor gave him “huge credibility” for the role. When the Brexit referendum got under way Oborne confidently announced: “In my opinion, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson are the two most brilliant politicians of their generation… courageous men… [with] the personal charisma and intellectual gifts to ensure that the case for Britain to leave the EU is seriously heard,” which “anyone who is a patriotic Briton – and everyone who believes in democracy – should welcome”.
How to square that unqualified endorsement with the blunt question he asks at the beginning of this short and entertainingly outraged book: “What led the British people to put a liar into Downing Street?” Continue reading...
Jan 24, 2021
Conversations featuring the likes of Noam Chomsky, Brian Eno and Slavoj Žižek imagine a more communal world after Covid
In Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, 10 friends escape from the city of Florence when it is shut down by the Black Death and hole up in a villa in the hills, where each night for a fortnight they tell one another stories of love and tragedy. Something of the same spirit animates this collection of conversations that occurred in the strangest of fortnights in our own times: the weeks at the end of March and the beginning of April last year when the whole world was first forced behind closed doors by Covid-19.
The conversations, conducted over Zoom, are mostly convened by the Croatian activist and writer Srećko Horvat who, along with Yanis Varoufakis, is the driving force behind DiEM25, a radical initiative that aims to more fully democratise the EU. The storytellers in this case, isolated in their studies and sitting rooms across the world, include leading figures of the intellectual left such as Noam Chomsky and Richard Sennett; critics of surveillance capitalism like Shoshana Zuboff and Evgeny Morozov; artists, musicians and actors including Brian Eno and Gael García Bernal; and, inevitably, contrarians like Tariq Ali and Slavoj Žižek. Their subject is the opportunity presented by the pandemic to reshape society, to “build back better” as the politicians’ phrase goes. Continue reading...
Jan 24, 2021
Employment today is atomised, casual and unequal, argues US author Sarah Jaffe in her book Work Won’t Love You Back. Here she discusses why the way we look at work needs to change
If the past year has made us ask one question, it must surely be: how is it that our society so often chooses to place the least value on the work it needs the most?
One effect of the pandemic has been to strip away some of the mythologies of the labour market to reveal its bare essentials, what we have come to know as our “key workers”: that extraordinary frontline army in the NHS, the indispensable “caring professions”, the teachers who have tried to manage their children at home and our children on Zoom, the refuse collectors and transport workers and shop assistants and delivery drivers who have risked their health to keep it all going. How can it be that these jobs, that none of us can do without and not all of us would be able or prepared to do, are routinely among the lowliest in terms of reward? Should it really only be the market that decides what work is worth? How can we continue to justify a world in which Dido Harding’s management consultants pocket in a couple of days what an ICU nurse might earn in a month or where Jeff Bezos makes many, many times more in a second than one of his warehouse workers takes home in a year? Continue reading...
Dec 28, 2020
A fragmentary, poetic reimagining of Bacon’s last days in Madrid reads like a private communion with the painter
The facts of the death of Francis Bacon were these: in April 1992, the artist, against his doctor’s advice, took a trip to Madrid to visit his last great love, the young banker José Capelo, the subject of his final triptych of paintings. A few days after arriving in the city, Bacon, aged 82, was taken by ambulance to a convent hospital, suffering from familiar kidney and breathing problems. For six days until his death he remained in intensive care, looked after by a nun called Sister Mercedes. In those six days, the atheist Bacon received no visitors and, with limited Spanish, spoke only a few words. His body was cremated two days after his death, according to his wishes, at a municipal cemetery, without ceremony or mourners. As his biographer Michael Peppiatt noted: “A life filled with the extremes of human emotion and devoted to expressing them with utmost force had ended, almost anonymously, in utter silence.”
Related: Max Porter: 'Writing allows me to worry about stuff better' Continue reading...
Nov 21, 2020
In her final interview just before the first lockdown, the renowned travel writer spoke cheerfully of her last journey
Usually, nine months after meeting someone, interviewing them and writing about them for the newspaper, you would expect one or two details of the encounter to stay alive in your mind. But my recollection of the day in late February that I visited Jan Morris at her home in north-west Wales is not like that. Every moment remains vivid.
Perhaps, you might say, this is because my pre-lockdown journey there – driving through Snowdonia on a wild, windy morning and down to the sea at Criccieth – was just about the only travelling I’ve done all year. But I don’t believe it is that. As anyone knows who ever made that journey to visit her at home, or who ever opened any of her 40 books, Morris dealt in adventure. Having packed her life brim full of extraordinary journeys, pilgrimages and quests, she knew exactly how to conjure their contours for others. Continue reading...
Nov 01, 2020
The fashion photographer and documenter of 60s London looks back in the company of old friends and lovers in a raw and surprising memoir
Spare a thought for the sleepless nights of Mr Edward Shrimpton, a self-made builder, who by 1960 had bought himself a 200-acre farm in Buckinghamshire, and sent his two daughters to the best local convent school. First, his eldest, Jean, 18, falls for a married man, an East Ender, who has been taking “glamour” pictures of her. And if that weren’t enough, his younger daughter, Chrissie, is knocking around with a student, whose only prospect of gainful employment seems to be with a music group who are yet to release a record. Faced with the prospect of David Bailey in his hay barn and Mick Jagger in his back bedroom, it seems that Edward Shrimpton could not decide who to aim his shotgun at first.
Sixty years on, Jean Shrimpton and Bailey can still conjure the thrill of those early liaisons, in which at least one free-spirited image of the decade that followed was created. They never did an interview together in the years that they made each other famous, as far as they recall, so when they sit down here, at the heart of Bailey’s predictably candid memoir, it’s like they are piecing together little fragments of a shared fantasy: the landmark Vogue shoot in New York, taking studio fashion on to the street, him bringing flowers to her, and carrying them without embarrassment, their first sex, on Littleton Common (“ah yes, I remember it well”). “It took me three months to get my leg across,” Bailey recalls, to emphasise his gallantry. Continue reading...
Oct 25, 2020
The philosopher’s new book attacks the idea that any ideology has the answers to life’s questions – but advice from cats might be his exception…
What’s it like to be a cat? John Gray has spent a lifetime half-wondering. The philosopher – to his many fans the intellectual cat’s pyjamas, to his critics the least palatable of furballs – has had feline companions at home since he was a boy in South Shields. In adult life – he now lives in Bath with his wife Mieko, a dealer in Japanese antiquities – this has principally been two pairs of cats: “Two Burmese sisters, Sophie and Sarah, and two Birman brothers, Jamie and Julian.” The last of them, Julian, died earlier this year, aged 23. Gray, currently catless, is by no means a sentimental writer, but his new book, Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life, is written in memory of their shared wisdom.
Other philosophers have been enthralled by cats over the years. There was Schrödinger and his box, of course. And Michel de Montaigne, who famously asked: “When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?” The rationalist René Descartes, Gray notes, once “hurled a cat out of the window in order to demonstrate the absence of conscious awareness in non-human animals; its terrified screams were mechanical reactions, he concluded.” Continue reading...
Oct 04, 2020
The historian and New Yorker writer’s new book tells the story of ‘the Cambridge Analytica of the 1960s’. She talks big data, social media and the US election
Jill Lepore is professor of American history at Harvard and a prolific essayist for the New Yorker. Her books have included These Truths, a 900-page chronicle of American democracy and The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Her new book, If Then, tells the story of the Simulmatics Corporation – “the Cambridge Analytica of the 1960s” – which used emerging computer technology to try to predict human behaviour and win elections. This interview took place the day before the first US presidential debate.
Reading about the extraordinary history of the Simulmatics Corporation and its “People Machine”, it was instructive to see how the anxieties we have today about the more sinister aspects of computer technology were very present 60 years ago. Did that surprise you? Continue reading...
If anything, I think in the 50s and 60s – because so few people had direct experience of computers – there was even more concern than there is now. Computers were associated with vast power. It was only with the arrival in the 1980s and 1990s of the personal computer we were sold the idea that the technology was participatory and liberal. I think we have returned, in a way, to the original fears, now we sense that these personal devices very much represent the power of vast corporations.
Sep 21, 2020
A retirement village in Kent and 50s Catalonia provide the backdrops for two popular TV hosts’ very different debut novels
In a recent YouGov survey concerning British TV celebrities, Richard Osman emerged as the ninth most popular telly personality – the words most often used to describe him were “likable, clever, quick-witted and charming”. Fans of Osman were, the survey suggested, most likely also to admire Dawn French, Judi Dench and appliances made by Russell Hobbs. All of which data no doubt helps to make Viking Penguin, the publisher of Osman’s first novel, comfortable with its decision to invest a “seven-figure advance” in a two-book deal, safe in the knowledge that the Pointless co-presenter is well on the way to national treasure status.
The Thursday Murder Club might double as a final application for that accolade. The club of the book’s title meets every week in the jigsaw room at Coopers Chase, a superior gated retirement village in rural Kent; the puzzle the members attempt to solve, however, is not the “two thousand piecer of Whitstable harbour” left unfinished on the coffee table, but rather one of several cold murder cases brought to their attention by Penny, a resident in the village and a former police inspector. What follows threatens to become the Famous Five in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, or a Midsomer murder for a whole gang of Miss Marples. Could there be a more seductive pitch to the readers of middle England (or to the producers of Sunday evening drama)? Continue reading...
Sep 12, 2020
Amis returns to the 1970s and his escapades with his famous friends in a curious, pompous ‘novel’, shot through with tips on grammar
Martin Amis begins this baggy, curious book with an account of how it nearly wasn’t written. He had a go at it more than a decade ago, he confesses. He was going to call it Life: A Novel, but when he read through the 100,000 words of that manuscript, and then sat on a beach in Uruguay, near where he was living at the time, he thought he was finished, washed up. He could no longer hear himself in what he’d written, and there was a “vertiginous plunge in self-belief” that caused him to abandon that stack of pages. “Writers die twice,” he writes, with characteristic doom-freighted significance. “And on the beach I was thinking, Ah, here it comes, the first death.”
He doesn’t indicate how much of that original manuscript makes its way into this one, but that first death is here set against the detail of three actual departures – the storied endings of Philip Larkin, Saul Bellow and Christopher Hitchens, two surrogate fathers and an unholy ghost, the lost trinity of influence in Amis’s writing life. Retracing the steps of each of them into oblivion gives him a structure to work with, and the kind of purpose he enjoys, a sort of oxymoronic inferno: “because if life is death, then death is very much alive”. Continue reading...
Aug 30, 2020
The writer’s new novel, Mayflies, is an elegy to a teenage friend. Here he talks about growing up in working-class Ayrshire, going against the grain and the spirit of 80s post-punk
Every teenager, or every teenager who is lucky, has a Keith. Keith is the friend who jokes and dresses with more swagger than anyone else, who looks out for misfits and makes them feel understood, who is the scourge of bullies and bigots and the master of revels, who can conjure laughs from thin air on nights when you are bored and skint.
Andrew O’Hagan met his Keith – Keith Martin – on the council estate near Irvine new town, on the coast of Ayrshire, 20 miles from Glasgow, where they both grew up. In the 1980s they went on CND protests and miners’ marches together, they were a wayward double-act chatting up girls, and while O’Hagan was still at school and Martin was working as a lathe-turner in a local factory, they formed a band. Thirty years later, with none of that history forgotten, it was O’Hagan who Keith Martin first called with the news no one wants to share; that he had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer, and that they had at best only four months of friendship left. Continue reading...
Aug 23, 2020
The author of H Is for Hawk returns to the theme of loss in these powerful essays about humankind’s destruction of our fellow species
In H Is for Hawk, her 2014 memoir of a year spent taming a raptor as she tried to get a grip on her reckless grief at the loss of her beloved father, Helen Macdonald felt for a voice that was as fearless and precise as its subject. In desperation to step outside herself and her sorrow, she wanted a language that captured the otherness of a goshawk, red in tooth and claw, even as she established a certain truculent kinship with it. At times, as a result, that book put you in mind of Gerard Manley Hopkins at his most transported, the writer seeing with the eye of the thing she describes. In this collection of essays, written over the past decade, Macdonald extends that vision far and wide.
The essays are connected, as she suggests, in the way that the objects in an 18th-century cabinet of curiosities were connected, by accident and strangeness and wonder in the eye of the beholder. Meditations about “death and sex and mushrooms” sit alongside memories of buck hares fighting in the spring; encounters with wild boar muscle up against the extraordinary aerial spectacle of millions of migratory birds witnessed above the Empire State Building, or the strange tale of Britain’s spy chief who tried to tame a cuckoo, or the eccentricities of ornithologists when they flock together. Macdonald’s writing about the world beyond her senses comes with a little three-point manifesto: “To understand that your way of looking at the world is not the only one. To think what it might mean to love those that are not like you. To rejoice in the complexity of things.” But there is, in each of these essays, also a clear sense of the sensibility that is doing the looking: patient, alert, learned and excitable. Continue reading...
Jul 05, 2020
Matthew Crawford’s heartfelt riposte to a ‘smart’ future of driverless cars is persuasive and thought-provoking
Five years ago I sat around a table of Google executives at the company’s Mountain View headquarters in California. They took turns explaining the virtues of their prototype driverless car, in which I had just meticulously navigated the streets of nearby Palo Alto.
The coming revolution in automobiles, they suggested, which the car no doubt represented, would make transit more efficient, smarter, safer and far less prone to human error. Moreover, in transforming drivers into passengers it would free them up to do “more productive”, “less stressful” things (by which the Google VPs no doubt meant: “Give them more time to stare at their phones”). Continue reading...
Jun 22, 2020
An absorbing memoir of generations of family raised on the Thames shoreline dredges up tales of desperate lives – and some bizarre flotsam
Lisa Woollett grew up on the Isle of Sheppey, at the mouth of the Thames. As a child she became fascinated by what the estuary had swallowed and what it coughed up; she searched the shingle below her parents’ house for fossils and shark’s teeth. In her 40 or more years of beachcombing and mudlarking since, she has been more likely to retrieve and hoard manmade flotsam, clay pipes and bits of pots; cereal-box toys and toothbrushes. She sifts and sorts them, and sometimes fashions them into starbursts of colour, or boxes them in old typesetters’ cases, like exhibits in a museum of curiosities.
In some ways, as this absorbing memoir of shoreline collecting reveals, Woollett was born to this obsession. Her grandfather was a dustman, and back beyond that there were, among the Tolladays on her mother’s side, generations of scavengers, the lowest of the low of London’s raucous street life, scrounging for everything that was not chucked into the Thames, and selling it on. Continue reading...
Jun 06, 2020
This fascinating study debunks false narratives about immigration and finds that, in common with other species, the urge to move is written in our genes
Sonia Shah’s last two books Pandemic, published in 2016, and The Fever, published in 2010, introduced her as a storyteller in a novel genre: travel books that went in search of the spread of disease - cholera in the former, malaria in the latter. That literature of track and trace, part detective story, part reportage, took Shah to remote corners of the world and to distant grid references of history. Her books were also prescient case studies of the way that human progress has been shaped by its love-hate relationship with microbes – how disease has caused empires to rise and fall and economies to stutter and implode.
This book – a wandering narrative about why people wander – is likely to prove equally prophetic in the coming months and years, since it asks two questions that are already shaping our geopolitics: what causes human beings to migrate? And is such mass movement beneficial to more settled communities and nations? Continue reading...
Apr 19, 2020
The journalist and writer turns his stream-of-consciousness style to a question that has always niggled him – why isn’t he rich?
William Leith’s primary subject has always been appetite, and its close cousins compulsion and obsession. He first explored these themes in his newspaper columns, stagily self-absorbed fragments of a hungover life, and subsequently in two addictive books. The first, The Hungry Years, set his own capacity for excess – in food and drink and drugs – against a culture high on consumption; the second, Bits of Me Are Falling Apart, was a sometimes poignant, always curious, mediation on mortality, the consequences of that binger’s lifestyle. Both books were revelatory and funny, and dramatised their own premise way, way too much.
The Trick takes all of Leith’s writing habits – his mazy streams of consciousness (few writers are quite so enamoured of, or good at, watching themselves think) and his love of axiom – and, if anything, ups the ante. His subject here, is one that has always nagged away underneath his tales of excess – if he wants so much, why has he often been so profligate in his attempts to get it? Why has he been unable, that is, to accumulate wealth rather than debt? Continue reading...
Apr 11, 2020
The Grief Is the Thing With Feathers author talks about how myth, environmentalism and anxiety inspired his second novel
Max Porter’s second novel, Lanny, is the semi-mythic story of the disappearance of a boy in a rural English village. It follows his widely acclaimed debut, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers. Porter, 38, until recently editorial director of Granta Books, lives near Bath with his wife and three sons, aged 10, seven and four. This interview took place by phone.
How’s it going? Continue reading...
I can’t believe it’s only Wednesday. It’s fine, I’m learning to be patient. I can do maths with the four-year-old, but I’m struggling after that. I made an obstacle course for them today. It’s crazy. But then, you know, I spoke to my mate yesterday who is a GP for homeless people and is in ICU [intensive care unit] now and he is describing apocalyptic scenes. And I’m here thinking well, next door’s magnolia is looking good.
Apr 04, 2020
A timely study of the world’s growing sense of doom ranges from tourists in Chernobyl to Elon Musk’s plan to colonise Mars
While the publication dates of many books may have been pushed back in the light of the current crisis, this one is right on the money. Mark O’Connell’s quest to locate the various manifestations of our collective apocalypse-anxiety might have been written with the long hours of global lockdown in mind. “It was the end of the world, and I was sitting on the couch watching cartoons with my son,” he begins. He proceeds like Noah sensing rain in the air.
Related: Real estate for the apocalypse: my journey into a survival bunker Continue reading...