‘The Beginner's Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize’ by Peter Doherty

To take a break from some rather involving fiction novels, I picked up ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize’ where it had been laying dormant for a year or so on my bookshelf. Not exactly the kind of book that I’d buy for myself, but no an unwelcome present, either.

Peter Doherty won a Nobel Prize for some work in immunology, and this book is a pastiche including his recollections of the prize, a summary of his work itself, general thoughts about science in the future, the conflict between religion and science, and some general tips on how to win a Nobel Prize yourself. I’ve probably missed some in there. The book is interesting and thoughtful, but not too insightful.

On of his comments that resonated with me was in the conclusion of his section of religion vs. science:

What greater betrayal can there be of God’s good grace, or the continuity of our species and all life, than to embrace polarised attitudes of mind and practices that compromise the lives and opportunities of the generations that are to come?

It’s a statement that I have a hard time believing that anyone, religious or otherwise, could disagree with, and it’s a tidy summation of a morality for everyone.

‘Shantaram’ by Gregory David Roberts

I haven’t read such a page-turner as Shantaram in a long time. I read the whole thing in about 2 or 3 weeks (including a day out of good reading time for Blink). Considering it’s 900-odd pages long, that’s pretty good for me; admittedly, it’s been a slow end to the year.

Shantaram is a fictional story heavily inspired by a hugely pivotal part of the author’s life. To summarise the gist of the story, Gregory David Roberts escaped from a Melbourne jail while serving a twenty year sentence and ended up India, where, alone and unknown, his past life was slowly stripped from him and he began a journey towards another life. There is a sometimes disconcerting contrast between the voice of the author and the actions of the character of the book. It can be a bit of a shock to read about gouging people’s eyes out after the author’s personal reflections on love and loneliness.

The fictionalisation of the story is part of what makes this book such an interesting read, but it’s the personal side that brings home the more philosophical moments. In broad brush strokes, this is obviously a novel that paints the picture of Roberts’ life at the time. His true story is amazing, and the life-changing effects on him are unmistakable (and indeed, emphasised in the book). Having worked with with Bombay mafia, however, he’s obviously writing fiction for the general detail of the story. Suspension of disbelief here gives the novel its immediate appeal, I think. Obviously the story itself is integral to the book. Without the personal side to buoy the narrative, however, the plot would probably be a little too neat and tidy, and yet in the end of it all the plot ends abruptly and finishes nowhere.

This is a book that, in softcover, has pages thin enough to make casual page turning harder than usual. From the author’s point of view, splitting the book in two probably makes no sense at all, because it’s the spread of experience that he’s working from to write the story and finishing it earlier would leave his emotional development unfinished.

Now, I can’t say that Roberts’ writing is perfect; I found he was occasionally over-enthusiastically profound; for example,

The truth is that, no matter what kind of game you find yourself in, no matter how good or bad the luck, you can change your life completely with a single thought or a single act of love.

But I forgive him due to his sincerity. After his experiences he’s allowed the exuberance.


‘Blink’ by Malcolm Gladwell

I bought a book today that’s a gift for my cousin. But I read it first because, well, I had to ensure that the Christmas present was a good one, right? This is the second time that I’ve read a book cover-to-cover in a single day and there really is something to be said for it. Edgar Allen Poe discussed the point once when talking about his short stories: everything that needs to be said is able to be digested as a whole. (Obviously he used more words that I.)

Don’t get me wrong; for many novels it’s an absurd idea to sit down and read until you’re done. But, for me, it worked for Perfume and today it worked for Malcolm Gladwell’s nonfiction Blink.

Malcolm Gladwell is a writer, and a journalist in the best sense of the word. His work I’ve read in The New Yorker has been well-researched and entertaining without exception, although I’ve only read a handful of his articles so far. I’m somewhat dismayed to just have discovered an extensive archive that I fear may take up a lot of my time in the near future.

He is also an excellent speaker. At TED he talked about pasta sauce and the way choice and like isn’t as clear-cut as it seems. And at the New Yorker 2012 conference he talked about genius and the difference between the geniuses of today geniuses and those yesteryear. Both talks give a good insight into his intelligence, his wealth of knowledge, and his style of collecting and reporting information.

This is his second book. I haven’t read his first, The Tipping Point, but I will one day. (In fact, I’ll do a lot more reading in general, if my insatiable appetite for sleep ever slackens and my indelible desire to procrastinate dissipates.) Blink discusses, from a dizzying number of viewpoints, the ways in which our brains work in the seconds before conscious processing kicks in. “Blink, and you’ll miss it”. I won’t try and replicate his examples or spoil the more surprising results; suffice it to say that when an expert tells you their opinion on something after seemingly a split second’s though, it’s worth trusting. On the other hand, to overcome our own gut reactions to things that we judge too quickly takes a lot of training — and in many cases is impossible. Our state of mind can influence our perception — no surprises there, I guess — but to such a degree that we should never take our own opinion of things too seriously.

Blink is an engrossing read by a writer who deserves his fame. Gladwell’s compilation of a slew of seemingly unrelated stories creates a compelling spiderweb of evidence to convince me, at least, that there’s a hell of a lot more going on in my brain than I give it credit for on a day-to-day basis. The most sobering part: think too much about something and you’ll destroy your opinion of it. Hmmm. I guess what I said above should now be reconsidered!



I’ve never been attracted by medicine as a science or profession. But I’ve become interested in the field recently, in a vague sort of way, because, well, I know I’m going to get sick one day. Everyone dies, right?

Disregarding outlandish (but hopeful and tempting) theories involving nanobots to replace our organs (Ray Kurzweil), and even an “anti-aging singularity”, after which the rate at which we can prolong people’s lives exceeds their actual deterioration due to ageing (Aubrey de Grey), there’s still huge amounts of progress still to be made in the field. This point is made so very clearly in an article in the New Yorker, “The Checklist”, discussing the huge improvements that can be made in intensive care simply by following checklists when performing tasks, rather than relying on memory and experience:

In the Keystone Initiative’s first eighteen months, the hospitals saved an estimated hundred and seventy-five million dollars in costs and more than fifteen hundred lives. The successes have been sustained for almost four years—all because of a stupid little checklist.

Boggles the mind, really. It’s sweating the details like these that will be keeping us alive longer on average. For something even more amazing, again via the New Yorker, check out this speech on Regenerative Medicine. It’s now possible to grow bladders from scratch (from a sample) and implant them in the patient whose original requires replacing; kidneys are almost there as well (the bladder is the easiest because it’s hollow). This had just reached the implementation stage now. And this is the stuff that can be done without stem cells. Fifty years ago, we couldn’t even transplant organs.

I don’t have a clue how these people do it. And I’ll no doubt never learn. But I can’t wait to live to see where we end up.


Tolkien in a chocolate review?!?

Blogs. I hate the word. But I do love the medium. Seriously, think for a sec: where else can you read something anywhere nearly comparable? Don’t get me started on newspapers. (Well, in Australia they’re mostly tabloids in disguise, anyway.) Magazines work as is in they’re interesting and stuff, but you’ll never read the raw, unadulterated opinion of some guy just smashing away at his keyboard (or some girl, well, tinkering at hers).

Take Brian Tiemann, who’s the subject of this piece. Don’t ask me who he is. I don’t even know why I read what he writes on a regular basis. He’s entertaining almost all of the time. I guess that’s about it. He often writes about things I like. For example, he’s just started reviewing some varieties of dark chocolate. (Which is truly my favourite.) And here’s a little piece of what he has to say about a particular brand:

The chocolate doesn’t really melt, it sort of collapses like a Jenga tower into a heap of rubble on the tongue, which you then have to sweep out of the way like the ruins of a decrepit Vegas casino redolent of pipe smoke and loveless sex.

You don’t get self-indulgent, brilliant, evocations like that in a serious publication. Followed but one sentence later with:

Just a mouthful of wreckage that you’re eventually glad is gone, and a cloud of something gray and gassy, indistinct and vaguely sinister, floating over the whole scene, looking towards the West, only to be dissipated by a firm breeze from over the Sea

Imagine the brilliance of using a Tolkien metaphor to describe the aftertaste of poor chocolate. Would that ever work in a piece written for, you know, money? You’d have editors going “oh, no-one will follow that; it’s too many words, anyway”. And while they’d be right, they’d be depriving me of a moment’s joy at the end of a tedious day.


“Theatre” by W. Somerset Maugham

A couple of years ago my father mentioned “The Razor’s Edge” by W. Somerset Maugham as one of his favourite books. His recommendation was, of course, good — I’m quite taken by that book. Well, since I liked that one so, time to get another. I picked up a bunch of Maugham books in hardcover at a secondhand bookstore and just finished the first of those last night.

“Theatre” is an odd book. Most of the way through, to be honest, I wasn’t particularly enamoured by it. It lacked the style and gravitas of Razor’s Edge that I so enjoyed; indeed, three paragraphs into the novel comes the phrase:

With the experienced actress’s instinct to fit the gesture to the word, by a movement of her neat hand she indicated the room through which she had just passed.

This is the kind of writing I abhor; not because of the old-fashioned wordy style (which does take a little getting used to — Maugham wrote many many books back in the early–mid 1900s). Rather, it’s the explicitness of the description that gets my goat. It’s probably the easiest way to spot the terrible writing in books like “Di Vinci Code” — everything is spelled out in excruciatingly unnecessary detail. (Note it's the ‘unnecessary’ there that's key word; I do like books that have lots of words.)

But Maugham isn’t a bad writer. As the novel progressed, it turned out that these passages reflected an inner dialogue of the main character, an ‘actress’ (that word’s not politically correct these days) who is self-centred and shallow; while we do empathise with her emotions, the writing style is almost a parody of her self-view and re-inforces her vapid interpretation of the world.

As the book progresses, we are slowly treated to some outside interpretation of who this woman is, and their points of view jars or even contradicts with what we’ve learnt through her eyes. So to dismiss this book early would be a mistake, because it’s only over time that the writing style reveals itself as a device to give insight on the character followed by the story. By the very end, her own plot lines (in her world) have been satisfactorily resolved while the insight on her character has completed its descent from grace to emptiness. Or is it us all who are empty and meaningless?