Saturday, July 18, 2009

Big Ideas

Negley says:
'Tomorrow in The Sunday Times Bryan writes popular big ideas books from H.G.Wells to Malcolm Gladwell. As usual, if you don't read this you cannot seriously claim to have engaged with the zeigeist.'


  1. I endeavour never to do such a thing. But I have liked a bit of Wells...

  2. Who is negley? Is it like encephalopathy at all?

  3. It's remarkable how small book sales are, even for so-called best-sellers. To take an example in the 'Big Idea' genre, the paperback version of Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers has currently sold only 15,757 copies. That's approximately 0.026% of the UK population.

    Academics, literary types, and journalists tend to unconsciously generalise from their own social milieu, and consequently over-estimate the reach of ideas into the population-at-large. Most people live their lives quite happily or unhappily, without ever directly coming under the influence of books. Which isn't to say that their economic and social conditions won't be altered by ideological trends whose origins they remain oblivious to...

  4. "The very fact that we want such books is a sign of what we have lost, primarily a coherent base from which to assess the world"

    Did we ever have one? or is that the real big idea that we did?

  5. Perversely, I immediately wanted to know about Marilynne Robinson’s The Death of Adam more than any of the others. Never heard of it. Could that have the big idea for me?

    Incidentally, I read The Evolution of God for the Guardian. (Robert Wright is not a loonie, so I didn't have to compromise my journalistic integrity.) His theory of everything is game theory. So if you think life is one big calculation, compassion a form of calculus, and God a 'divine algorithm', you'll love it.

  6. Oops - that should be 'loony'. Told you it was for the Grauniad.

  7. I wanted the article to be much, much longer though. Like a book.

    I did a degree in Philosophy. They do the Greeks first, then leap forward and teach the history of western philosophy as if it was a kind of narrative, beginning with Descartes and 'progressing' through the rationalists etc to the present day (where we have 'Popular Scientists' rather than 'philosophers'). The implicit notion is that the sum of human knowledge and understanding is advancing towards a point of revalation. I never understood this because since each new philosopher is explained has having shown the previous one to be wrong, the direction actually seemed to be to towards ever more specific definitions of our ignorance. We never get more right, we only reveal how we're wrong. We end up wiser, yes, and the ride is interesting and enjoyable, but still back where we started - in mystery and wholly reliant, for practical purposes, on common sense.

    That's why I like your books. You're comfotable operating in uncertainty - celebrating it, even. I've noticed that you infuriate many of your reviewers by failing to come to a hard 'conclusion' (eg. the negative reviews of Aliens; "he doesn't understand science" etc). But it's much worse just to be persuaded fully by the most recent Big Idea you read.

    The power of these Big Idea books, at least on the individual, should not be underestimated. I know at least one person who has literally lost his religious faith because he read The God Delusion.

  8. Of course nobody likes or appreciates this "philosopher", but these four sets of essay (plus more) provide the necessary template for evaluating all of the usual big ideas.


  9. Zeitgeist. I love that word. The spirit of our age is rather dispiriting, however. And I wonder if Gordon can be right about "Outliers." I own a copy and surely there are a lot more than 15,700 copies owned by people like me -- culturally inclined readers who like intelligent books about behavior. indeed, I'm quite sure his book is on quite a few syllabi at American universities, which would quickly rack up some sales. P'raps Gordon means only 15,000 copies of "Outliers" have been sold in the UK.

    It's probably true that books themselves don't have much influence, but ideas that get popularized in a variety of media do indeed filter out to the general population. Assuming they're not inaccessible tribes who never watch TV, but I rather think most of the British population does have a telly. Even Gordon, I'll bet!

  10. i'm struck that books and people can have an effect so greatly out of proportion to their original circle. Sometimes it seems that the most influential (long term) books & people lie in darkness for a while, like seeds, and then, as Nietzsche put it, are born post-humously; and like Obi Won Kenobi once people are physically not there anymore, they take on strange powers.

    An odd example: about 4700 years ago, in Uruk, a 17-year old boy called Gilga was top dog (people came to full maturity v young). Uruk was more like a fort than what we'd call a city, very few people there. It would seem laughably small to us now, yet from G's charisma came The Epic of Gilgamesh, which had a strong influence for at least 1000 years; and two people from that tiny 'city' went on to have decisive lives in the 20th C - things would seem very different now if neither of those two people, in that tiny place, hadn't existed.

    It's almost as if initial obscurity acts as an amplifier, so book sales probably don't equate to influence, necessarily. Perhaps, as with the Velvet Underground's debut, some books sell very little but they are read by people who are then able to assimilate and re-project that force, so the masters become very influential at 2nd-hand - like Christ with his disciples, if you like.

    Whereas i guess most of the people reading Dawkins or Dan Brown can't do more than passively absorb it, they don't then influence other people, because they lack whatever that spark is, by which one influences others.

    So i've had people enthuse about Brown & Dawkins, but all they could do was summarise the plot or salient arguments - it hadn't been transformed in them. But a hermetic work, like the Philosophical Investigations is different - you really have to be transformed by it, in order to be able to convincingly talk about it. That is precisely why it is written in riddles.

    i would guess that while comparatively few people have read old Ludwig, enough of those have been transformed by the reading, so they don't just passively repeat salient points; the influence is much deeper - so just 500 such readers would have much greater influence than 1 million Brown/Dawkins readers, who can only say 'there's this really clever bit where he says Christians are like dung beetles' or 'it turns out the Vatican is full of albino assassins!' Well, duh, of course it is, everyone knows that!

  11. Fuck that was a long comment, sorry.

  12. elberry, I like your notion about the secondary amplification of initially ignored, but truly transformative ideas; perhaps you should write a "big concept" book.

    It's a shame that Dawkins is now known primarily for his recent drivel. The basic premise of his early book The Selfish Gene has stimulated an enormous amount of creative biological research, as well as practical advances in infectious disease and cancer treatment (although few now accept his theory in its most stringent form).

    BTW, who are the two influential 20th-century sons (daughters?) of Uruk?

  13. i'm a low concept sort of chap these days, and lazy to boot. Both Sumerians would prefer privacy, though both are dead; the dead tend to like their privacy as much as the living. One was in 20th C politics (latter half), the other in literature (first half); their lives briefly overlapped in the 20th C but they never met.

  14. Elberry, you know I just taught the Epic of Gilgamesh, right? My students turned their papers in today. What looks to be one of the best compares the hubris of two leaders: Gilgamesh and George W. Bush. And both of them come a cropper in what is now Iraq.

  15. Funny coincidence Susan, will email you about G.