Monday, September 17, 2007

Short reviews

Eckhart Tolle: The Power of Now

The Power of Now is a book about spiritual enlightenment, and it comes endorsed by Oprah, no less. To some people this will doubtless render it instantly trivial, and I am bound to say that I was not, myself, overwhelmed by it; however, the book is well written and well thought out, and it might provoke thought; and that is, I imagine, one of the author's aims.

I hesitate to try to summarise a book of this nature, but the title certainly implies an emphasis on the importance of the present, as opposed to the past. And that, at least, is something that I sympathise with. As I mentioned the other day, I have recently met or corresponded with two old men who find that memories of the past are considerably burdensome to them. And it has surely been the case, since the time of Marcus Aurelius, that wise men have advised us that the past cannot hurt us.

Eckhart Tolle goes one step further, I think.

Time isn't precious at all, because it is an illusion. What you perceive as precious is not time but the one point that is out of time: the Now. That is precious indeed. The more you are focused on time -- past and future -- the more you miss the Now, the most precious thing there is.

I must say that I consider that a sound point. It is one which I think is particularly relevant to writers.

I can't speak for any writer other than myself, but I certainly became aware, some time in my twenties, that I was in danger of selling the present, so to speak, in order to cash in on the future.

Most people who want to write have to do their writing (at least to begin with) on top of everything else in life: earning a living, commuting, cooking, eating, keeping fit, maintaining some sort of social life. The result of all this is that writers are often rushing from a to b, longing for the activity of the present to be over so that they can get back to work on the book, longing for the book to be finished so that they can start showing it to agents, longing for the publisher to make her bloody mind up so that you can start buying things with that huge advance. And so on. This is a deadly dangerous frame of mind to get into, and Tolle at least reminds us of that.

Martin Cruz Smith: Stalin's Ghost

When I reviewed Martin Cruz Smith's previous novel, I gave some indication of MSC's background, and how he comes to be such an outstanding thriller writer. So I won't repeat that here.

Stalin's Ghost is the sixth in a series of books about Arkady Renko, an investigator (detective) in Moscow (usually Moscow, though he gets about a bit). This book is not, actually, one of MSC's best, and like its predecessor it is a bit disjointed in places. However, MSC's second best is better than most other people's really really best, so you're in safe hands.

At page 160, however, (which is, admittedly, a bit late) things take off. The author comes up with a quite brilliant solution to the problem of how to describe what goes on in the head of a man whose brain is bleeding. Not only that, but he simultaneously manages to provide us with some vital info on Renko's backstory -- and, furthermore, he produces something which is beautiful and moving and deeply evocative of time and place. (Beat that, you literary lot.)

MSC also, by the way, has a sense of humour. Any author who can make you laugh when his main man gets shot in the head is indeed a bit special. In fact, all the way through this book, we are continually reminded that being shot and garroted really hurts and does you no good at all. Mr Renko is not allocated those same miraculous powers of recovery from injury which are so often the prerogative of fictional heroes.

Finally, for them as wants more than just a story (pernickety, ungrateful, demanding buggers that they are), MSC provides that as well. For this is a story about the influence of Stalin on the Russian mentality. This is a theme previously tackled by Robert Harris, in his Archangel -- a book which I found much less convincing than this one.

I have never actually been to Russia, but it would, by my reading of European history, be most unwise to underestimate the strength and talent of that nation. Everyone seems to think that the twenty-first century is going to belong to China. But if I were a betting man I would back the Russians.

Peter Bevelin: Seeking Wisdom

I thought I'd reviewed this book a while back, but a quick google suggests that I evidently forgot to. Anyway, this is another non-fiction book, with the subtitle 'From Darwin to Munger'. And who Munger, you may reasonably be asking. The answer is that Charles Munger is Warren Buffet's sidekick; and Buffet is perhaps capitalism's most successful investor.

All of that being the case, you will understand that much of the discussion about seeking wisdom is couched in terms of finance, as are many of the examples quoted. Darwin also appears in the subtitle, however, and he is there because he is regarded by the author as providing a wonderful lesson in objectivity.

Peter Bevelin makes it clear, early on in his introduction, that the ideas in his book are built largely from the works and thoughts of others. 'I have condensed,' he says, 'what others have written in a usable form and added my own conclusions.'

Once again, in a short review, I am obliged to seek to summarise, with all the attendant dangers, but it seems to me that this book is largely about cultivating good judgement. The author admires clarity of thought, and so do I. To achieve such clarity, he recommends stripping out as much emotion from the decision-making process as possible; and again that seems to me to be sensible. It is a course of action which I have many times recommended in relation to writing and publishing issues, where, all too often, emotion dominates considerations to the point where it obliterates all traces of common sense.

By way of example, the author lists, as one of the causes of misjudgements and mistakes, 'Believing [that] one can control the outcome of events where chance is involved.' Readers of my essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile will not be surprised to hear that I endorse that.

The author also has no illusions about the forecasting ability of economists. He quotes Peter Lynch as follows: 'There are 60,000 economists in the US, many of them employed full-time trying to forecast recessions and interest rates, and if they could do it successfully twice in a row, they'd all be millionaires by now.' Quite so.

This is a well written and well organised book, with nice short paragraphs, and it certainly goes a long way towards providing the wisdom which features in its title. Particularly recommended for students on business studies courses.

This book is published by PCA Publications and is now in its third edition.

Chris Anderson: The Long Tail

The Long Tail has been out a while now. It was first published a year ago, and before that was available in draft online; many readers' comments on that draft (and it attracted up to 5,000 readers a day) were incorporated into the first edition; a revised edition is due out next year.

The subtitle of this book is 'How endless choice is creating unlimited demand', which is all very well but perhaps not as informative as it might be. What the book is really about, it seems to me, is how the internet has changed the way in which firms can do business -- and, more importantly for most of us, it is about how the economics of online trading mean that you and I get to choose from an enormously greater range of product than was the case in the past, and is still the case if we go to a high-street retailer.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the book, so far as readers of this blog are concerned, is that the internet is transforming the chances of success (however defined) for self-published writers and for small publishers. Which is not -- definitely not -- to say that small presses and unknown writers can now compete with the big boys on equal terms. The difference is that now the internet plus changes in printing technology mean that the minnows at least get to appear in print, if nothing else.

All in all, The Long Tail is essential reading if you hope to understand how the world is developing in the twenty-first century.


Payton L. Inkletter said...

The dilemma of balancing one’s other-than-writing life with getting one’s writing done! Yes, GOB makes a good point about being aware of the dangers of discounting the other activities of living upon the altar of our writing time, but there is no simple solution. Having awareness of the quandary is the important first step. It’s comparable to an after hours study pursuit to gain qualifications for higher income down the track: it injects stress into the present for the possibility of a future pay-off.

Yes, the Russians will be coming…

Oh, and Michael, thanks for using ‘pernickety’ – keep these wonderful words coming!

Andy O'Hara said...

Eckhart Tolle doesn't sound like the first to borrow the 12-Step Program's "One day at a time" philosophy, mix in a bit of yoga, hindu and zen, and get an endorsement from Her Oprahness.

"True salvation is freedom from negativity," he says. Yawn.

I'll pass--I'm in a program already.

K.G. Schneider said...

The original "Long Tail" long article in "Wired" magazine was better than the book -- said everything it had to say, but got to the point much more quickly.

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souvenir pernikahan said...

Eckhart Tolle doesn't sound like the first to borrow ?