Fruitful reading for devout self-improvers, though Maria Konnikova’s Mastermind (2013), which covers some of the same...

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THE SUPERHUMAN MIND

FREE THE GENIUS IN YOUR BRAIN

Another in a long line of you-can-be-Einstein treatises, blending hard neuroscience with parlor tricks.

Let’s say you meet someone new who tells you she’s turning 40 a few days hence. You nonchalantly tell her that she was born on a Friday. Have you become a Marilu Henner overnight? No: you just use an algorithm that allows you to “speed-calculate the weekday of any date within this or the last century.” Synesthete Brogaard, director of an eponymous lab for multisensory research at the University of Miami, doesn’t really take time to explore why one would want to be able to undertake this calculation, but there’s some neat stuff in her book, written with graduate student Marlow, all touching on the strange capabilities of the brain. One memorable turn, for example, is the use of fMRI to help recovering drug addicts use mental tricks to combat any cravings they might have for a particular drug (though the authors’ dismissive “So much for AA” seems an unnecessary dig). Some of their case studies come from the annals of what is generally coded as abnormal psychology, but more are simply wonderments: the real-life “super-savant” who inspired Rain Man, for instance. In real life, he was not autistic but instead had an undeveloped corpus callosum, which turns out to be “among the most common human brain malformations.” Just so, the trajectory of this book isn’t quite developed. The narrative ping-pongs among gee-whiz episodes of perfect pitch, sleepwalking, lucid dreaming, and clairvoyance without quite delivering the promise of the subtitle. However, there are some nicely thought-provoking moments, including the authors’ closing thoughts on the coming singularity. And how to thwart the robots? Get smarter than them, perhaps.

Fruitful reading for devout self-improvers, though Maria Konnikova’s Mastermind (2013), which covers some of the same ground, is more appealing and better written.

Pub Date: Aug. 25, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-59463-368-3

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hudson Street/Penguin

Review Posted Online: Aug. 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2015

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

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EDISON

One of history’s most prolific inventors receives his due from one of the world’s greatest biographers.

Pulitzer and National Book Award winner Morris (This Living Hand and Other Essays, 2012, etc.), who died this year, agrees that Thomas Edison (1847-1931) almost certainly said, “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” and few readers of this outstanding biography will doubt that he was the quintessential workaholic. Raised in a middle-class Michigan family, Edison displayed an obsessive entrepreneurial spirit from childhood. As an adolescent, he ran a thriving business selling food and newspapers on a local railroad. Learning Morse code, he spent the Civil War as a telegrapher, impressing colleagues with his speed and superiors with his ability to improve the equipment. In 1870, he opened his own shop to produce inventions to order. By 1876, he had money to build a large laboratory in New Jersey, possibly the world’s first industrial research facility. Never a loner, Edison hired talented people to assist him. The dazzling results included the first commercially successful light bulb for which, Morris reminds readers, he invented the entire system: dynamo, wires, transformers, connections, and switches. Critics proclaim that Edison’s innovations (motion pictures, fluoroscope, rechargeable batteries, mimeograph, etc.) were merely improvements on others’ work, but this is mostly a matter of sour grapes. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was a clunky, short-range device until it added Edison’s carbon microphone. And his phonograph flabbergasted everyone. Humans had been making images long before Daguerre, but no one had ever reproduced sound. Morris rivetingly describes the personalities, business details, and practical uses of Edison’s inventions as well as the massive technical details of years of research and trial and error for both his triumphs and his failures. For no obvious reason, the author writes in reverse chronological order, beginning in 1920, with each of the seven following chapters backtracking a decade. It may not satisfy all readers, but it works.

Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9311-0

Page Count: 800

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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