Recommended for anyone who wants to spend time with intelligent minds wrestling not with each other but with understanding.

MAKING SENSE

CONVERSATIONS ON CONSCIOUSNESS, MORALITY, AND THE FUTURE OF HUMANITY

The text version of the popular, hyperarticulate, interviewed-based podcast.

So much of public debate in America, circa 2020, takes one of two forms: people arguing in order to generate controversy or conversations in which the interviewer is little more than a set piece for an unchallenged monologue. Harris aims for something eminently more useful. This lightly edited sampling of his podcast of the same name includes long-form interviews with scholars and intellectuals on a range of topics. Whether the discussion is about artificial intelligence, the future capacities of knowledge, politics, philosophy, intuition, history (philosopher Thomas Metzinger shares experiences from post–World War II Germany that are hard to look away from), religion, reason, or the nature of consciousness, Harris grounds lofty discussions with concrete examples and his gift for analogy. Few of the interviewees are household names—perhaps aside from psychologist Daniel Kahneman and Timothy Snyder—but readers will not question their credentials or motives. If you’re bright, well read, and secure in yourself, you don’t mind having your arguments examined, even by thinkers with the intellectual chops to poke holes in the fabric of your life’s work. Case in point: The interview with physics professor David Deutsch contains the guest’s criticism of the host’s self-described “cherished” thesis from Harris’ book The Moral Landscape. This critique wasn’t spontaneous; Deutsch had initiated a private conversation, and Harris asked for permission to press record. This speaks to the author’s agenda: free and open debate, in the best sense of the word. Nonacademics may hit intellectual potholes when encountering words like epiphenomenalism and panpsychist and, to be sure, this is no breezy read. But the book’s advantage over the podcast is that readers can linger as they need to and cherry-pick interviews at will.

Recommended for anyone who wants to spend time with intelligent minds wrestling not with each other but with understanding.

Pub Date: Aug. 11, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-285778-1

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: April 26, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2020

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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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A handful of pearls amid a pile of empty oyster shells.

THE COMFORT BOOK

Bestselling author Haig offers a book’s worth of apothegms to serve as guides to issues ranging from disquietude to self-acceptance.

Like many collections of this sort—terse snippets of advice, from the everyday to the cosmic—some parts will hit home with surprising insight, some will feel like old hat, and others will come across as disposable or incomprehensible. Years ago, Haig experienced an extended period of suicidal depression, so he comes at many of these topics—pain, hope, self-worth, contentment—from a hard-won perspective. This makes some of the material worthy of a second look, even when it feels runic or contrary to experience. The author’s words are instigations, hopeful first steps toward illumination. Most chapters are only a few sentences long, the longest running for three pages. Much is left unsaid and left up to readers to dissect. On being lost, Haig recounts an episode with his father when they got turned around in a forest in France. His father said to him, “If we keep going in a straight line we’ll get out of here.” He was correct, a bit of wisdom Haig turned to during his depression when he focused on moving forward: “It is important to remember the bottom of the valley never has the clearest view. And that sometimes all you need to do in order to rise up again is to keep moving forward.” Many aphorisms sound right, if hardly groundbreaking—e.g., a quick route to happiness is making someone else happy; “No is a good word. It keeps you sane. In an age of overload, no is really yes. It is yes to having space you need to live”; “External events are neutral. They only gain positive or negative value the moment they enter our mind.” Haig’s fans may enjoy this one, but others should take a pass.

A handful of pearls amid a pile of empty oyster shells.

Pub Date: July 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-14-313666-8

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Penguin Life

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2021

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