Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Alex Danchev and Richard Bradford.

Antifragile: How to Live in a World We Don't Understand by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Nassim Nicholas Taleb hit the bestsellers list when his 2007 book Black Swan appeared to predict the financial crisis. His latest offering, Antifragile, has had reviewers almost invariably applauding its philosophical breadth ("an ambitious and thought-provoking read") whilst lamenting its author’s "trademark arrogance, indiscipline and sheer chutzpah".

Boyd Tonkin, writing in the Independent, is one of several critics who cite Taleb’s theories as a "colourful variations on Nietzsche". Whilst conceding that the book is undermined by its scatter-shot structure and the author's propensity to be "vulgar, silly, slapdash and infuriating", he concludes that the basic principles make the read worth it. "Time and again I returned to two questions about his core ideas: Is he right, and does it matter? My verdict? Yes, and yes."

The Economist review similarly agrees that Antifragile "is an interesting idea, but as a book it is not without flaws". These are mainly that Taleb "overstretches the argument and is not as iconoclastic as he likes to think".

Gillian Tett, writing in the Financial Times, approves of Taleb’s polymathic approach: The book develops the theme on multiple levels. Some of his arguments are highly technical: he uses mathematical techniques to prove how the antifragile concept can be measured, and to demonstrate why popular statistical measures of probability are wrong." Nonetheless, she acknowledges discrepancies of style which detract from the book’s philosophical merits: "Taleb at times almost slips into the tone of the popular self-help guides that he professes to loathe."

The most damning review comes from David Runciman, writing in the Guardian, who finds fault in everything from the gratuitously complicated structure - "Antifragile jumps around from aphorism to anecdote to technical analysis, interspersed with a certain amount of hectoring encouragement to the reader to keep up. The aim, apparently, is to show how much more interesting an argument can be if it resists being pinned down" - to the inherent hypocrisy of the writer - "Taleb despises mere 'theorists' but still aspires to produce a theory of everything." The life advice offered by Taleb is deemed to be "a mixture of the pretentious and the banal" and ultimately, "The result is both solipsistic and ultimately dispiriting. Reading this book is the intellectual equivalent of having to sit patiently while someone shows you their holiday snaps."

Cézanne: A Life by Alex Danchev

Biographies exploring Cézanne’s life and art are not in limited supply but Alex Danchev’s latest one, Cézanne: A Life, is an “original biography” showing readers “a great artist from a new angle, and in extra depth”, according to Frances Spalding in the Independent.

The critics seem unanimous in their admiration of Danchev’s text of the post-Impressionist, and in the Guardian and Telegraph the reviewers praise Danchev’s exploration of Cézanne’s life through those “relations with a world he shaped”. Hilary Spurling in the Telegraph also adds: “Its cultural references range from Socrates to Wallace Stevens, Kafka to Beckett, Chaplin to Woody Allen. The tradesmen of Aix-en-Provence among whom the painter spent his life barely get a look in.”

The glowing review in the Daily Mail by Michael Prodger describes the biography as “imaginative…enlightening…accomplished and subtle”. However, one review across the pond, in The Dallas Morning News by Kathryn Lang, believes the book’s 200 pages of endnotes and bibliography means “it is unlikely to appeal to the general reader”.

Lang’s review is pragmatic about the text’s appeal to the general reader: “If this is your introduction to Paul Cézanne, you might well become lost in the thicket of literary context into which Alex Danchev places his subject... Danchev presumes a good deal of prior knowledge, not only of Cézanne but of his milieu.”

The Odd Couple: The Curious Friendship between Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin by Richard Bradford

The private letters of two great literary figures are always going to be interesting but in Richard Bradford’s collection of letters between Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, there is more than just wit. The Odd Couple is, Christopher Hart writes in the Sunday Times, an exploration of their friendship “based on a shared love of jazz, poetry and sexual confession”. Hart praises the collection as “a lively, readable and often scandalous portrait of that friendship”.

DJ Taylor writes in the Independent on Sunday that the biographer is able to tease out Amis’s and Larkin’s private lives “with considerable artfulness and great sympathy”. Taylor’s highest praise comes in his penultimate line: “[F]or a practising academic Bradford has a cheeringly anti-academic style and rarely respects any of the reputations he runs up against.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of Antifragile, attends the Digital Life Design conference in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images for Burda Media)
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Why the wizarding world is a dystopian, totalitarian nightmare

All the reasons why you don’t want to go to Hogwarts.

Like most nineties kids, I was quietly devastated not to receive an owl on my eleventh birthday. Not getting an acceptance letter from Hogwarts was one of the great tragedies of my young life. Two decades later, no matter how many BuzzFeed quizzes I take revealing I’m a Gryffindor in the streets and a Slytherin in the sheets, I can’t honestly say that I’ve 100% come to terms with being a muggle.

However, I’ve started to console myself that this is largely A Good Thing, because, while I’ll never get to marry Oliver Wood or own a Hippogriff, the wizarding world is actually a complete dystopian nightmare. It’s a totalitarian surveillance state straight out of Orwell, with Pygmy Puffs.

No one cares about the freedom of the press

The wizarding world’s only newspaper, The Daily Prophet, basically functions as the Ministry of Magic’s Pravda. It turns a blind eye to rogue reporters transforming themselves into beetles, literally to bug the conversations of unsuspecting children. And its staff writers openly brag about flouting even basic standards of journalistic ethics.

“On one subject, however, Bathilda is well worth the effort I put into procuring Veritaserum,” writes Rita Skeeter, in her biography of Albus Dumbledore. Can we just contemplate for a moment that it is apparently acceptable to drug an elderly woman suffering from dementia with truth serum, in order to interview her without her consent? It’s like the News of the World cheerfully admitted to phone hacking, and no one minded. Isn’t anyone going to call for a wingardium Levioson inquiry?

The justice system is frankly appalling

Boy wizards may be allowed to bring an owl, OR a cat, OR a toad with them to Hogwarts, but they must leave their right to a fair trial firmly at home. When Harry produces a Patronus in order to defend himself from Dementors, he is threatened with expulsion by the Ministry of Magic. No one reads him his Miranda rights, and he is only granted a stay of execution because Dumbledore waves his wand at the Improper Use of Magic Office and shouts “Habeas Corpus!”

Harry is then summoned to a Ministry hearing worthy of the French Revolutionary Tribunal. What kind of society allows a Kafkaesque show trial where the defendant isn’t informed of his right to legal representation, the prosecution and the judge are the same person, and the jurors are all employed by the judge? They don’t even let Harry know when and where the trial is being held, in the hope of convicting him in absentia – and he is only exonerated because of the surprise appearance of his mysteriously omniscient headmaster. This is not ok, people.

The justice system is frankly appalling, part II

In what world is it acceptable to staff a prison with sadistic guards who torture inmates to the point of insanity, and suck the souls out of anyone who tries to escape? The Wizarding World, apparently. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect more from a society that segregates children into ‘brave’, ‘clever’, ‘evil’, and ‘miscellaneous’ personality types, but is no one interested in rehabilitating criminals? Who in their right mind deliberately brutalises inmates into a state of depressive psychosis before releasing them back into society?

And for the few juvenile defendants who manage to avoid the absolute hellhole that is wizarding prison, their punishment is to be deprived of the right to an education. When poor thirteen-year-old Hagrid is wrongly accused of opening the Chamber of Secrets, he is expelled from Hogwarts and has his wand snapped in half. Statutes of limitations, and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, aren’t things that appear to exercise wizarding bureaucracy much: when the Chamber of Secrets is opened again, fifty years later, Hagrid is imprisoned in Azkaban without trial due to a vague sense that he might be responsible.

Hagrid is then conclusively proved to be innocent on both counts, after Harry reveals that Voldemort is to blame – yet he is released without apology, a new wand, or the offer of night school to compensate for the four years of magical education that he was wrongfully denied. What is this, the DPRK?

Everyone is apparently fine with slavery

No one apart from Hermione seems to mind that an entire humanlike species has been enslaved into domestic service. “They. Like. It. They like being enslaved,” shouts an exasperated Ron of the Hogwarts house elves, after Hermione has the naivety to question whether institutionalised slavery is a bit problematic. Yes, Ron, and I’m sure they also enjoy being ordered to physically punish themselves.

Forced labour is clearly more endemic to the wizarding economy than we might have imagined. Professor Slughorn quaffs elf-made wine, hinting at the extent of indentured servitude in wizarding vineyards. We know that food can’t be magicked out of thin air; because it is of course one of the five exceptions to Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration. (Ten points to Gryffindor for me.) But we hear of no witch or wizard farmers. Are we to assume that the entire wizarding agricultural sector is based on serfdom?

Hogwarts is actually terrible

Ron spends an entire year of his magical education without a single teacher realising his wand is broken. Professor Binns couldn’t care less about student engagement. Snape bullies three quarters of his students, and no one intervenes. No one has a problem with the fact that the caretaker openly relishes the prospect of physically abusing children. In short: Hogwarts is terrible.

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