A book so worthy in its heights that it compensates for its lows.

THERE ARE PLACES IN THE WORLD WHERE RULES ARE LESS IMPORTANT THAN KINDNESS

AND OTHER THOUGHTS ON PHYSICS, PHILOSOPHY AND THE WORLD

A collection of short essays from one of the most prominent science writers of our time.

Rovelli is well known for writing small books on big subjects. Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and The Order of Time earned a devoted audience through their accessible and elegant communication of the findings of modern physics. Though his latest book extends his brand, it differs crucially from its predecessors. While exhibiting his concise prose and easy erudition, this one lacks the sense of unity of previous works. Such is often the nature of collections of previously published pieces, yet even in that context, the text is scattershot. Intermixed with the author’s trademark astute scientific and philosophical writing are reminiscences, travelogues, and opinion pieces, some of which are mere filler. Even some of the science writing doesn’t hold up. But at his best—and there are plenty of sections that spotlight his best—Rovelli delights. His facility with science and philosophy is exemplary. In a defense of Aristotle’s physics, he writes, “the bad reputation of Aristotle’s physics is also due to the silly gulf that has opened up between scientific culture and humanist philosophical discourse. Those who study Aristotle generally know little about physics, and those who are engaged in physics have little interest in Aristotle.” He offers not just a defense of Aristotle’s physics, but a defense of his physics on the grounds of scientific provincialism. While many scientists write as if their specific expertise earns them general expertise, Rovelli knows enough to know what he doesn’t know. How beautiful and inspiring is his humility when he assesses his own interpretation of black holes: “Is this really the case? I don’t know for sure. I think it might well be. The alternatives seem less plausible to me. But I could be wrong. Trying to figure it out, still, is such a joy.”

A book so worthy in its heights that it compensates for its lows.

Pub Date: May 10, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-593-19215-3

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Jan. 22, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2022

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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 very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

THE ART OF SOLITUDE

A teacher and scholar of Buddhism offers a formally varied account of the available rewards of solitude.

“As Mother Ayahuasca takes me in her arms, I realize that last night I vomited up my attachment to Buddhism. In passing out, I died. In coming to, I was, so to speak, reborn. I no longer have to fight these battles, I repeat to myself. I am no longer a combatant in the dharma wars. It feels as if the course of my life has shifted onto another vector, like a train shunted off its familiar track onto a new trajectory.” Readers of Batchelor’s previous books (Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, 2017, etc.) will recognize in this passage the culmination of his decadeslong shift away from the religious commitments of Buddhism toward an ecumenical and homegrown philosophy of life. Writing in a variety of modes—memoir, history, collage, essay, biography, and meditation instruction—the author doesn’t argue for his approach to solitude as much as offer it for contemplation. Essentially, Batchelor implies that if you read what Buddha said here and what Montaigne said there, and if you consider something the author has noticed, and if you reflect on your own experience, you have the possibility to improve the quality of your life. For introspective readers, it’s easy to hear in this approach a direct response to Pascal’s claim that “all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Batchelor wants to relieve us of this inability by offering his example of how to do just that. “Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it,” he writes. “When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.” Whatever a soul is, the author goes a long way toward soothing it.

A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-25093-0

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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