What do I think of the London Review? I’m glad you asked…

I ought to take more surveys, because they force me to concentrate and have a way of turning postable.  It’s fun to try to figure out how many hardcovers I’ve bought recently and whether I buy gin often enough to qualify for “not that often but sometimes”, and it’s weird to see into the minds of the marketing people who care about it.  Here’s a paragraph I turned in describing what I think of the London Review of Books:

I think it’s great.  I value very highly the LRB’s attention to serious issues and works of philosophy, history, and politics.  Where else would I read about prosopography?  My main point of comparison for the LRB is the New York Review, and in this respect I think the LRB is superior.  If I am not mistaken, this is because the LRB selects more scholarly books for review and occasionally allows reviewers greater space.  I also appreciate the occasional departure from usual form represented by authors such as Eliot Weinberger or a diary on fan fiction.  Thanks!

To be fair, I should say that the NYR strikes me as wider ranging and superior in its coverage of American politics and culture.  It also has more pictures!

If I had to choose one, I’d probably go with the LRB.  In addition to what I said above, I like the LRB’s archive and the electronic version a lot.  I also have access to both magazines at my institution, so it’s not really such a terrible prospect.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you can look forward to a post on Nicholson Baker’s essays sometime, and maybe even a series on my preposterously uninformed reading of Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality.


F*ing Trolleyology


(I quite like real trolleys, though.)

A while ago the New York Review ran an article on trolleyology.  I was a little disappointed.  Trolleyology drives me crazy, which tells me that I take myself too seriously, but there it is.

What is trolleyology?  It’s a game played by philosophers of ethics.  Suppose you saw five people tied to a track with a runaway trolley headed for them.  Then suppose there was a switch you could throw to direct the trolley onto a siding, but there was a sixth person tied up on that siding.  Would you do it?  What if there was a fat man standing by who would derail the trolley if you pushed him under its wheels?  The situations are ludicrous but writers are quick to point out applications to issues like abortion; It surprises me that I don’t recall any mention of civilian deaths in war.

Philosophers of a psychological bent apparently get a kick out of seeing the contradictory ways that people respond to these sorts of questions posed in different ways and orders.  Those are the kinds of picky arguments I resent being badgered with, and in my imaginary grapplings with them, I can never resist the temptation to answer “none of the above”.  If I ever see five people tied up on the train tracks, I won’t lose a moment finding the psycho who is responsible, and I’ll be looking for the moral philosophers first.

Seriously, I am forced to concede that we probably can learn something from these games.  I don’t necessarily concede that it’s worthwhile.  It’s easy to get mired in details when the truth may lie in an entirely different direction.   Speaking of works that go in a different direction I’ve been really meaning to get around to reading Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke.  It’s worth a try.

Photo is by Adam E. Moreira, via Wikimedia Commons, CC Attribution Share Alike.