herald

Monday 11 December 2017

Shaking things up

Sue drew from a variety of genres this week. DId she learn anything new?

this is a kind of tricky read: Carey purports to tear down everything we think we know about learning - everything we've learned about learning - in a book. Now, I certainly didn't discover how to do physical things, like swim or ride a horse, from the printed page, but it is safe to say that when we think of learning, we think of studying from books.

This brings a lovely sense of irony to the project: we're going to learn - from a book - that the ways in which we've been learning haven't always been the most efficient.

But surely, reading a book is only going to trigger the ways in which I always go about learning something new? Is the conviction of Carey's message strong enough to override the entire way my brain handles knowledge?

I read this book in a series of noisy environments, the antithesis of the sorts of places one was taught to study in, like libraries. I could never stick studying in a library, and actually find it much easier to concentrate when forced to block out noise.

Carey and I agree on this point, and he also demonstrates, through a variety of interesting studies, the ways in which the brain processes information and helps us to hold on to it. In the main, his theory is: the linear, repetitive sort of study that figured largely in many schools of thought is faulty, if not completely useless to long-term intellectual enrichment.

So, did I learn anything new? I must admit that I sped over the technical parts of how the brain does things, and really got stuck into the more philosophical 'whys', the more visually related sections.

Ultimately, I mainly came to understand that the way I learn is right for me, which would probably be alright with the author. His tone is congenial and straightforward; it's like talking to a pal who is really intelligent, but also very good at explaining things without talking down to you. One thing I did learn for sure is that I love learning new things, and I'll be keeping Carey's theories in mind in the future.

In the spirit of wide-ranging enquiry, I just grabbed the first things my hand hit this week, and read them.

GUTENBERG'S APPRENTICE

By Alix Christie

Headline (23 September, 2014) €20.50

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Regular readers of this column will be unsurprised to know that I am something of a typography nerd, as I consistently give out about the ways in which modern publishing is mucking about with typesetting and printing books. So it was with immense pleasure that I sat down to read this, the story of the development of movable type by Johannes Gutenberg.

Set in pre-Renaissance Germany, the significance of the invention of the printing press is immense and world-changing. The fictionalisation of the tale, alas, is not.

While the cataloguing of the details around the press itself - the method, the creation of the letterset, the very ink and paper used - is exhaustive, the narrative is not engaging.

Told primarily from the point-of-view of Peter, a growingly influential scribe who is the adopted son of Gutenberg's bankroller and the person with the most to lose from this typographic breakthrough, it's not so much that he and all the other folks are unappealing, it's that they are one-dimensional.

The delicious irony of it all is that I didn't even read this in traditional book form - I read it on my Kindle. The publishing world keeps turning!

A MOST WANTED MAN

By John Le Carre

Sceptre (eBook, 2014) €6.99

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This has been given a spanking new edition thanks to the release of Anton Corbijn's cinematic adaptation (it opens in 19 September on our shores.) I gotta say: despite the fact that le Carre has shifted his focus from the Cold War to the war on terror, this feels dated, and as sepia-toned as the cinematic version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Set in Germany, a Chechan is trying to get access to the 'inheritance' his Russian father left him, and he needs a lawyer to help him get the goods. All manner of modern corruption is covered, and the plot gropes along until the big surge at the end. Still, like Tinker, Tailor, his novels seem to make good films - I quite liked A Constant Gardener, too - so perhaps its big screen incarnation will be more satisfying.

SMILER'S FAIR: Book One of The Hollow Gods

By Rebecca Levene

Hodder & Staughton (2014) €21.50

HIIII

Intensive world-building is an important part of a fantasy novel, and attention to detail is paramount.

It's a delicate balance between things that the reader can recognise so they can create context, in tandem with the imaginative inventions of the author. Done well, it is easy to visualise and yet strange and exotic.

Here, this balance isn't achieved, and a casual reader may be tempted to put this aside fairly sharpish, as Levene's world doesn't gel for ages and ages.

A floating carnival - which made me think of Howl's Moving Castle - basically floats around, offering all manner of debauchery for the variety of species that populate Levene's world.

There are many characters who aren't easy to keep straight, and the writing isn't good enough in general to inspire one to check out the rest of the series.

WHEN MR DOG BITES

By Brian Conaghan

Bloomsbury (2014) €11.50

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Teen-aged Dylan Mint has Tourettes Syndrome, and on top of the challenges that come hand in hand with this condition, he discovers that he has only a short time to live.

He makes an adolescent bucket list, and sets about satisfying it.

There was a sense of lost opportunity here, or of trying too hard: surely life is enough of a challenge for Dylan - who it must be said, is a funny dude - without having imminent death thrown into the mix.

Conaghan's writing is very sweary, which I certainly didn't mind, being super sweary myself; this may take some readers aback, but it is absolutely consistent with Dylan's condition, after all.

I found this to be very much in the vein of The Curious Incident of the Dog at Nighttime (whose main character had Aspberger's Syndrome) down to a canine reference in the title.

Did someone really think that was a good idea?

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