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Writing Worth Reading

The World’s Weirdest Chef

Profile of Hervé This, French pioneer of molecular gastronomy. Having shown how science can transform cookery, now he wants to synthesise food itself. “What if you could make dishes only using pure chemical compounds? What if you used only the building blocks of proteins and triglycerides and amino acids and starches and polysaccharides and odorant compounds instead of meat and vegetables?” (4,000 words)

Gaza And Proportionate War

A philosopher asks: Has Israel’s attack on Gaza been proportionate? Answer: No. Hamas is wicked, but too many Palestinian civilians have been killed relative to the number of Israeli civilians at risk from Hamas. “While it may be permissible for you to kill one innocent bystander as a side effect of saving your life, it is probably not permissible to kill two, and certainly impermissible to kill three” (2,650 words)

Shivering In Tolkien’s Shadow

JRR Tolkien completed his prose translation of Beowulf in 1926 at the start of his writing career. He declined to publish it during his lifetime, perhaps fearing for its quality. He need not have worried. It is “a great work of translation”, faithful and deft. “The force of Tolkien’s passion for medieval art occasionally overwhelmed his scholarship, but its sheer strength also explains the lasting power of his work” (1,585 words)

The Fate Of Denmark’s Jews

Gripping short interview on the political and moral choices of Denmark during WW2. The Danish government “co-operated” with the Nazis, but did not “collaborate”; the relationship was strictly pragmatic. Pre-war laws against immigration had prevented German Jewish refugees from entering the country; this made it easier for Denmark to protect Danish Jews, and help them escape, once Denmark was occupied (1,160 words)

Robert Frost: The Sound Of Sense

Publication of Robert Frost’s Letters should help rebuild a reputation wrecked half a century ago by Lawrance Thomson’s “relentlessly damning” biography, a “trilogy of dud scholarship”. Whatever the shortcomings of Frost’s character, his prose shows him to be “as thoughtful and hard-working as an artist can get: further evidence that the best of modernism is a way for the classical to keep going” (2,800 words)

The Art Of Criticism: Daniel Mendelsohn

Interview. “It suits me to do things in my own time. The New York Review of Books is not very interested in hanging a hot issue on a peg right away. Also, I often like to incorporate the reaction to something—whether a book or a movie or a TV show—into my analysis of it. This, to a large extent, betrays my training as a classicist: I’m always writing as if everything has been over for 2000 years” (4,150 words)

Ian Buruma In Conversation

Buruma discusses his new book, Year Zero: A History Of 1945. “The Soviet Red Army was actively encouraged by their leaders to wreak vengeance on the Germans. They behaved horribly in Germany and in the places they went through to get there but what the Soviets did to the Germans was not nearly as horrible as what the Germans had done to them. There was also a political agenda. Vengeance on a large scale cannot be spontaneous” (4,800 words)

Critical Thinking: Dwight Garner

Interview with New York Times book critic. “When I was just starting out, one of the things I disliked most about journalists (and critics) is that you could learn more by talking to them for five minutes than you could by reading a year’s worth of their pieces. Their articles and essays seemed to me like masterpieces of indirection, of plausible deniability. I want to sound like I’m talking to a close, literate friend” (3,100 words)

Fearful Symmetry: Penrose Tiling

Roger Penrose’s work on general relativity in the 1960s led to Stephen Hawking’s rewriting of black-hole physics. He also discovered ‘Penrose tiling’: a pair of rhombus-shaped tiles that can be used to tile a flat surface ad infinitum without the pattern ever repeating itself. The tiling was not only beautiful and practical: it predicted a new class of crystals whose eventual discovery was rewarded with a Nobel prize in chemistry (850 words)

The Books Interview: David Epstein

On the balance between genes and talent in sport. “Exercise genetics is showing that in many cases the most important kind of talent is your ability to profit from your one hour of training more rapidly than your peer does. So just as medical genetics shows that no two people respond to a drug the same way, exercise genetics finds that no two people respond to training the same way” (1,580 words)

“Hired By A Bitch To Find A Scum”

Review of Brian Nicol’s The Private Eye: Detectives In The Movies. “Often responding to Philip or Sam, the private investigator may be identified by his coat and hat. His habitat: the wet street corner or, unauthorised, another person’s home. He is accused of committing the very crime under his investigation. You will find him lit starkly, from the side. He is good at getting women into bed, but they often turn out to be villainesses. He is American” (2,370 words)

A Conversation With Amartya Sen

Mainly about India, but spilling over into more general areas of human development, politics, economics. “In order to get there in a democracy you have to fight for it. There is no way that democracy automatically guarantees that. I first argued that functioning democracies prevent famine in around 1979/80. I think today I would put it slightly differently and say that human beings in a functioning democracy prevent famine” (6,100 words)

The Heroic Absurdity Of Dan Brown

Review of Inferno. “As a believer in the enjoyably awful, I would recommend this book wholeheartedly if I could. But it is mainly just awful. In the publishing world they have a term, ‘pull line’, which means the few words of apparent praise that you can sometimes pull out of a review however hostile. Let me supply that pull line straight away, ready furnished with quotation marks: ‘The author of The Da Vinci Code has done it again’.” (1,050 words)

How We Got Pukka

Admiring review of Kate Teltscher’s abridged edition of Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases: “A lexical snapshot of a truly strange and fascinating moment in world history — the very pinnacle of British imperial dominance over other lands. The most interesting entries include something of the contemporary social mores of colonial British India, while also communicating linguistic mysteries behind common words”. (2,300 words)

Interview: Leon Wieseltier

On philosophy, technology, Isaiah Berlin, blogging, and the New Republic. Interesting throughout. “I decided many years ago I was an old-fashioned liberal. Meaning that I believe in the use of American power for good purposes abroad — the weakening of tyranny and the spread of democracy. I believe in the use of American prosperity at home for the creation of a more equal and just society” (2,110 words)

The Relentless Charm Of Nigel Farage

“Close up, he smells of tobacco, offset with a liberal application of aftershave.” Out and about with Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, steering Britain towards an exit from the EU. “Ukip is indeed a rag tag bag — but not of fruitcakes; rather, of cussed, contrary, wilful, protesting, obstreperous, bantering Englishmen and women, the like of which have been with us all the way back to The Canterbury Tales(3,699 words)

Joys Of A Hungover Hack

Affectionate profile of Horace Rumpole, the fictional lawyer created by John Mortimer. “Rumpole is a paladin disguised as a rogue: a trickster hero. He is part barrister, part stage actor; delighting in the courtroom coup de théâtre. His raffishness is a form of generosity, a marker of his wide and perpetually amused tolerance of human folly. Adulterers, pornographers and honest villains don’t disturb him half so much as do prigs, punishment junkies and whited sepulchres” (1,921 words)

Garry Wills: The American Mind

“He is America’s best living explainer, exposing the nation’s most cherished myths, which he approaches in the manner of a holy blasphemer … An invaluable guide to the modern United States, connecting the present, in all its strangeness, to the imprisoning history, the patterns of behaviour unchanged since the earliest days of the Republic”

Bach Blows Minds

Reflections on hearing the Slovak pianist Mikuláš Škuta play Bach: “Until I saw those fingers, those hands, my pleasure in the Goldberg Variations had been in their construction—in the filigree, the pattern-making. But now I realised there was also the drama of their execution. This music was physical as much as it was intellectual and emotional”

Immigration Must Serve British Interests

Fifteen years of “historically unprecedented immigration” have exacerbated Britain’s economic weaknesses: low productivity, lack of training, high inequality. “There is a clear and settled will that immigration has been much too high in recent years and must come down.” What’s needed is a policy that puts the interests of worst-off Britons first

Against Pragmatism

What is pragmatism, and do we really want our politicians to be pragmatic? We think it means non-ideological, in a good way, but does it? Can it be used against us, against a tactic, in an attempt to disqualify dissent?

The Strangest Art

“Think for a moment what it would be like to inhabit a world that is operatic. Every action, every thought, every utterance is geared to never-ending music. Think of the metaphysical questions. First: Who is making the music?”

Europe’s Long Shadow

Discursive essay seeking to correlate legacy of WW2 with current eurozone crisis. Doesn’t really get there, but throws off interesting observations about 20C Europe, and public opinion, and historiography, along the way

The Curious Case Of The Sherlock Pilgrims

Docx witnesses two weird spectacles for the price of one when he travels to the Swiss Alps to see Sherlock Holmes “pilgrims” re-enact the story in which Conan Doyle attempted to kill off his hero at the Reichenbach falls

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