Writers and thinkers take on twenty questions from the TLS, revealing their favourite books, writing habits and best advice
What is your favourite book published in the past twelve months?
Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro’s The Internationalists. The authors take up a question close to my heart – why has interstate war declined precipitously since 1945 – and, perhaps not surprisingly for a pair of legal scholars, suggest that it is because war is literally illegal. Through most of history, this was not true – might made right, war was the continuation of policy by other means, and to the victor went the spoils. They date the change to – don’t laugh – the Kellogg-Briand pact outlawing war in 1928. Though it was not respected right away (to put it mildly), the pact was the basis for the UN’s similar prohibition in 1945, which had more teeth. This is a big-think book; like The Clash of Civilizations and The End of History, The Internationalists tries to make sense of the world of today in the context of centuries of history. And Hathaway and Shapiro tell their story with literary flair.
What subject have you found it most challenging to write about?
Economic inequality. It is both highly moralized (right-thinking people agree it’s the root of all evil) and intellectually devilishly complex, far more than people acknowledge. For example, if “the bottom fifth” earns the same proportion of income in 1980 and 2010, it doesn’t mean anyone’s income stagnated: these “fifths” are different people, and they earn a fifth of different totals. Also, it’s not clear that inequality (as opposed to poverty) is a moral abomination, or that reducing it is progress. As Walter Scheidel argues in The Great Leveler (another superb book of 2017), the most effective ways of reducing inequality are epidemics, massive wars, violent revolutions and state collapse.
Which author (living or dead) do you think is most underrated?
Thomas Sowell, an eighty-seven-year-old African American economist, has written more than thirty mind-expanding books. These include his Culture trilogy which (among other things) anticipated Jared Diamond’s ideas in Guns, Germs, and Steel and explains the ubiquity of anti-Semitism; A Conflict of Visions, which identifies the rival theories of the human condition underlying left-wing and right-wing political ideologies; The Quest for Cosmic Justice, which compares this quixotic pursuit with the quest for human justice; Intellectuals and Society, an uncomfortable exposé of the follies of all-star intellectuals; and Late-Talking Children, which anticipated Simon Baron-Cohen’s work on the extreme male brain. Sowell is a libertarian conservative, which makes him taboo in mainstream intellectual circles, but even those who disagree are well advised to grasp his facts and arguments.
Which author (living or dead) do you think is most overrated?
Friedrich Nietzsche. It’s easy to see why his sociopathic ravings would have inspired so many repugnant movements of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including fascism, Nazism, Bolshevism, the Ayn Randian fringe of libertarianism, and the American alt-Right and neo-Nazi movements today. Less easy to see is why he continues to be a darling of the academic humanities. True, he was a punchy stylist, and, as his apologists note, he extolled the individual superman rather than a master race. But as Bertrand Russell pointed out in A History of Western Philosophy, the intellectual content is slim: it “might be stated more simply and honestly in the one sentence: ‘I wish I had lived in the Athens of Pericles or the Florence of the Medici’.”
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
When I crossed over from academic to popular writing, a university press editor advised me not to make the common professor’s mistake of talking down to readers, as if they were semi-literate chicken pluckers. Think of them, she said, as if they are as smart as you are, but happen not to know something that you know.
To what extent, in your view, is writing a political act?
It’s dangerously anti-human to claim that everything is political, as if to rule out exploring the subjective dimensions of personal experience and the aesthetic pleasure of graceful prose.
Do you have any writing tics?
During the years in which I plan a book I am a packrat, amassing quotations, cartoons, cultural allusions, datasets and hundreds of articles and books. Once I begin to write I become a monomaniac, working day and night to complete a first draft, followed by cycles of revisions – ideally, six drafts before it goes to my copy-editor.
What is the first thing you wrote?
My first professional publication, written when I was a graduate student, was a review of mathematical and computational models of language acquisition. It shaped my views of nature and nurture, artificial intelligence and the structure of the mind.
How, in your opinion, should we measure a book’s success?
It introduces ideas that are deep, original and have some likelihood of being true.
What do you read on holiday?
Since I read almost constantly, holiday is a time for other pursuits: photography, outdoor exercise, urban rambling, driving through the American West.
Toni Morrison or Philip Roth? As a north-eastern Jewish male writer I have a natural affinity for Roth (and I enjoyed Portnoy’s Complaint). But I’m a generation younger, and can’t identify with his portrayal of women as an alien and vaguely malevolent species. I’m a philogynist, a word coined by my wife, the philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein, in her novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A work of fiction. (The protagonist asks: “Is that a word?” His girlfriend replies, “Probably not, for lack of demand”.)
Ursula K. Le Guin or Philip K. Dick? I’d have to go with Dick, if only for penning one of my favourite quotes: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
King Lear or The Tempest? King Lear, by a mile! The greatest portrayal of what biologists call parent–offspring conflict, and other tragedies of the human condition
Jack Kerouac or James Baldwin? James Baldwin. The Beats are boring
Virginia Woolf or Emily Dickinson? Emily Dickinson. She made rhyme and rhythm seem avant-garde, and was a precocious freethinker. “The Brain – is wider than the sky” is the best poem – probably the only poem – about the human brain
Hamilton or West Side Story? I love them both, but West Side Story wins for Sondheim’s brilliant “Gee, Officer Krupke”, the best explanation of how nurture, not just nature, can lead to determinism
Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones? Or was it Game of Rings and Lord of the Thrones? I don’t watch much fantasy
Gabriel García Márquez or Angela Carter? No preference
Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle? Christie. Doyle is more cerebral, but Christie is the real student of human nature. And David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot is the greatest screen detective since Colombo
Beyoncé or Bob Dylan? ARE YOU FREAKIN’ KIDDING ME?
Steven Pinker is the author of The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) and, most recently, Enlightenment Now