A.C. Grayling and Things

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Recently I have been re-reading two of philosopher A.C. Grayling’s books, ‘The Reason of Things’ and ‘The Form of Things’. The books are mainly comprised of short essays based on his weekly articles in ‘The Guardian’ between 1999 and 2002.

Grayling is a philosopher and academic of some standing having held many senior positions at both Oxford University an the University of London. He has even been a judge for the Booker Prize and a representative to the UN Human Rights Council.

Writing in a populist environment allows him to step out of the academic questions of his academic career of knowledge, metaphysics and logic, and into the other realm that interests him greatly, ethics or, as he puts it, “How should one live?”

One of the joys for me in reading Grayling is that we come from fairly similar positions. Atheist, humanist, secular and left leaning. Grayling is perhaps a little more vehement in his opposition to religion than I am, but he’s had more time and freedom to work up a real rage.

The joy comes in seeing ideas from slightly different angles and to see them so well played out. He covers a multitude of topics but is never far from ethics while he covers art, education, religion, war, love, modern dance and beauty.

Grayling is so obviously highly intelligent, well educated, well read and practiced at thinking and talking. Even when I disagree it is hard not to be drawn along in his thought and logic.

Make no mistake, this is no “pop” philosophy, Grayling looks at fundamental questions in deep ways often quoting from and referring you to the philosophers of the past. At the same time it is easy to read, understand and follow.

These are book that will get you thinking, they also have me sketching out my own essays on some of the topics touched. I find that they are best to be read in small chunks, two or three chapters at a time, and I also find myself going back and reading a chapter a day or two later. They deserve some deep thought and introspection before a re-read.

There are four books in the series, it seems I will have to hunt out the other two.

Hexaflexagons and Other Mathematical Diversions

by Martin Gardner

Martin Gardners column “Mathematical Games” was in the magazine “Scientific American” for so long that he was more than an institution. This was the first of his books to take some of the ideas from the many columns and
present them in volume format.

I first came across it in a British edition titled “Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions” in my early teens. From memory it took me around three weeks and two rolls of adding machine tape to finish with the hexaflexagons (don’t ask, just buy the book) in the first chapter.

Mr Gardner deserves his reputation as a writer who can simplify complex subjects without talking down to the audience and this is well demonstrated in this volume. Some of the later chapters deal with parts of probability and game theory that skirt around some complex maths while someone with little mathematical ability (such as myself) finds it easy to follow along. The prose is light and easily read while the subject matter is entertaining.

I would recommend this book for someone mathematically inclined in their early teens or anyone in their mid teens or later. If you have a child capable of mathematical and/or logical thought who is getting turned off mathematics by the rigors and dullness of school then this volume may well turn the trick – I know it was influential in convincing me that it was my schooling and not my mind that had ruined my maths ability. I give it only four stars as it is now starting to show its age, otherwise it would have five.

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