Category Archives: Reading

Dear Jim… (#21) Re: On Space


The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s must be beautiful; the ideas like the colours or the words, must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.” – G. H. Hardy

Dear Jim,

So at the end of your letter on time you asked for a letter about space. Conveniently, space – in its broadest sense – is what Measurement by Paul Lockhart is about. I will come back to that. First allow me a series of digressions.

(The Greeks treated all of mathematics spatially. Three was a line three times longer than a line of length one. To add you put the lines end to end, to subtract you cut away a stick of the relevant length. They did all their maths in this way, shapes were vital.)

As may have come up in these letters before: I was a religious kid. I don’t think that my dislike of mathematics has featured; so cliff notes are that I found maths to be too algorithmic and formulaic – in all of the ways – to be of interest at school. Another thing unlikely to have come up is that I find the song Amazing Grace very sad, and somewhat discomforting, especially the final verse.

Consider all this to be foreshadowing.

(Geometry is ye olde Greeke for measuring the Earth. Plato’s Acadamy had a sign behind the bar that read ‘Let No One* Ignorant of Geometry Enter’, but in ye olde Greeke.)

When I was but knee high to a woodlouse I had the disconcerting feeling of coming upon infinity in a deeply disturbing way. I was small and so this memory is probably a composite of several moments but my brain has been somewhat fried by my travels in time (and indeed space, especially the space enclosed by the pint glass). The way I remember it is as a conversation with my mother in church regarding Heaven and the unending nature of it. What started as an innocent question ended in tears as my mother explained that there was no end, that every day would be followed by another; that at the edge of space there would have to be something else beyond, some sort of nothingness.

(They also believed the universe was infinite in all directions, and that ideas existed in a very real but very abstract way. They also believed that their complex and varied beliefs spanning several centuries and most of the Eastern Mediterranean would be over simplified and bled of all nuance so I could make word count.)

The result was physical discomfort.

(In their maths however, they avoided infinity. Largely thanks to the confusions introduced by Zeno and his tortoises. They also didn’t have a numeral for zero. No one did until the Indian’s started using it. Nothing and infinity are tied up by the idea of the infinitesimal – a fragment that takes up no space but has a value. Something we only really started to get to grips with in Newton / Leibniz’ work.)

I sympathise. The idea that like that extra day after infinite others, there was another mile of space after the infinite miles behind it. It was an emotion I haven’t really had about anything else. It was a real horror, but wasn’t fear. It wasn’t about scale or feeling small. It was about something more abstract. Something about existing in the infinite something about having something definite but completely unknowable.

(Of all the scientific disciples, I’ve been told that mathematicians are the most likely to be religious. This seems weird when their field is about such refined and precise logic which seems kind of incompatable with the non-rigourous thinking implied in the word ‘faith’.)

It hurt my gut, but not in the way sadness does. It was unpleasant, and I sat for a long time wanting to cry. Then I did cry for a bit. Then the whole congregation rose to sing Amazing Grace which ends with the verse:

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright Shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise,
Than when we first begun.

This was all a bit much for me and I had to be taken outside.

(Then again, there is clearly something in the abstraction of the subject that overlaps with the spiritual. Especially in the Abrahamic tradition where God is not so much a personality as a concept.)

Anyways. I was reading Measurement. So the book is Lockhart’s way of teaching maths that isn’t everything that turned me off maths when I was at school. His approach is to teach methods of proof, then to lay down questions or problems that are to do with applying mathematical argument. There are no answers.

He urges the reader to treat maths as a creative endeavour. Find a proof, work on it, polish it like you would a poem. Make it shine. Then try and find a better one, or an alternative one.

The emphasis is on getting you to discover maths. You won’t be the first to prove there’s only so many platonic solids. But the discovery can be totally original to you. It is genuinely thrilling. This maths is out there, existent in a perfectly objective way. Nothing comes closer to Plato’s world of ideals than mathematics.

Some of it feels kind of arbitrary. It is logic so you take a bunch of assumptions and you run them as far as they will go, see what happens. It doesn’t matter how long your first stick is, as long as you can work out how long it is compared to something else.

But somehow it produces specificity. (Pi emerges, e emerges, sine and tangents, the primes.) These things have a realer than real existence. They are necessarily true. They are capital-T Truth. And that is easy enough to understand, but understanding is not feeling and when I finished Measurement I got a hint why so many mathematicians are religious.

In his discussion of (how e emerges), I started to have that infinity feels again. The discomfort. Here was a glimpse of the sun, of real objects, after watching the procession of shadows on the wall. It was also the closest thing I’ve had to a genuine religious experience since being slain in the spirit as a kid.

It was – appropriately – (transcendent).

I didn’t cry this time. Much. But I would still recommend the book.

This has all got rather highfalutin, why don’t you do something about something low next week: Low-life, low-brow, low-culture, low-lands – Whatever, I leave it up to you.

Yours finitely,


P.S. *’No one is not one word… Don’t quote me on that.‘ – J. S. Loveard

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February Reading Round-Up


I started the month by finally sending Underworld to the underworld. It is probably one of the easiest difficult books I’ve ever read. DeLillo manages to be stylish and lyrical and funny without making you have to work at reading his prose. He makes it look easy. The bastard. Underworld was great.

I like to read books about writing and the rather whiny (and in places kind of creepy-nerdy) Vita Nuova by Dante filled that slot this month. The translation I read seemed to have sapped all the joy from the verse. Not the best read. But interesting as a historical document. Also in the books about books camp was Kingsley Amis’ New Maps Of Hell: A Survey Of Science Fiction his review of the state of sci-fi back in the fifties. Interesting to see where the medium has changed, and where the perception has not.

For non-fiction I finished Measurement this month. One of the most mind-expanding books I’ve read in a long time. This is a maths professor’s successful attempt to make maths interesting. He teaches you how to create proofs then sets you off to do them yourself. I had the closest thing to a religious experience reading this book.

Necronomicon was the somewhat fraudulent audiobook which though marketed as being the unabridged audiobook of the collection of the same name, is in fact heavily abridged and according to the editor’s website, not affiliated with the lovely leather-bound edition he curated. Good, if formulaic, creepy stuff.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World’s less predictive and interesting cousin, as well. Orwell’s vision of the power growing from language has suddenly become prescient thanks to Kellyanne Conway. Double plus good read apart from the documentary stuff.

I also read the two plays of ol’ Bill’s that I’ve seen the most after Lear: Hamlet (great) and Twelfth Night (alright).

Total: 9 books.

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Dear Jon . . . (#20) Re: Reading, Time and Tide

It was somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like ‘I feel a bit light headed, maybe you should drive…’ And suddenly there was a terrible roar and all around us the sky was full of bletters reading:

“Dear Jon,

It’s true, I talk a lot about re-reading. One of the reasons I prefer to buy a book than take it out from a library is because the thought occurs that I might want to re-read such a such a book. But it is more talk than action. I very rarely re-read books. This truth is documented. Records – those held in the Archives, walled up in a secret underground facility near Ultima Thule – suggest that the last book I actually re-read was Lawrence Durrell’s Tunc(1968) in April 2015. So not recently. Because, no, apparently 2015 isn’t recent anymore. Time flies…”

Click here for the rest.

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Reading Roundup


I’ve rather fallen behind in my monthly reading book review posts. So here’s a quick update.

I’m tracking my reading a little closer over on GoodReads. Which is where I have lifted most of the stuff below. For the other month’s you’ll just have to make do with a simple list and a yes/no/maybe answer to the question ‘Would I recommend?’:

November Reading:

  • Mean Free Path by Ben Lerner. Maybe.
  • A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R R Martin. Yes to fans.
  • The Martian by Andy Weir. Yes.
  • The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Maybe but not before his more important works.

December Reading

  • The Hustler by Walter Tevis. Yes but only after seeing the movie.
  • Classics: A Very Short Introduction by Mary Beard and John Henderson. Yes, highly.
  • Russian Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Kelly Catriona. No.
  • Marquis de Sade: A Very Short Introduction by John Phillips. Maybe, if you are interested in hearing the rosiest possible case for the Marquis.
  • History: A Very Short Introduction by John H. Arnold. Yes.

January Reading

I got one big classic off my plate by finishing listening to the Big Read audiobook of (1) Moby-Dick; or, The Whale.

I also listened to Jezza Irons reading Eliot (who is the bestest) on the BBC, since he read several complete collections I can count the following books as read via my earholes:
(2) Prufrock and Other Observations
(3) Poems
(4) Four Quartets

For entertainment I read Peter Watts existentially challenging hard sci-fi novel (5) Blindsight which was fun and full of interesting non-fiction ideas, whereas (6) Geography: A Very Short Introduction – which is actual non-fiction – did not.

The only other proper classic I’ve got through this month was the rather uninteresting (7) Theogony/Works and Days by Hesiod, the far less interesting or fun coeval of Homer.

Further Reading

Since 2016 came and went with most of my reading goals incomplete. Other than reading a decent 99 books (well over my goal of 82), and though I would normally aim one higher for the following year I don’t feel that’s realistic.
2016 was an ideal year from a reading standpoint, and this year reading is going to have to take a back seat to writing goals so, although I will nominally be aiming for 100, I’ll be happy if I get 60ish.
I want to make sure I read more non-fiction, especially science. I’ve missed that from my reading over the last year or so. I’ll aim for twelve substantial non-fiction texts and see how many insubstantial ones I can fit in around that.
I’m also going to continue with my overview of the Classics with a focus on the British novel. I still have these books to go from my original list.

I also have a list of  books I started ages ago and never finished. I’d like to cross some of them off as well. They are:

The highest priority list I am working on is research for the novel I am working on. These include books that are stylistically similar to my novel, deal with similar themes, have historical information in them that I need, or which I think will be otherwise helpful to my thinking about the novel I am working on.

I’ve trimmed the list a little from last year, there were a few that just didn’t feel as necessary as they did when I first made this list and as with the other lists have knocked off those I finished in 2016. I’ve also added The Sacred Willow, another Xmas gift:

I also want to read the following Shakespeare works. Although I have seen or listened to performances of these nine plays, I haven’t actually read them. So for completion’s sake, I’m gonna do that this year. Then I have read the lot.


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Dear Jim (#19) Re: Turning Heads and Changing Minds



I understand that people think of “The Exorcist” as a horror film, I totally get it. You don’t have to worry about it, it’s only a horror film. But I think it deals with issues far more profound than what you find in the average horror film. To be frank with you, [writer] Bill Blatty and I never set out to make a horror film. The idea never crossed our minds.’ – William Friedkin, Director of The Exorcist

Dear Jim,

Advocate for something, you said. Sell you something. You don’t need to ask me twice.

I don’t know if I can necessarily swing your opinion on The Exorcist. You’ve seen it, and weren’t hugely convinced of its myriad qualities. But it is my favourite film. Perhaps at the very least, I can help you understand why I love it, even if if I can’t be categorical that you should.

But I can say I don’t think you should just be scared or disgusted or any of the visceral stuff that makes The Exorcist so entertaining. I want to talk about the other stuff that makes it moving and thought provoking. It is proper art, serious art. With serious intention behind it.

I watched it for the first time when I was fifteen or sixteen, having been raised in a house where we were never allowed to watch a film rated higher than our age. I had my DVDs of American History X, Fight Club, Silence of the Lambs confiscated, in the case of American History X I don’t think I ever got that one back. So watching The Exorcist was a taboo experience from the get go, ramped up by a genuine belief in the voodoo of the Church and its pitchfork-tailed opposite down below.

It was scary and disgusting and visceral, and also deeply uncomfortable: the blasphemy, the sordid sexual undertones, and the existential challenge of eternal damnation and priest without faith.

Demonic possession in broad daylight in an urban street felt close and real in a way a backwoods cabin doesn’t. Isolated characters are easy to see as vulnerable, easy to root for, but when you step out of the cinema onto a crowded street the film evaporates. The Exorcist happens in Washington and the victims are surrounded by people. The movie follows you home.

When I rewatched it, older, wiser and more skeptical of religion, I was struck by the diagnostics of the film. The House-like elimination of the alternatives and the fact that the Priest – himself struggling with his faith – is only called in as a form of hypnotic suggestion. The reading that suggests that it all might just be hysteria on the part of Regan and her mother seemed to live alongside the more straightforward superstition of the ‘real’ possession. I think one of the great things about the film is that it maintains ambiguities in just the right places to allow you cognitive dissonance. You can believe in the pit and in medicine, can fear God and fear madness, at the same time as you watch.

Around this time I also found a video* which makes the case for an undercurrent of sexual abuse that lends the film a different sort of dramatic intensity and a new different sort of discomfort.

New things occur to me each time I watch it. So much of the story telling happens indirectly, Regan’s desecration of the church – an act that could just be an atmospheric coincidence or sign of the evil spreading – is confirmed not by a line, but by drawing attention to Regan’s clay animals the design of which mirror the additions made to the Virgin Mary’s statue. The infamous masturbatory scene, is prefaced by the Mother removing the crucifix from the room, making its return all the more sinister. The whole film is full of this sort of detail.

The more I watch it the more I appreciate the technique of it. The special effects (you can see their breath in those final scenes because the set was an icebox), the make-up on Regan, the performances, and above all the sound design. My favourite piece of cinema is the first ten minute of this film, the almost wordless sequence with the ominous stopping of the clock, the one eyed man, the creepy old crone, and then the drive out to the statue of Pazuzu and the shot of man opposed with the statue as the wind howls and the dogs bark and fight.

It’s exciting, and unsettling and sets the scene perfectly for the transition to that chilly room on the first floor with the noises in the roof, and moving furniture, where something very old and evil waits.

A lot of what made me fall in love with this movie comes out in the re-watching. You’ve been talking about going back to re-read old books. That can be your topic for next time.

Yours faithfully,

P.S. It was while ranting about how great The Exorcist is to a friend that I was first put on to the BBC’s Flagship Wittertainment. Which seems as good a reason as any to say ‘Hello, to Jason Isaacs.’

P.P.S. * Watch the revamped version of that video here.


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Dear Jon (#18) Re: This Is Not For You


I am in a strange street, empty of people but full of voices. A light rain forms a mist into which the two ends of the street vanish. Neon signs hang and hum along with insect light-traps and one of them sparks as a moth meets its end.

The voices are under the street calling out a garbled message: ‘Dear Jon,’ they say. ‘Be gone buzz words. Buzz off buzz words. Bzzzzzzzt.

There is a pause and I step underneath a shop’s doorway to shake the earwigs from my cochlear canals they slither down a drain and the psychic audio bletter becomes clearer:

‘Let’s talk attitudes, because there’s another aspect to deal with. There’s one attitude which you talk about, I should read, listen to, look at x. One side of the groat there. The other side of the groat: but it’s not for me, it’s not for people like me, it’s for other people…’

The voice trails off. The sign above me reads: ‘CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST.’

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Dear Jim… (#17) Re: On Converting The Philistines


I think reversing one’s position, or changing one’s mind – or in this case, maybe the idea of an ‘aesthetic education’ might be worth discussing. But I’ll leave you to flesh that out…” – Jim

Dear Jim,

In your last letter you gave me the broadest of briefs. To throw out a few thoughts on changing one’s mind or – you said, as if the two things were obviously linked – ‘aesthetic education’. I’ll deal with the latter because although less interesting to me it won’t spiral into a ramble. A tight 500 is the goal. This bletter needs sending today and I left it all until the final countdown.

Cue music:


In terms of aesthetical edugogy, I think it’s a valuable thing for one to do to oneself. But I’d be tentative about getting super evangelical about it. While there are somewhat weak arguments about art engaged humans being better citizens, I think liking art is more of a self-help thing than a social responsibility. With that caveat in mind, here’s what I think.

The general goal of the court mandated aesthetic education, as put together by Minister for Art Appreciation for Jon Pill would be, I think, to get the student – i.e. me  – to think about art intentionally. I think this is what is meant by that buzz word ‘engage’.

The human brain can engage with art at all sorts of levels, but the zeroth level that we all do pretty instinctively will always be: Do I like it? And here is where it is easiest to stop. With the Yes/No answer.

I come from a family of readers, my Dad read to me before I could read and listening to him read remained a family activity, especially on holiday where The Hobbit and the Harry Potter saga often made short work of train journeys.

Reading for myself was encouraged and there would be a regular exchange of cheap second hand paperbacks between the various members of the family. Redwall and Alastair MacLean, Jack Higgins and The Phantom Tollbooth. Stuff like that.

So there were books. But there was also a general air of philistinism. The first question I am asked whenever I say I have read Classic Book X or Epic Poem Y to a family member is always: ‘But is it actually any good? Or is it just one of those books your supposed to read?’

The inherent assumption behind the word ‘good’ is that it be enjoyable*. There was no room for a book to be challenging, the unpleasant, the interesting, the beautiful, unless it came with a good plot. In a house full of Austen lovers, I am the only one who likes Emma [Edit: My Dad has corrected me on this. He also likes Emma. Like father, like son.]. People hate Emma because they dislike Emma. That’s was all it takes: an irritating character that rubbed you up the wrong way. Never mind that her irritating faults are the driving force of a series of engaging dramas, never mind the amusing ironies her faults breed, never mind the impressive skill involved in what is pretty much the invention of the close-third narrator.

That is a difficult attitude to shake. Because good = enjoyable is a massive barrier between art and artee. A key part of that aesthetic education is just shedding the idea that an immediate sense of pleasure is the only positive response to something.

So interrogating Do I like it? with intentionality would level one of converting the barbarians. Once you have your yes or no follow it up with: Why do I like/dislike it? What do I like about it? What is it making me feel? What thoughts is it giving me?

I never learned to ask these questions formally. It’s been a slow trial-and-error sort of thing mostly through talking about film with friends, and more recently through reading widely, going to galleries, watching plays. And I’m still not always great about thinking like this. But, you know, fail better and all that. #selfhelpisnotselflove.

There are, of course, a ton of other ways of engaging with art, but cultivating this kind of self-aware thoughtfulness is the basis for all the rest of it. The basis of a lot of living well. #unexaminedlives. We’re not talking about turning  into a – hold back the sick – literary theorists after all. Just helping them get a bit more out of swirls of paint or lines of ink.

What the next stage in an aesthetic education might look like I’ll leave to you, someone who has spent five years formally studying fiction-books, in your next bletter.

Yours appreciatively,


P.S. *This issue of enjoyment vs. other stuff, Greene’s entertainments versus novels, and genre versus literature is all something we’ll have to come back to some day. For now though, I will leave that can of worms on the shelf beside the baked beans and Spaghetti-Os.


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