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Essays, ramblings, reviews.

Essays and ramblings

Dante and the Divine Comedy

Think big, be free, have sex .. ten reasons to be an existentialist“(The Guardian, 5 March 2016). The polemical-sounding format is not meant to be taken too seriously; just read and (I hope) enjoy.

On other themes …

I have written a few essays and opinion pieces for The Guardian over the years, on subjects from Dante’s narcolepsy to street photography, from poodle metaphors to Martian colonies.  Here’s a list on their website , with links.

“Lives actually lived” (The Philosophers’ Magazine, 6 November 2015). In which I argue for the nitty-gritty of biography and sing the praises of what Iris Murdoch called “inhabited philosophy”.

“Does reading fiction make us better people?” (Aeon Ideas, April 2015). My answer is a cunning mixture of contrariness and fence-sitting. It also gave me a chance to write a few lines about one of my favourite short stories, Rudyard Kipling’s “Baa Baa, Black Sheep.”

“Reverie and Ambush: on the influence of Montaigne,” (Republics of Letters, 4(1), October 1, 2014). About Montaigne and the poet Francis Ponge – and on what it means to say that a writer influences or imitates another.  My contribution to a forum discussing the essay genre in general.

“Five Books: Sarah Bakewell on Existentialism” (Five Books, 2 June 2013). This isn’t a piece written by me, but an interview in which I recommend five books to read about existentialism.  Part of the wonderful “Five Books” series.

maurois“The Two Loves of Andre Maurois,” (The New Yorker‘s Page-Turner blog, 13 November 2012). About an unjustly neglected French novelist, and the emotional tangles that inspired his novel Climates, reissued by Other Press.

“My playlist” (Largehearted Boy – Book Notes , 2 February 2011). Things I listened to (or not) while writing How to Live.

“What Bloggers Owe Montaigne” (Paris Review Online, 12 November 2010). It’s about Montaigne’s influence on English-language writers of all kinds, not just bloggers. Why did I call it that, then? Answer: I didn’t. Writers rarely write their own headlines. I like it, though.

“When We Fell in Love”(Three Guys One Book, 11 November 2010). A few favourite books, from Montaigne’s Essays to In the Land of the Thinsies.

“Book of a Lifetime: Orwell’s Essays” (The Independent, 15 January 2010). On the killing of elephants, the rebirth of toads, and why I admire George Orwell as an essayist.


I review only occasionally these days, but here are some I especially enjoyed doing:

Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (The New York Times, 4 March 2018).  Arguing for reason, science, humanism, and progress.

Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head (Financial Times, 11 April 2015). Blessed are the organ-makers.  You have to register to read FT articles, but at the time of posting three articles per month were available for free.

Adam Nicolson’s The Mighty Dead: why Homer matters (Financial Times, 25 October 2014).  Homer and all who sail in him.

Armand Marie Leroi’s The Lagoon: how Aristotle invented science (Financial Times, 29 August 2014). An exploration of Aristotle’s sojourn on Lesbos investigating zoology.

Culture and the Death of God, by Terry Eagleton, and The Soul of the World, by Roger Scruton. (Financial Times, 11 April 2014). Two very different authors on religion and what they think it can do for us. I take issue with their arguments, but both books are stimulating reads.

Nick Groom’s The Seasons: an elegy for the passing of the year. (The Guardian, 1 January 2014). Straw bears, ‘osses, mangelwurzels, and the Punky Night Song.

Would You Kill the Fat Man? by David Edmonds and The Trolley Problem by Thomas Cathcart (The New York Times, 22 November 2013). Two books on the dilemmas of trolleyology.

The Library: a world history by James Campbell, with photographs by Will Pryce. (Financial Times, 12 October 2013). A superb history by an architect, thus disproving W.H. Overall’s theory in 1878 that “the two greatest enemies to libraries are architects and gas.”  Beautiful photographs too – some are on the FT site.

Simon Winder’s Danubia (Financial Times, 6 September 2013). Romping through Habsburg Central Europe.

Judith Flanders’s The Victorian City: everyday life in Dickensian London. (The Independent, 6 October 2012). Everything you always wanted to know ..

Jim  Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? An existential  detective story. (The New York Times,  5 August 2012). In search of being, nothingness, and the perfect Shiraz.

Jerry White’s London in the Eighteenth Century:  a great and monstrous thing (The  Independent, 16 March 2012). London history: a subject close to my heart.

Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: how the world  became modern (The New York Times,  28 September 2011).  The story of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things and how the  manuscript was almost lost.

Tom  Hodgkinson’s Brave Old World: a  month-by-month guide to husbandry, or the fine art of looking after yourself. (The New Statesman, 11 July 2011). On  self-sufficiency and ukulele-playing, by the creator of The  Idler. “Toil, endless toil – that is the only way, my idle friends!” he  writes.

James  Miller’s Examined Lives: from Socrates to  Nietzsche (The New York Times, 20 January 2011).  Does being a philosopher make for a flourishing life? Naked Nietzsche on a mountain

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