Weekend Reads: John le Carré, Type A Personalities, and Fancy-Pants Words
I have a confession to make: I’ve never read a John le Carré novel.
Now that may not seem worthy of a confession but for one piece of biographical information: I love spy stories and crime thrillers. So how is it I’ve never picked up a book by a writer The New York Times dubbed “the pre-eminent spy writer of the 20th century”?
I’m afraid I don’t have an adequate answer. Suffice it to say, an interview with le Carré in The Paris Review that I stumbled upon this week piqued my interest (and shame). In it, le Carré has a marvelously simple line about the process of writing once he has the central character: “The process is empathy, fear and dramatization. I have to put him into conflict with something, and that conflict usually comes from within. They’re usually people who are torn in some way between personal and institutional loyalty. Then there’s external conflict. ‘The cat sat on the mat’ is not the beginning of a story, but ‘the cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is.”
One can almost feel the tension just from that simple illustration.
Of course, after reading the interview, I fell down the John le Carré rabbit hole. Should I read one? Which novel to start with? Which one ranks as the best?
Writing in The New Yorker, David Denby notes that “Some time after ‘A Perfect Spy’ came out, in 1986, Philip Roth remarked that it was ‘the best English novel since the war.’” At first, Denby was not convinced, but later returns to the book and admits “it turns out that Roth was right.”
Editor Robert Gottlieb, who worked on many of le Carré’s novels in the 1970s and 1980s, said le Carré is “a brilliant writer for whom spies are merely subject matter.”
But as I learned in this New York Times Magazine piece, “Calling [le Carré] a spy writer is like calling Joseph Conrad a sea writer, or Jane Austen a domestic-comedy writer.”
(As an aside, the article has one of the most evocative descriptions I have ever read about bushy eyebrows — in this case, le Carré’s: “His eyebrows, so thatchy and animated that they seem ready to leap off his forehead and start nibbling the shrubbery . . . ”)
I have another confession: I’m behind in my reading because I’ve been engrossed in the critically acclaimed book The Art of Rivalry, by Pulitzer Prize–winning art critic Sebastian Smee. The book explores four complex friendships that helped fuel eight great painters: Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon; Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas; Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso; and Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.
“The idea of rivalry it presents is not the macho cliché of sworn enemies, bitter competitors, and stubborn grudge-holders slugging it out for artistic and worldly supremacy,” Smee writes of The Art of Rivalry in his introduction. “Instead, it is a book about yielding, intimacy, and openness to influence. It is about susceptibility.”
Here are a few other interesting (non-spy- or non-art-related) articles, in case you missed them:
- At a time when political discourse in the United States is fraught and tensions are running high, it’s reassuring to find stories about kindness and generosity. David Brooks recently wrote about a couple, Kathy Fletcher and David Simpson, who open up their home every Thursday evening to a large group of teenagers who are invited to join them for dinner. I was really struck by the power of their act and how many lives they have managed to touch with something as simple as community, warmth, acceptance, and a sit-down meal. As Brooks says, “The problems facing this country are deeper than the labor participation rate and ISIS. It’s a crisis of solidarity, a crisis of segmentation, spiritual degradation and intimacy.” (The New York Times)
- A group of scientists is working to create something called the Human Cell Atlas. (The Atlantic)
— Ed Yong (@edyong209) October 14, 2016
- Another fascinating leap forward in technology courtesy of Google: “Scientists at DeepMind, the tech group’s London-based AI unit, have built a ‘differentiable neural computer’, or DNC, that for the first time can solve small-scale problems without prior knowledge, such as planning the best route between distant stations on the London Underground or working out relationships between relatives on family trees.” (Financial Times)
- If you’re a regular reader of my Weekend Reads, you know I love what I call “cocktail nuggets,” those fascinating facts that make great cocktail party fodder. I acquired a new nugget recently when I read “What It Means to Be a Type A Person“: What does this term really mean and where did it come from? “It actually started in a waiting room shared by a pair of cardiologists,” writes Travis Bradberry, president of TalentSmart. “The doctors noticed that their chairs didn’t have wear on the backs as expected — the wear was only visible on the front edge of the seats and the armrests, suggesting that patients were literally waiting on the edge of their seats, ready to jump up the second their names were called. So, the cardiologists — Doctors Friedman and Rosenman — wanted to find out if the strange wear pattern on their chairs was because impatient people are more prone to heart disease. They discovered that their hunch was correct. They also found that people’s personalities tend to lean in one of two directions, which they labeled Type A and Type B.” Who knew? (World Economic Forum)
- A word to the wise: If you do a lot of writing, stop using fancy-pants words. That’s just one piece of advice on improving your writing, but there are several other suggestions for things to check before you hit “publish”or “send.” (Harvard Business Review)
- Shane Parrish of the Farnam Street blog is one of the sharpest minds out there. And it’s no surprise that I often include links to his blog posts in these round-ups. Last week, my colleague Susan Hoover wrote that Parrish’s provocative article caused her to stop and seriously consider what she mentally ingested. For those of you who missed Parrish’s article, “The Pot-Belly of Ignorance,” he notes that “Increasingly, we’re filling our heads with soundbites, the mental equivalent of junk. Over a day or even a week, the changes, like those to our belly, are barely noticeable. However, if we extend the timeline to months and years, we face a worrying reality and may find ourselves looking down at the pot-belly of ignorance.” He says that “If you think of your mind as a library, three things should concern you. 1. The information you store in there — its accuracy and relevance; 2. Your ability to find/retrieve that information on demand; and 3. Finally your ability to put that information to use when you need it — that is, you want to apply it.” (Medium)
- And finally, a little mind bender:
— Adam Grant (@AdamMGrant) September 23, 2016
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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.
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