Book Group – Summer Readings

The book for June was Flann O’Brien’s ‘The Third Policeman’. The wide range in the scoring, from 2 to 10 illustrates the diverse views this book generated, from “unreadable” to “one of the best books I have ever read, a Desert Island Disc book”.

Comments varied between ‘unfunny’, ‘laborious’ and ‘unrelenting’ and outstanding praise for the author’s use of language that echoed the early literature of Ireland, his occasional beautiful prose and his playfulness on all important ideas on life, death and hell. The footnotes were found either “boring” or a “clever mockery of specialists” who spend their lives examining scientists’, in this case, mad, theories.
It was generally felt the publisher had done the book no favours and challenged the use of quotes from professional reviewers such as ‘hilarious’ and ‘satire’ to describe it. There were quite a few objections to Anthony Burgess’s statement that only “stupid fools’ would fail to cherish the work of Flann O’Brien”. While one reader “fell out of bed laughing” and another (listening to the audio version) “nearly crashed the car” – we agreed it is most definitely a ‘Marmite’ book.

Our July book ‘Other Minds – the Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life’ by Peter Godfrey-Smith prompted a vigorous and wide-ranging discussion. What is it like to be an octopus? Someone thought that after reading the book it would be difficult to cook and eat one: “I became very fond of the octopus”.

The author wrote “One of the classic problems of my discipline – philosophy – is the relationship between mind and matter … and I want to make progress on that problem, vast as it is, in this book.”

Opinions varied on how successful he was. Some of us thought the book was not scientific enough and lacked a coherent structure. A glossary of terms would have been helpful.

It was suggested naughtily that the book had been written “in the style of an octopus”, with the tentacles reaching out in all directions for material. On the other hand some saw considerable merit in the descriptive passages in the book and the relaxed anecdotal style.

There was however general agreement that the level of insight into the mind–body distinction, whether or not it was helpful to make such a distinction, was inadequate. Questions about the scope of human intelligence, and subjective and objective reality were insufficiently explored it was thought.

Scores on the ‘would you recommend this book to a friend’ index ranged from 0 to 8 with an average of 6.5.

We Humanists might all agree with the author’s final sentence “when you dive into the sea, you are diving into the origins of us all.”

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On 21st August we will discuss Penelope Fitzgerald’s ‘The Golden Child’.

A deft comedy of manners with a classic mystery set partly in London’s most refined institution—the museum. At just 189 pages it is a perfect read for the summer month.

For those interested in Penelope Fitzgerald we can recommend Hermione Lee’s ‘Penelope Fitzgerald – A Life’.

Fitzgerald started writing at the age of 60 and just a handful of critics and fellow writers, notably Frank Kermode, Victoria Glendinning and Julian Barnes, understood her gifts. Even to herself, she was the outsider. When in 1979, against the odds, she snatched the Booker prize from the favourite, VS Naipaul, she had a lot of fun with the literary press who cast her as a dotty old lady with ruddy cheeks. She said she would use the prize money “to buy an iron and a typewriter”. In 1999 Fitzgerald was awarded the Golden PEN Award by English PEN for “a Lifetime’s Distinguished Service to Literature”.