New and noteworthy – 4 May 2017

New monographs explore sudden sight loss, stoicism, botanical beauty, a Buddhist take on the dismal science, and tough women

May 4, 2017
Hands with coloured powder
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Patient H 69: The Story of My Second Sight
Vanessa Potter


High-flyer loses sight and sense of touch, but battles back through synaesthesia and trauma with the help of noble medics: for once, the adjectives slathered on a Dramatic First-Person Journey (raw, candid, tragic, inspiring) are warranted. Potter’s eventual collaborator, University of Cambridge neuroscientist Tristan Bekinschtein, writing in the book’s introduction, succinctly sums it up: “For a book about the loss of seeing, the scenery is fantastic…Vanessa confronts that difficult part of consciousness and its contents that we take for granted…It is a place mostly reserved for poets and great novelists, yet we find it here.”

How to Be a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living
Massimo Pigliucci


What would Epictetus do? Suck it up, basically. In a general-reader-friendly title sure to suck up a bit of the trade-publishing vogue for all things Stoic, an Italian-born New Yorker, academic philosopher and blogger makes a good case for the enduring relevance of 2,000-year-old precepts. Personal anecdotes (muggings, too-jolly receptionists) dot a tour of cognitive behavioural therapy and cognitive dissonance, Edward Snowden and Zeno of Citium, the Serenity Prayer and Slaughterhouse Five, “what it is proper to want or not to want” and the Greek word for love of your sports team. Plus practical spiritual exercises, not all of which boil down to a Big Apple-ese “whaddya gonna do”.

Botanical Sketchbooks
Helen and William Bynum
Thames & Hudson

From skunk cabbage to sequoias, two historians of science and medicine draw magical finds, most previously unpublished, from the riches of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. These are initial sketches, first impressions and spidery notes from the field, every page bursting with life. As vivid and finely drawn as the images themselves, the Bynums’ portraits of a globe-spanning cast of characters responsible bring us wanderers, scientists and soldiers, 18th-century Dutch businessmen and Colombian polymaths, memsahibs and the authors Edward Lear and Beatrix Potter, Kew’s William Jackson Hooker and Second World War aerial reconnaissance expert Mary Grierson. A portfolio full of beauty.

Buddhist Economics: An Enlightened Approach to the Dismal Science
Clair Brown

A sane, readable, cross-disciplinary study in which a Californian economist wonders “How would Buddha teach Econ 1?”. She sets about answering the question, and wins plaudits from the distinctly unhippyish ilk of Joseph Stiglitz and Robert Reich for this (perhaps inevitably) mindful synthesis of the Thomas Piketty/Amartya Sen worldview with the Buddhist focus on interconnectedness (via cutting out beef and lamb and asking hard questions about how much we need those new shoes). “There is no end to a book on Buddhist economics,” Brown concludes, “because it is a lifetime commitment and process.”

Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil
Deborah Nelson
University of Chicago Press

Is empathy overrated? In a world of “painful reality”, the steely half-dozen figures Nelson assembles in this clear-eyed and attentive study – whose working title, she tells us, was Tough Broads – certainly thought so. Stubborn, assertive, ironic, excoriating, angry, unyielding, they are a “strange cast of characters to call to your aid during a crisis”, she admits. Nevertheless, she makes a rock-hard case for their ability to offer diamond-hard and boo-hoo-free tonics for your next bout of in extremis, from Simone Weil’s mystic-radical “thinking tragically” to Joan Didion’s “question of self-pity” across a ruthlessly brilliant career running from Slouching towards Bethlehem to The Year of Magical Thinking.

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