Thinking About Almost Everything: New Ideas to Light Up Minds

Durham University's commercial for the range and depth of its work leaves Jon Turney wanting more

July 16, 2009

Hmm, this old film I'm watching has a lot of commercial breaks - too many to get up and refill my glass every time - and I am bored with channel surfing. Never mind, I have the answer. One burst of frantic sales talk, with the sound muted, lasts just long enough to read one of the little essays in this handy paperback. There are 64 of them, so it should last a few evenings yet.

The book itself is a bit of a commercial: for the life of the mind; for the power of ideas; for universities - and for Durham University in particular. That venerable institution's previous vice-chancellor, Sir Kenneth Calman, proposed a publication that would offer a campus-wide compendium of ideas.

The fruit, some years later, is this impressive assembly of invitations to ponder ways of looking at an astounding range of problems and phenomena. Here are brief contemplations of dark matter and DNA, war and waste disposal, poetry and pornography. Reading the best of them one at a time is a bit like hearing one of the Radio 4 Today programme's "Thoughts for the Day", mercifully shorn of the BBC's habitual sanctimony. All of the contributors were working at Durham at the time of writing. The vast majority (52 out of the 64) were professors or readers. Are younger people's ideas too dodgy for dissemination? Maybe so. The aim, the editors say, was to present "authoritative work", so the single postgraduate student who appears here must be pleased at the endorsement.

Authorial status aside, the results are pretty interesting. Most, although not all, of the contributors manage to say something stimulating. Most manage to put it in a way that is intelligible to those outside their field. A few take the idea of a commercial too literally - the fact that early work or future investigations are located at Durham is alluded to rather a lot, and there are a number of remarks along the lines of "as I argue in a new book ...". But, on the whole, the extreme brevity required of the contributors encourages them to stick to the ideas.

And how are the ideas? Well, no one is going to have the competence to assess them all - certainly not me. Multidisciplinary does not even begin to cover it. Your reviewer, of course, read it from cover to cover, although in small doses. Others should just dip in. What they find will depend on where they start from. So anyone who reads popular science reasonably often will find most of the ideas here familiar, although it is nice to find them treated so concisely rather than extended to book length. But such a reader will doubtless be diverted by novelties elsewhere. The standout essays for a devotee of literature or history will be a different set.

One would be oddly incurious, or insanely widely read, not to find something here that is new and intriguing, however. I was briefly charmed by the idea of music theology, intrigued by the notion that death, grief and mourning are now shared on screen and via the web more often than in "real" life, and fascinated by the possibility of building - on the smallest possible scales - with light.

Each of these ideas, and others, left me wanting more, in the best showbiz tradition. But that wanting also shows up some limitations. Although the idea is bold, in its way, and comes framed in the new language of public engagement, the result is a very traditional product. We are given the authors' email addresses, along with recitations of academic credentials that are a bit grand for these little pieces. And each essay has a few references, usually to hefty academic tomes or research papers. But casual readers get no real help if their appetite is whetted.

That is a shame, as one of the other aims is "to catalyse further thought and interest". A website might have done that more effectively, but one may guess it was ruled out because its very property of linking readily to other stuff, no matter where it comes from, makes it less useful for displaying the wares of a single institution.

Books still have their place, though. This volume may be no substitute for surfing well-curated websites such as Arts and Letters Daily (www.aldaily.com) or 3Quarks Daily (www.3quarksdaily.com), and strikes this reader as overpriced. But it is a nice portable aid to intellectual grazing, and a read-anywhere sampler for the work of the university that spawned it. It is also, in an old-fashioned way that befits a book, uplifting in terms of the wider human prospect. Its sheer breadth is a nice advertisement for the more contemplative side of the species that enjoys the pleasure and privilege of thinking about things.

Thinking About Almost Everything: New Ideas to Light Up Minds

Edited by Ash Amin and Michael O'Neill

Profile Books, 288pp, £15.00

ISBN 9781846681882

Published 5 March 2009

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