Fact or fiction: Novel up against a non-fiction book
Who will win this week...
Think Like a Freak: How to Think Smarter about Almost Everything by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
When Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner published Freakonomics in 2005, the assumption was they were simply churning out another post-Malcolm Gladwell 'book of ideas' in which banal observations are dressed up as a revelation from on high. But the book – an exploration of the counter-intuitive lessons of deep data mining – was enormously popular, spawning a sequel and even a documentary movie. Now, the authors are tentatively entering the self-help market, with a volume subtitled: How To Think Smarter About Almost Everything. There is certainly something freaky about the range of subjects covered: the opening chapter cites the Old Testament's King Solomon and Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth; the authors later cast a skewed gaze at a competitive hot-dog eater from Japan and a British doctor who consumes a batch of deadly bacteria on purpose.
Some of the leaps of logic are intriguing. Levitt and Dubner explain Lagos scammers make a point of telling you they're from Nigeria in order to weed out the 99 per cent already aware of their wheezes.
The original Freakonomics caused a stir when it linked the availability of abortion to falling crime levels. This time, Levitt and Dubner investigate why African-Americans have a greater than average propensity towards heart disease. The answer, they suggest, is that early slavers favoured those with high-water retention. How is any of this supposed to help you thinking in a 'freaky' fashion? The authors don't say, though they do have some concrete tips: be prepared to quit while you are ahead; don't analyse difficult decisions from a moral standpoint and drink cheap wine (tastes just the same as the expensive stuff). You might argue that they are simply rephrasing the obvious, yet for all that, Think Like A Freak is a rollicking read.
To rise again at a decent hour by Joshua Ferris
The divide between high-end literary fiction and the novels the rest of us read has never been wider. Every so often a book makes it across, but such incursions seem rarer than ever. We live in the age of the middlebrow bestseller: while the very best mass-market books are machine-tooled for maximum addictiveness, few tangle with Big Ideas. Joshua Ferris is one of the few 'heavyweight' writers with a common touch. 2005's And Then We Came To The End was a rumination on the human condition and a Mike Judge-style dissection of office-life absurdity. More bizarre, was his 2010 follow-up The Unnamed, which concerned a happy, successful lawyer struck down by the urge to walk until he could walk no more. It was easy to read the work as a commentary on men and their reluctance to be tied down by obligations to career and family. But it was also a nicely weird tale about a guy who wanted to strike off for the horizon and chase it until his body gave in.
Both books were a success and there has been considerable anticipation leading up to his third novel, To Rise Again At A Decent Hour. Once more, Ferris takes as his starting point the metaphysic weirdness of ordinary life. The protagonist is a middle class everyjoe : dentist Paul O'Rourke, who loves his iPhone, likes going to baseball matches and smokes even though he understands all the ways it is bad for him. However, this very ordinary life is tilted on its side as someone starts to impersonate O'Rourke online, going so far as to create a phantom Facebook page and Twitter accounts in his name.
A crisp stylist, Ferris can be as haughtily witty as any 'crit lit' darling. Ultimately, however, To Rise Again ... succeeds as a haunting treatise on the ways in which the internet, social media especially, have played with our notion of identity. When you give so much of yourself to Facebook, Twitter etc, what do you do when you decide you want it back?
Verdict: Fiction wins
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First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent