crasch (crasch) wrote,

Danny Yee's Review of Books

I discovered Danny Yee's Review of Books about 2.5 years ago. His review of Philip Greenspun's Philip and Alex's Guide to Web Publishing (then known as Database Backed Web Sites) sparked a rather large shift in the direction my career has taken.

Yee's site is a model of organization and usability. The site is indexed by author, title, subject, and latest reviews. Each review includes standardized bibliographic information. A monthly mailing list with links to the latest reviews is also available.

Although Yee's values differ dramatically from mine in some ways (his views tend toward left anarchism), I find he's almost always worth reading. (He's popular with Google as well--do a search of "book reviews" and Yee's site pops up second, after the New York Times.)

Here's a sample review of Genius Explained by Michael J. A. Howe (Cambridge University Press 1999 )

Howe's thesis in Genius Explained is simple: genius is the product of
environment, personality, and sheer hard work, not a mysterious
property that can't be analysed.

"I am not convinced that there is anything about
the lives and achievements of geniuses that is in
principle any less amenable to explanation than the
lives and achievements of other people. ... That
geniuses are special is undeniable, but the view
that they are special for reasons that are
mysterious needs to be challenged."

Not afraid of facing difficult cases, Howe starts by
considering Mozart's precocious composing (he took a
similar amount of time to other composers before
producing original masterpieces), early performance
skills (not out of line with the amount of time he
spent practising as a young child), and memory feats
(remarkable, but not at all unprecedented in
specialised domains). Howe also explains in his
introduction how "genius" is defined by achievement,
not by the possession of an inherent quality - many
geniuses were, after all, only much later recognised as
such, while "unsuccessful genius" is an oxymoron.

The bulk of Genius Explained is biographical, with Howe
focusing on figures from nineteenth century Britain. In
each case he concentrates on their childhoods,
attempting to trace the development of the skills and
determination that would underpin latter
successes. There are separate chapters on Charles
Darwin, George Stephenson, and Michael Faraday, and a
chapter looks at some great writers: the Brontë
sisters, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens.

Two chapters consider child prodigies. Some parents
have set out to turn their children into geniuses: with
John Stuart Mill and Norbert Wiener they were
successful, but Billy Sidis is an example of a child
prodigy who had a tragic and unhappy life without
creative achievements. Other child prodigies include
George Bidder, a calculating prodigy who used the
opportunities that gave him to become a notable
engineer, and Einstein - who, contrary to popular
legend, not only did well at school but was in fact a
prodigy. Howe presents a more general argument that
being a child prodigy is neither necessary nor
sufficient for later genius.

I found this material fascinating, both with those
figures about whom I have read quite a bit, such as
Darwin and the Brontës, and those about whom I knew
next to nothing, such as George Stephenson and Billy
Sidis. A few minor things did, however, make me
grimace: Turing's Universal Machine is not an actual
computing device, but a conceptual construction, while
describing Middlemarch as "arguably the greatest novel
in the English language" is hardly informative.

Interspersed with these biographical accounts are
snippets of theory, which are also fascinating but
often frustratingly slender. At one point, for example,
Howe writes

"Psychological research into expertise has
[confirmed] that individuals' capabilities are
largely gained through lengthy exposure to the
ordinary and routine background events, repeated
day after day, that make up the bulk of a person's
life, rather than by occasional foreground
incidents that seize attention because of their
dramatic or sensational nature."

without reference or further elaboration. And his
deployment of theory often seems rather ad hoc. So he
uses Csikszentmihalyi's finding that later success is
connected to a family environment that is both
supportive and stimulating, but while always plausible
this sometimes seems too easy: the lack of stimulation
in Faraday's family life must have been compensated for
by his job as a book-binder, for example, while his
Sandemanian religion must have provided a supportive

Having looked at the origins of genius, Howe devotes a
chapter to the creative process itself. He argues that
it is rare for this to be sudden, that inventions,
discoveries, and creations almost always rest on a
large body of earlier work both by the person involved
and by others, and that a good deal more of them are
collaborative than is often acknowledged. And in a
final chapter he considers the idea that people are
"born to genius", presenting arguments against both
"the talent account", that people have specific innate
talents at birth, and the idea that people possess a
fixed "general intelligence". If inherited qualities do
have a role in making geniuses different from other
people, they are most likely to be those of temperament
- "doggedness, persistence, the capacity for fierce and
sustained concentration, as well as intense curiosity"
- rather than narrowly intellectual ones.

19 November 2001
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