Top critical review
Not as Pleasurable as Hoped
on 22 February 2015
Having recently read Charles Fernyhough's "Pieces of Light: the New Science of Memory", I expected something similar, judging only from the title of Theodore Dalrymple's ''The Pleasure of Thinking: a Journey Through the Sideways Leaps of Ideas''. Instead of being a book about how people think laterally, as I thought it might be, it turned out to be something rather different, but ultimately equally interesting.
If I believed I was a bibliophile before now, Theodore Dalrymple has taken that line much further than I had ever considered. He has a wide range of interests and enjoys hunting through second hand bookstores for unusual books on subjects which themselves frequently seemed unusual to me. He also seems adept at hunting down and picking up books that have been annotated or dedicated or otherwise marked by previous owners and he seems to enjoy exploring the history of such books as much as he does the books themselves.
What follows is a journey through Dalrymple's bibliomania. His interests are wide ranging, although perhaps tending more towards crime and medicine slightly more than other subjects. But his eye roves and you can never be entirely sure what direction his writing is going to take you in next. There is a part of him that seems to enjoy following the next idea that comes to mind for the sheer pleasure of seeing where it will take him, which certainly explains his choice of title. As someone whose mind works on similarly flighty lines, this meant that I also rather enjoyed the flitting nature of the book.
The tone is slightly lecturing, which frequently meant that Dalrymple sounded a little more like a tour guide than a writer. The tone made the book feel as if it would have been more at home as an audio tour, like you can get at many tourist attractions these days, to accompany a walkthrough of his bookshelves more than it did as something to read; perhaps ironically for a book about books. Although Dalrymple describes things well and his enthusiasm for his subject comes through very clearly, I felt a little disconnected for not being able to see what he was looking at as he wrote.
There were a couple of aspects of the book which I found detracted from the content slightly. I'm not sure how old Dalrymple is, but he seems keenly aware of his own mortality and makes reference to it on a number of occasions. This may be a natural preoccupation given his medical training and his occupation as a witness in murder trials, but it was mentioned frequently enough to be a distraction; seemingly to both reader and to writer.
My other issue was that in many ways, the book as a whole felt as if it had been written in instalments. The author biography states that Dalrymple has contributed to a number of newspapers and the segments often feel as if they may have originally been intended as a regular column. Whilst many do seem to follow on from each other, some of the changes of direction remind me a little of Chuck Klosterman's "Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs", which was a series of articles published in book form. Indeed, much like that book, I found the highly educated nature of the writer in subjects I know very little about, to be slightly daunting at times. This presentation assisted with the sense of disconnect I felt going through the book as a whole.
I'm unsure as to how I feel about the book. The novel reader in me bemoans the lack of an obvious through line, but the quirkier side of my nature enjoyed the way it meandered through Dalrymple's collection. It may not give a reader any insight into the sideways leaps of ideas as I originally hoped it might, but it certainly makes you want to keep following the book through many of them. This is a book that may turn out to only be of niche interest, as many of the books in Dalrymple's collection also are, but it should certainly appeal to those with an abiding interest in books. For those who would be tempted to seek out something like this, it will be of great appeal, although it may sit better as a book to be dipped into occasionally, rather than read in several longer sittings the way I did.
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