If you're familiar with Mitchell's work, you know that his deadpan voice is a big part of his appeal. Listening to him read his own words definitely gives the cynicism a really humorous edge that doesn't come across as well in text unless you're already quite familiar with him as a performer.
If you're considering this title, it's probably because you're already acquainted with Mitchell either through Peep Show or That Mitchell & Webb Sound/Look/etc. So speaking as one of these fans, the book delivered exactly what I was hoping it would. Genuinely funny in several places, and just as often thoroughly entertaining.
I'm currently in the middle of this book, but even if I found the rest of it completely revelatory and satisfying I would still be writing this review.
Also, before I get into the problems with content, I have to say that Dennis Holland's narration is pretty monochromatic and robotic. I wondered for a moment if they'd gotten a more sophisticated Microsoft Sam or Siri type of program to read this book, so take that into consideration.
I came to this book as someone who's currently trying to figure out what I really believe about the nature of the universe and the existence of God. I've been reading books on science, theology, various religions, etc. - so I worked this one into the rotation in the hope that it would continue to broaden my perspectives and help me learn about things I've yet to.
I have been severely disappointed.
To begin with, Berlinski's prose - while well-worded - is absolutely dripping with disdain and condescension. Time after time he strays so far into self-congratulatory narcissism with his word choice and style that this book practically grinds to a halt. He spends paragraphs just calling people names and outlining how he doesn't like this person or what they've said; but rarely does he offer specific reasons as to why he finds someone "odious" or enumerate counterpoints to their hypotheses. Where something resembling a counterpoint can be offered, he invokes philosophers and thinkers of history - sometimes ancient history - without any consistency. At one point he uses David Hume against one of his targets, and then later turns his sneering condescension on David Hume's thinking itself. Moreover his dependence on historical philosophy and science flies in the face of history and science; two things that are constantly having to be updated as new facts come to light.
His big opening argument is one of the most tired and well-addressed of all: Nazis. To paraphrase and simplify "The Nazis were atheists, obviously the Nazis were evil, so clearly atheism is evil." Apart from the fact this argument completely ignores the socio-political history of Germany, numerous psychological factors on an individual and group scale, and grossly oversimplifies geopolitical climate - it's simply not true. Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf: "I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord" ... That's a two-fer, Hitler invoking traditional Christian thought and creationist ideology. But Himmler and Rosenberg espoused pagan beliefs founded in the myths of Germanic folklore. Kerrl even believed that Christianity could be integrated into Nazism as part of the official party platform. So if you're going to call out the Nazis for being atheists, you've got to contend with a mountain of evidence that says the opposite - or at the very least that they were simply moral degenerates who used whatever philosophical and religious means they could get their hands on to manipulate the people and justify their actions. But calling that behavior "atheism" instead of just "evil" is unforgivably reductive and inaccurate, and Berlinski marches right past those more complex ideas while patting himself on the back for so thoroughly revealing atheism to be the real reason Nazi Germany happened in the first place.
The book is filled with these kinds of oversimplifications and logical fallacies. When he's not invoking ad hominem argument attacks against those he deems intellectually inferior, he's rattling off war/genocide statistics for several minutes. I mean this quite literally; at one point in his riposte against the idea that the 20th century has seen a largely improved human condition (historically speaking) he lists all the wars and genocides and dictatorships that occurred during the 20th century along with their estimated death tolls. I don't know how long it took, but it felt like an eternity listening to the almost robotic narrator go on and on and on when the same point could just have easily been made in a few short sentences. Berlinski seems, however, far too interested in making his point as laborious and pretentious as possible.
Elsewhere he says "Science has no method - like golf - beyond the trivial." This, by the way, in a paragraph denouncing what he perceives as the pretentiousness of the scientific method and the arrogance of those who invoke it. I am genuinely stumped by how a man so demonstrably brilliant (his bibliography touches on topics of mathematics far more complex than I personally can claim to fully understand) can so arrogantly accuse others of arrogance. I'm even more stumped at how an agnostic and self proclaimed secular Jew with no active belief in the supernatural can so abhor the scientific method; arguably the cornerstone of empirical thought and research.
There are sparks of good arguments in here, there really are. There is so much fertile ground for intelligent discussion and debate regarding NOMA, or how Big Bang cosmology squares and/or doesn't square with the ideas of creationism and intelligent design, or the difficulties that Darwinian evolution still has to overcome from a theoretical standpoint, or the havoc wreaked by even the most well-intentioned scientific endeavors...the list goes on. But in place of thoughtful arguments (meaning an explanation of the shortcomings/strengths, and then an offer of counter-argument against/in favor) Berlinski is only interested in poking holes and then using his considerably impressive vocabulary (the man is undoubtedly a wordsmith) to stand back and admire his own intellect. If this book were drained of its ad hominem arguments, false dilemmas, arguments from incredulity, snarky rhetorical questions, laborious lists, insufferable arrogance in the face of easily cited fact, and some plain-old-playground-name-calling...it could fit on a napkin. And that's just the kind of catty putdown with which this book is filled, by the way.
The entire book is effectively one long argument from its own conclusion, so if you're just looking for some cleverly-worded phrases and putdowns to spit at atheists during your next rant - you have come to the right place and you won't find a more gleefully kindred spirit in that endeavor than David Berlinski. But if you're currently trying to find well-constructed arguments for belief in the supernatural, you would be much better off in the hands of C.S. Lewis, Francis Collins, John Lennox, or even Ravi Zacharias.
The Selfish Gene is practically required reading when it comes to Dawkins' works, and study of evolutionary biology in general. Fortunately, it's not nearly as challenging as you might expect a scientific text to be. Dawkins' does a magnificent job of writing about complex principles in accessible and digestible ways, and he does so with a flourish for vocabulary and turns-of-phrase that rivals the skill of writers of fiction worldwide.
The tag-team approach and he and his wife take to the narration here (and in most of his other works) can be a bit jarring; personally I prefer the studious and rather caricatured-British-professor voice Dawkins possesses. To be fair, Lalla Ward narrates with aplomb - but if I had my druthers Dawkins himself would read the work from start to finish.
Also, I think this version of The Selfish Gene is superior to others in a very specific way (in my opinion) and that is how he reads his endnotes in the paragraphs where they would otherwise appear. Having been written several decades ago, this book features several analogies or facts accepted at the time that have since been debunked; and it would have been thoroughly confusing to leave them unaddressed by not reading the endnotes or simply rattling them off at the end of the work.
Collins narration is superb.
A Plausible Explanation For Accepting Evolution Regardless of Your Faith
I was raised a pretty strict creationist, though I came to leave that worldview behind long before coming to this book. I don't want to regurgitate Collins' points here because this book is very much worth your time, but let me say this:
If you're someone who has had trouble bringing your faith to bear on the teachings of science - and namely the concept of evolution - this book is an absolute must-read. Collins' position as former head of the Human Genome Project and current head of the NIH lends all the more credence to a series of arguments that would stand quite well coming from anyone. Ultimately my own rejection of evolution when I was younger was based almost entirely on misunderstanding and misinformation. Collins does a marvelous job of presenting the information in a way that is simple but not reductive. If you currently believe that your faith is at odds with acceptance of evolution, this book will likely feel like a grand revelation; and a relief.
If you're on the fence about the existence of God - or an avowed atheist - I can't say this book will shatter your worldview. But Collins does present some very compelling arguments, often by way of C.S. Lewis, in favor of God's existence. And as I mentioned before, being a part of world-changing research as he has, his arguments are further bolstered by his credentials. Even one of my personal heroes, Christopher Hitchens himself, developed quite a close relationship with Collins shortly before he died.
All of that is to say that if you're coming to this book with questions, many - though probably not all - will be answered. At the very least, this book sheds a great deal of light on its topics and will allow for more insightful inquiry as you carry on figuring out what you believe. My "Ideal For Seekers" headline is a little melodramatic, I know, but this book will likely be quite a blessing to anyone - regardless of worldview - earnestly trying to answer some of the bigger questions about life and its meaning.
I can't even pick what I loved best about this book; from start to finish it's superlative. I took it along with me on a road trip - the result was that it felt as if Tina Fey was sitting in the passenger seat just telling me all these amazing stories about her life (as only she can). More than once I had to pause and focus on my driving because I was laughing so hard.
I definitely recommend listening to this all at once if you can. Tina does a fantastic job of holding attention, so you might find yourself listening to it all at once even if you didn't plan to.
Tina is amazing, and I loved this book from start to finish as I've said. The one shortcoming (literally the only one) is that the audio sounds a little compressed; hence the 4 stars for Performance instead of 5. Once or twice I had to go back and listen again with the volume all the way up to catch what she said. It has nothing to do with Tina's style and everything to do with some inexplicably subpar recording practices here and there.
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