Book Review: The Bed Of Procrustes

The Bed Of Procrustes:  Philosophical And Practical Aphorisms, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I made the mistake of reading this book before having read any of the other books by the author, and in retrospect that was not a wise idea.  It is easy for comments taken out of context to be interpreted in all sorts of ways that are uncharitable to the author–I speak from experience here–and this book consists generally of comments taken from the author’s writing and thinking as a whole (which extends to several books that I am in the process of reading) but not placed in the context that the author’s other books provides.  To be sure, this book is designed to be provocative and to show a certain devil may care tendency on the part of the author, who relishes in the crudity of code mixing in order to demonstrate to the reader that he is not one of those effete intellectuals who cannot get down and dirty with reality.  And that is certainly true of what I have read from the author in general, but without knowing what the author is intending, or having a context to recognize the source of the author’s seeming hostility to intellectuals (and certainly to being called one), this book can needlessly offend because of its casual hatred towards nerds and intellectuals and its general bullying and lowbrow tone, when it was a book clearly meant to amuse those who are aware of the author’s larger and more nuanced approach.

The book is itself a suitably short book, since no book on aphorisms should be a lengthy one, as that would defeat the whole point of providing short and pithy statements of proverbial wisdom.  Coming in at just over 100 pages, this book will not tax anyone’s ability to read, and the statements almost serve as prompts for entertaining blog posts and op/eds.  The various aphorisms are divided into different categories, much of which depends, again, on the reader’s familiarity with the author’s thought in general, including an introductory discussion of Procrustes, preludes, counter narratives, ontological matters, the sacred and the profane, chance, success, happiness, and stoicism, charming and less charming sucker problems, Theseus, the republic of letters, the universal (general) and the particular, being fooled by randomness, aesthetics, ethics, robustness and fragility, the ludic fallacy and domain dependence, epistemology and subtractive knowledge, prediction, being and staying a philosopher, economic life, the sage, the weak, and the magnificent, the implicit and the explicit, varieties of love and nonlove, and the end, followed by an amusing postface and acknowledgements.

Again, there are some amusing aphorisms here and the author clearly has drawn these statements as bon mots from his other books, many of which I will hopefully be reading soon.  The author is particularly insistent about some points, like the general folly of those whose success depends on rentier behavior, who make things needlessly complex or who misrepresent in order to attempt to discredit–which accounts for the author’s dislike of consultants, economists (except perhaps Hayek and Bastiat and others like them), and journalists.  The author is also intent on telling over and over again that those who are contemporary employees are in fact slaves by the lights of ancient social theory, which is something that the author appears to like to hammer over and over again, perhaps in the hope of encouraging disloyal behavior and shaking up a corrupt business establishment that the author clearly views as contemptible.  As someone who has no fondness for bloated business or government bureaucracies, I found a lot of this particular book appealing once I realized that I wasn’t the sort of person that the author was trying to club like a baby seal.  Of course, realizing that took reading another book by the author (review forthcoming) that provided enough context for me to appreciate this book as a breath of fresh air in a stuffy academic world of polite lies and obfuscation rather than a work of uncharitable bullying.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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