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The Excommunicant

Richard Popkin: Spinoza v. the Synagogue, 15 October 1998

The God of Spinoza: A Philosophical Study 
by Richard Mason.
Cambridge, 272 pp., £35, May 1997, 0 521 58162 1
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Spinoza, Liberalism and the Question of Jewish Identity 
by Steven Smith.
Yale, 270 pp., £21, June 1997, 0 300 06680 5
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... his critique of existing religions and his justification for complete religious toleration. Steven Smith starts from Spinoza’s role as the first secular Jew (after his excommunication), and the way it is reflected both in his critique of religion, especially Judaism, and in his political theory. In both books, the excommunication of 1656 is the ...

What did you expect?

Steven Shapin: The banality of moon-talk, 1 September 2005

Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth 
by Andrew Smith.
Bloomsbury, 308 pp., £17.99, April 2005, 0 7475 6368 3
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... banality, Armstrong’s ‘small step’ is in every dictionary of quotations, and Andrew Smith is of the remarkable opinion that the First Sentence is ‘one of the most memorable lines ever offered the English language’ and ‘as famous as anything Shakespeare wrote’. Of the 12 Moon-walkers, only Schmitt was a scientist, and none of them was ...

The Least Worst Place

Colin Dayan: ‘Supermax’ Prisons, 2 August 2007

Bad Men: Guantanamo Bay and the Secret Prisons 
by Clive Stafford Smith.
Weidenfeld, 307 pp., £16.99, April 2007, 978 0 297 85221 6
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... Imagine what it would be like to have worked for more than twenty years, as Clive Stafford Smith has, defending death-row inmates in the American South, only to find oneself in Guantánamo, what the military calls ‘the least worst place’, trying to win the trust of men who have not even been put on trial, who have not been accused of anything, but ...

Jours de Fête

Mark Thornton Burnett, 9 January 1992

Shakespeare’s Festive World: Elizabethan Seasonal Entertainment and the Professional Stage 
by François Laroque, translated by Janet Lloyd.
Cambridge, 423 pp., £45, September 1991, 0 521 37549 5
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... of New Historicist interpretations of the period by Stephen Greenblatt, Louis Montrose, Steven Mullancy and Peter Stallybrass (among others) and a chapter on Othello. This is less a translation than a new study in its own right. One of the great virtues of Shakespeare’s Festive World is the scrupulous care with which its investigations are ...

Thinking about Death

Michael Wood: Why does the world exist?, 21 March 2013

Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story 
by Jim Holt.
Profile, 307 pp., £12.99, June 2012, 978 1 84668 244 5
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... to Derek Parfit, again in Oxford. He meets Roger Penrose in New York, has phone conversations with Steven Weinberg and John Updike. These conversations become a way of evoking possibilities as much as seeking answers, and some of these possibilities are fascinating, whatever our scepticism may be about the larger project. Robert Nozick is cited (twice) as ...

Let’s eat badly

William Davies: Irrationality and its Other, 5 December 2019

Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason 
by Justin E.H. Smith.
Princeton, 344 pp., £25, April 2019, 978 0 691 17867 7
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... symptom of a society that treats rationality as a property of machines, and not people. Justin Smith’s Irrationality is one of many books provoked by the political eruptions of 2016. Trump is a recurring preoccupation, but so is the internet and the carnival of quickfire nonsense it hosts. Taking these two themes together – the absurd liar in ...

It’s like getting married

Barbara Herrnstein Smith: Academic v. Industrial Science, 12 February 2009

The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation 
by Steven Shapin.
Chicago, 468 pp., £15, October 2008, 978 0 226 75024 8
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... or the nature of ‘science itself’? In posing these questions and seeking to answer them, Steven Shapin has produced a work of exceptional originality, power and significance. He has also given readers much to chew over in regard to contemporary developments and perennial issues. The Scientific Life departs along several lines from the more ...

It’s the thought that counts

Jerry Fodor, 28 November 1996

The Prehistory of the Mind 
by Steven Mithen.
Thames and Hudson, 288 pp., £16.95, October 1996, 0 500 05081 3
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... has its proprietary metaphors, which are frequently architectural. The mind is like a building (Steven Mithen thinks it’s like a cathedral). Entrance and egress are variously constrained, and so are the paths through the interior. There are public places and private places, and places where the children aren’t allowed to go; and there are places in the ...

Fear and Loathing in Los Alamos

John Ziman, 4 September 1986

Bird of Passage: Recollections of a Physicist 
by Rudolf Peierls.
Princeton, 350 pp., £21.20, January 1986, 0 691 08390 8
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A Life in Science 
by Nevill Mott.
Taylor and Francis, 198 pp., £15, April 1986, 0 85066 333 4
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Stallion Gate 
by Martin Cruz Smith.
Collins Harvill, 287 pp., £10.95, May 1986, 0 00 222727 4
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Day of the Bomb: Hiroshima 1945 
by Dan Kurzman.
Weidenfeld, 546 pp., £14.95, February 1986, 0 297 78862 0
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Assessing the Nuclear Age 
edited by Len Ackland and Steven McGuire.
Chicago, 382 pp., £21.25, July 1986, 0 941682 07 2
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... won or lost. And don’t ever forget the villain who is secretly betraying them all. Martin Cruz Smith is an enthralling storyteller, but uses the authentic drama of Los Alamos only as the dynamic setting for a more earthy melodrama in which the historical characters are little more than cardboard cutouts. Stallion Gate could have been more than a ...

Do you Floss?

Lawrence Lessig: The sharing economy, 18 August 2005

The Success of Open Source 
by Steven Weber.
Harvard, 312 pp., £19.95, August 2004, 0 674 01292 5
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Democratising Innovation 
by Eric von Hippel.
MIT, 208 pp., £19.95, May 2005, 0 262 00274 4
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... customers’ problems. Microsoft knows this. In one of its two buildings devoted to research, Marc Smith, the head of the Community Technologies Group, leads a team that studies what goes on within these groups. The company has developed elaborate technologies to measure the ‘health’ of these and other virtual communities. Is there enough balance to the ...

Against the Pussyfoots

Steven Shapin: George Saintsbury, 10 September 2009

Notes on a Cellar-Book 
by George Saintsbury, edited by Thomas Pinney.
California, 348 pp., £20.95, October 2008, 978 0 520 25352 0
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... to the Roman province that now produces port. Of the 1888 and 1889 vintages of the Graves Château Smith Haut Lafitte: ‘They were charming. Browning’s “A Pretty Woman” is the poem that reminds me most of them.’ Of Dutch gin (since Saintsbury’s alcoholic tastes and cellar stores were catholic), it’s necessary to know that Pantagruel and Panurge ...

Heart and Hoof

Marjorie Garber: Seabiscuit, 4 October 2001

Seabiscuit: The Making of a Legend 
by Laura Hillenbrand.
Fourth Estate, 399 pp., £16.99, May 2001, 1 84115 091 6
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... Garland: The Secret Life of an American Legend (David Shipman), Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend (Steven Bach), or biographies of the Kennedys. It is characteristic of many such books that they begin far back, with early antecedents, and in the case of Seabiscuit there are many to account for, from Charles Howard’s scapegrace Canadian father who ...

Seeing Things Flat

Jenny Turner: Tom McCarthy’s ‘C’, 9 September 2010


by Tom McCarthy.
Cape, 310 pp., £16.99, August 2010, 978 0 224 09020 9
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... The book gathered a buzz, went to America, won a prize from the Believer, then in 2008 Zadie Smith wrote about it in the New York Review of Books, in tandem with Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. Smith immediately got the point of the McCarthy project, its vehemence, its attack on the plushy poshlust of what she ...

Mrs Straus’s Devotion

Jenny Diski, 5 June 1997

Last Dinner on the ‘Titanic’: Menus and Recipes from the Great Liner 
by Rick Archbold and Dana McCauley.
Weidenfeld, 128 pp., £9.99, April 1997, 1 86448 250 8
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The ‘Titanic’ Complex 
by John Wilson Foster.
Belcouver, 92 pp., £5.99, April 1997, 0 9699464 1 4
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Down with the Old Canoe 
by Steven Biel.
Norton, 300 pp., £18.95, April 1997, 9780393039658
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... the upper classes, for a world on the brink of the Great War. The survivor statistics offered by Steven Biel tell something of the gender story: 94 per cent of first-cabin women and children survived compared to 31 per cent of first-cabin men; 81 per cent of second-cabin and 47 per cent of steerage women survived against 10 per cent and 14 per cent ...

Libel on the Human Race

Steven Shapin: Malthus, 5 June 2014

Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet 
by Robert Mayhew.
Harvard, 284 pp., £20, April 2014, 978 0 674 72871 4
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... of what was called ‘Malthusianism’ through the 19th and 20th centuries. Sydney Smith said of the Essay that it was a book ‘much more talked about than read’, both by admirers and critics; certainly the later career of Malthusian thought and commentary breaks free of detailed engagement with the late 18th-century pastiche of moral ...

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