[More knick-knacks from my Sunday Guardian books column]
At first, Your Inner Fish sounds like the title of a “motivational” book – perhaps one that encourages readers to reach a zen-like state by emulating the placidity of our piscine betters. (“The Monk Who Sold His Sole and Discovered His Inner Monkfish”?) But Neil Shubin’s book, subtitled “The Amazing Discovery of our 375-Million-Year-Old Ancestor” is more stimulating and informative than that; it’s the story of one of the most exciting finds in paleontology over the last decade, and what it revealed about an important transitional period in the history of life on earth.
Shubin, an expert in evolutionary history, was part of a team that discovered a crucial fossil fish (subsequently given the name “Tiktaalik”) in the vastness of the Arctic, during an expedition that could be compared to searching for a needle in a haystack as big as a village. To the delight of the scientists, Tiktaalik proved to be a truly rare species, one of the first creatures of its kind to attempt the move from water to land – and this was reflected in its body structure, which included a nascent shoulder, an elbow and a wrist that could jointly be used to perform the equivalent of “push-ups”. Here, then, was a water-dweller whose fins were in the process of being transformed into limbs that would help it live in a different environment.
Later studies of the fossil would aid in the understanding of how arms, legs and wings come to be formed in modern creatures, including humans. Anyone remotely interested in the wonders of evolution – and in particular, the distant cousinship between human beings and other creatures (not just simians) – should make a dash for this lucidly written book.
(Among my other favourite books about evolution: Richard Dawkins' Climbing Mount Improbable, The Blind Watchmaker and The Ancestor's Tale)
The Golden Gandhi Statue from America, an English translation of short stories by the anti-establishment Bengali writer Subimal Misra, comes accompanied by daunting publicity. Blurbs by Amit Chaudhuri and Ruchir Joshi tell us that Misra is “one of the unsung heroes of contemporary Indian fiction” and a “path-breaking modernist pushing the boundaries of form and language”. Then there’s the book’s lengthy “P.S.” section – a literary equivalent of DVD Extras – where Misra discusses himself, explaining that his writing “has the capability to challenge world literature”, that he “feels humiliated to be in the line of litterateurs like Rabindranath Tagore”, and that he tries to bring Eisenstein’s montage technique of cinema to his writing. His ideal writer, he says, "is only Subimal Misra", though he does also like to read Joyce, Kafka, Proust and de Sade. And oh yes, his favourite book is Finnegans Wake. Who would have guessed it?
If you can bring yourself to read the actual stories after encountering all this bombast, there is much here of interest. The translator, V Ramaswamy, has done a good job of capturing Misra’s fragmented, abstract prose, which couldn’t have been an easy task. Despite Misra’s anti-narrative claims, there is a narrative arc of sorts in many of these tales, such as “Times, Bad Times”, about an anti-social drifter contemplating going to the wedding of a former girlfriend. Other, viscerally chilling pieces include “Fairy Girl” (in which four men dismember the corpse of a woman whose “fairy-like body had given them pleasure so many times” when she was alive) and “The Money Tree” (a dead donkey becomes fodder for people at a south Calcutta traffic crossing).
Frankly, I’m in two minds about Misra. Any artist with his level of idealism deserves to be taken very seriously (he lives in penury, writes only for little magazines that don’t publish popular authors and refuses to sell his stories for use in theatre), and there is a lot of truth in his laments about books being sold as “commodities”, and about how even the anti-establishment eventually becomes marketable. However, excessive “integrity” of this sort can make a writer inflexible and make his work inaccessible as well as critic-resistant. Also, there’s something a little disingenuous about Misra’s claim that the “establishment” would never “dare touch” his stories. In that sense, there’s something both ironical and pleasing about the fact that this collection is under the banner of a mainstream publisher. Now for that market...
A few years ago the experimental psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris broke new ground in demonstrating how limited our perceptions can be - and the phenomenon of inattentional blindness - with their “Gorillas in our Midst” experiment. The experiment showed that a surprisingly large number of people watching a video of students playing basketball had failed to notice a man dressed in a gorilla suit, who even faced the camera and thumped his chest for a few seconds. The attention of the viewers was elsewhere – they had been asked to count the number of ball passes made in the video – but the results were still surprising, as were the reactions when they realised what they had missed.
Now Chabris and Simons have a book, The Invisible Gorilla, which discuses the repercussions of the experiment, placing it in the context of real-life incidents such as the case of the policeman who failed to see his colleagues beating up an innocent man right in front of his eyes (he was chasing a criminal at the time). The central thesis is that most people don’t understand everyday illusions such as “the illusion of attention” – which leads us to believe, for example, that we can drive efficiently while talking on a cell-phone. Or that an experienced radiologist examining an X-Ray is unlikely to miss something obvious (such as a wire accidentally left inside a patient’s body) when he might be looking for something else.
The Invisible Gorilla is an entertaining work, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it stirs controversy for the authors’ casual dismissal of a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece of journalism: Gene Weingarten’s 2008 feature about the famous violinist Joshua Bell playing music in a Washington subway and being scarcely noticed by the people nearby. The conclusion of Weingarten’s piece centred on the lack of appreciation for beauty and art in the modern world, but The Invisible Gorilla offers a simpler explanation: the conditions of the experiment – rush hour on a weekday morning, commuters focused on getting to work – ensured that no one would have mental space for Bell’s performance. “This stunt provides no evidence for a lack of aesthetic appreciation,” say Simons and Chabris, who even go on to suggest that the Pulitzer Prize committee were duped. I sense an intellectual brawl in the works.
[Some earlier snippets here and here]