Chosen by Helen DeWitt
Novelist Helen DeWitt describes her new book, Some Trick, as a story collection preoccupied with ‘the cussedness of talent.’ Below, the author of The Last Samurai and Lightning Rods recommends books that illuminate the workings of singular minds.
The Blind Side by Michael Lewis (Norton, $16). Lewis shows us that Bill Walsh, who became a Hall of Fame NFL coach, had a different way of thinking about the passing game: If the system is the star, even mediocre quarterbacks can dazzle. I had no idea football was not excruciatingly boring.
Against the Gods by Peter L. Bernstein (Wiley, $22). I once thought insurance was boring, too. Bernstein, in his history of probability and forecasting, argues that the foundations of insurance are revolutionary, defining the boundary between modern times and the past. The mastery of risk means that the future can be understood as something more than a whim of the gods.
The Transfiguration of the Commonplace by Arthur C. Danto (Harvard, $31). Here’s Danto, the critic and philosopher, on the relationship between art and reality: “Suppose we have two marbles, one a portrait of the other, and the latter the original, the ‘real’ marble. But for their different histories, and but for the fact that one of them enters into the history of the other, there may be no basis for telling them apart, and so no criterion in observation and comparison for stating that one of them is real and the other not.” How can we talk about a work of art without asking what it is? I love this.
Envisioning Information by Edward Tufte (Graphics Press, $32). Tufte, a data scientist, transformed the way I see the world: A simple railway timetable can be a source of joy or outrage, because, as Tufte writes, “Clutter and confusion are failures of design, not attributes of information.”
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $15). Marco Polo sits in a garden with an aging Kublai Khan and describes 55 imaginary cities, each organized on fantastic principles. Calvino’s novel conjures a radically different America, an America where we could choose the social experiment that suits us best.
Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban (Indiana Univ., $18). The underrated equal of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Hoban’s 1980 novel presents a postapocalyptic world where forgotten science is fetishized and spoken of in mythic terms.