[Latest updates re The Matter With Things:
I’m in a bit of a quandary. I have now, actually since the middle of last week, finished Part2 of McGilchrist’s The Matter With Things – paused intending to write another partial review – with copious notes – but have now started on Part3. That third part is already “Wow!”-level thought-provoking in terms of depth and breadth and it’s not that Part2 was any less so. The problem is, and looks like it will continue to be, what on earth to write?
Without a little “why?”, of the two extremes, a simple “everyone must read” recommendation is patently inadequate for a costly two-volume work. If you’ve not already acquired and read his previous Master and Emissary, on which this book builds, you could I guess, skip the time and expense of that first step. Although the content is additive in terms of specific sources and detail, the hemispheric arguments are rehearsed, recapped and summarised many times as well as being monumentally extended in this magnum opus.
You could argue with the editorial decision – beautifully executed by Perspectiva, taking over from McGilchrist’s less adventurous existing publisher- to publish the minimally edited 1577 pages into a single two-volume work. This as opposed to, say, a more ruthless marketing edit or maybe recast as three separate new instalments in a trilogy of four? In fact, reading on, you see why theirs has been the enlightened decision.
On the other hand if I was to summarise all the highlights I considered novel or important, I would be re-writing a good deal of my past 20 years of blogging, of which the last decade has already been getting highly repetitive as it is. This is not to say that it is one of those books I might wishfully think “I could have written that”. There’s a whole ‘nother level of detail beyond all the original resources I’ve already plundered into a level I’ve barely even acknowledged second-hand or even been aware. Apart from name-dropping, how can that be summarised without further repetition? (eg Why stop at neuroscientist Oliver Sacks, when rabbi Jonathan Sacks can also support your case? We’ve all been there.) Maybe a huge classified matrix of who has said what would be my engineering presentation of preference.
A lot of quotes and references, from all over the academic map and timescales, can give any book a “learned” air, and it’s something I’ve already mentioned in previous reviews of Part 1 and of Master & Emissary before it. I’m sure some less scrupulous authors and publishers have used that as a tactic before. But it’s the strategic synthesis that is so important and largely original. As well as the references and quotes themselves, large parts of McGilchrist’s own text is paraphrasing and linking his sources. It’s a lot of the same or words just not necessarily in the same order. In fact the common etymologies of similar but divergent words and languages is another important thread. (As an aside, it demands the imagining of what McGilchrist might create with a purely artistic literary brief. Next time maybe?)
That may not sound like a hard sell or a strong recommendation for the current work, but it is the point. So much of this is ancient wisdom discarded by the received wisdom of the modern rational collective mind and painstaking stitched back together – made evident – by the polymath author. The important thing is that as well as the ancient sources, the major part of the evidence really is there in a mass of modern scientific output. A modern critical-thinking mind will undoubtedly analyse details of arguments they could pick to death, with the repeated application of but how? and why? There’s no shortage of target material if so motivated by their own rational standards, until we “starve upon the residue”. But again, this is the point. We’ve allowed our minds individually and collectively to adopt a narrow and ultimately destructive outlook on our world. Not for the first time I say that’s the Catch-22 lesson of this work.
So writing another review simply adds more similar words unlikely to provide any more effective impact on the world at large. But this is a very important book; one that everyone should not simply read or read about, but enact and embody. Best use of resources, mine or anyone else’s, is to surely to get the content into active groups of people interacting in as many walks of life as possible. Judged against the dry orthodoxy of the scientific community this approach might look a lot like a religious, even cultish, lifestyle movement. Of course the point is that dry “left-brain” orthodoxy is the cult humanity should be afraid of. He’s not the first to say it of course, but few if any have said it so thoroughly.