The elite case against big product “x” (today it’s Facebook)

For most of my life I’ve been reading well-structured, well-supported, well-written, and well-cited pieces arguing for why and how people should not do extremely popular thing x, where x can change based on the person making the argument. Often the argument itself is quite good but does very little to create mass behavior change on the ground. I often agree with the argument, but whether I agree with it or not is less relevant than whether the majority of the population changes its behavior in measurable ways (for truly popular products and services, they don’t). Today, the x is Facebook.

Based on past examples of “the elite case against ‘x,'” I predict that today’s NYT and BBC articles do very little to change real-world, measurable behavior around Facebook and social media. To the extent people move away from Facebook, it will be toward some other Facebook property like Instagram or toward some other system that still has broadly similar properties, like Discord, Snapchat, etc. Today’s case against Facebook, or social media more generally, reminds me of the elite case against:

* TV. TV rots your brain and is worse than reading books. It destroys high culture and is merely a vehicle for advertising. Sophisticated pleasures are better than reality TV and the other “trash” on TV.” Yet TV remains popular. Even in 2017, “Watching TV was the leisure activity that occupied the most time (2.8 hours per day). And 2.8 hours per day is lower than the “four hours per day” time I’ve seen quoted elsewhere. Today, though, most people don’t even bother arguing against TV.

* Fast food, especially McDonald’s, Taco Bell, etc. It’s filled with sugar and, rather than being called “food,” it should probably be called, “an edible food-like substance.” There is also an elite case against factory farming and animal torture, which pretty much all fast food suppliers do. Yet McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and similar companies remain massive.

* Oil companies. Oil use has led us to more than 400ppm CO2 in the atmosphere. We’re on the way to cooking ourselves. Yet the market response to hybrid vehicles has been to ignore them. Almost no one walks or bikes to work. Again, I would argue that more people should do these things, but what I think people should do, and what people do, are quite different.

Oddly, I see the elite case against car companies and airplane companies much less frequently than I do against oil companies.

* Tobacco. It gives you lung cancer and smoking cigarettes isn’t even that good. While it appears that smoking rates have been declining for decades, 15.5% of adults still smoke. Taxation may be doing more to drive people away from tobacco than asserting the number and ways that tobacco is bad.

* Video games. They’re a way to evade the real world and perform activities that feel like fitness-enhancing activities but are actually just mental masturbation, but without the physical limits imposed by actual masturbation. They simulate the social world in a way that makes us more isolated and frustrated than ever before.

What other examples am I missing?

Today, we have the elite case against social media. It may be accurate. It’s generated good books, like Cal Newport’s Deep Work and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. Social media has generated lots of op-eds and parenting guides. Some people have announced publicly that they’re deleting their Facebook or Instagram page, yet Facebook is a public company and keeps reporting massive levels of use and engagement.

It turns out that what people want to do, is quite different from what The New York Times thinks people should do.

Anytime someone describes sexual behavior as “dumb,” ask: Dumb in what timeframe?

In writing about the David Petraeus non-scandal, Adam Gopnik says, correctly, that “Benghazi is a tragedy in search of a scandal; the Petraeus affair is a scandal in search of a tragedy,” and, perhaps less correctly, this:

The point of lust, not to put too fine a point on it, is that it lures us to do dumb stuff, and the fact that the dumb stuff gets done is continuing proof of its power. As Roth’s Alexander Portnoy tells us, “Ven der putz shteht, ligt der sechel in drerd”—a Yiddish saying that means, more or less, that when desire comes in the door judgment jumps out the window and cracks its skull on the pavement.

But whether lust “lures us to do dumb stuff” depends on timeframe we’re looking at: if we do “dumb stuff” that results in our genes still existing, say, 200 years from now, then what’s dumb in the context of the next month may be “smart” from the context of a couple centuries from now. We’re evolutionarily primed to propagate our genes—that’s Richard Dawkins’ point in The Selfish Gene.

We also have to ask what happens in the very short term: presumably, in the minutes to hours that Petraeus and Broadwell were doing it (or anyone is “doing it”), they were making a very smart decision for themselves over those few minutes. One might be able to look at the quality of their decision making in terms of Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd’s The Time Paradox, and as being very good for the immediate present when they were doing it, not very good in the months or years after the scandal comes to light, and, depending on conception, very good over the very long term.

Don’t read this post and the books linked, then go out and cheat on your significant other only to say that your selfish genes and hedonistic time perspective “made” you do it. But do think about the intellectual context in which Portnoy’s claim exists, and how desire can function in the very long and short run.

Thinking and doing: Procrastination and the life of the mind

I finally got around to reading James Surowiecki’s “What does procrastination tell us about ourselves?” (answer: maybe nothing; maybe a lot), which has been going around the Internet like herpes for a very good reason: almost all of us procrastinate, almost all of us hate ourselves for procrastinating, and almost all of us go back to procrastinating without really asking ourselves what it means to procrastinate.

According to Surowiecki, time preferences help explain procrastination. For a good introduction on the topic, see Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd’s The Time Paradox. The short, non-technical version: Some people tend to value present consumption more than future consumption, while others are the inverse. And it’s not just time preferences that change who we are; as Dan Ariely documents in Predictably Irrational, we also change our stated behaviors based on whether, for example, we’re aroused. We also sometimes prefer to bind ourselves through commitments to deadlines or to external structures that will “force” us to behave a certain way. How many dissertations would be completed without the social stigma that comes from working on a project for years and failing to complete it, coupled with the threat of funding removal?

The basic issue is that we have more than one “self,” and the self closest to the specious present (which lasts about three seconds) might be the “truest.” This comes out in the form of procrastination. To quote at length from Surowiecki, who is nominally reviewing The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination:

Most of the contributors to the new book agree that this peculiar irrationality stems from our relationship to time—in particular, from a tendency that economists call “hyperbolic discounting.” A two-stage experiment provides a classic illustration: In the first stage, people are offered the choice between a hundred dollars today or a hundred and ten dollars tomorrow; in the second stage, they choose between a hundred dollars a month from now or a hundred and ten dollars a month and a day from now. In substance, the two choices are identical: wait an extra day, get an extra ten bucks. Yet, in the first stage many people choose to take the smaller sum immediately, whereas in the second they prefer to wait one more day and get the extra ten bucks.

In other words, hyperbolic discounters are able to make the rational choice when they’re thinking about the future, but, as the present gets closer, short-term considerations overwhelm their long-term goals. A similar phenomenon is at work in an experiment run by a group including the economist George Loewenstein, in which people were asked to pick one movie to watch that night and one to watch at a later date. Not surprisingly, for the movie they wanted to watch immediately, people tended to pick lowbrow comedies and blockbusters, but when asked what movie they wanted to watch later they were more likely to pick serious, important films. The problem, of course, is that when the time comes to watch the serious movie, another frothy one will often seem more appealing. This is why Netflix queues are filled with movies that never get watched: our responsible selves put “Hotel Rwanda” and “The Seventh Seal” in our queue, but when the time comes we end up in front of a rerun of “The Hangover.”

The lesson of these experiments is not that people are shortsighted or shallow but that their preferences aren’t consistent over time. We want to watch the Bergman masterpiece, to give ourselves enough time to write the report properly, to set aside money for retirement. But our desires shift as the long run becomes the short run.

This probably explains why you have to like the daily process of whatever you’re becoming skilled at (writing, researching, law, programming) in order to get good at it: if you have a very long term goal (“Write a great novel” or “Write an entire operating system”), you’ll probably never get there because it’s very easy to defer that until tomorrow. But if you break the task down (I’m going to write 500 words today; I’m going to work on memory management) and fundamentally like the task, you might actually do it. If your short-term desires roughly align with your long-term desires, you’re doing something right. If they don’t, and if you can’t find a way to harmonize them, you’re going to be the kind of person who looks back in 20 years and says, “Where did the time go?”

The answer is obvious: minute by minute and second by second, into activities that don’t pass what Paul Graham calls “The obituary test” in “Good and Bad Procrastination” (like many topics others pass over, he’s already thought about the issue). Are you doing something that will be mentioned in your obituary? If so, then you’re doing something right. Most of us aren’t: we’re watching TV, hanging out on Facebook, thinking that we really should clean the house, waiting for 5:00 to roll around when we get off work, thinking we should go shopping for that essential household item. As Graham says, “The most impressive people I know are all terrible procrastinators. So could it be that procrastination isn’t always bad?” It isn’t, as long as we’re deferring something unimportant for something important, and as long as we have appropriate values for “important.”

So how do we work against bad procrastination and towards doing something useful? The question has been on my mind lately, because a friend who’s an undergrad recently wrote:

A lot of my motivation comes from a fantasy of myself-as-_____, where the role that fills the blank tends to change erratically. Past examples include: writer, poet, monk, philosopher, womanizer. How long will the physicist/professor fantasy last?

I replied:

This is true of a lot of people. One question worth asking: Do you enjoy the day-to-day activities involved with whatever the fantasy is? For me, the “myself-as-novelist” fantasy continues to be closer to fantasy than reality, although “myself-as-writer” is definitely here. But I basically like the work of being a novelist: I like writing, I like inventing stories, I like coming up with characters, plot, etc. Do I like it every single day? No. Are there some days when it’s a chore to drag myself to the keyboard? Absolutely. And I hate query letters, dealing with agents, close calls, etc. But I like most of the stuff and think that’s what you need if you’re going to sustain something over the long term. Most people who are famous or successful for something aren’t good at the something because they want to be famous or successful; they like the something, which eventually leads to fame or success or whatever.

If you essentially like the day-to-day time in the lab, in running experiments, in fixing the equipment, etc., then being a prof might be for you.

One other note: writer, poet, and philosopher have some aspect of money involved in it. So does physicist / professor. Unless you’re Neil Strauss or Tucker Max, “womanizer” is probably a hobby more than a profession. And think of Richard Feynman as an example: he sounds like he got a lot of play, but that wasn’t his main focus; it’s just something he did on the side, so to speak. (“You mean, you just ask them?!”). The more you have some other skill (being a writer, a rock star, whatever), the easier it seems to be to find members of your preferred sex to be interested in you. In Assholes Finish First, Max notes that women started coming to him after his website became successful (note that I have not had the same experience writing about books and lit).

As for the physicist/prof fantasy, I have no idea how long it will last. You sound like you’re staying upwind, per Paul Graham’s essay “What You’ll Wish You’d Known“, which is important because that will let you re-deploy as time goes on. To my mind, read/writing and math are upwind of almost everything else; if you work on those two – three subjects, you’ll probably be okay.

One nice thing about grad school in physics is that you can apparently leverage that to do a lot of other things: programming; becoming a Wall Street quant; doing various kinds of business analysis; etc. It’s probably a better fantasy than monk, poet, or philosopher for that reason. The “philosopher” thing is also (relatively) easy to do on the side, and I would guess it’s probably more fun writing a philosophy blog than writing peer-reviewed philosophy papers, which sounds eminently tedious, at least to me.

Oh: and I have a pile of unposted, half-written blog posts in my Textmate project drawer:

You can see a pile of them on the left. Most will eventually get written. Some will eventually be deleted. All were started with good intentions. Some have been sitting there for a depressingly long period of time. In fact, this post might have found its way among them, if not for the fact that I decided to write it in a single blaze of activity, and if not for the fact that I’m writing about procrastination, this post might have gone the way of many others: half-finished and eventually abandoned.

One reason I’ve had staying power with this blog, while so many of my friends have written a blog for a few months and then quit, is because I basically like blogging for its own sake. Blogging hasn’t brought me fame, power, money, groupies, or other markers of conventional success (so far, anyway!), and it appears unlikely to do so in the short- to medium-term (the long term is anyone’s guess). Sometimes I worry that blogging keeps me from more important work, like writing fiction, but I keep doing it because I like it and because blogging teaches me a lot about the subject I’m writing about and is an excellent forum for small ideas that might one day grow into much larger ones. This is basically the issue that “Signaling, status, blogging, academia, and ideas” discusses.

If the small projects lead to the big projects, you’re doing something right. If the small projects supplant, instead of supplementing, the big projects, you’re doing something wrong. But if you don’t like the small increments of whatever you’re working on, you’re not likely to get to the big project. You’re likely to procrastinate. You’re likely to skip from fantasy to fantasy instead of finding your place. You’re not likely to do the right kind of procrastinating. I wish I’d realized all this when I was younger. Of course, I wish I’d learned a lot of things when I was younger, but I didn’t have Surowiecki, Graham, Zimbardo, Max, and Feynman. Now I do, which enables me to say, “this blog post itself is a form of procrastination, but a productive one, and it’s therefore one I’m going to finish because I like writing it.” That sure beats improbable resolutions.

The Time Paradox — Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd

As with many great works of nonfiction, Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd’s The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life has that paradoxical quality of being incredibly profound and yet, in retrospect, blindingly obvious. It encompasses philosophical debates that occur at all levels of art; fiction often represents our feelings about time, while The Time Paradox lists a few dozen pop songs that contain messages about forms of time orientation. Last weekend I saw Woody Allen’s new movie, Vicky Christina Barcelona, in which one character, Vicky, lives oriented toward the stable future: a nice house, a boring but wealthy husband, and a life that is unlikely to end in a crater but also unlikely to offer stimulating adventures. Christina, played by the luscious and perfectly cast Scarlett Johansson, is a sensual hedonist who pursues novelty and risk-taking. Their contrasting ways of life begin the story, with the two balanced against Juan Antonio’s foil.

The movie is more sophisticated than this, as any art that can be accurately captured in summary is not worth experiencing. Nonetheless, just as The Hero With A Thousand Faces explicitly analyzes the scaffolding of many adventure stories, The Time Paradox implicitly discusses the dominant time views of many works of art. Some, like The Great Gatsby, show opposing characters who see time, and hence one another, in different ways; in such a reading, Nick Carraway is a present-oriented fatalist with little personality of his own, while Jay Gatsby combines a past-positive perspective of Daisy with a future-oriented work ethic that he thinks will win her back. Gatsby on a larger level criticizes both views: in bending all his time orientations toward a particular person, Gatsby’s obsession ultimately leads to a ruinous car crash, destroying himself in crime, like the crime that his wealth is built on, while Nick, without the focus of his attention, seems to drift without learning. The novel’s last line, one of my favorites in all literature, soothes or terrifies the reader by reminding us of how life will continue for others even when it does not for us:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Whether we are terrified by this receding light depends on our reaction to it and how we handle that past.

Zimbardo also wrote The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, which together with Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, pokes holes in traditional economic thinking concerning man as as a rational actor. All three argue that things are not as simple. In Zimbardo and Boyd’s case, the problem is that we don’t consciously realize how we tend to think about past, present, and future, or if we do, we aren’t able to step outside ourselves to realize how we’re thinking. What is “rational?” in the context of past, present, and future? To enjoy the moment, or to work toward a future moment? Zimbardo and Boyd implicitly argue neither, and they point to the poorly understood trade-offs we make regarding how we orient ourselves chronologically. That I use the language of economics to present this parallels Zimbardo and Boyd, who discuss “The Economics of Time” along with the nature of opportunity costs—another well-known issue too little referenced in everyday discourse.

Learning about opportunity costs, including those of being oriented toward present, past, or future, gives one more information and hopefully leads to better decision making. This meta-critical force is powerful, if poorly understood, and what I like so much about Zimbardo’s books is their ability to take on this meta-critical function and put it to paper—like a good therapist or friend—pointing to the blind spots we don’t realize exist. Self-help books should do this but often don’t, or if they do—like Marti Olsen Laney’s The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World*—they’re filled with clichés or otherwise poorly written. The Introvert Advantage is especially painful because it conveys a useful message to both introverts and extroverts, but is marred by stylistic problems. The Time Paradox’s promises as a self-help book are slightly deceiving: it is more like a book discussing research that happens to dress in self-help clothing. And aren’t all books, or all art, on some level designed to provide “self-help?” But no matter: the genre, if any, is transcended by the content, as happens here.

The Time Paradox is also clever in its examples of traps each kind of person creates for themselves, whether those focused on the past to the detriment of their daily lives, those focused on the present to the detriment of their belief in their own ability to change the future, or those focused on the future who lose their sense of joy. Regarding the latter, for example, the authors write that “[…] future-oriented workaholics who do not cultivate sensuality and sexuality have little interest in making friends or “wasting” time in playful activities—a recipe for sexual deprivation. In contrast, the present-oriented might be too focused on such aspects, resulting in pregnancy, disease, or awkward pictures on the Internet.

Elsewhere, regarding those who are oriented toward the future, Zimbardo and Boyd say “[…] they do not spend time ruminating on negative past experiences. They focus on tomorrow, not yesterday.” This has advantages, especially in societies that reward delayed gratification, but also problems, as such “futures” can appear callous, or uninterested in the past, or less capable of building friendships based on experiences—perhaps leading them to feel emotionally isolated, or even held back in work. Futures might succeed through plotting and the aforementioned delayed gratification, but they might also miss some aspects of creativity. For example, Zimbardo and Boyd describe a maze game in which futures tended to outperform presents in navigating a mouse through a maze. But, as the authors write:

Many of the presents who failed got frustrated at not finding the right path and ended up making a straight line to the gaol, bursting through the cul-de-sac barriers.

Perhaps some measure of conventional success is thanks not due to following rules and accepting constraints, but through redefining problems and solutions. As one character says to another in The Matrix, some rules can be bent; others, broken. Technological and artistic progress** often stem from such unconventionality. That isn’t to make a logic error and say that unconventionality automatically equates with progress, but channeled in the right area, it might be necessary if not sufficient.

The Sept. 1 issue of The New Yorker shows a cartoon in which a man says, “I’m not losing my memory. I’m living in the now,” implying a past orientation moved into the present caused by age. Mental faculty creates time impressions, and physical changes, including drugs, can alter them—and not necessarily for the worse. In a section regarding how to become more present-oriented, for example, Zimbardo and Boyd offer the recommendation “drink alcohol in moderation,” which is the sort of self-help I’m only too happy to indulge. Perhaps so many writers and artists are alcoholics because they need to get out of the past (Faulkner) or future.

In suggesting this, however, I’m succumbing to the book’s major potential weakness: presenting time disorders or problems as an overly major source of anxiety and in turn diagnosing time as a source of maladies, rather than perhaps an effect. For example, Zimbardo and Boyd come perilously close to implying that correlation is causation when they discuss the outcomes of the time scales they developed to measure one’s attitude; in an early section, they attribute a focus on immediate gratification, self-stimulation, and short-term payoffs to perhaps too great a degree.

Other sections should be qualified, as when Zimbardo and Boyd write that “Our scarcest resource, time is actually much more valuable than money.” That depends on, for example, how much money we have; if I had no food, I would very readily trade some time for money, and almost every day I engage in some transaction designed to turn time into money. For, say, billionaires, time is more scarce than money or virtually any other resource, and it’s worth noting here what economists call the backward bending shape of the labor curve—that is to say, as a person’s earnings increase, they tend to work more hours, but at a certain point, they tend to cut back in order to enjoy the results of those earnings. An extreme example of that tendency can open between generations: the hard-working parents provide so plentifully for their offspring that the offspring tend to adopt a hedonistic, present-oriented lifestyle that ultimately destroys the future-oriented values of work and thrift that led to creation of the fortune in the first place. Today, it’s Paris Hilton or the ceaseless articles about how we damn kids lack the work ethic of the old days; yesterday it was Vanderbilts and Astors whose descendants are now mostly middle-class, and tomorrow it will be the tech titans’ legacy.

Yet even if I don’t entirely agree with sections or nit-pick, merely raising the issues leads us to consider them, our own behavior, and most importantly, how to best lead our lives and allocate a resource Zimbardo and Boyd imply many barely consider. At the end of the last paragraph, I analogized time perspectives to family and social dynamics—an idea I wouldn’t have considered prior to reading The Time Paradox.

Zimbardo and Boyd rightly caution readers not to assume that a person is entirely one orientation, since all people have some level of all orientations within them. Instead, the reader should try applying their own (past, presumably) behavior to the models in order to evaluate them within the framework both offer. Perhaps their most powerful recommendation is one that echoes Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and Stoic philosophers: that although we can’t always control events, we can control our reactions and try to influence them. Zimbardo and Boyd write:

[…] psychological principles are elastic: They bend and change according to the situation and frame of reference […] We have no control over the laws of physics, but we do have some control over the frames of reference in which we view time. Recognizing how and when these frames of reference are advantageous may allow you to get more out of life and help you recognize those occasions when time perspectives hinder and impede you.

The most valuable sections of the book can get buried: they don’t come later in that quote, but earlier, when Zimbardo and Boyd discuss how much our perceptions count and can change how we feel. Their biggest purpose is first to increase our sense of agency and our ability to believe in our own influence, limited as it might be. Call this the difference between science and The Secret, a book I won’t dignify with a link: one sees self-empowerment as a first step of many to come, while the latter is an excuse for the first step and then stopping in a myopic haze of wishful thinking.

Finally, if the book has an overarching, abstract message, it is that we should, like a character from a Herman Hesse novel, ask what we want from life and how to find it. The Time Paradox provides guidance in finding the answer by, for example, discouraging “a kind of learning helplessness,” but the actual journey belongs to the reader, not the authors.


* For decent coverage of the same idea, see Jonathan Rauch’s “Caring for Your Introvert” in The Atlantic.

** Assuming these aren’t simply two sides of the same coin.

Reunion

Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams is as good as his novel Reunion is bad. They share some superficial characteristics: both are meditations on the nature of time, both are short, and both strive for depth. The key differences are that Einstein’s Dreams achieves its depth, while Reunion does not; Einstein’s Dreams illuminates the character of Einstein, while Reunion skims Charles, illuminating only the fundamental banality of his existence; Einstein’s Dreams makes us ponder the nature of time, while Reunion makes us ponder why we’re reading this novel.

In buying it I made two mistakes: I didn’t read the first page and I relied solely on the author’s previous reputation. The first three sentences might’ve spared me the six bucks:

Sheila lies on top of me, snoring, her heavy breasts heavy on my chest, her stomach on my stomach, her hair damp in the afternoon heat, a shard of light through the white shutters she closes when we make love, the slow beat of the overhead fan, the tiny sound of a radio from the street. I too am falling asleep.
I fly above mountains, dizzy, frightened.

What isn’t wrong here? I’m not sure—maybe that the sentences are easily parsed. The wrongness piles up: the weird repetition of the word “heavy,” the mere description of breasts as “heavy,” which is as much a cliché as “pendulous,” the next several clichés (“damp in the afternoon heat” and a “shard of light”), the awkward time shift inherent in telling us of the “white shutters she closes when we make love,” indicating that the event happened previously, and a generic scene that’s been described in thousands of novels and filmed in thousands of movies. “Light” and “white” are jarring slant rhymes. The idea of flying in dreams or reveries is equally hackneyed, and as a metaphor for time passing it fails.

I’m willing to continue. But the clichés of thought and language continue too, as when Charles tells us:

Just the other day I was reading some article about the relativity of values. I mention this because it applies directly to the question of the Honduran hurricane victims on TV. Even if they are not mere electronic data points, those people are not nearly as bad off as they seem.

Right: the people are far away and only presented on TV, and therefore aren’t as real. See, e.g., The Matrix (link goes to a fascinating New Yorker essay), Philip K. Dick, and too many others. The theme continues a few pages later when a hippie turned general is described here:

The Nick on TV wasn’t any more real than the Gulf War itself, a made-for-TV war, a video game, another digitized disembodied nothingness like the Honduran hurricane victims, created to sell deodorants and premium beers and cellular phones. On my sixteen-inch television screen, red boxes neatly circumscribed bomb targets.

That’s an easy point of view to take if you’re living in the U.S., but I’m guessing that the soldiers who were there and the civilians living in Iraq didn’t consider themselves digitized disembodied nothingness. The sheer self-indulgence of this “what is reality?” idea is frustrating because it repeats without amplifying or altering one made earlier in the novel. It’s so bad that I almost miss the one bright spot, which is Lightman’s use of the verb “circumscribed” to describe bomb targets, which is both accurate and unusual. Its resonance with the word “circumcised” is also appropriate, given the men in charge of wars whose target is so often other men.

Those are the first few pages. It doesn’t get better.

Reunion is built around an older man going to a college reunion, where he chiefly feels uncomfortable and then slips into a reverie about the girl who slipped away. He remembers their love affair; she might have a tawdry affair with a person in a position of power; the reader wishes that some scenes weren’t worthy of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Award. In novels, no sex is always preferable to bad sex. As for this novel, you’re better off with John Banville’s The Sea, or almost anything by Ian McEwan, or Proust’s Swann’s Way, or any of the other innumerable novels about an older person remembering his or her affairs. It’s a justly rich and weighty sub-genre, and with so much to choose from, you could do far better.

In short, Reunion serves two related purposes: to show through contrast how good Einstein’s Dreams is and to remind readers who haven’t otherwise heard of that novel to read it instead of and not in addition to Reunion.

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