What I’ve been reading: a passionate statistican, and a deep worker

6th December, 2020

Florence Nightingale, by Mark Bostridge. I don’t read many biographies and perhaps I should read more, if this is anything to go by. I have been particularly focused on the 1850s (nursing and statistics) and 1860s (public health campaigning and statistics) but of course the book ranges over her entire long life. This is an impressive book: lots of detail, authoritative, but also fun to read. There are many, many shallow biographical treatments of Nightingale in short essays and blog posts. She was a complicated person with many facets to her character and many chapters to her life – so it is great to find a book that goes deep while remaining readable. There is an interesting error on page 314, but it’s not important and other biographers have made the same mistake. (If you are curious, I recommend chapter 9 of “How To Make The World Add Up”, or the Spring 2021 series of Cautionary Tales…) In any case: excellently done.

Deep Work, by Cal Newport. I am a big fan of Newport and this is the book that seems to have been his breakthrough title. Newport’s basic argument is that it is spiritually and economically worth building up the mental endurance to focus and work deeply on hard problems. Beware not only the obvious distractions such as TV, social media and games, but also “shallow work” such as email, administration, getting coffee with people and trying to fix a time for meetings. The book is good, but there’s a lot of effort devoted to making the case, leaving the practical tips rather later in the book. (Perhaps Newport found this necessary; I have already been persuaded.) I found Digital Minimalism more straightforwardly, life-changingly practical, and the forthcoming A World Without Email more thought-provoking and challenging. But I have been giving Newport’s time-block planning a try: I am profoundly sceptical about it but I felt I couldn’t dismiss it without trying it, and I’m been surprised. It might actually work. Will continue to report back!

I’ve just set up a storefront on Bookshop in the United States and the United Kingdom – have a look and see all my recommendations; Bookshop is set up to support local independent retailers.

My new book is How To Make The World Add Up. “Fabulously readable, lucid, witty and authoritative.” – Stephen Fry

“Powerful, persuasive, and in these truth-defying times, indispensable” – Caroline Criado Perez

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