Heyoka’s Workbench

My Best (and Other) Reads in 2022

Fotos of the books the blog author read in 2022.

Für meine deutschsprachigen Leser gibt es diesen Artikel auch auf Deutsch (PDF, 128 kB).

A Fallen Idol Reassessed

My book of the year was, without the slightest doubt, »Jan Ullrich: The Best There Never Was« by Daniel Friebe. Its author was among the experts interviewed in a gripping TV documentary about the German cycling hero of the nineties and early 2000s, a hero whose deep downfall and following personal crises could well have sprung from a great Hellenic tragedian’s imagination.

The TV documentary rekindled my enthusiasm for professional cycling and for the Tour de France that I’d believed stonedead since summer 2007 when the omnipresent doping culminated in an absurd duel between Michael Rasmussen and Alberto Contador who, on the final steep climb after a tough mountain stage, started trying to outsmart each other with much pirouetting and track stands, just as if out on an easy sally from a spa after a late breakfast. It was saddening (especially as Rasmussen had been my idol as long as he’d been »only« a good climber and had not yet magically turned into an invincible allround god).

I had not seen a single minute of the Tour since then (though still loved cycling myself, of course). Until last summer. – I bought Daniel Friebe’s book and rushed through its pages in a happy daze. I followed the 2022 Tour de France with fresh fascination. And I went on tours on my own bike. – It was summer. And it was perfect bliss.

Friebe is a British sports journalist who had covered twenty-one editions of the Tour de France. But he is also a marvellous storyteller with a great gift of viewing things from different angles. In his book he does not try to trivialise doping (quite the contrary!) nor excuse the single persons involved by shifting responsibility to »the system«. But neither does he condemn anyone rashly. Thus he manages to acknowledge Jan Ullrich’s exceptional potential and feats as well as his failures and his guilt, his great sportsmanship as well as his foibles and quirks.

And – as an aside – Friebe also turns out to be able to understand the situation of East Germans who lived through the upheaval following the fall of the Iron Curtain. He’s able to put himself into their shoes and thus understand some things that many West German journalists (and politicians) are not able or willing to see. Probably it’s because Friebe looks at the peculiar German dichotomy as a disinterested observer. And in any case he’s simply a good journalist with the ability to watch and listen.

Maxim Leo, the former editor of the Berliner Zeitung and author of a famous memoir of family life in the East, says that the Germans aren’t interested in figuring anything out at all: Westerners just want to know that they were on the right side of history and that Ossis are (a) exactly as the Wessis imagine and (b) grateful. As a result, according to Leo, »East Germans stopped explaining themselves ages ago. […]«

(Daniel Friebe, »Jan Ullrich: The Best There Never Was«)

What a book! What a summer!

… And a Reigning Idol Too

The other book that has really impressed me (though in a very different way) was »How to Stay Smart in a Smart World« by Gerd Gigerenzer. It’s another non-fiction book and one of my random purchases. I read it two times in a row because it’s just so packed with information and insights – and really well-written too.

Gigerenzer tackles a subject that has made the news again right now and with which the social media and tech blogs are abuzz: Artificial Intelligence along with the broader topic of algorithms and »Big Data«. I recommend Gigerenzer’s work to anyone who has even only a slight interest in the matter and I’d really like to urge politicians and other decision makers to read it because Gigerenzer approaches AI without agitation – it’s neither Elysium nor Doomsday. He explains what AI is good at and when it blunders.

But the book opens a much broader view – from examining the much-praised and super-secret algorithms of dating platforms to autonomous cars, hopes for improved public security via surveillance and big data, and much more. Always considering the practical side (are the benefits real or only imaginary?) as well as the ethical implications.

We should be able to look at digital technology with level-headed admiration rather than unwarranted awe or suspicion. To make the digital world a world in which we want to live.

(Gerd Gigerenzer, »How to Stay Smart in a Smart World«)

I’d condense the core message of the book into three rules of thumb: (a) Humans are the more likely to outperform AI, the more ambiguity and uncertainty comes into play. (b) We should approach AI neither panic-stricken nor as superstitious idolaters. (c) Some (very) basic maths does no harm.

A Capitulation

After an old friend of mine had repeatedly recommended me Laurence Sterne’s »The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman« and praised its quaint humour, I gave in and bought me a (rather early) copy. It’s a book that I really, really would have liked to like but in the end I had to accept that it is too tough a challenge for me. I’ve read several old tomes (Thackeray, Swift, Defoe) without difficulties but »Tristram Shandy« made me hoist the white flag. There were chapters or single sections that I loved but on the whole the style was too intricate for my English and, more importantly, a good part of the many, many allusions and references (some in Latin) that surely were no-brainers for Sterne’s contemporaries were totally lost on me (and I’m a reader who knows – without looking it up – what the Peace of Utrecht was and when it was concluded …).

So that, betwixt both, I write a careless kind of a civil, nonsensical, good-humoured, Shandean book, which will do all your hearts good — And all your heads too, – provided you understand it.

(Laurence Sterne, »The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman«)

I understand why my friend sings eulogies on »Tristram Shandy« but in the end – he studied English language and literature and I didn’t.

And a Disappointment

It’s different with another classic: »Heart of Darkness« by Joseph Conrad. It was an utter disappointment for me and I defy anyone who claims that they loved this novel and that it’s so great and so mystic and whatnot. I’d say that they simply never have read the book but just babble what they think is the right thing to say about it.

»Heart of Darkness« is one of the most boring novels I’ve ever read. An endless wallowing in metaphors, intimations, vagueness and mysticism with almost no plot and no discernible characters. It really annoyed me. – The collection of stories I’ve got (a very fine specimen of the art of printing, by the way) comprises much better stories by Conrad, for example »Youth«.

But this is only my opinion, of course (though I’m absolutely right here …!).

Best of the Rest

There were other interesting books but I do not want this article to become too lengthy. So let me just mention John Hanning Speke’s »Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile« which gives a valuable impression of East Africa around Lake Victoria before the onset of the Scramble for Africa – sure: seen through the eyes of a Victorian Briton, but valuable nonetheless (the one or other reader may be surprised to learn that Africa was not an idyllic garden Eden even then and that the Arabs were not there out of sheer philanthropy). – And also »Eskimo Life« by Fritjof Nansen, one of those who very early raised their voices in defending and trying to save those tough, inventive, and peaceful natives of the Polar regions. I’ll come back to this book in a later post. – »Feet of Clay« was another work by psychologist Anthony Storr, not quite as compelling as his other books that I’ve already mentioned but still worth a read. Storr examines the psychology of Gurus: What are the traits and experiences they share? Surprisingly, the collection does not only consist of the religious charlatans and madmen you’d expect but also includes names like Rudolf Steiner, Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung …

All authorities, whether political or spiritual, should be distrusted, and extremely authoritarian characters who divide the world in »us« and »them«, who preach that there is only one way forward, or who believe that they are surrounded by enemies, are particularly to be avoided.

(Anthony Storr, »Feet of Clay«)

… I stop here. For I do not write books but I read them. :-D