Why Read this Book?

by F.

After reading Read Montague’s book Why Choose This Book? I was struck by another question: Why read this book? I found it disappointing—which is not to say Montague isn’t a brilliant researcher with some great insights. But the book has few couple big flaws:

1. It sounds like it was written in one sitting—like Montague made a pot of coffee, drank it, took 17 No-Doz, then sat down at his computer and banged it out. This gives the writing verve, but in these days of blogs and other instant media, verve is everywhere. Polish is the scarce resource. Since Montague is agented by the legendary science writer’s agent John Brockman, I’m surprised the book isn’t better.

2. It veers between overexplaining and underexplaining. Montague doesn’t have a feel for the audience. Who is the audience? This isn’t even at the Scientific American level. Again, some great ideas, especially in the penultimate chapter. But there isn’t much depth of explanation. Reading on of these chapter, I kept thinking, “And the point is…is…is…what?”

3. This is a cavil, but the paragraphing is just odd. There were many times when I thought, “new paragraph here” when moving through a big block of text that went over two or three topics. Montague is not a natural writer in the mode of, say, Pinker on E.O. Wilson or Dennett.

Basically, Publisher’s Weekly got it mostly right:

Why do we choose chocolate ice cream over vanilla ice cream? Why do we select one lover rather than another? Baylor University neuroscientist Montague (now a fellow at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study) deftly marries psychology and neuroscience as he probes how we make choices. On one hand, decision making boils down to simple computation. Montague argues that our brains are efficient computational machines. But unlike computers, our brains fix on the goals of survival and reproduction, realizing that every hasty decision can be costly to the survival of the species. Our brains also harbor experiences (memories) that foster the choices we make. On the other hand, we can make choices that go against survival: for instance, we can choose to die for an idea. Why is that? Because, says Montague, human computations involve valuation, choosing between one value and another, requiring computation of cultural and psychological qualities. Although the notion of the brain as a computational machine can be traced at least as far back as Descartes, Montague adds new ideas to our understanding of how our brains compute. But his sometimes engaging and sometimes plodding book doesn’t always explain the complex science for general readers. (Nov.)