Well, I’ve got off to a goodish start to the year, having now finished two of the three books that very messily hung over the New Year (I prefer to finish the book I’m reading before midnight on New Year’s Eve, but I’m not sure how often that actually happens!). Here’s my review of Matthew Syed’s “Bounce”, plus news of TWO more books in, although one is a collection rather than reading copy, so that’s OK, then.

Matthew Syed – “Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice”

(28 January 2017)

Bought with a book token after Christmas and birthday season last year (I’m a bit horrified that I’m a full year behind on my reading now!).

This is an interesting book that takes much from sport and chess and talks about its application to other worlds, too. It looks at whether talent actually exists or whether – for example – you can create a chess “genius” from scratch. It turns out that for complex activities like chess and tennis (not so much things like running), genetics don’t matter (except for the very basics, for example basketball and netball players need to be a certain height), talent doesn’t exist and the people who excel (whether that’s Tiger Woods or Mozart or the three daughters of a man who decided to prove a point by making them into chess grandmasters) do so because they’re practise more and with more intent, failing more, than others.

He uses his own career in table tennis to illustrate both the power of practice and, later, theories on “choking” (when someone’s suddenly unable to play) and concentrates on the almost automatic actions people make when practice has drilled it into them. He also brings in the psychological aspects of having a growth instead of fixed mind-set (associated with beliefs in hard work or innate ability, respectively), attitudes to failure and success, and belief (religious or otherwise). He also brings in the fallacy of the role of genetics in sport in a separate chapter that looks at socio-economic reasons why certain people are better long-distance runners or sprinters (something I’ve read about elsewhere in books published since, so he’s been borne out on that one). There was an odd chapter on sports enhancement through drugs and the philosophy of enhancement which seemed to be there to bulk out the book a bit, although it was interesting.

I have to mention that unfortunately a big minus in this book to me was some of the language used. Although it’s not completely contemporary, having been first published in 2009, he refers to “sportsmen” throughout, even though he talks a fair bit about women in sports, too; worse, he uses the word “blacks” to describe people of colour, sometimes putting it in inverted commas when he’s castigating another author for being racist, but not always, and not in the chapter title, and he refers to someone’s “sex-change operation” (I do understand that the term “gender reassignment surgery” might have come to the fore after this book. It might be a smallish matter, but it did grate, and the book could do with an update, as it’s otherwise very good and thought-provoking.

And now to the confessions. Remember how I bought a first edition of Iris Murdoch’s “The Flight from the Enchanter” with my tax rebate? Well, I also bought a copy of “The Sandcastle”, to help complete my earlier books. I found a second printing, which means it came out after the Book Club edition, but it still has the dust jacket and year, so I’m fine with that. I can’t afford or justify being completely precious, and this is my collection, not for profit and gain. Here are the front, back (doesn’t she look like Dora from “The Bell” on the back and spine – it is the same artist who did “The Bell”) plus the blurb. So charming!

And then the Runners’ Bookshelf group I’m in decided to read “Running: Cheaper than Therapy” which is supposed to be hilarious and true, so I clicked and here it is. And it matches “The Sandcastle” in terms of colour terms, so everything’s OK. Right?