The Bed of Procrustes, By Nassim Nicholas Taleb

An opinionated and witty commentator finds the perfect form for his life maxims
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The Independent Culture

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a Wall Street trader-turned- flâneur, is the author of two previous bestselling works of idiosyncratic non-fiction, Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan, on the subject of life's unpredictability. The Bed of Procrustes offers more of the same ("Writing is the art of repeating yourself without anyone noticing") and less of it too: it's a book of aphorisms that slays Taleb's familiar dragons as quickly as possible: "Most modern technologies are deferred punishment." Ker-pow!

The title alludes to a Greek myth. Procrustes offered a brutal type of B&B: if guests were too small for his bed, they were stretched; too big and extraneous parts were lopped off. This, in a nutshell (or duvet cover), is Taleb's beef with modernity: the structures we use to understand the world are simply too rigid to accommodate its infinite variety.

In this context, aphorism might seem a paradoxical way to redress the balance: it is by nature one of the more formulaic of literary modes. Yet, like Twain and Wilde before him, Taleb eats paradoxes for breakfast: "It takes a lot of intellect and confidence to accept that what makes sense doesn't really make sense."

The aphorism is Taleb to a tee. It showcases his wit and learning, and provides ways to fillet his enemies. All his usual suspects are present to be corrected: bankers, fools, politicians, journalists, gym members and anyone who went to Harvard: "I wonder if anyone measured the time it takes, at a party, before a mildly successful stranger who went to Harvard makes others aware of it." Present, too, are his heroes: the curious, the intellectually anarchistic, the idle philosopher. "Preoccupation with efficacy is the main obstacle to a poetic, noble, elegant, robust, and heroic life."

On first glance, The Bed of Procrustes seems rather slight, especially compared with its heavyweight price. But Taleb's personality – wise, annoying, arrogant and funny – ensures it is greater than the sum of its parts. I'll let him have the final say about final says: "A good maxim allows you to have the last word without even starting a conversation."