The Bed of Procrustes

Author: Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Publisher: Penguin Books (NZ) (3/5)
The outer aesthetic appeal of The Bed of Procrustes is equal to that of its content. A short book, charmingly presented (with a classical sculpture adorning its cover), it consists of chapters on various aspects of living e.g. ‘Ethics’, ‘Charming and Less Charming Sucker Problems’, ‘On the Varieties of Love and Non-Love’ and so on. Each chapter consists of a number of short aphorisms merely a sentence long. This structure is undoubtedly a commentary on the human propensity for categorisation, our tendency (given the limits of our knowledge and abilities) to “squeeze life into reductive categories and pre-packaged narratives”, much like Procrustes who, in fitting visitors into his “special bed”, would chop off their legs if they were too tall, or stretch them out if they were too short. At the same time as challenging this approach to knowledge, Taleb evidences it in the form of his work, each aphorism attempting to appear as self-evident truth, a neat categorisation when really they are only one writer’s opinion on life and how to live, the world being much more complex than can be adequately surmised by one elegantly worded axiom.
That these aphorisms are akin to the aforementioned ‘reductive categories and pre-packaged narratives’ is what makes this book so easy to read – we are comfortable with this approach to knowledge as it is straight-forward and focused. The form is simple, hence the sense of sophistication we derive from the reading experience. And many of the ideas Taleb postulates are elegantly worded and attractive, my personal favourite being “you need to keep reminding yourself of the obvious: charm lies in the unsaid, the unwritten, and the undisplayed. It takes mastery to control silence”. 
As an epistemological novelette, Taleb’s work explores the boundaries of knowledge, “how we deal and should deal with what we don’t know”. This manifests itself in both the form and substance of the book, the content of the wise little aphorisms and the manner in which they are related. But the latter exploration is the most interesting to me - as Marshall McLuhan once wrote, “the medium is the message," and Taleb either plays with this idea to delightful effect or adopts this structure simply to relate his profound and meaningful “truths” to people in a form they will understand (i.e. via neat categorisation). Either way this was an easy and enjoyable read, particularly good for those of you with a knowledge of Classics and Philosophy. Perfect for the coffee table. 

Posted 2:59am Monday 21st March 2011 by Kari Schmidt.