It’s Meet the Author Monday! Each week we meet a new author and get to know a little about them, their writing process, publishing experience, and tips for other writers. Today we’re talking to Martin Cohen, author of Rethinking Thinking: Problem Solving from Sun Tzu to Google.
About Martin Cohen:
Martin Cohen is a journalist, editor and author specialising in popular books in philosophy, social science and politics. His books include the bestselling 101 Philosophy Problems and Critical Thinking Skills for Dummies as well as more social scientific books such as I Think Therefore I Eat, on food science, and a look at how scientists work called ‘Paradigm Shift’. This sounds rather technical but is actually a great deckchair read, taking a look at many perplexed and perplexing issues in life, from religion to science, from food fads to black holes in space..
Another recent book, now issued in paperback, called The Leaders’ Bookshelf, is all about ideas and inspirations – and how even quite ordinary books can be ‘intuition pumps’ sending their readers off to achieve extraordinary things.
How do generals – and business strategists – outwit their opponents?
Where do designers and artists get their inspiration from?
How can all of us ‘pump up the originality’ and steer our thinking off the standard, well-worn tracks?
Everyone, as the French philosopher René Descartes pointed out long ago, thinks. That’s the easy bit. The harder part, and what this book is really about, is how to make your thinking original and effective. And here the problem is that too often we don’t really engage the gears of our brain, don’t really look at issues in an original or active way, we just respond. Like computers, inputs are processed according to established rules and outputs are thus largely predetermined. Yet that’s not what makes us human and that’s not where the big prizes in life are to be found.
In the third millennium, we need to think a bit more – not less! And so the focus in this book is on practical suggestions about ways to think better… on thinking strategies that each have their own style, applications and benefits.
Author Interview with Martin Cohen:
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- As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
My animal would be the goat. They are nimble animals, who jump from high point to high point, just as I hope my books jump too, in the sense of adopting different perspectives on issues and our, shared world. Thus I’m just as happy looking at life in broad philosophical terms, or through the prisms of particular topics. Such as food policy, even energy policy or even the books people read when they were young.
- What does literary success look like to you?
My most successful book, in terms of copies sold, was 101 Philosophy Problems. This came out in 1999 – yes, so long ago! – and was actually the second book that I wrote, and the first that was published. How awful is that! I mean to have your success so far back in the past. Well, at least I have a successful book, it has kept me going financially and thus enabled me to write other books that I think are worthwhile, but have never found the same kind of audience.
What did success look like, then, you ask? Well, it looked like books in bookstores, as back then there really were bookstores. I could go into big stores and find actual piles of my books on tables. But those days have gone – and not just for me. We have really moved online and the stores today seem to just stock the same handful of titles from the big multinational publishers like Hachette, Harper, Penguin-Random House… all in New York, all totally money-minded.
Little story: I gave a talk alongside a Penguin author once, they were launching their book but they invited me as they were a fan of my books, and their Penguin editor was in the audience. Afterwards we were introduced – but he treated me like a creature from the swamp! Not one of the literary elite. The long-time books editor for the Times Higher, Karen Shook, put it very well, she said I was “unclubable”!
Alas, the book world, as Indy authors will know all too well, is all about being in the club, but back then, the big corporate’s grip was weaker and, back then, success had a physical sign: in seeing two or five or even ten copies of my book in stores in the big cities. Now, I suppose, it is in seeing those “sales rank” figures on Amazon go down into single figures, or at least dipping under the thousands. Alas, most of my books languish in the hundreds of thousands “from the top”. but a few, like Critical Thinking for Dummies have surprised me by clocking in well These days authors spend their time checking websites but there is a very different kind of satisfaction to finding copies or your books in stores!
- What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
As I say, I’ve been in the writing business for a long time now, and so the way I work has (shall we say) “evolved. In the old days, I started by going to a library, yes, one of those, and checking out, actually in the library a big pile of books that I thought might be relevant. Maybe a hundred books.
I’d not READ these books – I’d skim them and take notes. Occasionally, I’d find a book that was really interesting and I might either borrow it or photocopy pages.
Nowadays, though, it is all changed! Really, it IS easier just to go online, even though in a sense there is less there. Google books, you see, has millions of books but not necessarily the right ones, particularly when you consider how much is blocked by filters from reading. Nonetheless, there is a lot there and in principle you can always obtain a physical book after identifying it might be useful online.
But I have to be honest, just as with all things modern and electronic, it seems easier to take what you can get immediately “and for free” off the internet, via Google or chapter previews. There may only be parts of books, but there are so many zillions of them. Because there is also a wealth of information in the form of websites and also (for more technical research) open-access journals.
For me, what research has always been about is “selecting” information, not about brilliant new discoveries. It really is true that very little has not been done or said already. But almost everything has become blurred and confused and forgotten. The art of research to me is to rediscover the important things.
- Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
I read published reviews with great interest, and I appreciate thoughtful reviews anywhere. I’ve been greatly encouraged by enthusiastic personal reviews by readers, they may not realise how much such things mean to authors!
But yes, I’ve had plenty of nasty reviews too. Normally I ignore them but in two cases I did respond as the reviewers were stating publicly things that were flat untrue about me. One was an amazon reviewer, who said things like “Cohen doesn’t seem to know anything about his subject, even saying things like Plato never wrote any books whereas he wrote some of the most famous books of philosophy there are!”. I’m making up this example, by the way, i don’t remember the exact words, but it is to illustrate how a totally false claim can be made by reviewers and it goes beyond them asserting their opinion, which of course is their right and indeed role, however much an author may feel it might have been better if they had spent their time otherwise.
Online is a bit of the Wild West, of course, but I also took up a printed review once. It was published by a senior writer for the respected New Scientist magazine and was intended to be a systematic demolition of my book arguing against nuclear power, called The Doomsday Machine. The reviewer, you see, was in favour of nuclear and didn’t see anything the same way. That’s okay and normal, but again, the review was full of factual errors: positions I did not hold were ascribed to me, “errors” I had not made were ridiculed, specific factual points were garbled. The magazine revised the review so it was still extremely negative, but most of the errors were removed. It didn’t help me to complain but as a writer, I do got to a lot of trouble to be get my facts right, I am mortified when readers write to me to point out errors and always correct them if I can in new editions. For me, books and authors should above all be on “mission truth”! Unfortunately, today, I think we’re losing the battle a bit…
- What is your favourite childhood book?
I read all the Hammond Innes thrillers avidly! Books like The Blue Ice transported me to other, more exciting worlds…
- How many books have you written? Which is your favourite?
I know it sounds a bit weird, but I don’t know how many books I’ve written. That’s because, really, It’s too many and I try to move on!
And I don’t really have a favourite book. However, there is a hierarchy! There’s some I think are cleverer, like Critical thinking Skills, some I think are prettier, like my lavishly illustrated history of philosophy, Cracking Philosophy, and some I just think are more useful, like “I Think Therefore I Eat”.
- Where can readers find out more about you and your books?
I have a very simple, no clicks or whistles, author website. This includes some readable summaries of my books and a collection of links. The address is: martincohenauthor.com
- Have any of your books been made into audiobooks? If so, what are the challenges in producing an audiobook?
Several of my books are audiobooks:
- 101 Philosophy Problems
- 101 Ethical Dilemmas
- The Doomsday Machine
- Critical Thinking Skills for Dummies
- Philosophical Tales
I don’t have to do anything either! So no challenges for me… but I do think some books work better than others. Of this list, it’s Philosophical Tales that I think deserves to be an audiobook most, because the book really is written as “tales” and tales should be narrated in melodic, gentle voice, as these ones are.
- Which of your books were the most enjoyable to write?
It was 101 Philosophy Problems – that early book. I guess it benefitted from my youth and enthusiasm! But I try to enjoy writing… because if I don’t enjoy what I write, why should the reader enjoy reading it?