BEHIND THE CURTAIN: Who the Sam Hill is Jim Holt?


Part 2—Stopped before reaching Kyoto:
Who the heck is best-selling author Jim Holt? By the norms of Internet information collection, it's remarkably hard to find out.

In this essay for New York Magazine, Holt revealed that, in the summer of 68, he, unlike Jackson Browne, was 13. This would mean that he was born in 1954 or 1955. You can work out his current age from there.


Based upon a few passages in his 2012 book, Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story, it seems That Holt grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia, the city of seven hills. Beyond that, his biographical profile is remarkably fuzzy.

We'd say the standard version of Holt's bio is offered in the blurb promoting his TED Talk. In its overview, TED also provides an upbeat account of Holt's book:
TED: In his 2012 book Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, Jim Holt creates a narrative out of one of the biggest questions we can ask—and how modern scientists and philosophers are asking it. Can answers be found in many-worlds theory, in quantum mechanics, in a theology? Traveling around North America and Europe, he talks to physicists, including David Deutsch; philosophers, including Richard Swinburne; and the novelist John Updike. Why? Because as he tells Vanity Fair, "To me it’s the most sublime and awesome question in all of philosophy and all of human inquiry."

A longtime contributor to the New York Times, Slate and the New Yorker, Holt has written on string theory, time, infinity, numbers, humor, logic, truth and bullshit, among other topics. Holt studied mathematics at the University of Virginia, and was a faculty fellow in the philosophy department at Columbia. He is now at work on a book about free will, weakness of will, self-knowledge and happiness.
Holt has written on bullshit, among other topics. Let's fill out that basic bio:

It's often said that Holt got a master's degree in math at Virginia, then went to Columbia to study philosophy. That "faculty fellow" designation may mean that he was a graduate teaching assistant. We've seen no claim that he received a degree from Columbia, or that he was an actual faculty member.

Somewhat comically, TED quotes Holt's interview with Vanity Fair—an interview which paired him with a young English major one year out of college. As we noted yesterday, the young journalist started the session by telling Holt that she didn't have the first fucking idea what the Sam Hill he was talking about in his book. Holt pretended that this meant that he had "failed" in his book.

Somewhat cynically, we'd wonder if that young woman's statement didn't mean that Holt had actually succeeded in his basic mission. Leaving such speculations to others, we'll note that the Vanity Fair interview gives us some sense of who Holt may actually be.

As we all await Professor Trump's war, we'll also suggest that the interview may give us a tiny peek behind a significant cultural curtain. The foolishness behind that curtain has led us to our current degraded state.

In the summer of 2012, Vanity Fair had tasked Linda Christensen, one year out of Princeton, with interviewing the seer. As we noted yesterday, she quickly said she had no idea what the fuck Holt was talking about in his new book.

But uh-oh! Being well-mannered and well-employed, she quickly added words of mandated praise. In this initial back and forth, we're peeking behind a curtain:
CHRISTENSEN (7/16/12): Mr. Holt—I have to confess: a lot of this book was over my head.

HOLT: Oh no! That’s terrible. I’ve failed.

CHRISTENSEN: That’s not a total negative. It’s certainly an impressive whirlwind of complex arguments in cosmology, philosophy, physics, and mathematics—but why the fixation with being and nothingness?

HOLT: To me it’s the most sublime and awesome question in all of philosophy and all of human inquiry...
It wasn't Christensen's fault that she'd been handed this assignment, for which she had no apparent qualification. Indeed, having been handed this absurd task, she proceeded as best she could.

That said, we see an intriguing juxtaposition as the interview starts. His interlocutor told Jim Holt that she didn't have the first fucking idea what he was talking about. That much said, so what? She quickly added words of high reassurance:

"It’s certainly an impressive whirlwind of complex arguments in cosmology, philosophy, physics, and mathematics," the young scribe unknowingly said. This joined the introductory appraisal she had penned:

Jim Holt had "established himself as an invaluable fixture in the most sophisticated conversations about philosophy, physics, mathematics, and theology today," the young scribe had unknowingly said.

Stating the obvious, this young journalist had no way of knowing whether those judgments made sense. But so what? Having said the book was "over her head," she went on to praise its "complex arguments," having already certified its author's "invaluable" status.

This pattern is widely observed when people like Holt write books of this type. Journalists know they've been assigned to applaud, and so they proceed to do so. A standard group assessment thereby gathers steam.

Our view? Holt's book is, at heart, a giant pile of heavily self-referential bullroar. Again and again as we plow through its text, we're struck by the author's sophisticated humblebragging and by his truly spectacular nonsense.

The intellectual namedropping performed in the book has surely established world records. Other music men play this game, but Holt is a grand past master.

In 1988, Michael Kinsley described the 39-year-old Al Gore as "an old person's idea of a young person." In similar fashion, Holt's book might be seen as an untutored journalist's idea of "an impressive whirlwind of complex arguments" compiled by an "invaluable" guide.

(As we'll note before the week is done, Holt's is precisely the type of book the New York Times will inevitably name as one of the year's ten best. They crowned Holt's book in 2012, did the same thing last year.)

Good God, this book is awful! But before we look at a bit of its text, let's ponder the glimmerings we can glean from the rest of that Vanity Fair interview.

Poor Christensen! Having no idea what Holt's book was about, she was forced to engage in small talk about the process by which it had joined the great chain of being.

As TED tells us, Holt had "travel[ed] around North America and Europe," talking to physicists and philosophers in the course of compiling his book. Early on, Christensen briefly tried working with that:
CHRISTENSEN: How much of this scavenger hunt for answers had you planned out before you began research?

HOLT: In 2009, I thought the journey was going to end up in Kyoto. I ran out of traveling money, actually.


HOLT: It turns out that the Kyoto school of Buddhism makes Heidegger seem like Rush Limbaugh—it’s so rarified, I’ve never been able to understand it at all. I’ve been knocking my head against it for years.


CHRISTENSEN: But you didn’t end up working from there, in the end.

HOLT: I found the Café de Flore in Paris to be a very convenient base from which to operate. It’s where Jean-Paul Sartre wrote Being and Nothingness and hung out with Simone de Beauvoir during the war, and Descartes is buried right across the square. And Leibniz, when he was in Paris, was also right across the street.
We're sparing you Holt's fuller thoughts on the Kyoto school. We're giving you the tiniest taste of the book's high culture foppishness, along with a taste of the nonstop intellectual namedropping to which we have alluded.

At the Café de Flore, Holt was operating right across the street from the place where Leibniz once had been! Concerning Holt's reference to "traveling money," this exchange raised a basic question for us about this piddlerich book:

Who in the world paid for all the hard traveling Holt performs in the book? For all the trips to Paris, and to Oxford and/or Cambridge? For all the fancy meals Holt describes himself consuming? Not to mention the bottles of wine!

Given the worthlessness of this book, why was there any money to fund this manifest nonsense? Presumably, we can feel blessed that the money ran out before Holt reached Kyoto. But given the glimpses Holt provides of his own background; given his relatively light prior output; we're curious how a high-livin' grab bag of nonsense like this ever got funded at all.

Christensen didn't ask. Instead, she proceeded to a standard question, triggering an incorrect answer:
CHRISTENSEN (continuing directly): Bone to pick: your list excludes women.

HOLT: It wasn’t meant to be that way! I was going to include a Harvard physicist who’s not only a woman but she’s extremely attractive. But then I alienated her by writing an insufficiently favorable review of a book of hers in the Times. So I never asked her—it would have been too gelid an atmosphere.
Poor Christensen! She tried to throw in a type of question which was standard even in 2012. For her trouble, she received a tone deaf remark about a Harvard physicist "who’s not only a woman but she’s extremely attractive."

Holt seems to refer to Harvard's Lisa Randall, high school classmate of Brian Greene. Given Holt's review of Randall's book, any such conversation would have been too "gelid," the VF scribe was told.

Christensen didn't complain. With the book's actual contents off limits, she took one more side trip:
CHRISTENSEN: The book is just as much a personal journey as it is one of science—what made you want to include autobiographical elements into your analysis?

HOLT: Of course, there was a certain amount of death intruded into the book—first of all, one of the philosophers almost killed me—but also my dog dies while I’m in Austin. It’s the best part of the book—it’s really sad. And then later, my mother dies towards the end, and it’s kind of tacky to exploit the death of one’s mother, but I saw not only a self but the self that engendered my own being flicker out of existence. Contemplating the question of why the world exists makes one contemplate the precariousness of one’s own existence.
"One of the philosophers almost killed me?" As we'll likely explain in a later installment, this is a humblebrag, of a type which pervades this book.

That said, Christensen gets credit for noticing the constant self-reference in this high philosophical work. The best part of his book concerns the death of his dog, the invaluable philosophe says. It was really sad.

Can that possibly be the best part of this deeply sophisticated book? Tomorrow, we'll look at some actual text from Holt's "detective story." We'll be peeking behind a cultural curtain as we take this step.

Tomorrow: Spectacular nonsense of the type the New York Times runs to reward


  1. Somerby says: "As we all await Professor Trump's war, we'll also suggest..."

    Why does Somerby refer to Trump as "Professor" when trump has no academic credentials at all?

    The term Professor doesn't even refer to someone with a doctorate in some subject. It is a title that refers to someone with an academic appointment at a university. More specifically, it is a job title and refers to someone with the rank of full professor. Others are referred to as lecturers or assistant professors or teaching fellows.

    Somerby gives this title to Trump. Why? In part, it mocks Trump. The more likely reason is that it mocks professors to consider Trump to be one of them.

    This is snide and unwarranted. It takes someone, in addition to the four years required to earn a B.A. or B.S., upwards of 5 years (often 8-10, sometimes 12-14 years) of additional study to earn a doctorate. It often takes considerable personal sacrifice and it is not easy to do. Then, in a job market where only 23% can expect a tenure-track job, it takes additional years to obtain a position and work one's way up the job ladder. Promotions take the same kind of dedication that earns partnerships at law firms, the same number of hours and the same sacrifice. If you don't get tenure, you lose your job and have to start the job search and promotion effort all over again somewhere else. Other jobs do not require this.

    So, on what basis does Somerby mock professors? I think it is small-mindedness and envy. He obviously didn't enjoy his time at Harvard and he seems to blame professors for something -- his failure to do well at university, perhaps? Hard to say when Somerby is so indirect about everything he writes. Easier to lump Trump and professors into the same sentence, a casual slander of people who largely work hard and do their best to advance human knowledge in many different subjects.

    Do some professors occasionally say questionable things, especially when expressing personal opinions rather than writing for an academic audience? So does everyone else. That is no reason for this stupid vendetta against them. Somerby should be above this crap.

    1. You seem to lack a sense of humor (and perhaps you think too much).

  2. "Christensen gets credit for noticing the constant self-reference in this high philosophical work."

    Most people find it difficult to make contact with highly abstract ideas like those contemplated by philosophy. Including autobiographical information is a way to sustain interest by providing something people can relate to.

    Is there any difference between the way Holt uses his mother's death, the loss of his dog, references to his own life to sustain interest and the way Sheryl Sandberg uses her husband's death, her own grief, her children's needs to put herself on the bestseller list and keep members of the public interested in her highly visible life?

    I find anyone who would give a TED talk to be highly suspect, to begin with. Are you aware that people pay to give those talks -- to stand up on a stage and wave their arms while entertaining others in the name of pseudo-education? Who does that? Meet the new hucksters.

    Somerby doesn't like the idea of philosophy (or cosmology) for the masses. He thinks people shouldn't enjoy pretending to understand obscure ideas as recreation. That should be reserved for college undergrads like he was who think they should be able to assess the value of popular books on the subject despite stopping their education with graduation (or maybe before). Somerby has no more right to critique the book than the young reporter he calls out. But what exactly is the harm in pretending the secrets of the universe are accessible with minimal effort and a bit of entertainment? What does it hurt?

  3. In another world, Holt's dog did not die.

  4. God forbid that thirty or so elementary students of color would be paired with a Philosophy major less than a year out of college as their teacher because he was avoiding military servoice.

  5. You state that Somerby "was avoiding military servoice [sic]." Do you know that for a fact?
    Beside that, I avoided military service, as I was reluctant to go off to war in Viet Nam, a war that was a mistake. Does that make me a coward, or somehow morally degenerate in your view?

  6. The investment people have in loathing Somerby is astounding. They actually come here for no other reason than to fluff their pathetic hate boners.

    Very icky.

    1. I don't know if ad hominem hurts or helps, but it is certainly the order of the day here, and with more sadness than rancor, it is impossible to escape the fact Bob Somerby is an idiot.

    2. You're dumb

      Ooo, Déjà vu!