Novelty: A History of the New by Michael North

If the science and arts were to have a common principle, it would be their mutual pursuit of the new. However, is anything truly new if that which is ‘new’ is built upon the old?

This is what this book examines, as the title affirms. By definition, ‘novelty’ is the new and original. What distinguishes North’s approach from many is that he views art and science as overlapping matters, and switches the focus of topics on physics then language as though they were ideas of the same spectrum, and are of the same light. The book does not compartmentalise science and art as two categories; rather, it describes many phenomena it relation to the history of novelty in both fields.

Divided into seven chapters and two main parts, the book analyses newness from times as early as Plato, Kant and Darwin, to Ezra Pound and many more. It reviews change and ‘the new’ from a historical perspective, considering the main fields of science and art, and their diverse sub-fields, to answer one of the oldest questions of philosophy: “What is meant by ‘new’? Is it more than reshuffling and rearranging?” It also discusses the order of nature, and how time “experiences no gains and no losses”. The author proposes the idea that humans desire change, and desire novelty, because of “the thrill of the new” by quoting Hannah Ardent, who says, “The new is the longing for the new, not the new itself. This is the curse of everything new.” Such timeless quotes of intellectuals are analysed throughout the book and left for the reader to ponder.

North shows us that novelty’s arrival is only found in the recurrence of something that is already there, or the recombination of the old. He describes this through examples from nature, the renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, evolution – and of course, philosophy.

Something that is taken for granted, and rarely the ‘hot topic’ of discussion is the newness of matters in life. To view novelty in the light that North proposes, introduces the reader to the lifelong debate on novelty – one that predates Socrates – and one that is taken for granted. Indulging in this book provides – rather fittingly – a new perspective and gratitude for novelty. All that is new, is perhaps, not new at all, for life is one that is of order, and randomness is not very random, given that for science, “matter chooses the useful, viable configurations out of all those randomly available”. All that is new, then, is possibly simply a reorganisation of that which is old and already present – or not. That is up for you to decide.

Perhaps the quest for novelty is instinct, for we desire most that which we cannot have:

“…. every actual instance of the new is a violation of its category and thus an emotional disappointment. The passion for the new is a feeling that always keels over into suffering, since it is a desire motivated by its own unrealizability.”

Book Recommendation

That Is Her Picture and This Is the Lover’s Suicide

Novelty: A History of the New by Michael Northby Mahmoud Darwish

A book of poetry by Palestine’s national poet, the late Mahmoud Darwish, that is best read aloud. The poems cover the themes of love, longing, and home. The language is bound to rekindle deep emotions of unity and nostalgia.

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