Haruki Murakami: ‘You have to go through the darkness before you get to the light’

His surreal stories are read by millions but the Japanese novelist is bemused by his celebrity. The eternal Nobel favourite reveals why his books appeal in times of chaos

The day before we meet in Manhattan, a woman stopped Haruki Murakami in Central Park, where he had come for his late-morning run. “Excuse me,” she said, “but aren’t you a very famous Japanese novelist?” A faintly odd way of putting the question, but Murakami responded in his usual equable manner. “I said ‘No, really I’m just a writer. But still, it’s nice to meet you!’ And then we shook hands. When people stop me like that, I feel very strange, because I’m just an ordinary guy. I don’t really understand why people want to meet me.”

It would be a mistake to interpret this as false modesty, but equally wrong to see it as genuine discomfort with ...

How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics by Michael Pollan – review

Pollan’s illuminating history of hallucinogenic drugs reveals that their mystical and medical benefits are indivisible

In 1938, the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, seeking a new drug to stimulate blood circulation, accidentally invented lysergic acid deithylamide, or LSD. Later, after inadvertently absorbing a minuscule quantity through his skin, he was obliged to stagger home and lie down on his sofa, where, “in a dreamlike state, with eyes closed… I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colours”. It was more than an impressive display, though: Hoffman felt convinced he’d been inducted into a secret of the universe, “the mystical experience of a deeper, comprehensive reality”. Mere days after the birth of LSD, scientists split the first uranium atom. One of these two world-jolting events went on to reshape civilisation, but by the mid-1960s, the other had been banished to the shadows. Research funding ceased ...

The Power Paradox by Dacher Keltner review – how success triggers self-absorption

Powerful people believe it’s fine for them to break rules others should follow. The psychologist whose work informed the movie Inside Out discovers how to get to the top It is far safer to be feared than loved,” wrote Niccolò Machiavelli in The Prince, the founding text of the philosophy of realpolitik. These days, anyone wishing to establish their credentials as a hard-headed commentator on global affairs need only echo that bleak assessment: sure, it’s all very well for do-gooders to preach love and charity – but force, or the threat of it, is the only language everyone always understands. The American psychologist Dacher Keltner begs to differ. When you closely observe chimpanzees – or other primates, such as kindergartners or university students – you’ll find it is not the bullies and manipulators who gain power, he writes. Rather, it is those who demonstrate empathy and enthusiasm, solve ...

Do we really need more guides to mindfulness?

From Ruby Wax to poetry anthologies, 2016 brings a glut of mindfulness titles. But does the art of living in the here and now require so many special guides? I have a personal theory that almost everyone secretly meditates, whether they realise it or not – even the kind of people who’d make extravagant “I’m being sick” gestures were you to suggest they attend a Buddhist retreat. Scratch the surface and you’ll find that almost everyone pursues some activity demanding absolute presence of mind: if not mountain climbing or sailing or bike racing (where a lapse of attention might mean death), then photography or singing or recreational cookery (where a lapse of attention means you’ll screw things up). Train spotting and caring for a newborn arguably occupy different ends of the scale of worthwhile pursuits – but they’re both incompatible with getting totally lost in thoughts of the past or ...

All-day podcasts and brick-sized books. Or, why 2015 was the year the long form fought back

Digital-age culture was meant to be bite-sized. But novels are getting longer, and I have learned to enjoy Wilbur Smith Shortly before Christmas, Wilbur Smith, the writer of airport novels, gave an interview to a Sunday newspaper in which he spoke of his four wives in the following tender terms: “Two of them died on me, the first one hates me, and this one loves me, so I’ve covered the whole spectrum.” He no longer saw his children, he added: “They’ve got my sperm, that’s all … it’s sadder for them than it is for me, because they’re not getting any more money.” Perhaps the most charitable response was to observe that at least Smith was being consistent here: the real people in his life seemed as two-dimensional, judging from these descriptions, as the typical Smith hero, who is a rugged outdoorsman with a passion for hunting, hard ...

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro review – a landmark study

Caro’s profile of America’s greatest town planner is monumental in its own right – a peerless analysis of how millions of lives are still ordered daily by a singular vision

Technically, Robert Caro’s book The Power Broker is a biography of urban planner Robert Moses, but that description feels laughably inadequate on multiple counts. For more than four decades, this particular urban planner was the most powerful man in New York, an unelected emperor who dominated the mayors and governors who were supposedly in charge, and who physically reshaped the city through sheer force of will. Caro’s enormous book, meanwhile, is less a life story than an epic, meticulously detailed study of power in general: how it’s acquired, how it’s used to change history, how it ultimately corrupts those who get it.

First published in 1974 – Barack Obama read it aged 22, and was “mesmerised” – The Power Broker was ...