Tribute to Jim Flynn, philosopher, author, genius

Mary Varnham from Awa Press pays tribute to Jim Flynn, who passed away on 11 December 2020.

I first met Jim in 1966 as a student at Otago University of what was then called Political Science. Later, when I was working towards a Masters in the subject, I got to know Jim a lot better as he held tutorials as well as lectures. These tutorials were mentally exhausting as Jim rattled in his inimitable Chicago accent through complicated theories, concepts and ideas at breakneck speed. When he paused to take a breath, he would ask, “Any questions or points of interest?” There was rarely a reply. We were too stunned trying to make sense if it all, trying to arrange our thoughts and not reveal our comparative dimness. At the end of that year Jim invited me to take up a junior lectureship as he was going on sabbatical and needed someone to teach his first-year students. “I couldn’t do that,” I said. ‘Why not?” he said, surprised. “Because I’ve rarely understood anything you’ve said,” I replied. He was bamboozled. “But you’re my star pupil.” It may not have occurred to Jim that not everyone was as bright as he was. I had to admit I had passed his exams simply because I was quite good at rote learning.

Nearly forty years later, in 2009, Jim approached me with a book idea. By then I was the publisher at indie company Awa Press in Wellington. Jim was on a mission. As a staunch advocate of the educative power of reading – he believed that reading great literature can change your life – he had become dismayed that so few of his students seemed to read anything beyond class texts. When he challenged some of them about this, they said, “Okay then, give us a reading list.” That list became The Torchlight List: Around the World in 200 Books, which we published in 2010. Jim pulled no punches (a cliché he would hate). He diagnosed a fatal authorial disease: “writing to please professors of literature, critics and the committee of the Nobel Prize.” One infected author proudly proclaimed his book had no plot: “It contains cooking directions, witches, mermaids, ghosts and ‘the exquisite’,Jim wrote.  The Torchlight List became so popular that a number of high schools challenged their senior students to read a number of books on Jim’s list and thereby gain a Torchlight List certificate.

The New Torchlight List followed in 2016 with more of Jim’s drole and often wildly amusing takes on well-known and not so well-known books and authors. I had admonished Jim to include this time more female writers and New Zealand writers. This set him an enormous challenge. If he was not familiar with an author, he felt he had to read every one of their books before passing judgement. He rated Charlotte Randall highly but was not so sure about Janet Frame. Of Living in the Maniototo, which won the New Zealand book award for fiction, he pithily noted: “It is a superior novel but not brilliant. I wish,” he added, “she had not coined the name Alice Thumb.”

In between we published Fate & Philosophy, which a reviewer praised for “the provocative charm of Flynn’s discussions”. I found to my amazement that my brain had evolved to the extent that I could now, finally, understand what Jim was on about. Take, for example, his statement: “If a flat-earther will not look at the evidence he cannot be convinced that the world is round. I cannot convince a stone of anything. It does not discredit philosophy that reason is effective only with the rational.” Reason is effective only with the rational: this simple notion, so well put, would have saved Americans trying to make sense of Donald Trump an awful lot of time.

Jim is lauded in academic circles for his brilliant analysis of and research on IQ in particular. But I believe that taking the step of publishing these three books for the general reader, rather than an academic audience, was another move of genius on his part. His contention that reading books, both novels and non-fiction, would teach you more than you could ever learn at university was bold, controversial and influential, much like Jim himself. It led to a new public profile when Jim was invited to do a series of talks about books with Noelle McCarthy on Radio New Zealand. He also did many media interviews promoting the power of books and the fulfilment, knowledge and wisdom that comes from reading.

I am proud and honoured to have been Jim’s publisher and also his friend. I value the association we have had over 50 years. Thanks, Jim – it has been a lot of fun.


Mary Varnham

Publisher/Awa Press

December 16, 2020