July 26, 2009

Book 39: Memory's Library

Memory's Library: Medieval Books in Early Modern England
Jennifer Summit

I must admit that my feeble attempts to properly "review" this book in any way are, in a sense, futile as this is a strictly academic work that presumes (and rightly so) an extensive knowledge of British history right around the Reformation. Knowledge of Middle English is a must and a working familiarity with Latin will benefit the reader, though long Latin citations are thankfully translated while titles stand unintelligibly in the original. My collegiate experience with the English of the period gave me a cursory knowledge on which to understand the book, but Memory's Library is certainly not a tome for the common, average reader, which is too bad because Summit raises some interesting ideas about libraries and their place in society. Summit traces several strands of library history in distinct chapters necessarily linked by their overlap but which each posits a main thesis; Summit never fails to remind the reader that she "is arguing" even though these "arguments" often read more like litanies of facts or obtuse histories, but no matter. Memory's Library employs a somewhat traditional case-study approach to the history of the major libraries of England during the transitional period between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance or, as it is recast here, the transition from monastic libraries to cultivated personal or university collections.

Summit does a good job keeping the overall picture in mind as she transitions from development to development in English library history within and between her chapters, but her account is free from most contextualizing information and the book would be greatly aided with a timeline and/or an appendix with the lifespans of the book's major players, many of whom seem to fade only to pop up in a later chapter, alive and well and corresponding with someone whose history is said to come well after theirs (the chapter about Bacon does this quite egregiously, and much to my confusion). Likewise, there is a lack of a dramatic narrative feeling in this book; Summit is talking about Big Ideas and Grand Developments in History and there is just story after story without attendant, interesting conversations about the meanings of religious censorship or the rise of literacy; it must be said, however, that the book has discussion of English religious development in spades. She is also somewhat repetitive with her quotes, employing large block quotes only to quote each and every line in later discussion, often multiple times. Memory's Library does trace interesting threads of library development in this particularly turbulent period of English history, but it is not meant for the general reader and is highly inaccessible to those not intimately familiar with the history at hand already. There are salient and relevant poitns about the changing function of libraries (such as an engaging discussion of Richard Cotton's library and the emergence of the idea of primary sources), but they are somewhat lost in the endless academic noise.

Grade: B-

July 23, 2009

Book 38: Maps and Legends

Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands
Michael Chabon

Usually, I'm not really one for essays, and I picked this book up on a whim and having recognized the author's name from The Yiddish Policemen's Union. I believe, after reading this wonderful and whimsical collection, that I will have to read more essays. Chabon keeps his topics close at hand in this book, which focuses on the arts of reading and writing throughout and whose essays are usually either either specific criticism or personal anecdotes, and weaves the concept of literary borderlands throughout all of his essays, giving the book an overall theme without adding unnecesasry weight or focusing too much on a thesis or particular axe to grind. If there is any overall thesis to the work it would be the theme, introduced eloquently and humorously in the opening "Trickster in a Suit of Lights", that genre fiction is not to be overlooked and that much literary innovation takes place on the boundaries of genre, where tropes collide and authors experiment to create a sum that is not merely greater than but transcends its parts. Though Chabon writes with authority, he does not seem full of himself and offers what seem to be genuine potshots at himself as he describes his childhood and his early attempts at writing, stories that are referenced in some essays and fully described in others and which give Maps and Legends a semi-autobiographical quality that is light and fun and which gives readers a sense of Chabon's credibility and a sense of familiarity that, in this case, breeds respect.

Despite the fact that a few of the essays herein are focused tightly on one work or body of work, only "The Killer Hook", which focuses on a comic series called American Flagg!, suffers for readers' lack of familiarity. Essays on The Road and the His Dark Materials trilogy are fleshed out with much plot detail and make general points about literature that are supported by the summaries Chabon gives, though these summaries take up the great weight of these essays and become a bit cumbersome as they ramble on without context or interpretation. Regardless, it is easy to sense throughout Maps and Legends Chabon's unceasing affinity for genre fiction and playful literature; his book can be taken as an argument for the respect of now-marginalized fiction and it is difficult to come away from a delightful little essay like "Kids' Stuff" without wanting to run straight for the comic shelves or, better, to write the kind of comic Chabon describes therein. Chabon's essays on other works provide great insight into a modern author's mind and on the state of literature in general, particularly when he posits that the current critical darling lit-fic genre is, itself, a genre with tropes often stricter than those found in science fiction or fantasy; that he does this with gracious humor is a bonus and keeps him from seeming pompous. It is easy to share his disdain.

The essays at the end of the book take a far more serious and autobiographical turn than the more critical first essays, but it is here that Chabon is at his strongest. "Imaginary Homelands" is a fascinating and fresh look at the meaning of Judaism in the post-Israel world, meditative and funny and with an overall poignance that is quite touching and which provokes much thought. Also delightful are his anecdotes about creating his own work and the difficulty of inspiration, particularly "My Back Pages", which combines storytelling with light literary criticism and a thread of self-criticism that pulls the whole thing together and creates an inspiring piece for aspiring writers. From the first musings of "Trickster in a Suit of Lights" to the final words of both "Golems I Have Known" and its phenomenal postmodern postscript, Michael Chabon illuminates the world of fiction in diverse essays that share enough links to make a whole book without shedding individual grace and without becoming overbearing. Any lover of literature, and especially lovers of genre fiction, would be hard-pressed to find more amusing and insightful essays than these and readers of all stripes can appreciate Chabon's mode of self-reflection and intellectual grappling with the state of literature today. I loved every minute of this collection and thirst for more of Chabon's work, both fiction and non-fiction.

Grade: A

July 20, 2009

Book 37: The Social Life of Information

The Social Life of Information
John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid

It's back to the nonfiction with this book, which is an outlook on the possible trajectories of information technology from the authors' starting point around the turn of the Millennium. It's strange to revisit this book a full eleven years after most of its examples have had the chance to play out, and though it isn't fair to judge the book simply by the authors' inability to accurately forsee the future, it is hilarious to note a few instances where they are hilariously wrong (my personal favorite is assuming that a start-up will never be able to capture a market again; hello, Google). It is not these forgivable failures that sink The Social Life of Information, however. Buried within its excessive verbosity and obsession with authors' employer are interesting ideas, sure, but it is too damn hard to find them in the rambling, often contradictory prose offered by Brown and Duguid. The authors are perhaps a bit too enthusiastic as they fill their pages with incomprehensible jargon and work on the underlying assumption that readers share a strong business background. Particularly egregious is a mention of 6D thinking well before the list of 6Ds, odd buzzwords that all begin with de- or dis- and which are completely obtuse and unexplained, popping up occasionally in subsequent chapters (despite the authors' insistence that the "essays" can be read in any order). I mean, what does "disintermediation" even mean? Instead of shoring up their argument by explaining how each D represents a trend, the authors leave the words uselessly hanging.

This type of assumptive writing is prevalent throughout the book, which teems with unexplained examples that seem unrelated to the text at large and which unexpectedly pop up later after being left hanging for far too long. Brown and Duguid indulge in technical talk that is, at best, self-indulgent and throw in bonus-point vocabulary words that detract from meaning and come across as flagrant showboating. Their inability to construct an academic argument also adds an air of self-importance; though there are several coherent points in the book, these are repeated as bite-sized tidbits and aren't connected to the data presented. Often, Brown and Duguid use the book as a platform to attack futurologists and predictions of the future, a tendency that is hilarious when they are wrong (which is often) and ironic when they devote twenty pages or so to describing a future of universities which hasn't come to pass yet and doesn't seem to be close. It's paradoxical that in their love of paradox-exposing and use of the word "paradoxical" they unwittingly create a paradox in their own book. Amidst all this bad writing, they make the same point time and again. The Social Life of Information argues, where arguments can be found, that technology can't be ripped from the social context of humanity; the way we use information is as important as how we use information. Brown and Duguid have come up with many interesting examples of this but can't seem to connect them with each other or with larger principles; it's up to the reader to connect the dots and to discard the 85-90% of the book that is useless statistics and almost-unreadable language. The Social Life of Information is an interesting attempt to contextualize technology, but only hardcore information buffs willing to withstand a battery of poor prose should bother with this incoherent list of sometimes interesting ideas.

Grade: C

July 16, 2009

Book 36: The Invention of Morel and Other Stories (from La Trama Celeste)

The Invention of Morel and Other Stories (from La Trama Celeste)
Adolfo Bioy Casares

Jorge Luis Borges calls The Invention of Morel perfect in no uncertain terms in his introduction to that story, and while he is guilty of the hyperbole he claims to avoid, Casares's story of the strange experiences of a lonely fugitive inhabiting a mysterious island is an excellent and philosophical tale that effortlessly raises issues of free will, love, and immortality without resorting to haughty third-person narration or explicitly discussing these issues out side of the realm of the story. This is a story that is about so much more than its adventure, but it is nonetheless a moving story presented in an engaging and easy-to-read translation by Ruth L. C. Simms. Casares knows how to work with narrative tension, allowing his story to rise and fall without seeming artificial and allowing just enough of the plot ot remain curious and uncertain to produce a riveting tale. His use of an unreliable narrator is absolutely magical as the reader must choose what, exactly, to believe of the fugitive who may be losing his mind or who may have stumbled upon a morally ambiguous and life-altering invention. There are points where the story gets a bit confusing without adding tension or any real benefits to the story and for some reason Casares has an invented editor chiming in throughout the story to discredit the narrator or make asinine comments that may lend themselves to scrutiny of the story's credibility but which only pull the reader out of the story and which cause far more confusion than they clear up. Overall, The Invention of Morel is an engaging tale that posits a world-altering invention and lends itself to philosophical ramblings while maintaining an interesting story line that takes a drastic and tragic turn at its final crescendo.

The other stories in this edition, which together comprise Casares's short story collection La Trama Celeste, provoke similar feelings in the reader, if they are not executed as admirably or are as engaging and interesting beyond themselves. Aside from the incomprehensible "The Future Kings", which doesn't seem to have any sort of significance and which is written poorly and in a confusing manner, the stories of La Trama Celeste are engaging and deal with the unique quirks of spirituality and effects of the universe we can never hope to understand. The best story of the collection is by far "The Celestial Plot", which allows the reader to conjure an explanation without being obvious. The story is a delightful maze of a plot that is enjoyable to read and to ponder afterward.

Like most of its cousins here, "The Celestial Plot" uses engaging first-person narration, though Casares shows a taste for nested narratives that seems redundant and is only used with real success in the otherwise mediocre "The Perjury of the Snow". Overall, however, stories such as "In Memory of Pauline" raise some of the issues seen in The Invention of Morel and employ an atmospheric spookiness that is interesting and enveloping. Casares is able to relate the utterly fantastic with a deadpan seriousness that only serves to amplify the celestial nature of his plots and plot twists. While it's true that reading the collection in one sitting can be tiresome as each story follows the same formula, La Trama Celeste is interesting and engaging, certainly pleasant even if each story hinges on one crucial moment and possesses excruciating amounts of unnecessary detail (see "The Other Labyrinth", most of the plot of which is unnecessary but which leaves a lingering effect upon the reader nonetheless). Taken together, The Invention of Morel and the stories of La Trama Celeste do well to create a mood of the unexpected and present the work of a master of the fantastic. Everything is just a bit off-kilter in these worlds, and the effect is, more often than not, delightful.

Grade: B+

July 9, 2009

Book 35: Library: An Unquiet History

Library: An Unquiet History
Matthew Battles

In keeping with my recent theme of studying up for my, er, study of library science, I checked out this slim volume on the history of the archiving instinct. It is, for its size, fairly comprehensive chronologically as it stretches from the first collections of stone tablets in the Fertile Crescent through the magnificent Alexandria to the humdrum (and infamous) Melvil Dewey and, inexplicably and out of left field, immigrant narratives from turn-of-the-century America. The problem with any slim volume that attempts to be a complete history is that it must, by necessity, contain holes and, though Battles takes an admirable approach, there are too many holes in Library: An Unquiet History. The book does a good job at tracing the history of the library through examples that exemplify the values of libraries for the given time period, but some examples are far better than others and the book gains much momentum as it moves through history. The first chapter is by far the weakest, an inexplicable collection of trivial tidbits that bear no relation to the text at large and which do nothing to set the gears of time in motion or introduce the text at all. Thankfully, the writing improves but Battles maintains a close focus on trivia and a hearty distaste for context that plagues the book until its final third.

Library: An Unquiet History hits several turning points on the library's journey from elite collection to public free-for-all, but it hits them so perfunctorily and completely that any sense of transition is lost; there is no set-up between punches as they just keep coming. Some examples, like Swift's epic Battle of the Books as allegory, are useful but too drawn out in such a slim volume, existing solely for their own sake and over-explaining far too much in such a small study. Other examples, while interesting (such as the mechanization of the book-making process), are well-written but belong in a different volume. The truly shining examples used in this book are the Dewey Decimal System and the ideology of the nineteenth-century libraries it exemplifies as well as the Nazis' rampant book-burnings, both of which are presented with rich context and an examination of the history and development of the library and its relation to reading and general historical movements. Unfortunately, however, the excellent examples are somewhat hidden in the muddy excess of ephemera and poorly explained and connected trivia bits. Battles shows promise in so many places, but just as a lighthearted search for his own book in a modern library turns into a self-glorifying meditation on his own importance (he assumes someone has checked it out and preposterously suggests it could be classified as either memoir or fiction, proving the antithesis of his point). Ultimately, this book is useful for those heavily invested in the topic who can suspend the critical eye and glean as much information as possible from the scattered stories herein, but fails as an all-encompassing or even particularly thesis-driven work of general-interest history.

Grade: B-

July 7, 2009

Book 34: The Anarchist in the Library

The Anarchist in the Library
Siva Vaidhyanathan

The problem with so much nonfiction lies not in the ideas it espouses but the ways in which those ideas are presented, often with academic arrogance, disjointed ideas, and unexciting writing. Unfortunately, Siva Vaidhyanathan falls prey to all of these vices in The Anarchist in the Library, a book intended to be a jarring look at how anarchistic principles govern the Internet and information sharing systems in the real world. Instead, the book becomes a jumble of interesting, if poorly presented, ideas and grand pronouncements the author hilariously seemed to miss when declaring modesty in the book's concluding chapter. The book wisely begins with cursory definitions of anarchy and Cynicism (in the Greek philosophy sense) but almost immediately goes astray when these are presented in a confusing manner that presumes knowledge on the reader's part while attempting to serve as an introduction to the ideas in question. Things get more confusing from there as Vaidhyanathan continuously points out anarchy in systems but leaves it only as a label, taking it only at face value and failing to connect the dots or examine how the supposed anarchy is affecting the systems in question. This failure is also present at a mroe general level; it is possible to see what Vaidhyanathan is getting at in his discussion of anarchy and the rampant digital distribution of unauthorized free songs or the nuanced problems copyright (on which he appears to be an expert), but his discussion of the WTO and the People's Republic of China is a bit more obtuse and simply exists without any explanatory threads to connect it to the other ideas in the book.

It isn't that Vaidhyanathan's ideas aren't interesting or provocative; on the contrary, presented more coherently they could form a powerful manifesto about the digital age. The problem is that The Anarchist in the Library is far too concerned with naming systems and practices that promote or disrupt the reigning oligarchies and not nearly concerned enough with explaining how this is happening, why he calls it anarchy, or why it's important. Some overall themes are hinted at in the book's conclusion but they are far too little and come far too late. It is interesting, and perhaps fitting, that Vaidhyanathan's book seems to mirror the systems he describes within: it is a loose connection of ideas presented here, there, and everywhere with only the slightest hint of any editorial oversight. Some are excellent and well-presented (his discussion about copyright is engaging and well presented) while many are confusing and unnecessarily alarmist. In that sense, there's a kind of anarchy in this book, a collection of interesting ideas that just kind of float there and would benefit from some higher control, the kind of control Vaidhyanathan is consistently suspicious of in his book. Ironic, eh?

Grade: C

July 4, 2009

Book 33: Why We Read What We Read

Why We Read What We Read: A Delightfully Opinionated Journey Through Contemporary Bestsellers
Lisa Adams and John Heath

Upon finding that I needed a break from the Internet theory books and the challenging nonfiction, I decided to look at this meta-book, which takes recent bestseller lists and looks at trends and what they might say about the American psyche- or at least the psyche of American readers. Just as the subtitle promises, Why We Read What We Read is delightfully opinionated in parts and delivered with a sly cynicism that is neither overwhelming nor inappropriate. The tone of the book is light throughout and the authors give a fair shake at everything from diet books to Regency romances to the Left Behind series while drawing pointed conclusions about American literary habits. It's obvious that this study isn't meant to be an end-all, be-all summation of the current reading public, but the authors do a remarkably thorough job of wading through recent bestsellers and a good job presenting their data, if it is a bit tiresome occasionally. They do an excellent job of categorizing the main traits of bestselling fiction and wisely group books that are thematically or structurally similar: it just makes sense to talk about self-help books together and, as in the lumping of political nonfiction with thrillers that embrace the same stark good/evil divide, their categories themselves are as illuminating (and well-supported) as their conclusions.

Though the book's sarcastic humor and excellent organization make it a fun and easy read, the authors can get a big preoccupied with sharing their data. The problem with writing about books for a general audience is that the audience can't be presumed to know the books, and any conclusions will be empty and insupportable without presenting data. Why We Read What We Read uses data, a lot of it, and the book is jam-packed with descriptions of books that at times overwhelm the conclusions drawn by the authors about them. Readers leave knowing the plots and outlines of a variety of books, but it's a bit harder to explain just how the authors felt each category spoke about the American reading psyche. Summations of individual books can be long and unnecessary at times, and the book occasionally seems like a collection of summaries with some short conclusions attached. Nonetheless, when the conclusions appear they are revealing and interesting, flowing perhaps more from the authors' preconceptions than the data itself, such as it is, but intriguing nonetheless. The book culminates brilliantly in a final chapter that takes the trends outlined in the preceding pages and attempts to explain the massive dominance of The Da Vinci Code in recent American book buying habits. Overall, Why We Read What We Read is an entertaining look at trends in recent bestselling books and its conclusions, while not decisive, are convincing and interesting along with the authorial insight about books readers may have read. Why We Read What We Read is a quick jaunt through the book-buying public's mind that should provoke much thought in its own readers.

Grade: B+

July 1, 2009

Book 32: Small Pieces Loosely Joined

Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web
David Weinberger

Unfortunately, the very premise of this book's subtitle is false when compared to the book beneath its cover, as admitted directly by author David Weinberger and as evidenced by the construction of the book itself, which more directly follows the direction of its headline. The irony of the idea of a "unified theory of the Web" is central to this book and Weinberger's sly acknowledgement of how inapt this title is in its own way sums up Small Pieces Loosely Joined: the author alternates between anecdotes of questionable relevance to the book as a whole and bits of misplaced, occasionally offensive, and nearly always flat attempts at humor. It isn't that the ideas in this book are bad or misguided; indeed, as Weinberger sums up his book in its final chapter, he presents a very interesting thesis about the Web and the ways in which it is making human experience more human than our experiences of what we call the "real world". The problem is that Small Pieces Loosely Joined is exactly what its title promises. The book is an often incoherent jumble of difficult philosophy, real-world examples, and online examples that read much more like ads than pieces used to construct an argument. In this context, which relies heavily on the theoretical while using abstract concrete examples that require much more lucid explanations than those offered, it is almost refreshing to note the author's perplexing and absolute obsession with online pornography, which slips in every few pages no matter what the topic and which makes a hilarious, laugh-out-loud cameo in the final sentence of the book. This is the humor that works.

With Weinberger's woefully inept attempts at humor crashing quickly and often, it is reasonable to assume that his interest in web pornography is deep and his continued references to it an unintentionally funny rearing of Dr. Freud's esteemed head. Regardless, Weinberger makes some interesting points in between the failed jokes and porno fetishism, though they come unexpectedly and haphazardly in the uneven text. Many of Weinberger's points, while potent, are a bit abstract and rely so heavily on the context he builds, often unreliably, that they are ultimately lost in the noise. Others, while interesting, seem to bear no relation to the text at hand: I am lost as to how the section on "bits" and their delivery systems relates to the idea that the Web is most useful as a tool for creating and connecting groups. Weinberger seems so intent on making his points fit into the categories he has invented that the book loses its sense of flow and logic; there are a lot of small pieces and some are loosely joined but others float freely and are lost. Weinberger is at his most potent when he keeps it simple and uses web examples to illustrate how the prevalence of the Internet in our lives is connecting us in unforseen ways and compressing and changing our notions of space and time. In a few sections he does make good comparisons between the physical, mental, and Web realms, but the philosophy behind his points is too complex (and subsequently too watered down) to connect to most readers. Ultimately, Small Pieces Loosely Joined provides a few theories about the Web, champions a few select websites, hilariously refers to Google as "www.Google.com" (though Weinberger can hardly be blamed for that), unevenly presents complex existential philosophies, and explains how Web porn relates to each and every one of its points. If only it came with its own Wiki or comment pages.

Grade: B-