April 29, 2010

Book 20: The Nice and the Good

The Nice and the Good
Iris Murdoch

I fear that my response to this book is colored by the blurbs on its back, which promise an exploration of the difference between being nice and being good- an interesting distinction that does appear, however briefly, in the book. The man difficulty with this particular novel is that none of its characters, save for a pair of precocious and hilarious twins, are particularly likeable. The suicide mystery that provides most of the plot momentum (where the plot moves at all) is solved quickly and proceeds with little suspense. Indeed, the main cause for readers' uncertainty is the ever-changing coupling that simply fails to be interesting. Without any real appeal to readers, it is difficult to care about which of the characters are (shockingly!) in unrequited love or sleeping with one another. Even though they are clearly sketched and act understandably, it is simply impossible to care about the people who populate this novel. This meandering coupling and re-coupling and petty angst flows along until an absolutely ridiculous ending which, given the 300-odd pages that precede it, seems quite unlikely from this particular group of people. Filled with straightforward prose and simple, boring dialogue, Murdoch's writing is sufficient but not particularly illuminating or able to redeem the lull of the plot. The Nice and the Good isn't a terrible book, nor is it terribly interesting for either plot or philosophical reasons; it is, ultimately, more or less forgettable.

Grade: B-

April 21, 2010

Book 19: The Design of Everyday Things

The Design of Everyday Things
Donald Norman

I approached this book as a pop-culture assessment of some reasons why many everyday objects cause befuddlement and seem to be designed poorly. I believe that Norman may aspire to this, but this is inherently a very thorough look at some design principles that is tailored more for designers than the public; this is not to say that non-designers won't get anything out of the book, but its numerous examples and occasional use of lingo leads to an arid feel at times. Norman also, sadly, appears to be one of those authors who believes he is launching a cultural zeitgeist in the most clever way ever; his snarky remarks about design awards are funny the first time, but thereafter he appears to be consumed with a bitterness that clouds the humor. The repetition of jokes mirrors the endless, almost mind-numbing repetition of the book's major themes, so that while they are useful they see almost no new or original applications after around the first chapter.

This is unfortunate, because Norman has hit on an interesting fact of everyday life, and certainly there is much more to be made out of this problem and more suggestions made than the few he repeats ad nauseum throughout the book. All of these factors combine to make Norman seem above all a bit unprofessional, with subject matter perhaps better suited to a more limited treatment. This feeling of naivite is assisted by Norman's utter fascination with, and complete lack of understanding of, computers; it's hard to fault writers for not foreseeing the Internet or the fact that there is a whole new field of study called human-computer interaction that focuses largely on designing good computer systems, but when he fawns repeatedly over a portable calendar (that can be hooked up to other computers through wireless infrared!) the book gets a bit silly to modern readers. Additionally, the book is rather poorly designed; Norman talks at length about standardization and about making visual cues make sense, but many of the book's sections are separated by right-aligned bold headings, which I have yet to see anywhere else, and the pattern of sub-sections seems ad-hoc and doesn't make sense. It's a pity Norman's publisher didn't follow the advice in the book.

Overall, however, The Design of Everyday Things is worth reading, at least for its first and final chapters. What Norman does well is extract his design principles from the environment and apply them to other similar situations, making design seem accessible and provoking readers (successfully) to re-think designs around them. While his prose can become a bit smug, even his notes about computers aren't entirely foreign to modern readers, and his focus on basic technology while only stepping occasionally into the realm of the ever-changing is a solid decision that gives the book some staying power. After all, designers are still making the same mistakes. Readers of The Design of Everyday Things are apt to shout, "YES!" several times throughout the book at good examples, even if Norman's book is best suited to a shorter format and the prose disappoints.

Grade: B

April 19, 2010

Book 18: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale
Edited by James B. South

This collection of thoughtful essays seeks to extrapolate some of the deep, intrinsic philosophical elements from the first six seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and present them together in a well-constructed, thoughtful, and full volume. For the most part, James B. South has assembled a solid collection of essays that comment on various different aspects of the beloved cult show, and although there can be some repetition of themes between different essays, the fact that there are some points of conflict only serves to strengthen the collection and, in turn, reflect positively on the complex nature of the show. Most striking is the volume's final essay, "Feeling for Buffy: The Girl Next Door," by Michael P. Levine and Steven Jay Schneider, which seeks to undermine Buffy scholarship first (somewhat successfully) by arguing that critics take it far too seriously; they then, however, apply an overwrought Freudian analysis to the show and destroy their own low-key, non-academic credibility, falling prey to the same narrow academic focus that draws their ire. South's decision to place this essay at the end of the collection is, I believe, a thoughtful and good one, but the work itself disappoints in its latter half and makes the whole thing go out with a whimper instead of the intended, and quite achievable (and appropriate, given Whedon & co.'s tendency to undermine everything) bang.

Other essays, however, fulfill their purposes more effectively, though many simply fit Buffy narratives into greater philosophical frameworks, using the show to illustrate philosophical principles rather than examining the philosophy of the show. One of the best essays is the first, "Faith and Plato" by Greg Forster, which provides an overview of different philosophical principles evident throughout Buffy. Along with familiar explorations of Buffy as a feminist icon and, more importantly, as a woman, the collection includes essays about the treatment of religion and science within the Buffyverse. Most illuminating, however, are the essays that stretch the lessons of Buffy and project them onto pressing moral issues. "'My God, It's Like a Greek Tragedy,'" by James B. South, successfully explores the ways in which Willow's story arcs, which disappoint so many fans of the show, illustrate a very real phenomenon and perhaps hit closer to home than viewers would like to acknowledge. Also exceptionally strong is "Justifying the Means: Punishment in the Buffyverse," wherein Jacob M. Held uses the show to argue for a utilitarian view of punishment, where punishment is meted out to produce the best overall results for society.

This essay is a good example of using Buffy as an exemplar of philosophical principles, but though interesting is far outstripped by Jason Kawal's "Should We Do What Buffy Would Do?," which uses the show to build an interesting argument about the utility of moral exemplars, let alone Buffy Summers as a specific example. Likewise seeming to undermine a bit of the mysticism ascribed to the show by Whedon worshipers is Neal King's "Brownskirts," which paints a picture of a Buffyverse not so far away from fascism. These essays are merely the highlights in a solid collection that is accessible to newcomers to philosophy and which contains respectable arguments and well-written prose throughout. The main drawback of the collection is the fact that it only covers seasons 1-6; there are a few essays where examination of season 7 would have added quite a bit to the discussion (particularly the essays on feminism and sharing the female spirit). Blame, however, cannot be placed upon the authors for this and the collection is nevertheless a good and varied testament to the merits and depth of the show. Unabashedly taking difficult subjects head on and including essays that differ in perspective and conclusions, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy offers thoughtful and enjoyable philosophical insights into the Buffyverse and our own world.

Grade: A-

April 3, 2010

Book 17: A Traveller's History of Ireland

A Traveller's History of Ireland
Peter Neville

I am eagerly looking forward to traveling to Ireland this summer, and I figured it would be worth my while to seek out a quick and more or less easy history of Ireland to supplement my existing knowledge of Ireland. Neville's ambitious volume, which seeks to present Irish history from the first known settlements through the early 2000s in approximately 225 pages, accomplishes a readable and fairly comprehensive history of Ireland that strikes a good balance between hitting the important events and going into sufficient depth to prevent the book from becoming a list of places, names, and key events. That said, however, Neville does not always give sufficient definitions for the people and political parties he describes, which can get lost between chapters and even paragraphs; the book would benefit greatly from a glossary to supplement its useful timeline and lists of Irish monarchs, presidents, and prime ministers. Neville also suffers from a truly horrendous plague of exclamation points that belittle the factual credibility he attempts to gain with the transparency given to areas of contention. These small flaws ensure that A Traveller's History of Ireland is not perfect, but they do not overwhelm the utility of the text, which is clearly written and which covers enough points of Irish history with sufficient breadth and depth to provide readers with an accessible history of the island. Neville is able to present the particularly difficult history of religion in Ireland with tact, only slipping a bit as the history winds its way into the present period. The book itself is arranged into small, tidy chapters with plenty of headings and sub-headings to orient readers who may be looking at the book on the fly. Overall, A Traveller's History of Ireland is an excellent short general history of Ireland that will provide a solid base of historical understanding to its readers.

Grade: B