Tag Archive: book review



Perhaps you’ve seen the ad campaign for the new search engine, Bing.  The basic structure of the ads is formulaic: someone asks a simple question, and the question sets the hearer off on a stream of consciousness, spouting search engine results that have nothing to do with the original question.  The campaign is called “Search Overload Syndrome,” and it’s not too far from the reality of what the internet is doing to our brains.  Or at least that’s the thesis of Nicholas Carr in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains (minus the reference to the Bing ad campaign).

Carr is no Luddite: though an English major at Dartmouth, he has been riding the computer wave since before it really took off in the mid-80s, and he readily admits his addiction to Blu-ray, Wi-Fi, Netflix, Pandora, and YouTube.  Nevertheless, Carr doesn’t let this addiction blind him to the very real downsides to our growing dependence on multimedia technology, particularly the Internet.

As the dust jacket notes, the book is “part intellectual history, part popular science, and part cultural criticism,” and Carr pulls it off with aplomb.  Drawing on such diverse sources as Socrates and Plato, Augustine, Nietzsche, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, and modern studies on neuroscience, he makes a compelling case that the new technologies have negatively affected our capacity for “deep reading,” and thus for deep thinking.  Usually when people debate new technology, be it the radio, the television, or the computer, the point at issue is the content the media provide rather than the medium itself.  Carr seeks to redress this deficiency.  Carr asks not whether the content available on the internet is good or bad – rather, he asks how the nature of the medium affects the way we think.

The Internet is not the first technology to alter the way we think.  Carr points to cartography and clocks as inventions whose effects extended beyond their original purpose.  Maps, of course, were originally intended to help people navigate and reach places they had never been before.  Once they came into common use, though, they offered human beings a new way to conceptualize the world.  A similar change accompanied the invention of the clock, which led society to conceive of time as discrete units and to construct more precise schedules.  Examples could be multiplied.  Upon abandoning writing by hand for an early version of the typewriter, Nietzsche noted how the device changed his writing style.  With each of these changes, there is both loss and gain.

Carr focuses primarily, though not exclusively, on the loss that the Internet has precipitated.  In my first post to this blog, I suggested that the Internet generates or reinforces ADD.  I made that claim simply based on experience.  It would seem that science actually backs this up.  According to Carr, studies have shown that the nature of the Net as a multimedia technology actually impedes our ability to memorize and to read carefully.  The reason for this is the way our brains work.  In a nutshell (and oversimplifying dramatically), Carr describes the Internet as a multimedia “distraction device.”  The combination of text, images, video, and audio overstimulates our brains and thus reduces our ability to focus.  Moreover, our reliance on technology has impaired our memory, making the act of memorization more rather than less difficult.  Unsurprisingly, one of the primary engines driving the explosion in this technology is money.  To take the most obvious example, Google has an investment in making us surf the web faster and faster.  The more links we click on, the more opportunities Google has to create new ads and thus to make more money.

Again, the book is not an anti-technology screed.  Nevertheless, Carr does raise some reasonable cautions about where this technology might lead us, and at what cost the information superhighway comes.  He also offers some (to my mind sad) prognostications.  Though he doesn’t expect the book to disappear completely, he does see society returning to a more stratified literacy, with only a small elite preserving the ability to read deeply, while society at large continues down the path toward shallow thinking.  Whether he is right remains to be seen, of course, but the science would seem to support his hypothesis.

On the whole, The Shallows is a quick and engaging read.  Carr has an easygoing style, and he covers a number of fascinating topics: the development of writing and different media, from clay tablets to parchments to the codex; neuroscience; the thoughts of poets and other deep thinkers on the way the brain works.  The structure of the book wittily reflects the nature of internet thinking, with digressions periodically disrupting the flow of the argument.  More seriously, he cautions us about the reduction of thought to information and data and the potential loss of our capacity for reflection and contemplation.  The book helped explain why my students don’t read books (Carr even quotes a Rhodes Scholar from Florida State – a philosophy major, no less – who says that he doesn’t read books!).  It also reinforced my decision to keep this book project going and to limit my time on the web.  Moral of the story: get off the blog, and go read a book!  Your brain will thank you!

Four down, (at least) forty-eight to go.

Ta,
J

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Barefoot in the Canyons with Caballo Blanco

Early last fall I caught part of an interview on NPR with Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.  It sounded like a fascinating book, but I filed it away in my ever-growing list of “maybe someday” books – which usually means I won’t get to it.  But then I got roped into this New Year’s resolution, and I had the perfect excuse to check it out, and am I glad I did.

The entire book sprang improbably from a simple five-word question: “How come my foot hurts?”  McDougall, a journalist who had survived innumerable extreme sports, as well as war zones and some of the most dangerous and lawless regions of Africa, was laid out by perhaps the most common of New Year’s resolutions: running.  Visits to two podiatrists yielded the same answer: your (6’4”, 230 lb.) body isn’t made for running.  In fact, the human body in general is not made for running – the pounding takes a toll on the body, especially for those large of frame.  McDougall initially accepted this common wisdom – after all, his experience backed it up.  Whenever he went running, some part of his body would break down.  But then one day while on assignment in Mexico, McDougall flipped through the pages of a travel magazine and caught a picture of a figure joyfully careening down a mountain in nothing but a cloak and sandals.  Intrigued, McDougall abandoned the story he was working on to search for the Tarahumara, a reclusive Indian people who live in the Copper Canyons of Mexico and run like gazelles – or rather, as the book argues, like the finely tuned running machines that humans evolved to be.

Because of the shyness of the Tarahumara, McDougall had to track down a strange and mysterious figure who goes by the name Caballo Blanco, the White Horse, to learn about the people and their legendary running secrets.  When he finally tracks down Caballo, McDougall (and the reader) get a fascinating account of the history of the tribe, their sad, but all too common, exploitation by outsiders, and the reasons for their reclusiveness.  Along the way we also get a colorful picture of the bizarre yet intriguing world of ultimate sports, a world filled with outlandish characters who perform even more outlandish feats of athleticism in the most harrowing of conditions.  The rest of the book recounts McDougall’s efforts to help make a reality Caballo Blanco’s dream: the ultimate endurance race through the treacherous Copper Canyons pitting the Tarahumara against the best (and bravest/most foolish) American ultramarathoners.

McDougall tells the story with just the right mixture of humor, suspense, and fascinating tidbits.  The book is worth reading for the characters alone, who epitomize the saying “truth is stranger than fiction”: there’s Caballo Blanco, the mysterious gringo who left everything to live among the Tarahumara and learn their ways; “Barefoot Ted,” the barefoot running enthusiast who doesn’t know how to shut up; Billy and Jenn, the party animal ultramarathoners who will drink all night only to get up a few hours later and run 20 miles; and Scott Jurek, the king of American ultramarathoners who runs to cope with his past.  McDougall also describes several races with a flare and detail that make you feel as though you’re there.  He intersperses the main story with accounts of the design of running shoes (which really took off in the 1970s, along with running injuries) and scientific studies about why humans evolved into the best distance runners in the animal kingdom.  A few tidbits: what’s the purpose of our gluts?  Our posteriors, generously sized compared to those of chimps, serve as a counterbalance to keep us from tipping over from the forward momentum of running.  Why the Achilles tendon?  It acts like a rubber band, generating kinetic energy and enabling us to keep running for hours on end.  What’s the most efficient way to hunt down an animal in the wild?  It ain’t the bow and arrow.  Rather, it’s something called “persistence hunting,” running an animal down for hours until it dies from overheating.

There’s so much more that I could go into: the simple beauty of Tarahumara culture, the odd concoctions runners drink to keep them going, the numerous brushes with death that many of the runners face.  Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the book for me is McDougall’s descriptions of running in general and of the Tarahumara in particular.  What first struck McDougall in the picture he saw, and what strikes everyone in the book who sees the Tarahumara run, is the sheer joy on their faces.  Running for them is not a chore or a punishment – it’s something they were born to do, and indeed, McDougall argues, something we were all born to do.  Every five-year-old knows this, but, sadly, it gets beaten out of most of us somewhere along the way to adulthood.  McDougall’s book may change that for you – it certainly did for me.  Although it is unlikely that I’ll be signing up for any ultramarathons in the near future, thanks to McDougall I do hope to rediscover the joy of running.

Two down, (at least) fifty to go.

Ta,
J

PS Be sure to check out McDougall on The Daily Show (haven’t figured out how to embed videos yet):

Daily Show Born to Run

La vie est absurde.

I thought I’d kick things off with something light and uplifting, so I picked up a copy of Albert Camus’ The Stranger.  Okay, maybe not.  In reality, I’ve wanted to read the book for a while, and at a slender 117 pp., I figured it would be a quick read and give me some confidence as I get back on the reading wagon.

Quick it is, but light it ain’t, to say the least.  For those of you who don’t know the story, here is the briefest of outlines.  The first part of the book begins with the stark phrase “Maman died today.”  The narrator, Meursault, has just received a telegram informing him of his mother’s death, and he travels from his home in Algiers to Marengo for her funeral.  After going through the motions of the vigil and burial showing no emotion, he returns to his home and resumes his life as if nothing had happened.  He rekindles a relationship with an old flame, returns to work, chats occasionally (and often reluctantly) with his neighbors, and ends up the following Sunday on a beach excursion with his girlfriend, his neighbor/”pal” Raymond, and some friends of Raymond.  Through a series of events related to what had gone on the previous week, Part One ends with Meursault shooting an Arab man on the beach for no apparent reason.  Part Two chronicles the investigation and trial of Meursault.  Though still narrated from Meursault’s perspective, the second part focuses on the attempts of others – his lawyer, the magistrate, a prison chaplain – to make sense of his actions.  To the end Meursault confounds attempts to explain his deeds, or the world at large.  As he awaits his execution, he embraces the meaningless of the world and opens himself “to the gentle indifference of the world.”

True to my expectations, The Stranger was a quick read, and yet deceptively quick.  I think I would have to reread it a couple of more times to really “get” it.  The nature of this blog won’t allow for that, though, so here are some very brief reactions on my first reading.  Though the topic and underlying philosophy of the book are a bit depressing, I actually enjoyed reading it.  Camus’ style, terse and to the point, moves the reader along quickly and is well suited to the themes of the novel.  Meursault is a complex and bedeviling character.  On the one hand, he seems totally emotionless: he doesn’t shed a single tear over his mother’s death, nor does he want to see her one last time before her burial; when his girlfriend Marie asks if he loves her, he says it wouldn’t mean anything, but probably not; and most disturbing (to me, if not to the other characters in the novel), he feels absolutely no remorse for the murder he committed.  The first words that came to mind as I read the story were apathy and ennui.  On the other hand, Meursault is not a robot: the story ends with him at last finding happiness in the meaninglessness of life.  I suppose at root he is a non-conformist who finds the structures of meaning society clings to absurd, but that could just be my superficial reading (literature never was my strong suit).

On the whole, I’m glad I read The Stranger, but I wouldn’t want to make it (or Camus) a regular part of my reading diet.

One down, (at least) fifty-one to go.

Yours,
J

Lions and Tigers and Spinsters, Oh My!

So before I launch into my book review (not really a formal review, more like a reflective review… oh hell I don’t know what exactly to call it)  I want to address the changing nature of the blog.

Dear Reader, you can tell from the last post  that I now have a co-blogger, a partner in crime, er, books, someone who has joined the 52 books in a year adventure with me. My friend J (as he details in his post) has decided to come along for the ride, so I imagine that this will be great fun as we go through this year, as J and I will have different tastes in books and therefore will cover a broad range of topics.

Okay, so onto the first book. This book was chosen in a rather haphazard fashion. Before I got the idea for this project I caught up with an old friend from college on Facebook. She offered to do a book swap with me where I would send her a book I had read but didn’t want to keep around and she would do the same. Curious as to what I would receive in the mail, I agreed to the swap.

After coming back from my Christmas holiday the book was on top of my pile of accumulated mail that the mailman dropped off. Curious, I unwrapped it and upon seeing the cover I fell back on my sofa, laughing hard. The book is “Spinsters Abroad, Victorian Lady Explorers” by Dea Birkett. So why did I laugh so hard? Well, first of all, as a 30 something single woman who actually owns a spinning wheel that I make yarn on, I am a spinster, so to speak. The term, by the way, came (in America anyway, I imagine it was the same in Britain) into use because in the pre-Revolutionary colonies there was a wool tax. Each family had to produce so many pounds of spun wool a year, and since the task of spinning wool for an entire household was a full-time job (I know, it takes hours of work to make enough yarn to knit a hat- I cannot imagine the work it took to make enough to weave cloth for an entire household) it was a job that often went to a young unmarried female member of the household. (And in case you think that all of this type of work was only women’s work, you are wrong. In England the master knitters and weavers were men who belonged to guilds and in the colonies it was the little boys in the family who would knit socks and mittens while they were out watching the sheep, but I digress.) Anyway, that is where the term “spinster” came from- the unmarried women who spun and spun and spun…

So as an unmarried woman who spins my own yarn, I started to read “Spinsters Abroad” as my first book for the challenge. It is essentially a light women’s studies/history sort of book. The author (who is British) focuses mainly on Victorian women who set out to travel in the glory days of the British Empire. These women were middle-class, white women who used travel as a way to escape their feminine roles in Victorian Britain.  Many of them ended up unmarried because they were forced (as youngest daughters) to care for ailing family members. Others were considered “plain” and could not make a good “match.” (Thank God those days are behind us.) A few were widowed after short and often unhappy marriages. All of these women approached the idea of marriage with trepidation, because the ones that they saw around them (and experienced themselves, in some cases) were difficult and unfulfilling. Upon being freed by the deaths of elderly parents or of a cantankerous husband, these women (who had the means) fled Victorian England for Africa, the Americas, the Far East, The Middle East and Eastern Europe.

The book, which is written from an academic point of view, considers many themes, such as colonialism  and gender roles (perhaps the two largest and overriding themes) patriarchy, women’s roles in politics and professional societies. All of these chapters in the work are interesting and important but what struck me about the book is how much sadness shaped the women’s lives and haunted them all the way to their exotic jaunts. Restless, living as contradictions, (they were women who often were addressed by the local natives, as “men” because of their roles as travellers) without a real sense of home, belonging, or intimate love, these women rebelled against their roles in society and also embraced them. (Many of these progressive travellers were against women’s suffrage for example- some of the contradictions that Birkett uncovers are startling.) They are women who fit neither here nor there, and  the society that they lived among (actually, often outside of) regarded them as a curiosity–similar to how the women regarded the faraway lands that they visited.

The book is rich, and well worth looking at if you are interested in women’s history, and I have left many, many details out. I, however, felt a big relief when I finished this book–not at actually having finished the book, but relief because I am a spinster in the 21st century, not in the 19th. While society, in some ways, would regard me as a bit outside the norm, there is now a place for women who are unmarried, educated, like to travel, and challenge conventions. It is not a total ideal (and the number of times I have been grilled by people I don’t know as to why “a nice girl like you isn’t married” is beyond me. Like the time the car dealer was loath to sell me a Honda Civic because surely “I would get married soon and want something to haul kids around in.” I think the look I gave him clued him in because he shut up and sold me the red Civic.) but society has come much further in regards to the variety of roles for women, and that is something that gladdens my heart.

Lots of food for thought in this book, and I am glad that my old friend S (who was famous for sitting in the dining hall reading the New Testament in Greek while were in college. For no particular reason, mind you, just to understand the text in its original language–J, you would have gotten a kick out of her) sent the book. I enjoyed it, throughly. The book is, however, a bit academic in its style, so a warning out there for those of you who are not used to academic writing.

The next book will be a novel. Something really different from this particular work. I am also excited to see what J is reading and what he thinks of his book.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C