Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything asks clever questions and explores them in clever ways. It's a fun read. But if...moreFreakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything asks clever questions and explores them in clever ways. It's a fun read. But if you're going to read just one popularized economics book this year, I recommend The Travels of a T-Shirt. It breaks the major rule of economics-qua-science: it is an extended anecdote with frequent detours into cultural history and popular biography. As my scientist friends like to remind me, and as Rivoli herself is at pains to point out, the plural of anecdote is not data. To which I reply: that is why I am not a scientist. I really do believe you when you say that anecdotal evidence can create a profoundly skewed picture of how a system works, and that respectable analysis requires a broader view. But I'm never going to be the one who does that analysis, and if you want me to get some purchase on what you're talking about, you'd better tell me a story.
Rivoli spins a fascinating yarn about the spinning of yarn, from the growth of the cotton in Texas to the manufacture of the t-shirt in China (with possible detours to one or more smaller Asian countries in order to get around U.S. import quotas) to its afterlife as a "vintage" collectible, or a part of someone's wardrobe in Tanzania, or maybe a component of your car's roof. My favorite part was the description of the amazingly efficient global trade in the cast-off clothing of consumptive Americans.
The book deftly describes some of the ridiculous contortions trade policy undergoes in response to political pressures. She recognizes the good that activism has done in pressing improvements on the working conditions of the poor, while cautioning the activists against wholesale uncritical condemnation of free markets. The story, or stories -- you have to go back through the whole history of industrialization to make sense of How We Got Here -- she tells give conceptual pegs on which to hang a basic grasp of the issues at stake in the fraught conflicts about economic globalization. I feel better equipped to understand the news about the WTO or bilateral trade negotiations -- maybe not in depth, but less bewildered by the polar absolutist pronouncements of free-marketers and hard core protectionists.
I wish she had gone into more depth about the place of international shipping in all this activity. It does get a brief treatment near the end of the story, but I'm still unsure about what to think about the costs, both financial and environmental, of shipping cheap cotton goods two and a half times around the world to maximize profit and opportunity. It makes me a little queasy to think about all the fuel that I assume gets burned to get me my cheap dollar store socks. If the cost of oil continues to skyrocket (a not unreasonable expectation, from what little knowledge on the subject I have), will it eventually hamstring the seemingly inevitable forward march of globalization? Or can we count on the magic of the market to motivate some inventive souls to come up with sustainable ways to move super freighters?
The other thing I wished for more information on was a passing comment in the conclusion of the book: "For centuries, trade was a subject of moral and religious debate rather than economic analysis ... Indeed, in perusing the early Christians' debates over trade, I’m struck by the complete absence of economic discussion..." WAIT! I demanded. GO BACK! What early Christian debates are you talking about? I want to read them!!
(I should check out the print edition to see if it has footnotes -- but not likely. Maybe I'll just have to write to the author.)(less)
Yes, it's gimmicky. But gimmicky in a good way, like several of Michael Pollan's books are gimmicky -- using a gimmick as an accessible, interesting w...moreYes, it's gimmicky. But gimmicky in a good way, like several of Michael Pollan's books are gimmicky -- using a gimmick as an accessible, interesting way into a complex, important topic, in a way that enables the author her/himself to learn something about the topic and share that enlightenment with her readers. Creative, engaging, highly readable.
I'm of two minds about the pacing of the book as a whole. I kept having the experience while reading of coming up short in the middle of a chapter because it had only just dawned on me that Evans wasn't going to come back around to the topic of the previous chapter. Wait! Doesn't she have anything more to say about [topic x, y, or z]?
In fact, I knew perfectly well that she does have more to say on the subject, since I was aware from reading her blog that the original manuscript draft of this book was nearly twice the contracted length, so massive (and, I can only imagine, rather painful) cuts were needed to get the volume into its current shape. And I'm sure that the book was strengthened by this editorial discipline -- the fact that I was generally well into the next chapter before I noticed what felt like the lack of completion of the previous chapter testifies to the power of book to draw the reader along. Evans' account doesn't have room to get bogged down in ponderous exposition or navel-gazing; it moves along briskly and keeps the reader moving with it. I found myself wishing for greater integration of the "to do" lists in each chapter often enough, however, to make me pine for the "director's cut" of this book in ebook form.
This is not a book for in-depth treatment or even for fully articulated arguments -- it is an exploration, or, as one reader described it, a piece of performance art. The philosophy major part of my brain, the side that likes to anticipate and respond to all objections and trace out all implications (also, the side that takes three to four months, on average, to compose a single blog post), judges this as a liability -- this book bit off more than it could chew; each chapter could readily expand into an entire book. So I have to remind myself not to judge this volume for not being something it was never supposed to be in the first place.
One of Evans' gifts as a writer is the conversationality of her prose -- the way she draws on conversations with readers and sources, fosters ongoing conversations, and doesn't need to have the last word. To read A Year of Biblical Womanhood as a treatise or a polemic is to entirely miss the point. Read it as a joyful adventure and as an invitation, and you'll find it worth your time.(less)
The odd thing about this book is how little is it about books. Sure, there's some boilerplate about the allure of books and physical objects and the i...moreThe odd thing about this book is how little is it about books. Sure, there's some boilerplate about the allure of books and physical objects and the importance of narratives in shaping identity, yada yada, but mostly it's about the psychology of collecting and kleptomania in general, and the objects of the obsession described could just as well be anything from teacups to tulip bulbs.
This book is OK, but I didn't feel like Bartlett did as good a job as some other non-fiction writers of drawing out the "big picture" implications of the story she tells or of telling an engaging story of how the storyteller herself got drawn into the story she's telling (on that, see Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks). (less)
It's always fascinating to see how scientific advancement interacts with popular culture and public sentiment. Tyson is the rare breed of astrophysici...moreIt's always fascinating to see how scientific advancement interacts with popular culture and public sentiment. Tyson is the rare breed of astrophysicist with the pedagogical and PR sensitivity to care and to understand why a change in the way the Hayden Planetarium (and, ultimately, the International Astronomical Union) described the status of Pluto caused such a public uproar. He takes it as a "teachable moment," producing this book that is primarily a socio-historical account of the place of the planet(?) Pluto in American imagination, while also arguing, in highly accessible terms, that the simple memorization of a string of planet names is an inadequate way of understanding the solar system.
In certain respects, this book reminds me of one of my favorite episodes of the radio program This American Life,81 Words, which tells the story of the removal of the designation of homosexuality as a mental illness from the DSM by the American Psychiatric Association. Both stories recount the change of a definition, which one might imagine to be a matter of pure scientific inquiry. But the accounts demonstrate that science doesn't take place in a vacuum, whether it touches on something as intimate as to whom one is attracted or as cosmic as a ball of ice millions of miles away.(less)
Not for the squeamish: Roach takes her typically unflinching look at human bodily functions, this time in the context of low gravity and the other con...moreNot for the squeamish: Roach takes her typically unflinching look at human bodily functions, this time in the context of low gravity and the other constraints of human space flight. Sometimes fascinating, sometimes just TMI.
I was disappointed by the lack of discussion of menstruation.(less)
An unapologetic appeal for readers to join personally in the cause of pursuing the welfare of women in particular throughout the world, for both moral...moreAn unapologetic appeal for readers to join personally in the cause of pursuing the welfare of women in particular throughout the world, for both moral and strategic reasons: many women are subject to violence and vulnerability simply because they are female; the economic empowerment of women has been shown to be an effective strategy for lifting entire communities out of poverty.
The book explores several major areas in which women are particularly vulnerable: sex trafficking, death and disability by neglect, inadequate medical support for obstetric emergencies, and lack of educational and economic opportunities. Kristof and WuDunn tell the stories of women affected by each of these situations -- some tragic, some inspiring, many both -- and offer specific suggestions for readers who wish to join the cause.
I was struck by the insistence that the best thing comfortable westerners can do for women in the developing world is to go get to know them. If you can't go, by all means send money; but do not let a simple calculus of efficiency dissuade you from going yourself. The authors want to create a generation of hard-core activists like themselves, and they know first hand that reading a book is not going to energize world-changing passion the way that direct personal encounter will.
I appreciated the authors' insistence on the importance of scholarly rigor and the avoidance of exaggeration in presenting information related to oppression of or opportunities for women. They acknowledge that much of the information that they present was produced by activists with a vested interest in their subject matter, and they do their best to present the most accurate figures possible, even if they do not make the most compelling case available for the very interventions they recommend. They caution against an economic argument for fighting maternal mortality, insisting that we should try to make adequate medical care for pregnant and delivering women universally available because a safe birth is a basic human right, not because it is cost effective.
A travelogue on the theme of pre-Plymouth European presence in the "New World," from the Vikings to the late-arriving English. Moves back and forth be...moreA travelogue on the theme of pre-Plymouth European presence in the "New World," from the Vikings to the late-arriving English. Moves back and forth between recounting the history you maybe didn't learn about in school and reporting the author's interactions with the modern-day inhabitants of the various locations visited or settled by colonial Europeans, especially around the various tourist sites related to the colonial era.
An enjoyable read especially for history hobbyists -- those who like to visit historic sites and want to know "the rest of the story."
An aside: Books that use the conceit "what your history teacher didn't tell you" always bore me a little, because in almost every case, my history teacher DID in fact tell me the material there revealed. This makes me appreciate the truly excellent history education I received, and also the value of PAYING ATTENTION, since many of the things that general populace seems to be confused about really are covered in even the most basic history curriculum (e.g., Columbus did not land at Plymouth Rock). (less)
The creator of the flash mob discusses that and other experiments in meme-making, suggesting that the present age's obsession with "nanostories" is ul...moreThe creator of the flash mob discusses that and other experiments in meme-making, suggesting that the present age's obsession with "nanostories" is ultimately detrimental to civil discourse and cultural creativity.
The observations and analysis are interesting, as far as they go, but they don't go very far. While some of the examples he explores are illuminating (e.g. the way that the thrill of finding the "hot NEW band" undermines the capacity of alternative bands to have successful second albums; the explanation offered for the popularity of books like The Tipping Point and Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything), the contours of the current cultural situation are not explored in very much depth, and the suggestions offered in the conclusion for resisting viral culture's chronically short attention span are common sense and obvious.
I think my chief dissatisfaction with the book is the fact that the author's relationship to his subject matter is confused and confusing. He styles himself as a journalist and social scientist in his "experiments" with viral memes, but adheres to the ethical codes of neither profession. (If he truly believes that the kind of momentary fascination followed by complete oblivion that attends these nanostories is culturally maladaptive at a mass level, why does he go on contributing to it by deliberately creating communications to feed on these very tendencies?) He admits to being drawn in by the addictive thrill of creating a following for one's online projects. We never get a genuine mea culpa for this participation -- it is justified as detached (?) experimentation. The impression one gets of these trends vacillates from enjoyable diversion to neutral cultural condition to destructive force. An insider's perspective on viral culture could have been a source of increased understanding, but in this case it only leaves the presentation muddled.(less)
Positively inspiring. I have been attracted to a career in libraries for years, but this book may just be the thing that finally pushes me over the ed...morePositively inspiring. I have been attracted to a career in libraries for years, but this book may just be the thing that finally pushes me over the edge. The unapologetic love letter to librarians is a tonic to the soul of a bibliothequephile.
The subtitle sounds like the kind of hyperbolic overstatement that gets slapped on pretty much every book that comes down the pike these days, but she really means it: Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All!
Okay, maybe there's a little bit of hyperbole going on there.
But there are enough sketches in this book of how librarians are changing the world for the better to overcome the one serious question that was holding me back from enrolling in library school -- while I found librarianship, even the dull bits, highly attractive and suited to my gifts and temperament, I feared that such a career wouldn't give enough expression to my activist side, the idealist who wants to Make A Difference.
Johnson writes about missionary librarians who teach in St. John's University's global development program, putting information technology in the hands of emerging leaders in developing nations so that they can use it to help their communities. She introduces us to mild-mannered librarians who stand up to the Justice Department to protect patrons' privacy against the over-reaching provisions of the Patriot Act. (Some of them post this brilliant sign: "THE FBI HAS NOT BEEN HERE. Watch carefully for the removal of this sign.") We meet radical librarians who provide reference support for social activists, and a dedicated archivist who teaches preservation theory while lovingly and professionally preparing the archive of the papers of her late husband, a mostly-unpublished science fiction writer.
I read these things and think, Ooh, Librarians can do THAT? Where do I sign up?
While it affirmed my abiding respect for the profession of librarianship, this book also renewed my esteem for the profession of journalism. Johnson's approach to the material that she covers is much closer to what I was hoping for when I read Free For All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas in the Public Library by Don Borchert. Neither author is a professional librarian -- Johnson is a writer and avid library patron, Don Borchert has the word "librarian" in his job title, but describes himself as a "civil servant" and lets both his supervisor and his readers know that he has no interest in acquiring the additional training necessary to advance into the professional ranks. When I finished Borchert's book, I was disappointed that it had made virtually no effort to connect the stories presented to the big picture of public libraries today, but I couldn't put my finger on what I had been hoping for in the book -- a somewhat more scholarly account, yes, but not a strictly academic treatment. I wanted something that was rooted in narrative, but that looked beyond the particulars of one situation. What I wanted, it turns out, was the kind of book Marilyn Johnson might have written -- a journalistic treatment of the subject at hand. Precisely as an outsider, Johnson does the research to tell the stories of her subjects and connect the dots into a satisfying larger picture. She is thereby able to present a more engaging and useful depiction not only of her own stated subject matter -- the role of librarians in the age of information technology -- but also of Borchert's -- the library's commitment to free access and the unusual behaviors librarians sometimes have to deal with. (Both books discuss the far-more-common-than-one-would-reasonably-expect problem of human excrement being left in the stacks and bookdrops.)
My one major disappointment about Johnson's book is the title: I'm still not sure what it's supposed to mean. This is particularly disappointing in light of the truly excellent title given to her previous book: The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries. "This Book is Overdue!" must be an attempt at a clever self-referential statement, like Steal This Book. But since overdue-ness has nothing whatever to do with the contents of the book, it falls flat. Are we supposed to imagine these words coming from the mouth of a librarian? But Johnson takes pains to counteract the stereotype of librarians as uptight moralist control-freaks, so that exclamation is out of character with the book. Or is it a self-congratulatory assertion that this book (or one like it), singing the praises of librarians, should have been published long ago? But the principle thesis of the book is that the library profession is rapidly changing to adapt to new technology and that we need it now more than ever, and that hardly jives with the idea that a book like this even could have been written any sooner than it was. I suspect that someone in the marketing department was trying too hard to be catchy, and as a result I almost skipped over the chance to read a valuable and enjoyable book.
The subtitle falls flat, too, because it stinks of the hyperbole that we've been trained to simply ignore, and because -- despite my earlier assertion that the author really means it -- she offers precious little by way of argument that librarians and cybrarians can save us all. "Save the World" would have been a slight improvement on "Save Us All," because, especially in the chapter about the St. John's program, the book does paint a picture of information professionals using their skills not just to preserve the literary remains of the privileged few, but to bring meaningful social change on a global level.
Not that I have any better suggestions for titles -- one of the things I loved about academe was that there was no need for titles to be catchy, so you could just say what your book or article was about. "Why We Still Need Librarians," maybe, or "The Information Age Needs Librarians," or "Librarians in Cyberspace." I don't know if something like that would sell books, but I'm not especially confident that the title they ended up with is very good for that purpose, either.
Nevertheless, I'm glad I looked past the title to read this book. It may well be one of the most important books I read this decade.(less)
I hatedEat, Pray, Love, and so fully expected to feel likewise about this sequel-of-sorts. I read it anyway out of a kind of morbid curiosity. The n...moreI hatedEat, Pray, Love, and so fully expected to feel likewise about this sequel-of-sorts. I read it anyway out of a kind of morbid curiosity. The narrator of Eat, Pray, Love comes across as hopelessly self-absorbed, a condition that hardly bodes well for the kind of commitment to self-giving required by marriage.
I even found the title of this book irritating: "Committed," with its overtones of involuntary assignment to a mental institution, is hardly a flattering description of the state of matrimony, and the idea that someone might "make peace" with a venerable institution that is a cornerstone of civilization suggests (as does the entire trajectory of the previous memoir) that the author places altogether too much stock in her own opinions. If Liz is so skeptical about marriage, I wondered, why the hell didn't she leave it well enough alone?
Well, it turns out, she would have happily left it well enough alone, except that her foreign-citizen boyfriend is denied a visa to enter the United States, so it turns out that if they want to be together, they have to get hitched. Their journey from that realization to wedded bliss provides the plot of the story. The basic content of the book comprises her extended attempt to talk herself into embracing marriage, rather than just holding her nose and going through the motions.
We are thus treated to some of the same sort of tedious navel-gazing that suffuses Eat, Pray, Love, but it felt a lot more tolerable this time around, interspersed as it was with a good deal of genuinely interesting information about the history and sociology of marriage. The account of matrimony provided is admittedly highly selective, meandering, and biased -- those interested in the state of the scholarly art would be much better served by such a book as Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage -- but for a beach-read overview of just what marriage was and is, Committed serves admirably.
The picture of marriage presented by Gilbert's research offers a corrective vision for both the embittered skeptic and the naive romantic. In the end, she does not seem to have entirely convinced herself of the value of the vows that Homeland Security demands of her, but at least she enters her second marriage with a far better understanding of the estate she undertakes.(less)
A sweeping and scatter-shot survey of the history of esoteric spirituality in America. Useful as an introductory overview; it helped make sense of som...moreA sweeping and scatter-shot survey of the history of esoteric spirituality in America. Useful as an introductory overview; it helped make sense of some of the connections between occult ideology and more mainstream religious and social movements. Horowitz provides ample illustration of his central thesis -- that occult traditions have had a significant, often largely unseen, influence on the history of the United States, and that American culture in turn has left its distinctive stamp on these thought movements.
The particular connections and contrasts between the various movements discussed, however, were often hard to follow. The lines of influence between occult traditions and certain Christian movements, for example, and the differences (and reasons for those differences) between the variety of esoteric systems were often presented in too quick and cursory a manner for solid comprehension. The choice to proceed in a generally, but not strictly, chronological manner also lends confusion. Key background information is sometimes lacking: for example, Emanuel Swedenborg is repeatedly mentioned as a major influence upon important figures in the narrative, but he is not properly introduced.
The even-handedness of the account is commendable; Horowitz' sympathies with the traditions he describes are sometimes evident, but he doesn't avoid discussing some of the negative dimensions of their history. The result is an insider's account of the history of American occultism that is highly accessible to an outsider, excepting for some points of information that might demand outside research to flesh out the presentation.(less)
The story of Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cells derived from a sample of the cancerous tissue that took her life is so inherently fascinating one migh...moreThe story of Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cells derived from a sample of the cancerous tissue that took her life is so inherently fascinating one might easily wonder why it hasn't been told in a book-length treatment before now. As Skloot brings her readers along on her ten-year journey to win the trust of the Lacks family and understand their history, we see why. What started out as two books in one -- the story of Henrietta and of HeLa -- ends up being four books in one -- those two, plus the story of the Lacks family after Henrietta's death and the story of Skloot's efforts to understand all three. Such a complex tale can easily become unwieldy and disappoint readers' expectations, but Skloot manages to weave together the various strands with admirable skill.
The ways that race, class, and disability played into the alienation of the Lacks family from the white medical establishment that so greatly benefited from their mother's cells were astonishing and heartbreaking. Relatively little of the mistreatment Henrietta's family experienced over the years was deliberately malicious, but when you combine the horrors of a history of medical experimentation on black patients, the deep disadvantages of a poor family only a couple of generations removed from slavery, and the inattention and sociological cluelessness of clinicians and researchers with concerns other than the rights and feelings of the survivors of one cell donor, it's remarkable that any of the Lacks were ever willing to talk to Skloot or anyone else about their experiences.
I was intrigued by the role that spirituality played in the story. Elements of Pentecostal Christianity and folk religion weave into both the daily lives of Henrietta's descendants and their understanding of their mother's significance. (One family member, a preacher, connects the immortality of HeLa cells to the doctrine of the resurrection; other family members attribute the behavior and effects of HeLa to the will of Henrietta.) This is admittedly foreign terrain for Skloot, but she nevertheless describes these discussions and events with clarity and sensitivity.(less)