Haven't read a lot of books in the series, but I hope the others are a little better. I kept asking myself as I read, 'does this belong in a very shor...moreHaven't read a lot of books in the series, but I hope the others are a little better. I kept asking myself as I read, 'does this belong in a very short introduction? Shouldn't the author be talking about that instead?' These books may end up being better for readers who know nothing about a subject than those who know a little and are looking for advice how to structure their understanding from an authoritative overview...(less)
This is like reading three books in one...and like the multifunction tools that claim to perform a lot of tasks, it's less than satisfying.
The first s...moreThis is like reading three books in one...and like the multifunction tools that claim to perform a lot of tasks, it's less than satisfying.
The first story you encounter is that of the author, a mathematician who has reached middle age without having won a prestigious prize in his field. I hope I can be pardoned for not feeling sympathy for him. I find his appearances in the book almost always tedious (view spoiler)[ (especially when, in chapter 10 he writes, of his students who become frustrated with maths and consider leaving the field, "My graduate students are like my children. They are the future of the subject. Who's going to read the details of my papers if not my mathematical offspring?"
I don't know about you, but I don't expect my [actual, non-metaphorical] children to do anything of the sort. (hide spoiler)]
The second layer of the book is a history of mathematics that deal with problems of symmetry. This aspect of the book is enjoyable enough, even if it careens into much-too-detailed mathematics from time to time. We also meet some interesting characters in the contemporary world of mathematics. Du Sautoy has a good sense of how to give his story some sense of urgency, and my only problem with this aspect of the book is how it is interrupted by the other parts...
The third part of this 'Inception'-like book is a discussion of a math problem the author is working on, which appears to evaporate in a mist of moonshine (sorry, spoiler there) as he writes. My ignorance of mathematics probably disqualifies me from addressing this subject fully, but I think it's fair for the reader to expect that if a subject is going to be introduced it's going to be worked out thoroughly in the narrative...
In all, the book has its entertaining passages - about the author racing to decode a Coldplay album cover, about how 24-dimensional grocers might stack oranges, about how codes and numbers and symmetry all intersect - but these are outweighed by tedious introspection, a story that is more surfed than narrated, and a-more-than generous dollop of specialized technical information. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Like others, I bought this while visiting New Orleans in a small independent bookstore (Crescent City books, which I thought was great). Zell's book a...moreLike others, I bought this while visiting New Orleans in a small independent bookstore (Crescent City books, which I thought was great). Zell's book appealed to me in the way it's set up suggested Paul Auster. While I enjoyed the book's regional specificity, the thing that kept me reading was the sense of some concealed system driving the writing (if it's there, I didn't figure it out...). I wish the book had good to it's promised crime element sooner rather than dwelling in reflection for so many chapters, but it was a good work of regional writing - deeply colored by its locale, satisfying in its strangeness...(less)
There have been lot of books on this topic lately; this one is a favorite because the essay has an historical slant...I was fascinated to read about t...moreThere have been lot of books on this topic lately; this one is a favorite because the essay has an historical slant...I was fascinated to read about the profusion of writing in the visual landscape of 19th century Europe and how they imagined themselves 'overwhelmed by information'. Overall, the book was a great deal of help to me as an artist who works with words in that it clarified issues about the words I was using - many surveys of this material seem to look only at the abstract and formal properties of text, but Morley tends to treat the art as a kind of writing and that really made the book for me...(less)
I have a slim bookshelf of plague fiction. It's an unsettling corner of my library, one that shines a light on human self-interest and indifference. O...moreI have a slim bookshelf of plague fiction. It's an unsettling corner of my library, one that shines a light on human self-interest and indifference. Of course there's The Plague and Blindness. The Flame Alphabet shares a lot with these books - like them, it is full of things from the world we know. Telephones and copper wires. Cars, houses, trees, and children. But it also contains things that are not of this world - mysterious illnesses that stem from children's speech, holes in the woods that carry sermons to lonely worshippers.
As a work of largely experimental fiction (it's encouraging and a little hard to believe how many mainstream outlets blurbed the book), The Flame Alphabet suffers from a certain almost autistic emotional coolness. I found this much more readable than Marcus' earlier The Age of Wire and String, in part because the author does an astonishing job capturing the confusing, destructive love of parenting. Characters labor in ignorance long after you know what's causing their illness, and when ignorance no longer serves, they turn to denial for comfort.
For me, the passages in which the book treats language as a real thing are most engaging. For much of the second part of the book, we see minute descriptions of the act and effects of writing. These are captivating, and one begins to see the world slightly differently. The proliferation of signs and messages in the semiosphere takes on a quality of menace. William S. Burroughs described language as a virus and Marcus carries that idea to an extreme point, giving readers a world in which symbiosis is no longer the routine and where overexposure has catastrophic consequences.
What do we get from reading plague literature? From Camus, I got a strange reassurance of the agency and fundamental goodness of mankind. From Saragamo, I got horror - a sense of how we are ultimately wired to take advantage of any situation. From Marcus, I get a sense of the destructive power of love, of our unwillingness to leave a toxic situation long after it has begun to kill us. I could wish for an ending to the book, and for the resolution of many of its open questions about the motivations and outcomes of characters' actions, but I am satisfied with what I got: a thoughtful consideration of language, an allegory of parental misery, and a chance to ask myself, in a disaster like the plague described here, who which one of these characters would I be?(less)
"The Tinkerers" raises an interesting question - what do you expect when you sit down to read a book (as opposed to a magazine article or newspaper fe...more"The Tinkerers" raises an interesting question - what do you expect when you sit down to read a book (as opposed to a magazine article or newspaper feature). Foege was a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and senior writer at People and it shows in this under-researched book about a fascinating idea. When he's writing profile pieces - as in chapters on Dean Kamen and Gever Tulley - he's entertaining and pleasantly readable. But when he tries to write about the historical sweep of the topic, his weak storytelling skills get in the way. The chapter contrasting Washington and Franklin and setting them up as paradigms of American tinkering is so meandering as to be pointless.
But more disappointingly, the book suffers from the common sins of the genre of business literature - it's fixation on validating an idea or term (in this case, tinkering) prevents and serious, critical examination of that idea. A quick review of the notes cofirms that Foege got most of his information from business journalism, Wired magazine, the New York TImes and the New Yorker. This explains why is book reads like a second-hand analysis of ideas that have been discussed in these magazines and newspapers.
So what should one expect from a book rather than a magazine article or newspaper feature? A book can go into greater depth and engage more complex sources than these other forms, and I think readers are right to expect such depth and criticality from books. We've seen some very thoughtful writing like that in the last few years, from authors like Glenn Adamson and Richard Sennett (on crafts) and Matthew Crawford (on how changes in the education have affected ideas about work). Sadly, "the Tinkerers" reads like something you'd read on a long flight - a largely superficial attempt to identify a new trend that is principally about trying to stake out that new trend, not thoughtfully analyze it. It's something someone will mention in a meeting or when griping about the state of education in the 21st century, but there's no 'there' there.(less)
Perhaps I should have expected this to be narrower and more text-booky than Fischer's History of Language but it was a bit of a slog. The author is ve...morePerhaps I should have expected this to be narrower and more text-booky than Fischer's History of Language but it was a bit of a slog. The author is very good in the speculative passages (on potential problems stemming from diaglossia, for example) and when considering the world in which machines write to one another without our intervention, but this book required way too much close consideration of the appearance and disappearance of various letterforms and tended to leave the reader feeling slightly outside of time and space. It's strength - like the History of Language - is in the clarity of Roger's argument. He decides early on what he means by writing and sticks to it. If you want to know about the origins of Chinese and Korean writing, this is the place to go as those are well and clearly-told histories. At a certain point, Fischer turns to the subject to reading and the book catches fire...for about a page and a half. While I'm not calling this The Matrix:Reloaded of this trilogy yet, I am eager to move on to the History of Reading.(less)
I liked that the book began with a thorough analysis of the vocalizations and gestures of non-human animals...that allowed the story to continue build...moreI liked that the book began with a thorough analysis of the vocalizations and gestures of non-human animals...that allowed the story to continue building one what humans do with language that is remarkable and unique. The chapter on writing was good, and in general Fisher does a really good job keeping his eye on the real subject - how language is used - and doesn't fall into traps about how it is represented. I have to admit I got a little creeped out at the end where he wrote about language and society and seemed not to be taking seriously the issue of 'political correctness'. This has become a bit of a distraction in American culture, to the point where some pundits are proud of their political incorrectness, but Fisher must realize that the perpetual use of language to re-enforce unfair power relations - the issue at the heart of the debate - is not something to be taken lightly. I'm still looking forward to Fisher histories of writing and reading, but I'll be reading them with a more critical eye after this...(less)
I thought I would like this more, but by the time I was 2/3 of the way through, I was getting pretty tired the of the facile dichotomy that was being...moreI thought I would like this more, but by the time I was 2/3 of the way through, I was getting pretty tired the of the facile dichotomy that was being used - that introverts are deep and thoughtful and extroverts flit around...at times, the book sufficiently complicates these ideas, but too often its advice falls back those notions it attempts to relieve - telling introverted readers that they should make deals with themselves to get out when they have to. Perhaps the best advice came out in snippets, as when Cain quotes Woz on the value of 'working alone' and in the discussion of the value of 'deliberate practice'. As a parent, I am warm to anything which puts the relation between self-esteem and competence in proper alignment as happened from time to time in the text, but I cannot warmly endorse this book when I find its tone so frequently condescending…(less)
A really promising book in its notion of situating the virtual in the physical world...ultimately fails to deliver on this promise by overloading its...moreA really promising book in its notion of situating the virtual in the physical world...ultimately fails to deliver on this promise by overloading its narrative with geek histrivia. Better to leave all the should-be-famous network engineers out of the story and concentrate on the map that's getting drawn...(less)
In this book, Bourdain makes a point of praising simplicity and economy...it's unfortunate that the graphic style of the book lacks these qualities. T...moreIn this book, Bourdain makes a point of praising simplicity and economy...it's unfortunate that the graphic style of the book lacks these qualities. The palette is full-blown throughout where it could have used some restraint, and the drawings are often stiff. The story feels a little truncated to fit the form - not so much like it could have been more developed as it feels like it was imagined on a cinematic scale to start and then crammed into a smaller scale. While this is an entertaining read - especially for those passages where it gets very geeky about the preparation of rare birds and lightly salted young eels - it's not as satisfying a serving as one would expect from a chef of Bourdain's stature.(less)