Sunday, February 6, 2011

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, January 2011

Mini-reviews of books I read last month.  In some ways it was a month of
manifestos, with a Murakami novel thrown into the mix...

1. "You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto" by Jaron Lanier

This attack on the state of the Web was written by a bohemian pioneer of
virtual reality technology in the 1980s.  He's also a composer, visual
artist, and author.  He isn't anti-Web, just opposed to the way many
sites and technologies try to commoditise us.  He believes the internet
should be a place where individuals can flourish, and not a tarpit of
mediocrity that it has become: Web 2.0 or the social web is dominated
by trolling, trivialisation, low quality content and outright lies.
There are damning critiques of Google, Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter,
among others.  I have to say I agree with many of his points.  He
concludes the manifesto with proposals for an alternative model for
technology and the Web.

In an age where some multinational corporations try to con(vince) us
that they are paragons of openness and freedom, this book is a timely
reminder that all is not what it seems.  The book's website:

BTW when I saw the book at the library, its title reminded me of this
interesting observation:
"If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the
 product being sold."
While this was in response to criticism of social news site Digg's
redesign, it has general application, for example to companies that
provide "free" stuff so that they can sell your eyeballs to the highest
bidder, er, advertiser.  "Beware of geeks bearing gifts".

2. "The Cult of the Amateur" by Andrew Keen

This book has similar themes ands criticisms to Lanier's, but frames the
arguments more from an economic than a philosophical perspective.  Keen
argues that the "wisdom of the crowd" in the form of amateur bloggers,
musicians and moviemakers doesn't always result in quality.  The book's
provocative subtitle is "How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture and
Assaulting Our Economy".  Quality content takes time and money to make,
and traditional producers are having their content devalued and their
businesses threatened by low-quality content.  I don't completely accept
the last point: maybe "old media" deserves a shake-up, but he does make
some valid points.

He also cites addiction, online gambling, file-sharing and plagiarism as
nasty side-effects of the new world order.  He's particularly damning of
Google: "they have figured out how to magically transform other people's
free content into a multi-billion-dollar advertising machine."  He
concludes by proposing some solutions: curation of content, regulation
and enforcement.  Of course these suggestions will never fly with those
who demand unfettered openness as a means to "democritisation".  But
then it's easy living in an idealised world.

Irony?  In true Web 2.0 fashion, the book been uploaded by someone:
and Google's index helped me find it.

3. "The Perfect Egg and Other Secrets" by Aldo Buzzi

This is a great little collection of food-related essays by late Italian
architect/screen writer/author Aldo Buzzi.  The first part of the book
gathers together recipes from the author's travels around the world.  I
guess you need a bit of an open mind as to what other cultures consider
delicacies, e.g. pigeons and crows.  Each brief chapter presents a
recipe as well as some related anecdotes, trivia and cultural notes.

The second part concentrates on the home cooking of the author's German-
born mother.  Overall another entertaining read, especially if you're
interested in food and cooking.

4. "Sputnik Sweetheart" by Haruki Murakami
In this Murakami novel the main character is a young teacher who finds
that his love for his friend Sumire, a wannabe writer, is unrequited.
In fact, she has become infatuated with her new boss, Miu, a prominent
and married businesswoman.

The first part of the novel sets the scene and establishes these three
characters.  I don't want to say much more about the actual plot to
avoid spoilers.  I'll just say there is a major turning point midway
through, and the second half becomes an interesting look at loneliness.
Towards the end the main character, when counselling a young pupil,
describes being all alone as "the feeling you get when you stand at the
mouth of a large river on a rainy evening and watch the water flow into
the sea".  He also warns that thinking just by yourself for too long can
hold you back, can keep you to a single viewpoint.

It almost wouldn't be a Murakami story without the presence of cats,
wells, music and cooking, all with a hint of the supernatural.  These
elements all make an appearance, but as usual it's the characters,
themes and plot which carry the story.  Overall, another excellent
novel, confirming Murakami as my favourite Japanese author.

5. "Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto" by Anneli Rufus

The author is a confessed and proud loner.  She argues that the term
"loner" has become a negative label, when in fact some types of people
actually need some "alone" time.  She notes that many great writers,
artists and inventors were loners, and we benefit from the fruits of
their solitude.  She contrasts the voluntary "loner" with the
involuntary "outcast", and points out that many notorious loners were
actually social people who were rejected.  These "pseudoloners" often
did drastic things to take revenge or seek notoriety.

As an introvert who requires alone time, I found this book refreshing
and reassuring.  Not everyone is a social butterfly, and there's nothing
wrong with shutting yourself off occasionally to get some peace and
quiet.  In fact, in appropriate doses it can help keep you sane.
Extroverts should read this book too, so they can better understand the
rest of us.

6. "The Four Agreements" by don Miguel Ruiz

As the subtitle mentions, this book is a "practical guide to personal
freedom".  It is based on the Wisdom of the Toltec.  The four agreements
are straight-forward and hard to fault:
 (1) Be impeccable with your word.
 (2) Don't take anything personally.
 (3) Don't make assumptions.
 (4) Always do your best.

The author argues that we can achieve personal freedom and happiness if
we make and hold these agreements.  There's much in common with other
moral codes and philosophies, so it's hard to argue against them.  I
guess one criticism is that these agreements, like any moral codes,
beliefs and principles, are also subject to the environment we live in.