on books

14 May 2013

Inferno
by Dan Brown

The tall writer Steven Poole opened the wooden door of the strong house and peered at the small figure on the stone doorstep. It was a boy. Cradled in his palms the boy nervously proffered a startling object. It was the new book by the famous novelist Dan Brown.

The tall writer took the precious artefact from the nervous boy’s hands and thanked him. The miniature human scuttled off. An idling engine revved into life. The writer glanced down the street, then retreated into the residential building. He knew he had better get to work. Looking at his Tag Heuer Swiss watch, he calculated that he had only 48 hours to decode the arcane puzzle of the bestselling author’s latest novel.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

13 April 2013

Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, by Melissa Mohr

Did he just say what I think he said? In late 2010, Britain erupted in merriment when a radio interviewer attempted to introduce his guest, “the culture secretary Jeremy Hunt,” and accidentally replaced the first letter of the man’s surname with an earlier-used consonant. Swearwords, even in our proudly informal age, have lost none of their power to offend or amuse. Last year, the Supreme Court earnestly discussed whether the Federal Communications Commission could punish broadcasters for “fleeting expletives”—words that “unexpectedly” arise during live conversation. For the moment, the court decided, the FCC can, though it was advised to reconsider its overall “indecency” policy.

One long-standing response to regulation and social censure has been to adopt an innocent expression and just change a letter or two. Norman Mailer’s World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead, featured salty-tongued sailors saying “fug” and “fugging.” More recently, Syfy’s much-admired TV series Battlestar Galactica had swearers in space saying “frak” and “frakking.” (Today these words are more likely to evoke a method of getting at shale gas.) One can be even more direct with homophony. Generations of students have giggled in not-quite-innocent pleasure over Hamlet’s asking Ophelia: “Do you think I meant country matters?”

We can safely assume that humans have been both reveling in and claiming to be offended by language deemed “obscene” for as long as they have been talking. Or at the very least, as Melissa Mohr demonstrates in her intelligent and enjoyable new book, since Roman times, when there were already a variety of names for acts and body parts, from proper to very lewd (the guessable “cunnus” and “futuo”; the more obscure “landica” and “irrumo”). In Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, Ms. Mohr leads us on an often ear-boggling tour of verbal depravity, through the medieval and early-modern periods (via a fascinating analysis of scatological phrasing in early Bible translations) to the Victorian era and then our own time. She also makes a serious point, cutely captured in the book’s title. Our idea of “swearing” is irredeemably muddled—caught between the sacred, as in the taking of oaths (the title’s “Holy”), and the profane, as in the use of terms for evacuatory and erotic adventure (the title’s other word).

Read the rest at the Wall Street Journal.

27 March 2013

Sound and its discontents through history
Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening, by David Hendy (Profile)

During a classical music concert, a cough is rarely just a cough. According to a recent paper by the economist Andreas Wagener, people are twice as likely to cough during a concert as at other times. Furthermore, they are more likely to cough during modern, atonal music than during better-known repertoire and they cough more during slow or quiet passages than during fast and loud ones.

The classical cough, then, is no accident but rather a form of communication disguised as involuntary physiological tic. “Because of their ambiguity – they may always be forgiven as bodily reflexes – coughs are a noisy substitute for direct, verbal communication and participation,” Wagener writes. “They allow for social interaction up to contagious herding, propagate (possibly incorrect) assessments of the performance and reassure concert-goers in their aesthetic judgements.”

Coughers might thus be rebelling nonverbally against the hierarchy imposed on them – that of powerful, noise-making performers and submissive, silent audience. Wagener’s paper is too recent to have found its way into David Hendy’s book, but it reflects in this way one of Noise’s major themes – that social groups struggle for supremacy using sound as a proxy.

Read the rest at the New Statesman.

20 March 2013

To Save Everything, Click Here, by Evgeny Morozov
Big Data, by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier

Newsflash: the internet doesn’t exist. If you think there is just one thing called “the Internet” with a single logic and set of values — rather than a variety of different networked technologies, each with its own character and challenges – and that the rest of the world must be reshaped around it, then you are an “Internet-centrist”. If you think the messiness and inefficiency of political and cultural life are problems that should be fixed using technology, then you are a “solutionist”. And if you think that the age of Twitter and online videos of sneezing cats is so unlike anything that has gone before that we must tear up the rule-book of civilisation, then you are an “epochalist”. Such coinages are one of the drive-by amusements of reading Evgeny Morozov, who, since his first book, The Net Delusion, has become one of our most penetrating and brilliantly sardonic critics of techno-utopianism.

He certainly has some colourful adversaries. One is Jeff Jarvis, a new-media cyberhustler and consultant who is serially wrong about the near future, and seemingly cannot bear to hear any criticism of his adored Silicon Valley corporations. Appearing on the BBC earlier this year after Facebook had been hacked, he accused his interviewer of spreading “technopanic”, insisted the whole story was “crap”, and said: “This interview shouldn’t exist.” Afterwards, he tweeted: “The BBC can kiss my ass,” and “Fuck you, BBC.”

Among Morozov’s other targets are Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, with his “populist rage against institutions” (except his own); LinkedIn supremo Reid Hoffman, who has perpetrated a book-shaped product entitled The Start-Up of You; Google’s Eric Schmidt, who believes that an algorithm could one day tell you what is the “Best music from Lady Gaga”; Microsoft engineer Gordon Bell, lifelogger extraordinaire and exemplary lunatic of the mindset that holds that Truth, in the form of perfect data recall, is the absolute social value; and the games-will-save-the-world theorist Jane McGonigal, whose work Morozov likens to “a bad parody of Mitt Romney”.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

14 March 2013

The Slow Fix, by Carl Honoré (HarperOne)

Carl Honoré is a writer and public speaker who flies around the world telling people to slow down. “My life has been transformed by deceleration,” he confides in The Slow Fix, though it has also clearly been transformed by acceleration, of the jet-engine variety. In 2004, he published In Praise of Slow, a critique of our cultural addiction to speed, advising readers to take more time over eating, exercising, sex and bedtime stories. “The Slow movement is on the march,” he announced then. If so, it was marching at a snail’s pace, since nine years later we are due another reminder of the virtues of dawdling.

This time Mr. Honoré focuses on the desirability of taking things slowly when you are trying to solve a problem. “We are hooked on the quick fix,” he says, but our pill-popping, speed-yoga, retail-therapy, drive-thru-funeral, rent-a-pal, high-frequency-trading world is still broken. The author strains somewhat to convince us that his message is a novel one. Every culture has long had a suspicion of quick fixes. Even in our hyper-accelerated age, when a problem arises you never hear people demanding half-baked solutions.

Read the rest in the Wall Street Journal.

1 February 2013

Best European Fiction 2013, ed Aleksandar Hemon

In a European short story, anything can happen, whereas in an American short story, it is almost guaranteed that nothing will. This richly strange collection of tales, from all over the old continent, features a nameless thing growing behind a television set, an itinerant theatre troupe who take Brechtian alienation to alarming extremes, and a music shop in which you can buy a CD of Oscar Peterson’s nonexistent “solo recorder recital” in 1967 New York. Aleksandar Hemon’s agreeably obstreperous introduction to his fourth edited anthology itself offers a couple of rough-and-ready heuristics for identifying European writers – they will, for example, show a “disinclination to entertain by deploying TV-friendly banalities masked as social commentary” (I confess I immediately thought of Jonathan Franzen) – but he rapidly tires of the whole question. “For the past few years, every single review of the anthology brought up the question: what is European fiction? I am happy to report I have no clue.”

Read the rest at the Guardian.

19 December 2012

Genes, Cells and Brains, by Hilary Rose and Steven Rose

We have outsourced the job of interpreting ourselves to the modern life sciences. The decoding of the human genome will tell us who we really are, pledged the gene-merchants. Brain scans will tell us who we really are, swore the neuro-hustlers. And what did we get? We got suckered. It turns out that humans have roughly as many protein-encoding genes as a fruit fly, and that fMRI scanning is still such an inexact art that a team of satirical neuroscientists have demonstrated significant “brain activity” in a dead salmon.

This fascinating, lucid and angry book by the sociologist Hilary Rose and the neurobiologist Steven Rose (they are married) boasts abundant targets and a lethally impressive hit ratio. They decry the entrepreneurialisation of science – “wealth creation is now unabashedly formalised as the chief objective of science and technology policy” – not least because it actually impedes science. (“PhD students can work for months on a project only to find that they cannot continue as they have run into a patent.”) They lambast the “armchair” theorising of evolutionary psychology, with its ungrounded assumption that we have “stone-age minds in the 21st century”. They scorn the “neuromyths” sold to the educational establishment, with the result that schoolchildren become the unwitting subjects of uncontrolled experiments in applying alleged lessons from animal psychology to the classroom.

The book performs in high style the necessary public service of recomplicating the simplistic hogwash hysterically blasted at us by both uncritical science reporters and celebrity scientists.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

7 December 2012

Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, by Chris Anderson

Chris Anderson thinks you might be a toy company. After telling the heartwarming anecdote of how he fabricated some doll’s house furniture for his daughters using a new 3D printer – which works like an inkjet printer but sprays down layers of liquefied plastic to make a solid object – the former Wired editor says he might never buy doll’s house furniture again. “If you’re a toy company,” Anderson threatens, “this story should give you chills.” I didn’t get chills, but then I’m not a toy company. This is the sort of book, however, that is mainly aimed at corporate persons, and at individuals only to the extent that they work for corporate persons, cherishing the dream of becoming an “entrepreneur”, that perfection of the human spirit to which all human history, at least as Anderson recounts it, has been leading.

Read the rest at the Guardian.