What I've Been Reading

Wow, driving into work every day has definitely killed the pace of my reading. It took me over four months to read ten books? That's just shameful.

Eric Flint, 1632. Riverdale: Baen, 2000.

A friend recommended this series a few years ago, so I finally picked up a copy of the first volume in December. Two days later I was at another friend's Christmas party and saw it on the bookshelf she'd devoted to books that weren't worth the paper they were printed on. Whoops.

You may be familiar with the premise of 1632, which is that a West Virginia mining town is sent back in time to Thuringia in the middle of the Thirty Years War. It's not exactly an original premise, but it's one with a lot of miles left in it. Will the West Virginians be able to uphold their modern American ideas in the face of hardship? How can they survive when their modern conveniences stop functioning? Will they change history, or will history change them? Unfortunately, absolutely none of these avenues are explored. In fact, there's practically no conflict in this book. Any philosophical debates the community might have engaged in are barely mentioned. They have just enough resources and know-how transported with them so they can hold out until they develop local replacements. Every political power that might stand against them is either immediately won over to their cause or powerless to act. The first time a meaningful conflict rears its head you're 50 pages away from the end of a 600 page book and you're well past the point where you'd care.

It doesn't help that large chunks of the book read like nerd porn. There's a scene where a husky RPG nerd turns out to have the soul of a hardened warrior (improbable). There's a painfully awful sequence where the aforementioned nerd bags a hot but damaged German chick who falls unreservedly in love with him despite the fact that they can't speak a common language and have only known each other for two days (impossible). A whole volume of the book is given over to showing off the author's personal knowledge of the Thirty Years War, despite the fact that almost none of what's going on impacts the plot directly (interminable).

I find it incredible that this awful book has five direct sequels and six associated books of shared world fiction. I guess there's no accounting for taste.

Lucas Conley, OBD: Obsessive Branding Disorder: The Illusion of Business and the Business of Illusion. New York: PublicAffairs, 2008.

My first salaried job out of school was with a software company that had absolutely no entrepreneurial vision. Instead of marketing their existing software as the reliable workhorse it was, they kept trying to rebrand it as a "new" product (despite not changing it at all) or trying to tweak the company's tagline in a way that would allow them to break through. They wasted a fortune on letterhead revising that damn tagline four times in one year.

Lucas Conley's Obsessive Branding Disorder does a great job of showing how this attitude has become entrenched in our business and marketing culture — that it's far easier to push around paper and rebrand yourself than it is to take a chance on new ideas and new technologies. But the fact is that the way to have a strong brand is to produce a quality product; to stand for a specific value proposition that remains unchanged; to stick with your visual style for as long as humanly possible, only making minor tweaks to keep up with current design trends; to keep doing what you're doing long enough that you become entrenched in the popular consciousness. A good brand expert can help you develop new brands or slowly steer your brand in a new direction, but this is a slow process that does not produce instant results and anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar.

Anyway, mini-rant aside, this is a great book and I recommend everyone read it. When the "branding" industry collapses in the next year or so you'll be glad that you did.

Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future. New York: Penguin Books, 2008.

On the other hand, this book is just pure alarmism. Kids today aren't stupid. They're just as lazy, distracted and venal as they've ever been — it's just that now they have more ways of goofing off. Any perceived decline less to do with digital culture than decades of social engineering that's stratified our economic classes and turned the lower classes into mindless consumers. And also bad parenting. Let's not forget that.

John Hodgman, More Information Than You Require. New York: Dutton, 2008.

If you liked The Areas of My Expertise, you'll enjoy this. It's unfortunately similar, to the point where it includes 700 moleman names in an attempt to top the 700 hobo names from the repvious book. I do kind of wish Hodgman would try something new, because between these books and his media appearances his shtick is starting to get a little old. Not that it isn't still entertaining, but it's not as entertaining is it could be.

Then again, if the "Taxonomy of Complete World Knowledge" from the inside of the dust cover were turned into a giant poster, I'd buy it.

Minding the Store: Great Writing About Business from Tolstoy to Now. Edited by Robert Coles and Albert LaFarge. New York: New Press, 2008.

There are some great pieces in here, including works by Kafka and Flannery O'Connor, but it's sometimes hard to see what ties them in to the overarching theme of "business writing." I suspect that it works much better as a supplemental textbook to Coles and LaFarge's lecture course.

Dave Crenshaw, The Myth of Multitasking: How "Doing It All" Gets Nothing Done. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008.

"There's just one thing I don't understand," said Sarah. "Why are so many management technique books written as fables or dialogues? Is it to disguise the fact that they contain about five paragraphs of useful advice buried in a hundred pages of large type?"

"That's part of it," said Dave, "but it's mostly because the average middle manager can only read at a first-grade level."

I picked up this book hoping that it would have some useful advice on managing my workflow, only to discover that all the salient points could have easily been summarized in a short bulleted sidebar. It doesn't help that this "advice" is presented in an obnoxious sing-songy dialogue that makes Who Moved My Cheese? look like Leaves of Grass. I'm sure Crenshaw is a much better consultant than this book would suggest, but damn, I wouldn't hire him after reading this.

Luke Sullivan, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. (3rd ed.) Hoboken: Wiley, 2008.

An advertising/marketing classic, and I can't believe it's taken me this long to get around to reading it.

G. Xavier Robillard, Captain Freedom. New York: Harper, 2009.

I've enjoyed G. Xavier Robillard's short pieces for McSweeney's and was hoping that this novel would be more of the same. Captain Freedom gets off to a great start, with the titular hero defeating the ferocious Genghis Kong and being forced into early retirement, but it goes downhill fast. I can live with the fact that Captain Freedom doesn't experience any sort of character growth — indeed, it'd be completely out of character for the image-obsessed and shallow Captain to have any sort of insight into his own life — the real problem is that the satire is spread so thin that it rarely ever finds a target. This would have been an amusing short story but as a novel it's painful.

David Levy, Love and Sex With Robots. New York: Harper, 2007.

This is not a very good book. Even if I set aside my personal objections to strong AI, David Levy spends far too much time examining why anyone would fall in love or have sex with a robot. I think these questions have fairly obvious answers — psychology has shown that human beings have been a remarkable talent for anthropomorphization, and Loveline shows that we're perfectly willing to share our genitals with anything that's the appropriate shape.

The more interesting question from my standpoint is what loving a robot means both philosophically and culturally. If the robot is truly intelligent and free-willed, I certainly think love between man and machine is possible though it's hard to see what the robot would get out of the relationship. But what Levy envisions are robots who are programmed to never fall out of love with their owners, who devote all their clock cycles to keeping their relationship fresh and who administer secret MRIs to discover your likes and dislikes — in short, pathetic love slaves, and I think I said all I need to say about the subject almost a decade ago.

The Japanese Beetle for the week of April 16, 2001

Leslie Gornstein, The A-List Playbook. New York: SkyHorse, 2009.

I don't have any particular interest in celebrity gossip, but Leslie Gornstein (also known as E! Online's Answer Bitch) dishes it out with such style that I can't help but tune in week after week. Since I can't donate money directly to her podcast, buying her book is the best way to show my appreciation. Now if only she'd expand her book tour to include shops outside of the Greater Los Angeles area.

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