Mind Wide Open

Mind Wide Open — By Steven Johnson

Steven Johnson explores ongoing research into the human brain, memory and emotion in this engaging, chatty account. The book is a combination of science and memoir, as Johnson descibes his conversations with researchers in different areas, and his personal experiences with various tests and experiments. Reading this book is like having an extended conversation with an intelligent and gifted friend. I love reading about the human brain, and have read many books about neuroscience over the past few years, but this is my favorite.

Everything Bad is Good for You

Book CoverEverything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Matter — By Steven Johnson

This is an interesting and provocative book about popular culture, especially video games and television programs, and how they’ve become increasingly complex and challenging intellectually. The presentation is definitely one-sided, and I don’t agree with everything he says, but I found this book both entertaining and enlightening.

As a librarian, I was especially interested in the parts about video games. There’s a lot here about the false and pointless comparisons between the benefits of reading books and playing video games, and the dismissive and/or patronizing attitude that so many people have about games, usually based on the most superficial of knowledge about the way people actually experience the games. He’s especially good, I believe, at showing how pointless it is to focus on the specific content of the games (dragons, princesses, drive-by shootings or whatever) and to judge them by standards developed for, and more appropriate to, literary works.

He reminds us of McLuhan’s observation that new media is always rejected as “pseudo” and inferior by those raised on the old media, who always tend to judge the new by comparison to the old, and not on its own terms. His focus, as the title implies, is on the intellectual challenge of playing today’s complex and difficult games, and the benefits of that kind of cognitive workout.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves : The Zero Tolerance Appro…

Eats, Shoots & Leaves : The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation — By Lynn Truss

You’ll either love it or hate it– I loved it. When I first heard about this book, I expected it to more curmudgeonly, more prescriptive, less personal. I think I was expecting more of a style manual. But that’s not what this is. While it is informative on various issues of grammar, it’s also a wonderfully flawed, digressive, personal book which is sometimes erudite and sometimes silly.

It’s a short, easy read, a good book to borrow from the library and read on the train. I loved it.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves

Book CoverEats, Shoots & Leaves : The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation — By Lynn Truss

You’ll either love it or hate it– I loved it. When I first heard about this book, I expected it to more curmudgeonly, more prescriptive, less personal. I think I was expecting more of a style manual. But that’s not what this is. While it is informative on various issues of grammar, it’s also a wonderfully flawed, digressive, personal book which is sometimes erudite and sometimes silly.

It’s a short, easy read, a good book to borrow from the library and read on the train. I loved it.

My Life in the Middle Ages : A Survivor’s Tale

My Life in the Middle Ages : A Survivor’s Tale — By James Atlas

This collection of personal essays, as its name implies, is about being middle-aged, or , more accurately, about growing old. In his fifties, if he’s not quite old, he’s old enough to see old age coming, as he deals with the death of his father, the deaths and divorces of friends, and the early signs of declining health. He also writes about money, spirituality, depression and trying to come to terms with his own professional successes and failures.

There’s nothing profound here, in essays that reflect a New York literary life of comfort and privilege– inside stories of the New Yorker, the private schools, the summer house in Vermont, psychotherapy. There’s a certain Woody Allen movie quality to all of this. As he thinks about decline and loss, it’s difficult to feel too sympathetic, since he’s had much more and lost far less than most of us. But I think he knows that, and he isn’t looking for sympathy. And, for me, anyway, the companionable style of writing made me read this more like a series of letters from an old friend than as a literary work, and I find the book, and the man, flawed but quite likeable nonetheless.

The Cult of Personality

Book CoverThe Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves — By Annie Murphy Paul

This is a fascinating, sometimes disturbing, look at the world of personality tests and how they are used. The author’s approach is generally historical and personal, and sometimes gossipy, showing how tests like the Rorschach inkblots, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, Myers-Briggs, and other tests were developed, how they became popular, and why their accuracy and validity is open to question (to say the least.) This book is at least as interesting in terms of cultural history as it is in terms of public policy.

Middle Aged Blues

Book CoverMy Life in the Middle Ages : A Survivor’s Tale — By James Atlas

This collection of personal essays, as its name implies, is about being middle-aged, or , more accurately, about growing old. In his fifties, if he’s not quite old, he’s old enough to see old age coming, as he deals with the death of his father, the deaths and divorces of friends, and the early signs of declining health. He also writes about money, spirituality, depression and trying to come to terms with his own professional successes and failures.

There’s nothing profound here, in essays that reflect a New York literary life of comfort and privilege– inside stories of the New Yorker, the private schools, the summer house in Vermont, psychotherapy. There’s a certain Woody Allen movie quality to all of this. As he thinks about decline and loss, it’s difficult to feel too sympathetic, since he’s had much more and lost far less than most of us. But I think he knows that, and he isn’t looking for sympathy. And, for me, anyway, the companionable style of writing made me read this more like a series of letters from an old friend than as a literary work, and I find the book, and the man, flawed but quite likable nonetheless.

The Radioactive Boy Scout

Book CoverThe Radioactive Boy Scout : The Frightening True Story of a Whiz Kid and His Homemade Nuclear Reactor — By Ken Silverstein

The title and subtitle pretty much says it all. Teenager David Hahn’s obsessive interest in chemistry and fascination with radioactivity is no secret to his parents, teachers, Scout leaders, friends or girlfriend. There was the occasional fire and explosion, not to mention the time he brought his Geiger counter and a baggy of radioactive material to school to show his doubting friends. But somehow no one really took his activities seriously, or knew that he had really crossed over into something seriously dangerous until the day the Feds showed up in moon suits to dismantle the shed in his mother’s backyard.
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Hello to All That : A Memoir of War, Zoloft, and Peace

Book Cover
Hello to All That : A Memoir of War, Zoloft, and Peace — By John Falk

John Falk grew up on Long Island, with great parents, surrounded by his father’s large and loving extended family. It was an ideal childhood, until the age of twelve, when he is suddenly felled with depression…the curse of his mother’s family. With the extraordinary support of his family, he manages to get through his high school and college years, acting normal while still feeling shut off from himself and others.

A prescription for Zoloft miraculously restores him to health, but he has a desperate need to make up for lost time, and to live a life of adventure. He chooses to do this by somehow talking his way into becoming a journalist in war-torn Sarajevo, without qualifications, experience or contacts.

This memoir shifts back and forth between his youth in America and his adventures and misadventures in Bosnia during the war. His account of his own depression, its affect on himself and his family members, is honest, unsentimental and riveting, as is his story of his time in Bosnia and the friends that he made there. And I loved reading the last chapter, about Falk’s wedding, in which we see many of the characters from the book several years later. His description of his depression was deeply disturbing, but his description of his triumph over it, and his loving family and friends, was quite beautiful.

The Wisdom of Crowds

Book CoverThe Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations — By James Surowiecki

James Surowiecki, the business columnist for the New Yorker, explains why “under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.” He gives many examples involving everything betting odds, the Stock Market, traffic flow, and the relative success rate of the “lifelines” on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”

It’s not a simple concept, since certain conditions need to be met for the wisdom of crowds to work, but it’s a fascinating and important one, and the book is, among other things, wonderfully entertaining.

Although he never talks about journalism, publishing and librarianship, the book has some interesting implications for those of us in these fields. I certainly think of it frequently when I am working on Wikipedia or working with open source software. I’d love it if he’d speak at the ALA conference, or write about some of these issues, and how the wisdom of crowds plays out in these areas.

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