Mar 08

Book Review 3 Pack

I used to write these massive, once a year posts, reviewing every book I’d finished in the course of a year.  It’s becoming clear to me that I had too much time on my hands, because the thought of doing that again with the meager 30 or so books I read last year is just far too daunting.  I like John’s approach, of just shooting out a couple reviews at a time, whenever the mood strikes him.  In that vein then, here are three.

Born on a Blue Day – Daniel Tammet

Daniel Tammet has got to be nearly unique in the world, for having an autistic spectrum disorder (Asperger’s Syndrome), being a mathematical savant, a synesthete, and for being able through all of it to write clear and moving prose about his own mental life.

His writing has a style which you quickly recognize as characteristic of his autism – he is very fixated on details, spending more time talking about the texture of carpet than about the features of the people in his life, but for all that, it is a really touching account of the difficulties he’s had, and the ways he’s found to cope with them.

If you have any interest in how the mind of an autistic person works, to say nothing of an autistic savant, this book is fascinating.  The chapter where he meets Kim Peek is particularly memorable.  Highly Recommended.

The Ghost Map – Steven Johnson

This book isn’t, I think, what most people expect it to be.  I kept hearing about this book from design folks because the titular map in question is a sort of object lesson in Tuftian information design.  The thing is, the book is mostly not about the map, or about information design at all.

The book is far more concerned with tracing the early days of what we now call epidemiology, and that’s not a bad thing at all.  For me, in fact, that’s more interesting.  I found the middle tended to drag on a bit, (Yes, I understand he was groundbreaking, yes, it was very brave to go back into a Cholera zone…) but for all that I found it a quick read, and one that nicely underscored a reality that is ever more true today: Science, without an ability to communicate it compellingly, is impotent.  Recommended.

The Wonga Coup – Adam Roberts

The Wonga Coup is a story about a bunch of wealthy British and South African guys who decide it would be fun to take over Equitorial Guinea.  Fun and lucrative, since oil deposits had been discovered off the coast.  Fun and plausible, since the country’s current leader is somewhere between despot and lunatic, and won’t be fiercely defended by the population, most of whom are too hungry to fight anyhow.  What makes the story interesting is that it’s non-fiction.  It all actually happened, about 15 years ago.

This book was a drive-by for me, just picked up in a bookstore with no particular advance recommendation, but it really is interesting to read about the machinations of a real-world movie-plot, and the things that end up making or breaking such a campaign.  I found the writing pretty slow moving at times, but I think that just says that Roberts is a better researcher than writer, because the details are scrupulously documented.  I don’t think I can give it a blanket recommendation, but if this is an area you are already passionate about, it’s certainly an important piece of modern mercenary history.

[Addendum: I’m not sure if I should tag these posts for inclusion on planet.mozilla.  They aren’t work-related, but I know a lot of people in the community are readers.  What do people think, stay or go?]

Apr 07

Recklessly Generous

Giving childI’m reading If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland. It has been recommended to me by several people as the absolute best book written on the act of writing. Not necessarily on the structure of writing, certainly not on issues of grammar, but on the base, creative act. She wrote it in the late 1930s, and so far it is absolutely living up to its reputation. I haven’t finished it, but I already recommend it to anyone who has ever thought about writing, and doubly so to those who still haven’t written yet.

There is a passage on page 25 that I have to relate because when I read it, it caused me to stop and to put the book down on my lap and to smile. It’s actually a footnote to page 25, where she’s talking about the distinction between working to express yourself and the world you see around you, and grinding to make money or notoriety in business. It reads:

They will be uncreative in business as well as in everything else. For of course the creative power is expressed in business as well as in other things. I know a business man whose every sentence has more life, creative vision and generosity in it than those of many artists.

But the trouble with business expressing the creative power freely and prodigally as Art does, you cannot be recklessly generous in business, giving higher and higher wages and all your products freely and lovingly to the public.

There are lots of times in history that I would love to visit. I often think (more often than I should, really) about going back and chatting with Newton, or Darwin, and talking with them about which things panned out and which ones didn’t and where we’ve gotten to since. But there is absolutely no time in which I would rather be living than this moment.

I work for a company that gives its products freely and lovingly to the public, and we’re not the only ones doing so. I wish Brenda were around to see it.