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…on book reviews

Some books apparently demand review over and over and over again. I suspect it’s no coincidence that many such books cover seemingly sensational topics and end up being rather dull. I’ve noticed this with ‘ground-breaking’ technology books, like Nicholas Carr’s The Big Switch, Eli Parsier’s The Filter Bubble, or Don Tapscott & Anthony Williams’s Wikinomics. The irony has never been lost on me that Carr, who wrote The Shallows, is one of the premier authors in a genre whose books consistently lack the depth of a tea saucer.

Their structure is simple: an introductory chapter that reads like (and as often as not started as) an article in Wired is followed by 3-5 chapters featuring vignettes offering anecdotal “proof” of the trend outlined in the introduction.These books are one of the reasons I so enjoy my membership of the London Library. As a vociferous producer of marginal notes, there are many types of book I’d rather own than borrow from a library. Tech pulp non-fiction, though, is perfect for library usage since they’re easy to scalp: skim the introduction and the first page or two of each chapter, make a note of any real research cited, and move on. On the other hand, these types of books do offer the chattering classes an opportunity to spill shocking amounts of ink.

An admission: I’ve thought of writing a book on the history of different communications technologies and what they can teach us about the Internet…but these types of books have put me off it. I don’t want to do it unless I can do an intellectually robust job of it, and work takes up far too much time at present for that to be feasible. I might try to take a sabbatical in early 2013 to do so, though.

Anyway, putting aside my rant: reviews of Christopher Turner’s Adventures in the Orgasmatron: Wilhelm Reich and the Invention of Sex seem to be ubiquitous these days. So far, I’ve read reviews in the New Yorker, the London Review of Books, and the Guardian. The book itself seems to be robust enough, though none of the reviews has yet inspired me to order a copy. What I’ve found most interesting is differing approaches each reviewer took to putting the book in context. The New Yorker discusses the book book in the broader historical sweep of sexual liberation; the LRB, typically, focused more on the intellectual milieu in which Reich lived and worked; the Guardian, for its part, produced a workable synopsis of the book itself.

I don’t mind what I call “reading around” a book, though it does sometimes feel like the literary equivalent of Facebook stalking. Perhaps my bigger problem is that if a reviewed book captures my interest, I’m likely to avoid future reviews until I can read the book itself (by which time I will have lost track of the other reviews), so I end up reading more about books towards which I’m indifferent than about those that fascinate me. I don’t think that can be a good thing, but at least now I’m aware of it.

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