Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Interesting article which gnaws at Friedman's newest book:


Saturday, September 10, 2005

It has been my practice over the last several years to restrict myself from posting any comments on books I do not finish. I implimented this rule as a way of forcing myself to break a habit that I dislike, of starting many books but finishing few. As anyone who has ever lived with or slept with me knows, I've got a bit of ADD when it comes to focus. As a rule there are at least two or three books by my bedside table, and often I'll read a few pages of each before I go to bed.

Then there are those that I WANT to read, but just can't make myself finish. For the record, here's a list of books I'm either in the middle of, or have abandoned somewhere along the trail this week:

The Shadow Knows by Diane Johnson - (too neurotic, too boring, too self-absorbed)
Lust by Elfriede Jelinek - (too hateful in it's depection of sexuality)
Discipline & Punish by Michael Foucault - (I lack the background in psycho-analytic theory I fear, though I love the premise of this one)
Crossroads of Twilight by Robert Jordan - (just sucks too bad to waste more time on)
Everything's Eventual by Stephen King -(already read it once, but wanted to re-read his tale of a haunted hotel room, as an interesting look at the single setting short story)
Collapse by Jared Diamond - (wonderful, just dense and requires focus. Can't read it while tipsy or stoned, or with music on.)
Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pyncheon (brillant but too insane and too long to take in one sitting, or even a hundred)

Then beyond these, which are all on the nightstand, there are the books I look at for research. I tend to keep these by my computer, where I write or work. Right now, since I'm working on a western, I've pulled out and re-skimmed some of the better fiction that I think falls into the category. I've read all of these before, but am interested in looking at how these diverse authors use language, density, structure, etc.

The ones I've looked at and read at least in part this week are:

The Ox-Bow Incident by Walten Van Tilburn Clark - (a classic, but nothing stylistically very interesting here)
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy - (fascinating, beautiful, horrific, too overly stylized to ever be widely read. Try for literature, miss out on the mainstream.)
The Gates of the Alamo by Stephen Harrigan - (really fun, mass-market historical fiction.)
East of Eden by John Steinbeck - (so beautifully written it makes me want to cry. I love this book and am working hard to resist it's siren song... I want to re-read it all again, but am trying to prohibit myself from doing so until I finish my current project, since I'm afraid it will "kill my self-confidence after posioning me with words.")
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry - (In re-reading parts this week I am struck by LMMs ability to render epic through volume and character those stories which would otherwise fall into the stylistic realm of pure pulp.)
My Antonia by Willa Cather - (Loved this when I first read it, still think it's beautiful. It differs greatly from the rest of these mentioned for several reasons. First, though it is a western, it concerns itself with only small-group social themes, second, it it told in first person, thirdly, it is such a tragic bildungsroman that on this list only East of Eden can compete with it for epic beauty.)
Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver by J. Frank Dobie - (I wanted to go back and see how the original Texas folklorist wrote. Turns out it's more in the nature of campfire yarn spinning than in the vein of modern fiction. No wonder I loved this book as a kid in Colorado.)

All of these books when taken as a blend, a few pages from here and from there comprise a pretty delightful salad of "western fiction" -- does anyone but me care about the above? No, I don't think so. It would have been a fun undergraduate course-load in western fiction though.

This is how I spent my time this warm September in Burnaby, British Columbia.


Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell

Y-Man, now departed for the rugged frontier of Tuscon loaned me his copy of this book after an interesting conversation we had about the nature of 'influencers' in society. What C. Wright Mills did for our concept of elite players in government, Y-Man maintained that Gladwell did for our understanding of social connectors.

Turns out that Gladwell's book is a more general case look at the was social movement follow the same patterns as epidemics. He looks at teen smoking, suicide in Micronesia, the spread of syphillis, the fashion predominance of Hush-puppies, and a few dozen other social trends and concludes that each of these follows a pattern which is nothing new to the CDC. Interestingly, he goes a step further and analyzes the types of people who are involved in the spread of social epidemics (mavens, connectors, etc.) and determines that certain 'key influencers' and salesmen "connector" types weild disproportionate amounts of influce over the shape of society.

The book is fascinating, actually, and certainly thought provoking. The statistical analysis of these trends, at the point at which each goes from being something that is isolated to being a bona-fide social epidemic gives the book it's title. The Tipping Point is that moment when someing, anything really, goes mainstream.

Gladwell's observations are acute, if somewhat simplistic. The studies he quotes are interesting. The writing is sloppy. Stylistically, obviously there's nothing here; it isn't that kind of book. But that's not what bothered me. My issue with the book is how ill-documented most of his research was and how quickly he jumped over the logical 'proof' required to draw a conclusion. Gladwell will off-handedly mention a study, breeze through it's conclusions, draw his own, assume they are fact, then build his argument atop this house of cards. It's sloppy writing, and it's certainly sloppy social science.

Compared to, for example, Jared Diamond's fantastically argued, agonizingly researched 'Collapse' which I'm reading concurrently, Gladwell comes across as a bright sociology undergrad, with some cool ideas and a penchant for pointing out neat factoids that support his basic thesis.

This isn't science, and it isn't research. It's not academic writing at all, but instead one of those interesting over-the-counter-at-the-airport pieces of non-fiction which coins a phrase and lets people with a shaky grasp of social trends throw around some smart sounding ideas about how these trends work.

Interesting but deeply flawed.