Nonfiction Roundup August 2008

I’m finishing up packing my books, and came across the pile of books that I read this summer but haven’t reviewed yet. So this is going to be a quickie placeholder post with short reviews of each book, and hopefully I’ll have time to come back and do a longer review later on a couple of them (particularly McCracken’s book).

Transformations, by Grant McCracken

I’m a big fan of Grant McCracken’s blog, so I was eagerly anticipating his new book, which postulates that, as he titles his preface, “Entertainment is dead, long live Transformation”. Instead of passively watching entertainment, people have become active consumers of the world around them, using ideas from all cultures to drive change within themselves. We have moved from a world where one’s birth determined one’s destiny (sons of tailors became tailors) to one where we reinvent each ourselves on an ongoing basis. McCracken traces transformation possibilities throughout history, starting with tribal ritualistic transformations of rites of passage, passing through the industrial conception of working to improve one’s social status by imitating the upper class, on to the 50s warring transformations of beatnik dropout culture vs. technophilic “brightwork” culture, and then to the postmodern transformations available to us today. McCracken takes the reader on a tour of several categories of these postmodern transformations, including the capitalistic swift self and the Eastern-philosophy leaning radiant self. I highly recommend this book – it’s so dense with new ideas and incisive observations that every few pages I would have to put it down and think for a while.

Convergence Culture, by Henry Jenkins

Henry Jenkins is an MIT professor who is one of the leading analysts of media and culture and technology. This book is a collection of essays on three concepts he describes as media convergence, participatory culture, and collective intelligence. He uses these ideas to analyze a number of different communities, including the Internet groups that work to discover who wins the Survivor reality show before the results are displayed, the delicate interaction between corporations and fans in American Idol voting, the transmedia creation of the Matrix movies, etc. I liked his description of the “social process of acquiring knowledge” that communities like the Survivor “spoilers” develop to decide what information is accepted as community knowledge as opposed to individual contributions (reminiscent of Latour’s collective). Jenkins also emphasizes the ways in which culture is not a degrading force to be demonized, but instead a powerful force that drives people to collaborate in ways they might not under normal circumstances (e.g. his essay on “Why Heather can write”, discussing Harry Potter fan fiction). I liked how this book provides a quick tour inside these different communities, but I don’t feel like I came away with a necessarily new understanding of these trends. It felt a little fluffy to me, but that may be because of my relative familiarity with this world compared to his target audience.

Group Genius, by Keith Sawyer

Keith Sawyer is a psychology professor who studied under Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow (which I’ve still never read), and this book is his attempt to extend the Flow theory to how groups of people think and interact. Sawyer is an experienced jazz musician and improv comedian, two activities where the “product” is a collaborative creation among several people, and depends on the group working with each other and creating a “group flow” situation. He starts out by showing how very few inventions are the work of a lone genius – inventions involve continual improvements, as people keep on adding one more feature, until the final result is unrecognizable as the work of a single person. He also suggests the conditions necessary for a group to achieve flow, including trust, placing the group’s goals over individual egos, communication and active listening, etc. I love the concept of group genius, especially given my penchant for teams, but the book felt light on the details of actually achieving it. It’s a useful quick read, though, for reorienting around the idea of groups rather than individual genius.

X Saves the World, by Jeff Gordinier

This is a fun little rant by a Gen-X-er on various trends associated with our generation. It was particularly fun for me as I identified all too well with his descriptions e.g. Gen-X-ers taking pride in knowing things, “sponging up information” while “finding [their] own path through this maze of programming and pressures” (he cites Richard Linklater, Quentin Tarantino and Beck as slackers whose encyclopedic knowledge eventually turned into an asset). Or his assertion that “Xers are temperamentally opposed to a monoculture”. Gen X rejects how it is told to behave, and figures things out for itself. I enjoyed reading through and identifying with this book, although I can’t say there’s all that much substance here – more like a guided trip down memory lane.

After reading this book and being sensitized to these generational issues, Sanford’s post about generational analysis caught my eye, as well as a followup by Jessica Margolin. Apparently, William Strauss and Neil Howe have identified four generational archetypes, which tend to repeat themselves in a cultural cycle with the “Nomad (Reactive)” generation (that’s Gen X) following (and rejecting) the “Prophet/Idealist” generation (Baby Boomers) – I’d really like to read their book at some point, as it sounds interesting.

Why Do I Love These People?, by Po Bronson

After Bronson tackled the question of careers in What should I do with my life?, Bronson addresses the topic of family in this book. As with his previous book, Bronson spent a couple years wandering the country talking to people about their families, and this is a collection of the stories that he gathered. Also like his previous book, the stories don’t just include easy stories of happy families – it includes stories of people struggling to make their families work in difficult circumstances (including a memorable one of a couple from opposite sides of the Irish split). Each person will have their own stories that they identify with in this book, but it was inspiring in reminding me that families don’t just happen – they require dedication and work and selflessness. I mostly read this book one story at a time at bedtime, and I think it was a good way to read it.

Civil Disobedience, by Thoreau (Project Gutenberg version)

Read on the iPhone with Stanza. Interesting essay where Thoreau examines the idea of government and what it means to submit to majority rule, especially if the majority is wrong (as it was about slavery when he wrote it). He also decries the accumulation of wealth and material objects as chains that prevent people from doing the right thing because they are afraid of losing what they have. In contrast, he laughs at his night in jail for not paying his taxes:

I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up. I wondered that it should have concluded at length that this was the best use it could put me to, and had never thought to avail itself of my services in some way. I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through before they could get to be as free as I was. I did nor for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar. I felt as if I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax. They plainly did not know how to treat me, but behaved like persons who are underbred. In every threat and in every compliment there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire was to stand the other side of that stone wall. I could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditations, which followed them out again without let or hindrance, and they were really all that was dangerous. As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my body; just as boys, if they cannot come at some person against whom they have a spite, will abuse his dog. I saw that the State was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it.

Interesting thoughts, especially when I’m feeling weighed down by how much stuff I have, and wish I could learn to live lighter. Not to mention the freedom and courage to stand up for what is right.

Leadership Lessons of the Navy Seals, by Jeff and Jon Cannon

A management book with a twist, as it’s from the interesting perspective of extracting lessons from the Navy Seals, an extremely effective organization. The authors illustrate each of their lessons with an example from Jon’s experience in how Navy Seals train and operate, and then describe an example of applying the same lesson to corporate life from Jeff’s consulting work. Nothing too new here, but it was fun seeing how the same leadership principles apply in the different context of life-and-death missions.

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