Off the Shelf: June 2021

Most of June’s reading was for fun, but each stands out for something unique.

I first put I sing the body electric! on my e-reader a few months ago because I knew I’d soon be needing a collection of short stories, things a little more self-contained than a longer novel, and Bradbury delivers.
“Night Call, Collect” may be my favorite of the collection — a man stranded on Mars attempts to keep his future self company through hundreds of electronic recordings that call him and interact with him years later, but ends up driving himself nearly (completely?) mad. A thoughtful story that made me stop and muse about some things for a few days after finishing.
“Tomorrow’s Child” explores the love of a father and the love of a mother for their unique child, born into a different dimension from the parents. After a year of trying to bring the child into the parents’ dimension, the scientists announce they can transport the parents to their child’s dimension, but cannot go the other way. Faced with the options of being united with their child (and isolated from the regular world) or of staying estranged from their child (but living in the regular world), they make a choice.

Homerooms & hall passes was a brilliant suggestion from a nephew as I was perusing his bookshelf during a trip in June. I had not understood Dungeons and Dragons (and may still not understand) until I read this inside-out story of a barbarian, a thief, a paladin, an assassin and a wizard who get together after school to play a role-playing game where they assume the roles of some average middle-school kids. Honestly, it made me want to dust off my character sheet and figure this thing out.

I have a lot of Jane Austen queued up and Persuasion, I feel, is one of her better ones. Anne Elliot is perhaps Austen’s most mature character in all her writings and even though most of the story’s action happens around her and largely without her, Austen moves the reader through the story masterfully. I am now looking for a film version that captures how I read the novel.

A close friend who admits to some luddite tendencies (not destructive ones but someone skeptical of technological change) recently suggested Foer’s World without mind. Here are my biggest takeaways:

  1. We are reminded that if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.
  2. We now have (even before Foer) significant evidence that Facebook, Amazon and Google are intentionally shaping and directing our emotions, our opinions, our values and our responses, to the point that it may not be fair to call them “ours” any more. Foer asserts that “the tech monopolists aspire to mold humanity into their desired image of it” and I don’t think that he’s being hard enough. I’m beginning to see that much of the world has shifted from a mimetic view of the world in favor of a poietic one (Trueman, 2020).
  3. We may need a new word to describe these monopolies. While it’s been made clear that these companies use (abuse?) their size and position to keep others out of the marketplace, it’s not clear that consumer welfare is being economically harmed (yet), and so until we redefine what a monopoly is (or find some other way to categorize them, perhaps common carrier?), these companies may continue to enjoy their outsized position and influence.
  4. One of the best quotes comes from Herbert Simon: Information “consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” And attention, honest, slow, considered, uninterrupted, digestive, pondering attention is what is needed to make sense of the information and to begin to convert it to wisdom.

As a result of Foer, I’m adding Khan’s Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox to my list for July.

Lastly, a book arrived this month, unannounced. Weir’s Project Hail Mary showed up from Amazon without my having ordered it. The outside label used a different form of my name than Amazon does and the inside gift receipt said “Enjoy, Andy W”. Some of my book reviews of Weir’s previous materials have chided him as being lazy for using too much profanity, so it’s doubtful that “Andy” has sent me a copy of his latest book. I’m intrigued, though and have placed it on the towering “To Be Read” stack while lending it to my youngest son for first impressions.


References:
Austen, J. (2020). Persuasion. Mint Editions.
Bradbury, R. (2014). I sing the body electric! Harper Voyager.
Foer, F. (2017). World without mind: The existential threat of big tech. Jonathan Cape.
Trueman, C. R. (2020). The rise and triumph of the modern self: Cultural amnesia, expressive individualism, and the road to sexual revolution. Crossway.
O’Donnell, T., & Gilpin, S. (2020). Homerooms & hall passes. Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.

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