Archive for the 'Book Review' Category

13 Apr 2010

Posted by under Book Review,Dave's Thoughts

What the Dog Saw

Well, the charms of unemployment are already undeniable. After only 2 days off work I’ve managed to finish another book! Actually, I started a week before I finished work, but I made much better progress after Friday!
What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell (ISBN 978-0316075848) 2009
Malcolm Gladwell’s fourth book is a compilation of articles that he has written for The New Yorker magazine over the past dozen years. These abbreviated explorations into a wide range of topics stand in contrast to the depth of the author’s three previous books: The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers. Nonetheless, the stories are fascinating explorations into territory where Gladwell’s natural curiosity asks questions about such things as the difference between choking and panicking when under pressure.  Or why there should be many popular varieties of mustard but only one truly popular ketchup.

Gladwell’s insights dig beneath the surface in three broad areas of human endeavour. First, “minor” geniuses who have changed the way we look at the work in small but significant ways; Ron Popeil (the As Seen On TV Chop-O-Matic inventor) or Cesar Milan (the dog whisperer), for example. Second, theories and predictions regarding the way we interpret the world around us; what Enron tells us about financial scandals or why it is so difficult to predict the actions of terrorists.  The final area that Gladwell examines is how we make judgments about people; are job interviews good predictive indicators of good employees or why genius is equated  with the exuberance of youth.

Each essay is thought provoking and some even challenge ideas that our culture almost assumes as fundamental facts.  I quite enjoyed this book, although sometimes I felt that the essays could have been easily expanded to dig deeper into the topic.   If you’ve never read Gladwell’s work before, this book is an excellent introduction to his style and manner of viewing the world.  For a preview of the second essay in this book about how mustard, ketchup and spaghetti sauce relate to how society views food, you might want to view Gladwell’s address to the TED conference in 2004.

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14 Feb 2010

Posted by under Book Review,Dave's Thoughts

A little reading

I used to read quite a lot in the days Before Children. Now it takes a lot more effort and I sure don’t go through the same number of books that I used to. I don’t read a lot of fiction anymore, it seems hard to find novels that have the legs to be interesting right to the last page.

In the past few years, I’ve tried to get through a couple of books each year that have a bit of meat on their bones – some can be quite heavy sledding at times and really need to be read on vacation. Last year I managed to get through both The Guns of August by by Barbara Tuchman and Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan, two histories that bookend the Great War. They were both fascinating and it took most of the summer to get through the two books.

I didn’t get a lot of reading done in the last part of the year despite thinking that I might read a bit while recovering from the sinus surgery. As it turned out, daytime TV was more my speed – at least until I was off the Tylenol 3’s when suddenly the topics were a lot less gripping! Since Christmas, though, I’ve gotten through a couple of books. I cheated a bit, however; one of the books was actually an audiobook that I listened to while driving to and from work.

So, with that intro, here are a couple of short reviews.

The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Sir Ken Robinson with Lou Aronica (ISBN 1-400-16060-X) 2009

This was the audiobook, an MP3 format CD with approximately 8 hours of content. As far as the format goes, the audiobook is a convenient way to put the daily commute to better use than anything the local radio stations can muster, but it does demand a fair bit of concentration and a good “skip backwards” function on the car stereo is very helpful.

As for the book itself, Robinson contends that for an individual to truly find success in life they must find their “element”. The peaks of human potential are best realized when an individual finds the combination of interest, passion and opportunity that allows them to excel in an area in such a way as to be energized and fulfilled by that activity. Not that the element leads to fame or financial success, it often does not, nor that being in the element chases all problems away; but it does provide a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment that is real and lasting.

Robinson’s background is in the arts and many of his examples are from that world. His arguments are well reasoned and compelling enough to make the reader think about whether jobs or hobbies or pastimes really reflect being in the element. Despite occasionally heavy-handed linkages to environmentalist themes, Robinson’s view that society would be better served through greater emphasis on individual potential and less emphasis on the hierarchical structures we have inherited from the industrial revolution is well stated and worth pondering.

A good read (or listen) and quite thought provoking.

The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson (ISBN 0-380-71543-0) 1990

This book has been around for almost 20 years and parts of it gave me a sense of deja vu despite having no recollection of reading it in the past. In any event, Bryson takes a light-hearted look at the history, origins and spread of the English language from the first influx of Angles and Saxons into the British Isles up to the latter part of the 20th century. While The Mother Tongue would not be mistaken for a textbook on the English language, it obviously represents the result of some scholarly effort as would befit an author who eventually became a university chancellor.

The Mother Tongue addresses the spread of English as, arguably, the preeminent language of commerce and interaction globally. Not that the majority of the world’s population is fluent, but that a significant minority can communicate sufficiently to make English the language of choice for making the best of a bad situation. In fact, there are apparently a handful of words such as, airport, passport, hotel, telephone, stop, OK and no problem that are universally understood. English isn’t easy for any of us – Bryson recounts many examples, some trivial, some not, where the language is bewilderingly obtuse. Everything from the perils of pronunciation (why don’t heard and beard rhyme?) to the inexplicable differences between British and American English (why does presently mean “now” in North America, but “in a little while” in Britain?) are topics addressed with no small measure of humour.

If you are interested in words, history or language, The Mother Tongue is well worth spending some time reading.

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