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Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

Hamlet’s Blackberry

Posted by annfinn on October 18, 2011

Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers, HarperCollinsPublishers, c2010

HM851 .P68 2010

Cover Image

Imagine this:  you are in a door-less room , imprisoned with others who are always trying to get your attention.  Sometimes what the others want to tell or show you is critically important—or at least interesting to you.  But, much of the time the interruptions border on the trivial and banal.  There’s no place where you can get away to relax, think, or concentrate on your most pressing needs.  Stop imagining—because you live in just such an enclosed world.  We all do!  The current Internet/telecommunications completely-wired world is just such a place.  There’s no escape from our ubiquitous screens (be they computer, smart phone, etc.) and their reach.

The latest publishing craze is the plethora of books bemoaning what our “screens” and our over-connectivity are doing to our lives.  In Hamlet’s BlackBerry we now find a book that not only commiserates—but, also, offers suggestions to help handle the overload.

Recently, despite his best efforts,  the author, William Powers, felt himself sinking under the pressure to keep in constant touch via IM, text, email, twitter, Facebook, etc.   Web searches ate into what he used to call his “free time”.  (Since the advent of the computer age, more access to computing power and shorter response times have been considered the most-desired of outcomes.  More connectedness was always seen as a “good”.  Yet, all that information has actually made it harder to be truly knowledgeable.)   Powers noticed friends and family having difficulty keeping up with it all, too!  It was almost as if busyness itself was becoming the whole point of life.  There was a struggle going on at the center of Powers’ life for the center of his being.

Powers eventually realized that spending all one’s time connected to the crowd is a terrible idea.     Human in-person interaction and depth of feeling were being seriously affected.  Then, he began to wonder how people in past ages coped with new technology.  After all, humans have adapted to the new for many centuries!  History is replete with moments when an astonishing new invention suddenly made it easier for people to connect across time & space.    This book is the author’s account of his research into past coping mechanisms and the possibilities of their use in the present or future. 

The technology of screens is devised to focus our minds and lives outward instead of inward.  If we are to achieve the depth of feeling & knowledge necessary for a valuable life, we need to short circuit the current trends.  Powers believes with his coping mechanisms, it is possible to establish some distance between a person and the crowd, and he believes people can to use these skills to establish the necessary habits & processes– while the digital age is still young.    Has Powell found Nirvana & solved all our over-connected-ness problems?  No!!  Could he have had an insight or two that you might find helpful in the future?  Perhaps.  You might want to check it out…

P.S.:  By the way, Hamlet didn’t actually own a BlackBerry.  You’ll find out what this fictional character used, instead, to keep track of his thoughts, when you read Powell’s book!

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The Lost Art of Reading

Posted by annfinn on September 19, 2011

The Lost Art of Reading by David L. Ulin,  Sasquatch Books, c2010.

Z 1003 .U44 2010

You’re reading this, so, what’s  so lost about the art of reading? 

Is this just another in the recent spate of books decrying what total connectedness has done to the quality of our lives?  It is that, but it’s not just about the devolution in our relationships, nor the recent increase in our distractibility.  Ulin’s book is about the damage to our ability to connect with others via deep, immersive reading.

Ulin comes to the topic with his own history of deep reading.  He didn’t just consume books, rather they consumed him.  With a catholic taste, he swam through a world of fiction—reading as a way of life.  According to Ulin, books enlarge us by giving us experiences not our own.  Through reading, Ulin built his world of real & imaginary places, people, & events.  Authors long dead or still alive communicated their knowledge of feelings.  As deep readers, we recreate the author’s world inside our minds.  The push/pull between author and reader is how literature works.  Reading good writing can collapse the distances between inhabitants of disparate nations, time periods, or emotional predispositions.    Ulin describes it thusly: The reader integrates the book with his own experience so, “…the reader becomes the book.”  Good writing collapses time, but reading web-page trivia is like reading a data dump that’s always about the present.

To really listen to an author’s outpouring requires a scenario for listening, i.e. deep, silent reading.  Also required is time to reflect on what was read.  Our overpowering, constant, digital-telecommunication interconnectedness, with its accompanying background noise of constant distraction, is increasingly thwarting those requirements.  Many can no longer find the necessary quiet.  They are unable to relax enough to concentrate their minds.  Perhaps because technology is changing our brains??

Our world rewards & encourages a “the faster, the more connected—the better” kind of thinking.   Books are in direct opposition to that idea.  With the rise of hypertext & web-site links, many in our society seem to have lost the ability to carry an argument to its logical conclusion, pursue a line of thought, or tolerate a conflicting point of view.  Many even seem wary of expertise—denying the necessity for considered action and deep knowledge.  According to Ulin, the subsequent breakdown in sequential thought processes has nearly brought us to a tipping point—a collective breakdown in which our common narrative has become hopelessly frayed.

Though only almost-pocket-sized small, this short essay raises large issues.  Ulin essentially asks: Can democracy survive in a country where citizens’ care is concentrated on the trivia of the present to the exclusion of most everything else?   Heck, forget about democracy.  What of our humanity?  If we survive, what type of people will we be, once we’ve abandoned interest in history, sequential reasoning, and depth of feeling?  If deep reading is lost, perhaps the next thing we will lose will be– us.

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New Book Review — Flash Cinematic Techniques

Posted by Lindsey Batdorf on April 13, 2011

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Movie Review – Art School Confidential

Posted by sdsherman on April 5, 2011

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Movie Review – The Secret of Kells

Posted by sdsherman on April 5, 2011

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New Book Review — Joystick Nation

Posted by Lindsey Batdorf on March 30, 2011

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The God Of Small Things – Book Review

Posted by javieraparente on March 25, 2011

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Movie Review: JC Leyendecker

Posted by sdsherman on March 14, 2011

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Book Review: Distracted

Posted by annfinn on February 21, 2011

Book Review

T14.5 .J32 2009 

Distracted :  the erosion of attention and the coming Dark Age by Maggie Jackson.   Prometheus Books, c2009.  327 p. 

Reviewed by Ann Finn

 So, you’re watching TV while you’re texting, when you notice you’ve got mail—email, that is.  Right then your roommate begins the daily harangue…  Feeling a little distracted?  Having trouble coping?  Wonder what all this back & forth is doing to your brain?


Do you revel in the extremes: latest gadgets, newest video & audio, multi-tasking to the furthest extent allowed by law?  Do you pride yourself on how much you can absorb & manage simultaneously?

Either way, your future is already here, and the impact of current technologies on humanity is a hot topic.  Among the philosophers parsing the research statistics and offering warnings is Maggie Jackson, with her dystopian tome, Distracted.

Jackson anticipates a society in which deep thinking is utterly replaced by a kind of surface skimming for information—when no one has the time, interest, or ability to direct his/her attention to thorough mastery of any philosophy or discipline.  Humanity’s past would be seen as irrelevant, and it would be as unknown as it was during the Dark Age.  In fact, Ms. Jackson’s book posits the coming of a new dark age: a time of forgetting.

According to Ms. Jackson, knowledge workers lose 2.1 hours every day due to distractions—many of them self-caused.  Almost everyone multi-tasks—and almost all of those workers think they handle it well & are good at it.  However, science has recently proven that only one thing can be done well at a time.  The human brain (like the computer) works serially—doing one thing at a time. Multi-tasking is not only the enemy of deep, concentrated thought, it actually derails the accumulation of long-term memory stores.  And, of course, memory is an important factor in creating human individuality.

We’re losing our collective memory, too.  We’re always on the go & never at rest.  Our pause button doesn’t work.  There’s no time for reflection on the past or considered planning for our collective future.  Global thinking & access to a whole world of information has minimized the local in importance.  We’re so distracted by the world-wide text & information glut pouring over us, that we don’t notice the humanity that’s nearby.  And, we are becoming seriously detached from that very humanity:  Many people move so often, due to global travel for work, that they don’t even try to meet new neighbors.  They feel rootless & think of this as the new norm.

One of Jackson’s main themes is the rise of the virtual as a substitute for the real.  Now, cremation urns commonly represent the recently deceased.  Millions of people have “friends” they have never met and likely never will meet.  Avatars substitute for portraits on Facebook.  And, lots of man/woman hours are spent playing games about virtual worlds.

The over-reliance on machines is also worrisome to Ms. Jackson.    Conversations have devolved to texting & Twitter—even with participants sitting in proximity.  Similarly, a burgeoning field is the development of robots to care for and comfort the sick and dying.  More disconcerting still is that the use of intra-body machinery and implants has blurred the boundary between humans and their tools.  Already, some children see no need for visits to the zoo, preferring instead their plush, electronically-animated animal friends.

So, does Ms. Jackson see any hope for the future in an age overwhelmed by momentary utility, fads, superficiality, information skimming, constant distraction, & a general lack of interest in the depths of humanity found in our fellows?  Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly?) yes!  In the last chapter, she details the latest advances in the study of attention.  Attention science is a young science, but, it is already obvious that it is possible for a person to train his/her brain/mind to increase extraordinarily the amount of focus needed for tasks.  This training can allow the participant, like an athlete, to lose him/herself “in the zone”. 

Do I think a dark age is coming?  Most likely.  Do I think Ms. Jackson proves her thesis?  Not especially.  But, read Distracted and, then, you can decide for yourself.

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Posted by sdsherman on January 14, 2011

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