May 1, 2006
Last Month's Books
Just ‘cause we never mention it, and it’s the first day of the month, here’s what I remember reading last month:
David Leavitt, Collected Stories: I love this man’s short stories. So. Much. But for whatever reason, I’d never read a collection of them until now. Leavitt is a master of depicting the oddness of a family at the precise moment of dissolution. And the endings of his stories leave the world shifted just slightly askew. The cycle of stories about Lord Alfred Douglas near the end kind of disrupt the rhythm, though.
Anita Diamant, The Red Tent: I’ve always been fascinated by the Bible story of Leah, Jacob’s first wife. As the story goes, Jacob sees a beautiful woman named Rachel tending sheep one day, and he goes to ask her father Laban for her hand in marriage. Laban says, “Sure, if you work for me for seven years.” So Jacob does. Wedding day arrives, bride and groom are married, bride’s veil comes off, and surprise! It’s actually Rachel’s un-hott older sister Leah. Jacob’s totally disappointed, and he asks Laban, “WTF?” Laban says, “Yeah, sorry, here we marry off the older sisters first. But work for me another seven years, and you can have Rachel for realz.” So Jacob does.
Of all the stories in the Bible, this one may actually disturb my feminist sensitivities the most. I’ve always wished I could hear this story told from the perspective of poor, unloved Leah. The Red Tent is close. It’s told from the perspective of Leah’s only daughter, Dinah. But it darn near whitewashes all the Biblical references to Leah’s rejections by her husband, or the resentment between her and Rachel. Instead, we get treated to a heaping, Terry MacMillan-flavored portion of sista love. Leah and Rachel’s handmaidens, treated like so much chattel in the Biblical account, are basically elevated to full-on sister status.
But hey, she did her research. Maybe her book better reflects the realities. All in all, it’s nicely paced, historically interesting, and a quick read. But the usually-vivid characters seem to flip between motivations haphazardly. Also, the prose can feel stilted, sometimes teetering towards cliché, and the metaphors may make you throw up in your mouth a little. No Digg.
Kevin Kelly, New Rules for the New Economy: Rex Sorgatz’s recent revisitation of Microserfs was probably in my head when I picked this dot-com-era extended essay off the shelf. It actually deserves a post of its own, but I’ll continue it in this one. It was phenomenal.
Don’t be scared off by the phrase “new economy” in the title of a 1998 book. Kelly’s writing about theories of how networks perform. Eight years after his book was printed, nine years after the Wired essay that spawned it, we can see example after example of Kelly’s rules in effect. Each one of those rules has been the basis for more bestsellers in recent years. If you’d read this book in ‘98 and really gotten it, you could have foreseen the explosions of things like Wikipedia, MySpace, folksonomies, and Napster.
Kelly lets us know over and over that he’s not inventing these ideas, he’s just bringing them down to the layman’s level, like Malcolm Gladwell. I love, for example, this passage:
It took several billion years on Earth for unicellular life to evolve. And it took another billion years or so for that single-celled life to evolve multi-cellular arrangements—each cell touching a few cells near it to make a living spherical organism. At first, the sphere was the only form multicellular life could take because its cells had to be near one another to coordinate their functions. After another billion years, life eventually evolved the first cellular neuron—a thin strand of tissue—which enabled two cells to communicate over a distance. With that single enabling innovation, the variety of life boomed. With neurons, life no longer had to remain bounded in a blob. It was possible to arrange cells into almost any shape, size, and function. Butterflies, orchids, and kangaroos all became possible. …
Silicon chips linked into high-bandwidth channels are the neurons of our culture. Until this moment, our economy has been in the multicellular stage. Our industrial age has required each customer or company to almost physically touch one another. Our firms and organizations resemble blobs. Now, by the enabling invention of silicon and glass neurons, a million new forms are possible. … Unimaginable forms of commerce can now coalesce in this new economy. We are about to witness an explosion of entities built on relationships and technology that will rival the early days of life on Earth in their variety.
Kelly’s neurons-to-butterflies metaphor totally trumps Tom Friedman’s world-is-flat shtick.
I may be overselling it, but this book rocked. And you don’t even have to buy it. The whole thing’s online.
Philip Roth, The Plot Against America: TK.
All right, folks. Spill it. What books were on your bedstands last month?