Mouldering on the Shelves

These are capsules of books I read in 2009. Comments? Mail me.

Mouldering on the Shelves:

Memories of the Future, Wil Wheaton

On the surface this is a pretty niche book; Wil Wheaton snarkily reviews Star Trek TNG episodes, which sort of implies that the reader is a TNG fan and cares what Wil thinks. I'm not a huge TNG fan, but I do care what Wil thinks.

The reviews are snarky and funny, but not so snarky and funny that I'd read more than a few. What is interesting about these is seeing the shows through the eyes of Wheaton the actor and geek. He's developed a good sense of what makes a show work as science fiction and the role of actors in that process. While anyone can say "this episode sucked" Wheaton can explain why it sucked, clearly and with passion.

The passion is twofold: he was directly involved with making it, so has some pride of construction, and he's also a fan of the show. The combination makes him and an able defender of its best moments even as he is honest about its flaws.

Even if you don't care about TNG - and I don't have any particular love for the show - it's always interesting to watch a passionate writer and critic asses something they care about.


Collected Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald remains one of my favorite writers, but I prefer his novels to his short fiction. That's not because his short stories are bad, just that they are, to me, a little more rushed and his prose does not seem to find its wings as well as it does in the longer work.

Overall this was a good read, and full of some memorable moments. Nothing in here hits like Gatsby, or like “Rose” for that matter.


The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation's Call to Greatness, Harlow Giles Unger

It is difficult to be a biographer and not be a booster of your subject. The best biographers walk that line as well as they can, giving you a taste of their subject's flaws with their accomplishments. There is always the danger of Stockholm Syndrome, though, and Unger falls a little into that area in The Last Founding Father.

That is not to say that the book is any weird sort of Monroe propaganda. There a re a few moments where it things are a little less than objective, however. Most glaring is the fairly short shrift given to Monroe's status as a slaveholder. In dealing with the Virginians, the contradictions between being a friend of liberty and an owner of men always need to ba addressed. Unger does not say much about it, and what he does say seems more evasive than enlightening.

That shortcoming is more notable because Monroe is overall deserving of more credit than he is commonly given. Mnay of his accomplishments are underappreciated and Unger does a good job calling our attention to those accomplishments. This is history, so people will debate the motivations and relative importance of those accomplishmenst endlessly. Still, Unger's championing of Monroe adds interesting perspective to the mix.

What Have You Changed Your Mind About?, Edited by John Brockman

The very definition of the thinking person's bathroom book, this is a collection of maybe 100 very short essays from various scientists and bright folks loosely organized around the topic in the title. The results are fascinating, both in taking the work as a whole, and in each essay.

Individually various writers make interesting points and throw up novel ideas, even when they're not directly addressing the topic. For example, the idea that human evoloution has become a process of self-domestication of the species is illuminating, regardless of whether it's the focus of a change of mind. Some of the essays miss the mark, but at the 1-2 page limit, they're diverting train wrecks instead of self-indulgent slogs.

Taken as a whole, it's also remarkable how many scientists are toiling away in the various life sciences that touch the same ideas, but remain insulated from one another. It says something about humanity (or at least academics) that people carve out the tiny niches in expertise that they do.

For many reasons this is well worth the read.

Strongly recommended.

Passionate Declarations, Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn is a man with clear views about the world, and while I don't share all of them, I admire his clarity and optimism. Zinn is a pretty left-wing guy, in a very classical sense. He believes in an almost classless society and takes socialist positions for real. The folks screaming about Obama's socialism should have a look at what a real socialist sounds like.

And, as advertised, he's passionate about his positions. He takes people and governments to task for not living up to their responsibilities to be decent and just with earnest fervor and intellectual rigor. He makes compelling arguments, but I'm not sure I believe that one can live up to them. He'd fault me for lack of vision, but I guess I don't believe that I can be as good as he needs me to be for the world to work his way, much less trust my neighbors to do it.

While I'll continue to be a slightly optimistic pragmatist in my world view, it's bracing to read the arguments of a man who thinks we can be better. I wish I believed him more.


Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to promote Peace .. One School at a Time, Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

This bio of Greg Mortenson is a nice description of how people can work hard and wind up having a great impact. Mortenson is a climber who finds himself sucked into building schools in Packistan almost on a whim. While recovering from a failed attempt at K2 he realizes how badly the village he recovers in needs a school and promises to build one. At that point he has no resources or understanding of how to do that, but he manages to find both and make significant changes to a tough part of the planet.

The book is written by an admirer, and is a little breathless in places, but overall it's an inspiring story well told. Beyond the specifics of what Mortenson accomplishes and how, there really is a strong subtext that mere mortals can do a lot to make the world a better place. That's always good to reinforce. A fine thing.


Spook Country, William Gibson

I'm always pleased how spare and artistic Gibson's work is. He never seems to waste a word playing out his scenes, nor a scene exploring his themes. But, still, he finds the space to be playful in the most unexpected places.

Spook Country is very much a book about why and how we keep and discover secrets. As one might expect, there's plenty of lean, monochromatic prose that somehow illuminates those ideas from many angles. And then there's this bit of puckish pranksterism that could be from the final sequence of Animal House that closes it all out. A very strong little bit of work.

I don't want to spoil the fun. I've spoiled a little already I suppose, but once one realizes that Gibson's writing about secrets, one really shouldn't expect anything to be quite what it seems.

Strongly recommended.

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Overall I rather liked this book. It does a find job of turning an analytical eye to a set of difficult problems without losing sight of the fact that the problems are difficult and can be quantified different ways. The authors do a fine job of neither oversimplifying nor shying away from difficult topics. There's a lot of insight to be had here.

My job and brain chemistry already require me to think analytically, but it's still nice to see the process. There are a couple times when they do try to apply analysis to places where the ground is too shaky for my tastes - the discussion of names and life outcomes, for example - but overall they play fair with readers and emphasize that cultivating the mindset that would call them on their assumptions is their goal. (In fact they're honest enough to print what's essentially a mea culpa for being too trusting about one of their subjects in the additional matter).


The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal, Gore Vidal, edited by Jay Parini

I've enjoyed my taste of Vidal's historical fiction, but this was an opportunity to check out some of his essays. The majority of these essays appeared as book reviews or in the New York Times Review of Books, which limits their range. Those limits are less constraining than one might expect, but the first half of the collection is primarily literary criticism.

I found much to like in the initial critical sections, but couldn't muster much passion for the steady and apparently deserved thumping of overly analytic English departments. While one must admire the verbal sword work, it's less satisfying than when one has a stake in the game.

Vidal plays the role of bon vivant and man of letters to the hilt here, stopping just short of affectation. Well, for me; I'm sure he's well over the line for some. His ideas are well thought out and charmingly presented.

The second half of the collection focuses on current events and government, which interest me greatly. Vidal takes positions that few will, arguing powerfully for a stridently frugal government, for minimal intrusion into citizens' private conduct, and against monotheistic religion of all stripes. It's a set of positions guaranteed to frustrate the holder, but argued with passion, intelligence and erudition that demand attention. I don't agree with all he says, but one has to respect it. This sort of careful thought is sadly missing from our discourse today.

As much as I enjoyed these essays, they do fall into an odd area of subject matter. There are gems here for the tortured English major and for the policy wonk; don't feel compelled to read them all, though.


Super Folks, Robert Meyer

These reviews are never objective, but Super Folks is a book I really am incapable of being vaguely objective about. I've read it probably 50 times as a kid and it introduced me to the idea that superheroes and adult literature were compatible. It also showed me that comedy - farce really - could have bite and heart.

Meyer tells the story of an aging Superman who has retired as his powers began to wane, but who's called up into service one more time. It's an occasion to remember his past and consider his future. Meyer does a great job finding occasions in there to mediate on people aging, how people lose faith in heroes, and the general shape of society. He also populates it with characters with real heart throughout. And it stays funny through all that.

I first read this when I was probably 10 or 12. I'd gotten it as a Christmas present and I remember devouring much of it Christmas Eve - we'd been allowed to open one present early. The combination of farce and, um, vivid sex scenes, held my attention very well. The larger themes were pretty much theoretical, but the book kept engaging me over the years. It was one of those books that stayed with you, especially if you were a kid already prone to understand the world through the modern mythology of comics.

Reading the same very personal narrative again as a 42-year-old was a fascinating experience. There were many "so that's what he feels like" moments that were conjecture when I was young. Overall, the novel remains a pitch-perfect character study set in a crazy world.

It does remain a book of its time - the late 70's. There are no computers in it whatsoever - which was really jarring, actually. There are phonograph needles, and views of race relations, gender roles, environmentalism, and foreign relations that are absolutely of their time. I'm forgiving and nostalgic about these things because I first read it when that was an accurate view of the world, but new readers may find it jarring.

I recommend the book to anyone. If you can find a copy read it.

Jhegaala, Steven Brust

We've already established that I'm going to wind up reading all these, so there's a limit to the dynamic range of one of the reviews.

Still, Brust isn't putting these out by the numbers. This entry, chronicling one of Vlad's early years on the lam, isn't exactly the light hearted romp that starts the series. Vlad learns what it means to be alone in the world when you're got a penchant for making trouble. It's a fairly tough book to read when you care about the characters. It's also very hard to put down.


The Death of Why?: The Decline of Questioning and the Future of Democracy, Andrea Batista Schlesinger

More a polemic than I was expecting. The premise - that the flood of information available to people these days, and the accompanying segregation of people into like minded cliques is causing a decline in critical thinking skills - is an interesting one. However, the author didn't really approach this as a possibility to be proven but an apocalyptic event to be railed against.

Now, I share some of these intuitions. It seems like people are less critical and more easily led astray every day. But the reason we have science is so that intuitions can be held up to objective scrutiny and see if they're insight or excrement (or something in between). There wasn't enough such inquiry, and I really didn't want to read another strident indictment of those kids today. Perhaps I'm simply being foolish, but I couldn't finish this.

The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan

Egan's history of the Dust Bowl years in the high plains is interesting, unblinking, human, informed, and a little depressing. The 1930's in the high plains were an unmitigated disaster from almost any standpoint. It was the site of unprecedented soil erosion, permanent incapacitation and death of thousands of people and animals, and economic disaster for the whole region. It's easy to miss the scale of the Dust Bowl disaster and to misunderstand the direct cause being a combination of boom/bust economics and human greed.

Egan lays the whole thing out for the reader to see clearly, without missing the human stories that underly it. He does an excellent job capturing both the scale of the disaster and the human beings caught in it (and part of it). Missing either would make the book less insightful.

As informative and well written as the book is, it's not a lot of fun to follow the destruction of an ecosystem and its confused inhabitants. While following the story far enough to see the ruin is important to make the reader grasp the enormity of the event, it can be draining.

Recommended, but respect the slog factor.

Truck: A Love Story, Michael Perry

More from the author of Population: 485. This is more of a book than Population, though. Perry follows three threads through a year of his life that included his marriage, and the result coheres much better than the essays from Population that each took a different viewpoint.

I appreciate Perry's ability to paint a romantic picture of his small-town world while also reminding us that the world he's creating is partially a fiction, created by his unique viewpoint and editing of reality. The world he refelcts resonates strongly with me, and I share his tendency to overthink and overgeneralize, so I generally enjoy his work.


Looking Forward, Franklin Delano Roosevelt

This is quite an interesting thing to see. It's a set of essays on the causes of Great Depression by FDR as he was setting out to try to restore the economy and get things moving again. There are obvious, but inexact parallels to our current problems, and sometimes they are stunning parallels. I would not have expected off-shoring to be addressed by FDR, but there it is.

One of the most solid and interesting points FDR keeps banging on is how the state of the economy may be grossly damaged by a few financiers and speculators, but it affects everyone in America. He's remarkably clear and uncompromising on how and why various institutions need to be regulated; compared to today's leaders, he's very driven to take control. One wonders if current leaders have the same drive or willingness.

It's also nice to see the high level of discourse. FDR expected his audience to be able to follow along with basic economic discussions. I don't know if that implies a generally higher education level, or if he was just speaking to the educated.


In Cold Blood, Truman Capote

This is a remarkable piece of reporting and writing. Capote takes a horrific mass murder in rural Kansas and holds it up to the light in seemingly every way possible. It's not difficult to generate sympathy for the all-American family of victims, but to be able to generate understanding for the killers is something to see. He's also able to make us feel as though the community has let us down a bit in their suspicions of each other, though their motivations are all too human.

The research required was obviously considerable. It's clear he interviewed everyone it was possible to talk to, and was around during trial and other key events. But that level of access alone is insufficient to explain the remarkable work. He manages to illuminate each player and institution not only with the detail born of meticulous research, but also with the empathy of a compassionate human being, and the skills of a deft writer.

This is really as powerful a book as one could write.

A must.

Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman

This was a lot of fun. It's set more or less in the same world that American Gods is set, and some of my comments on that book hold. It is also a well crafted, entertaining story. I enjoyed the whole thing and cared about the characters, though none is unforgettable.


Sharpe's Gold, Bernard Cornwell

Yeah, well, I had a plane ride, though the Sharpe books are still very readable under any circumstances. Cornwell's still doing his thing, and they're still fun to read.

Still recommended.

Idiot America, Charles Pierce

Idiot America never becomes better than its constituent parts. That's not the worst possible outcome; it's constituent parts are all interesting and well-told. Still, there's a feeling that though the parts all came together, they didn't become more than parts in the same place.

The parts are all there, with insightful and witty analyses of the Terry Schiavo episode, the state of conservative talk radio, the effects of global warming, and others. And the analysis is both sound and enjoyable. There's plenty to like here, and I do like it. But I still think this could have been more than its parts somehow.

The Least Worst Place, Karen Greenberg

The Least Worst Place is, more than anything, an attempt to bear witness that many Americans – especially those in the military – did their best to resist the call to build a torture house at Guantanamo. Greenberg meticulously details the preparations and intentions of the commander and staff of the place as they attempt to make it a detention facility that is as humane and fair as possible. She also details the forces in the administration at the time that worked counter to these goals.

Overall, the effect is more interesting than evocative, but it tells a clear story nonetheless. For students of how administrations guide the military and how those traditions can be overcome, it's an excellent story to have available.

The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini

This is a quite enjoyable and well written piece of literature that is also extremely diverting. While the critical portions of my brain find the symbolism heavy in some places and the plot occasionally predictable, I was always interested in what was going to happen next.

The critic in me is particularly impressed by the unconventional and effective pacing. While the broad outline of the plot follows a familiar arc, Hosseini develops suspense and resonance by orchestrating the pace at which the reader follows that arc. The change of pace focuses the readers attention on different aspects of the story, changing how the ideas and themes are lighted. The effect is remarkable.

If you're not interested in the technical aspects of Hosseini's storytelling, the book is engrossing and affecting. Well worth a read.

Strongly Recommended.

The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama

I came away from this very much impressed by Obama as a political thinker and citizen. He lays out his view of our democracy works in theory and the pitfalls of its implementation from the point of view of a new US Senator. He's both idealistic and realistic, though tilted toward idealism, I think. He sounds like the sort of person I'd enjoy talking politics with or a blogger I'd follow. That someone who thinks this deeply and shows such empathy and compassion was elected to the highest office in the land is a pleasant shock.

I think it's a bold thing to have written this book. It's definitely the work of a young idealist, and I hope that man survives his brush with the big leagues. I suspect that he'll have to make tough choices about how the beliefs expressed here change in the face of political realities. I hope that having the text in front of him, and knowing it's in front of the electorate, keeps his ideals in the forefront of his mind even as compromises loom.

I admire his ideals. I hope he can live up to them while leading the country, but I fear it may not be possible.

Regardless of the fact that he's the chief executive now, the book is as good a description of what our government should strive to be as any I've seen. I'd recommend it on that basis alone.

Strongly Recommended.

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith

This was a thoroughly charming book. It presented likable characters in an interesting environment with prose that captured the action well. The hours I spent reading it passed pleasantly. I laughed more than once.

All that said, it was pretty lightweight stuff. These are fun characters to spend a few hours with to pass the time, but not much more. I liked it fine, but I probably won't read further in the series.

Up Till Now, William Shatner with David Fisher

For someone like me who is a fan of the bizarre twists and turns that William Shatner's career has taken as well as the tongue-in-cheek nature of the last couple decades of it, this is really a treat. True or not, it's the kind of autobiography that the Shatner of my imagination would write. It's very funny, delightfully unconventional, and doesn't take itself more seriously than it needs to. Who could ask for more.

It's also somewhat better than 350 pages of pure goof would be as well. There's definitely the essence of a singular human captured on these pages. That human is certainly flawed and interesting as well as having no particular ill will to others; though perhaps that's because other people are perceived only in relation to Shatner himself. This may be part of the joke, but there's a certain amount of it that seems to ring true. If that's an accurate portrayal of Shatner's world view, it reveals a surprising mind.

Whether or not it's a true view of Shatner – whatever that might mean – it's certainly an entertaining read for anyone interested in the corners of pop culture that have impinged on the Shatman.


Death By Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries, Neil deGrasse Tyson

I've got a soft spot for science essays for the interested layman. When I was a kid I spent many a study hall or idle period engrossed by Asimov's description of some interesting aspect of math or science. This collection is Tyson's stab into the genre, and he acquits himself well.

For me, the perfect science essays are Asimov's from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Compared to Asimov, Tyson's are shorter and less mathematically detailed. Of course, I love the math, but I can understand that the shorter length and complexity of the material is a combination that leads equations to be cut early.

Despite the lack of details, the essays are accessible and provide a fine introduction to the various topics. They usually do a good job explaining why the topics are of interest to someone outside the physics community and illustrating how scientists think about the problems.


The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, Steven Johnson

It's remarkable that with all the words in that title, it doesn't cover all the ground in the book.

I'd heard some of the story of the 1854 cholera outbreak in London from Cadbury's Dreams of Iron and Steel, and I was interested to hear more. Johnson doesn't so much rehash all of that drama, but use it as a jumping-off point for a series of related discussions including the mechanics of cholera transmission, the set of jobs that evolved to keep 19th century London habitable, why “evolved” is a reasonable choice in that clause, and others. He even mentions my favorite computational geometry structure, the Voronoi diagram.

The range essentially means that none of these topics is covered in full detail, but the narrative works as a series of interconnected thumbnails. There are lots of ideas bouncing around in this book, described compellingly and accessibly.


Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States, George R. Stewart

This took a little while for me to get through. It's a strange thing in that I found the topic interesting and there was something extremely interesting to learn every 20 pages or so, but it was still slow going for me.

The topic at hand is naming places in the USA. The US is particularly interesting in this regard because most of the names are recent enough that their history is accessible, but that the naming has been going on long enough that there's some actual history to recount. I enjoy the little stories and historic sweep of topics like this, but somehow there was enough minutiae in here to make it slow going.

Despite the somewhat matter-of-fact style, it's interesting to identify the various waves of naming in the US and to see and hear the ways history has printed itself on the land.

Recommended, but approach with some diligence.

The Bishop's Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright, Tom Crouch

I came to this with a lack of appreciation for the Wright Brothers' genius, partially because I'd read Unlocking the Sky which is so critical of the Wright's business methods, and has an interest in promoting Curtiss's legacy. Even with those biases to contend with, Crouch does an excellent job clarifying the Wright's insight and contributions.

The first third of the book is a history of the family itself, including its unique interpersonal dynamics and the experiences that shaped the members. This is key to understanding the brothers' personalities and how they meshed in engineering and business. Crouch makes their world and personalities come alive – not the easiest task. This is a crucial investment; the brothers' have personalities that are unusual for any time, and are shaped by times much different from our own. Where Shulman's descriptions of Curtiss in Unlocking The Sky can call upon modern understandings (and stereotypes) of entrepreneurs, the Wrights are cut from a cloth not often seen today. Furthermore their business sense is forged in an age of cornering the market, rather than creating a startup.

Perhaps even more powerfully than he describes the brothers' world, Couch makes the state of the aviation world and their enormous contributions to it clear. The Wrights were the first to internalize the state of aviation research, identify the key problems to be solved, and then to solve them. This is more difficult than it sounds. Almost the entire rest of the field was literally ignoring the critical topic of aircraft control. One could misunderstand this easily. The issue wasn't that ignoring this would lead to aircraft that were difficult to steer, but that one simply cannot get airborne without an aircraft controllable in 3 dimensions.

More than simply identifying the problem, they researched it intensively, and solved the myriad problems in 3-axis aircraft control. This is wildly non-trivial. They were the first to fundamentally understand how aircraft turn and the role of yaw in flight. And they built practical systems to address all of these problems.

Quite simply, from 1900 until maybe 1908 or 1910, they understood the practical and theoretical issues in powered flight better than anyone alive. It is impossible to overstate how far ahead of the field they were. Understanding this is key to understanding the Wrights' place in history and Couch makes it all crystal clear.

However, it's also quite fascinating to see that after 1910, the Wrights become just another face in the aviation crowd. They are clearly still pioneers, but no longer head and shoulders above the rest of humanity. This is because of a combination of isolation from the community and concentration on building a monopoly rather than entering into the fray of design. It's almost certainly true that the patent wars of this time slowed both the Wrights' continuing improvements of their aircraft and the progress of American aviation in general. On these matters Shulman is worth reading, but it is Couch who illuminates the Wrights' psyches to the point that their choices are comprehensible. I still disagree with many of these choices, but I understand why the brothers made them.

Furthermore, it's interesting to speculate on how much of the very attributes that made the Wrights such brilliant engineers and researchers made them poor businessmen. Couch gives a reader enough facts to start such conjectures.

Overall this is a superior biography of a family that created aviation as a valid engineering discipline, told compellingly and with great insight.

A must.

The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, Marc Levinson

Sometimes you pick up a book on an unlikely topic and it carries you away with new possibilities and new insights; sometimes you just learn a little something. For me Box was a case of the latter.

Container shipping is one of those subtle revolutions that has completely changed a fundamental property of commerce, and one would like there to be a thrilling narrative behind it. Unfortunately, while there are winners and losers, proponents and opponents, in the tale, the story itself is like the container: powerful and pedestrian. Levinson's telling of it never came alive for me.

To an extent this is because the story itself is not inherently dramatic. To an extent it's because the statistics and evidence are less clear that one would hope. What's there is telling if not compelling, but this is not a breathless read.

Me of Little Faith, Lewis Black

This was fun to read, but doesn't feel super deep to me. Of course, I've tried to think a fair bit about religion and where I think it belongs in the world. It's easy to take potshots at religious dogma, but I think Black does more than that. He does take a few shots - he's a comic, and it's tough not to - but I found the book to be more personal than a collection of bits.

In positing the power of comedy, he comes close to putting it forward as a -do, an activity that can be used as a way of life. I think that's reasonable; activities of sufficient complexity approached mindfully can do that. I think Black's found his. The thing about such a life basis is that different people have different ones, so this might not breathe for you.

I should point out that the -do ideas are all mine, and aren't articulated by Black anywhere in the book. For all I know he'd repudiate them. What is here is a lively, funny look at Lewis Black's ideas about religion. It's a very diverting read. You might want to skip the play, but he seemed to like it.

Now The Drum of War, Robert Roper

This is an example of why writing engaging history is hard. Roper's history of the Whitman brothers in the Civil War has many elements to recommend it - an interesting set of protagonists, a setting similar enough to modern times to shed some light on them but with telling differences, and a literary connection. There's more than one interesting story to tell here.

Unfortunately, Roper's writing never really finds its focus. He can't quite decide if he wants to focus on Walt's adventurous alternative lifestyle, modern views, and literary merits, or on the up-by-his-bootstraps story of George's front line fighting in the war, or the story of the family's rise from modest roots. Or one of the others.

There's plenty going on in Drum, and I learned a few interesting facts and saw some new perspectives. Ultimately, the lack of focus really made it less than the sum of its disparate parts.

Made In America, Bill Bryson

Overall, I enjoyed Bryson's Made In America, which is a rambling trip through American history with a focus on the stamp that the American experience put on English. If you're going to go on a ramble, there are few better companions than Bryson, whose clear, witty prose and eye for the telling detail illuminates the dullest topic.

American history and language provide him a broad unstructured area to roam, touching on everything from contemporary education practices to the rise and fall of Pennsylvania Dutch as a distinct dialect. Bryson takes his readers down some of the less traveled paths of history while keeping the big picture firmly in sight. He even keeps to the effects of those events on the language, though not tightly. To be fair, part of writing a factual book on American English is to admit often that we don't know where a particular expression or meaning change originated.

It is a little frustrating that he gets several details wrong in the history. I'm hoping that I noticed these because I happen to have read a little more about the specific thing than he did, but it's always unnerving to find misstatements in a text that's mildly iconoclastic. Specifically, I think he somewhat overstates the misery of Thomas Paine's last days and makes a couple misstatements about Glenn Curtiss's aviation exploits, both misplacing his first public flight (in Connecticut rather than Upstate NY) and attributing his development of the aileron to Alexander Graham Bell.

To an extent, such nitpicking is just that. Bryson presents a lively overview of both the history and evolution of the language and the country. If he encourages readers to find out more and catch an occasional oversimplification or misstep, that's tough to discourage. Very entertaining and informative.

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