Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

A Man Called Ove

Posted by nliakos on April 15, 2018

by Frederik Backman (Washington Square Press, originally published in Swedish in 2014 and translated by Henning Koch in 2014)

Ove is 59, apparently “on the spectrum” with all the difficulties with human relationships that that implies. As a young man, he fell head over heels in love with Sonja, who did not judge him (perhaps because her father had very similar traits), who loved him in return. Ove and Sonja married, but their happiness was marred by a tragic accident. Sonja was able to move past the tragedy and get on with the business of living, so Ove did, too. Until Sonja died, robbing Ove’s life of all its color and robbing Ove of his reason to go on living.

Spoiler alert: Below, there are some details about the story that you might not want to know if you are going to read it. Stop reading here!

So Ove decides to end his life, and the novel focuses on a period of weeks (I think–it’s not entirely clear, and there are numerous flashbacks to Ove’s childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood (meeting, falling in love with, and marrying Sonja) one winter during which Ove attempts to commit suicide several times, in different ways (neatly and with minimum trouble to those who would need to deal with the aftermath, as per Ove’s idea of the right way to conduct oneself). But each attempt is interrupted by others who need Ove’s help: his old friend (more recently, enemy) Rune and Rune’s wife Anita; his new neighbors, Patrick, Parvaneh, and their children; his obese young next-door neighbor Jimmy; the awkward teenager Adrian; gay Mirsad, whose father hates homosexuals; and a nameless stray cat, among others. Slowly and inexorably, they pull Ove back from the brink and show him how to love and live again.

Although she is dead as the novel begins, Sonja is a luminous major character in Ove’s story. Part of the reason that Ove does what he does is because he knows Sonja would approve, and he believes that when he dies, they will be reunited; he doesn’t want her to be angry with him because of what he does or doesn’t do. Sonja’s good qualities shine throughout the story: gentleness, generosity, intelligence, perseverance, a sense of justice and an ability to meet each human being on his/her own terms, without judgment.

Parvaneh, an Iranian immigrant, is also a very important character in the book. Outgoing, generous and practical, Parvaneh also refuses to be frightened by Ove’s grumpy exterior. She does not hesitate to ask for, even to demand, his help when she needs it, thus saving his life on several occasions.

I just loved this book. Especially if you know someone on the spectrum, you may gain some insight into how that person thinks and sees the world. The novel has been made into a movie, which looks good, and I hope to see it soon, but I don’t expect it to surpass the novel. Movies seldom do.

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Black Narcissus

Posted by nliakos on April 8, 2018

by Rumer Godden (Little, Brown 1939)

This one is part of my on-going project of reading all of my mother’s books which I still have and haven’t read (Cf. The Birds Fall Down). She had two by Rumer Godden: this one, and An Episode of Sparrows, which I believe is better known.

Black Narcissus is the story of a small group of Anglican sisters who are sent to a remote village in the Himalayas to open a convent with a school, clinic, and dispensary in a building which has been offered to their order by “the General”, the local potentate. Ominously, a group of brothers failed at a similar project in the same location. The offer of the building seems too good to pass up, but at the same time there are numerous signs pointing to failure (so the reader isn’t very surprised when in the end, the nuns depart, leaving little to remember them by).

There are some colorful characters, including Sister Clodagh, the sister-in-charge (I spent the whole book wondering how to pronounce her name); Sister Blanche, aka Sister Honey, the over-emotional sister whose rash kindness will eventually set the group on the road to disaster; Sister Ruth, “the snake-faced sister”, who sinks into madness; Mr. Dean, the Englishman “gone native” (apparently a terrible thing) who kindly helps the nuns in every way he can, including trying to get them to understand the people they are trying to serve; and Dilip Rai, “the young General”, the eponymous Black Narcissus, who wants to study in England, so he convinces Sister Clodagh to teach him. Reluctantly, she acquiesces, but his presence in the Convent eventually leads to trouble.

I am always astonished at the arrogance of the English (and of Christian missionaries) who believe that they have everything to teach the inhabitants of other lands, and nothing to learn from them. (Mr. Dean is the exception to this unfortunate tendency.) In this novel, Rumer Godden seems to be saying that some other cultures are impervious to Western teachings, although some of her characters refuse to believe this.

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Washington Schlepped Here: Walking in the Nation’s Capital

Posted by nliakos on April 2, 2018

by Christopher Buckley (Crown Journeys 2003)

Even 15 years later, this little gem will appeal to both visitors to and residents of Washington, D.C.  In a series of four walks, Buckley (who worked for Vice President Bush in the 1980s) regales the reader with fascinating (and often funny) details of the history and background of the various sites, memorials, monuments, government buildings, and more.

Walk One covers Union Station, the Capitol, the Grant Memorial, the National Gallery, and the major Smithsonian museums on the National Mall. Of course, it would take you weeks to really see what’s in all those museums (plus the ones that have been added since the publication of the book, like the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Museum of African Art, the Sackler Gallery (Asian art) and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. So if you were really making the walks, you might want to break this one down into about ten walks. But as someone who has lived in and near DC for many years, I was happy just reading about places I have already visited. Something new I learned: Alexander “Boss” Shepherd was appointed by President Grant to govern D.C. in the 1870s, and it is Shepherd who filled in the stinking open sewer that was Tiber Creek and installed new (covered) water and sewer systems, who paved and lit the streets, and who built parks and planted 60,000 trees, among other achievements. I wonder if Shepherd St. N.W. was named for him. He deserved something grander, if so.

Walk Two: the major memorials and monuments on the west end of the Mall, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Interesting factoid no. 1: The Washington Monument was supposed to have been built on a north-south line running from the White House to the Jefferson Memorial, but the ground there would not have supported it, so the site had to be moved slightly south and east. (I wonder how they figured this out, exactly.) Interesting factoid no. 2: Prominent Washington women had chained themselves to some of the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin to prevent their being cut down to accommodate the Jefferson Memorial, so Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes had tea and coffee delivered to the women  so that they would have to pee, and when they left to pee, the trees were cut down. (Sounds suspect to me: not because tea and coffee don’t make people need to pee, but all at the same time? And they didn’t think to take turns, leaving somebody there guarding the trees?)

Walk Three: the area around the White House, including Ford’s Theater, where Abraham Lincoln was shot. Interesting factoid: Daniel Sickles, a congressman from New York, who lived next to Decatur House on Lafayette Square, killed his wife’s lover, pled (or pleaded, which I understand is more correct) temporary insanity (the first time the insanity defense was used) and was acquitted, and later lost his leg at Gettysburg; it was put on display at the Army Medical Museum, where he used to go and visit it.

Walk Four: Arlington National Cemetery. I learned a lot that I didn’t know, like the re-interment of Pierre Charles L’Enfant, designer of the capital city, who died in poverty and disgrace (after being fired for his “bad attitude”, apparently) and was initially buried in Bladensburg, Maryland. Interesting factoid: Clinton’s Ambassador to Switzerland had to be dug up and re-interred elsewhere when it was discovered that he had not, in fact, been a veteran, as he had claimed. And Joe Louis, the boxer, wasn’t eligible for burial at Arlington either, but Reagan made an exception for him, and so he is there.

 

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Follow My Leader

Posted by nliakos on March 21, 2018

by James B. Garfield (illustrated by Robert Greiner; Viking Press 1957)

This novel about a young boy who must learn to cope with blindness after a tragic accident was one of my favorite books when I was a child, and I have actually re-read it many times. It can still bring a chuckle to my lips and tears to my eyes. Eleven-year-old Jimmy Carter loses his sight when his friend Mike inadvertently tosses a lit firecracker in his direction. The book follows Jimmy’s progress as he learns to use a white cane, read and write using Braille, and finally gets a guide dog, whom he names Leader. Almost half of the book describes the training Jimmy does at the guide dog school, both before and after he gets the dog. Jimmy learns a lot from his fellow students as well as from the school staff about living as independently as possible. But possibly the most important lesson he learns is from his roommate, 28-year-old Mack. Mack helps Jimmy to realize that hating Mike is useless and toxic, and when he returns home, in addition to going back to school, getting an after-school job (a newspaper corner), and rejoining his Boy Scout troop, he finds a way to forgive his friend.

Along the way, Jimmy’s widowed mother, his younger sister Carolyn, his best friends Chuck and Art, and others, learn valuable lessons about how to act (and how not to act) around a blind person, and by extension, around anyone with a disability. I think this book may have been the first one I ever read which helped me to vicariously experience the life of a person living with a disability. Despite the tremendous changes we have gone through as a culture since the 1950s, I think children today can still benefit from reading Jimmy’s story.

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On My Own

Posted by nliakos on March 21, 2018

by Diane Rehm (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016)

On My Own is a brutally honest look at a loving marriage that included some real cruelty as well as deep friendship and mutual caring, and its aftermath–the first year following the death of one of the partners. Diane Rehm is well known to millions for her thought-provoking nationally syndicated eponymous radio show, which originated right here at American University in the District of Columbia. Diane’s fans know her as a self-educated woman who daily probed her interviewees’ ideas and opinions in her unmistakable voice, speaking slowly and articulating every syllable (I used to recommend her show to my ESL students looking for accessible listening practice). She was well-read (I believe she always read a book completely before interviewing its author) and very insightful in her questions and comments. You couldn’t shake her; she always remained calm, no matter what the topic.

Her husband, John Rehm, died in 2014 of Parkinson’s disease. When it became too disabling, he decided it was time to end his life. His death was traumatic for him and his family because the law prevented his doctor from assisting him to die, and he was forced to starve himself to death over a period of two weeks. Diane Rehm spends several chapters of the book explaining her feelings about this, and the reasons why she has chosen to become a spokesperson for Compassion & Choices, an organization dedicated to patients’ rights, including the right to aid in dying when appropriate.

Other chapters consider being alone for the first time; coping with grief;  thinking about her future without her husband; sleeping in the center of the bed; communicating with her dead husband (several chapters are actually letters written to him after he died); her children and grandchildren; living through holidays; how other people she is close to have dealt with loss; and other topics. The book is very loosely chronologically organized up through the first anniversary of John’s death: an introspective journey through that first year of widowhood. I was amazed at how honest Diane was about her deepest feelings, even those she was not proud of, even when it meant admitting truths about her marriage she might have preferred to keep private. It could be wrenching to read, but it was also inspirational in its honesty and courage. I am grateful to her for sharing, and wish her the very best.

I also recommend Finding My Voice, Diane’s earlier memoir of her life as a radio host. I must have read it before I started this blog in 2006. And after she retired from WAMU-FM, she launched a podcast, “On My Mind,” which you can subscribe to here. I must confess I haven’t listened to it yet because I have limited time to listen to podcasts and limited space for them to stack up on my phone! But I want to, and I will. Whatever Diane Rehm cooks up is bound to be interesting to me.

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Beethoven

Posted by nliakos on March 17, 2018

by Maynard Solomon (Schirmer Books 1977)

I’ve been wanting to read a biography of Ludwig van Beethoven for a long time; a friend lent me this one. Maynard Solomon divides the great composer’s life into four stages: his childhood and adolescence in Bonn; his early years in Vienna; his “heroic” period in Vienna, including the Napoleanic wars and his romance with Antonie Brentano, the “Immortal Beloved”; and the end of his life, post-Immortal Beloved.

Ludwig/Louis van Beethoven never had a real childhood. He was cruelly abused by his alcoholic father when he was very young; by the time he entered adolescence, he was the main breadwinner for the family and responsible for his two younger brothers.

In Vienna, where he went to study under Haydn, Beethoven was known to be eccentric, devoid of social skills, and lacking in normal manners, but his virtuosity at the pianoforte and later his skill as a composer enabled  people to overlook his many faults, and he became famous among musicians and the music-loving public. (This is not to say that everything he composed was marked by genius; he was not above appealing to the common concert-goer.) He seems to have been incapable of forming and maintaining a normal love relationship with a woman. He kept falling for unavailable women; Antonie Brantano, although she did love him in return, was married. Ending the affair forced Beethoven to recognize that he was never going to marry. Perhaps this is why he became so obsessed with wresting his nephew Karl from his mother’s care and acting as his parent (sadly, an abusive one; this was all he knew). It would be the closest he got to actual fatherhood.

The book is very detailed, meticulously researched and footnoted. However, Solomon tends to attribute emotions and motivations to Beethoven (and others) as if they were facts, rather than speculation. In some instances, he bases these pronouncements on the theories of Sigmund Freud, who may have been the God of psychoanalysis in the 1970s but has been largely discredited in the 21st century, making parts of the book seem dated (and less convincing that they probably were back when it was published). The dry, academic tone makes it slow going. I found The Teaching Company’s Great Masters: Beethoven–His Life and Music to be much more accessible and memorable. In fact, some of what I have said here may actually have come from this set of eight lectures taught by Prof. Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Greenberg refers often to the Solomon biography, and he credits him with being the first person to conclusively show that Antonie Brentano was the only woman who could have been the Immortal Beloved. But Greenberg takes the same material and presents it in a much more interesting way. Of course, it’s very helpful when one has the chance to listen to excerpts from the music being discussed, which a book cannot provide. Instead, Solomon finishes each of his four sections with a chapter titled “The Music”, in which he describes, analyzes, and gives the historical significance of the music Beethoven produced during that period. I found these chapters deadly boring. for the most part. I am not familiar with most of Beethoven’s oeuvre, and even when I know a piece well, I find it impossible to make sense of or appreciate a historical or musical analysis of it. I would much rather just listen to it. I don’t mind being told about the music (along with hearing it), but just reading about it is deadly. How glad I am that I did not major in music! I would have been forced to read stuff like that, and worse, write stuff like that.

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Corridors of the Night

Posted by nliakos on February 21, 2018

by Anne Perry (Ballantine 2015)

This is my first encounter with Anne Perry, and the characters in this suspense novel–William Monk, head of the Thames River Police; his wife Hester, a nurse; their adopted son, Scuff (presumably a nickname); and various other people that play roles in the story–must all be familiar to most readers of this book. To me, they were not, so I was a little confused, but after several chapters I was on board and following the plot. The story is set in London in the nineteenth century, some time after the Crimean War, in which Hester served alongside the famed Florence Nightingale. There is a crazed chemist, enabled by his brother, a doctor, who is obsessed with finding a way to transfuse human blood from one person to another without killing the patient. The reader wants to shout, “BLOOD TYPES!”, but the discovery and understanding of these will not happen in the time frame of this novel.

The chemist, Hamilton Rand, has discovered some poor children whose blood does not cause patients to die (presumably they all have Type O blood). He purchases them from their father, who has no clue as to the use to which they will be put. Hester figures out what is being done just in time to be kidnapped and taken to a remote country house where she is expected to assist in the diabolical (but professionally intriguing) experiment. I assumed that her rescue would be the book’s climax, but it goes on for several chapters after Monk successfully rescues her and the three children–through two trials and two murders!

The story got me thinking about what a medical breakthrough safe blood transfusions were, and made me curious to read about how it actually happened here. (The discovery of blood types was not made until 1901 by the Austrian Karl Landsteiner, and much progress was made during the First World War.) So the story of Hamilton Rand and his diabolical experiment, set thirty  or forty years earlier, makes sense.

I liked Monk and Hester, and will perhaps seek out some of the earlier books in the series to find out how they met and fell in love. Thanks to my dear friend Carol for this book!

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The Trumpet of the Swan

Posted by nliakos on February 14, 2018

by E. B. White, illustrated by Edward Frascino (Harper & Row, 1970)

Although I’ve read Stuart Little  and am a huge fan of Charlotte’s Web, I had never read E. B. White’s third classic children’s book, so I have now corrected that error. While it does not compare with Charlotte’s Web, it is entertaining and sends a message that disabilities can be overcome with persistence and resourcefulness.

The principal human character in the story is Sam Beaver, a young boy who grows up as the story of Louis the swan unfolds. Sam loves nature and animals and is always ready to help Louis when asked. But his importance to the story is secondary to that of Louis, the Trumpeter Swan who is born mute (not a Mute Swan!). (He is described as having “a speech defect”.) Louis refuses to accept his fate as an outcast in Trumpeter Swan society, and his parents decide that he should learn to play a trumpet of his own. Louis gets Sam to help him attend school to learn to read and write, and little by little, he accumulates a slate, a piece of chalk, and a trumpet,  all of which he carries around his neck and uses to communicate with both humans and other swans. He has many adventures: he plays the trumpet for the Swan Boat at the Boston Public Garden, and in a Philadelphia night club, and he woos and wins his true love, Serena. With Sam’s help, Louis is able to return to his idyllic life in the wild (but he has to agree to occasionally sacrifice  a cygnet to the Philadelphia Zoo, which seems kind of harsh given that Louis himself refuses to stay there).

It’s weird that a swan would think and communicate in English, use the toilet in a hotel room, know how much to tip a waiter, and other oddities, but there are funny passages that made me laugh, and I guess I can say that I enjoyed the book (but it’s definitely not in the same league as Charlotte’s Web!).

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Before I Fall

Posted by nliakos on February 10, 2018

by Lauren Oliver (HarperCollins 2010)

I’m not sure how to categorize this novel about a high school student caught up in a time loop where, Groundhog-Day-like, she relives the day of her death seven times. It’s not a fantasy exactly, but it’s not realism either. Call it imaginings about death. (Roger Ebert called the 2017 film a “supernatural melodrama”.)

Samantha Kingston wakes up seven times on February 12, “Cupid Day” at her Connecticut high school. She interacts with her parents and sister, goes to school (or doesn’t) with her three best friends, attends a party at the home of a boy in her class who has been infatuated with her since third grade, and dies (or doesn’t) in a horrific car crash. Then she wakes up again on the same day and does it all over again, changing certain aspects of her behavior. She starts out trying to save her own life and finishes by saving the life of a despised, bullied classmate. Over the seven days, Sam is transformed from a shallow, feckless enabler to a (more) mature, much kinder person. She ends an unhealthy relationship with her boyfriend Rob and begins a beautiful relationship with her childhood friend, Kent–despite knowing that it cannot endure.

In a way, Before I Fall is a meditation on popularity, and the high price it exacts from Sam. When she was younger, she was the one with few friends, the one who was made fun of. Then, inexplicably, the most popular girl in the class, Lindsay Edgecombe, offers Sam friendship. But Lindsay has some ugly secrets, and she is not a kind person. Thrilled to be seen as part of Lindsay’s intimate circle, Sam looks the other way (or participates actively) when Lindsay is cruel to her former friend, Juliet. She also laughs off Lindsay’s mean remarks when they are directed at her, feeling secure in her role as one of the popular girls. But she learns, by living this fateful day over and over, that kindness trumps cruelty, and eventually she is able to stand up to Lindsay (although she never rejects her outright).

It’s an intriguing idea. I am left wondering which day will endure in the memories of Sam’s friends and family: only the last one?

 

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Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection

Posted by nliakos on February 4, 2018

by Jacob Silverman (HarperCollins 2015)

Books on technology are often out of date by the time they are published. I read Terms of Service three years after its publication, yet I suspect it is still very relevant. The book is a searing indictment of social media. Do you know the saying, “If you don’t pay for the product, you are the product” (originally referring to TV viewers)? Silverman warns us that we (and our personal data) are the product of social media sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Plus, Twitter, and others, including some I had never heard of (like Klout and TaskRabbit). Our personal data are being sold to the highest bidder; that is where these social media giants earn their billions of dollars. They are all, in essence, advertising companies, and we happily hand over our precious personal information in exchange for a “free” place to express ourselves on the web. This is neither new nor surprising, but Silverman makes a detailed (if sometimes shrill) case. He also seems to think there is not a lot we can do about it, not only because we become addicted to social media sites (which is exactly what they want us to do), but because more and more, we need to participate in them if we are not to isolate ourselves in this social media era.

Chapter 1, “The Ideology of Social”, briefly summarizes the rise of Facebook, Google Plus, and other social media giants. Chapter 2, “Engineered to Like”,  is about the pressure to “Like” (which means “More, please”) and to stay on the platform. (At the time of publication, Facebook had not yet added “Love”, “Haha”, “Wow”, “Sad”, and “Angry” to “Like”.) Facebook’s tags (identifying how you are feeling, where you were, who you were with, etc. when you post) simplify the collection and quantification of your data for the company.

Chapter 3, “Pics or It Didn’t Happen”, examines why we feel the need to post details and photos about our personal lives, and why we “constantly tend” our social media profiles. Notifications and alerts keep us tethered to the site. We are disappointed if no one “Likes” or comments on our posts (I can attest to that!). But how many “Likes” are enough? Whatever we post soon vanishes in the fire hose of posts. We rarely revisit even our own old posts, let alone someone else’s. They are quickly forgotten, yet we keep churning them out, often including images as proof that we actually lived that moment, were in that place.

Chapter 4, “The Viral Dream”, is about “virality”–why it occurs and how it can impact people’s lives, often for the worse. “Viral fame quickly fades; that’s in its nature and the nature of the systems and culture we’ve created to enjoy it. But the hangover it produces can be long.” (pg. 67) It also considers “trending” and the data trail it produces, and points out that followers can be bought (or bot) by those who pursue notoriety or fame. It is the advertisers that actually benefit from trending topics and viral posts.

Chapter 5, “Churnalism and the Problem of Social News”, concerns “cheap, disposable content repurposed from press releases, news reports, viral media, social networks, and elsewhere, all of it practically out-of-date  and irrelevant as soon as someone clicks Publish”. Silverman considers how responsible journalism is affected by the drive to be first, which can pressure media outlets to publish without first confirming accuracy. He considers the weaknesses of Buzzfeed, the Huffington Post, and similar sites, and the pressure on journalists to be on social media all the time. He mentions “listicles” and quizzes, which he considers poor excuses for content.

Chapter 6, “To Watch and Be Watched”, focuses on surveillance, which is a constant of the social web. When we are online (and sometimes when we aren’t but just carrying our mobile devices around), we are constantly being watched, by Google, by Facebook, by the NSA, by everyone, and as they watch us, they are collecting information about us, often with the purpose of selling us a product (or an idea). We are being watched, and we are watching. We try to “manage our visibility”, but it is really out of our hands.

Chapter 7, “The War Against Identity”, is about identity vs. anonymity (which used to be a choice one could make on the web, but no longer!). Some of the things Silverman points out: Whereas social media sites used to allow people to use pseudonyms, more recently, we are required to use our real names and encouraged to sign up through other sites (like Facebook and Google Plus), which results in additional data about us being collected by the site. The fact that we may want to show different faces in different situations, as we do in real life, does not matter. We are forced to reveal just one self to the online world, whether we like it or not. Silverman considers how the choice to be anonymous can be beneficial, and opines that we should have that choice, whether we choose to exercise it or not.

Chapter 8, “The Reputation Racket”, concerns our reputation on social media, and how sites like Yelp, TaskRabbit, and Uber use ratings to judge both businesses (restaurants, drivers…) and people (consumers, riders); those who get poor ratings may be fired or may find it difficult to impossible to get a ride or a job. But the algorithms that determine our ratings are kept secret, so we can’t know what ours is or correct it if it is inaccurate.

Chapter 9, “Life and Work in the Sharing Economy”, concerns the crowdsourcing of work. Platforms such as TaskRabbit, which match individuals with low-paying work, enable companies to avoid hiring professional or full-time workers at decent wages with benefits. I was totally unaware of this trend in employment, which essentially enslaves an underclass of workers who are unable to get real jobs; they are forced to compete for lower and lower pay with others like themselves, while the companies claim that they are providing a means to earn extra cash for stay-at-home moms and those who need to supplement their income.

Chapter 10, “Digital Serfdom; or, We All Work for Facebook”, concerns how online companies use people to create content and do other work (test their products, read text that computers cannot read . . .) without compensation. It is not only web platforms that require us to work for what we want: we transport and put together IKEA furniture, scan our own purchases in stores, check ourselves in at the airport and out at the library, pump our own gasoline, etc. (It also mentions flanerie, or cyber-flanerie, where we move from one piece of content to the next, never stopping for long, forgetting soon afterward, “processing” each experience.)

Chapter 11, “The Myth of Privacy”, is about privacy, or the myth that we have any. Silverman points out that Facebook may allow us to control what other Facebook users know about us, but we cannot control what Facebook itself knows or can use or sell. If we want a modicum of control over our online selves, we must pay the platform owner, but most people don’t; we want a free platform, but the platform is never free; if we don’t pay with money, we pay with data. Sometimes, what we wanted to keep to ourselves (or to a particular audience) is unintentionally made public to the wrong audience. Silverman examines definitions and history of the concept of privacy and describes the reams of data Facebook collects about people (thousands of pages). Facebook, Google, and similar platforms track people not only online but in the real world, as we drive around and enter stores and restaurants, and they target us for ads. (I’d like to inject here that perhaps unlike most people, I am mostly oblivious to ads. I skip or zap them as soon as I am able and rarely notice them along the margins of text. If there are enough to be intrusive (e.g., on The Daily Kos) I tend to avoid the site altogether. On the other hand, I was kind of appalled yesterday when I looked at this blog from a reader’s viewpoint and saw the large number of ads flanking the post. But when I just revisited it now, the ads have vanished. ???) There are applications available to help us protext our privacy to some extent, but they are not used by many people. Most Facebook users never check their privacy settings, for example, and those privacy settings change frequently as Facebook makes it harder and harder for its users to elude its data collection.

Chapter 12, Big Data and the Informational Appetite”, considers the field of statistics known as Big Data. Data brokers “vacuum up” information about us, and the Facebooks of the world partner with these brokers (and sometimes merge with them), enabling them to better pressure us to click and buy. Silverman writes, “Surrounded by an abundance of content but willing to pay for little of it, we invite into our lives unceasing advertisements and like and follow brands so that they may offer us more.” (pg. 321) In so doing, we are complicit in our own enslavement. The platforms want us to think they are improving the world. In Silverman’s view, they aren’t. He advises, “Consumers need to educate themselves about these industries and think about how their data might be used to their disadvantage. But the onus shouldn’t lie there. We should be savvy enough, in this age of late capitalism, to be skeptical of any corporate power that claims to be our friend or acting in our best interests.” (pg. 326)

The final chapter, “Social Media Rebellion”, has a few tips for protecting onself (using photos of avatars or objects instead of actual photos; lying about our profile; avoiding tagging, checking in, hashtags, location services and notifications; removing apps you don’t use or don’t trust. . . .) but is mostly about people who go much further in their attempts to get the better of social media platforms, such as Vortex, CV Dazzle, F.A.T., Weird Twitter, and others, none of which I was aware of.

This book made me uncomfortable about my use of Facebook and Google products, even though I feel that I am less vulnerable to targeted ads than many folks. In the future, I hope I will be more respectful of people who choose not to use these sites. I’ve noticed that while reading it, I’ve posted to Facebook a bit less than usual, and avoided personal posts. I wonder how long it will last!

 

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